Brent Cheatham (photo above, left) answers the phone late in the evening on his way home from rehearsal. He’s performing in a community theater production of “Les Misérables" this coming week and breathlessly details the costume work he’s been finishing up for opening day — including a little side project of a bowtie and pocket square for himself.
The son of a Texan Southern Baptist minister, Brent learned to sew from his mother — which landed him tonight’s task of sewing French army uniforms for the play. “My mother didn’t make me gay, but she sure set me up for it well,” he jokes.
Just three years ago, Brent’s life was very different. He was a married man of 25 years with two adult children and an adopted daughter in elementary school. He had followed in his father’s footsteps and served as a Southern Baptist minister for more than two decades before changing careers to work as a financial advisor.
Brent says he always knew he was gay. In his church, though, that’s not what they called it. Instead, he learned to call his attraction to men “same-sex feelings” and try to simply ignore, minimize and hide them.
“I know there are many other ministers in this world that are still living in the box I lived in and they are struggling day by day so that nobody finds out they have ‘same-sex feelings,’” he says.
Years before his marriage ended, the veneer on Brent’s outwardly perfect life began to crack. He’d believed his feelings could just be shoved away. Now, he found himself living two lives. “I discovered that there was the realm of the secret world that even other pastors were living in,” he says.
When Brent finally came clean with his wife, it wasn’t entirely by choice.
The two fought constantly — often about sex and his lack of interest. “My deception was just kind of unraveling and I was just tired,” he says. “She finally asked me, point-blank, ‘Do you like men?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I do.’”
From that moment Brent spiraled emotionally. He sought help at a behavioral clinic.
“The whole thing was, with the counselors, to have them help me deal with the ‘same sex feelings’ and harbor them — kind of put them away. That’s kind of what I was taught: Just turn it off. Like a light switch. Put it away.”
That was his goal, anyway. Instead, his clinical psychologist looked at him and said, “Brent, you’re so unhappy.” He asked him what his life might be like if he lived as an openly gay man.
“Well, that would just change my life completely,” Brent recalls saying.
That conversation proved to be a turning point for Brent. Three years later, his life is completely changed. He is openly gay and living on his own. He sings in the choir at a church that accepts him and performs in community theater. He’s not trying to be exceptionally gay, he says, he’s just being Brent. “That’s who I am and no-one’s surprised.”
“It feels very good,” he says. I feel very empowered from day to day to be myself. “The hard part for me was really redirecting life in general — figuring who I am, what I am with my family, in life in general. It took me a long time to say, ‘I’m gay.”
He continues to struggle to mend relationships with his ex-wife and children, who felt deeply betrayed by his deception.
“I basically lied to them for 25 years about who I was,” he says. “Building that trust back is just very difficult.”
His family also continues in their conservative Southern Baptist faith and both his parents and eldest children disapprove of his choice to live openly. Brent has struggled to be transparent with them about major changes in his life, like moving in with a partner, for fear of their judgment. Those additional deceptions have hindered rebuilding their trust.
Still, he’s not giving up. Slowly, he says, they’re muddling through and regaining their relationships.
“My parents could have told me, ‘Never come back to our house again,’ but they didn’t. I thank God every day for that,” he says. His relationship with his older kids has slowly improved since he returned to living on his own after a two-year relationship.
His youngest daughter, Maddie, brings much-needed reprieve from the fight for forgiveness from his other family members. She’ll be 12 this month and has a close bond with her father.
“There are more good days than hard days at this time in my life,” Brent says, “which is good to say.”