My room was pitch dark, but I could see and feel the inquisitive words ready to burst out of his mouth.
"I dare you."
Three words strung together that made me start to question my sexuality for the first time.
I grew up in in a conservative Kentucky household. I attended a Christian school and made my way to church every Sunday from birth until graduation.
Jason* and I instantly became best friends at a young age, and our bond continued for years.
One Sunday night in eighth grade, I invited him to spend the night. One of us decided to play truth or dare. What that game would lead to would haunt me for years and make my life a constant struggle between the person I was and who I knew God wanted me to be. It began with innocent truths and silly dares but eventually led Jason to ask me to kiss him.
"I dare you."
It wasn't until his lips locked mine that I realized I enjoyed it, but that simple kiss led me down a path of self-deprecation for years. I was a Christian, and being gay was not an option.
I needed to be straight. High school took a toll on me emotionally. I was constantly worried that someone would find out I was gay. I knew my Christ-driven parents would not approve of this "lifestyle." I had worked hard to fit in with the "cool" crowd. There was no way the people who constantly used "faggot" and "cocksucker" as insults would stay my friends if they knew -- not to mention my church community. Forget it. This was the South, where the Bible is taken quite literally. It is an abomination for a man to lay with a man as they would with a woman! My mind always would lead back to that Sunday night with Jason and think that it what made me gay.
In 2011, I packed my car and was started college at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I was finally on my own but completely unaware of how my life would unfold over the next four years.
Through the first few semesters of college, I constantly felt conflicted between my desires and my religious upbringing.
I had stopped going to church, which only made this struggle more difficult. This all changed once I met Patrick* during my sophomore year. Soon after meeting, we began in what one could call an "on again off again" relationship. Patrick was raised in the deep South in an even more religious household than me, and his struggles with his sexuality were even deeper than mine were.
The day after Patrick and I were involved in our first sexual experience, I received a strange message on Facebook. It was from Jason, who I hadn't spoken to in six years. He reminded me of that night in eighth grade and how his life had been torturous since that dare. He apologized for everything that happened and told me he had hoped it didn't affect my life as much as it did his. If only he knew. The timing of this incident made me believe this was a message from God -- a message that my actions were wrong and that I needed to fix myself.
These feelings led me to start attending church with Patrick. As much as I enjoyed getting back into worship, I always felt as though I didn't belong because my own inner sexual desires were keeping me from being a true Christian. I remember an instance where I got on my knees and cried during church. "God, I don't want to be this way. Help me be straight. I am not bringing glory to you."
As hard as I tried to restrain myself, my feelings for Patrick were stronger than ever. Even though he would treat me horribly, he always found a way to reel me back in. When we had sex, he would be filled with regret and blame me for leading him away from Christ. Religion was his way of keeping me holding on while pushing me away at the same time. I was not being loved; I was not being appreciated. I needed someone who cared about me. Every day, I found myself battling my feelings for Patrick, his halfway reciprocation and both of our struggles with who we were.
Eventually, Patrick broke things off. He was the first guy that I ever had genuine feelings for, and it left me heartbroken. I no longer felt like I could go to the same church with him sitting right across from me. I had finally realized that my sexuality was going to be part of my life forever, and I knew that the church was not willing to accept that. I didn't feel like I belonged. I was hiding in the closet in Alabama, unsure of what to do next.
By the middle of my junior year, I had come out to most of my friends and was embraced with love and support from every single one of them. I realized that being the Justin I wanted to be was easier than I had imagined. The weight of the world had ventured away from my shoulders.
As fantastic as I felt life was going, I still needed to tell my parents.
I was unsure of how it was going to go. I was terrified at the thought of coming out to them due to my upbringing and the ideas that the church pounded into our heads. I had no idea how they would react once they knew their own son -- their own son sent by God -- was gay.
It was Monday, February 10, 2014, around 5:00 p.m. I asked my mom if I could share something personal.
"Of course," she said.
I remember every step from then until the phone clicked off. The sound of the rocks being kicked across the gravel parking lot were louder than what was coming through the speaker. For minutes, she said nothing. When the conversation was over, I felt an even bigger relief than I thought humanly possible. I knew that it was going to be hard for them to balance their love for God and their love for me, as well as their idea of me and who they imagined me growing up to be versus who I was.
The next evening, I tensed up as I saw a text message from my mother flash across my screen. It read, "I just wanted to let you know that we love you. But we cannot put into words the sadness we feel... You're more than this. We do question as to whether this is a temptation for you, just as some are tempted with other sexual sins like adultery that you could resist... I love you."
"You're more than this." Those are the words from that text that couldn't leave my mind. I was being placed into an inescapable box of sin, and I felt that it was unfair.
I waited an hour to gather my thoughts and formulated a response. "I hate to see you upset and struggling with this... 'This' doesn't solely define who I am, just as being heterosexual doesn't define anyone else... I want you to know, genuinely, that this is an identity -- it's who I am. It's as constitutionally a part of me as my identities as a man, a brother, a son. Choice is not an undergirding factor here. This is who I am; and who I am is also your son... I love you, and what's more, I need your support now more than ever."
After a handful of text messages and a short phone conversation, my parents and I ceased discussion of my sexuality. Soon thereafter, though, I was surprised at what I found in my mailbox.
I opened my dad's letter first. The first thing he told me was that as long as he was breathing life, he would be there for me and love me. But he said that he had trouble believing I was gay. "I always thought you would be happy with a good woman after seeing you with [high school girlfriend]." Was he that desperate to believe I was straight by bringing up a girlfriend from 6 years ago? Twice in three paragraphs he also referred to my being gay as my "opinion." My mom's letter had a slightly different tone. She believed that my sexuality was involuntary, but that "you can choose not to act upon your natural desires and that you can live and experience life to its fullest without engaging in homosexual activity."
I was at a loss as to what these meant. Was either of them being as Christian as they could be if they didn't even agree on how to approach the subject? Both letters upset me because I felt like I was being deprived from a chance of love. I let the letters be, and we haven't spoken about the topic since. My relationship with my parents is strong but a part of it will always be closed off until they can accept the person I am. We all love each other deeply and always will, and I really hope one day they will love my future husband too.