I couldn’t help but wonder why his hands were trembling so much during our regular lunch that day.

I’ve noticed it more and more, ever since. The travel of his food from his plate to his mouth was more like a plane through turbulence than a skater across ice.

He attributed his weak appetite to his erratic sleep schedule. Oftentimes, though, his leftovers would be enough for a full-sized meal to most.

He just hadn’t been himself.

I’ve known him for almost four years. He’s been a mentor, a confidant and a counselor for me, helping me through anything and everything, both personal or professional.

He knows everything there is to know about me, and I — or so I thought — knew all there was to know about him.

I didn’t.

Nearly two months ago, he opened up to me. It was difficult enough for him to say, despite the usual hum of a busy afternoon at Hickory Park.

“I’m gay.”

We talked at length about his coming out, and I repeatedly tried to assure him that his openness would change nothing in the way that I thought of him, and yet his hands still shook; his stomach clenched tight by a crippling fear.

It wasn’t a fear that this part of his life is wrong; he’s learned to accept himself for who he is.

The fear that gripped him — my best friend for the better part of the last few years — stemmed from my knowing a fiercely intimate and closely guarded secret of his: that I or those close to him, would think less of or judge him for this part of his life, this part of who he is. He feared I’d react with anger or disgust. It wasn’t physical harm he was afraid of. He just didn’t want things to change.

The fear that things would change crippled him to the point he couldn’t eat.

He doesn't want anyone to look at or treat him differently than they have for the last 25 years of his life. He just wants to be free to be himself.

He couldn’t look me in the eye when he opened up to me because he worried what I would think about him.

“I'd never be more afraid of getting beaten up or spit on or whatever — I think I could handle it — than the thought that someone I cared deeply about would learn something about me and think that I’m disgusting,” he said. “Like the fiber of my being is something they'd rather not exist.”

“A life spent feeling terrible about yourself isn't really a life lived."

This is the world he’s lived in for his not-inconsiderable time in central Iowa.

He’s grown up “different” than his friends. He’s grown up “different” in the eyes of his church and his family.

He’s felt pressure to change this part of who he is.

He’s been afraid of what people would think of who he really is.

And shouldn’t he be? There are reasons for him and so many others to look over their shoulders when they’re around those who are more “normal” than them.

There's discrimination and hate.

Thousands want justice for Trayvon Martin, because a kid with black skin was gunned down for “suspicious behavior.” Candidates for the Republican nomination for president have done all they can to decry marriage equality and the “gay agenda.” Our own campus heard a rash of complaints of racism in the last month.

On Sunday, a northwest Iowa family found their 14-year-old son and brother hanging from the ceiling of their garage.

He came out a month ago. He’d been bullied ever since.

A young boy with interests like the rest of us — fast cars and fashion and celebrity crushes — and regular American dreams — like getting married — killed himself. Because he was comfortable enough with who he was to let other people in on that little part of himself — his sexuality — and they hated him for it.

“He wants to be who he is,” his sister told the Des Moines Register, “and he wants everyone to accept him for that. You either do or you don’t.”

It’s a frightening time to be “different.”

I, like so many others on this campus, am lucky, I suppose, to have been born into what society deems “normal”: A WASP born into a family of WASPs. I’ve never dealt with hate on that level, hate because of who I am.

The university offers dozens of courses on diversity — be it religious, ethnic or sexuality based — and there’s a plethora of clubs and student organizations promoting equality and awareness of discrimination. I’d heard stories like my friend’s before, but they’d not registered like this one did. Because feelings of racism, sexism and homophobia still exist on this campus, those stories aren’t having the impact they should.

"It's going to be OK?" he asked me, more than a month after he’d opened up to me; I’d tried to tell him it would be. "I want it to be OK.”

I told him, just like I did on the day he first told me, that it would be OK. And just like that day, I meant it.

What I didn’t tell him, though, was that him opening up to me did the opposite of what he feared: It made me love him even more.

I wasn’t angry, I didn’t feel betrayed. I felt touched that he’d trust me enough to be so completely honest with me.

And then I hurt for him.

I hurt because my best friend didn’t feel comfortable being just as open with everyone else around him, for fear that they might lash out in anger, or worse, that they’d turn their backs on him and walk out of his life. I started to wonder about other times he hasn’t felt free to express himself as he’d like to, to make the choices he’d like to, without fear of being cast out. I can’t stand the thought of him hiding this part of him.

He didn’t and doesn’t want things to change between us or anyone else. And, for the most part, I don’t think things will.

But our relationship will change in a big way: for the better.

Because my best friend is different than me, just as, I’m sure, your best friend is different than you. Because he’s opened my eyes to the fact that there are people around us — all of us — hiding who they really are out of fear and shame. Because he’s opened up to me and trusted me with everything that he is, just as, I hope, a friend will do with you someday. Because whether he’s gay or straight — or transgender or not — doesn’t change the person he is, but letting me into that part of his life changes the friend I can be for him.

Because now I know that my best friend can be totally himself around me; that he won’t be afraid or ashamed of what I might think of or say to him. Because, after all of this, I can fully love and appreciate him for all that he is and will be.

And maybe — hopefully — because of all of that, he might be able to finish his meals again.

(4) comments

Kim Smith

This is a terrific story, Jake. Everyone should read it.

Matt Nosco

Incredibly well told.

Randy Chanthavong

It shouldn't have to be so tough to be different, especially in the sense of being gay. But it is, especially if you've grown up in Iowa. Jake, you're a good friend to react so well to your best friend's coming out. And I hope you let him know that it will get better with time. Both in terms of his accepting himself more as well as others accepting the LGBT community, because the world is rapidly changing its views. Let's just hope these progressive thoughts continue so that others can be accepted better in the future and to prevent suicides like the one mentioned here.

Ma Purdy

I you haven't had a friend or loved one come out to you, practice your reaction until it is a "non-reaction." How you react is going to make a huge difference to the person coming out to you.

This is an amazing account. I can be in such a love/hate relationship with Iowa, but this gives me hope.

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