I grew up on the farm and was this unschooled: I didn’t know a post-pubescent boy needed to bathe every day in order to be welcomed in polite society. You pulled me aside and had a talk with me about the matter. You were kind, nonjudgmental, and to the point. “We must accommodate to our surroundings,” you said, and excused me to go take a shower. My face burned as I left.
Although you taught me, mentored me, worked with me over the next few years, we never spoke of this incident again. We discussed many other subjects. I’d ask a question; you’d pause and take a breath as if the matter required oxygenated thought. Then you’d twist your mouth a little to the side and deliver a considered, witty, impassioned response with the kind of nervous energy that characterized everything you did. You were an odd duck. Bold wardrobe choices, fussy personality, fluttery hand movements. Mannerisms today I’d describe as “queeny.”
Thing is, I think we were more alike than either one of us wanted to know. I think we were both striving mightily to remain unaware of our sexual orientation. I moved away, eventually married. You sent a gift when my first child arrived. We stayed in touch, saw each other every once in a while. I found reasons to ask your help on various projects.
Once, after telling me a good friend of yours is gay, you made a statement that struck me as peculiar: “Of course, I’m always very careful whenever I’m around him and we’re alone.” I gave it little thought at the time. Now it seems telling.
When I came out as a gay man, I was kicked out of my church, marriage, job. No place for me in polite society. You and many other former friends were conspicuous by your absence.
I have my own theory about why you were silent. I’d love for you to correct me if I’m wrong. Here’s my take on it: like me, you grew up in a society and religious milieu that taught gay persons were criminal, depraved, sinful creatures who’d crawled out of some black lagoon. Like me, you repressed and suppressed same-sex attractions. Like me, you turned to church and religion as salve and salvation. Like me, you kept it all out of sight, out of mind until the day you couldn’t do it any more. Like me, you took tentative steps toward learning more, leaning further into territory you’d always considered forbidden.
And then you were found out.
Way I heard it, you left incriminating images open on your office computer. The cleaning crew spotted them, reported you. You’d long worked for a church-related organization, very religious, very conservative, very small town.
“We don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’re going to do something,” your employer said. This on a Friday. You had the weekend to think about it. You knew well enough what would happen—you’d lose your job, marriage, church, friends, your standing in the community.
You didn’t show up for work on Monday.
They tell me there is a moment of euphoria as a person drowns, when all is bliss and joy. I hope you found it. I hope you experienced relief and release. I hope you relaxed into one long moment when all was well, you were acceptable, had nothing to hide, no one to hide from, no one to harm you.
From a pew at your funeral, I listened as the preacher said, “We don’t know why he chose to take his own life.”
I wanted to stand up and shout, “The hell we don’t!” But I kept mum. _We must accommodate to our surroundings._
I used to believe the coming out process, though painful, ultimately liberates. Your fate is not my idea of freedom, your baptism not my preferred mode of salvation.
This letter appeared in the May issue of The Community Letter
photo credit: Ephemeral Scraps at flickr.com