Sam's Story: Unexpected Grace

Making the choice to come out was hard—easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But, I’m lucky. My story has far more happy moments than sad ones. If only I had known it would unfold this way. If only.

In many ways, my story could be a case study in how family, friends, colleagues and, yes, even the church, can do things right. This isn’t a narrative common in our community, but it is a narrative I’m humbled to be part of. You won’t find any church-related trauma; my communities of faith were so supportive, my spiritual journey was actually enhanced. You won’t find family and friends struggling with my coming out; nearly without exception, every important person in my life has shown their love so boldly, my relationships have grown by the power of being truly authentic with one another.

What you will find in this story is a boy so insecure and uncomfortable he couldn’t see his true self, a boy who would build so many walls—in the form of life plans, goals, and ambitions—he couldn’t even see they were walls at all.

Instead of recognizing these feelings, I was busy building a plan. One of those obnoxious plans a teenager makes, projecting his entire life. Mine was different, though; I was going to do it. All of it. I was your run-of-the-mill kid who thought he was going to grow up to be President, or, if he had to settle, a member of Congress. Somehow, I got closer to that dream than many are able, but I’d come to realize those details were all part of the wall I was building internally.

I grew up in a family well-known in a small context. Several family members were local politicians, my dad was the chief of police, and my grandfather was one of the last old-school political party bosses—he embodied the good and bad of all the images that term conjures up. I have vivid memories of being in smoke-filled rooms (literally and figuratively), observing the political process as a little boy. Existing in this world became a bit of a safe space for me, before we started overusing the term. In those settings, I found a thrill. A thrill that allowed me to briefly escape whatever turmoil surrounded me.

My family, like all families, had (and has) our fair share of “issues,” especially related to alcoholism and depression. I have been disciplined enough to escape the former, but not the latter. My plan served the dual purpose of helping me to withdraw from these situations while building up the resume I’d surely need to execute the plan. I did it all—music, theater, and sports (though I wasn’t particularly good at any of those things); political activism, service clubs, and academic teams. I was a state speech and debate champion and an Eagle Scout at 16. You name it, I did it and, of course, added it to the list of achievements. After all, if something can’t be tracked in a spreadsheet, it probably isn’t worth doing (only partially joking).

The other way I escaped was in my love for church. I would spend the night with my grandmother nearly every Saturday night until it became uncool (this is also the setting where I had my first exposure to the Golden Girls, knowledge I didn’t know would be so helpful a few decades down the road). In the morning I would go to church with her, usually opting to attend her Sunday School class as opposed to my own because I liked the content better and, if we are being honest, probably enjoyed the attention I was getting from the elderly women. I became really involved in my small-town Disciples of Christ congregation—a congregation likely on the conservative end of the mainline, but those distinctions were far from my stream of consciousness at the time. Central Christian Church was no doubt a loving and caring community, but diving into deep theological questions about life—and certainly sexuality—was not in the cards.

Soon enough, I graduated and moved to Bloomington to attend college at Indiana University. My pattern of involvement to escape would continue and grow. I was in the Air Force ROTC program as a means to pay for college and was quickly drawn into a fraternity. My future wife was literally the first girl I met at IU; she became my best friend and a few years later we began to date and were engaged. It felt like the right thing—the evolution of our relationship felt so normal, like it was part of the plan. One of the things you hear in coming out stories is people hearing the phrase: “you just haven’t met the right girl yet.” I did meet the right girl, on literally the first day of college. She is an amazing woman and we share(d) many amazing things together.

After I completed my active duty Air Force commitment, I moved to Michigan in order to be with my fiance, and our plan—my plan—continued to unfold. We had a beautiful wedding, finished grad school, moved again for great jobs, built great careers, bought my dream house and, most importantly, we welcomed into our lives the two people that would become the most important things in the world to us: our two kids.

My closeted life—though, again, I didn’t recognize it as such—was great. It was a life most people would long for; it was the life I had longed for. But, something didn’t feel genuine. I continued to rationalize away reality. I interpreted this disingenuousness as being tied to my political ambition, a cost associated with running for office on a statewide and congressional scale at such a young age. In the midst of living the life I had longed for and pursuing my dreams, I did the only thing that seemed plausible, the only thing I had been taught: to ignore and move past feeling different, feeling other. Consciously, I didn’t lament this at all. Subconsciously, with the power of hindsight, it’s so obvious that this closet I was not-so-blissfully unaware of was taking a mental and physical toll on me.

Things started to fall apart when I lost my statewide race in 2010. I knew I would lose; losing was part of the plan. But then I lost … and was devastated. I couldn’t figure out why. I tried to cling on to any relic of that experience—finding other projects to capture my attention, pursuing other interests even when I knew they wouldn’t be fruitful, and becoming addicted to people associated with the campaign—hoping they weren’t ready to move on, either. I started to lose my mind—in both the figurative and clinical senses of the term. One of the closest people to me in that campaign had the courage to tell me that I wasn’t acting like the person he respected and that I should talk to someone.

It took a long time to get in the swing of things related to counseling. I would make appointments and not show up, or I would go and sit in the parking lot, lacking the courage to go in. The truth is, I probably knew what I needed to say, I just wasn’t ready to say it quite yet. I worked with a few counselors, but ended up firing three of them. I’m self-aware enough to disclose that I have a tough personality—if I don’t want to let you in, you probably aren’t going to get in. I finally connected with a counselor who knew how to ask me the right questions, who made me feel safe enough to let my guard down. The easy part was confirming what I already knew: I wasn’t mourning the loss of an election. I was, however, mourning the loss of my plan. I was mourning the loss of my identity—an identity that may not have been genuine, but was mine. I had spent every moment of my life living into that identity, and a few cracks sent the entire enterprise crashing down. So, what was my genuine identity? What had I been suppressing for thirty years? That took a long time to come to terms with. I walked through this same story and was able to begin seeing all of those details I had missed—intentionally or unintentionally—over the years.  

Rather unceremoniously I accepted the conclusion I should have accepted all along: I was gay. I had never had an official “gay experience,” but I knew, I was gay.

I’ve always thought I could control things, and this was no exception. Now that I knew this about myself, I could live with it forever. There was no good reason to mess with a life that many would die for, right? I would simply hide this away and forget about it. I probably could have done it. In a rare moment of true authenticity, however, I chose not to.

Once I decided to come out, my wife was the first person I told. As you might suspect, it was a tumultuous moment. In an instant, I lost my marriage, my best friend, and the picture-perfect family and lifestyle I had worked my whole life to achieve. It wasn’t clear at the time that it would be worth it and, on bad days, I still ask myself that sometimes. But doing so opened a path to authenticity I am thankful for; it opened a path for genuine happiness, even in the midst of struggle.

My best friends are my still my fraternity brothers from college. They are mainly stereotypical fraternity guys—very straight, very “masculine,” and very conservative. I was terrified coming out would somehow change things. It didn’t; they have all been wonderful. To them, this wasn’t a grandiose idea of justice, they will never be found marching in the Pride Parade, but their friend—their brother—needed them and they were there, no questions asked.

My family, too, has been wonderful. Without exception. They have always loved and supported everything I’ve pursued and, however tough adjusting to my newly accepted identity might have been, they were there for me every step of the way. It is my prayer that my children, young enough at the time of my coming out to never remember another reality, will be the main benefactors of a parent who can be more comfortable and confident in his own shoes.

My faith community, Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, was hardly on the forefront of achieving advances for the LGBTQ community within church politics, but became a refuge for me—a place where I could meditate and think about what God was doing in my life. Processing my self-discovery in this sacred place is where I first sensed a call to ordained ministry and where I knew I wanted to devote my professional career to helping others find the support I found myself lucky to have.

My post-coming-out story has been full of twists and turns, all over the place on the spectrum of happy to sad. But I’ve been able to approach each turn with the confidence of knowing that I’m doing so as my full self—as a human loved unconditionally by God.

I’ve been lucky. Or, maybe more so, I’ve been the recipient of a lot of grace—from God, from others, and, most recently, from myself. I’ve fallen in love with the notion of irresistible grace from my reformed tradition of theology. It is easy to conceive of the grace coming from God as being irresistible—much harder for us to be irresistibly graceful toward our own selves. My coming out has helped that scared boy focused on an oppressive plan move further along on the journey of self-acceptance. A journey I look forward to continuing in community with my other siblings in Christ.


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