By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
If you were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and selecting a place to live based on its tolerance of and support for members of the LGBT community, Enid likely would not rise to the top of your list.
There likely are few, if any, communities in Oklahoma — a state touted by some as the “reddest of red states,” — that would be selected solely on the grounds of being “gay friendly.”
Of course, none of us choose where we are born, and a proportionate share of every generation born and raised in Enid has experienced the unique challenges of growing up gay in a traditionally conservative and religious community.
Some members of the LGBT community have moved away from Enid seeking a more accepting environment, while others choose to remain here, working and hoping for progress
Debbie Costello is one of Enid’s LGBT natives who left the community to seek a more accepting city to call home.
Costello said from a very young age she knew there was something different about herself compared to the other girls, but she didn’t understand her differences until her teenage years.
“I didn’t start questioning my sexuality seriously until high school,” she said. “I knew there was something different about me before that. I was never as comfortable around girls growing up. I wanted to hang out with the boys. But, with boys, it was always a ‘buddy’ relationship.”
Even when she began to understand she was sexually attracted to women instead of men, Costello said she hid her sexual orientation from friends and family.
“I didn’t really have any peers I could talk to about it, at least it didn’t feel like I could,” she said. “It wasn’t really open in our community to talk about things like that.”
Costello said she “kept living in the straight world” because of her family’s views on homosexuality, and be-cause of social pressures in Enid in the late 1980s.
“Due to being raised in a Catholic home and my grandmother being a very strong Baptist, that religious background kept me on the path of a heterosexual life,” Costello said.
“If I had been in a more open family with open views, looking back on it ... if I had grown up in a home where we were given those kinds of choices and things had been more open, I would have explored my sexuality earlier.”
Costello didn’t “come out” to her family until after she had moved away to college. She said the revelation she is a lesbian forever changed her relationship with her family, especially with her father.
“I was 21 when I told him, and we didn’t speak for probably eight months after I told him,” Costello said.
She said some members of her extended family embraced her and loved her unconditionally after she came out, while others could not accept her as a lesbian and tried to “cure” her.
Costello said her father died before their relationship ever fully recovered.
“My father passed away and we never really talked about it,” she said. “In the end of his life, things could have been a lot different with him.”
Costello, now a resident of Columbus, Ohio, said that separation from family is what she fears most for LGBT youth.
“That’s my biggest concern for these kids growing up today,” she said. “I lost both my parents and I never got to share my happy moments in life with them. Family, in the end, is really all we have in this life, and we should be able to share those happy moments as well as the sad moments with our family.”
Other LGBT members of the community have found their families accepting and supportive, but still struggled with prejudices and inequities from society.
Destroyed by rumors
For some members of the LGBT community, rumors alone can end careers, bring on financial hardship and change the course of a life.
Eric, who grew up in Enid, knows from personal experience how easily a career can be taken away for no other reason than sexual orientation. He asked that his real name not be used in this article, out of fear he could be fired from his current job for being openly gay.
Even as a child, Eric hid his being gay out of fear of how his family and friends would react.
“I knew that I liked hanging out with the boys and not the girls, and I knew how I felt toward the boys was not what I saw on the television, and wasn’t what I read in the kids’ magazines or what I saw in public, and I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut about it.”
Eric said he witnessed openly gay people in Enid suffer verbal bullying, and he didn’t feel confident enough to open up about his sexual orientation until he reached high school.
“It wasn’t until I got to high school that I really had a support network of friends, because I was in band and orchestra, so I had a family of 400 people who never asked and didn’t seem to care.”
Eric never officially “came out” in high school, but with the support of his friends he learned to no longer hide his identity.
“I was never really in the closet in high school,” he said. “If anybody had enough guts to ask me, I had enough guts to tell them.”
Eric said some family members “had blinders on” regarding him being gay, and close friends supported him but still wished he were straight.
“When your family is in Enid, Okla., you don’t want your child to be different,” he said. “My best friend in high school wanted me to be straight more than anyone, I think mostly because he didn’t want me to get hurt. He always loved me like a brother, but I think he was always scared to death being gay was going to get me hurt.”
Eric didn’t come out to his family until he had left for college. He unexpectedly came out during a phone conversation with his mother.
“She called me one day and asked me over the telephone, while I was at work, if I was gay.”
He said that conversation was the only time he ever lied about being gay.
“I told her ‘I’m dating men and women and I don’t know what I like,’” Eric said. “She was not pleased.”
He said it took most of a decade before him being gay no longer was an issue with his mom, but they’ve worked through the issues and she now is his best friend.
Eric found no such acceptance in his chosen career field, service in the U.S. Air Force.
His grandfather had served a career in the Air Force and retired as a master sergeant. Eric wanted to follow in his footsteps, even though the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy still was not in effect, and gay service members could be expelled, even punished under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for their sexual orientation.
He said he wrestled with conflicts between his desire to serve and his opposition to the military’s policies regarding LGBT members.
“Why would you want to stand up and work for an organization that blatantly doesn’t want you? But, I think I decided that if I had survived rural Oklahoma, certainly I could survive the military.”
Still, the possibility of being prosecuted or dishonorably discharged loomed over Eric and other LGBT service members.
“It scared the hell out of me,” he said. “I knew as long as I was in the military I wouldn’t be able to have a partner, I wouldn’t be able to have someone close. But, I wanted to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. I had been a military brat, I knew the military life and it’s what I wanted to do.”
Eric enlisted in the Air Force in time to serve in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. He said he enjoyed serving in the military, and planned to make a career of the service. Those plans came to an abrupt end when rumors of his sexual orientation led to an official inquest.
“There was a huge witch hunt going on at the time,” Eric said. “All they had against me was rumors, but back then that’s all they needed to throw you out.”
Eric said he was personally devastated when he was forced out of the military.
“It destroyed me, number one, because I had just lost that dream, and number two, because I was going to have to come back to Enid, Okla. It was a double whammy.”
With no job or means of support, Eric moved home to be close to family.
He later moved to a larger city, but returned to Enid after the recession cost him a second career.
Eric still lives and works in Enid, but he carries some new perspectives from having lived in other communities more accepting of LGBT people.
“That was the greatest experience,” he said, “just getting out of Enid and discovering there are people out there just like me.”
Younger LGBT community members agree Enid is not their ideal place to grow up or to live as an adult, but they share a hope Enid is becoming more accepting of its LGBT residents.
Out of the closet
Sam, who also requested his real name not be used, graduated from Enid High School in 2006, and has chosen to remain in his hometown.
Sam said he knew from a young age he was “different,” and by age 15 he knew he was gay.
He said the personal revelation of his sexual orientation drove him into a deep depression.
“It was a shock,” he said. “I have older brothers and they’ve always brought home girlfriends. It was depressing to me. I really went into a depressed state at that time. Being gay wasn’t something you heard about in Enid, America.”
Sam said he was depressed because he felt he had to hide his identity from his family, and because he feared they would reject him.
“I’ve always had a close family,” he said. “We’ve never kept secrets from each other. That was a secret I kept, and I feared they wouldn’t want to be around me after they found out because of the jokes and the slurs I had heard around my house.”
He kept his sexual orientation a secret from his family until after he graduated from high school. His family didn’t find out he was gay until someone outside the family called his home and revealed the secret.
In spite of being “forced out of the closet,” Sam said the process “went better than I had ever hoped it could go.”
“It turned out my family was very accepting of it,” he said. “My whole family knows. I have a long-term partner, and he attends holidays with us.”
Sam said coming out was a relief after it was done.
“It was a relief for me, and it brought me closer to my family than I could have ever been staying in the closet.”
Christian Balden, a 2007 EHS graduate who now lives in Minneapolis, also said it was liberating when he finally came out.
“I always felt different, sort of isolated from the social reality other kids were living in, from a very young age,” Balden said.
Balden said he “had an inkling” he was gay at 12 or 13 years old, and knew for sure by age 15.
“By then, I knew I was gay, and I tried to deny it every possible way I could,” he said.
But he wasn’t the only one who knew he was gay. Balden said his parents knew before he did, and actually called him out of the closet.
“My parents were the first people to acknowledge it, even acknowledging it before I did,” Balden said.
His parents sat him down, and told him they thought he might be gay.
“I’m really glad they did,” he said. “They initiated it out of love, and they wanted me to know they’d love me no matter what.”
“It was terrifying, because someone knew my secret and it was my parents, but it was also incredibly relieving to not feel like I had to hide a huge portion of who I was in my own home.
“I think I am incredibly blessed to have parents who called me out of the closet in the loving way that they did,” Balden said. “They left who I am up to me. They didn’t tell me I was gay, but that they thought I could be and that it was up to me to decide who I was, and that I had my own journey to take and they would be there for me no matter what.
“I think that’s what all parents should do, and they should start that conversation very early, whether they think their child is gay or not, just to tell them that they will accept them to be who they grow up to be.”
But, even with the love and understanding of his family, Balden still did not reveal his sexual orientation to friends until after he had moved from Enid.
“I was very driven in high school. I did very well academically, I had a large network of friends, I ran for class president and I was the officer of every club I could be the officer of,” Balden said. “I didn’t come out because I was so afraid I would be socially or professionally stunted by coming out in Enid.”
He saw friends who did come out suffer the social consequences of being gay in a predominantly socially conservative town.
“The few kids who were out in high school, I heard them teased every day, and I didn’t want to go through that,” he said. “I’m so proud of those kids now, and a lot of them turned out to be my friends after high school, but I didn’t want to subject myself to that harassment and I didn’t want to jeopardize my standing in the community.”
‘I don’t let it define me’
For LGBT kids growing up in the community today, there still is prejudice and opposition, but there also is a sense of progress and hope for the future.
James, 17, came out last year during his sophomore year at Enid High School. James used an assumed name for this article due to his age.
James said he began the process of coming out by building a network of friends who knew he was gay.
“I started telling one person a day until I felt like I had enough people built up. Some days I would tell three people. It got to where I had enough people that knew, I didn’t care any more.”
During that whole process, James said he “never really had one person I really cared about tell me they didn’t love me any more because I was gay.”
Even with all that support, he said it was terrifying when it came time to tell his parents.
He said he had seen it “not go well” when some other gay friends told their parents, but he expected better from his family.
“My parents are the most accepting people in the world, and they would love me no matter what,” James said.
When he finally told his parents, with two friends present for support, he said his parents “thought it was odd, but they loved me regardless.”
He said being out has altered his relationship with other boys, but has not ended any friendships.
James is looking forward to the future, a future in which being gay doesn’t restrict or define his role in the world.
“Being gay can define you in a way, but I don’t let it define me. It’s just me, and being gay is just another part of me,” James said.
He plans to move away from Enid after graduation, not because he’s gay, or because of the community’s perception of LGBT people — he just wants to see the world.
“People need to see the world, they need to travel. I love seeing new places, and I can’t imagine living without that.”
For LGBT youth still growing up in Enid, Balden offered some advice, and some grounds for optimism.
“Reach out to those who have shared experiences,” Balden said. “Know that you are loved, and know that progress is on your side.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first installment of a series on issues, challenges and the future of Enid’s LGBT community.)