Behind the curtains: The Strength to be Myself

Robert grew up in a conservative Christian family in the southern United States and is currently residing in Copenhagen. He is gay and is today living his own life guided by his own compass. But it was not always like that. Here is his story – told by himself.

Behind the curtains: The Strength to be Myself

By Robert Davis

I have always known that I am gay. Ever since I knew anything about sexuality and attraction, and even before that, I knew that who I was and who I wanted to be. I’ve always known what I wanted out of life and I never felt an ounce of shame or disgust or anxiety towards myself for the attraction I began to feel when I was ten years old. I have always been sure of myself and confident even in those awkward middle school years when no one could possibly be cool even if they think they are. However, even in my confidence, as I grew up I knew that I would have to keep my true self a secret. I was pretty well liked by most people throughout school and while growing up I was lucky to never have any issues with bullying or verbal slurs. Many people hear me talk about growing up in a conservative Christian family and would probably think that they are the first reason why I chose not to come out early, but in all honesty that was only a small part of the reason. Back then I mostly chose to hide the truth simply because I didn’t know that being attracted to other guys was even an option. I grew up in a conservative city in the southern United States and went to a small private school from kindergarten up through high school. The school didn’t really teach much about alternative lifestyles and was not incredibly diverse. Over the course of growing up I never even experienced or met another gay person until my third year of high school. I was quite sheltered from most of the realities of the world for a majority of my life.

It wasn’t until high school that I started coming to terms with the fact that the feelings I felt had a name and that was called being gay. Suddenly I realized that the feelings I have always had were the subject of ridicule amongst my peers and the subject of damning sermons at the church my family regularly attended ever since I was born. I was suddenly scared because of who I was and wanted the feelings to go away. I started dating girls my first year of high school and tried very hard to suppress the feelings that I had always felt. It was incredibly frustrating to try so hard to change and like girls to no avail. My parents had always taught me to be a hard worker and to not give up on things that I wanted to accomplish, but no matter how much I tried, even if I really cared for the girl I was dating, nothing ever elicited any sort of actual attraction. I was so frustrated with myself especially since deep down it wasn’t even what I really wanted. My confidence in who I really was ended up being stronger than my attempts to suffocate myself and become someone who I wasn’t. I began giving myself an outlet through the arts. I discovered I enjoyed singing and acting in my high school’s plays. It gave me an opportunity to perform in front of others and entertain them, an opportunity to show them I could be anyone I wanted to be with ease and finesse. It was an outlet, and it was a cover up. Just in the same way dating girls was a cover up.

When I was seventeen, my small private school world was split wide open to the things outside when I was introduced to Kevin. My friend Sean, who I knew from my church, went to the big public school down the road and thought that Kevin and I would get along so he introduced us. I was dating a girl at the time, but when I met Kevin I thought he was the most handsome and charming guy I had ever seen. His smile was radiant, he had a great laugh and sense of humor, and he was warm and kind. I was immediately very attracted to him in a way that I had never felt for any of the girls I had dated. Slowly, carefully and surely I began to let him know that I was interested in him.

When we finally got the chance to first be alone together we were driving in my car. I looked at him and smiled, excited to finally have a moment without being surrounded by all our straight friends. His hand touched my hand and a wave came over me like I had never ever experienced. I knew that it was a feeling that was totally right, and totally natural. From that night on we began seeing and texting each other in secret, knowing that our friends would out us to our parents if they found out about us, which is something that absolutely could not happen coming from a religious family. After spending more time together I began to fall completely head over heels for him. It was a feeling that I had never known before. Even to this day nearly seven years later, I know that what I felt for him was true love and not just some high school fling. I wanted to do and see everything in the world with him. I wanted to spend all my time with him and build a long and healthy relationship together. I wanted to become a better person for him and that’s exactly what happened. He helped bring me out of my shell and to see the world differently. I was so relaxed around him and I know that he helped me grow into the person I am today. It was really an incredible time that neither of us wanted to end.

Unfortunately for the two of us, it all came crashing down six months later when Kevin’s mom found his laptop and read the messages we had been sending. She forbid him from seeing me again, made him call me and break up with me, and threatened to call the police if I ever contacted him again. I’ll never forget what it sounded like hearing his voice shake and tell me it was over while she was yelling in the background. It devastated me. He was everything to me and we were ripped apart for no reason other than a parent’s fear and ignorance. I felt sick and couldn’t eat or sleep for weeks. I didn’t hear from him and had no idea what he was going through. I had never felt so empty and completely helpless. I couldn’t even turn to my own parents for advice so I felt completely alone. But little did I know that the worst was on its way and I had no idea how bad it could really get. Several weeks later his mom decided to send my parents a letter telling them everything and sent copies of all the messages we had sent to each other.

It was a dark time for my family. My parents were completely blindsided by the letter and I was horrified that Kevin’s mother would go out of her way to send those messages to my parents. My parents reacted rather aggressively. In a total fit of rage my father told me that he would rather kill both himself and me than have a gay son and that the only reason I didn’t already have a bullet in me was because it would destroy my mother to lose both of us. He told me that if I was going to continue to “choose” this path that I would be disowned from the family, all ties cut, written out of his final will and kicked out of the house. I was only seventeen years old and I was terrified for my life, my safety, and my future. I knew that if I was going to make it through alive I would have to be smart and not reactionary. I had to forgo my feelings in order to save myself. I knew that there was no option but to be exactly who they wanted me to be, at least on the surface, or else I would end up like the countless youth in the United States who are thrown out of their parent’s homes and become homeless because they are gay. I had no one in my family to turn to since they all held the same conservative beliefs, but I was determined that I would not end up like one of those kids. Statistically LGBT youth in the US have a much higher rate of suicide, but there was no way that would be an option for me. I was strong enough to know who I was and that through the darkest and hardest times if I had no one else, I would still have myself to rely on. Even to this day I consider myself extremely lucky to have been strong in the wake of the events that happened and that I did not attempt suicide even in the lowest depths of depression, fear, and loneliness. So many countless others have lost that battle and I am forever thankful that I made it through the worst.

Through all of these harsh times, something that was hard for me is that I still believed in most of what the Bible said. I maintained my faith to a certain extent and prayed that God would show my parents that who I am is not a sin and that it isn’t wrong. However, the constant slurs and hate that I saw while growing up in the southern United States came almost solely from those who claimed to be “morally upright” Christians which was what inevitably pushed me away from the church and from my faith.

After they found everything out, my parents sent me to a Christian psychologist who then tried to convince me that if I simply changed my thoughts I could change my actions and that I would be able to become straight. I knew then that there would be nothing I could do to survive those experiences except push my feelings back down until I could be independent from my parents. I had to play the part and be who they wanted me to be in order to someday be able to live the life I truly wanted to live. I knew then that I would do anything and everything I could to experience those feelings I had, the feelings of true love, even if it meant lying to protect myself and even if it meant that one day I might lose my family due to their inability to see another point of view outside of their strict religious beliefs. If having true love again someday meant putting up a wall for years and hiding who I am from my parents, then that is what I would do. And so I did. I constructed a huge, complex web of lies around myself as a way of keeping me safe from my parents. I told them I was dating girls again, I went to church regularly, and I stopped talking to my gay friends in high school even though it hurt me to push them away. I did everything I could to appear straight. I worked hard in high school so that I could go away to college, which would be my first small grasp at freedom, and I essentially lived a double-life. I was one person on the outside, and my true self on the inside. I was so motivated to find the life I was really supposed to live. I never for a second took my eyes off of that long-term goal, no matter how hard it was to hide my feelings from everyone.

August of 2011 arrived. I finally finished unpacking all of my things. I kissed my parents and both of my brothers goodbye and promised that I would call them soon. The door closed behind me and I literally jumped into the air and danced around the room. I was so happy. I had made it out safely. I had finally made it to college and it was a breath of fresh air. I was far enough away from home that I didn’t know anyone and I could make a fresh start and be exactly who I was meant to be. For the first time I allowed myself to be truthful with everyone I met and I started to make some of the closest and most dear friends that I will ever have. I met my wonderful friend Jane and she stood by me through my entire time at college. She is a strong, but quiet woman who stands up for the ones she loves and what she believes, and I was lucky enough to find myself calling her my closest friend. We were practically inseparable and I was comfortable enough to tell her where I had come from and the terrible things I experienced in high school. She stood by me and protected me from my parents throughout college. She constantly assured me that I was a good person with a good heart and that the person who I was wasn’t something wrong or sinful. None of my friends at college were devout Christians, but they were some of the most kind, welcoming and understanding people I have ever met. Because of my friends, their loving parents, and the accepting community at my university, I found happiness and felt truly at home for the first time in my life. It was the first time since my parents had found out about me that I felt safe. I was able walk around my college campus and laugh and talk freely and not worry about what anyone thought about me.

Regardless of being away from my parents and even though college was a huge break from how sheltered and controlled I felt at home, there was always the lingering fear that my parents would find something out about me even though they were over 450 kilometers away. I spent four years at college looking over my shoulder making sure I was safe. My father even used threats of hiring someone to follow me and see if I was “living the right way” while I was away. There was a constant cloud that hung over my college experience. It affected my friendships and it affected my relationships. I was finally at a point when I could date guys freely and even then the fear my parents had put into me was still causing me anxiety and stress that affected both me and the people around me. I was constantly wrapped up in secrets. I found myself lying to my friends at college whom I cared a lot about and who had shown nothing but love for me. I was stuck in a mindset of secrecy that had been set in motion by the fear I had for my parents. It was a difficult thing to break out of, but eventually I realized that the people who I held close to me at college weren’t like my parents at all. They would never hurt me and they would continue to love me for who I am no matter what.

Right after the incident with Kevin happened in high school I made a vow to myself that once I became financially independent from my parents I would be free and I could finally come out to them once and for all. I knew that once I had finished college I would be able to get a good job somewhere far from home and I wouldn’t have to lean on them for financial support. I would be able to live my life totally free. It took a lot of patience in college to endure their constant questioning. They would regularly ask me if I was gay and if I was pursuing “that lifestyle.” I managed to fake it well enough that they believed I was straight, but I knew eventually I would have to stop lying to them. Not only does it hurt to have to lie to your own parents, but it is such an exhausting thing to do. I constantly had to be sure I always covered my tracks, which was hard enough. Not having a parent to talk to about relationships was even harder. I was surrounded by other LGBT youth in college who were just as scared to come out to their parents as I was, and one by one they all came out and had the same happy ending. I watched as each of them came out and found nothing but love and acceptance and happiness from their parents. I yearned for that so badly, but I knew it was something I could never have. I would have to keep lying until the day I could be truly independent and I could finally tell them the truth.

Fast-forward to five years later and I found my wildest dreams coming true. After working hard to get into a good college and to do well in my studies in architecture, I found myself boarding a flight to Copenhagen. I had been to Denmark once before, three years ago, to study for the summer and I totally fell in love with everything about Copenhagen and Denmark. Upon returning from my studies I spent almost every day talking about Denmark and how amazing it is. I talked all the time about going back and even though it was a big dream of mine, I knew how difficult it would be if I wanted to actually move here.

Some might be surprised that it wasn’t just the liberal atmosphere and acceptance of gay people that drew me back to Denmark, but more the dedication to people and community and design. Denmark is by no means a perfect place, but when I first came here I identified and related much more closely to the way Danish people live their lives than the way Americans live. Here in Copenhagen I felt a sense of belonging and while Danes might be quite a reserved people, they were always friendly and welcoming. I saw in Denmark how a society could come together and agree on things that benefitted everyone and not just a few. That commitment to everyone having a good life was what brought me back, and the fact that it is a liberal and open country is just icing on the delightful drømmekage that is Denmark. I have found the gay scene here to be quite different than the one in the United States. It’s not necessarily better or worse, but just different, and there is something here for everyone. I’ve met so many different types of people here and every one of them have been fantastic to talk to and share ideas about life and religion. I have found a comfort here that I never quite found at home.

As for my parents, even now we are still facing a difficult time. They are not as happy as I am that I live in Denmark. They know how liberal and open the country is and think that it is not healthy for me to be in such an environment. They think that even though the Danes are happy that they are lost without religion and that I should be worried for my future and my faith. They now know everything about me and have had a very hard time coming around. Just days before leaving for Denmark last June my father approached me. He surprised me and told me that he knew everything. He told me that he had found out I was lying to them about being straight all through college and refused to tell me how he found out, but I didn’t even care. I was so tired of lying to them that it was a relief for them to finally know the truth. I wish I could have told my parents on my own terms, but I had to work with the situation I was given. This time the conversation was different. He was calm and level headed and told me that he had no idea who I am. The truth is, he doesn’t and he was the reason I put up a wall in the first place.

We’ve been slowly attempting to heal our relationship ever since. They told me this Christmas in a very calm tone that it is something they will never support and that it is as much a sin to them as alcoholism or drug abuse. They told me that they still love me and that they always will, but that they could not and would not support me while I lived my life the way I do. This is so much progress considering the point we were at just 6 years ago. The worst part is that they have no idea how I really live; they just have unjustified fears and ideas that I’m here in Denmark living some destructive lifestyle. But I know that as long as they don’t reach out to me to try and bridge the gap that we have between us, they will never really know who I am. It definitely hurts not having your parents close because of their faith, but I have to accept their beliefs just the same way I want them to accept mine. I have chosen to be the strong one in this situation and to forgive them for how badly they hurt me in high school. I told them how sorry I was for lying all of those years and that I wish it hadn’t been that way. I told them that I am willing to read the Bible and try to see where they are coming from as long as they are willing to step out of their own shoes and see the world from alternative and secular points of view. Now we only talk every so often, and even though our conversations are rare, we still know how much we love each other no matter what our differences are. Ever since college I began to realize an important fact about life. It is something someone once told me, and it has stuck with me ever since:

We are all individuals. We each have hopes and dreams and a vision for how we want to live our lives. Sometimes those hopes are different from what other people want, and sometimes others may think the way you are living is wrong. The fact of it all is that you are allowed to live your life however is best for you. It doesn’t have to be perfect for anyone else as long as it is for you. And the best part is that even though we are living different lifestyles, it’s totally okay as long as each of us is happy and secure in ourselves. We can be happy for others even if we disagree with how they live. As long as we maintain respect for each other and acknowledge that we are in fact individuals, each of us with our own dreams, our own hopes, and our own compass guiding us through life.

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