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Growing Up

The Truth Will Set You Free

I knew when I was in trouble—like the time I was 13 and was caught watching porn on my dad’s computer—and I knew I couldn’t escape my fate. Nor would I have wanted to.

Chris Ballantyne, Untitled, Parking Lot (With Rocks), 2008. Courtesy the artist and Hosfelt Gallery, New York.

Later, when I finally got my license, I could have driven the route from memory. My dad and I would go down the hill. First right. A first pass by Barbara Bush Middle School. Up another hill that snaked along the side of a cliff, overlooking a deep valley of trees that I was certain would later be plowed down under the inexorable push of development from the San Antonio metro area. Take a u-turn as the car reached the light where the road bisected Highway 281. Back down the side of the cliff and into Bush's parking lot.

My father, a Texas military man, intimidated me as much as I loved him. He didn’t have large muscles or an imposing frame—he was a computer programmer after all—but he had plenty of foreboding silence and he always seemed to already know my secrets. When my mom would threaten, “just wait until your father gets home,” I knew what would happen: a drive, silence, a confession.

Usually, for a minor infraction like a word I was too young to use, it wouldn’t even take that long to get me to crack. Lesser crimes might not even carry a penalty as long as I told him right away, honesty being his most treasured virtue. If I lied or waited until he left the parking lot to take us deeper into the hill country, the cost would go up.

However, when I foolishly thought I could get away with whatever I had done, a game of wills would begin. Sitting in the parking lot of Bush middle school in his Ford F150, he would crack open a can of diet Mountain Dew, addicted to the potent mix of sweetener and caffeine after kicking his nicotine habit. Pulling the Dew out of a small blue cooler he kept in the back seat of the truck, he would take his first stab at finding out what he wanted to know, giving me a chance to come clean and earn myself some clemency for my confession. After a while, he would pull back out onto Evans Road, driving us deeper into the hill country, one wrist on the steering wheel. He would sit completely silent as I stared out the window, listening to Reba and Garth drawl on the radio.

The drives started just after my parents got back together in the 6th grade. My dad and I moved from our apartment along Thousand Oaks Blvd. in San Antonio, Texas, to a new house on the North Central neighborhood. Returning from living with her sister in Washington State, my mother and my two younger sisters were probably happy to finally get out of their cramped apartment. I was excited too, although it meant losing all of my friends again. A new house meant a new school: Barbara Bush Middle School. I spent a lot of time in Bush’s parking lot. It was where my father later taught me to drive and, more commonly, where I sat for hours in silence in the passenger seat of his truck.

It was a rare chance to ask a living, breathing homosexual some questions. At 27, he seemed ancient.

Our longest drive, when I was in 7th grade, lasted almost four hours. Four hours of silence peppered with only the occasional reminder that we could go home when I told the truth.

The previous night, as my mother had pulled out of the driveway to take my sister to gymnastics, I'd rushed over to my parent's bedroom and jumped on my father's computer, the only one in the house connected to the internet. I pecked out the word “gay” on the keyboard and, after clicking past the banner with two naked men and confirming that, indeed, I was over 18 years of age, I logged on to a Philadelphia chatroom posing as a 6'3", 170-pound college athlete. Even then I couldn’t imagine my guise fooled many of the others there, so, when someone who described himself as 27/M/PA sent me a private message asking me how old I really was, I let my guard down. Thirteen.

I knew people on the internet were dangerous, so I didn't tell him much. But it was a rare chance to ask a living, breathing homosexual some questions: When did he figure it out? What age did he first have sex? How did his parents react? At 27, he seemed ancient. Looking back now, nearly the same age as my correspondent, I wonder what I would tell a 13-year-old. It wouldn’t be as much “it gets better” as it would be “you’ll get laid” or “you’ll get out.”

When, earlier than expected, I saw my mother’s headlights shining down the street, I cleared my history and my cookies and bolted out of their room. Only once I heard the garage door begin to rumble shut and the lights in the house flick on as she headed into their bedroom did I remember that I forgot to shut down the dial-up connection.

 

After school the next day, while I was playing Legend of Zelda on my N64, my dad shouted from the bottom of the stairs that we were going for a drive. I was sure he knew everything. Had he found a log of my chats? Did he go back to that website? How many of my digital crumbs had he followed back to their source? What half-truth could I tell him that would be believable?

Four hours later, I broke. Mostly. I told him I had been watching porn "with both men and women in it." It was a lie, one he and I could believe. Maybe he knew the whole truth, but this was the best kind of lie: the one that rewrites reality, even for the liar. I was looking at women, not men. I couldn't possibly be that kind of person.

A year later, I was back in the truck. In a confusing move, he had connected my room's computer to the internet. It was as though he was telling himself that playing Red Alert was all I was going to do. Even when he had previous proof to the contrary. We both should have known I would be back to looking at porn “with both men and women in it” eventually. He may not have caught me with my pants down, but I had been lax in cleaning the history on my own computer. I was not chatting. There would be no calculated half-truth that I was watching porn with women in it.

This time, without even the pretense of not knowing, there was no long meandering drive through the hill country. He drove straight to the middle school parking lot. The now-menacing snap of the soda can broke the silence before he informed me, "Do you know what those people do, Jason? They stick things up their butt." As though my actions did not clearly indicate that I knew what those people did.

On the drive home we stopped at a gas station, where he bought a copy of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, which he handed to me, telling me to hide it under my bed.

After all, the videos did make it pretty clear what exactly was put up them. Even from only the 10- to 15-minute bouts in which I had watched them with intensity, furiously taking care of business before someone could come home, I was pretty sure that I had gleaned that much.

I vowed, again, to never do it. Considering that I was not allowed to use the internet for the next nine months, it was not that hard of a promise to keep. At least for the next nine months.

On the drive home we stopped at a gas station, where he bought a copy of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, which he handed to me, telling me to hide it under my bed and never let my mother know I had it and if she found out, never say I got it from him.

The magazine wasn't that helpful. The ads for workout supplements drew my eyes more than the women in swimwear.

 

Once I was reconnected to the internet, I was determined to learn more, although this time a more stealthily. Whenever I was sure the house was empty, I would log on to Mogenic.com, a website for Australian gay teenagers. Half a world away, these web pages were the most comprehensive, honest, and heartfelt places on the internet I could find. I read page after page of coming-out stories, safe-sex advice, dating advice.

Mogenic was also the least sleazy. No banners with naked men on them; no need to confirm for the law that you were over 18. Its chat rooms were filled with actual teens—not older men pretending—and there was very little talk about sex. Instead, a series of conversations with a guy with the screen-name Jax convinced me it was time to come out. He was funny, a senior, and out in his high school. I told him that I thought I was bi. "So you've had crushes on girls before then, too?" he questioned. I had to admit that I hadn't. I had to admit that I was gay.

And now I needed to tell someone. So I told my best friend Jake in the stacks of the spiritual section of a San Antonio Barnes and Noble. He replied he was too religious for us to be friends, and that in fact, we'd never been friends.

Over the next week, I moped around the house. My parents knew Jake and I had a falling out, but didn’t know why. The next day, my father and I went for our final drive.

"Is it over a girl?"

“No.”

"Is Jake on drugs?”

“No!”

Are YOU on drugs?"

“Dad, no!”

He kept pushing, and should have been prepared for this moment. Why do coming out stories start here, at this moment, instead of all the drives before, all the trips into the backcountry?

"Dad, I think I'm gay." I told him with as much confidence as I could muster, even though the hesitancy of "I think" would haunt me later.

It was a minute before he said anything. The mile markers inching by and the trees passing in the valley below us.

"Well, I love you anyways," he muttered, staring straight ahead at the road before him.

Jason Orne is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a condition he should recover from nicely with time. His work has been featured in the journal Sexualities. As he finishes his first book on interviewing, Context Is Everything, with Dr. Michael M. Bell, he is starting his next on Chicago’s Boystown gayborhood. He can be found online at JasonOrne.com. More by Jason Orne