So let’s kick out on stress for a minute. Stress is a natural reaction in your body. When you encounter a perceived threat, — keyword, perceived — your hypothalamus sounds the alarm, and adrenaline and cortisol start coursing through your veins. This is known as Fight or Flight. Sometimes you rumble, sometimes you run. And this is a totally normal reaction. And, comes from a time when that threat was being chased by a wooly mammoth. The problem is your hypothalamus has no idea if you’re being chased by a wooly mammoth, or if your computer just crashed, or if your in-laws just showed up on your doorsteps, or if you’re about to jump out of a plane, or if you need to tell someone you love that you have a brain tumor. The difference is the wooly mammoth chases you for, what, maybe 10 minutes. Not having those hard conversations, that can go on for years, and your body just can’t handle that.
Chronic exposure to adrenaline and cortisol disrupts almost every system in your body and can lead to anxiety, depression, heart disease, just to name a few. When you do not have hard conversations, when you keep the truth about yourself a secret, you’re essentially holding a grenade.
So, imagine yourself 20 years ago. Me, I had a pony tail, a strapless dress, and high heel shoes. I was not the militant lesbian ready to fight any 4-year old that walked into the café. I was frozen by fear, curled up in a corner of my pitch-black closet, clutching my gay grenade. And moving one muscle is the scariest thing I have ever done.
My family, my friends, complete strangers, I had spent my entire life trying to not disappoint these people. And now, I was turning the world upside down. On purpose. I was burning the pages of the script we had all followed for so long, but if you do not throw that grenade, it will kill you.
One of my most memorable grenade-tosses was at my sister’s wedding. It was the first time that many on attendance knew that I was gay. So in doing my Maid of Honor duties, in my black dress and heels, I walked around the tables, and finally landed at the table of my parents’ friends, folks that had known me for years. And after a little small talk, one of the women shouted out: “I love Nathan Lane!” And the battle of gay relatebility had begun.
“Ash, have you ever been to the Castro?”
“Well, yeah, actually, we have friends in San Francisco.”
“We’ve never been there, but we hear it’s ‘fa-bu-lous’!”
“Ash, do you know my hairdresser Antonio, he’s really good, and he’s never talked about a girlfriend.”
“Ash, what’s your favorite TV show? Our favorite TV show: favorite, Will and Grace, you know who we love? Jack. Jack is our favorite.”
And then one woman, stumped, but wanting so desperately to show her support, to let me know she was on my side, she finally blurted out: “Well, sometimes my husband wears pink shirts.”
And I had a choice in that moment, as all grenade-throwers do. I could go back to my girlfriend, and my gay-loving table, and mock their responses. Chastise their unworldliness, and their inability to jump through the politically-correct gay hoops I had brought with me, or, I could empathize with them, and realize that that was maybe one of the hardest things that they had ever done. That starting, and having that conversation, was them coming out of their closets.
Sure, it would have been easy to point out where they fell short. It’s a lot harder to meet them where they are, and acknowledge the fact that they were trying, and what else can you ask someone to do, but try. If you’re going to be real with someone, you’ve got to be ready for real in return.
So, hard conversations are still not my strong suit. Ask anybody I’ve ever dated. But I’m getting better. And I follow what I like to call “’The Three Pancake Girl Principles.”
Now, please, view this through gay-colored lenses, but know, what it takes to come out of any closet, is essentially the same.
Number One: Be Authentic, take the armor off, be yourself. That kid in the café had no armor, but I was ready for battle. Stupid hypothalamus. If you want someone to be real with you, they need to know that you bleed too.
Number Two: Be Direct, You say it, rip the bandaid off. If you know you are gay, just say it. If you tell your parents you might be gay, they will hold that hope that this will change. Do not give them that sense of false hope.
And Number Three, and most important: Be Unapologetic. You are speaking your truth. Never apologize for that. And some folks might have gotten hurt along the way. So sure. Apologize for what you’ve done. But never apologize for who you are. And yeah, some folks may be disappointed. But that is on them. Not on you. Those are their expectations of who you are, not yours. That is their story. Not yours. The only story that matters is the one that you want to write.
So the next time you find yourself in a pitchblack closet clutching your grenade, know that we’ve all been there before. And you may feel so very alone, but you are not. And we know it’s hard, but we need you out here, no matter what your walls are made of. Because I guarantee you there are others peering through the keyhole of their closets looking for the next brave soul to bust a door open so be that person, and show the world that we are bigger than our closets, and that a closet is no place for a person to truly live.