Young boys from North Topeka aren’t gay. We’re just not.

But that’s not the only thing we’re not: We’re probably not going to finish high school. We’re definitely not going to college. We’re not aware that graduate school exists. We’re not rich. We’re not going to be rich. We’re not even financially stable. And we’re not leaving North Topeka.

Every adult you know followed this same pattern. If you make it to 17 years old without being addicted to meth, then you probably have at least one kid, although those options aren’t mutually exclusive. You get a job immediately after you drop out and work on your GED, but probably don’t finish it. You love your kids fiercely. You might love your spouse. Your job is whatever, and it mostly just pays the bills. No one tells you this pattern, and no one person enforces it. You feel it, and you know it, so it’s a comfortable pattern.

After my father died, my mother, through her terrible grief, saw a way to break that pattern. She sold our house for $26,000, took the life insurance money, and left North Topeka with my sister and me. That fall, when I started 5th grade in the richest school district in town, I was about a grade behind the other students, but I caught up quickly. I was also patently white trash, and everyone could tell. That was a little harder to hide. Still, my mother’s gamble paid off. Into high school, I excelled academically, and there everyone talked about going to college like it was the most natural thing in the world.

On full scholarship in college, having beaten teenage fatherhood and avoided a meth addiction, I felt very pleased with myself. However, with more time to think, I began to realize that teenage fatherhood had never really been a danger for me. Like I said, young boys from North Topeka aren’t gay, so we don’t need to consider our sexuality. I wasn’t straight, because “being straight” supposes that there is another way to be. I only learned the word “homosexual” because I looked it up in a dictionary. But by this time, the evidence was hard to ignore; I was definitely gay.

Case in point

I started the coming out process when I was 20 and bumbled my way through the whole thing. My first gay date was with a phlebotomist I met while I was selling my blood plasma for extra money. You can’t sell plasma if you’re a gay man, so I did some mental gymnastics to get past that hurdle and just lied. I was so nervous talking to him that I managed to sell a liter of plasma in under 30 minutes.

Not all of it was as humorous though. Coming out to my mother was disastrous; she punched a hole through the wall. In her mind, being gay was synonymous with being a drag queen and with dying of AIDS, so she was understandably shaken. She didn’t disown me, but she was close. After two years of infrequent and icy conversations, I decided that instead of losing the only parent I had left, I would postpone grad school and spend some time mending fences with my mother. I wanted to show her that I was no different than before, except maybe more genuine. I moved back to Kansas, worked as a barista, and dedicated my time to getting my mom back. I can honestly say that this was the best decision of my life. It was hard work, but she and I respect and love each other again.

I was eventually accepted to grad school for my masters at the University of Georgia, and later to the PhD program at the University of California, Riverside. As a poor gay boy from a single-parent home in Kansas, it is very easy to feel like I don’t belong in or even anywhere near academia. I worry at every social function that I’ll say something without thinking and my Kansas will show through. I’ll be teleported back to 5th grade where everyone can sense that I’m white trash. I don’t know that that feeling is going away anytime soon. I’m working on it though.

It has been over ten years since that first (and only) date with the phlebotomist, and I could not feel more confident or less ashamed to be a gay man. My entire family accepts and loves me as their gay son/brother/nephew. I’m totally out professionally and about to finish my second graduate degree. When I consider how fundamentally circumstances in my life have changed, it feels very surreal. In these moments, I think, this is what a young boy from North Topeka can be, and that idea makes me so happy.