I WAS FIFTEEN WHEN I first came to terms with being gay. I grew up in Slaton, outside Lubbock, and there were rumors spreading about another guy on my all-star cheerleading team. I didn’t think it was a big deal, and I became friends with him. It got me thinking, “Well, what if I’m gay?” I was still pretty young and confused about a lot of things. I found the hotline number for a national gay support group listed in the newspaper, right above an ad about homosexuals converting back to heterosexuality. I guess I had a choice between the two, but since I wasn’t sure I was homosexual yet, I figured I couldn’t quite change back.

That summer, I came out to one of my friends. I asked her, “If I were gay, would you still be my friend?” She said, “Sure. We could go shopping together.” And I said, “Well, do you want to go shopping tomorrow?” When I came out to the rest of my friends, at Roosevelt High School, it wasn’t a huge shock, and even my parents said they’d known all along. At school I was popular, and so for a while everything was okay. People thought it was just a phase I was going through to get attention. The first time people’s true feelings started to come out was when we were discussing the issue of AIDS in my health class. My teacher told us that Lubbock had an AIDS problem because there were a lot of homosexuals there. When I questioned him, the other kids in the class joined in, telling me that AIDS was brought to heterosexuals by a gay man who slept with a woman. Everyone there knew I was gay, but that didn’t stop them.

Senior year, everything exploded. I think it was partly because I was being nominated for homecoming king, and the irony of high school is that the most popular people are usually also the most hated. I walked into class one morning and asked what we were doing. One kid said, “We’re going to shoot a faggot.” I just ignored him, but later another guy said that he had a pistol in his truck that would take care of me. This was after Columbine, so you were supposed to be automatically expelled if you made any remarks like that. But the first guy only got three days’ suspension, and the other guy was never reported. When I went to talk to the principal, he asked if I had told people that I was gay. I said yes, and he answered, “If I were a Methodist, I wouldn’t go into a Baptist church and preach my beliefs.” He told me that I should have expected negative consequences.

After that, kids would make comments in the halls constantly, but I didn’t know who to go to. I would find my car vandalized and my windshield broken out in the parking lot. I walked into the theater one day, and someone had spray-painted in huge letters across the stage wall: “James is a fag and all gays must die.” Nobody saw who did it, so the school painted over it and forgot about it. I just wanted to graduate and move on with my life, but I didn’t throw myself back into the closet.

Now I’m a senior at Eastern New Mexico University, and I’ve revived a gay student organization here. I have a job coaching a high school cheerleading team in Portales, and we made it to nationals this year. I’m not only gay; I’m also smart and talented. It took me forever to realize that, because if you’re gay in a small town, that’s your whole identity. I went to a support group meeting back home last year, and I saw this girl who also went to Roosevelt and had started a gay youth organization in Lubbock. Having seen everything I went through, she stood up and said, “If James hadn’t been who he was in high school, I never would have come out.” I had tears in my eyes, because I remembered thinking at the time, “Man, this better be worth something, being true to yourself.” And it was.