This is an essay I wrote recently and submitted to several publications in the hopes of having it accepted and printed. As yet, they have all declined. So, I will post it here. I’m sorry for the length, but that is necessary to tell the whole story of how and why I took a second turn in the closet.
When I made the decision in late 2006 to move back home to East Texas I knew that it wouldn’t be easy. I spent 22 of my first 30 years of life there and I understood well what going back meant. The way of life I enjoyed living in Dallas — being open about my sexuality without fear of reprisal — would simply not be possible once I returned. When I came out to my family in 1999 I had hope that the years of hiding, lying and self-hatred were over. I soon learned that the closet door swings both ways and that life on the inside is far worse the second time around.
We moved here when I was 8 years old. The small town about an hour east of Dallas with tree-lined streets, a church on nearly every corner and a fifty year old local diner where old men still gather each morning to drink coffee and talk about everything from the price of cattle to politics has an idyllic appearance. Most of the people who live here have lived here most of their lives and their families for generations before that. With fewer than 3,000 residents, it’s not hard to run into someone you know each time you go to the grocery store or to buy gas. Townsfolk brag about neighbors helping neighbors in times of need, and with good reason — they do. It is Mayberry in the modern day…at least on its face.
Even as a young boy I had a penchant for the artistic. Although I played baseball and soccer at the YMCA when we lived in Irving, I enjoyed music more. I joined a local baseball team the first summer we were in town but soon discovered that little league baseball at the Y in Irving and little league baseball in my new hometown bore little resemblance to one another. Teams here compete each year to get into a playoff system that could take them all the way to Austin for a state championship and the benefits of winning one of those championships could have a tangible effect on their prospects into high school and after. After playing only one inning of baseball that entire summer I realized I was out of my league — literally. By then I’d begun taking piano lessons anyway and knew that was where I could excel. Enter the bullies.
From fourth grade through my senior year in high school I went by many names: freak, geek, lard butt, Momma Milk Jugs (a personal favorite), fat ass…I could go on. But, there were two names that stung more than all of the others. “Faggot” and “queer bait” were not included in the roll call until later on in high school. Even today I don’t know why my classmates and other students in the school started calling me those names, but when they did it scared me. I’d known I was gay since I was about 11 or 12 — when I realized what being gay meant. I hid that fact from everyone because I knew that in the culture of hyper masculinity that existed in my hometown, being a boy who liked boys would mean nothing but trouble. I made a conscious effort not to look at other boys for too long. I didn’t have friends over to spend the night. I even had a “girlfriend” or two. I built a wall around myself that I believed could protect me from the wrath that would surely come if anyone ever found out the truth; so, when people started calling me faggot and queer bait I was terrified that somehow someone knew. Although no one ever threatened to harm me and looking back I don’t think anyone really figured it out, I spent the last two years of high school mortified that my deepest, darkest secret was known. That fear eventually turned into a self-loathing that still haunts me on some levels.
The story of my years in the closet is not unique. I grew up in a conservative Christian home and went to church and attended youth groups in conservative churches. Although homosexuality was never discussed in my home, many pastors and youth ministers made it abundantly clear that it was an “abomination” strictly forbidden by the scriptures. That was the soundtrack that played in my mind and heart over and over again as I tried my hardest to fight the feelings I had and free myself of their sinful and deadly hold on my life. When prayer, begging, pleading and bargaining with God didn’t work, I sought counseling, both pastoral and secular, in a vain attempt to find a cure. By the age of 28 I was an emotional and spiritual wreck. I couldn’t hold a steady job, I had gained almost 100 pounds since graduating high school and I had no friends to speak of. My social outlets were going to church every time the doors opened, going to whatever meaningless job I had at the time and sitting in my car watching men cruise the bathroom at a park during my lunch break. I was ruined and I knew that something had to change.
I came out to my mother on Thanksgiving Day of 1999. By that time I’d been living in Dallas for about four months. Life there was completely different. I was gay and I said so. I had many new friends with whom I had common interests. In the Turtle Creek Chorale I found not only an outlet for my music but also an extended family that offered support and encouragement without judgment or condemnation. In short, life was taking a turn for the better and I wanted my family to know. Mom told me that on some level she’d known for a long time and that she loved me and was proud of me. But, there would still have to be secrets. My sister was married and had a four year old girl. Although she told me that she didn’t care if I was gay or straight, she also told me that my brother-in-law couldn’t know — at least not then. She didn’t know what his reaction would be and didn’t want to take the risk that he would block my relationship with my niece while she was so young. I didn’t necessarily like that, but I accepted it. With the normal ups and downs of any other person, my life rocked along without major incident. I was, for the most part, happy and fulfilled.
I decided to come back home in 2006 because I wanted to finish school. In addition to not being able to hold a steady job for ten years I also bounced around from university to university, attending no less than seven in that time span. By that time I knew that without a degree I’d gone as far as I could go professionally and I knew that if I didn’t finish it then I never would. My decision was almost 100% financial. Moving back meant that I could live in a family home virtually free and attend classes at a local school for far less than any school in the Dallas area. I was quickly reminded, however, that I could not be vocal about my sexuality when I returned. The implications now extended beyond my own well-being to my family. Both of my nieces were in school and there could be potential repercussions for them if anyone found out. Once again, I didn’t like it, but I accepted it because I understood that it was true. I willingly opened the closet door and walked back in. Unfortunately, the consequences were far more detrimental than I could have ever known.
Whether real or imagined, I came to believe that my every word and action was being scrutinized. The old feelings of fear and paranoia resurfaced and this time they were accompanied by severe depression and anxiety attacks. I felt as though I had to tiptoe around the truth so I wouldn’t arouse suspicions that could harm my family. Eventually I had to go so far as to create separate social media accounts so that my “East Texas friends” and my “Dallas friends” wouldn’t be intermingled and there would be no danger that someone would say the wrong thing, post the wrong picture or, God forbid, tell me they loved me. My anxiety attacks forced me to stop making trips to Dallas to see friends and consequently my relationships with them suffered. I isolated myself from people I loved and cared about to protect my family; and protect them I did — but at what cost? In the midst of being the vanguard against any potential attack I lost an identity with which I’d only recently become comfortable. I sacrificed myself for my family knowing it was simultaneously the best and worst thing I could do.
I look in the mirror every morning and see a dichotomy that is still unexplainable to me. I see a man who loves others passionately and unconditionally but still can’t love himself enough to know when to say no. I see a man who pushed past every obstacle handed him to achieve what no one believed he would but cannot see his way clear around the one obstacle that remains — unbridled truth. I see a man who bears the full brunt of every emotion except happiness, an emotion that inevitably leads to guilt and shame because it seems undeserved. I have accomplished the goal I set six years ago and it has paid off professionally and financially but I am still plagued with feelings of doubt and unworthiness. My second turn hiding in the closet has caused me to look through the eyes of success and see the face of failure. My second turn has infected me with a dismorphia so profound that the man in the mirror is one who hasn’t existed in years. Only now can I see the true price I paid by walking back through the door.
I tell my story not for pity or pardon. My story is a clarion call to the reader who may be considering walking back through the door. No matter how noble the intention, there are no rewards for taking second turns in the dark. Regardless who tells you that returning to a life of half-truths and outright lies will be better for you or best for your loved ones, better is always best served with the truth. I do not regret the decision I made to return home. It had to be done in order to accomplish my goal of finishing school. What I do regret is that I didn’t understand until now that the mightiest shields against hatred and bigotry are love and truth. There are no better guardians. Before you make the choice to continue in darkness or return to it, consider my story. Lock the door behind you and never go back.