We all have to own our stories. Sometimes that is easier said than done. Sometimes our stories don’t turn out the way we would have written them. Sometimes they are painful and we shy away from them. It’s easy to give other people control of our narrative and we let them tell us how it reads. We shy away from our truth because it may be uncomfortable for others to see. Ultimately, our stories are what make us who we are and we have to own them in order to live our truth and accept ourselves fully for who we are.

This morning, as I was having coffee, planning my day, and glancing at social media, I noticed a post from a new friend. He and I had met in a single gay dads social group and connected as friends. Today, as part of Pride Month, he posted in celebration of the anniversary of his coming out and embracing his own truth. As I smiled in my happiness for his celebration, it suddenly occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the exact day I came out. There were so many conversations with so many people who were involved with my life at the time. Many were painful. Collateral damage.

I panicked. I couldn’t even remember the year! There, on my couch, a peaceful summer morning outside my window, I dove into my Dropbox account like a mad man. There, amongst all of the loosely organized folders and files was the one I was looking for. It was a folder filled with all of the signifiant happenings of my life. When my late husband and I decided to become parents, we had to prove that we’d be fit to both call our first daughter ours. These documents were required. As I sorted through birth certificates, transcripts, financial statements, and references — all of the things no straight couple would ever have to provide for their natural children — I found what I was looking for. A divorce decree. The year was 1997. Had it really been 22 years? That number both seemed large and small at the same time. I am 53. Had I only been living my truth for half my life? What about the other half? And why couldn’t I remember the date? Trauma. My coming out experience wasn’t joyful. As many of our stories are, it was painful. I was racked with guilt and shame for a long time after I summoned the courage to speak my own truth. I felt selfish and guilty at the time.

Belonging is something we all seek as humans. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We want to belong to family — either the one we’re born to or one we choose. But ever since I was little I’d always felt like an outsider. I’d always felt like something was different. It was a feeling that would haunt me well into my adult life. Everything I did growing up was about distancing myself from who I was in favor of becoming someone who, in my opinion, could be more valued. There is an often recounted story of my parents getting a note from my teacher when I was in elementary school. My teacher was worried that I stood by myself on the playground. When confronted, I simply said I just didn’t want to play with the others because I thought their games were stupid. In hindsight, even at such a young age, I didn’t feel I was good enough to join them. I felt like I had a secret, I just didn’t know what it was yet.

I can’t remember when I first knew I liked boys. I do remember it was early. Then when I realized that would be frowned upon I worked to hide it. That was my secret. No one could ever know and it terrified me that someone might find out. When you live in small, rural town, there is no room for these kinds of differences — at lest at that time. However, people suspected. Even if they didn’t know for sure, they made it true in their own minds and they could only deal with it by attacking what they didn’t understand. I remember when I was in middle school being followed by some of the older boys on the playground. They kept taunting me, calling me, “faggot.” I wheeled around and yelled for them to stop. The next thing I knew I was slapped to the ground. I still remember how the dirt tasted in my mouth, the way the Texas stickers felt in my hand, and how the humiliation filled my face. I got up swinging and kicking. All I could hear was, “He fights like a girl! Look at the faggot kick!” They ultimately walked away and I felt so much shame. My shirt was stretched out. My jeans were dirty. All I could think about was how I could hide what had happened because if anyone else found out and found out why, they’d probably say I deserved it. I sure felt like I did. I had learned to embrace self-loathing by that point.

Self-loathing had become a hallmark of growing up gay for me. So much of what society told me was that I was broken. Anita Bryant served up hate and orange juice on TV. The church said I was an abomination. One hay-seed preacher went as far as to suggest I was possessed by a demon and that I needed an exorcism. I had never once uttered the words, “I’m gay.” This was a lot for a boy, going through puberty, taller than most, and more awkward still. I worked so hard to fit in and create someone people would like. All the while making sure who I was inside was invisible.

High school was filled with juxtoppositions. I played football, even though I hated every single moment of it. It’s what boys my size did. I played basketball. I loved it and tried to be a little more myself, but was told things like “boys don’t cuff their socks like that over their basketball shoes.” I ran track — it was easy to keep running from something. All of this was to build up equity so that I could do one act play. So that I could write. So that I could perform without being called a faggot. It worked, mostly. I was often berated by my coaches and forced to choose between artistic endeavors and athletics. I remember thinking that all I wanted to do was get out and to college. But I’d betray myself even in that decision.

I ended up going with my second choice for college because it was the “safer” choice. By that point in time I had begun to put my efforts into things that I felt would protect me from myself. After all, being a theater major at highly conservative university was certainly safer than being a theater major at school renowned for producing theatrical talent. As one grandmother put it at the time, “You don’t want to go to that liberal, broad-minded school.” Come to find out, I am liberal and broad-minded. It would have probably been a good fit. Nonetheless, I got a great education and made some great friends, but I even ended up switching my major for something safer and that made me fit in more.

After graduation, cities like New York and San Francisco beckoned for me. I so wanted to go and to drink deeply from the well of life. But, I lost my nerve. It wasn’t safe. People might find out my secret. So I stayed. I tried Houston’s corporate world for a while, but art kept calling me. I took a time out, moved back home, and enrolled in a masters program for literature. It was there I met a woman who was smart, pretty, independent, and bohemian. She spoke to all the parts of me I had long devalued and suppressed. We hit it off and she was crazy about me. As the attraction built, I began to think maybe I was “fixed.” Maybe this was my opportunity to be normal. We ended up saying, “I do.”

It took 5 years for the cracks to show. By all accounts we had a good marriage. But something continued to eat at me. Living a lie wasn’t the right thing for me and it wasn’t fair to her. Interestingly, I think she knew before I did that I needed to speak my truth. But she was wise and knew that she couldn’t do it for me. I think, perhaps, part of her didn’t want it to be true, but that is her story to tell. Ultimately, in a painful and tear filled night, I spoke my truth. It was both freeing and horrifying at the same time. But the freedom didn’t last for long. It was quickly replaced by guilt and shame. I had hurt her and it is a feeling I will never forget. Collateral damage.

After that point, there was no getting the genie back in the bottle. Family had to be told. Friends had to be told. Divorce proceedings had to take place. It was months of pain and with every conversation my shame grew — but I had to continue to move forward. The months after that were filled with my trying to fit into the gay community. I was getting to know the bars, go-go boys, drag queens, and power gays. There were decades of gay culture waiting to be caught up on. But ultimately, I never really did fit in. I remained an outsider looking in.

So much changed when I met my late husband. I had just about given up on having a long term relationship when he showed up. I think we were unexpected to each other. We quickly found we belonged to each other and that there was really nothing we couldn’t accomplish when we put our minds to it. My shame subsided and gave way to the joy I had first felt when speaking my truth. We built a family. Our extended family surrounded us with love. Sure, we had some difficult times, but what great relationships don’t? It was a little bit of a fairy tale to me. Together we braved the battles of having to be married in another state, surrogacy, and same-sex parent birth certificates. We built an amazing life. I think that’s why it was so hard to lose him. I got to be unapologetically me when I was with him. Now here I am. I feel a little lost as I begrudgingly close the page on the chapter with him. I have to write a new one and I have to own it more than I’ve ever owned any other part of my life. My children deserve it. I deserve it.

So, this is my story. I own it. It has made me who I am. As I reflect on this life, on this day in this month of Pride, I’m reminded of that little boy on the playground. The one who was afraid. The one who was an outsider. The one who lived so much of his life steeped in shame and who tried so hard to be invisible. I owe him. I owe him the rest of my life lived in truth and not dictated by anyone else. After all, I think he deserves it. He deserves to be proud.

It is so important that we own our stories. When we own them, we can share them. When we share them, we are vulnerable with each other. When we are vulnerable, we can have empathy, love, and belonging. What’s your story?

Father, storyteller, observer, and philosopher. Now learning to live with grief.