In November 2010, our bags were packed, and Chris and I were ready for our big European adventure. We met at the airport in Atlanta, and boarded our flight to Dublin, Ireland.
Chris was my best friend and fraternity brother from college, though we were polar opposites back then.
I was the uptight goody-two-shoes leaderly type, and Chris was the party guy. I was the v serious fraternity president, and Chris was the guy on the back row cutting up and taking nothing seriously. Chris is tall, confident, uber-positive, very athletic, and super outgoing. Chris is that one guy in every social setting laughing and making sure everyone is having fun.
Everyone loved Chris in college, and his apartment was the social epicenter of our fraternity. Chris loved to host, and every weekend you'd find his place packed with people listening to music, playing cards, etc. His unit was #5, and over time, everyone simply referred to it as "Apartment #5," as if it were a nightclub or speakeasy or something. Basically, Chris was every fraternity president's nightmare. I kicked him out of lots of meetings back then, and I think I even fined him $500 once.
I have no idea how we became such good friends, but we did. I think I liked Chris because he's one of those people who believes we shouldn't take everything so seriously, because, in the end, it's all going work out okay. I needed a friend like that back then.
In 2010, we were two Bama bros with very little international travel experience.
We didn't care. We knew we could figure it out.
I was single and Chris was recently divorced, and we both knew it probably looked weird that two 28-year-old single men were traveling Europe together for two weeks. We also didn't care about that. Chris didn't care because Chris just doesn't get worried about stuff like that (plus he's super straight). I didn't care because being gay, you have to learn not to care what people think. It's a very useful skill to acquire.
We landed in Dublin and our itinerary was set: Dublin, Ireland —> Edinburgh, Scotland —> London, England.
We dinked around Dublin the first day, and I instantly knew I was going to love Europe . . .
And we visited the Guinness brewery.
The next day was the best day of my life.
Seriously. I keep a ranking of my best days, and it's held the number one spot since 2010.
We rented a car in Dublin that morning and set out driving west. Our goal was to make it to the famous Cliffs of Moher by sundown.
Along the way we saw castles which were v exciting . . .
And sheep (not as exciting) . . .
And very old cemeteries with Celtic crosses . . .
And awkward photos next to v old gravestones . . .
And more castles . . .
And, finally, the Cliffs of Moher!
Where we took the obligatory OMG-do-I-look-like-I'm-falling-to-my-death? photo . . .
Then we began our five-hour drive back to Dublin. But first, dinner at a local pub . . .
And, because you drive on the left side in Ireland, you're prone to running off the road, which may result in this . . .
And once a local Irishman at a tiny roadside pub helps you put on the spare, you begin your journey again. And that requires stopping at the first graveyard you can find to run around and scream and laugh and take terribly grainy horror movie-esque pictures . . .
And then you see that the graveyard is over 700 years old and you feel v bad and sacrilegious . . .
And then you restart your journey back to Dublin, and you consider coming out of the closet to your best friend but bail because you're so nervous you could die and why risk ruining the perfect day!
Quick, I need another distraction!
So you turn on the radio, and your best friend discovers that Irish radio stations play . . . shockingly . . . Irish-sounding music, and you do really terrible Irish accents and say the most cliche Irish thing your little Alabama brain can conjure . . .
And then you see random Irish bros playing rugby on the side of the road and (because we #yolo so hard) you pull over and watch . . .
And then you fall into bed, utterly exhausted . . . the good kind of exhausted. The kind of exhausted from living big days and feeling fully alive.
The next day, we trained to Scotland.
I'll tell Chris on the train ride there . . .
I thought to myself.
But why ruin a train ride with sights like this! Scottish highlands for days . . .
And then we tracked down the William Wallace Memorial, because we're American boys and many American boys born in the early '80s agree that Braveheart is the best movie ever (unless it's Gladiator or The Patriot). We found William's sword . . .
And we posed at St. Andrews. I hate golf but Chris was into it. I spent most of my time admiring the mushy green grass and the texture of those old stones . . .
And that night we met a guy in a pub who called himself "Wee Jimmy" (pronounced "Jimm-eh"). He liked tall Chris so they took a picture, and he wanted Chris to use him as an armrest, which, in retrospect, is v weird . . .
The next day we took a train to London, our final stop.
Maybe I'll tell Chris on the ride down there . . .
Nah. Who wants to talk about being gay when you're staring at Big Ben!
And Westminster Abbey . . .
And Buckingham Palace with that same weird expression on our faces . . .
But in between zany pictures, my terror grew. I knew what was coming.
Later that afternoon, Chris asked me if everything was okay. Good friends know when you're not being your usual self. He knew.
I told him I was fine and suggested we go to the Churchill War Rooms.
And who has time to talk rainbow flags when you're talking about Winston Churchill?!?!
Churchill was an amazing leader. And his War Rooms were festooned with amazing quotes about him. You know you're a baller when Adolf calls you out . . .
And another . . .
Very profound, Winston!
But then . . .
But then it came down to our last night in London. The next day, Chris was leaving to go back to America, and I'd stay another week to tour around with another friend.
I knew I couldn't delay anymore. I had to come out to Chris.
That night, we'd planned to go to the oldest pub in London, inexplicably named "Ye 'Ol Cheshire Cheese" which sounds more like a product at Whole Foods than a v legendary pub . . .
Charles Dickens used to drink at this pub, and it had been in continual operation since 1667. Whoa.
I guess we got to the pub around 10 p.m. We'd eaten dinner already so we were just there for the drinks and the experience of eating at the oldest pub in London.
Ye 'Ol Cheshire Cheese is quite nondescript, and the entrance is in the middle of a little darkened alleyway.
We walked inside, and it was everything you'd imagine . . .
The first thing you notice is a smell unlike anything you've smelled before.
Noses weren't made for this smell. I used to think our fraternity house had an interesting smell, but this was on another level. It wasn't really a bad smell, per se, but utterly earthy and unique.
If Yankee candle were to put it in a jar, this would be their ingredient list:
Soured beer from 1884
Blackened peat from an Irish bog
Smoldering ashes of burnt cedar wood
Flapper girl sweat from the 1920s
Cigarette butts from the 1940s
Rainwater extracted from a tweed couch stowed on the backlot of a British trailer park
I suppose that's the smell you get after 400 years of rowdy British drunks, flirtatious politicians, a million smoke-filled happy hours, and a couple of world wars. This was a long way from Miller Lites at our local "pub" in downtown Birmingham, Alabama.
Ye 'Ol Cheshire Cheese isn't a typical drinking establishment with a big open space and a central bar.
It's a labyrinth of dimly lit small rooms spread out over a couple of floors. Each room is unique with a small, wood-burning fireplace and candle lit booths of dark wood. We walked up a couple of dungeon-like flights of stairs and were seated on one of the upper floors.
We took our seat at a little pub table in the middle of the room which I didn't like because it felt too exposed. But we were the only ones up there, save the waitress and a mustached bartender wiping things down in the corner.
Chris ordered a local beer and so did I, knowing full well I wouldn't drink it.
My stomach had been in knots all day, which is my body's way of preparing for war.
I stared at the menu as if I was going to order something else. But my mind was racing . . .
Churchill beat back the damn Nazis, Brett. Surely—surely!—you can muster the courage to tell Chris.
We sat there for a few minutes and recapped the day. My answers were short, right knee bouncing . . .
"You okay, Trapp?"
I was sweating. And people don't sweat in November in London.
"Yeah man. I just need to go to the bathroom."
I pushed back my chair and walked down a little flight of stairs to the nearest bathroom.
I pushed open the swinging door, beelining for the sink. I was convinced that vomiting was inevitable.
It was a typical old pub bathroom with all the expected features—musty odor, wall graffiti, vintage porcelain sink. I grabbed either side of that sink the way you grab the handlebars of a jet ski at 50 mph. It was my altar. I peered into the bottom of the sink, sweat pouring from my forehead. I looked at myself in the mirror.
This was it. This was the moment I'd open up that cage door a little wider and let that secret out, at least to one more person.
When you're deciding who to come out to, you make a list of people, starting with the safest, most trustworthy person you know at the top. The last thing you want to do is come out to someone who flips out, judges you, or rejects you. You save those for much later. Olan, my college mentor, had been my number one, and Chris had always been in the number two spot. I knew Chris could handle it . . . or at least I thought he could. The day was finally here.
I looked at myself in the mirror–still gripping the sides of that vintage white porcelain sink—and did that thing they do in the movies where they slap their cheeks a bit.
I turned on the faucet and filled my hands with water, splashing it into my face . . .
You can do this, Brett. You know he's gonna be okay. You know he's not going to flip out. You just have to do it.
I can't do it. Not now. Not tonight. The timing isn't good. I'll do it in a few weeks, when we are back in America.
No, Brett, the timing will never be good. Stop making excuses and do it. It's inevitable.
Coming out to people individually is never easy.
It's always awkward and the timing is never right. There's no natural, awkward-free transition from "Man, this football game is great!" to "By the way, I'm super gay!"
I just had to embrace the awkwardness. I just had to go for it.
I grabbed some paper towels and dried off my face. I took a deep breath and slapped myself one final time. It was go time.
I walked back into the bar and took my seat across from Chris.
"You sure you're okay?"
I sat in silence, staring to my left at some maroon-colored Victorian curtains covering a window of clouded glass, the scene searing into my memory. I kept my eyes locked on the window. Eye contact is impossible when you're drowning in shame.
"Chris . . . I have something I need to tell you."
"Okay." Chris took a sip of his beer.
"I have same sex attraction." My stomach lurched. My soul heaved. The waters of shame filled my lungs . . .
Chris looked at me over the top of his beer glass, finishing his sip. I waited.
His brow furrowed a bit and the slightest of smiles appeared on his face for a split second . . . before he hid it.
"Are you telling me you're gay, Brett?"
"No. I'm same-sex attracted. There's a difference," I fired back. Some awkward silence slinked into the room and pulled up a chair. We sat with him for a second.
"Well man, thanks for telling me. I mean . . . it doesn't really change anything. You're one of my best friends, and I still love you."
And in a single moment, my soul exhaled. My spirit collapsed. My stomach relaxed. The waters receded.
I leaned forward in that pub chair and began to sob.
It's hard for someone who isn't gay to fully understand the gravity of coming out, of reaching into the basement of your soul and pulling out the thing you've spent a lifetime hiding, placing it into your trembling hand, and timidly offering it up to another human soul to inspect.
It doesn't matter how close you are with that person.
It doesn't matter how many moments you've shared together.
It doesn't matter how many times they've told you they love you.
In that moment, a big part of you still thinks there's a good chance they turn over that table in a disgusted rage and storm out of the room, leaving you there alone, broken, wounded, betrayed. The lie is strong . . .
No one really knows you, Brett. And if they did, they wouldn't love you.
In a single moment, another human beat back that lie a bit. Chris didn't kill the lie that night, but he wounded it a little.
We sat at that table for another two hours—me talking and crying, Chris listening.
I explained to Chris that though I was same-sex attracted, I'd never "acted" on it. I told him my plan was to stay single for life. I told him I just needed to tell someone as a release, and that I needed someone I could talk with about it. He sipped his beer and listened well.
Talking to Chris that night was a little bit of therapy. Secrets hidden are cruel masters. Secrets are a little like vampires in that they hate the light. Chris was a little light to me that night in that pub.
Back then, the president of the company I worked for had a very simple slogan—a vision—for the organization: Change the World or CTW.
We had a very simple, bright red logo for it, and he had a bunch of stickers printed. A tradition emerged in our company where, when you had a "world-changing conversation" over a meal, everyone who took part in it signed the sticker. Then someone would stick it to the bottom of the table as a secret reminder of what was discussed. As our conversation in that pub came to a close, I remembered I had a few stickers in my backpack. We borrowed a Sharpie and tattooed the bottom of that table. The picture turned out blurry...
I wanted there to be a reminder of that night, of that conversation.
I wouldn't classify it as a "world-changing conversation," but it felt like my world changed that night. It did.
They were closing down the bar by the time our conversation ended. I gave my phone to the mustached bartender and asked him for a pic from the other side of Victorian beer pulls . . .
The next day, Chris flew back home to America, and I spent another week touring Paris, Brussels, and Luxembourg.
This was a big win for me. I'd done it.
I was honest with myself and with someone else for the first time in a long time. It felt good. I wanted more of this new drug called honesty.
And deep down I knew, the comings out had just begun . . . 👊
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.