Growing up gay in Alabama was not easy. I never used the word gay to describe myself, not even in my own mind. I was taught by my parents and my church that being gay was wrong. Of all the sins that were out there (and there were plenty!) being gay seemed to be among the very worst. I lived with feelings of guilt and shame and spent long hours hiding and trying to pretend I was not who I really was. This led to extensive one on one sessions with my parents, painful sessions with a counselor, and eventual my willing admission into an Ex Gay facility in Kentucky.
My time in the ‘pray the gay away’ facility has had long reaching negative affects on my life. The promised ‘cure’ of being free from the ‘demon’ of homosexuality was a tempting offer. The hope of a ‘cure’ led to my willingness to open my mind to the most abominable accusations against me as a person I have ever experienced. The rules (curfews, mandatory bible study/prayer sessions, hard labor, lack of sleep to name a few) were difficult, but the systematic psychological degradation of my personal identity had the greatest negative impact on my well-being.
For six months I allowed my spirit to be progressively beaten down. I was told I was rotten and worthless. When I cried because of the pain I was told I needed to ‘press in’ or to ‘go lower’ and always that I was ‘in the right place’. When my right to speak was taken away I sat in silent contemplation of how they were leading me to believe that the person I am was inappropriate. After graduating I went through a long period of depression and despair because I was realizing that I was still gay. I felt hopeless.
Later, when I got a chance to move away from home and begin a new life in Indianapolis things changed forever. Away from the influences of home, I was able to start thinking about my life and who I was. If things were not changing, maybe it was because they were not supposed to change. I began to fill my life with people who were unconditionally supportive of me. After a few short months of living free from oppression, being exposed to positive influences and finding accepting friends I decided to Come Out.
Coming Out was difficult after so much effort to ‘remove the gay’ part of me but being true to myself felt more right every day. It was incredible when I no longer had to fear that people would find out my deepest secret. I was able to act, think, and simply exist as the person I have always been… the gay man God created me to be. The freedom to be open and honest about my sexual orientation was exhilarating.
I gained strength from many others who had made the Coming Out journey before me. When I connected with old friends I was often surprised with how accepting they were of my ‘new’ identity. I survived this dark journey and my new life is progressively getting brighter. I am ready to receive the amazing future that is ahead of me. Whatever damage had been done to me in PLM is now undone and I couldn’t be more ready to embrace my true self.
Living an authentic life since that time has been challenging… at times difficult… but overall completely wonderful. Learning to be me… truly me, is the best feeling in the world.
– Joseph Henley