Craig Peterson – Coming Out

“I never do anything halfway.”

I grew up in a home that—considering I grew up in Deer Park, Washington—was remarkably free of any bias. So when it came to GLBT issues, I was a blank slate for the most part. I understood from television and from some of the political headlines in the newspapers that [gay] wasn’t a good thing to be. But on the personal level, I never felt tremendously judged, or that my worth was being called into question. It was hard for me to come out, I’ll say that, and it was scary with my parents just because, you didn’t know [how they might react]

I came out in ’93. I started a little bit with friends in ’92, but ’93 was when I really came out. I told my family. And, for folks who know me, [they] know I never do anything halfway. I told my family in February of ‘93 and in April, two months later, I was back with the Spokane delegation at the March on Washington [for Lesbian, Bay, and Bi-Equal Rights], in Washington[, D. C.]. So I really hit the ground running, in terms of being an activist and a visible presence.

In that first seven or eight years of my coming out experience, I always thought, “Well, I’ll just have to settle for whatever . . . scraps . . . they throw me.” In some of the literature [on LGBT life] they would describe my tendencies as being somewhat of an “assimilationist.” My sexuality is an important piece of who I am, and it’s one of many pieces of who I am. So my goal—when I talk about the “scraps” issue and all that—was that I really wanted to get to the point where my sexuality wasn’t an issue. I felt like, those first several years—and maybe it was my own psychology and my own process—but I always felt like it was an issue. Whenever I went to a church gathering, or a Democratic activity, or whatever, I always felt like I was there and viewed and experienced as “a gay person.” That’s not the case anymore. I feel like, [living in Denver] folks see me as “Craig” and they see many parts of me, including my sexuality.

The one thing I want to be very careful or explicit [about] is I totally understand the coming out stuff is a process. To be fair, my sexuality was a huge of piece of me and I led with it early on in my coming-out process. I think that that’s just a piece of our process. Kind of like what happened with Ellen Degeneres where, when she came out on her [television] show, a lot of the critics said, “Oh this is just horrible, because now everything on the show is about being lesbian, and blah, blah, blah.”[1] I totally empathize with Ellen, because I knew she was working through her process. When you’ve hidden a piece of yourself for so long, it’s only natural when you first come out to finally speak to and claim that piece.

I think we just have to be gentle with each other in the gay and lesbian community, and understand that there are different stages or cycles we go through. For those folks who are quieter and living in the suburbs or whatever . . . They shouldn’t feel either threatened or compelled to criticize those who are upfront, in-your-face-kind-of-active activists. Conversely, the activists shouldn’t be pointing fingers at the folks in the suburbs saying, “This is what you should be doing.” We just have to learn that there is a time and a place for all of us to be the way we’re called to be at that time.

***

When you talk with folks in the Spokane community, especially the men I think more—because the bars, at least in my experience, were never really integrated well. Most of the gay men you’ll talk with, their coming out experience will be bar-related. They’ll talk about, “Oh yeah. I came out at Dempsey’s, Irv’s, or Hour Place, or whatever. The bars are a huge part of the coming out process.

Dempsey’s was perfect. In my sense—you could talk with others and get confirmation of this—it was really the very first time a gay bar was kind of mixed. A lot of straight young people went there as well. Just being in that bar didn’t necessarily mean you were gay or lesbian. That was a huge step forward. I think Dempsey’s, in many ways, in the social fabric, moved the GLBT movement forward for that very reason. It really caused, especially young people, to mix socially much more—and greased the wheels of the coming out process for a lot of closeted gays or lesbians as well.

I can’t remember what night of the week [I first went to Dempsey’s], but I remember a lot of the details. I got there earlier: this is very typical in smaller towns. [But at Dempsey’s] most people won’t come out until late. 11:30 is “early.” It’s really midnight and 1:00 where things really pick up. Of course, I had no clue about that. I went at like 7:00 or 8:00, thinking it would be hopping or whatever, and it wasn’t. They’re notoriously dead until at least 11:00-11:30.

In my case it turned out well, because there was a guy—I still remember his name, Lance—who came up and talked with me when I was ordering. I was really obviously nervous. He, I’m sure, could tell I was new in my process. He invited me over to a table. Actually, at that table was the first person I ever had a sort of relationship with, a friend of his named Scott. Even though when I walked in it seemed to be exactly the opposite of what I was expecting, and I felt somewhat disappointed, in retrospect it was the perfect sort of experience. If it had been wall-to-wall people, I would not have had a chance to really make that sort of connection. Lance was important the next couple of months just helping, and Scott [too], to begin to introduce me to things. I remember the next weekend I saw “Boys in the Band,” for the first time, which I’d never seen and just pieces of the GLBT culture.[2]

[1]The sitcom “Ellen,” ran from 1994-98. In 1997, the character DeGeneres played on “Ellen” came out. DeGeneres herself also came out publicly in Time Magazine (August 14, 1997) and on “The Oprah Winfrey [Television] Show.”

[2]“Boys in the Band” is a film from 1970.

***

Sources: Interview with Maureen Nickerson, [December 2006?]; transcribed by Maureen Nickerson and Laura S. Hodgman; edited by Laura S. Hodgman; held at the Northwest Museum for Arts and Culture. Interview with Laura S. Hodgman on 21 August 2012; transcribed by J. Zander; edited by Laura S. Hodgman.