One (nearly) deadly word
by Kristen Lucas, senior Millsaps student
Last semester, Lucas and her classmates were asked to complete a project exploring lived gender & sexuality at Millsaps College. Students were not asked to cover all of campus life but to focus their articles on specific areas, issues and/or people. This piece is included in this series of projects.
Author’s note: This piece is an extended look into the life of one Millsaps student. Names have been changed to protect my subjects. Although this is nonfiction, it is more narrative than traditional investigative journalism. The information was gathered over several months of extended, personal interviews with Eliot.
The word would brand him flawed, dirty, a disappointment to his family, to God, and to himself. It word would raise a wall between him and his father and stir his mother’s weeping. The word took root in his skull and laced every thought with its echo. Even silent articulation is painful. He would have rather died than to say the word out loud. Estrangement unfolded from each of its three letters:
Eliot was born and raised in a conservative Christian suburban home in the heart of the Bible Belt. In his mid‐teens, he began to sense that something about him was off. His girl‐crushes from elementary school had faded and no new ones were emerging. When he started to feel the old familiar “new crush” feeling and realized another boy was the cause, he quickly buried it away. He had been told, time and time again, that boys like girls—only girls. His senior year came, and he had still never confronted that feeling. But he felt it again. This time, his crush showed mutual interest… sort of.
Eliot and Eric had been in clubs and A.P. classes together all through high school. It started as a simple friendship. Eric was a year younger. As they began to spend time together, the two developed an emotional bond. Nothing physical or romantic happened, but they relied on each other for support. They became confidantes. Sometimes they’d talk about the unspoken feeling—the gay feeling—but always in terms of making it go away. Eric was extremely involved with the youth group at a local Southern Baptist church. Being gay was the last thing he could ever admit to himself or to his peers. At first, Eliot went along with it. He didn’t want to be gay either. That would be wrong, they agreed; everyone thinks it is wrong, they agreed.
But it wasn’t that easy. A voice in Eliot’s head was getting louder. He and Eric grew apart, which Eliot describes as a result of Eric’s denial. Meanwhile, Eliot was going, going, going: pulling all nighters to maintain a spotless GPA and dreaming of far‐off Ivy League wonderlands where he would be just the right flavor of normal. When his father moved out, he took care of his sick mother. He did all the grocery shopping and the bill paying, and drove his little sister to school. He joined the Student Government, and took countless practice tests for the SAT. Perfectionism was a way to compensate for not feeling acceptable, but his dishonesty with himself swelled up to a boiling point. He had to come clean or burst.
“When I realized that I was really gay, that I was hard‐wired this way and there is no getting out of it, I had to come to terms with myself. I had to kill all the ways I’d tried to cover myself up. The spotless reputation, the perfect transcript—none of that was me. So I had to hit rock bottom before I could get anywhere else.”
It was one in the morning and Eliot still hadn’t finished his homework when he realized that he had to go grocery shopping. He looked at his to‐do lists and panicked. He’d forgotten what it was like to not feel like he was drowning in responsibilities. When he turned the family car out of the driveway, something came over him. “I don’t even know what happened, honestly. I didn’t really think about it. My street curves right past a big tree and I didn’t turn the wheel. I just let the car go for it. I guess I didn’t want to do any of it any more. You know how they say your life flashes before your eyes right before you die? Well I really think that happened to me. I was about to crash and I knew I was going to commit suicide, and all of these thoughts flooded my head. I wasn’t seeing what was going on in front of me, just all these lights and visions of my family. And then the car stopped. I had missed the tree by inches.”
He drove straight home, and his proceeding panic attack scared his father into moving back in with the family. His parents knew that he’d been stressed, and they credited the panic attack to that. They didn’t ask for specifics, and Eliot couldn’t bear to tell him that his sexuality was the biggest stressor of them all.
A few weeks later he broke down. He wasn’t trying to “come out of the closet,” he was just reaching for some support. “I don’t think we ever actually used the word ‘gay’. I was just so shaken and overwhelmed, and I couldn’t do it anymore. I just cried in front of my parents and scrambled for words. They knew what I meant to say.” Their responses did more to intensify his inner chaos than they did to ease it; his father’s stoic disapproval and his mother’s frantic wailing flooded the house. He was left to marinate in the tension.
His mother was vehement in her conviction that Eliot could “beat this,” and sent him to any preacher or therapist who could help him do so. He knew he couldn’t change the fact that he was gay, but he entertained her efforts…until a priest tried to convince him that he needed an exorcism. That was when his mother gave up.
The last explosion hit on a Sunday afternoon. Eliot had bought a pack of cigarettes—which was extremely out of his character, but he didn’t have anything to prove anymore. Seconds after he lit one on the back porch, his mother stormed out of the kitchen screaming, “Well aren’t you going to the biggest fag queen at Ole Miss!” His dad followed close behind, raging and furious. Eliot ran between them, through the door, and upstairs to the bathroom.
He opened the medicine cabinet and found his mother’s painkillers. He took them one by one at first, and then a few at a time, eventually swallowing them by the handful until the bottle was empty. He waited in his bedroom a while and then wandered to the stairs, meeting his father halfway down. “Your mother needs her painkillers and we can’t find them. Did you take them?” Eliot fell to the floor.
His next memory is waking up in a hospital bed with his parents standing nearby. It was explained to him that the protocol in Mississippi for suicide patients is in‐patient rehabilitation in the psychiatric ward. He was eighteen and would have to check himself in. “That the first sort of acceptance I felt from my parents… They knew I would be there for at least a few days and that I couldn’t have my cell phone. They’d packed a bag for me and on top of everything was a dozen rolls of quarters for the pay phone.”
After three days he returned home; his parents didn’t bother him about being gay any more, but it wasn’t an open topic of discussion either. They saw him off to Ole Miss, where Eliot finally got to be honest with himself and those around him about his sexual orientation. But after a rough and heart‐break ridden Freshman year, he transferred to Millsaps and moved back in with his family.
Eliot says things aren’t too different as they were when he left.
“It’s like I’m allowed to be gay in theory, but not in practice,” he explains. “I could never bring a guy home to my parents. If I bring friends home from high school or Millsaps it’s fine, but I can’t just hang out with a guy at the house. Sometimes if I go to lunch or something with a guy and tell my mom she’ll ask if I’m dating him, but that rarely happens. They don’t like to talk acknowledge that I’m gay.”
Eliot’s parents’ reaction to his coming out is not uncommon; their devastation exemplifies a large number of parents to lesbian, gay, or bi teens. Parents commonly reject their teen’s sexual orientation and attempt to “fix” it because of their desire to protect their teen from harm. This is a serious case of good intentions with devastating effects. A study surveyed gay males and showed that those who experienced high levels of this type of familial rejection in adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to say they’d attempted suicide and 5.9 times more likely to say they’d suffered depression than their adolescent peers.
Eliot has come a far way since his suicide attempt, but his sexuality is still a frequent source of frustration and ambivalence. When he talks about relationships, his voice takes on a tone of punctuated cynicism.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get married,” he told me. “I mean, I just don’t think it’s the same—I’m not anti‐gay marriage or anything, but I just don’t think it’ll ever really be taken seriously.”
Eliot describes Millsaps as an accepting environment, but not necessarily one that actively supports minorities. Because he doesn’t want others to define and identify him with his sexual orientation, Eliot is resistant to groups on campus for gay pride and LGBT rights. He would rather be single than be labeled as a crusader for gay rights. The problem, at least in Eliot ‘s eyes, is that those seem to be his only two options—and all because of one word.