Queer as Folk – Growing Up Gay in Jesusland, USA

“Why do you think I asked you to get lunch with me today?” I asked my best friend. “I have an idea, but I don’t want to offend you.” He said. “Just say it, I think you might surprise yourself.”

“Is it because you want to tell me you’re gay?”

In that moment, a weight had been lifted. A weight I carried around all my life, but was conditioned not to pay it any attention. Like a frog in boiling water or the dog in that burning house, I always just smiled and said “This is fine.”

This is how I got here.

For any onlookers, my childhood would seem like any normal, midwestern child’s of the 90’s and 2000’s. Nickelodeon was always on our TV screens, I grew up on Rugrats, Catdog, and SpongeBob. I loved them all. I had a gameboy, a Nintendo DS, had every Maxis game ever introduced, even well before The Sims had ever become a thing. (SimAnt, anyone?) It was all normal.

But I also had something others didn’t. I went to a private Christian school. I was also gay. And that wasn’t a combo that played nice.

From very early on, I learned to stuff my sexuality, to the point it became invisible, even to me. In my little Christian bubble, “gay” didn’t exist. It couldn’t. How could God create someone like that? He doesn’t make mistakes, after all. I was taught that people who were gay chose to be that way.

For me, that meant I couldn’t possibly be gay, since my seeming attraction to men wasn’t something I chose for myself. I just chalked it all up to thinking that I respected women more, I was on another level, but that cute guy I kept looking at? No, that’s nothing, he’s just someone I wanted to be friends with.

I always liked more feminine things growing up. I would play dress-up at daycare, and I even asked for a Barbie family car for Christmas one year, and I actually got it. Kudos, Mom and Dad.

But after years at a Christian school, I felt ashamed I wasn’t more “masculine.” I’ve honestly tried to bury a lot of the trauma this school put me through when it came to my sexuality and to purity culture. “Modesty” was also very heavily pushed, down to girls getting their skirt lengths measured and boys getting their hair length checked. It was like Big Brother was always watching, and because of that, I disassociated. It was almost as if my queerness didn’t exist and never had.

Looking back, it was obvious, but I was conditioned not to see it.

Sometimes, this erasure took on a more insidious nature. Slurs like “f*g” and “tr***y” were overlooked by administrators and teachers alike. A very flamboyant classmate was constantly picked on by the staff, conversion therapy and expulsion were threatened on students who came out in high school, and suicide attempts happened more often than the school would ever admit because they didn’t allow people to be who they were.

A former classmate of mine has a great piece on all of this. If you want to read more stories from women and sexual minorities who graduated from my former high school, her article is a great and thoughtful resource.

But I’m here to tell my tale. How did I get here, right now. How did the right-wing, evangelical, “solid Christian man,” as one teacher put it, become so outspoken, and even reviled, by the people he used to look up to?

Truth be told, it was a slow burn.

I started questioning things after a major bout of mental health problems in 2013. I started to realize something for the first time in my life, and that was simply that life wasn’t as simple as I thought it was. My bubble was burst through a string of events in 2013 and 2014.

Honestly, it was the best thing that has ever happened to me.

I started fighting for those looked down on by society and Christian culture alike. It started with the autistic community, and grew into the mental health community, and by late 2014, I had quietly become gay affirming, yet still not ready to come out myself.

I remember what turned me. It was when Apple CEO, Tim Cook, came out in October, 2014. The public face of a company that I admired was gay, and that meant so much to me, as a closeted gay young man. Cook wrote in Bloomberg, “If hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.”

This line had me in tears that morning. I was who he was speaking to.

I felt heard. For the first time, I felt heard.

“The Enlightened Path”

But I still had the baggage of my past. How could I reconcile who I was with how I grew up? I started planting that seed. I began asking my friends how they felt about certain LGBTQ+ issues to gauge who was safe and who was not.

In the early summer of 2015, a heartbreaking but powerful moment happened for me.

My southern, very charismatic aunt was visiting from Kentucky. My brother ended up getting into argument with her about marriage equality. She was vitriolic with her rhetoric against gay people, all the while claiming she “had gay friends.” She kept yelling at my brother that she “was on the enlightened path” and therefore couldn’t be wrong.

Somehow, this all seemed to make her think her bigotry was okay. I stood up that night for the first time. After she had left, I told her in a facebook message how her rhetoric on her trip to see us hurt me. There was no apology and somehow, it was my fault for being an angsty teenager (I was 21 at the time. By no means, a teenager.)

During that trip, her homophobic rhetoric had an unintended result, though: It allowed me, for the first time, to literally look myself in the mirror and tell myself, “I’m gay and that’s okay.” It would be over a year before I publicly came out, but I was unmistakably on that path by this point.

Pulse, Coming Out, and Trump

The Summer of 2016 was a whirlwind. My futile attempts to be in a career field that didn’t suit me crashed and burned, the election was in full swing, and I was beginning to come to terms, more and more, with who I was as a gay man.

Then, something happened. Late one night that summer, I came downstairs to get a glass of water, when I saw NBC News had some breaking news. It was yet another mass shooting.

Whenever mass shootings would happen, I would usually retreat from the news, because of their frequency and the raw emotions that transpired in the aftermath was too much for an empath like myself to take in. This time was different, though. This time, I soon found out that LGBTQ people were the targets.

I stared at my TV and wept.

The next few days were a blur. Anderson Cooper on CNN, who is gay himself, read off the names of the dead, chocking back tears the entire time. That’s when I knew. I couldn’t let these people’s deaths be in vain. I had to do what little I could, in my own little corner, to remember them, to follow their example of bravery.

I was going to do it. I was going to come out.

I first came out to my best friend, who took it very well. And that would be the seeming experience I’d have with many of my friends, they all seemed okay with it. That is, until I told my church and my Christian friends, but more on that later. It all lead up to the day I publicly came out on an old blog that no longer exists in October of 2016.

Then, the election happened and I had to learn how to be an activist real quick.

I was initially in shock that something like this could’ve happened. How could so many of the people, who mere weeks earlier, said that they were fine with me being gay, go out and vote for such a bigot and authoritarian? I felt betrayed by my community, I felt alone and exposed. How? Why? And now what?

I discovered quickly that I could no longer identify with this group of people. So, I left everything I had ever known. It was brutal, but in hindsight, it had to be done. I started speaking out more. I started insisting that queer voices be heard over the loudness of the bigots. In this, I found my people, to say the least.

But then something happened that I never expected and never intended.

I was invited back to my old church in 2018 and I decided to go. Like an abusive relationship, I got sucked in fast. I was still out and proud to everyone else in my life, including my friends, coworkers, and family members, but at church, I learned to stuff it all over again.

I don’t know why I went back there, seeing as I still didn’t believe any evangelical theology, but I did and soon found out that staying would be untenable. As Pride Month neared in 2019, I became evermore disillusioned by the church’s lack of clarity.

It wasn’t long before I couldn’t hide who I was anymore. I came out to my small group and then to a friend of mine, who was a leader of one of the church’s ministries.

It didn’t go well.

My friend started spouting every anti-LGBTQ piece of theology he could throw at me, every verse from Romans to Leviticus. I was crushed. I was done. I couldn’t do it anymore. So I left.

Looking at my life today, things are better than they ever have been for me. I’m happy to be who I am, fully and completely. I’m finally comfortable in my own skin. As for my faith, that’s a more complicated story, but one I’m not worried about. There doesn’t always need to be an answer to everything unexplainable, and I find freedom in that.

It’s so far removed from the “all or nothing” approach my Christian school taught me, but it works for me very well. I don’t know what you call a worldview like that, but I just call it me. And all I know is that it makes me happy. And happiness is important, after all. Being yourself, even more so.