Back when I was in high school, our youth group took a hiking trip to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
This wasn't the kind of trip where you strap on the Chacos and grab a granola bar on the way out the door. This was the real thing . . . hardcore hiking in the Wild West. We had to buy expensive boots and enormous backpacks and this stuff called moleskin to keep our feet from blistering. We trained for our trip by hiking the "hills" of Alabama which is sorta like preparing for your first NBA game by playing pickup with your boys down at the Y. We had no idea what we were getting into.
Weeks later, we met up with our guides outside Buena Vista, Colorado. These guys were legit—mountain bros with faces like leather, little goatees, and long hair pulled back in a scarf-like apparatus. These guys were very cool.
The first few days of the hike were total misery—a teenage death march over rock and prairie.
It rained the first day, and all our stuff got soaked . . . Goretex schmoretex. I remember we complained a lot, which always got a laugh from the ever-happy guide-bros. We'd hike a few miles each day and, at night, we'd make camp in some remote valley under the vast Colorado sky. We packed our food—freeze-dried disgustingness—into smelly duffel bags. I remember one night we ate "beef stroganoff," which was like licking the scraps off the kitchen floor of a Waffle House in Arkansas.
I was in pretty good shape back then, but this trip absolutely wrecked me. It was hell on my skinny little Alabama legs. Each step with that 35-pound pack was like barbed wire tightening around my hamstrings and calves. I've never been a very tough person, so I had to learn to suck it up and keep trucking through the pain. I grew up a lot that week.
The finale of the hike was our big "summit." This is where you muster every bit of remaining energy you have to hike to the top of a colossal crag so you can take a picture and impress all your flat-lander friends back home. Like this . . .
When we began our ascent we were climbing hand over fist . . . it was very vertical. Then it leveled off into a vast "boulder field." A boulder field is exactly what you would expect it to be—in this case, granite boulders littered along a mountain ridge, all the way to the summit. It was like God got put 'em in a salt-shaker and got carried away seasoning the side of that mountain. We began our trek across the boulder field, faithfully following our guide-bro, advancing toward the summit in the distance.
Crossing the boulder field was unlike any other terrain we'd encountered.
We'd trekked mountain trails, plains, marshes, and even a little snow. This was totally different. You had to keep your head down and literally jump rock to rock, all while keeping your balance with a 35-pound pack on your back. The trick was to trace out a little path with your eyes, scanning for rocks that were solid and didn't wiggle. Our excitement built as we got closer to the summit—bunny-hopping, side-stepping, and rock-surfing our way to the top. This was our Agro Crag, and we wouldn't be denied.
After about an hour, we made it. We reached the top.
Exhausted, we gave each other hugs and high-fives. I think a few of the guys shouted something macho toward the mountains in the distance. We all shared that unbelievable feeling of achievement. We took our pictures, and began our afternoon descent as clouds began to roll in.
On the way down, I reflected back on the hike through that boulder field.
That didn't hurt at all. Every other day, my legs ached. But that didn't hurt. Why?
Then I realized what it was: My brain was busy, creatively mapping out a path over the rocks. The pain was the same—probably worse—but I didn't notice it because my mind was preoccupied. My mind was distracted.
I learned that I could avoid pain if I just had a distraction.
High school Brett took note, and in that moment I'd acquired the next great survival skill for my closeted soul.
Years later, in college, I would begin to perfect the art of distraction.
I was still hurting from my dad's death and desperately trying to escape the fear of my own same-sex attraction. I needed something to take my mind off the pain.
I was a goody-two-shoes, so drugs, alcohol, and sex weren't really an option. Girls were out of the question. Food was fun but not distracting enough. I dabbled in video games, but that didn't seem like a long-term fix.
Finally I found the perfect distraction.
I'd danced with this one in high school a bit. I'd learned its ways, its scent, its rhythms. I'd known the warmth of its embrace and the soothing massage of its strong hands. What was my distraction of choice?
I fell in love with achieving—with conquering, with leading, with winning.
It was great fun for me. I had developed a lengthy resumé of achievements in high school, and college let me start a brand new conquest. So I dove in head first.
ATO, my fraternity and first love, got most of my effort. Fraternities are different than they used to be. These days, good fraternities are run efficiently—like finely-tuned civic organizations. I happen to think a well-run fraternity, steered by men of integrity, is a mighty force for masculine good.
Operating a good fraternity chapter is challenging, and the national fraternity office watches you like a hawk, scoring you on everything—academics, recruitment, social service, philanthropic giving, member retention, campus involvement, athletics, and more. Lots of metrics.
Our chapter was good, but we were determined to make it great. We wanted to be top tier.
So we recruited better guys, smarter guys, more athletic guys. Eventually we had the top grades on campus, won the intramural championship, had the most social service hours, and even the biggest party. The chapter exploded with success, and I was proud to play a part in that. Our national fraternity selected us as its "Top Chapter," which was like winning the Super Bowl of ATO. Then we won the "Award of Distinction," which was like winning the Super Bowl among ALL fraternities nationwide.
Back then, I learned the thrill of building, planning, strategizing, and, ultimately, winning. Achievement, of course, isn't bad. But looking back, I can see the motivation beneath it all.
Each achievement was like one of those boulders. As long as I kept my eyes on the next rock, I'd never notice the pain—the pain crouching deep in my soul.
Eventually, I needed more boulders so I got involved with even more stuff—student government, campus hosts, honor societies, you name it. I even wrote for the campus newspaper.
I remember there was a staff writer who had written some pro-gay articles—pretty shocking to our very conservative campus. I didn't like it, so I wrote an op-ed in response and said something about how he didn't need to "force his beliefs on the rest of us . . ." I totally put the guy on blast. Everyone applauded me and thanked me in the same way you'd thank an exterminator who just pulled an 8-foot long snake out from under your house. I was very self-righteous back then, so that felt really good. Closeted people sometimes act very homophobic as a way to appear totally not gay. It's like a dog trying to convince everyone he's a rabbit by loudly proclaiming his love for carrots. I think I was like that dog, and that appalls me now. I can't remember the name of that campus newspaper guy, but I'd love to give him a hug, buy him a beer, and apologize for being such a jackass. I wish I could ask him to forgive me. What a fool I was.
As college wound down, I had my two ultimate achievements.
I won the top award for a graduating senior at both my university and my fraternity. I gave a speech. I mention this because it illustrates how driven I was, how addicted I was, how hard I was running from the fear of what was inside of me, of running from my own skin.
In Velvet Rage, author Alan Downs talks about the second phase of a gay man's life.
He calls it "Compensating for Shame," and describes it as a furious pursuit of achievement, success, or wealth. I didn't know it, but I was already deep into that phase as a college student. If I could achieve my way out of the pain, I was determined to do it. Just keep looking for that next boulder...
The problem with distractions is they can't distract enough, can't numb enough.
For me, being closeted was like walking around the world bleeding, but with no one ever seeing. It was a big gaping wound that only I could tend to. I was bleeding all over the floor of home and office and church while the rest of the world sped past me, oblivious. Achievements were tiny bandages over my big open wounds. Every trophy, certificate, plaque, and pat on the back was another piece of gauze that never quite did the job.
Because when the lights go out, you begin the lonely drive home.
You walk into a quiet house, put the trophy on the shelf, and you crawl into bed. And in the stillness of the night, the wounds of the soul stretch open once again . . . more red. The trophy—alone, lifeless, plastic—begins to collect dust.
And in those lonely moments, I wrestled with the question of how I became gay, of how everything in my life could be so great except for this one big awful thing. Lots of tears. Lots of worry.
But eventually the despair would fade and hope would step in. And hope would bring a new question to the table . . .
Can I change? Can I become straight?
And I was convinced I could. I knew it. This burden was just a test of my faith.
Like any other sin, I could overcome it. I could be delivered.
I could be set free.
I'd heard vague accounts of others who'd overcome same-sex attraction and had become straight. They were married to women, had kids, and were living normal, happy lives. That's what I wanted. And I knew that's what God wanted.
I just had to keep praying and believing. I just had to fight like hell.
And, if worse came to worse, I'd just go to counseling. Counseling could fix anything. And that would whip it in no time. A Christian counselor would know how to fix it—for sure. They had experience with this, and with God's help, we'd beat it. I knew it.
I just knew it. 👊
B.B.P.S. - For those of you who Pinterest, there's a board with images and quotes from BBP. Check it out.
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.