A Letter to Me (2013) from Me (2018)

By Isaac Butler

Dear Isaac,

So you’re ready to come out as gay. Congrats. I’m proud of you. But I’m also terrified for you, scared that you aren’t ready for being out of the closet at Wheaton College, your school that will consistently rank in the Princeton Review’s Top 10 Most LGBT Unfriendly schools during your undergraduate years. This decision to come out, which you naively view as inconsequential, will blow up in your face over the next two years.

I want you to know what will happen to you, so you can decide if you really want to go through with this. Some of it is good. Most of it is bad.

Once you come out, you’re going to finish off the rest of your sophomore year feeling confident in your decision to be open with your truth. You will have a community of other closeted LGBT students, two of whom will come out with you, who will be your support system. People will tell you that they are proud of you. People will tell you that they’ve never known a gay person before, that you aren’t what they expected. You coming out with your friends will fuel conversation on campus about what it means to be gay and to be a Christian. You will feel ready to come back for your junior year and to continue that conversation, even though you will be the only student on campus who is publicly out, as your two friends will be graduating.

The summer before your junior year starts, you will be sexually assaulted by someone at your church-related job. You will be fired for it. You will be forced out of your church because of your failure to repent of your sexuality. Your parents will find time in-between their marital strife to suggest reparative therapy to you. You will spend most of your summer alternating between screaming at your mother, halfheartedly looking for a different job, and lying in bed drowning in irreconcilable emotion.

Your junior year is going to be hard. You will come back to Wheaton totally unprepared mentally, still reeling from your assault and the aftermath. Your support group will have no idea how to handle what happened to you the previous summer. Your friends won’t have any idea either. Your therapist in the Counseling Center who helped you through your depressive/suicidal streak during your freshman year will refuse to see you now that you’re out as a gay man; you will leave his office dumbfounded that something as inconsequential as your sexuality would have such a cataclysmic effect on how people treat you.

This effect will spread. You will lose a lot of friends, for a variety of reasons. Some will leave just because the friendship circles that all freshman and sophomores keep open will begin to close off. But a few will leave because they disagree with you being gay. That will hurt. And a few more will leave because they’re afraid of what people will say if they see you two hanging out together. That will hurt more.

You will learn how to prioritize how you spend your time. You will have to, because if you spend more time crying than studying then you’ll probably flunk out of college, and if you spend more time studying than crying then you’ll probably kill yourself. You’ll find it’s easier to do neither. You’ll play a lot of video games in the time you spend holed up in your apartment.

A major tipping point for you will happen in early November. A girl you consider a good friend will spread a rumor about you to your roommates regarding your sexual activity in your shared apartment. It’s completely untrue, and when you confront the girl in front of your roommates, she will have no reason for spreading the rumor. You’ll realize that night that you can’t trust anyone at Wheaton, and that most of Wheaton views you as a whore simply because you’re out as gay.

I promise you it won’t all be bad. You’ll meet a guy in early February, off-campus. Your first date with him will be in downtown Naperville, strolling down the river walk and chatting about life. You’ll bring him back to your place that afternoon to watch a movie, and one of your roommates will walk in on the two of you cuddling. You’ll be told by your roommates that they don’t want you to bring guys over anymore. You’ll agree, but notice a double standard on the nights where you have to sit on your couch and wait to go to sleep because your roommate is making out with his girlfriend in your shared bedroom.

The guy you’re dating will make you feel a lot of things, but more than anything he’ll make you feel normal. You’ll spend time with him at his aunt and uncle’s house, where he lives. You’ll watch V For Vendetta for the first time while you’re dating him. Later, as you sit on the hood of your car on the roof of the parking garage in downtown Wheaton (on a Sunday, at midnight, when everything is closed and the whole downtown is empty), you’ll joke with him about how your college’s Public Safety will eventually come for you in the night the way the secret police came for Valerie and Ruth. You will realize that completely disobeying the Community Covenant, the list of rules that you agreed to follow when you decided to attend Wheaton College, is the only way you can feel normal or happy.

The guy you’re dating will tell you that you’re brilliant. He’ll tell you that you’re brave. He’ll tell you that you’re beautiful.

He’ll move back to Massachusetts in April, and your two months of feeling normal will end.

Later in April, your New Testament professor will call gay people diseased in class. You’ll angrily raise your hand and tell him that you’re gay and that you don’t appreciate being called diseased. He won’t take it back. Later, he’ll send you e-mail after e-mail denying that he ever said it.

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, a prominent ex-gay Christian, will speak at a lecture at your school, and you will participate in a demonstration, not against her story, but against the college’s decision to present her story (in which she chooses to be a lesbian as part of a radical feminist movement and then converts to Christianity and renounces her orientation) as the story of all LGBT people. She will meet with you and others who demonstrated after her chapel message, and appear to empathize with you and understand your frustrations about being painted in the same light as her. Then, once she leaves, she will post on a blog about how you and the other demonstrators protested against her and tried to delegitimize her story, and how she regretted ever putting energy into LGBT activism on college campuses, patronizing the efforts you took when you demonstrated. You will look back on this day as the day you began to renounce your Christian faith.

Your junior year will end and you’ll go home for another summer of fighting with your parents. In one particularly heated conversation, you’ll tell your mother that she is most likely going to die before you do, and that you aren’t going to waste your life pretending to not be gay until she’s gone. You’ll tell her that if you ever get married and she doesn’t accept your husband, then she will never meet her grandchildren, you will never come home for holidays or hospital visits or funerals, and that she will in effect be choosing to shut you out of her life. It’s a brutal and horrible thing to say to a parent, but you’ll say it because it’s true.

You’ll come back for your senior year of college feeling like the worst has passed. By now your reputation on campus will have been solidified. Pretty much everyone will know you, or at least know of you, as “the gay kid”. Everyone will know you. Everyone will know your story. This, and very little else, will be your legacy.

Many will call you an attention-seeker, a drama queen, selfish. And they’re partly right about that. Just a couple months into your senior year, you’ll have grown very tired of taking care of yourself, and you’ll wish that someone else would step in and help. You’ll be mentally exhausted for the rest of your time at Wheaton. Nevertheless, you’ll keep on screaming and shouting any chance you get, partly because you want to elicit real change on campus, and partly because you can feel yourself starting to drown, and you know that as long as you’re screaming, your head is still above the water.

When your head starts to dip below the water, you’ll find a new group of friends off-campus. And you will start drinking with them. A lot. You will spend literally every Friday and Saturday night drunk in downtown Chicago, dancing at nightclubs with your friends, making out with strangers, and trying to stave off the dread of returning to Wheaton the next morning.

I promised you it wouldn’t all be bad. You’ll make out with a guy visiting his family in Wheaton, who turns out to have a supporting role in the movie Pitch Perfect. You’ll brag about it for the rest of your life.

Your grades, naturally, will slip even further than they did during your junior year. The only classes you will succeed in will be your English and Sociology classes, and only because the professors of those classes are the only people you will feel safe talking to about your experience at Wheaton, behind closed doors of course, since openly supporting you could cost them their jobs. You’ll trust them, and you’ll want to put your best foot forward for them in your classes. You’ll only have so much energy that you can devote to schoolwork, and you’ll give it to the professors that you feel deserve it.

The last few months of your senior year will blur together. At times your head will dip below the water, like when a student named Roland Hesse launches a piece of fruit at a friend of yours who asked a question regarding LGBT issues during a school-wide town hall meeting, and then posts a threatening letter on your school’s public forum wall. You’ll spend the rest of that day feeling completely numb, completely unsafe until the school finally removes Roland from campus.

I promised you it wouldn’t be all bad. Your head will bob back up to the surface at times too, like when one of your roommates will wake you up to secretly share a beer (Wheaton College is consistently in the Princeton Review’s Top 5 Stone-Cold Sober Schools) in the kitchen of your house at 2 in the morning, and the two of you will laugh as you talk about how much you both can’t wait to get out of Wheaton.

In March, you will begin a relationship with a guy that will quickly turn abusive, and you will finally be dragged under the surface of the water for good. He will take advantage of your vulnerability and inexperience. He will be a sadist, and you will repeatedly endure violent, non-consensual, terrifying sex in the time you are with him. You won’t tell anyone, not a single person. You will send your professors e-mails claiming you are too sick to come to class, when really you’re in too much pain from the night before to leave your bed. You’ll laugh to yourself sadly, imagining an email where you write the actual truth:

“I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to make it to class today because I was violently raped by my boyfriend last night. Would it be possible for me to make up that exam on a later date?”

You will feel useless and pathetic, and your abuser will exacerbate those feelings in the way he speaks to you and treats you. You won’t understand why you stay with him, but you will.

During those horrible nights and pain-filled mornings, you will think about telling someone, getting help. But then you’ll think of your ex-friend who insinuated that you were a whore to your roommates. You’ll think of your professor that called you diseased. You’ll think about all the people at Wheaton College and outside of Wheaton College who hate you, who hate who you are. You’ll think of the people who will blame you for enduring sexual violence for the second time in your life. You’ll even blame yourself, telling yourself that this is really your fault since you should have recognized the signs you’d missed the first time this happened to you. So you won’t tell anyone, not even your best friends or the professors you trust so much. You’ll do what you do best and act like you’ve got it all together, grinning and bearing with it until you can make it to the weekend and drink again. No one will ever find out, and eventually your abuser will move to New York and leave you behind.

I promised you it wouldn’t all be bad. You’ll graduate. Barely, with the exact amounts of credits you need. Somewhere along the way, those 120 credits will stop being what you need to get a bachelor’s degree and will become what you need to get out of hell. And you will get out. And college will end.

It won’t be easy immediately after college. You will cut ties with religion altogether, to the dismay of your family. You will be terrified of sex, embarassing both yourself and your sexual partners when you burst into inexplicable tears at the slightest touch. You will struggle letting your defenses down as you re-enter the secular world, where people couldn’t care less about your sexuality. The men you date will be irritated when you can’t help but look over your shoulder to see if anyone might recognize you before you hold their hands. You will feel naive, stupid, like an outsider.

I promised you it wouldn’t all be bad. Things will get better after Wheaton. Today, two and a half years after you will graduate, Wheaton College has dropped out of the Top 10 Least LGBT-Friendly Schools, sitting firmly at #11. The mantle has been taken up by other LGBT students, who are continuing the conversation that you will play a part in reigniting with your coming out. Your parents will find new security in their marriage, and subsequently find a way to balance their Christian values with your sexuality. Your relationship with them will blossom. You will finally go to therapy and begin to process the sexual and mental trauma that you endured during your time as a student. You will heal, slowly but surely.

And there you have it. My history and, if you choose it, your future. It’s not set in stone, of course. Yes, it’s too late for things to turn out differently for me. I am stuck with the decisions I made, and the effects of the decisions others made. But there’s still hope for things to be different for you. Maybe you won’t drink as much as I did. Maybe you’ll study more and cry less. Or cry more and study less. Maybe you won’t meet my abusive ex. Maybe the Christians at Wheaton and outside of Wheaton will treat you better, and you’ll feel safer to ask for help when you’re struggling to reach the surface of the water. Maybe, with overwhelming support and love, you will find much more success in your time at Wheaton, in the Christian world, and subsequently in the real world.

Maybe, someday, I won’t have to promise you that it won’t all be bad.