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The other side of the closet

Every gay person has his or her coming out story. What is often not told are the experiences of the family members and friends they came out to. This is my story.

On 24 March, 1992, I was in the Bay Area on a business trip. My brother Randy offered to drive down from Marin to see me. He picked me up in his Acura Integra, and we went out for dinner and a drive around Silicon Valley.

Prior to that night, I didn’t have a clue. He had a girlfriend in high school. He went with a girl to the prom. He had even had sex with a woman. At the time, it made me jealous and resentful. I was trying to juggle college, work, and taking care of him and our disabled mom, and I didn’t have time for a relationship. When I graduated college and moved to Orange County, I finally had a relationship, and it was with the woman who became my wife. My brother was my best man at the wedding. I didn’t think it strange that he wasn’t dating a woman at the time. I figured that he was too busy with college and work for a relationship, just as I had been years earlier.

As we drove through Palo Alto, he talked about his interest in gay studies at college and his involvement with gay organizations on campus. “Not that I’m gay,” he tried to reassure me. The more he talked about it, the clearer it became to me that he was testing the waters. He was trying to see how I would react when he was ready to tell me.

I can imagine how frightening it must be for a gay person to tell someone close to him about his sexuality. “How will this person react? How will I react if he doesn’t accept me?” I know many of those talks end with heartbreak.

Had Randy told me 10 or 15 years earlier, I’m not sure how I would have reacted. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was guilty of typical teenage male homophobia when I was in junior high school. I called teachers and students I didn’t like all the familiar slurs. Not to their faces, of course, which is a sign of the insecurity and cowardice that comes with prejudice. I grew out of it by the time I got to high school. However, I could still listen to Eddie Murphy’s skit about Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners having gay sex and laugh out loud without shame.

My attitudes changed as I started meeting gay people. I had a gay boss and worked with a lesbian engineer. I also learned that one of my best friends from high school was gay. Unfortunately, he died from AIDS before our 10-year reunion.

By the time I went on that drive with my brother, I was ready.

We returned to my hotel room. After he told me about another gay organization he was in, I finally asked him, “Randy, are you gay?” He said yes. His word gave me a sense of clarity. I realized that he had been that way his entire life. Knowing the truth about who he is didn’t change things between us. He is still my brother.

I told him that I accepted him. I still remember the relief and joy on his face when we hugged. It was the first time I hugged my brother in a long time. I told him that my only concern was that he was practicing safe sex, which is good advice for straight people as well. He assured me that he was.

My brother never came out to our mother. I never told her, because I felt he should be the one to break the news. She died 16 weeks later. He never had the chance to tell her, and it seems to me that he regretted that.

Since then, Randy has made a good life for himself in Minneapolis. He has a successful automotive Web site called Victory and Reseda and a regular column in Lavender magazine. He got an MA last year and is active in the Twin Cities’ LGBT community. More importantly, he is my brother.

If you find yourself in front of an opening closet door, open your heart as well. Regardless of your beliefs in this area, understand that sexuality is only one part of that person. Knowing the truth about a person in that part doesn’t change everything else about him or her. If you loved that person before you knew he or she is gay, you can love that person afterwards.

I love my brother, and I’m glad I made the choice to open my heart at a time when he needed it.

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