They seemed like the unlikeliest of best friends. I was fascinated by their friendship because I saw something kindred in it. They were both popular, in their ways. Carolyn was a singer who often sang solos or duets during chapel services. Mary was a star athlete on the basketball team. Even as a Bible college closet case, I had pretty decent gaydar, and I was sure that Mary and I had something in common. Their best friendship kind of came up out of nowhere. Carolyn and I had been friends since our freshman year. And then in our sophomore or junior year, I noticed that she and Mary started to spend a lot of time together. They became inseparable. They dressed alike. At one point, Carolyn even cut her long hair into a dramatic bi-level that was popular among the budding lesbians of the late 1980s, just like Mary. And then, after a few short months, they were no longer inseparable. In fact, I never saw them together at all. One day, I asked Carolyn about Mary, I can’t remember what my question was exactly, something like, “Hey, have you seen Mary lately?” I remember trying to phrase my question delicately. Carolyn quickly and finitely told me that she and Mary were not friends anymore. “But you were so close,” I said. And the look on her face told me that this was not a conversation that was going to be continued. For the rest of that semester, Mary walked around campus like a broken-hearted puppy. I don’t think she even came back to Ozark after that eventful semester. Carolyn, on the other hand, continued to thrive. Carolyn was and is a woman who thrives.
Because I was experiencing my own overwhelming same sex emotions, I watched this play out with a vested interest. It’s probably no surprise to anyone who knew me in Bible college, but I had a habit of falling in love with my best friends. Three different times, I fell in love with three different friends and each time, I feared what would happen if he found out my feelings. One of those friends sometimes bragged that he didn’t like gay guys and I wondered if he would beat me up if he knew how I felt. I certainly never had the audacity to make a pass at either of these three loves, but I feared that in every look and in every action I might be revealing my secret.
Of those three loves, I am still friends with one of them. The other two just kind of drifted out of my life. I’m sure they know I’m gay. I’m sure they know that I was in love with them in college. And I really don’t care whether they hate me now or not. I have some good memories of those years and each of those three friendships are cherished, even if I never have another conversation with them.
But I do find myself wondering about Carolyn and Mary. I have so many questions, of course, starting with, did they ever hook up? I actually don’t think they did. I don’t think that Carolyn was gay or bisexual even, but I suspect that at one point, Mary confessed her feelings, perhaps she even made a pass. And Carolyn responded by cutting her out of her life forever.
I don’t know whatever happened to Mary. I keep thinking she will show up on Facebook, eventually, but I’ve yet to see her profile pop up in the “people you may know” section. I wonder if she came to terms with her sexuality. Does she have a life partner? Is there a chance I was wrong and she’s straight, married with kids, labradors, etc.? Is she still a little in love with Carolyn? Does she still have that bi-level haircut?
And I wonder what goes through Carolyn’s mind when and if she thinks about Mary. Does she feel shame for cutting out a friend who probably really needed a friend? Does she think she would do it the same if it happened to her again in 2014. We prayed so much back at Bible college, did Carolyn pray for Mary to find her way? Does she pray for her still? Did Carolyn have some feelings of her own that she did not know how to process? Maybe she doesn’t even remember any of this.
But of course, I do remember. I remember it because at the time, I thought the worst thing in the world was to be gay and the second worst thing was to tell the person you’re in love with how you feel and they reject you.
The first person I shared my secret with was one of those college loves. At the time, not long after we’d graduated from Ozark, we were separated by several states. I was still a youth minister and one night, I went to a Christian concert where the singer (I think it was Steven Curtis Chapman, actually) had everyone in the audience write down the thing that burdened them most in their faith and then ushers collected what people had written and the idea was that God would lift that burden. For the first time in my life, I wrote that I was struggling with my sexuality. I was there with the kids in my youth group and I was so afraid that one of them might see my words. After the little, folded papers were collected, the musician prayed with the mass of people about their secret burden, that the weight might be lifted. And later that night, when I got home, I needed to talk to someone, so I called my best friend Ab. I called him and I shared and he listened. Even though I didn’t tell him that I had been in love with him, I still feared that he would drop me as a friend for telling him I thought I was gay. But he did not judge, he told me this would not change our friendship. And nearly 25 years later, he continues to hold to that promise. That was the beginning of my coming out. Certainly, on that night in a tiny rural Missouri apartment, circa 1991, I could not have foreseen the road my life would take. But I’m eternally grateful for the friend who listened as I bared my gravest secret and responded with, “You will always be my friend.”