Anyone who knows me in real life knows I’m not a huge fan of coffee. This isn’t borne out of any malice; I’ve just never really found any flavor combination that speaks to my soul. I don’t hear its siren song when I emerge from the world of sleep like others do. If I don’t have to do any higher-level thinking or problem-solving for the first hour or so of consciousness, I’m fine and shoo away sleepiness without it and am ready to go.
That being said, for reasons beyond my own understanding, I have acquired a surprising amount of coffee mugs throughout the years. Some are sentimental keepsakes from childhood vacations; others are Christmas gifts, covered with jokes or quotes or souvenirs of travel. All of them tend to carry tea, juice, or Moscow mules to my mouth more often than java. But there’s one mug that surprised me the most — and that I will keep close by for the rest of my life.
Flashback to about twenty years ago. I was a senior in high school and had finally found my crowd (all part of a Unitarian youth group) after shooting a film with them during the previous summer. One of those friends, Bill, was a tall, gangly, soft-spoken member of the gang with long, springy coils of raven-black hair. He was one of only two from the group who had a ride (an ancient, buttercream Mercedes), so we traipsed about town together a lot, listening to Simon and Garfunkel albums and taking personality quizzes at the local Scientology Institute just to mess with them.
Bill lived in a townhouse with his father, Charles: a friendly, bald-as-a-cue-ball, welcoming man who seemingly had no problem with hormone-fueled children running amok in his home at any and all hours. Charles was a single dad, loving, and doing his damnedest to give Bill a good life. That included quirky little trappings that still stick with me. I particularly remember a skinny cactus in the corner of a room that served as a year-round Christmas tree, trimmed with strings of decorative chili pepper lights — a nod to our Southern California climate.
But one of the biggest things I remember about Charles was that he was a gleefully out gay man — this, in the early 2000s, in a town that liked to think it was more progressive than it often was. I don’t remember Bill having any discomfort with this fact, and Charles rarely mentioned it except maybe in a passing joke. But his show of pride was strewn about everywhere in his home.
More than anything, I remember a T-shirt Charles wore all the time from some LGBTI organization. On its front was a Shel Silverstein-esque drawing of a young man in hot pants, leaning against a tree, and the boy was saying, “Ollie, ollie, oxen-free!” On the back of the shirt, it wryly declared: “Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
Charles’s casual courage about being gay really struck me as a young bi girl, deeply in the closet and terrified to emerge from it in the post-Matthew Shepard years. His demeanor was friendly but brooked no questioning of his hard-won identity, and I had nothing but admiration for it. It was his outness that helped show me a different life was possible. Within a few months, I finally said out loud, “I’m bisexual” for the first time — to Bill and those other friends from my youth group.
Most people who know me now know I’m pretty obnoxious about my identity. They would barely recognize the timid girl that first came across Charles and his utter joy about his queerness. But after a decade or so of bi erasure after high school, I’d finally had had enough. I remembered Charles’s bravery, found a new support network that affirmed my identity, and took a bullhorn to my bisexuality. But I never got to thank him for lending me that courage. I don’t know if he even knew, or sensed, that I was bi when I was a teen.
I hadn’t seen Charles for over fifteen years when, about two years ago, Bill informed me that he had passed. I was heartbroken but, unfortunately, was unable to make it back to my hometown for the beachside ceremony to celebrate his life. I wrote as tender of an email as I could to Bill in apology, expressed my sincere condolences, and recalled the story of the T-shirt to him. I thanked him for the invite and thanked Charles’s spirit for instilling courage in me to be my most authentic, bi self.
About a month later, I came home from a graveyard shift at my survival job to a small package at the front door. That’s funny, I thought. I don’t remember ordering anything from Amazon. But then I saw the box came from Bill’s address. When I opened the package, I came across this coffee mug:
While sorting out Charles’s affairs, Bill came across the famed shirt, well-loved and too tattered to wear. But he made sure to scan the pattern, put it on a coffee mug, and sent it to me for safekeeping as a surprise and a thank-you for my note.
Now I see the mug every day and smile.
Why do I bring up this deeply personal story? Well, for one, I wanted to show readers that there are very real people behind these articles who have struggled to accept their sexual identity, same as them. But also, seeing the mug daily reminds me that living my life out loud — through my writing, performances, and other forms of expression — can inspire others to live their own full truths.
I don’t take that responsibility for granted. I know how hard-won it can be. But I also know how living bi and boldly can create space for others in the future to not have to wrestle with their sexual identity half as much. They can know I am a safe person to talk to, and if I can live out loud, that maybe they can, too.
Charles’s life was a great way to show there is more than one way to be out — and they are all brave. It’s totally okay to strut in a Pride parade. And it’s valid to be out in a quieter fashion, decorating your home with trinkets of queer love and wearing your pride quietly on a shirt, signaling to closeted teens and children you will provide a judgment-free space if they need it. (I also recognize it’s not always safe to be overtly out, so I hope everyone does what is best for them, factoring in their own circumstances.)
My point is that, however you are out — be it with a shout or in a whisper — it helps to normalize queerness and impacts future generations. Sometimes even one T-shirt can fuel a beautiful, internal revolution.