Disclaimer: This story contains mentions of suicidal thoughts that may be triggering to some.
“Hueytown is not as quaint as it sounds. I have nothing against it necessarily, but I don’t want you to think it’s a Mayberry. There’s not a Main Street and no sidewalks upon which you can meander through town. But the Alabama city does have a church on every corner, and if it were ever measured, I’m sure the residents would win first place for the amount of sweet tea consumed in a year. I had a great childhood. I grew up the youngest of four boys in a lower middle class family. My dad worked full time, and my mom stayed at home. Frankly, it wouldn’t have made much sense for them to get another car and pay for childcare. I’m glad it happened this way. Mom was always home with us. She was a really talented cross-stitcher, and one of her pieces which hung in our home said, ‘Richer than me no man can be, I had a mother who read to me.’ That framed piece of my mother’s art is a metaphor for my childhood.
My mom was (and still is) a master at domestic engineering. She made our clothes, the curtains which hung throughout our house, she painted murals and faux finishes on our walls, and she was always crafting. But her secret weapon was her baking. Oh, her baking. My mom cooked for our church. I’m not sure if this is exactly true, but when she started, there were only a handful of people coming to Wednesday night suppers each week. A few years later, hundreds were coming from all over. She was scouted to run a restaurant, but declined the offer, as cooking was her act of service, not her job—though she was really good at it. She’d probably have an empire by now, somewhere between Paula Deen and Martha Stewart. When I went to college, my mom did too. She became a nurse, and somehow figured out how to get paid to do what is completely natural to her: caring.
My dad was an insurance claims adjuster. He drove his old hatchback Toyota Tercel all over the South East. The odometer broke at 300,000 miles, but he kept working to support his family. This pretty much sums him up. He never stopped. He went to sleepaway camp with me in elementary school—the only dad on the trip. And he would always go on my Boy Scout trips, too. I was probably closer to my dad than my brothers, but he never let it show. He was good to all of us. A solid, wonderful dad. Another thing you should know about him is that he is jolly. He always smiled and laughed, and always loved the best way he knew how. My older brothers were the best. We fought like cats and dogs, but we loved each other. If you tried to keep us apart for too long, we’d find a way to get back together.
My oldest was an avid basketball player and a leader in our church youth group. Just younger than him was an artist, an introvert, and the one who sowed his wild oats (there’s always one, right?). The brother just older than me is still my best friend—we’re only thirteen months apart, and I’ve always wanted to be just like him. He’s such a good person in every way, and he’s always been there for me. We all went to church religiously (no pun intended). We were always there at least three times per week, if not more. My dad was a deacon and the church security guard (which is funny—he’s not intimidating at all). My mom was the cook, the janitor, and the children’s church director. But it wasn’t a social activity. We truly believed in the teachings of our church. We were as closely aligned as any family could be with the local body—that’s what we called our church, a smaller part of the Body of Christ. It was an evangelical, born again, conservative Christian, Southern Baptist church. And it was the most important thing in my life.
I was taught at a very young age to have an eternity mindset. This world was temporary, and everything here was only meant to prepare us for the afterlife. My relationship with God (as we defined him using Christian scripture) was the only thing that really mattered. My life was meant to be pleasing to God, and the more I pleased him, the more I would look like him. We called this process sanctification. It was like pruning a bush. The gardner (God) was pruning me (the bush) to be just the way he wanted me. If there were parts of me that didn’t match the image of God we believed to be true, it should be pruned away. This was proof of my salvation, and the only way of knowing if I truly had an eternal relationship with God. But according to our faith, there was something inherently wrong with me.
I’ll say one more time, just to be sure, my family loves me. Always has. It took me a very long time to understand the difference between love and acceptance. To this day, if I went to anyone in my family with a need, no matter how big or small, they would make sure I was taken care of. I can’t remember a time, as a child, when anyone in my family ever said to me, ‘You cannot be gay because if you are, you’ll go to hell.’ But I do remember talking about God’s design—how he made man in his image, and created woman for him, and man was the head of the household and woman was supposed to be his helper. Man and woman (AKA, Adam and Eve) were the model for Godly relationships. And the model for gender roles and identities. I was like Adam, so I was to find a wife and lead my household. And at the very least, if I wasn’t going to get married, I was to be as close to Adam as possible in my abstinence.
At seven years old, I found a stack of adult magazines in my oldest brother’s room. I don’t remember anything particularly salacious about them—I didn’t really have a concept of sex at the time. But I do remember knowing that being ‘naked’ was supposed to be secret. As I flipped through the pages, I found myself drawn to the people who looked most like me. I cut out the images of the people with penises and glued them into a folder I kept on my bookshelf. That’s probably the first time I was aware of my sexuality, though I didn’t know that’s what it was. I grew up with this knowledge buried deep in the closet of my heart. It was tucked away in a place I could press down and deny, and for years, it was manageable.
As early as the fifth grade, I was bullied relentlessly. Faggot, sissy, gay—people weaponized all kinds of words against me. In middle school, I spoke with the guidance counselor who told me I was too young to have a sexual preference, and I shouldn’t let it bother me. In high school, I wanted to kill myself, just like one of my classmates did after he was bullied and called faggot over and over and over again. Growing up in a deeply conservative community that is almost exclusively evangelical Christian is tough for a queer kid. Even if nobody tells you specifically that you’re broken, you believe you are because of the way everyone around you believes. You hear the jokes, the sermons, the adult conversations, and worst of all, the bullying.
When I was eighteen, I logged onto Craigslist (back in 2003, they had personal ads organized by preference, and there was a male for male, or M4M, section I frequented). I decided to meet up with a guy anonymously. When I arrived at his home, it looked a lot like mine. There were crosses on the wall, hung as decoration and not-so-subtle reminders of the sacrifice Jesus made for us. His bookshelves were full of the same theology works and his music collection full of the same worship anthologies in my house. Without saying a word, we knew we were on the same page. The experience was horrendous. Neither of us knew anything about sex. We played some gay porn and imitated their actions. As the bottom in our scenario, I was in so much pain, I had to stop the activity immediately. I was crying—and bleeding. I left this stranger’s house, never even knowing his name, resolute to kill myself.
On the way to the field, a plot of land my church owned out in rural Hueytown, I had to pull over on the side of the interstate. I was weeping so violently, I could not drive. I thought I was about to go to hell forever because I was broken. I got to the field, still weeping, and started throwing rocks at God. For hours, I begged him to show himself—to change me and take away my queerness. Finally, I collapsed onto the ground. There were no more tears. Dehydrated and emotionally deplete, I started laughing. I don’t know what washed over me—perhaps it was God after all, in all of their queerness, giving me the greatest gift a deity can offer: joy. After feeling so much pain and anguish, I felt relief. I smiled as the last bit of daylight poked through the trees. I wasn’t changed, but for the first time in my life, I accepted myself. For the first time, I said out loud, ‘I am gay.’
It would take me another five years before I told anyone. A shell of the person I wanted to be, having failed a few classes in college, and lacking any vision for my life, I was again feeling depressed and lonely—ready to end it all. One day, in one of the very first theater classes I took after four years of studying biology, my professor, Cliff Simon, shared his story. It was the first time I had ever heard anyone talk about being queer so openly. Cliff’s story saved my life. Though I knew I was queer, I didn’t know anyone else who was. Cliff gave me the courage to live my truth—and to tell my story!
When I came out to my friends and family, the overwhelming feedback was that I was broken, brain-washed, and hell-bound. I had fortified myself against those reactions, having spent years anticipating them. See, the great work of my childhood was to build a version of myself pleasing to people around me. Coming out, for me, was the first part of deconstructing the fake version of myself. It hurt, but I was ready for it. I already had my time throwing rocks at God. I was well on my way to being at peace with my identity. I wasn’t going to let anyone take it away from me. I moved to New York City, worked on some incredible projects, and ultimately decided I should dedicate my life to sharing LGBTQ+ stories. I started a nonprofit, VideoOut, to do just this.
What started as a passion project has morphed into a nonprofit with programming across the United States. We’ve reached over five million people around the globe, amassed 2,500 social media subscribers, and over 62k views on our YouTube. Every year, we work with a dozen or more community organizations around the U.S. to produce in-person and virtual programs that reach thousands of people in small towns and rural communities—like Hueytown—the places that need LGBTQ+ stories the most. I’ve recorded over 400 stories, and every one is a peek inside a life, a unique experience, a reminder that while we are all different, we share one thing in common: humanity. Our stories are the binding language of our existence. A story saved my life, and now stories are my life.
After hearing hundreds of people share, my awareness of myself and the world has exponentialized. I didn’t know sexuality could be fluid or gender was a multi-dimensional spectrum. While I don’t think any label is concrete, these days, I’m using trans masc non-binary queer to describe myself. The more I learn and grow, the more I feel like we are all on a journey to accept ourselves as ever-changing beings. I’m so happy to be who I am. It wasn’t easy at first, because I felt like I was the only one. But now I know there is a whole extended family of LGBTQ+ people out there who love each other and understand humans are expansive, not confined by religion or politics or family values—we all have our own story to live—and to tell.
My hope is we can create a world where everyone is free to pursue their joy, able to share their stories without the fear of harassment, discrimination, or violence. Allen Ginsberg says, ‘Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.’ My world thought I was broken and brain-washed. But I now know the truth. I didn’t need to change, my world did. You are perfect just the way you are, and your queerness is your magic. Be you, and know when you are, I love you with the passion that burns with the intensity of 1,000 white hot suns.”
Read more stories like this:
‘I remember thinking, ‘What the hell is conversion therapy?’ She introduced me to ‘Pastor Jake.’ He was going to ‘take good care of me.’ I immediately wanted to leave.’: Bisexual man becomes advocate against bullying, harassment, ‘I fought to get to where I am today’
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