Scary, sad, surprising, and joyful
tales of that life-changing moment
By Jane Latus
“Coming out” – is there a more fraught term? Why should you have to explain yourself? And if that’s the case, why shouldn’t everyone have to do it? But maybe you have to, for practical reasons like documentation. Or deeply essential reasons, like being called the right name. Maybe you want to proudly proclaim who you are. Or need to defend your identity, as Laverne Cox did by titling her speaking tour “Ain’t I a Woman?”
The only certainty is that each experience is different. Did you come out 30 years ago or recently? Who did you come out to? Who did you come out as? What generations and beliefs did you come out from?
Coming out as a gay man 40 years ago was traumatic for my brother. It was a non-event for my son, who at age 15, within minutes of the Connecticut Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling on same-sex marriage, changed his Facebook status to “Gay and proud of it!”
I didn’t see his post, but my phone started buzzing with congratulatory messages.
“Hey, I hear you’re gay – that’s great!” I said when he came home from school.
He seemed puzzled and said, “Oh. I thought you knew.”
Well, my husband and I did know, but still … this not-coming-out was a sweet coming out. He recently joked, “Being gay is so passé.” If only that were true, as well as for being transgender – because our other son’s transition was, I’ll just say, hard.
We asked readers to share their experiences: when they came out, what happened next? Here are their stories, diverse, scary, sad, wonderful, surprising and joyful.
Vincent Dawes, 35, Middletown
Server, The Flying Monkey Grill and Bar
When Vincent Dawes’s mother worked the night nursing shift, his drunk, factory-working, Jamaican-born father would come into his room to say good night – and add, “Get a good job so your hands don’t get dirty, and find a nice woman to marry so you don’t grow up to be no faggot.”
“I was like 9 or 10 years old when I realized I had an attraction to other boys,” says Dawes. Through eighth grade, he went to a Baptist school where the message was clear: homosexuality is sinful. “It was my freshman year of high school when Matthew Shepard was beaten and hung on a fence.”
In these circumstances, he says, “You’re like, ‘I’m not telling anyone. I’ll take this secret to my grave.’ I actually went to eight proms with eight girls.”
He came out to his mom and his siblings as an adult, when he met his now ex-boyfriend. “She knew. It was mother’s instinct. We’re very close.” They were all accepting, he says. His father was by then so ill from alcoholism that he was, and still is, unaware.
Dawes says being gay has never been an issue at work, with his friends, or where he lives. “I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve always just been who I am – I’m Vinnie. I’m not the black guy or the gay guy.”
Cas Pereira, 20, South Windsor
Criminal Justice student, Fisher College
“My whole life I felt like I didn’t fit in,” says Cas Pereira. “I felt like my brain never matched what my body showed. When I was 15, I came out to my family as a lesbian. They were accepting of that, and everything was fine.”
In college, after research and reflection, Pereira says, “One night I turned to my girlfriend and said, ‘I think I’m trans.’ She was the first person I came out to. She was very accepting, but unfortunately it wasn’t in the cards for us.”
Then he told his family. “My family’s great,” he says. “My mom introduces me as her son. My sister – I appreciate her more than anyone in this world. I don’t know what I’d do without her. And my dad tells everyone he has a son.” His stepmother, too, “is very supportive, very loving.”
“I think my dad had a lot of visions of me being his little girl, and dancing with me at my wedding. But he realized we’ve always done father-son things together.” And if he marries, “I told him we can still do the electric slide.” Which raises a remaining worry: “One of my biggest insecurities is whether someone can love me for who I really am.”
Jonathan Orellana, 27, West Haven
Co-owner, Your Time Homecare Companions
Student preparing for a nursing career
“Technically I’m gay, but I don’t like the word because in my country, to say somebody is gay is like an insult,” says Jonathan Orellana, who moved in 2017 to the United States from Ecuador.
“Here, all the people I meet know I’m gay, but in my country, only my mom knows.”
Orellana recently told a cousin in New Jersey, during a visit with his husband (Mike Keller – see below.) “The reaction was really, really good.”
In Ecuador, Orellana never dated so never felt he had to hide. “I just didn’t say anything to anybody.” He told his mom after moving in with Keller. She was fine, he says. “My mom is my best friend. If anyone else in my family finds out and doesn’t like it, I don’t care.”
He assumes his father suspects – he has, after all, sent Orellana some big hints: “conversion videos featuring priests who’ll ‘change you.’ ”
He says that with friends and co-workers, it’s a non-issue. “I feel free here. I feel comfortable. All these people don’t care.”
Michael Shawn Keller, 45,
Co-owner, Your Time
Writer (“Room 308” and “Bullies Among Us”)
Would you believe that a gay man who married in 2019 at age 45 had come out to exactly no one until two years prior? A new life came fast for Mike Keller.
“I grew up Catholic. One priest literally told me, when I told him in confession, ‘You are going to hell.’ For a long time, I actually believed it,” says Keller.
“I just fought it. I was, for a long time, confused. I became a heavy drinker so I wouldn’t think about it. It was bad. In my 30s, I knew I needed to change. I started to love myself and stop drinking.”
He turned to writing, especially thinking of his nieces and nephews. “The biggest mistakes I made were when I was in the closet. I don’t want kids to make the same mistakes and end up getting hurt or sick.”
In short succession, he met Jonathan Orellana (see above), finished his book, Room 308: Awkwardly Coming Out of the Closet, and gave the book to his mother. (His father had passed away.)
“She was shocked. She had no idea,” he says. So was Keller, because “She was 100 percent fine. Then she met Jonathan and she loves Jonathan more than me!”
The whole family was accepting, he says. “A lot of the time, it’s all in our heads. We worry for no reason.”
Dawn Ennis, 55, West Hartford
Managing editor, Outsports magazine
Journalism, advertising and public relations teacher, University of Hartford
At work, anyway, Dawn Ennis’s coming-out as a transgender woman started smoothly. It quickly turned public and painful, thanks to the New York City tabloids.
Ennis, 49 then, was overnight assignment editor at ABC. She came out to family, friends, the world via Facebook, and at work. In the newsroom, she says, “Everything was fine. The boss gave me flowers, and there was a standing ovation.” Two weeks later, the media mockery began, with the New York Post inaccurately describing her workplace coming-out as a one-sided demand.
About two months later, Ennis had a seizure that caused amnesia. “I didn’t understand why my license said I was female. I said I wanted to be a man and change back to my old name. I was in a delusion,” she says.
The Post reported, “I’m a guy again! ABC newsman who switched genders wants to switch back.” The article was picked up worldwide and treated, generally, as a joke.
After recovering, Ennis tried to resume her transition “quietly, privately at work.” But continued publicity took its toll. She says that technically she resigned, but really was let go because the publicity bothered ABC. “I was getting more attention than Diane Sawyer.”
The New York Daily News declared, “ABC producer who changed gender three times was fired in May for performance-related issues,” adding, “A gender-flipping producer from ABC News now has a pink slip to go with her pink slip.”
Ennis was married with three children throughout this. Once, Ennis was out in public presenting as a man “but it was very apparent to everyone that I was busty and no longer trying to hide it, as I had for decades. I thought I could get away without binding, until relatives expressed discomfort and mocked me, and neighborhood children bullied my oldest child. It hurt me so bad, I agreed to wear chest binders from then on.”
Ultimately, Ennis realized “I was denying myself for the sake of my wife, my family, my job.” Her wife, Wendy Ennis, “was very clear that it would mean a divorce.” Wendy was ultimately supportive of her wife’s transition, “although it broke her heart,” says Ennis. Wendy died of cancer shortly before their divorce could be finalized. The children are now thriving, says Ennis.
Ennis was a child model. “When I was 12, I was very effeminate. I was thin, and I had a higher voice prior to puberty.” With her mother’s okay, advertisers had her portray a girl in radio spots and photos. “I used to take Flintstone vitamins,” says Ennis. Her mother, worried about losing the work to puberty, gave her daughter new “vitamins” from a round, plastic case. Not until Ennis was in her 40s did she learn she’d taken “1970s, high-test birth control pills for four years.”
One day, her father accompanied her to a photo shoot and discovered what was happening. “He dragged me out. It was humiliating. There was a huge fight at home that night behind closed doors. There were no more vitamins. I went through traditional male puberty at 18,” says Ennis. She had enjoyed her “sneak peek at what I was supposed to be.”
Zulynette, 31, Hartford
Artist, poet and performer
“I didn’t explore the idea of queerness until I was an adult. I grew up in a family rampant with homophobia, so I didn’t think it was even an idea,” says Zulynette. She dated men, but when at age 24 a woman pursued her, “I realized, ‘OK, I’m queer.’”
Zulynette introduced the woman to her mother, who acted “super uncomfortable. She immediately knew, because of how she dressed. Two days later, my mom asked, ‘Are you attracted to women?’ And I said I’m attracted to whoever I’m attracted to.” She told her mother she’d likely date “a spectrum of people.”
“She said it was the worst thing one of her kids had done to her, the neighbors were laughing at her, and everyone was talking about her. All that was not true. I was the last kid, and she had put me on this pedestal and I took a big leap off it. I was torn up for a few days. I hated to see my mom torn apart. But I couldn’t allow it to shape who I was. It was brutal in that moment, but it was also a relief.”
One sister told Zulynette not to say the word “gay” around her son, but the rest of the family’s reaction was “It’s cool – we don’t care. We still love you,” she says. Her stepfather “doesn’t care – in the best of ways.” She’s glad her teenage nieces and nephews “have seen me in relationships with men and with women, and they’re comfortable with asking me questions.” However, she says, “My mom is still homophobic. She’s missing out on part of my life.”
John Pica-Sneeden, 62, East Windsor
Owner, Surroundings Floral
Executive director, Connecticut Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce
“I never came out because I was never really in. I always just acted this way. So it was not a very big deal to people to tell them I was gay,” says Pica-Sneeden.
“In high school in the mid-’70s, we didn’t have couples – we had gangs! We didn’t call it dating. I went to five proms! Girls asked me. I said yes because the whole gang would go together.
“I was about 20 when (my mother) finally asked, “Are you gay?” I asked, ‘Do you want the truth or do you want me to lie?’ She said, ‘I want the truth.’ She already knew. My mother’s far from stupid. It’s a large Italian Catholic family. They love their religion but they love their family more.”
Raising five children with his husband Brian Pica-Sneeden was “when I really started coming out,” he says, living quite publicly as a gay couple. He joined the Connecticut Gay Men’s Chorus, chaired the town Board of Education and serves as cantor in church.
“I just lived my life and no one cared,” says Pica-Sneeden. “I’m just very lucky I didn’t have any pain or suffering in what you call today ‘coming out.’”
David Grant, 34, Hartford
Executive assistant and LGBTQ+ liaison, Office of Mayor Luke Bronin
David Grant grew up in a family of “machismo Mexican Catholics. My dad and brother used to call me fag. I didn’t know what it meant. I knew it was bad. You know when you’re being made fun of. I didn’t know what it meant until junior high, and at that point I repressed it.” Grant took cover by playing football and baseball and dating girls.
He came out the day before his 22nd birthday. “I told my friends first. They were very supportive and were like, ‘We already knew.’” He then told his sisters (one straight, one lesbian and one bi), who outed him to their mother during an argument in defense of the lesbian sister. His father had passed away when Grant was 16.
His mother suddenly became distant. “She wouldn’t call me. She made excuses to not get together. My friends became my family for about two years. Then we started to get close again. She asked me questions and used the term ‘boyfriend.’” Time was the answer, he says. “I think she missed me.”
He married Chris Grant in 2016. “She loves Chris. She calls him her son.” And when discussing his childhood, “She apologized for not sticking up for me.
“In the closet, you go through this period of intense shame. Then there’s a period of acceptance when you realize you’re who you are and can’t do anything about it. Then, if you’re lucky, there’s a period of celebration. You lose the expectation, too, of having to get a wife and a house with a picket fence. We are part of a unique culture. I can sing and dance and play in glitter, and do whatever I want to do! You get to feel like you can do anything and be whoever you want to be.”
Azua Echevarria, in her “midlife journey”, Hartford
Owner of Age Into Beauty health, beauty and wellness services
– and –
Toni Johnson, 48, Hartford
Owner of Rework Creative jewelry
Azua Echevarria followed the “traditional binary path,” marrying a man and having two children. But in 2008, after 16 years of marriage, her “best friend,” her mother, died. “I knew I didn’t have a moment to waste to be myself.”
The couple divorced. A few years later, Echevarria went on dating sites but sought out only men. Through her work and interests, she started connecting with women online, and noticed a pattern: women of color were flocking to her as either a maternal figure or potential romantic partner. She thought, “What’s going on?!”
Enter jeweler Toni Johnson, then of Texas, whom Echevarria met via Instagram. They conversed online, by text, and finally by phone – eventually daily. “I think we were both falling in love from the first phone call,” Johnson says.
Echevarria invited Johnson to visit her in Hartford for her birthday. “It was like fireworks,” Echevarria says of meeting in person. “I told the kids, ‘I fell in love with someone, and it’s a woman.’” Her son and daughter (who had already come out herself) were happy for her.
“I like to be identified as a spirit,” says Echevarria.
As for Johnson, “I knew early on I was this gay, black, creative soul. In 1989 in high school, when I came out, I was so happy, I went home and told everybody, ‘I’m in love! And it’s a girl!’” Her conservative family did not react well. “I took it as, that’s their problem, not mine. They’re just opinions.”
Johnson admits, though, that being cut off by her lifelong best friend “was some serious hurt.” It means a lot to her that the friend recently called to apologize.
“It’s a blessing to have had this experience. There is no trauma around my queerness,” says Echevarria, adding, “I know it’s very rare to be able to hold my partner’s hand in public and not feel at risk.”
Charmagne Glass-Tripp, 46, Bloomfield
Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter
Co-owner, Gripp Productions creative consulting team
As a teen, Charmagne Glass-Tripp became so involved in the church where her best friend’s father was pastor that it became “all consuming.” She shared a dream (that she thought innocuous) with the pastor, who saw it differently. “He gave me a tape all about homosexuality. It said it’s perverted thoughts.
“I really didn’t understand why he gave me that tape. Then I go to college and it’s like ‘Oh, that’s why.’” She had fallen for a woman. “I was genuinely concerned. I told the pastor, ‘I don’t know how to control this.’ They suggested I to go to one of those gay camps.”
While Charmagne was home on break, her mom said, “We need to talk.” Her mom “claims she read my journal because it was wide open. She asked was I sure I was in love with this woman.” Charmagne told her about the conversion camp, and her mom said “Absolutely not!” Her major concern was that Charmagne might have a harder life.
When Charmagne then told her siblings she’s lesbian, “it seemed nobody flinched.” Well, except briefly! One sister complained, “I’ve been sent to the principal’s office and suspended for fighting for you because people are saying you’re gay, and I said you aren’t, but you’re dating a girl?!”
The pastor sent a cold letter kicking her out of the church. She also lost her best friend. “It was really shitty.”
Tianna Glass-Tripp, 35, Bloomfield
Playwright, comedic writer and storyteller
Co-owner, Gripp Productions creative consulting team
“I always had some kind of indication that I was probably not normal. I knew I was weird across the board,” jokes Tianna Glass-Tripp. When a teenager, she brought it up with friends: “You know how you all want to kiss girls? They were like, ‘Nah.’ ” She saw plenty of public examples of gay men, but few lesbians. “There were no black lesbians. Even Ellen wasn’t out.”
Her mom was the person gay friends came out to. So she asked her mom’s advice. “I know men can like men. Can women like women? She said, ‘Of course they can.’ ”
In college, Glass-Tripp came out as a lesbian (she now identifies as queer) to everyone, and to her amusement, the biggest surprises came from her mother. “She said, ‘I’ve never seen you operate a power tool. You love wearing dresses. Where is this coming from?’ She knew a lot of gay men, but all she knew about lesbians were stereotypes.”
Also, her mother’s greatest fear – that her daughter might get pregnant while unmarried – now morphed into the fear “that I may not have a wedding and have kids.”
Her dad’s reaction? “Baby doll, I love you.”
Charmagne and Tianna married in 2014.
Brent Chaney, 42, Vernon
Business Intelligence Professional and Graduate student in Instructional Design, UMass Boston
“I didn’t come out to myself ‘til I was 21 or so,” says Brent Chaney. “It’s taken me a number of years and a lot of reflection to realize I was so deeply closeted as a teenager. Home wasn’t peaceful to begin with. I had to remain closeted to myself in order to survive.”
The relationship with his mother and stepfather “was fraught in general,” he says.
In his early 20s, Chaney felt an attraction to someone, but wasn’t sure what it meant. “Scientist that I am, I thought, ‘I need data!’ I kissed him. He outed me, in a very short period of time, to all my friends. When I confronted him, he lied about it. But my friends were all very supportive. It was always a total non-issue with my chosen family.”
A few years later, he came out to his dad, who at the time belonged to an especially conservative church. “He asked me, ‘Are you gay?’ I remember kind of staring at him. I was weighing what was going to happen next. To his credit, he said, ‘I’m going to need a little time with this. Give me a little time.’”
His father left the church in support of his son. “He flipped from this place of disapproval to a place of ‘What’s wrong with these people’ who disapprove? That meant a lot to me.” His stepmother and sisters are “wonderful,” he says. His mother died in 2016, still in deep denial.