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Accepting Gay Identity, and Gaining Strength

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Accepting Gay Identity, and Gaining Strength

C. M. Glover for The New York Times


Published: April 1, 2007

Source: The New York Times

Audio: Zach O'Connor on Coming Out Gay (mp3)


ONE month before Zach O’Connor, a seventh grader at Brown Middle School here, came out about being gay, he was in such turmoil that he stood up in homeroom and, in a voice everyone could hear, asked a girl out on a date. It was Valentine’s Day 2003, and Zach was 13.

“I was doing this to survive,” he says. “This is what other guys were doing, getting girlfriends. I should get one, too.”

He feared his parents knew the truth about him. He knew that his father had typed in a Google search starting with “g,” and several other recent “g” searches had popped up, including “gay.”

“They asked me, ‘Do you know what being gay is?’ ” he recalls. “They tried to explain there’s nothing wrong with it. I put my hands over my ears. I yelled: ‘I don’t want to hear it! I’m not, I’m not gay!’ ”

Cindy and Dan O’Connor were very worried about Zach. Though bright, he was doing poorly at school. At home, he would pick fights, slam doors, explode for no reason. They wondered how their two children could be so different; Matt, a year and a half younger, was easygoing and happy. Zach was miserable.

The O’Connors had hunches. Mr. O’Connor is a director of business development for American Express, Ms. O’Connor a senior vice president of a bank, and they have had gay colleagues, gay bosses, classmates who came out after college. From the time Zach was little, they knew he was not a run-of-the-mill boy. His friends were girls or timid boys.

“Zach had no interest in throwing a football,” Mr. O’Connor says. But their real worry was his anger, his unhappiness, his low self-esteem. “He’d say: ‘I’m not smart. I’m not like other kids,’ ” says Ms. O’Connor. The middle-school psychologist started seeing him daily.

The misery Zach caused was minor compared with the misery he felt. He says he knew he was different by kindergarten, but he had no name for it, so he would stay to himself. He tried sports, but, he says, “It didn’t work out well.” He couldn’t remember the rules. In fifth grade, when boys at recess were talking about girls they had crushes on, Zach did not have someone to name.

By sixth grade, he knew what “gay” meant, but didn’t associate it with himself. That year, he says: “I had a crush on one particular eighth-grade boy, a very straight jock. I knew whatever I was feeling I shouldn’t talk about it.” He considered himself a broken version of a human being. “I did think about suicide,” he says.

Then, for reasons he can’t wholly explain beyond pure desperation, a month after his Valentine “date” — “We never actually went out, just walked around school together” — in the midst of math class, he told a female friend. By day’s end it was all over school. The psychologist called him in. “I burst into tears,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, it’s true.’ Every piece of depression came pouring out. It was such a mess.”

That night, when his mother got home from work, she stuck her head in his room to say hi. “I said, ‘Ma, I need to talk to you about something, I’m gay.’ She said, ‘O.K., anything else?’ ‘No, but I just told you I’m gay.’ ‘O.K., that’s fine, we still love you.’ I said, ‘That’s it?’ I was preparing for this really dramatic moment.”

Ms. O’Connor recalls, “He said, ‘Mom, aren’t you going to freak out?’ I said: ‘It’s up to you to decide who to love. I have your father, and you have to figure out what’s best for you.’ He said, ‘Don’t tell Dad.’ ”

“Of course I told him,” Ms. O’Connor says.

“With all our faults,” Mr. O’Connor says, “we’re in this together.”

Having a son come out so young was a lot of work for the parents. They found him a therapist who is gay 20 miles away in New Haven. The therapist helped them find a gay youth group, OutSpoken, a 50-minute drive away in Norwalk.

Dan Woog, a writer and longtime soccer coach at Staples High in Westport, helped found OutSpoken in 1993. He says for the first 10 years, the typical member was 17 to 22 years old. “They’d come in saying: ‘I’m gay. My life is over,’ ” Mr. Woog says. “One literally hyperventilated walking through the door.”

But in recent years, he says, the kids are 14 to 17 and more confident. “They say: ‘Hi, I’m gay. How do I meet people?’ ”

For the first 10 years, Mr. Woog never saw a parent; meetings were from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, so members could get out of the house without arousing suspicion. Now, he says, parents often bring the child to the first meeting.

He believes teenagers are coming out sooner because the Internet makes them feel less isolated and they’re seeing positive role models in the media. Indeed, Zach says he spent his first therapy session talking about the gay characters on the TV show “Will and Grace” as a way to test the therapist’s attitudes before talking about himself.

Still, seventh grade was not easy. “We heard kids across the street yelling ‘homo’ as he waited for the school bus,” Mr. O’Connor says. Zach says classmates tossed pencils at him and constantly mocked him. “One kid followed me class to class calling me ‘faggot,’ ” he says. “After a month I turned and punched him in the face. He got quiet and walked away. I said, ‘You got beat up by a faggot.’ ”

The O’Connors say middle-school officials were terrific, and by eighth grade the tide turned. Zach was let out 15 minutes early and walked across the football field to Daniel Hand High School to attend the gay-straight club. Knowing who he was, he could envision a future and felt a sense of purpose. His grades went up. He had friends. For an assignment about heroes, a girl in his class wrote about him, and Zach used her paper to come out to his Aunt Kathy.

He still wasn’t athletic, but to the family’s surprise, coming out let out a beautiful voice. He won the middle school’s top vocal award.

His father took him to a gay-lesbian conference at Central Connecticut State in New Britain, and Zach was thrilled to see so many gay people in one place. His therapist took him to a Gay Bingo Night at St. Paul’s Church on the Green in Norwalk that raises money for AIDS care. Zach became a regular and within a few months was named Miss Congeniality.

“They crowned me with a tiara and sash, and I walked around the room waving,” he recalls. “I was still this shy 14-year-old in braces. I hadn’t reached my socialness yet, and everyone was cheering.

“I was the future. Most of the men were middle-aged or older, and to see this 14-year-old out, they loved it. They were so happy.”

Now, as a 17-year-old 11th grader, Zach has passed through phases that many gay men of previous generations didn’t get to until their 20s, 30s, even 40s. “Eighth grade was kind of his militant time,” Mr. O’Connor says.

“Everything was a rainbow,” says Ms. O’Connor.

These days, Zach is so busy, he rarely has time for the gay-straight club. He’s in several singing and drama groups and is taking an SAT prep course.

“I’ve been out so long, I don’t really need the club as a resource,” he says. “I’m not going to say I’m popular, but I’m friendly with nearly everybody. Sophomore year, my social life skyrocketed.”

In music groups he made male friends for the first time. “They weren’t afraid of me,” he says. “They like me.”

His brother, Matt, says sometimes kids come up to him and ask what it’s like to have a gay brother. “I say it’s normal to me, I don’t think of it anymore.”

As for his parents, they’re happy that Zach’s happy.

“Coming out was the best thing for him,” Ms. O’Connor says. “We ask him, ‘Why didn’t you come out in fifth grade?’ ”

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