My senior year of college, I lived in an apartment in a mostly secluded corner of campus. It felt right, that year, to be such a long walk from the action, from my friends, at least half of whom had graduated the year before. Until then—with the exception of the semester I’d studied in Italy—I had lived in dorm rooms and made it a point to cultivate an air of “Come by any time you want.” My door was rarely locked—even when I was away—and friends frequently stopped by to chat, watch TV, or play guitar and did so until the wee-est hours of the night.
My senior year was different. Almost as soon as I returned to campus in August 2001, I came out. It didn’t go great. What I’d hoped would be a personal undertaking, done in private and respected if not agreed with, soon became the basest grist for a gossip mill I didn’t know existed. Almost all my friends were evangelical Christians, and I considered myself one of them despite my growing conviction that not only was it not wrong for me to be gay but that God was leading me into a life of being openly, unapologetically so.
Except before I had a chance to tell most of my friends, a few people who knew or suspected the truth beat me to it. It didn’t help that these conversations terrified me and I was finding it hard to initiate them. It didn’t help that I was in a new relationship and sure, deep inside, that the guy I was dating was all wrong for me and I for him. It didn’t help that I was (and remain) a person afraid of conflict who has a hard time initiating the hard conversations. Before long, I didn’t have to—everyone knew, rumors were flying about my supposed behavior, and I was out. I finished the job with a column in the school’s newspaper—I’m gay.
I’d never felt like I’d fit in on my little East Coast campus, and now I felt even more like an outsider. So my apartment, out on the edge of campus, became a hiding place. Between having three jobs, a full class load, a roommate whose girlfriend stayed over most nights, and a boyfriend of my own who did the same, I had little time alone, but as has been the truth throughout my life, I loved the time I did so. So it was surprising whenever anyone came by. One day, there was a knock at my door. A friend—”We need to talk.”
My roommate and his girlfriend were just waking up—I’d heard them talking in their room—and my boyfriend was in the shower. “Let’s go sit in your car,” I said, recognizing the look in this friend’s eye and wanting this conversation to be private.
The next twenty minutes or so will forever go down as some of the worst in my life. My friend cried, ranted, blew up—”You’re going to be excommunicated from the family of believers,” she said. I eventually excused myself—”We’re not going to figure out anything right now,” I said, “so I’m going to go back inside.” I was calm outwardly but felt like a derelict building within—dirty, unloved, caving in.
As I walked back to my apartment, I heard my name. Some friends lived in the building across the street and had seen me walking up the sidewalk. They opened their window, called to me, and when I looked up, they threw a water balloon that landed at my feet.
A harmless gesture. They didn’t know what I’d just endured, what I was still enduring. But I said nothing, looked up just long enough to see them, then put my head down and walked back to my apartment. My boyfriend had emerged from the shower not knowing where I was. I asked him to leave; when he was gone, I cried and cried.
That was a Saturday morning. The next Tuesday was 9/11.
I think I had a little PTSD from that experience, because every time someone knocked at my door after that, it sent chills through me—”Who is it and why have they come this far? Am I going to get yelled at again?”
Once, a girl I barely knew from my campus fellowship group showed up with a Bible—a comically oversized New International Version bound in blue leather—and just knew God had told her to come over and look at Scripture with me. She was convinced she was the key to pulling me back into the fold and away from the evils of homosexuality. I politely refused to let her in.
I was really gun shy after that—sometimes, if I was in my room and knew no one could tell if I was really home, I didn’t answer the door at all. I lay still in my bed and just waited for them to go away.
By the spring, I was doing well to go to classes. The whole year had been a disaster. My relationship was going off the rails and yet I felt powerless to end it. I felt like none of my friends wanted anything to do with me. I invited one friend over for dinner, and she said, suddenly very seriously, “I feel like I have to tell you that I believe you’re living in sin.”
“Yes, I know you believe that,” I replied. The words echoed in my mind for days, amplified each time they bounced off the throbbing inner walls of my brain, louder each time they echoed. You have to tell me? I thought. What about all the things I felt like I had to say? I swallowed them; I swallowed almost everything. I listened to my friends, whether their words were kind-ish or awful, as the friend who said, her voice full of spit, “I am traumatized by the fact that you’re gay.”
So I couldn’t tell you why I opened the door one spring afternoon when I heard a knock. Maybe I didn’t even think about it. But I went to the door and there she stood—another friend from our fellowship group. This time, a friend I knew well—we’d been to Ireland together our freshman year, and though we didn’t hang out much socially, she’d never looked at me with anything but delight.
“I have to tell you something,” she began.
Oh Lord, I thought. Here we go again.
I almost stopped her, but again, something stopped me.
“I’ve been volunteering with AIDS patients,” she said. “And I felt led to come tell you that I don’t think you’re sick, or that God is angry with you.”
I don’t remember how long we talked, but it was a long time. She listened to everything I’d been through; she was the first person who’d listened to me in longer than I could remember. That conversation was desperately needed balm to a deeply wounded soul. I carry it with me nearly thirteen years later, as I look around the world and wonder and fret about the impact of Christianity on this world—a force for good or bad? For greater or lesser integrity and love? I don’t always know. But this moment of pure love and grace and hopeful vulnerability has remained to remind me that sometimes, by some mystery, what we need is sent to us at just the right time.