My early 30s were about "expanding the circle." By that, I mean I was letting more people know that I was same-sex attracted. I began working through my list. A mentor told me it'd be healthy to bring more safe people into the conversation. He was right.
I came out to people over coffee. I came out to people while watching football games. I came out to people at wine bars and Mexican restaurants and breweries and living rooms. I became the Kobe Bryant of coming out of the closet. Sometimes I'd kick that thing open, charging the lane and going up strong. Other times I'd ease it open—the finesse game. I got quite good at it, and I even learned how to do it without crying like a tiny child. After the age of 30, a man gets tired of crying all the time.
I'm actually a fan of coming out like this—progressively, on your own terms, to people you trust. The big dramatic reveal is okay, but I think it's better to learn to live openly first with those who love you the most.
Each conversation was difficult, but got slightly easier with time.
I became a student of people's reactions. I'd notice their initial response and what words they would say. I'd look for shock or non-shock or attempts at covering the shock. It was interesting to watch.
Friends respond mostly the same when you come out to them. Their first response is usually "Well I still love you," or "This doesn't change anything." And that's always nice to hear.
Later in the conversation, straight males will often say, "Hey man, I just want to apologize for anything I may have said in the past that was offensive," which was always funny to me. I told them it wasn't a big deal, but that I may have recorded their terrible words for research purposes only (not for grudge-holding purposes). I told them they were forgiven for whatever muted or outrageous homophobia they'd displayed. I've said lots of stupid and awful things in my life as well. We're all better than we used to be. So nbd, bro.
The most annoying thing people would say during those conversations was, "Well...I wish you would have told me sooner."
Riiiiiight...got it...because YOUR timetable for when I share my highly-emotional, fear-laden, life-altering secret is very important. Eesh. 😖
But, all things considered, my friends are awesome, and they handled it well.
Many of those friends I came out to were married couples. I collected a surplus of amazing couple-friends in my 20s and 30s.
Many of them were co-workers. When I first started my job at Booster, the company was mostly single people. But over time, we grew up and folks got married.
Of course, I've never been married, so I don't really know anything about it. But I am a watch-er of marriages. I study them. And one small advantage of being single for a while is observing couples, noting which ones seem happy and which ones seem miserable. Over time, you see trends.
One trend I noticed is that happy couples always seemed to be inviting people over to their house. I got lots of dinner invites back then, and single men will never turn down a dinner invite.
Some of them knew about my journey. They knew about my battle with loneliness, so they'd invite me over for Tuesday spaghetti night. It was their way of loving me, and I count myself very blessed to have friends like this, a very rare grace.
I don't think married people know how special something as simple as a random dinner can be for a single person.
I imagine eating frozen lasagna and drinking cheap wine while the toddler chases the cat and the baby smears marinara in her hair is probably not something most moms want to show off. It probably feels mundane at best and embarrassing at worst. But to a single person, being invited into this moment, can be quite magical.
Chaotic family dinners were always kinda charming to me. You get a glimpse of how young families do life which is very beautiful. Of course, it can also be painful, always watching those scenes from the audience.
I learned an important lesson then. I learned that on the lifetime singleness path, you have to guard your thoughts very closely. Your despair will often try to hijack beautiful moments, telling you they're ugly...
Brett, this is stupid. This is boring. Look how exhausted those parents are. You don't want this. You'll end up miserable. And with spaghetti sauce in your hair just like that baby!
These thoughts will come unexpectedly—like a ninja in the night.
But over time, you learn to be on watch. You learn to listen for its footsteps. You learn to keep your handcuffs ready.
Evil will often try to tell you that beautiful things aren't beautiful. It's very important that you not agree with evil in that moment. It's very important that you remind yourself that happy families eating dinner around a table are beautiful...holy even. I learned it's very important that you train your mind to revere beautiful, holy moments even when the specter of despair is telling you otherwise. Evil likes to seed a false narrative, promising it will make us feel better in the moment.
Maybe it's just me, but it seems like the cultural gap between single people and married people in America is getting wider. Our ways of life have always been different, but I think social media has amplified it.
Single people post pics of their trendy urban lifestyles—hip bars, sporting events, concerts, craft cocktails, crazy nights out.
Married people post pics of their cozy lives in the burbs—beautiful homes (that they own), adoring children, cute pets, Easter outfits, trips to the pumpkin patch.
No one wants to admit it, but I think both groups are a little (or in some cases, a lot) jealous of each other. I think the married folks want a little more edge, a little more hip in their lives. And I think the single folks secretly long for the stability of family life, of the life they grew up with.
Of course I'm generalizing here, but I think it's mostly true.
America has this odd cultural duality that celebrates the single lifestyle with its free-spirited hipness while also revering family life as well. But it seems like people are trying to stay in the hip, single world for as long as they can these days. Everyone's path is different, but I don't really view this as a positive thing. I think individuals need families, and I think societies need families.
I also noticed the strange relationship the Christian church has with single people.
The church honors the institution of family very much. It's one the church has fought for for years. "Family values" was such a common phrase in the 80s and 90s that it became a cliche evangelical buzzword.
Per the terms of the church, you can't have families without mommies and daddies, and you can't have those without marriage. This leaves single people on the fringes.
Many single people will tell you they feel like second-class citizens in the church. Many of my single friends feel like an afterthought, like they don't fit in unless they get that wedding band.
I've observed that married Christian men will often introduce themselves in terms of their wife and children—essentially defining themselves by their family. It's a badge of honor, and rightfully so. People should be proud of their families. I just know this can leave single people feeling like human worth is found in forging a family unit. And it sucks for people who aren't able to do that.
I've heard a very conservative pastor here in Atlanta say that he thinks the church has turned marriage and family into an idol in the last 30 years, that we've OVER-emphasized the role of marriage and family to the point where we worship it. I don't know if that's true or not, but it's something to think about.
I also learned back then that when you're single and celibate, no one ever touches you.
I'm talking about literal, physical touch. I suppose single men get touched less than single women, but I could be wrong. You can go weeks or months with nothing more than handshakes which is hard because, from birth, humans need physical touch. There's research that connects physical touch to healthier living. I've seen other single writers highlight this as a struggle of longterm singleness.
In my early 30s, I had a phase where I budgeted for two massages per month.
Now, just to be clear, I'm not talking about sketchy "massages" that are sexual. I'm talking about well-lit massage places that are next to a Kroger or in the middle of a shopping mall. I'd go for 30 minutes or an hour...it just felt good to be touched by a human.
I eventually considered buying one of those expensive massage chairs because I was spending so much, I knew it would pay for itself. But I decided not to, because deep down, I knew this wasn't just about pressure on a sore neck.
I think if there were highly skilled massage-giving robots on every corner, the human massage industry would be unaffected. There's a reason people would rather be naked in a tiny, dark, awkward room with a stranger than get a massage from a robot. There's a warmth, a humanity there that is not found in a machine. We crave it. We need it.
So if I had to pay $30 for a 30-minute chair massage across from Abercrombie & Fitch with teenage punks staring at me, then so be it.
I learned to get over some pride back then. Besides, it was a helluva lot cheaper than therapy and less emotional.
Looking back, I see that I was just coping with affectionlessness. I've always been pretty good at selecting coping mechanisms, and a non-sketchy mall massage was one of my favorites.
Big events with only married people can also be tough for single people. I remember being at a big group dinner once where the leader of the group got up and prayed before the meal.
It was one of those long tables filled with red wine glasses like you'd see at a big feast. His prayer was all about gratitude. He went on and on about how we were so thankful for our spouses and our healthy children.
I was the only single person at the table, so my soul was wilting as his prayer went on.
With my eyes closed, I felt a hand gently come to rest on my shoulder. I could tell this was not a man's hand. I opened one eye to remind myself who was sitting next to me. It was the wife of one of my friends. We'd had the talk several months before, so she knew.
She knew that that prayer about marriage and love and family was probably hard on me.
She knew that no one else would notice how it made the lone single person at the table feel.
She knew I'd sat through a lot of those prayers in my life.
She noticed me. And I noticed she noticed.
My eyes filled with tears at the beautiful simplicity of this tiny gesture that no one else saw. We never spoke about it. It needed no words.
God's grace can be big, but sometimes it's small like a warm hand on a cold shoulder.
Despite having to pay people to touch me, I really did feel very loved back then.
I kept up with my fraternity brothers through social media, and I'd made friends with their wives.
I was close with my co-workers, and their spouses all seemed to love me.
And I had some fun, single friends in the city who I did life with as well.
I was living in community with really good people, and, despite some sad days, life was good. I felt loved, and I felt safe.
For the first time in my life, it felt like this whole same-sex attraction thing might not ruin me.
And I felt the desire to come out, like...out out. As in, maybe it's just time to go public with this and be done with it. Being out to these close friends had actually enriched our relationships, so why not just do that with everyone? This was my thinking at the time.
But there was a hitch. There was one thing holding me back, and I didn't want to admit it. I wouldn't be able to put it into words until years later, but it was definitely there, and it was very, very ugly... 👊
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All photos by Sterling Graves. Copyright Blue Babies Pink & Sterling Graves.
B.T. Harman is the creator of Blue Babies Pink, a Southern Coming Out Story in 44 Episodes.
B.T. is a consultant, writer, and speaker living in Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. He was previously a vice president for Booster, an Atlanta fundraising company, where he helped the organization raise $150 million for elementary schools.
B.T. is passionate about storytelling, leadership, good design, Seth Godin, SEC football, Chick-fil-A, Taylor Swift, archaeology, European Travel and CS Lewis.
To learn more about B.T., visit his personal site at btharman.com.