On some level, growing up I always thought being a man was about obeying the rules and doing what was expected of me. As far as I could tell, it wasn't really about feelings, because none of the men I knew had feelings like I did.
I can't really remember the first time I became aware that I was attracted to guys. It's just something that's always been part of me. My problem was that for my first 18 or so years, I didn't know how to identify — let alone express — these feelings. I was more worried about living the life I thought everyone expected me to live.
Besides drumming into my brain the importance of getting into a good college, my private school upbringing gave me a very narrow-minded view of what being a man was all about. You know the drill: the wife, the kids, the country club, the BMW ... and the list goes on. Most of the items on the list weren't a problem for me. But I didn't think I could have them all with a man by my side.
In grade school, I did my share of "experimentation." After my best friend's mother walked in on the two of us fooling around, I knew just how other people reacted to my strange feelings. Of course, that didn't make them go away.
But I knew I had to be careful.
In seventh grade, I had a crush on another friend that led to a physical relationship. We didn't need parents to make us feel guilty. My friend, raised in a religious household, took care of that himself. After each encounter he was overcome with guilt. For days, we wouldn't talk or see each other. Again I realized my natural instincts were against the rules.
My mother and others ignored the obvious fact that I was gay because there were always girls around. I dated, or at least appeared to date, women because it made life easier. My mother assumed other guys were interested in me, but that I was not interested.
I followed the rules into my early 20s, when I found myself living with my girlfriend. She had been a great friend and on-and-off girlfriend for years. She knew about the boyfriend I'd had for two years in college, but I convinced her the whole relationship had been just an experiment, and she was the one for me. After nearly a year we began to talk about engagement and marriage. And I remember thinking that marrying a woman didn't feel right, but I could put up with it because it would give me the life I had been told I should want. Luckily, the relationship ended, and we went off in our own directions.
It would take me two more years to figure out that being a man was really about making my own rules. It wasn't until I met my first openly gay couple that I realized the rules I had learned growing up were not the only rules. Meeting those two guys made me realize I could have the life I wanted. The only way I was truly going to be happy and fulfilled as a gay man would be to make my own rules.
I'm not sure why it was so hard for me to realize this seemingly obvious fact: Being a man is about taking responsibility and being true to yourself, even if that means taking a road others see as more difficult.
Societal attitudes have changed quite a bit since I came out 10 years ago. Gay and lesbian issues are now widely depicted and debated in the mainstream media. Com-panies of all sizes offer domestic partner benefits. Gay and lesbian couples are becoming parents in droves. One state even legally recognizes same-sex unions.
But don't kid yourself. Even with all these advances, being an out gay man is a challenge. There are still men out there struggling with their sexuality. All the attention given to gay people and issues opens some of us — especially gay youth — to more scrutiny and problems.
One of the commitments — rules, if you will — I have made for myself is to maintain an involvement in the fight for gay and lesbian rights and equality. One of my favorite things about being a gay man is that I can make my own rules, for myself as a man, for my relationship with my partner, and for my relationships with my friends and family.
For me that has been one of the most empowering and life-changing discoveries ever. ©