My story begins in Arkansas, where I grew up as a sassy little boy. My parents separated when I was 4 years old and had an ongoing custody battle for me and my two older sisters until my seventh birthday. I was raised by my sisters, who had to grow up far beyond their years at such a young age. While they were raising me, my parents would use us as pawns in their game against one another. We’d be carted from one parent to the other every other weekend, despite our tears, screaming and demands for all this to stop. It wasn’t our choice; the court had ordered it.
I’ve always known that I’m gay. In fourth grade I told my best friend that I was in fact a “bio-sexual.” Yes, I said “bio-sexual,” and I remember explaining to him that that meant that I liked both boys and girls. He looked at me for a moment, as if planning his next move, and he promptly said that he didn’t want to play with me that day. I went home, and the next day I told him that I’d just been joking. Though he accepted my excuse, he became my enemy when he rode his bicycle down the street, called out my name and then spat in my face. Rage filled me as I stomped down the pavement after his bicycle, grabbing at his backpack in anger. It was then that I realized that Arkansas was not the best place in the world for me. I had to get out.
It wasn’t until I was 14 years old, after I had read Harry Potter and done copious amounts of research, that I decided that I wanted to go to boarding school. My mother was against these sorts of ideas, coming up with all manner of excuses, including telling me that I was going to die and that I’d never see her again. (Sadly, one of her concerns turned out to be true: I don’t speak to my mother that much these days.) My father, on the other hand, loved this idea, because the only way it could be properly executed was if he had custody of me, a thing he had been seeking so desperately for many years. Years later, I question his motives. Why would he want custody of his son when he was just going to send him off to boarding school? But I wanted to go to boarding school, so at the time I didn’t care. For the first time, I thought I was finally free.
My freshman year of high school I attended Stevenson School, a private, co-ed boarding school located in Pebble Beach, Calif. This was an absolute dream. I had finally found a place where I could be myself. I was gay, from Arkansas and now living in one of the most open-minded states in the nation. By the time Christmas rolled around, I had completely come out of the closet, with minimal resistance from my peers. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had truly found a place that I could call home without the fear or anxiety that my parents caused me.
Spring break arrived, and I traveled back to Arkansas to visit my family. One day my father and stepmother sat me down in the study, a routine they often engaged in when they wanted to catch us children off-guard about a problem that they had with us. This is something that I like to call “the sneak attack.”
My stepmother began. “Back at Christmas, your sister found your journal and was shocked by something that you wrote,” she told me. “We know you’re questioning your sexuality, but what do you have to say about that?”
I looked from my father to my stepmother and knew my life was about to change. My response: “Well, I’m gay.”
That’s when the frowns began, and I don’t think I’ve seen my parents genuinely smile at me since. Their questions came at me like bullets: “What do you think about the Bible? Don’t you want kids? You’re backing yourself into a corner; why don’t you wait to decide to be gay when you’re 25?” Well, guess what: I’m an adult now, and I’m pretty sure I’m gay.
That summer my father forced me to work as a maintenance man. I had the pleasure of working alongside some of the most ignorant, grotesque men. These middle-aged men would spit homophobic slurs and make sexually suggestive comments about my sisters, and when I used their restroom, I was forced to stare at pictures of naked women that they had posted on the wall. As I endured my own personal hell, I came to the conclusion that my father was somehow trying to butch me up. It was as if he thought that if I spent enough time doing manual labor, listening to crude humor and keeping away from the arts, then the gay would eventually just wash away. It didn’t work. What worked was that that I learned patience, perseverance and the value of staying true to myself. I also learned how to fix a sprinkler system. I chronicled all those days in my LiveJournal that summer. Finally it was time to go back to my boarding school.
My first week back at school, my father and stepmother came to pick me up to send me to rehab for being gay. I was sitting in biology class when my advisor came to pull me out of class. I asked her if I was in trouble, and she assured me, “Of course not.” On our way to the admissions building, where her office was located, she casually asked me what I’d done over the summer, how my siblings were and how my parents had been taking my coming of the closet. I told her that my summer had been hell, that my siblings were great and that my parents weren’t really handling my coming out very well. As we walked into the admissions building, I could see two men sitting on the couch eyeing me suspiciously (I later found out that they were narcotics officers who had been hired to restrain me and escort me if I tried to escape), as well as my advisor’s husband and the dean of students. Everyone was just staring at me with the saddest look in their eyes. My advisor then walked me to the door, and I will never forget what she said to me: “I’m so sorry about what’s about to happen. Just know that Tom and I love you. And everyone here at Stevenson does, too. Your parents are here, and they’re taking you away.” She then opened the door, and sitting there were my father and stepmother.
My parents told me that they’d hired someone to go through our home computer. They’d found my LiveJournal, and they were shocked to discover that I was in fact super gay. My stepmother looked me in the face and said, “You need to butch it up.” My father said that they’d also found a profile I had created for myself on a support site for young gay teens. In my biography section, I had said something to the effect of, “Since there aren’t a lot of people in this area, I decided to include myself in the San Francisco area.” For this they accused me of soliciting sex online. Additionally, they’d found transcripts of AOL instant messages in which I’d discussed with a friend how I would eventually come out of the closet to my younger siblings, who were merely hypothetical at the time (my stepmother was going through in-vitro fertilization). Of course, they accused me of wanting to turn my hypothetical siblings gay. I do have younger brothers now, identical twins, and they love me despite my parents’ negativity toward me. At least our parents’ hate didn’t seep into them. And if you ask me, you can’t turn anyone gay; you’re born this way. (And no, I’m not a Lady Gaga fan.)
At that point my parents escorted me out of the admissions building, the two narcotics officers holding me by the arms as they led me toward a car. I didn’t know why I was being escorted by the two officers; I would later find out that my parents believed that I was on drugs. My peers were watching me as I took the slowest, most humiliating walk of my life. Those two burly men placed me in the car and forced their arms against my shoulders on each side of me so that I was incapable of moving. I felt like a criminal. Then my parents put me on a private plane and sent me to Timberlawn Mental Health System in Dallas, Texas.
As I was admitted into the mental institution, I was visibly upset. Of course I looked crazy, in a Claire-Danes-in-Homeland kind of way. I was being put away against my will for being gay, not to mention in a drug and behavioral facility that focused on kids with eating disorders, drug problems and suicidal tendencies. I didn’t belong there. I was stripped of my shoelaces so that I couldn’t kill myself with them. I was tested for drugs (it came out negative), given a full body cavity search (completely clean) and started on a dose of Zoloft that rendered me incapable of feeling any type of emotion. Talk about completely losing every shred of privacy in a matter of 24 hours. I was a zombie. I was stuck. I was gay and couldn’t get out of there.
The kids that I dealt with while in rehab weren’t the same as me. There was a girl who had tried to cut her fingers off with child’s scissors in order to kill herself. There was another girl who had tried to kill herself by wrapping shoelaces around her throat; she was forced to sleep on a mattress on the lobby floor so that the nurses could keep an eye on her at all times. I was the only kid in the unit who was allowed to go to sleep at night with his or her door closed. Several times staff members asked me why I was there, telling me that they thought I seemed pretty level-headed for a teenager. I told them that I was gay and that my parents weren’t ready to accept it. I was a minor, though, and there was no way of controlling my own destiny when it came to getting out of there. Luckily, I was discharged on my fourth day. I called my parents, thinking that they’d be happy for me and would return me to my boarding school. I was wrong. They were too busy to pick me up, and I was forced to stay there for a full week.
The next facility I was admitted to was Meridell Achievement Center, located outside Austin, Texas. This was a longer-term stay. An alternative program would have been something like Outward Bound’s Intercept program, which takes troubled youth on camping adventures in order to teach self-sufficiency and survival skills. I like to describe the differences between these types of programs in MTV terms: Meridell Achievement Center is like The Real World, with youth living in the confines of a safe, structured environment, often fighting (in group therapy in our case), whereas Outward Bound’s Intercept program is more like Road Rules, with a group of individuals forced to work together on adventurous outdoor tasks.
I actually enjoyed Meridell Achievement Center, in a Stockholm syndrome sort of way, because although I was there against my will, the staff assured me that they weren’t going to try to turn me straight. They asked me what sort of treatment I wanted instead. So I decided that instead of becoming a straight man, I would become more assertive. Over the month and a half that I was at Meridell Achievement Center, we would chronicle our treatment via journaling and a group session called “Goals and Feelings.” This is where we would sit around in a circle and discuss what our goals and feelings were for the day. This was an extremely cathartic experience.
Eventually my parents began to call and ask me how I was doing in my treatment. They were always vague about why I was there and what I needed to do in order to get out of there. They just kept telling me, “You know what you have to do. Work on your treatment.” Whatever that meant. After I’d been there for a month and a half, they would call and ask, “So when do you think you’re going to get better?” My response was that there wasn’t anything wrong with me. Because the facility was so expensive, they once again decided to send me to another facility, for a much longer stay.
I arrived in Sutton, Vt., to attend the King George School upon the first snowfall of the year. If there is a hell, I’m convinced that it’s actually cold and in Vermont. KGS was somewhere between a boarding school and a rehab facility. It was kind of like a prison for shady kids. I was essentially stuck there until I was 18 years old and allowed to discharge myself. Though I’m still friends with some of the kids I met there, I was surrounded by misfits. It was horrible. I had a roommate who defecated on the floor, forcing us all to evacuate the dorm for health code reasons. I had another roommate who poked my eye with his penis while I tried to sleep. There was a girl who decided to eat my puzzle pieces so that I wouldn’t be able to complete it. These kids were far more troubled than I was as a hormonal gay boy. During my first four months there I didn’t receive any kind of psychiatric treatment whatsoever, and then the appointed psychiatrist declared me completely stable and normal. He even told me that I never deserved to be there in the first place. But how to get out?
Finally, after 279 days of rehab, I was released back into the wild. As it turned out, the person who convinced my parents to let me return to Stevenson School was the very woman who had helped my stepmother through her first divorce back in the 1990s. That must have been one hell of a mental breakdown, because that was my ticket back to the place that I loved, the place that had accepted me unconditionally, the place that had made me the strong-willed, no-holds-barred, wonderful gay man that I am today.
As for my relationship with my parents today, I’ll tell you this. I was at the airport last week, in the terminal. I had missed my flight. My cell phone was broken, so I decided to call home on a payphone. I was in mid-conversation with my father, telling him that I was indeed heading home despite the reservations and constant anxiety attacks that I had been having all week about this, when my stepmother yanked the phone out of my father’s hand and said, “You can stay in New York City until you learn some responsibility.” Well, guess what: I’ve learned the responsibility of staying true to myself and not letting others get me down with their opinions on my sexuality. Now I’d like to ask my parents, “Why don’t you take the responsibility of loving your son unconditionally instead of judging him based on his sexuality?”
I never got the chance to come out of the closet on my own terms, so I would like to take this opportunity to let everyone know, “Looks like I relapsed, because I’m still gay.”