By Mark Jason Williams
“There’s something wrong with me,” I said, trembling before Father John. I was a 12-year-old boy scared to death of his attraction to other boys.
“Yes, Mark?” he asked. “What would you like to tell God?”
Father John was a kind man, always calm-spoken, always smiling. I felt like I could tell him anything, but I wasn’t quite sure how to have this conversation with the almighty. Surely, it would destroy my family and earn me a spot in hell.
Yet, there was a boy at school who made it seem worth it. He wore ribbed tank tops and long jean shorts that fell just below his waist. He had an earring and talked back to our teachers, and his rebellious nature and free spirit were a huge turn-on. Knowing it was wrong just made me want him more.
I ran away from Father John, fast as I could, and then tried to force my feelings away. Through my adolescence, I dated girls. We usually went to the movies so we didn’t have to talk or make eye contact. Once, my girlfriend asked me to put my hand under her shirt. I got as far as her stomach before pretending to be sick.
Interactions with other guys were particularly challenging. Fathers lectured me about not having my way with their daughters and I’d fantasize about being in bed with them, instead. In gym class, I faked my way through locker-room talk with the guys, while fighting the urge to stare at their naked behinds. When classmates were called fags and thrown in dumpsters, I stood by and watched. I wasn’t proud of it; I just wanted to survive.
I broke away and went to NYU for college, and I was relieved to see men openly kissing and holding hands. I wanted to scream, “I’m gay, too—help me!” Yet, I couldn’t. I stayed in the closet. Even when people assumed I was gay, thanks to my soft-spoken voice and bubble butt. I’d deny it.
In my junior year, a professor helped me take a step out of the closet. In his film class, we watched Boys in the Band, and I had a revelation while writing about it. “I’ve been living as a heterosexual male, but I really want to be with another man,” I wrote. “But, like some of the characters in Boys in the Band, I’m afraid to accept myself for what I am.” It was filled with typos, but I didn’t care—I had to get it to my professor’s mailbox before I chickened out again. I got an A on the essay, along with a personal note urging me to come out to others, but I wasn’t ready.
“Maybe I’m not really gay,” I told myself. “It could be just a phase or something.” A few weeks later, a friend lost his boyfriend to a drug overdose. “I really loved him,” he said. “I just want to hold him one more time.” I felt awful for him, yet wanted to smile. I now understood that being gay was more than just physical.
That summer, I traveled to Florence. It was my first time in Europe and travelling on my own. I felt free and instantly fell in love with the art, culture, and the men. With their tan, olive ski and carefree attitude, the Italian guys made me quiver to the point that I went to a cathedral, lit a candle and told God that “I’d rather be living in sin than not living at all.” I’d later laugh at myself for cheesy that sounded, but in the moment it was something I needed to do. With a burst of adrenaline, I went in search of a gay bar—unfortunately, I walked for miles to discover that the only one in the city was closed for the summer. However, I returned home with a new confidence. At a birthday party, I chatted with a cute guy and had my first kiss with him before the night was over. Most of my friends saw it, too, so I didn’t have to do the dramatic “I’m gay” speech. I could simply grin and accept the moment for what it was.
Telling my parents remained the biggest hurdle, and that took another ten years. I tried to tell them in my last year of college by inviting them to see a play I’d written about two men in love. But, when I asked for my mother’s reaction she said, “You used too many curse words,” and I knew they weren’t ready. I tried again in my mid-twenties, but my dad got really sick and I was afraid coming out would kill him. Suddenly, I was in my thirties and the time never seemed right. I knew I was a coward, and it affected my relationships with others. Guys dumped me when I refused to let them meet my family; my sister threatened to stop speaking to me if I didn’t tell my parents I was gay. I started to wonder: is this struggle for my parents to accept me, or for me to accept myself?
Then I met Michael, a public health professor in his forties, who was far more patient than other guys. His laid-back, yet caring demeanor helped me be more honest than I‘d been in the past.
“I don’t know why, but I’m just afraid to sit my parents down and say, “This is me.” Michael took my hand and kissed my cheek. Well, when you’re ready, you can say, ‘this is us.’
On an unusually warm spring day, just after my thirty-sixth birthday, I introduced Michael to my parents. Though I still felt like a nervous teenager, my mother hugged us both, then turned to me and asked, “What took you so long?” My father soon followed, patting Michael on the back. Finally, after over thirty-five of being in my parent’s house, it felt like home. I’m not an emotional person, but I almost cried, I realized that my struggle was never about my parents coming to terms with my sexuality, it was about me accepting myself. Sometimes, when I see younger gay couple who are out, it makes me regret staying in the closet so long. Yet, I’m happy that I no longer have to worry about gaining my parent’s approval. Instead, I envision my mother and I dancing at my wedding—and hope she approves of the song.