Tyler Conroy

I’m Overcoming My Fear Of Being Openly Gay

I've been out for four years but am still afraid

I’ve been out for four years but am still afraid to be openly gay. I don’t mind telling close family and friends about my love for Zac Efron’s abs, but I'm afraid that if I tell other people I’m gay, they’ll judge me based on my sexuality instead of who I am as a person, and may even threaten my safety.

I have known that I was attracted to guys since I was 3 years old. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Aladdin’s bare chest (I’m still attracted to him, sorry not sorry) and wanted to sit next to him on that magic carpet and have him take me to a whole new world. I wanted Hercules to sweep me up in his big arms and go the distance, and to be Pocahontas, mostly so I could be with John Smith.

When I was 11 years old, my sixth-grade teacher told the class what being "gay" meant and I felt a firestorm consume my body. By this point, I had had relations with boys (mainly over games of Truth or Dare), but didn’t know there was a word for my feelings and actions. There was one boy in particular with whom I had played this game many times. When my teacher said that, statistically, two people in our class were gay, I tried to do anything but make eye contact with him — or anyone, for that matter. I figured the fact that I was one of those two could be read all over my face and wanted to run out of the classroom. In that moment I felt so alone and so scared that I was different. I had discovered who I was and just didn’t want to accept it. I felt that being gay wasn’t OK.

Despite trying to keep my gay identity secret, I was still verbally and physically bullied for years. In junior high and high school, former friends started kicking me into lockers and throwing textbooks at me. "Gay," "homo," and "fag" are still trigger words for me. They remind me of a time when I contemplated taking my own life — I thought that was the only way to make the hate directed toward me disappear.

Because the students who treated me this way were always boys, I started to fear them and was mainly friends with girls. I formed a strong emotional attachment with one such friend, and we ended up having a four-year relationship. I loved her, but I was never sexually attracted to her. I still kept my identity secret long after we broke up. I had gay relationships during this time (and even lost my gay virginity before I lost my straight virginity) but thought I’d never see the day when I could openly express my love for a man. I figured because I was capable of emotionally loving a woman, I could marry one and be OK.

I could never overcome this fear for my safety. In fact, even though I've been openly out for four years, I'm still scared. The recent events in Orlando have only reminded me that the world is still filled with so much hate and have made me afraid to go to New York City’s annual Pride parade, an event meant to celebrate love and acceptance. Perhaps that’s exactly what terrorists like the one who attacked Pulse want LGBTQ individuals like me to feel, but it does feel more real than ever before and I can’t shake it. I’m still afraid to hold a boy’s hand in public — less because I care about people's opinions than because I fear for the safety of someone about whom I care enough to hold hands with in the first place.

I’m trying, day by day, to overcome my fear and educate myself and others about the LGBTQ community because I believe education will be the key to acceptance. I follow HuffPost Queer Voices religiously and ask my other LGBTQ friends to share their stories, knowledge, and what they’ve learned. I have also been asked by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network to share my journey with elementary school students, high school guidance counselors, college Gay Straight Alliance clubs, resident assistants, and campus student leaders.

Every time I speak to these groups, I try to take Taylor Swift’s advice about being "fearless" (a word I have tattooed in her handwriting on my foot) and live in spite of the things that scare me to death. If my story can help one person start his or her journey toward acceptance, then it is worth telling. I just hope that by the time I have kids, they’ll be able to grow up in a world that doesn’t dictate whom people are allowed to love.

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VMAs 2017