As a public relations student, I have to write a lot: press releases, pitch letters, backgrounders and the like. But recently, I was asked to write a speech. My own speech about something I feel passionately about. I decided to share it here, with the hope that maybe it will reach someone who needs to read it.
I knew from a young age that I was different. However, it wasn’t until I was 12 years old that I was finally able to realize what it was that made me feel so different: I was gay. Well, technically, I am gay. That’s not going to change, and I would never want it to. However, that was not always the case. Throughout my life I have been the target of numerous campaigns aimed at changing my behavior, but no two campaigns have affected me quite as much as the personal one meant to cure me of my homosexuality and the “It Gets Better” campaign that I discovered years later.
I grew up in a religious and God-fearing household. As such, it took me 20 years to muster up the courage to tell my parents that I was gay. But, as parents often do, they knew about that part of my life before I think even I did. The fact I never verbally confirmed their fear gave them an ounce of hope that maybe they were wrong and I would come out normal in the end. My mother, in particular, latched on to that ounce of hope with all her strength, and with it came her crusade to change me.
To accomplish this unattainable task, my mother turned to who she thought to be an expert: our family’s long-time reverend. From that moment on, the “pray away the gay” campaign would be in his hands, and he wasn’t cutting me any slack. I spent hours in his church, hearing phrases like, “eternal damnation in Hell” and that my behavior was an “abomination in the eyes of God.” I remember on one visit to his office, he somehow made a connection between homosexuality and Ted Bundy. He warned me that if I didn’t make myself right with God, I could expect a similar fate to Bundy’s, if not in this life, than in the next. I never took another step into his church.
I guess my mother gave up after some time, as the biting comments slowly weaned and the books about the importance of a righteous lifestyle stopped making their way into my stocking each Christmas. However, aside from relatively infrequent bullying, my adolescence wasn’t so bad. I made good grades, played sports and had good friends. Yet I still wasn’t a totally happy kid, as I should have been – as I deserved to have been. I realized years after that the “pray away the gay” message had whittled away at my self-confidence and self-worth. And in many ways, I was still trying to conform to the person that I was told I was supposed to be.
But when I got to college, the message changed. I found myself in an educated, open-minded community, surrounded by people of every ethnicity, religion, socio-economic background and sexual orientation. The message went from “pray away the gay” to “It’s okay to be gay.” I was finally in a place that would accept me for who I was, and not the person others and I thought I was meant to be. At the same time, it seemed like the rest of the country was becoming more accepting too. Ellen DeGeneres became one of the biggest names on television, numerous states legalized same-sex marriage and the “It Gets Better” YouTube video campaign gave hope to millions of kids just like me.
In my sophomore year of college, I came out to a select group of friends, and not a single person decided they’d rather lose a friend than have a gay one. Slowly, I came out to more and more people. I told my sister. She immediately asked if she could be the “Grace to my Will,” and then told me I must not be a very good gay guy because I didn’t understand the reference. And then I told my mother. Her reaction was probably the most surprising. “I’ve been waiting for a long time for you to tell me that,” she said. “So luckily I was able to plan out what I would say to you when you did. You’re my son. I’ll love you no matter what you do, where you go or who you love.” Yesterday, she asked when she could finally meet my boyfriend.
Both the pro-gay and anti-gay messages I experienced growing up have influenced me in some way. I know I wouldn’t have waited as long as I did to come out if it were not for the videos, pamphlets and lectures given to me by the church. And I cannot imagine ever having the courage to come out without the “It Gets Better” campaign and others like it. There are young people around the country that are the target of the same homophobic crusades that I was, unaware of the other, much more beautiful and hopeful message waiting for them, unaware that it does get better. So here’s my call for action: It is our responsibility, gay and straight alike, to make sure we think before we speak, love before we hate and empathize before we criticize. You may think your words carry little weight, but I can assure you that they do. They carry enough weight to crush a child’s self-worth or give that child what they desperately need most: hope.