I've debated telling this story for a long time because it is hardly my story. But I feel moved to tell it, especially today. I hope the man in this story, who I will call Tom, won't mind that I have. If he ever finds it here and recognizes himself, I hope that he remembers me well enough to know my intentions come from a deep place within my heart.
Over the past few years I've run into Tom a number of times. The first time I met him was in a job readiness seminar at the Adult Probation & Parole office. He struck me as serious minded, focused on putting his life together. The next time I saw him, he was wearing a jumpsuit, sitting in the class I teach at the jail. Every few months I met with him. He left, then came back again for a time.
One day Tom told me his background.
He grew up in the LDS church, knowing there was something different about him and believing it wasn't okay. He stuffed down his feelings. He went to BYU, got married, had children. Began stuffing down his feelings with food. Gained a dangerous amount of weight. Had surgery. Could no longer stuff down his feelings with food, so he turned to alcohol. Eventually his marriage ended. He was nearly 40 when he allowed himself to accept that he was gay. He'd only barely started coming out to people the year before I met him. He felt his family members were, at best, unsupportive.
Everything fell apart, and then fell apart some more.
We sat in the interview room. His anguish was palpable. He had told me his story in hopes that I could find information about programs or organizations that help people in his particular situation to make a fresh start. We looked some things up, then I asked him if I could show him a short video.
We watched this.
By the end, Tom had tears streaming down his face. He could not believe it was possible. Not that BYU students could make a video like that without repercussions. I assured him it was. And though we didn't talk about it, I imagined he had also not believed it was possible that he could love himself or that the God he believed in could love him.
I have no idea where Tom is now or what he is doing, but I am not exaggerating when I say that meeting with him that day was one of the most meaningful experiences I've ever had. And it breaks my heart that he's not the only one who has lived or will live in that hell.
As my friend Christian says, "Closets are no place for children of God."
Update: In re-reading this, I realize that I inadvertently painted Tom as someone who is always serious or unhappy. The part of the story that is missing from this post is that most of my exchanges with Tom were positive and forward-thinking. He often had a smile on his face, and one of his dreams was to own a small neighborhood bakery. As you can imagine, I'm a big fan of small neighborhood businesses. We had some happy conversations about how he could achieve that.