Classmates started calling me gay in 5th or 6th grade. I just never told them that I was . . . until my ten-year class reunion.
You cannot deny I “sound” gay. There is also something about the way I carry myself. People know. And that’s okay. I need you to recognize who I am. I cannot hide my gayness. I need you to not pretend that I’m not gay.
There is power in owning your story. When you stand up and say, “I am gay,” there are no more jokes.
I had a happy childhood. I always felt lots of love.
As a kid, I got really involved in theatre. I was in every play at Cowan. I thought I wanted to be an actor, so we did a whole family vacation to Hollywood. And then I realized I really enjoyed travel. So I switched to wanting to be a flight attendant. Mom bought me a book about how to become one.
Being from a small town, there was a time I used to think I wasn’t like other gay people. “I’m different.” A lot of it was my upbringing. People were constantly making fun of gay people.
I had always pictured a pretty traditional life. I would get married and have kids someday. But being gay in the 1990s in Cowan, Indiana, those things weren’t a possibility. I was led to believe if you were gay you slept around, you did drugs, and that you were a predator. Those were the stereotypes. Those are all things I didn’t want to be.
I’m a good person, I thought, I can’t be like that.
I’ve been a huge fan of Madonna since Kindergarten. In 1991 she came out with her Truth or Dare documentary about the “Blond Ambition” tour. All of her backup dancers were gay men. I thought it was awesome. This was the first time I saw a bunch of gay people who owned who they were. I watched it with my mom and looked to see how she reacted. She watched and didn’t cringe. I thought, “Maybe it’s okay to be gay. Maybe mom thinks it’s okay.”
To mom, all movies were art and there was nothing wrong with any of them.
Mom grew up in poverty and always wanted us to have a life like she didn’t have. And that meant opening your mind to all kinds of different worlds. Even though she bought me that book, she pleaded with me to go to college instead of flight attendant school. I ended up loving college. I loved the freedom, the friends.
I met my first boyfriend at orientation. Steve showed me it was okay to be gay. I remember being scared that there was this whole other gay person who was my age, and that this relationship could lead to something.
He was the first gay person I had ever met. But he wasn’t out. His family didn’t know. He played football. He didn’t seem gay. I know it’s bad to say that.
I had somehow equated in my mind that straight was good and gay was bad. But us being together was like we weren’t really gay, because we weren’t like the other gays. It’s so stupid to think about that now.
Dad found out first. He found a love letter signed with a heart from Steve. We couldn’t pretend it was just a letter between two buddies.
Dad wasn’t mad about it, but he thought it could be a phase. “Do what you got to do but let’s keep this between the two of us. Let’s not tell your mom.”
I told one of my brothers. One fall evening we drove out to the track in Cowan and laid in the middle and looked up at the stars. You get to that moment where you want to do it and right before you are so scared—butterflies in your stomach, heart pounding. You know that once you say those words there is no turning back because you can’t be like, “Just kidding! I’m not really gay.” He freaked out. He was like, “Are you sure? What if people think I’m gay?”
Those kind of responses come from a place of ignorance.
Eventually, my Aunt Millie forced me to tell Mom.
We were spring cleaning the walls at her house, and there was a pause in the conversation and she said, “J.R., don’t you have something you want to talk to your mom about?”
“I guess,” I said. “Mom, I’m gay.”
I think Mom knew but didn’t want to ask. She reacted much like my brother at first.
She said, “You are?!” I remember the way she said it. It’s not like she was mad, but that she was hurt.
Days later she said, “Was I the last one to know? Why wouldn’t you tell me? How am I supposed to explain to my friends and people at church that I have a gay son?”
That’s what sucks about those moments—when people just care about themselves. What will people think of them? This is my life. I could die for being who I am.
Dad was always cool about it, and eventually Mom came around. She’s grown so much over time. She loves me and often tells people I’m gay before I get the chance to.
I met my husband Cory at a house party at Ball State. He showed up really drunk, tripped over a grill in our front yard, and almost caught it on fire. He was completely apologetic. At the end of the night, he came up to me and said, “You don’t know this yet, but someday you are going to marry me.” I was like, “Oh, wow! This guy is super creepy.”
But I was flattered.
A year later we were a couple. When he asked me to move in with him, I knew it was serious.
One morning we were in bed watching the Food Network and out of nowhere he said, “I was thinking, we should get married this summer.” And even though I wanted to jump up and down I was like, “Really. You think so?”
It was great having friends and family at our wedding. We had a DJ, dinner, ceremony–a traditional wedding. Seeing people dance—people from all walks of life celebrating us—
that was really cool. Not everyone was there.
My brother didn’t come. Neither did my grandma. She told me she got my invitation and she loved me and she loved “my friend, Cory.” “But,” she said, “I just can’t. You should not be marrying another man. I can’t sit through that, because it means I would support it. The Lord knows.”
It really hurt to hear grandma say that. She loved me, but not enough to celebrate my big day.
We got married July 2, 2005. It was a week before my 26th birthday.
For our first song, the DJ put on “Just the Way You Are” by Billy Joel.
“Don’t go changing to try to please me . . .”
Cory and I were both on the dance floor dancing with our moms for the mother-son dance. We switched in the middle. That was cool to see my mom . . . out there at my wedding with the spotlight on her—dancing with my husband.
Even though we got married in 2005, it never felt real. Never legal. We had nothing to prove that we were married other than photos.
But by 2014, it seemed as if every day such and such judge ruled that same-sex marriage should be allowed. I didn’t think that would ever happen for Indiana, unless the Supreme Court ruled.
On June 26th of that year, Cory texted me: “Did you see that Indiana fell?”
Just like every other state and ruling, we knew a stay was coming but there was a window where we could get legally married.
The next morning, I texted my friends and family: “We are getting married on campus under Benny at 9:30 AM. I’d love for you to come if you can.” I called Mom at 7 AM and she was like, “I haven’t even taken a bath yet.”
I was like, “Well, get in the bathtub; we are getting married.”
When we got to the courthouse and they handed us our marriage license, I thought, “That’s it? All the fuss across the country for this piece of paper? This is what people are trying to deny me?”
We knew we had to get married, have witnesses sign it, and have it back to the courthouse before the stay. We got married at 9:30 AM, paperwork back in by 11 AM, and by 4 PM a stay had been put in place in Indiana.
We were in this weird state where we were married but it wouldn’t be recognized.
Our third marriage wasn’t really a wedding, per say. But on October 6th, 2014—five months later—the 7th court of appeals made our second marriage legal.
I never grew up to be an actor, flight attendant, or a backup dancer for Madonna, but, as the co-founder of The Facing Project, I get the opportunity to share my coming out story on stages across the country. My platform, and my family’s acceptance, give me a lot of privilege—and with that comes a lot of responsibility. There’s always at least one person who comes up after and tells me they are gay and struggling to tell their family. So I tell them they have to love themselves and that it’s okay to be themselves. It’s important for people to see that they’re not alone.
When I was a kid, I needed to see someone else who was gay and to know that my life was going to be okay. For me that was Madonna’s dancers. I’m sure they empowered a lot of other gay kids. And as small as my stage may be, I have that same responsibility to be that person for someone else.
– J.R. Jamison’s story as told by Kelsey Timmerman
J.R. Jamison is the co-founder of The Facing Project, the Executive Director of the Indiana Campus Compact, and the host of The Compact Nation Podcast. His memoir, Hillbilly, Queer, is forthcoming.
Kelsey Timmerman is the co-founder of The Facing Project and the author of three books, including most recently Where Am I Giving? A global adventure exploring how to use your gifts and talents to make a difference.
This story originally appeared in Facing LGBTQ+ Pride in Muncie, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Muncie OUTreach in Muncie, Indiana.