A Safe Place to Call Home: The Childhood Trauma of Growing Up LGBTQ+ in Small-Town America

Me at 11 years old

I have lived in Osage County, Missouri my whole life, my family has done so for generations. Many, if not most, of the people who live here would tell you that they feel like they can be themselves, live the life they want, that they have a sense of belonging and support, and see this whole county as their close-knit community. But I have never felt that way.

Growing up here I tried to appear as though I fit into this place and among these people, but inside I never felt that way. I tried to mimic the behaviors I saw, repeat the words I heard, attempting to convince others and shamefully myself that I was at home here. But Osage County has never felt like home to me because I never felt as though I could safely be me.

Instead my childhood was filled with overwhelming fear and crushing anxiety, I grew up feeling an ever present paranoia, like I was in danger all day and every day, except for the moments that I was alone. Alone, I could be me, I could think and feel without external judgement, without the risk of being discovered and ostracized, I could feel safe. I learned very young that people were mean and hateful and I came to the conclusion that this equated adulthood.

Even in the safety of isolation, I was not entirely free. As a kid, I listened and observed the adults around me, including my parents, other family members, teachers, church and community members, paying attention to the things they said and the things they did. Learning their opinions and beliefs and measuring myself against those ideals and coming to the understanding that I was not good enough, that I was not good at all. They taught me to hate myself, to feel shame and guilt for things beyond my ability to ever control or change.

Eleven-year-old me began to question his sexuality when puberty struck, without even knowing what the word sexuality meant and at that point I probably never even heard the word before. That young version of me had thoughts and feelings he could not explain nor fully understand, but he had heard adults around him describe such thoughts and feelings as bad, in both a religious context and in a general social one. Building up trauma that would one day break down the door to his mind, leading to a lifetime of mental illness.

I was only a child and yet I understood that if anyone knew that I was having these uncontrollable thoughts and feelings that I would be an outcast, and as a child you fear greatly the process and the consequences of abandonment and rejection, both real and imagined. A child’s imagination is perhaps the most destructive, but the real is no less painful to endure.

I want you to take the time to imagine this if you cannot personally relate to it. Think about when you were 11 years old, or look around you at your kids or kids in your family or school or community. Consider what it might be like to be a child with a massive secret that if the adults or even other kids around him found out, his external life would be the same kind of hell his internal life has been. Imagine the burden, the weight on that kid’s shoulders, the fear and the anxiety. Some of the kids you know right now are experiencing this trauma, and believe you me it is trauma.

By age 13, I was no longer questioning my sexuality, I knew what the thoughts and feelings I was having meant, even if I didn’t know a thing about the science or psychology of human sexuality. I knew what was happening with my mind and body, I knew what it meant when my heart fluttered when I talked to another boy I liked, I knew what it meant when I wanted another boy’s attention, to be more than just his best friend, and the intense jealousy I felt when he spent recess with someone else.

I knew what it meant when I wondered what it would be like to kiss another boy, to hug another boy. I knew what it meant when I marveled at another boy’s body and his athletic ability, or his humor, or the way it felt when he so much as touched me on the arm. I knew what it meant to deeply yearn to confide in him, trust in him, to protect him, and the desire to explore the physical changes that were happening to us both as we experienced that strange thing called puberty.

I was afraid and ashamed of all of it. I learned to hate these thoughts and feelings. In time I grew to hate other people who harbored the very same thoughts and feelings I had, and eventually I hated myself so much that I thought it was better that I kill myself than fall in love with another boy. All because of the words and actions of the adults around me who indirectly taught me that such thoughts and feelings were to be repressed and concealed because they were wrong, evil, sick, disgusting, among a myriad of other negatives.

When adults look at kids and say or think that they don’t know or experience things that adults do, those adults are only being dishonest with themselves and have either forgotten their own childhood or somehow made it through that time in their life blissfully unaware of themselves and their experiences. Kids may not fully understand what’s happening to them or what they are experiencing in their mind, but they are far more aware than many adults are willing to accept.

Throughout adolescence and young adulthood I was fully aware that Osage County was not an LGBTQ+ friendly place and that the people who used phrases like “be kind to others” really only meant “be kind to others like us.” I knew it meant that if you were different you were on the outside of this so-called community, and quite frankly it isn’t hard to not fit into their expected mold. If you’re not heterosexual, religiously Catholic/Christian, or politically Republican, you are likely a minority here. I certainly do not represent any of those three classifications and have not for many years.

Being a minority means you are on the outskirts of a community. It means that the resources, services, and even experiences that are readily available to others are either less available to you or you are discouraged from accessing them. Osage County has never been a welcoming place for people who are different, at least not during my lifetime.

When I came out in 2008, people literally told me that I should leave because I won’t be accepted here. I had people who were my “friends” that not only backed away from me but also ceased all communication with me, some even attacked and blocked me on social media because their Christian beliefs required them to view me as sinful, corrupt, and as a disease that needed to be purged from their life.

Childhood trauma is often a doorway for mental health conditions and substance use disorders to arise in teens and young adults, sometimes leading to suicide. Mental health conditions, substance use, and suicidality are prevalent enough in the general population, but they are even more common in the LGBTQ+ population for the reasons I’ve described throughout this writing.

Our attitudes, behaviors, and choices are powerfully influential. Oftentimes we are communicating to or influencing kids without even realizing it if we do not practice mindfulness and self-awareness. If adults do not want to teach judgement and hate to children, then adults need to stop practicing judgement and hate.

You can learn more about my personal journey with sexuality in my article titled, A Journey Called Hope. Other articles of similar interest are as follows:

If you or someone you know is an LGBTQ+ youth in need of resources and crisis services please reach out to the The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization dedicated to the mental and emotional wellbeing of LGBTQ+ youth. Additional resources can be accessed through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention or by utilizing the below links.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, please access my immediate assistance resource page.  A comprehensive listing of online and phone resources and services is also available.

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