This blog post is the fourth, and final installment in our National Coming Out Day 2021 series: a personal coming out story authored by ISC Clinician, Sylvester Merritt. For more information and resources on National Coming Out Day, click here.
“Even trees need to lean.” My great aunt Ida Mae’s words carried me through the darkest and most rewarding moments of my life. Those words mean more to me with each experience. And coming out as a Black gay man from the south nearly two decades ago, those words would give me strength in moments I did not believe I’d survive.
Born and raised in Tennessee during the 80s and 90s, the early years of my life were filled with euphemisms and sage words to communicate the complexity of society and interpersonal relationships. I loved the old sayings laced with sarcasm and wit used by natives of our culture, all while presumably being a gentleman or a lady. But they never seemed to quite fit the answers I sought out to understand who I am. Those years were also feared with dread as the AIDS epidemic nearly wiped out an entire generation of gay men. In the south the world was seen in absolutes, everything was black or white and any shades of grey were an aberration of nature. You did not ask why, especially as a child. You were meant to accept these beliefs. So when the naivety of my youth ended abruptly after my first kiss with someone of the same gender, I realized I was an unwelcome hue in this pocket of the world. The circumstances of that kiss I’ll share another time, but ten-year-old me knew in that moment that my life had changed forever. And I was terrified.
I came from the Southern Black Community that is so strong. We leaned on each other and told one another to pick ourselves up when we fell down. There was no time to soak in sadness. We had to be strong to survive. We couldn’t show any weakness. No tears. No pain. Just stoicism and persistence. We endure, innovate, and create wonders from the scraps left behind. The ideal of Black Men showing no fear while exhibiting our physical prowess, virility, and infallible strength is still implicitly seen as our only worth. Our ancestors could never be anything other than strong. “Otherness”, of any kind, meant more brutality, ostracization, and death. I understand the mentality much more now than thirty years ago, but it frustrated me greatly. At age ten, I knew in a kiss by happenstance I was slowly beginning to discover my “otherness”.
My otherness grew in adolescence, as my male classmates began seeking out the affection and attention from young ladies. I briefly tried to do the same, but as has always been true for me, if I’m not into it, I’m not doing it. So I stopped and escaped in the world of books, quietly searching for those who also had my otherness. I read both ‘A Separate Peace’ and ‘Harry and Hortense at Hormone High’ countless times and found solace in characters with my otherness. My otherness became my queerness as my attraction to my gender grew faster than the vines on a walnut tree. I withdrew further from the world, as the only queerness I saw were an entire generation of gay men being decimated by the AIDS epidemic. That was the only representation I saw outside of books. Those brave enough to be their authentic selves in my youth were dying. That was the only representation media provided. I didn’t want to die, but one day I’d be close enough to death to finally acknowledge my truth. Coming out took so long as a result. Except to my mother, the most incredible human being I’ve ever known.
When I was 16 were in the living room one night watching a movie named ‘Jeffrey’ (if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend doing so). I was so surprised my parents watched it with me after telling them the description. I was also petrified. As close as my mother and I were, being gay was just unacceptable in my town. Those who did come out were repeatedly harassed and extracted from the Black Community. We had enough stacked against us, so the collective belief was any otherness had to be driven out. I pretended to not know what the movie was really about as the description left out the vital information that the characters were gay, but as always my mother knew better. The next night, we sat at dinner and discussed our day. Out of nowhere, my mother turned to me and said, “Baby, do you like boys?” The pressure on my chest felt as if an old oak tree and fallen on me, making it nearly impossible to make a sound. I’d never been able to lie to my mother, so I said “NO… maybe… yeah.” She replied, “Okay. Pass the greens.” with a smile. After the shock wore off I went to my room, looking at the moon, and cried. The person who meant the most to me knew my otherness and didn’t care. My mother came in and I laid my head in her lap. She told me she always knew and it changed nothing. She loved me as I am. She believed I was who I was supposed to be. She also told me to be safe as the rest of the world wasn’t safe and to make sure I told people when I was ready. Knowing the person I loved the most knew I was gay was enough to get me through high school.
But when college began, it wasn’t enough to only be out to the one person who’s supposed to love you unconditionally. I wanted the same dalliances as my friends but my university in Kentucky was no more advanced than my hometown. Homophobia was rampant, and my first sexual experiences with guys were an endless cycle of secrecy, shame, guilt, and sadness. I could only be out to my mother, and as much as her love and support meant, as far as the branches she stretched out to hold me up, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to be truly authentic. I wanted to be rooted in the advice I’d given my friends and residents when I was a Resident Advisor. I wanted to be free, but my blackness made me fear being gay. Being Black meant I had to protect myself from all forms of racism.
The world was changing but I was in an area of the country where time stood still. There were still signs in neighboring towns saying you can’t be out at night if your skin color was darker than a light brown paper bag. Being Black meant being on guard at all times. Being gay meant another target on my back and it was too great to overcome. I wanted to be out and proud but I didn’t want to have to look over my shoulder even more than I already did. Then I began grad school, and while being one of the darkest times of my life, it was the turning point. I’d ended the closeted relationship I’d “Dawson Creek’d” all through undergrad and listened to Evanescence on repeat. I began to wither, I lost weight, I couldn’t eat or sleep. I cried every single night while pushing away friends who knew something was wrong. I became reckless, partying and barely making it to class. I refused to look in any mirror, as the temptation to smash the reflection of myself that I hated so much was too powerful to overcome. I hated myself and began thinking about a world without me in it. That thinking was almost granted.
During the spring semester I became ill, believing it was the flu like my classmates had for the past few weeks. I was in bed for two weeks. Then the pain came. It was dull, then ached, then sharp, then it felt as though someone had taken a hot poker and repeatedly stabbed me. When my eyes had sunken in and my stomach extended out as big as someone in their third trimester of pregnancy in one night, I went to the emergency room. Within fifteen minutes they prepped the table for surgery and told me to call my mother to say goodbye, as my appendix had ruptured and all my organs were shutting down. Everything was moving as fast as hummingbirds on honeysuckles in June, but also as slow as the evening breeze in July. My life was flashing before my eyes and there so much loneliness, anger, and regret. As I was placed on the operating table I called my mom. All I said was “Mama” and she didn’t let me finish before saying, “hold on I’m on my way” and hung up. I looked up at the operating room lights as tears poured down my face. The sweet nurses wiped them from my eyes and stroked my hair. I said as loud as I could, “whatever higher power hears this, If I’m not meant to be gay, please don’t let me wake up. Just let me see my mama’s face one more time. Give her peace.” The nurse and doctors held my hands, kissed me on the forehead as their tears met my own on my cheek. Then I closed my eyes. What felt like a few seconds later, I opened my eyes, and there was my mother, with her brilliant, gemstone glowing blue-green eyes. I let out a sound I never made before, thanking whatever higher power granted me my wish of seeing her one last time. Told her, “I’m sorry I died but please be at peace”. She said, “Vessa, you’re not dead, you’re here with me, baby”. And I cried in jubilation. After being medicated so I wouldn’t rip my stitches I said “Mama, I’m ready to be me.” She said “Good.” Then I told literally every person I saw, called, and emailed over the next year I’m gay.
You see, in those moments on that operating table, I meant every word of what I said. I did not want to return to this world if I couldn’t be who I am, fully, unabashedly, Black AND Gay. Realized soon after waking up from that twelve hour surgery I couldn’t ask anyone to give that freedom to me except myself and it took me nearly dying to accept this truth. I could no longer be concerned with how others both outside and in the Black Community perceived me being gay. I could no longer allow the tears I shed, the cumbersome fear of being different, and the nights I spent hating my existence stop me from discovering the beauty in being myself. Of loving myself, fully. I had to understand while my ancestors suffered greatly, they embraced who they were. They shed tears, shed blood, and lived in constant fear all while hiding their despair. There’s strength in those tears, there’s life in that fear. They leaned on each other, like the trees in the forest to survive. They supported each other through drought and the cold, bitter reality of being someone’s property. They grew tall and strong in spite of the torturous life of being slaves. The true lesson of my ancestors and the Black Community had been lost in my fear of my otherness, but I realized this otherness is how my community learned to adapt, survive, and thrive. And I had to do the same.
As the years passed, I reflect on what Aunt Ida Mae told me as a child. Even trees need to lean. I had to love myself to be free. I had to allow those who love me for who I am to support me. I had to be strong enough to express myself and my sexuality authentically to feel the light and love both outside and within in order grow and be strong. I create space and make room for the saplings, the next generation, to branch out, to grow and know they have my support, our support as queer Black people, to grow as strong and as tall as they wish.
Throughout this life I know very few things are accomplished alone. I learned there was nothing wrong with being a different hue than the myopic norms of the region I grew up in. Absolutes on how someone presents is simply fear of having to understand something different. Differences is what makes this world beautiful, bright, and colorful. Differences should be embraced, nurtured, and loved. While I wish I’d learned and accepted this about myself without having to nearly die, I’m glad it happened. I’m to be myself and take what I’ve learned from being both Black and gay and give back to my communities. So whenever someone needs support, my branches will be fully extended, ready to hold up whoever needs it, as they discover the strength that resides in us all.
Sylvester Merritt, MS
IntraSpectrum Counseling, Chicago’s leading psychotherapy practice dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community, is commemorating National Coming Out Day ALL WEEK – with coming out stories, blogs, and resources for LGBTQ+ individuals, friends and allies. Check back often, and take time to celebrate in your own way – even if coming out today doesn’t feel safe or comfortable, know that you always have our support. For anyone needing affirming and validating support in their healing, contact us or call (773) 750-3505.