Three Outs: A Philly Coming-Out Story

Philadelphia was where I came out of the closet. Heading back home was a different story.

Illustration by Matt Clough

“What kind of gay are you?” a guy at Woody’s asked me on the dance floor. It was my first week in Philly, and I was already at a gay bar downtown. I wore flashy gold metallic shorts from American Apparel and a neon pink tank top.

“Whatever kind of gay you want me to be,” I replied.

Such exchanges would define my freshman-year college dating experience. That tiny strip of LGBTQ oasis known as the Gayborhood allowed me to be something I never had the freedom to be before arriving in Philadelphia in 2010 — a feisty, loud flirt who was down for whatever. My spirit animal was a combination of Madonna, Rihanna and RuPaul. The blinding rainbow strobe lights and blasting ultra-pop thrilled me, pulling me into a sea of fearless men who were having the time of their lives. For all of the racism I faced while cruising the Gayborhood as a Black gay man, nothing could replace the sexual excitement and possibility I experienced for the first time.

My early forays in the Gayborhood as a Penn freshman were, in my own head, the second time I “came out” — or, maybe more accurately, the second act in what turned out to be a three-part journey toward understanding and revealing my true identity. I’m the oldest son in a Black family with Pentecostal church roots. I’m also the first in my family to attend a prestigious college and depart from a Southern upbringing. For most of my life, my sole purpose was to bring pride to my family and secure a spotless reputation.

Being gay posed a challenge to all those regional, racial and familial expectations, and for much of my adolescence, my fear of disappointing people kept me silent. But coming out — first to myself, then here in Philadelphia, and finally to my own family back in Texas — ultimately proved to be an act of defiance that liberated me, transforming me from a poster child of respectability politics into an unapologetic Black queer radical.

“Boys don’t move their hands like that when they talk,” I remember the art teacher at my Houston elementary school telling me in the second grade. “Just keep your hands in your pockets or still.” “Why do you sound like that when you talk?” a gang of boys from the back of the bus yelled out on our way to middle school. “You sound like a sissy.” Some of the kids laughed and attempted to mimic my high-pitched voice. When I got off the bus, the driver told me not to pay them any mind — just because I was “different” didn’t make me “wrong.” I spent most of my childhood trying to figure out the difference.

It wasn’t until the eighth grade and the release of a little indie film about two loving cowboys in Wyoming that I began to understand what made me different. I was a theater kid who loved Broadway, Hollywood and all things Oscar. My public-school performing arts classes in Texas made it a point to incorporate popular Hollywood films into the curriculum. We were encouraged to study different forms of performance and challenge our understanding of character. Any film that was considered Oscar bait was worth watching. I made it a habit to rent movies at Blockbuster that had big bold “Academy Award Winner” labels on them, and I studied them with careful precision. We were encouraged to look at every film except one: Brokeback Mountain.

“Why can’t we watch that film?” I asked my theater teacher one day.

“It has messages that aren’t becoming for sensible people with moral values,” she spouted back.

“Then why would they make it? Why is it nominated for Best Picture?”

“Why are you so curious about it? Is there something you want to tell the class?”

“No, I was just asking,” I said defensively as I began to notice my schoolmates looking at me oddly.

I agreed to watch that season’s Best Picture winner, Crash, instead. It wasn’t all that.

Later that semester, I surreptitiously watched Brokeback Mountain on a pay-per-view channel that my grandmother and many of her “sisters in Christ” condemned. I didn’t know what to expect from the film, but I was instantly fascinated by it.

Brokeback Mountain was a different kind of love story from any I had seen before, and yet it felt the most relatable. A film that marvelously portrayed the angst of suppressed emotions — along with jolts of uncontrollable affection — touched me in ways that I couldn’t verbalize. Ennis Del Mar, played by the late Heath Ledger, was the boy in my English class who looked at me a little too long but never said anything more than hello. I was essentially Jack Twist, the character played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who was more out than Ennis but still wanted an escape. I longed to talk to someone about how I felt after watching it, but I feared I would have to reveal things about myself that I wasn’t sure of. I kept these thoughts tucked away like a personal secret between me, myself and God.

Every summer of my childhood, my brothers and I would stay at my grandmother’s house in Marianna, Arkansas. She would have us attend the Moro Temple Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal church near her small town that defined life there. Every sermon included at least one rant from the Black pastor about the “rise of homosexuality” and how its evils were coming upon children. He spoke of how the “homosexual demon” was “getting into” music, books and movies. It was during these times that I began to reflect on watching Brokeback Mountain. My hands would get sweaty as I felt a sense of guilt, but I was confused. What made the film so wicked? It was just two men who were in love. If anything, it seemed to me like the people who persecuted them for being themselves were the real evil in the world. But I didn’t have the wits at the time to challenge the status quo. During one sermon, I remember suddenly getting a tap on my shoulder and being called to join the others at the altar “in need of anointing.” The pastor with his heavy hands and thunderous voice was tapping their heads with olive oil and telling them he was “rebuking the sins” from their souls.

I asked my grandmother right then if the pastor could rebuke anything. She said, “Yes, anything unholy, yes.” So I walked up bravely in the line, and he told me to bow my head and close my eyes and ask God for forgiveness for my sins. And then he forcefully touched my forehead, and off I went back to my seat. In that moment, I was asking God to fix anything that was wrong with me, and if our secret was unholy, for him to rebuke it. I would later realize this was an attempt to “pray the gay away” — and such actions wouldn’t do a damn thing to change what adolescence had in store for me.

“Ernest got a girlfriend,” my younger brother told my mother without my permission. I was a freshman in high school and had already gotten my first report card.

“All right now. You got all As; don’t let this turn them into Bs,” my mother said in reply. My mother could best be described as a bottom-line woman — caring, but a bigger fan of results. The bulk of my upbringing was centered on outperforming kids around me to reach my fullest potential. Folks talked about “tiger moms” who trained their Asian children to be fierce competitors; my mother’s parenting was focused on achievement as a means of survival. She couldn’t have cared less about my personal insecurities; I was always taught that the world didn’t have time for my excuses. This is what raising Black boys looked like to her — loving them unconditionally, but not to the point that they lacked discipline.

Having a girlfriend, in her eyes, was a liability, a hurdle in the way of all my aspirations. But for me, it was a personal insurance policy to keep bullies in high school from questioning my sexual orientation. While there were already schoolmates who were pregnant and boys showing off condoms in their wallets after school, I was fairly green to it all. Dating a sophomore girl who was the stage manager of a musical I was a part of took the pressure off me to justify why I wasn’t hooking up like the rest of the boys.

But by the time I turned 16, hormones overwhelmed my often disastrous attempts to resist my attraction to the same sex. I began to tell only a handful of my classmates, who weren’t as panicky about it as I initially feared. While I kept my identity open-ended when others my age inquired, I still tightened my grip around my family. I only talked about my studies and college prospects, and not so much about any of my personal interests and tastes. I began to learn very quickly that my growing love for Beyoncé’s choreography and bubble-gum pop music definitely could be an indicator that something was “off.” I was reminded of such when I informed family friends that I knew the entire “Single Ladies” dance from Beyoncé’s music video. I was 17 at the time, and everyone stared at me. I tried to brush it off as a joke and realized that I was beginning to get a little too comfortable for my own good.

And then, on election night 2008, the whole world changed. My mother watched with glee as president-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle took the stage with their daughters and spoke to the crowd after his historic victory. “You see that, Ernest, that can be you,” my mother said. “You might one day be the next president of the United States and have a family and bring me there with you. We just gotta find you a Michelle first.” I had a nervous grin, and I started to feel guilty. When I thought I was getting close to coming out, I was reminded why I couldn’t. In such moments, I remembered that I was her eldest son, the golden boy who had to make my family proud. Having boy crushes wasn’t going to bring me any closer to finding a “Michelle” of my own or getting my mother’s approval — which was then my highest purpose.

Later, I did make her proud as I became the senior class president and valedictorian, with a full ride to the University of Pennsylvania. But as the praise mounted, I was privately living a life of desperation. My homecoming and prom dates were both beautiful women who would leave me hanging the night of for jocks. The experiences reminded me how important it was to escape my provincial upbringing and explore. Philadelphia — and those nights in the Gayborhood — became my safe space to finally uncover the person I truly am.

It was hard to find “normal” clothes to wear when visiting my family over the holidays during college. I stayed away from the bright colors and tight clothing I wore for my outings at Woody’s; I didn’t want anything “suspicious.”

While my peers had exciting stories to tell their families about college, I resorted to only talking about my grades and some general controversies that happened on campus. I tried as much as possible to shift the focus away from my personal experiences to my professional aspirations. My mother, who once seemed only invested in my academic pursuits, began to lean in a little more.

“Who’s the little young lady you’re talking to now?” she would inquire. Trying not to lie, I’d say I was focused on my degree and didn’t need any distractions. She’d nod, but there was a part of me that knew she was skeptical. Something wasn’t right. The conversation would end with a deafening silence that would signal disbelief. I’d resort to showing her pictures I took of homegirls I went to events with. I knew at that point I was trying too damn hard and felt uncomfortable doing it. She would look a little more lively and pursue what felt like a deposition. These scenarios would play out every holiday season until a few drinks finally gave me the confidence to change that.

“I have to tell you something; close the door,” I told my mother on Christmas Eve of 2012.

“What is it? Are you okay?” she asked frantically.

“Something like that,” I said.

“Well, what is it?” she inquired.

“Well, Mama. I wanted to let you know that I’m gay,” I said in a sort of matter-of-fact way.

“Yeah, I know,” she said, playing it calm, like it was no big deal.

“Oh, okay. Well, I wanted to tell since I’m now 21 and I figured it was no longer a doubt.”

“I understand. Well, are you okay-okay? Like, nothing is actually wrong with you, right?” she said.

“No, I’m all good,” I answered.

“Well, that’s good. I love you, son. Mama gonna always love you,” she said as she began to hug me.

I knew it wouldn’t be as simple as that. My mother was being protective of my feelings, but that instant, a picture she had of me was shattered. A dream she had of her eldest son’s life was no longer going to come true. While there were no expressions of anger, there was a sense of bitterness in her realization that she could no longer guide me down what had become an unexpected path. I’m the only openly gay member of my family (though a few have been speculated about from time to time). My family history is a lineage of successful straight men of service who owned property, married wholesome Christian women, and had children. I’d been headed on that path by default, but my sexual orientation was the speed bump that disrupted that journey.

Even as I felt instant relief at the notion of being my true self in front of everyone, I tried to figure out ways to accept abandoning a patriarchy I no longer could participate in. This eventually came, with time and patience and a rewiring of a childhood of miseducation.

Being queer is a political statement more than just an individual identity. Like the choice to identify as “Black” in comparison to “African-American,” being queer holds institutional and conscious weight. My political beliefs are rooted in the ideology that no individuals should face discrimination or oppression based on their identity alone. Whether I was being Black or queer — or both — I deserved to exist freely and pursue happiness without restriction.

As I was growing up Black in the South, I was taught that expressions of love outside those defined by religious doctrine were an abomination. My gender expression and cultural tastes were condemned without a thought. My body was being programmed to react in ways that it refused to. I was damned before I could even start.

When I reflected on the countless people who never got a chance to live freely — either because of laws that discriminated or toxic standards of masculinity that infringed upon them — I told myself I deserved better. I am entitled to live unapologetically.

It would take many arguments, life lessons and hard decisions made before I finally reached the point where I could embrace the man I love openly in front of my family. But it was a challenge that was worth fighting for, one proving that the power of love conquers all.

Published as “Three Outs” in the March 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.