While driving back from a long, intense weekend retreat with my church, I got a call from my friend Marie.
“We need to see you tonight.”
“We who?” I didn’t try to hide the exhaustion in my voice.
“Chris and I.”
“I’m so tired Marie, can it wait? I just got back in town, ” I said.
Her voice changed, and started to shake a bit. “No. Tonight.”
“Alright, is everything OK?”
“Just call us when you’re close, ” she said.
Marie was friends with Chris for as long as I was. The three of us had been inseparable since grade school.
If you dug out my diaries from middle and high school, you would find them filled with entries declaring my undying love for Chris. He moved to Jacksonville from Long Island, NY in the middle of fifth grade, into a house down the street from me. To my delight, he was also placed in the same class. We were best friends from day one. He was cute and tall, with blond hair and blue eyes. I was instantly in love.
Chris was always different, which is what made me love him. He was funny and thoughtful, but he also was the only kid I knew who ironed his T-shirts and shorts. He liked to do normal things like ride bikes, swim, and play games, but he wasn’t rough and slightly cruel like most of the boys I knew. Chris was quieter, until you got to know him. He always had a group of girls for friends, never boys. The qualities that made me love him, his kind personality, and his uniqueness, made him an easy target for bullies. Our classmates called him a “faggot, ” almost daily.
My understanding of “faggot” was not Chris. I assumed he was singled out only because he was thin, not very athletic, and had a majority of female friends. Bullies were not known for their research or accuracy. Chris talked about and dated girls, shopped at the typical guy stores, and acted like most other boys I knew. I didn’t question his sexuality. Gay was different, weird, and separate. Chris was safe, normal, and a part of me.
I picked up my phone to call and let Marie and Chris know I was close.
As I pulled into the park by my apartment where I was meeting them, a list of possible things scrolled through my mind. Chris was just dumped by his girlfriend of the past two years, could he have found out she was cheating? He was in a fraternity and drank a lot, did he get a DUI? He wasn’t irresponsible, so I doubted that. His mother was a lifelong smoker, was she sick?
I exited the car and saw them sitting on a giant tree branch hanging low to the ground. In my neighborhood there was practically a park on every corner, and all of them were filled with huge oak trees. It was late, and the ground was covered with fallen moss. I could hear the water from the river lapping against the concrete bridge to the left. Even in the dim light from the one lamp post, I could see they both looked nervous.
I sat down on a bench across from them. “You guys are seriously freaking me out. Just tell me what’s going on.”
They looked at each other, and Chris laughed nervously.
“This was so much easier when I was drunk and told Marie.”
I was getting exasperated. “Did you get a DUI? Is your mom OK? Did you get someone pregnant?”
“Emily, I’m gay.” He said it more to the ground than me.
It felt like all the air was sucked out of my lungs. I was taken by complete surprise–this was not something I’d expected or prepared for. My mind flashed to a conversation Chris and I had in high school. We used to go on nightly long walks together, sometimes stopping to lie down in the grass and look up at the stars, talking about our fears and futures. During one of these, we were discussing how the guys at school still sometimes called him “faggot”, to his face and behind his back. After a long pause, I asked him if he was gay. Told him I would love him if he was. Without pausing, he said no. I had never doubted his sexuality since then.
The sound of a twig breaking beneath Marie’s foot snapped me back to the present. Brow furrowed, mouth slightly agape, Chris’s eyes were focused on me. Waiting for a reaction. With a deep breath I lifted myself off the bench, crossed the small space between us, and embraced him.
“I love you. And nothing is going to change that. Ever.”
For a while the only sounds were our breathing, and the water lapping against the concrete.
Afterwards, alone in my apartment, I sat on the couch and sobbed.
They were tears of fear. And anger. Afraid for what people would do if and when they found out. Afraid he would be faced with even more hateful words, or worse, violence. Angry, because after fifteen years of friendship, this was the first time he was telling me. It felt like betrayal.
Anger and fear weren’t the only emotions swirling through my body. Confusion too. He said he wasn’t gay, and talked about and dated girls. He adamantly refused to do anything seemingly effeminate, like going to the popular club frequented by the LGBT crowd. He wouldn’t even go into women’s stores with me. Fifteen years. Fifteen years of conversations, hugs, laughter, tears, and fights, all the time keeping this secret from me. Chris knew absolutely everything about me, and had seen me through some of the worst things I’ve ever experienced. Yet I never knew.
A couple weeks passed. When the initial shock wore off, I called him.
“Hey, I know it’s been weird and we haven’t really hung out—”
“You OK?” His voice sounded more tired than angry.
“Yeah, just want to talk. Can you come over tonight?”
He showed up a few hours later. There wasn’t any of our usual teasing and laughing. Without saying anything, he walked over to the couch across from my chair and sat down. We were facing each other. I was used to him sitting with his head resting in my lap, not 10 feet away from me.
Everything came out of my mouth in a blur. “I’m overwhelmed by all of this. It’s so much to handle. How long did you know?”
His attention stayed focused on the pillow in his lap. “I probably realized it in boy scouts. That’s my first memory of being attracted to guys. But I couldn’t admit it to myself until a few years ago. Deep down, I think I always knew.”
“Then you lied to me. When we talked about it in high school.” My voice was getting shaky and my hands were clammy. “Why would you do that? You knew I loved you and supported you.”
Chris played with a button on the pillow. “It wasn’t lying; I couldn’t even admit it to myself. I kept thinking dating girls would make the feelings go away.” He let out a pitiful sounding laugh. “Couldn’t even say it to myself, out loud, ‘I’m gay’ until a few months ago.”
He seemed to sink into the couch cushions. His voice was barely above a whisper. Our eyes had met only once. It was easy to see how hard it was for him to tell me this, but my feelings were still raw.
“You didn’t have to deal with this yourself.” I meant it to sound angry, but it came out sad. I shook my head and stared at the floor, fighting back the hot tears forming in the corners of my eyes. “I just can’t believe you didn’t trust me enough to tell me. I’ve never kept anything from you Chris.”
“You were different then Em.” This made me look up at him.
He met my gaze. Chris looked as exhausted as I felt. Like what he was about to say had been weighing down on him for years.
“Did you ever wonder why I never liked going to church and youth group with you, even though you begged me too?”
“I prayed, every night, asking God to take my feelings away. Asking him to fix, or cure me, so I didn’t like boys.”
“You prayed?” I asked.
“Every night. The longer it got without God changing me, the less I felt like having anything to do with Him. It made me mad.”
My memory went to the first day in 5th grade when we met. Since then, I’d been trying to convert Chris. Whenever our church or youth group would tell us to pray for someone who wasn’t a Christian, my mind would land on him. Chris was a Catholic, a “Creaster” who went to Mass on Christmas and Easter, not an atheist. But I had assumed, since he wasn’t being led through weepy sinner’s prayers in my arms, he had no relationship with God. Hearing him say he prayed more than I did, for our entire friendship, shook me to my core.
I leaned forward. “Can I ask you something?”
“Were you afraid if you told me, I wouldn’t be your friend anymore, because I was so religious?”
“Yeah, ” he said without pause, “that’s probably the biggest reason I never told you.”
His confession ripped through me. How could he ever think I would cut our friendship off over his sexuality?
But as the initial sting wore off, I thought about who I was then. How would I have reacted, raised by Focus on the Family and conservative Christian beliefs? Ones explaining homosexuality as a sickness in need of a cure, a perversion fixed with prayer, hard work, and “good” parenting?
After I asked in high school if he was gay, I told him I’d still love him if he was, but I would have been upset. I would have mentioned being worried about his salvation. I might even have told him that he wasn’t really gay, he was confused, and just needed to meet the right girl. Said that if we prayed hard enough, and he had strong enough faith, God would heal him. This was what I believed about homosexuality for most of my childhood and young adult life. It was a sin and a sickness in need of healing.
The older I got, the farther I stepped outside my Christian bubble. People I met challenged this, and every belief. Still, until this conversation with my best friend, I never thought maybe, just maybe, what I was taught about homosexuality could be all wrong.
The painful waves from his words receded, and in their place laid a floor of regret.
“I’m sorry Chris. I’m sorry you were afraid to tell me. I honestly don’t want to know what would have happened if I found out then.”
We hugged. Agreed to let the past stay there, and went out for a drink.
This post is an excerpt from Emily Timbol’s first book, Two Words: Why Hearing “I’m Gay” Changed My Straight, Christian Life