As I write this with my boyfriend driving us back to our apartment in Baltimore, Maryland, I cannot help but be surprised by how much of a 180 my life has made.
I say this because when I was 12 and realized I was gay, I wanted to kill myself.
I grew up in a vaguely Catholic home in Zion, Illinois, a small town known for its conservative and religious bent. At that time, being gay was not at all an acceptable lifestyle "choice" in my family, community, or anywhere outside of a major city.
My father, a Vietnam veteran with the U.S. Marine Corp, a former member of a biker gang, and a self-employed lumberjack and construction worker, was vocal about how he would not tolerate a gay son.
My community was even less supportive; children suspected of being gay were tormented in the locker rooms and bullied in the halls. And living in a devoutly Protestant town adamant about saving people from the "moral decline of homosexuality," I felt less than welcome. Even the support I found in the Boy Scouts was taken from me when I heard of gay scoutmasters being kicked out ( the Supreme Court would eventually decide in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale that I could be kicked out for being gay ) .
Naturally, I became isolated and emotionally detached from those around me.
My sense of despair piqued when I confessed to a classmate that I was gay. She had such a look of disgust and said I should just kill myself. That pushed me over the edge.
I would eventually take myself to the Robert McClory bridge that crossed a major road in town, climb over the edge of the railing, and just hang there … looking down on the traffic wondering how to time my fall.
To this day, whether fear of death or a moment of clarity, I don't know what made me choose to live. I climbed back over the edge of the bridge and just cried.
I resolved then to work as hard as I could so I would get through high school and then accepted to a college far away. Education became my escape.
And as I worked my way through high school, I began seeing signs of things getting better. Ellen DeGeneres came out publicly; Will & Grace became a popular mainstream show; and the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas. I finally began to believe I could live a happy and safe life as a gay man.
By my senior year in high school, I was near the top of my class, involved in every activity possible, and had support in the administration. I was no longer afraid or ashamed of being gay. I would eventually yell, "I'm gay!" in the cafeteria one day. Aside from a few angered and disgusted looks, nothing happenedI no longer cared what they thought. I felt so relieved and alive!
I went on to University of Chicago where I was able to grow as a gay man in an accepting community, with advisers and administrators who were openly supportiveI even had a gay mentor! On campus, I helped to start a queer religious student group; I served on the university's Committee for Enhancing Support for the LGBTQ Community; and I helped several friends come out to their friends and family. Through the enormous support at college, I eventually became secure enough in who I was that I finally came out to my mom and then, a year later, my dad. They both said they would always love me and that they were proud of all I had done. I was so exhilarated and relieved!
To think … had I jumped, I would have never known how much they truly loved me.
After graduating college, I became an outspoken advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer issues through my work at the Howard Brown Health Center, Equality Illinois, and the Chicago Department of Public Health.
Now, I'm a medical student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, pushing for LGBT health reform with the support of the American Medical Association, the American Medical Student Association and the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association.
Through it all, I remind myself that it gets better.
Had I given in to the hate of my community, and given up on me, I could not have lived to feel the love of my parents, my sister, nephews, boyfriend, and friends. I would have never had the chance to make someone else's life happy and fulfilling.
I want you to know that it does get better.