by Rollie Williams
Author’s note: This essay was originally composed in the summer of 2016. The world has obviously changed since then. As such, I acknowledge my references to it getting better may not resonate as clearly as they once did with many readers. However, due to that fact I felt it was even more necessary for people to hear a positive story, which is why the piece is presented as first written.
My name is Rollie and I’m a bisexual man in my late twenties. It’s taken me a long time to say that with any confidence at all. If you’re wondering how long, I’ll give you a hint: It’s somewhere in the late twenties. In today’s world, living in Seattle, you might wonder what the hell took so long. Was he conservative? What was he afraid of? Did he experiment in college and adopt a new identity to match? The reality is frustratingly stereotypical and indicative of the power the patriarchy has over all of us. It has a happy ending though, I promise.
I grew up in a small Texas town where the all-encompassing importance of high school football was rivaled only by Christianity. I’m not talking about the diet Jesus y’all have up here with the Pride flag displayed alongside the stained glass that says “All Are Welcome”. I’m talking about the Southern Baptist, every word in the Bible is true, “you will burn in Hell forever” Jesus. Imagine Friday Night Lights meets Jesus Camp and you’re almost there. I went to the same Christian private school as Ted Cruz.
You can imagine, it wasn’t an extremely welcoming environment for us queers. In fact, avoiding getting “smeared” was a real part of life for many people. Sexual deviance wasn’t even a requirement for patriarchal violence. Simply diverting from the deeply entrenched gender norms that cover every single word choice, item of clothing, posture, and social interaction was plenty to inspire corrective action.
It was in this world that I went through puberty and struggled to figure out who I was. Lucky for me, I was an athletic white guy so there was a very privileged box that I could mostly jam myself into if I bent a little and tried really hard not to break. Here is where our story gets painfully paradigmatic. You know the super jock who performed perfect masculinity and helped to enforce these norms on those around him in order to compensate for … ummm… something?
Yeah, that was me. I don’t remember myself as a bully but there are others that might feel differently. Performing a sixteen year old’s extreme idea of masculinity is hard to do without hurting people, both physically and emotionally. I’m still pretty ashamed of the way I treated many of the young men and women that were a part of my life. I try to be kind to myself now and say that I didn’t know any better. It’s true; I didn’t. I was doing what I thought I was “supposed to do” when I treated my sexual partners like objects, when I defended my pride with violence. I was being a man, the best I knew how to be. Understanding now why I was this way and even having some sympathy for my younger self doesn’t make the pain I caused any less real. Ooof, I promised a happy ending right? Not quite there yet.
Like any good Texan, I internalized all of these hurtful norms. Of course, I realized relatively early on how wrong they were and changed my mind, but it’s much more complicated than that. I knew intellectually that it was okay that (other) people are gay. I knew that all people should be treated with respect. I knew all of these things, but the damage done to my views of the world went much deeper. Hatred, bigotry, or any other bogus view that is learned young and reinforced at every turn is like a tumor made of glass. The day you realize its falsity, it shatters. It takes years though, to dig each little shard out of your body. Each one is hard, painful work and there always seem to be more. I stole that metaphor from someone, but I can’t remember who. Almost definitely a woman.
It took many years of excruciating and sometimes embarrassing public surgeries before I was finally able to admit that I found men attractive. Never mind that I’ve been hooking up with them since I could drive. Each one of those early experiences was carefully repressed and kept secret from everyone around me. Until they weren’t. Eventually, news of one of my encounters did get around and cause me a bit of a dilemma.
I lost friends. I got prank calls. I definitely lost status amongst my athlete friends. I survived though. In fact, I had performed my hetero sexuality so garishly that most people dismissed my secret as an unfounded rumor. I’m sure the privilege I oozed in pretty much every other area helped quite a bit too. This, like everything else, would likely include a few more degrees of difficulty if I wasn’t a cis white male.
Eventually, high school ended and I shipped off to Seattle for college. It was a culture shock at first, but I fell in love with Seattle. I won’t go into detail here because you probably know more about the city than I do, but it is pretty different from the rural Heaven-hole that spawned me. Specifically, I was allowed, encouraged, and even forced to come out of that stupid box I’d crawled into.
After a few years, I found myself surrounded by a loving community that welcomed my true self and actively helped me to understand who that was. At this point in my life I still identified as straight, even though I had pretty regular sex with men. That’s the shitty part about harmful social norms. They work even when other people stop enforcing them because they live inside you.
I’m a very masculine person and in my most inner core, I couldn’t square that with being a person who was attracted to men. After several more years of unpacking, therapy, and support from my community, I finally admitted to myself that I was bi. That was by far the hardest step for me. Pretty soon after, I came out to my friends, my coworkers, and the rest of Seattle. That went as smoothly as I could have hoped for. As did coming out to my least conservative, non-Texan family members. I finally felt like I was becoming myself and I was loved. I can’t say enough how thankful I am to everyone that supported me on this journey.
Of course, the next step in the story is coming out to my Texan family and friends. I debated whether or not this was even worth it for another couple of years and it weighed pretty heavily on me. There are so many reasons to come out that smarter people than I have already made clear, but my specific experience with Texas had not led me to believe it would go well. Eventually I decided that the burden should be on anyone who had a problem with it, not on me to keep a secret. Starting with the last boss, I called my mom and blurted it out. Commence holding breath for 3…2…1… “That must have been really difficult for you to tell me,” she said with an almost hilarious sense of self-awareness. All in all, she took it okay.
She disagrees, but she loves me, and whatever. We don’t talk about it much, but we still talk. I also came out to my high school sports team and you know what? They did just fine. They were curious and a bit out of their element but in the end were still my friends and held true to my favorite Texan value, “do whatever you want, just let me do what I want.”
Here’s your happy ending. Seattle was liberal enough to drag me out of my box. Even though Texas was responsible for building that box in the first place, things are changing. When I showed back up with no box in sight, they shrugged and passed me a beer. I don’t know if that sounds like a big deal to anyone else, but for me it was life-changing. It also gives me so much hope. Even in this crazy world where the extremists are the loudest, things are getting better. Keep up the good work, y’all.