Literary Hub

My Coming Out is a Story of Forgiveness

sunset

Forgive is derived from the Latin word perdonare, a word constructed of two smaller ones that belie the enormity and complexity of its power. Per, the first of the two, means “for” in the sense of “completely.” The second is donare, meaning “to give.” To forgive is to give up completely, a concept that is foreign to our society, one that is taught to win at all costs. And so, the act of forgiveness first requires an unlearning—an undoing. Katherine and my undoing was the beginning of our story of forgiveness. In order to begin the process of healing, we had to first shatter everything we thought we knew.

What must be given up completely in order to forgive? If it is a smaller offense, let’s say someone accidentally tripped you and they ask you to forgive them, the offering is small. There was no malice or deception, and so giving up a sense of pride, of feeling hurt for momentarily looking foolish, is all that is required. You both move on rather easily. As the size of the offense grows, and the length of its duration expands, so too does the act of forgiveness.

When I look back, it is a wonder that either of us survived, considering all of the forgiveness that needed to take place. At times, it seemed necessary to give up everything. Before the pain, anger, hatred, and feelings of betrayal could be vanquished, Katherine had to give up completely the idea that the past could be any different, a past that almost destroyed her. She deserved a different and better life, one that did not include an accumulation of devastation. When the crime is this immense, forgiveness is a maze in which there are dead ends, false leads, and painful discoveries that can take years to navigate in order to make your way through.

I once stood in the liminal space before I came out to Katherine, where the lies were behind me and the truth was ahead, and this held me in a heart-stopping grip of terror. Going in either direction was an act of betrayal toward Katherine. I chose truth, but this did not mean that Katherine then joined me on my journey from that point forward. She was transported back to the very beginning of the maze where it all started, and she had to revisit every memory to examine its veracity.

I too often find myself retracing the steps. In my dreams, I keep waking up in my old marriage, in a decrepit house where the rooms don’t make any sense. I walk across the warped wooden floors, disturbing the dust and causing it to spill through the cracks between the boards. The yellowed wallpaper is peeling, and rust-colored water stains pockmark the ceilings. What were we thinking when we bought this broken-down house? I fear we’ll never be able to leave. I lie down on the edge of the bed and try to remember something. Think, Bill. What have you forgotten? And then it comes to me. I didn’t tuck in the girls. They’ll be terrified on their first night in this haunted old house.

We’ve done it again—purchased an old home without any understanding of the costs involved. I look up at the cracked windowpanes in the bedroom, and then it begins to rain. I know the crumbling roof won’t hold back the storm.

Why did we move here? The girls hate moving, and now they’ll have to start a new school again and make new friends, and we don’t have the funds or the energy to make the repairs. We’re stuck.

And then it hits me like a punch to the gut. Where is Paul?

How do I forgive the world for the yoke of pain it has placed upon me, which in turn I bestowed upon Katherine and my daughters?

My heart is racing, and I’m searching through my memories, trying to remember the turn of events that brought me back. We were married. We are married, Paul and I. But I left him. How can I be husband to both Katherine and Paul at the same time? Does Paul wonder where I am? I feel such pity for him and regret for putting Katherine through this again. I can’t leave her. I can’t abandon the girls, but I have to get back to Paul. The air becomes too heavy, and I can’t breathe. My chest is pounding, and then silence. At first, there is a buzzing, and then I hear the whirring of a fan, and the hum of familiar sounds. When I open my eyes, my heart is still racing. Moonlight splits between the blinds, casting horizontal shadows on the walls. When I look around the room, the windows are not cracked; the floors are not warped. The girls are grown up now—Olivia is engaged to be married; Claire is in medical school—and Katherine has found a new love. We are all in good places. I reach over and place a hand on Paul, fearful that he may turn to mist. When my hand rests solidly on his shoulder, a wave of relief passes through me. But this old ache thumps in my heart.

More than a decade has passed since the divorce, and my mind is still trying to make sense of it, trying to make amends for the pain I caused and the pain I endured.

I can see the series of events that destroyed me as a child in North Carolina before I ever met Katherine. While many crimes were committed against queer people in my youth, most people thought victims of “gay bashings” “had it coming.” Many still do. In 1981, the year I graduated from high school, murder befell Ronald “Sonny” Antonevitch because he was gay. In Durham, North Carolina, at a swimming hole on the Little River, a group of four men and two women approached four male sunbathers and shouted, “We’re going to beat some faggots.” They beat the men with clubs the size of fence posts and threw tree trunks at their backs as they fled.

Ronald Antonevitch was handicapped, sitting on a rock in the river, and could not flee. One of the men hit him in the skull with a club, grabbed his own crotch, and then said, “You want to suck my cock, faggot?” When Antonevitch replied in the negative, two of the men from the group hit him again in the head with a club, punched him with their fists, and held his head under water. Ten bystanders watched and did nothing to prevent the attack. When one of the injured men called the police, the dispatcher replied, “You know it’s illegal to sunbathe nude.”

Thirty years after I graduated from high school, I returned to a school reunion in my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, with my husband, certain that enough time had passed to heal the trauma of my youth. I was proud to return with Paul. When we went into the restroom, we heard the door fly open, and then one of my former classmates shouted, “Are there any faggots in here? There better not be any faggots in here.” I felt the shock of those words hit me as sharply as the club hit Sonny Antonevitch in the head. It took my breath away. I was embarrassed and ashamed, not because of who I was, but because Paul witnessed my undoing. How do I forgive the world for the yoke of pain it has placed upon me, which in turn I bestowed upon Katherine and my daughters? How do I help my daughters understand that not every man they become romantically involved with is going to lie to them?

Forgiveness is not given to help the one who hurt you, but to navigate through the pain in order to free yourself.

It can be helpful to know and understand the motivation of the person who hurt you in order to forgive them, but it is not necessary, because forgiveness is a solitary act that requires only one participant. I am certain there were times when Katherine wanted me to feel pain, unhappiness, and remorse, and those emotions I have felt deep in my marrow. They have at times threatened to destroy me. I know from firsthand experience with my mother that the remorse she felt helped me to move forward, just as I have also come to learn that if I had wished her continued pain (and there were days that I did), it would have trapped me in the maze of anger for an eternity. Forgiveness is not given to help the one who hurt you, but to navigate through the pain in order to free yourself.

Cruelly, I sometimes still lie, to strangers, acquaintances, and people I’ve just met, because the world is a brutal place for queer people. There are times when safety trumps honesty. The little daily lies like brittle, stinging snowflakes accumulate until they are several feet deep, and I have to trudge my way through. I dig my hands deeper into my pockets when I want to hold my husband’s hand in public. When the taxi driver with the crucifix proudly displayed on his dashboard asks about my wife, I don’t correct him. I tell myself it doesn’t matter when family members say they don’t believe in same-sex marriage, as if not believing in something will make it go away. And so I live in the space between the lie and the truth, between the heterosexual life I lived and the gay community I shunned. But in reality, my waking life is the dream I never dared dream, and Katherine’s nightmare became her reality. How do I reconcile this?

For years, the lie supported my work, my life, and my family. It was necessary to keep telling the lie in order not to lose everything, but eventually, it began to sag, like a roof filling with too much water, until it broke. Objects are better at holding the weight of emotions, and so my writer’s brain presents this house to me in my dreams, a broken house to represent my broken marriage.

*

The day I started to look at my story as one that did not hinge on a lie, but one that told the story of forgiveness, was when I came a step closer to freedom, but with 700 miles between us, the process of healing was long and difficult. Katherine raised our daughters through her own pain and theirs. I have tried to imagine the devastation she felt, but I can’t. Even as a writer who spends countless hours peering into people’s brains, I can’t fully fathom it. Before forgiveness could enter, anger needed to be extinguished, and like wildfire it would often jump paths and spring up in surprising and terrifying places. Resentment over lives unlived smoldered in both of us. Often, I wondered if I even deserved to be happy.

And yet, sometimes I wonder if it’s even my place to forgive myself or what to do with a lie that begat truth—Katherine, the girls, times of immense wonder, beauty, and joy.

Making amends is not the same as forgiveness. It is undoing a wrong. I can’t go back and unlie. I can’t go back and change the past. The only way I know to make amends is to live in the truth and to be humble with those I’ve wronged—Katherine and my daughters—and through the sharing of my tale, to give those I’ll never meet the chance to speak their truth as well. We are not the first generation of queer people who have found ourselves trapped in a straight marriage, but please God, let us be the last. In a world filled with hate and lies, living the truth is a form of resistance and persistence.

I am not an expert at forgiveness, but I know that when I started to understand what forgiveness meant, I realized it was not something I could ask for. That it is not mine for the taking, not mine to request, is something I have grappled with. The past is a spiderweb, and no amount of forgiveness will allow me to go back and unweave what I have done, and if I tried, I would become trapped in its stickiness, so this means I have to leave it there. I can’t erase my lie, and so I live in that space between what I cannot fix and what I can. The lie is a part of all our truths.

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 Excerpted from The Lie: A Memoir of Two Marriages, Catfishing, and Coming Out. Used with permission from Little A. Copyright © 2019 by William Dameron.

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