For the longest time, I let myself love a life I was never meant to live. I’m a cradle Catholic and regularly attended Mass at the church my family has gone to for more than 50 years. I received sacraments throughout childhood. I wanted my marriage to be recognized by God in the church. But recently, I’ve let all of these expectations go because I’ve finally accepted the fact that I’m gay.

All my life, I’ve grown up listening to homophobic slurs, jokes, television shows, music, propaganda, opinions, essays, ideologies, hate groups, religions, businesses — and eventually I just got tired of it.

Even as a little kid, I was exposed to the world’s intolerance: When I lived in Illinois in the third grade, one of my new classmates told everyone I was gay, and I ate lunch alone for the following three weeks. I remember hearing a classmate in middle school jokingly talk about forming a hate group to kill gay people. While debating social issues and LGBTQ rights in high school, my classmates were adamant that homosexuality is a chosen “lifestyle,” and that no one is born that way and that it is a disgusting, unnatural, perverted existence.

Though I’ve known for the longest time — and have been in denial — I never had the courage to give up the life that was so easily laid out for me. I wanted to be married in the same church my parents and grandparents were married in. I wanted to easily have kids of my own. I wanted to live a life without fear.

I’ve only recently found the strength to accept who I am. This spring, I had the privilege of going into the woods of New Hampshire with a University of Michigan program called NELP, the New England Literature Program. It’s an intentional community, a space built to foster teamwork and cooperation. Everyone, including the instructors, works together to sustain our little community in the forest for 45 days. Without easy access to the rest of the world, everyone tends to be present.

At the beginning of my stay in New Hampshire, I was asked why I came to the woods, and it’s been something I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. I went into the woods with no clear objective. It is now easy for me to see I needed the time away, the space to think, the silence to hear, the capacity to listen and the opportunity to be kind.

The woods offered me the first time to personally know gay people who were out, successful and happy. For the first time, I met gay people who were both professionally and socially thriving in the real world. I finally found an accurate representation of the life I’d been avoiding out of the fear of letting go of the one I’d let myself idealize for too long.

And while those woods will always be a special place for me, the idea at the end of the program is to return.

In my case, coming back and returning were two very different things. I came back from the woods on June 17, but I finally returned sometime in August.

Returning meant living a more deliberate life, being more self-reliant and letting go of the expectations I set for myself for as long as I can remember. Living a lie did no one any good. No one I knew really knew who I was, and it was incredibly lonely. It’s only after having seen other strong queer people that I’ve come to terms with my faith, my lack of representation in the church, the way I’ll be marginalized in society and the people who will choose to be left behind.

Letting go sucks. It’s taken me forever to realize this, but the expectations of the ideal life I’d created in my mind were unhealthy. There are people in this world who will always be angered and disappointed by the fact that I’m gay. I don’t have to be one of them.

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