By Andy Armano
Austin Bergman has a personal story to tell – and wants to inspire and encourage others to live their own authentic lives.
For years, Austin had what may be considered to be a picture-perfect, storybook life: a business, a wife, and two daughters. They were perceived to be among the most accomplished couples in Richmond, VA. But, Austin was growing increasingly unhappy. He knew he was gay, but had an entire life and family built around another persona. Although coming out was a difficult and painful process, he is now living on the other side. He is able to live a full and honest “out” life. He and his partner, David, enjoy their life together here in South Florida.
“Which brings me to the book – You. My goal is to share my story, my own personal journey. Life is so much easier when you’re not pretending every single day. It was just too difficult pretending to be someone you really are not. You’re eventually going to give up. That’s really no way for a person to live. I had set up a personal, mental, jail cell for myself. I wore a mask everyday. I hope readers can understand that once they remove their masks, they can be their true, authentic selves. They can live authentic lives. In the end, their real friends will love them. And a huge weight will be lifted from their shoulders.”
Austin grew up in Richmond, VA. He initially wanted to attend culinary school after high school. His family was in the construction industry and encouraged him to go into real estate, which became more of a natural fit for him. “I bought my first home at nineteen years old,” Austin says. It was then that he decided to go into real estate himself.
“Then I met a wonderful woman. My wife and I were licensed about thirty days after we closed on our first house together and we started selling. On the outside, we had this fairytale life. We were seen as a cute, straight, real estate couple. On the outside we were enjoying a successful career. We ended up starting our own brokerage together – Valentine Properties. Again, the seemingly fairytale life continued.”
In 2000, they went to New York where she was going to the Pratt Institute and he was starting culinary school. But after 9/11 and the global changes, she decided to return to Richmond on her own.
But while his professional life was booming, his personal life was becoming more and more complicated. He and his wife may have been perceived as a “power couple,” but it was based on him hiding who he really was as a person. “I kept my true self hidden.” He says. “She caught me doing some things I shouldn’t have been doing and her friends were telling her not to marry me because I was gay.” But sometimes life has a momentum of its own. “Life happened, and it happened quickly. We were married November 12, 2005. We had been working together for about five years.” Austin still has warm memories of those times together. ‘The marriage, the company, it was all just a cute, love story.”
Their first daughter, Avada, was born in 2008. About three years later came their second, Arden. At this point, he had seemingly achieved the proverbial, “American Dream.” “I thought I had everything, a wife, children, a business, and the perceived ‘perks’.” But the classic American Dream does not always bring happiness. “There was something inside of me, burning and knowing this was not my true identity. And as I got older, the harder and harder it became for me to hold all of this in.”
A turning point came in 2016 when he came down to Pompano Beach airport to train on avionics. “That is when I had a full-blown affair with a guy in Wilton Manors, FL. I was supposed to be down here on a trip by myself, with my little airplane, not going over to a local, popular restaurant for dinner, and then ending up in a relationship.” But his wife knew about the situation. “We talked about it. We cried about it. Every time I came down here, we would argue about it, but she knew.”
All that changed in 2017. “In October, I walked into a meeting, and I was hit with divorce papers. I saw the agreement as her way or no way, firing me from our company, and stripping me of all my possessions.” His entire life as he knew it had ended. Everything changed. In December 2017, he found himself with only his clothes and headed to Fort Lauderdale. But he was excited to start a new chapter. “I went from a seemingly glamorous life to the realization that I have the opportunity to reset who I am as a person.”
He moved to Wilton Manors and started selling real estate.”I’m not going back to being a hamster on a wheel with my head falling off. It was time for a new life and a new me.”
But rebuilding his business is only part of the story. In 2018, Austin received a call that his mother was nearing the end of her life. With the divorce being contentious and his family not accepting of his sexuality, the situation was extremely painful. “There I was going through this nasty divorce. I had to face my entire family who were in shock that I came out. I was sitting in the hospital holding my mom’s hand. I just couldn’t take it. I left, went to my favorite local coffee shop in Richmond, VA, and in walked – David.” Two and a half hours later, they were still sitting and talking. Today, they are still together. “I look at it as my mom gave me David, as funny as that sounds, but it’s pretty much the truth.”
Coming out was not easy and had real consequences. Austin wanted to write his book to help others who are still in the closet or might be going through similar situations. “The hate is still out there.” In his case, he lost almost everything – his family, relationship with his daughters, business, and friends. “I literally had to start my life over.” The lesson he learned was “I just need to move on with life and focus on me. I wanted to share this with people. That’s why the book is named You. You focus on you.”
“Before coming out, I would throw parties and invite 500 guests. But right after I came out, I could count on one hand the number of people who were there for me.” There is a chapter in the book about changing faces and changing lives. “There are people that don’t approve of gays. It’s more than taking sides in a divorce. It was more the fact of ‘Austin’s gay,’ we want nothing to do with him.”
He also lost relationships with many family members. When his grandfather was in his last days, Austin flew to Richmond to say goodbye, but was told he was not welcome. “I didn’t get to attend his services.”
Currently, there are still challenges with communication and visitation with his children. “I am fighting for visitation for my own children and I can’t get it because I’m gay.”
In his book, You, Austin’s goal is to tell his story about the challenges of coming out. But more importantly, living your true self is worth the challenges. “I hope the book encourages and inspires people in whatever situations they might see themselves. I have finally created a happy life for myself. I know that I am gay and out. Today I am thankful for the people who love and embrace me for who I am. It’s a wonderful feeling. There are so many people struggling with something – finances, body image, sexual identity, families, abusive relationships, being alone, substance abuse – the list goes on and on. But once you focus on yourself, your life only gets better.” Be your true, authentic self. And live the life You were meant to live.