Most of the time I really dread going home. It isn’t some fanciful love affair with Harvard (that disappeared after my first year) or a terrible family situation that makes me feel this way. It’s the whispers of people in my hometown, the unnerving bombardment of rumors and insensitivity about who I am.
After I came out to my entire family, I knew that word would spread quickly. When you live in a town of 15,000, news tends to travel like wildfire. But what I wasn’t expecting—somewhat naively, in retrospect—was the subtle yet psychologically piercing interactions that I would have with the folks back home. To fully understand what I’m talking about, you should probably know about a stereotype of the South that I have unfortunately found to be quite true: while Southerners are known for their warm hospitality, they also have the tendency to be ruthless behind your back. So when the role model who got into Harvard decided to come out as a gay man, I immediately began to feel the muted ostracization.
It would happen like this: one of my parents’ friends or even someone from high school would approach my family and me at a restaurant. Immediately when they began to talk with my family, doing so perhaps out of a sense of obligation, I would feel the tension behind their words.
“Poor things. I can’t believe that Ben would make them go through this.”
“I just hope he comes back to the Lord and out of his sinful desires.”
They didn’t say that to my face, but I could hear it. I always hear it when I’m back home. It’s almost as if the necessity of “being polite” simply illuminates what they truly feel. And I know that as soon as they say goodbye and leave our table, they will spill out all of those hurtful things without much understanding or compassion.
Thinking about all of this lately, I feel like I’ve been going through some sort of identity crisis. Over winter break, I spent a couple weeks traveling by myself, so I got the question a lot: “Where do you come from?”
It usually stopped me for a second or two. “Oh, I go to school in Boston,” I would finally say.
Of course, that’s clearly outlandish. I have lived over 18 years of my life in Vidalia, Georgia and only a year and a half at Harvard. As I began to ponder this compulsive reaction, my thoughts kept coming back to those suffocating elephant-in-the-room interactions that had largely characterized my post-coming-out life back home. The uneasiness that I had talking to people back home, people that I knew disapproved of my sexual orientation, made me feel completely repressed. It brought me back to my days in high school, when I would have to pretend to like girls and keep everything compartmentalized in my mind so that I wouldn’t “unintentionally” reveal who I really was.
For me, returning home feels like surreptitiously re-entering my closet.
I think that I have every reason to be bitter. When I live my life here at Harvard, it is surreal, something that I still cherish as if it might vanish tomorrow. Here we can talk about heteronormativity and gender roles and intersectionality. But in a way, our intellectual privilege also infuriates me. Why have some people been able to live in an open environment like this their entire lives, while I’m confined to the reality of a family and community that don’t even acknowledge a central part of who I am, much less appreciate it?
This winter break, I was seeking some form of clarity, a tangible reason for me to not give up hope, to realize that things would improve back home. I was there for a little over a week, and during that time two chance encounters served as a sincere turning point, a catalyst for reevaluating my relationship with the South.
Late one night, I decided with two close friends to join a motley group for a bonfire out on a farm (yep, I am from the South). I didn’t know some of the people there, and only vaguely recognized others. Among those in attendance was a gay couple in their 30’s, one of whom I knew because he used to date one of my older sisters in high school. Before he left, we struck up a conversation about my sexuality, how my family had struggled with it, and how reconciling sexuality and childhood religion can be a difficult thing. Perhaps out of my astonishment that we were having this conversation in the first place, I let my thoughts spill: “I think you guys are so brave to do what you’re doing. You know, living here every day as a normal couple. I know there’s no way that I’d be able to handle it.”
He thought for a second. “Yeah,” he said, pondering my exclamation. “It is hard. You know, I still haven’t told my kids yet. They’re seven and eleven.”
“How is that possible?”
“We sleep in separate rooms when they come over to stay from their moms’ houses. And I know that I will have to tell them soon, especially my older daughter. She’s getting to the age where kids start to find things out, and they’ll ask her why her dad’s a faggot.”
When he told me that, my heart broke. Why, for the sake of everyone else’s bigotry, did innocent children have to be shielded from the mere fact that two people loved each other and could sustain a lasting relationship?
As I left this conversation filled with anger, sadness, and amazement, my two friends, who had driven me there, told me that it was time to go. I went around the bonfire saying goodbye. One of the guys I talked to, a friend one year older than me, pulled me aside. “Hey Ben, could I have a word over here?” he asked.
What happened then was incredible. He unleashed a ten-minute account of an event that had occurred some weeks before. Evidently, his family had been in a restaurant, where they overheard a few people —one of them my best friend from childhood—talking about me. And they were referring to me as a faggot. Immediately, this man and his brother approached the people having the conversation, grabbed them by their shirts, and said, “What did you say about our friend?”
He continued to me, “You know, Ben, we went to Spain together. We hung out in high school. Yeah, maybe we weren’t great friends or anything, but I knew that you were a good guy. I want you to know that for me and my family, we don’t think it matters who you love. Hell, I don’t even think it’s wrong. And if you ever need a place to stay or someone to talk to when you’re here, you know that you have a place with us.”
For the next few days after having these conversations, I could feel that something had changed. I reflected on the relationships that I had forged back home, the people that meant so much to me, and a culture that, despite its peculiarities and histories of bigotry, I inevitably call home. It was a tension I had written about in my admissions essay to Harvard two years before, as a young man first fully recognizing my sexuality. As I think about it now, my options remain the same: I can wholly reject the society that I come from, regarding my time living there as a difficult, repressed period of my life that I’d rather laugh at or forget about. Or I can resolve that, despite the backward and seemingly unchangeable stance people in my community often take on some issues, the South will forever remain a solace of kindness and warm nights, a place of slower talking and satisfying food, quirky sayings and reverence for tradition, and, more than anything, a bastion of love.
For me, really, in the face of all the reasons I can count to hate my place of origin, I choose not to. We still have so much progress to witness: adults, much less children, should never have to live in a world of fear and uncertainty, where social conventions force people to obscure whom they love or what they are. I hope to see a Georgia where that’s possible, and I am certain that it is. Productive and meaningful conversations with former classmates and adults back home continue to give me hope.
For the time being, I’m reminded to stay true to the words that I wrote nearly two years ago as a fledgling senior trying to grasp a new identity. Instead of ignoring my past, I resolve to embrace it, and to work to improve the conditions that made my experience so hard.
And now when someone asks me where I’m from, I won’t hesitate.