We were on the back porch, smoke rolling up from the nearby barbeque grill, the smell of chicken roasting in the air. My father was more silent than usual. He took a hard swig from his beer bottle. I asked, “You okay?”
Out of nowhere, my father says, “If you choose to be gay, then you’re no longer part of this family. You want to live that lifestyle? Then do it somewhere else.”
His gaze drifted toward the woods. He didn’t want to look at me. The thought of me, of what I was, sickened him. Shame overwhelmed me. Sweat soaked through my shirt as I held back the bile in my throat. I asked how he knew. My stepsister had outed me.
Stuttering, I tried to explain it wasn’t a choice. But at 18 years old (and caught completely off-guard), I had no defense. Not that it would have mattered. My father, as with so many parents, believed this was a clear-cut “black and white” situation. I either was or I wasn’t. And I was.
Within 48 hours my bags were packed. I looked back from the driveway, some part of me hoping my father would see my terror and change his mind. He didn’t. His arms were crossed across his chest like a shield, unbudging, even as my stepmother pulled at him, tears streaming down her face, saying, “He’s your only son. Don’t do this.” But it was a military household, and what he commanded was final. It was done.
Twenty years ago this month, all of my fears came to fruition. I had been found out. I was disowned. Rejected. I had never felt so alone.
For a person of any age — but especially for a child — this is devastating. One of your parents, is saying, “I don’t like what you are, and I want nothing to do with you.” I felt worthless. Disgust and self-loathing solidified the worry that I was born wrong, that I was a mistake. “Gay” was a bad word, three scarlet letters burned onto my soul that identified me as an undesirable.
In my father’s defense, he had offered me a choice. I could “stay and be part of the family,” if (and only if) I abided by the following conditions: (1.) See a therapist weekly at my own expense (2.) Attend church each Wednesday night and twice on Sundays. (3.) Date a girl from said church, with approval from my father. (4.) Never seek to associate with any person of the “homosexual persuasion.” (5.) For all intents and purposes, become “straight.”
I had already struggled with this my entire life. I knew I couldn’t change myself. Trust me, I had tried. For more than a decade as a young closeted queer in Texas — surrounded by machismo, intolerance, and homophobia — I tried desperately to be something I was not. Girls were beautiful, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t help but stare at men. Nothing was going to change that — not even the threat of losing everything.
When and where I grew up, being gay wasn’t openly discussed, except as a well-known sin and an affront to god. It was a dirty word thrown around at playgrounds and used as offensive slurs in a drunken argument. Being gay had no upside. It was vile and contemptible. So even when my father cast me out, I was too scared to seek help. My father’s family was strict Southern Baptist. My mother’s family was devout Church of Christ. My mother was bipolar and had disappeared with my baby brother a year before. Looking back, I should have asked my friends for help. But, they didn’t know either, and my heart couldn’t take any more rejection.
I didn’t know where to go. I decided, “If I’m going to be homeless, I might as well be homeless somewhere cool.” So I made my way to New Orleans.
Moving to coastal Louisiana during the humid summer season wasn’t exactly a stroke of genius. But this was pre-internet and pre-cell phone, so googling “great places to be homeless” on my smartphone wasn’t an option. The entirety of my possessions was a backpack of books, a duffel bag of clothes, and a jean shorts pocket with $117 in cash and loose change.
In the coming days, I tried desperately to cling onto a tiny glimmer of hope that whispered, “You’re going to find a way through this.” But that voice grew quieter every night that I struggled to survive.
That summer, I learned many things: What it was like to be rejected by minimum-wage job positions because I didn’t have a home number (let alone a home). What it was like to find dinner in a trash can (I will always love tourists who don’t finish their supersized fries). What it was like to be attacked in a shelter, beat up on the street by drunk strangers for fun, and harassed by local police for sleeping on park benches. I learned what it was like to spend the night with a stranger so that I could sleep in a soft bed and have a warm shower. And I learned what it was like to be seized by pure, unadulterated darkness in the form of depression, anxiety and panic attacks. There were nights I thought, “This is it. I won’t make it. I won’t wake up tomorrow.” Somehow, morning always came.
After four months of living in uncertainty and fear, I finally learned one more thing: It was okay to reach out and ask for help.
I found a payphone and dialed zero for the operator so I could make a collect call. (That’s how we did it in the old days before everyone had a cell phone.) I called my abuela, my deeply religious grandmother. I hadn’t eaten in five days, and all I wanted was $20 for a meal that wasn’t half-covered in flies. When I first heard her voice, all of my strength failed. I cried and sobbed, snot dripping all over the public phone. She cried too, telling me she’d been trying to find me all summer. She asked why I hadn’t called sooner. I said, “You’re religious. God comes first.” She said, “No, family comes first.”
She sent me $300 and told me to find a hotel, take a shower and get on a bus to “come home.” By that point, the word home had lost all meaning. But I went anyway. With her help, her love, and her emotional support, I got two jobs, a few scholarships and put myself through college. Eventually, I moved away from Texas to New York City to pursue my dream of working in publishing.
I learned many things: What it was like to find dinner in a trash can... to be attacked in a shelter and beat up on the street by drunk strangers for fun... to be seized by pure, unadulterated darkness in the form of depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.
Twenty years later (with the help of countless therapy sessions), I am doing finally okay for myself. I made a career out of editing and writing comics, graphic novels and children’s books. I have a nice credit score and a great apartment. I’ve built a wonderful family of friends, and a healthy, honest relationship with my partner. I moved to Los Angeles where I’m enjoying a healthy amount of sunshine. I’ve re-connected with my baby brother (who’s not much of a baby anymore and had absolutely zero issues with my queerness). And I still talk to my abuela every day.
I even talk to my father now. Around the time I finished college, I reached out to let him know I was alive and that he was welcome to have a relationship with me if he wanted. At first, he was resistant. Over the years, he grew to accept that I wasn’t going to change. We had plenty of arguments and even a few moments where I thought we might come to blows. But eventually, he accepted that I was queer, and I accepted that he would never say, “I’m sorry.”
To this day, he insists he was doing what he thought was “best for me.” Our current alliance isn’t ideal, but I suppose it’s better than nothing at all. From time to time we catch up on the phone, or wish each other well on holidays. In many ways, I still feel like an orphan, a boy who lost his family long ago.
Occasionally, something triggers me. Instantly, I feel rejected and unworthy and utterly alone. This can leave me depressed for days or give me crippling panic attacks. But I recover. I also try to remind myself that those are old feelings are from another time, from events that are long past. The person I am now? I am OK. I am safe. And I am not alone.
Lately, I practice gratitude. Because I am grateful for what happened. Yes, grateful. Not because it happened, but because I was made stronger, better and a more compassionate person because of it. I survived. Though not everyone does. And certainly, no one comes out unscathed.