By Rob NolenMy hometown is quaint and old-fashioned. It became a busy, successful little town after the Civil War, and many of the buildings built during and after Reconstruction are still standing today. Given these few details, it should go without saying that the people from back home have a values system that aligns quite well with the town’s history. In short: There was no doubt coming out in this environment would be interesting.
I actually came out more times than I can count, as ridiculous as it may sound. My first attempt was during my junior year of high school and ended in humiliation. I had become involved with a guy from my school and, seeing as I was in such a conservative town, was working tirelessly to keep our relationship a secret. There is no question that keeping a relationship hidden is hard work and, after almost a year, I had grown tired of it. I was ready to tell my parents. I spent weeks psyching myself up for the conversation, preparing myself to say with confidence: “I’m gay.” Everything had been planned perfectly. It was Tuesday, and I would be breaking the news after my parents came home from work on Friday. Wednesday evening, while my mom was shopping and my sisters were outside, my step-dad called me into the living room. “Sit down,” he said sternly, “and tell me what the hell is going on between you and this boy.”
Internal panic ensued. I thought to myself, ''How did they know?'' For a split second, my entire body went numb. I can’t even imagine what I looked like, sitting there with a blank stare and paralyzing fear behind my eyes. After a few seconds had passed with no reply from me, he continued. “You can’t do this shit, Rob. It’s not right. Think of what your grandparents would say!” In response, I did the only thing I could think of at the time: I told him I would cut it off and move on, and I did. Looking back, it was clearly not my finest moment. I ruined a relationship based on what someone else’s opinion might be. I failed to take into account what was truly in question: My happiness and the person I knew I was on the inside.
The next few years consisted of many learning experiences. Just as so many others do, I saw college as an opportunity for a new beginning. There were a few kinks in my plan, though. At the time, I was living with my brother and two other friends from high school, so I kept the majority of my personal life a secret. I continued to date girls for years and, even though I love them dearly to this day, I could never make myself fall for any of them completely. During the course of my time in school, I became more and more comfortable with who I was. I began to come out to select groups of friends, colleagues, and, as I moved to different places around campus, prospective roommates. It wasn't long before I had established my identity as someone I was truly comfortable with. During my last semester in college, I fell absolutely head over heels for a guy named Michael and we began dating. We were together for a while, but things eventually fizzled out and we both moved on. One thing that remained, though, was a renewal of the courage I had felt so many years ago. Then, in October 2008, I was pushed over the edge.
I was home visiting family and had decided to visit my old church, where my grandfather had been serving as pastor for over 30 years. A visiting preacher was getting riled up about the “decaying state of the country” and “how the godless are jeopardizing our future.” With each word he spoke, I felt a growing tension and into the depths of my soul, I knew what was coming next. “There was a time in this great nation,” he said, beginning to speak in the singsong tone so characteristic of southern preachers, “that a man who chose to have a relationship with another man was too ashamed of his choices to make it public.” Regardless of whether or not it were true, I immediately felt as if every eye in the building was fixated on me, judging, knowing the secret I had tried to keep for so long. “It’s a shame,” he continued, “because that is exactly how it should be today. These people should be ashamed of what they’ve chosen to be.” I tuned out the rest of the sermon and instead mentally repeated to myself what the man had just said: “These people.”
This was it. It was my turning point. I was one of those people, and there was no doubt in my mind that I was proud of it to my very core. I immediately knew what I needed to do and, after leaving the church, I made a bee-line for my mom’s house. She was waiting at the door when I arrived, almost as if she were anticipating my arrival. (Later on, she told me she didn't know why, but she knew something was wrong and that I needed her.) I told her I needed to talk, and I could see the fear growing in her eyes. Even though I knew this couldn’t be put off any longer, I could not find the words to say. My mind was racing. I finally managed to choke out a sentence: “Remember the guy who sang at my college graduation a few months ago?” For the record, she and I were equally confused as to how this related to anything. “Yes,” she said. “Well, he was my boyfriend.” I could tell she was both devasated and relieved at the same time. She hugged me and cried, assured me she loved me no matter what, and told me that she always had a feeling this was the case, but that she couldn't express how proud she was that I was able to finally tell her.
I could lie and say everything from that point on was smooth sailing, but that's not the case. There have been ups and downs with the family since I told them, and I still struggle with the fact that some people will never understand what they view as my ''choice'' is anything but that. The blessing is that I'm able to find comfort in the relief I still feel after finally being honest with myself for the first time in years. I'm proud of who I am and, even though the past seven years have been a mixture of joy and pain, I wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world.