October 12th, 2009

My (belated) coming out day post. Go Outer Alliance!

 The Mission Statement of the Outer Alliance:

As a member of the Outer Alliance, I advocate for queer speculative fiction and those who create, publish 
and support it, whatever their sexual orientation and gender identity. I make sure this is reflected in my actions and my work.

I don’t have a good personal coming out story, nor any fictional ones that are ready for sharing. In fact, it may surprise people who know me only through the Alliance or through M-Brane, that I have never really “come out” in a complete and major way, like where every important person I know knows about it. It’s been more a coming out on a case-by-case, need-to-know basis, I guess. Or rather it seems to be the pattern that the knowledge leaks out somehow, comes to be accepted by certain people and groups without me ever really conducting a “coming out” episode with anyone. So it’s not an experience that I can say that I really have in any kind of “classic” way, and some days I rather regret it.

But it’s happened a few times in my life where I basically outed myself by other behavior short of a “formal” coming-out. And in many cases I did this on purpose. Because I wanted someone to know something about me for some reason that’s not always easy to explain. It’s one of those that I’ll talk about here.

A couple days after my twentieth birthday, I arrived in England. My college, Grinnell, conducted a small study-abroad program in London each fall semester, and I was lucky enough to be able to attend. One rather onerous aspect of an otherwise lovely program was the fact that we students were left largely to our own devices to make living arrangements in London. The college accommodated us for the first few days in a dormitory, but we needed to use those days to find somewhere to live. I wasn’t particularly close with any of my classmates, at least not enough so to want to share rooms with them, and rather wanted to find a place on my own so that I would have as much privacy and freedom as possible in this foreign city.

I remember spending a lot of time during the first day or two doing a lot of marveling over how everything in England seemed more or less like everything in America, except slightly different. Coke cans were slightly smaller. The money was bigger and heavier. Sirens sounded different. Lots of diesel exhaust in the air. Cigarettes could be bought in packs of ten. Models of cars were all just a little bit different than what one would see in the States. Donut shops had pasties and soup in them as well as donuts. Pizza could easily be gotten with such toppings corn and tuna. English was the language, but of course everyone had various, well, English accents. For a young American who had never been abroad before, Britain seemed not so much a foreign country as an alternate universe. All the same and all a little bit different.

I picked up various local newspapers and magazines to search the classified ads for a place to stay (this was in the pre-web era, 1991). I also picked up a copy of a magazine called Gay Times. That had ads in it, too. Even some ads for places to live. Suddenly a new aspect of the alternate universe into which I had moved became obvious: in London, thousands of miles from home where no one knows me, I could go ahead and do some really gay stuff, like call one of those phone numbers in that magazine.

I don’t know if London still has any of those fancy red phone booths (or call boxes or whatever they are properly called), but there were still some when I was there and I insisted on using one for all my calls, eschewing the plain and non-enclosed alternatives (I wanted to do as many things as possible that I considered to be properly British). So it was inside one of those where I nervously called a man named Malcolm who had a sort of rooming house reasonably near where most of my classes would happen. “So how did you hear of me?” he wondered. The ad in Gay Times, I replied. Realizing that I had probably just said something about myself to this stranger, I felt both strange and excited. But of course he was probably saying something about himself by having an ad in that magazine. “I take it you’re an American,” he said. “We had an American student staying here in the spring.” And more small talk like that. He eventually invited me to come over to the place, see the room and negotiate its rental.

The place was a large house which had been segmented into perhaps a dozen single-room apartments, with shared bath facilities on each floor and a locker-room style shower facility on the basement level. That latter feature I found a bit strange, but you know, alternate universe. And it made a little more sense when I came to understand that the landlord had configured the building specifically for short-to-medium term accommodations for (male) college students. He showed me the room, which was on the top floor, and on the way gave me a rundown of who else lived in the house: “Here there’s a boy from Brazil, and he’s gay. And, in the next room, is this guy. He’s from Czechoslovakia and he’s gay also.” And so on like that. It became clear that I was moving into some kind of international house of gay dudes, and this suited my plan of living an alternate universe life in London quite well.

I took the room, and during my first evening in it, my next-door neighbor knocked on the door wishing to introduce himself. I invited him in. He was a cute shaggy-haired Japanese kid. With what turned out to be a very limited English-speaking ability (though a billion times better than my Japanese-speaking ability), he asked me some questions about myself and also explained to me that he was a student at some college somewhere in London and also worked part-time at either a barbershop or salon. “Maybe I do for you,” he said with a big smile. I didn’t quite understand this at first, so he went back to his room and returned with a case containing scissors and combs. “We can do here, when you want,” he said. “Cheaper!” Than actually going to his salon, I realized. Ah cool, so I can get a haircut on site while I’m living here, I realized. Very friendly of him to offer, or perhaps an unusual way to flirt. But this was all fitting into my new alternate universe life-plan just perfectly.

That Gay Times magazine in which I had found the ad for that room was lying on top of a pile of books on my nightstand. My new hair-cutting friend from Japan looked at it, and then he picked it up. He pointed at the word “Gay” on the cover. “Are you?” he said. I froze for a second. I didn’t think that we were actually going to talk about it. But I unfroze and said, “Yes. Yes, I am.”