By James Snyder
New York City is a fantastic place to be and boasts tremendous cultural offerings and diversity, but each neighborhood is unique, and Richmond Hill, the suburban corner of Queens where I grew up, was generally unsupportive of gay people, and very homophobic. I was an only child, and my father died when I was five, but my mother did a great job of raising me and often filled in for my father at crucial moments by telling me what he would have thought or said. My father’s brother, Uncle Russ was gay, and he lived happily with his partner Jack over in Greenwich Village, a gay Mecca within the city, but their gayness, relationship, and social life were never discussed in my household, which might as well have been 1000 miles from where they lived.
I lived across the street from a large and beautiful wooded park, and I played there as much as possible. My introduction to the existence of gay people came in the form of whispered rumors from my childhood friends who spoke of the “queers up in the woods”. When I asked what this was all about, my playmates described men wearing lipstick and women’s clothes who preyed on unsuspecting boys. I was horrified, but I had been warned of this sickness and danger and kept my eyes open.
Despite staying away from the “wrong people,” by the middle of high school, I started to fear that I might be gay. Girls not only didn’t interest me, but they also scared me; I was especially afraid of the idea of dating a girl. At the same time, there were boys in my class that I felt strongly drawn to and enjoyed looking at and thinking about. When I put these feelings together, I was terrified at what it might mean, and also puzzled at how this could have happened to me when I had never done anything wrong; I had always been such a good kid. All the while, I would occasionally hear words like “faggot” or “sissy” being hurled at some unlucky boy in the hallways as we changed classes at school. I was never personally attacked, but such an atmosphere was chilling and kept us all in our place. I never wanted to risk doing anything that might draw suspicion or invite ridicule. I now understand how harmful homophobia is to everyone it touches, not just gay people. It creates an unhealthy environment that forces people to conform out of fear of violence. For the first time in my life, I had a serious issue that I knew I could not discuss with anyone, not even my mother, whom I often confided in like a best friend. I decided to fix my horror by never giving in to my desires or even thinking about them. If I kept my thoughts and actions pure, my disease had to go away.
My plan didn’t work. Through the end of high school, all through college at Columbia University in New York, and well into living away from home at graduate school in California, I never acted on my attractions, and I thought about them as little as possible. I found a few books on the subject of homosexuality, but they didn’t offer much help, especially since I believed that dwelling on my problem, even learning more about it might only make matters worse. Along the way, I found myself in several situations where an encounter with, or merely the sight of a handsome boy had practically driven me mad with desire - longings for which I had no outlet. For some months I sank into a deep depression after I visited my adorable best friend from high school at his college and realized that my feelings for him were not returned; he was all excited about a girl he had met. I felt like a loser. I was isolated. I couldn’t imagine a happy future. By my second year of graduate school at Caltech in Pasadena, I knew I had to do something.
I decided to attend a meeting of the Gay Student Union I had seen advertised in the school newspaper. Fortunately, it was held in the evening in a remote part of the campus. Even so, I was very nervous. I believed if anyone I knew spotted me going there, my life would be ruined. I took a deep breath, entered the meeting, and sat down at the back of the room so I could watch what went on without having to participate. No such luck - there weren’t many people in attendance, but they all turned to stare at me and ask questions! I answered as well as I could, and finally, the meeting resumed. Nothing of use to me was discussed, and I didn’t feel drawn to anyone there. When it was over, I quickly left and returned to my dorm feeling regretful for having taken such a risk for nothing. Now I had no idea how I would ever come to terms with my sexuality, but clearly, that student group was not the answer.
As I left my dorm room to make dinner the following evening, Greg, the person who had run the GSU meeting was coming up the stairs toward me; he had tracked me down! I had to think quickly because I didn’t want anyone in my dorm to see him, so I told him I was about to go food shopping, and I rushed him out the door with me. As we walked the mile to the supermarket, we talked, and I gradually relaxed and realized that this person might have the answers to the many questions that had built up within me over my previous miserable six years of isolation and ignorance. In the beginning, the most I could admit to Greg was that I “might be bisexual”.
Once I started talking with Greg, my life began to change for the better. I had lots of questions, and he had answers! His revelation and turning point had come a few years earlier when he traveled from his hometown in Tennessee to the Gay Pride march and festival in Washington DC. For the first time in his life, he found himself surrounded by many thousands of other gay people, just like him! He returned home with confidence and a new healthy sense of gay identity. Greg was kind enough to pass his knowledge and gay activist ideas onto me, as I gradually became comfortable with who I am. I had a lifetime of internalized homophobia to overcome and many helpful lessons to learn in its place.
I made further strides over the remainder of that school year by taking an active role in the GSU, reading every book on being gay that I could find, and - for the first time in my life - being honest and social as a gay person. It felt wonderful! Within a few months, I met my first boyfriend.
That summer, I went back to New York to visit my mother, and I was determined to come out to her. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, so I practiced on everyone I met along the way. People were surprisingly understanding and supportive. Far from being ruined, my life was looking better all the time, and I felt alive and more loved than ever!
Coming out to my mother did not go smoothly. Her first response was “No”! Then came words, the likes of which I had never heard from her before. She said “Those darn Snyders!”, referring to my father’s family. I was stunned, but I understood. At that moment, she regretted marrying into the family because my father’s brother was gay, and this must explain how I turned out the same way. Next, my mother asked me “Oh, how do you know”? In a way, all my preparation for this conversation backfired, because when she heard my sensible responses to all her objections, she concluded I must have been brainwashed while living in California! I needed to be patient because she was living in the same homophobic environment I grew up in, and so she would have to unlearn the same harmful falsehoods I had recently struggled to overcome, while there was plenty of positive new information for her to absorb as well. This would take time.
I never feared losing my mother’s love and support. Some gay people I’ve met were not so fortunate; their families disowned them upon coming out. Over the days and weeks after telling my mother the truth, she gradually started to come around and accept me for being gay. What really helped was when she met my new gay friends and liked them! Years later, my mother and I attended meetings of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and this helped both of us. My mother became comfortable with all kinds of gay people, while I lost my fear of being completely honest with her. After I witnessed how she was sympathetic upon hearing the sometimes graphic stories told at the meetings, I no longer hesitated to tell my mother anything at all!
Years later, my boyfriend David and I visited my Uncle Russ in New York shortly before he died. Upon meeting David, my uncle opened up, and for the first time, I heard the real stories he had to tell! I learned how he met the love of his life: Jack, his partner of 36 years. Equally impressive was the story of how Uncle Russ discovered his own sexuality. When he was eight, he got invited upstairs to the bedroom of one of his eight-year-old friends down the street. Next thing he knew, they were making out, and this was the beginning of a long term loving relationship! It was beautiful and lasted until the other boy, and his family moved away three years later. Then my uncle was heartbroken and lost for many years, unable to find love. He told me that he would sometimes walk through the park at night, hoping to meet a new friend, and every once in awhile, someone would catch up with him. But this was just sex, not love. It would be many lonely years before he would find what he truly wanted in Jack, the love of his life.
Looking back on my journey coming out, I wish my uncle and Jack could have felt free to be open and honest to me about their relationship while I was a boy. They could have been a helpful example of a loving gay couple right in my own family. My uncle grew up in the same house on the same street as I did, but 42 years earlier, and so I was surprised to learn that for awhile, he had a much easier time being gay and finding love than I did! I was also astonished to realize that long before I was born, he briefly was one of those “queers up in the woods” I had heard rumors of and that they weren’t so queer after all. My plan to cure myself using clean thoughts and ignorance was a total failure, and I’m grateful I survived those years and found the answers I needed for a happy and fulfilling life. Coming out to myself was the most difficult, but also the most critical step. Now that I am free of guilt, shame, and fear, and I know how to live and love honestly, I happily celebrate Pride Month!