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Coming out is a deeply personal experience. It can be terrifying, exhilarating, confusing, troubling. Everyone’s experience is unique.
For me, it was overwhelmingly lonely.
I didn’t have any close gay or lesbian friends. I was married with children. I didn’t want to be gay. For the first forty years of my life, being gay was still classified as a pathology by the professional psychiatric community. And let’s not even consider the damage inflicted by a strict Catholic upbringing.
I remember vividly the day in May, 1995 when I went to a Barnes and Noble (as far from my home as feasibly possible to avoid “detection.”) Terrified of being seen in the Gay and Lesbian section, I scanned the shelves quickly and took three or four books. Then I grabbed three random books from the Current Events section that I could use to camouflage the gay books.
I found friends at last. Friends who seemed so much like myself. Friends who seemed to live not just normal lives, but in many cases, extraordinary lives.
My first close friend was Paul Monette. I devoured Becoming a Man in less than a day. Paul was speaking directly to me. We were about the same age. He was handsome, articulate, insightful and courageous. Especially courageous. He challenged me to find my own courage. He guided me to an understanding that I was normal, that I too could live an extraordinary life. I learned shortly thereafter that our new relationship would be limited. He had died a few months before we met.
But Paul Monette’s words were empowering and he left me hungry to find others like him who could offer the intimacy of the friendship he showed me.
At that same Barnes and Noble I met Edmund White, waiting patiently on the shelf just a few volumes down from Paul. A Boy’s Own Story was my story. We were contemporaries. He understood my internal conflicts, my anguish, my struggle to live with integrity and authenticity. I came close to falling in love.
Edmund introduced me to several of his friends and colleagues. Seven of them, including Edmund, belonged to a brief and loose confederation of gay writers called the The Violet Quill. These men were my contemporaries and they embraced me as a friend, sharing with me their most intimate thoughts. Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano, Michael Grumley, Robert Ferro, Christopher Cox and George Whitmore. I was determined to read everything these new friends had written. I set out, successfully, to build a personal collection of all the published works of the members of The Violet Quill. It is my most treasured collection.
It is difficult for me to overstate the importance of these writers in my life. I was in a desperate state and they, each in his own way, gave me comfort, guidance and optimism.
It is also because of these writers that I serve on the board of the Lambda Literary Foundation, where we work to ensure that LGBT literary excellence is promoted and emerging LGBT voices are developed. Since the pioneering days of The Violet Quill, our LGBT authors have grown in stature, in confidence and significantly in numbers. For me, it is a chance to say “thank you” to those authors and more importantly, to help guide others to find the friendships that so nurtured me.