Coming Out, Again
My first coming out was of the traditional variety as in, “Hey everybody, I’m gay.” My official coming out was the day I sent a long, heartfelt letter to my mom and dad explaining that the love of my life was a wonderful woman named Diane. In spite of being in my mid 30’s and living 2,000 miles away, I was nervous and worried about finally telling them the truth. Turns out it was rather anticlimactic judging by my mom’s response of, “Dear Gina, what do you think, we’re stupid? Your father and I have suspected for quite some time; just don’t expect us to tell the neighbors, they’ll have to figure it out for themselves.” Being a true Catholic, my mom felt the best course of action would have been to simply go on ignoring the obvious rather than bringing it out in the open. Once she recovered from the initial shock, she embraced the “out” me along with Diane, who turned out to be the daughter she always wanted.
Far from “not telling the neighbors,” my mother eventually became a one-woman outing machine. If ever she ran into an old high school friend of mine and they asked how I was doing, her response would be, “Well, you know she’s a lesbian.” Once mom warmed up to a cause or a topic there was no stopping her; soon she was boycotting Cracker Barrel restaurants and signing petitions to outlaw discrimination. Mom and Dad came to our not quite legal commitment ceremony, walked me down the aisle and danced at the reception. Amazing how once your parents know your big secret, you just don’t care who else knows. I didn’t realize how much I had lived with limits until coming out gave me the freedom to be myself.
A diagnosis of Autism for our first son, Ryan, forced a second coming out. Realization of what it meant was slow to sink in; in fact it’s still sinking in 12 years later. It was easier to say he was a late talker, that he was shy, that he was any number of things to explain away his behavior. But once we enrolled him in a special needs preschool, we met other parents and started to open up, to “come out.” My first coming out taught me that keeping a secret so big would become a weight that would hold me down, exhaust me and limit me once again.
Giving up the ridiculous pretense of NOT being gay had been such a relief, I knew I couldn’t work so hard to keep Ryan’s diagnosis a secret. The first few times I uttered, “He has Autism,” it felt huge and cumbersome but eventually it got easier. Autism opened up a community of support filled with parents who made the journey easier. The power of the diagnosis and the uncertainty it brought were diminished by all who embraced Ryan along the way. When you let go of the fear about what others might think, you take away the power of the thing that you fear.
All of this brings me to the next phase in my coming out journey. This past year I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Whew, there it is, out in public for the world to see. I’ve struggled with what this means to my life. What are the limits? What are the possibilities? Coming out about my diagnosis will open up a whole new community and the more I embrace this, the less power it will hold. Those who have been at my last couple of comedy shows know that I’m using my MS diagnosis as fodder for the stage. The struggles and foibles of my life are often turned into comedic material as I’d rather find a way to laugh than to cry. I joke that there’s not enough room on my bumper for all the stickers I need as a “Catholic, Democrat, Lesbian Suburban Soccer Mom with an Autistic Son”. My nifty, all encompassing Normal logo needs a makeover. From now on I’ll be MS Normal.
There’s a saying, “If you’ve met one person with Autism; you’ve met one person with Autism.” MS is much the same. The rate of progression, the way it affects each person is similar but always a little different. There is no cure for my type of late onset Primary Progressive MS, no medication to slow the disease and no way to know how the disease will progress. As one who needs to be in control, to have details and information, the unknown chasm that is now the future is daunting. Always a half-empty type of person, I’m working hard to change the narrative. I have always admired stories of resilience, where people fight their disease or disability, struggle to overcome, conquer their limits and face their challenges like a warrior. I’ve never, ever felt I could be one of those people. Faced with uncertainty I feel overwhelmed and paralyzed with fear. Curling up in the fetal position with the covers pulled over my head is my natural instinct.
Coming out is my first step toward banishing the fear, taking back my power and giving uncertainly the middle finger. Rather than be afraid, I intend to be fierce. I want to do the things that I’ve put off: Perform a one-woman show, write a book, and raise money for deserving organizations through comedy. Oh and finally launch a blog.
So welcome to my blog, my new website, my new online store, my next chapter in life. Sign up, slap on a sticker, buy a mug or t-shirt and join me on the journey. Help me flip off fear and take back my power.
Regina Stoops is a comedian and writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area.