As a young gay man, growing up in a small, conservative town in Montana wasn't easy. I knew I was different from my peers well before I understood what the word "gay" even meant. As a closeted teen, I experienced a significant amount of bullying everywhere I went: in the halls of my school, at high school football games and even in the church youth group. I was called "fag" and "queer" on a regular basis and even watched as my classmates once took turns spitting into a cup, the contents of which were meant to be poured over my head.
Once an outgoing, confident and happy child, I quickly became a depressed, hopeless and lost teenager who did not want to continue living in a world so full of hate. For too long I had been treated horribly, belittled and made to feel like less than I was, simply for being gay. I didn't understand the cruelty of my peers, but I eventually became conditioned to believe that I deserved it.
During these tumultuous high school years, I developed a crush on my best friend. One day I finally mustered up the courage to give him a love letter. Alas, he didn't feel the same way. Though his initial rejection stung, he was kind about the situation and said he wanted to remain friends. It was my first heartache, but I knew I'd be OK -- until his parents discovered the letter and told everyone in the community about my "scandalous" behavior. They forbade me from seeing their son and convinced our principal to ban me from school sporting events. I was even denied the opportunity to attend a church trip simply because he would be on it too. This was in spite of the fact that I had worked all summer raising money to go.
What saved me throughout these harsh years was the prospect of one day moving away and living in a place where I could be free to be myself and possibly find someone who would love me as me. However, this dream seemed fleeting, because, at the time, I barely considered myself worthy of love.
Thankfully, I didn't give up. I persevered, graduated from high school and moved to California, where I met the love of my life, Tom Bridegroom. Tom was an amazing person who believed in me and spent his days convincing me that I was worthy of love -- his love. I didn't understand why he had chosen me, but I was grateful each and every day anyway.
Throughout our relationship we hid the fact that we were a couple, mainly because I was embarrassed and ashamed to be out. I loved him more than anything, but I allowed years of bullying, homophobic messages in the media and conservative Christian hate speech to convince me that my relationship would be best when concealed. To circumvent potential judgment when we were around others, we developed a secret code: We would find a way to tap each other's hand, leg or a hard surface three times to say "I love you." Tap, tap, tap: I love you. It became a very special sound for both of us, and often we would just say "tap, tap, tap" out loud, because no one knew what it meant. It was our little secret.
Both of us agreed that we would not come out to our families until we'd found the person with whom we wanted to spend the rest of our lives. When we finally decided that we had found that in each other, we made good on our agreement. I went first. My family was supportive and happy for me, which was naturally a huge relief, because Tom and I had awkwardly pretended to be roommates for years. Tom's experience did not go so well. His parents were furious. They blamed me for "making" their son gay, and his father attacked Tom and threatened him with a shotgun. Tom's parents begged him to seek treatment and told him that being gay is a sinful secret that he should have taken to his grave.
Regardless of that nightmare, Tom remained the happy, positive and loving human being he had always been. We shared so many wonderful life experiences together: We bought our first home, adopted a dog, started a business, traveled the world and even planned on starting a family one day.
On May 7, 2011, Tom was photographing our friend on her rooftop. He got too close to the edge, lost his balance and fell four stories. When I arrived at the emergency room, nurses refused to tell me anything and would not allow me to see him, because he and I weren't "family." Tom and I had been together for six years, and we had vowed to marry each other when it was legally recognized, but in the eyes of the hospital and the government, I was just a roommate. Eventually a doctor came in and said coldly, "He didn't make it." That was it. The love of my life, whom I had just seen that morning, was no longer alive. I was numb. My best friend fought with the stubborn nurses to let me see Tom's body, but they all refused. Eventually a sympathetic nurse, risking her job, quietly led me into his room. His body was covered, but I could see blood around where his face was and tubes emerging from his chest. The only place I could put my hand was on his leg. I did three final taps and left.
It didn't occur to me in that moment that I would never see him again.
Once Tom's mother arrived in Los Angeles, I had no control. She took his body back to Indiana, where his funeral was held, and barred me from attending. Tom's family had threatened to hurt me if I showed my face in their town.
On the one-year anniversary of Tom's accident, I posted a video on Youtube that told our story. Although it was a cathartic process for me and a tribute to the love of my life, more than anything I wanted it to serve as a warning to other LGBT couples. The video went viral and garnered over 2 million views in a week. Soon thereafter, writer/director Linda Bloodworth Thomason approached me and convinced me that Tom's and my story needed to be told. That story is now the documentary BRIDEGROOM, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival April 23, 2013. This comes one day after what would have been Tom's 30th birthday, and a couple of weeks before the second anniversary of his passing.
Tom taught me so much about life and myself. Losing him taught me so much more. I miss him every day, but I thank God for the time we had together. At the premiere I will wear the promise ring Tom gave me, as well as the ring that I bought him after he passed. We used to hide our love, but now I proudly show the world just how much we cherished each other.
I miss you, Tom. Tap, tap, tap.