In a very moving statement released on Twitter this morning, and in an equally moving segment on This Morning, Phillip Schofield came out as gay. Married for 27 years to his wife Stephanie, they have two daughters. By Schofield’s own account his wife and children have been nothing but supportive. This can’t have been easy for the 57-year-old ITV presenter, who has worked in British media for over 30 years, but he has handled it with grace, humility, aplomb.
I am always curious about gay men’s journeys to self-acceptance and, in many cases, self-awareness. I think I always knew I was gay. One of my earliest memories is, aged five or six, getting butterflies when the boy next door grabbed my hand. Of course I didn’t know what that meant or have a name for it, but I knew I felt differently about him than about my other friends.
Later in childhood, I had what I can only retroactively identify as a major crush on my best friend Kyle. He spent summers with his dad, who lived down the street, and I would count down the days until he arrived from Arkansas. My other friends would get jealous and angry as, all summer long, I neglected them for Kyle (an unfortunate pattern that would, shamefully, continue into early adulthood). He and I would spend hours playing with other children, but often alone as well. It was all very chaste and innocent—we couldn’t have been older than ten—but when he would “rescue” me as we played Power Rangers I always felt a tingling, sinking feeling in my chest and stomach which (again, only later in life) could I identify as “puppy love.”
I came out to myself around 14, and to the rest of the world—including my family—at 15. This was in 2001, when teenagers coming out was still a rarity and depictions of LGBT people in popular culture even rarer. Yet there was very little angst around my decision. Once I realized I was gay there was no self-torture, no self-hate. It was almost as though realizing, for the first time and to some mild surprise but no great consequence, that I had a freckle on my leg. “Oh, never noticed that before. Wonder when that happened. Oh shit, it’s almost time for Dawson’s Creek, don’t want to miss that!”
Coming out to my family was not easy—I don’t think it’s every an easy process—but as I would learn from LGBT people in later years much easier than most comings out, especially as a teen and especially in the early 00s. I was out at school, which meant my brother (who was in the same year as I) was the first to know. He shrugged it off and, actually, never brought it up until I finally did about a year after he found out.
The decision to tell my parents was a weighty one. We had gone to an amusement park the Saturday before. My mom and my little sister commented on the attractive boys they saw, while my dad and my brother talked about girls. Realizing I could never have a conversation like that with either, and feeling like I was missing out, I decided to tell them. I went to school that Monday, discussed it with my friends and, plucking up the courage from them, told my parents that evening. They took it well—as well as two working-class Midwestern parents could take such news in 2001—and that, save for a few further conversations over the next few weeks—really was that. (As a bit of trivia, it was Monday, 10 September 2001 – the day before 9/11. There’s a personal narrative to be written about that week in my life, I’m sure.)
At the time, it took a lot of courage. I was trembling as I sat them down. No matter who you are, coming out is never easy. In the back of your mind is always a fear of rejection and hate. Looking back on it now, though, after nearly two decades and hundreds of conversations with other LGBT people who have come out, I see that it was a relatively painless process for me. Over the years, I have wondered why my coming out was so easy compared to so many others. There were no other gay people in my family, at least not that we knew of. My family wasn’t particularly leftwing. My parents didn’t have gay friends—though they liked Ellen DeGeneres, and I always suspect she helped a lot. So what made the difference here? I have a few ideas:
- I was raised to be self-assured and independent: my parents and grandparents instilled a confidence in me that has served me well through life. They always encouraged me to do what I want, to take risks, to not be afraid of the consequences (within reason), and to make my own way.
- I was deeply introspective, even as a child: I’ve always lived in my head, even as a kid. I had friends, but the bulk of my time was spent playing alone. When you spend so much time with yourself, you can’t help but to get to know yourself on a deep and intimate level. I once knew a man who, at 23, only just realized he was gay. He saw a sex therapist because he couldn’t perform in the bedroom with women and even entertained that he might be asexual. That he was attracted to other guys never crossed his mind. I couldn’t imagine not knowing such a basic truth about yourself, but for many gay men same-sex attraction is so buried in their subconscious they don’t recognize it until years later. (It’s important to note that I’m not saying this is Phillip Schofield’s story. I don’t know what his story is, though I’d love to one day hear it.)
- I knew other LGBT kids: The autumn of 2001 was a tumultuous time in my life – among other things, I came out, 9/11 happened, and I moved from Ohio to Kentucky – but when I came out I was still living with my parents in Dayton. I was not the first student to come out at Walter E. Stebbins High School. My freshman year there was some drama when, if I remember correctly, a bisexual senior girl left her girlfriend for a football player. There was a sophomore who wore nail polish and lipstick and was openly gay. There were others, too, who blazed the trail for me. And then of course, there was the internet. AOL chat rooms, TeenOpenDiary, message boards—they all helped me find community with other gay people, some of whom were just coming out like me and others who had been out for years. I knew that coming out wasn’t the end of the world, but the beginning of living authentically, because I had others who lived that truth.
- We weren’t a religious family: We believed in God, I think, but we were not devout Christians. The one time I remember my parents talking about God was when, one December, my mom got mad at me and my siblings for not wanting to watch a program about God. It was about God promising to come for Christmas, then never showing up, except that He did three times in the form of three different needy people. I didn’t want to watch not because it was about God but because the thought of God showing up on my doorstep terrified me. We never went to church as a family, though my sister and I did go to church with friends, but being raised outside a faith tradition meant that I had little fear that my parents were going to beat me with a Bible or send me to a conversion camp or throw me out. I didn’t have the anxiety of grappling with my “mortal sin” because I was never taught that being gay was a mortal sin.
- My family believes in fairness and kindness: I think this might be the most important. Despite all the teenage “ugh I hate my parents” temper tantrums, I knew they were ultimately kind and decent people. I mentioned Ellen earlier. My mom and I used to watch her sitcom together. When she came out, I was upset because the character had never been gay before. Later I made a homophobic joke about her name, calling her “Ellen Degenerate” – a word I didn’t know what it meant but must have learned from some bigot on the television or radio (I don’t know who, but I’ve always blamed Rush Limbaugh), because I knew it wasn’t good and had to do with her sexuality. My mom snapped at me “don’t call her that,” the message being “gay people aren’t degenerates.” That stuck.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I was relentlessly bullied in my Kentucky high school. My father worried I would get AIDS. My mother said “obviously we are disappointed” when I came out (though she has since apologized profusely for the hurt those words caused and doesn’t herself remember saying them). There were stumbling blocks and learning curves for all of us. But we got there quicker than most.
Every LGBT person’s journey is different. Mine is but one of millions, and this short essay is far from the entire story. Some people had a much harder time of things than I did. Some probably had it easier. Certainly, the cultural circumstances in which we come out matter a great deal, and I benefited from coming out at the beginning of what was to be a rapid shift in public opinion on gay rights which began with Ellen and Matthew Shepherd and continues right up to today with Pete Buttigieg and now Phillip Schofield.
Ultimately, the only point of this is to share a little of my own story, which I’ve been thinking about since Schofield’s announcement. My life got a lot better after I came out. I hope Phillip Schofield’s does too.