Everyday, my grandfather used to sit at his kitchen table in the same chair with a beer in one hand and the Daily Corinthian in the other. I’d visit him when I’d travel back to the South, and like the creature of habit he was, his greeting was always the same.
“Get in here, Hollywood.” He’d tease. That’s what he called me, since the rest of my new world knew me as Tennessee.
“You can always come home.” He’d tell me every time we spoke. I used to believe he was saying this in anticipation of my inevitable failure, but as I grew older I realized that it was meant to be a reminder: my family would always be there should I need them.
He never was quite like anyone else. An old-school cowboy, whose modern steed took form in an eighteen-wheel big rig. He drove cross-country for forty-something years, but no matter how far he went, his heart was always in Corinth, Mississippi, with his high school sweetheart, the love of his life, my grandmother.
When we lost her four years ago, I remember my mother saying that he wouldn’t make it without her. It angered me. Of course he would. You can’t die of a broken heart. But I hadn’t taken into account the fifty-plus years they’d spent together. She was his person.
Shortly after her passing, his health began to decline. The man who I used to watch tinker around in his shop and blaze trails on his John Deere tractor could barely shuffle himself down the hallway in a wheelchair. His sleep patterns became irregular, and bedsores were forming in inches and then feet.
My mother used to drive down from Tennessee to see him every week. They’d talk about life, history, politics, anything really. But he would always, always ask about me.
He loved hearing about the different movies and TV shows I worked on. The celebrities I’d met. The only ones he recognized were Barbara Eden and Tippy Hedren, but it was fun for him all the same.
Once, I even had Dawn Wells call and wish him a happy Birthday. He told my mother it made him the happiest he’d been since he lost my grandmother...
My mother often tried to get me to call him, but I was always too busy. A film shoot here. A red carpet there. Another crazy trip to Comic Con. So, my mother relayed to him the stories I’d shared with her throughout the week.
But the one thing they never talked about was my sexuality. I wanted to tell him I was gay. After all, it’s a centrally defining part of my identity. If he didn’t know that, he could never really know me. But my mother was afraid that he wouldn’t take the news well. In fact, she said that it might kill him.
So, I rarely called. Not willing to force a superficial conversation, I made excuses instead. I was just too busy. The time difference made it too difficult. I didn’t want to bother him...
The last time I saw my grandfather was September of last year. He no longer occupied his usual old chair, instead my Uncle pushed his wheelchair under the edge of the kitchen table and locked the brakes.
We sat in silence, save the rattling, ragged breaths he struggled desperately to take. I remember how hollow his cheeks had become. His pale skin, a ghostly veil draped over fragile bone. I could see the humiliation in his eyes. He hated being perceived as weak, letting others care for him, but he had no other choice.
The strongest man I’d ever known no longer wanted to be strong. He just wanted to speak again without losing his breath. He wanted to lift his own head up off his pillow. He wanted to wake up beside her again.
And then, one day... he no longer wanted to wake up. For the first time in almost four years, he asked my mother not to visit him. He said he wasn’t up for chit-chatting.
I never got to tell my grandfather who I was. I never got to share with him the thing I believed gave me the most strength. I never got to ask him what it took to fall in love with, and keep your best friend.
And because I never called, he wasn’t able to tell me how much his heart was hurting or how alone he felt. Instead, he left a simple note on the bedside table. “I couldn’t take the pain anymore. I’m sorry.”
One single round from his revolver, and my Grandfather was gone. They found his lifeless body on National Suicide Prevention Day. I believe he would have chuckled at the twisted irony.
In my mind, I see him alone in his bedroom. It probably took him hours to sit upright, and pull that heavy six-shooter from his nightstand. I’m sure he bowed his head, and prayed one last time asking God for forgiveness of the moments to come.
I’m sure the prayer was short and sweet, much like the note. Maybe the note was for God all along, a lingering apology in his earthly absence. An “I owe you” of sorts.
Having been raised Southern Baptist, I was taught to believe that suicide was the one unforgivable sin. Even more unforgivable than being gay, because at least queer people could repent. Suicide was final. A permanent severing from God and Faith.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to understand factors outside of our man-made religions. I am strong in my faith, but I know that depression isn’t something we can pray away. It’s a mental illness that needs therapy and treatment. Suicide isn’t a sin. It’s a final nail in an already constricting coffin.
My grandfather didn’t want to die. But he couldn’t go on living in his condition. He had already lost everything that meant anything to him. All he had left to give was his life, so he gave it to God in hopes that he would be reunited with his wife again on the other side.
I believe, truly and deeply, that my grandfather found his way into heaven, though he probably didn’t make it easy on anyone. Maybe, with a soft chuckle, and a mischievous glint in his eye he gave his nickname, R.G, at the pearly gates, just to watch the keeper of the guest list scratch his head.
That was the kind of man he was on earth, and who I’m sure he will continue to be in the afterlife.
My grandfather was a good man. He loved his family, and in his final years he made peace with God. I don’t condone suicide. I don’t believe it is the answer for anyone, but I know that he wouldn’t have made that decision if he felt there was any other way he could carry on.
The loss of my grandfather reminds me that suicide can affect anyone at any age. That we must care for our youth as well as our elderly. It also reminds me that life is too short to hide who we are or what we’re feeling out of fear. That communication is key, and expression of love is essential.
I know that God is with him today, probably kicked back with a Coors Light and a newspaper. And years from now, when it is my time to join him he will meet me at the heavenly gates, laughing at the confused greeter when he calls out to me, “Get in here, Hollywood.”
There's been a lot on my mind lately, and I cant even begin to skim the surface here. But I will share this:
When I came out as gay at fifteen years old, I was confronted by family members who accused me of "having penis envy" and questioning if I was Trans. It caused a lot of anxiety and fear, and even some resentment. At that time, I don't think I really even understood what Transgender meant... But I didn't believe that I was, and didn't want other people to think that either.
I didn't like the way I felt in tight "women's" clothing. I also didn't like being sexualized by men. Especially grown ones who would make comments about "what a waste it was that I was gay." I found comfort in loose jeans and baggy button ups. I felt like... me.
Still, I didn't want to be mistaken for "that." So I wore tighter clothes, and I tried to be "less gay." I took a guy (granted he was a totally hot gay one, *wink wink* Nathan Mckellips) to my Junior prom. I wore a dress, and he wore a tux... and I remember feeling really uncomfortable.
For a long time I think I avoided trying to understand the "T" in my community, because I was afraid that understanding might shed some sort of light on yet another secret that I didn't know I was keeping.
But as I got older, I realized that I wasn't Trans. I was just a confused little lesbian trying to force myself into a predetermined stereotype that society had set for me.
And my fear and refusal to educate myself about the Trans community meant that I was actively neglecting and repressing my own brothers and sisters. I didn't "envy" anything. I loved being a girl. I just didn't want to "dress like one." I hated having to wear a dress. But our Trans brothers and sisters are facing obstacles in life that the rest of us will NEVER understand. We couldn't possibly. It's so much deeper than we could ever fathom.
I share this tonight, because it has taken me well into adulthood to actively fight for my Trans family. And that's what we are... A family. Everyone on the queer spectrum, and everyone else as well. We're all a part of the human race.
We don't have to "understand" someone to accept them as they are. And we don't have to "understand" something to know it's worth fighting for.
In the South, I used to play in the woods every Winter. The snow usually fell through the night and left a powdery bank that I would hide behind. I’d dig my way inside like a cave – calling out into the white flurries – hoping for a familiar echo. Nothing ever came.
Snow is an insulator. Wind breaks over it. Sound dies upon it. Sometimes, I’d climb so far inside my fingers would grow numb. Away from the world, away from everything, there, in the middle of the forest, I couldn’t feel my toes. But I could feel my heartbeat.
I knew what grief felt like, but my tears turned to ice when they hit the slush beneath my fists. The pain became a part of the solution. It became my escape. Here, I could control what I felt. And sometimes, if I planned to stay for a while, I’d bring a blanket.
I felt a little warmer knowing I was a mile away from our double-wide trailer. Maybe it was mind over matter, but somehow I knew that it would be colder inside at the dinner table. The scraping of fork over knife as everyone pretended to be fine when we weren’t.
To this day, my body grows cold when my heart breaks. When the world seems wrong. When I forget what a real hug feels like. On days like these, in the middle of a California Summer, I find myself praying for snow.
I remember summers in Tennessee vividly. Most days, I spent out in the fields of my family farm, wearing tattered, old jeans and my stepfather’s oversized woodworking gloves as I trudged heavy-footed through prickly straws of freshly cut hay. My siblings and I would spend hours beneath the scorching sun pushing whatever hay had been missed by the tractor into narrow rows so the bailer could scoop it, tying it neatly into fifty-pound square bails.
Days upon days spent in the fields with dry stems and leaves crumbling their way deeply into my socks and shoes, scratching my body, and leaving me covered in a rash, combined with the unbearable heat beating down on me bleed together in my memory – but there was one specific atypical day during the summer of 2000 that I will never forget…
My stepsister and I were excused from bailing hay. It was a rare occurrence, and happened only because we were meeting our church congregation down at the creek for our Baptism.
Everyone told me that it was the biggest day of my life. That I was accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, and that meant that no matter what happened in the years to come – all I would need to do was confess my sins to the Lord, ask for forgiveness, and that forgiveness would be granted. After all, that’s why Jesus died on the cross. To forgive us all of our sins…
I remember walking waist deep into the middle of the creek, as our pastor took me by the hand. He told me that I was safe, and that he would hold on to me. He kept his word, pinching closed my nose as he dipped me beneath the surface. I cried as the cold water rushed over me, and our pastor exclaimed that in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I had been washed clean of my sins and saved by the blood of Jesus Christ.
On the dry bank members of my congregation applauded and celebrated my decision to join them in accepting the Lord as my personal savior. My mother watched on proudly, and I could feel the love and joy of the Lord in my heart… It was a powerful moment, but one that now causes me great pain to remember.
Four years after my Baptism, I made what would become the second biggest decision of my life. I decided to come out as a gay person in my Southern Baptist community. I was combating severe depression, and suicidal thoughts – and I could no longer bear to live in the shadows of my own heart.
I tried to pray away the gay, but I quickly realized that being gay was a centric part of who I was. I had become a shell of a person, and my prayers no longer brought me comfort. I didn’t understand what I was asking to be forgiven for, because in my heart, I felt like I had done nothing wrong. I only wanted to love myself, a woman, and God…
I reiterate -- I only wanted to love.
All of a sudden, people I had known for most of my life… many who had attended my Baptism… told me that what I was doing was wrong, and that my chosen lifestyle would send me to hell.
Almost immediately, my history of positive and productive contribution in my church and community no longer mattered. People who claimed to be Christians, and friends of mine, treated me like an addict or a pervert. Members of the church that I grew up in told me that I was no longer welcome in the house of the Lord as long as I chose to live in sin.
My fifteen year old heart was broken…
I tried going to a different church without a specific denomination. It was fine at first. The people were very polite. I made a few friendly aquaintances, and even applied for a membership within the congregation. But word travels fast in small towns…
One day, as I stood in the third row next to the preacher’s daughter – a traveling minister approached me in front of the entire fellowship to tell me that he had heard of me, and that my behavior was sinful. That one of my closest friends or myself would wind up in a pine box for our lifestyle choices. He threw a bible at me, literally, and told me to read Leviticus. Eleven years have passed, and I haven’t been back to church since.
I left the church first, then the religion as a whole. I no longer knew how to believe in something that had beaten me down, and tried to change the very core of what made me happy as a human being… receiving and giving love. Most of the gay people I’ve met throughout the years who were raised in the church have had similar negative, and frequently traumatizing experiences with Christianity.
As an adult I’ve met many wonderful people who are Christians. I’ve heard of churches that are not only open to, but embrace gay people as they are. These congregations recognize that there are parts of the bible that may be outdated, and may have even been mistranslated to begin with. After all, the most common version, the King James Version, was translated by the King himself. Imagine if we allowed Donald Trump to translate his own version of the Holy Bible?
Even after a decade, I find myself grieving over the loss of my relationship with God. I don’t blame these kind-hearted, accepting people whom I’ve met in adulthood, but I find it difficult to relate to them. It’s hard to share my negative religious experience with people who have only received positive love and reinforcement from the religion that condemned me so many years ago. While I appreciate them, sometimes I also find that I envy their ability to still believe.
I have taken the stance that I am not a Christian, because I can’t blindly support a faith that has intentionally harmed so many individuals. I waver back and forth between claiming to not be religious at all, and identifying as “somewhat spiritual.” It infuriates some of my relatives who are still devout Christians. Many of them have told me they've accepted me "despite their religion," and they can’t understand why I haven’t mended my relationship with the Lord. Few seem to acknowledge that I didn’t break up with God… The religion broke up with me in God’s name.
There were a lot of things that I loved about Christianity. Sermons about love and kindness were always my favorite. My little heart would burst with happiness and inspiration hearing the heartwarming stories of Jesus healing the blind man, and turning five loaves of bread and two fish into a bountiful feast that fed five-thousand people...
But as I was pushed away from the church, and told that I was an unforgivable sinner, I reflected on a specific story about kindness that has stayed with me for all these years…
Mark 10:13-16 reads:
“People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.”
If you truly believe in God, then you know that according to the bible we are all God’s children. That all sins are equal, and thou shall not judge. That only a non-sinner was permitted to cast the first stone. And that no one such as this stands among us…
My issue no longer lies in the religion itself, but with the people who have taken it upon themselves to misrepresent the word of God. To translate his teachings into a lesson that preaches hate and judgment instead of love, compassion, and peoplehood.
There is a church near my apartment in Los Angeles that I have driven by at least once a week for four years. Occasionally, I strain to read the billboard out front, curious what the Pastor might preach on that week. Many times I’ve seen rainbow flags hanging from the window ledge, and I’ve often told myself that if I ever go back I will go there. I've yet to bring myself to it.
I know that not all Christians are homophobic. I know that many denounce the way that LGBT people have been treated by a large portion of the religion… but I also believe that it is the responsibility of ALL CHRISTIANS to actively repair the cracks in the foundation of God’s message that are being used to target and condemn an entire group of innocent people.
My experience in the church taught me that as Christians “we are simply servants of the Lord who spread the love of Jesus Christ by the way that we live our lives and treat our fellow people.” It is my humble opinion that Christians as a whole need to refocus on light, and love, and let the message of God live through them – instead of condemning others for the way they live their lives.
And that if the entirety of the LGBT community ever stood before Jesus Christ, he would bring us before him exclaiming ““Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
I wasn’t in a hurry, but I had somewhere to be. All of the lines in Target seemed long, so I chose the one closest to me. Already at the conveyor belt an elderly woman was emptying her cart. Her leisurely pace was indicative of her age. I considered changing lines, but when I glanced down the rows I noticed the other lines had grown longer. I decided to stay in line behind her. As I said, I was in no particular rush.
As she finished unloading her cart, the cashier announced her balance. Ten dollars and five cents. She had to repeat herself three times. The elderly woman’s caregiver explained that she has difficulty hearing, and repeated the cashier holding up ten and then five fingers. The elderly lady opened up her coin purse, something I haven’t seen in a while, and began digging through change. One by one she pulled pennies from the little pouch.
“Would you like me to help?” Her caregiver asked reaching for the pouch.
“I’m eighty six. I’m not dead.” The woman told her with a pointed finger and more sass than I expected. She wasn’t rude, but sharp – humored even.
She began telling the woman behind the counter that she had lived in California for most of her life. She explained that her father left her mother while she was pregnant, and not wanting to shame the family as an unwed mother she placed her up for adoption.
Unbeknownst to her at the time, her father remarried and had five more children. All boys. She continued telling the cashier the story about her childhood without them, and how her adopted parents didn’t really want her either. She told her that a year ago one of her brothers reached out for the first time in her life and that finally they met.
“He’s a Sheriff in Colorado, and he’d been looking for me all this time.” she told the cashier proudly.
I had become so intrigued by this woman and her story that I forgot for a moment that we were still in line at a shopping center. I was only reminded by the exaggerated huff of the woman behind me. She collected her items off the belt, and left to occupy a line that was moving at a faster pace.
Aware of the impatient woman’s reaction the elderly woman let her sentence trail off. She helped her caregiver place her bags into her shopping cart, and took the receipt from the cashier folding it gingerly and tucking it back into the pouch she pulled the pennies from.
The elderly woman turned to me, and we made eye contact for the very first time.
“You’ll probably never know what it’s like to spend your entire life thinking that no one in the world wanted you… and to find out almost too late that someone always did. Don’t wait that long.”
She smiled at me, but behind her eyes there was an ache that spoke volumes. I felt my cheeks grow warm, and tears brimmed against them. The cashier told the woman very softly that she was thankful to have her in her line, and to come back soon. I hadn’t fully recovered from the conversation before the cashier addressed me.
“Thank you for your patience.” She said without prompting.
“My patience?” I asked.
“Many people don’t realize that this is the only interaction that many people her age have with strangers.”
“Not a problem.” I told her. “It was truly my pleasure.”
As I took my receipt the cashier looked at me sincerely. “ Thank you again. It was a pleasure to have you in my lane today as well.”
I cried as I left Target that day, which probably surprises no one. I was overwhelmed by the conversation and how much it affected me, but also by how abruptly it ended. I looked for the woman on my way out, but she was gone.
I was shocked that the cashier felt the need to thank me. That the woman behind me hadn’t waited to hear the end of the story. That I almost considered changing lanes myself. I wished that I had said more to the elderly woman, but decided that maybe I didn’t need to. Maybe all she wanted was for someone to hear her.
You can point a finger at any given moment of my life, and I can show you something I overcame. You can ask me about a decision I made at any point, and I can give you a reason -- often one that helped me survive.
These are not mistakes. I do not regret them. They are why I am standing here, that I can look you in the eye, they are the reason that I'm alive today.
But there is so much more to this. These moments, these decisions, these obstacles, they are not me, but I am stronger because of them. - TM
Over a steeped cup of loose-leaf jasmine tea, I asked myself, "When did I become this woman?"
The one who stays in on Friday nights. Who spends Saturday mornings conducting help-based interviews and hosting screenings at her apartment for feminist theater groups.
The woman who changes her mind -- not because she is indecisive, but because in-depth research and careful consideration have taught her otherwise. The woman who actively seeks opportunities that challenge her. Who isn't intimidated by her own presence. Who isn't afraid of laughter and love. The woman who doesn't ask for permission, but doesn't take advantage of her liberty.
I sipped the tea down until the bottom of the soaked paper cup began to leak. "I've always been her," I decided. "An ever-evolving version. "
-- TM <3
I spoke to Thomas for the first time last Wednesday. We’ve never met in person. He had never even heard my name before that day. I’d only learned his the night before, when a woman who knew me in high school reached out for help communicating with him. She knew he was having a difficult time with his sexuality, and was concerned he might not be dealing with the pain in a healthy manner. I sat there staring at his email for nearly two hours before trying to pen a response that didn’t feel like an excerpt from a self-love pamphlet.
How do you ask a sixteen year old not to kill himself because he is gay?
How do you explain to a child that things will be better after high school -- once he is living independently and has had a chance to become the man he wants to be? How do you ask him to put down the razor blade and the handfuls of pills, even though they’re the only things numbing the real pain that he feels inside? How do you convince him to trust you and believe you when you say that life won’t always hurt this much – especially if you’re not sure you believe yourself?
You see, Thomas lives in the South. He grew up in a conservative Christian household with parents who love him, but would not accept him living a “homosexual lifestyle.” He can count on one hand the number of people he’s been able to talk to about the depression that, according to him, he “sinks deeper into every time he blinks.”
He makes good grades, and scored above average on his first attempt at the ACT. He has dreams of majoring in Linguistics at a prestigious University, but he has zero self-confidence. Thomas is a really great kid, and has a really bright future in front of him. He just has to get past the twelfth grade.
I can’t tell Thomas that things will get better at school. I can’t tell him that his friends will understand, or that his church won’t kick him out of the congregation based on his sexuality. I can’t tell him that there is no chance that his parents might put him in a “Pray away the Gay” program if they realize he is gay.
What I can tell Thomas is that he’s risking his future with drugs and self-violence; that neither jail nor a mental institution would be as fun as college. I can send him lists of Universities with notable Linguistics programs. I can encourage him to spend the next two years perfecting his admissions letter and locating and acquiring enough scholarships to independently fund his education - just in case. I can remind him that he is not broken. That he reminds me of myself, only a brighter, more talented version. I can tell Thomas that he is not alone.
What I would like to do is prove it. Tell Thomas that you are with him. That he is not broken. Tell Thomas your stories, your hopes and your dreams. Tell Thomas that life is beautiful, and that two years will go by faster than the blink of depression.
Thomas is just one of many young people who need to hear that it’s all right to be alive and to be themselves. That they don’t need permission to be happy.
Tell Thomas he is not alone. Use the hashtag #TellThomas to tell them all.
Just a thought...
It isn’t selfish to seek your happiness. In fact, the most selfish act would be to deny oneself of that happiness. The void of pleasure is not one to stand alone, empty and dark. It is filled up, instead, by other emotions. Anger. Sadness. Resentment. What is the purpose of life, if not to rid us of those burdens, and fill our lives with happiness and love?
I can still remember my first art class in grade school. My teachers name was Ms. Carter, and when we walked into the art room there were rolls of paper, markers, charcoal, scissors, paper mâché, and every other artistic medium you could imagine a K-5th grader using. The one that really stood out to me was the paint. At the time we mostly worked with watercolor, but gradually she introduced us to acrylics. I loved painting.
Unfortunately the middle schools and high school that I attended weren't very supportive of the arts. I would go on through life not picking up a brush until college. I took a still life drawing class that reignited my passion for art, and before long I was taking my first college painting class. I enjoyed it so much that I turned it into a minor. It wasn't necessary for my career, but it was necessary for my soul.
Since college I've invested more time into my art. It has become my favorite hobby. One day, I realized that I had in fact become an artist.
Of course I questioned whether I was talented enough to actually make money doing what I love. Painting is an expensive art form, and to continue doing it, I knew that I had to come up with a way to fund the habit.
Two days ago, I sold my first painting. I set a goal for myself to sell my first piece by 26, and I achieved that goal.
Never give up on the things that you love. Even if they seem silly, or pointless. If it matters to you, then you'll find a way to do it. If you work hard enough at something, it will pay off.
Thank you so much to all of the wonderful people who have supported me and the crazy art that I make. Hopefully one day you'll all have a piece of me hanging on your walls. I'd be honored.
is a writer, artist and human/animal rights activist based in Echo Park- Los Angeles, CA. The Stephens College graduate loves poetry, camping with her rowdy friends and tequila of many varieties.