I came out of the closet as a 14-year-old high school freshman. That was 15 years ago. Now, in the wake of what happened in Orlando, I feel the fears I haven’t felt since then slowly creeping back in.
I’m back in my childhood bedroom, looking out the window, knowing that I’m different than all of the other little boys, but not quite understanding why. I remember the internal battle waging on for years, finally giving way to surrender and self-acceptance in the summer of 2001, right before I started at Kenwood High School in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland.
I’ll never forget confidently walking into school one brisk autumn day, so giddy that my fear of being accepted for who I really am had turned into a roaring flame of pride at my newfound identity as a gay man. I pulled aside a handful of great girlfriends I had made in the first couple of months at Kenwood and finally uttered two powerful words: “I’m gay.” They were so incredibly supportive and happy that I had no other way to feel but relieved. “And one last thing,” I said. “Tell absolutely everyone you see today so I don’t have to.”
My internal flame turned into a wildfire that enveloped the entire school.
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By the end of the day, most of the student body and faculty knew, and I was so grateful I didn’t have to repeatedly testify about my sexuality to hundreds of my peers. I spent the bus ride home giggling and chatting with another girlfriend about all the guys we thought were hot at school. “This is gonna be so fun!” she said.
I was finally free—or so I thought.
The next few weeks and months proved to be a rollercoaster of emotions, but I refused to let anyone shake me. I got weird looks from strangers in the hall, as they whispered “That’s the gay kid, right?” Then, someone broke into my gym locker and wrote “FAGGOT!” and “FUDGEPACKER!” all over my Phys. Ed. folder. I simply replaced it and moved on.
But there were some truly dark moments at home with my father, who seemed disappointed that his only son—and the only male in the newest generation of the Rackliffe family—was gay. In fact, I was so afraid of being disowned that I never actually spoke the words “I’m gay” to him. Instead, he casually asked me, “Son, are you gay?” one evening after school and I replied flatly, “Yes, I am.” The energy it took to deny my true identity for years had drained me to my core. If he isn’t going to accept me, better to find out now and try to figure it out, I thought. The tension remained, but he told me clearly that he would never stop loving me and over time he eventually came around; true relief settled in.
Read more: The Orlando Attack Cannot Silence LGBT Pride
I spent much of the following year sharing my newfound identity with my family across the country on a Coming Out Tour of sorts. There were tears and mutually-shared secrets with my sister Jennifer in a recording studio in Santa Monica; there were laughs in a hotel pool in Tampa with my sister Michele and my mom: “I thought you were the girl in the womb!” she joked.
But it wasn’t until I got to the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, three years later that I could truly spread my wings. I instantly made a bunch of friends, and eventually became well-known among the gay men on campus. I had finally found my tribe.
Large groups of us would gather on the weekends to sing, dance and laugh together—both in the dorms and at gay clubs around Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Miami—the same place where Omar Mateen witnessed two men kissing, an act that angered him so much it led him to brutally massacre an entire nightclub full of my people, in a sanctuary we could call our own.
There is a very real fear that has been awakened within the gay community in the wake of the unthinkable tragedy at Pulse. But similar to the fear we feel when we wonder whether or not people will accept us when we come out to them, we must believe with every fiber of our being that while our struggles are real, we will prevail by living our truth and sharing our love—not simply despite the hatred, but because of it.
After the heartbreaking events in Orlando, I reached out to the same handful of girlfriends who helped me come out some 15 years ago, and I asked them to share their memories of the experience with me. Some of the emails I got back moved me to tears; others made me laugh hysterically. But they all discussed how transformative and impactful it was for me to show them what being gay really meant. To them, seeing two men kiss wouldn’t incite anger and hatred, it would spark love and support.
I’m not the first person in the world to admit that I’m gay, but I was the only out kid in my school; to most of the people I told, I was the first gay person they knew—a human face to what was previously just an unknown other to them. That’s the real power of coming out: It’s just as much about the people around us as it is about ourselves.
I wonder how things would’ve been different if Omar Mateen had been a classmate of mine at Kenwood, long before he learned to hate the LGBTQ community. I could’ve shown him that while being gay is a part of my identity, I am not defined by my sexual orientation. I could’ve helped him understand my people. I could’ve been his friend. I hope for those impacted by my coming out that I helped show them the kindness and compassion I’ve grown to know from my tribe. And that they passed it on.
It’s in times of darkness that we need to treasure our light the most. My flame ignited within me at an extremely early age, but it was those around me that nurtured that light and helped it grow. That’s exactly the type of love and compassion we need to share with others.
The ability to be oneself and not question your worth is something everyone should be afforded—and something we should all cherish more than ever.
I keep coming back to this quote that’s been attributed to many over the years:
“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” It’s a great reminder that we must continue to reach out to others—both loved ones and strangers—and shed light on the darkness and hate we witness in our everyday lives. Keep lifting up those around you and we can make sure that what happened in Orlando wasn’t in vain. We can only win the war if we are in this together as allies.