"I always thought that the homosexuals were like unicorns."
Bruce Heller is a West Los Angeles College alumnus who graduated from Cal Arts and now works as an artist at Disney. A writer as well as a visual artist, Bruce is a passionate civil rights advocate for all people, regardless of ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation, and he dreams of having the same freedom heterosexual people do: the freedom not to be defined solely according to his sexual orientation.
I began to notice that while my classmates sought the attention
and affection of girls, my interest in boys developed further.
It was 1988. Jonathan and I had already been friends for three years the night he told me he was gay. Before then, I always thought that homosexuals were like unicorns: mythical creatures who — once upon a time — lived on a mysterious remote island. I never thought I’d meet a real gay man (not that I knew what they looked like), and I certainly never thought a gay man would ask me if I were gay. Sure, kids had called me “gay,” “fag,” and “queer” in school, but back then I took their insults as seriously as if I were being called a “nerd.” I figured that they probably didn’t even know what the gay epithets really meant. Frankly, neither did I.
I didn’t quite know what to say when Jonathan posed the question. I was fifteen; he was two years older. I had never really asked myself if I were gay, and I couldn’t give an honest answer — not for another three years at least. In that time, I did plenty of introspection, and recalled from my childhood early indications of my budding sexuality.
At five, I was thumbing through a German picture dictionary, finding more interest in the anatomically specific picture of “man” than “woman.” At seven, when rescued by a lifeguard, I remembered feeling like putty in his strong arms. Peppered throughout my childhood were also a few intimate friends from elementary school and my neighborhood. I never called what we did sex, not that either of us even knew what sex was at that age. Sometimes it was merely an unrequited infatuation that drew me to them. Suffice it to say, they were far more than just friends. Cameron, a boy from my fourth grade class, appointed himself my protector, and he made it clear that anyone who wanted to mess with me had to go through him first.
My puberty arrived later than my classmates. I began to notice that while my classmates sought the attention and affection of girls, my interest in boys developed further. I didn’t know how to feign interest in girls: of the few friends I had, none confided in me, so I didn’t know what being interested in girls was supposed to sound like. The friends I’d relied on as playmates drifted away. Gradually it became clear to me that pursuing — let alone desiring — intimacy with other boys was forbidden. Fearing rejection and exposure, I hid my thoughts and feelings, and drifted away from old friends. Making new male friends became increasingly difficult. It was only with other “rejects” — nerds, geeks, the unathletic, and the physically challenged (all of which I was a shining example) — that I found any semblance of safety. I took comfort in the camaraderie of my fellow outcasts, stranded on our Island Of Misfit Toys, and I found it much easier to blend in with my new clique. I still kept all my emerging sexual feelings hidden; I found it easier to reveal no sexual interests than to fake an interest in girls. Nevertheless, I feared their rejection, for what could be worse than being rejected by the rejected?
Among the first outcasts I befriended was Jonathan. We met when I was twelve. Despite his being effeminate, I had no clue that he could be gay. Three years later, I was struck dumb when he told me he was gay, and in turn, asked me if I was, too. I stammered that I wasn’t, and that I simply had a deep artistic appreciation for the male form. I didn’t own up to my years of sexual curiosity and confusion. I dismissed memories of walking up the steps to a high school Chemistry class, hearing other guys commenting on the girls’ legs while I was silently checking out the guys’ legs.
Then Jonathan kissed me, and everything changed. It felt right. My self-denial began to crumble without my being able to control it. Resistant to referring to myself as “gay”, I began playing with labels, for a time telling myself I was “experimenting.” Other days I said I was “bi,” figuring that it wasn’t as bad as admitting to being gay. It took almost two years for me to accept or say I was gay without feelings of revulsion and disgust. Although I was raised Catholic, I never thought that what I was doing was really wrong or even a sin. I reasoned that as long as I was acting out of love, how could God disapprove? What I feared more than the consequences of a Biblical sin was the idea that, by admitting I was gay, I would always be alone, and never find my way out being an outcast. I had already learned that being invisible — hiding in plain sight — was key to my survival. My greatest fear was having to live in hiding, in fear, and invisible for my whole life.
As a child, I loved the story of The Ugly Duckling. Like the titular character, I felt that I didn’t belong with the people who surrounded me in childhood. I had no idea that I was actually a swan, yet I instinctively kept a lookout for others of my kind, somehow knowing that there was bound to be a place where I belonged. In the years and relationships following Jonathan, I found a sense of belonging that was only earned by means of deception.
If my parents ever asked how I knew one of my gay friends, I made up their history and gave them imaginary girlfriends to divert suspicion. What my peers celebrated publicly as rites of passage, I celebrated in shadow, or not at all. While my classmates were finding dates, renting tuxes and booking limos in anticipation of losing their virginity at the Senior Prom, I quietly snuck away to another prom which I attended as the date of a guy who was graduating from the Hollywood High Continuation School for high school drop-outs in pursuit of their diploma. Imagine all the joy and thrill of attending prom, but not being able to tell anyone about it. The night I went to prom, my parents and friends thought I was at a movie with a friend. I went to my first Gay Pride parade shortly after graduating high school—an inspiring, life-changing event—and my parents thought I was at the library.
I officially “came out of the closet” — to myself and, gradually, to friends and family — the year I graduated from high school. In the fall, I joined the Gay and Lesbian Student Union at Santa Monica College. As if to compensate for the time I’d spent having to lie about my sexuality, I practically began introducing myself as gay before I introduced myself by name. I wore a t-shirt that said “Someday my prince will come.” Accompanying my ballooning sense of pride was the realization that I no longer had to settle for any friendship I could get, but that I could be more discerning and surround myself with allies who were more supportive, mature, and gay like me.
After a brief, loud period of activism, I came to the realization that straight people don’t have to come out. They simply live what they are. It seemed a bit theatrical to continue parading myself around as gay all the time. It was also exhausting. I began to want a sense of normalcy and privacy, so I put away the act of “coming out” as a remnant of my youth, a sign of immaturity and naïveté. While I didn’t intend to pass as straight or deny my sexuality to anyone, I didn’t feel a need to announce it either. If my being gay was relevant to a conversation, I didn’t hesitate to come out. If the topic was relationships, I didn’t resort to changing pronouns in order to protect the sensitivities of others. I promised myself I would neither edit nor headline my sexuality to others. I would just be honest, and let every mention of my sexuality be relevant and casual. After all, straight people neither hide nor specifically announce their sexuality, so why should I have to behave any differently?
It required a fair amount of diligence, a sense of humor, and a great inner courage to maintain such quiet honesty. I found myself facing dilemmas over how honest to be, or when and with whom it is more appropriate and necessary to stay hidden.
Once while working at a bookstore in Hollywood, a male customer sidled up to me and conspiratorially remarked on a scantily dressed woman crossing the street. “Daaaaamn! Check her out!” If I kept to my vow of honesty, I’d respond with “I’m not into women” or flip the script and say, “Nah… but check him out!”
No matter how I chose to respond, his reaction would be inconsequential. Were he to react negatively, I knew my colleagues, supervisors and upper management would have my back. Were he unaccustomed to such honesty, he might have been jostled out of his assumptions of me, and either an awkward moment would linger and pass, or a conversation would begin. Were he totally comfortable with my coming out, it would have simply been a non-event. Without the time to ponder all the possible outcomes, I just let out a nervous chuckle and asked him if I could help him find anything in the store.
He’s just a customer, I thought. A total stranger. It’s none of his business. But, when asked, would a straight person hesitate or feel any need to withhold the truth on such a trivial matter? Would a straight person ever withhold honesty about their sexuality for fear of the reaction?
Every now and then, I encounter someone who not only assumes that I am straight, but also assumes that I share his or her homophobia. In one such instance, I was working as a Customer Service Manager at a university bookstore when I met a white South African who had been backpacking across the States. Being a lover of travel, I wanted to hear stories about where he was from and where he’d been. The conversation turned to current events in South Africa, and he showed no hesitation at expressing outrage and disgust over the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in South Africa. He spoke with vitriol, and assumed I shared his opinion. I stayed stony faced, and said nothing, changing the subject. If he knew who he was speaking to, would he have back-pedaled or doubled-down? If I came out to him or just spoke my mind, would he have escalated his venomous rant? In the face of such hatred and the uncertainty of the outcome, it felt unsafe to out myself to him. I kept the closet door shut, and let the moment pass. He’s a stranger. I’ll never see him again, so why does it matter? It does matter, though, for the task of waking him up to his homophobia would now be passed on to someone else. Someone braver. If any occasion called for coming out to a perfect stranger, this was it!
The decision of whether or not to not come out to a stranger can be shrugged off. The moment passes. The person walks out of your day and memory, and life goes on. But sometimes the decision to come out to a stranger can have life-saving consequences.
In the Spring of 1999, while employed as storyboard artist on a popular animated TV show, I took a month-long hiatus to travel through Asia. While island-hopping in Indonesia, I met Hussein, a New Zealander who ran an NGO (Non-governmental Organization) out of his beach-front inn on the island of Lombok. I was passing through his village, and chose to rest there for a night before moving on. The morning of my departure, Hussein told me about his efforts to educate the locals on hygiene and recycling. I were ever interested in helping out, he told me, I should be sure to let him know.
Later that year, when I decided to leave my career in the animation industry in search of work that felt more meaningful and fulfilling, I thought of Hussein. I called him, and said I was willing to help in any way I could. Not knowing my background, he informed me that what he really needed was an art teacher. It seemed like fate.
I began sorting my personal belongings with the intention of selling as much as I could. As I arranged for my visa, Hussein informed me that I had received full sponsorship: my room and board would be covered by local businesses and donors. He requested that I fax him my résumé, and call him in three days to sort out further details. Things were moving fast, and everything was falling into place. I put in my notice at work, and began telling friends and coworkers about my impending relocation. I eagerly anticipated my next phone conversation with Hussein.
“It says on your résumé that you were in a gay student union in college.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Hmm. I see. You are gay then?”
“Yes, I am, but it’s not as if I’m going to write it on my door or anything. I don’t see what difference that wou —”
“Well, this is very unfortunate. Very unfortunate, indeed. You see… It’s a bit of a problem…”
By the end of the conversation it became clear that I was not wanted, despite the fact that I was perfectly suited for the job. He said that he had left New Zealand expressly with the intention of not having to deal with “this sort of thing.” He said he’d “give it a think” and that I should call him back in a week. It was the longest week of my life. I didn’t know if I was still going, or staying put.
The torturous week passed, and we finally spoke. He told me that after consulting with all the sponsors and donors, they immediately withdrew their support. I was winded. It seemed ludicrous that someone would turn down an offer of humanitarian good will in favor of holding on to bigotry.
During the fallout, I wondered whether I should have included my volunteer work with the gay student union on my résumé. My activism had been a pivotal point in my life — in my becoming an adult, in my education, and in my budding interest in volunteering. But now, my coming out had denied me a grand opportunity to travel and help others. Was it really that important for me to come out to him on my résumé? Why does it matter? It’s none of his business!
After some time, I realized that it would have been far too dangerous for me to live and work — closeted or not — in a foreign, predominantly Muslim country while in the care of someone with such bigoted views. In this case, my being out about my homosexuality served to protect me from danger. I had stayed closeted, I would have been living in a foreign country, on a remote island, hiding an aspect of my identity for fear of discovery, and powerlessness against their legally and religiously sanctioned homophobia.
As a gay adult man, I look back and see the long road I’ve walked to reach self-acceptance. I see the road before me and wonder if I will have the courage to face the challenges ahead. My effort this far has earned me a community of peers, a circle of support, and a long sought-after sense of belonging. I’ve come to realize that being gay is not the only thing that defines me. I am a writer, artist, activist, traveler and humanitarian. My biggest life decisions have been based on living an honest life, and how I could make my life signify, not on how I wanted people to label me.
I am certain that I will continue to be challenged by the risks inherent in the act of coming out to people. I’ll likely encounter homophobia again. I will have more opportunities to chose whether to either hide or stand up and say, “Yes, I am gay.” Whether I present myself as a gay activist, or sequester my sexuality to a private corner, I expect to have to come out again and again throughout my life. I’ve realized that “coming out” is neither the moment I accepted my own sexuality, nor the decision to speak my truth to family, friends or strangers. Coming out is a choice I will have to make repeatedly, unexpectedly: a lifelong process of unfolding. The German poet Rilke said, “I want to unfold … because where I am folded, there I am a lie.” That unfolding will continually force me to question how tall I stand, how honest I live, and how much courage I have within me.