I think I probably had an easier coming-out process than most people, although it wasn’t a cake walk. I came out in a whole different place than I grew up in, and it was an open and diverse environment far away from family, friends and any ties to a past. After growing up in Michigan and going to college in Milwaukee, I went west to what, at first, felt like another planet—Planet L.A.
Going from the Midwest to L.A. was a bit of a culture shock, but after three months I came out, broke up with my fiancée and dropped out of law school—all in about a four-week period. I guess I was inspired by the carefree life of the West coast and the beach, and the fact that there were thousands of gay men and lesbians living out their lives as normally as straight people back home. You couldn’t get more “other worldly” than that, and as you might have guessed, I got used to my new exciting city and life quickly.
After several years out there, I found myself moving back to the Midwest and to Madison for the first time. Needless to say, after all that time in L.A., and it being the only place I had ever lived as an “out” gay person, coming back to the Midwest was a whole other culture shock. Welcome to Planet Madison.
My first few years in Madison were spent hanging out with straight friends on the east side. I was content and thankful to have such a cool group of friends form so quickly, but as time passed I became increasingly anxious that there didn’t seem to be much gay life or community in Madison. At least not one I was able to find. It wasn’t that I needed or wanted gay life to be my sole focus—I went through that when I first came out. The first few years I was “out,” my full time job was being gay. But by this time in my life, I was comfortable enough with myself to realize being gay was an aspect of, but by no means the “total” me. But it was still an important part of my life that I was feeling totally cut off from. And I felt it all the time.
The few gay guys that I did come into contact with via the bars or internet also were perplexing. Overall they didn’t seem very comfortable with their sexuality—their homosexuality. There seemed to be an inner censor constantly monitoring their “gayness” with respect to how they could act, what they could wear, how they could dance and so on. I had never looked to my environment to dictate how “gay” I could be. I just acted as my normal self in my daily life. Meeting these guys who seemed hyper-aware of how they looked and acted was strange, as was the concept of me thinking about mitigating my “gayness” so I would blend in more. Isn’t that kind of like turning your back on a part of who you are? Why would anyone do that?
Last summer I was at the mall with a friend, and we ran into a friend of his. Since it was summer, I was dressed in my standard beach uniform: flip flops, cut-off cargo shorts, a ribbed tank top and sun glasses. While they were talking, I took the opportunity to duck into a nearby store and check out some t-shirts. When my friend caught up to me, he said the guy he had been talking to thought that I was being “too obviously gay.” I was surprised and asked why anyone would think that. He replied, “Because of what you are wearing.” I started to laugh because I though he was kidding—but he was serious. What was perfectly innocuous beach garb in L.A. was apparently some kind of gay calling card or “scarlet letter” here in Madison. So I shouldn’t be wearing shorts and a tank because it makes me look too gay? What is “too gay” anyway? It wasn’t like I was walking down State Street in a sequin bikini with a tiara on.
I had hit my lowest point of “woe is me” and “this place sucks.” In my experience, when you hit rock bottom in an area of your life, you are free to see things for what they are, not what you want them to be or hope them to be. But rather, you see the naked truth. From this vantage point, I began to really look at what Madison was all about instead of trying to see it through some kind of gay prism as I had been.
I saw things like people in the supermarket striking up conversation with me and chatting me up to pass the time while we waited in line. This, at first, was alarming to me. You see, in L.A., everyone politely ignores each other whenever they are in line for anything rather than chatting. All of a sudden I had people actually speaking to me and expecting me to speak back. After a while though, I found that it made my day much more enjoyable and less draining. And I usually met really nice, genuine people who, regardless of how different from me they looked on the surface, always seemed to have more in common with me than not. This was a new experience, not just sharing space with unnamed, unknown people, but actively communing with them in small, and sometimes not-so-small, ways. Somewhere inside I was finding and dusting off my Midwestern roots and putting them to good use again. They were both familiar and fresh all at the same time.
I started to notice other things, too. Like how I couldn’t mow my lawn without a neighbor or two coming over to say hi. When it snowed and I was traveling, my neighbor would shovel my walk for me. When I got stuck outside my brother’s place last winter, within two minutes two of his neighbors appeared out of nowhere with shovels and helped push me out. And people went out of the way to hold doors open for each other. I noticed that everywhere I went in Madison people were friendly, courteous and when they said, “Have a nice day,” I knew they meant it. As I took all these things in, I again wondered what planet I was on—but for a different reason than before. I still wasn’t 100% sure, but I knew I kinda liked it.
Perhaps the biggest thing I realized about Madison was that LGBT and straight people seemed to be very integrated, but in a subtle way that I believe is very indicative of the Midwest. In this respect Madison seems to be pushing the envelope ahead of the curve. Sure, Madison has a couple of LGBT bars that are pretty much exclusively populated with LGBT people, but the other bars, restaurants and venues are always comfortably mixed. Whether it is the Weary Traveler, State Street, the Tornado Room or Concerts on the Square—I see all kinds of people just doing their thing and letting others do the same.
It seemed Madison has very comfortably settled into functioning independently of sexual orientation. With a “safe” environment for gay and lesbian people, I was surprised that there weren’t more gatherings of gay men and lesbians in these or other venues. This further vexed me as to why I was having such a hard time finding LGBT communities. It wasn’t quarantined to some gay ghetto as I had seen in bigger cities, but that would almost make it easier to find. Here I was, in a city that seemed ready and willing to support a diverse and a vibrant community—the foundation of tolerance, acceptance and an integrated community were already in place. So where was it? I thought back to the whole “gay censor” thing I had experienced here and wondered if the gay men and lesbians in Madison were the ones holding themselves back. The straight community certainly didn’t seem to be.
Well, last summer I stumbled into one of the newest venues for LGBT people. I heard that Madison had a gay hockey league (who knew?), and they were looking for players for the 2007-2008 season. I was intrigued. I played hockey for years growing up, so I felt it would be a pretty safe thing to check out, with a lower risk of making myself look stupid. So I signed up and was pretty astonished at what I found.
That elusive Madison LGBT community—a big part of it was apparently playing hockey. About 100 people in fact. All ages, LGBT people, straight, students, working professionals—all walks of life and gay personas were represented in what, at times, can be a pretty rough sport. My first gay hockey season truly was a quintessential Midwest LGBT experience. The main focus wasn’t on being gay or lesbian, but that was certainly an aspect of it. Yeah, most of us in the league fell somewhere in the LGBT spectrum, but the point of us getting together on the ice every Sunday night was to play hockey. And we did. And it was fun. And it was a safe and supportive environment where people who had never skated were learning, not only how to skate, but also how to play a pretty complex sport. The sense of community this fostered was both really amazing and overwhelming at times to me. For the first time in Madison, I had connected with what I had been missing the whole time I had been here. What I found was more real, more comforting and safer than any past LGBT communities I had encountered. I finally felt like I was getting Planet Madison.
As I look to the future here as a gay person, I sense a lot of potential and opportunity. After stumbling around for years trying to get my bearings and figure out what Madison life was all about, I feel good about what I have seen, learned and experienced. I have a hunch that I’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg so far. I personally would like to see the LGBT communities here have more of a presence and be more visible so someone else who moves to town can connect and feel the support sooner than I did. I feel that the greater Madison community stands poised and ready to support even more vibrant and active LGBT communities that transcend Madison’s size.