I always knew that I was different. I grew up in a large family with four siblings, so it was easy to get lost in the shuffle, especially when you were shy, introverted, and more sensitive than any of the other kids. I lived two short blocks from Bob Jones University campus, which formed my own little world—a world where everyone knew each other, everybody believed the same things, and everybody looked (more or less) the same. I walked home from school every day, and attended church three times a week with people who also shared my own little world. This homogeneous, naïve environment shaped me from the very beginning—from my birth at Barge Memorial Hospital on campus to my years of K-12 education.
As a child of faculty members, my earliest memories focus on campus activities—the rush of students, the Dining Common, nursery school. And even then, looking back, I knew I was different. I never had the urge to engage in sports or play roughly; I preferred to sit back along the fence during recess talking to girls and being involved in playground fantasies rather than roughhousing with the boys. I never felt that this behavior was that far out of the norm—I was situated between a distant older brother and a tomboy-ish younger sister, and neither of my parents were particularly fond of sports—so my status quo remained. Deep in the recesses of my mind, I knew that I liked boys more than girls, even if the typical male behavior and love of sports was totally foreign to me. I was teased by many of those boys through much of late elementary school and junior high, which distorted my sense of reality even further. And through those experiences, I knew that deviating from the norm even a little bit—being too short, too sensitive, too smart—always attracts attention, and not the good kind. Conformity was key…and making people happy became my goal.
The idyllic, innocent view of campus was often deceiving. As I physically matured into high school age, I got very sick, and it was clear that the university doctors (Bob Jones University owns a medical clinic called University Medical Associates) really didn’t know what to do with my situation. After six months of constant tests and doctor’s visits, I was left to that no-mans-land of “Christian” diagnosis: the presumption that if they didn’t know what was wrong with me, there must be some spiritual problem. So I was sent to counseling for several months around the age of fifteen to solve problems that, as it turns out, were purely physical. The counseling was typical Bob Jones fluff, with no science or credentialing to deal with what was a precarious situation. I have repressed many of the memories of that time, but truly thought that I was “suffering for Christ,” while in the background, I was scared that I had brought condemnation down upon myself for my private sexual thoughts. Of course, by that point, full-fledged depression had set in precisely because of the actions of the doctors and counselors, but the damage was done. I didn’t get a clear diagnosis for another decade of chronic fatigue syndrome, but those experiences caused me to draw even more tightly into my own world. Throughout this period of my life, I hung precariously between waning physical health—an acknowledgement of the school’s flexibility in letting me continue to attend school as I was able—and trying to exude a healthy amount of spirituality that was expected from a Christian in distress. Although on the outside I was a weak, innocent teenager, on the inside I was a bundle of confused sexual energy. Depression and thoughts of suicide pervaded my mind, and I turned to faith, unsuccessfully, to make sense of things. So on the surface, I tried to appear normal and pious, but in actuality, I was hurting and alone, not only because of the university doctors’ inability to properly diagnose my physical ailments, but also—and perhaps even more importantly—because of how increasingly aware I became of just how different I was from my peers.
I attended the Bob Jones school “system” from early kindergarten through my college degree program—eighteen or so years, in all. For ten of those years, I was subjected to daily chapel services, where Dr. Bob III and other university preachers often berated people that I knew as “different” from us—whether they be of another culture, homosexual, feminists, or that dreaded term, “evangelical.” In that environment, I unfortunately accepted the almost inescapable ideologies that surrounded me—to be “separated,” to be masculine, to subjugate women, to be suspicious of anyone that is “different”—and I implicitly chose to be part of that collectivist mentality. Rather than venture out to find others like me in the real world outside the bubble, I clung to the things, people, and ideologies that I recognized, even if they were antithetical to my true self. By the time I started my undergraduate degree, I was consciously trying to present myself in the “proper” mold, while having the occasional drink or listening to “uncheckable” music on the side. My identity was increasingly dominated by same-sex attraction, and I would catch myself “checking out” my male classmates. I had been involved in a couple of minor encounters with other boys when I was in early junior high, but as they matured and “grew out of” their curiosity, mine remained. For fear of detection or someone revealing my true identity, I was committed to restraining myself from acting out my fantasies, and relegated them to exploration of gay content in an anonymous online context.
My Internet journey had begun several years prior, close to the onset of my physical issues in high school. As I began to explore and learn the world of computer technology, I acquired some practical skills (such as the web development and design skills I use today), along with the captivating realization that other people out there were gay, too. Not that I felt comfortable describing myself that way at the time, but it quickly became apparent to me, through finding pictures and stories about gay people, that I was attracted to other guys. Looking back, I always gravitated towards my male classmates—was fascinated by the “older” college guys at the university pool—which was validated when I had a clear vision (via the Internet) of men and women from which to pick. I was definitely only attracted to men. By the time I graduated from high school, I knew, on some level, that I was gay, but my goals of conformity outweighed any chance of individuality. I wanted to graduate, and that meant “toeing the line” so I could get my degree. I was always the conformist in my family, and while several siblings had run-ins with the school, resulting in two of them being expelled, I vowed to become smarter and more cunning about hiding my activities and avoiding detection. I knew the consequences if I was ever caught, and the stain of embarrassment that would envelop my family, so I tried to ensure that I appeared to conform, at least externally. But I was truly conflicted and unhappy, and I didn’t see the possibility for another life—and how could I? All the life that I knew was wrapped up in the academic and social culture that surrounded me. As a faculty kid surrounded by so-called “lifers,” including my parents, I saw my almost inevitable role as returning to teach—to get educated, then come back to make things better for another generation or two of students. And at the time, this was an exhilarating thought; why would you want to go anywhere else to teach or work when I was told that everything was “perfect” in this constructed world? Conflict abounded in my mind—how could I reconcile a potential professional life inside an environment that had driven me to attempt suicide as a teenager. I was confused, but was doubly committed to making it work.
In all of my Internet explorations, it was difficult to find a positive example of a gay couple in the 1990s. I didn’t know that such a thing existed, and so I relegated my feelings to the fundamentalist purgatory of the “besetting sin.” Ironically, I have an aunt who is a lesbian and was in a long-term committed relationship, but I was so focused on doing the right things and was so naïve to the concept of a gay committed relationship, that I didn’t realize this fact until years later. I desperately wanted a relationship with someone, and sought out dating relationships with girls for social events during my high school years, but was serially rejected. Underneath it all, I just wanted to be close to another guy, but I knew that the constraints of my world could never fulfill that fantasy. By early college, I had given up the pursuit of anyone—male or female. Like my older brother at that time, I was a confirmed bachelor at the age of eighteen.
I enrolled in the graphic design undergraduate program and found many others that seemed like me—artsy, fun, cultured—and then I thought that maybe I wasn’t that far out of the norm—that I had the potential to live a “normal” life. This sense of normalcy got me through my undergraduate career without mishap, but it drove my knowledge of self and recognition of my true identity deeper and deeper into the background. At the end of my junior year, one of my good friends in the graphic design program broke up with his girlfriend, a woman I had hung out with on many occasions. We began to talk over the summer break on the phone and got along wonderfully. We had similar taste in art, culture, and food, and I got along better with her than anyone I had ever met. She was my first girlfriend, the first person that had ever expressed interest in me. In my naïve experience, that was love—surely it had to be, right? We were both approaching our senior year, and we began talking about our future. And for once, I thought this was my chance at conformity and being with someone that made me happy. I always knew what the accepted pattern for college life entailed: procure a relationship by dating as much as possible, and then get married. I had never gotten to the first step of “relationship” or even dating before, so I finally felt like a “normal” guy with a real date to social events, not just a “pity date.” So in the midst of our senior year, we made plans for our futures, laughed, wrote about art, applied for graduate school, and even sneaked off campus to pick out an apartment in Savannah, Georgia. I thought I was happy—my life was complete by the standards with which I was acculturated and accustomed, but… to be continued.
ed. note: Colin returns on Monday, February 20 to conclude the story.