Pride is about letting go of our secrets

Essay by Ben Leyland

I was scared straight. Literally. For 27 years I was in the closet. I’m almost 37 now. Of all the things I have learned about pride in this almost decade one thing stands out.

Pride, for me, is about not being afraid to share my darkest secrets in public because, in my experience, everybody shares at least one secret. And in the gay community, we all shared a big one.

But it took a journey to get to a place where we could admit it.

When I was 12, I was already madly in love with this other boy at school. Harry. The feelings weren’t reciprocated, so I tried to spend time with him in other ways. Like by inviting him to form a boyband with me. I gave him a tape I’d recorded of me singing the songs I had written. In England, boybands were a girly thing to be into. I didn’t know. Somehow the tape got duplicated and shared around the entire school. The result:

“You’re so gay!”

I flat out denied it. Even though I knew it to be true. I am so inspired by kids these days who come out at that age or earlier. But when I was that age, I was scared shitless. So I made it my little secret.

It was easy to keep secrets because I didn’t have anyone to speak to. My parents were distracted. They were separating. Dad was busy making his new life and mum had borderline personality disorder. Living with her meant never saying anything that could make her feel like I didn’t love her.  People suffering from BPD are a 24/7 mood arcade. Almost everything is a trigger, and it wouldn’t take much for her to relapse into a cold, withholding, vicious spiral. She had some psychotic breaks and a suicide attempt. She went away to a psychiatric facility. I couldn’t tell anyone at school about that, or about liking other boys, so I made them my little secret.

I started developing little ticks. Obsessive compulsive patterns like rolling my eyes, pressing light switches in two rounds of five.  I’d have these conversations in my head with other imaginary voices. If I ever masturbated and thought about boys, I’d have to masturbate again to the thought of girls just to balance it out. I was ashamed to talk about any of this, so I got used to making everything my little secret.

As I got older all the kids could talk about were girls. I kind of liked girls too, but I was more interested in the thing that nobody could talk about – other boys. There was nobody to talk to about it, so I stayed silent.  As soon as everyone started losing their virginity, having a notch on the bedpost became an indicator of your social value. I didn’t know what to do with girls. So, at 16, I paid a female prostitute to pop my cherry.  I only did it so I could say that I’d had sex, but I was too ashamed to talk about it. So I didn’t. And I add another little secret.

And then there were all the news stories. Freddie Mercury dying of AIDS.  George Michael getting found cruising for sex on Hampstead Heath. My favorite boyband star Stephen Gately getting smoked out of the closet and shamed for betraying legions of global fangirls. By this point, it became clear to me that being gay was wrong. It meant getting into trouble, getting ill, or dying. So I knew that it was bad to be gay, and good to keep my little secret secret.

Later that year, once my hormones were in full swing, I found a way to ditch my friends one Friday night and investigate the only gay bar I knew. I met a guy probably twice my age, we disappeared down an alley and I lost my gay virginity without a condom in the middle of an AIDS epidemic. I threw the clothes I was wearing that night into a trash can and I took time off school because I was ‘sick’. But really I was just sad and scared.  I couldn’t tell anyone, I couldn’t let anyone into my private world. So it became my little secret.

I started doing drugs. It was a powerful way to cope with everything that was happening. Some of them I did with friends, other harder substances I did with my brother. We couldn’t tell our parents. It was our little secret.

I went to university where I was dating this girl who I’d met. I liked her. She was fun and I thought maybe I was straight. But when she went home for the holidays and I stayed on campus for another week, I met this guy. I took him back to my place and hid him in my room away from my room mates. We had sex. I told him not to tell anyone else, snuck him out of the dorm like a refugee in the middle of the night and I made him keep my little secret.

And then I married a woman, who I stayed with until I realized I couldn’t keep any of this secret anymore. I did love her. It was real but not right. I had spent the better part of my life denying something which, like a lid on a pressure cooker, was rumbling and eventually going to pop. We divorced. I came out.

Once out, it was like waking from a dream only to realize I was still dreaming.  Years of arrested development meant that I didn’t know who the hell I was. I thought coming out would be a glorious unveiling. A once and for all magical reveal of myself to myself. But instead it created even more confusion. I figured I’d just have sex with guys until I found out what and who I liked and where I fit in. Asking questions meant revealing secrets. And I didn’t like that.

I went to bath houses every night and one night I had sex with a guy who was HIV positive. A month of retroviral pill-popping shame and a negative test result later, I was relieved, but I didn’t tell anyone about it. That’s the sort of sad little story you like to keep….yes, secret.

The shame and the depression reached a fever pitch when I finally withdrew into a cocoon of cocaine and meth, hiding away inside my apartment for days on end. Visiting motel rooms and staying up all night with other guys, with the curtains closed and the party kept secret. I’d invite the meth dealer to stay with me for a week. I helped him shoplift the Neosporin for his lip sores. I put up industrial sized fans in my apartment to get rid of the fetid ammonia stink of the drugs. I went to work hoping nobody would notice that I couldn’t make eye contact and that I was fidgeting and bent over double most of the time. I had to keep it all secret.

And then I got sober.

In sobriety they teach you that you’re only as sick as your secrets. Secrets have their own economy. They trade in currencies enforced by a media ecosystem that tells us what to think and who to be. We hold things in until they burst because the dangers of owning who we are, warts and all, means encountering a stony, shaming, cancel-culture silence from people who, while they have those same warts, are too afraid to admit it. Even if that means someone else in the room is in tears and willing to do terrible things to themself because they think, falsely, that they’re completely and utterly alone.

In sobriety I have managed to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be proud and I bring it to this Pride 2021 with renewed vigor and joy. To be proud is to be free of secrets. To be proud is to share your secrets no matter how scary it may seem because, in my experience, when we curate safe spaces for people to get vulnerable enough to offload the secrecy, there will inevitably be at least one other person in the room who will stand up and say “me too”.

And when those secrets are out in the open, when we are able to bask in the glow of our fragile and beautiful humanity, and talk about it with humor and with love, then we are proud. And that’s no secret.

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Jerome Joseph Gentes

I identify with this so much, and so appreciate your honesty, Ben!

Yael Lanciano
Yael Lanciano
1 year ago

This is so honest and beautiful. Thank you for writing this!!!

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