It all started with an awkward conversation with my dad when I was 16. On what I thought was a day like any other, we were passing our neighborhood Walmart when my father began the line of questioning I'd been dreading since before I was positive I knew the answers.
"Why aren't you dating anyone?" he asked.
"Uh... I'm really focused on my studies right now." I began. "And... and... uh... I haven't found a girl that I'm really interested in dating at my school. Er... did I mention I was really focused on school? Like, super-focused."
"Do you have any gay friends?"
"Uh, sure... maybe? No, not really." I went to a performing-arts high school, so I don't even remember how I attempted to dance around this one.
"You're not gay, are you?"
Even through my youth I knew the next few seconds in the car with my dad were going to define the rest of my life. By this time I was already out at school and had told my older sister. However, for years I'd skirted, rebuffed, obfuscated, and downright avoided any discernible inferences regarding my sexual orientation by the rest of my family.
But I couldn't lie this time. I don't even know what spirit made me answer my dad's question in the affirmative. The shouting in my head that scored the moment was a cacophony of dissent and course correction; I was sure that I was eliciting the wrath of my father, my family, and God. Up to that point, the only coming-out stories I'd heard weren't exactly heart warmers. I thought all (or at least most) gay teenagers were disowned by their parents and kicked out of their homes to start living as cheap hustlers in the inner cities of America after coming out of the closet. I wasn't prepared for that.
What I also wasn't prepared for was my dad's reaction to my life-changing announcement. He laughed. He couldn't believe I was serious. How did I know for sure, he wanted to know. I probably answered him as well as a 16-year-old, black, gay kid from Oklahoma could, but then it was over. We went home, and I didn't hear anything else about our car conversation.
Until a week later. My dad handed me an article he'd printed from the Internet about Donnie McClurkin's alleged "ascension" from "homosexuality." He told me to read it, and then he wanted to talk to me about it. I give my 16-year-old self major credit: After reading Donnie McClurkin's story, I was more certain than ever before that what I was feeling -- who I was -- was both natural and OK. When my dad and I spoke later, I told him matter-of-factly that although I appreciated Donnie's story, that wasn't my truth. Then we talked for an hour about what my identity meant for my spiritual wellness, my health, and my safety. I was mortified: This was the closest I'd ever gotten to the "birds and the bees" conversation with my dad, and I was (and still am not) a fan.
But again, my dad surprised me. Sure, it would take him a few years to become completely cool with whom and how I love, and he asked me a lot of questions about my faith that I wasn't prepared to answer and that drove me back into the closet, at least around my family, for my last two years of high school. But even on that day there were no raised voices, no fire-and-brimstone condemnations of my sinful wickedness, no renouncements of my branch on the family tree. My father's message was unmistakable: You're my son, and I will always love you -- unconditionally.
Coming out a second time wasn't much easier. I was a sophomore at Morehouse College and had been out on campus since I'd moved to Atlanta. To my family, though, I was straight again; I hadn't yet reconciled how my orientation intersected with my religious convictions or my ideas of ideal black masculinity, and I was not in a hurry to do so. So it seemed that life would move forward that way, with me being as gay as the day is long to everyone in my life but those who loved and knew me best. (To be honest, though, my portrayal of a straight man has always been, at its best, a farce.)
This all changed after a fateful trip to Washington, D.C. I attended a conference for LGBT students attending historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and was so amazed and moved by the testimonies of my peers, black people who, like me, weren't confused about who they were but shared my fears of how their world would change once they shared their last truth. Some of them had even experienced the worst of the horror stories I'd heard growing up about what happens when children come out to their families. But here they were, standing and sharing with me, bruised but not broken.
I took a break from the conference to make another major life decision. No matter the extent of my family's dormant assumptions about my orientation, living my most authentic life would no longer be subject to their approval or rejection. I was the same guy I'd always been, for better or worse, and I was no longer going to presume that those who loved me before would no longer choose to do so.
As a teenager I came out of the closet smothered by fear. Now, as a growing but confident adult, I opened that door again and stepped out into power. Affirmed and secure in the knowledge that I was going to be OK with whatever happened after I hung up the phone, I called my mother. Three days later I called my father.
Yes, I'd already made this declaration to him once (and he then shared it with my mother and stepmother), but shortly thereafter I'd retreated back into the closet to avoid the barrage of questions I was sure my family was going to throw at me. Even now I can't say for sure why I lied and told my parents I was straight. Chalk it up to being a 16-year-old gay boy just trying to understand my place in the revolving world of changes around me. Yes, I knew I was gay, but I wasn't ready to face society and answer its questions. At the time I didn't know that the universe loved me even more fiercely because I was standing in the truth in which I was made. I didn't know that being gay wasn't an indictment of my personality or expression. I didn't know yet that honoring my sexual orientation was just that, and that none of it was bigger than who I am holistically. I didn't know that I could be more than one thing, or more than what I was taught gay people were. For me, the hardest part of coming out was answering those questions, and sharing those answers with the people who brought me into this world.
Neither conversation contained loud words or curses of my identity. Both my father and mother were more sensitive and supportive than I could have ever imagined; this wasn't at all the narrative I'd heard through the years regarding what happens when black kids come out of the closet. I'd never heard of a Southern black family that had a fabulous gay son and accepted and loved him with open arms.
About a week later my mother called me; it was our first conversation since my second coming out, and I was expecting that the calm and love that had permeated our previous conversation on this topic had dissipated and was preparing myself for the dramatic scene I'd always heard about as a teenager.
Her words: "Son, you're going to have to do really well in school and get a good job after you graduate, because you gays have a very expensive lifestyle."
I laughed and exhaled deeply. No, this wasn't the coming-out story I'd so frequently heard in my youth. But with the love of my family and the courage to own my power and live authentically, I've been able to write a new narrative.
And for me, it's made all the difference.