Caitlyn Jenner woke up today in Malibu a happy woman. “The first thing I do every day is smile,” she says, sitting down in her living room for a Zoom chat. “The turmoil is gone. I can be present. I have no more secrets.”
Five years ago this month, Jenner, now 70, appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair and instantly became the most famous trans woman in the world. She had been a gold-medal hero idolized on Wheaties boxes, and part of a culture-shifting family and show Keeping Up with the Kardashians. But through it all, Jenner had felt alone. “When you’re struggling with your identity, you have a tendency to isolate,” she says.
It took her 65 years to stop hiding. She tried before, but each time stepped back into the shadows. Jenner married actress Chrystie Crownover in 1972 and tried to tell her about the gender dysphoria she’d had since her youth. “She was the first one I talked to,” she says. “It wasn’t a big deal.” When their marriage fell apart, Jenner married songwriter Linda Thompson in 1981, with whom she had Brandon and Brody. “I talked to her too,” she says. The sentence Jenner remembers using each time was: This is kind of an issue that I have. I've always struggled with my identity. “Every time I spoke to someone, I just felt so much better,” she says. “The next day it would just be like, a million pounds are lifted off my shoulders.” The day after that she would go back to struggling.
After divorcing Thompson in 1986, Jenner entered therapy. “I loved to go, because that was the only person I could talk to. I needed a professional. I wanted to know if I was crazy,” she says. Eventually, after starting and stopping hormone therapy and electrolysis, she began to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of what it would take to transition. “I said to myself, ‘I just can’t do this. Move on.’ ”
She met Kris Kardashian, and the couple married in 1991. “I was honest with Kris about who I am. We talked about it. I just never thought I would ever transition,” Jenner says. “I had gone through six years of hell in therapy and just thought, I’m going to deal with this thing. But I was open with her that I had identity issues.” (Kardashian has disputed that she knew the extent of Jenner’s gender struggle.) They spent the next 23 years together raising a family.
“Through all of those years, I did cross-dress when I could,” she says, “To get a little relief.” She would often do it on the road, dressing up in hotel rooms, using Saran wrap and Krazy Glue to alter her appearance. She’d go downstairs and walk around the lobby “feeling free, but scared to death of getting caught.” She was seen and not heard. “I never, ever opened my mouth. I never talked to anybody because my voice would give it away.”
In 2014 their marriage disintegrated. (As for their relationship today, Jenner says, “We’ve both moved on,” adding that she has “never been on a date or had any romance or any of that kind of stuff” since.) Jenner once again started hormone therapy. Rumors were rampant, and paparazzi relentlessly pursued her. She needed to tell someone about her plans to transition. Her first call was to her pastor. “I was asking God, ‘Why did you do this? What was your reason? Is [transitioning] something I am supposed to do?’ ” she recalls. The pastor said yes. Jenner realized, “I raised a great family, great kids. Now it was time to raise me.”
She told her children one by one. “Honestly, if one of them had had a problem, I wouldn’t have done it,” she says.
“When my dad came out as transgender, our relationship grew,” says Jenner’s daughter, model Kendall Jenner, 24. “She could finally be honest with me. Because of my dad’s bravery, I’ve learned to love what I love and not be ashamed of it.” Her sister, Kylie, 22, a cosmetics mogul, agrees: “My dad has always been an inspiration to me, from winning the gold medal at the Olympics to getting her pilot’s license. However, watching her live out her true self has been the most inspiring of them all.”
But Jenner’s plans to come out nearly came to a halt when she learned TMZ was set to publish photos of her leaving the doctor’s office after a feminizing tracheal shave procedure. She pleaded, but they wouldn’t back down. “That night I couldn’t sleep; I knew the amount of people following me was only going to increase. I thought, ‘I’ve got a gun in the other room. Everything goes quiet. I don’t have to deal with any of this anymore.’ ”
But something her pastor had said stopped her: that she could be of use to other people suffering. “I started thinking, don’t silence your voice. I realized all of this could have purpose.” So Jenner decided she would be the one to tell her story: There was Vanity Fair, a sit-down with Diane Sawyer, a memoir and her own reality show, I Am Cait. She was finally heard. But the first time she felt seen was when she held her new driver’s license in July 2015. “It was so emotional. There I was: Caitlyn Marie Jenner,” she remembers. “But then I wondered, did Bruce deserve to be thrown away like this? He did a lot of good things. He raised 10 kids. But I wasn’t turning around. Bruce did just about everything he could do. Now what does Caitlyn do?”
She began to embrace that idea. “I thought, what a great opportunity to change the world’s thinking; 51 percent of trans people attempt suicide. The murder rate—we’ve been losing one trans woman of color every two weeks,” she says. But as a lifelong Republican, she held political views that didn’t match those of most in the LGBTQ community. She was uninvited to fundraisers she’d donated to. “They said I’m ‘too controversial.’ And that hurt,” she says. “I think I had been wearing rose-colored glasses. I thought I could change the world. Now I know I can only try and change one person at a time.”
Jeff Olde, who co-created Jenner’s show I Am Cait and has defended her within the LGBTQ community, knows she’s made mistakes. “But what I respect about her today is that she’s willing to learn,” he says. “And learning can be painful.” Before transitioning, Jenner admits, “I’d never met another trans person,” she says. And now she feels like she’s made meaningful progress. “I’ve changed my thinking in a lot of ways.” She now identifies as “economically conservative, socially progressive” and believes “we need equality for all, regardless of who’s in the White House. I love my community. I truly want to help.” To that end she has been quietly giving trans students college scholarships over the past three years and has realigned her foundation to focus on trans youth.
“This is my journey. Yes, it is different than that of other trans people. I get it,” she says. “But the bottom line is this: When I wake up in the morning, I’m happy with myself.”
A broken heart paved the way for CNN anchor Don Lemon’s first, and most personal, coming-out moment.
“My first boyfriend and I had broken up,” remembers Lemon, 54. “We were living together in New York, where I had moved so I could live around other like-minded people.” Lemon’s mother, Katherine Clark, sensed her son’s unhappiness from back home in Baton Rouge. “So I told her, ‘Mom, I’m really sad about John and our relationship.’ She asked me what kind of relationship we had, and I told her, ‘He was my lover.’ That’s when I started crying.”
Lemon says it was “one of those scenes”: Clark told him that she had chosen to ignore rumors over the years and that she loved him unconditionally. “She was okay with it for a while,” Lemon recalls. “But as I became stronger, she became weaker.” Clark expressed a desire for grandchildren, and she worried for her son’s safety, emotional health and career.
His being open, Lemon says, helped her: “She started to learn about my friends and my life, and she really started to accept it. She realized that all [her fears] weren’t true, and she was building that up in her head.”
Lemon didn’t hide his sexuality (“Everyone kind of knew—friends, people at work. I was just kind of out”), but it would be 15 years before he went on the record to The New York Times and in a memoir, which also revealed he was sexually abused as a child.
“Today, I am going to survive and thrive as an openly full person who happens to be gay, who happens to be whatever it is, dark hair, brown eyes, African American. Whatever it is that I happen to be, I am going to own that fully,” he says. “ I’ve learned that only once you come out, once you see the world from that perspective, then you get to be, "What was I worried about?"
And he’s engaged. “Now I have three dogs, I live with my fiancé [real estate exec Tim Malone],” he says. “We go on vacations, we rent motor homes and we go camping and we do things that I never thought that I would do. And now I'm just like…I'm just, you know… It feels normal. I’m buying a station wagon, okay?”
He also wants to make sure others have a voice: “In the wake of George Floyd’s death, the gay community also needs to realize that we too need to deal with our own racism,” Lemon says. “White gay males still operate from a considerable level of privilege just from being white and male in America. And privilege is a powerful seducer. It can lull you into ignoring the fact that black, gay men endure double [the] discrimination in America—black, trans people endure triple. And those stories are rarely elevated and heard.” Lemon is using his platform to help change that.
When Los Angeles native Jake Atlas (born Kenny Marquez) reported to the World Wrestling Entertainment facilities in Orlando in January, he became the first openly gay man in the sport, which is so popular it’s seen in 800 million households around the world. Fortunately, Atlas, 25, isn’t easily daunted. “Wrestling is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do,” he says. As a cheerleader in high school, Atlas knew his tumbling skills translated into the lucha libre fighting style his Mexican-born mother first introduced him to. He was less confident in how his sexuality squared with his family’s expectations.
“I came out when I was 15,” he remembers. “I didn't tell a friend. I went straight to my mom. It was the first time that I uttered the word ‘gay.’ I didn't even say bisexual, because I knew I had been lying to myself. I was crying and I even said the words, ‘I know this is wrong, but I'm gay.’ ” By that point his mother was crying too. “I know that more than anything, she was crying out of disappointment,” he says. “And she brought religion into it. It was a difficult moment.”
His desire to please his mother ultimately inspired him to accomplish “something big.” He did, making his WWE debut this year. He lost his first match, but he knows his future is bright thanks to the support he has from two of very important women in his life, starting with Sonya Deville, the first openly lesbian wrestler in the league, whom he’d watched on TV for years. “Sonya was one of the first superstars that reached out to me,” he says. “We have been able to get closer and understand each other. And like we're both here, you know? I have your back; you have mine.” The other? His mother.
“We’ve now had countless conversations,” he says. “I'm always educating her and I'm always trying to understand her as well. I think that's the important part about acceptance, understanding each other so that we can find that common ground. Then we can move forward together. And progress together.”
“I decided to tell my brother first, but it took me two years to come out to my parents. They’re very Catholic. I’ve never denied my sexuality, but I never screamed from the top of the Eiffel Tower, ‘I am gay!’
I’ve learned that stereotypes can be dangerous. When I came out, people would say things like, ‘You’re very attractive and feminine. We thought lesbians looked like truck drivers.’ I’d say, ‘You know everyone comes in different forms, right? And, by the way, who says truck drivers aren’t beautiful?’
And you know what? It’s beautiful to own who you are and walk into the world and to not be afraid of showing people who you are. It’s beautiful to inspire people who perhaps have a life of hatred. And yes, they might hate people like us, but we can try to show them there is another way. I think everyone has beauty in themselves.
I met Maria [Bello] when she came to eat in my restaurant in San Francisco. We were very good friends before we became a couple. Being in love has made me even more comfortable with myself. I’ve never loved someone the way I love Maria. It’s altered my perspective on coming out. We don’t talk about being gay. We talk about being human. It was so natural to just hang out. And, and yeah, well, we are two women together. Guess what? Get used to it.
But don’t make our love into something unique and special, because it’s just normal. It’s universal. That’s what love should be.”
Crenn, 55, is the owner of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, which earned three Michelin stars, and
the author of Rebel Chef.
In 2013, the actress Maria Bello wrote an essay for the New York Times about her relationship with a woman, which was immediately branded a “coming out story.” Then she wrote a second piece, explaining that the first was not, in fact, a coming story. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh god! I’m attracted to a woman! Who can I tell?’ It was really an ‘I’m whatever’ story,” she laughs. “I don’t have a coming out story.” She seems to understand that she might have been ahead of her time, even only seven years ago. “The point of the story is that I have always been fluid,” she says. “But people weren’t using that word back then.”
The rest of the world is still catching up. “I really don’t care who anyone sleeps with,” Bello says. “It’s irrelevant to me. And yet, I understand why some people choose labels, because that’s empowering to them. So, I support everybody labeling themselves the way they want to be labeled. And by the way, if somebody wants to label me a lesbian because I happen to be with a woman right now, I'm fine with that.”
In Dominique Crenn, Bello has found a partner equally averse to labels. Two years ago, she DM’ed Crenn on Instagram. “Love was the last thing on my mind. I just wanted a reservation!” laughs Bello (who has a 19-year-old son, Jackson; his father is Dan McDermott). Crenn was in San Francisco, Bello in Los Angeles, but they became good friends. One day, over FaceTime, Bello told Crenn she wanted to be together. Crenn felt the same but had other news: She’d found a lump in her breast. “I waited five beats and said, ‘Okay, let’s do cancer,’ ” recalls Bello. “She’s been a warrior. I loved her before, but now there’s an even deeper level of respect.”
“I left Tasmania to go to college, and by the time I arrived in Canberra, I was gay,” remembers Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby. “It wasn’t a big coming-out; people just always knew me as that. It was more sleight-of-hand.”
In her Emmy-winning 2018 comedy special Nanette, Gadsby, 42, spoke honestly about her sexuality and surviving a sexual assault, and she later revealed she was diagnosed with autism at age 38. But back when she was 23, it was harder to come out to her conservative mother. The youngest of five, she rehearsed the conversation with her siblings. It did not go well. “Parents are raised in a world that says one thing,” says Gadsby. “Then your child sort of demands that you accept another. They get one moment to be the best parent ever—it’s always complicated.” The experience was painful, but, she says, “we’ve worked through it. I have the perspective of more maturity of why that was hard for her.”
She hopes that someday she’s not recognized for her sexual orientation, or featured in roundups like these because of it. “For so long we [in the LGBTQ community] have been defined by our difference,” Gadsby says. “Anyone with a marginalized identity knows this. Certainly, anyone with a disability knows this. Anyone who steps away from being a straight white man. But for the next generation this won’t be the case. Now women can be on a public stage and not have to talk about what it’s like being a woman.”
She knows it takes time—generations even—for change to happen. “We’re in such a hurry these days, I believe we forget that. Like I say with my mom: It takes time for people to change, it can take cultures even longer. It’s frustrating, it’s mysterious—like, Ellen DeGeneres is allowed to hang out with George Bush now.” She laughs and says she’s not sure how she feels about that personally: “But there's been progress. The thing there is that Ellen’s now not just her sexuality.”
Gadsby considers herself fortunate to have found comedy as a creative outlet to process her feelings of trauma and shame (her latest special, Douglas, is on Netflix now) but also acknowledges that telling one’s story isn’t enough. “Just telling your story is not enough. I think it needs to be understood and processed, become part of a conversation and not be a monologue,” she says. “There’s a lot emphasis on freedom of speech today. But, actually, we need to reinvigorate the art of listening.”
When he was 8 years old, Daniel Trujillo was inadvertently outed as transgender when a friend addressed him using a masculine pronoun instead of one corresponding to his gender at birth. Daniel’s mother, Lizette, gently corrected the friend.
“He said, ‘No, he’s a he,’ ” she recalls. “[Later] I asked Daniel, ‘Is that how you see yourself?’ ” Daniel’s answer was clear: “I know my body is wrong. In my insides and in my brain, I’m a boy.”
Getting everyone to embrace Daniel’s identity was more complicated. Lizette and her husband, Jose, had to inform extended family members (some would not be accepting) and decided to enroll Daniel in a more progressive school in their Tucson suburb—all while wondering why they hadn’t been the first to see who Daniel really is.
They finally realized that on some level they had known all along. ““We had to open ourselves up and get to know our child,” says Lizette. “We had seen gender-nonconforming behavior from the time Daniel was two,” she says. “The way that he would draw himself, how he saw himself. He wanted to be Aladdin and Astro Boy.” They initially saw Daniel as a tomboy, she adds: “He would dress up in his dad’s clothing and puff out his chest and say, ‘I’m a knight in shining armor.’ ”
Lizette and Jose are committed to allowing their son to decide his next steps (though chores, homework and eating his vegetables are nonnegotiable). “My son deserves to live in a world that is safe and free of discrimination,” says Jose. Daniel says he’s just a normal 12-year-old who hangs out with friends and plays soccer: “Being transgender is just a small part of me.”
“I heard it 15 years ago, over and over, clearly through the voices of friends and other religious leaders. It was like in the scripture, where Jesus yells into the tomb and says, ‘Lazarus, come out.’ This was a raising from the dead moment for me for me too. I was trapped in a lie; a lie I constructed about myself, for myself, with all the things that I thought I was supposed to think. Eventually, I came out to my wife.
I was 31. I began to see how that the lie was hurting those around me, and myself. Because I wasn't true about who I am. I was constantly faking it. That wasn't fair for anyone around me, but especially my wife. There was a moment where that really hit home—a moment where we thought things were going to get better and then it became clear they weren’t. Things became unsustainable. I finally said, 'I think I'm gay.'
There was no manual back then for how to come out to your wife. I did not handle it very well. That’s something I regret. We haven't communicated since, but that might be how it needs to be.
My mom was a flight attendant. She often gave that speech at the beginning of the flight, about putting your mask on first and then helping others. She and I would often talk about the importance of why you put the mask on yourself first. That’s self-care. I think that's something I knew in my head, but I hadn't really felt in my heart. I’m now letting that kind of grace to extend to my own life.
I had been playing by old norms about how I ought to be. But my congregation in Philadelphia has helped me, with their love and enthusiasm and by showing up every Sunday. One of the great things about the story of Lazarus is at the end. After Jesus calls Lazarus back to life, he turns to the crowd. Jesus invites them to participate. They all unbind Lazarus and let him go. And he is free.”
Hepler, 46, is the pastor at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Atonement
in Philadelphia. He was recently featured in an episode of Queer Eye.
“The gift of being in the Glee generation—coming of age when diverse television shows like that were on the air—is that I’ve never felt beholden to other people’s view of me. That’s one of the reasons I never felt like I needed to have a big coming out. That’s true for most of my friends too.
I grew up watching TV shows that were inclusive and exciting, but some of them also gave me confusing markers for what being gay or queer is. Watching Will & Grace as a 10-year-old, [seeing them] freaked out about kissing a girl or having any intimacy with a woman—that was what ‘gay’ was to me. But as a teenager I felt like the only people I wanted to spend any time with were women, and kissing a girl never felt like a great trespass on my personhood. So I was like, ‘I’m not gay; I am just a metrosexual,’ which was a popular term at that point.
I went to college in Chicago, where I was free from the social pressures of growing up, of being working-class, of being in a Christian environment, and I had the full freedom of a big city at my fingertips. By the end of freshman year, after a big party, I kissed my best friend, who was already out. In that moment I was like, ‘That was weird!’ But over the next week or so, I sort of just realized, ‘I kind of like guys.’ And that became a definitive: ‘I like guys.’ There was never any dramatic moment of me expressing to everyone in my life that I was gay. Just one day I realized there was a part of me that even I didn’t know. I started to date guys, and everyone just accepted it. (They had assumed I would be one of the ‘gay-by-May’ freshmen anyway.) It certainly helped that I had such an accepting community around me. I didn’t feel much shame about moving into that space of desire. It just made sense. So the only person I really had to ‘come out’ to was my mom. She asked me if I was gay, and I happily said yes."
Harris, 31, is an actor and playwright, whose works include Daddy, Slave Play and the forth-coming film Zola.
“In the '80s, there were no role models for me. There was no information, except for sort of the bad things you'd hear from the pulpit or in the media. Living north of San Diego, in a very conservative Mormon community, I didn't know anyone who was gay. I didn't see any images of people who were gay except for really negative ones. It was quite literally something I didn't have language for. I felt isolated, like there was no one like me in the world. That I was the only person who had ever felt that way. Today there are so many ways to envision what your life could be like, through technology. I had only one way to imagine what my future would be. And it was this huge tragedy. You were going die, either young or alone. Or both. There was no Gay-Straight Alliance in my school, for sure. The one thing that made a difference in my life were books.
Through books, I was offered other narratives. When I was 22, the movie Fried Green Tomatoes came out, and I read the novel. In the movie, it was always a question, like, "What's the relationship?" You could read it a number of ways. What's interesting about the book is it is very clear that they're in love. And it's not, it's not, like, coded. This lesbian couple lives in a small Southern town, and everybody accepts them as a couple. This whole book is so normalized that it's weird, because at never at any point are they made the feel that something was wrong with them or something was sick about them. They were simply accepted like every other married couple.
I read that as a student at Brigham Young University, and it was the first moment in my life that I thought, "Maybe it's going be okay. Maybe there's a way to be who I am and not be some cautionary tale, right? Maybe I don't have to be alone and unhappy and isolated and not have anything.” Finally, two years later, I was able to come out to my parents. In 2016, I married my wife. I danced with my father at the wedding.
After I moved to Mississippi to teach at Ole Miss, I opened the bookstore in Water Valley. I am able to give other people the experience I had. Surprisingly, I hear my story a lot from people today. Our store is the only LGBTQ bookstore in the state. In this town, it’s the only bookstore period.
Before we opened there was some concern in town. They prayed across the street every day as we were setting up the store. Then on social media we started seeing the rumors—that we would sell porn. No. Or “teach” kids how to be transgender. Well, it doesn’t work that way. That there was a gang of lesbians invading Water Valley. To that one, okay, I’ve been looking for a lesbian gang my entire life. But slowly, day by day, more people have just gotten accustomed to us being here. They used to call us 'the gay bookstore,' and now they just call us 'the bookstore.' ”
Harker, 51, is a professor at the University of Mississippi and owner of Violet Valley Bookstore.
There aren’t a lot of out gay country music artists. Brandon Stansell is not only out, his new single is about his difficult coming out — “Hurt People.”
The first time Stansell came out publicly was at Taylor Swift’s birthday party 10 years ago. “I was dancing on Taylor Swift’s Fearless tour,” says Stansell, 33. He was also juggling his studies as a senior at the conservative Belmont College in Nashville. He wasn’t out there, and he wasn’t out to his conservative parents. But he had found a support system for the first time. “I had queer friends in my life,” he says. “And I had a boyfriend.”
He brought his boyfriend to Swift’s birthday party, at the Las Vegas stop of the tour. “I gave her her birthday present, which was my favorite record of all time, Tracy Chapman's first. I gave it to Taylor on vinyl and said I hoped it would inspire her make more good music,” he recalls. “Then I said, ‘Oh, and by the way, this is my boyfriend.’ And she says, ‘Uh, I should have known you had a hot boyfriend!’ ”
It was a relief for Stansell—and an inspiration. “It was nerve wracking because she was my sole financial support,” he says. “I think people had kind of guessed that I was queer but then it was suddenly okay. Because it came from the boss lady: ‘This is okay.’ ”
His coming out experience to his parents, both conservative Christians, would not go as well. He visited them in North Carolina for his nephew’s birthday. His mom picked him up at the airport. They went to a Mexican restaurant. “You could tell she just wanted to ask,” he says. “And she did: ‘Do you think you're gay?’ And I said, ‘Mom, I know I'm gay.’ ”
For a while it seemed like things would be okay. “It’s gonna be fine, we’re gonna figure it out,” she told Stansell. He told his sister, which went okay, but he was too scared to tell his father. By the time Stansell returned to school, he had a voicemail from his father saying he was on his way to Nashville to see him. Waiting for his arrival was excruciating. And his father’s reaction was the opposite of his mother’s. “He told me, basically, that I’d be paying for that last semester of college on my own,” Stansell says. “It was tough.”
Stansell went on to finish the tour with Swift, pay for his last semester in college, graduate, and start working on his career as a solo artist. (He and the boyfriend broke up; Stansell, who now lives in L.A., is single today.) The episode with his family “was hard,” he says, “but I realized that I can only play that victim role for so long. I had to actively decide if I was going to be crippled by the things that have happened, or if I’m gonna be better for them.”
Stansell says his relationship with his family isn’t good today. “It’s not a closed door, it’s more revolving,” he says with a laugh. He hopes it will stop spinning.
So why write a song about such a personal family experience? “I can’t change the minds of my particular family,” he says. “But I don't think that it does anyone any good to paint a different picture of things that have happened. It doesn't help me and I don't think that it helps them either.” Without honesty, he says, “there's no growth, there's no understanding, and there's no change. That’s why I write the stuff that I do, that's why I sing and talk about this and other queer issues. That’s why it’s important for me to tell my story. Because it doesn't have to be replicated.”
"I spent my childhood in Portland, Oregon, which is a highly progressive place, and I was fortunate that my parents shared those values, so I had the privilege of growing up in a supportive and nurturing family of origin. My mom, who worked as a therapist, has told me that when I was really young, she tried to normalize being gay, because she knew when I was two years old that I probably wasn’t straight. She tells a story about being on a plane with me when I was about six years old, in the early ‘90s, on our way to visit a gay uncle. She was explaining to me very matter-of-factly: 'Some boys marry boys, and some girls marry girls.' The guy in front of us, she says, made a big show of turning his whole body around and giving her a menacing stare as if to say, 'When this plane lands, I am calling Child Protective Services.' But she stood her ground.
That story goes to show how both of my parents really worked hard to make sure that I was coming up in a culture—and within a family system—that would support whomever I would become. They wanted to make sure that I felt safe enough to be myself. I give them so much credit for that.
I started at a funky arts magnet school when I was 10, which was in 1999. Very quickly I met a girl who was 14, which at the time seemed like an ocean of distance in life experience. I remember her explaining to me that gender was a continuum. I was like, 'Sure, okay!' (Remember, I was 10.) When I told her I had developed feelings for another boy in my grade, she said, so plainly, 'That means you’re gay. Or, at the very least, bi.' And, to some extent, that was that. Not long after, I wrote my parents a letter, telling them that I was gay or bi — that I didn’t know yet, and we had a conversation about it. I don't want to say that it was no big deal, because of course it's been a hugely formative part of my identity. But the culture fostered by my parents, and that school, created a space for me to work through it pretty openly. So many people don't have that good fortune.
I've always been really aware of how blessed my coming out story was. It was my teenage years that were chaotic."
"When I was 13, my mother found me with a guy. He was a teenager like me. She was so freaked out that she didn't know what to do. And even though she was aware that my father had physically abused me, she told him. That shocked me. As opposed to hitting me or really hardcore punishing me, he didn’t touch me. He looked me in the eyes and said, 'If you embarrass me, I will kill you.'
The words struck me like a bullet. He was a policeman. It was clear that he could do it. So, I didn't have sex—I didn’t even think about sex—for years. Then, when I was 16, my father was killed in the line of duty in Philadelphia. And you know what, even then, I felt like his ghost was going to come for me.
After that, I thought I was straight, because from 13 to 20, I simply didn't think about it. And then in college I dated a girl. And we had sex. Then she said, 'Lee, you're gay.'
I asked, 'How do you know that?'
She said, 'Because you are.'
And then we became best friends.
When I was 21, I left college early. I moved out to California. And I fell in love. Hard in love. I decided to tell my mom. I said, 'I'm in love.' I was so in love. It was my first love. She said, 'Can I meet her?'
I said, 'It's a him, and he's my roommate.'
She asked, 'What do you want me to say?'
I just didn't say anything. And she said, "I can't say that I support this, but I support you. And I'm here for you."
So that was my coming out. But what’s key here is that my dad told me he was going to punish me. My church told me that God was going to punish me. And literally four months after that, the AIDS epidemic hit and killed my partner and all of my friends. For the longest time, I carried this sick guilt. Because I thought the church was right, and I would be punished. But I didn't have HIV. I couldn't understand why I didn't have it. It inevitably led me to write.
It seems like the younger generation in the LGBTQ community has forgotten about HIV-AIDS. The kids today have forgotten the countless lives responsible for their liberty and their freedom right now.
Being black and gay is on my mind right now. And it’s just too painful to talk about now, in the time we are in. But, as for my mother, today she’s with me. She’s in the streets with me. She's been with me through many of my partners, including my most recent one. She is a strong ally. She really has been an incredible grandmother to my kids. She is a changed woman.
And you know, today I am grateful that I'm gay. I’m very proud to be gay. Because I don't know that I would have the sensibility to tell Billie Holiday’s story. Or to tell Precious or Monster’s Ball or Empire. I would never have had that… twinkle. You’ve got to have that twinkle, honey! Without that twinkle you’re just bulls---ing. It's fact."
Lee Daniels, 60, is an Oscar-nominated writer, director, and producer of films including Monster’s Ball, The Butler, Precious, and the forthcoming The United States vs. Billie Holiday. He is also the creator of the television series Empire.
Designers: Scotto Kim and Hannah Song