A few years ago, I was dating this really adorable Jewish guy named Ethan. He was a couple of years younger than me and very in tune with the modern trends and lingo in a way that made me feel ancient even though I was only 26 and he was 23. He grew up in Queens and never really had to deal with the worries of “coming out” or fearing what his parents might think…and in fact, a lot of the guys that I would go on dates with during that particular single phase would often ask about where I came from and usually people are taken aback when I say West Virginia. Sometimes, it really all comes down to who is in your life as to whether or not you can fully come out and be yourself…but at first, I didn’t have that luxury.
I bring up Ethan specifically because he was in college at the time and he was doing an assignment where he had to ask several people to write 13 words on a piece of paper that you could say to your 13 year old self.
I just remember thinking how my pre-teen years and my early teenage years were, perhaps, the worst time of my life and how much I would refuse to ever relive or thoroughly discuss them again…but then I thought about the-then popular “It gets better” campaign that was flowing around online and how there were so many things I wish I could tell my younger self in hopes that “he” could cope.
I eventually decided on this:
“You haven’t met the real ‘you’ yet; take more chances and you will”.
When I was 15 years old, I had enrolled in the Intro to Theatre class at my high school because, as I will go into, I loved the idea of being in the arts world since childhood…but I was also INCREDIBLY and PAINFULLY shy and awkward. Then, near the end of the year, the teacher, Kathy Casuccio, had made the final decision that the upcoming Spring Musical was going to be one of my favorites: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.
She highly encouraged everyone to audition and I remember just sort passively thinking about it and then as I was leaving the classroom, I saw the sign-up sheet and almost as if there were a spotlight shining on it, there was one single slot left open on it…and I distinctly remember her saying “You will never know if you take the chance”.
I ended up shocking everyone and got cast as the lead, Seymour Krelborn.
I was not trained as a singer at the time, but I was passable enough…however my own insecurities certainly helped with how Seymour was scripted. Playing this role was perhaps the most important thing that could’ve happened to me. It gave me the drive and the confidence to further pursue the idea of wanting to act. Then came the moment of conflict: Casucciotold us DO NOT MAJOR IN THEATRE IN COLLEGE. We would regret it if we did.
For the record, I DID end up doing it. It actually wasn’t my choice to an extent because I went into orientation not really firmly selecting a major but when I got there and my first transcript was handed to me, it said: ANTHONY JAMES HOST, Major: Theatre…so I was just kind of like “Well, okay…I guess I will just stick with this”.
It wasn’t that I hated the idea. I was just scared by what she said about how it wouldn’t help us…and to an extent; she was right because most people don’t like the idea of hiring a Theatre major in New York because they are worried we will gladly jump ship the moment we get cast in a big show.
Then there was the next hurdle: telling people I was a Theatre major. I felt ashamed about it. Keep in mind, this was a small college in WV and I certainly knew that most of the guys around me in orientation would probably judge me for it.
It wasn’t until my freshman year of college began that I faced the first snide comment about my major. It was the first day of my English 101 class on a Tuesday morning bright and early at 8am and the teacher did one of my least favorite things: “Let’s all go around the room and introduce ourselves and tell us yourmajor”. Oh, great. Now, I could’ve lied. It’s not like the teacher would know or that the class would know, but I remember thinking “I like theatre so I don’t want to hide it”.
So, it got to me and I just simply said, “Hi. I’m Anthony. I am a Theatre major”.
A couple of seats behind me, a frat boy type quietly chuckled and then mumbled:
I can’t tell you how much that hurt and made me feel uncomfortable. I also hadn’t accepted that side of me yet because I was convincing myself for several years at that point that any weird urge I felt towards guys like my best friends Michael or Stephen were just sort of flukes because I was mistaking feelings for friendship…and I had known both for over 10 years at that point.
Following that class was my Intro to Theatre History class, so I walked over with my Starbucks in hand and sat in the hallway waiting for the class to start and I was just so numb and terrified. One of my good friends, Sean, whom I had known for years as well and was also an actor (he had been my Orin in LITTLE SHOP), was also in this class. Sean was straight and always had somewhat of a slight conservative edge about him but he also wasn’t opposed to homosexuality. I told him about what happened and I even went as far to say “I think I should consider getting a new Major” and thankfully, he was willing to talk some sense into me. He said “That would be stupid. Why do you care what that guy thinks….or anyone would think for that matter? It is your major and it is what you want to do”. After that, I never gave it a second thought….and that was what began my real journey to truly accepting me for who I was.
So, why all of the fear and paranoia aside from the fact that I grew up in WV…it shouldn’t come as a surprise: religion.
Truth be told, the town I grew up in was sort of a rare breed for WV. Morgantown was home to West Virginia University and thanks to that, we got a lot of business and culture that seemed to consistently pour in and it caused the town’s population to rise and the economy to prosper so strongly that right after the 2008 Recession, Brian Williams did a segment on NBC Nightly News devoted to Morgantown and how, unlike all of WV and a lot of the U.S., it was on the rise in more ways than one and even had the lowest unemployment rate in the country.
Morgantown is probably the closest thing WV has to a liberal bubble, but it is nowhere near close to being completely blue (even though Obama carried the county in 2008). The culture within the county, and our close proximity to Pittsburgh, allowed me to be able to take in a lot of artistic opportunities, which proved to be a very vital outlet during a very trying time.
As a kid, my family attended Riverside Apostolic Church, which was an Evangelical/Pentecostal fire and brimstone preach fest. When I was REALLY young, I don’t recall having any real aversion to going to church but it was around 1995 that I began to sense something was wrong.
I was 7 years old and for that particular week, a husband and wife and their son were coming into town with their Christian Puppet Ministry and one of their stops was our church. I loved puppets as a kid so I was definitely excited and I can recall the week being fun. However, there is one thing about that type of church that some people may not know. As with all organized religion, each denomination almost seems to have their own set of beliefs and picky Christians certainly love to do their Cherry Picking of the Bible.
The Apostolic Church believes in order for you to enter the kingdom of heaven, you must repent, be properly baptized, and then you would receive the gift of the Holy Ghost: AKA Speaking in Tongues. I knew about speaking in tongues and as a kid, it was certainly jarring to see people yelling in what appeared to be languages that sounded like Latin or Arabic.
After one of these particular youth services, the wife of the Puppet team…and I can’t remember her full name but we referred to her as Sister Hopper…came up to me because she wanted to try to talk to as many of the children as she could. She asked me questions about whether or not I read the Bible every day and if I prayed every day…I said yes. She then asked if I had accepted Jesus as my savior and if I received the gift of the Holy Ghost. I said that I accepted Jesus but that I had not spoken in tongues.
With that, she offered this little pearl of “wisdom”:
“Well…you know what it means then. You definitely want to get on that, because if Jesus were to come back tomorrow to take us all home to heaven, you wouldn’t be saved and you would go to hell”.
I WAS SEVEN YEARS OLD.
And she said it with the same urgency as if she were a mother telling her son that he shouldn’t run around the house as opposed to…you know…warning someone that they were going to live for eternity in a land of fire and torture.
I’ve never forgotten the sound of her voice or how she looked…and honestly, I would gladly slap that woman in the face now if I had the chance. I definitely put that kind of fear behind me a long time ago, but for what I DID go through and for her to have the audacity to tell a child such a thing was truly abhorrent. Yet, that seemed to be par for the course for many people in that denomination.
Since we were fast approaching the end of the 20th century that also meant the early stages of that infamous conspiracy theory Y2K were starting to form. Most people remember Y2K as being a big technological meltdown in which computer systems would crash and airplanes would fall out of the sky and we’d all have to stay in bomb shelters and stock up on bottled water and Ritz Crackers. Religious people seemed to use it as yet another opportunity to claim that Jesus was planning the Second Coming. I even vividly remember during the summer of 1999 seeing a tabloid in the checkout line of a Super Kmart (may it rest in peace) that had some crazy religious zealot claiming he was told that Jesus would be coming back within weeks.
This kind of thing freaked me out to no end, even if I was told that his return would be akin to a “thief in the night”…and surprise, surprise, 20 years later, we are still here….perhaps Stephen Sondheim should add a verse to I’m Still Here that taps into this plight.
I felt so engrossed in the beliefs of my church that I almost found it incredibly jarring when other people’s lives didn’t match up to mine. I was surprised that other religions didn’t believe in certain things that we did and was even more surprised when I learned that people didn’t even believe in Jesus…or God…or that people considered Jesus and God two different people… but hey, I would rather not go into that stuff. I will probably just irritate myself far too much.
I do want to make note of how my first response to atheism was, because we were told they were “lost souls” who were truly sad at heart and that we should pity them. I felt like they were all missing out on something great…but deep down, I still sensed something was wrong with me….and it turns out that the only person missing out on something great was me.
So, how exactly did I end up coping with a lot of my worries and insecurities?
The arts, of course.
I began doing everything from watching old and current TV shows, renting movies, reading history books, and exploring various websites on that new hot thing of the time: the internet. In a life where I felt so afraid and nervous and shy and unsure of so much, I found my solace in the entertainment world and the history behind it. First it began with television but then truly expanded to film and theatre and music.
By the time I reached college, my original goal was to be a writer/director with less emphasis on acting…but eventually that would be flipped. I wasn’t fully comfortable my freshman year of college not just because of that English class incident, but I was still a guy who had this weighing influence of religion on him…and I was sensing more and more with myself that I wasn’t the person I thought I was. The real journey to coming out began in the summer of 2008, between my freshman and sophomore years of college.
I had been cast in a production of 1776 and was going to get a chance to play a small but pivotal supporting role opposite a Theatre Professor whom I adored and a member of the community who was pretty much a legend for his work in the theatre…and that I also quite adore. I remember going to the first read through feeling quite excited about what was going to happen and then I noticed…him.
This was Jimmy Clegg, a guy that I sort of knew only because he had been dating a guy who was also in the Theatre program with me…but I had never met him and only saw him one other time in person and only knew his name thanks to Facebook.
I saw him sitting across the room and I instantly thought “God, he’s beautiful”. It was the first time I truly thought something “gay” about a guy but didn’t stop to justify it. Instead, it just felt good…and that isn’t to say I wasn’t scared emotionally, but I can’t deny that it was nice to acknowledge it.
Of course, I was never going to approach Jimmy…I was still convinced I was being sinful and I also thought he was too good for me. I can also still envision him in my head with his shaggy, trendy brunette hair and his tight fitting clothes with a shiny studded belt. I began fantasizing about him and it began feeling both amazing and depressing all at once because it was just this mixture of elation and sadness because I felt like I was being a bad person for wanting this…and yet, it felt GOOD to feel it.
Not long before 1776 opened, Jimmy got into a car accident that totaled his car. He wasn’t seriously injured but he was definitely in pain. I can recall several people asking him how he was doing and he was talking to people more than he ever had (he primarily kept to himself, which there was a reason for that which I won’t go into here). I saw this as a chance to try to talk to him and I finally mustered up the courage to do it after the rehearsal. I am not sure what I really expected to gain from this as I didn’t feel like I was ready to pursue this side of me…not to mention, he was dating someone.
I did approach him and I distinctly remember he was texting on his phone and he barely looked up at me while I asked him about how he was feeling. After a brief moment, I just said “Well…take care”…and with no acknowledgment, he just looked down at his phone as if he was just happy to have me go away (and there was a reason for this). At that point, I kind of just wrote him off as being an asshole and let it go.
Then, that fall, he enrolled into the college and began taking classes in our Theatre program…and I found out he broke up with his boyfriend. Around that same time, other people in the department were talking about how fun Jimmy was: catty, loved to drink, social butterfly…and he was an amazing pianist to boot on top of being an amazing singer.
I got angry. Why the hell did he brush me off?! I became semi-obsessed with him at that point trying to figure out his deal.
This continued into the Spring Semester when we both got cast in a murder mystery play called THE MUSICAL COMEDY MURDERS OF 1940, which was fun to be in but the writing was not exactly stellar. During the process, I talked to the other cast members to be sure but I rarely said much to Jimmy…however, by the end of the run, he and I began talking some and it eventually led me to do something that was rather self-serving.
Back in those days of Facebook Notes (remember those?), I decided to post one about my experience doing the murder mystery because at that point, it was my first time getting to play a lead while in college and I thoroughly enjoyed my role and working with that ensemble…but I used it as a way to connect with Jimmy behind the guard of a computer. I remember gushing about how much I was impressed by him and, also, that he made a beautiful woman.
So…as I had found out not too long before from someone else in our department, Jimmy was intending to have a sex-change operation. To me, this was basically a gift from the heavens. I was literally telling myself that this was the most perfect thing that could happen: he would become she and then I wouldn’t have to come out.
Oh, silly 20 year old me.
That April, about a month after the show closed, he and I actually started messaging each other and I began flirting with him. At first, he wasn’t sure what to make of it but he opened up and said that he felt the same way about me but didn’t really know what to do about it because everyone thought I was straight (or rather, a closet case). We agreed to hang out the following day…and in whirlwind fashion, we fell in love.
After a couple of weeks of dating and fooling around and sleeping with each other, I officially asked him out on May 5, 2009 after coming back from dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I can remember being in my car driving back to his apartment. I expressed concerns about my family or certain people back in my hometown learning about it, but he said he was willing to be a secret of sorts since he actually came from a more intense religious environment than I did (even though he was out to his family, the tension among them was incredibly uncomfortable as they were true Southern Baptists). Once I heard that, I just said “Well I don’t want to wait anymore, so will you be mine?” And I remember he started crying and repeatedly said “Yes!” over and over again.
So, as it stands, Jimmy became known as Jamie and now goes by Anessa Marie and is living her life as a Trans woman here in New York. We were together for 6 years and despite it being incredibly rocky for the majority of the time, I think she and I both agree that it had a profound effect on us both. She was the first love of my life.
As for coming out to EVERYONE, to this day, I still haven’t fully done it…my parents sort of figured it out on their own but they never really confronted me about it. After they divorced, my father met a woman who had a more liberal mindset on social issues and she was very key to helping him accept that I was gay. Even though I have never blatantly said to my father that I am gay, he knows I was with Anessa and he knows I have a boyfriend named Brian now and whomever I may be dating, they would be welcomed in my home should I bring them back to visit…in the end, that is all I can ask for. Other family members, such as my sister Rachel and Cousin Laura definitely know and I’ve been more candid with them about it…because frankly it was always easier.
When I moved to New York City over 6 years ago, I was still with Anessa but then after living here for a year, we broke up after a very tumultuous relationship and it was the right thing to do. However, I came out (so to speak) when I was 20 and jumped into a relationship with Anessa. I never really got to fully explore this gay side of me and now here I was, just about to turn 26 in New York City and I hadn’t been on a date with a single guy.
I guess you could say I was lucky that I had the exposure of being in a city like this to be able to explore and have so many opportunities but it was also incredibly daunting at the same time.
I met guys, went on dates, hooked up a lot, had my heart broken, and sadly I know I hurt a guy or two at the time, but in the end, I sort of found myself…or at least I found more of me that I didn’t even know was there.
During that time, I got especially attached to that Ethan fellow I mentioned at the beginning of this novel of a blog post. Him asking me to come up with that phrase for his school assignment was a big turning point for me emotionally: I did feel like I had found “me” and despite everything I had gone through emotionally, I felt like it was all worth it in the end. I have no shame for acknowledging that I am gay…and I would hope that any other young kid out there who has the same fears I did will have the same chance to come out of their shell and be able to accept who they are and be happy.
So, as I currently sit here in June 2019 with the 50thAnniversary of the Stonewall Riots approaching, I am definitely proud that I accepted who I am and I am beyond grateful to those brave souls who fought for our civil rights during that time.
And with that, all I can really say is…I could use a drink.