Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day. For many LGBTQ+ people, coming out involves sharing their sexual orientation and/or gender identity for the first time. Young people in search of support in their identities can contact The Trevor Project's TrevorLifeline 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386 or by texting START to 678678.
My memory of the day is crystal clear.
I was in fifth grade, enjoying my favorite part of the school day -- recess! Monkey bars, freeze tag, dodge ball -- basically anything that would distract me from what I thought at the time was boring: sitting at my desk.
But that was the first year I can remember feeling a little different.
My friends, who I'd known since kindergarten, and I pretty much agreed on everything.
We all got Nintendo at the same time, dressed similarly and found the same things uninteresting; it was the glue that held us together.
That day, it seemed like I was the only one who wanted to get this game of dodgeball started.
The guys -- my friends and fellow fifth graders -- were all huddled up.
So I joined the circle, trying to figure out what everyone was whispering about.
Turns out, they were all enamored with a new female classmate who had transferred into our class. Hearing the other boys, I knew immediately there was some sort of disconnect that I had never detected before.
The attraction and feelings they were describing were foreign to me.
But I kept my mouth shut, mostly for fear I'd open myself up to ridicule.
ABC News’ Gio Benitez writes letter to his younger self for National Coming Out Day: 'It will all be OK'
- Oct 11, 2022
I had been called sissy earlier that year -- and it stung.
Not being myself that one random day in fifth grade would become the shaky foundation I would live nearly two decades of my life -- pretending to be something I wasn't.
I feared being the butt of jokes.
I feared my traditionally Cuban, machista family would abandon me.
I feared rejection.
These were tough things to understand as a young adult, so I didn't even try!
I simply brushed that internal "who am I?" conversation under the carpet for as long as possible.
Along the way, as I tried to make sense of my emotions, I dated and got to love some truly amazing women that taught me so much about character and being true to oneself.
By the time I turned 24, the toll of pretending to be something I wasn't had turned to pure agony.
I could barely muster the forced smiles or fake, cheery conversations.
What I thought was something I could ignore for the rest of my life, led me to a deep depression. I even considered the unthinkable.
Why would I want to go on living a life where I could never be myself?
The question, for one very dark period of my life, was stuck on repeat in my mind.
But thankfully, I was able to harness those dark thoughts.
Instead of beating myself up, I made the conscious decision to take stock of all the many things I had accomplished.
I had defied the odds growing up a Black kid in a relatively poor, violent neighborhood, becoming the first one in my family to attend college and pursue a career -- not just a job.
If I could celebrate these bits and pieces of me, why couldn't I celebrate all of me?
That was the question that was now stuck on repeat.
So, I went out on a limb and told my mom first.
"Those people you sometimes talk about mom, well I'm one of them," I said.
Baffled, since I provided zero context, she replied, "What do you mean? What are you talking about? Are you in trouble?"
Suddenly there was a lump in my throat and it seemed my voice had vanished.
After about 30 seconds, and mentally jumping off of Mount Everest, I squealed as if someone had hit the fast-forward button on my voice.
"I'm gay, one of those people. I'm a gay man and I can't hold it any more. I have to tell you, mom."
She paused and started to take deep breaths for about 10 seconds -- which felt like 10 years -- and then she said, "That doesn't change anything! You're my son."
"I love you and will never stop loving you and I'm here no matter what."
Suddenly every single insecure, horrifying, uncomfortable moment I had until that point flashed before me. But those moments somehow, instantly, didn't matter anymore.
Tears streamed down my face.
My shoulders suddenly felt light.
My spine seemed to lengthen.
And I somehow knew in that moment that even if no one else were ever to accept me for who I am, I had the acceptance of the person that mattered most in my life.
As I started to peel away the thick cocoon I had built around my life, my mindset changed.
What I once thought was my "problem" I now realized wasn't a problem at all.
'Even if no one else were ever to accept me for who I am, I had the acceptance of the person that mattered most in my life.'
Would I still be rejected? Yes.
Would there still be people who wouldn't accept the true me? Yes.
But my livelihood and self-respect was no longer attached to what those people believed or didn't believe about me.
Making the decision to come out profoundly changed my life.
It deepened my relationships with the people that mattered.
It removed a blindfold allowing me to see those in my life who didn't matter.
Coming out allowed me to find and marry the love of my life.
It gave me the courage I needed to pursue a competitive career after so many told me I would fail.
Coming out strengthened my bond with my mother.
And coming out also helped me connect with what I now call my "chosen family" of friends and loved ones who help me live life and smile in ways I never thought would be possible.
Coming out is a process that happens on your timetable, not anyone else's.
And while sometimes it's easy to focus on the dark days, you can't stop believing that there are better days ahead -- trust me, there will be better days.
For a long time, I kicked myself for not being brave enough to be true to me when I was with that group of friends during recess back in fifth grade.
I felt alone, like an alien.
Now, I hold on to hope that as more of us share our stories, a day will come when no one will ever have to feel that way again.