Running and Coming Out for Equality
June 13, 2014 by Guest contributor
Post submitted by Dr. Mark Hegeman
My reason for running the Marine Corps Marathon as an Athlete for Equality to benefit the Human Rights Campaign is really more of a coming out story, a mixture of motivations. I am 56 and just now coming out, a process less than a year old. At this time last year I had come out to only a single friend.
I realized I was gay in my early twenties. I was clueless in high school, questioning in college and pretty sure by grad school. My concept of being gay encompassed all the bad stereotypes of the times. I had a religious based education through high school. The Internet did not exist back then and all I heard about gay people were negative and scary things
Sexual orientation exists on a spectrum. I had just enough attraction to women to delude myself into thinking I could suppress my gay side. I spent 30 years fighting being gay. I had an added incentive being in the Navy for over ten years. At first I tried to encourage my attraction to women (yep, we all know how well that worked), then I tried to just suppress my attraction to men (yep, we know how well that worked too). It was for all the usual reasons: fear, loathing, misinformation etc..
I explored my religion wondering why my "choice" was immoral ( let's just leave it that ). I finally understood that I was born this way, am never going to change, cannot be changed. It is not a sin and I am not immoral by embracing who I am. It is natural - just as natural as being straight or any other orientation on the spectrum. It may be less common, but it is natural. I am amazed at the diversity and breadth of the LGBT community.
(As an aside: I have to give thanks to "Queer as Folk" which aired around this time as the show opened my eyes to gay men as real people.)
I am one of four LGBT siblings.One sibling came out to me in 1980 and I just accepted it not fully understanding what that really meant. Another committed suicide about twenty years ago. I did not know he was gay while he was alive. I only realized it when I was putting together a memorial book and came across some things he had written.The fourth of the LGBT siblings came out several years ago while explaining why a marriage was dissolving. Finally we have one straight brother who we love anyway and we accept him for who he is.
I look at my brother's suicide and wonder how much being gay was a factor. I reflect on the times I called him a faggot while growing up. I had no idea what it really meant but did he? The statistics on suicides among LGBT youth are sickening. For years I wondered if it was worth the effort to fight being gay. There were so many times I just felt so tired and like it was pointless. My own brother's suicide actually deterred me when considering suicide myself, because I saw the emotional trauma his suicide caused others.
I used derogatory terms and made homophobic jokes and comments into my twenties trying to fit in and deny who I feared I was. Until I accepted my own sexuality, I never understood how much names can hurt. For that I am sorry. I cannot take back my words and have no way now to apologize to those I hurt but I can try to make amends.
If I can set an example as one more openly gay person a kid sees, or their parents see, or the haters see, I add to the collective 85% of people who now know someone who is gay. The more people understand the less they fear and the less they hate. By not coming out I contribute to a climate of fear and oppression, where suicide seems an out.
Coming out when older is easier in that I am not financially dependent on anyone. It can also be harder because I have lied to or hidden my identity from people I care about for so many years. The angst is both about being gay and about having lied for so, so long.
It feels forced to spontaneously tell a long time friend that I am gay. Talking about running the Marine Corps Marathon for HRC opens a natural dialogue. The usual response is " Oh, what is the Human Rights Campaign?" When I describe it as the largest LGBT rights organization they often ask why I am running for HRC and I either come out myself or sometimes I will talk about my siblings ( not quite lying but it lets me chicken out depending the circumstances).
A year ago, I decided to get in shape after many years of yo-yo weight because I finally felt good about myself . I achieved my weight loss goal of losing 60 pounds and was ready for a new goal. I was running about three miles a day by August 2013 when I received an email from HRC looking for volunteers to run the Marine Corps Marathon. If you asked me then, I would have said "I hate running and anyone who would run 26.2 miles needs counseling". Something about the purpose and the challenge struck a chord with me. So I decided, "I can do this. I need to do this".
The short version of why I am running the Marine Corps Marathon as an Athlete for Equality to benefit the Human Rights Campaign is to pay back the HRC for all they have done for me, to atone for those I wronged with my words or actions, to make it safer and easier for those struggling with, or because of, who they are and to force myself to come out for myself and to increase the visibility of gays in general.
So, Mark, how is that working out for you? Well, I have come out to more people although I still chicken out sometimes. I have come out to my siblings but not my parents. Anyone who looks at my Facebook page can not help but know. I no longer take my magnetic HRC sticker off my car when I drive to the office or to friends' homes. I don't think I can say "I hate running" with a straight face anymore (although the four month training program starting in June looks daunting) I am meeting people in the training programs and I am meeting some great guys since I joined the DC Front Runners and Athletes for Equality (and women also but in case you did not notice, I like men)
I achieved the suggested donation goal within two weeks and then raised the bar myself to motivate me to keep pushing. If I am going to devote so many hours a week for a year, I want to make it benefit HRC as much as I can. Receiving all those donations from family, friends and colleagues is a nice feeling of support. I was very surprised at the pace and the generosity of the donations. There is a part of me that still has a hard time feeling good about myself. Thinking others can really like me for who I am has been an eye-opener for me.
Thank you to the Human Rights Campaign for all you have done and for giving me this opportunity give back, come out and become my true self.
You may notice I refer to the HRC as "they" rather than "it". To me the Human Rights Campaign is more than an organization - it is a living, breathing collective entity made up of all those individuals LGBT or ally who belong to and support it.
And now for a shameless plug: If you would like to make a donation to support me in my efforts, go to www.HRC.org/MCMHEGEMAN