Eric (right) and Mike (left) reside in Kansas City, MO with their rambunctious guinea pig, Clyde.
Who Claps for You?
Finding yourself, at any age, is a process. This was certainly the case for me as a gay teen in a small town. For me, it was a long painful process that lasted into my twenties. To be frank, the transition to adulthood sucked. I grew up in Troy, TN and like many, I struggled with my identity in high school. Early on, I felt different but could not articulate why. As I matured, I began to appreciate the things that made me unique. That happened over time and with a support system. While I didn’t come out until my twenties, those that came out in high school faced challenges. The ones that were happier had a support system in place. They included a combination of family, close friends, and involvement in extra-curricular activities. My involvement in the arts changed my life. When I came out, my strongest advocates were fellow musicians, people I met through music, and my brother. To paraphrase one of my mentors, look for those who clap for you. Those were the ones that clapped for me.
Brene Brown once said, “vulnerability is at the core, the center, of meaningful human experiences.” It takes a lot of courage to live an authentic life, regardless of orientation or identity. I remained in the closet for part of my college life and was fearful of rejection, loss, and being alone. I learned quickly that coming out strengthened the relationships that mattered, so I began investing in the people who accepted me for me. In my ten years teaching public school, I’ve seen students struggle with self identity. I will say that our the youth of today is much more accepting of diversity than it was when I began teaching and certainly when I was in high school. I believe the next few years will produce more accepting and caring people. You can help carry that torch to make sure that happens.
Over five years ago, I began conducting a church choir at East End United Methodist Church. The experience there changed my life in many ways. I’m not overtly religious, but it was the first time I’ve ever been involved in a church community that welcomed members with the creed “Come as You Are.” The pastor went out of her way to welcome me and my partner at the time. Through East End I met some wonderful people, including two of my best friends, Carl and Leo. Carl collects antiques and sings bass in the choir. Leo makes an awesome meal best served with a side of sarcasm. They’ve been together for over thirty years. In 2014, Carl invited me on a rafting trip with several gay and straight men. I was single at the time. Carl used the rafting trip to set me up with the love of my life, Mike Valentine. We went on an official date two days later and have been together ever since. Our relationship has had several ups and downs, but like every healthy relationship, we’ve worked our way through it together.
My message to my eighteen year-old self is that self identity is a fluid concept. I have embraced the fact that I will continue to evolve and change as long as I live. In fact I don’t think I’ll ever completely figure it out and I’m ok with that. I have chosen to surround myself with those who enrich my life. My advice to you is find a place that you’re happy, grow roots, and make a difference. BUT, before you can clap for others, you have to find out who claps for you.
What was it like for you to live in a rural community?
It was difficult for me, but I was still figuring myself out at that point. I felt different but could not articulate why. As I matured, I began to appreciate the things that made me unique. That happened over time with a support system and my involvement in the arts.
What do you love best about the area?
I liked being in a place where people knew your name. There’s a sense of security in that. Its harder to find that in Nashville or Kansas City.
What would you like for local residents to know about the LGBTQ community?
I would like to let local residents know that it is very difficult to be LGBTQ, especially in smaller communities. Simple things like public affection, displaying pictures of significant others on a work desk, social media, or simply being themselves could have been followed with fear or shame. Some of the most intelligent, creative, and resourceful people in the world come from the LGBTQ community. They deserve acceptance and equal rights.
What advice would you give to those in the area who may feel alone?
I’ve taught public schools for ten years and am currently going to graduate school in a music conservatory. One thing to keep in mind regarding high school or college is that you’re never alone and you should always feel that you are valued. It takes a lot of courage to live an authentic life, regardless of orientation or identity. My message to my eighteen year-old self is that self identity is a fluid concept. I have embraced the fact that I will continue to evolve and change as long as I live. In fact I don’t think I’ll ever completely figure it out and I’m ok with that. I have chosen to surround myself with those who enrich my life. My advice to you is find a place that you’re happy, grow roots, and make a difference.
Photo/Essay project highlighting the LGBTQ and Ally Community in Obion County (a rural area in TN). Some participants still live in the area, while others have moved away after growing up there.