PAIN for the Lost Years, but FREEDOM for Finally Living Authentically
How Matt Bays first experienced and processed PRIDE after coming out as gay.
This week’s Perspective Shift comes via Matt Bays, author of the newly released memoir, Leather & Lace. Here is an excerpt, recounting some of Matt’s initial experiences with Pride after coming out as gay--even if, initially, it was only to himself and to God.
Two years ago, I sat in a coffee shop on Castro Street in San Francisco. Luke and I were going strong at the time—we were FaceTiming while he cleaned out our garage back in Indianapolis. The Castro had a rich gay heritage, and as a part of my coming out process, I had traveled there to be a part of what I had missed.
"A man is walking down the street at this exact moment. He is wearing a very small thong—like maybe he got it at OshKosh B’gosh.”
“Can’t unsee that,” Luke said.
“I miss you,” I told him. And I did.
“Aww...I miss you too, bumpkin.”
I had an awareness while on the phone with him that day—a simple internal memo that he was my boyfriend, that I actually had a boyfriend. Sometimes it still felt like a dream. But sitting in that coffee shop, watching a large, tan man scurry by in a toddler-sized thong, I accepted the change that had brought me both pain and freedom. Pain for the lost years and the hurt it caused my loved ones. And freedom that I was finally living authentically, which had kept me alive.
It rained nearly every day I was there. Each morning, I would load up my backpack and umbrella and hit the shiny black streets of San Francisco. I spent quite a bit of time in The Castro—it called to me.
I visited Harvey Milk’s camera shop and sat on the outside stoop. It was the same stoop where, in the movie, Milk, Harvey and his partner, Scott, shared a slow-motion kiss. The first time I saw this scene, I rewound it several times—watching with a mixture of longing and fear. I was still married [to a woman] at the time, and movie scenes like this one always left me feeling vulnerable and exposed.
Sitting there in real-time, I closed my eyes and let grief and regret wash over me for all the things I’d missed. And then I owned my part in it. I could have done things differently; that was the hard truth. Remaining hidden away was my doing. I hadn't lived honestly. The evangelical church had filled my brain with negativity and vitriol over gay people, gay rights, same-sex marriage, and the like. But deep down, I had always known they were wrong—even as a kid. I just didn't have the courage to stand up. To speak out.
I allowed myself to be bullied into silence. It was no one's fault but my own.
I walked over to City Hall, where Harvey was assassinated. He was forty-eight years old that chilly November day, and I had just turned seven. At seven years old, everyone in my entire world would’ve condemned Harvey Milk for his sexuality. They would've seen him as a threat to God, the family unit, and to young people everywhere. Yet, forty years later, I was inspired by his courage, vision, and dedication to tell us all something: That we are beautiful, exactly as we are. That we don’t need to be converted into anything other than what God created us to be. We are not freakshows. Not condemned. Not in trouble with God. Not perverts or fags.
We are simply gay. Simply beautiful.
A week before Harvey Milk was shot and killed, he said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet shatter every closet door.” It shattered mine. And thank God it did.
I stood before his placard, stirred up. I was angry and sad. I was inspired, conflicted, and furious. I felt a riot within me. As an adolescent, and even as a young man, I hadn't listened to the voice within that always told me what to do. I knew I was gay. I had always known. The fact that I had ignored it was not something I could change. But today, I could be an advocate for young people. At seven years old, I may not have had agency over my life. But now, I did. I would never be silent again.
Several days ago, I had dinner with a new friend. Stephan was a graduate of Harvard. We had met at an AA meeting earlier that week. Over dinner, he told me of his experience with an ex-gay ministry group at the complicated age of fifteen. His involvement with them was a solution his family had concocted to set him back on the (literal) straight and narrow. And even at thirty-three years old, sex with women continues to be a solution Stephan's father believes could help him successfully make the leap from gay to straight. Since he was seven years old, Stephan has not truly been accepted into his family.
My God. What have we done?
Sitting across the table from him, I could see the pain in his eyes. He was tired. But what struck me more deeply was the forgiveness he held on to for his father. (I swear, there is so much compassion within gay people.) I was moved by his desire to set things right with his dad. Because isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?
Acceptance. Love. Family.
What his father couldn’t comprehend, and many others can’t seem to either, is that gay isn’t going away. That for every “success story” they’ve heard—someone supposedly turning from gay to straight—each of them has a dark side. A little boy or girl sitting in an empty field with a shard of glass held to their wrist, wondering if they could be someone else, somewhere else.
Gay is gay. It isn't a death sentence unless we let it be. Your hair is brown, and you're gay. You can dye it, braid it, you can set it on fire. It's still brown, and you're still gay. And it’s okay. It’s more than okay. It’s perfect.
While still in the closet, I attended my first Pride parade in Indianapolis. Until then, I had come out only to myself and God. Entering the gates that day, I passed through a sea of queer people. I was scared to death—this gay, virgin man, watching other people swim while I dog paddled. Some were dressed like Cher. Some like truckers. Some like businessmen on vacation. I wore a tank top and nice shorts. I wanted to blend in. I didn’t want to be seen by nobody but God.
On the precipice of a lie and the truth, I was standing on tentative legs. I was not a man announcing to the world...
I’m here. I’m queer. Get used to it.
In fact, it didn’t feel like a pronouncement at all. It felt like a prayer.
I’m here. I’m queer. I’m not used to it.
Religious protesters were surrounding the perimeter of our little queer island in Victory Park. One of them was holding a sign that caught my attention. It didn't have flames on it, and it didn't threaten us with hell. But it was an argument I had heard before— an argument that once upon a time, I had even made myself. Behind the message was a person like me.
Gay is not who you are. Being heterosexual is not who I am.
Try telling that to God. Because I did, and here I am. I can no longer help people with this kind of thinking. They’ll have to get in their own shower-sanctuary on that one. That is if they intend to find any sort of authentic benevolence for queer people.
I smiled compassionately at the woman holding the sign because I understood her fear. It takes one to know one, and I knew them all.
Once inside Victory Park, I saw the beauty firsthand. Gorgeous gay people everywhere, living out loud. But I struggled to let it in. This kind of exposure frightened me. I was worried that someone I knew might see me.
“There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask, ‘What if I fall?’
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?"
I closed my eyes and listened for the voice inside—the voice that always knows what to do. It was speaking.
The problem has never been how others see you, Matt. The problem is how you see you. You are going to be okay. You’re gay. That’s all. Same as you were before. It’s just...now you know. And you can handle knowing. Now, let’s dance!
I might have regrets in my life. But one thing I know for sure is this...
Coming out will never be one of them.
(Excerpt from: Leather & Lace: A Gay Man, Lost Love, and a Road Trip With His Dead Sister)
See My Conversation with Matt Bays
In addition to inviting Matt to contribute to this week’s Perspective Shift, I’ve also asked him to join me on The Alter!
Tune in to hear more about Matt’s story and what his new book, Leather & Lace, is all about.
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Hi Matt, thanks for sharing this! When you mentioned Indianapolis, I sat up a little straighter. I had moved to the US from Malaysia and would reply "Indianapolis" whenever people asked me where I was from. I had sort of adopted Indy as my American home.
It was here that I learned about myself, my sexuality, and faith. I had been a conservative Christian my whole life but deep down knew that there was "something wrong with me". I struggled with my desire to be with women and didn't really identify as a woman myself.
I started attending IUPUI in 2015, and started going to therapy provided by the school. In 2016, I realized that I was queer through and through and that all that I had been taught and all that I had believed about homosexuality and the Bible were all lies.
That summer, after finally accepting that I'm queer, I attended the Indy Pride. I was terrified because like you, I was only out to myself and to God. I felt really out of place - like I was sticking out like a sore thumb. As I looked around, the impulse to leave was overwhelming. Then I decided to be brave and went up to the IUPUI LGBTQ+ Club and spoke to the person at the booth. They told me their name and their pronoun and asked me for mine. I was taken aback because no one had ever asked me what my pronouns were. I had explained to the person that I was "new". The person was friendly, accomodating, and helpful as they explained some basic things about the community and the club. They then warmly invited me to join them for meetings.
For the first time in my life, during that event, I felt seen. Despite my initial feelings out sticking out, I realized that no one was looking at me strangely or saying hurtful things to me for being there. I watched as people danced, sang, hugged, kissed, and just enjoyed being who they are freely and openly. It was life-changing!
This post really resonated with me and I am so glad that Colby had shared it here.
Thanks, Matt. I identify with lots of what you say, except coming out was even less acceptable when I was seven. I didn't even know what the word homosexual meant at that point and it wasn't a word in the vocabulary of my church. Like you I may have regrets in my life, but coming out is not one of them. I just wish I had done it sooner.