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My life ended on an early December evening in 1987 when one of my fraternity brothers came into my frat-house bedroom and asked me, ”Are you a homosexual?”
This was the opening move in a plan that, I soon found out, had been crafted over a number of days since a non-fraternity friend had betrayed my confidence to my closest fraternity brothers. While I was being questioned, two other brothers whom I had inadvertently implicated were being cross-examined. Long, painful story short, there was much yelling and screaming, culminating with someone I had once thought of as a friend standing menacingly outside my door with a bat.
The situation didn’t devolve into violence, though I still felt beaten. Not everyone was against me, but the support I had was vanishingly small. I was given a simple message: ”Get out.”
The deal was that I would move out after Christmas break, which left me with two agonizing weeks living in the house. Someone I had considered my best friend, a fellow journalism student who lived at the other end of the hall, never looked me in the eye again. He did, however, loudly declare a ”heterosexuals only” table when I entered the dining room to grab a plate to take back to my room.
This was a friend — I’ll simply call him G.A., for ”grievous asshole” — who I had simply assumed would be a friend forever. That’s what fraternities were about, after all. Instead, he was a hard lesson for me in what it means to be confronted with an overflowing hate. I re-created my life and found friends who would actually last me a lifetime, but that particular scar will always be there.
Moving forward 24 years, I found myself sitting on an early December evening in 2011 in a Thai restaurant on 14th Street, having dinner with my college-junior cousin, Wilson, who’s in town for a congressional internship, and his aunt, Renee. I’d pieced together long ago that Renee had worked as a reporter and editor at the same respected Southern newspaper where G.A. had landed not long after college. I finally had the chance to ask Renee if she’d worked with him.
In fact, she said, she had. And my family name had popped up in some roundabout discussion, leading G.A. to ask if that was the same family that ”Sean Bugg” was from. Renee told me that G.A. relayed some version of the story of our frat days, admitting with some understatement that they had been ”pretty mean” to me.
And the whole time I’m hearing this, in the safety of my openly gay adult life, I’m feeling the bottom drop out of my stomach, the pounding of my heart, the faint shaking of my hands, all the same things I felt a quarter-century ago when someone came into my room and asked, ”Are you a homosexual?”
I’m not telling this because it’s some version of ”It Gets Better,” although it could be. After all, my cousin that evening was totally at ease discussing his love for sports, his girlfriend, his fraternity, and his gay friends. And that was a highlight of the night for me, to hear that from a younger relative who’s a product of the same rural Kentucky upbringing I had and to know that things are different now.
And I’m not telling a story where I see some grand narrative of forgiveness or redemption, because I don’t. Some wounds are way too deep and the better angels of my nature will only take me so far. There are things in life that are unforgivable.
I’m telling it because when I’ve written about it the past, I’ve done so glancingly or jokingly, without fully seeing what remained of the past inside me. Sitting at that table with my husband and my family, something that makes me very happy in a way I never expected in 1987, I was able to see that and move just a little bit further beyond it. It doesn’t give me what other people think of as closure. What it gives me is a little bit of peace.