There was once a young man who set out to go hiking in the early evening. It being early Fall, the days had started to grow shorter and daylight faded sooner each time he would hit the trail. But, it was something he loved to do. Leaving behind the busy highways for the quiet solitude of the mountain near his house was the perfect way to clear his mind and find some time for reflection. The soft earth would give way under his shoes as he climbed higher and further from the noise of the city below him. And, with each step, he took fuller and more satisfying breaths.
This particular night, however, he’d left a bit later than usual and soon came to realize he was losing light fast. Being only halfway through his normal path, he decided it might be best to take an offshoot he knew was a quicker route down to the main road. But, being less familiar with this course, he soon found himself disoriented and, even sooner, in pitch black darkness.
Trying to keep his cool, he pressed on. And, distracted by his desperate search for a sense of direction, he stumbled and fell over an outcropping of roots. His shoulder hit the ground hard as his leg scraped against the jagged rocks. Angry, he pounded his knuckles into the ground and grabbed a fistful of dirt, throwing it into the void and cursing his own stupidity.
He sat on the cool ground and steeled himself up against a tree, looking to the sky to gather his thoughts. What were the options? Either sleep here and wait for morning or get up and hope that, if he followed the distant sounds of traffic, it would eventually lead him out. Weighing his options, he pulled out his phone and called a close friend who instructed him to stay where he was and that she’d come and find him.
Realistically, though, the trail was over 13 miles long and he knew there was little chance of them finding each other. So, he brushed himself off and followed his gut down the path, taking careful steps and feeling the ground for any obstacles or sudden drop-offs. And, that whole time, his friend refused to get off the phone, making it her point to occupy him with conversation and lighten his disposition.
This young man was me. I was 27 years old.
What I didn’t realize at the time (and what I can’t help but laugh at now) is that I was living the physical realization of the struggles I’d faced as a young gay teen.
You see, growing up, I’d essentially come to the conclusion that I was gay at about 13 years old. I can’t really say there was a period of confusion or even one notable epiphany I had. I just remember, in 7th grade, having crushes on girls and then, in 8th grade, having crushes on all the guys the girls had crushes on. It was as simple as that. There was very little internal turmoil because, at the time, I can’t even say that I really knew what being gay meant. I just knew that, at least for the moment, I was for the dudes.
This carried on into high school (obviously) where I spent four years developing a deeper understanding of who I was. And, it being a Catholic school, it was all to easy to find myself categorized by the fact that I was generally quiet and heavily involved in our theatre community. Surprisingly, though, that categorization existed just as much within my circle of friends, as it did outside of it.
While, yes, a great many people assumed I was gay because of the crowd I ran with and my chosen extracurricular activities, my sexuality wasn’t something I openly discussed. Not because I was uncomfortable with it but because I saw what happened to the few who were “out.” Unsurprisingly, there was the occasional whispered slur but, what was far more damning was how being gay became that person’s defining quality. They were placed into a box and it was checked off. People knew what they needed to know about you and everything else became secondary.
This was not something I wanted for myself. So, I took my orientation off the table of talking points. As comfortable as I was with who I was, if people were going to have an opinion of me, they were going to have to put in the work of actually basing it on who I was as a whole individual. And, sure, my calculated mode of operation led to accusations of “fear” by some and “shame” by others. But, above all, it served as a sifter. Little by little the sands of small-minded nonsense would fall through and, in my tray, was left something unanticipated and far more valuable.
Though it was disheartening to experience scrutiny and disapproval from those I assumed would have been the most open and accepting, gratification came in the form of an outpouring of support, acceptance and friendship from those I wouldn’t have necessarily expected. Sometimes we lose some people along our climb up the mountain, but the land is vast and trails intersect. You meet people along the way. And, the difference is, these people don’t care why you’re out there. They just want to share the journey.
Years later, I found myself moving over one thousand miles away from home to live out a dream interning for a company I’d loved my whole life in a role that I’d campaigned for over a series of interviews. Not only was I embarking on a remarkable adventure it was accompanied by the opportunity of establishing myself among new friends and colleagues who bore no preconceived notions or opinions.
What I didn’t anticipate, however, was how some people never graduate from the high school mentality.
No, upon my arrival I soon met a fellow intern who had preceded my arrival by a few weeks and had, essentially, established himself as the “head gay” of our location. (Apparently, I’d missed the election.) And, this guy wasted no time in trying to figure me out. Personally, I make it a point not to discuss sexuality in the workplace and he just wasn’t having it. So, he would indirectly attempt to steer the conversation toward that topic and I just would not engage. This only served to infuriate him.
The most hilarious part of the whole circus was how passive-aggressive his attempts were. So, when I started to befriend co-workers and they eventually gleaned that little tidbit about my personal life through, you know, friendship…he blew a gasket.
Suddenly, I began to hear that I was a topic of discussion behind closed doors. My interest in the Yankees and The Office over things like RuPaul’s Drag Race and the latest Rihanna song was all the criteria necessary to be deemed a “closet case” who had “no business identifying himself as ‘gay.’”
So, here I was again, taking another significant turn on the trail of my life, only this time a large obstacle stood in my way in a defiant attempt to change my trajectory. And, while it would have been easier for me to take a path of lesser resistance, this was my damn path and no one was going to tell me I didn’t belong. And, thus, I kept going. I climbed over it, steadied by the support of others who stood by my side and refused to be governed by ignorance.
And, to that end, I got to fulfill a lifelong ambition and walked away with a treasury of steadfast friendships that grow stronger every year.
Each of us has a path; a mountain to climb. We set out on our respective journeys with an idea of how things are going to go and, more often than not, we wind up getting turned around and stumbling in the dark while we search for firmer footing. And, when things get a little rough, some of your fellow travelers may question your intentions. Others may turn back. Some may even try to throw you off course.
The people who are more preoccupied with your quest than their own are meant to get left behind.
Share your journey with people who talk you through it, not out of it.
Share your journey with someone who’ll drive to the woods at night and flash their headlights and honk their horn so you can find your way out.
You may get a little banged up, but you’ll certainly have a story worth telling.
I speak from experience.