There are two examples from my life when I was living fully out, gay and proud, and expressing who I was – other than now when I feel like I’m all gay all the time! 🙂 In retrospect, within the limitations of the status quo at those times, I came out “too much and too far.” The outside influences and opinions of other people forced parts of me back into the closet.

When I was 35 (2001) I had a faux-hawk haircut done for Toronto Pride that June, and for the first time ever I dyed my hair. The tips of my faux-hawk were dyed stop-sign-red. I love the colour red, it’s aggressive and vibrant and that was the energy I wanted to express at Pride that year.

I remember going to see one of my personal training clients at her home. The look she gave me when she opened the door and saw my hair cut…. She suggested I should tone it down to try and fit in.

A symbolic example of me living fully OUT was when I got my ears pierced.

In the late 80s I got my ears pierced. I wore different types of hoops for years, but always larger than what most men would wear at that time. When I took a position at a high-end gym in the Toronto Financial District, management told me I’d have to take my earrings out. Men were not allowed to wear jewelry for “safety reasons.” The truth was nothing short of homophobia, the status quo, and fitting in.

I took the earrings out, but they were a physical symbol, a way I could say without words, “I’m gay. Notice me. I’m queer. I’m different.” I wasn’t wearing small studs that people wouldn’t notice, I wore big hoops that really drew attention to me. Perhaps I needed the attention, but now I realize for the 10 years I worked at that club, I never once put those earrings back in – even when I was done work.

Darren Stehle in Amsterdam
Me at Amsterdam Pride, 1993.

For every year I didn’t wear those earrings, I lost touch with parts of my identity and the best of who I was.

I put parts of me back in the closet to try and fit into the status quo, to do well in my training business. In truth, my clients at the gym wouldn’t have given a fuck about my earrings. They only wanted two things: a great, safe workout, and an excellent relationship with their trainer – both of which they received.

Perhaps taking my earrings out was symbolic of why my personal training business never took off. I’m not boasting, but I was an exceptional personal trainer, movement and nutrition coach. I was a consummate professional. But if you can’t be all the parts of who you are, if you have to closet and suppress any part of your gifts, talents, and identity – especially when a core part of your identity is being a gay man – you can’t be completely you. You can’t fully express all the best parts of you that come together to create the whole.

One of the beautiful things about being a gay man is being able to look at the world in a different way, being able to see through things in ways that other people don’t see. Things like, Why do gay men connect so well with women? Why are gay men so much better at listening and empathy than straight men?

If you want to excel as the best of who you are you need to live out all of your qualities and strengths.

It’s like the story of the ‘Princess and the Pea’. If you’re laying on top of 10 mattresses and you’re pressing on a hidden part of you that’s been stuck under the last mattress for many years, that’s going to make you uncomfortable until you pull it out and deal with it.

When you hold back any part of who you are, you will always be second guessing yourself. You might wonder if your actions are perceived as too gay, or if someone will see a part of you that you don’t want to reveal. There are times when we need to protect ourselves from physical harm. There are situations in the workplace where you might worry about being too out, if that could limit your career growth. But what the fuck is, “too out?”

Why can’t we just be ourselves?

Meaning, why can’t we be gay, bi, trans, queer and all your other qualities, skills, and character traits – in other words, why can’t you live our your uniqueness, your who-you-are-ness? Why can’t you live without the discomfort of hiding any parts of who you are? How can you embrace your gayness, along with all your hopes and dreams that you may have tossed back into the closet when you first came out.

You – WE – as GBTQ men, are valuable contributors to society.

We are unique individuals with valuable insights that are different from our heterosexual counterparts. We may stand on the margins and feel excluded, and sometimes we think that if we just step a bit inside the box we will be accepted. But that’s not what we need to do. As soon as we step into that box we suppress and oppress the best parts of who we are.

Much of this depends on how old you are, when you came out, and where you live. I came out when I was 18 years old in 1984 thinking, “OH, I can finally explore who I am. I can explore my sexual identity by having sex with men.” But then AIDS happened. What the fuck!?

Suddenly this virus was killing gay men and no one knew how to stop it or prevent it. Politicians and religious leaders were condoning gay sex, saying this was god’s wrath on the evils of gay men and sin. Fear, guilt, and shame made many gay men go back into the closet, or at least hide major parts of themselves from others, and/or to protect their self-esteem. Many men didn’t want to have to face these emotions and criticisms.

Whenever you came out of the closet – with all the drama and time it took to get to that point – and whether it was AIDS or something else you thought, “Oh shit! So I’ve come out but maybe I need to go back into a box to fit in and feel safe.” Then you put parts of you back into the closet. You suppressed your human expression – your identity.

What happens when you live fully out?

As a GBTQ man, are you at a point in your life asking, “What the fuck? Why have I gone back into a kind of closet after coming out the first time? Why am I not living out the best of who I am?”

Deep, truthful, profound happiness requires being and expressing all of who you without apology to anyone else (which is not the same as being arrogant or disrespectful). If someone can’t accept you for who you are, that’s their issue, not yours.

Once you get to that place of living fully out all the parts that make up who you are, that’s when you can do great things. That’s when you can have an impact on the people around you, or on the world.

It’s not just about flaunting your gayness (and there’s nothing wrong with that!), it’s about embracing your gayness, your queerness, and living it with ALL the other parts of who you are. Because THAT’S who you are!

You are more than just a gay man. You deserve to love and express that part of yourself and to be loved by others for every iota of who you are.

This is the Living OUT Movement

I am working to help contribute to this movement of GBTQ men of similar mindsets who want to break free of the box that they’ve built up around themselves. Let’s help each other learn, grow, evolve and build the potential of each other’s unique identity. Let’s use our difference to make a positive difference in the world.

Featured Photo by George Kedenburg III on Unsplash

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  1. Rachel M Schneewind 26/07/2019 at 20:03

    I came across you on Medium and followed the link to this story out of curiosity. I appreciate your articulating some of the issues that gay men face, especially regarding the AIDS crisis and how it forced so many men back into the closet. As a bi woman I can certainly understand the conflict between staying “safe” in the closet and being out and proud. Thanks for this.

    1. Rachel, thank you for sharing. How has this aspect of safety shown up in your own life?

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