By Matt Raymond
On a warm day in July 1987, a 16-year-old boy squirmed awkwardly in a small, cramped office at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. He was one of about 100 rising high school juniors from around the state chosen to attend a program called the U.W. Summer High School Institute.
It was a first taste of college, three weeks of living on a real campus in real dorms while the actual college students were back home for the summer. Between bottomless bowls of Trix at the cafeteria and jogs around campus, there were bowling and amusement park excursions, mountain hikes and even a dance.
The teens also took eye-opening, sometimes offbeat, academic courses. Evening group “enrichment classes” and individual sessions — much like talk therapy — helped kids on the verge of adulthood better understand themselves.
It was in one of those individual sessions where the boy found himself sitting across from a 20-something counselor named Karla. The past few weeks had been among the most exhilarating of his life, but they were also an emotional minefield: Missing his family. Being thrown into a roiling cauldron of hormones. Stumbling headlong into puppy love, mostly unrequited.
He and Karla talked about all of it. She was gentle and perceptive in ways he hadn’t experienced before, treating him with kindness and respect, as if he were an adult.
Still, he was leaving something out. Something big. As the gravity of his omission grew heavier and heavier, words began to fail him. By now he could only stare at his pasty thighs or out the window — anywhere but in Karla’s eyes. And then he began to sob.
“Why are you crying?” Karla asked, handing him a tissue. But the answer was stuck in his chest, swelling like a balloon. His face flushed. After a long pause, the words he had never spoken aloud before, not even to himself, came spilling out:
“I think I might be gay.”
You’ve probably guessed by now that the 16-year-old boy was me.
Those six words were a fulcrum, dividing my life between the ambiguous “before” and the gay “after.” But I struggled with those words. Did they even apply to me? I shared them aloud with others rarely — and cautiously.
I became confused and angry. I descended into self-loathing and shame.
Everyone else was able to marry a woman and dutifully give their parents their mandatory 2.5 grandchildren. Why couldn’t I? I mourned a life that could never be. And I hated myself for it.
Gradually, I accepted the inevitable and began coming out to more and more people. Along the way, those six words — “I think I might be gay”— became reduced to just three: “I am gay.” But even as I grew more comfortable with my sexuality, the self-loathing never quite went away. Now I hated myself for other reasons. My self-esteem and self-image ebbed. I worried that I would never find a mate. After all, I wasn’t attractive enough. And why bother anyway? Gay men were too “superficial” for me to compete for their attention (or so I told myself).
Even when I did find relationships, I sabotaged them. Either I acted out the trite scene known as “fear of commitment,” or I fell so hard for a guy that I couldn’t conceal my desperation, something that’s rarely desirable in a potential mate.
After a dysfunctional and codependent relationship imploded in spectacular fashion, I hit an emotional rock-bottom. But it also led me to an epiphany: I was in a rut. Something needed to change, but I couldn’t make that change on my own.
So, I found a therapist — a woman who reminded me of Karla. Just by having someone to talk to, I rediscovered the hope that that 16-year-old kid had experienced long before. She didn’t judge me for my immutable traits or view me as inherently damaged or worthless.
She gave me much-needed perspective. Perhaps most importantly, she referred me to a psychiatrist.
They both saw something in me that, while readily apparent to them, had never crossed my mind: I was living with major depressive disorder.
That revelation proved to be a second fulcrum in my life. I was prescribed medication. I wish I could say it magically turned my personal Titanic around on a dime, or that there weren’t some very dark days. What followed was a long and often frustrating journey. But ultimately, it was a successful one. My progress mostly trended upward, but it still took about three years of trying different medications at different dosages in different combinations until we arrived at my “Goldilocks zone.” Some might consider such a path discouraging, especially if they’re only at the beginning their own journeys. But I chose to see it as a single data point testifying to the power of persistence.
Throughout my mental health journey, I’ve also learned the reality of repressed trauma and the lengths to which our brains go to forget pain. For instance, I had always remembered a Boy Scout camping trip from my early teens. My recollections were vague, although largely pleasant — aside from the embarrassment of spilling pancake batter into the campfire.
But my father recently reminded me of something far worse that I had totally memory-holed until that very moment. For specific reasons I don’t recall, the other boys teased me and called me anti-gay slurs. They smeared melted marshmallows all over my sleeping bag. When I got home, the only reason I told my dad the truth about what had happened was that I couldn’t come up with a better explanation on the fly for the mess.
Those happier summer days in Laramie are still practically engraved into my brain. But something earth-shattering would cast that experience in a whole new light. Late one night just 11 years later, and almost exactly one mile from where I had once sobbed, three men left a bar in Laramie — but only two of them came back alive.
The 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard seared the LGBTQ community like an acetylene torch. While I had never met Matthew, we shared many traits that made his death especially resonant. Not only did we have the same first name, home state and sexual orientation, we even had the same birthday: Dec. 1.
We were both involved in theater and drama, and we were politically active from a young age. We both faced bullying and taunts that emanated from the fetid recesses of tiny minds. But unlike Matthew, being a foot taller than him and double his weight probably shielded me from much of what he had to endure.
In the wake of Matthew Shepard’s murder, countless LGBTQ folks and allies rose up against hatred and prejudice. We showed courage and solidarity. We helped change attitudes and laws. And we discovered the transformative, collective power in the simple act of coming out.
Sometimes I wonder where life would have taken me if I had never crossed paths with Karla. But I’m trying to get back in touch with her. If you were her, wouldn’t you want to know that an unremarkable moment in your own life ended up profoundly changing the life of another?
Matt Raymond is Director of Communications at NAMI.
Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2023 Issue of the Advocate.
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