Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My Journey Out of the Closet

It's been nearly seven years since I came out of the closet to my parents and sister. You'd think my aspirations to be a rhythmic gymnast - dancing, jumping and twirling through the house with my homemade ribbon of toilet paper - would have given it away, but they were somehow surprised.

I'd like to think that I wasn't a flamboyant child, but I know for a fact that I was. As referenced in an earlier entry, I wasn't terribly strong. Many of the hobbies I held were influenced by those of my sister. I loved playing with her dolls, especially doing their hair. For a long time I wanted to grow up and be a beautician/pharmacist. That's like working in Residence Life, right?

The first time I knew I was different was in the 6th grade. I had a huge crush on a boy in my class, one that a friend of mine also had a crush on. It was hard to see her succeeding where I wanted to so badly. And then, while on an Academic Team bus ride back from a long trip to Harlan, fate swung my way. I had been cutesy flirting with him the entire trip, and in the darkened rear of the bus, I laid down with my head in his lap and repeatedly told him what a good pillow he made. He never once told me to move, pushed me away, made fun of me or called me names. It was sheer bliss. Then, in the weeks following, I suppose his friends caught wind of the way he had been treating me and took to berating him the way they did me: fag, queer, gaymo, etc. I can still remember the look in his crystal blue eyes on the day that he walked away to join his friends instead of standing by me.

The summer after my 9th grade year, I was enrolled in a program called Upward Bound. It was an amazing place that I felt much more able to be myself instead of living in the confines of what everyone else wanted me to be. It was a home. That summer, my mother needed an emergency hysterectomy and didn't want me to attend the camp so that I could stay home and help her around the house when she needed it. But I told her that if I stayed, she wouldn't get any better because she would make me do everything for her. She finally agreed to let me go, so Berea became my sanctuary. During the 6 week program, the students had to go home for a break half way through. The first night I got home, my parents and sister asked me to come into the living room for a "family meeting." Since my family didn't have "family meetings," I was a little confused and very worried. When I sat down and saw my mother holding my journal, I knew what it was about.

Since my mother had had her hysterectomy, she couldn't get in and out of her bed easily due to the wooden water bed frame it was in, so she used mine instead. She asked my sister to change the sheets on the bed for her, and while doing so, my sister found the black and white journal that we had been given in English class that I had filled with random poems and short stories, and adorned with "Curtis loves:", followed by multiple boys names (including that of the boy mentioned above.) My parents castigated me with condescending phrases: We didn't raise you that way; You don't know what love is, you're eleven; How can you love a boy?  In the end, they had scared me enough to force the closet door shut tightly. They made me promise that I would try to be straight, to give girls a chance. And I promise you I did. I prayed every night for God to change me, to make this go away, to make me normal.

As time went on and my attraction and feelings for my male classmates and role models only intensified, I began losing faith in anything or anyone that would be helping me to change. The years of constant teasing, mockery and threats hardened me. I had become angst-ridden and constantly angry, even suicidal at one point. If it weren't for my sanctuary in UB and the people that helped me there, I wouldn't be here to write this blog.

Finally, going into my senior year of high school, I had had enough. I had lost 45 pounds, was feeling good about myself, and on enrollment day when we were picking up our schedules and locker combinations, I cussed out two bullies who told me that my newly grown goatee didn't make me look any less faggy. Three teachers heard, looked at me, smiled, and continued walking. Things started looking up: I started dating a boy at a rival high school that I had met in a gay Yahoo chat room on my HP dinosaur with dial-up internet. He was the field commander of their band and I thought he was just flawless. A month into our relationship, he had dyed his hair Reba McEntire red, had stopped washing his face, and didn't look anything like what he did when we first started dating.

But I digress. Before the days of "the Reba," we would frequent our spot, a road that led to the lake marina near his house. We would sit in my Jeep and do the things that couples do, including kiss. He had an affinity for kissing my neck, something I enjoyed at first. But he would often get a little over zealous with it.

One night after our two high schools played each other in football, he and I, along with two of my best friends, went out cosmic bowling. (There wasn't much to do in rural southeastern Kentucky.) After we were finished, I drove the girls back to one of their houses, as they were having a sleepover, and Mr. McEntire and I went to our spot. That night was particularly neck-heavy, so I asked him to check and make sure there were no marks on my neck before I left to go home. He looked it over and said that I was fine.

I suppose bruises take a little while to rise to the surface.

When I walked past my mother who was playing solitaire on the computer, she asked me flippantly, "Who gave you that hickey?" Shocked, I rushed into my bedroom and looked in the mirror to see a gigantic reddish-purple mark on the right side of my neck. She asked again, and I quickly made a flimsy excuse and went to bed.

The next day, she and I went to my twin cousins' birthday party at my aunt and uncle's house. I had attempted (poorly, might I add,) to cover it with my mother's foundation, but only succeeded in making it look like I had an outbreak of poison ivy relegated to my neck. Thankfully, no one made mention of it at the party. When my mother and I were driving back home, she asked again who had given me the hickey. I said I didn't know.

"...Was it Brandi?" she said with a sheepish, inquisitive tone.
"No," I replied.
"...Was it Susanna?" she continued, raising the ends of her sentences in a playful, questioning manner.
"No," I repeated.
The conversation took a sudden, dark turn as she chose the final name.
"Was it Frank?" she asked gruffly, a slightly annoyed, yet frightened tone in her voice.

I was so tired of running. I couldn't be all of me if I wasn't honest about who I was and who I would ever love. So I chose that moment to take a stand; to not back down from my life. I finally decided to stand up for myself.

"Maybe."

The car swerved slightly as the realization of what I had said washed over my mother. Her head snapped to the side to look at me as she spat the word, "What!?"

My confidence wavered, but as I saw other cars approaching quickly and we were listing into the on-coming lane, I asked her to wait until we got home to discuss it further.

In the 15 minutes it took to make the drive, she smoked an entire pack of cigarettes and had already started on the second when we pulled into the driveway. I made my way to the reclining rocking chair and began methodically rocking while staring off into the distance. I heard her on the phone as she called my sister.

"Get over here, he thinks he's gay." She said the word with such hatred, such malice that it sent chills through my body.

My sister arrived and went to find my mother. I heard hushed, harsh whispers from the other room, and shortly after, they both came into the living room to sit opposite me. I wouldn't look at them. I knew what was coming, especially after the previous diary incident. My heart had already begun the hardening process to protect what was left.

I won't dwell on the discussion. But one phrase still resonates through my head every now and then when I reflect.

"Curtis, it just ain't right. God made man for a woman."

My mother, who before this had never gone to church with anyone, including my father's brother who was a preacher, had suddenly become religious. Not to say that she had ever expressed an atheistic or agnostic view, and I'm now remembering one instance in which she slapped me across the face for calling someone a fool, which apparently in the Bible is a big no-no, but I can't remember her ever doing anything that was overtly Christian. The following Sunday, she and my sister started going to church. She would wake me up each Sunday morning and ask/beg me to go to church with her, but I refused. I wanted no part in going to a place full of people who would judge me, tell me that who I was (or what I was, according to them,) was wrong, and who would attempt to shove me back into the closet I had now come out of twice. Never again.

My father has never been a spiritual person either. When he found out that I was gay two days after my mother and sister, he had an emotional break down. In my life, and even my sister's life, which is seven years longer than mine, my father has never cried. At both of his parents' funerals, he teared up, but did not openly cry. The night he found out, he was a sobbing, near-alcohol poisoned wreck.

When I arrived home from being out with friends, he stumbled through the house, reeking of beer, slapped his hand on my shoulder, and through glazed, bloodshot eyes, told me he was sorry for making me gay. It became a theme between both of my parents, regardless of how many times I tried to explain this wasn't something that anyone did. They often blamed themselves between arguments with me. After apologizing, my father staggered back through the house to the back yard, where he was shortly joined by his brother, the preacher.

About an hour later, they came back in for another "family meeting." I was sitting in the living room again, this time on the couch, and my uncle came over and asked if he could read from the Bible to me. I was already livid that I was having to sit through this a second time, so I nodded and zoned out completely, my anger festering inside me. After a little while, he asked if he could pray for me. When I told him I didn't care, he put his hand on my shoulder, and the whole family bowed their heads. It was then that I heard the little lock on my heart click, all sealed up.

The months following were like autumn in Poland, circa 1939. Every day was another attack, another invasion. I couldn't leave the house without a shouting match with one of my parents. We all said a lot of hurtful things. During one heated argument, my mother told me that she would rather me drink, smoke and do drugs than be gay.  She later tried to salvage her comment by saying if it were any of those things, she could get me help, but with this, she felt helpless. But the damage was done. One night as I was leaving to go out with my boyfriend, instead of telling me she loved me and to be careful, her exact words were, "Don't do anything stupid."

It took about three months for us not to end each conversation in a screaming match. But the screams were replaced with something even worse: denial. When I moved off to college, each phone conversation of my freshman year would include the phrase, "Have you found yourself a pretty little girl yet?" This might have been more painful to hear than the shouting. After having to sternly tell her on multiple occasions that there was no girl and there never would be, she finally stopped asking all together.

For years I tried to reach out to them about relationship issues I had, but was met with cold shoulders and "I-don't-know-ask-your-sister"s. Now, seven years later, we just don't talk about it. I don't bring it up because I know it's not what they want to hear. When I start dating someone new, I don't share it with them because I'm not sure they'll care. But I do know one thing. When I find the man that I'm going to spend the rest of my life with, I'll tell them about him. I'll ask them to meet him. I'll invite them to come to our wedding, to be a part of the family I will build with him. And should they decide that they don't want a part in our life, I will have very little trouble in removing myself from theirs. That rusty lock is still firmly in place.

Seven years this September.

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