By Justin Garoutte
I first came out in a closet in Conejos. You see, this closet was adjacent to another one, both connected by a small opening and a cloth between them. In one of these closets sat a 13-year-old boy scared to go to hell, in the other a man who could absolve me of my sins and save me from those fiery depths.
This very scene played itself out over and over again for six years. You see, I grew up Catholic in Antonito, a town of just 800 people an hour and a half south of here. Neither of my parents were very religious, yet I still managed to fixate on the Church as my one source of hope to correct the feelings I had inside that didn’t seem to align with any of my surroundings. So, I’d go to confession every week, hoping the priest would perform a miracle and straighten out my life. I prayed hundreds of Hail Marys and Our Fathers during those oppressive years, yet God seemed not to care, forcing me to look elsewhere.
The internet was both a blessing and a curse. Late nights in my mother’s empty kitchen, after she’d gone to bed, allowed me the freedom to explore my sexuality (the kitchen was the only place I could connect to our dial-up AOL internet connection back then). AOL chat rooms introduced me to entirely new realms that I otherwise didn’t have access to in rural Colorado. I could virtually meet other guys online, find answers to my questions that neither of my parents could give me, as they still didn’t know what I was going through.
And then Father Benito’s voice would creep into my head late at night, right there in the kitchen, challenging what I was doing online and reminding me if I didn’t stop, I’d never go to heaven. That’s what led me to look for conversion therapy online. If God wasn’t going to change me, then I would do it myself. A few clicks later, I was enrolled in my sexual purity class with a mentor and a guaranteed heterosexual outcome. This is how they hooked me. I’d start off really well, convinced I’d make it, that nothing stood in my way. Ten lessons in, I’d fail, go back to confession, and start all over again. I don’t know how many rounds of therapy I did, but it obviously didn’t work.
On a side note, this type of therapy must be banned across the globe—it is harmful, medically discredited, and causes so much pain, especially when children are put through this during such fundamental years of their youth, often at the parents’ request. I am so grateful to see that Colorado banned this practice earlier this year, becoming one of only a handful of states banning this sometimes deadly practice on minors!
Going back to my story, my sexual education didn’t end online. I’d often find myself sneaking between bookshelves at the Conejos County Library in La Jara, searching for any book that could offer me the escape I so longed for, any book that could provide me with a warm embrace, letting me know I could be me. I never found that book, but I did find plenty of books on puberty, sparking my interest and fascination. Thank goodness for books and the internet when inclusive, comprehensive sex education is often nonexistent at home or in schools across rural Colorado.
A few girlfriends and six years later, I was on the verge of freedom. I began my studies as a Daniels Scholar (Thank you, Daniels Fund!) at Colorado College, completely unaware of how transformative the next four years of my life would be. It’s at Colorado College where my entire understanding of the world as I knew it was erased and written anew. I put all those Our Fathers and Hail Marys, along with all the conversion therapy lessons and threats of hell, in a sealed box in the depths of my closet. Out of that same closet came a beautiful, rainbow-colored box that had been patiently waiting for the right time to be opened.
About a semester into my studies, I found myself in Conejos at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, where I had previously spent hours racking up my salvation points as an altar boy. My sister sat to my right, my grandmother to my left, my mother just down the pew. I don’t know why I proceeded in this manner, but I did: I turned to my sister and asked her if she knew of Lady Gaga. Of course, she said yes. I then proceeded to tell her I was like Lady Gaga. Obviously, she didn’t understand what I was getting at, from the puzzled look she gave me. With the priest preaching at the pulpit on that fine Sunday 10 years ago, I was certain lightning would shortly be striking the oldest parish in Colorado in which we were sitting, due to the words I was about to utter. “I’m bi,” I told her, “You know—just like Lady Gaga.” (Is Lady Gaga even bi?) I waited for a flash of lightning and the cacophony of thunder with bricks falling from the sky and dust covering everyone who was piously absorbing the sermon that morning, but none of that happened. My sister didn’t seem too surprised, said it didn’t matter and reaffirmed her love for me. Those few loving words she told me, in the middle of mass that morning, lifted six long years of worry, self-hatred, suicidal thoughts and hopelessness off my shoulders. I’ll never forget that moment and my beautiful sister who stood by me then and has supported me to this day.
A short while later, after having returned to my studies and having met a gentle, caring man late one night at a college party, I returned home with a hickey. This hickey forced me to come out to my mother and the younger of my two sisters, at the time. We were all standing in the kitchen, the same kitchen that facilitated so many of my late-night internet escapades. At some point, my mom saw the hickey and asked if it was from my girlfriend. Before I even realized what I had replied, tears were flowing down my mother’s beautiful face, and my youngest sister was spewing homophobic words my way. My other sister, the I-think-I-am-bisexual-like-Lady-Gaga-during-the- sermon-in-Conejos sister, in turn proceeded to chase the name-calling sister around the house with shoes being pelted about in all directions. I ran crying into my mother’s bathroom and sat on her toilet, unsure and frightened of what was to come. What seemed like hours later, my mother came into the bathroom, eyes swollen and red from crying, letting me know how afraid she was I would die of AIDS and that I was never to bring a boyfriend home—ever.
Ten years later, my parents have both come around and support me as an out gay genderqueer man. It is so inspiring to me to see how my dad has been so active in implementing policies that protect transgender and gender-diverse students at Mountain Valley School District in Saguache, where he serves as superintendent. We often have conversations about ensuring school environments are safe and supportive for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students, especially since I now work for the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation on a study focused on reducing LGBTQ adolescent suicide in New Mexico high schools.
After having gone through my adolescence so alone, I vowed to never be silent, especially when I started teaching. I placed a gay flag on my water bottle, set it deliberately at the front of my desk before every class, and told myself if someone had a problem with it, they could leave. No one ever chose to leave one of my classes. When I was teaching, I worked tirelessly to ensure that children and youth in Antonito did not have to endure the same things I went through. I worked hard to diversify that school’s library, ensuring that K- 12 books were available for students and staff touching on LGBTQ subjects. I started the student-led Allies in Diversity Club for 5th-8th graders, meeting weekly in a safe space to discuss issues of diversity, from gender to race to sexuality and beyond. Also, after two years of advocacy, the school adopted inclusive language and policies that explicitly protect LGBTQ students and staff, and the very first LGBTQ teacher trainings have taken place. I recently heard that Center School District is the last district in the Valley without policies protecting LGBTQ students, so if that’s true and if any of you work in that district or community, you’d better get on them!
It’s almost 2020 (that means I’m almost 30, but still flirty), and I’ve come so far. I think back on those early days of rehearsing and performing that song “Barbie Girl” with one of my four gay cousins. I think back on sneaking into my mother’s closet to try on her cheerleading outfit that somehow fit me perfectly. I think back on nights wondering if I’d ever be able to marry the man of my dreams; now, there’s nothing standing in my way with marriage equality in the United States and a wonderful man, Ethan Ortega, by my side.
I’m so proud of who I am today, and I’m so grateful for all of my family and friends who stand by my side today, regardless of my sexuality or gender identity (what you’ve got to realize is this isn’t the case for everyone who comes out of the closet, and I don’t take it for granted). We’ve still got a lot of work to do to ensure our family and friends, all human beings, can live freely, fulfilling their dreams and developing into their fullest potentials. That’s where we all come into play. Each and every one of us plays a role in creating, changing and shaping the world we live in. Many folks, some of you here in this room, put in countless hours planning the inaugural SLV Pride that happened a few weeks ago on August 24th in Alamosa. Ethan and I drove up from Albuquerque to march in this inspiring gathering, one of hope and a more inclusive future right here in the San Luis Valley. I can only imagine how the closeted little boy in me from the ‘90s would have felt seeing open support from so many caring adults. For some young folks, events like Pride and open allyship can be the difference between life and death, especially when suicide rates among LGBTQ youth are four times higher than their straight, cisgender counterparts.
I promise you that I’ll continue doing what I can to create this world, one that cherishes and celebrates every individual in their unique beauty. But we’ve got to begin with ourselves, our own lives, and the boxes in our own closets that need to be unpacked and processed. I’m working on that box of Hail Marys and Our Fathers I tucked away 10 years ago. Which box are you working on?