In May 2005, I graduated from college with a shiny new degree in English.
I saw a Broadway play a few years ago called Avenue Q. The opening line was, "What do you do with a B.A. in English?" Then they sang a whole song about it, and I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. Lyrics:
What do you do with a B.A. in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college and plenty of knowledge
Have earned me this useless degree.
I can't pay the bills yet, cuz I have no skills yet.
The world is a big scary place.
But somehow I can't shake
The feeling I might make
A difference to the human raaaaaace!
The whole thing is pretty hilarious if you have a degree in English like I do. And those lyrics represent my exact feelings after graduating.
All through high school and most of college I'd planned on going into some type of Christian ministry—preaching, missions, youth ministry, something like that.
I've always wanted to "make a difference to the human raaaaaaace!" and I thought getting an English degree and serving God in full-time ministry was the best route. But being involved with ATO revealed a love for more businessy stuff...
I discovered a love for working on teams and leading teams.
I discovered a love for motivating people and chasing big, crazy goals.
I discovered a love for events and planning and strategy.
Was my pain fueling a lot of that? Of course. But I was still having a lot of fun doing it. I was still using my God-given gifts and learning a lot about myself. It was a lot of fun, and we did a lot of good back then. I'm still very proud.
I mentioned before that I had a mentor in college, Olan, who was on staff with a college ministry.
We met weekly for a few years. We'd pray and study the Bible and talk about the tough stuff of life. Olan was great, and he was a theological powerhouse. The guy could quote Scripture like a champ, talk at length about Martin Luther, and conjugate Greek verbs. Olan helped me understand the idea of the "sovereignty of God," which basically says that God is directing everything from above and nothing happens without His approval. This helped me understand why my dad died. In some weird, mysterious, cosmic way his death was part of a bigger plan that we couldn't see. It wasn't that we didn't pray enough. It was just a mystery—albeit a painful one—and it was best to make peace with that. This was actually very comforting to me.
During my senior year, Olan told me he had a buddy down in Birmingham (also in Alabama) who was helping a guy named Chris start a company.
"They do fun runs or something . . . I don't really know. But they're looking to hire someone. You should check it out," he told me.
So I checked it out.
The fun run guys took me out to dinner, and we sorta hit it off. I liked them . . . they liked me. And it was official: this English major was joining a business startup.
I was just the third employee back then, so it was a very small operation.
I joined because I liked the guys running it. They wanted to build a company that put people first and developed leaders. I've always been into leadership, so that caught my attention. I also liked the idea of coming in at the ground level of a new business and helping grow it.
The concept of the business was simple: Schools hired us to come in and organize a fun run fundraiser. The week before the run, the students would get pledges from friends and family.
Though it was a simple concept, Chris, the founder, had had success with it at a few early schools. The company was called Booster, and they had big plans to grow it nationwide.
I'd be the assistant helping the main guy in Birmingham, and Chris would live in Atlanta. The pay sucked, but I didn't care. It was more about the adventure for me and the lure of a new—wait for it—ACHIEVEMENT.
So in the fall of 2005, I moved to Birmingham, Alabama, two hours south of Florence. I had lived in Florence until I was 23, so this was the first time I had left the "nest."
I had a couple roommates, and we lived in a little apartment near Samford University. Within a few weeks, I was walloped with the worst case of homesickness. The college big-shot from Florence who everyone knew was now a nobody living in a big city, barely making minimum wage. I didn't know how to cook. Didn't even know how to do my laundry (Googled it eventually). I was a 23-year-old mess of a man.
Birmingham was the first place I felt lonely.
I had always just taken home for granted. Florence was home, and everything made sense to me there. The mall, the restaurants, the people, the roads—it was all so familiar. I couldn't go to the grocery store or a movie without seeing half a dozen friends. Birmingham had traffic and crime and Democrats, and we didn't have any of that in Florence. It all just felt very alien. If you've ever left home for a bigger city, you know what I'm talking about.
I remember laying in bed at night in that tiny apartment and feeling very alone.
I remember, for the first time, being in a place where I wasn't seen, wasn't known. I was just another basic, brown-headed white guy in a city of a few hundred thousand people. People fear being invisible almost more than anything, and I felt very invisible back then. I remember lying in bed some nights and hearing the footsteps of the people in the apartment above me and finding it weirdly comforting. Like, it just felt good to know someone was there, to know a warm body was on the other side of the ceiling.
It was also in Birmingham where I learned to like country music.
I know some non-Southerners are going to be shocked by this, but not everyone from the South likes country music. I hated it actually . . . twangy nonsense to me. But when I moved to Birmingham, country music started to make sense. All the sentimental lyrics about home and family and love and dogs finally clicked. Toby Keith had a big hit back then called, "I Ain't As Good As I Once Was," and it was all about getting back that magical spark you had in your heyday.
I feel ya, Toby. I ain't what I used to be six months ago. Life is hard. I feel ya, bro.
It was a very melancholy season, but work kept me busy, so that was nice.
My first year of work was a lot of fun. We traveled a lot, to exotic places like Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Pell City, Alabama, and I became an expert on the breakfast bar at Holiday Inn Express (avoid the "biscuits & gravy"). I was learning how to run our fundraiser and Cord, my boss, liked me a lot. My confidence grew.
Olan, my college mentor, also lived in Birmingham back then. The ministry had promoted him to run the whole organization which was headquartered there.
By 2006, I was being eaten alive inside.
I felt extremely alone, and I was being consumed by the reality that I was attracted to dudes. I hadn't told a soul. There wasn't a chance I was letting this secret out . . . it'd ruin me.
But those who have kept pet secrets know they are hard to keep caged.
They thrash and bite and wiggle around inside of you. They aren't well behaved, and they have a life of their own.
All that inner chaos had become too much for me. I couldn't keep hiding it, but I needed someone who I could trust 100 percent. I needed ironclad, lockdown, never-tell-a-soul, government-grade confidentiality. I'm talking Area 51 style secrecy.
People with big secrets know there's a giant difference between someone you can 99% trust and someone you can 100% trust.
I needed a 100 percent-er, and lucky for me I had one: Olan. Plus, I knew he could get me the help I needed. I gave him a call and told him we needed to meet. I told him it was serious.
At the time, Olan was officing out of a big Presbyterian megachurch that sat atop a massive hill right outside the city. He reserved a little prayer room inside the church where we could meet.
On the drive there, I felt like I had a porcupine in my stomach . . .
What will he think?
Will he be disgusted?
Has he ever dealt with this before?
Will he be disappointed?
Will he ever talk to me again?
One of the biggest fears of coming out is disappointing the people you love.
Why? Because in that moment—with those few words—you fail to meet so many expectations that person had for you. Everything changes in that moment, and you can never go back to how it was. You can never put the big gay genie back in that bottle.
And as I drove up to that church on the hill, the lie—my lie—that I'd gone to bed with my whole life echoed around in my soul . . .
No one really knows you, Brett. And if they did, they wouldn't love you.
This was the brand I carried.
This was the P.S. at the end of every day.
This was the thousand-pound stone on the other end of an invisible chain attached to my soul.
No one really knows you, Brett. And if they did, they wouldn't love you.
But Olan was different. Olan had too much Jesus in him, too much grace. I knew he could handle it. I knew he'd still love me.
We met in that little prayer room, and I remember it was very gaudy. We gays are allergic to gaudy, so we never forget.
Some sweet little Presbyterian grandma had fancied it ALL the way up—thick carpet, a few gold lamps, Persian rug, chairs of dark wood, some paperback books, and cherubs—paintings of chubby little wing-ed cherubs—everywhere. It still annoys me.
I sat on one end of a couch, and Olan sat across from me. We made small talk, but we both knew I was here for something serious.
The secret lurched in its cage, and my stomach lurched in my chest. I swallowed hard and got to the point . . .
"Olan, I need to tell you something. It's a really big deal. And you can't tell anyone. Not even your wife. You have to promise me . . ."
(I was young and single and naive, and I didn't know that married people tell each other all the secrets they hear. But he promised anyway.)
I continued . . .
I . . . I . . . I have same sex attraction.
(Now, you must understand . . .
Back then, I would have never called myself "gay." That wasn't me, at all. Gay was glitter and rainbows and New York City pride parades. Gay was an identity—a lifestyle—and that wasn't me. I was all Alabama and polo shirts and boat shoes and football games. I had never hooked up with a guy or been in a relationship. Besides, my identity was in Jesus. I'd been taught that's where a Christian was supposed to root his identity. So back then, I exclusively referred to it as "same sex attraction" or SSA. It was more like a medical condition and less like an immutable state of being. That's exactly how I viewed it.
I hated the G-word. I'd never use it. I'd never give in.)
After the words left my lips, the floodgates opened. I sat there on that ugly couch and ugly cried.
Hearing those words leave my lips for the first time was like . . .
Opening the door of that cage . . .
Letting some of the darkness out . . .
Breathing in the fresh air of confession and transparency . . .
It was a massive catharsis.
When you come out to someone, you never know how they are going to react.
It's like playing Russian roulette with the most private part of your soul.
It's offering up to someone your most personal asset on a silver platter, knowing they might slap it out of your hands and into the dirt.
It is the disrobing of your inner being, a trembling nakedness in front of an unpredictable judge in a foreign courtroom.
I don't remember the particulars of our conversation that day, but I do remember him saying the only five words that mattered:
Brett, I still love you.
I can't overstate the power of those words.
For the first time, I had opened up the basement of my soul to a visitor. He walked down those dusty stairs, saw my hideous hissing secret, came back upstairs and said:
Brett, I still love you.
When you have felt unloved and unlovely for a very long time, a well-timed "I love you" is a stunning declaration of peace. I learned this that day.
I prattled on for an hour or more—a total word vomit—catching Olan up on the past few years of what it had been like living with this. It felt good just to get it all out there for the first time.
Olan was theologically conservative, and while he loved me dearly, I knew his thoughts on the matter. We both agreed . . .
Homosexuality is not okay. The Bible forbids it. It's a sin just like anything else. We must fight it.
Like I expected, Olan had a plan. He knew a counselor in Birmingham—a Christian counselor—who specialized in this particular issue. He looked up her telephone number, and I wrote it down on a little scrap of paper.
I drove back to the apartment with the greatest sense of relief. My hope surged.
Finally, I had a plan. Finally, I had a fellow brother in the battle with me. Finally, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. God was in this. Change was possible.
it . . . 👊
B.B.P.S. - See that gray shirt I'm wearing in these photos? The one with the half diamond/half heart? That's from my friend Eryn's company, So Worth Loving, here in Atlanta. You should go check them out. Are they paying me to say this? No. I just love their style, and I believe in what they are doing.
B.B.P.P.P.S. - The amazing art in this episode comes from Philly-based artist, Caroline Caldwell, and was a part of Living Walls ATL 2014. 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.