A Wallflower Blooms in Texas

GUEST POST BY DANNY STEWART

Looking back on my life, I remember much of it as if it were a box full of washed-out photos. Many events and experiences are nothing but faded memories, but some remain vivid to this day. These enduring memories are the ones that shaped who I am.

Boys growing up in Texas in the 1970s were expected to be rugged. They had to be tough. They had to be athletic. They had to care about sports. My older brother Wayne was all these things. He excelled in football, baseball, and basketball. He was the strong All-American boy on the preordained path to becoming the ideal Texan man. I, on the other hand, was a sensitive, uncoordinated wallflower.

But to help ensure I would become this ideal man someday, my parents insisted I do something physical, which meant something athletic. So in 1974, at 8 years old, I signed up for little league baseball to be a Junior Texas Ranger. I “played” for 3 seasons, 2 of which were on the Mets. (I should have seen this as foreshadowing because 21 years later, I would meet and eventually marry a devoted Mets fan.) Like many professional Mets teams over the years, I was terrible in almost every aspect of the game except one.

Junior Texas Rangers—Mets Scorecard

“Well, at least you can run fast,” my coach said. He was right. I was zippy. The problem was, I couldn’t hit and was rarely on base. So, my one skill—speed—didn’t help me or my team. And yet, even without my contribution (or more likely the lack thereof), my team won the championship.

The only thing I loved about baseball was being a Junior Texas Ranger. The program, sponsored by Dr. Pepper, came with a nifty patch, two tickets to a Rangers game, and a photo with your favorite player. My favorite player was Jim Sundberg, a catcher.

Still don't know why we had yellow uniforms
Me, Jim, and my dad behind us

I proudly wore my patch, sewn on my shirt by my mom. Taking this photo with Jim was hands down the best part of going to the game.

After whiffing at baseball, I tried soccer. It involved running, so it could be my thing. Well, that didn’t go well either. While there was definitely a lot of running, I was not good at all. Running is one thing. Kicking a ball while running is something else. My soccer experience ended as soon as it began.

I could still outrun everyone else in my grade except for one girl and one boy. So, what could I do with my speed? I entered my 5th-grade track and field competition. I came in 5th in the 60-yard dash in a regional track meet. It was not great, but it was better than I expected, and I got a ribbon!

Sometimes, my speed saved my life. Each summer between 1974 and 1981, I’d visit my cousins Doug and Mary Ann for several weeks. We alternated the visits between my family’s home in Bedford, Texas, and theirs in Angleton, a small town south of Houston. I loved seeing my cousins. Our time together was always carefree. We were truly free-range kids, doing whatever our hearts desired. Most of our days were filled with endless wonder.

My legs came in handy during one of my summers down in Angleton. Doug, Mary Ann, and I played ball with their friends in a neighbor’s backyard. One girl, Mary Ann’s friend, who was older and bigger, saw how bad I was at throwing and started taunting and teasing me. She was relentless. At some point, I had reached my limit. I called her either a lesbian or homosexual, the most derogatory thing I could think of at the time. While I had no idea what lesbian or homosexual meant, I knew they would land like insults.

Everyone was shocked: little Danny said what? After a moment, the girl’s face turned red with anger. As soon as I saw her glare, like a bull staring down a matador, I knew I had run. She tried to catch me, but she had no chance. I was The Flash, and she was Jabba the Hut. I raced down the street and didn’t stop until I reached my Aunt Mary’s house. My cousins said if it were not for my legs, she would have killed me.

Free-range cousins

Little did I know, but my summer experience in Angleton was merely a trial run. At Bell Manor, my elementary school in Bedford, I was taunted and bullied regularly. The bullies, looking and hoping for a fight, provoked me with slurs and shoves. “Sissy,” they called me. I didn’t understand, but I knew it wasn’t nice. When I ran away, they chased me. They saw something in me—a difference from the other boys.

Why was I their target? What was it about me that made them want to beat me up? Did they perceive a weakness or vulnerability? On some level, I knew I was different from them, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the exact nature of this difference. So, like I did in Houston, I just ran for my life. I ran to escape. I ran to disappear. And once I was far enough away or on my bike going faster, I felt relatively safe until the next school day.

At home, my brother Wayne would roughhouse with me. However, as he was older and bigger, he always had the upper hand to get the best of me. It was never a fair fight. My sister Shelia was almost 10 years older, and I always had a special bond with her. I considered her my protector and would run to her when things got out of hand with my brother. I would hide behind her for protection from Wayne. This worked until she graduated high school in 1974 and joined the Army. I was now on my own to defend and protect myself from the many adventures of living with my brother. He had a paper route, and there were hundreds of rubber bands all around the house. These became weapons to shoot at me, and we would have rubber band fights. Another was beanbag fights using the beanbags from the game Tic, Tac, Toss to throw as hard as possible to hurt the other. Another adventure happened during a trip traveling to New Mexico. My brother aimed bottle rockets and threw firecrackers at me and Doug. That caused us to get kicked out of the motel we were staying in. Living with my brother taught me to always be on my toes and look for an escape.

Wayne and me

My experiences, particularly in sports, went something like this: “Don’t be a sissy,” “Don’t be a mama’s boy,” “Don’t throw like a girl.” Like other boys of my generation, I grew up thinking and being told the worst thing a boy could do was act like a girl—to be a girl. It was during this time I would often cry myself to sleep. But because only girls cried, it made me feel even less of a boy.

I knew I was different, but I didn’t understand what made me different—other than I wasn’t like all the other boys. This difference made me feel isolated and alone. Some nights, I prayed that God would take me in my sleep. I didn’t want to kill myself. I just wanted God to make it all better, and the only way that I thought it could be better was if I died in my sleep. Through this loneliness, I felt I couldn’t or shouldn’t tell anyone. Deep down, I feared what might happen if I did.

Here’s the thing: when you’re faced with the threat of physical danger almost every day, your emotional and psychological well-being takes the brunt of the trauma instead. Without realizing it, I often disassociated in real-time. While I was a good student, my teachers noticed me disappear into myself. They said I daydreamed too much. But I wasn’t daydreaming; I was blanking out. To this day, I have no recollection of these lapses. Now, I recognize they must have been a trauma-stress response.

While it seemed all my peers were thriving, I disappeared, disassociated, and wished I was dead. And then, just as I started middle school, a substantial geographical shift complicated my entire world. In 1977, we moved from Bedford in the suburbs to a rural community 10 miles outside Ennis. It was so small, that RR (Rural Route) was in our new address. So now I had to cope with dislocation from myself and adjust to relocation from everything I knew. Add the hormonal, social, emotional, and physical turbulence of adolescence to the mix and what could go wrong?

Our new house in the country

Because our new house wouldn’t be completed before the new school year started, my mom and I stayed at our new next-door neighbor-to-be’s house so I could begin middle school in Ennis. (Next door in the boondocks means the closest house in proximity, not literally next door. Their house was a couple hundred yards from our future house and separated by a barbed wire fence.) I shared a bedroom with their son, Shane, who was 3 years older and in 9th grade. Mom and I traveled back to Bedford on the weekends to be with my dad and older brother. This back-and-forth lasted 3 months.

Everyone in Ennis knew one another or were related. I was the new kid. And some kids on the school bus never let me forget it. They called me a “city slicker.” It was not meant as a term of endearment. And it didn’t matter to them that I came from the suburbs, not the city. I was still the outsider. The weird kid. The “you’re not from around here, are ya?” kid.

I quickly learned of another type of tough boy: the cowboy, aka the “shit kicker.” Shit kickers always made sure you knew they were shit kickers with just a look, word, or shove. New kids like me were fresh meat to tenderize and terrorize. I tried my best to hide, remain inconspicuous, and avoid confrontation. But it was clear, as a non-shit kicker or jock, I was the other. No matter how much I tried to diminish my presence, I couldn’t escape. They called me names all the time. “Pussy” and “faggot” were their favorites. Due to their limited vocabulary and brain size, the shit kickers lacked the creativity to hurl other insults.

The hour-long bus rides to and from school felt like six hours. Fights often broke out in the back. I managed to avoid confrontations most days, but I always had to be on guard. Provocations could escalate and spiral out of control at any moment. But I was lucky; some might say I was privileged. I had one thing some other kids didn’t—light skin. Regularly, the poor white boys instigated fights with the poor black boys for no reason other than they could. This was the first time I bore witness to ingrained power and racism. Even though I wasn’t being physically assaulted, the violence angered and scared me. From then on, I always felt safer around black kids than the white cowboys.

Another thing I learned from those middle-school bus rides was poverty. Abject poverty. The poor black kids lived in shacks along a long dirt road by a sandy creek bed in the middle of nowhere. Their homes and community, tucked far away so no one had to see them, were forgotten by time and progress.

I tried my best to fit in and make friends. New friendships were hard to establish, but I made a few with other kids in the community. My “roommate” Shane and I had little in common. He chewed snuff. He wore cowboy boots and Wranglers with a worn circle from the snuff can in his back pocket. Shane’s life’s ambition was 4-H. In contrast, my jeans were starchy generics from Sears, and as far as I knew, my only ambition was to survive in this new world. But he sensed that I was different. Innocent. Impressionable. Vulnerable. He took advantage of my weakness to get what he wanted. And he wanted sex.

The first time Shane initiated anything happened before we had moved in with the Gardners. While our house was being built, we would go out every Saturday to check on the progress, the cows, and the property. We usually visited the Gardners. They had a little over 40 acres that slopped down like ours toward the back. In the way back, a gully led to a creek. During one of the check-ins and visits, Shane asked me to walk with him to the back. When the sightline to the house had descended like a sunset, Shane stopped, unzipped his jeans, and started masturbating. What was he doing? My 11-year-old brain spun with confusion, intrigue, and fear. I had never explored my body, let alone masturbated.

“I bet you can’t do this,” Shane said, nonchalantly coaxing me to join him.

“You’ll have to wait and see,” I said, caught off guard. I knew I didn’t want to join him, so my instinct told me to delay. For how long or until when? I didn’t know. Shane finished, zipped up his pants, and we continued walking. Nothing else happened that summer. But when school started and I shared a room with him, he pushed things further.

“Do you jerk off?” Shane asked after the first day of school. I had no idea what “jerk off” meant. Shane, realizing I had never touched myself, took off my clothes and gave me a hand job. It was intense and scary. I felt like I had lost control over my body. But it also felt incredible. A door to another world cracked open, and there was no turning back.

From then on, Shane showed me the ropes. Since we shared a room for 3 months, the sex was convenient, and our interactions increased and intensified. But even after our house was completed and the convenience ended, our sexual encounters lasted for another 4 years. Our secret “relationship” was not based on love, respect, or tenderness. It was filled with shame, guilt, and self-loathing. Eventually, I came to resent him because, at his core, he was still a shit kicker. And while he didn’t outwardly taunt or tease me or call me names on the bus, he was complicit every time he laughed with the other shit kickers at my expense.

I don’t know if Shane was gay. But I knew I was. And I blamed myself for what I viewed as a complete moral failure. Our sexual encounters created a crisis with my Southern Baptist upbringing. The internal torment, guilt, and angst for being a bad Christian overtook my ability to process what was happening. All I knew was I needed an intervention from God, so I doubled down on my devotion to Him. I started going to church three times a week. I attended Sunday school, worship services, revivals, Vacation Bible School, took mission trips in the Summer, and discipleship training with my youth group. I threw myself on God’s mercy and begged Him to change me. But despite all my prayers and repentant efforts, the gay would not leave me.

Every attempt to resist Shane’s continued sexual advances failed. I saw myself as sexually and morally weak. I tried to distance myself and avoid him as much as possible. But my parents, unbeknownst to what was happening, encouraged me to hang out more with Shane. They didn’t want me wasting or idling my days away. They sometimes called me lazy for not doing chores or other jobs around the house and ranch. They believed in the Proverbs—idle hands (or mind) are the devil’s playground. If they had only known what the devil was brewing with Shane, they probably would have let me idle.

To build my moral character, they gave me physical jobs. Every Saturday for months, I strung an electric fence, then a 5-string barbed wire one, around our 53-acre property. I cut and chopped down pesky mesquite trees. This task was endless. Like a game of whack-a-mole, a mesquite seemed to crop up someplace else. My introduction to country life during puberty was challenging, confusing, and terrifying. Many times, I longed to be back in Bedford. I may have faced similar—perhaps better or worse—adolescent challenges there, but at least I wouldn’t have been forced into manual labor under a relentless sun.

I don’t want to paint a picture of living in the country as all bad. There were some highlights. Each Spring, the pasture transformed into a field of colorful wildflowers. Sunflowers grew tall in the back. A sea of Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrushes covered the front. Truly a sight to behold. Whenever I visit my family, I try to go in the Spring to see the colors and absorb their tranquility, stillness, and beauty. I now have a deeper appreciation for the flowers than I did growing up. Something about convening with nature restores the mind, body, and soul.

Bluebonnets and Indian Painbrushes covered the property

I learned to drive a manual 1974 Ford pickup when I was 12. It made me feel grown up, empowered, and trusted with a sense of responsibility. I spent a lot of time with animals— a herd of about 10 black Angus cows and one horse. I treated them more like pets than livestock. Each was given a name to fit their personality. Due to her coloring, the horse’s name was Strawberry. A nervous, skittish cow was named Minerva. Sunflower had a sunny disposition. Friendly, well, you guessed it, was friendly and trusting. Then there was our bull, Pretty Boy.

A gentle giant, Pretty Boy often allowed me to sit on his back without fuss. As long as he was eating, he didn’t care. He loved when I rubbed his head, especially behind his ears. Pretty Boy, in many ways, was my pet dog. And he fancied our neighbor’s bull, who somehow always managed to make his way through the fence onto our property to be with Pretty Boy. Together, they frolicked around the pasture, playful romps of affection and joy. And they did this in the open, without fear of getting caught or shamed. Did this mean the bulls were gay or bisexual? I don’t know if bovines have sexual orientations like humans, but I do know these two enjoyed each other’s company.

In addition to my other chores, I was responsible for feeding the cows. Weather and ground conditions dictated the number of feedings. Cold and poor ground conditions usually meant more feedings, from one to three times a week. The process involved moving rectangular hay bales from the barn to the pickup truck and then out to the pasture for scattering. Each bale could weigh anywhere from 50 to 100 pounds, depending on how they were packed. Not easy or fun for a boy with skinny arms. I learned quickly how to use my legs to lift, load, and toss.

“Come on, come on, come on!” I yelled to summon the cows. They’d come running and then jockey for the best spot. Sometimes just the sound of the truck would bring them my way. Let me tell you, a herd of cows running toward you is a sight to behold. Hands down, watching them was my favorite part of the job.

Strawberry, our horse, was the boss. She ruled over the cows like a tyrant and always exerted her power by getting first dibs. Feisty and stubborn, Strawberry did not like or appreciate being ridden. She refused to move whenever I put on a saddle and reins to go for a ride. Sometimes, she reluctantly moved a few feet and stopped for good. This was her way of saying, “Get off, the ride is over.”

Thanksgiving 1978, while everyone watched the Cowboys, my cousin Mary Ann suggested we go outside to ride Strawberry. I should have known it was a bad idea, but I couldn’t care less about the football game, so off we went. Once we found Strawberry in the field, I climbed onto her back and helped Mary Ann get on behind me. Without a saddle or reins, we had nothing to hold when Strawberry reared up. Mary Ann slid off her back and landed without injury. I bear-hugged Strawberry’s torso to keep from falling off. But she now added bucking to the rearing. I went flying and landed with a hard thud. When I tried to get up, my left arm would not move. Mary Ann helped me to my feet. My arm dangled like a wet noodle. I lifted it the best I could, but it sagged in the middle like the letter “U.”

Mary Ann and me, years earlier
School photo with arm in a sling (hard to see)

Back at the house, Mom rolled up a magazine to create a splint. Soon, she and I were going to the closest hospital 10 miles away. The ER doctor took one look at my arm and sent us to Baylor Hospital in Dallas, another 35 miles away. There, x-rays confirmed what we already knew. My arm was broken. Both my ulna and radius were fractured by the fall. Doctors and nurses realigned my bones and then fitted me with a cast. But because the bones kept shifting, the doctor said I had to stay the night in case they needed to insert pins to hold the bones in place.

Mom headed back home. Alone and scared, I called her later that night. She drove back to be with me. The next morning, the doctors examined my arm. The bones stopped shifting. Pins were not needed. I was able to go home. For the next 6 weeks, I wore a shoulder-to-finger cast.

The cast came off just in time for another of my seasonal chores to start. During the summer, my job was to mow the pasture. It took me weeks to mow the entire pasture. I’d start early in the morning, take a break during the hottest part of the day, then resume late in the afternoon. It was an exercise in enduring sheer monotony. Thank God I had a cassette Walkman. I listened and sang aloud to contemporary Christian and pop music that included Amy Grant, Leon Patillo, Petra, Air Supply, and the Eagles. Even though I rode a tractor with a bushhog, the Texan summer sun still beat me down. Sometimes, I skinny-dipped in a pond way in the back. The pond was dirty and disgusting—the cows cooled off and relieved themselves there—but I didn’t care on scorching days.

I became somewhat of a perfectionist with the mowing. The grass near the pond’s edge had to match the rest of the field, so I had to get close with the tractor. Once, I pressed my luck, and the tractor got stuck in the mud. I had no idea how to get it out; the heat and sun were intense that day. I couldn’t think straight, so I did what any other early-teenaged boy would do: I went for a dip in the pond to ponder my predicament. After cooling off, I asked a neighbor, Shane’s dad, to tow out our tractor with their larger one.

The pickup truck I drove when 12 years old

Another perk of country living was riding our 1972 Yamaha 60cc Mini Enduro motorcycle, which was more of a dirt bike that could go up to 30 miles per hour. I loved riding it back and forth on the 4-mile, bumpy country road where we lived. In the summer, I’d share the bike with other neighborhood kids. We’d take turns riding through pastures, then out to the road and back again.

Once, I pushed the bike and my ability to handle it to the limit. I reached the road at maximum speed but could not turn fast enough, barreling toward a barbed-wire fence on the opposite side. I jerked the handlebar as hard as I could, narrowly escaping a direct hit. Instead, I slid along the fence, tearing up my left thigh, thumb, forearm, and upper arm. I had turned white with fear, then red from the gushing blood.

A neighbor’s dad drove me home. Mom looked at me, and we headed to the emergency room. Even though the attending doctor said the cuts were deep—one severed a ligament in my hand—he didn’t think I needed stitches. He bandaged my wounds and sent me back home. I still have scars from that ride—most notably, the inability to bend my left thumb. Today, I hardly notice the function loss unless I need to compose a text message, which I can only do with my right thumb.

The dirt bike I couldn't stop
Mary Ann taking a turn

Despite all the work I did around the property, my parents still believed I needed an influential role model for hard work to instill a strong appreciation for manual labor, such as handling the cows, hauling and baling hay—essentially all things considered “cowboy.” Mom and Dad viewed Shane as just the right guy for the job, so they encouraged me to seek him out.

After dinner one night, our phone rang. Mom picked up. It was Shane. He asked if I could “come help him in the barn.” I knew what “help” meant, so I fervently shook my head and mouthed, “NO!” But Mom, seeing Shane as a positive role model, ignored my gestures and told Shane I would come right over. You know, to be a good neighbor. Shane now had my parents as unwitting allies. These types of situations arose more times than I can remember.

I remember the first encounter. And I remember the last. All the in-betweens are a blur. The final encounter happened in October 1981, Homecoming night of my sophomore year. Since I was still 2 months away from getting my driver’s license, I asked Shane to drive me to pick up Kaye, my date, and drive us to the dance. Kaye, a senior, had recently moved to Ennis. We struck up an immediate friendship. I felt safe asking her to go as friends to Homecoming. Kaye always put me at ease and made me laugh. How could I not love someone who said she loved the winter because she didn’t have to shave her legs?

On the ride to pick up Kaye, Shane made his, by then, predictable overtures for us to have sex. I wasn’t strong enough to resist. The person my parents thought would make me strong instead made me weak. The self-loathing after we finished consumed me. I felt worse than ever. While deflated and defeated, I was also somehow determined to make these encounters end one way or another. Most of all, my internal spiritual warfare had to stop. I wanted to be normal, which, first and foremost, meant being straight, not some clandestine homo-cowboy-wannabee. The gulf between my desire to be normal and my desire to accept myself grew. And I vowed to take the shameful secret of our sexual encounters to the grave.

Kaye and me at Homecoming

Spirituality and devotion were the only tools I knew of to fight against my flawed sexual desires. I say desires because this was long before I knew of sexual orientation. I believed deeply it was changeable. I had to. Without it, I would be hopeless. I maintained the secrecy of the relationship with my neighbor for over 15 years before I shared it with anyone; it was 25 years before I shared it with anyone in my family when I told my older brother.

When I entered high school, I adopted new survival strategies. Blend in. Disappear into the surroundings. Be inconspicuous. Don’t call any attention to myself. Be hypervigilant about my mannerisms. Guard against becoming a target. My mother called me a “wallflower.” Mission accomplished; I had achieved my goal. But it was nearly impossible not to stand out. I was a physically awkward and insecure adolescent. My profile looked like a Cro-Magnon man. My overbite was terrible. My shoulders slumped; I was skinny and riddled with acne, and yet I started growing hair all over the place. I can’t remember a day when I was confident in my body or comfortable in my skin.

Sensing my insecurity, my dad tried to help. He consistently told me to stand up straight, square my shoulders, hold my head high, and bite my bottom lip so it didn’t stick out.  I tried my best, but it felt forced, fake, and never provided the confidence. It’s not who I was inside or when I relaxed. Nevertheless, I kept at it, trying to lose the insecurity and hide the “homo” lurking inside. For the most part, I succeeded. Well, in comparison to some other boys who couldn’t hide the gay. I saw the way they were bullied. And I had to keep my distance or risk being guilty by association. As long as they remained bigger targets, I could remain invisible. My heart went out to those boys, but better them than me. I thought, “Thank God I am not a target.”

Even though I was attracted to guys and had no attraction to girls, I still denied to myself that I was gay. It wasn’t a possibility. I dove deeper into discipleship and devotion to overcome the “deviant” sexual desires. If I was spiritually stronger and truly devoted and closer to Godliness—more Christ-like—my sexual attractions would change. I was failing at being a Christian. Jesus said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” I wholeheartedly believed these words. My faith and relationship with God were strong enough to change me.

I focused some of my time and energy on creative escapes. Oil painting became one such outlet. For three years, I took lessons with Charlie, a local artist, and grandmotherly figure, who also happened to be the wife of an influential deacon at our church. I loved Charlie’s lessons. I tried to mimic her skill and style, especially the ease with which she painted. But I never came close. While I was able to recreate paintings from copies, I could never fully imagine creating something out of nothing. All told I created about a dozen nature landscapes and a couple of portraits that my family and a couple of friends mercifully accepted as gifts. I may not have become a master oil painter, but oil painting helped me break out of my shell. And I soon became less of a wallflower and more of a social butterfly at school.

My transition, however, required a new survival strategy. Instead of completely disappearing, I hid in plain sight. My goal was to blend in with any group, whether it be with jocks, band nerds, brainy kids, popular kids, or my church youth group. I got involved with academic clubs—yearbook was my favorite—and became a leader in the church youth group and choir. My newfound sociability surprised a lot of people, none more than me.

And yet, I couldn’t quite keep myself busy enough to squelch my sexual attractions. They were always there, simmering under the surface, nagging me. Around this time, I remember seeing news coverage of an unknown “cancer” that was killing gay men. And I remember the reaction and the backlash from religious leaders. They said the disease, soon to be known as AIDS, was God’s punishment for the sexual perversion of “faggots” and “queers.” This was regularly preached from the pulpit. Everyone around me believed it. How could I ever accept myself or even consider coming out in such a hostile environment? Most of all, I feared the wrath of God if I did.

Growing up, I always felt close to my parents and never doubted their unconditional love for me. But I feared their rejection should I ever come out. They heard the messages at church and, as far as I knew, undoubtedly believed them. I would be destined to hell for choosing to be gay. Besides, since I wasn’t able to accept myself, how could I expect my family to accept me? I wanted so badly to belong in my family, in my community, in my church, and in my truth. Reconciling that I didn’t belong anywhere was the thorn in my side.

At 16, I got my first job as a busboy and dishwasher at the Pizza Hut in town. I loved working there and eventually became a pizza maker. Making dough felt good. My assistant manager, Gary, was 23, but his Tom Selleck mustache made him seem older. Rumor had it he was gay, and the staff called him Gay-ry behind his back. I didn’t know if the rumor was true, but feeling gutsy one night, I tested its veracity.

My first job

“I bet you’re not gay,” I said.

“I’m not gay,” Gary replied. “I’m bisexual.” While he did have a girlfriend, a woman in her mid-to-late 40s, I thought she might be a cover.

“Well,” I said, “I bet you wouldn’t do anything if I went to your place.” He paused to ponder my proposition.

“Try me,” he said.

“I don’t believe you’d make a move,” I said.

“Follow me home and see what happens.”

“Okay,” I said, nervous, excited, and trying to act cool.

When I got to his apartment, I sat on his couch. Neither of us made a move. “See, I knew you weren’t bisexual and wouldn’t do anything.” My prodding was all it took for him to prove me wrong. He made a move, and we ended up having sex.

For all the internal conflict about my sexual desires and that they would doom me to hell, somehow I had found the nerve to go for it and have sex with another man. Gary and I hooked up one more time. Even though I had initiated, I can only guess he was scared to continue having sex with a minor.

A few months later, during a trip with my youth group to a Dawson McAllister Christian student discipleship conference in the Summer of 1982, I accidentally stumbled upon another way to have sex with men. On a lunch break at the Northpark Mall in Dallas, I went to use the restroom. Because I was pee-shy, I found an open stall. A head popped out from under the adjacent stall as I stood there, trying to pee. I freaked out and bolted. But soon after I left, intrigue and curiosity took over. What was that about? Why did the guy look under the partition? What was happening? What was he expecting to happen? I went back to find out. And that’s when I had anonymous sex in a public restroom for the first time.  

The irony of being there for a conference meant to deepen my discipleship commitment, and being unable to resist temptation did not escape me. I viewed the incident as further evidence my soul was damaged. But I also realized that if I wanted to have sex with men, I could go to a public restroom. Eventually, I learned about the public places known for this kind of activity. Sometimes I’d travel over 40 miles to various locations to seek out sexual encounters. The allure, desire, and pleasure of the sex always won out over attempts to repair my soul. While my sexual desires often went unfulfilled, I still showed up like a gambling addict who got lucky just once but kept coming back, hoping to hit the jackpot. And I got lucky enough to keep chasing the big prize.

Northpark Mall in Dallas, circa 1982

Even though my older brother and sister didn’t go to college, there was never any doubt I would enroll. In fact, I looked forward to it. I saw it as an opportunity to understand myself better. A few peers I admired from church went to Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas, a town in the far west Texas panhandle. It’s the only school I applied to. My chemistry teacher tried to persuade me “not to put all my eggs in one basket.” But my mind was made up. Luckily, I got accepted.

In the Fall of 1984, I packed my car and drove off to Plainview, 6 hours northwest of everything I had known. Since I intended to major in Psychology and minor in Bible Studies, I immediately enrolled in psychology and theology classes in my first semester. Everything was exciting, a fresh start to my life, except for the part of my life I kept hidden. Given the religious doctrine of the university, I would have been expelled if I were to come out. Thankfully, at first, I didn’t feel the need to be out or be open about my sexuality. I was content just keeping it to myself. Little did I know, others like me were also keeping secrets. Soon enough, through gossip, coded language, innuendo, and other hushed vibes, we all recognized each other as the “gays” on campus.

Then, through the only way I knew how to meet other gay men, I met Michael shortly before Thanksgiving. We had anonymous restroom sex at a mall in Lubbock, 50 miles from Wayland Baptist in Plainview. But since we chatted after the sex, our encounter didn’t remain anonymous. Michael, a few years older, invited me back to his apartment, and we eventually started a relationship. But there was one problem: I wasn’t physically attracted to Michael. I was attracted to the idea of being in my first gay relationship, especially with someone stable enough to have his own apartment. So for the remaining weekends of Fall 1984, I traveled from Plainview to Lubbock to be with him.

One weekend, Michael suggested we go to Peaches, a gay bar in Lubbock. A gay bar? I could never go to a place like that. I imagined all the evil happenings inside. A gay bar was a symbol of wickedness that scared me, and yet, deep below my surface feelings, I was curious and intrigued. But it was too risky. I feared sliding down the slippery slope of debauchery. Plus, I had heard the rumors of students who faced disciplinary action just for being at a bar or a club that had dancing, Getting caught at a gay bar would mean automatic expulsion.

Michael kept after me about going. Finally, near the end of my first semester and with great trepidation, I relented, succumbed to his pressure and curiosity, and went with him to Peaches. I wish I could remember the exact moment I stepped inside. But once I was in, I remember being surprised by the absolute normalcy of the place. It wasn’t full of wickedness, just people drinking and dancing—rather dull compared to my wild, preconceived notions. The open, easy, and casual affection men showed to other men and women to other women intimated me. But I was drawn to their freedom, even safety, to let their guard down. Still uncomfortable and guarded about my sexuality, I avoided eye contact and any subtle or not-so-subtle cruising. While I feigned indifference, I liked being there, with the exciting and liberating feeling of being among others just like me without worrying about being found out. Plus, I loved the music. The Eurythmic’s “Sex Crime,” Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You,” and Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen” all became a part of my coming-of-age soundtrack. I was hooked.

I returned home for the holidays when my first semester ended, but I couldn’t wait for the Spring semester to start. By then, my relationship with Michael had fizzled out. He would have continued the relationship, but it had run its course for me. I hoped to find a boyfriend who was more my type and excited me. I was grateful that Michael had introduced me to Peaches, which became my go-to place during the Spring semester. I was attracted to other guys there but never approached them or initiated any contact. I was petrified. Anonymous sex in restrooms was so much easier than saying “hi” to the cute guy across the bar. While I longed to meet someone, I never did. I never said a word to anyone except the bartender, and that was to order a drink. So I just sipped a Texas Tea, a concoction to get you drunk as quickly as possible, and danced alone. 

Despite Peaches giving me a sense of belonging and helping me to accept my sexuality, it almost became my demise. It happened in March 1985, on a Sunday night when Peaches was hosting a drag show competition. This was my first experience around drag queens, so I found my way to the back wall to watch and not bring any attention to myself. Somehow, one of the show’s judges noticed me and sent the waiter to buy me a drink. I ordered a Texas Tea. After finishing the first one, I received another free drink and then another. Somewhere between the third and fourth drink, the waiter reminded me who was paying for my increasing inebriation. I sloshed my way over to thank the judge. We chatted briefly, but the drinks were hitting me hard by then. My eyes were blurry, and I felt sick. I thanked him and excused myself. All I wanted was to go home, which was my college dorm 50 miles away.

Just as I couldn’t remember my first steps into Peaches months earlier, I couldn’t remember my last steps out sometime after 1 am that Sunday, well, Monday morning. My next memory was waking up in my car, flipped sideways in an embankment off Interstate 27. Since I didn’t remember getting in my car or driving, I had no idea how I ended up there, but I was 10 miles from where I started. All the car windows were shattered or gone. I managed to crawl out of one of the missing windows. I thought, “Simple, just push the car back onto its wheels and be on your way.” I rocked the car back and forth, harder and harder, with increasing momentum and force until it finally flipped over—onto the roof. And that’s when I noticed all the tires were gone.

I flipped over somewhere along I-27

An 18-wheeler truck driver, who had seen me careen off the highway, stopped and pulled over. “I’m fine,” I said, “Don’t call the police.” I was too late. He had already made the call. And besides, how fine could I be? Lucky to be alive, yes, but not exactly fine. My car was upside down and facing the opposite direction from the way I had been traveling. I guessed the car tumbled and spun around when I went off the road and up the embankment. Or perhaps I yanked the wheel, creating a spin. In my blacked-out state, anything was possible. Not wearing a seatbelt, I should have been thrown from the car, but I wasn’t. They say God looks after babies, fools, and drunks. He was certainly looking after me.

A highway patrol car arrived, and an officer soon put me in the backseat. He radioed for help and wrote a report. “Don’t get sick in my car,” the officer warned. The mere suggestion put my gut on high alert, and I felt the Texas Tea and everything else in there rushing to get out. I tried to open the door, but it was locked. The window also wouldn’t budge. The situation was dire. He warned me about getting sick in his car, but I had to purge. Unable to stop the rising tide, I puked.

I fully expected the officer to arrest me. But he didn’t. For whatever reason—and I’m sure being white played a factor—he showed me more mercy than I deserved. He didn’t cite me or issue a ticket. “Where were you going?” He asked.

“Back to school,” I said, “in Plainview.”

“I can’t take you there,” he said. “But I’ll take you back to Lubbock. There’s a 24-hour diner right off the highway.”

I didn’t want to go back to Lubbock. Being a smartass, I asked, “What would it cost to spend a night in jail?”

“Five hundred dollars.”

“You can take me to the diner.”

The rest of the night was a blur. I remember throwing up a lot and then waking up slumped over the restroom’s toilet. Somehow, I managed to call Dean, a close fraternity brother. Dean picked me up later that morning. I reeked of vomit and bile. And I needed to clean and sober up before letting my parents know what happened. I dreaded making the call. How would I explain where I was and what I was doing? In the end, I told them I had fallen asleep behind the wheel and totaled the car. They didn’t need to know the details about drinking at a drag show in a gay bar 50 miles from my dorm. Thinking back now, had the officer arrested me and done a full investigation, I may have been forced out of the closet to my family before I was ready.

After 2 years at Wayland Baptist, disillusionment and dissatisfaction with my experiences there crept in. Following in the footsteps of a few friends, I transferred to Hardin-Simmons University (HSU) in Abilene, Texas, to start my junior year. I hoped HSU, a slightly larger Southern Baptist University, would be a better fit. It turned out exactly where I needed to be. It’s where, and by a miraculous happenstance, I felt comfortable enough to fully come out to my first gay friend.

My HSU ID card

The happenstance started when I went to Just Friends, a gay bar near HSU. Inside, I saw Charles, a college friend, and the terror of being outed sent me straight for the exit. In that instant, my gay life, which I had carefully hidden and kept compartmentalized, crashed into the inauthentically curated rest of my life. It didn’t occur to me that Charles was there because he was also gay. My only concern was being discovered and getting expelled from school.

The next day on campus, I saw Charles talking to my RA Abel. They smiled as I walked by. I knew they knew. My world was about to shatter. Did others know I was at a gay bar? How could I spin this? Could I just deny being there? Could I say I didn’t think it was a gay bar, and I was just there for the music?

“You were at Just Friends last night,” Abel said. “That’s cool.”

That’s cool? I thought, What does he mean by that?

“I’m not going to turn you in or anything. We’re the same,” he said casually.

This brief interaction changed my life.

Abel, so comfortable in his skin, made it safe for me to be comfortable in mine. He and I became close friends. More than anyone else in my life, Abel helped me accept being gay. His was my first gay friendship that wasn’t started or based on sex. We became confidants and remained best friends for years. When I moved to New York City in 1994, Abel stayed in Texas. Then, in November 1998, we saw each other for the last time when I visited him in a hospital in Temple, TX. He was losing his battle with AIDS. My best friend, who influenced my life in so many wonderful ways, left this earth 2 months later. I still miss him dearly, and I cherish the memories of our beautiful friendship. I will always be eternally grateful he was there and that God put him in my life when I needed him the most.

Abel and me
Right before graduation

HSU challenged me in ways Wayland did not, particularly in the Bible classes, which were less about condemnation and more about exegesis—critically examining the interpretation of the text. It opened my eyes to a reinterpretation of what was the popular yet lazy view of homosexuality as an abomination. These classes provided a broader understanding of the text and gave me hope.

In a graduate course called “Christianity and Modern Problems,” all the contemporary social issues were examined through reasonable debate. The course focused on developing a more compassionate approach to social issues that diverted from the good/evil dichotomy preached on Sundays. We calmly discussed topics like abortion and homosexuality without all the brimstone and dogmatic doctrine. I couldn’t believe this was happening at a very conservative Baptist university. The course transformed me. Sadly, I doubt this type of reasonable examination would be possible today, as fundamentalism has taken over, purged thoughtful professors, and exerted its influence throughout most, if not all, Southern Baptist institutions.

Whenever I could, I infused my studies, papers, and classwork with the exploration of homosexuality. Not only did I want to understand it better, but I also wanted to test the waters of acceptance. In a Public Speaking and Communications class, I gave a 10-minute speech called “The Din of Iniquity.” I used some personal experiences in the speech: my recently pierced ear and my job as a blackjack dealer at a local nightclub—played with Monopoly money, but the tips were real. The speech connected modern-day views that considered homosexuality a sin with the normalcy of men wearing wigs, high heels, and earrings throughout history. I wanted to show how context matters when it came to accepting homosexuality.

The more I explored the issue, the more I became convinced that the frameworks in which homosexuality was viewed were all biased. These accepted psychological theories posited that something was fundamentally wrong with same-sex-oriented folks, that they were developmentally damaged and needed to be fixed. In 1980, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III (DSM-III), the psychiatric bible, listed ego-dystonic homosexuality as a mental disorder. Psychiatry considered homosexuality a disorder if someone experienced distress and anxiety based on their sexual orientation. I quickly realized the DSM-III did not align with my experience. Of course, homosexuals, including me, were distressed and anxiety-ridden. We lived in a prejudicial world that discriminated against us and then blamed us for feeling anxious about facing discrimination. Who wants to be labeled mentally ill, especially for something so innate and immutable? Nevertheless, the mental health profession used the DSM-III diagnosis as justification to push for conversion therapies. Today, thankfully, such practices are universally condemned within the field. Homosexuality was removed altogether from the DSM-V in 2013.

My awakening to the fact I wasn’t God-forsaken, damaged, or destined for hell gave me a sense of empowerment. I wasn’t flawed at all; the DSM-III was. But even with my new-found self-worth and confidence, I still couldn’t be out and proud at school. As I continued my graduate studies in Family Psychology at HSU, I had to compartmentalize my life, and that’s when things started to unravel. In addition to being a full-time student, I worked at a restaurant waiting tables 3 to 4 days a week, all the while getting more involved with the gay community, which meant going to Just Friends, the one gay bar in town.

I burnt out. And my grades suffered. The graduate program director noticed my grades slipping and requested a meeting. He suspended me from clinical training until I turned things around. He knew I needed help and suggested counseling. I contacted and made an appointment with Charnell, a program graduate who practiced at a local counseling center. At my first session, I still couldn’t muster the courage to acknowledge my actual sexual orientation. Instead, I told her I struggled with being bisexual. I believed admitting this, even if a lie, would be better than admitting I was gay.

“You know,” Charnell said, “a few years ago, a student was expelled when it was discovered he was gay.” I had heard this story, but having it confirmed sent a chill down my spine. I swallowed hard and nodded. The implication was clear: stay in the closet if you want to graduate. I was deflated but received the message. And I wasn’t about to jeopardize all my hard work just to be denied a Master’s Degree for being gay. Ultimately, what should have taken 3 years to complete took me 4 and a half years, but in December 1992, I finally earned my Masters in Family Psychology.

After graduating, I met another guy and started my first real relationship. By then, I viewed my sexual orientation as a gift. I lived in Dallas and started developing my professional life. And yet, while all this independence emboldened me, I was still not ready or prepared to come out to my family. But I had to do it. I wanted them to know the real me. I started with my mom.

With Mom in Abeline, May 1988

Even at 27 years old, I feared her rejection and condemnation. I invited my mom to lunch, but I struggled to speak. I couldn’t find or coherently utter the words. I stumbled and said something like, “Well, um… I, I just want you to know, I think you should know that I’m not attracted to girls, and I, um, have been in a relationship with a man for a year.” 

She cried. I cried. She told me she couldn’t accept my homosexuality but that she loved me. And, at that moment, that’s all I needed to hear. Over the last 30 years, her religious beliefs and her love for me have not changed. We have had many conversations about God, The Bible, and homosexuality. They are always respectful and end with us saying we love each other. We agree to disagree.

The road to self-acceptance and understanding was long and painful and, in many ways, shaped by my conservative and religious upbringing in Texas. I am who I am because of what I went through. And I’m thankful for that. For most of my childhood, all my adolescence, and some of my early adulthood, I felt like the other, the outcast, the demonized and dehumanized outsider. Early on, I “othered” myself, and then society “othered” me. I know the harmful impacts. You feel like you don’t belong anywhere. You don’t feel loved. And this is why, personally and professionally, I have prioritized making sure others feel they belong.

They do belong. We all belong. They are valued. We are all valued. They are loved. We are all loved. It’s that simple.

A Lion (oil on canvas) by Danny Stewart, painter and thinker. Roar!

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