October 10, 2013 at 12:30 pm EST | by Michael Key
My National Coming Out Day
Michael Key, gay news, Washington Blade, National Coming Out Day

The writer in his senior year of high school. (Photo courtesy of Michael Key)

I parked my car on the tree-lined road behind my school. I had waited for months to do this: I reached into my glove compartment and pulled out the rainbow magnet that I had bought at Lambda Rising over the summer. I positioned the rainbow in its place of honor on my bumper and then stepped back to admire it. I didn’t dare get an actual bumper sticker: while my parents knew that I was gay, they were not yet in a place where they could conceive of me being out and proud. They would be pretty upset if I came driving into the neighborhood with a car that they bought for me sporting such a controversial symbol. The magnet would have to do.

It was Oct. 11, 1995. I was a 17-year-old senior at a large Northern Virginia high school and I was going to come out that day.

I started the process a year earlier. My family had just moved from ultra-conservative rural Oklahoma. I knew there was no life for me there. Growing up where the Bible Belt buckles, I had heard the most appalling things said about LGBT people by peers and even public school teachers. I recall with particular rage a bloated football coach who somehow passed for a social studies teacher spending an entire class period lecturing students on how he didn’t want his daughter to ever have to see two “faggots” holding hands walking down the street together. The one kid who came the closest to coming out was constantly humiliated by teachers and students alike: so much so that he attempted to kill himself and was sent away by his parents. So, when my father was offered a job in D.C., I enthusiastically gave my blessing and prepared for a new life.

When I got to D.C., I desperately sought a community I knew had to exist. In 1994, there were few positive images of LGBT life to be found in the mass media, but those that did exist, I voraciously consumed. Watching the lonely character of “Rickie” on “My So-Called Life” was the first time I had ever seen the struggles of a gay teen portrayed on television. Around the same time, the tragic story of Pedro Zamora on “The Real World: San Francisco” began to soften the hearts of the largely anti-gay American public, but we were far from the level of acceptance that we have achieved today. There were few Gay-Straight Alliances and certainly nothing of the sort existed in my new school.

But, there were resources. I found SMYAL, then called the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, and began to regularly attend its drop-in sessions each Saturday. I made friends and met my high school boyfriend there. My new friends and I would often go out after SMYAL meetings to Lambda Rising, an LGBT bookstore in the heart of what was then the “gayborhood.” Afterwards, we would go to a coffee shop and talk and hang out until the evening. My Saturdays were filled with joy and wonder, but every Monday, I would return to school. While I had several new friends at school, I felt completely alone.

My senior year came along. In many ways, I was excelling. I had good grades, I was president of my school’s Young Democrats, I was in the Honor Society, I was captain of the student congress team and was in the top symphonic band as a French horn player. But, I had a secret.

I wouldn’t dare tape pictures of my boyfriend in my locker, even though I was proud to be with him. I had a rainbow-colored “freedom rings” necklace (a ’90s fad that has thankfully long since been put to rest), but I wore it inside my shirt. Though the rings gave me strength, I would only take them out on Saturdays when no one from my school would see. But slowly, I was building the confidence that I would need to become the only openly gay student in a school of several thousand.

Finally, the day had come. I knew that Oct. 11 was National Coming Out Day and I had been mentally preparing all week. I stepped away from my car and walked toward my school. I clutched my freedom rings under my shirt and paused for a moment to catch my breath. As students began to stream into the building, I pulled out my rings and marched in. I spotted among the throng of students starting their day the biggest gossip I knew. I walked up to her and said, “Hi. It’s National Coming Out Day. I’m gay and coming out. Tell everyone.”

I didn’t stick around to see her reaction; instead I quickly went to my locker. I pulled three pictures of my beautiful boyfriend out of my backpack and prominently taped them to the inside of my locker door. It was then that I decided that I was going to ask him to be my date at the school’s upcoming Winterfest Dance and that we were going to dance as a couple, no matter what anyone else said or did.

I went through my day normally, though proudly displaying my freedom rings for anyone who knew what they were. As the day progressed, my peers began to stare at me and whisper to themselves as I walked down the hallway. Rather than feeling scared or ashamed, I felt emboldened and proud. It wasn’t to come to a head, though, until symphonic band practice.

Everyone in band reacted, mostly by giving me a wide berth or by flashing a knowing smile. I sat in my section and began to get out my instrument. I could feel the eyes of the tuba section behind me locked on the back of my neck. Before practice could start, the biggest bully of the bunch got my attention.

“Is it true what people are saying about you?” He asked with a “gotcha” smirk.

“What, that I’m gay?” I asked.

He nodded, ready to pounce.

“Yes. I’m gay. So?” I responded as nonchalantly as I could manage in such a nerve-wracking moment.

His face registered such a shock that I could never get it out of my mind. He, like the other bullies at school, derived his power from the fear in others. My refusal to deny and shrink back caught him completely unprepared.

“Uh,” he babbled, flabbergasted for a moment. “Just so long as you don’t hit on me.”

I looked up and down his flabby, pockmarked face and perhaps unkindly quipped, “You have absolutely nothing to worry about.”

I turned back around as the teacher began to start our warm-up.

And so the day passed largely without incident. All of my fears vanished and I was filled with so much peace and pride. By the next day, my coming out was old news and I began making new friends immediately. By the end of the semester, I had taken my boyfriend to the Winterfest Dance and had a magical night of slow dancing to Whitney Houston. By the end of the year, that removable rainbow magnet had been replaced with a permanent rainbow sticker that I proudly displayed as I drove into my neighborhood.

Michael Key is photo editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at mkey@washblade.com and on twitter as MichaelKeyWB.

Michael Key has worked as a photojournalist for the Washington Blade since 2009 and is currently serving as the photo editor. He has worked on Capitol Hill, in the White House, on the campaign trail and in cities along the East Coast taking iconic photos documenting the extension of marriage benefits to same-sex couples, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and other events of interest to the LGBT community. Follow Michael

  • It was a joy to read this. And … I’m struck by the fact that I was waiting for the scene where the young newly out boy gets beaten up on the way back to his newly rainbow-clad car. That scene never came is wonderful, but the fact that I had to re-read the last few paragraphs just to be sure I hadn’t missed anything is telling. Yes, the world has moved considerably since the days of Stonewall and the Mattachine Society. And yes, sometimes our own internalized homophobia is worse than anything anyone else might say. And also yes, that missing scene that ends in bullies and bloody noses can still happen, even in “friendly” pockets of the country like this one. But finally, yes: it was a joy to read this.

    • Thank you, Eric. The bullies of my school didn’t really know what to make of me, so largely left me alone. They would occasionally mutter to one another, but I really didn’t care. Unfortunately, the kinds of kids that would get picked on were those who were not sure of themselves. So, no bloodied teen in the parking lot. The story has a happy ending, at least for me.

  • You're amazing Michael!

  • Good job! I was out at school at that time but not at home… For me that was the scary part!

  • I was out by 1994. But then, I was 54! I started coming out, slowly, in '89, when I was all of 49. Coming out was, at the same time, exhilarating and terrifying; I came out at the Gay and Lesbian Rap Group of the Washington DC Community Center, now long gone. I wish the new Community Center here in DC were more active. Or even just active!

  • Just wanted to tell you how much I love you, and how proud I am of you, Michael! <3

  • Great piece!

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