Dear Chris (age 25),
Leave the book on the shelf.
Most of the things I would tell my younger self aren’t heavy with a sense of regret. I have lots of stories that are sad or funny, maybe some that I wish wouldn’t have happened, but there aren’t many things that I would actually wish to go back and change. Like going on that weird Griffith Observatory date or saying yes to a second where we watched Jesus Camp together (not quite equal to the initial awkwardness but darn close.) I don’t regret that. I enjoy having a good story to tell.
But there are a few things that I do regret. Things that I would like to have a time machine for. The truth is that with this story, I don’t actually know if there’s a need for regret. I was doing the best I knew how to do in the moment and acting out of what I thought was love. And my regret comes from an assumption rather than an actual knowledge about a person’s reaction, but my assumption is that I hurt someone because of ignorance. And I would take it back in a second.
When I was 24, I had just graduated from grad school and gotten my first full time job in television production…which I hated. Four months in I wanted to quit and an offer came along that I couldn’t refuse. I got offered a position road managing a tour of Schoolhouse Rock Live! where six actors and I would travel all over the Southeastern United States bringing the show to kids. And let me tell you, we had a blast.
I had been around a lot of theatre people during college and grad school days, but I had attended private Christian educational institutions so this was my first real foray out of the bubble of doing theatre with actors who were also Christians. And it was also my first foray into doing theater with actors who were out if they were gay. Though it is not quite as true now as it was then, in the late 90s it was not common for gay students to be out on Christian college campuses. I know now that I went to school with a good number of gay men that hadn’t yet identified themselves as such. (Probably some women too but I don’t have any anecdotal evidence for that.) So Schoolhouse was the first time I was ever actually living life alongside people who had “chosen” to be gay.
“Choose” is no longer a word I use when talking about someone’s sexual orientation. But fifteen years ago, there was a predominant belief in Christian circles, and I think in our country, that sexual orientation was a choice. I had spent a lifetime with that understanding and believed that if it was a choice, it was also something that could be not chosen and that a “disordered” sexual orientation could be “straightened out” with the help of God. And that at the very least, someone who was “same sex attracted” should remain celibate so as not to “sin.” My views on this have changed but that’s where I was at when we set out on tour.
The Schoolhouse cast consisted of six actors. Three men, three women. And on this first Southeastern tour, 2/3 of the men were Christian and 2/3 of the men were gay. (If you’re good at math you’ll notice that that means that one of the guys was gay and Christian.) The the 1/3 of the men that was both wasn’t comfortable with his sexuality nor was he completely out of the closet. I would wager that he was pretty familiar with that last paragraph way of seeing things.
I fell in love with all the people on that trip…as I mentioned before, we had a LOT of fun travelling the country singing songs about numbers and how bills become laws. And I just adored this sweet, shy, southern guy who was a man of faith but clearly struggling with his sexuality. It wasn’t much of a topic of conversation on that first tour but he had a special place in my heart afterward. I felt protective of him, sisterly, because I saw that he was struggling and somewhat sad and I am a fly to that combination’s flypaper. Also he was super fun and I just loved spending time with him.
One of my favorite memories of this sweet, shy southerner (who didn’t swear, by the way) is being on a ride at Universal Studios in Florida. It was one of those rides where they lift you up real slow and then drop you down real fast…except when we were waiting to be lifted, a blast off count down started and we realized that we were about to be shot UP like a cannon. 3…2…1…Blast off! All I could hear was his voice yelling, ”Oooooohhhhhhh shiiiiiiiittttttt” on the way up and, “Iiiiiiii’mmmmmm sorrrrrrryyyyyyy!” on the way back down. Still makes me laugh.
When I signed on to a second Schoolhouse trip a few months later, I was really excited to know that he had decided to join the cast again. We were the only two from the original tour and it was very good to have a friend. This time we were going to be travelling (by van again) across the entire country through the south and up through the southern half of California. We’d be hitting New Orleans, Vegas, LA, San Francisco and a lot of other fun cities I hadn’t yet visited.
It was another really great group of actors but the make-up of the cast of the second tour was very different from the first. Still three men and three women but younger overall and more “worldy”…I can’t think of a better word to use right now. This time all three men were gay. One sweet, shy, basically closeted southern Christian boy and two equally sweet but not nearly shy or at all closeted New Yorkers.
This second experience was different for me and definitely different for him. Where on the first trip, we might all go out to dinner together, this tour was full of trips to bars and clubs, a lot of which I skipped. When we were in San Francisco, there was a group outing to a club that was hosting a Leather Man competition. There was no way this conservative Christian girl would show up in a bar where people were celebrating their love for the leather side of things. Everyone else went without me and I stayed back at the hotel feeling a little bit like a fuddy duddy but knowing that I would have been more uncomfortable had I gone.
Another night soon after, the group outing was to a different gay bar. I didn’t join that night either.
The day after, however, something seemed a little off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. And then some of the other actors spilled that my friend had had his first kiss the night before. He seemed excited but also embarrassed and unsure.
At lunch later that day, I still felt like he wasn’t being himself. We were in a group of 7 people spending almost every waking minute together either in hotels, on stage or in a van so I sent up a little prayer to say, God, if he needs something from me, would you give us that space?
Walking back to the van, we did get that space. Suddenly walking down the sidewalk, it was just the two of us. I put my arm around him and asked him if he was okay and he started to cry. “I don’t want to be like this,” he said. “I know it’s wrong. I try not to be. I don’t know what to do.”
I don’t remember saying much. I was at a loss for words. I think I said I love you. I think I said God loves you. I hope I did, but I don’t remember. All I really know is that I can remember my arm around him and how sad he was and that my heart was breaking for his struggle.
That was very near the end of our tour. And then it was over. There was no Facebook then to keep up with people who had come and gone in my life. There was email and there was snail mail. And phones, of course.
I’m not exactly sure why I sent him a gift later. It might have been his birthday or it might have been because I just couldn’t stop thinking about him and that conversation after lunch. “I don’t want to be like this.” I wanted to offer him some hope.
I wanted to help, so I went to the Christian bookstore and found him a book. I have no recollection of the title, but let’s just say it might as well have been called How to Stop Being Gay. This was long before a good number of Christians, including myself, stopped believing reparative therapy works; long before a good number of Christians, including myself, changed their opinions about sexual orientation as a choice. I wanted to show him how much I loved him and how much I believed in his ability to change. I sent him the package and a letter…and never heard from him again.
The weight of regret.
I have no idea where this guy is now or what he’s doing. He may be perfectly happy and content. He may not. He may have no recollection of this at all. Or he may remember that girl who seemed so supportive of him and then tried to give him more advice that enforced his fear that he had to change who he was.
I remember standing in the bookstore with the book in my hand wondering if it was a good idea. If I could go back I would tell myself to trust my instinct and put the book down. To walk away with empty hands.
I’ve learned a lot since then. I’ve had many conversations with friends who grew up in the Christian church and had to hide parts of their true selves because they feared being rejected by family and by God. I’ve walked alongside friends who have struggled to synthesize their faith and their lifestyle, some of whom have come out the other side in freedom and some who still feel like they’re stumbling around in the dark. I have these conversations with my students on a regular basis. I’m so thankful that I no longer feel a pressure to tell any of them that they should try to change.
In a way I guess I should be grateful for this feeling of regret. Not grateful that I may have caused pain in another person but grateful that my internal reaction to my own action had a ripple effect that made me more sensitive and aware. That it taught me pretty quickly to listen more. But if I could do it all again I would leave that book on the shelf and simply say…
You are loved no matter what. Thank you so much for trusting me with your truth. Your vulnerability is a gift to me. I’m sorry your heart hurts and I’m guessing this will be a difficult journey for you, but I’m here for you if you need someone. I’m sorry you feel like your family and your friends won’t understand and that you might be rejected if you are honest. I’m sorry that you’ve grown up thinking that there is something wrong with you and that God couldn’t possibly love you if you embrace who you are. But you can be honest with me and we can talk about anything…even first kisses and crushes and men who you’ll love…or if you decide that being in relationship isn’t what you want. Let’s talk about it all. I don’t understand completely what this journey will be like for you, so I’ll probably say some things I shouldn’t say and you have permission to call me out when I do. I’m in this with you and by your side as long as you want. It’s okay to stop struggling and to just be. You are wonderful. Talk soon! xoxo ~ Chris