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Jonathan Mayo is the artist and creator behind Cleaning Closets, an oral history project that collects and shares true coming out stories from every sides of the closet door, both from the perspective of LGBTQ people as well as the family and friends they come out to.

Mr. Mayo’s goal is sharing all the points of view so they can help us find common ground and make the coming out process easier for everyone involved. Through stage plays, a web series, photos, and a film documentary, Jonathan hosts panels in schools around the country to reach out with honesty and courage a diverse crowd spanning around all ages, genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations to work as a catalyst towards a more empathic coming out process. You can read, listen, and watch all the stories he collected on cleaningclosets.org

"We come out in many different ways as humans, not just like as LGBT people but like the human race, we have to come out as a political party and come as a certain religion."
— Jonathan Mayo


Transcript

Jonathan Mayo (guest): I have this memory of this conversation with my mother and she told me, she was like, “I blamed myself for you being gay.” And then she was like, “But then I stepped back and I realized, you came out to be a very smart young man, and you came out to be exactly the person I raised.” And she’s like, “So I did nothing wrong.” And it was at that moment that I realized, “Wow, she went through a process just like I did.” She had her coming out process. We come out in many different ways as humans, not just like as LGBT people but like the human race, we have to come out as a political party and come as a certain religion. I think any time you stayed publicly to people that you are not the norm, the general consensus, then you are coming out as something other.

Simone Salis (host): I am Simone Salis and it this is Hoomans with today’s guest, Jonathan Mayo.

S. Salis: Jonathan Mayo is an artist and creator behind cleaning closets, an oral history project that collects and shares to coming out stories from both sides of the closet door, both from the perspective of LGBTQ people as well as the family and friends may come out to. Mr. Mayo’s goal is sharing all the points of view so they can help us find common ground and make the coming out process easier for everyone involved. Through staged plays, a web series, photos and a film documentary, Jonathan host panels in schools around the country to reach out with honesty and courage, a diverse crowd, spanning around all ages, genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations to work as a catalyst towards a more empathic coming-out process. You can read, listen, and watch all the stories he collected on cleaningclosets.org. Jonathan, you focus on empowering people who come out to share their stories, but not just that, you ask family members their point of view and friends how they feel, anybody that is close to whoever had to come out and what happened to them too. You want to hear their stories and what they felt at the moment. And I’m curious about yours. When did you come out? The first time at least, did you come out?

J. Mayo: Right, the first time, because through this projects I’ve learned, we come out multiple times throughout life and in multiple ways. But… so yeah, I mean, I guess I’ll tell you a little bit about the story of coming out to my parents. I think sometimes that’s the hardest one for people.

S. Salis: Yeah.

J. Mayo: I came out to my mom on the phone in college. So I said, “You know, I realized I was gay when about junior year of high school, even though my whole life growing up in Kentucky in the south, the Bible Belt, like I grew up people teasing me all the time. And before we even knew what like gay was, it was like, ‘Hey girl! You’re a girl,’ and like, ‘No, I’m not!’” like, you know? And so… and then as I got older in middle school, that’s where like words like ‘fag’ and ‘queer’ and ‘gay wad’; I heard that one a lot.

S. Salis: Okay.

J. Mayo: And then with the last name like…

S. Salis: First time in my life. (Laughs)

J. Mayo: Yeah… oh, really? Yeah, it’s a weird one to me, I always thought it was weird. And then with the last name like Mayo, I got ‘Gayo’ a lot. So, yeah, I know… so…

S. Salis: Improving creativity a little bit in being offended. (Laughs)

J. Mayo: Right, exactly, exactly, exactly. So then junior year of high school, it just finally like clicked and I was like, “Oh, I am gay.” But I’m too scared now to tell people because I’ve just been harassed for… for it for so long for being feminine a little more effeminate than other people. And so it was just it was something I had to keep inside and keep it secret. And this is before the Internet, this is where we have like gay TVs on… on television…

S. Salis: Yeah.

J. Mayo: I mean, gay shows on television.

S. Salis: Right.

J. Mayo: So it was like…

S. Salis: I can still remember when Will & Grace… sorry, came out. It was a big thing for me. I was in Italy especially, it came out like 1 or 2 years after. So it was barely approaching high school and it was…

J. Mayo: Queer as Folk, I think, had been out.

S. Salis: Right.

J. Mayo: But it was on like one of the premium channels.

S. Salis: Right.

J. Mayo: I was like literally flicking through and watching it on static like, “Ooh! What’s the show like? I’ve hear about it,” and, you know? And so it was just… I just kept it a secret for my like last 2 years of high school. And then I went away for college and actually went to an even smaller town in Appalachia. And I thought, “Oh, my gosh! How am I supposed to come out here?” And it was about halfway through the first semester that it… yeah, people came up to me and they’re asking like, “Well, are you gay?” and I’m like, “I… I don’t know,” when really I knew, I didn’t know how to answer the question. And then I was in the theater department so it’s like it eventually just became easier and like people were accepting me for who I was. And I was like, “Great! I can totally be me and totally be effeminate and totally be out!” And then one day I’m on the phone with my mom and she’s just checking in seeing how things are going, I’m getting ready for class and she… she’s asking me how things are going, I said, “Well, you know, I’ve been doing a lot of stuff in the theater department, I’m undecided with a major right now but, you know, I’m really having a good time, you know, in the theatre department, working on these shows and meeting people. And I’ve met her really a lot of cute… cute guys they’re flirting with me.” And she’s just kind of, “Okay.”

S. Salis: (Laughs)

J. Mayo: I’m like, “Yeah.” So then I kind of like paused to like listen to her reaction and she’s like not doing anything. I was like, “Okay, great!” And then I was like, “Well, I gotta get ready for class and I gotta go,” and she’s like, “Okay, well… okay, just.” I was like, “Are you trying to ask me what I think you’re trying to ask me, I should say? Because the answer is yes.” And she’s like, “Okay, good. Just be careful.” And I think I had… she had heard some news or something about some gay guy getting beat up on campus in somewhere. So she’s like, “Just be careful, and I love you, and get to class.” And I was like, “Okay.” And so I came out to her the first semester of college. So I’m what; 18? And then it wasn’t until the following summer that I come out to my dad. And my mom had respected my space and wasn’t going to tell him.

S. Salis: Okay.

J. Mayo: And I was going to visit some friends at a summer stock theatre job in the Outer Banks. So I drive all the way about 13 hours to the coast by myself to go visit my friends. And for whatever reason, I knew this was the moment I had to tell my dad. So I wrote him like a 4-page letter, you know, like the song, “(Signing) 4 page letter.” And it’s this big, long letter about all the problems in our relationship. Because I’ve… I’ve always had a good relationship with my family; we’re very close.

S. Salis: Okay.

J. Mayo: It’s me, my mom, my dad and my sister. We’re all very close together. But my dad is very traditional. He… he’s British so he’s got these ideals. And then my mom’s from West Virginia so they were like, you know, like…

S. Salis: What’s the British ideal about homosexuals? (Laughs)

J. Mayo: You know, they’re just very much like growing up like, “You’ve… you’ve got to be a gentleman. You’ve got to be a man,” you know? So it’s not so much like in the south where it’s like, “Be manly,” but it’s still like…

S. Salis: Right, it’s the art of the gentle manliness.

J. Mayo: Exactly. But then he still, he would always tell me it’s like, “You got a man up!” and be like… because he was a soccer coach and almost went professional with soccer and was like, just telling me like, always like, “Man up! Man up!” And I was like, “Well, I’m athletic. I’m on the swim team and I’m strong and fast and… but like I can’t change my mannerisms,” do you know what I’m saying.

S. Salis: Yeah, yeah.

Jonathan Mayo:And that’s kind of what I think used to get on his nerves. And so I’m writing about all of this in our in this letter and I sneak in this tiny little line, I’m like, “You don’t like that I do theater instead of soccer and you don’t like that, you know, I do art instead of fixing cars like you. And then you don’t like my gay life and you don’t like this and this and that…”

S. Salis: “You don’t like my gay life,”? (Laughs)

J. Mayo: So like I just slip that in there like really tiny and hoping it would like be buried amongst all this other stuff. But of course, so then I drive… well, what I do is I stick the letter under his pillow so that way, I knew he wouldn’t see until I left.

S. Salis: Oh, like a fairy.

J. Mayo: But I knew he would see it, you know? Like, “This is a place he’ll have to see it but he won’t see until I leave.”

S. Salis: Yeah.

J. Mayo: And so then gets home from work and I kiss him goodbye and I said, “Hey, I’m driving to the coast,” and then I drive and I go half way and stay with an aunt for the night in West Virginia and we’re chatting with her. And on the drive there, I like decide, “Well, you know what? I’m just going to come out completely to people.” And I’m called one of my crushes, my first boy crushes; and he’s gay. And we we’ve been out being gay together like it was all like, we’re both out but I like admit it that I had this crush on him. And then I was like praying for it to go to voicemail and it did and I’m like rehearsing in the rearview mirror driving, you know, all this way by myself like what I’m going to say. And I I just tell him, “Hey, I got this crush on you,” and I like leave that. So then get to my aunt’s house and that night, I don’t hear back from the crush, I don’t hear back from my dad, so now like I’m going crazy, right?

S. Salis: You’re in this limbo. (Laughs)

J. Mayo: Yes! This total crazy limbo! And so then the next day, I get to the Outer Banks and see my friends. And I’m like, “I just totally came out to my dad and a letter, I’m freaking out!” and they’re like, “Let’s go party!” And so that we’re like partying and crazy partying happens and then I get back to my friend’s cabin because it’s like a cabin in the woods on the beach. So you’ve got the beach and the woods and…

S. Salis: Yeah, you got it all.

J. Mayo: Yeah. So and leaving the party cabin, come into their cabin and then I get a call from my dad. and he’s like, “Hey, I got your letter.” He’s like, “We’ll talk about it when you get home. I love you. Just, you know…”

S. Salis: Just know that.

J. Mayo: “be safely getting home.” And I was like, “Okay! So, okay, great!” And so then my friend comes in and I’m like freaking out, right? And she’s like, “Okay, it’s good, it’s good.” And then the… the next day or the day after when I drive home, I’m freaking out the entire way. And then I get on the West Virginia Turnpike which is like 80 miles before you get like the nearest gas station and I’m not paying attention, my gas is like… the next thing I know, I’m in the middle of the Turnpike and I look down on my gas light is on. I don’t know how long it’s been on.

S. Salis: Oh, no!

J. Mayo: And I’m like, “Oh, my god! I gotta get some gas!” And so I get off and one of the exits, I was like, “There’s got to be some kind of local gas station around here somewhere.” So I’m like weaving through the woods and the hills of Appalachia, right? There’s this big white house on the hill that looks like it’s from the movie ‘Misery’ and I was like, “Oh God! I’m going to die!”

S. Salis: Oh, no! (Laughs)

J. Mayo: “I’m going to die out here and there’s no cell phone service in the middle of this wood,” and I was like…

S. Salis: Yeah, Stephen King was watching you. (Laughs)

J. Mayo: (Laughs). I was freaking out. And then I get home, I remember being in the kitchen, my dad’s leaning against the kitchen counter, and he’s like, “I may not agree with your gay lifestyle,” which I hate when people say ‘lifestyle’…

S. Salis: Yeah, I like how that is a lifestyle, right?

J. Mayo: Like I chose to be gay.

S. Salis: Right! “I travel a lot and I am gay!” (Laughs)

J. Mayo: Exactly! Like I would choose this life of ridicule, you know what I’m saying? So… and he’s like, “But I will always love you and you’re my son and I respect you.” And I was like… and then that was like the first time in my entire life, so 18 at this point…

S. Salis: You connected.

J. Mayo: Yeah, in that kind of deep way. And was the first time I ever saw like tears well up in his eyes. I was like, “Wow, this is a major moment in our lives.”

S. Salis: Yeah.

J. Mayo: Yeah, so that’s how I came out to my parents. So, yeah.

S. Salis: So, it went well.

J. Mayo: It did. And I’m fortunate enough to have it go well, yeah.

S. Salis: Yeah, I can… I can say the same in general. And I’m wondering though because the way you came out was all of a sudden, which in a subtle… subtle way. And… and then you left. So you were like leaving… everything was like a little far, either like on voicemail or in a letter and in between other kind of information.

J. Mayo: Yes.

S. Salis: Okay, do you tend to do that a lot in general. (Laughs)

J. Mayo: No, I don’t. So, you know, I think I was just nervous and I was young. So I’m still learning how to communicate with people in the world period, you know?

S. Salis: Yes.

J. Mayo: And I just… I was scared.

S. Salis: Yeah, of course.

J. Mayo: I was scared. And in the end, I didn’t have any reason to be, in retrospect. But they’re like we… when you come out, before you do, you don’t know what people are going to react with.

S. Salis: And especially a few years ago, my… I mean, it’s constantly a process depending on where you are, who you grow with, if you’re lucky enough to have been given the emotional tools and acceptance that you need to share yourself. But especially a few years ago and depending on where, it was harder. So I believe it is this process they, in respective, like you look back and you go like, “It doesn’t matter,” like…

J. Mayo: Right.

S. Salis: And at some point you go like, “It never mattered, like… because I am my own person.” And eventually you don’t care.

J. Mayo: Right.

S. Salis: I… I think I… I came out 2 or 3 times intensely when I was a teenager and I never came out again in my life because that’s simply how it is and I don’t hide it. I’m lucky enough to have that.

J. Mayo: Right. But see, that’s your way of coming out is just being yourself to people.

S. Salis: Yeah.

J. Mayo: And presenting yourself like, “This is who I am.” So you don’t… that is your way of coming out without actually saying, “I am gay,” or whatever you…

S. Salis: Right. So it’s like a constant coming out. (Laughs)

J. Mayo: Which, like I said with cleaning closets, I’ve learned more and more like, it is a constant thing that we’re doing throughout our lives. Whether or not we say, “I am gay. I am bisexual. I am trans,” it’s something that, if it’s part of our identity and whenever you meet a new person, it’s a new person at work, a new person on the street, it’s…

S. Salis: You have to go you have to go through part somehow.

J. Mayo: You have to go through it again, mm-hmm.

S. Salis: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, you know it’s not a new idea but there is a movie recently which weirdly enough it’s called ‘Love Simon’.

J. Mayo: Simon?

S. Salis: Yeah.

J. Mayo: I can’t wait to see it, yeah.

S. Salis: Yeah, you have no seen in it? Well, I’m not going to spoil you anything.

J. Mayo: Ok, good.

S. Salis: If at some point I say there is this concept of the reverse coming out, right, like that the question like, why is it that only gay people have to come out and not like straight kids have to go at some point with their families? “Mom, I have to tell you something,” if it’s a boy, like, “I really like women.”

S. Salis: I am Simone Salis and this is Hoomans with today’s guests, Jonathan Mayo; artist and performer.

I saw on… on cleaningclosets, I was visiting… visiting the website and reading a few of the stories that you recorded; and not just that, you transcribed them and you were talking about, you wrote an article about. And I stumbled upon just one entry of your blog that said… (Laughs)

J. Mayo: Okay.

S. Salis: I said, you were… you were… when you… when you were reading your old journals and there is one from 2002 that literally says, “In this journal entry, I laughed about the great date I had with one of my best friends. We went through the movies, and when it was over, I… I chose not to go through the bathroom because I saw some gay boys that made me nervous because I wasn’t out to anyone else yet; only myself. And in this entry, in this journal, I stayed that I almost met some gay guys in the bathroom, at least I think they were gay. I don’t have an official Gator yet.” (Laughs)

J. Mayo: (Laughs)

S. Salis: It’s like, “Yet.” ‘Yet’ as if I like… it’s as if the Gator is this acquired power you were waiting for like for gay people puberty clues like…

J. Mayo: Exactly!

S. Salis: It’s like discovering and acquiring a gator like you get this power now. (Laughs)

J. Mayo: It’s like a passage; a rite of passage.

S. Salis: Right, a rite of passage, like, “Okay, here is your Gator. Take it.”

J. Mayo: (Laughs)

S. Salis: And I find sometimes kids have a gator more than then gay people do. Because you say like harassing is a way to have a gator before you do. (Laughs). Not use it in a good way but that… So what’s… what’s your personal reason for starting this project? I’m curious, because you started cleaning closets and it has been going on for how many years?

J. Mayo: Since 2012.

S. Salis: Since 2012! So we’re in the sixth year of the project. And how did you decide to start? Why… what pushed you to… was it like, “I need to do this,” and what is the reason?

J. Mayo: Yeah that… and it was totally inspired by a conversation I had with my mom. So years after coming out to her, and probably a few years before I even did cleaning closets, it was more like in 2012, I had this memory of this conversation with my mother. And… because I was trying to think of a project that I could do that was like more community oriented and I’m more along the lines of my… my life and what I do and the people in it. And I thought back to that conversation and, it was years after coming out to my mom, and she had told me, she was like, “I blamed myself for you being gay,” and in that moment I was like, “Huh! What do you mean?”

“Well, I thought I had done something wrong.”

S. Salis: Right.

J. Mayo: “I thought that all those years raising you, I had just done something wrong.” And then she was like, “But then I step back and I realized, I raised you the best I could. And you came out to be a very smart, nice young man and you are exactly the person that I raised.” And she’s like, “So I did nothing wrong.” And it was that moment that I realized, “Wow! She went through a process just like I did. She had a coming up process just like I did.”

S. Salis: Never realized that.

J. Mayo: And I never even… because I was so consumed with my own feelings and emotions that I didn’t think about her; what she was going through. And that really made me think, “Wow! The other side has a coming-out process too.” Because then and she had to tell her mom and, you know, she didn’t have to but like it’s like, when you our family, you want family to know about you and know what’s going on in your life. And you can’t be completely honest unless you tell like who is in my life and what I do with it.

S. Salis: Of course.

J. Mayo: And so, “Wow! How do I now talk about the other side?” and that’s how all cleaning closets came about. And… and when I interview people, I want them to know, like especially from the other side, “I’m not here to judge you. I’m not going… if you have different opinions than I do, that’s fine. We’re human,” you know, “We’re Hoomans.”

S. Salis: Yeah. (Laughs)

J. Mayo: You know, so I would say… I try to let people know, “I am at this completely, you know, objectively. I want you to share your story, the way you feel, because our feelings are valid.” You know, no matter what our feelings are, they’re valid because of where we come from and what… how we’ve been raised. So obviously, my mom being raised in the holler of West Virginia, you know, where everybody is religious and everybody is very traditional, like she’s… she’s coming from a place of, “Maybe that’s not such a good thing. It’s not right to be gay.” So how can I blame her for having those feelings and those thoughts, you know? And that’s why cleaning closets. If we express those thoughts and talk about them, we can find this common ground and understand where we’re all coming from, and maybe bridge that gap a little. Process is very important for me. Any iteration of cleaning closets I do, the process is so important, yeah.

S. Salis: How does it work exactly? You are talking about iterations, right? You have this project is… is… it goes through different medium.

J. Mayo: Correct. So it started out the first time… yeah, I thought it was just going to be a stage play and that was it. But I realized this can be so much more because we as people share our stories in different ways. So that’s why I was like, “No, this is an oral history project because I can share their stories in different ways.” And I’ve done it through writing, through storytelling, through performance, sometimes … so everyone is different. The very first iteration, it was me interviewing about 25 people in the summer and I had volunteers that help me do it. And they offered to do it; that’s why I knew this was an important project because they came to me and wanted to help. So then we worked together to write a script on those stories and then got actors to perform them. During the process, I made sure I did workshops, not just like acting things, but I was like, “We need to… to really break down and be on the same level with terminology,” things like that. Because I had so many resources and people up here, people volunteered to share their… their knowledge. And so I Skyped with people up here in Chicago and they… and so we did a lesson on terminology, we did… and then I just did a lesson on how to devise a work. Because I know at Morehead, we had never done any devised work when I was there. So it’s like, not only am I bringing something about, you know, the LGBT world, I’m now bringing something of the theater world back to my department that I can now help them grow; which was really exciting. And so we did all these workshops and we shared stories and we made sure that we had like a safe zone to be in. And I was like, “Any time you feel a trigger, you can let me know. If you need to step out, go ahead.” So there were tears. We… like we were crying; and I’m getting emotional thinking about it now. We were crying and we were laughing and we were sharing stories. And, you know, I thought that it would be a lot of theater students, but there were a lot of people outside of the theatre department…

S. Salis: Nice!

J. Mayo: … that came and audition for this… this piece. And I say audition loosely.

S. Salis: Yeah, of course.

J. Mayo: Because I pretty much let almost anyone into the show because it wasn’t about their acting ability, it’s about, like I said, the process and sharing these stories. And…

S. Salis: You just want to make sure that no one is like… probably like… you basically want to make sure that nobody is going to be disruptive to the work for one thing.

J. Mayo: Exactly, exactly. Because we all have the right to share our stories and it’s very therapeutic, for them and for me, just to hear, you know? And then to hear 10 years later, technically 9, how… how different their stories are than mine and yet how similar they are because Kentucky moves at a little bit slower of a pace Chicago and then Eastern Kentucky, at an even slower pace than the rest of Kentucky. So just hearing I like… like I said, I just… it was so amazing and gratifying to hear their stories. And for them, like I said, to not even know each other and to share stories with the peers that are essentially strangers; and so, you know, creating a safe zone where they feel comfortable to do that. So it was very amazing.

S. Salis: Creative arts, therapies, and I think these can be partially it, are also very healing like dance, music. And it’s great that you had people outside of the theater department or theatre people because that… you know, that’s even a bigger discovery for whoever is not used to that.

J. Mayo: Right.

S. Salis: I’m curious because you didn’t exclusively interview young people, younger generations, right? You have you also had the chance to… to interview people that came out… well, closer to when we did, I guess, and even before that. But how do you think, looking at the stories that have been shared with you, that the coming out process has changed since social sharing on the Internet enabled someone to come out to strangers basically. Because we see that now, and I think that’s really important that then anybody comes out publicly to… eventually to potentially millions of strangers. And it used to be they was a very intimate process, close to… to your family, close to your friends and gradual. Why… and we have seen, not just YouTubers, we have seen other prominent figures, Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple after Steve Jobs, 3 years ago came out publicly with a letter. And, you know, when the CEO of the most valued company in the world decides to come out, that’s a political stand, right? That’s… that’s political stand, and you do it to millions of people. How do you think that social media sharing, social sharing, changed this process?

J. Mayo: Well, I actually did a online panel discussion about it with a couple different people of different generations to ask them. Well, the… the topic of that discussion was ‘coming out throughout the generations’. So obviously one of those questions was, “Well, how do you think social media has impacted that?” And, well, first of all, I think coming out to strangers or telling your story to strangers is sometimes easier than telling it to people you know because…

S. Salis: How so?

J. Mayo: I think because there’s no pressure there and you don’t know each other and you’re like, “I really could care less what you think because I may never see you again.”

S. Salis: Yeah.

J. Mayo: You get what I’m saying? And because a lot of the people I’ve interviewed over the years for this project have been strangers; they’ve been referred to me by somebody. And I thought, “How is the stranger going to really feel comfortable talking to me?” And then they just let it all out!

S. Salis: (Laughs).

J. Mayo: And I’m like, “Okay, like you needed this! Okay!” And they all told me, they’re like, “This is very cathartic! Like thank you.” And I was like, I never expected the process of interviewing these people to be therapeutic for them, I was always expecting it to be therapeutic for the audience that hears their stories. So then I was like, “Now I have this responsibility to share their stories with honesty and integrity.” And so I think with social media, it’s made it easier and harder; it’s a double-edged sword. Because easier in the sense, it’s easy to go online it’s at your fingertips; just Google like some support groups. And you can find that your… you can find your community; a community that you relate to. So it’s now easy to do that. You don’t even have to leave out your back door. You can literally go on to your computer, onto your phone, onto your iPad, and find a community that you connect with. You can find resources, you can find, you know, just LGBTQ resources on like health or coming out or whatever the… the question may be. But I think it’s also made bullying easier because we can’t stop the bullying.

S. Salis: Yes, I was about to say that because it… on one side, it made the process easier but harassing has reached a whole new level. Because as cathartic and as it can be to come out to strangers and not seeing them again, in the same way, it’s very easy to attack a stranger because you’re never going to see them in person, you know what I’m saying?

Jonathan Mayo:Yeah. I think it’s not until you actually know someone that it becomes real to you. So the internet makes it easy for bullying because you don’t know those people until all of a sudden you do, and then it changes your whole perspective.

S. Salis: Do you have any story that was shared with you and…and it was just like, “Oh, this influence you, it changed you a little bit,”?

J. Mayo: There was one person I was interviewing and he is Asian. And so, once again, so there’s that intersectionality of like coming out and then like, “Well, I’m also this Asian person and I’m also this man and I’m also in my 30s.” And so we were close to age and he was still going through his coming-out process. So I think that was really like speaking to me because it was like, “Okay, you’ve come out but not really.” And he was dating someone for a while but still wasn’t really coming out to his family. And I was like, “Wow, we’re the same age!” And it made me realize like, I have this weight that was lifted. And I know it sounds so cliche but really, when you come out, it’s this pressure that you no longer have. Now, you may lose people or you may gain enemies, whatever the case may be, but you are now your true self and you are in line with yourself; which is so important. And so that is really kind of what I took away from… from that story that he shared.

S. Salis: Do you think it’s going to be necessary to come out at some point… at some point, let’s say in 50 years from now, 10 years from now. I’m starting to see that it might be… coming out maybe hopefully it will become obsolete in a good way, because there is no need to.

J. Mayo: Yes and no. I mean, I think they’re… I mean, look at these young people now. I mean, we’ve got the parkland Florida students, like they are rising up, right, for something they believe in. I think these younger generations are so important, that the Internet does make it easier for us to get our message out there. And then and there’s more people, especially doing the work that I do here in Chicago and some of the organizations I volunteer with, there… there’s more people identifying with that spectrum. You know, “Sexuality is fluid,” you know, “we’re not… and gender is fluid and sometimes I identify more on this end of the spectrum than that end of the spectrum.” And I think more and more people are relating to that. So I think eventually it could be, but once again, I think it’s all dependent on where we’re from…

S. Salis: Right.

J. Mayo: And what culture were in, you know, what ethnicity we are, what religion we are, what part of the world we’re in. Because, like I said, Chicago is a different pocket than Appalachia.

S. Salis: Of course, yeah; or the Vatican…(Laughs). where I grew up.

J. Mayo: Exactly.

S. Salis: 20 minutes walk from the Vatican.

J. Mayo: Oh, really?

S. Salis: Yeah

I am Simone Salis and this is Hoomans. You can listen to this conversation again on hoomans.org or subscribing for free on your favorite podcast app. Today’s guest is Jonathan Mayo, artist and creator of cleaning closets; stories of carbon outs from our native perspectives.

Are you a religious person?

J. Mayo: I’m not, I’m spiritual.

S. Salis: You’re spiritual.

J. Mayo: I mean, I definitely believe there’s something out there. And I don’t knock religion, I’m very respectful of it, especially growing up in the Bible Belt. But for me, religion was always an oppressor because people used it against me. And so because they assumed I was gay and then when I realized I was gay and then you come out, people always tell you that it’s against God.

S. Salis: Yeah.

J. Mayo: And so for me, it was hard and… and…

S. Salis: Which religion did you… like what was your family Roman Catholic or what was it?

J. Mayo: My family was… really it’s funny because my family’s religious but it was never in the home really, and we didn’t go to church on Sundays; which was really interesting because they are like god-fearing people but they didn’t really ever talk about God. I swear, they talk about God more now than before.

S. Salis: Laughs.

J. Mayo: It’s so interesting. But also my mom now lives back with her mom in West Virginia, so God’s a little bit more…

S. Salis: Present, okay.

Jonathan Mayo:… part of her life. So it’s just interesting because I couldn’t really tell you what religion they are, but Christian of some sort.

S. Salis: Okay. (Laughs)

J. Mayo: Of some sort; I don’t know. But in Kentucky there’s a lot of Baptist people.

S. Salis: Of course.

J. Mayo: Protestant people and things like that.

S. Salis: Protestant, yeah.

J. Mayo: Mm-hmm.

S. Salis: Something like that. Yeah, you… did you ever go to any… so you never went to school like any kind of…

J. Mayo: I mean, a few times I went with friends.

S. Salis: … affiliate school?

J. Mayo: No, I didn’t. I had friends that did went to some private schools so your Heart; things like that.

S. Salis: Yeah.

J. Mayo: And I did have friends that invited me to church on occasion so I’d go to Sunday school, at the Wednesday night, always just felt uncomfortable. Not… but they were making me… it was just like I didn’t feel like I belonged. And then I even join my friends at the local church in our neighborhood; I joined their softball league. So it was around me it was always part of… part of who I am growing up; I mean, it is. I’m not a religious person but it was all around me so it definitely impacted me and influenced who I am today. Yeah.

S. Salis: I can understand. Well, again, growing up where that soccer and religion were both incredibly present… (Laughs) growing up. And… well, and your dad was a soccer… a…

J. Mayo: Funny enough, because, you know, in like the States, it’s football.

S. Salis: Yeah, yeah.

J. Mayo: I mean, like American football is the thing.

S. Salis: Sure, sure.

J. Mayo: Like those are the cool kids. But the soccer kids were the cool kids in my… in my town.

S. Salis: Oh! Look at that! (Laughs)

J. Mayo: Mm-hmm, they were the popular kids, yeah.

S. Salis: A little bit of feeling like if I was at home if I were there.

J. Mayo: Right.

S. Salis: I’m curious, whenever… you know, especially with non-religious people, I’m curious because whenever you don’t have that kind of reference, you don’t have like a manual to start from.

J. Mayo: Right.

S. Salis: And so you need to build your own references and principles, ethically and… and… well, morally observant and everything else. What are some of the ideals that you function by and live by and respect and try to..? Well, you definitely mention like that you want to try to transmit the stories that you’re collecting with honesty and integrity with that. But do you have any specific ethical belief that you live by?

J. Mayo: I totally do. I mean, and… and that did come from my parents, and it did come from the values of the town that I grew up in.

S. Salis: What is one?

J. Mayo: Respect for yourself and for others.

S. Salis: Okay.

J. Mayo: Honesty; I’m a big believer in being honest, and sometimes it’s hard for me to not be honest.

S. Salis: Right, even when it’s dangerous? (Laughs)

J. Mayo: I mean, not necessarily. Just more like, it might be embarrassing or it might like let out some facts that I don’t but people don’t necessarily need to know. But I just… I think if you try to just be the best person that you can be and be responsible and respectful, then I think that, in the end, that shows and that takes you far and that garners respect from other people. Do you know I’m saying?

S. Salis: Yeah.

J. Mayo: And it builds relationships.

S. Salis: I’m curious, I’m always conflicted right in a relationship in an intimate relationship, whatever kind of life partnership we might build. And… and sometimes there are different kind of arrangements.

J. Mayo: Right.

S. Salis: And… which are not what one would expect from an archetypical heterosexual couple. The question is like, do you try to apply those principles even in your private life and relationships? How do you think that they’re works in the case of… of a gay, queer man, woman and whatever is in between? How did… is that… is that more useful in the structures, less useful to be honest and upfront?

J. Mayo: I think it’s very important. I think, I mean, I… I just got out of a very long-term relationship, we were together about 12 years. And love I still love him to death, it just didn’t work out after all that time.

S. Salis: Yeah.

J. Mayo: But, I mean, we did; we had rules that we set up in the beginning. And I even had a friend asked me the other day. He was like, “I mean, I just don’t know what like we’re looking to not have this traditional, you know, relationship and like have maybe an open relationship and this and that. But like how do you talk about that?” I was like, “You talk about it.” I was like, “You literally… we literally laid out our expectations in the beginning of the relationship.” Now there might have been a catalyst for it of like us me flirting with someone this and that whatever and it was like, “Okay, we need to talk about this.”

S. Salis: So there was a triggering event and then you decide to talk about it.

J. Mayo: Yeah, but I think… but we did it very, very early on; and I was very young. So, yeah, I was making out with somebody at the bar, okay?

S. Salis: (Laughs).

J. Mayo: I’ll be honest! I’ll be honest! And that might have triggered it. I mean, like I said, this is 14 years ago so I barely even remember.

S. Salis: Sure.

J. Mayo: But I was 21 in the city, just bare barely out myself and then I had done an exchange program and did a semester up here in Chicago, which made me fall in love with the city and that’s why I’ve been here so long. But, you know, my bar years and my coming out years were mostly spent in Boystown, you know what I’m saying? Like, wow!

S. Salis: (Laughs) Let’s just explain what boy’s town is. Boystown is an area of Chicago. It’s literally a series of bars on both sides of the street.

J. Mayo: Yeah.

S. Salis: And I don’t think even in San Francisco, New York, or any other City in the world I have seen such… (Laughs)

J. Mayo: Chicago is the first official Boystown there is out there.

S. Salis: Okay, yeah. There you go.

J. Mayo: If I remember correctly.

S. Salis: So, yeah, you were in Boystown which means you were in streets which have an infinite amount of bars available. (Laughs)

J. Mayo: Yes, yes. I’m 21.

S. Salis: You’re 21.

J. Mayo: So I’m like I’m going out to the bars. I’m a virgin at this point.

S. Salis: (Laughs) Yeah, okay.

J. Mayo: So like, okay, and then like lose my virginity with a one-night stand; it was amazing, it was an amazing night. Totally embarrassing, yeah, it was totally embarrassing and amazing all at the same time.

S. Salis: Okay. That’s how it goes, right? But I like that you mentioned like, “In… in my bar era.” (Laughs)

J. Mayo: Right. Did you know like… you know because…

S. Salis: I think that’s something that happens to gays. (Laughs)

J. Mayo: Yeah. Well, and I think just anyone because I was talking to some classmates from the show I’m in now and they were like, “Well, I’ve…” they grew up in California and they’re like, but all their bar years have been spent here in Chicago because they weren’t 21 yet. And, you know, I think I used to fake ID once in college and that was it; with my first crush. He had his old ID and he was like, “Here, I just got a new ID, you can use it,” and I was like, “Okay.” But yeah, so we laid out those ex… so I was probably making out with some guy in the bar and it was a catalyst to have this conversation. And we set up our rules and we said, “We don’t want an open relationship but we don’t necessarily want to just have sex with each other forever.” So we set the rule that we only play together; and that was the rule.

S. Salis: Okay, and that was… you thought would work for you at the time and eventually these things get adjusted. From what I’m looking into like couples that have an open relationship lately and it looks like it’s a constant rearrange…

J. Mayo: Yes.

S. Salis: … not a constant, but you need to go through since you are… you see want to be truthful and honest to each other which is admirable, and I think it should be the most important principle in any kind of relationship; independently of exclusivity or not. But so it’s kind of a constant rearrangement. I was asking myself from, you know, knowing different kind of people in different forms of relationships, is that a second coming out for queer or gay person eventually like being around? Like is that a second realization just..?

J. Mayo: To come out as like non-monogamous?

S. Salis: Yeah, or… or even as monogamous to come out as a person that does not want to adhere to… I’m moving… I’m gesturing a lot, I’m moving my finger a lot like if I’m laying out some major truth; I am not. But that’s… you know, that’s a second realization, because you grow out of the stereotypes of gender, sexual orientation eventually. And I don’t know how fully one can achieve that in life 100%. And then you… and then it’s a process with everything in life. You try to unlearn what… whatever you have been taught and you learn in your own way. So, especially in LGBTQ communities, is… is like growing out of stereotypical and archetypical forms of relationships, a second coming out to you?

J. Mayo: You know, I’ve never thought of it, but definitely. I mean, like I said, we come out in many different ways as humans; not just like as LGBT people but like the human race, we have to come out as, like I said, you know, a political party, as a certain religion, you know? We come out in all kinds of ways. So when you come… I think anytime you… you state publicly to people that you are not the norm or the quote-unquote ‘norm’ or the archetype that you were talking about earlier, if you come out as something that’s not the general consensus, then you are coming out as something other.

S. Salis: So it’s a human coming out.

J. Mayo: Yeah, it’s a human coming out; I totally… I totally think so, yeah, mm-hmm.

S. Salis: That’s really interesting.

J. Mayo: Or, in our sense, it might be kind of the opposite. Because in the gay culture, a lot of times, it is very known that some people have open relationships. So when you come out it’s like, “We’re in a monogamous relationship,” it’s like, “Oh!”

S. Salis: “Oh! Alright, well, we still love you.” (Laughs)

J. Mayo: “Okay, really?” right. And there’s that judgment like, “Are you, really?” (Laughs). And I even had the step and like check myself sometimes Iike, “Hmm.” But then I’m like, “Okay, I shouldn’t like… I can’t assume that everybody is non-monogamous. But I also just…” I’m kind of pessimist when it comes to that like, I’m like, “Everybody wants to be out there sleeping with somebody else. We may love our partner, no matter if we’re straight or gay, we may love our partner but we cannot deny the fact that we are… we have lust for other people.” I mean, that’s just normal.

S. Salis: That’s the basic truth, right?

J. Mayo: That’s basic truth.

S. Salis: That’s a basic truth of human nature, isn’t it.

J. Mayo: I mean, that’s human nature; it’s inside us.

S. Salis: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I mean, even if you decide to be in a monogamous relationship, I think it’s important to state that. Like, “We’re monogamous but let’s admit…” (Laughs).

J. Mayo: Right. It’s all about open communication the whole time.

S. Salis: And it’s no secret, it’s just being upfront.

J. Mayo: Exactly. And that whole time, open communication, like you said. Because then sometimes can… things can change. We may no longer want an open relationship, we need to communicate about it.

S. Salis: What are you working on right now for yourself?

J. Mayo: A lot. I’m working on me as a human, as a person. Because there’s a lot of… especially in this past year of living on my own, there’s a lot of mistakes I’ve made. Those kinds of things, learning who I am and learning whether or not I like the person that I am, has been this journey this past year. But then I keep… you know, I’m also focused on still doing my work and my art. And so I had lots of projects pop up over the past year. They’ve kept me busy and kept me inspired and kept me growing and being a better person in the community.

S. Salis: So here’s to your future series of coming outs as a person. (Laughs).

J. Mayo: Yeah, yeah, thank you.

S. Salis: And thank you. I think… I think it’s really important to notice like that… we all come out as people and, as you say, for… that’s… that’s a really important point as with political beliefs, not just sexually for preferences and stuff like that.

J. Mayo: Right, right.

S. Salis: So Jonathan, before we go, I’m just curious, do you have any other iterations of cleaning closets or do you have any other projects coming up right now?

J. Mayo: Well I’m always looking to do new iterations of cleaning closets.

S. Salis: Okay.

J. Mayo: I’ve applied for a couple of grants and this last iteration that I did, actually was funded through a grant through the City of Chicago; so that was really great. So I’m always looking for more and new ways to do it. I’ve been trying to do some web series for a while and trying to get to work with the choreographer to share stories through dance, because I think that would be really fascinating. So definitely work, but right now with the screening of the last performance that I did, I’m looking to bring that into different community organizations and schools. So I’m hoping to find some more organizations to do that with. I’ve got a couple of churches that are willing to screen it, so I’m really excited about that. I’m currently in a show rehearsing; we open on April 5th.

S. Salis: Oh, what’s the title?

J. Mayo: It’s a cornerstone and actually I’m supposed to be promoting it because… so we’re…

S. Salis: (Laughs). Do it!

J. Mayo: We’re… it’s immersive because you’re coming in as part of one of our self-help sessions.

S. Salis: Okay.

J. Mayo: Yeah, so… and I haven’t acted in 13 years. I’ve performed storytelling, things like that. I’ve actually got a storytelling project coming up with side-splitter, that’s side splitter story telling.

S. Salis: Sure, it’s pretty well known in the City of Chicago.

J. Mayo: Yeah, yeah. So I’m coming and doing one April 25th with them; I’m sharing a story. And then… yeah, so this show is the first time I’ve acted though. So now I’m analyzing a character who isn’t me. You know, storytelling it’s me so I know this feelings and stuff I’m supposed to do.

S. Salis: Of course.

J. Mayo: So, yeah, it’s just… I mean, it’s just exiting.

S. Salis: So we’ll see you in cornerstone?

J. Mayo: Mm-hmm.

S. Salis: That’s you’re coming out as an actor after 13 years.

J. Mayo: Yeah, exactly.

S. Salis: Thank you for sharing your project with us today, with me today. I really enjoyed it. Jonathan Mayo on Hoomans.

J. Mayo: Thanks so much!