I’ve always been a little late to the party. I went into kindergarten a year later than everyone else. I went to college at 32 and grad school at 38. I started climbing at 40. In March of 2022 I came out as pansexual, gender queer and polyamorous. I was 42 years old.
I’ve spent a lot of time looking back and the signs that I was more than hetero were all over the place. There was a boy I went to grade school with and I thought he was pretty, the same way I though girls were pretty. There was nothing to not understand about it. It was just how I felt and I never assigned any value or meaning to it. I was a kid and that was my budding physical attraction to other people.
When I was a teenager I started thinking that maybe I was attracted to other guys, and I explored that a little bit. Neither instance was at all healthy. The first, when I was 17, was a several week long relationship with a 30- something-year-old predatorial man. We messed around a few times and maybe I think I would have been into it were I not too freaked out about being with a grown-ass man. But he was there and wanted me and I’m a fawner, and at that time in my life I would fawn at everything. (For more about the fawning response to trauma from the C-PTSD Foundation, read here.) I felt he was a safe space to explore my bisexuality and, in spite of the inappropriate age difference and power dynamic, he was a safer place than anywhere else I had. The other was when I was 18: a drunken three-way with my best guy-friend and my physically, emotionally and mentally abusive girlfriend. It was sort of forced, done out of appeasement, and wracked with shame.
I was raised in an environment where it was dangerous to be anything but heteronormative. I was brought up evangelical and the church we attended was, in their passive aggressive (and often times openly hostile) way absolutely hateful and oppressive towards the LBGTQ+ community. “The gays” were sinners. They deserved punishment for their sins, they deserved hell and unimaginable levels of pain and torment for eternity. And if those punishments, things like beatings and AIDS and open discrimination came before they rightfully ended up in the clutches of the devil? Well, that’s just god’s work. Had they chosen to be straight and walk with Jesus, they wouldn’t be punished.
This message was regularly repeated and reinforced at home. My parents, who are completely different people now than they were then, were openly hostile hostile towards anything outside of the hetero norms. Gay men were the F-word. When Prince changed his name to his symbol, the response from the living room was a contemptuous “They should call him f****t, because that’s what he is: a f****t.”
School wasn’t safe either.
— Side note about where I went to high school for the sake of context: In 1990 there was a basketball game between mine and a nearby school. One of the players on the opposing team was an African American, and the only minority on either team. Now, it’s important to keep in mind that the home-crowd was mostly comprised of adults: parents of the kids playing basketball. Said group of adults began chanting racial slurs. I can only imagine that the players, emboldened and empowered by their parent’s chants, didn’t hold back on the racist comments on the floor. The African American player rightfully and understandably ended up attacking a kid from the home team. The game was called and both students and parents of the home team (my soon to be high school) chased the busload of scared kids from the opposing team to the county line. That’s the culture of where I grew up. —
So, there I was. 5 years later: completely torn apart inside about my nascent attraction to guys. I wasn’t there when it happened, but there was a boy who got an erection in the showers after gym class. It’s every teenage boy’s worst nightmare. Which is sad, because to this day I (like almost all penis-having people) get erections completely out of the blue for absolutely no reason. I did at that age, too. Because that’s a thing penises do. But as boys we’re taught to be ashamed of that, and that erections only have one place: the bedroom. Any other time it happens we should hide ourselves. And as a young man, to get a hard-on in front of or around other guys meant only one thing: gayness. And where I came from, gayness was to be eliminated.
A day or two after that Boy A got hard in the shower boy B – whom I believe I was there at the time – brought a length of chain to school with him and used it to beat Boy A in the hospital. B did not hospitalize A because he was homophobic. He chain-whipped another child because the adults in his life told him or showed him that homosexuality should be feared and hated, and being attacked with weapons is what gay people deserved.
When I was a homeless teenager in Milwaukee a couple years later I spent a lot of time wanting to explore sex with other guys, and a lot of time running from, hiding, and feeling ashamed and fearful of those feelings and thoughts. I learned very quickly I could use being cute, charming and flirtatious to secure places to stay for the night. I guess it was a manipulative, but I was a traumatized homeless teen who, for years, had been exhibiting dozens of signs of deep trauma. And I was trying to stay warm, and I thought that’s how you got people to like you.
Though I had a lot of unhealthy sex with girls, I never did find any guys to mess around with. There was a guy that would invite me to sleep with him, and I did a few times. He always felt me up a bit, and I told myself I needed to let him because I owed him that for him allowing me to sleep in my bed. To be honest, being touched by a man like that was exciting and scary. He was always kind and we had this routine where I’d get into bed with him and he’d start feeling me up and kissing me and I’d lie there stiff as a board (I’m pointing out the double entendre there so no one misses it), until I hit my fear threshold and I’d say something like. “Terry, I like you, but I’m not sure if I’m into guys.” And he’d say something like “I know honey. You’re just so cute, and I like fuckin’ with you, but I’ll stop.” and then I’d fall asleep in his bed instead of my car. I was 19. He was in his 40s.
About a year later I woke up one morning at about 5 a.m. and my living room was an absolute inferno. There was a literal pillar of flames in the corner that was racing across the ceiling, carpet, and both walls. My small group of friends and our neighbors sat on the curb and watched our apartment building burn. There were 11 of us as I recall, and we were all homeless. I had just moved in off the streets about five days before.
I ended up renting an apartment with my friend and soon-to-be-girlfriend, also victims of the apartment fire in the county, away from the city. I don’t remember this, but it was around this time that I came out as bisexual to my cousin. Not “I’m questioning my sexuality” or “I think I might be into guys”. It was a declaration that I liked boys, too.
Autumn of 2000: It had been four years of on-again off-again homelessness. I was suffering from C-PTSD and undiagnosed bi-polar depression, addicted to alcohol, drunk all day and every day, completely unmoored and in total freefall towards an early death. I was late to my job almost every day because I was drinking myself into absolute oblivion every night and it wasn’t too long until I was fired on a job site. A few weeks later my girlfriend (not the same one from the fire) and I broke up again and she kicked me out of the apartment we shared. I called everyone I knew, sister, parents, friends, parents of my friends – no one would take me in because I had been reduced to that big of a drunken mess.
My parents made me a deal: If I joined the military I could come stay with them until I left. I absolutely could not have picked anything worse to do with my life. The military is quite possibly the absolute worst place for traumatized young adults with severe drinking problems who are struggling with their sexuality. But I desperately didn’t want to spend another Wisconsin winter homeless. Being in the military couldn’t be any worse than being homeless, I thought. Dying was the worst that could happen, right? And I was pretty sure I was going to die soon if something didn’t change. So, I agreed.
As badly as I didn’t want to be homeless again, I didn’t want to join the military. I was punk as fuck, anti-authority, anti-U.S. military industrial complex, and wildly anti-war. The night before I was supposed to ship out with the Marines I got blotto-drunk with one of my friends who wouldn’t let me move in with him, and we passed out behind a big rock on Prospect St. up in Milwaukee. The next morning, still drunk and hours after I was supposed to have boarded a plane and flown to California, I staggered into MEPS. “I’m not joining the Marines,” I said to some guy at a desk. He just said “Ok, then get out.”
Looking back, I realize that my psyche was implementing this weird fail-safe defense mechanism that it developed: If I try and force myself to do something I don’t want to do, my subconscious will find some clever way to sabotage the entire thing. When it does it goes completely nuclear and ensures there is nothing left to salvage, that there is no possible way back.
Later that day, after my mom came and picked me up and drove me home, I was staining the deck when my dad came home.
“I thought you were leaving today.” He said.
I don’t remember what I said. Something like “I’m ended up not joining the Marines.”
My dad, a Marine and Vietnam combat veteran, looked at me and then looked up and off. “Well, there are three more branches of the military. Pick one tonight or get out.” And he walked inside.
I was 21.
By the time I separated from the Air Force eight years later I had internalized a metric fuck ton of homophobia and the absolute worst kind of misogynistic toxic masculinity. I was a verbal supporter of LGBTQ rights, and was by no means hostile towards the community, but I did sling around the F-word and use homosexuality as an insult. I was married to a woman (whom I’m still very dear friends with) and lauded myself as being “very comfortable” with my identity as a straight man (but just “barely straight”, as I described it for years). I had, after all “tried it a couple times in my past and didn’t like it.” That’s how I knew I was “barely straight.” What a narrative.
We’re just gonna hit next on the following several years and jump from 2008 to 2022. By this time I’d sobered up and taken up hiking as a way to practice self-healing and spend time getting to know myself. I would hike a dozen miles or more on the Ice Age, replaying the events of my life and trying to untangle the decades of violence, abuse, self-hatred, wasted years, and shame.
On one particularly cold and snowy 10 mile hike I got to thinking of that point where my life veered, and I ended up in the military. I heard the voice of 21 year old me crying out desperately from the confines of my psyche. He was screaming “please, don’t make me go.” I sat with him and we sobbed, and I said I was sorry. I told him we were just trying to survive and I asked him what he needed to be free. A crack appeared in my identity and the realization that I’d been hiding my sexuality settled on me like a leaden fog. Over the next couple months I very quickly went from spending a lot of time hiking and questioning my sexuality, to doubting my heterosexuality, to coming out as pansexual and polyamorous.
Coming out has been like a lot of things in life: amazing, and at times really fucking hard. I feel connected to myself for the first time and I’ve discovered several beautiful part of me that have been laying dormant; and I fucking love those parts. I’ve stopped hating myself and seeing myself as something that needs to be defeated in order to be free. My self confidence exploded almost over night and I took control of my life and for once I feel like it’s a life worth living. All of this feels like a new lease on life, like I got a mulligan.
And… I’ve also felt very detached from the world, and backed off many of my relationships as I figure out how to interface with the world again. It’s been very depressing in ways. Possibly the biggest hard feeling is that of lost time and of not having much time left to enjoy the me that I love the most. I actively grieve, and mourn those decades spent trapped in a mean, resentful, and angry man’s body. I don’t just feel like I missed out on all those years, I feel like I stole them from myself. Add to it the years of repressed memories, dissociation, and a drug and alcohol fueled amnesia, I didn’t just spend those years wrecking myself, I spent them depriving myself of the life I deserved.
Self compassion, though, shows me a different perspective. The person I became during those two decades of hell was a collective of the parts of me that were/are locked in a cycle of trauma responses. They were doing their best to protect me and the end result was the mess that things became. All the same, here I am wondering what it would have been like to be queer my whole life; to have been free from the prison of myself.
I do my best not to get caught up in the what-ifs. I do my best to accept that I can’t get that time back. It’s gone. And I can’t even sit and tell myself “But you’ve got the rest of your life to make up for them and be you and… blah blah blah…” because, that’s only partly true. I turn 44 this summer and I suffer from debilitating chronic pain. My best physical years are long gone and I’m racing towards a future so painful that I’m not really married to. So, while I do have the rest of my life to be queer, the rest of my life is guaranteed to be a horrendously painful experience.
I won’t deny myself the need to mourn those years. The sense of loss or of never having had an opportunity, and only realizing until after the fact is, in it’s own way, another form of trauma. And I won’t allow myself to gloss over that fact, and I won’t deny myself the need to spend a lot of time crying over it, or exploring the depths of how deeply my heart is broken about that loss of time, about that loss of self. And I won’t deny myself my right to feeling those feeling in my body, however painful they may be, for however long as it might take.
And so I’m going to say this for all of the people that are going through or have gone through what I have, and who feel the same things I feel. I know you’re out there because though our experiences are wholly unique to our human experiences, we’re never alone in how we feel. If these are things I feel, then I know other people feel them too. Especially in the LGBTQ+ community. Countless numbers of us have spent the better part of our lives keeping the most beautiful and remarkable parts of us safely hidden – even from ourselves. We didn’t just miss out on all those years of being ourselves, we missed the opportunity to know and to love ourselves as we really are.
That grief makes sense. It’s ok to and only logical that you feel it. It’s ok to mourn. It’s ok to feel like you missed out – you did. It’s ok to wish you could get those years back. It’s ok to wonder how things would have turned out. It’s ok to sit with yourself, and with one another, and sob over having been denied and deprives all that happiness, love, sorrow, misery, relationships, broken hearts, experiences, losses, ups and downs and highs and lows of a life that you never got to live, of a you you never got to be.
It was decades of forcing ourselves to be a human we weren’t, and we ended up hating that person and resenting them. But that person was just trying to keep us safe. That ugly version of us was there to keep the real version of us safe and protected. because we were told, taught or shown that being our truest self was wrong and dangerous. That part of us needs forgiveness. They need compassion and love and honoring, Inside every junk-yard dog is a puppy that just wants to be loved and safe.
I won’t placate myself or you by saying “what matters most is that we’re here now, and that we’ve got the rest of our lives to be queer, or lesbian, or gay pan bi trans poly, etc.” But I do believe it’s integral to our survival and happiness to keep moving. To press on into the rest our lives with an overwhelming sense of joy that we get to be who and what we are. I will always hold space for time lost, and the ache that comes with it. I hold that space for you, me, us and all those to come. I will always be here to hold you and validate that you were robbed, even cheated of those years. And I’ll be by your side as we unfold into the future.