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How I was taught to be a Chameleon

And I finally have overcome my shame about being gay after dating four women.
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I wasn’t born a chameleon.

I was groomed for it when at the uncertain age of 14 I learned it was not okay to be gay by society’s standards, inflicted on me by a certain institution I was thrust into by no choice of my own.

It was June 1980 and I was living in a Baptist children's home (you see where this is going, don’t you)?

In the middle of the night, all 20 or so of us female residents were awoken by the sound of hurried, frantic voices coming down the hall, the hushed yet definite tones of our female 20-something house parents quickly informing us that we were having an emergency cottage meeting.

It was 2 am on a summer night, an evening that should’ve been earmarked with dreams of camp, cookouts, and swimming but instead overshadowed by a prejudice we were not educated in.

As we were rounded up and directed to the large living room made up of matched and mismatched furniture, a piano and generic artwork on the wall, we weren’t told right away the reason for this “emergency” get-together, only that it was mandatory – even if it was the middle of the night.

We sleepily gathered in beanbag chairs, sofas, overstuffed furniture, and perched precariously with fatigue on ottomans, soon learning the fate of two of our fellow residents.  

As we pulled our robes tighter around us, our young faces, some peppered with the beginnings of acne, others smooth as silk, tried to listen attentively and seriously to what was to come though our minds were still in our beds, tucked away safely from this direct onslaught to our consciences.

Olivia, a 16-year-old who had lived in the home for ten years and Teresa, her 15-year-old roommate were put in a corner of the room where all eyes followed their every mouthed word of anguish and examined every movement, assessing them like bugs under a microscope, studying them as the newest specimen, an example to be made of by a so-called “Christian” institution.

It seemed the two teens had been caught in bed together in their room having sex much to the shock of the seemingly good natured, laid back house parents.

The lead house parent, who always on the surface appeared to be “sunny” and “happy” soon informed our small group of the “horrible” and “shameful” behavior of these two girls and instructed us all to go around the circle and tell them what we thought of them.

With tears in their eyes and pain on their faces, Olivia and Teresa listened and took in every word uttered by their programmed peers as the hand on the wall clock ticked slowly by. The time was unfriendly that night to these poor souls, these double victims – first of their parents and now of the organization that was supposed to protect and love them till they were 18.

When it was my turn I said nothing but inside I knew that a message never taught or spoken of by my family was now being drummed home to me – It was not okay to be who you were. It was never okay.

Finally, it was Teresa and Olivia’s turn to speak and remarkably the staff allowed it. The house parents and other residents asked them why they kissed each other, why they were the way they were, what made them do such a “terrible” thing in our makeshift home.

I don’t remember if Olivia spoke, only that she was crying and from what I can recollect, would not speak.

But Teresa said something and though it wasn’t much, she said a lot in my mind:

“I was just always confused. I liked girls,” she said, tears streaming down her still made-up face, blond hair pulled back into a barrette, blue eyes looking off into the distance, then down – ashamed.

As the time rolled around to 2 am the lead house parent stood up, her clipboard clutched against her chest as if to protect her, and announced in a stern tone as if there had been a death in someone’s family and we were all at the wake:

“These two will be discharged from our home effective immediately. Their parents are on their way. They’ll go pack their things now.”

It was news to Teresa and Olivia and quite a shock as it was to us all.

We all filed back to our beds, down the long tiled hallway where doors were decorated with various pictures and our names, supposedly celebrating our uniqueness and individuality.

We never saw Teresa and Olivia again and no one ever spoke of them. When they left it was barely dawn and none of us knew what would happen to them, what institution they’d be thrown into next.

I pushed the memory way back into my mind, never dealing with it, never thinking I needed to, and never realizing what an impact it would have on my life and my behavior.

I became a chameleon, whatever you wanted me to be and I got really good at it. I wonder how many of those other girls did the same as a result of that night.

Fifteen years later my sister came out of the closet and told me that though she used to date men she now realized she was bisexual and later that she was gay. At the time I was stunned, speechless – and totally homophobic and confused.

It took me about a year to accept her news and during that time I was filled with my own conflicting feelings of attraction to women.

Five years later I got married to a man though I was obsessed with women.

Two years of that marriage were spent in tortured thoughts and feelings that I didn’t act on but only fantasized about till I left the relationship, suicidal and depressed.

By then I had compartmentalized my life so much that around some friends I was “straight” and around others I was gay.

I went through being obsessed with someone who had no interest in me whatsoever to dating a woman for two years who helped me be free.

Since then I’ve been with other women as well.

And I finally have overcome my shame about being gay after dating four women.

I have felt the intense rage at the death of Matthew Shepard, to the gripping tension between homophobes and myself as they make derogatory comments about the gay community. I have defended my sister to many people, defending her existence – something I should not have to do in this day and age, something I should have never had to do.

I have ended friendships because of my friends’ stance regarding the gay and lesbian community. I have quit jobs and ended a health club membership because of their anti-gay behaviors and statements. I have been asked to move out of an apartment because I was gay. I have stopped giving money to certain businesses when I found out they didn’t accept gay people. I have been put in a class of people described by some religious zealots as less than. I have changed the station of radio stations and TV shows, closed books, and walked away because of ignorance towards our community.

I have severed ties between mentors and so-called gurus who were wolves in sheep’s clothing, all under the guise of trying to “help” me. I have deleted emails chanting anti-gay messages and blocked senders who tried to shove their hateful text to my inbox.

I have told many others to be themselves, to not let anyone sway them from their true feelings.

Because in the past, I have said I was “this” and then done “that.”

Recently a friend of mine told me not to take it personally when a homophobic person insulted my sister in her absence for her lifestyle.

How can I not take it personally? I asked. That’s my sister. You’re talking about my sibling, a mother figure, the person I love who practically raised me from the time I was eight.

You’re talking about me.

I read over all these articles I’ve printed out over the past year about hate crimes against gays and lesbians and I can’t help but think about the civil rights movement and the violence inflicted against the black community and what the newspapers said in the 60s.

Those who do not think that this Nazism towards our culture, towards our community, is the same thing as anti-Semitic but is a “harmless” thing, a joke, nothing to worry about – are in a form of denial that only precipitates the continuation of such behaviors.

I wonder whatever happened to Teresa and Olivia and others like them and if there was anyone else in that room that night who felt like me and was afraid to speak.

Through this and other experiences I’ve had one message ring true:

Be careful what you tell your children.

To read another article by this author click HERE