I Had No Idea My Brother Was Gay Until the Moment He Came Out to Me

Mitch taught me about courage, love and the power of self-acceptance

It's 1992 and I'm sitting in a world religion course in Fort Worth, Texas. Soon, the notion that homosexuality is a sin sparks a debate between loudmouth fundamentalists and a whip-smart East Coaster named Emily.

I marveled at Emily's steely resolve to wear down her opponents, my blood boiling at their angry retorts. Instead of speaking my mind, I nodded after each crushing point she raised, offering vehement affirmations such as "Yeah!" "Uh-huh!" and "Right?!"

Then just as the debate dwindled into agree-to-disagree, head-shaking territory, I blurted, "Being gay isn't a choice like choosing a major—you're being judgmental," I said. "And hypocritical," I added, my unsteady voice cracking like a pubescent boy.

Emily waited for me after class. "Thanks for the backup," she said as we walked down the hall steps. "Fear makes people dumb."

"Nice voice crack, eh?" I said trying to deflect my discomfort.

"You seemed upset, like it was personal or something."

I shrugged without looking at her. Then she said, "You close to someone who's gay?"

Her question landed soft and matter-of-fact, like she was suggesting we split a pizza.

I hesitated as her words sunk in. "My brother, Mitch," I said.

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When I was 12 and Mitch was 17, he drove us to Chili's in his silver Pontiac, a 1970s low rider he called "The Le Mahhhhnz." An embellished twang often punctuated our sibling slang; the elongated vowels strengthened our bond and made us laugh like goons. Our uncompetitive personalities, a five-year age gap and an artistic family foundation also kept us close. Unlike my friends' older brothers, who hunted deer and played sports, Mitch played piano and created elaborate drawings and origami animals. Some made just for me.

In our booth surrounded by kitschy Americana wall art and animal heads wearing cowboy hats, Mitch sported his favorite denim Polo button-down he'd saved up to buy at Neiman's. His unruly brown curls needed a haircut; his dark eyes topped with bushy brows peered behind thick glasses facing my own Coke-bottle glasses—gold, wire-rimmed frames I'd chosen to match his.

Just as I stuffed a loaded potato skin into my mouth, Mitch said, "So … I'm gay."

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I'd heard the word referenced with cross-dressing and innuendo on "Bosom Buddies" and "Three's Company," but I didn't quite grasp the concept beyond my extensive TV education.

"Does that mean you won't get married?" I asked, trying to digest his words along with my dinner.

"Well, not to a girl," he said with a smirk.

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"What about Jenny?" I said remembering the girl he'd written a love letter to a few months before. My heart leapt when he'd asked me to tag along as he delivered the secret note to her mailbox.

Mitch laughed. "Oh. That's Jimmy. But I thought 'Jenny' might sound better."

We polished off the skins and moved past his big reveal to other important topics like how ranch dressing made everything taste better. I remember thinking his announcement was a little weird. I'd never met a gay person and none of my friends had gay siblings. Well, at least none that I knew about.

Mitch was my hero. Sure, we had disagreements about what to watch on television, who got to go first while playing Operation, or whose turn it was to use the tape recorder. And sometimes I got upset when he took advantage of our playroom's close proximity to the pool by pounding the "Jaws" theme song on his piano just as I cannonballed into the water. When we fought, he easily won me back with a spot-on impersonation of our mom or a dose of "Dizzy Fingers," a crazy piano riff that rendered me limp with laughter.

Mitch delivered his news around the same time I received my "Growing Up and Liking It" puberty starter kit, complete with Stayfree maxi-pads the size of kickboards. My brain's boy-radar had tuned-in early, but my body was just catching up. In the midst of training bras and rampant hormones, I floated adrift trying to understand boys and sex, and how the two intersected. I kept my boy-craziness hidden from my friends because they still believed in cooties. In a way, unleashing these suppressed feelings made me feel closer to my brother.

It was the early '80s and the dawn of AIDS, so not many 17-year-olds were coming out with Mitch's openness. Certainly not in our suburban Houston neighborhood, where football and big hair reigned. But Mitch, known more for his music and zany facial expressions than bravery, didn't want to wait. He told me along with our parents, siblings and close friends. At 12 years old, I didn't even begin to comprehend the enormity of that decision.

Like most kids in junior high, I was consumed with finding my place in the angst-ridden realm of comparison, competition, mean girls (and boys) and class separation—who was in and who was out. Concern about fitting in only deepened as I became more aware of homophobia and whispered chatter about "the gay plague" lurking in school hallways and on the news. Panic stirred in my gut. Even though Mitch was away at college, hearing about AIDs-related deaths and hate crimes terrified me. I hated the news, the hurtful jokes and slurs, but I wasn't exactly prepared to lead a revolution for gay rights in the cafeteria like a feisty heroine in an after-school special.

My adolescent brain figured if my classmates discovered Mitch was gay, they might think I was, too. Or taunt me because he was. Having divorced parents and stepsiblings already made me odd—not many of my peers had two sets of families. A gay brother would set me farther apart, so I kept my mouth shut and his closet door closed. Not just in junior high, but through high school and most of college.

Turns out, Emily, my wise classmate, was right. It was personal. That spontaneous debate exposed my shame in ways none of those kids could understand. Their religious reasoning and Emily's confident opposition opened the door for me to recognize my own small-mindedness. I feared condemnation when in reality I was the condemner who kept my brother's revelation hidden.

Mitch's rightful place in the world—being accepted and celebrated, not tolerated —meant more to me than what anyone thought about him or homosexuality. Or thought about me for that matter. Mitch trusted the strength of our relationship; he knew I loved him fully. By sharing his identity and including me in that journey, he helped shape my heart and assemble my belief system. I couldn't be more grateful.

We've come a long way since the '80s, but homophobia still exists. When I hear about bullying and hate crimes against LGBT people or tragedies like Orlando, my heart breaks for the fear and ignorance that remains. Any chance I get, I profess that love belongs to everyone with my voice and my actions. And if I hear comments that even hint at homophobia, I'm no longer afraid to speak up.

Sometimes I drop the gay-brother bomb to gauge reactions. It's a handy barometer to blast ignorant people who have no place in my life.

Of course, Mitch and I remain close. A few months ago, as we shared truffle fries instead of potato skins, I mentioned my latest story.

"It's about that night at Chili's," I said, excited to swap memories.

Blank stare.

I offered more details and soon he nodded, but his recollection of our outing was foggy at best. For him, that night was one in a series of disclosures. While he'd broken free by telling our family and the world, that moment at Chili's didn't stand out in his memory like it had in mine.

I'd taken his open confession and turned it into a secret. Shameful angst weighed on my heart as I confessed. But instead of being shocked or upset, he was resolved.

"It wasn't your job to out me," Mitch said. "I told you because I knew you'd understand —you're on my team."

While my teen-girl guilt had spiraled into adult remorse, my distress could never begin to equal the bullying and judgment I later learned he endured. Yet he soldiered on unafraid of judgment or harm.

I came out for my brother, but being real is something Mitch does every day. His courage reminds me to never be afraid—not only to flag wave with rainbowed abandon, but to always be my true self, no matter the risk.

Tags: family