One of my biggest realizations from reading The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs was that my success in life is directly related to my experience of having grown up in the closet.
The truth is I’m not afraid of success. Rather, I sometimes shy away from other people SEEING me as successful! I have been successful in many areas of my life and I’m aware of the difference between success and accomplishment, which I talk about in, “How Does It Feel When You’re Living Your Calling?”
An Interesting Paradox
If I want to help people think more queerly, the think outside of the status quo, I need to be fully out, vulnerable, and take risks. But at the same time, the young Darren that once lived in the closet likes the safety of not being recognized.
I’m sure you’ve experienced similar emotions and fears in life. But it’s useful to know where our fears and blocks come from so we can break out of the status quo, be who we want to be, and do what we want to do.
Looking back, the experience of of having grown up in the closet, hiding my true identity, and not achieving authentic validation as a gay man until sometime in my 30s, has had a huge impact on my wellbeing and how I see myself in the world.
Most of what I have done in my adult life is connected with having been in the closet during my formative, adolescent years. For example,
Not going to university immediately after high school
Instead I participated in Katimavik, a youth life-skills and community volunteer work experience program. I then worked for a year and enjoyed exploring my gay identity in the thriving gay scene in Toronto of 1985. The following year I dropped everything and went backpacking by myself across most of Europe, Egypt, and Israel for four months.
During these two years I was seeking ways to break free, explore, and to discover what I wanted to do with my life, now that I was out and able to express my gay identity.
Pushing myself to be exceptional at University
I graduated high school with a 51% average, but I managed to get on the Dean’s list after my first year of university and remained an A- student throughout my university career. I received multiple awards, scholarships, and three fully sponsored trips to study in Germany.
Going against what was expected of me
As a graduate student I was being groomed for a particular path, yet I decided to take a diversion and pursue a queer research topic. This meant that my advisor could no longer assist me with my research, but my choice afforded me a full scholarship to do my research in Germany for 10-months.
Looking Back I See How Much I Was Seeking Validation
I needed to prove to myself that I was smart, having almost failed high school. Going down the “groomed” path of pursuing a PhD in German Linguistics wasn’t enough. I needed to stand out and make a mark on the world. It felt empowering to take a stand and pursue a queer research thesis in 1992.
In those first few months of living in Germany, at 32 years old, I experienced my first major failure. It was the first time I seriously doubted myself and my ability to be successful as an academic. I could not find the research to substantiate my thesis.
One Failure Leads To The Next Opportunity
After returning from Germany, I started working for Canada’s largest gay lesbian media organization, Pink Triangle Press. I started as a volunteer and moved my way up to the position of director of the most profitable division within the company.
Not only had I found something queer, I was working for a non-conformist, grass-roots based, entirely non-corporate organization. Working for the press taught me that my next “change” would have to be as an entrepreneur. I could not be confined to working within the box of a corporation.
10 years after starting at the Press I launched a personal training business, another huge risk that challenged my abilities. I had to work hard, learn fast, and grow. But I never quite reached the mark of success I was looking for. I did okay, but something was always missing — my queer identity.
What Was Missing Led Me To “Who” I Am Now
In one sense it’s not about whether you’re successful or not. Instead, it’s about understanding that if something didn’t work out the way you imagined, what can you learn from that situation.
Success is both the trust you have in your choices, and your commitment to taking action.
How can apparent failure or loss of interest help you make the next best choice? Will the next choice be a safe one, or an even greater risk than the last?
The answers to those questions depend on your tolerance for change and reinvention.
I’ve always tried to pursue something queer. I’ve always wanted to work with my gay identity and I’ve been the happiest when doing so.
That “missing something” while working in my fitness business was the lack of open expression of my gay identity. Realizing that helped me to start the next chapter in my life as The Queer Coach: helping gay men break out of the box that fucks with being who they are.
The Two Common Denominators
The first common denominator associated with my “reinventions” has been my need to always do something queer, to do work that speaks to and comes from who I am as a gay man.
The second denominator is that I’ve always had a mentor or a coach during my times of significant transformation and reinvention.
At university I had the best mentor I’ve ever had in Jutta Goheen. She supported me, believed in me, and helped me let go and withdraw from my Master’s when going further no longer sustained me.
My first coach, Barbara, helped me set up the “human interaction” side of my personal training business and assisted with showing me the way to write my first book, Flex Your Mind.
My current coach, Caroline, has helped me see that my challenges from the past year were based in not being true to who I am. I needed to break out of my box and share my message with gay men of my generation:
You came out at a time like me when we still had to keep parts of ourselves boxed in, to have some form of safety, acceptance from family and friends, and the ability to pursue a meaningful career.
But what parts of you did you keep locked away?
Who did you want to be when you came out, but it didn’t feel safe to be that version of you?
How are you still boxed in, playing by “straight” rules?
Does your heart race when you think about this?
Does it make you feel a tingle of freedom?
Like it or not we’ve all made choices to limit who we really are. But you’re not a tree — you can change! 🙂
Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash