When I was in nursery school a teacher sent a note to my mom that said, "Michael is a joy to have in class, but he only wants to play with the girls." I was privy to this note at a young age, and I can still remember how I felt. At first I was like, What is wrong with that? Then, as the name calling started I realized that I WAS different and that different was not better, it was cause for scorn and rejection. I continued to be gregarious and play with the girls and go on my "merry" way, but I also started to build a wall around myself that I never realized I had until I got to be an adult. I also suffered bullying all throughout grade school and into high school, which was of course not a lot of fun.
So to counter this I would play in the basement by myself for hours on end listening to Broadway albums, dancing and singing, and just being me. This was the beginning of my independence, a way to escape what people thought of me and my -- unbeknownst to me -- shunning of intimacy, something that I struggle with to this day.
In my junior year, my parents suggested that I go to Europe for the summer with my high school. I said yes, but was also a little nervous. All of the "popular" kids that were known to ridicule me in school would be on this trip. And while I was friends with most of the popular girls, their boyfriends and other guy friends did not really like me. But as my father always said to me, “Buck up and make it work.” So that summer off to Europe I went.
On one of the excursions I had the chance to be one-on-one with a guy that I thought wanted nothing to do with me. He said on a walk to the Eiffel Tower, “You know, Volpatt, you are pretty cool. It has been nice getting to know you.” My world changed at that moment. Everything I wanted, acceptance from a dude that I thought hated me, was something I now had. His acceptance was like currency for me and when we got back to the states I cashed it in at every chance I could get.
My senior year brought about changes, new friends and this taste of popularity in a world I was not used to. I was moving with a different crowd and using things like my car and our house in the mountains as trading currency. I threw parties, smoked pot, drank and ran with people that, in my eyes, were the Holy Grail. I started to forget about the real me and treated the popular kids as objects and a way to get to this place in life that I wanted to be.
The two things that I really regret during this time are that I shunned a whole group that I saw as less popular only to run with a more popular crowd. What I did not realize is that I was really using the popular people to elevate myself. I was building that wall of independence even higher and not realizing that the popular kids were actually trying to be my real friends, and I was just taking advantage of their position. To this day many of those "popular" people are still my friends and as I look back on this I wish that things had evolved differently. I wish that people were more accepting, that my wall did not exist and that I did not use people the way that I did. Lessons that I am so glad I have the power to look back on. I realize the value of friendship now.
So I went to college away from Pittsburgh and fell madly in love with this woman – I think it was more of a “OMG you’re fabulous” love and not an I wanna date you love. The woman knew I was gay. She said it to me all of the time and when I got back to PGH for the summer break it just kind of hit me. I knew it was time to come to terms with the real me. I transferred back home to U of Pittsburgh to be close to family and friends and started my own internal process of coming out. About two years into this process I began compartmentalizing my life. Straight friends here, gay friends there. The lies that I told to cover up where I was going and who I was seeing were crazy. The whole time I never realized that the wall around me was getting higher brick by brick.
One day a female friend sat me down and said, “Michael, you are gay.” For some reason I broke down. I told her all of my truths and lies and the ball started rolling. I then told more friends and with each person I told the acceptance was stronger and stronger. It felt great, but UGH... then came mom.
I was home from college and my mother asked me about what I had done the night before. I told her I went to dinner with my friend Bruce. “Bruce Who?” she asked. “Just a friend.” “Is he in school with you?” “No.” “What does he do?” “He is a doctor.” “Where?” “He is the head of pediatrics at Children's.” “He must be older.” “He is.” “Where was his wife?” The questions were so leading it was not even funny. “He does not have a wife, mom. He is gay.” “GAY?” “Yes, mom.” “Well, Michael, if you hang out with gay people then people will think you are gay.” “Well, mom, I am gay.” She shut down and told me not to tell my father.
It was five years before I told my dad. We were in the yard when I said those words and my father just held his arm up into the air and let out this moan of sadness. I realized that I was not the only one going through the coming out process. I understand now that we all have a coming out process. It took me 25 years to tell my dad. Doesn't he deserve the same respect and time to come to terms with something wildly foreign to him?
It took my dad and I some time to start talking again and slowly, as he saw others accepting me and loving me, he came around. I did not realize it until I was in a job situation that I hated. I wanted out and all I did was complain. Finally one day he pulled me aside and said, “Mikey, I want you to do something about this job. I want you to start your own business, go out on your own to see if you can really be the boss and make it work. I'll support you for one year.”
In that moment my father not only said, “Hey kid, start your own business.” He said, “I love you and I believe in you.” That was moment I learned how to read between the lines. This is something that I want for each and every LGBTQ person and actually all people. Not everyone knows how to say I love you and so sometimes they say it their own way. You just need to understand how to listen differently.
Recently, a friend of mine reached out to me and asked if her sister could talk to my mother about what it is like to have a gay son. Her son was coming out and she wanted a resource to turn to. I emailed my mother and asked her if she would be willing to chat with this woman. Her name is Rosie and my mother emailed me back and said, “If Rosie calls I will tell her this: If her son has 1/16th the caring, loving, creative, and intelligent qualities that my Son Michael has, she is one ‘lucky’ Mom. It has nothing to do with whether he is "gay" or "straight," but what kind of person he is, how he treats others, and how he feels about himself. I feel great about telling others that you are gay, and using it to explain the goodness that you put forth in life, and the strength you have shown while growing up in a world that can be judgmental, prejudiced, and mean to those ‘THEY’ perceive as different. Everyone is different, and thank heavens for that!!! Everyone should be treated the same if they are good people. It's the goodness in people that makes them special. So, I could go on and on down my memory lane of Life with Mikey....and show extreme happiness and pride that you are ‘My Son.’ Love, Mom.”
I am LUCKY to have great parents. Not everyone has this, but we all deserve it. Each and every one of us has the right to be heard, to have an opinion, and to be treated with respect.
As far as me and my wall are concerned, I still have a long way to go and it still exists in many areas of my life. But I will never stop my discovery process and the work I am doing to tear that wall down. Don't ever think of stopping the process for yourself. EVER.Michael Volpatt