01/03/2012 01:06 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Terrified in Texas

"You're gonna get us killed!" I thought.

The door on my parents' beige '99 Chevy Lumina had just slammed, a dull thud ringing through the crisp December sky. Eddie and I were heading into the Salt Lick, a barbeque joint legendary for its tender pork ribs, sage-filled sausage, and pit-smoked beef, located in Driftwood, Tex. (population 1,585).

As we strolled side by side across the restaurant's muddy parking lot, my fiancé threw his arm over my shoulders and pulled me in for a squeeze. Although I love the way he shows affection back home in Manhattan, this time my neck stiffened. A line of sweat began sprouting over my upper lip when I realized he might kiss the top of my honey-colored head.

Instinct made me want to shove the dark-haired man away from me, praying nobody had noticed the public display between two guys who obviously aren't related. Then, better sense took over. I sucked in a breath.

Why did I -- even if only for a moment -- feel such terror?

It wasn't because of an intimidating setting. Yes, we were in a small, rural town, but one situated on the outer suburbs of Austin, capital city of the Lone Star State and an oasis of open-mindedness. It's a pretty safe guess that the employees and patrons of the establishment are at least fairly tolerant.

It wasn't because I was worried about disapproval from the people we were joining. Yes, we were meeting my relatives, but they couldn't be more supportive. My parents know I'm gay, and they treat my partner like a son-in-law. My unease certainly couldn't be because of softball-loving cousin Sylvia and her girlfriend Pat, or sweet and sensitive gay kin Greg. Even staunch Republican Uncle Russell and his wife Sandra go out of their way to tell me they love Eddie.

Normally I think of myself as fairly courageous, having left the closet over 20 years ago. Ever since then, I've enjoyed marching in pride parades and attending rallies in support of LGBT human rights. Back in the Big Apple, I work hard to liberate myself by kissing my boyfriend on the lips and holding his hand at airports, street corners, and any other places where it would be considered appropriate for straight couples.

Why, then, did I suddenly regress over the holidays and become a big 'fraidy cat?

As I pondered this question, Eddie and I kept walking, his arm still holding me tightly. I released that gulp of air and began to feel calmer.

Maybe the problem wasn't with Texas but with me. The land of my birth has earned a reputation for rabid homophobia -- due to efforts such as Governor Rick Perry's recent primary ad lamenting the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- but Eddie and I faced no imminent threat. My panic attack had much to do with the vestiges of internalized self-hatred I still haven't quite shaken.

I moved away from Texas to set myself free. When I resided there, fear constantly enwrapped me, a boa constrictor crushing my will to live. At work I knew my sexuality could get me fired without a moment's notice. At home I was sure my Southern Baptist family, especially my Sunday school teacher mother, would reject me if they knew the truth about my same-sex attractions. In both cases I was dead wrong.

Days before exiting the state I took my friend and coworker Martha out for a goodbye lunch. After slurping down a second margarita, she confessed that everyone in the office knew I liked guys even before my first day on the job -- and most folks really didn't care. Later, after my mom asked me on a long-distance call if I was gay, she and my dad joined the Human Rights Campaign, dropped lifelong -- but homophobic -- friends, and even insisted upon reviewing the plotlines of Will & Grace after each new episode, despite my frequent protests that I didn't particularly care for the show.

During the 15 years since my departure, step-by-step I've grown to accept -- in fact, even cherish -- being queer. Universally, my loved ones have, as well. When it comes to my career, I'm now completely out at the office and strive to help others feel comfortable being so, too.

Nevertheless, I still have some growing up to do. On one of our first dates three years ago, Eddie took me to see the Broadway musical Shrek, and we were surrounded by a passel of young kids. Halfway into the first act his hand snaked behind my nape and onto the back of my seat.

"Not in front of the children!" I screamed in my head, but with a hand over my mouth I stopped myself from saying it. Even though I was self-aware enough to identify the reason behind my reaction, it disturbed me how quickly the shame I'd spent 40 years exorcising could return. During intermission I shared my feelings, and Eddie pointed out that the play's entire message was one of tolerance. Midway through the second half I made a point of embracing my date.

But if I need to work through some of my lingering hang-ups, Texas has to make some drastic changes. This past October Burke Burnett, a 26-year-old from Reno, about 100 miles northeast of Dallas, was jumped by four men, who stabbed him with a broken beer bottle and threw him onto a lit burn barrel, yelling "pussy-ass faggot," "gay bitch," and "cock-sucking punk." Fortunately, Burnett survived, but he needed 30 stitches and sustained second-degree burns. Although his story is heartbreaking, what's worse is that gay bashing happens all the time in the state. A 2010 Texas Department of Public Safety white paper reported 38 hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation. The pervasive atmosphere of homophobia in the country's second largest state must end.

Gandhi once said, "A coward is incapable of exhibiting love; it is the prerogative of the brave." While I'll reserve the adjective "brave" for those stalwart souls who stay in bigoted places and work for LGBT equal rights, I can do my tiny part. So, outside the Salt Lick deep in the heart of Texas, I let go of my inhibitions, stretched my arm around Eddie's waist, and held my head high as we marched into the restaurant.

Have you ever experienced a PDA panic attack, whether the fear was warranted or not? I'd love to hear your story.