The River City Renegade

Shawn Barber can come out and be out on his own terms

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Life is full of little surprises that sometimes feel like an ambush. Like when you realize you’re gay or transgender. What do you do now?

Coming out is seldom, if ever, easy.

It’s like there are two of you, one sitting on each shoulder, and both are engaged in push-me-pull-you mental gymnastics that can be crippling, if not paralyzing.

Shawn Barber

The positive of the two yous is determined to push you out of the closet, trying to sway you with comforting assurances that family, friends, co-workers, classmates and everyday acquaintances will welcome and embrace the gay you with inviting arms and adoring smiles.

“It’ll be safe,” she whispers. “You have nothing to worry about. You’ll be free and the world will finally see the true you. They’ll love you.”

Yet, just as you are about to step out, the other you pulls you back with words of caution, if not scare tactics: “Leave this closet,” she says, waving a red flag, “and you will be rejected, degraded, humiliated, bullied, sullied and maybe even beaten up. Is that what you really want your life to become?”

It is as I have written: Discovering yourself is the interesting part, accepting yourself is the hard part, revealing yourself is the frightening part that goes bump in the night.

It would be helpful, of course, were there a How-To Manual for Coming Out. We could simply turn to the appropriate chapter and, presto, we’re out and we’re proud gay, lesbian and transgender women, men and children. Life goes on tickety-boo. Except it isn’t quite as simple as picking up a copy of Popular Mechanics to learn how to change the oil on your SUV.

There is no right way to come out. There is no wrong way, either, although my personal experience taught me that the right and wrong of coming out is very much left to interpretation.

I advised those closest to me in a lengthy late-night email and, as I was to discover from a dear friend who has since basically disappeared from my life, it was callous, insensitive, hurtful and ill-timed. How dare I not advise her before all others, and how thoughtless of me to dump such naked honesty on her when she was dealing with her own level of personal strife.

“We had a special relationship,” she reminded me in an accusatory tone a number of years later, at our first get-together after the fact. “You should have told me first.”

“We have to do this in our own way and on our own timetable,” I tried to explain in an unflinching way that, I suppose, might have come across as clinical and unfeeling. “Each of us is different. We find our own way. We feel when the time is right, then we do it and expect the worst but hope for the best.”

Is there an element of selfishness in all that. By definition, absolutely. You are foremost and uppermost. Yet you also acknowledge that others might be wounded, which only adds more uncertainty to the original, push-me-pull-you pile of confusion.

It doesn’t end there, either.

Now that you’re out, are you supposed to behave and talk a certain way? That is, do you now immerse yourself into the gay collective and become a mouthpiece and advocate for the gay rights cause? Or do you simply go about the business of being you? Again, that’s an individual choice.

This past April, world champion and Olympic pole vaulter Shawn Barber came out in 54 words on his Facebook page. He was gay and he was proud. Nothing more to see here. Let’s move on.

“A person has the right to say as little or as much as they want about their orientation,” observed Jim Buzinski on the website Outsports.

Agreed.

But wait. Here we are three months later and the other main scribe at Outsports, Cyd Zeigler, has scolded Barber, who, at the recent Canadian track and field championships, told the Toronto Star that his being gay is “something that shouldn’t be a big deal.”

“Declaring to the world that you’re gay—even if it was in desperately early morning hours—then going into hiding is hardly the behavior of a champion,” Zeigler wrote in a gratuitous bullying, attack piece. “Barber, instead, has cringed. For whatever reason, he has decided that the whole ‘gay thing’ isn’t a necessary part of his identity as an athlete. So he’s pulled back. He’s stayed silent. No, even worse, he has belittled his own coming out.”

Zeigler has since softened his stance and rewritten the article, but his original remarks make it abundantly clear that Barber has let down the team, so to speak, and they serve as a classic example of not only a writer going well over the line of fairness in commentary but also of gays eating their own.

Coming out is hard enough and Shawn Barber is doing it his way, same as Zeigler did it his way and I did it my way. Expecting us to be anything more than who we are is not only unfair, it flies in the face of what gays desire more than anything from society—to be accepted unconditionally for who we are.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling mostly about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she’s old and probably should think about getting a life.

 

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