- Photos by Carlos Amoedo
When 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi leapt from New York’s George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, a portion of the nation’s psyche fell with him. Amid the non-stop white noise of anti-gay wedge politics – the fear of gay adoption and marriage, the frustration of gay soldiers faced with a fluctuating Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy – a message perhaps not discernable by adult ears was reaching a crescendo among the nation’s questioning youth. That message was simple: You may think you have it bad now facing the bullies in high school, but wait until you get out in the real world. That’s when people will really come after you.
Clementi’s suicide followed a string of similar sad stories – 13-year-old Seth Walsh in California, 15-year-old Billy Lucas in Indiana and 13-year-old Asher Brown in Texas all killed themselves within a month of each other – inspiring syndicated Savage Love columnist Dan Savage to launch his It Gets Better Project in conjunction with the national gay youth suicide hotline, The Trevor Project. According to Savage, gay (and gay-friendly) celebrities couldn’t carry any relatable message to the ordinary masses. Savage’s YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject) invited people from all walks of life to share their coming-out stories in the hopes that it might shift the narrative from bleak to manageable; real stories from regular people.
“What kids have a hard time picturing is a rewarding, good, average life for themselves,” he told the New York Times in September. “Becoming Ellen [Degeneres] is like winning the lottery. But there are a lot of happy and content lesbians who we don’t see or hear from ever. Those are the people teens need to hear from right now.”
We contacted Savage – whose column is published in this paper – and he gave us his blessing to move forward with a local iteration of the It Gets Better Project. Below are the stories of some notable and some ordinary gay Central Floridians, each coming from disparate (sometimes horrifying) places to arrive at the same conclusion: If you hang in there long enough, life inevitably improves.
Sam Singhaus, 52
I remember coming out. I remember it well. When I was 18 years old I wanted to run away to New York City. Apparently my parents had found out, some friends of theirs had found out, and I discussed it with my parents and, uh, so for two days I hid out at my friend’s house with my boyfriend. We were going away to study dance. We had to go by the house, though, to pick up our suitcases, and my parents were sitting there waiting for me. My dad was a football coach and a high school principal and my mother was a teacher, so having a gay son was not really on their list, not their ideal list. But we talked it out and they said that they think there are some things you should do for your family. And I said, well, ‘I think that you raised me right. You raised me to believe in being who I am, and I’m intelligent and healthy and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the gay lifestyle, because that’s what I am naturally.’ So I said, ‘Let’s just work this out.’ And like most parents, they disowned me. They disowned me for about six months.
I came home for Christmas for the first time and they were speaking to me a little better because it was Christmas and the holidays. But I hadn’t talked to them much before that. I had called them on the phone and chatted briefly. That was 30-some years ago, and it does get better. It gets better and better. As we grew older together, they accepted a lot more.
I actually learned to do this [drag performance] in New York doing theatrical shows, Broadway shows; I actually do it now. It turns heads. Back then, 30 years ago, you wouldn’t do this out in public really. But now when I leave work I can actually go to Publix like this and nobody says anything. They might say hi or wave or tell me it looks good, but that’s a great thing.
If you just wait it out and be yourself and treat others with respect – you know, you have to treat everyone with respect and be tolerant. It’s gotten a lot better, so far, and I think it’s getting a lot better. My parents, I took care of my mom, she’s passed. And now I take care of my 80-year-old dad. I still have to say everything twice to him, but he knows I do this and he’s OK with it, he’s pretty OK with it. I don’t do it in front of him too much, because I still respect him, he’s still a football coach.
Anyway, trust me, it gets better. Then you get older and you can tell everybody to just go and … be themselves!
Patty Sheehan, 49
Orlando City Commissioner, first openly gay politician elected in Central Florida
I was raised middle class; my father was a salesman. He was kind of your typical Irish drunk. Very abusive. He would beat my mother up ever since I can remember, and when I got old enough, I got between them, and then I became the family punching bag.
As I got older, I started having feelings for women and I was kind of confused by it because my family was very Catholic and very traditional. At home there were drills, and if I ever stepped out of line I got beaten. And once I got old enough, started maturing, the abuse started becoming sexual. It was difficult because I already knew I was different. I used to get beat up at school, too, because I was a nerdy kid. To have these feelings, as well, was very confusing to me. Then to have all these very confusing feelings sexually, about inappropriate advances from my father, I just felt there was no way out.
I remember I used to count down the number of years until I could get out of it. My mom did what she could to try to stop it, but she didn’t believe that, as a woman, she could support her kids, that she was trapped … She didn’t believe there was a way out. I didn’t believe there was a way out. This was life.
I decided one night I just couldn’t take it anymore. I had this bottle of pain pills, and I remember thinking I just can’t do this anymore.
I took the bottle of pills in my bedroom, barricaded the door, put a chair up underneath it. I can’t remember how many pills I took. I remember I started getting sick because I’d had so much water to try to get them down. I remember I told myself to calm down, and I laid down, and I just wanted to die, to finally, finally stop. Then I could go to heaven and be with my grandmother. I just wanted to be with someone who loved me.
I remember I could feel my hands getting really numb, and I remember thinking, OK, it’s gonna work. I remember feeling happy and feeling kind of relieved for the first time in a long time, which is kind of weird because you feel you have to die to get relief. That’s pretty sad.
I went to sleep and I woke up the next morning, and I remember being incredibly disappointed that I woke up. I got up in time to go to work, and I remember thinking I’m such a loser, I can’t even kill myself right.
I eventually ended up getting out.
I was actually living in my car for a while, and in a trailer in a barn for a while with some people from church … I remember thinking that even though I was in one of those little Airstream trailers in a barn, for the first time I felt safe.
There is a point you can get safe, where you’re gonna be OK, where someone won’t hit you anymore. Where you won’t get bullied. Where you don’t have to sleep in fear anymore. I know it’s really hard to think that there’s hope of that. But there is.
I started working hard and going to school, and I immersed myself in trying to take care of myself … I bought my first house at 21. I just wanted to have a place I could feel safe. Eventually, I said You know what? I want to be who I am. I was running around with folks who were older than I was; they were basically rednecks, I didn’t know how they were going to take me. But I ended up meeting one of the women’s daughters. And she ended up being a lesbian, and we got together. I ended up meeting my first girlfriend, and it was the most unexpected thing ever!
The funny thing is from the time I was 21, when I came out, to the time I was 25, I became a full-blown activist. It was pretty amazing. Once I felt safe, then I could accept myself. But it took me getting to that point where I could: I had to have safety first, then I could deal with all these other things.
Michael Wanzie, 53
playwright, actor, WTKS Real Radio 104.1 personality
I was born and raised Catholic and we were weekly churchgoing folk; the only two things I ever said I wanted to be is either an actor or a priest. I was brought up very religious.
In retrospect, I can look back to as early as first grade and know that I was attracted to boys, I just didn’t know what to call it. And you just didn’t let the thought process in your mind, even though it was always there. I’d never heard the word ‘homosexual’; I never heard the word ‘gay’ growing up. I was blind in one eye, so I didn’t have depth perception. I couldn’t catch a football or a baseball; I couldn’t know when the ball was going to come to me. No one ever explained to me that my lack of ability to do those things had to do with my vision problem. So in my head I started thinking that because I liked a lot of things that my sisters liked, that the two things were aligned and that maybe I should have been a girl. I had nothing else topin it on.
Toward the end of my sophomore year, I dropped out of school without my parents knowing it and basically ran away to Florida and worked at Disney, got a job as a Jungle Cruise host at Disney. Of course, it was full of gay people, but even then in 1974, everybody wouldn’t go around yelling and screaming that they were gay, and I wasn’t in on the code words. There was a lot of pressure, though, because everyone around me was dating. I pretended to have girlfriends – or I did have girlfriends but didn’t want to do anything with them. But then a Mormon came to work on the Jungle Cruise in the summer of ’75 and we became really good friends. He started telling me about his religion, and it was well known because he was Mormon he wasn’t to have premarital sex. He was a really likable guy and he got along with everybody. I converted and became a Mormon for no other reason than to have a viable excuse as to why I couldn’t sleep with the girls I was dating.
So I went to Utah. While I was out there I had a longstanding affair with a man who was just about to go on his two-year mission. And he had told me he was not going to confess that he had sex with another guy. I went and told the church that I had sex with this guy. So I ruined his mission. And they put me into a counseling program. I went in and, talking to the psychiatrist that they have, and I never say the word ‘gay’ and I’m not using the word ‘homosexual,’ and I’m saying things like, ‘Well, I did this with this person.’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘You cannot be helped, you will not be helped, until you say the words: I am a homosexual.’ He said, ‘Can you do that?’
So I said it, and at the moment I said it, I knew it was true. And like in a heartbeat there was complete and total clarity that I was and no one had the right to make me feel bad about it. Fortunately, I had this moment within days before my old roommate Marcia was flying in to be with me. The church’s very strong decree to me was that I should ask Marcia to marry me. We became engaged and sent out announcements. And she was already on her way to Utah to be with me when I suddenly decided this is all bullshit! On the very day she arrived at the airport I told her I wasn’t going to marry her and she said, ‘Oh, thank God!’
I just immediately made plans and came back to Orlando and swore never to be involved in organized religion again as long as I lived and have not. And it got better.
Trish Duncan, 38
CEO, Black Pride Orlando
I knew from a young age, probably like 4 or 5 or 6 years old, that there was something different about me. My family is from Jamaica, and one thing you understand growing up in the Caribbean culture is that homosexuality is unacceptable. It’s just not tolerated, not even a little bit. Really strong words were used, not necessarily from my mom and dad, but from other family members. ‘Kill the gay men, rape the lesbians,’ pretty strong stuff. When you’re growing up and you’re hearing that and you know already that you’re different, it doesn’t really give you a vehicle to be open about who you are.
When I was about 15, 16 years old, there was a coach who I thought the world of. I loved her style, she was really intelligent, she had gone to Florida State, played basketball. All those things that I wanted, she had already accomplished. She was an engineer for a firm, and I was like, Oh man, I want to be just like her. Everything that she did, I wanted to be.
One day my mom just said to me, ‘I don’t want you hanging out with her anymore.’ I was hurt. I didn’t understand, and I asked her why and she just said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
To many who might be listening to this and wondering, ‘Did this coach do something to you,’ the answer is absolutely not. All she did was open her world up. Never even said, ‘Oh I’m a lesbian.’ She just said this is who I am. And I looked up to her.
At that time, I didn’t have any brothers or sisters in the house, they were much older than me and moved out. So I appreciated her guidance.
I was messed up for a long time, for several months. It got to a point that I contemplated suicide because I felt lost. It was like my best friend was gone. I didn’t have anyone who could give me any guidance or leadership. I couldn’t come out to any family members and tell them what I felt was going on. Who could I talk to?
I was frustrated, lonely. I felt like I had no place I could go. I didn’t know a phone number for a help line or anything. I didn’t know how to describe me, let alone how to search for help.
I knew that my sexuality was not that of the norm. I also knew that my family, in particular my mom, is very religious. I didn’t want her to have to pick between her god and me. So you keep that to yourself. You don’t really open up.
Fortunately, there was one family member, Raymond, an older cousin, maybe eight years older than me. He was really cool and down to earth. He didn’t throw any stones. He didn’t judge me. I started having daily conversations with Raymond, and he would tell me, ‘Hey man, there’s nothing wrong with you … When you get older, even if you have some attraction to women, that’s OK, that’s all right.’
He saved my life. And you know what’s ironic? Just a year ago, he took his.
When I got to college, three hours away, I got away from other people’s regimes. I was probably around 19 or 20 years old when I came out. I bought my own property by the time I was 23 years old, working for corporate America. I was an overachiever.
My mom’s not totally excited, even to this day, about my sexuality. However, she respects me as an individual. Who I am as a lesbian, it’s tiny in comparison to who I am as a person.
Life is a lot better when you’re an adult. At the moment, you might think this is all that’s going on, this might seem like the end of the world to you. But it’s not. You’re just getting started.
It’s life. Keep pressing. It definitely gets better.
Mack Herron, 58
appliance specialist, Lowe’s
I was sexually abused by my father from the time I was 4 til I was 13, so I never doubted that it was normal for guys to be affectionate with each other. In a way, I was already out at an early age – I wanted to play with other kids the same way I was played with. When I finally told my mom I was gay [at 17], her first words were: ‘Can you get out of it?’ As if I were in the mafia or something. My brother liked to embarrass me in front of other family members that I hadn’t come out to: ‘Did you know Mack’s queer?’ In high school in Newton [near Boston], I was constantly made fun of – ‘faggot, queer,’ the typical stuff. They’d gang up on me; ask me favors in return for not getting bullied even more.
I didn’t really have friends in high school, but when I got older and started making friends downtown, it got easier. Nothing was allowed when I was a kid – it was still taboo. Even going to a bar, you couldn’t dance [with another guy]. It was illegal. On Sunday nights, if you wore a red sweater, there was one bar that would let you go down in the basement and dance for awhile. You danced for an hour, then they’d close it up, and everybody’d go back up to the bar, hang around and pretend again. Some of the bars would have lights up in the corners to let you know that the vice squad was coming in. When the lights went on, everybody would stop, and we underage kids would go out the back door. You had to keep everything hush-hush – this was still before [the] Stonewall [riots], which started gay pride.
As I got older, everything just kind of fell in place. I got jobs in bars; I was a cute little thing, so I had no problem getting jobs as a bartender. Meanwhile, things got better and better legally. Now it’s so much easier; there’s so much available to anybody that’s coming out to get help. There was nothing when I was growing up. Nothing. We relied on going to a bar to meet people like ourselves. So for today’s kids: hang in there, talk to your family. Worst case scenario? You move away to a more friendly place.
Billy Manes, 38
staff writer, Orlando Weekly
I can’t remember whether I ever had the chance to realize I was gay or not. Sure, there were the wide-eyed telltale signs – the Ken Doll, the angel outfits, the proclivity toward choral programs – but there was always a vicious noise grinding beneath the public desire to please, drowning out both nature and nurture. Away from the extracurricular machinations of church and school, I was a wreck. A certain family member a few years my senior was quickly turning playtime into a shameful hell. I’m pretty sure it all started around the age of 8. What began as a sort of sexual pantomime mimicking the coital thrusts of my single mother and her boyfriend (and whatever else was on HBO) quickly escalated into something altogether more sinister. By the age of 10 I was already skipping school to stay home and play seductress; ‘humping’ we called it, and it was the most attention I ever had from anyone.
Then he hit puberty. He hit puberty on my chest. Without going into too much detail, the introduction of actual sexual desires – first from him, later from me – would set off nearly a decade of increasingly regrettable scenarios. He was the bully, scratching out Simon Le Bon’s mouth on my Duran Duran posters and scribbling ‘fag’ in with a marker. But he was also my abusive lover, creeping into my bed in the middle of the night for a handjob. I didn’t know where it was going, just that it was getting worse. He grew violent, started drinking and punching holes in the walls, and was occasionally shipped away to live with other family members. But he always came back, and when he did, things would inevitably pick up right where they left off.
I remember the pain, the aching void of when it finally crossed the line. Me with a pillow over my face sobbing through unlubricated penetration. I remember him getting up, wiping off and leaving. I remember sitting on the toilet and bleeding and crying. I remember telling myself that I would never let this happen again. At the lowest point, he broke into my bedroom through a sliding glass door. I spent the whole night trying to convince him and his drunk felicitations that it wasn’t him, it was me. But he won, and I almost died.
That was the night before my 16th birthday. The next day I was sent home from my record-store job after finally confiding in a manager the terror that had been my constitution for more than half of my life. I told my parents and they did nothing. By then, he was in the army, a hero in the making. I, meanwhile, had upset appearances and was forbidden from getting my driver’s license. It got worse. I started acting out, even seducing a pedophile radio DJ and letting him suck me off outside of a stripmall in exchange for some Duran Duran promotional materials. The wound stayed open.
Only a few years later in college would the words actually come from my mouth (and my fingers, as it were; I became a wordy soap opera star in the Florida State writing department). I met a guy one night, slept with him and we shacked up in a duplex two days later. I called my parents to finally tell them, ‘Hey, I’m gay.’ They called it a phase, told me not to ‘burn any bridges.’ In fairness, my stepbrother had just died of AIDS after having been in the closet his entire life. They were still in shock.
It didn’t really get better for a long time after that, honestly. At 28 I tried to kill myself, still heeding the screeches and howls between my late night ears, by this time amplified by drugs and alcohol. But it was that moment of self-immolation that started the rest of my life. Somehow, through all of the emotional thickets, I had managed to divine a writing career, one that continues today. And the choices I make are my choices, the words I scrape together are viscerally my own, the feelings I have are real. I don’t hide anything anymore. Now, even my worst days are miles above the small moments I used to call euphoria as a child. In 2001, I met the husband I’m still with today, in 2005 I ran for freakin’ mayor. Duran Duran? They know me. I talk to all of my family now – including that family member – and I do so as a proud survivor. You get past it, you choose your battles, you make yourself. The day you stop being a work in progress is the day you die, and nobody wants you to do that. Stick around.
Randy Stephens, 55
executive director, GLBT Community Center of Central Florida
I was born in rural Alabama – a small little podunk town called Talladega. There, gay rights were pretty much nonexistent, as you can imagine. In TV or in movies, the male characters that had a hint of being effeminate … somehow they always met a tragic death. So growing up, that’s how I equated it: If you were of ‘that persuasion,’ you would die.
Also, being raised Southern Baptist didn’t help. So when I started having these feelings, in junior high and high school, I fought it and fought it, I prayed, I cried to myself at night. As a result, I tried to recreate myself. I got involved in masculine things. I wasn’t just a football player – I was a mean S.O.B. of a football player who would pick fights. I was the kind of guy that would scream in the locker room and hit his head against the wall. I thought that the more masculine stuff I did, the more likely it was to go away. I was one of the ones telling queer jokes – I think back on this one kid who was very effeminate, made his own clothes, and we’d say horrible things to him. And I look back now, and I would give anything to go back and apologize to him.
It really took me until college to realize that these feelings weren’t going to go away. I probably didn’t even admit it to myself until I was about 23, 24 years old. Coming out to friends was probably in my late 20s, early 30s. My parents died without me ever telling them that I was gay.
For high schoolers, I would strongly encourage talking to a counselor – even in small, rural areas in the South, they’ve usually got enough common sense to recognize the difficulty of your situation. In the meantime – I know this is said a lot – but really, you’ve got to just put one foot in front of the other; you’ve just got to hold on. Things will improve.
John Sullivan, 41
co-founder of the Orlando Youth Alliance, Watermark contributor
I grew up in a big family, second to the youngest of seven, and a very religious family, born again Christians. It made it kind of hard when, at a pretty young age, I figured out that something about me was different from all of the others, although I couldn’t really put a finger on it.
It was actually October of 1984 and I was 15 years old. My cousin Michelle, who was the same age, and I wanted to go see Cyndi Lauper. It was actually Oct. 29. A friend of my mom’s that she worked with took us.
We get there, and made our way into the crowd and waiting for the concert to start, and I was just noticing people. I looked around and there were guys who had their arms around each other. At first it just freaked me out. It was like, ‘Oh my god, these people are gay.’ And then the concert started and at some point in the show Cyndi tells the story about Celie and Shug from The Color Purple. And she doesn’t come right out and say it, but she talks about them facing adversity and overcoming obstacles and finding a way to be who they are, honestly, and living that truth. And that really spoke to me.
So of course I left there – and this is before the movie and Oprah and all that, so The Color Purple wasn’t even on my radar – and I ended up going out and getting the book. And the way it’s presented, the whole ‘Dear God,’ the chapters like her talking to God, and then as it gets into the story, her feelings for Shug and all of that, it became apparent what Cyndi was talking about. Now, again, 1984 – nobody was standing up and saying I love the gays, and this was as close as we had come so far.
In fact, she dedicated the song to the Celies and the Shugs of the world. She knew, and the people who she wanted to speak to knew. And that was me.
I was at the Bayfront Center, I’m sure they all weren’t gay, but down there in the front of the stage it was pretty gay, and for me to see that, it showed me that so much of what I’d been taught about gay people had been a lie.
You know, it does get better.
So many people say they’re afraid to go to the teacher or to the principal or to the counselor, and when they do they’re met with resistance or told they need to tone it down. Well that’s bullshit. You keep going. You make a record of it when you go, who you talked to. If it’s something you can’t get resolved with the teacher or the principal or within the school, go to the superintendent of schools or the school board. If that doesn’t work, go to the Orlando Weekly or Watermark. Don’t be quiet about it. If somebody is screwing with you, whether it’s verbal abuse or physical, speak out, do something to stop that. Because nobody has to go through that.
Keith Theriot, 50
artist, program manager, Orlando Department of Housing and Community Development
I figured out I was gay when I was 11 or 12 years old, so I prayed and prayed for it to go away. A few years later my mother was working on a psychology degree, and I was determined to find out what this homosexuality thing meant. In her book – I remember it like it was yesterday; it was called Healthier Living – there was a paragraph that said the American Psychiatric Association had declared homosexuality to not be a mental illness. That sort of let me know that I wasn’t the one with the problem. But I’m from a very small town in south central Louisiana, and I knew it wasn’t a good idea to come out there, so I set my goal to come out when I moved away to college at LSU. And that’s what I did.
I was really lucky in high school – I never really got bullied, girls liked me and guys wanted to be around me. Honestly, the harassment that I endured was in college. The first year I was there we lived in a dorm, and my roommate was also gay, and was out, and was pretty effeminate. So the door of our room was frequently assaulted with basketballs and bats, and when I’d run out to find out who it was, they would scramble. One night, my roommate went to take a shower, and I heard a bunch of noise. Seven or eight guys were attacking him in the shower, throwing stuff at him.
If you weren’t from Baton Rouge, you were required to live on campus – but after that incident we wanted out. I went to the resident assistant who did the ‘boys will be boys’ thing. Then I went to the dean, who basically said the same thing. Then I threatened him, since I was a Senate Page, and I knew all the attorneys that worked for the Louisana state senate. So he let us move off campus.
Then it got wonderful. I met lots of people in the gay community that really took me under their wing and showed me I wasn’t ‘different.’
The biggest issue is helping people understand that this isn’t a choice. You kind of have to break it to people slowly. When you’re coming to terms with being gay, it takes a long time. I had seven years to process it before I came out. So you can’t really dump it on someone and immediately expect them to respond positively. You have to let people process it like you had to process it.