At first it was my nightmare, then my curse, briefly my cross to bear, and finally one of life’s greatest blessings.

I never chose to be gay. Indeed, I spent nearly two decades attempting to deny it, run away from it, pray it away…anything.

As a teen, I furtively scanned the ladies’ bra and underwear sections of the Sears catalog, desperately trying to find the featured women sexy. What was the matter with me?

Later in the full throes of puberty, my gut would clench tightly whenever I saw an attractive boy. “No! No! No!” I pleaded, suppressing all my crushes.

In college, I once dared to confess my “dirty” thoughts to the dorm rector. The warm-hearted priest — who I now realize was gay, himself — tried to console me with the idea that longings were not evil in themselves; the implication being, unfortunately, that acting on them would be. I buried myself deep in the closet.

Deeper still because of AIDS. If I ever tried anything sexual with a man, I could never, ever give blood again, since the blood of all homosexuals was — and is — considered to be tainted. There could be no going back even if I just “tested the water” once.

Very deep, indeed, since I eventually became a teacher. Everyone knew that “gay” was synonymous with “pedophile.” How could God make me a gifted educator and also make me gay? One evening my senior year in college, I walked around Notre Dame’s Saint Mary’s Lake, pleading with and berating God, sobbing.

I spent the next decade immersing myself in noble workaholism — becoming a columnist, a mentor teacher, a teacher trainer, a community activist, a hike leader, the member of multiple boards — all a pathetic attempt to run away from intimacy with myself or anyone else, and to convince myself and the world that, despite my terrible, secret shame, I was still a worthwhile human being.

When I turned thirty, however, I just grew tired of lying. I called Kaiser — from a phone booth, of course — and asked to meet with a counselor. “And I don’t want you to put me with a gay therapist,” I insisted.

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Years later, I wrote that straight counselor a letter of thanks. He oh-so-gently nudged me out of the closet into the light of my life. “I can’t tell you what you are, David” (knowing I’d have to be the one to tell myself), “but I can tell you it’s time to stop running away. You need to get out and meet some gay people. They won’t bite, you know.”

And so I went on my first hike with the local gay and lesbian section of the Sierra Club. I was confused when I arrived at the trailhead. Although there was a fairly large group gathered, none of the hikers looked gay. (I guess I was expecting pink spandex with feathers.)

That first hike I turned my collar up, pulled my cap down, and just listened. One hiker complained about her rent, another about his boss. Three debated California politics. Two men who’d been together for 17 years bickered about whose turn it was to do the laundry. Why, these homosexuals were just ordinary people. They seemed happy! Who’d have thunk?

Many hikes later, I came to respect them — and, through them, myself. I learned to be able to say, “I’m gay,” and still believe I was OK. When I confided to some of the older members that I still longed for a “normal” life, marriage with a woman, several replied, “That’s what I did. And I became an alcoholic. Worse, I’ll never forgive myself for what I did to my wife when I finally owned up to who I was.”

I owe that group — my first of many gay and lesbian social groups — a great debt. I continue to lead hikes for them today.

Several hurdles remained. In a subsequent meeting with the therapist, I finally, haltingly, confided my most heinous secret: I found some of the young men in my classes attractive. I was terrified he’d have to inform the authorities and end my career.

That therapist did a marvelous thing. He looked at my angst-ridden face for a brief moment, and then burst out laughing. No, he guffawed. He took off his glasses, wiped his eyes, all the while saying, “Oh, David! Oh, David!” Finally, “I can see how this has tormented you! Well, let me be the first to let you know: teenagers are gorgeous! Do you think the straight teachers don’t notice? You’re allowed to notice too! I know you’re a fine teacher, David. And you’ll be even better if you just learn to accept yourself and relax.”

Slowly, I did. Three years later, after working my painstaking way up the ladder of family and friends, coming out to the easiest ones first, there remained only my parents.

Mom initially just cried. “I’ve always pitied gay people,” she said.

Dad, who was feeble and not always lucid at the time (I almost didn’t come out to him), did another marvelous thing: He looked over at my pained face and Mom’s tears, pulled himself off the couch, came to me placing my head in his hands, and said, “That must have been really hard. I’m proud of you!” Then, he kissed me on my forehead. I later recounted that moment in homage at his funeral.

Mom was a quick study herself. She attended the next local PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meeting (“I cried the whole time, but they said I was doing very well”) and to everyone’s amazement, especially her own, she soon became an activist. (I eventually helped start a new local PFLAG chapter in my community.)

I returned home one day to a message on my phone machine: “David, I just got back from a bridge game. One of the other players made a horrible comment about a masculine woman in the room with cropped hair, and I just lost it. ‘My son is gay,’ I yelled at him. ‘And I will not allow you to say such a homophobic remark in my presence.’ You could have heard a pin drop! And I felt great! I can’t wait for the next slur I hear.”

But my favorite line of Mom’s remains, “I pray every day that God will send you a boyfriend, David. It felt really odd at first, but I’m getting used to it.”

I lead a charmed existence. And, part of that charm is being gay. No, I didn’t choose to be gay. I finally chose only to live an authentic life, to be myself. (Which was, by the way, far better than putting on a damned cowboy vest!) Even all the tortured years in the closet, despite the deep scars they left, had their rainbow lining. Coming out forced me to plumb myself to my core, find a courage I doubt I would have otherwise, made me a better person and teacher, and introduced me to some of the finest people in my life — including and especially my partner, Edgar.

It’s been a difficult journey, but in the end a grand adventure. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

David Ellison, author of Santander: Rambling on Borrowed Time, retired after 36 years in education to Ajijic, Mexico.

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