When I moved to New York City in 1987, I was an 18-year-old closeted man unsure of what life had in store. A friend of my mother's back in Texas said she knew people who ran a church in the city, and this Southern Baptist boy was looking for something that reminded him of home and was eager to join them. Little did I know that that church would be a group of people meeting on the sidewalk in front of Radio City Music Hall. They quickly told me that they knew of another group associated with their church who met closer to me, on the Upper West Side, and that started my several-year relationship with that church. They became my family. I was the music leader every Sunday. I spent much of my time with them while also chasing my theatrical dreams in the big, bad city.
When I learned that the minister was an ex-model who was also an "ex-gay," I thought that God had surely led me directly to him so that he could change me. But the closer our relationship grew, the more I learned of his still-daily struggle with homosexuality, and the more I realized that the expression "ex-gay" is just an expression. Nevertheless, he worked hard to change me, trying to pray away the gay before that term was even popular.
As I aged out of my teen years, stopped fighting my sexuality and accepted who I am, I finally found comfort and peace. Watching me go through that process angered him. It took me several more years to realize that perhaps I had been right all along: Maybe God had led me to that church, not to make me straight but so that I could learn from this man's mistakes, and so that I could meet a wonderful woman who, like me, had grown up in the church (her dad was a minister) and was able to balance being gay with being a Christian. I found it completely refreshing.
My time spent in that church stayed with me for years. Everything I did as an adult would point back to that cult-like moment in my life when I watched a charismatic man tell his parishioners what God intended for them to do and say. It changed my opinion of organized religion. It caused me to question God about things that had occurred during those years. And it was the basis for a novel I eventually wrote many years later, called Well With My Soul.
I could not be more excited that Manhattan's Seeing Place Theater has added my play based on that novel to their reading series to kick off Pride Week on Monday, June 23. I want to share my story. I want to come out of the closet -- once again -- and tell people that this story isn't a work of fiction but is truly based on my life. Yes, I've changed the names, and yes, I've reworked some moments, as over 25 years have passed, but the premise is true. The struggle was real. And the way this one man turned my world upside down is something I've never been able to let go of.
(There must be something in the air, because James Franco is preparing to do a film based on a similar real-life situation.)
But the world has changed since the late '80s. Marriage equality is becoming a nationwide reality. That 18-year-old boy never would have believed in a million years that he'd be able to marry a man, but now, as a 45-year-old man, I'm happily married to the man I love after 14 years together. And in some strange way I have my past to thank for all that. My new life in New York started out as a life of shame, but I have found my pride and can now live it daily.
For that I say "thank you" to the ghosts of my past.
For more information on the Pride reading, click here.
Photo: Me at 18 years old in the late '80s.