Somewhere between Winter ’95 and Spring ’96, I decided that I had had enough of living in the closet and felt I needed to embark on the journey of coming out – a process which also led me to being a steward at the ‘96 London Pride.
Following the death of my father the year before, I was determined to show up more fully in my life and coming out felt like the most obvious way of embracing this longing. Prior to his death, coming out was not something that I had thought I’d ever do. I did not personally know anyone of Nigerian origin who was gay, let alone out and in my mind I felt that I’d probably get married to a woman and simply carry on with living what I had considered a ‘normal life’.
At that point in my life, living was more about compliance and fitting in. I did not consider myself someone who had the courage to honor being different.
Looking back, I shudder at the memories of the internalized homophobia that I carried around with me. I had sought refuge in a homophobic church and felt deserving of the abuse that the pastor would preach from the pulpit every Sunday. But something was starting to shift in me, I was tired of being an observer of life, I wanted to participate. I wanted to show up, fully.
I had started to cultivate some friends who were gay and was getting tired of having to split my life between ‘those who knew’ and ‘those who did not know’. Splitting was easy to start with, but it was gradually becoming more difficult. I’d never forget the time I had gone out with some straight male friends, and in the middle of me laughing at a joke that had been made, I stroked one friend on the back, rolled my eyes and said something like ‘you’re sooooo funny darling’. Now, not saying that straight people do not behave this way, but this was very out of character for anyone of us, as we had a pretty straight-laced relationship. One of the guys shot me a look and we all pretended like it had never happened. No one said a word, but I caught two of the guys questioningly glance at each other.
Denial – yes, I know that habit very well. I think one of my criteria for picking friends at that time (and prior) had been – must be an expert in denial. When I’d make slips that could possibly indicate that there might be more to my story, no one would say a thing. Neither would anyone ask obvious questions like ‘why at 27, I had never had a girlfriend’.
So when I started a new job in Spring ’96, I saw it as an opportunity for a new chapter of being more forthcoming, rather than continuing to play the denial game.
I made a decision that I wanted to be open about my sexual orientation at work and to the people closest to me. There was never a ‘by the way, I am gay’ moment at work. I simply mentioned it as part of a casual conversation when colleagues were talking about what they did over one weekend. The follow-up conversation was pretty hilarious as my colleagues said they had been trying to guess, since I started working there, whether I was or not. One of them had apparently said to the others, ‘his clothes are too trendy for him to be straight’. It was liberating to be open at work; it meant that I did not have to censor stories about my life, when talking to colleagues. I had made that first step in showing up fully at work; next stage was for me to do some of that outside of work.
I decided that the best approach was to come out to at least one person a week. I have no idea why I decided on that approach, but I remember going through my diary on a weekly basis trying to decide who would be the next one. I’d phone up people I had not seen in years and say ‘can we do coffee’. In some cases, I’d simply come out to them on the phone. I was very conscious that I was picking people who I somehow knew would be okay with ‘my revelation’ and the most common comment I got was ‘I always knew you were gay’.
There was one particular conversation that I knew I had to have, it was one I kept putting off. But I was gradually running out of people I wanted to come out to. I had come out to the people that I felt safe enough to do so with, this one was different. The person in question was a close female friend. We would share news about each other’s lives – the highs, lows and everything in between. I had shared everything, but one thing. She had never asked me whether I was gay and I had never offered to tell. I had convinced myself that it did not matter whether she knew or not. But the more she told me about her life, warts and all, the more I felt I was shortchanging our friendship. For the first time in my coming out journey, I came face-to-face with my fear of rejection. ‘What if I told her and she then said she did not want to be friends anymore’; this and other thoughts would race through my mind.
I remember calling her to arrange meeting for a chat. As we chatted on that faithful day, I remember my heart racing faster and faster, as I imagined a variety of ways the conversation would go. We’d been talking for quite a while and I had not mentioned my news. She said she had to go and then I said something like ‘there is something I have to tell you’. I remember hearing ‘oh, what?’ It felt like time froze, and I heard myself say ‘I am gay’. She looked me dead in the eye and said ‘oh pleaze, we always knew you were gay. My husband and I have simply been waiting for when you would finally tell us’. We both burst into laughter, which went on for a very long time. She asked what took me so long. I mentioned my fears, she said she understood. She said being gay did not affect our friendship in anyway. The conversation soon moved onto whether I was dating or not.
As I reflect on our friendship and that conversation with my friend, which took place over 15 years ago, I am deeply aware of how coming out took our friendship to an emotionally deeper level. I am also aware that there are some close friends and family members that I have never had that conversation with, they simply don’t ask and I simply don’t tell. Although if I were to tell, I am sure that what they will simply say in return is ‘oh pleaze, we already knew’. And what happens after that, is anyone’s guess…