by Matthew Huffman
I found that it is still possible to have self-realizations even after you think you know yourself so well.
I was born and raised in Ohio, right in the heart of Midwest country and the 14th worst state for LGBTQ+ individuals. I came out almost 20 years ago (to myself) and about 15 years ago publicly. For as long as I could remember, and even up until about a week ago, I always considered myself a touch-averse person in my romantic relationships. Things like cuddling, holding hands, public affection, etc. didn’t feel comfortable for me. This aversion had been a part of me for so long that I just figured that’s who I was.
Recently, my husband and I spent a week in San Francisco, California, and something happened that I previously thought impossible:
I held my husband’s hand–proudly and publicly.
You probably couldn’t find a moment where I wasn’t holding my husband’s hand on this trip, something I did publicly more in this one week than I did ever in the 15 years since coming out.
It took this week for me to understand what was truly going on with me, and what had been going on for most of my life. As it turns out, I wasn’t uncomfortable with physical touch; I had merely internalized the Midwestern attitude, stigmas, and shame I felt and saw growing up. These harmful mentalities had so deeply ingrained themselves into my brain that it impacted how I behaved both in public and private.
It wasn’t that I avoided holding hands with my husband or previous partners because I didn’t like the feeling, I didn’t hold their hands because I was closing off a part of me that the Midwest told me was “wrong” and caused deep-rooted shame for knowing it was a part of me. But I also recognize that I didn’t know it was possible to feel any differently, because I hadn’t ever seen anything different. After so long of hiding pieces of myself in the shadows so other people felt comfortable, I eventually got used to the darkness. After doing that for 20 years, it just became part of who I am.
A sweeping generalization, yes, but the Midwest appears to breed this attitude. Sometimes it’s little things like sideways glances or tension in the air so strong it feels tangible. Sometimes it’s more obvious, like when you are described by someone with relief that you’re “not one of those gays.” Sometimes, it’s worse– like when you experience blatant homophobia or assault and when you reach out for help you are ignored because it is such an ingrained part of the Midwest fabric that you are seen as ‘overreacting’ for even speaking out.
So, for some, you filter yourself down to become the most palatable version of a queer person that the Midwest can tolerate–not because you want to, but because it feels like a necessary survival technique.
Visiting a place like San Francisco, where there is no embedded stigma or systemic environment of shame, I felt the most comfortable as a gay man as I had ever felt in my life. That deep hidden part of me was finally able to step out the shadows and experience peace.
Part of my heart breaks for the piece of me that I hid away for so long. I always heard stories about “queer-friendly” cities like San Francisco and Provincetown, but nothing prepared me for how freeing and comforting a city like that would actually be. The Midwest in me never imagined that a place like that could exist. I love being a Midwesterner, but my heart aches for what could be.
I want you to know that even someone like me—who at this point in my life views himself as openly proud and emotionally stable—even after all this time, I still struggle.
But being in a place like San Francisco opened my eyes to how much more proud and more comfortable I can be as an openly queer person and has given me the strength to keep that piece of me from going back into the shadows. 🔥
Matthew Huffman is a Cleveland native who is a full-time husband, dog parent, wine and video game enthusiast, and occasional rocket scientist.