In June of 2013, Alan Chambers made national news. Chambers was one of the biggest names in the "ex-gay movement" and was president of Exodus International at the time.
Exodus had been around for years and popularized the idea that people could change their sexual orientation through prayer, counseling, etc. Christian churches and ministries from coast to coast loved Exodus and referred lots of people to them for help with their unwanted same-sex attraction.
That June, Chambers abruptly announced they were shutting Exodus down. And he went on national TV in an interview with Lisa Ling where he issued a very heartfelt apology to those who had been affected by Exodus...
“I am sorry for the pain and hurt that many of you have experienced. I am sorry some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents."
I later discovered that Chambers had said that, of the people Exodus had worked with, "99.9% of them have not experienced a change in their orientation."
I remember watching the Lisa Ling interview the night it aired. I sat alone on my couch at my apartment in Atlanta, staring wide-eyed at the TV. I'd quietly followed Exodus for a long time and couldn't believe it was going up in flames on national TV. I thought back over the years when I was so desperate to be straight. I thought about my counseling sessions, grateful I'd never pursued reparative therapy. The whole concept seemed very "snake oily" to me, and this latest announcement validated that.
In the following days, national media outlets picked up the Exodus story and hailed it as the death of the "ex-gay movement." It's been several years since then, and they appear to be mostly right. A few small organizations exist but reparative therapy is almost universally condemned now.
The Exodus announcement was one of a couple significant events for me in the summer of 2013.
My anxiety had reached a level where it was difficult to be around lots of young married couples. I realize this makes me sound like a very delicate flower, but these environments brought a very real, very palpable stress. If there were a few single people for me to hang out with, I was usually fine. But if I was the only single there, I wilted. I guess I actually was a very delicate flower then. I can admit that now.
I attended an event that summer with about a dozen other couples. And one night over dinner, each couple was asked to share an update on their lives.
One husband got it started by sharing how much God had done for his family. He talked about how thankful he was for his gorgeous wife and two kids. He pulled his smiling bride in close to his side as he talked.
The next couple talked about how their kids were adjusting well to their new school. They were very thankful too.
Another couple talked about how they'd been in counseling that year and how helpful it had been for their marriage. They were very thankful.
One after another, each couple talked about their love for each other and their children. I sunk down in my chair with each glowing report. Some of them knew my full story, but most didn't.
I knew it was going to be my turn to speak soon, and I'd have to think of something meaningful to say about my life.
My mind raced as I tried to emotionally disengage from it all, but it wasn't working.
After the 8th or 9th couple, I pushed back my chair and got up from the table, walking out of the room as fast as I could. I left the room and burst into tears.
I cried for about half an hour until one of the guys came and checked on me. The incident was so intense that it wrecked my stomach. Within a few days I was completely sick, lying in bed with all the symptoms of a bad flu. I went to a nearby walk-in clinic and they couldn't find any evidence of a viral or bacterial infection at all. By now, I was used to diagnosis-less doctor visits. Sick as a sailor, I missed four days of work, lying in a completely dark bedroom, and wondering what was happening to my life.
However, as bad as that incident was, it would pale in comparison to what was next.
That next year, I'd gotten promoted to vice president which meant I was serving on the company's executive team.
At that time, our exec team had six members. Each one was over a different function of the business. By then our company was doing about $25 million in revenue per year and we had several hundred employees. It had become a big operation that needed a lot of leadership.
I loved our exec team. We had an incredible team chemistry, and every person on it was positive, talented, and hard-working. We met once a week for a few hours to review our business operations and adjust our strategy. A couple times a year, though, we would get away for a few days, abandoning the distractions of the office so we could focus on bigger picture issues. Most companies would call this a "retreat," but Chris, the founder of the company and chronic optimist wouldn't let us use that term...
"We don't retreat around here...WE ADVANCE!" he'd tell us.
So we called them "advances." I'm no longer with the company, but I'm told they still call them that.
Chris had planned an advance for that summer at Lake Lanier which is an enormous recreational lake about an hour north of Atlanta.
He'd rented a big house right on the water for us all to stay in. The lakehouse we stayed at changed every year, but it was always nice—a pool, boat dock, grill, maybe a volleyball court in the backyard if we were lucky.
The summer advance was always a mix of work and play. We'd plan for the future but we'd also celebrate the success of the year we'd just wrapped up. And after we got some work done, the spouses of each exec team member drove up separately and joined us for the remainder of our trip.
On the morning we were set to leave, we all met at the office. Donning our swimtrunks, sandals, and luggage, we piled into a few cars and began our drive north to the lake.
After about an hour, we pulled into the driveway of a big suburban-style mansion on the lake.
We unloaded the vehicles and began hauling our stuff inside. Exploring a rental house is always fun, even for adults.
The house had clearly been built in the 90s. It had a huge chef's kitchen with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances as well as a big oak table, great for entertaining large groups.
The kitchen connected to a cavernous living room with 20 foot ceilings, light yellow walls, and cheap beige carpet. A giant moose head hung over the fireplace, and a sectional, microsuede couch sat in the middle of the room, flanked by a couple of ugly bronze floor lamps. This place was the average of every vacation rental house ever.
Chris's assistant had booked the house online so he gave us the tour.
We flipped on the lights as we worked our way down the tiled hallways. One by one, each member of the team claimed a bedroom. We got to the end of the tour, and there were no more bedrooms. They had all been claimed.
I was confused,
"How many bedrooms does this house have?" I asked the assistant, also a good friend of mine.
"Just five. We couldn't find one with six for these dates."
There were six of us. Five were married and one was single—me. I knew what that meant. I felt my chest begin to tighten.
"So where am I supposed to sleep?" I asked him.
"Oh, we just thought you could sleep on the couch in that little office," he replied, pointing towards two French doors that opened into an office. I could see a brown leather couch through the windows in the doors.
I felt my heart begin to pound and a skin-bristling chill spread over my body. My chest tightened even more and my teeth clenched a bit. My mind raced with both rage and sadness, vacillating wildly between the two...
What the hell? Everyone gets a bedroom but me?
They don't value you, Brett. And it's because they think you're a single loser.
Why do the married couples get a bedroom but the lone single guy gets a cold couch in an office?
Think of how stupid you're gonna look out there on that couch all alone.
How could they think this is okay???
You're a second class citizen in this group, Brett.
It's bad enough that I'm the only single person here.
You're alone, Brett. You'll always be alone. This will be happening the rest of you're life. Get over it.
My mind was under assault. I struggled to gather my thoughts, to string together coherent words...
"Th...This is not okay, man. Why the hell don't I have a bedroom?". I glared at him.
"Sorry man," he said. "Like I said, it's the only one we could find."
I was furious, and I don't handle situations like that well. I spun around and stormed away, back towards the main living room. I sat down on the microsuede couch and reached for my laptop. I needed to distract myself with emails or something...
Chill out, Brett. It's not that big of a deal. It was just a mistake, and you've slept on couches a thousand times before.
But it wasn't okay. Not this time. I was always able to shrug stuff like this off.
I knew it wasn't intended as a sleight. I knew it was just an oversight, and they never would have intentionally given me the shaft like that. I began reframing the situation as hard as I could, forcing my emotions to align with the truth that this was an innocent mistake and definitely wasn't worth freaking out over.
The other execs came into the room, joining me on the couch. We were about to begin our first meeting. I tried my best to ignore them.
The meeting got started with a discussion of the financials for the previous year.
Our COO passed out some printed spreadsheets covered in tiny numbers. I ignored them, mind still throbbing.
I stared straight ahead—eyes hollow—not listening to any of the financial talk. My heart slowed and the tide of anger began to pull away. But as it subsided, it was replaced with a rising despair, a ringing in my ear of insecure sadness, a shrill replay of every awful thing I'd thought about myself over the years...
You are alone, Brett. You'll always be alone.
You are unloved, Brett. You will always be unloved.
Everyone has someone but you.
No one understands you, and they never will. Normal people don't understand grown men hiding in closets.
And you're not even a grown man....you're just a little boy.
But you're worse than a boy. You're a queer, a sissy.
You're an alien, Brett. You'll never fit in to a world obsessed with marriage. You don't belong, and that cold leather couch in that cold office proves it.
You'll always be the weird guy on the couch—alone & exposed—a single spectacle of weirdness to all the married people.
They overlooked you today, and they'll keep overlooking you as long as you're alive.
Brett, it was true in Birmingham, true in Nashville, and it's true now: Those who love you don't really know you, and if they did, they wouldn't love you anymore.
But they'll know one day. They'll all know. And when they do, that's it for you. You're done. The devil will win. You will lose. Jesus will lose. You'll be exposed for the hypocrite that you are.
You'll be an embarrassment to yourself and everyone around you.
You'll never be a husband. You'll never be a father. You'll be alone forever, and you'll never be loved.
I sat on that couch, choking on a black fog of self-hatred.
The meeting went on, but I was a zombie.
Slumping in my seat, I didn't say a word. They'd ask my opinion, and I'd give one-word replies.
My body was there, but my mind was a million miles away. All I wanted to do was get out of that room.
Finally, Chris called for a bathroom break.
I stood up and turned towards the door that led into the backyard. My eyes moistened as I turned.
I bolted towards the door, hoping to get out of the room before anyone noticed. Vice-presidents of companies aren't supposed to cry at corporate events.
By the time my sandaled feet hit the wooden deck, the dam broke. My fast walk turned into a jog. I couldn't get away from that house fast enough. I ran down the steps of the deck until I hit the grass. There was a stand of trees in between the backyard and the boat dock, with a path of stone pavers leading out to the water. I sprinted down that path, through the trees, all the way out to the boat dock—heaving, shaking, and sobbing as I ran. I felt like I might choke, fighting for breath. My face poured wet salt onto the summer grass below.
I needed a place to hide this wreck of a man, this shame-streaked face, this crying child with facial hair.
I raced across the boat dock, towards an old wooden door that led to the inside of the dock, where the boats were. I burst through the door, slamming it behind me. I went to the corner farthest from the door and fell to the ground. I sat up, pulled my knees in and hung my head, sobbing. My entire body shook and convulsed and gasped for breath.
The inside of the boat dock was dark and smelled like dead fish. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and dead flies dotted the wooden planks below. Warm summer lake water quietly rocked the boats back and forth.
I slowly caught my breath and my heart began to ease. I pushed back some tears and caught my breath.
I stared at the water and thought about the years behind me...and the ones yet to come.
I thought about college and work and being a workaholic.
I thought about Birmingham and Nashville and being so scared of failing.
I thought about coming out to Olan in that church and Chris in that pub.
I thought about slamming the door on love.
I thought about a lifetime of singleness, of alone.
I thought about my plan to trade love for adventure, to trade love for community.
I thought about letting go of children I'd never have.
I thought about all those teary coming-out conversations.
I thought about warm hands on cold shoulders, and about all the love I'd been shown.
I thought about happy families on Facebook and having no one to run home to.
I thought my faith and this man they call Jesus, my first love.
I thought about love.
And sitting on that boat dock—face still wet—I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone. I typed out a message to my good friend Anne...
"I don't think I want to be lonely anymore..."
I hit send,
got up off that deck,
and walked back towards the house.
The meeting was about to start again... 👊
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.