Gregory Boroff is the Executive Director of Friends of Hudson River Park. Gregory returned to his hometown high school in Rumson, NJ and shared his story with LGBTQ youth through Live Out Loud’s Homecoming Project. This is the story he shared with the next generation of LGBTQ and allied youth:
I’m really excited to be here today. But I’m also very nervous. I have not stepped foot in this building since 8th grade and even the thought of coming back here almost gave me a mini panic attack. No I did not go to high school here even though I’m born and raised in Rumson. The town has changed somewhat since I left here in 1986, but a lot of it seems just the same. I loved spending time in the small public library and going to the beach in the summer. The bridge heading into Sea Bright used to seem SO long to me. The last time I was even in this high school was for my 8th grade graduation rehearsal. But we’ll get back to that a little later.
Being here today is a sort of therapy for me. I left this building in 1982 a broken, insecure, lonely kid. Today I’m here as a proud gay man. So even though some of the stories I’m going to tell you are sad, an important message is that things can change for the better almost overnight when you have people in your life that believe in you. I love that I’m here at RFH, speaking to a GSA. I’m here excited to talk with any out LGBTQ students but also equally excited to talk to the straight allies that are in the room. I realized in preparing for today that straight people don’t play the role of the villains in my story. Sure, some of them do. But so many of the key heroes I’m going to tell you about were and are the straight friends I’ve been fortunate enough to know over the years.
So back to the beginning. My story is not about coming out. I was always the gay kid, even before I think anyone associated my being gay with my sexual orientation. Even in Nursery School my wanting to play with the girls was considered a major issue. So much so that my nursery school teacher called my mother in one day to discuss how to break me of this behavioral pattern. It clearly didn’t work. I felt comfortable with the girls, the nice ones at least. Straight boys scared me. They were so rough with each other. “Kill the Guy” was the game they played during recess. I just wanted to hang out with the girls and talk about silly things like TV and music.
Everything was OK until about 5th or 6th Grade. I had a few female friends, and the boys for the most part left me alone. I hung out with a couple of boys in my direct neighborhood after school, mostly because I had a trampoline in my backyard they all wanted to use, but they never admitted to being my friend during the day. They also never stood up for me when the other kids made fun of me. That made me feel really sad and looking back I realize it made me not trust people to be there for me. I remember getting invited to kids’ birthday parties when I was really young, but it was really the parents who invited me, and as I got older the invitations stopped. I didn’t even bother having birthday parties because no one would come. I’m telling you these stories not to be overly dramatic but to try and convey to you just how lonely I was back then.
Things changed drastically when hormones starting affecting everyone in seventh and eighth grade. Now no one would hang out with me, but even worse the shaming and insults became a nonstop activity by the kids at school, and again no one ever stood up for me. It got to the point where I would not want to leave my house for anything other than school. I often think what it would be like if social media had existed. I could always at least escape into my room. I hear people say it’s so much easier for gay kids now, but I’m pretty sure that having people use Facebook to taunt me 24/7 would have been enough to make it completely unbearable. I’d really like to hear what you think about this after I finish telling my story.
My abuse was never physical, even though the threat of being beat up was constantly used against me. One time I was told by a boy in front of a larger group that he would never hit me because he would never hit a girl. Now I think “big deal” when I recall what he said, but in 8th grade, and in front of a crowd, it was humiliating. Gym was always the worst. Even thinking about the locker room and any of the sports, but especially baseball and dodge ball, makes me slightly nauseous.
I did not have one single friend in the entire school as we walked over from Forrestdale to RFH for rehearsal the day of my 8th grade graduation. We were placed in a classroom like the one we’re in today waiting to be brought into the main auditorium. All around me kids were laughing and talking with their friends. I just sat there embarrassed and afraid. Embarrassed that I was such a loser that no one wanted to talk to me and afraid that any moment I would become the focus of being ridiculed. I made it out of that room with just a few remarks. That was OK with me. That was the norm. But then we got to the actual rehearsal. Our names were called one by one and we were told to walk onto the stage as if receiving our diploma. My name got called out and someone yelled out homo and then a group of kids joined in calling me all different variations of the same word; queer, faggot, loser. Laughter filled the room. No one was told to stop by a teacher. No one got in trouble. Can you believe in a room full of students and teachers, no one stood up and stopped this? I went home and told my mother that I was not going to my graduation that night. No one in my family questioned why, not even my grandfather who came in to town just to see my graduate. We all went to a quiet family dinner instead.
There was absolutely no way I was going to high school at RFH. The thought of being in the halls, and oh my god gym class, was too much for me to even begin to comprehend. Ironically, my way out was to attend MAST. Many of you probably know the naval high school on Sandy Hook. It’s ironic because this was a time when gays were banned from the military and yet my escape as a gay teenager was to go to ROTC.
I cannot begin to tell you how much MAST changed my life. The kids that went there could not have cared less if I was gay. I had friends from my first day. I was actually popular soon after that. Sure once in a while a senior would call me a faggot, but it was very rare, and they called everyone a faggot (not that it made it right). But at least at that I time I knew it was used in ignorance and not at me for being gay specifically. My self-esteem improved, my grades got better, I started leading school clubs and activities. I was happy.
My best friend in high school was Sal. Sal was hands down the most popular kid in school. Students in every grade and all the teachers loved him. He was special, and he told me he was my friend because I was special. He would never let anyone put me down, and he truly had my back. Most importantly, he helped me celebrate what made my different. The behavioral traits that I was teased about in grade school was now being recognized as creativity and leadership. It was the confidence that Sal and just about everyone at MAST helped me develop that changed my life.
One story that always stands out to me is when I was outed as a dancer in 10th grade. Boys taking dance class back in the eighties was definitely not an accepted activity, but I loved to dance more than anything else in the world. It was an escape for me, a time to just let go. I had been taking ballet and jazz five days a week for several years. My dance teacher was so excited when I won Junior Mister New York City Dance of America in 1984 that she took out a quarter page ad, without telling me, that included my dance photo and announced my victory in the local newspaper. This quickly made its way to MAST and instead of being made fun of for dancing, I was congratulated. Something I had hidden about myself for years, because I was afraid of what other’s would think, was in fact no big deal.
A really rewarding experience that happened to me about 10 years after high school was one night when I was attending a Broadway show opening and a younger man came up to me and asked if I was Gregory Boroff. I have a very distinct and very loud voice so this was not the first time this had happened. I said yes, and he continued to tell me “you probably don’t remember me I’m Chris and we rode to MAST each day when I was a freshman and you were a senior. I wasn’t out like you, even though I knew I was gay, but I remember feeling so much better knowing that someone like you could be out and proud. You literally changed my life”. That was the first time I thought about how important that statement, out and proud, really is. We can’t change what people think of the LGBTQ community until we are confident enough to show them that we deserve respect and equality.
Another story that drives this home is my relationship with my partner of almost 21 years Thomas who is here with me today. Thomas and I met in 1992. We couldn’t really date because Thomas was still in a relationship with his college girlfriend of four years but he was out when we met again a year later, and we’ve been together ever since.
In 1995 we decided to have a commitment ceremony. Now gay marriage is starting to become legal all across the country and across the world and it’s even right here in NJ. But even having a commitment ceremony that had no legal weight behind it was extremely rare back when we had ours. None of the 120 guests who attended had ever seen two men exchange vows. It was extremely moving for everyone there. There were a few key people we thought wouldn’t be able to handle it, so we chose not to invite them. We regret that decision to this very day. We didn’t give them the opportunity to accept us so now our commitment to each other is shadowed with secret and shame. Don’t ever make assumptions on what you think people will feel about you. All you can control are your own actions and behaviors. It’s up to others to decide what works or doesn’t work for them. I have a friend who confronted his mother by telling her that she doesn’t accept him being gay and she responded by saying how can I form any opinion at all when you never tell me anything about yourself?
Two really great stories I have about giving people that chance to accept you involve Thomas’ family who is now also my family. Thomas’ brother Phil is a real frat boy/bouncer sort of guy. The very kind of guy actually that I most feared growing up. I was walking down the street in NYC one day when I passed Phil and a group of his male co-workers. My childhood voice immediately sent warning signs to my head saying that Phil is going to be embarrassed by me in front of his friends. But instead he walked right up to me, gave me a big hug, and introduced me to his friends as his brother’s partner. And to my surprise there was not a single look of disgust or shock, not a sneer, just friendly hellos.
The final story that I’ll share with you is how scared Thomas was to introduce me to his family about a year after we met. Thomas’ mother and father grew up in Italy and Thomas thought their old world values would never make it possible for them to accept him being gay. Now he was bringing a very out man home to meet them as his boyfriend. Thomas was a nervous wreck, but we survived the evening with lots of homemade wine. Soon after, Thomas and I were expected to be in Long Island for family dinner every Sunday, a stocking with name on it was hung on the fireplace, and photos of me with the immediate family were placed around the house. Fast forward 18 years, and I was working in a high-level job that had me traveling around the world probably 75% of each month. Thomas’ mother Phyllis pulled me aside and in her very thick Italian accent, which I will not try and imitate for you, she said “I don’t like this job” and I said “what?” “You’re supposed to be taking care of my Tommy.” “Phyllis, Thomas is 44 years old. He can take care of himself.” And she ended the conversation by saying “You need to take care of my son”. Thomas and I were scared his mother wouldn’t accept our relationship. Not only did she accept us fully, but she somehow thought that I was like a housewife from the fifties who was supposed to wait on her son. Needless to say that I do whatever Mother Sodano tells me to do, so I left that position and took a job that requires no travel.
So that’s my story. I hope hearing the bad and the good helped even a little. I am so amazed that I am speaking to a GSA at Rumson Fair Haven High School. I applaud each and every one of you, gay or straight, for making a difference. I hope you remember two things from what I shared today: the way you treat other people today will affect them greatly, positively or negatively, for their entire lives and let people see the real you, don’t assume what they think about you. Ultimately, you control your own story. I thank you for taking time to allow me to share mine today. This feeling of closure is like nothing I could ever put into words.