I Owe It To Richard Simmons For Helping Me Come Out

In order to fully enjoy the story in front of you, you’ll need a little background–like the “Marley is Dead” monologue at the beginning of every Christmas Carol adaptation. And I would know plenty about that, in my college’s production I was cast as Sister #3. The main character of this story isn’t me, though. It’s Shaun Sperling.

You may know Shaun from his 1992 Madonna themed Bar Mitzvah, which now blesses the opening credits of Transparent. What you may not know is that these days Shaun is a brilliant writer, speaker, and devoted dog dad. I first met Shaun through my project and upcoming book The Awkward Phase. When my now-co-author then-coworker Tyler Gillespie and I created The Awkward Phase we had one mission: to create something together that was free of the cynicism. We asked people to send in stories for our Tumblr about their most awkward phases in life, whenever or whatever that may be. We only had two guidelines:

  1. That the story be about yourself
  2. That the story not make fun of your younger or present self.

Shaun was absolutely perfect for this, he truly had me at hello. If I remember correctly I even went in for a hug at our first meeting.

Eventually the Tumblr became a live show and Shaun performed the very first night. So it only seems fitting that with The Awkward Phase book coming out February 2nd, one of Shaun’s stories be the first sneak peek.


Photo courtesy of That Awkward Phase
Photo courtesy of The Awkward Phase

Growing up, one of my favorite places was the Richard Simmons’s workout studio. Tucked away in a strip mall in a suburb of Chicago between a Chinese restaurant and a 31-Flavors, it was aptly called Slimmons. My mom would take me with her after work, but I didn’t join the other kids in the play area. I’d sit in the back and watch the women flap their arms in the air from side to side as they sweated to the oldies. I memorized the routines, so sometimes when the music moved me, I’d join in the fun. After class, we’d pick up Chinese takeout and a pint of Rocky Road for dinner.

One evening, during a routine to “It’s My Party,” I had to use the bathroom. On the bathroom wall was a large poster of Richard Simmons dressed in his iconic red striped shorts and rhinestone-studded tank top. As a 12-year-old, I loved and hated Richard Simmons at the same time. I appreciated him for his flamboyant exuberance, but I was embarrassed by it.

I sat down on the toilet and grabbed a Muscle and Fitness on top of the stack. I thumbed through the pages and looked at pictures of scantily clad, bronzed men and women. When I reached the centerfold, I was paralyzed. On the left side of the page was a woman in a gold bikini flexing her biceps (meh!). On the right, a man stood in a royal blue speedo and held a barbell over his head. Without so much as a glance my eyes raced over the picture of the woman. My gaze landed on the center of the right page—directly on the royal blue package.

I felt a spark, a tingle, a jump.

It caught me off guard, and I quickly looked up. My eyes landed on Richard’s. He glared at me like he knew my dirty little secret. I shifted back to the magazine, first to the left side, at the woman. I felt nothing. I then looked back to the right, at the man, and I felt something.

No, I thought, this can’t be right.

I repeated the steps several times—Richard, Woman, Man—Richard, Woman, Man. I don’t why, but it was that moment, as I took a dump at Slimmons, while Richard glared at me, that confirmed what I had been trying to suppress for years:

Yep, I was definitely gay. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

This post is an exclusive excerpt from The Awkward Phase: The Uplifting Tales of Those Weird Kids You Went to School With, out February 2nd.


For more stories and awkwardness just like this, check out The Awkward Phase on tumblr.


To enter for a chance to win a copy of The Awkward Phase, check out their Facebook.

More From Thought Catalog