Growing up, I was always taller than the other kids in school. By the time I was in third grade, I was taller than my teachers. People often assume that being 6’4” in middle school would be enough to keep the school bullies away from you. However, being someone who was more interested in science, math, and art than in football or fast cars, I was singled out.
In middle school, I was called “queer” more times than I can remember. When I was in 8th grade, I walked into the band hall one day and someone had written “Andrew and [name withheld] are faggots” on the chalkboard. I was certain I knew who wrote it. I could have shown it to the band director, and the responsible student would have been punished. However, my only thought at that moment was erasing the writing as quickly as possible before anyone else saw it. I couldn’t take a chance that someone might figure out what I was trying so desperately to hide.
When I was in 10th grade, I decided to come out to a close friend. I was extremely nervous because I wasn’t sure how the friend would react. Luckily, that friend was open minded and accepted me for who I was. It’s hard to express the relief I felt after my first coming out. It felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I gradually opened up to more of my friends in High School. While I did occasionally hear “you’re going to hell”, the responses I received were generally positive.
The summer after my senior year in high school, my parents found out I was gay. While I felt distraught that my parents found out before I was ready to tell them myself, my parents didn’t reject me and told me that they would always love me no matter what.
While coming out is a major step, it’s just one of many challenges that gay youth face. Even after I accepted the fact that I was gay, I still had issues reconciling my sexuality with my faith. At church, I was told that if I was a “practicing homosexual” I could no longer be a member of the church. Ultimately I was told that I was no longer welcome. For someone who is 18 years old and trying to figure themselves out, it is devastating to be told that you’re no longer welcome in a place where you once felt safe. It took counseling, study, soul searching, and time for me to work through my feelings.
In college, I gradually became more confident being myself. While taking a pottery class at Texarkana College in 2007 I met Levi Wilder. After a few years of dating, Levi and I eventually told our friends and family that we were a couple and moved in together. In the years since I was in High School, so many things have changed. From the 2003 supreme court decision that struck down archaic Texas laws that criminalized same-sex sexual activity, to the 2013 decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, and eventually the 2015 supreme court decision that marriage is a right for same-sex couples. Being able to live openly in Texarkana, and seeing the positive changes taking place in our country, I felt like we had progressed to the point where being gay, bi, or trans was no longer a big deal.
Then reality gave me a sign. Not a metaphorical sign, but a sea of red yard signs that said, “keep men out of our daughter’s bathrooms.” Seeing this in my hometown woke me up to the truth that we still have a long way to go to achieve equality.
I still ask myself sometimes if Levi and I should move to Dallas, or somewhere that would be more gay-friendly. As a computer programmer, a larger city could offer a higher paying job. Perhaps it would be easier to make friends. I, however, don’t want to accept moving as the only answer.
If the LGBT voices in our community remain silent, we not only do a disservice to ourselves, but we also let down the youth who make up future generations of Texarkana citizens. If we don’t act, the youth in our community will continue to grow up thinking that you can only be openly gay if you live in a big city. They will continue to fear being ostracized by their own families. And tragically, some will feel that ending their lives is the only way to deal with being gay, bi, or trans in a small town in the south.
I believe that right now we have a unique opportunity to improve the future of our community, and that’s why I joined Equality Texarkana.