Pinellas residents talk about coming out of the closet

10/12/11 Janelle Irwin
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Yesterday was National Coming Out Day. Members of the North Pinellas LGBT community shared their coming out stories at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Clearwater last night. Some successful locals said things are getting better.

National Coming Out Day began in 1988 as a means to give LGBT individuals the courage to live a life of authenticity. R.P. Stanley is a Navy veteran and owner of a military memorabilia website. He said initiatives like the “It Gets Better Campaign” make being openly gay more acceptable than it once was.

“There was no dancing, no holding hands, none of this stuff. In the parks, the bar - you go to the bar, you can go in the bar, but there’s no dancing – I got put out once for dancing. So, now I think that some of the young people, they don’t know what it was really like and they really need to be reminded. And I’m saying that to say this, there is a generational divide, always has been.”

Brian Winfield is the communications director of Equality Florida, and began his adult life in a relationship with a woman. He described the moment he realized he was gay as feeling like a bolt of lightning. He said the media has played a role in fostering an environment that embraces alternative lifestyle choices.

“The full repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell” occurred on September 20th, and just two days later we celebrated the one-year anniversary of the downfall of Florida’s infamous ban on, adoption ban that prevented gay and lesbian individuals from adopting in the state. So, that was a huge news cycle. We had editorials published in mainstream press and those kinds of stories happen on a regular basis.”

Even though times have changed since the inception of Coming Out Day, many young people have a hard time taking that first step out of the closet. Tristan Byrnes came out twice; once as a lesbian and again as transgender. He said telling his parents was terrifying, but ultimately they just wanted him to be happy.

“I wrote them a letter. I wanted to put all my thoughts down on paper. I wanted them to accept it, to read it, to think about it and then respond. I was afraid of what that instant reaction would be. So, I mailed it and sat and freaked out for two days. And then I got an email. She didn’t call me, my mom didn’t call me, she emailed me. And she said, ‘I got your letter, it makes complete sense’. And I went, ‘really’? We talked later and I asked her, ‘why does it make sense’? And she said, ‘well, because I always knew you weren’t a lesbian, I just didn’t know what it was’. And I said, ‘well if you knew that, why didn’t you tell me’?”

Byrnes is now a gender therapist and works to help those going through situations like the one he experienced. All of the speakers are in successful long-term relationships and Byrnes and his wife are seeking adoption. They say their stories show that strong families come in all shapes and sizes.

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