As told to Jeff Perri
Dear Mom and Dad:
There were two defining moments from my childhood that molded me into the person you see before you.
The first was the exact moment I knew I liked boys the way I was supposed to like girls. The summer between my 6th and 7th grades, I played on a kids’ summer football league. During a scrimmage one day, a teammate was tackled and I was there to help him up. I clearly remember my left hand grasping his as if we were going to arm wrestle and my right hand cupping his tricep to pull him up. I didn’t know what gay was at the time, but I sure knew I liked the feeling of touching his arm. Perhaps this boy acknowledged the same feeling in me or even himself, because when school started that fall, he and his friends bullied me. One by one, my friends started distancing themselves from me. Some dropped me altogether. I was no longer “worthy” of their friendship.
The second moment wounded me so deeply that I spent most of my life trying to climb out of that dark place. In 8th grade, I stepped outside of my comfort zone and tried out for chorus. The teacher, Mr. Melvin, had a reputation of being strict, demanding and mean. I had trouble hitting one particular note during rehearsal for our Christmas concert. Mr. Melvin singled out a group of us to sing the line one by one. It was my turn and I couldn’t hit the note. ONE. NOTE. I was yelled at, called names and told to “get out” in front of the whole class. From this point on, I remember feeling like I wasn’t good enough. I retreated into myself when I should have been soaring and discovering who I was. A teacher who was supposed to encourage me to do the things I thought were out of reach, had stripped me of the little confidence I had left.
By now I had come to terms with being gay but I still felt different, alone and most of all unworthy of love. I desperately needed people on my side so I turned to you. “Mom. Dad. I have something to tell you. I’m gay.”
You never truly know the reaction you are going to get but you hope of all people, your parents will be understanding, compassionate and most of all loving. I struck out on all counts. What they spewed at me was unimaginable, especially my father. He called me faggot, sissy, homo and every other vile slang there was for being gay. Not being ready for their reaction, I stood there with tears streaming down my face, begging and pleading with them to listen to me.
Mom, you wanted no part of me or what I was saying. You told me that I was a “disappointment” to you and God and “unworthy” of your love and that I was no longer welcome in your house. “But, I’m 15,” I argued. Where am I supposed to go? You said, “We don’t care.” Dad said, “and you have 15 minutes to leave the house.”
I packed some clothes into a duffle bag and walked out of my house for the last time and onto the streets to fend for myself. At only 15 years old I had to figure out how to survive on the streets. I was scared, confused, hurt and angry that the ones who were supposed to be there for me and love me no matter what, could be filled with such hate for me. I wasn’t your little boy anymore. What was I going to do?
I started hanging out at the train station and quickly learned the older men coming and going found me attractive. There was an older man, Mack, who started talking to me, bringing me food and giving me a few dollars on occasion. At first, this attention was not only nice, but welcomed. He lived alone and offered me shelter in his spare bedroom. I felt like I had a friend, someone who cared about me. I didn’t understand “nothing is free” and it wasn’t long before Mack was requesting sexual favors of me. The more I did for him, the more I got from him. Clothes, shoes, some cash and a place to live, but only while Mack was home. During the day while he was at work, I was dropped off at the same train station where we met.
Just as I got comfortable, things changed. Mack saw how other men flirted with me and how I responded to the attention. He decided he could make money off of me, so he started setting up “dates” between me and his buddies. I didn’t want to, but I was told if I didn’t cooperate, he would call the police on me. I wasn’t sure what he would tell them but I was too terrified to find out, so I kept my mouth shut and did as I was told. By this time, it was clear that Mack didn’t care about me. I could see it in his eyes – he no longer saw me as a person – I was nothing more than an object he controlled and used as he wanted for his personal gain. I lived (well survived) through three more years of being sexually abused for his financial gain.
Just after my 18th birthday, I met Eric. Eric was in his early 20s and worked at trying to get kids like me off the streets. At first, I wanted no part of him or his promises. I barely trusted myself let alone a stranger. For weeks, Eric found me and tried gaining my confidence. Of course, I kept this from Mack. After four months I took Eric up on his offer and found myself in a homeless shelter with nothing more than the clothes on my back.
Abuse isn’t just physical. Mom and dad, your words were abusive, hurtful and have had a deep and long lasting effect on how I love myself. Even though I wasn’t physically abused, I sometimes wished I was rather than suffer years of those hateful words. The scars left weren’t skin deep and they were not easy to get over. They ran deep into my soul and forever changed how I feel about myself. But at some point I had to ask myself: Where does acceptance and forgiveness begin?
I learned it had to begin with me.
So now, I stand before you a changed person. Once crippled by insecurity, self-doubt and a self- hatred no human should ever feel, I am starting to believe I am enough.
This story originally appeared in Facing Sex Trafficking: Atlanta’s Dirty Little Secret, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by AIB TV in Atlanta, Georgia.