The Grey's Anatomy star shared the hilarious story of his adolescence at the Don't Tell My Mother comedy show!
Photo: Ashly Covington
This past weekend on Mother's Day Eve, a hodgepodge group of queers and allies gathered for a celebration of their mothers at Nikki Levy's comedy event for diverse voices, At Your Cervix.
This week's theme...Don’t Tell My Mother!Ahead of the show, guests were invited to design paper vaginas with glitter and feathers, enter a raffle to win a vial of sperm from the California Cryobank, drink complimentary wine, and of course, share stories they wouldn't dare to tell their moms.
Grey's Anatomy star Jake Borelli, who came out publically as gay last year alongside his character on the show, took the stage to tell the turbulent yet hilarious tale of his adolescence, the love of his closeted high school life (a chat room boyfriend), anxiety, and finding the beauty in being true to who you are.
Here's his story:
So, I grew up in Ohio going to this sort of artsy wholistic elementary school. I used to paint my nails with the other girls on the playground and totally felt like I fit in. I was like, "Wait I want to do that. Oh my god, I totally belong", completely oblivious to the fact that the other boys were not doing that. And I would wear these pants often that my cousin had given me. They were his underwear that I would wear as pants, because they had these beautiful rainbow colored shapes all over them. And I would pair it with my favorite T-shirt, which had hundreds of embossed sea turtles all over it. And I thought I was the coolest thing in the entire world.
And then sixth grade happened, and our wonderful artsy wholistic elementary school merged with all the other elementary schools, and that's the moment that I found out I was different. And I found this out because all of the other children reminded me of that on a daily basis. But it was fine because I had this awesome core of confidence that I had gotten from my friends and family. And that paired with a healthy budding sense of narcissism, I was less hurt by the bullying, and just more confused. I was like, "You all are crazy. I'm awesome."
That's not to say that the bullying didn't hurt, you know? It was terrible, and I would cry to my parents all the time about it. But I also realized that the more and more these new kids got to know me, the more that they liked me, only confirming the fact that I was not the problem. I was marketing myself to the wrong people.
And I knew I was different, but I didn't know why. And then all the kids started calling me gay and other things. And I was like, "Well, yeah. That's probably it. Nailed it on the head." So I snuck down into my basement, which was the safest place in the house at the time, and I was watching a little porn, but not in a creepy way. With a critical eye, you know? I was like, "Hmm. Interesting. I see what you did there."
And then I was like, "Wait a second, there's no girls in there. I kind of like it." And then I was like, "Dammit, the kids at school are right."
But the tricky bit came because that realization coincided with this other realization that I had, which was that I wanted to be a professional actor. And in my eighth-grade mind was absorbing all of this new information, right, and something that I came to believe at a very young age was that in my career, being gay, kind of like in middle school, might be bad for marketing, you know?
My favorite character at the time, Dory from Finding Nemo, had her own network television show that got canceled because she came out. I had been hearing all these rumors about gay movie stars staying in the closet to protect their career. And so, at age 13, super young, I made a decision that I would never come out of the closet, ever, to anybody ever, ever, ever, ever.
The loophole was chat rooms online. So, I snuck back down into the basement, and I signed on to this thing called the GYC, which is short for the Gay Youth Center, and it was basically this chatroom for queer kids under the age of 18. How they regulated that, I have no idea, but it was this beautiful opportunity to- It's kind of creepy, looking back. But I did this every night because it was this beautiful opportunity to talk to queer teens my age that were going through the same thing, because I didn't have people like that at school.
And that's where I met this boy, Cooldude89. And we would chat every night in secret, and we fell madly in love. And we also 100% thought the other one was a murderer, so we didn't tell each other our names and we didn't swap phone numbers, but we would talk for hours and hours and hours. And this was so long before Love, Simon, so we were super hip.
After a while we swapped Skype names and we started Skyping. And he was so cute. He was tall and a year older than me. And he went to the University of Kentucky, which was south of Ohio, so it was super exotic.
We would chat until 2am all summer long. Both our parents were asleep and it was awesome. And then one night I was signing on to the GYC, and I was like, "Oh this is great. I'm going to talk to my future husband. It's awesome." And he never signed on...ever again.
And so, I was alone again. And I remember, I would go down into the basement and I would get on the computer for weeks, just waiting for him to come back, and he never came back. And so, unbeknownst to my parents, while they were asleep, I had my first love, and also my first heartbreak.
So, other than come out to my best friend Mara, who pinky swore to keep my secret so that I could become a famous marketable movie star, I didn't talk about my sexuality. I sort of squished it down tight, which was not great for my emotional health, let's say.
A month after I moved out to LA, I was 18, and I was super in the closet still. And I was like, "This is great. This is super easy. I'm totally fine." And then I woke up in the middle of the night in a full-blown panic attack, 100% certain that my mother was dead and I had never come out to her. So, I got on a plane immediately and I flew back to Ohio to come out to my parents.
I had three days to do it, right, before my return flight. I was terrified, because I had put this off for so long in my head for six years, in my head. And I had no idea how they were going to react. I wanted to tell them both at the same time, because I didn't want there to be any noise about who found out first.
And so, after two days of chickening out, I finally got my parents in the same room. We were watching my dad's favorite show, Judge Judy. He freaking loves that. He still watches it like 10 years later. I'm like, "What?"
I was like, "This is perfect. This is the perfect time." And then all of a sudden he gets up, and he's like, "I'm going to go take a nap." And he goes back into his room.
Oh my god. And then my mom's like, "I'm going to go out gardening." And I'm like, "Oh my god, I have like six more hours here." So, I'm like, "It's now or never." I follow my mom back into their room, and I say, "Hey guys, I have something to tell you. I'm gaaaaaay."
It wasn't like this awesome cinematic slow-mo shot. I literally said it like that, just elongated for no reason. And it was just followed by dead silence. And my dad sits up and he takes a pillow off of his face...and he says, "You know, I think I knew that." And my mom said the same thing, except she was crying, because she didn't want me to be struggling the way I was.
It was such a relief. In that moment, I started this new more authentic relationship with my parents. And it also started this new relationship I had to my own coming out. As a queer person, you come out to every new person you meet in your life forever in one way or another. But I still had this thing in my head that I had decided when I was 13 that I couldn't be a professional actor if I was out and proud. And so, I separated my [professional] life from my private life.
Cut to 2017, and I start playing this role of Dr. Levi Schmitt on this little up-and-coming medical drama called Grey's Anatomy. And I'm having a blast, you know? I'm like, "He's kind of like the comic relief and he's super neurotic and clutsy," which is great because that's a lot of the words I use to describe myself. This is easy.
And then, after a year of playing this straight character on a network television show, something I never thought I would ever be able to do, the showrunner calls me and she pitches me this idea that my character would come out of the closet and that I would be part of the first gay male relationship between doctors in the show's history.
And in that moment, all the things that I had been afraid of and everything I had been excited for for years had come to a head, and I was flooded with these debilitating feelings of a little eighth-grader inside me that was like, "Nope! Nope! Stay in the closet! Stay in the closet!"
But instead, I looked down at him and I grabbed him by the hand, I really did this too. This is like Elizabeth Gilbert shit from Big Magic. I'm looking down at him, still on the phone with my boss, and I go, "Hey buddy... you can do this. You're safe now and we're in this together, so put on your little turtle shirt and tell the lady what you want to tell her."
And so, I told my boss, my boss's boss's boss, that I was gay and that if we were going to do this story, I wanted to do it in a different way than the stories I had seen when I was younger, because I feel like growing up, I had seen all these queer stories about a guy coming out or somebody coming out and it being terrible, you know? Just wrapped in all of this shame and alienation. Like, Brokeback Mountain stuff, you know? And I was like, "I don't want to do that," because those are the stories that I saw as a kid that scared me probably more than I needed to be scared at the time.
And in that moment, we started a dialogue about what we would want to see for my character and his relationship to his own coming out. And they created this beautiful story, that if I had seen it when I was a kid, it would have changed the trajectory of my life.
It was a story of positivity and a story of pride and one that wasn't rooted in shame, but in rooted in acceptance and growth. And I realized over the year that I was out privately to my friends and my family, and now to my coworkers, but it was that story and the character that I was given the opportunity to play that gave me the courage to come out publicly, which I did earlier [last] year on Instagram.
I was immediately welcomed into the queer community with open arms, and it has been the best year of my life. I finally feel free. It was this shift and this idea that I needed to change parts of myself in order to be marketable to anybody, you know? That's my agent's job. My job, our job as human beings is to be authentically ourselves, and that's what I started doing this year.
Do you guys remember the package that - oh shit! Guys, I didn't tell you. Oh my god, this was the biggest part. So, I'll tell you now. So, my internet boyfriend, after he totally ditched me, flashback, like six months later, I'm walking home from school and there's this package on my front porch for me. And I'm like 17. Who's sending me packages? And it's from him, and I'm ... Yeah, I did that. I was like, "Holy shit, how did he get my name? How did he get my address? Oh my god, he's going to murder me and my family. We're dead." And then the other half of my brain, the healthy narcissistic side was like, "Oh, this totally makes sense. He's in love with me. We're getting married. Bye guys, I'm moving to Kentucky."
I didn't know how to deal with it. This is still my brain, but back then I was like, "I can't deal with it." So, I snuck it back down in my basement and I shoved it up into the rafters where I was meant to hide it forever, right?
But two weeks after that, I had this weird wave of courage and I opened it. And...it was...a calendar...from the University of Kentucky indicating the timeline with which you needed to apply to their college. So, it wasn't from him. It was just marketing materials from Kentucky, which was supposed to be the moral of the story, but I feel like it's sad now that I say it out loud.
But I think the moral of the story for me, after all of this, is that the things that we hide away, like that package, I feel like they end up being scarier over time than if you just open them up. And that's what I started doing this year, which has been great.
And I understand that not everybody is in a space where it's safe to open up, but I want that for everybody because I'm feeling it right now and I want people to be comfortable talking about hard things.
That being said, Mara, my best friend that I came out to in high school who's here, if I die before my mom gets to my apartment, just burn everything...Okay. And that's serious. Do that.
All right guys, that's it. Thank you.
Happy Mother’s Day to the best mom a boy could ask for. I love you more than all the stars...
A post shared by Jake Borelli (@jake.borelli) on May 12, 2019 at 4:27pm PDT
How Jake Borelli's Chat Room Heartbreak Helped Him Come Out to His Mom0