Saturday night I went to the opera.
It was about a subject I knew well; it was based on my life.
Six-time Grammy Award winner Terence Blanchard and director and actress Kasi Lemmons had joined forces with the Opera Theater of St. Louis to interpret my 2014 memoir, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” for the stage.
It is the story of pain and struggle, perseverance and triumph. It is about childhood sexual abuse and sexual identity. It is about agony — world-afflicted and self-imposed — and anger, but also love and beauty. It is about grappling and wrestling with who and what one is and coming at long last to accept, embrace and love that person.
Since Blanchard had insisted that I not see or hear any of the material before the show — he wanted it to be a surprise — I was seeing it for the first time, like many of the people in the audience.
I had told myself long ago that I shouldn’t expect it to be a strict and faithful rendition of what I’d written, but rather an interpretation of it by two amazing artists whom I trusted. So, I showed up simply wanting to view it as a piece of art, not as a mirror of my life.
In that way, to me, it was absolutely stunning, musically and visually, as well as in the performances.
But, I also knew that other people were experiencing that show in a different way, a deeper way, than me.
You see, the pain and suffering of the protagonist on stage now felt foreign to me. I could recognize it, the way we can remember the foggy ephemera of a dream, but it also felt quite foreign to me.
There were portions during which I saw my children squirm. There were parts after which my friends cried. But for me, most of the emotion of the moment had long ago been discharged.
I wrote in the book: “Concealment makes the soul a swamp; confession is how you drain it.”
When I wrote that, it was as much hope and expectation as it was a personal, experiential truth. I was preaching to myself, coaching myself, providing a moral and ethical underpinning for my own disclosure.
But now, five years on, I can say for certain that what I wrote then was the gospel truth.
There is something powerful in the saying, something truly liberating in unloading your secret and your shame.
I had to simply say to the world that I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. The act of saying it began the reparation of the damage it had done. And, it helped me to see that the vast majority of the damage was caused by trying to keep the offense in the dark.
I had to simply say that I was a bisexual man in order for me to begin to not only accept that but to celebrate it, to begin to see that my sexual identity was distinct from my sexual abuse.
At the opera, people kept worrying about me, asking if I was O.K., saying that seeing the show must have been hard for me.
Actually, it wasn’t. Not at all. I sat there thinking just how far I had come in five years. I thought about how speaking my truth was to me like an act of being reborn and how much stronger and sure-footed I felt now than I felt five years ago.
The act of standing naked before the world, not in shame but in truth and honor, had remade me.
So, during this Pride Month, I want to say what countless others have said: “It gets better.”
And, I want to say that to the throngs of people who are not necessarily today’s most celebrated queer narratives: those who come out late in life, those whose families are not affirming, those whose identities don’t necessarily adhere to the sexual binary or may well be fluid, those queer people who still feel out of place even when they are in the queer community.
It gets better for you too. It is never too late for you to marshal the courage to be truly and fully yourself. Also, every identity is valid, as long as it’s honest. And, there are two kinds of family: the ones we are born into and the ones we create. Create your own communities of affirmation.
Once I revealed to the world the fullness of my journey and my truth, I was overcome by a profound feeling of regret that I had not done so sooner. Why had I denied myself this incredible sense of freedom and honesty and truth?
I sat Saturday in the darkened opera theater watching a beautifully rendered version of a past that I no longer fully recognized or related to, and I felt blessed and victorious. The person on that stage in anguish was no longer me.
It had gotten better, infinitely better, and I was a walking testimony of that fact.
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