26 Lessons Learned In 26 Years Of Being Out

The journey continues, but here’s what’s clear so far.

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Each year for Pride, I like to publish this list and add to it. It’s my reminder that the life of a gay man is an ever-evolving journey. I enjoy looking critically at life’s experiences and understanding their lessons. I hope these are somewhat helpful to someone somewhere on this vast Internet.

I came out in 1997, three months after my parents divorced. It was a tumultuous time. Our family was changing, and so was I.


I was 19, and those who loved me begged me not to make such a bold declaration at such a young age. But I knew what I was.

In fact, it seemed I was the last one who knew what I was. I think the little Capezio dancer shoes I wore to school were the big tell — or the perm I got in seventh grade. At 13, I wanted curls like Kirk Cameron. Yes, that Kirk Cameron. (Is there any other?)


So I bought a home perm kit from our local C-Town grocer and begged my aunt to apply the magic serum to my straight hair. My father, embarrassed and utterly confused, asked me why I couldn’t get a "normal" haircut.

That was the first inkling I had that perhaps I was a different kind of boy.

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Six years later, I fell in love with a classmate.


Peter sat next to me in sociology. After months of flirting, he kissed me, in a tuxedo and Halloween mask after a formal event at our college.

Every cell in my body burst with electricity. A switch went on. And finally, I had clarity. The world — and my life — came into crystal-clear view. It was like the first time I wore eyeglasses. 

Oh, the world is not what I thought it was. It is so much better! Look at what I can see now. 

I told my college roommates first, then a large group of friends. Then my mother and my sisters. The first parade of a gay man’s life — at least for those of us in the Will & Grace generation (the gays who came out in the latter half of the 90s) — is the house-to-house tour to tell those you love that your life is, well…changing.


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The last to know was my father.

I waited until I was 21. He scared me. In fact, petrified would be a better word.

The mere thought of telling him gave me stomach pains, actual physical pangs — a knife-like sensation that remained a mystery to every gastro doctor I saw seeking help. (The experts thought I was lactose intolerant. Turns out, I am just homosexual.)

To this day, that conversation with my father remains the hardest I have ever had. And it taught me the greatest lesson of my life: our joy lies on the other side of our fear. 


There is much debate now, in 2023, about whether or not "coming out" is an old concept, unnecessary in a world of gender fluidity and pan-sexual freedom. But I will always argue that declarations have a certain ceremonial importance and that the hard conversations are what make life the most meaningful.

After 26 years of being out, I have learned a lot. The journey continues, but here is what’s clear so far. I’ll address the kid with the perm. Here are 26 things I wish I could go back and tell him (in no particular order):

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Here are 26 lessons I've learned in 26 years of being out:

1. There is never a good time to come out

You may think now is the worst possible moment to share your truth. But there is only ever now.


The moment you tell people is always the worst possible moment. There are no better options. It is going to suck. Period.

You will cry, and you might throw up. It’s fine. Humans don’t like anything or anyone who rocks the boat. So, just rip the f***ing band-aid off.

2. You cannot control a person’s response

You can only control yours.

This is true in all parts of life. Your responsibility is to share yourself, your opinion, your word, your talents, your art and your perspective.

Don’t waste your energy trying to manage the response. The internet has convinced us all that whether people like what we have to say matters. It does not.

Be kind. But be honest.


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3. People need time

They just do. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. And with waiting.

Some will come around immediately and join you on your way. Others will not. Do not wait until everyone else is comfortable for you to be comfortable. You’ll be waiting a very long time.

Some mountains are too tall. Some mountains are just immovable. And some mountains are a**holes.

4. People take their lead from you

If you think being gay is the worst thing that ever happened to you, those around you will think the same. If you think it’s the greatest blessing in the world, those around you will treat it that way.


You get to set the frame and tone.

This is true in business, art, and most parts of life. People take their cues from the confident and the strong. Don’t ask for permission. State what is.

5. No two plants grow at the same pace

Everyone comes to a fuller understanding of themselves, their sexuality, and their identity on their own schedule. It is not a race, a competition, or a game.

This will frustrate you. But it is a fact of life.

Be patient with your gay friends and ask them for patience with you.

Likewise, age is to be respected but it does not always equal experience or wisdom. Get to know people individually before you expect anything from them.


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6. No, you are not normal

For decades, gay people have had to convince everyone else that we are "the same" so that they would not fear us.

Yes, love is love, but that does not mean that we are the same. We are not the same. And that’s okay.

Gay people are the X-Men of the modern world. Figure out your superpower, and use it for good.

Normal is often boring and it is not why you are on this planet. Let Jennifer Garner be normal. I don’t know her, but she seems great at it.

7. Dance

It helps. A lot.

8. You have inherited a very special legacy

It is not one passed down through blood or family, but rather through community.


Know your gay history. Learn who came before you, what and whom they battled, and how their lives and struggles made your freedoms possible.

Celebrate them. Thank them. And do not tell anyone over 50 that you don’t know who Judy Garland is. Those b****es will cut you.

9. Yes, gay people are wounded

But so is everyone else. And so are you.

The sooner you deal with your stuff, the less pain you will inflict on your boyfriends (or girlfriends, partners, lovers, etc.) and the more time you will have to love and be loved.

Spare no expense — of time, energy, or money — to heal your scars. An open wound gets in the way of everything.

It will always be worth it to do that hard work, even if it feels like it comes at the cost of professional momentum, what others expect of you, or your own Big Life Goals. The outside all gets much easier when you clean up the inside. Pride starts inside.


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10. The world will disappoint you

It can also bring you boundless joy. Most of the time, the difference lies in how you choose to see it.

That will take time to learn, but keep pushing. Change your frame. See it differently. Let go of having to be right. Being wrong is sometimes incredibly freeing.

Also, chill out. Life is hard, gay or not.

11. Being different in a word of uniformity is a political act

There is no way around that. How you choose to discuss, express and debate those innate politics are up to you.

Yes, your being out already changes the world. Period. But participating in the marches, the parades, the donating, the signing, the calling, and the speaking out — those change the world for people you will never know.


Find your way to contribute.

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12. Marriage is not the goal

Freedom to choose how you live, who you love, what commitment you make to them, and what rights you can exercise — that’s the goal.

Do not get too caught up in what it all looks like. It changes. Constantly.

The marriage equality movement was a watershed moment and we have generations of gay people to thank. But it doesn’t mean you have to get married, have kids and move to New Jersey like your sisters. (Even though it would be so great to have a pool.)

You do you.

13. Children are born to love

They only hate when someone teaches them to hate.


Being a gay uncle — a guncle — is one of the greatest joys of life. Being a father may be, too, one day. But you will encounter children no matter what. Little humans are everywhere.

They will learn what you teach them. And most of what they learn is not what is told to them. They learn from what they see and then imitate. Model kindness.

14. Get out early

A red flag is a red flag. They don’t change color. Ever. Get out!

Ending a romantic relationship is painful, but it is sometimes necessary. No one prospers in a relationship that doesn’t work.

And do not waste your life feeling bad that you have had more romances than your straight counterparts. You have had a lot more to figure out. It’s okay.


15. The gay gaggle has great benefits

It can also suffocate. A core group of gay friends can be a source of strength, camaraderie, and family. It can also limit your spirit.

Choose your friendship circles for how right of a fit they are for you.

If they light you up, inspire you, support you, and make you laugh, then double down. If they are more work than your actual job, then move on.

Life can be but it’s not always Queer as Folk.

16. The job won’t love you back

You may think your work is your identity. It is not.

Achievement and success were a way to stand out — and get praise, validation, and love — when the reality of who you are was not acceptable.


It is okay to have goals. You rock. But do not confuse work with life.

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17. Don’t confuse sex and love

Both are fun, but they are different.


Sex is dessert; it’s delicious, but don’t eat too much or you’ll get a stomach ache. Love is a fulfilling dinner.

Dinner without dessert can be healthy but dull. Dessert without dinner can be exciting but leave you hungry before bed. Dinner plus dessert is amazing.

What are pancakes for dinner? Not sure yet. (Also, good, healthy sex requires education. Ask someone who’s been there. It’s not unusual to have questions. It’s not exactly taught in school.)

18. Don’t spend too much time proving you’re not a cliché

It’s exhausting to always try to prove that you are not what the world thinks you are. Maybe you are. Life goes on.

Stereotypes and clichés exist for a reason. They’re dangerous in certain contexts and powerful in others.


Do what works for you. If that’s someone else’s idea of a cliche, so be it. 

19. Your shame is someone else’s s***

Most of your shame is inherited in some way — from your family, your community, your schooling, the media; the list goes on.

You are not your shame. It has been put upon you. Let it go.

20. Your shame is your s***

Until you let it go, don’t put it on other people.

If the guy at the office wants to wear lipstick and a skirt, cheer them on. You are gay. You know what it is like to be ridiculed, beat up and chosen last for the kickball team.

Be someone else’s champion. Someone else was yours, even if you have never met them. At the very least, keep your judgment to yourself. See #9.


21. It’s all about the shoes

You can wear whatever you want but don’t wear bad shoes. Please.

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22. You cannot escape aging

There is a new crop of 24-year-olds every single year. Enjoy your 12 months of it. Then move on.

The saving grace: they only get 12 months, too. Haha. Those babes will be 43 one day, also. And 50 and 60 and 70, God willing.

Embrace your age, weight, and hair. Someone is always hotter, younger, fitter, cuter, smarter, richer. It never ends. Eff it. I mean, take care of yourself, but eff it.

23. You are not the final generation

The progress of the gay rights movement was not meant to create you then stop. Hard to hear, but in 100 years, you will be one of the "early 21st century gays." 


The freedom to be yourself was given to you by generations of people whom you will never know. Pass it on to the next generation — even if their version of it looks different than yours.

24. A perm will ruin your hair

Forever. (Ugh, I wish I had known this one.)

25. Drag is an art

It is also a right. If you never put on a dress yourself, always defend the right of anyone else to wear whatever the f*** they want to wear.

26. Love: it is patient.

It is kind. Read my Report from a Relationship.

Happy Pride.

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Julio Vincent Gambuto is a writer, moviemaker, and author of Please Unsubscribe, Thanks!