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When I Knew...and How it Saved Me.

By: Robert Joki

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October 10, 2008

When I was a kid my favorite piece of clothing was a royal blue Superman t-shirt. I remember the front of the shirt displayed an image of the comic book superhero standing confidently...with a big smile on his face. As he flexed his muscles, he broke the chains that were binding him.  I didn't know who Superman was, but I spent a lot of time staring at that image. His face, his arms, his smile. I remember it gave me a funny feeling in the pit of my tummy...a feeling that was unique at that point in my life. I loved the shirt and I wore it even after it became too small. I was very eager to become a "big boy"...but I can remember protesting when the garment was passed on to my little brother. It didn't fit anymore, but it was still mine. I was determined that Superman stay in my dresser drawer, but soon even my little brother was too big for the shirt and it was packed away with the other clothes that were waiting for a garage sale or a new baby.

The new baby came, but it was a baby girl. And new little baby girls need new little baby clothes. My favorite t-shirt wasn't nearly pretty, or pink, or frilly enough, so it stayed in the box under the basement steps. At the same time we were moving into a new house in a new community. I would be attending a new school. So many shiny new things. How could an old t-shirt compete? I thought about it from time to time. I would even come across it in the storage space in the new basement when it was time to swap spring clothes for winter clothes...or swap them back. Soon, I all but forgot about Superman. After all, I had school to think about...not to mention the task of being a big brother.

It wasn't long before my world became a darker place. I was badly hurt by the very person who should have been my protector. It happened on a Monday night.  And I thought I was being punished. It was raining. And I was terrified. To this day I have trouble remembering his face, which is strange...because it was so similar to my own. I remember looking up. But I looked past his eyes and beyond his face to the ceiling over our heads.  It was an unfinished basement room.  Cobwebbed pipes and beams supported the house above. Year's later, the man would break those beams with a makeshift noose.

Calling the next few years my awkward years would be a gross understatement. Those days, all it took was for a teacher to look at me the wrong way and I would burst into tears. Adults frightened me. I had poor hygiene. The man with no face didn't teach me about shaving. He didn't teach me about deodorant or how to drive. He didn't teach me any of the things he should have. I felt ugly. And dirty. And alone. I spent most of my time in my room, listening to music and reading. My favorite book was The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Quasimodo. Almost human.

The faceless man began to drag my brothers and sisters and I to church. He would cry. People would lay hands and pray. He would leave the church beaming.  A new man. And for a while things would seem normal. But it never lasted very long. Eventually, he would lay hands and prey. It was about this time that I found Jesus.  Or what I thought was Jesus. The notion of baptism seemed very romantic to me. To enter the water saturated with evil and emerge a clean vessel. To wash away sin, and shame...and hand prints. I traded in Victor Hugo for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They gave me hope.

It was about this time that the faceless man went away. He abandoned my family. My mother, and my siblings were devastated. I thanked God for finally answering my prayers. I started to feel like a normal teenager. I realized that no one ever needed to know what happened. The secret was mine. I could bury it. I could blend in. I just wanted to be like everyone else.

The guys and girls around me started growing up as guys and girls do. My friends started dating each other. I had no interest. For a while I thought I was asexual.  I didn't really know what that meant...but I read the word somewhere and thought I might be it. I was considering a career in ministry, when, to my complete and utter horror, I began to notice the other guys at school. Their eyes, their faces, the hair on their legs, the muscles in their arms. I was mortified.  It was the realization of my deepest darkest fear. I would forget my gym clothes every day just to make sure I didn't have to change with the other guys in the locker room. It disgusted me. Attractive men were everywhere. Washing the car next door...mowing the lawn down the street...delivering pizza.  I thought I was the antichrist because I couldn't stop masturbating.  After everything I had gone through...why...HOW could this be happening to me???  I blamed the man with no face. I prayed for deliverance. I got down on my knees and BEGGED. I started going to church two, three, four times a week. I attended Bible study. I volunteered. I took baptismal classes. I sang in the choir. I never acted on the feelings I was having...but the church taught me that the thoughts alone were a sin. I didn't know what to do. So I was baptized. The congregation took photographs as I emerged from the cool water with a huge smile on my face. And I was saved!  For exactly five minutes. Then a man from the congregation shook my hand, looked me in the eyes, and congratulated me. He was very handsome...and for a second I wondered what it would be like to kiss him.  I went into the bathroom and threw up.

College offered some relief.  For the first time in my life I was around other gay people. Beautiful, intelligent, hard working people...who just happened to be gay.  This was much different than the pictures that had been painted for me by my upbringing.  It wasn't long before I entered a relationship with someone truly special. It was so unexpected.  I wasn't even looking for it.  He knew exactly who he was and was proud of it.  I adored him for that. He was everything I wished I could be...but still held back from.  And I loved him very much. Enough that I decided to come out to my family.  I was excited about our relationship...and I wanted to share my excitement with other people. It was strange because I was still very convinced that homosexuality was something that had been forced upon me.  I didn't even know if I could be intimate with a man without thinking about things from my past that I didn't want to think about. How could something so beautiful be rooted in something so awful? My Sunday school teacher told me that Lucifer was the most beautiful angel in the heavens before he fell.  I decided he was full of shit.  Then I kissed a boy...and I liked it.

So, I left the closet. But I shut the door behind me quickly so no one could see the skeleton inside. My family was very supportive. My brothers and uncles were a little weirded out, but they got over it. One of my sisters admitted to kissing a girl once on a dare and wanted to know if that made her gay too.  My mother's biggest concern was that "the gay lifestyle is a very lonely one."  I tried to explain that, that isn't necessarily the case anymore.  Times were changing.  But she still worried because that's what moms do. It was a very tough time for her. She found out we were losing the house. Soon after, she was diagnosed with cancer.  I made the decision not to tell her the whole story. Not yet. I kept the darkness to myself.

I returned to the house I grew up in to pack away our things. My mother was terribly worried about what the new owners would think of her if she left the house a mess.  I reminded her that the new owners were a BANK and that they were kicking us out of our HOME... but mom is mom.  We scrubbed walls, painted rooms, washed windows, and loaded our belongings into the back of a red pick up truck. The last thing I did before I left the house was a quick a walk through to make sure we hadn't left anything behind. I did it so my mom wouldn't have to. It was a sad, tear soaked trip down memory lane. The corner of the living room where the Christmas tree stood each winter. The space in the kitchen under the window where our dog Princess had her puppies. The awful electric blue carpet in my old bedroom. And last, the basement.

The room was different that day.  The sun was shining through the window and the atmosphere was calm. The usual musty smell was overwhelmed by the scent of various cleaning products. I looked at the ceiling. The cobwebs were gone. But the beam was still broken.  I stood and wondered if it would ever be fixed.  I wondered who would fix it. I turned to go, but as I was about to leave the room...something caught my eye.  It was a tiny piece of royal blue fabric sticking out from behind an old storage unit. I thought it was an old rag at first. It was covered in dust and badly creased from being pressed under the weight of the heavy shelf for over a decade. I unfolded it and instantly recognized the handsome dark features staring back up at me. The chest puffed. The muscles flexed. A memory clicked. My jaw dropped. I remembered...that when I was a very little boy...I was drawn to Superman. And I wept.
For the first time in my life, I knew that my sexual preference wasn't about abuse.  It wasn't about sin.  It was just me. And it always had been. I realized I was attracted to the man of steel long before the other man stole my childhood. Once I did that, I was ready to break some chains of my own.



By crse ( anonymous )

I cannot even begin to express my gratitude to you for posting this piece. I hope you realize exactly what a gift you've given by sharing this. Your story needs to be heard, not only by folks who've shared such pain and are still struggling but also by everyone who seeks understanding about human nature and the damage that we inflict on each other. Your healing will help others heal. Im proud to know you.

By girl_about_town ( The Girl )

i love you very, very much. thank you. for everything ever.

By katieeverybody ( anonymous )


By lucy ( anonymous )

I can't stop crying. I'm overwhelmed by your courage, and yet, neither "overwhelmed" nor "courage" are quite the right words. Thank you for this piece of your soul, which is beautiful and strong.

By chrstina ( anonymous )

amazing piece. (((hugs)))

By buff ( anonymous )

Friend, I am for once in my life without words. You truly are strong and beautiful, I am so happy you are starting to see what I have seen in you for many years now. I love you forever.

By Cbarzak ( anonymous )

Telling stories are a way of healing ourselves, and hearing them is a way of learning to heal ourselves too. Thanks for telling yours. It's powerful.

By ytownredux ( anonymous )

Thanx for a touching slice of life that although hard to endure, you make us all better by hearing about it. I struggle, but believe that pain is there to understand what the good is. When people try to connect the faceless man/thats why I am gay, it drives me up a tree. It's not tragedy that makes us gay, it's just who we are. I am not young enough to have been as open and out as a lot of todays younger people are, I still struggle being "out", but I do look forward to a time we dont have to have a coming out day and we just are. Keep up the great writing.

By typhoidpat ( anonymous )

Rob, thank you for being so honest. You've written something totally brilliant, which isn't new coming from you. But your willingness to be so open... that will change people. Thank you! I love you.

By SvenskFlicka ( anonymous )

I am sitting here in tears. You have rendered me completely speechless! You are just a strong, beautiful, compassionate person. You will always be my hero!!! I love you!!!

By niko_new_new ( anonymous )

i wish i had your strength.

By tylersclark ( Tyler S. Clark )

Incredible story, well told. Bravo.

By lizrubino ( anonymous )

By definition, a superhero is partly made up of someone who defies boundaries of change, and positive growth, right? Someone who moves the world in a direction of love and compassion. Whether they are found on our shirts, or in within ourselves, or in your case, both, they stand for the same thing. You know how much I can relate to this blog, but I have to tell you I think you are brave, and wonderfully compassionate, and I am so blessed to know you. You are really truly loving yourself. What a huge thing. I am proud of you, and I love you so. Inspiring.

By bobservo ( Bob Mackey )

what about spawn? surely nothing good can come of that

By JudyAC ( anonymous )

With Prop 8 on my mind and the ongoing assault by the religious right on gay rights in the news, your simple statement "It was just me. And it always had been" speaks to the heart of the issue.

So often the outrageous or shocking shifts the focus away from the simplicity of living an authentic life. You put the focus back where it belongs - being true to who you are.

Thank you for sharing.

By sedonana ( anonymous )


By boyinakage ( anonymous )

oh rob, you are my superman.

this piece speaks to the very depths of my soul. i applaud the courage it took to share.

thank you.


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