NBC correspondent Joe Fryer looks back on coming out: 'Visibility is vital'

NBC correspondent Joe Fryer shares his story about coming out to his family 22 years ago.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Joe Fryer

When you’re stuck inside a closet, it’s hard to picture how your family will react when you finally decide to come out.

What expression will they make? What will they say?

Will they be angry? Disappointed? Surprised?

Will they disown you? Or embrace you?

Those question marks haunted me for years. And the answers seemed impossible to find. My crystal ball was foggier than a summer morning in San Francisco. The anxiety and fear surrounding these unanswered questions were stifling, leading to depression and feelings of loneliness during my freshman year of college.

But on a November night in 1997, I finally got my answer, delivered in just two words: “I know.”

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That’s what my mom said after some force inside of me pushed me up the stairs and into her bedroom, where I finally told her I was gay.

“I know.”

She punctuated her words with a big smile.

Words cannot express the relief I felt in that moment. No anger. No disappointment. And apparently, no surprise. Her assumption first took root when I was skipping around the soccer field in fourth grade. The perm I got in sixth grade probably added to the narrative as well.

But coming out to my mom was really just step one. Over the coming weeks and months and years, I’d continue to tell relatives and friends, old classmates and new co-workers.

Even today, 22 years after I first came out, I’m still telling people. It happens, for example, when someone sees the ring on my left hand and makes a comment about my “wife.” Most of the time I politely correct them and tell them I have a partner. On occasion, I just choose to let it go.

Joe Fryer and his partner, Peter Courtesy Joe Fryer

The truth is that my mom wasn’t the very first to find out. During fall quarter of my sophomore year at Northwestern University, I started to become friends with a group of students, mostly theatre majors, who were already out and proud. As I assimilated into the group, I didn’t really have to come out or say the words, “I’m gay.” It was just sort of assumed. And that’s what got the ball rolling, paving the way for me to share my truth with my family.

Fortunately, I’ve rarely experienced a negative reaction in my lifetime. At least one that I’ve witnessed. And for that, I’m grateful.

That number is one of the main reasons I think it’s so important to share my own story. Visibility is vital. Time and time again, young people have told me about the positive impact of seeing an LGBTQ celebrity or public figure. Or even just seeing someone in their community, like a teacher or neighbor. It gives them hope and courage.

Recently, I did a story on Nathan Ivie, a Utah County commissioner. He’s Mormon, Republican and represents one of the most conservatives regions of his state. He was married to a woman and has two kids but says he was living a lie. Earlier this year, at age 40, he came out.

I asked him how it feels. “Free,” he said. “If I could use any word to describe it, it would be ‘free.’”

Courtesy Joe Fryer

As for me, I’ve been in a loving relationship with my partner Peter for more than 11 years now. (For a time, my nephew even referred to him as “Peter Partner.”) I couldn’t be happier that we’ve found each other. And our families couldn’t be happier either. Recently, my dad was searching for a new church. He would only consider congregations that embrace the LGBTQ community. As a Christian myself, that meant the world to me.

I don’t consider this essay — or the TV story that ran Thursday morning on TODAY — a “coming out” story. In my personal life, I walked out of that dark closet long ago. But most of our viewers probably don’t know my story. And if sharing my journey can make it a little easier for just one person to come out, or help just one parent accept their LGBTQ child, then it’s well worth it. Because, what I know, is that this world could use a lot more love.