There is this misconception, at least to me, that gay men are more like women than men. That we are highly emotional, high strung, and at times hysterical. While we quite often relate well with woman, mostly cause we listen to them (I’m looking at you straight guys), I can assure you that gay men, at least those who identify as cis-gender men, are still men in so many respects. For me, I have struggled to show vulnerability for fear of becoming emotional. I have always tried to tough out struggles and chalk it up to having the grit developed by my immense, powerful, and brawny XY chromosomes. I bring all this up for a very specific reason.
I am a survivor and thriver of sexual abuse, and/or sexual manipulation, from a very trusted adult from my hometown and childhood. I am the victim of a pedophile who was a very skilled groomer, so much so that I spent 18 years blaming myself for our “relationship” and convincing myself that it was something that I had always wanted. I was the one to blame. I was the one that should feel all the shame. So I covered it up for years, owned all the terrible feelings about that time of my life, and “gritted” through it, you know, like the prototypical male would in this heteronormative world.
Male sexual abuse is not something we talk about as a society. With the #MeToo movement creating a powerful narrative about women victims of sexual abuse resulting in powerful social changes, there is no real movement with male sexual abuse victims. According to 1in6.org, an organization designed to help men deal with sexual abuse: ‘Many things qualify as “unwanted sexual experiences,” even if at first a boy or man was grateful for the attention. It could include an experience that a man may not be ready to label as “sexual abuse” or “sexual assault,” or even understand how it might have been. Healing can begin when a man recognizes the possible connection between those experiences and common consequences – consequences that can include rocky relationships, lost jobs, self-destructive behaviors, depression, and even violence.”
This is my story. This is me owning my story again. Taking it back. And hopefully showing that growing from vulnerability is a powerful, brave and quote on quote “manly” things to do.
I can still remember the first varsity football touchdown I ever scored. I was a sophomore who made the varsity team as a backup receiver and special team player (lets just say I made more tackles on the kickoff team than touchdowns that year). We were playing in Las Vegas, New Mexico and our team was up by 50 points in the second half, garbage time as football fans call it.
The backup quarterback called a fly down the sideline. I ran to line. Checked with the ref that I wasn’t offsides. Listened for the snap count, and then flew down the sideline. I remember the ball flying through the air. I remember catching the ball in perfect stride. I ran into the end zone and completed a memory that has stayed with me forever.
My memory is not like the ones of so many former football players who relive those moments to rekindle the memories of a carefree adolescence. My memories are more complicated. I relive those memories with regret, insecurity, and shame of the path I was lead down after that amazing childhood moment on a fall night in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Artesia is nicknamed Titletown. In 2017, the Artesia Bulldog football team won their 30th State Championship. Football is the heartbeat and pulse of my hometown, population 9,000 or so, in the southeast corner of New Mexico. Almost every boy grows up wanting to be a Bulldog. We spent our early years playing touch football on the grass burms of the stadium with the plastic footballs the cheerleaders threw when the Bulldogs scored touchdowns as that year’s crop of hometown heroes took down whichever rival they were playing that week. We had our high school fight song memorized before we could read and dreamed of the day we could burst through the giant paper banner painted by the cheerleaders. We wanted to sprint down the field and be part of the dog pile, an Artesia Bulldog tradition, where every players dives into a giant pile of football players at the 50 yard line as the fight song soared and the crowd roared.
I have all those memories. I became a starter on the varsity team, a legacy player who’s brother was an all-time great wide receiver. I ran through the giant paper banners. I jumped on the dog pile. I scored other touchdowns. I took my helmet off at the end of games and participated in sweaty, passionate renditions of our fight song in front of the home crowd.
But those memories are so tainted. Tainted by the fear and insecurity of being gay in a very conservative town. Tainted by the actions of a coach on the very team I had dreamed about playing on for my entire life.
Yes, a coach on our famous football team took my adolescence from me. It still brings up so many complicated and damaging feelings about myself. Did I want this to happen? Is it somehow my fault? But as time has passed and I have grown into the man I am now, I realize now that telling this story, owning this story, will be the final steps I take to closing that chapter of my life. I want to take back those memories. I want them back. I no longer want them to be muddied with the actions of this coach, teacher, and man who had influence over me in a time where I needed someone to help me answer questions I couldn’t answer for myself. I want those memories back from a man who took advantage of a 14 year boy right in front of a town so obsessed with football, the Bible, and small town values that no one found it at all weird that he always made close friends with teenage kids.
He was skillful. The more I learn about pedophiles the more I learn about how they take advantage of their victims. He befriended me. He came over to play video games. He made the lewd jokes. He became my ally and in my eyes a friend. He made me part of this family. He took me on trips all while taking from me something I can never get back. I still look at this comment on my 6th grade yearbook “Hope to see you this summer. Maybe we can catch a ball or a girl. He also referenced the Palamino, an all-nude strip club in Vegas that he would often talk to me about that year. I was 11. I have learned that is called grooming. I still remember his play to get what he really wanted from me. When I was 14, he came over to play a game of Madden and made the bet that whoever lost had to perform a sex act on the other person. He lost. From that point, there was no turning back. My hometown became a road map of where we would meet up for encounters. I became an expert liar, but people in the community were completely aware that we were closer than we should be, but these people focused on me and not him. The common comment I heard was that I was befriending this coach to secure my starting position on the football team. It was always about football in Artesia. I was made to feel as though I was odd and strange. Why didn’t I hang with kids my own age? Why was I always around him?
Where were my parents? I was the third child being raised in a what is perceived as a small, safe town. It wasn't uncommon for kids to be out all day, as long as we were home by sundown. My dad was always involved in his own hobbies and had never been given a reason to distrust the town he served as an Episcopalian minister. My mom was living her dream of finally getting her Master’s degree and was gone a lot. I don’t blame them in the least. It is so easy to attack the parents in these situation, but I know that this all part of why I was targeted. My parents trust of the town and their own dreams were part of the vulnerability that this man saw. Plus, my parents did advocate for me. They met with the head coach of our football town, a legendary figure in the state, to share their concerns about our relationship. As you are probably guessing, there were no actions taken against him. My parents let me know of the meeting which just took my shame to another level, and once again my denial was enough to ease their worries. After that, I did start to pull away because it was all getting so complicated.
This was after my senior football season. I still remember when our team lost our last district game, missing the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Our small town was in mourning, but I went home and danced around the kitchen elated. This nightmare that was football was finally over. My intentions would no longer be questioned and the town could begin to focus on next year’s team and their budding group of stars.
Once my parents went to speak to our head coach about my relationship with this coach, I was able to build some distance. When I pulled away, he noticed. We were still friendly but I was focused on college applications and planning for the next chapter of my life. He befriended a sophomore girl, a former student of his, during this time. I didn’t know of their budding relationship but I would find out later that they communicated mostly through email. This girl was very close to her sister who discovered a pretty explicit email exchange between the coach and this young girl. She altered her parents who alerted the school. The coach was quietly let go.
He reached out to me, devastated, and I was actually there when he packed up his classroom. I don’t remember feeling jealous or upset about his relationship with this other teenager. What I do remember feeling was fear. I feared that people would connect the dots and finally figure out what was happening between us for the 3 years prior. The town would know and I couldn’t imagine what would happen if they found out what we had been doing.
However, the head coach and the school protected the coach. They kept the nature of his leaving low-key and secret. The impression was given that the coach quit for personal reasons. He was even able to quickly find work with a big time football boosters company while he looked for other teaching jobs. We were close in my final months in Artesia. He even took me on a cruise with his wife as a graduation gift. Yes, my family let me go on a cruise with them because it almost came as a relief to them when they heard murmurs of the true reason he was let go. It was a female student, not a male student. The coach couldn’t be gay or bisexual, so we were in the clear.
The coach eventually was hired to coach and teach in another town and his family moved away right before my graduation. I couldn’t wait to be out of Artesia. I moved Senior Week and was already employed at two jobs in Albuquerque when I returned for graduation. It was time to move on. I still saw The Coach off and on through my freshman year in college. I was busy with school, but I visited him a few times and he would call when he was in town at coaches meetings. I came out when I was 19 and at that point I was ready to truly move on. I let the relationship with the Coach fade, wanting to just forget that chapter of my life and try to move on.