‘Always hiding behind a mask’: Coming out a tough bridge for anyone to cross

Posted Nov. 14, 2013, at 1:29 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 14, 2013, at 6:09 p.m.

Greg Bridges-Music, a pastor at Hammond Street Congregational Church in Bangor, has been a pastor for most of his adult life, which he says gives him a unique perspective on U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud’s recent announcement that he is gay.

Although Bridges-Music didn’t voluntarily reveal his sexuality to his former congregation — he was outed from the pulpit 13 years ago by another pastor who revealed the information he’d been told in confidentiality — the 58-year-old Bangor resident can relate to Michaud’s position as a public figure.

“I lived in public life. Your family, your home, everything is open knowledge among your congregation,” said Bridges-Music, who earlier this year married his longtime partner, Mark. “So I understand where Mike is coming from. There’s a lot of scrutiny when you’re a public figure… I’ve had family members disown me and I’ve lost two jobs because I came out.”

Bridges-Music, like other gay men and women who grew up before being gay was as socially acceptable, did not feel comfortable revealing his sexuality until later in life. It hasn’t been until relatively recently that being openly gay has been commonplace; for most of American history, it was taboo.

Michaud is now one of three openly gay gubernatorial candidates in the United States, the first in U.S. history. Gay Democrats in Rhode Island and Maryland are seeking their party’s nominations to run for governor in those states, but they don’t have Michaud’s political experience or clout.

Aside from that fact, however, Michaud’s story is not unique. Countless people have had to hide their sexuality, or come out and risk losing family and friends, jobs and housing, or face the threat of physical violence.

Bangor resident Jim Libby, 52, understands well what Michaud may have gone through. Libby also grew up in a small, working-class town. As a kid in the 1960s and ‘70s, living in the Oxford County town of Dixfield, being gay was something only whispered about, often with a note of shame or condemnation.

He eventually married a woman, who he was with until he came out at age 35 — the same year he met and fell in love with the man who has been his partner for the last 17 years, Mike Gilman. The couple married in June of this year.

“It was hard growing up, with the pressure of being in a small town,” said Libby. “You’re supposed to get married and have children and forget about who you really are. We were always hiding behind a mask. When I finally admitted it to myself, and I met the man who became my husband, I knew I couldn’t lie to my wife and my family anymore.”

Libby counts himself lucky to remain friends with his ex-wife and to have supportive parents, who are now in their late 70s. Bridges-Music did not have the same experience, losing many friends and family when he was outed. Michaud informed some members of his family about his sexuality just hours before the article was published.

Mike Grondin, 60, of Bangor also was married, but did not come to terms with his sexuality until he was in his late 40s. He had been with his wife for 20 years and they had three children. He grew up in Augusta and went to Catholic school. He knew by the time he was in junior high that he was different from the other boys, but he didn’t quite know how.

“When the boys started talking about the girls, my ears perked up and I thought, ‘What’s that all about?’ I just didn’t know what to think about it,” said Grondin. “I figured, ‘Someday, I’ll think that’s something to talk about, but it’s just not there yet. It’ll come some day.’”

That day never came. Most of the gay men he saw portrayed were grossly exaggerated stereotypes. Grondin never identified with that.

“I had no idea there was more than one type of gay person,” said Grondin, who retired in 2009 after more than three decades with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “I didn’t even know any gay people at all.”

Grondin recalled going to the movies with his wife in January 1998 to see the film “In & Out,” about a high school teacher who is outed as gay on TV by a student accepting an Academy Award.

“After the movie, I told my wife, ‘Honey, that’s me,’” said Grondin, who has been with his partner, Kyle, for six years, and remains very close with his ex-wife. “It was a rough year, after that, but that’s just what it was… in the beginning, our kids just said, ‘What is going on with our parents?’ But now we’re closer than a lot of families who haven’t gone through what we’ve gone through.”

Reactions to Michaud’s announcement have varied. Some have claimed that it was a politically expedient move, though neither Libby, Grondin nor Bridges-Music buy that argument.

“I’m proud of him, that he could admit it, because it can’t be easy for a politician to do that,” said Libby. “I’m sure there are a lot of people out there still hiding, whether they are celebrities or not. I’m just glad he got to do it himself and not have someone do it for him.”

“I think he probably came out because he had to, because someone was threatening to out him. And I don’t disrespect him for that, because everybody’s journey is different,” said Grondin. “If he had come out when he was 25 or 30, would he have had the career he’s had? People might not have given him a chance. So to say, ‘Oh yeah, fine time to come out now,’ isn’t fair, because everyone’s story is different.”

As a longtime gay activist in Maine, Bridges-Music has seen attitudes change in big ways over the years, most prominently with the 2012 referendum approving same sex marriage . But he is quick to point out that despite Michaud asking, “Why should it matter?,” it clearly does still matter.

“I wish it didn’t, but clearly it does matter, or else this wouldn’t be a story,” said Bridges-Music. “Every president brings out the wife and kids, even the dog, at public appearances. If it didn’t matter, gay people would do the same thing. As long as there are kids getting beat up for being gay, it still matters.”