I came back from Europe around the first week of December. I now had two confidants—Olan and Chris—and the world felt a little different.
For me, the weeks after coming out to someone were like coming up from an underground bunker. You proverbially "drop the bomb" on them, and then go into your bunker and wait for the fallout, wait for the response. The waiting is the immediate days after the initial conversation. You're wondering what they're really thinking, wondering whats happening up there on the ground above your subterranean hideout. All the thoughts . . .
What did they really think?
Do they think I'm weird?
Do they view me any differently?
Do they still respect me?
Do they still love?
Will they keep loving me?
How people react when you come out to them is actually a two part process:
1. How they react in the initial conversation
2. How they react in the days and weeks after
The second part is as important as the first, because you're quietly waiting to see if that person leans in or leans away. You're waiting to see what, if anything, is going to change in the relationship. You're waiting to see what the new normal is.
Humans derive a lot of peace in being known, in being viewed by their peers in a predictable, agreeable way. Coming out is hard because you know it blows all that up. Coming out is a reset button, because it fundamentally changes how that person views you. I get that this is probably more dramatic in more conservative environments, but it's part of every coming out to some degree.
Of the two steps above, only jerks screw up the first part, but most people—even really good ones—mess up the second part.
Chris actually did great with the second part.
A few weeks later he revisited the conversation, and we talked about it again. He asked a few more questions. I always loved—LOVED—when people would ask questions after coming out. When you've been privately thinking about something your whole life, you have a lot to share. It's like a paleontologist secretly studying dinosaurs for 50 years in solitude but never being able to talk about it. Then finally, when he is 70, someone asks, "So, Jim, what do you think about dinosaurs?" Yep . . . Jim has a few thoughts.
People who nail the second part aren't scared to ask Jim about dinosaurs. But it's a balance . . .
Bringing up the issue too much is bad because it shows that it's a really big, dramatic thing to them, and it makes you feel like a circus freak. You don't want to talk about dinosaurs all the time. You are more than your knowledge of dinosaurs.
But ignoring it and acting like the conversation never happened is also bad. Now that you know dinosaurs are a big part of Jim's life, it's kinda rude to never talk about dinosaurs again. Sadly, this is what 90 percent of people do. And I get it . . .
I think well-meaning friends & family think, "Well, I want him/her to know that nothing has changed, so I just won't bring it up." Or they simply don't know how to bring it up. They don't know a good way to work dinosaurs back into the conversation.
I have a friend in his 40s who is gay. He came out to his parents in his 20s, and they haven't brought it up since. Not once! This is so tragic, and it reinforces that person's greatest fear that, "This is a really big deal. This is really awkward. It's not okay at all, and it's not safe to talk about here."
After a few conversations with Chris in those following weeks, I felt different.
I got a little glimpse of what it was like to be real, to be honest, to stop hiding. Over time, silence becomes an indictment against your soul. An indictment is "a formal accusation." My silence—my indictment— read something like this . . .
Brett Trapp is formally charged with the crime of hiding his truth, hiding his soul. He is fearful and weak. He hates the darkness, but he chooses to live in it every day. He is terrified of what other people will think. And he will live like this forever.
Now this wasn't true, of course, but this was my very subtle daily narrative. And every day of silence was me agreeing with it. It was me signing it again each day. It was fear roosting a little bit deeper in my heart, getting a little cozier, grabbing hold a little tighter.
But now . . .
But now, I had a relationship—a close relationship—where this indictment had been ripped up. When I talked to Chris, it felt different. Our conversations were fresh air. I was free to be honest and open. I wasn't hiding when I was talking to Chris. People who have been in closets for a long time crave fresh air. And once your lungs taste it, they want more. I wanted more.
At the end of 2010, I decided it was time to enlarge the circle. It was time to tell a few more people.
I came up with a plan and a schedule to tell some of my closest friends. Coming out conversations get easier with time, but only slightly. Fear returns with each one. I'd like to say that after a couple, the rest were easy. They weren't. But they were a little easier.
There's a lot of self-coaching and self-face-slaps and glasses of wine . . . at least for me there was. The bright side of this process is that you get good at talking about hard things. No one really wants to have hard conversations anymore. It's so much easier to push it aside and then turn on Netflix or click a red notification button on your phone. Each coming out—each moment of digging your feet firmly into the soil of your truth—is a little declaration of war on fear. And fear doesn't fare well in war.
One of my next big conversations was with my boss, also named Chris.
We had known each other for six years and had a very close friendship. There was snow on the ground and Christmas lights everywhere when I drove up to his house in the Atlanta suburbs. His wife cooked Mexican food that night. Around 9 p.m. it was bedtime for their two daughters, and Chris asked if I wanted to join him as he read them a bedtime story. Chris is a very good dad.
The two girls shared a bedroom, and I remember it being a cathedral of pink—pink everything—sheets, pillows, toys. The nightstand even had a pink lamp on it, a single light between two twin beds casting an orange-pink glow all over the room. Very cute and very memorable.
The girls were tucked in by the time we got up there and Chris read a few pages of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. After a while, the girls dozed off. Single people aren't invited into these moments very often so it was quite special. I remember being struck at how beautiful the moment was. But kinda sad too.
I'd told Chris I needed to talk, so we retreated to his basement for a little privacy.
Chris's basement is traditionally masculine—wooden shelves loaded up with books about leadership and business and war heroes, a big chunky oak desk, and four oversized chairs in the middle of the room, facing each other like the four points of a compass. There was a heavy white marble coffee table in the middle of the chairs. We sat across from each other.
After a few minutes of small talk, I got to the point. Terrified once again, I dug in my heels . . .
"I just want to let you know that, I struggle with same-sex attraction."
(I still couldn't say "gay").
Like the first Chris, this Chris reiterated his love for me. He said this didn't change our friendship or working relationship.
And then he began to ask questions. Chris is an expert question-asker.
We talked life and my loneliness and lifelong singleness. We even talked theology a little. Chris bathed that conversation in curious humility which made it so great. Most people don't even know what curious humility is because they've never seen it, because no one's ever been curiously humble toward them. His curious humility was grace to me that night.
Like the previous conversation, the tears began to flow again. I cried a lot back then.
These early conversations were massively cathartic and healing for me. Like before, I asked Chris not to tell anyone. Secrecy was still a top priority. I didn't want anyone to know who I had not personally told.
One of the downsides of coming out to people like this is you have to pull them into the hiding, into the secrecy. Inevitably, when you're nearly 30 and single, people talk. People would often ask my closest friends, "So what's up with Brett? Why doesn't he date?" I knew this. So I knew we had to have a plan for how they would answer that. Deputizing your closest friends into the deceptive practices of the closeted life is quite depressing. Coaching your friends on how to lie for you is yet another damning reminder of the closet.
I also remember telling Chris that I eventually wanted to put my full coming out story online. I told him I'd felt for a long time that's what God wanted me to do.
I had to do it. HAD to, I told him.
I felt like a hobbit with a ring, scared to death but hellbent on making it to the fires of Mordor. I didn't know when or how, but I knew it'd eventually happen. I told everyone this in my early conversations, and they all agreed it was a bad idea. Sorry, guys.
My third conversation was in the books, and Chris handled it great. He was open and loving, and that's all I needed in an initial convo.
I always prepared for the worst though. I did a lot of pre-talk/self-coaching back then to get myself in the right mindset . . .
Brett, remember, you've had 15-ish years to process this, think about it, work through all the implications. They haven't. Give them grace. Lots of grace! If they freak out or say something rude, just roll with it. Don't get upset. You're not perfect, and neither are they. They've never had this conversation before either so remember: Grace. Grace. Grace. Just like the kind you've been given.
I'm sure that sounds kinda silly, but it served me well. I learned that if you dwell on grace enough it can inoculate you against bitterness, which is a fantastic side effect of this whole process.
I'm a big believer that the gay Christian person needs to bring a big suitcase of grace to every coming out conversation. I recommend jumbo-sized actually, the kind they have to weigh at the airport. I suppose that probably applies to straight Christian people as well. And every conversation for that matter. But I digress . . .
My next coming out conversation, however, was the most memorable . . .
I've mentioned before that when I lived in Nashville, I had one close friend there, Kelly.
I'd known Kelly since high school, so she'd been a close friend for over a decade.
I never really call her Kelly, though. My nickname for her is Perm which I gave her when she walked into church one Sunday night back in high school sporting a freshly-fried perm from the local salon. I called her Perm once and it sort of stuck. I still call her that today.
Perm got me through those tough years in Nashville.
She was my shoulder to cry on when the world felt like it was burning around me. She's unbelievably sweet and refreshingly thoughtful. She's the friend who sends birthday cards and the one that always answers when you call. She's the friend who puts her phone down at dinner. She's the friend you can always be yourself around, and the one that will invite you, even in your late 20s, to her family's beach vacation.
In a word, Kelly is a SAFE friend.
Some people just give off a safe vibe, and Kelly is one of them. Their presence, their disposition is relaxing and every square inch of them oozes trust. Your safe friends are the ones that cause your soul to stop looking for the exit door. Gay men are often drawn to girls who are safe because we live our lives in a world that feels very unsafe. We can get very clingy, but that's only because we love them very much.
Because of this, Kelly had had the coming out conversation with several others.
She was like a safe harbor for poor gay closeted male souls to come crashing into after many years at sea. I was her next ship.
That she'd already had this conversation with a few other guys actually made mine feel a little harder. I imagined her secretly thinking, "Oh no . . . not you too?" Closeted people are good at imagining worst-case responses. Or maybe I was just good at it. idk.
Kelly and I were both home in Florence the week after Christmas, so I knew that'd be the best time.
I waited till my last day in Florence. I texted her the day before and told her I needed to talk, so we agreed to meet for breakfast.
We met at the Rocking Chair Restaurant way over in Colbert County. Florence was in Lauderdale County, and the two counties are separated by the Tennessee River. Florence boys didn't really go over to Colbert County much unless it was to drink, eat at the Outback, or take senior pictures at the waterfall in Spring Park. That made this a great location because I knew I wouldn't see anyone else I knew there.
The Rocking Chair Restaurant is sort of like a poor man's Cracker Barrel—similar country cooking but more local and less corporate. It's the kind of place your Southern grandad might go meet his buddies for morning coffee.
We were seated, and I could tell that Kelly could tell I was nervous. I had called this meeting, so the onus was on me to get the conversation going. The waitress came and took our orders. I ordered biscuits and chocolate gravy, a Southern delicacy you can't get many places. It's a more breakfast-y form of chocolate birthday cake, basically.
Like the conversations before it, we made small talk, but the awkwardness between us was thick. We both knew it was there. I had to go for it, so I dug my heels in again . . . to that same soil . . .
"Hey Perm, I need to tell you something." I could feel the tears coming. This one was already feeling different.
"Okay . . ." she looked up with a look anticipating something not great.
"I need to tell you . . . I have same-sex attraction."
Our eyes locked onto each other, and her eyes flooded with tears. She put down her fork and knife, and she looked down for a bit. She looked back up at me and, through tears, said the most beautiful words I'd ever heard . . .
"I'm so sorry."
And in the moment I realized how different "I'm so sorry" is from "I still love you." They are both beautiful, but in that moment, Kelly acknowledged something . . .
She acknowledged my weary soul.
She acknowledged all those sleepless nights and the hidden, teary moments in church.
She acknowledged all those prayers sent up to a silent God.
She acknowledged all those moments where I felt I might drown in the shame of it all.
She acknowledged all the running—the endless running—from all the pain.
She acknowledged the cuts and bruises and scars on my battered soul.
She acknowledged all of it. She saw it. She saw me. And she stepped right inside my pain and sat down next to me. With three words she had ignited a long healing process.
I began to sob. And I don't mean cry, I mean sob.
Tears streamed down my cheeks and into my biscuits and chocolate gravy. I had to push back my chair. I doubled over into my lap with my hands over my face. I had never felt so loved, so seen in all my life. I had shown a few people my pain before this moment, but I had never had someone feel my pain like she did.
Jesus was so kind to me that day. He was so kind to send me a friend like Kelly. He was so kind to prepare that moment and those biscuits and that gravy. It's easy to get caught up in the ways God has let us down. And then, His grace comes crashing down—kamikaze-style—right into our lives when we least expect it. It is a glorious explosion.
Over the month of December, I came out to a handful of my closest friends.
Each conversation was scary, but each was good. Each of them was healing and freeing, and I was slowly building a team of supporters who would walk by my side through this. I felt so much light.
But there was one conversation I'd been avoiding. I knew it'd be harder than all the others. It's the one every closeted person fears the most, and yet, it is the most inevitable. In early 2011, I began to put together a plan for the big one . . . 👊
B.B.P.S. - I need to make a very important point here: Everyone's coming out story and process is different. Please don't assume they are all like mine. If someone does come out to you, listen well and ask them if it's okay if you ask questions. I wanted questions, but someone else might not. And if you suspect someone you know is gay, do NOT force the conversation. Be a safe person, but give them their time. Above all, lead with love and empathy. (As it turns out, that formula works for pretty much anything.)
B.B.P.P.S. - Thanks to everyone who continues to share the story. xoxo
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.