By late 2008, the whole world was a bonfire.
Global financial markets were on the skid, and the magnitude of it all was just coming into view. This was going to be bad . . . very, very bad.
Our business in Nashville became a microcosm of the global mess. Sales had slowed down, my confidence was sinking quickly, and as each day passed, I was more convinced I couldn't be successful in this new role.
Our corporate office in Atlanta knew I was struggling, so they dispatched Jim, one of our top HR guys, to come visit me in Nashville.
I think they knew I needed a pep talk, and Jim was the king of pep talks.
Jim is the manliest of men. He's like a combination of a Kodiak bear, a 16th-century theologian, and one of those guys from Duck Dynasty. He's awesome, basically.
We met at a Panera in Nashville. I remember sitting across from Jim, spilling my guts and feeling so weak, so defeated, so embarrassed at failing the company. Jim is a great listener—he nods a lot and squints and gives little grunts of approval to let you know he's tracking with you. He even takes notes as you talk, putting ink to his thoughts in a black leather notebook. Being listened to by Jim is very fun.
I finally finished my little rant which was followed by a few seconds of silence. Jim was gathering his thoughts.
He finally grabbed the sides of that table, leaned in close, and growled:
Trapp, your weakness need NOT be your undoing.
I will never forget that for as long as I live.
Men—especially Southern men—are required to be endlessly strong, tough, resilient. Showing fear or weakness is not okay. And there was something so completely freeing about a business mentor saying, "Brett, it’s okay to be weak. It's okay to struggle. We’ve got your back. We’re not gonna let you fail."
I think in a lot of companies, your weakness IS your undoing. So people hide their personal problems, feign expertise, fake confidence, and gloss over their insecurities. Each morning they put on a cape and paint on a smile to make sure everyone knows they're juuuuust fine.
Meanwhile, they're like Chernobyl on the inside. They need help.
But they can't ask for it, because they don't want to be seen as a fraud. When it's not safe to be human, you have to act like a superhuman. I think a lot of companies fail because they don't allow their people to be human. It's all a bunch of crap, really.
Jim told me they were keeping an eye on the economy and hinted that corporate was "working on a plan" for me.
I didn't know what that meant, but I felt a lot better about the situation. I replayed his words:
Trapp, your weakness need NOT be your undoing.
I left that Panera feeling the safety in that statement. Corporate wasn't waiting on me to fail. They had my back. It's going to be okay.
While I believed that about work, I didn't believe it about myself. In fact, the narrative in my head said the opposite...
Brett, your weakness WILL DEFINITELY BE YOUR UNDOING. Hide that mess as fast as you can.
One of the great dilemmas of being gay is deciding how much of it to hide and for how long.
I imagine this is less dramatic for gay kids born in really progressive environments or families. The "how long do I keep this zipped up?" debate is much different for a kid in Portland than it is for a kid in say, Little Rock. My rationale at the time . . .
Brett, you've got a lot going for you. You're a leader. You've done some things in life. You have big dreams. Virtually all of your friends are Christian, and they'll be weirded out by this. You have a reputation to uphold, and people are expecting a lot from you. There's no need to jeopardize all that. After all, once that genie is out of the bottle, you can't put him back in. Bury this thing. Lock it in the basement, and just keep doing your thing. No one has to know—no one needs to know.
Looking back, this was all very self-centered thinking. But when you're scared, self-preservation moves to center-stage. Everything else becomes secondary to that. So I decided to self-preserve. More specifically, I decided to hide. Hiding was my choice because telling anyone was too risky.
And the decision to hide is not a light one.
Why? Because when you decide to hide your problems, you are deciding to go it alone.
People can't help you with a problem they don't know exists, so you're deciding to cut yourself off from outside help. Hiding is a declaration of self-sufficiency. It's a daily, self-assuring, "I can handle this myself. It'll be fine."
The problem with this is that humans suck alone. We don't do well in isolation.
The next time a 20-something male shoots up a mall or movie theater, just listen when they interview his neighbor.
You'll hear some version of this every single time . . .
Well, he was a quiet guy who kept to himself. But . . . I didn't know him real well.
I keep waiting to hear this instead . . .
Matt was great! He was on our kickball team and joined us for drinks every Thursday night. Oh, and he helped me fix my lawnmower the other day. REALLY friendly guy!
I'll be waiting forever, because that will never happen.
Because when the human spirit is driven underground, it mutates. It evolves—or devolves rather—in the darkness. And in the darkness, evil sidles up unchecked with lots of advice to give. Evil's advice always ends badly.
Christian people believe that God is the light of the soul. We also believe that humans are created in the "imago Dei," or image of God. That means we bear a little of that divine light just by being human. This is why human connection is so powerful. Humans are better together, especially when we are living in community. People bring that light.
And this is precisely why the closet is so damn dangerous.
Closets are dark, and when the gay child—or in my case, young professional—decides to stuff his soul in there, it has a warping effect.
It forces you deeper inside yourself. You become a mapless soul in a haunted maze, and you lose your bearings on who you really are. You begin to furiously reshuffle your inner life to present to the world the parts they want to see.
The other problem with hiding is it inevitably leads to deceiving.
I remember visiting Rome a few years ago, and I was all set to see the Colosseum. This was going to be the highlight of my visit, so you can imagine my dismay when I looked up to see that it was under construction, half of it wrapped in ugly metal scaffolding.
Uhhhhh . . . excuse me Rome? How the heck am I supposed to get my selfie when the Colosseum looks like an oversized pebble covered in busted tin foil???
So what did I do? I did what every other tourist did that day.
We walked our little butts alllll the way to the other side of the Colosseum—where there was no scaffolding—to snap our pics.
Hiding is like this.
We're constantly having to reposition the undesirable part of us. We find the part we like, and we keep shoving that in everyone's faces. We polish that part up real nice. Then we add some sparkles and sprinkles and lipstick and turn on some electronic music. Maybe they won't see that ugly scaffolding on the backside if we keep the party happening on the front side.
But this is all a ruse. It's a big fat deception. And it's exhausting.
I began to learn this back in Nashville. I wouldn't let anyone get close. I'd talk endlessly about work, or the sour economy, or Alabama football as a way to stiff-arm the inevitable, "So . . . are you dating anyone?" (aka, "So, what's on the back side of the Colosseum? Can I see that?")
No ma'am . . . nothing to see there. Move along.
This question became panic-inducing for me. I'd hem and haw and juke and sidestep and dodge and any other verb that implies getting the heck out of a sticky situation. I'd try not to lie, but sometimes it was just easier.
And ongoing deception leaves you feeling sleazy—like a car salesman selling a shiny car that he secretly knows has been wrecked.
Oh, it's all there. With enough paint and patches and time, you've made that car look like a million bucks. But you know it's busted on the inside. That's how I felt about myself.
And eventually, all this hiding, all this deception creates a secret sadness.
Plain ol' regular sadness is hard enough, but SECRET sadness is especially hard. It's having no one to talk to. No one to cry with. No one to hug it out with. No one to walk around the neighborhood with.
And so you learn to swallow it.
Choke it back. Push it down. Cape on. Smile up. Forge on, soldier. You need to get back to work.
To be gay and closeted and evangelical is to be in a constant dance with sadness. My years in Nashville taught me that well.
In early 2009, I got a call from Chris, the owner of our company, who lived in Atlanta.
Trapp, there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that the economy stinks and Nashville isn't doing as well as we'd hoped. We can't afford to stay there anymore, so we are pulling out and dissolving your team. The good news is that I want you to move to Atlanta and be our marketing guy at the Home Office.
I had never felt so simultaneously devastated and relieved as I did in that moment. I was devastated because I had planned on spending the rest of my life in Nashville, and this was confirmation of my failure. But I was relieved, because I would no longer be in a sales role that I was hating and failing at. I'd been doing some marketing stuff for the company at night and really enjoyed it. I enjoyed telling our company's story through words and images, and this would allow me to use more of my creative skills. Plus, this would be an office job which meant I wouldn't have to travel as much.
That spring we wrapped up our operations in Nashville, and I began to prepare for my third move in four years.
I was bound for the ATL . . . 👊
B.B.P.S. -🎉 It's Episode 22! Woo-hoo! 🎉 That means you're half-way done with our 44-episode journey. How ya feelin', my BBPpl? I hope each one of you will stick around till the bitter end! The second half is going have some surprises.
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.