As a late-30-something who lives 900 miles away from his hometown, waking up in the room I lived in as a child and a teenager is unsettling. I open my eyes, stretch and briefly panic as I try to remember if it’s a school day and wonder if the last two decades of your life have been a dream.
Of course, neither is the case.
But for me, that morning experience seems to set the tone for the version of myself I present to my family whenever I stop in Missouri for my yearly, August visit. Unfortunately, and disappointedly, the Midwestern version of “Steve” is a different, edited recreation of my true self when I walk through the doors of my childhood home.
What’s so disturbing is I didn’t even realize I was doing edited portrayal until it was commented on by my significant other. He has only seen me in my “Florida element” and was surprised to see and hear how I presented myself back home.
My family knows I’m gay. They’ve known that for almost 16 years.
Their initial discovery of that fact wasn’t a pleasant time in my life. There were plenty of tears, threats and painful letters and phone conversations. Time helped ease that pain and after some work and a lot of patience, we’ve patched up the relationship and managed to redefine the parents/son dynamic. Unfortunately, that means a large portion of what makes me “me” gets pushed into a vault somewhere in the back of my mind.
When I’m in the presence of my parents and even my extended family, my sexuality is the big pink elephant in the room. It’s a subject not really discussed and only mentioned in passing when I talk about my life in Florida.
When a story comes on the local or national news about marriage equality, same-sex benefits or transgender rights, a large, uncomfortable weight appears in the room as a pinhole of light hits on the subject we’ve all dutifully swept under the rug and avoid like a dead body.
It’s a very different presentation than the “real” me I am free to be when I’m in the Sunshine State. Here, I’m the editor of the state’s leading LGBT newsmagazine, an advocate for transgender rights and a vocal critic of all who fight against marriage equality or place religion above equality.
The Florida Steve is the one who is well-known in Tampa Bay and Orlando and is nurturing a relationship with a wonderful man a year after a previous long-term relationship faded, I encourage others to come out, talk about changing minds and constantly promote acceptance of others, regardless of differences.
But when I visit Missouri, it’s like a light switch flips. I’m quiet, rather reserved, and I avoid topics of conflict. The rules are simple. I don’t talk about politics of any kind, I ignore the constant blaring of the ridiculousness that is FOX News on the television and I never bring up my personal relationships unless I am directly asked.
I’m not proud of this behavior. I write this to challenge myself to do better. But it’s no wonder why these trips are only once a year.
A very good friend of mine once told me that all relationships are like business connections and agreements. Things change, circumstances evolve and contracts need to be renegotiated. I’m at the point in my life where that should be done. It’s time to renegotiate.
When I was 21 and newly out, I dutifully accepted the restrictions placed on me by my family out of fear of losing them. In return, they would avoid the subject of my sexuality and the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” mentality would permeate our relationship for the next decade and beyond.
But that policy didn’t work for the military, and it certainly doesn’t work for familial bonds.
Families are fragile, yes. But if I act ashamed of who I am, then my family will continue to think being LGBT is something shameful.
If I truly want the world to continue to evolve on LGBT rights, then I have to expect—no, demand—the same from the people responsible for putting me on this planet.