This man threw himself a 'coming out' party, 40 years after first declaring his sexual orientation
Alan Gotlib decided to publicly celebrate his 1981 coming out to provide hope for 2SLGBTQ youth
It was a celebration 40 years in the making.
When Alan Gotlib first came out as gay in 1981, he did so quietly, to a virtual stranger over dinner. He was 26 and couldn't yet bring himself to tell his friends and his family. He had kept his sexual identity a tightly guarded secret for so long, it had become a way of life.
Over the years, he's come out to friends, family and colleagues. But now, four decades later, Gotlib wants to sing it from the mountain tops, to anyone and everyone willing to listen.
In April, he did just that: the musician and singer livestreamed his 40th anniversary "coming out" celebration from his Toronto living room.
Gotlib invited friends, family, fellow thespians, musicians and choirs from Canada and around the world to celebrate with him online.
"I think it's a unique milestone," Gotlib said. "It's not that I'm the only person who's lasted 40 years as a gay man ... but I don't know that people celebrate it. And I thought, 'Wow, wouldn't that be something really interesting to celebrate?'"
Gotlib wanted the event to be more than a celebration of his own life. He wanted others to benefit from his story in a tangible way. He searched for a meaningful charity and quickly landed on Rainbow Camp, a summer camp for 2SLGBT (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people.
"That has to be where the money goes, because it deals with people in the same situation I was in 40 years ago or even earlier, because it's talking about teens," Gotlib said. "And there was nothing like that around when I was that age."
Coming out was out of the question
Gotlib was born in Brantford, Ont., in 1955, to two Jewish Holocaust survivors from Poland. Both sets of his grandparents were murdered by the Nazis. After the war, his parents each made their way to Canada where they met and married.
Gotlib's mother, Regina, grew up ultra-Orthodox and survived the concentration camps — and the personal devastation of the war cast an especially dark shadow. From his earliest days, Gotlib could sense the sadness in her. He didn't want to cause his mother any more grief, even if it meant hiding his true identity.
"My well established role in my family was as the pleaser," he recalled.
In Gotlib's mind, coming out of the closet was out of the question.
In 1973, Gotlib left home to study at the University of Toronto. He lived on campus and immediately joined a new musical theatre group, New Faces.
It was a pivotal moment in his life. The New Faces members became a second family. His self-esteem blossomed.
'I was afraid'
Privately, Gotlib continued to wrestle with his sexual orientation. He didn't pursue intimate relationships with anyone of any gender.
"I was afraid," he said. Instead, he clung to the hope that he might wake up one day and discover he was straight. It didn't happen.
"It took a long time for me to really accept [my sexuality], even for myself."
That acceptance would finally come in 1981.
By then, Gotlib had graduated and was working as a French immersion teacher. One weekend, he attended a conference at the University of Western Ontario.
"There was a gentleman there that I found physically attractive, and I thought he might be gay. I wasn't sure," Gotlib said.
"What I remember in retrospect is that he was wearing Dr. Scholl's exercise sandals — I think some people at the time called them Dr. Scholl's clogs — which to me at the time translated into, 'Oh, maybe he's gay?'"
The two made plans to see each other soon after the conference.
Over their first dinner together, Gotlib's suspicions were confirmed: the man was gay.
At last, Gotlib exhaled the three long-stifled words: "So. Am. I."
"Three words I had never said before, and certainly not in front of anyone else, and not out loud, so it was very dramatic for me."
For Gotlib, however, it was too much too soon. The pair soon went their separate ways.
An unknown future
Now that Gotlib was out, the question became, what now?
"I didn't know how to proceed. I didn't have anything like Google to check this out."
He wanted to come out to friends, to the important people in his life. But he was still afraid he might lose them.
He began with his old friends from New Faces, among them, director and musical theatre writer Jim Betts.
"I think by then it was pretty clear to a lot of us that [Gotlib] was gay, and that a number of other New Faces people were also gay," recalled Betts. "It was just a question of when he was going to come to terms with that himself."
As a teacher at that time, you wouldn't want to come out because people were very worried about gay men- Alan Gotlib
Even as Gotlib opened up to a few close friends, he continued to live a life largely in the closet and remained mostly celibate.
"As a teacher at that time, you wouldn't want to come out, because people were very worried about gay men and boys. I certainly didn't want to risk my career, especially that early on," he said.
It was the early 1980s, the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and the air was thick with fear both within and outside of the gay community.
Gotlib's coming out coincided with the dark early days of the epidemic. He considers himself very fortunate.
"One might think that because of the timing of when I came out, just as AIDS was being discovered and understood, that I would be a huge risk," he said.
"But my coming out was delayed. It was all so new to me. I was green, very green, which may have been a blessing in disguise."
'They were in shock'
It wasn't until 1988, at the age of 33, that Gotlib finally came out to his parents. It was unplanned, and it was painful.
"They were in shock. They needed time to take it in, to digest it," Gotlib recalled.
"My parents often said, 'All that we want is for you to be happy.' But what they really meant is, 'All that we want is for you to be happy as we define being happy.' I think part of their concern with my coming out as well was that this was going to be a sad life for their son."
A few months after he came out to his parents, Gotlib met his partner Michael at a gay square dancing group called the Triangle Squares.
Gotlib and his partner have been together for 33 years.
In 2003, as soon as gay marriage became legal in Ontario, the couple leapt at the opportunity to wed. Though Gotlib's father had already died, his mother was there to celebrate. She walked both men up the aisle — one on each arm.
At his recent coming out anniversary party, Gotlib paid tribute to all those who have helped him along the way — his many theatre and singing friends, those from his synagogue, and from his childhood.
"I am filled with gratitude for all the blessings in my life," he said at the coming out party. "My wish is that my journey has demonstrated that there is much hope for 2SLGBTQ people to lead fulfilling rich lives.
"I'm especially hoping that young people in their teens who might be coming out and wondering 'Can I have a good life? Can I actually be happy or content?' will see that it's absolutely possible. If this story will give hope to one person who, before they heard it, thought that that life was hopeless and there's no way they could be happy, then to me it's worthwhile."
About the producer
Alisa Siegel is a CBC Radio documentary maker. She has produced stories on subjects as varied as the underground railroad for refugees in Fort Erie, daring women artists in 1920s Montreal, the return of the trumpeter swan, Canadian nurses in World War I, and violence in elementary school classrooms. She lives in Toronto with her family.
This documentary was edited by Alison Cook with Jennifer Warren.