Without community, I’d be dead.
In my short life (35 years), I’ve had the unique experience of living with two completely opposite communities. One of them fully rejected me and tried to change who I was as a person. The other one accepted me completely as I was and tried to help me bring about meaningful change in my life.
The fascinating part of this tale of two communities is that I received love, life, and a second chance in the community from which I least expected it.
When I was 12 years old, my very Irish Roman Catholic family sent me off to live with a religious community of priests where I studied with the intention of one day becoming a priest myself. For those of you familiar with Irish Catholic families, this is not unusual at all.
At first it wasn’t so bad. I was 3,000 miles away from my family, but I lived with other boys my age and we lived in a beautiful part of the country where we spent a lot of time playing sports and enjoying nature. It was fun; it was hard work too, but it was definitely an adventure.
But when I was about 14, I discovered I had a huge problem. I wasn’t like the rest of my community; I was different. I was gay.
Why was that a problem? Well, I had always been taught that being gay was wrong, a disorder, a sickness, a sin punishable by AIDS and eternal damnation to hell. And, if that weren’t enough, it also meant excommunication from my community.
So of course I didn’t tell anyone. Except for one priest. And that priest, for good or for bad, told me I’d grow out of it; that no one is “gay” but just a slave to tendencies and behavior I could learn to change.
And change I tried. I prayed so very hard every day for God to help me “get better.” I took cold showers, skipped dessert at meals, and made up other random acts of penance to keep me on the straight and narrow.
But over the years, none of my praying, none of my efforts to toughen up worked. I never “got better.” I actually started falling in love with other guys. So that’s when the priest told me I wasn’t welcome in the community any longer. I would have to leave, go home, and seek professional help.
I can’t really describe in words how devastating it was to be banished from my community — to be expelled because I was “sick.” That was 18 years ago, and to some extent, even with much therapy, I still haven’t fully recovered from that trauma.
But what happened in my life over the following decade after leaving this religious community is a story for another time. Suffice it to say their rejection of me and insistence that I get help to change who I was led me down a path of pain, confusion, abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, and almost death.
But one thing I did learn during that time was that in order to survive, I needed to accept myself as a gay man and seek out people and communities that would accept me exactly as I was.
Fast-forward to New York City, 2008. I had managed to graduate from college, move to NYC, and try to start my life over. After a horrible breakup forced me to move out of my ex’s Manhattan apartment, I ended up in a much less established neighborhood where some of my friends lived. I found a cheap room for rent on Craigslist and decided to check it out.
To my surprise, the room for rent was housed in a motorcycle club’s official clubhouse. The guy advertising the share? The head of the club. The room for rent? A secret room hidden behind one of the bars in the “party room.”
That didn’t phase me at all. Nor did the crazy spring-break-meets-seedy-leather-bar interior of the clubhouse. But what did phase me was my new roommate and landlord. He was gigantic: 6’4, all muscle, shaved head, goatee, tats covering every inch of skin.
I was uncertain at first if me being gay would be a problem. But I knew I needed to be true to myself. So I told him.
And he didn’t care. At all. In fact, he went on a long dialogue about how his club was his family and was open to everyone—no matter the skin color, sexual orientation, gender, or status in life. I was sold.
I honestly thought that my relationship with my new roommates and the club in general would be pretty simple: I mind my own business, pay rent on time, keep things clean, and nobody gets hurt, right?
Well, I was completely wrong. The head of the club and its members accepted me overnight and treated me like family. I got hugs, I was included in everything, I got a beer handed to me every night after work, and I was told that I was loved and respected just because I was a good person.
But what was life-changing for me in this new community was not simply that I was accepted for who I was. That actually wasn’t enough for them. And they didn’t want that to be enough for me either.
One evening after work, the head of the club greeted me when I got home.
“We need to talk,” he said. I remember being terrified when I heard those words.
“You need help,” he told me. “We are not going to sit around and watch you kill yourself with alcohol. We love you too much to see you do that. Go get help.”
And that community, that community that accepted me as I was, but gave me the nudge I needed, sent me down a path of recovery. Today I have seven years of sobriety, self-acceptance, new opportunities, and new life.
What are the lessons to be learned here? Probably enough to keep me busy for the rest of my life. But I don’t know where I’d be without that motorcycle club. I’m pretty sure I’d be dead.