Public Shame #5: Me Too

WARNING: This blog post contains descriptions of sexual violence.

I opened my Public Shame series of blog posts about my shame over not living up to my potential with the question: what happened to that kid? I went on to answer that question by discussing the difficulties of growing up on the Autism spectrum. But I don’t think that adequately answers the original question. What I am about to tell you probably does.

Before we begin, one important thing to remember is that I had almost no friends in my age group growing up. I was desperate for acceptance and instead I was bullied and ostracized for being different and weird.

The first place I ever felt like I belonged and was accepted was in the theatre. It was there, at the age of twelve, I met my best friend for life, Noah. What I didn’t understand at the time was that being involved in theatre in a the small, homophobic Midwestern town of Joplin, Missouri was only going to create more problems for me outside of that group in the general community.

I was sheltered as a kid, so I didn’t fully understand what “gay” was when Noah first came out to me. What I did know is that it only meant more bullying and more trouble. I was already very accustomed to seeing and hearing my peers make fun of gay people since I was very small and even though my religious opinions about being gay were still uninformed and in flux, through experience I was confident thet being gay was, at the very least, a social death sentence.

I very slowly came to understand that being best friends with a gay kid – on top of being involved in theatre – would be a social death sentence for me as well.

Age 14 was monumental for me for a number of reasons. I started my first job at Chick-fil-A in the mall, thus purchasing myself a financial freedom to own and do things that growing up in a household of nine with a father on a small church pastor’s salary could never afford me. In 8th grade, I started school at College Heights Christian School. This was a huge social change for me since I had been home schooled my whole life up until then. I also got my first official girlfriend, Rhonda. We were so young and innocent back then: I broke out in cold sweats just holding her hand.

Age 14 was also monumental for me because that summer, between my 8th and 9th grade years, that innocence was forever shattered.

The Induction

School had just let out for the summer and Rhonda was going to be gone for several weeks in California on a family trip. Rehearsals for the summer musical at Joplin Little Theatre hadn’t fully started up yet, so I was working at the mall as much as I could. My sister, a manager at the Chick-fil-A, worked more hours than I did, but she was also my ride to and from work, so I found myself wandering around the mall by myself quite a lot.

On one particular afternoon in the summer of 1995, I met two older guys who were also just hanging out in the mall. I believe they were in their twenties. We struck up a conversation and they both seemed very friendly and interested in me as a person which was surprising and refreshing. They told me they lived in the apartments behind the mall and invited me to hang out with them while I was waiting for my sister to get off work.

I remember walking through a tall wooden gate to a back porch area then going through a sliding glass door to enter their apartment. I remember the music they were playing in their boombox and dancing to. I remember them grinding on each other and then pressuring me to join in. I remember one of the guys took off his shirt. I remember being touched in a way that I knew was wrong but also excited me in ways I had only recently discovered.

The rest… I don’t remember it very clearly. It is only graphic snapshots and brief flashes that I would rather forget. How much of it is accurate and how much of it has been twisted and back filled to cover up a trauma I spent years trying to convince myself never happened? I remember how I felt though. I felt like I had to do what they wanted because they thought I was cool and if I didn’t I would not be cool anymore. I felt obligated to play along with things I didn’t want to do and knew I shouldn’t be doing, but it was also new and felt good… until it didn’t.

Only one of the men inflicted the painful part while the other one kept me distracted. I didn’t say “no” because no one ever asked me if any of this was okay. I didn’t say “stop” because once things got to a certain point I didn’t know what to say or why this was happening so I just sort of left my head for a while until it was all over. I don’t even remember how I got back to the mall that afternoon.

The Downward Spiral

After that experience I began to seriously question my sexuality. I thought I had been “turned gay.” I was never attracted to men, but I didn’t really understand how any of this stuff worked. I felt so dirty and ashamed that I broke up with Rhonda a few days later. I couldn’t even bring myself to speak to her, so I sent her a letter in the mail.

When I returned to school for ninth grade everyone says I came back a completely different person. I was angry and depressed. I was considering suicide constantly. I started smoking. I stopped hanging out with the same kids I used to and kept to myself. My freshman year of high school was a blur.

Kids constantly teased and bullied me for being gay. There were rumors going on behind my back that I was gay. I was treated like a social pariah by almost everyone and I became bitter and resentful. A friend came up to me out of concern and told me it was okay I could “come out” to her if I wanted. I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t know what I was.

It felt like there were two worlds in the small town I lived in: Those who were homophobic and those who were LGBTQ and allies. For some reason I couldn’t figure out how to be accepted into either one. I was either rejected by one group for rumors that I was secretly gay or rejected by the other group for being in denial when it turned out I wasn’t.

I also began to reject my faith outright. How could there be a God of this is how he rewarded me for faithfully believing in him? I still believed in the supernatural, so I embraced mysticism and secretly read about these things. The logical side of my brain always struggled to accept any kind of belief in the supernatural, though, so I just found myself more lost and confused.

That following summer I didn’t even do a play at Joplin Little Theatre. I just wanted to work and isolate myself. I couldn’t stand to be around anyone. One night I randomly met a girl named Cathy who told me she was a Senior at Joplin High School. She asked me about the rumors that I was gay and I told her I didn’t even know if I was gay or not anymore. She told me that she could help me figure it out. She picked me up at my house and took me out to an abandoned road and showed me what was what. She concluded by saying, “Well, you’re not gay.” I never saw her again after that night.

The Second Chance

The following school year, my sophomore year, this kid approached me and asked me if I wanted to be in his Christian rock band. The guitarist, B.J. Crocker, used to bully me throughout 8th and 9th grade and he was kind of the class “bad boy” so I thought that if I could win his approval that would mean something and end the rumors about my sexuality once and for all.

And so, I joined “Crosseyed,” the alternative/grunge rock Christian band. For the first time in years I felt like I had value again. It didn’t last long. After several months and some pretty surprising success my fellow band members started to get bombarded with the rumors that I was gay. Someone even said I looked gay the way I sang and moved on stage. I idolized bands like Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones and took a lot of my performance cues from them so I guess in Joplin, Missouri that is considered looking gay.

One day, late in the spring semester, the drummer form the band “borrowed” our songbook which I carried around with me 24/7. A few days later I found out through the grapevine that we had a show scheduled the next week and so at lunch I asked our drummer for the songbook back and why no one had told me about the show coming up. He told me I was no longer in the band. When I asked why, he said it was because everyone thought I was gay.

I walked out of school in the middle of lunch in a fog. I was determined to kill myself. I took my dad’s car and just drove until I found a bridge high enough to jump off of. Fortunately, I had left a tape of an album playing in the car and on my way to end my life the music started to speak to me and gave me the hope to keep going. I came so close to ending it all that day. It wouldn’t be the last time.

Little did I know my troubles were only just beginning.

The New Nightmare

In the summer of ’97 I had quit attending College Heights Christian School and was looking forward to a fresh start at a new school. I started hanging out with some kids at this new school, Seneca High School, and even started dating a girl there but that only lasted very briefly. I started to get the feeling that I was going to fit in even less at Seneca than I did at College Heights. So I started making older friends, college kids.

Through my sister’s friend, Gary Reeves, I had met a guy that attended Missouri Southern State College named Chris Chance. Chris seemed really cool and kind of like a misfit like me. Even though I was only 16 and he was in his 20’s we started to hang out.

But when we would hang out it was always secretive. He would come “bust me out” of my parents house and take me joyriding in town in the middle of the night. He would take me to a furniture store that was also a café he had keys to in downtown Joplin and I would get free snacks which seemed pretty cool. It was there that he took me to a back room and convinced me to watch porn with him.

When Chris started to make sexual advances on me, I was very confused and vulnerable. I tried to tell him I wasn’t interested in doing what he was trying to do, but he always had a clever answer and could talk me in circles. He would wear down my resisting and threaten me, saying that I had been “leading him on” and he wouldn’t be my friend anymore if I didn’t do what he wanted. Once he even threatened to drive off and leave me in the middle of nowhere without any way to get home.

And so, my reluctant and unwanted sexual relationship with this older man began. I never did anything to him, he always did things to and for me, so I would justify this to myself as okay even though I really was not okay with it. Then, one night, everything came to a nightmarish crescendo.

We were in the furniture store well past midnight when the owner of the store came in and “caught” us there. He was a much older man named Bill. He didn’t yell at us or kick us out. In fact, he acted like he knew exactly who I was and exactly why Chris had me there. It was as if they had been talking about me before. He approached me and started to grope and do sexual things to me. I froze in horror. Chris just looked on until it was over. And then Bill left. And then Chris and I left.

I tried to avoid speaking to Chris after that. I was successful for the most part until my best friend, Noah, came home on a break from school. Noah was my only consistent friend throughout my youth, but he went to a boarding school in California so I rarely saw him. and I wanted to impress Noah with my ability to make new, cool and older friends.

So, I called up Chris and asked him to hang out with us. We hung out at Chris’s apartment and eventually I left Chris and Noah and went home. Noah’s mother called me the next day in hysterics because Noah had not come home that night. It turned out he had stayed over at Chris’s apartment. I don’t know if anything happened – Noah assured me nothing happened – but I knew Chris was bad news and I had to cut him out of my life.

The Aftermath

As the years went by I continued to treat my sexuality as a currency to earn the love and attention from others that I so desperately needed in order to feel like I had any worth or value. I was finally at a point where I knew how to talk to and treat women so I was able to seek attention from the gender I preferred instead of compromising myself and doing things I felt were degrading and disgusting with the only option available: predatory gay men.

But the problem was still the same: I believed that the only way to get someone to truly care about me was to cater to them sexually in whatever way they desired. I frequently found myself in over my head with women that were a bit unstable and I frequently had to run for the hills and start over again with someone new. The quest continued and my sense of self-worth rose and fell with it.

Once I came into my own and realized the power I could have to control my environment and exercise my own sexual agency and have choice, I thought that my days of being take advantage of sexually or compromising myself under pressure or fear were behind me. I was wrong.

The Surprise Visit

In 2003 I had just graduated from basic training in the Air Force and was at my first tech school in Monterey, California. I had been there for several weeks and had earned the privilege of wearing civilian clothes around base again and drinking at the post exchange (PX). So, I met a random group of airmen at the PX and we sat around and drank ourselves silly. We were celebrating our freedom to do finally so. I quickly became extremely drunk.

I excused myself to go to the bathroom, but the PX was already closed so the closest place to go was a port-o-potty next to the athletic field behind the PX. I went in and did my business. As I was stumbling to button up my pants, I was surprised when the door suddenly opened. I had forgotten to lock it. There stood Andi, a female Airman who had also just recently finished basic training a few weeks after me. She didn’t need to go to the bathroom. She had just followed me there.

Besides not drinking for six weeks, another thing people complain about being deprived of in basic training is sex. It is a cliché that everyone is on the prowl for sex right after they get out of basic training and a lot of men take advantage of this to seduce vulnerable female airmen. Some females don’t need much seducing and are all to eager to take it where they can get it whenever they want it. That was apparently the case with Andi.

When she opened the door, after a brief moment of shock, Andi quickly pushed me back into the port-o-potty and yanked my pants down. I struggled to believe that this was really happening and was desperate to get out. I was disgusted by the smells and I was not at all interested in having sex with Andi anywhere at that moment, and certainly not in a port-o-potty.

What could I do, though? Everything was a blur. Before I knew it she was on top of me. I couldn’t stand or move. Despite my brain not wanting to be involved I couldn’t get my body to respond or my legs to move. Words were frozen in my throat. Certain parts of my body didn’t have much trouble responding to Andi though and she was able to take full advantage of me. And just as soon as it began, it was over. Andi stood up, pulled up her pants and walked out of the port-o-potty leaving me sitting there in filth and shame. I didn’t even go back to the PX. When I gathered my wits, I just went back to my room and crawled into bed. I went to sleep with the room spinning and praying that it was just a dream.

The Coping Mechanism

I felt so ashamed and embarrassed. It took me a while to even admit to myself that I had been sexually assaulted. I knew I could never report it as a crime though. No one would believe me. And I knew for a fact that there was a stigma already that men could not be sexually assaulted by women. How would I look if I, a man in the military, claimed to have been take advantage of by a woman? I would be laughed at. I would be ridiculed.

After that, I felt like the only way to take my power back would be to seduce as many women as possible. Crazy, right? I wasn’t going to force myself on them and I wasn’t going to let anyone force themselves on me. I was simply going to take control of my sexual agency and exercise choice over who I wanted to to be with. And so I began a string of encounters. None of them made me feel powerful again, though. None of them made me feel like I was in control. They just all made me feel even more empty and even more dirty. I felt disgusting, used up, and no good to anyone.

It took me years to recover from that experience and get my equilibrium back. Again, I thought, this was never going to happen again. I would never let anyone take advantage of me ever again. Again, I turned out to be wrong.

The Theatre, Ruined

It was the fall of 2016 and I was living in Dallas, Texas and had just finished doing “Hello, Dolly!” at Theatre Arlington. A bunch of guys from the cast got together to drink and play cards and I was so happy to have found friends or “my people” after a difficult transition moving to Dallas that summer. Brandon, our director, was there along with Winston and Dan. We all ended up at George Sepulveda’s house drinking beer and playing cards.

It had been a long time since I had really drank and it was past midnight, so after only two beers I began to feel extremely tired. I was struggling to keep my eyes open while everyone else was still playing cards and having a good time. I wanted to drive home but didn’t even feel like I could make it, I was so sleepy, so I asked if I could excuse myself and go lie down on George’s couch. George showed me to a guest bedroom and said I could rest in there. I quickly fell asleep to the sound of everyone else in the next room laughing and having a good time.

When I woke up I immediately knew something was wrong. There was no laughter, just silence. And something felt wrong. Someone else was in the room. My pants were opened. There was a hand in my underwear touching me. It took a moment to register, but when it did I sat up with a start. George was right behind me, grabbing me. Apparently, everyone had left and when I was the only person left in the house George decided it was the perfect opportunity to go take sexual advantage of me while I was sleeping.

I became very angry and told him to stay away from me. He started to plead with me and tried to guilt trip me and told me nothing had happened and it wasn’t a big deal and I was just being mean and unreasonable. He said I was being mean for yelling at him which I found to be absolutely insane considering what I had awoken to him doing to me. He said I was a bad friend. I wanted to get out but I was still feeling woozy.

Eventually, I found my feet and got out of the bedroom. I walked towards to front door and George ran in front of it and blocked me from leaving. I yelled at him to move, but he refused. In a panic I ran to the back of the house and out the back door. The yard was unkempt and filled with bramble. I ran around the house, getting cuts on my legs and burrs on my socks and shoes. I climbed over the fence then ran to my car parked a block away.

When I got to my car, I contacted Winston and told him what had happened. He seemed… unconcerned. I thought about going to the police, but then I thought about the fact that it would just be my word against his and nothing would probably come of it except a lot of time wasted recounting and reliving the experience. And what would all that trouble and attention get me? Embarrassment and probably more judgement and sideways glances from people who thought I must be a gay man who simply had a lover’s quarrel. There was nothing I could do. This violation had happened by this predatory man and there was no way for me to get justice.

I had just celebrated my 36th birthday and it was as if nothing had changed in the last 22 years of my life. I still had a giant target on my back with a neon sign over my head that said, “Pick him! This one is weak! He’s an easy target!”

A few week later, when the cast list for “White Christmas” came out from Theatre Arlington, I was horrified to see George’s name on it. I immediately contacted my stage manager and told her George had sexually assaulted me and I felt uncomfortable being in the show with him. She brought this issue to the higher ups in the theatre. Their response was extremely disappointing.

I was told that since this didn’t happen on theatre property, it really wasn’t their business. I was offered the opportunity to quit the show, but no one was going to ban George from participating. Well, I wasn’t going to let George win. I wasn’t going to let him force me to quit the show. So I stuck with it and I endured seeing my assailant every day at rehearsals and during performances. But I avoided him like the plague.

The truly disappointing thing is that even after I told a few other close friends what had happened, everyone acted like it was no big deal. George was beloved by so many in the cast, he was charming and funny, and he was invited to every social outing. Someone even told me that I must have sent George the wrong signals. So, it was my fault that he shoved his hands down my pants while I was asleep. Right.

So, I found myself once again being isolated. People who knew what had happened and were uncomfortable with it simply started avoiding me. Meanwhile, they treated George as if nothing had happened. Everyone wanted to hang out with George. No one wanted to hang out with me anymore. The unfairness of it all was crushing. I regretted doing the show and couldn’t wait for it to end. And I couldn’t wait to get away from Arlington after that and never look back.

The Neverending Story

I don’t know what it is about me that invites people to take advantage of me. I don’t know what it is about me that makes me less than human, a mere object for other people’s use. I don’t know what it is about me that causes me to keep finding myself in bad situations where silence is my only option and speaking up and speaking out will only make things worse. I don’t know what it is about me that deserves to be abused and doesn’t deserve justice.

What I do know is that there is a clear path connecting who I am today — all of my anxieties, confusions, lack of self-esteem, depression, lack of confidence, and fear of pursuing the things I love — back to that boy I was at age fourteen. There is a clear demarcation line dividing a bright, driven, optimistic young boy full of promise of a great future from the disappointing adult I became.

Every time I thought I had broken free of the shackles of my shame, something new happened that threw me back in them. Like a shoreline that has been battered by waves, who I really am, who I once was, has become eroded over time until it is blurred and unrecognizable, filled with jagged rocks, swirling pools, and dangerous undertow threatening to drag me under at any moment.

And that is my ultimate shame: That I allowed myself to become a victim. That I allowed my experiences to crush my spirit. That I let other people’s opinions and judgement of me shape my image of myself. And that I never seemed to learn from my mistakes and kept finding myself back in the same place over and over again.

Photos, left to right, top to bottom: 8th grade, 9th grade, 10th grade, 11th grade, 12th grade, first headshot at age 18, freshman year of college.