In 1989 I was finally able to destroy the closet where I’d hid most of my life. Most LGBT people know the closet very well. I was 23 at the time. For years I’d been begging and pleading with God to “change me”. I didn’t want to be attracted to men. I wanted to be “normal”. I wanted to escape the certain “path to hell” that I’d heard about most of my life. I wanted to experience a relationship that I did not have to keep secret. There were so many things that “I” wanted back then.
One fall afternoon I was at my parent’s home in rural East Tennessee, helping my dad burn off the dead vines and stalks that covered our once thriving garden. Back in those days, I seemed to be in a constant state of prayer, anxiety, and deep depression. But standing out in our garden in the cool, crisp air; smoke rising from the small mounds of debris; I was struck by the fact that I’d always been praying for what “I” wanted. I’d never prayed and asked what God wanted for me.
I remember saying the words under my breath, “God, whatever Your will, let it be done…”
If I live to be 100, I’ll never forget what happened next. I immediately felt God’s warm and loving presence. I felt a sense of relief and peace that I had never experienced before. It was overwhelming… Then, I heard in my mind, God’s voice saying, “Tom, I made you how I made you. I want you to be happy.”
This was truly a watershed moment in my life.
I spent the next few years gaining my strength; getting to know who I really was (I’d hidden so much of myself for so long). I started going to a LGBT support group at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I went to a couple of bars. I started dating guys. I came out to friends, family, and co-workers. And while it wasn’t always a smooth, enjoyable path; it was certainly preferable to the path I’d been on for the vast majority of my life.
During that time period I made two trips to San Francisco. I’d always heard that there were a lot of gays and lesbians in San Francisco, but nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced.
First off, San Francisco is an amazingly beautiful city. The cool and moderate climate means that plants don’t die during the winter. I saw entire hillsides of geraniums—plants that we normally only saw during the summer months back home. Row houses were covered in bougainvillea. Some of the old Victorians had 8 to 12 colors of paint and gold-leaf detail on them. And the people seemed so laid back.
Visiting The Castro District was my favorite… Men and women held hands with their partners. Restaurants were filled with LGBT people who looked and acted so normal; so happy in their day-to-day lives. There was even a “gay hardware store”—Cliff’s Variety—where you could find anything from nails, to shower curtains, to over-the-top wigs on sale. The energy I experienced there told me that one day I would live there.
In 1994 I made the big move out to San Francisco. I moved there with a college friend. Neither of us had jobs lined up. Each of us had a little bit of savings. We were totally blindsided by the high cost of renting. It took us weeks to find a place we could afford. We were also completely unprepared for living in a large city. Nobody tells you about the parking and traffic nightmares. They don’t tell you that insuring and registering your car can cost a small fortune.
We’d both read Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City”. It romanticizes San Francisco. We were so naïve back then. We honestly thought we’d be met at the city limits by large bands of lesbian and gays, saying “Welcome home! You made it! Just sit back and relax, everything will be fine.”
In both of our previous cities, coming out was such a momentous event. People either accepted your news or they didn’t. Each positive coming out event was so exquisite and affirming that you couldn’t wait to do it again and again.
But in a city where there were so many openly gay people and in such an affirming community, being gay was literally no big deal. You were just another gay man among the tens of thousands of other gay men walking the streets, going to work, recreating, worshipping, etc.
It took me a good year to realize how amazing it felt to be able to be “average”. I forever lost that feeling of dread that someone might say or do something negatively because they discovered I am gay. I didn’t worry about co-workers or bosses knowing about my orientation. I was at peace. I was comfortable. I was normal.
I don’t think LGBT individuals who have never experienced such freedom can fully understand what “normalcy” feels like. You spend years—sometimes decades—feeling like a freak; some broken, sinful, soul. You carry around shame. You are fearful of your surroundings.
To be relieved of these overwhelming feelings is unlike anything most can imagine.
I was lucky to have been able to live in the San Francisco Bay Area for the better part of 15 years. The shame, the guilt, the self-hatred; all of that is gone. Even though circumstances led me to move back to Upper-East Tennessee (one of the many buckles of the Bible Belt) I will forever be transformed by my years of living in San Francisco.
I no longer accept other’s attempts to make me feel “broken” or “disordered”. I no longer hate myself. And I know—have known for 25 years—that it was God’s will for me to be gay. I don’t know why. I don’t need to know why. I just accept it and go on with my life.
If I could have one wish granted it would be that every LGBT individual on the planet could experience what I’ve experienced. I still see young LGBT people, who hate themselves; who are fearful of friends/family/co-workers; who are struggling with their orientation in a world that largely still misunderstands us. I don’t want them to struggle with these issues for years—even the rest of their lives.
I have seen the other side of the fence… The grass really is much greener.