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Get back in the closet

An unexpected event turned into an uncomfortable event and one which made me introspect a great deal on Monday.  As I was driving home from work, my car broke down.  I wasn't sure exactly what happened, but I knew that my tachometer dropped significantly, then the engine cut altogether.  I was on a busy 4-lane divided highway, but fortunately had just enough momentum left to pull onto a side street before the power steering cut out completely.

I don't know anything about cars.  I was thinking maybe it was a faulty spark plug or something.  I posted the symptoms on Facebook and asked my friends for advice.  I was told that it was most likely a fuel line problem, which makes sense because in hindsight the car did act sort of like it was out of gas when it died, although usually (in my experience) there's sort of a stuttering when that happens which was absent in this case.  But anyway, I didn't know how to diagnose or repair the issue.  I called Conrad to ask him to pick me up.  Since I know spark plugs are cheap and I know how to change them, I asked him to buy some on his way to get me.  (He ended up not being able to because his card didn't work, weird side note.)

While I was waiting, a man driving past stopped and tried to help me.  He didn't know much more about cars than I did, but he did say that the car should still start on 3 cylinders, which I didn't know, so it was not likely to be a spark plug issue.  He asked if I had someone coming to get me (or some question similar to that).  This is the part where I started to reflect on my own behavior.  I consider myself fully out of the closet.  I never have any problem telling people that I am gay or that I have a boyfriend or anything like that.  I even let my students know--not that I brag about it, but that if the topic ever comes up, I never even hesitate to mention that my lover is male and not female.  But here in this instance, I found myself balking.  I was actually afraid to tell him.  I had the thought of "If he knew I was gay, would he still help me?"  So, I told him that I had "a guy" coming with some spark plugs to help me out.

What did I do?  I reduced the love of my life to just "a guy"?  How could I do that?  And why?  While I was married to Karen, I never once thought to refer to her as just "a gal".  She was always and unquestionably "my wife".  So, this is my thought process.  This is the Bible Belt.  People here are very religious.  And most of them are the Baptist kind of religious.  Their religion teaches them to be nice to other people, which is quite likely why this man stopped to help.  But their religion also teaches them that gay people are evil and that they should avoid homosexuality in any form.  I found myself at the dilemma that the reason this man was helping me was the same as the reason why I was afraid to let him know I had a boyfriend.

That man, being unable to help, left and wished me luck.  After Conrad arrived, a woman showed up and offered to call AAA for us to have it towed home.  I felt that act alone was above and beyond what was required of her, but after she called AAA and was informed it would be an hour before the tow truck came, she invited us to her home (which was just down the street) to feed us.  Again with this woman, just as with the man from earlier, I was afraid to let on that the two of us were together.  In fact, I even had the image of her finding out halfway through the conversation and telling us to get the hell out of her Christian house.  (Fortunately, that didn't happen.)

We had a very pleasant conversation.  She's extremely religious, and nearly the whole conversation was about religion, but we did talk about many other things, like our careers and dreams (literal dreams, at night, not just goals) and other random topics.  She made us some wonderful roast beef sandwiches.  It was far more than either Conrad or I expected, and we expressed gratitude many times over.  During the conversation, the things that we talked about would make it almost impossible for her to have not guessed that we are a couple.  That is to say, I would be surprised if she didn't guess it somewhere along the line.  But it didn't seem to bother her at all.  She did seem to be a rather open-minded Christian.  She had attended many different churches and settled in on one that she really liked.  She did a wonderful sales pitch in trying to get us to attend with her.  Apparently it's a jammin' church where you can wear casual clothes and listen to very talented electric guitarists, etc.  Conrad feels obligated to go, I just want to experience a rock concert at a church--something which would be forbidden in Mormonism.

But I felt bad.  I had re-entered the closet door, and pulled it nearly all the way closed.  If only for a short while, I was ashamed of my man.  (Not of him personally, just of the fact that I'm with him.)  I thought many things.  First, I think it's sad that this is even an issue in the first place.  That I even thought that my sexuality was something I needed to hide in order to gain the favor of complete strangers.  This is a commentary on society and its anti-gay nature (which is at the tipping point now).  Second, I was ashamed at myself for caring so much what other people thought of me.  I want to be authentic.  I want to be me.  I don't want to hide any part of myself in order to make other people love me.  I want to offer the world a genuine Keith Penrod and let each individual person decide whether to take me or leave me.

I share this story for many reasons, though.  First, I share because I like talking about my own feelings and experiences, and it helps me sort through my thoughts.  But I also share because I want people to understand what it's like to be gay.  If you're straight, you don't have to hide your relationship with your lover.  In fact, you probably brag about it from time to time, which you should rightfully do.  You don't have to worry about whether someone will like you or not because you're married or dating someone.  But all too often, gay people do have to worry about that.  We have to worry about how people will react.  Because some people can be downright hurtful.  I have had more than one close friend tell me that they felt a need to protect their children from me.  That's a hurtful thing to hear.  And because I love children so much, it's motivation for me to hide who I am in order to gain favor in the eyes of parents with young children.  They've said they don't want their children being taught that it's okay to be gay.  The corollary to that is that they're not okay with me because I'm gay.  Who wants to be told that?

Anyway, I am grateful to the woman who attends Park West Church for feeding us and towing my car home for me.  Conrad and I intend to go to church with her--probably just once, but at least once.  I don't believe that she would have invited us there if it was unfriendly to gay people.  I intend to hold my boyfriend's hand and sit with my arm around him while we are there, and if anyone has a problem then we can leave.  The experience from Monday caught me off guard--it was a situation I hadn't anticipated before--but this time I am prepared and I am confident that I can be authentic.

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