When I was a child, I loved going on errands with my mom. We’d stop at the pharmacy together and she’d say, “I am here to pick up my husband’s prescription.” She’d tell the butcher, “My husband likes his brisket lean.” And during phone calls with my teachers, she’d say, “My husband and I are very concerned about Richie’s grades.” She used “my husband” absent-mindedly, but those words were like a not-so-secret handshake that signaled to the public that she belonged. To this day, she feels safer when she mentions her husband.
I think about this a lot as I find myself in similar situations. I, too, have a husband and children. But unlike my mother, mentioning the man in my life doesn’t make me feel safer in the world. In fact, it does the opposite—it can put me in harm’s way. I never just slip and let the word husband come out of my mouth to a sales clerk, repairman, or Uber driver. When I think of whether or not to use it, I pause to evaluate my safety, to consider the price and payoff of coming out. When I do choose to reveal myself, I have to do so with great care.
Before I knew better, I thought that coming out would be like my Bar Mitzvah. I’d do it once, be anointed as an adult gay man, and then move on with my life. It doesn’t work like that. Coming out is an everyday process. Even at 54 years old, I still come out regularly, multiple times a day. And as gay dads, my husband Jordan and I have to come out at every music lesson, play date, and doctor’s appointment.
Each new school year, we have to carefully explain to teachers how our youngest son Levi, now 3, refers to his parents. They know that when he says Daddy, he means my husband Jordan; When he says Dada, he’s referring to me. And even once we’re out to faculty, we still worry that our son will be assigned a bigoted teacher that could take our gay identity out on him.
We also have to come out at blood drives hosted by his school or by our temple. “Sorry, as much as we want to participate, our government blocks us from doing so,” we tell the teacher or rabbi. The FDA requirement states that gay men are not allowed to donate blood unless they’ve been celibate for 12 months, which means my husband and I can’t step up and volunteer whenever organizations such as the Red Cross call for emergency donors. Because of the law, folks like us are still labeled a risk. The antiquated idea that gay men are diseased and unclean remains.
Alarmingly, studies show that discrimination and hate violence against LGBTQ Americans is on the rise. Data from GLAAD, an LGBTQ media advocacy organization, reveals that non-LGBTQ Americans are growing increasingly uncomfortable after learning that a family member, doctor, or child’s teacher is LGBTQ. A 2019 report showed that there was a “downward shift” in comfort levels toward LGBTQ folks among Americans between 18 and 34.
A year after Jordan and I got married, a man was verbally assaulted and shot to death for being gay just a few blocks from our home. My father-in-law, who had walked Jordan down the aisle to me, called us to tell us not to hold hands outside. Even legally, married we couldn’t let our guard down. We were legal, not safe.
While I would love to barrel through life coming out without regard for the consequences, I can’t do that for the safety of my children. Before any family vacation, Jordan and I check if the destination and airline we’re traveling on is “gay friendly.” Each time we travel, we bring our children’s birth certificates with us in case our parenthood is challenged.
I’m aware that my ability to sometimes go incognito in public means I’m “passing”—lingo for being perceived as straight—and that not everyone in our community has the privilege of doing so. There are so many LGBTQ folks who live with the crushing fear that their identity—that being viewed as anything but straight—will put them in danger. Feeling safe enough to be out comes with great responsibility.
Despite the potential dangers of coming out each day, I never want to be perceived as straight. Everything good in my life has occurred as a result of me being gay, and I consider it the blessing of my life. When I don’t mention that I’m gay, it feels like I’m lying by omission, simply hiding in plain sight. Yes, I will always choose to come out if I feel safe enough to do so. But when I can’t, it breaks my heart. I don’t ever want to conceal the most important part of me.
I sometimes have no choice but to throw caution to the wind and reveal myself to the world. I do this whenever I buy Jordan a birthday or anniversary gift. I make sure to mention that it’s for my husband. I refuse to go back into the closet in these scenarios. Imagine preparing to surprise the person you love the most, scurrying around to buy a card, cake, and candles, but having to keep their identity a secret the entire time out of fear? Hiding the fact that I’m gay always makes me feel awful.
I’m often one of the few LGBTQ people in the room at temple, on back-to-school nights, or while shopping for diapers. And I hate how often I can go throughout my day without anyone knowing that the ring on my finger symbolizes my marriage to a man. Not being seen for who I am—the way my mother was—makes me feel defeated. When I was little, a part of me treasured the fact that no one but me knew that I was gay. Now, I don’t want to keep it a secret.
As a gay person, I know first-hand how beneficial it is to proudly exist as gay in public. When Jordan and I were first dating, a woman came up to us while we held hands and sat across from each other at dinner in New York. “Could I ask you a question?” she said, bursting into tears. She told us that her husband had just come out to her, and she asked if we’d always known we were gay. Did her husband know his whole life as well? Living in Texas, she didn’t know any gay people.
We explained that each person’s journey is unique, and that there’s no set timetable for coming out. Jordan and I still held hands as we talked, and she then put her hands over ours. I told this stranger that I believed her husband loved her when they got married and that he still does. The small effect we had on this woman is my favorite example of the positive impact being out as gay in the world can have on others.
Just like my mother, I now feel safer emotionally with my husband and when I mention him to others. Jordan is my home base. He’s a constant, a power source that lets me freely exist in the world.
Three years ago, our older son came out to us when he was 15. He’s now gone off to college to embark on his own gay adulthood. And now he needs to decide whether to come out to his professors, doctors, dentists, landlords, employers, and coworkers—just as I have. While coming out will always be his own decision, I have strongly urged him to tell his college roommates. I don’t want him to turn his dorm room—his first space alone away from home—into a closet.
In Hebrew, L’Dor V’Dor means “from generation to generation,” and in our culture we make sure to pass on our traditions to our children. But I would like this ritual, the constant, exhaustive vigilance required to come out regularly, to end here. My wish is that my son can soon walk into any butcher and—just as my mother did— order a lean brisket for his husband without hesitation.
This article was originally published on OprahMag.com