Back when I was a student at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, the evangelical equivalent of West Point, the school taught me to be wary of gays: They were all HIV-positive perverts and liberal pedophiles. I’d grown up a conservative fundamental Christian, and I wanted to be a good “Champion for Christ.”
But my beliefs started to change after I left Liberty in my first year and returned back home. I found myself regularly going to a karaoke night, and so many gay people attended, we called it “Lesbaoke.” At first it made me uncomfortable, but over time I found in that place a new home, where everyone was the epitome of loving, and where the judgmental voice inside of me was forced into silence. The regulars at that bar became a family of sorts, tied together by something stronger than blood: a combination of cheap beer and rocking hits of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
Then one night, I had a conversation with a woman named Elizabeth that forced me to wrestle with my Christian past. “I came out to my family yesterday,” she said through watery eyes. “My dad told me to get my stuff out of his house, and that he wouldn’t pay another dime for the education of a ‘faggot daughter’!” Her face found my shoulder, and I wrapped my hands around her tiny body.
But I betrayed her then. Without even thinking, I betrayed the soft creature crying endlessly on my shoulder: I was silent.
And I realized that I hated Lizzy. Not because she was a bad person, but because she liked other women. That one facet to her being was enough to spark animosity toward her, animosity I could not comprehend. The Bible tells us to love one another as ourselves. How could this be the voice of Jesus? And if this voice wasn’t Jesus, what voice was it?
I wanted to know. And that’s when an idea came to me: To walk in Lizzy’s shoes – the shoes of the very people I had been born to hate.
The implications of the idea were overwhelming. To do so would ruin my life. But what kind of life did I have, if such a barrier existed between me and the people I loved? For the next six months, I felt the idea growing, rooting inside me, like a decision that had already been made. I was meant for this. It was a calling I neither wanted nor understood, but I could not ignore the divine sense of affirmation in it.
- – - – - – - – - -
The idea was simple enough, or so I thought: come out as gay to my family, friends, and church, and see how the label of gay would affect my life. It would be the ultimate chance to test everything that two decades of programming in the Independent Baptist Church had taught me.
I’d lived in Nashville since I was two and loved it. Like most Southern cities, we lived at a much slower pace. It was a place of faith and Republican politics, where iced tea was the drug of choice and being a member of this church or that was more prestigious than belonging to a country club.
Growing up I was the little boy single-handedly responsible for the success of the clip-on tie industry. I logged more hours in church than most pastors. Television shows like the “Power Rangers” were off limits because of the worldly music (not the violence, go figure), as were the movies like “Free Willy” because of their “environmentalist, liberal agenda.” I was never allowed to believe in Santa Claus or the Easter bunny, and not once on Halloween did my parents allow me to dress up to go trick-or-treating. They said it was an “evil” holiday, and I was too young to protest. None of this really mattered, though. I’d just wanted to be normal, even though I was not quite sure what normal really was.
One of the earliest Sunday school lessons I remember was “Sodom and Gomorrah.” I could not have been older than seven or eight. I stared in awe at the display board showing the destruction of the city, rendered in felt. The Sunday school teacher placed the “fire raining from the heavens” pieces on the board with care, like she treasured them. Each piece, including the people, looked like something you’d see in a science fiction movie.
Memories from my childhood had plagued me since that night at the bar with Liz, but none of them held the same novelty as before. Now I saw them for what they might actually be: the spiritual boot camp that taught me how to use the Bible to hurt instead of love. I had been raised a Bible thumper, a homophobe; my decision was not an easy one.
Acting on my idea was not simple, though. Weeks of sleepless nights followed my decision to move forward with the experiment. I became an insomniac zombie, obsessing over every nuance of the experiment, and also a hermit. My lack of contact with the outside world worried my best friend Josh, and it didn’t take much waffling before I drove to his house to tell him everything. It was his fault I’d started going to karaoke, after all — and I was going to make him participate, whether he liked it or not!
After some brief small talk, I hesitantly told him. “By the way, I’ve decided to ‘come out’ to my family and friends.”
“What? But you aren’t gay!” He looked shocked, and the confusion on his face almost lightened my mood. “Are you…?”
“Of course not! You know me better than that,” I said. “You know my story, about how I was raised and everything.”
A look of recognition blossomed, and his demeanor changed. “That’s perfect!” he said without my having to elaborate. “If you walk in their shoes, you might not be such an asshole to them.”
“Hey, now! I am not …Well, yes, basically. But I don’t want to be an asshole anymore,” I said as Josh smiled at me. “It’s just that, well, I’m not sure that I should…” I voiced my hesitation, wondering if he would tell me to drop it or encourage me to go through with the idea.
Josh saw my hesitancy. “If you don’t do this, I’m going to find someone who will. This is the best idea you’ve ever had, and it needs to be done. Tim, this is your chance to question everything you’ve ever been taught! It’s your chance to grow a heart. This is going to change your life!” He knew me too well.
I knew I didn’t have a choice.
- – - – - – - – - -
Over the past three months, I’ve stood in front of my bedroom mirror and practiced my “coming out” speech no less than five thousand times, and I thought I had it memorized. But fear has wiped my memory of anything I hoped to say. My palms are sweaty, and even though it is the middle of winter, a bead of sweat forms on the crease of my forehead. Nothing could have prepared me for the moment that I look my only brother Andrew in the eyes and tell him I am gay.
My sister-in-law, a recent addition to the family, stands next to her husband in the kitchen of their house, rubbing his back empathetically.
The second hand on the clock above the entryway reaches each marker with the force of a hammer strike. Friends are on the covered porch nearby, smoking cigarettes and laughing about something. I wish I knew what. The dishwasher clicks, switching cycles on the first load of dirty dishes from our pancake breakfast. Loads two, three, and four are stacked neatly in the sink; leftover syrup drips over the edge of the top plate.
Still I cannot speak. Finally, out of nowhere, it happens.
Those two simple words are followed by silence. I am in shock. Waiting to say the words was one kind of hell, but waiting for my brother to respond to them is a second hell that makes me long for the first. My eyes are on the verge of tears, and the fear inside me is growing. I feel cowardly as I lean against the counter, petrified, one hand still covering my mouth.
“Are you joking with us, Tim?” My brother’s voice sounds different. It is not his normal voice. It wavers and almost cracks as he speaks, and I can tell by the look on his face that he is trying to decide whether or not I’m serious, hoping that the next words out of my mouth will be Got ya! or Just kidding!
“No, I’m not.” My body begins shaking as I wait for the backlash.
I never anticipated that coming out as gay would feel this raw, this emotional, this terrifying. It isn’t a fear that life won’t go on; rather, that life won’t resolve in some way. The questions and the stereotypes, and fear for all of the relationships I might lose, consume me. I don’t want to lose my friends, and I don’t want my family to hold me at arm’s length. I do not want to be the black sheep of the family, or the different gay brother or son. I want to be me. But having been raised in a conservative religious home, I know these hopes aren’t reasonable. Living in the culture of the “Bible Belt” makes the prospect of feeling simultaneously normal and gay likely impossible. I cannot imagine what coming out would be like if I were really gay. One year may seem like a long time, but a lifetime would be more than I could ever adjust to.
The look on my brother’s face as he processes my revelation is proof. Nothing about this year is going to be easy.
Then my brother’s wife, Maren, looks at me with the grace of a sister, and Andrew’s face takes on a beautiful look of sympathy and protectiveness. I don’t know why he’s looking at me that way, but it is not threatening. I have never seen it before, and it surprises me.
My sister-in-law moves next to me and playfully grabs the scruff of my neck. “Were you actually afraid we were going to push you away for being gay?” she asks as her hand rubs my still very rigid back. My pulse is racing.
“Honestly, I didn’t know how you were going to react,” I reply, still shaking.
Andrew moves next to me and puts his arm around me. I’m in the middle of these two people, and I feel like I hardly know them. Have I been too hard on them, assuming that my brother would react to my coming out the way I might have if he had come out to me? I don’t know what to think. I have been told most family members ask questions after finding out for the first time that a loved one is gay. But they do not ask me how long I have known or “felt this way,” and they do not ask me if I have a boyfriend. Instead, they just let me be. It is a beautiful thing that in spite of everything I believed would, or at least could, have happened, in our case, blood really does run thicker than dogma.
Now, it’s time to tell my parents. I don’t know if I’ll make it.
- – - – - – - – - -
Before going to my mom’s house, 20 minutes north in Hermitage, Tenn., I stop at my friend Hope’s apartment. I slept very little the night before, and I need to rest for a few hours before I see my mom. I walk inside and wash up before going to the kitchen. Hope pours me a shot of vodka while I am in the bathroom. She hands it to me, and one gulp later and my chest warms as the clear liquid moves through my body.
“What’s next?” she asks.
“I’m going to ask my mom if she’ll go to coffee with me, and then I’ll tell her.”
“Sounds good. You going to rest awhile?”
“I don’t think I can.”
“You need to try,” she says.
“I’m going to call her in a few minutes and try to get her to meet up with me,” I say.
After another shot and some small talk, I dial my mom’s number and press the phone to my ear. It feels like an eternity before my mom answers her cell, and I feel my eyes glaze over, resigned to the possibility that I could break her heart.
“Hey, mom, can we get some coffee or something, later? I need to talk to you about something.” A part of me wonders how she’ll respond. I cannot help but wonder if she’ll even believe me.
“I know what you’re going to tell me.” Her voice, usually whimsical and high-pitched, sounds somber. It sounds like she’s been crying, her voice hoarse and broken.
“What are you talking about?”
“I know you think you’re gay. Andrew called earlier.” She seems to be waiting for confirmation, so I give it to her.
“Think I’m gay? Mom, I am gay.” I can’t help but respond defensively. Why would she say think? Thinking, as she put it, would leave room for error and doubt, and if I know anything, it is that no one would have the gumption to declare their orientation to the world if they just “thought” they were gay. It is too life-changing and painful to do haphazardly. Not only that, but it also negates the declaration in itself, a declaration that takes time for anyone who makes it.
“Just come home, Tim. We’ll talk about it here.” The edge in her voice is gone, and I reluctantly give the nod to Hope that it is time for me to leave.
I arrive at my mom’s house. As I pull into the driveway, I see her standing on the front steps waiting for me. She has never greeted me like this. Part of me feels relief at the thought that she already knows, but another, larger part feels angry that I have lost the opportunity to tell her myself. I get out of the car, grab my bag, and walk towards her. As I reach the top step, she holds her arms out to hug me.
I fall into them like a child who has just scraped his knee, and she holds me.
“Tim, I love you. You know that, don’t you?” she asks while my head rests on her shoulder. I can’t help but be proud of my mom. This is how I should have treated Liz.
“Yes, but I know this isn’t something you want to hear from me.”
“We’ll figure it all out. I’ll love you no matter what. Just give me some time.”
“OK.” I can’t say much in response. I am too tired, but happy that she is making an attempt to show me she cares. We walk inside and sit on the couch, saying very little as we both adjust to something new. Eventually she speaks.
“Have you told your dad yet?”
“Not yet. I’ll email him. I don’t have the energy to have another conversation today.”
“You don’t have to do this all in one day,” she says.
“I know,” I say.
I try to imagine how much harder things would be if she and my brother hadn’t cared enough to show me they love me still. My heart breaks for those who have actually lost family after coming out of the closet. I cannot imagine feeling this vulnerable only to be abandoned by the people who are supposed to be there no matter what.
I think again about Lizzy that night at karaoke, six months earlier, and I wish I had known. I wish I had known how this feels, I wish I had wrapped my arms around her and grieved with her, and accepted her in her pain. Overcome by guilt, shame, and sadness, I walk upstairs to go to bed. It’s 4:26 p.m., but I’m ready to sleep.
Anything that incites the kind of fear that I’ve felt this day requires courage to overcome. I had never believed coming out was an act of courage. Until today, coming out as gay has always represented cowardice and a sense of giving up. I believed it was an easy out for people who didn’t want to overcome the perversion and sin in their lives. But if today has shown me anything, it is that the act of coming out itself and risking the life you have always known is a courageous thing, an act worthy of respect.