The sand shifted beneath my feet as I walked onto a beach situated on Narragansett Bay. A chilly wind picked up the ocean’s aroma as I breathed in the salt water air for the first time in months. Tiny, unspoken prayers do come true. The move from Georgia to Rhode Island did not come without a bit of turmoil. Someone within the Georgian church congregation hated my family or maybe just my father. He or she broke into his church office multiple times, destroyed property, knocked down books and a computer monitor onto the floor and poured cement paint over everything to solidify their reckoning. The intruder left a paint trail from the church office, down the hallway, out the backdoor and to the outdoor shed. Their pathway of freedom caused an uprooting for us. My family never understood why a church member would do this, but my father received their message. He took a much needed break from ministry and we moved north to the smallest U.S. state. In some ways, I felt guilty for the silent prayers I prayed to leave the rural city. I did not think we would have left this way. Still, I felt relief to get another shot at a different, hopefully more tolerant, high school.
Typically, my family would move over Christmas break in order to not miss school and also to visit relatives during this transition. The move to Rhode Island felt uncomfortable as it diverted from our normal move schedule. My father moved a few months before we did due to getting a new job. The rest of us stayed in Georgia until Justice graduated high school, then my sister, mom and I joined my father up north and Justice transitioned to college life. Without classroom interaction or sports teams, adjusting to a new community was a bit more difficult. My father found us a church, a short three-minute walk from our split-level home, the neighborhood Baptist church. And on this particular evening, my sister and I arrived to a local youth group party on the beach about a mile away. Over the course of the night, I became acquainted with Forrest, Michael, Samuel, Kendall, Christine, a few others and the youth pastor, John. Despite not knowing any of them well, it took away some of the isolation I felt during that summer. I also joined the local YMCA summer swim team to stay active, meet some more people and began employment at the local retail pharmacy.
Without classroom interaction or sports teams, adjusting to a new community was a bit more difficult.
Summer eventually came to a close as my sister and I transitioned to a new high school. The locals told us that our school district teachers protested every year for a higher income, which delayed the start of the semester. As a result, my first day at the new high school landed on September 11, 2001. And with the rest of the nation, it caused me to reflect on my new surroundings in a deeper way. Rhode Island was a significantly Catholic state and in complete contrast to the Bible belt that I left behind. Quickly, I became the “Protestant boy” with little to no worldly knowledge of the kind of lives these coastal beings lived. Students rushed me as I sat waiting for my Science class to show me the scientific evidence of evolution. My peers lectured me on their political thoughts about Israel and the Middle East. Nominal Catholics were baffled I never participated in a CCD class as I tried to figure out what the abbreviation meant. Yet, if they expanded it to “Confraternity of Christian Doctrine,” which I later looked up, I would still be perplexed as to what it meant. I lacked a verbal response to any of those topics as I quietly waited for the next bell to ring. The teacher’s lecture suspended the apparent cultural wars put on me, which I knew little about. It heightened my anxiety as to why I knew so little of the world and they, apparently, knew so much.
Despite the odds, I managed to befriend a variety of my classmates. School attendance barely hit five hundred, so a definitive line between the “drama geeks” versus “jocks” did not exist like it did in Georgia. Every student attempted any after-school activity in order to stay sane in their high school years or to boost their college application.
A few encouraged me to try out for the annual school play. I became hesitant due to my lack of theatre experience. My acting resume would read: Non-speaking multipart extra - “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in a community-wide show. Nothing to brag about. Internally, I could recall all of the uncomfortable classroom presentations I made as I mumbled my way through a scripted monologue. Still, through my peers’ encouragement and against all odds, I became a lead in my first high school play. I felt quite honored and also tried to minimize the success by attributing this to the lack of fresh faces in the small coastal high school.
The theatre was a welcoming house of geeks, jocks and the outliers. After-school practices and weekends kept everyone busy. The memorization of Shakespearean language was difficult for our high school minds to grapple with. Still, it was a community worth being a part of. As the director led some actors under the brightened stage, the rest sat in the dimly lit auditorium reviewing our respective lines. I attempted to get myself to become Demetris in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, but usually became distracted by those practicing on stage.
As I waited, an abandoned magazine caught my eye. The bolded word “OUT” graced the top of the magazine’s cover. I became curious, quickly scanned the room before grabbing the magazine.
I strangely, and for the first time, wanted this intimate male bonding I never had. Not to have sex with them.
I told myself that it was only curiosity as I nervously picked up the periodical. With shaking hands, I slowly turned the pages as I internally shook with each seductive photograph staring back at me. Photos of men standing alone in colorful briefs or two men kissing with only shorts on and a beautiful landscape announcing their love for another. One particular photograph grabbed my full attention. Two hairless men sat in a small Jacuzzi with legs entangling one another. Without any specific reason, I wanted to be in the bubbling hot water with the two nameless men. I strangely, and for the first time, wanted this intimate male bonding I never had. Not to have sex with them. But to be completely naked, as our bodies touched and, somehow, within this moment to be known in every way. It looked intimate and safe as two sets of deep brown eyes stared back at me.
The clunk of the auditorium seat startled me as the magazine’s owner returned. Our eyes met with wonderment of who would let out the first word. At a loss for words I started to clear my throat over and over again hoping that some words would eventually come out. I closed the magazine and slowly handed it back to him. I prayed that this moment would stay a secret. With no words, we continued to lock eyes until the director yelled, “Next scene!”
I forcibly pushed myself out of the chair, rushed onto the stage and we never spoke of that moment again.
I thought I could push every homosexual thought out of my mind. Television preachers yelled, “Keep your mind captive” to their flock as if the audience were new military cadets in bootcamp. I wondered if I was the only cadet with a gay thought. Did those television preachers ever have a bad thought? How quickly did they reach pure holiness? I had to be missing something as I tried to walk in fake confidence at my new high school. It quickly became something I could not maintain. I kept thinking about the two men in the Jacuzzi. I longed for the warmth of another person’s skin against mine. For me, physical touch would make the loneliness go away and help solidify a stronger bond with other men. And these thoughts I had, I kept to myself in fear of being ostracized at another high school.
March was a long school month stuck between the snow days and our escape to the beloved Spring break. The classroom days seemed to be on repeat as my classmates begrudgingly waited for spring to arrive. But for me, March could be a celebratory time. Yes, my birthday, or anyone’s birthday, should be a cause of celebration. Cards, presents and a huge dance party. This was easier said than done for a constant newbie like myself, but this small coastal school seemed to know everything about everyone. News traveled fast, and despite my complete silence on the topic, by third period on the day of my seventeenth birthday it seemed everyone knew about it.
In Chemistry class, I sat furthest from the door, while my classmates trickled in saying “Happy Birthday, Nate!” as I nodded my head and mumbled a quiet “Thank you.” It felt good to be noticed for a day. One day, every year I could claim as my own. I kept the widest grin on my face until I heard my name being called from behind me.
My body twisted to turn in their direction as I heard one of the football players question, “Nate. It’s your birthday?”
I took a deep swallow as I avoided eye contact and hesitantly let out a meek affirmative, “Yeah.”
And with an immediate response, he yelled back “Well, go suck cock!”
His grin matched Dr. Seuss’ Grinch’s grin before his heart grew. His words killed off the celebratory classroom air. Next to him, his petite Hispanic girlfriend giggled, while slapping him on his right forearm saying, “Oh Chris.” In shock, I slowly turned around with a horrified face. I stared down at my desk and twirled my pencil as a few people around me told me not to worry about him. I smiled and nodded my head in agreement faking an assurance their words comforted me. Our eccentric Chemistry teacher walked in, hushed the commotion and started class.
“Well.... Here’s to another shitty birthday,” I thought to myself twirling my pencil. In nervousness, my right leg kept shaking as I tried to ignore my inner dialogue of how much I suck, how unmanly I was, and how gay I was. But the damage had already been done. The only hope that I had was that one day, I would figure out an exit plan to escape this hellhole.
Between my junior and senior years, my parents allowed us to start going to the movie theaters. The heavens must have opened up or they merely wanted us out of the house, so they could have the house to themselves. Either way, I started to enjoy this American tradition. But with the movie watching, I could not avoid the sexuality struggle I had inside of me anymore.
I noticed something peculiar happen.
Like in every theater, the lights dimmed as the audience and I were taken into another world for an hour or two. It was a romantic comedy…. No, it was an action film… Maybe, a drama? It did not matter. The premise was all the same. I watched as the actors’ and actress' lips met each others, followed by them disrobing one another. In a dramatic fashion, they tossed their clothes onto the couch as they began foreplay. I noticed something peculiar happen. As the two on-screen actors made love, I become hyper aware of wanting to be with the bare chested, muscular man and not the nude woman. My mind wandered without wanting to see another part of her. I questioned if we, the audience would get to see the rest of him, since we saw most of her.
The scene change made me realize I still sat in the movie theater. My heart pounded as I readjusted myself in the theater seat wondering if anyone noticed how my body reacted. Could this be true? Was I attracted to him? Why couldn’t I be attracted to her? Why did this happen? In subsequent movies, I tried to force myself to think about the actress. I prayed my male anatomy would react the same way towards the actress as it did with the male actor during the first movie. But each and every time I tried to long for her, nothing happened.... until I looked at her male partner. How did this happen?
It became a dark, little secret tucked away with no verbal confession. I realized I was a homosexual. The statement raced around my head. I could not bring myself to utter the words out loud. The statement felt too dangerous, too disgusting. Yes, too disgusting. I became disgusted with the person I had become. Did I catch the plague? Should I tell someone? Will I ever find love or stay lonely forever? In misery, I sat alone with my questions.
College-ruled paper stared back at me as I twirled a black pen unsure of how to begin. I had a lot to write with many words I could not say out loud, even to myself. I stared out the window while sitting at my desk asking myself how I should start. Letter writing had a simple place in my heart as I began to have pen pals throughout the world. Dylan and I became friends on a missions trip to Mexico a few years prior to moving to Rhode Island. He lived in the Pacific Northwest. For us, it felt natural to keep our friendship afloat by way of the postal service. Every few weeks, one of us sent a letter to the other and back and forth. I felt safe in the letter writing. I knew the possibility of us meeting again would be nearly impossible. It was either an eight-hour flight or four-day drive to arrive at the other person’s front door. Dylan became my only option to express my emotional turmoil to.
"I am gay." The written statement felt uncomfortable and disheartening. Am I actually writing this? I took a deep breath as I folded the pages, shoved my short confession into a legal sized security envelope and sealed it in a minute flat. I quietly moved from my bedroom to my father’s office. I rummaged through the office desk looking for the stamp book. The three quarters by half inch stamp permitted my first self disclosure. I pressed the stamp onto the envelope and felt both anxiety and relief settled in. If Dylan did not respond, well, I wouldn’t have to face him. It would only be a slight rejection. If he responded with hate, I didn’t have to respond. And, if met with acceptance, well, I would not know what to do.
The following morning, the grass crunched beneath my feet as I made my way across the yard to the mailbox. I let out a deep exhale to cause fog to cover my glasses. My gloveless hands shook as I lifted the red flag as a notification for the mailman to take the letter on its cross-continental journey. I closed my eyes as I verbalized, “Please let this be okay.” I gave one pat to the top of the mailbox as a sign of self-affirmation, then walked to my car to make my way to school.
If the letter contained words of hate, it would only justify my self-hatred.
The wait for his response was unbearable. Each day, I rushed home to check the mail. And each letter-less day turned into a sleepless night as I wondered what he thought of me. The days and nights turned into a sleepless fortnight. Then one afternoon, I arrived home from school to see a piece of mail laying on my wooden desk. I recognized the cursive writing as Dylan’s penmanship. I read the Oregon return address several times as I unsteadily held onto the unopened envelope. I closed my bedroom door, walked across my room to sit on the edge of my twin sized mattress. My chest tightened expecting the worst case scenario. If the letter contained words of hate, it would only justify my self-hatred. But pages written with words of love would cause more questions within me than acceptance. What would I do then? What could I do with my own sexuality?
I opened the envelope. And I began to read each word slowly and carefully. My eyes moved from word to word, paragraph to paragraph and page to page. Could it be? Dylan… understood. He actually... he actually... got who I was. My simple confession was returned with his honest confession. I was not alone in this. Dylan was like me. And I like Dylan. Someone else understood the struggle within. In silence, I glowed inside with a silent celebration, but in moments it soon halted. The one person, who understood what it was like… the one person I could relate to… this one person… lived... across the continent. Thousands of miles away. The written confession felt lonelier than before.
Like every American, I attempted to use work and busyness as an oasis from my inner turmoil. But instead, the retail pharmacy became a lion’s den as unwanted questions about my sexuality attacked me from all sides. On Friday evenings, Peter, an outspoken homosexual, and I worked alone together as the manager finished his nightly responsibilities in the office. Peter and I had our own nightly duties, he cleaned up the one-hour photo lab as I dusted and straightened products in the aisle close by. We talked about a vast array of topics including our families, politics and, of course, pop culture. One night, Peter mentioned he knew someone who liked me. My body warmed with curiosity, as I smirked and inquired who this person was. This “someone” was named Gregory. At the sound of a man’s name, I physically straightened my back in attempt to reclaim some composure after quickly proclaiming my disinterest. This did not deter Peter’s ambition to want to hook me up and told me I would meet the mystery man later.
On the following Friday, Peter and I refilled the shelves with cigarette packs and heard the automated door open nearby. Peter made a nod in my direction, placed his cigarette carton down to wave at the visitor, while stating, “Here he is!”
Peter began to whisper the details of the visitor in my ear. He was the mysterious man Peter eagerly wanted me to meet. Gregory was a junior at the local private Catholic high school. His face was clean shaven, he wore preppy clothes and had a slight smile marking him as a gentleman. He stood about my height and began to walk down one of the aisles. I turned around to keep filling the cigarette shelves in hopes of avoiding Gregory altogether.
Peter swiftly added, “You’re going to ring him out. He is coming now,” and began to walk away.
“Wait… what?” I turned around to see Gregory standing there at the cash register. I rang up the two items he placed on the counter. A pack of gum and bottled water. I avoided small talk and asked for his member’s card. He declined. Gregory and I blushed at each other both knowing Peter’s attempt at matchmaking.
“Have a great day.... I mean... night!” I exclaimed, Gregory smiled and walked away. The clearing of my throat aided my awkwardness as Peter stood at a close distance chuckling to himself. I checked out several other customers before Peter could engage in conversation.
Peter teased me, “You like him.”
“No… he is… he’s cool,” was all I could say as I slid by Peter to clean an aisle and get away from the cash register. Why was Peter trying so hard to hook me up? I never spoke about my sexual identity. I could not believe this happened and I closed my eyes to internally scream, “Stop it, Peter!” as he kept bugging me about him.
Could it be possible to build a non-romantic relationship with someone you wanted to kiss?
Gregory became a regular on Friday evenings and to purchase the same two items - a bottle of water and a pack of gum. And with each of Gregory’s visits to the store, I became equally diligent in denying myself any attraction to him. I withdrew all friendliness and started to become cold. Any emotion quickly changed to frustration. Should someone befriend someone who is attracted to you? Or was I attracted to him? Could it be possible to build a non-romantic relationship with someone you wanted to kiss? Was I really thinking like this? The questions stayed internal and silence became the only answer. I denied myself any and all emotional bonding to any male. And eventually, Gregory stopped coming on Friday nights. His bittersweet departure left me wondering why I could not love another man.
Over Memorial Day weekend, our family embarked on an annual trip to my dad’s hometown in Georgia; a land full of pine trees, pickup trucks, brick churches, sweet tea and Confederate flags. I could swear I was adopted due to preferring the oceanside, coffee shops and pop culture. A couple of male cousins and I gathered outside, while the adults sat indoors. As usual, I stood on the outside of the circle staring at the grass as I listened to their southern drawls discussing random topics. The gay topic somehow replaced their hunting discussion. And instantly, a cold sweat dripped down my back in the ninety degree weather as my ears began to capture their every word.
A passionate cousin proclaimed, “If any relative ever came out - they would be kicked out of this family!” I heard grunts of agreement of the others. No one questioned him nor did I. Their silent confirmation echoed my need to shove my emotions further down. In this family, being a homosexual will make you an orphan. And in their religion, it means you’re given a one way ticket to the pits of hell by God Almighty Himself. I hated the Bible belt.
Secrets circled my heart as it short-circuited any self-confidence I had. A significant shift occurred in my social behavior from being a soft spoken, pleasant person to turning inwards and hiding from the outside world. The internal pain planting seeds over the years finally took root and began to show itself. Each morning of my senior year, it took all of my energy to get out of bed. My body lagged behind me as each step became emotionally painful. Each passing day became longer than the previous as I collapsed within myself. The high school cut the male swim team due to insignificant involvement. As an alternate activity, I passed out on the couch while watching reruns of Roseanne on the television. My mom would get home from work and instructed me to get off the couch to do some homework. Reluctantly, I did so by moving from the couch to the computer room’s floor and blankly stared at my academic books. Meaningless, it all felt meaningless. I again napped, then got up, ate dinner, and fell asleep on top of the papers and books spread across the carpeted floor until I eventually moved into my bed for the evening. A new daily routine for the academic year.
One afternoon, Mrs. Winchester, my Calculus teacher stood in front of me to block me from continuing down the hall to my next class. She knew how to push me academically, while still showing care. This roadblock seemed abrasive, yet came from caring for her students.
“Can I talk to you for a minute?” she asked.
“Umm... yeah.” I hesitantly uttered, while pulling a winter hat over my ears and hiding my hands in the brown zip-up hoodie. My new daily attire. I wondered if I failed another exam as I watched my GPA plummet within one semester.
She interlocked her fingers and placed them in front of her waist as she gently inquired, “Is there something going on?” Her head tilted towards mine allowing me to see her deep concern. I blurted out a “No,” and looked in another direction.
“Are you sure? Did something happen this summer?” She placed her hand on my shoulder in hopes of getting me to look at her.
My lips tightened as I mumbled, “Everything is fine.”
In my favor, the school bell rang as I lowered my body to get away from her touching my shoulder as I made a quick escape. I peeked back to see her staring at me as I walked away. She will never know my secret.
The perk of attending a youth group in a coastal town are numerous Wednesday night trips to the beach. John knew how to ask deep theological questions while allowing our spirits to wrestle and also giving space to vocalize our thoughts. And there were often moments of silence because our youthful hearts were not ready to dive too deep.
One evening, we drove into a small parking lot tucked between the multi-million dollar mansions. The sound of our voices and footsteps were no match for the crashing waves hurling themselves onto the rocks. Each of us were given space to sit on the boulders and to think about the night’s discussion. Frankly, I could not remember the dialogue from twenty minutes earlier. I could not stop thinking about questions about my sexuality swarming around my mind.
Why did loneliness flood my soul so easily?
In relief, Kendall decided to sit next me as we discussed God’s direction for our lives. What would our careers be? Where would we go to study in college? What did it mean to follow God’s will? A slight breeze blew with a mist from the crashing waves. I always appreciated her as we were not afraid to push each other deeper. The unknown felt like a time to be brave, at least it did in this moment. I could talk to her for hours. The simple crash of the waves allowed our conversation to slowly stop as we became silent at the same time. Kendall said she would be back as she went off to be with the others. And, when she left, I felt loneliness rush in. Why did loneliness flood my soul so easily?
I heard the wind rushing against someone's clothes close by. I looked around to see the bearded skateboarder turned youth pastor come close and sit down next to me.
“What do you think of her?” asked John as he put his arm around my shoulder. I looked around to see where Kendall went. I leaned in towards him, “Kendall?”
I squinted as if physically trying to make sense of his question. What was John inferring?
“Yeah man! She totally digs you.”
“Oh! She’s pretty cool... I don’t know…” My words slurred and stumbled like pebbles wrestling with the ocean’s tide. I reluctantly smiled. John read my non-verbals as I looked in the distance hoping the conversation would stop. He was not the first person to mention our close friendship. Everyone knew she was beautiful inside and out. For me, it did not go beyond a respectful friendship. And really, I didn’t have the sexual part of me straightened out. And his questioning pushed roots of disappointment deeper within me.
Two days later, I heard the computer room door creak waking me from an afternoon slumber. My sister walked in to where I lay among the pencils and binders sprawled across the carpet. I lifted my head and pushed a few binders aside. She sat cross-legged next to me with a mission to ask one question and without hesitation she asked, “Are you gay? 'Cause a few people were talking about it at work. I was only wondering. It’s not a big deal. You know?”
And without hesitation, I expressed, “No.”
“Oh okay.” She pushed herself off of the floor and left the room satisfied with the answer. And I was left on the floor with more questions. Why did people care so much? Why would my co-workers send my sister to inquire about this? How many people wanted to know? And it’s none of their business. As she closed the door behind her, I waved a white sheet of computer paper announcing my own surrender. Even my home felt unsafe. I had no sanctuary of my own. I lowered my head into my folded arms and attempted to sleep as tears began to soak my Calculus book. If I could only wake up from this living nightmare.