I spent high school comparing my grades to the smartest kids in the class, and trying to convince myself that I liked girls. My town suffocated me in chain restaurants and ignorance. I looked everywhere for answers and happiness, until I eventually turned to religion. I was extremely active at my church, eventually becoming a recognizable leader in our youth group, and a founding architect of an entirely new youth-focused worship service.
I was a role model. Parents pointed at me and said probably, “Look at that kid! He has his shit together! He can quote the Bible, and give sermons, and most def is NOT going to bed crying about how he hates himself!”
I was praised as a future pastor, maybe even a Methodist bishop, some joked (but not really). I was religious, I was “inspiring,” and absolutely, positively, not a raging homosexual.
But what I was for certain was unhappy. My self esteem was non-existent, and I truly believed that everyone around me was infinitely better at everything than I was. Depressed and afraid, my friends constantly tried to comfort me.
“You’re awesome!” they would say. But with eighteen years (lol) of singleness bearing down on me, I didn’t feel awesome.
“You’re so smart!” they would say. But carrying home exams with B’s and C’s to their A’s, I didn’t feel smart.
But my friends stuck with me. No matter how whiny or annoying I got, they didn’t give up on me. And things got better.
A side effect of being a hot weepy mess in high school is that the people who somehow manage to tolerate you through those four years of hell are typically friends for life.
That’s why, even four years after copping a big ole BYE FELICIA to my sleepy suburban town, I still make a point to keep in touch with half a dozen people I live hundreds of miles from. That’s why I was sitting in the hot Columbus sun, having a pleasant lunch with my old friend Dani.
Without talking about anything particularly deep, we bantered on about old acquaintances and friends from back home. She mentioned a woman who had been a mentor to both of us at our old church, and how fast her kids were growing up. Chewing on a particularly tough piece of flank steak I mused, “I wonder what she think about me being gay.”
“Do you honestly want to know?” Dani asked.
“Sure,” I said while pushing the remains of my salad around my plate.
“She thinks it’s gross.”
I choked on the steak.
I wasn’t an idiot. I knew that I had come from a conservative church in a township where John Kerry mustered only 16% of the vote in the 2004. But somehow I had forgotten. I had forgotten where I came from.
Not long after this lunch I returned to my hometown for my grandmother’s funeral service. My grandma hadn’t attended church much in her later life, and so my mom chose to have the funeral at our church. My church. The church that I had attended for so many weary years.
Walking through the doors, I felt like I had run into a particularly bitter ex. The building and the people were familiar, but I had become a stranger. I remembered the countless hours I had spent there with my friends. Playing games, planning worship services, plotting how we could get around the “adult rules” to do things the way we wanted. Against my will, I smiled. For a moment I thought about how great it would be if I could come back every so often to be an adult leader. But then I remembered that that was probably impossible. Because I was sinful. I was corrupted. I was gross.
Nobody was talking about how I was a leader anymore. For many, I was the prime case study for how good God-fearing kids can go off to liberal arts colleges, get brainwashed into being gay, have their hair bleached, and fornicate their way to a first-class ticket to hell.
As I drove back to Columbus I wanted to hate my hometown, I wanted to hate my old church. I wanted to draw a big circle in the sand, label it “things I don’t give a fuck about,” and plop my entire pre-college life in it. I wanted to forget where I had come from.
Remembering is harder. Remembering means taking the good with the bad, the happy with the sad. It means living in shades of grey, rather than in the shade of certainty. It means living in complexities rather than generalizations. It means acknowledging the people who stood by you as well as the people who turned their back. It means remembering everything, the good and the bad; the happy and the sad; the tragic and the heroic.
Remembering hurts sometimes.
After getting back to my home in Columbus, I cried. I cried for the friends who wouldn’t answer my texts anymore, for the mentors who turned their backs, for the people who once loved me but no longer would. I cried for the home that I had lost, but that I could not hate.