In the summer of 2000, when I was an 18-year-old high school graduate, I got accepted to work at a big Christian camp in Panama City Beach, Florida. I was ecstatic.
These camps were more like a series of four-day conferences. A couple thousand teens from different churches all over the Southeast would caravan down to the beach for these events. It was a typical youth camp format: Big meeting in the morning, play on the beach in the afternoons, another big meeting at night.
A Christian speaker would talk at all the meetings which were held in a massive hotel ballroom. And there was a worship band with lots of spinning lights, fog machines, and lasers. These conferences had a big impact on me when I was in high school, so I was excited to help other kids have the same experience.
I remember sunscreen was a big deal, because we always had to give reminders from stage about it.
Teenage kids must think their skin is made of poly-carbonate, sun-resistant shingles, because they would never listen. As the week went on, more and more kids would come hobbling into the meetings with 17th-degree burns like they'd been tanning on the beaches of Mercury.
There were about a dozen other workers like me, most in their early 20s. Our job was pretty basic—sell merchandise, check badges at the door so people didn't sneak in, move equipment around backstage, etc. We felt like big shots.
We were cheap labor, but we were a sharp bunch—hard-working, fun, loved Jesus. Some nights after the main session, we'd pile into a van and drive to the nearest Waffle House to recap the day. Hash browns, sweet tea, and laughter was our escape from 2,000 crazy teenagers . . .
I think it was the second week of camp when I saw "him."
I don't know him. Never met him or spoke to him. But I saw him . . . every. single. day.
The guy was about 25 years old and was either a youth pastor or a chaperone who'd come with one of the church groups. I was never quite sure.
He was about six feet tall, olive skin, sandy colored hair, buzz cut, well-toned arms.
And every day he'd wear basically the same thing—basketball shorts, flip flops, and T-shirt with the word OOLTEWAH on it.
One day it was Ooltewah Football . . .
The next day it was Ooltewah Basketball . . .
I think he even wore an Ooltewah tennis tee one day.
I still don't know where Ooltewah is but this guy was definitely proud to be from there. I remember thinking what a funny word Ooltewah was . . . Native American maybe? I'd practice saying it in my head . . .
Or maybe it was "Ole-ti-wuh."
The word still bothers me.
This was the first time I remember being unmistakably, overwhelmingly, undeniably attracted to a man. And this really, really, really bothered me.
I didn't understand why I kept looking at him.
I'm in a sea of humans—50% female—and my eyes keep drifting back to some guy from some weird town? Why?
Didn't make sense to me . . .
Of course, OOLTEWAH GUY was around every corner that week.
Thousands of people, and there he'd be—OOLTEWAH GUY—laughing, high-fiving students, and being completely oblivious to his mind-bending effect on me.
I used every bit of willpower I had to not look at him. I mean, Christian youth group boys in the '90s were taught every trick in the book to avoid temptation, to avoid staring at pretty girls. My favorite method was "The Swivel." It was simple: As soon as you catch yourself checking out a girl, think of the word SWIVEL, and then swivel your head away from the suspected temptress. Turns out, it works on guys too . . .
See OOLTEWAH GUY sitting in the big meeting room—kicked back, one tanned arm draped across the chair next to him? SWIVEL!
See OOLTEWAH GUY at the dining tent, sexily scooping mashed potatoes onto his plate? SWIVEL!
See shirtless OOLTEWAH GUY at the beach, effortlessly diving into the sand for a volleyball? SWIVEL!
I'm surprised I didn't break my neck with all the swiveling I did that week.
It's humorous now, but it wasn't back then. I was genuinely scared, scared in the same way you hear a bump in the night, freeze in terror, and then nervously wonder whether or not something is really there.
It's nothing . . . probably . . .
I remember going back to my cheap hotel room at night and lying in bed...
What is wrong with me? Why do I keep looking at that guy? What is this? It feels . . . gay. I'm not gay. I know I'm not gay! I can't be . . . I'm a Christian. I like girls . . . I mean, I'm supposed to. Something is very, very wrong here. God . . . what is going on? Jesus, help me.
And this . . .
This would be the first of a million desperate prayers . . .
A million frustrated moments with God . . .
A million terrible versions of "How the hell did this happen?".
One of the lesser known burdens of being gay is that you live a lot of your life in your head.
At a young age, you start having little conversations with yourself. And you keep having them—over and over and over again. And the conversations evolve . . . they intensify. They're all about how you got this way, and what went wrong, and what if so-and-so finds out, and what if _________ or _________ or _________ happens.
These conversations are led by fear, fueled by self-doubt, and they all end with the same urgent warning echoing around in my skull: "TELL NO ONE."
A beautiful world spins around us—wild with life—pulsating with the beats of festival-joy, and here we are, staring at a cracked mirror hung crooked on the concrete walls of our minds.
And this constant internal chatter, this constantly bubbling brain babble is never-ending . . .
It's time-consuming, stressful, exhausting.
It's a unique prison.
It's an on-ramp to narcissism.
It's like a starving man diving into a feast and then discovering it's his own soul he's eating.
Living life in your head is a terrible place to live. That's because we are creatures designed for the external. We are designed to fix our gaze on something beautiful outside of ourselves.
A soul that talks to itself all day is a soul that is sick. And when you are young and gay, you talk to yourself a lot. Who else would you talk to about those thoughts? They'd think you're a freak.
And lying in that bed in Panama City, stuck in my own head, I began to sharpen my first survival skill: Denial.
This isn't real, Brett. This isn't happening. It's all in your head. Those feelings are false. You are imagining it. It's like an imaginary friend, and everyone outgrows imaginary friends. It's a silly phase . . . it will go away. You just haven't seen the right girl yet. Once you do, this will be a memory. This isn't real.
I'd wear myself out with self-talk and prayer. I'd give it to Jesus. And eventually, I'd drift off to sleep, having convinced myself that it was all in my head.
As the summer of 2000 wore on, OOLTEWAH GUY became a distant memory.
I got my mind back on Jesus and on my work at the camp. About once a week, I'd call mom and update her on how everything was going. She sounded tired. Dad couldn't talk, and his arms were getting weaker, so she'd hold the phone up to his ear, and I'd jabber on about what cool things had happened at camp that week. I was peppy—for dad—and I'd act like everything was okay, but I knew it wasn't.
My time at the beach came to an end. Dad was fading, and I knew mom needed me back in Florence . . . 👊
All photos by Sterling Graves. Copyright Blue Babies Pink & Sterling Graves.
B.T. Harman is the creator of Blue Babies Pink, a Southern Coming Out Story in 44 Episodes.
B.T. is a consultant, writer, and speaker living in Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. He was previously a vice president for Booster, an Atlanta fundraising company, where he helped the organization raise $150 million for elementary schools.
B.T. is passionate about storytelling, leadership, good design, Seth Godin, SEC football, Chick-fil-A, Taylor Swift, archaeology, European Travel and CS Lewis.
To learn more about B.T., visit his personal site at btharman.com.