Imagine going through life having to hide who you are just to keep those who built you around. You go through most of your teen years, and perhaps some of your adult years, or maybe you go through your entire life, not reaching your full potential. The urge to suppress this part of yourself stems from the fear of religious persecution, letting every tormentor from your childhood feel the satisfaction of being right and/or the possibility of disappointing others.
That’s what most members of the LGBTQ+ community go through before allowing themselves the freedom of honesty. There are numerous factors that can play into the reasoning members of the queer community have to conceal themselves even though they shouldn’t have to.
There’s a lot a person learns in their lifetime. They acquire knowledge, they absorb values, but the one thing they don’t learn is sexuality.
I grew up on a hobby farm on the outskirts of Hibbing, Minnesota, with my two sisters under the loving influence of my grandparents Gerald and Grace Benz. There, on that stretch of peaceful paradise, I learned who I was and who I am capable of becoming.
When I was five months old, my mother awarded full custody of my two siblings and I to my grandparents. The deduction behind this decision is unimportant but know she did this fully realizing it was what was best for us. My grandma, Grace Benz, taught me how to hone my artistic gifts allowing me to express them in many forms. My grandpa, Gerald, taught me how to be a decent man in showing me what it means to be a good person.
Together, the two taught my sisters and I what they considered the most important of values. They showed us how to be kind, forgiving, understanding, independent, social, loving, and how to be happy. They also allowed us to come to our own religious realizations. This permitted us the freedom to believe in God or not.
The one thing my grandparents did not teach me is my sexuality. For those who don’t know, I am gay. I like men and for a majority of my life I was ashamed of that. Not anymore.
For well over a decade I was very involved in my church. I was a Sunday school teacher, the church secretary, the newsletter publisher, a Bible Bowl coach, a vacation bible school volunteer, a church camp volunteer, and so much more. I lived in my church. I loved my church. I still do.
When I first discovered I was attracted to men, I was 14 years old and I was at church camp. Understand that this attraction was not sexual at first. It was solely emotional. I started to develop feelings for a friend, who helped inspire this article, and I felt horrible. I felt filthy. I denied that part of me because I thought I had to.
This feeling was a feeling not taught by my grandparents but rather my religion. I was told numerous times that same sex relations was a sin. I was told it was a “Satan sighting” nearly every Sunday in church.
As time went on, I dreaded going to church. It always depressed me walking through the front door knowing that some of the members inside would treat me differently if they knew the truth.
This place that helped build me would tear me down until nothing was left. Remember that this is how I felt.
I felt this way for a decade until I eventually severed ties with my church. I slowly separated myself from organized religion after the death of my grandfather in 2016.
Up until that point, my life has never been directly affected by death or the realization it brings afterwards.
Once my family said our final goodbyes to my father figure, a seed of doubt was planted into my head. “What if my sexuality isn’t wrong? What if my grandpa knew?”
10 months later, this feeling occurred to me again. The day before my Associates of Arts graduation in 2017 I was hit with some of the worst news in my life. I learned that my mother was found dead in her Illinois home that morning. She was planning on driving up that day to attend my graduation on the following day. I had this guilt grow inside me as I came to the realization that I kept an integral portion of myself from two of the most important people in my life.
I carried this guilt as I continued on with my academic career. When I was 23, I transferred from Hibbing Community College to the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD).
I left my home behind holding tight to all those values my grandparents taught me. I also left allowing the fear of persecution to cling onto me. I went to Duluth feeling alone, hiding the biggest secret of my life.
Then something strange happened. I met someone. And even though things didn’t end up exactly how I would’ve liked, I’m extremely happy I met him.
My UMD experience started with Bulldog Welcome Week, a program that helps freshmen and students in transition feel more at home on campus. In many ways this week helped me adjust to my new life. I met some fantastic people and created some awesome memories, but I still felt alone. After the week of activities and icebreakers were over, I solemnly sat in my apartment, afraid to do anything because of my secret.
Then classes started. Monday and Tuesday showed no progress on improving my emptiness but when college pushed on I felt differently.
With the support of friends later to come, I came out. I told those most important to me personally. I told my sisters, I told my aunt Penny and I told my cousins. Most importantly, I told my grandma (who apparently already knew).
“We have to do what’s best for us,” my grandma told me. “You have to do what’s best for you just as I have to do what’s best for me. If they don’t understand that, then they are not good for you.”
Saying it out loud was relieving. Telling people was like shedding 50 pounds. I was addicted to the feeling. Soon one person turned to two, then ten, then twenty. I started to accept myself because of this man I met and the support I received from my friends.
All that dread and guilt from my past melted away and I was liberated. The only emotion I felt towards my sexuality was shame. I wasn’t ashamed of my attraction towards other males, I was ashamed for all that time I wasted before acceptance.
Nobody should be ashamed of who they are. However, people should be ashamed for judging others over something they can’t even control.
I’m gay and proud to be. I’ve finally accepted it. I just hope others I love will too.
Special thanks for accepting me to Grace, Jenny, Penny, Traci, Felicia, Trinh, Morgan C., Jordan, Kelli, Sam C., Becka, Brianna, The Bark staff, Whitney, Taylor, Aubrey, Skylar, Abbie M., all my friends at UMD, and Ria.
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