Almost Straight (A Coming Out Story)

“In the beginning…
…darkness was over the surface of the deep,
and the spirit of God hovered over the waters.”

I sat on the floor of my sister’s yellow bedroom. It was the bedroom she had always wanted; a yellow and white gingham bedspread with eyelet trim, matching shams, butter cream walls, and a canary yellow shag rug that ran parallel to her dresser.

We were listening to the same song we had listened to every night for a week—a cover of Dion’s Runaround Sue, by Leif Garrett. The vinyl 45 was spinning under the worn needle of a red, white, and blue record player we had picked up at a garage sale. A wad of gum was stuck to the top of the volume knob. We all knew my brother had put it there even though he would never own up to it.

My sister did the Disco Hustle of 1978 while I sat crisscross applesauce on the floor, holding the record sleeve in my hand.

I couldn’t stop staring at his picture. Leif Garrett. White jacket, red button down shirt, the lightest blue eyes, and blonde hair feathered back like Farrah Fawcett.

It’s hard to put a finger on what is actually happening in the mind of a first grader. But when you’re grown and you begin to rifle through old files, you see that first grader with a new set of eyes—you see more than just a child staring at a picture of Leif Garrett.

“He’s really cute,” I said to my sister, Trina.

“He’s soooo cute!” she said back to me, and went right on dancing, while I went right on staring.

In recent years, I saw a mug shot of Leif. He was wearing a blue prison jumpsuit with chest hair poking out the top, and was bloodied up from a face plant he’d taken during his arrest. He had been sucked into celeb-reality hell and things had not panned out for him.

But years earlier, staring at that record cover, I knew in my bones—in my spirit—that Leif Garrett was cute.

For me…this is where it began.

*****

I’m about to tell you a story you’ll think you’ve heard before. I’ve heard it before too. And I never wanted to be part of “that” story. But now I find myself in a version of “that” story, in which a longstanding marriage comes to an end.

I know that people will talk, because that’s what people do. And it’s okay. But for those I care about and love…those who’ve read my book, blog articles, or followed me on social media…I want to tell you this story in my own words.

I want you to hear it from me. Because I don’t know whether it is “that” story. All I know is that it’s my story. It’s an honest story, with lots and lots of difficult parts to it. The characters in the story work hard and falter. They invest their lives in loving their loved ones well, but it is a struggle—sometimes they win, sometimes they lose.

I know a lot about what the characters in this struggle are losing. I’m not sure yet what any of us are winning. Since I’m the only character I can speak for, I’ll sum it up like this: the struggle I’m most trying to win right now, is honesty.

If I can win the struggle for honesty, then maybe I have a shot at the struggle to love my loved ones well—with compassion for all of us, and especially for the wounds our struggles are inflicting upon us.

The thought of writing about my struggle, and letting that writing have a life of its own in the world, is terrifying. What will people think of me? How might they reduce or rationalize my entire life into 2 or 3 sentences?

But this isn’t about what anyone thinks. It’s about me. It’s about God.

I have my late sister, Trina, sitting here with me. She’s so much more than just a picture. She’s a safe place. An honest place.

A place of acceptance. A place of hope. A place of love.

Her smile tells me to keep writing…to be honest…to love myself. But the cursor is flashing and I struggle to know where to begin.

Perhaps for right now, the beginning isn’t the place—not nearly as important as this middle I’ve found myself in.

My heart. Yes, this is a good place to start.

I was married for many years. The woman I was married to for half of my life held my heart for so long, sometimes I still don’t know where to put it. So many of the wounds of my failures and character defects were cauterized in the fire of her love. She remains one of the most unique and deeply compassionate people I know.

I have two daughters, Chloe and Evalee. They are 18 and 17. In what has been a difficult time in our lives, this is a text I received from one of them several months ago.

“Hey, God put a grace on my heart today. I just wanted to say thank you to the both of you. I’ve had my rough patches and you both helped me through. Now you are hitting yours. I love you so much and am so thankful I got put into such a loving, accepting, and strong family. ‘God is within her, she will not fall: God will help her at the break of day. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.’

“We are going to get through this and we will be just fine. This too shall pass.”

There are no words to explain this sort of thing—only quiet moments of reflection. We did something beautiful together. We made these girls. This is who they are. They understand love. They understand how to press on and become strong.

And now I’m going to fumble toward the truth. Five minutes between each phrase and I sit waiting for the next. I write a few words. I look at my dog, who is so comfortable in her own skin. Her gracious stare, telling me to get on with it.

There is no easy way. Do what is hard. Say what feels impossible to say. It’s time. Keep it simple.

Just tell the truth.

The truth is this. I am…

…not ready to say this yet.

I have been on a journey for many years—considering dark corners, cleaning them out, and moving forward. In that time, I’ve come to understand God in a much deeper way than my evangelical heritage had described him to me—or had experienced him for me.

My sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous refers to God as “the man upstairs”. This might seem a little impersonal to you; perhaps a bit removed. It’s what the non-religious sometimes call him. But recently, I’ve been thinking about this phrase in a new way. And I like it. I may even prefer it.

“The man upstairs.” He’s just upstairs. In my house. In my bedroom. He hears me when I call out to him. He’s a part of my home. A part of my life, my heart. He is here. He cares about me.

And I am going to be okay.

One year ago, today, at the end of my sister’s graveside service, we all headed back to our cars. But I wasn’t finished. Something was left undone. I hadn’t said all that needed to be said, and I knew it. I turned around and headed back to her.

Flowers surrounded the casket that held her. Inside, she lay with a shaven head because she had decided against wearing a wig. I thought it was the bravest decision. “I want to be myself,” she had told us. “I don’t want to pretend.”

I was in awe of her courage—of her moxie to say, “I have cancer…let’s not dress this up…let’s not pretend this hasn’t been hard. And let’s not for a second pretend that I’m not beautiful this way—the way God made me.”

She was herself, always. I’m not sure that I have ever been.

I stood before her casket, a ring of flowers creating a safe hoop around us, and said what I had come back to say, the best way I knew how.

“I should have told you this before, even though I’m sure you already know. But I want to say it anyway. I want you to be the first to know. The first person I tell.” I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and mustered enough strength to say the words I never have.

“I think I’m gay, Trina. I’m pretty sure that I am. And I don’t know what to do.”

With that, I wiped my tears, told her I loved her, that I was sorry I had to leave her there, and headed back to the van.

Since then, over the last year, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching. Actually, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching for the past 18 years.

At 28 years old, I began digging into the heart of me; finding out what made me tick, what broke me, how I got this way. I searched out how to fix it, what to fix, what to leave alone, and who the hell I am.

I’ve turned over so many stones in that time.

In 2012, I wrote an entire memoir on this quest to understand a part of myself that I was sure stemmed from the sexual abuse I had suffered in my coming of age years. Was my sexuality the result of nature or nurture?

As the years have passed, I’ve found that these things—these bits of me—are beginning to feel like a part of me rather than just a place within me.

I no longer believe they are a collection—the raw baggage from the years of my dysfunctional childhood. Instead, I believe they are a part of the clay, which “the man upstairs” carefully selected for the beautiful clay pot he intended for me to be.

This is not who I have become. It is who I was from the beginning.

A gay man.

I have deep fear within, because I know my life is going to change in ways I simply cannot foresee in this moment. I have built my life personally, spiritually, and professionally within circles of people who prefer to agree with one another—who might feel the need for me to be a certain thing.

But fear is a part of surrender. A part of letting go. Of giving up who I was trying to be—who I so desperately wanted to be—for who I was all along.

This morning, I was seized by that fear again. I thought about what this could all mean; the desertion of friends, the grief of family members, the anger of those who have counted on me to be a particular thing. In my fear, I opened a daily reading app to this passage.

“The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.

He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.” –Zephaniah 3:17

Immediately, I felt the presence of God, impressing love and peace, not fear and hiding. I wanted more, so I pushed the tab that said, “Read the rest of the chapter”.

As I read, words of perfect love began to cast out my fear.

“I will gather the exiles.
I will give them praise and honor
in every land where they have suffered shame.
At that time I will gather you;
at that time I will bring you home.”

I am 46-years-old and I’ve spent most of those days praying a part of myself away. But I had been praying the wrong prayer. Praying I could be straight…or at the very least, almost straight.

But things have changed. Because now I believe that God is singing over me—over this man—this exile. I believe he is gathering me, giving me praise and honor in all of the places I’ve suffered undue shame. And I believe, without question, that God is bringing me home.

As I conclude this coming out story, I’d like to take a moment of silence for the young boy who shared his struggle of sexual identity with me several years ago. His story created an absolute panic within me. I so closely identified with him that I could barely sit in his presence for fear that somehow I’d be found out—if only by myself. So I was silent. I said nothing. I offered no hope at all because I was too unnerved by his self-revelation.

Having had this experience, I can tell you, I will not make this mistake again. I will be a safe place. An honest place.

A place of acceptance. A place of hope. A place of love.

Okay. I’m going to stop right here for now.

This letter…it’s the best that I can do. It’s as honest as I can possibly be. I am believing it will be enough because it’s all I have to give, and then some.

Grace, peace, and so much love,

Matt

“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’
and there was light.
And God saw that the light was good.”

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