When I met Terry we were standing in front of a shark tank.
I was a member at the Tennessee Aquarium, and between my college classes during the day and political events I attended as a Republican activist, I loved to spend an hour or two at the aquarium enjoying the beauty of the darkened “river canyon” walkway with its glowing tanks. The Gulf tank was the largest, rising three stories high.
Terry worked at the aquarium and tended to be on duty the same days I was a regular. I would come an hour or two before closing on weekdays. There were usually few visitors then, and in the glow of the Gulf of Mexico tank we started talking.
I don’t remember how many weeks it took for us to exchange names and contact information, but we learned a lot about each other.
I was in college at the fundamentalist Baptist university in town, from a family where far more of the men were preachers than not. Terry was a biology major at the local branch of the State university, the youngest son of a black Church of God minister.
We talked about the animals – I’m sure we started there. But since I was always (always) wearing a bright blue “I BACK ZACH” button for the local Republican congressional candidate, we were talking politics before long. Affirmative action was a long running discussion and I heard Terry’s perspective (though it was years before those seeds blossomed into a different position).
For all our differences, we became friends. We met for lunch sometimes, or dinner. I introduced him to some of my friends, and they became friends in their own right. My grandmother, who always wanted to know what I’d been doing when she called, started asking if we were dating, but no. We were friends. (She eventually started started expressing concern about what people might think of me if they thought we were dating. I assured her that anyone who would think less of me for dating Terry because he was black was not someone whose opinion I cared about. She stopped.)
Terry came to my college graduation knowing not a soul there except me. My family was looking for him, though, and when he showed up with flowers for me, both grandmothers hugged him warmly.
I’d met some of his family once or twice when we’d stop by his house. His father and I sat on their stoop one afternoon good naturedly debating eternal security (the idea that a person is “once saved, always saved”). He had at least five or six older brothers and sisters, all with or pursuing advanced degrees. Their mother had volunteered at their schools, Terry told me, and had known their assignments better than they did. She was determined her children would succeed academically, and they did.
When I came to Terry’s graduation in the huge university arena, his family were watching for me, and I was brought back to their house for the celebratory dinner. I sat squeezed around the table in the tiny kitchen with Terry and several of his siblings, and the rhythm of give and take and teasing eventually drew me in. Terry and I had always had a similar rhythm and soon his sisters were teasing him about the little blonde white girl getting the best of him.
We both stayed in the area and stayed in touch, and a few months later when I began to have debilitating anxiety attacks that wrecked me physically and kept me unable to work or drive safely for months, Terry nervously drove out to my folks’ place in rural northwest Georgia to visit and take me on outings. (He joked nervously that he could always feel the neighbors staring at him as he drove into the neighborhood.)
I remember one night when we spent hours on the phone. He’d just been to a family gathering and found out a cousin he was close to was gay. He was wondering what it would mean if it turned out to be biological. I remember saying that “we’re born sinful” and why would this be different? Something to be repented, changed, healed, but that didn’t mean he didn’t love his cousin.
That was what I believed, and I believed it was enough for a long time.
Eventually Terry moved down to Atlanta, but every time he was home for a visit or holiday, we’d make plans to get together. We had plans one Thanksgiving, but then I didn’t hear from him. I called his folks, but they always said he was out. I didn’t hear from him that weekend, and he never returned any of the messages I left on his Atlanta number.
Eventually, I stopped calling.
And then over a year later, I thought of him, impulsively dialed his number, and he picked up.
He was surprised to hear from me, caught off guard, but we ended up talking for hours. That previous Thanksgiving he’d come out as gay – to his family (he’d had to leave the house and hadn’t been back) as well as most friends. Everyone but me. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to tell me, he said.
“But why couldn’t you?” I remember asking through tears. “Didn’t you know I’d still love you?”
“That’s why I couldn’t tell you. I knew you’d still love me, and I knew what you believe and that it would always hurt you for me, and I didn’t want you to think of me that way.”
We cried and we talked, and we found our friendship again, tentatively, over the distance.
A couple of months later or so, I was huddled on the living room sofa, reeling and crying and devastated over the breakup of my first serious relationship (my first relationship period, and I was blind-sided on Valentines Day, no less, but that’s another story). The phone rang and my mother came in to tell me it was Terry calling for me.
And I couldn’t do it. I was overwhelmed with pain and confusion and I couldn’t handle the emotional complexity of loving Terry in that moment. I told her to tell him I was sorry but I couldn’t talk right then and would call him back when I could.
I wanted to find my balance first, to be present to something other than the pain that was swallowing me.
But deep down, I knew what he’d likely hear. After our vulnerable connection after all those months, he’d just hear no. He’d hear rejection.
And when days later I called him, he never returned my calls. I was sorry, but deep down, I wasn’t surprised. I had let my own stuff trump what I knew my friend needed.
I never heard from Terry again, and I’ve never managed to contact him since.
It was decades before my understanding and beliefs about what it means to be gay (or lesbian or bisexual or trans or queer or intersex) changed. And when I love and enjoy my LGBTQI+ friends and advocate for them and their community, I’m not making anything up to Terry. They aren’t Terry.
But I think of him, and I hope that I will never again let my own sense of need get in the way of accepting and welcoming a friend and making sure they know it.