In 2007, I packed up my apartment, loaded up a U-haul, and moved to Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville is one of the darling cities of the South. EVERYONE loves Nashville—the music, the food scene, the sports, the trendy vibes. It's a little taste of Hollywood in the South, and it definitely felt like an upgrade over Birmingham.
I was excited to be the general manager of our new office there. I'd be responsible for getting our fundraiser into new schools (sales), recruiting a small team, managing that team, training, inventory management, and other functions of running a small business. It was a lot, but I was up for it. I felt like a pioneer, and my bosses believed in me. You can go a long way on those two things alone.
I was making a little more money then, so I considered buying instead of renting . . .
I'm an adult now, and adults don't rent . . . THEY BUY.
So I put exactly $0 down (LOLOLOLOL), and I bought a place on the south side of Nashville. This very awful decision to buy a home in the cursed year of 2007 would come back to haunt me, but I was 25 years old and wanted to feel like an adult, so . . . #yolo.
It was a brick condo—end unit—built in the '70s. It wasn't very fancy, but it was mine. It had a cute little porch and tiny back deck where I put my stand-up electric George Foreman grill. One of the bedrooms reeked of urine for some reason, but I got used to it. Lots of grown-ups had told me, "Now, Brett, you're not going to be able to get everything you want" in a new place. I wanted a place with rooms that didn't smell like urine, but I couldn't have it all, or so I was told.
The condo also had faux wood paneling in the basement. This wood paneling was a big sticking point for me, but somehow the Realtor won me over. Wood paneling is like the ebola of the suburban neighborhood, and it's like kryptonite for gay men. In the home-buying process, most straight men wouldn't even notice wood paneling. Meanwhile, their wives are vomiting in the corner while simultaneously ordering a pickaxe off Amazon to destroy the paneling themselves. That was me. The fact I bought a home with wood paneling sometimes makes me think I'm straight, but I digress . . .
My good friend Collin also worked for Booster, and he agreed to move to Nashville to help me get things started.
I had one other friend from back home, Kelly, who lived in Nashville as well. As far as friends go, that was pretty much it. I wasn't too worried about it though, because I knew I'd be working a lot.
I got settled in that summer before the busy school fundraising season started in August. I recruited a few more team members and we began serving some schools in the area. Sales were slow in Nashville, so I contacted schools in the surrounding cities—Memphis (three hours west), Louisville (three hours north), and Knoxville (three hours east). I signed up a few clients in those cities, so our team began to travel, and I put a lot of miles on that black Tahoe. Traveling for work always seemed fun, but those who have done it know it gets old pretty fast. Living out of hotels and sitting in a car for hours is exhausting. After a few months, our team was worn out.
My first year in Nashville was okay, but the second year, 2008, was a disaster.
No matter how hard I tried to sign up new clients, I just couldn't win. Our fundraising program was universally successful, and there was nothing else like it on the market.
Deep down, I knew the problem wasn't the product . . . it was me. And for the first time in my life, I was failing at something.
This over-achiever was suddenly NOT achieving. To make matters worse, all my counterparts in the company were having tons of success in Atlanta. I was constantly hearing the glowing reports. It was confirmed: I was a failure.
Then, IT happened.
Everyone in business then remembers the fall of 2008 . . .
Sept. 15th — The Dow unexpectedly drops 505 points.
Sept. 17th — The Dow drops another 450 points.
Sept. 29th — The Dow plummets 778 points, the biggest single-day drop in its history.
And over the next few months, the Dow would continue to descend into oblivion, dragging my soul with it.
The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression was just beginning, and I was an inept salesman working in a new market in the fundraising industry.
THE FUNDRAISING INDUSTRY. 😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭
The fundraising business is always hard. But fundraising during a financial collapse is absolute torture. People aren't generous when they're scared they might be laid off the next day.
I can remember so many sleepless nights in that 1970s wood-paneled coffin of a condo . . .
I can't make a sale.
The economy is collapsing.
I'm letting my team down.
I'm letting my bosses down.
They're going to shut down my area.
I'm going to go broke.
Everyone else seems to be doing great.
This is proof that IT'S ME. I'M THE PROBLEM.
Additionally, my social life sucked.
I had been traveling so much, I hadn't made any new friends in Nashville. I'd come home on the weekends with nothing to do. The packed social calendar of my previous life was long gone.
I was a failing businessman working in an imploding economy in a new city with very few friends.
This was my reality.
And it was utterly soul-crushing.
This was my first crisis of identity.
Since high school, I'd built the Persona of Brett on a foundation of achievement. My internal sense of self-worth was built on my accomplishments and how people viewed me. And for the first time in my life, I couldn't control that.
Who am I?
Who is Brett?
Who is Brett Trapp?
I have no idea.
And as my career was collapsing, my internal sense of identity was more scrambled than ever.
My attraction to men was still there. I was attending church, praying, and reading the Bible, but my faith had taken a hit. It's like the more I prayed, the further God was. Nashville was great, but I still felt like an outsider there after a year. When I would meet Nashville locals, it felt like they were all still hanging out with their friends from high school, and I could never break in to their friend group. I felt like an outsider. I felt like an alien.
My alien status as a wannabe true Nashvillian mirrored how I felt about my sexuality at the time.
I felt like an alien in a foreign land.
I've mentioned before that for many years, I kept a secret note in my phone where I documented every thought and observation about being same-sex attracted.
When I go back and look at those early notes (2007-2009), the word ALIEN is used a lot. It was the simplest metaphor to describe how I felt at the time, so I wrote about it a lot.
I also recorded an incident where someone else used that word . . .
I was at a college buddy's bachelor party in the mountains, and somehow the topic of homosexuality came up.
One of my friends—a good friend—then loudly proclaimed to the whole group:
Gays are the closest things we have to aliens here on earth!
I have no idea what he meant by that, but I heard it. Oh, how I heard it . . .
I quickly snuck away to the bathroom and wrote down his exact words so I wouldn't forget. This wasn't so I could forever hold a grudge; it was just a little investigative report.
Being closeted is like being an undercover operative in a foreign land—you get to hear the locals' unguarded thoughts on your secret status. I recorded stuff like that for years, because I knew that one day I'd come out, and my friends would be all tip-toey and politically correct after that. I wanted to remember what it was like.
His words stuck with me, and they verified my new feelings of alien-ness.
Back then, my denial was thawing. For so long, I simply refused to believe that my same-sex attraction was real.
As that belief thawed, I began to feel—for the first time. And I began to feel what many—not all, but many—gay people feel:
Everyone is a certain way. I'm not that way. Therefore, I am an alien. I am different. I am a different species.
Feeling this way is to look at a world around you that is obsessed with love—heterosexual love—and to feel like you don't belong.
It's to understand that THE narrative of the human race is love—but only one particular type of love that you can't manufacture.
It's to watch every reality TV show, every sitcom, every movie and see men and women falling in love, fighting about love, or making love.
It's to hear the theme of straight, romantic love in every song on the radio. And to notice they don't make songs about gay love.
It's to open every book, knowing there will be a love story of some man and some woman. After all, every good story has straight love in it.
It's every conversation in every stage of life—middle school, high school, college, and beyond—always coming back to who's dating who, who's hooking up with who, who got engaged, who's getting married, who got divorced.
It's to look at every cultural icon, hero, or legend and see a straight person.
It's to realize that everything we truly value as a society–companionship, love, family, kids—is presented only in a straight context.
It's to realize that the outcome of this venerated system is biologically-produced children which is something you can't (or won't) deliver on.
It's to realize that getting upset with this system is like getting upset with the ocean for being wet. It just is what it is. So you get really good at swallowing your angst.
And it's to see all of this and hear the whisper . . .
THIS ISN'T YOU. This world isn't for you.
This is for us, but you aren't one of us. You are different.
You don't speak this language. We all do, but you don't.
You are an alien from another planet. We don't know where you came from, but you clearly aren't one of us. You may look like us, but inside, you're not. You're an alien. And you know that's true.
And when you can understand this, you can understand why so many LGBT kids run . . .
They run from their families and their homes. They run from their rural communities to big cities. They run to places where they don't feel like an alien. They huddle up in gayborhoods—Boystown or Castro or Chelsea or Atlanta's Midtown—just to feel normal, just for the peace of fitting in, of being like everyone else.
So many straight people think gay institutions—gayborhoods, gay bars, gay Pride, etc.—are about sex. But that's not it. It's really about a benign search for belonging. And that's not a sign of being gay . . . that's a sign of being human.
Around this same time in my life, a movie came out called District 9. It got pretty good reviews and grossed about $100 million at the box office.
In the movie, the world has been visited by aliens, and we've separated them from the general population by quarantining them in South Africa. A nerdy government official has to inspect the alien camp, and while he's there, he gets infected with the alien virus. The rest of the movie is this guy slowly, progressively, torturously transforming into an alien. The film documents his horror as his humanity slowly slips away and he becomes "one of them."
I remember watching this movie with tears streaming down my face which was weird because crying in action movies about alien invaders isn't normal.
But as I watched, it felt like I was watching my life.
I was that man. I was slowly losing my sense of normalcy, my sense of acceptance, my sense of being like everyone else. Those feelings are very comforting, and I could feel them slipping away.
It didn't matter that no one else felt that way about me . . . I felt that way about me.
To this day, I think that movie was written as an allegory of the gay experience, although I suspect lots of other minority groups thought it was about them too. Good art has this way with people. It causes them to project their own stories into the art.
Nashville was one of the hardest seasons of my life.
My career was crumbling. The economy was sinking further each day. I was exhausted from so much travel. I had very little community to lean on. And, because I was commission-based, I wasn't making the money I thought I'd be making.
The one thing I needed was someone to talk to, to be honest with, but my desperate effort to keep my secret prevented that. I was failing at so many areas of life, and I didn't see a way out... 👊
B.B.P.P.S. - Some of you are still wondering what #SOYCD means.
A few days after I launched BBP, a reader named Craig sent me a very sweet note of encouragement. He ended it by saying, "Shine On, You Crazy Diamond!" which I found amazing and hilarious. So I adopted it as the unofficial rally cry of Blue Babies Pink readers. We've shortened it to #SOYCD. (Also, check out what a BBP reader sent me in the mail. 😂)
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.