David Byrns always tried hard not to be who he was. Painfully aware of taunts of “hick” and “bumpkin” on the part of strangers, he smoothed out his Arkansas twang. But he never managed to do the same for his attraction to men.
Not that he didn’t try. His strict, Southern Baptist family was anything but nurturing. “They have very differing opinions on things, but one that never changed was their view of homosexuality,” said Byrns. “Straight: good. Gay: hellfire bad. I often heard them say how glad they were there were no faggots in the family because they would be kicked out. So I never could come out. I, like most out late men, was scared to come out, for fear of being disowned or treated like a sick and a bad person.”
It took more than two decades for him to realize that he was neither. This year, at the age of 43 and prompted by the example of online video bloggers Mark Miller and Ethan Hethcote, Byrns finally decided to come out. It meant telling his wife and two daughters.
“I decided about two months ago I was tired of hiding who I was. I had been in the closet way too long and I wanted the hell out.”
He had long been an expert at “holding it all in.” After a suicide attempt as a teenager, his parents took him to counseling. “I didn’t understand why I liked boys so much,” said Byrns. “I was scared and thought I would be put in to somewhere with crazy people or kicked out on the streets. So I decided I just wanted it to end, so I went one night to the bathroom and found a bottle of pills and started to take them. I took three or four and then my father walked in on me – I forgot to lock the door – so he stopped me, punished me and asked how many I took. He decided that it wouldn’t hurt me, so I went to bed. It was never mentioned again, other than [that] I would be in a mental hospital if I tried it again.”
The sessions lasted only briefly, ending when his parents separated. His brother quickly spread the news that Byrns was seeing a therapist, earning him a reputation at school as the “crazy kid.” While he had several physical encounters with other boys in his teens, none ever developed into a relationship. The pull of the closet was too strong.
When he became friendly with Cherish, a co-worker at a local grocery store, he welcomed the opportunity. “We dated for three years on and off,” said Byrns. “She moved in with me and we had sex for my first time [with a woman]. A while later we found out she was pregnant. We married shortly after. In my family you did the right thing no matter what.”
The marriage took place in 1994. “Like the age-old story, I went into the closet and instead of locking it I bolted it shut,” he said. “So I married and had kids like I was expected to do as a normal heterosexual.”
Their first daughter, Danielle, was born the following year following an extremely difficult labor. By the time she was 2, it was clear that the toddler was lagging in cognitive, motor and spatial reasoning skills. She was eventually diagnosed as suffering from ADHD and mildly intellectually disabled. Her sister Emily was born two years later; she too was diagnosed with severe ADHD, mild intellectual disabilities and high-functioning autism. Being a father forced Byrns even deeper into the closet.
“It made me feel like an inadequate and bad father because I was already wanting out of the marriage,” said Byrns, “and thought how could I expected to be a good father if I could not love myself and be who I was? I thought one day I will have to tell my children the truth and would one day face the possibility that I could lose them for who I am. Or have them taken away for who I am. I was very protective and took complete control over them.”
Danielle (photo above, right), now 20, is now independent enough to live in an assisted living facility, though she still lives with her parents. The development of Emily (photo above, left) continues to lag; Byrns says she likely will never achieve a level of self-sufficiency adequate enough to live away from him.
One evening early this year, Byrns happened to see a video update by Mark Miller and Ethan Hethcote. “They were open and had lots of adventures together and filmed their crazy and fun life,” he said. “It showed me that I needed to be me and live the life I knew would make me happy. I was tired of hiding and I just became aware that I am missing life by hiding in a lie.”
He decided not to wait any longer to be honest and open about his sexual orientation. “I decided to come out because my kids have reached adulthood and that is what I wanted,” he said. “I didn’t want some jerk to come into their lives at a young age and mistreat them. I also thought that this had gone on far too long, me and my wife fight every day and we have no sex life, no fun together, we are just not happy. I am not happy.”
Not surprisingly, Cherish was devastated. She wanted them to go together to couples counseling, but he told her that this was an issue no relationship therapist could fix. “It was very hard and difficult. I married her under a lie and I feel like I have played a very selfish role in destroying her life because I could not be honest to myself.”
But after so many years of hostility, the reaction from the rest of his family moved him to tears, he said. “I came out to my mother this year and in a nutshell she told me, ‘Life is too short to live in misery and unhappiness,’” he said. “I came out to my brother and he said he just wanted me to be happy. I was shocked at that because he is not too keen on gay [people].”
As they work out the details of the divorce, he and Cherish still share their home, though she plans to move out to live with her mother. He dreads explaining to his daughters about why their parents are divorcing, and anxiety muddles the excitement he feels. “I have a new life coming soon, and I do not know what to do,” he said. “I have to worry if at my age will any man want to be with me, especially with a disabled child living with me. I hope someday to find a man to love and to have as part of my life. Because I have never truly been in love.”
But as he moves forward into that new life, he knows that whatever form it takes will be better than hiding; that living in hope will always be better than living in the shadows.