By J.A. Gooch

“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.”

--Mohsin Hamid

As we all know, June is my birthday month.  No.  Wait.  Let’s rewind.  As we all know, June is LGBT Pride Month (Heck yeah, baby!), and I know all of you are ready to let your freaking freak flags fly (As if you ever put them down. *Insert winky emoji here.*). Needless to say, all of us here at GayTravel.com are pretty pumped, too!  I mean, c’mon!  How many minority groups get a whole thirty days to shine like one of Richard Simmon’s tank tops?  Not many, that’s for darn sure.  Nevertheless, in the mix of all the parade-trotting, banner-holding, boa-waving, techno-music-thumping, club-hopping, leopard-thong-bikini-wearing festivities, not everyone in our community is ready to put themselves on proud display.  And that’s where my story comes in.

You see, many moons ago—in a galaxy far, far away, long before I had crossed the threshold of the closet door—I was a young and fearful gay man who only dreamed of living the life I do today.  Having grown up in the rural Appalachian hills of Southern WV, smackdab in the middle of the Bible belt, I wasn’t necessarily afforded the opportunities many in our rainbow circle are.  No matter the painful truth of the secret I bore, it seemed as though I had no one to turn to.  And while I wasn’t sure of a lot at that point in my journey, other than the fact that I was subjected to hearing everyone from my family to my school peers to my church friends spew anti-LGBT rhetoric (Hell, even the dog seemed to be a bigoted homophobe.), I was determined to one day be free—free at any cost.  To make a long story short, over the period of two years, which included various forms of reparative therapy and a religious intervention or two, I was spent. 

I will never forget the day I emptied the pill bottle into my hand.  Having reached the pinnacle of depression, I found myself on the precipice of achieving that freedom I had so longed for.  Now, before you jump to conclusions, I did not swallow the fifty-two pills in my palm that afternoon; in fact, they never even made it past my lips.  Instead, on that day six years ago, I braved myself to the task of hoisting myself up by my bootstraps and dedicated my life to owning and loving my truth—something not everyone is strong enough to do by themselves.  And often, over the period of another year, I thought that death, to be quite frank, would’ve been so much easier.

But to avoid going into too much detail and exposing you to a one-year pity party, I will just jump to the present and let you know that I came through (Obviously, right?  I mean here I am, writing for gaytravel.com, the biggest name in LGBT travel! Wow!).  To this very moment—even as I sit here behind my desk—it amazes me how far I have come.  I never foresaw stepping into my own, loving that person, being able to say “This is who I am; take me or leave me,” falling in love, becoming engaged, and living a life free from the shadows of depression and shame.  And what’s even more astounding is the love and support I have been shown from such a wide array of people, which is my entire point here.  Sure, Pride Month is all about…well…showing pride.  But, as my little recounting tells you, not all of us can be proud.  And perhaps that is a reality you know all too well for yourself.  Perhaps you remember a time, not all too long ago, when you were cloaked in secrecy and were ashamed to shed light on your truth.  That is where empathy comes into play. 

Personally, now that I have gained a little distance from the pain, I sometimes forget what it was like to not be proud—to not be brave enough to walk down the street, holding my fiancé’s hand or to wear my favorite fashions (God, I love my Gucci man bag!).  But alas, there are moments when I do remember.  There are so many times I, when just walking down the street or scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed or even at my own family gatherings, am forced to remember those who are still writhing in contrition for the person they are concealing deep inside.  There things that catapult me into the dingy past and confront me with the ghosts of my yesterdays, which are made vivid in the faces of so many of my fellow human beings.  And that, my friends, is when I am compelled to reach beyond my relatively newfound pride.

I often think that if six years ago, I—while watching Pride events from my sofa on television—had been shown some sort of compassion by anyone, especially those within our community, my story might’ve been a bit different.  If someone had just taken the time from all the big gay merriment to think of me and had been attentive to my struggle, to see through the many masks I wore to shield my aching heart, to just say, “It gets better,” then perhaps I would’ve spent one or two less years in the dark—perhaps I could’ve been marching proudly down a confetti strewn street beneath the summer sun a lot, lot sooner. 

My friends, I only write this as a reminder that somewhere over the rainbow sits a teenage boy who just wants to love another boy, a girl that just wants to be “one of the guys,” a middle-aged man who simply desires to wear falsies and lip-sync to Beyoncé without being judged and condemned to the margins of society.  Somewhere on the other side of all the celebration and hoopla, in Small Town, USA and other countries around the globe, there are so many broken people who need YOU—who need YOUR bravery, YOUR tenacity, YOUR perseverance, YOUR testimony, YOUR voice, and YOUR pride because they have none of their own.  There are guys and girls, men and women all over the world who are on the verge of freedom but just need a loving hand to help them cross over.  So please, as you prepare for Pride, remember to be that hand.  Be that voice.  Be that friend I needed just six years ago.   

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