James first identified himself as a gay man when he was 16 years old, though he knew he’s been different since 7.
“While [my brother and I] looked through the JCPenney Christmas catalog, he would turn to the girls in bras and panties and I would turn to the boys in underwear,” he said. “There was an immediate recognition of a difference between us.”
And once during his childhood, his father had used the f-slur at him.
“That was the first time I had ever heard that directed at me,” James said, which led him to ask himself, “am I really a gay man?”
Back then, he said he would identify as more fluid because he was still dating women as well.
“That went on for a while before I realized I liked guys a lot more than women and I’d rather be with a man. It just fell into place,” he explained.
When James was 17 years old, he had to lie about his sexuality to join the military but was open about it once he started serving.
However, the first time he came out publicly was in a class at community college in 1979.
“After procrastinating [on an assignment], I got in front of the class and told them, ‘I could be your brother, your doctor, your dentist … and I’m gay. Let’s discuss it.’ Afterwards, the professor came up and asked me if I could do that in his next class.”
About a year and a half after this, James’s family heard about his sexuality down the grapevine. Once his mother heard, she asked him to promise not to tell his father “Because it would devastate him.”
“I do not agree with that but if that’s what you want for me, that’s what I’ll do,” James said. “So I remained silent to my family for a long time. I lived an openy gay life outside of them: I wrote newsletters, I was an advocate and a protester.”
At around 40, his sisters asked James if he was gay at his lesbian neice’s wedding in his parent’s backyard. “I was so taken aback by the question. Is that something I really need to answer? Don’t they know by now?”
He did tell them yes and the same promise he gave to his mother.
The next day, his mother texted him and said he could bring home any man he wanted, and his dad would have to deal with it.
“When I finally did bring a man, my father fell in love with him without issue.”
This person James brought home was someone he met in the Air Force at 17, with whom he said he had a “bromance” type of relationship. In 1980, he came out to him.
In 1982, right before Christmas, “he expressed his love to me, that he had fallen in love,” James said. And when they went home to celebrate the holidays with his family, James’s siblings saw something “radically different” between the couple.
But their relationship then took a dramatic turn.
The Monday after that Christmas, James woke up and went to his new job. Shortly thereafter, he was called by the police department to come home immediately – his new partner was very sick and ended up passing away from a severe case of coronary artery disease.
But when James had to transfer his body back to his home in Chicago, his dad wouldn’t let him go alone.
To have his father be so supportive in that time of James’s life was “beyond my means. It felt great.”
James has had to lie about his sexuality to serve in Boy Scouts, the Air Force and to be admitted to a seminary, which he said all gave him “growth, understanding and direction.”
“There was a dichotomy of lying to be part of them, then growing to succeed.”
But for those who aren’t ready or aren’t in a safe space to come out, James said it takes time to develop one’s own strength to be themselves.
“And when they are themselves, there will be people who surround, embrace and empower them,” he said. “That first step coming out is a personal journey that nobody else will encourage. Every coming out story is unique, personal, and celebrated. We need to let people that the door has been unlocked for them and that others will be there when they’re ready to take that step to come out, people will embrace them.”
But something too worth noting, is that it likely won’t be someone’s last time coming out.
“I’m still coming out. It’s a lifetime journey, and we need to recognize that early,” James explained. “Because of the reality we live in, for someone sitting in the closet, I would encourage them to be as comfortable as they can in that closet. In time, they’ll find it in their heart, their mind and their entire being that this is who they are.”