I am gay.
For those who know me and for many who only know of me, this will come as no surprise. For the past year, I have been working through a list of people who I felt should finally hear the news directly from me before I made a public statement. I wanted my mother, my father, my sisters, my brother, and my closest friends to hear it from me first.
The fact that I am gay is just one of those things in my life in need of explicit affirmation, to remove any doubt and to finally validate who I am as a person. In many ways I regret the time wasted in not having done so sooner.
I offer my story as one person’s experience. I’ve come to believe it is, in some respects, just a more public version of a difficult and ultimately, now optimistic, journey familiar to many LGBTQ people.
My story starts in the rural Midwest, as part of a family centered in a faith and its particular traditions. At the Apostolic Christian Church where we belonged, we were enthusiastic regulars. My parents did their best to raise me and my siblings according to biblical tenets as they understood them.
When our family moved from our farm in Minnesota to Peoria, Illinois, we wound up in one of the less rigid branches of our church. So, while our previous congregation had, for example, considered watching TV to be sinfully idle, the Peoria branch let it slide.
In many ways, I thrived in this environment. It helped me to live with a feeling of purpose and taught me to try to treat others as I would want to be treated. Memorizing Bible verses, going to church camp, attending services at least twice a week – that was my world.
I’m sure I knew other gay people in those years of growing up, but I don’t think any of us were aware of it. I understood that the teachings of my upbringing were pretty clear on the matter. Because of it, as I got older and first felt myself drawn in the direction of my natural orientation, I didn’t want to think about it. I always preferred to force my thoughts in other directions, leaving a final answer about that for another day.
To that end, it helped that I was also born a fairly goal-focused personality, driven to succeed and to push myself in every way I knew how. My focus early in life was on getting a head start in business, purchasing my first piece of real estate while still in high school. But when my local school board blocked my attempts at early graduation, it’s that same drive that also pushed me to pursue elective office, first on the school board at 19, on to the Illinois legislature at 23, and in Congress at 27.
In spite of that success, or maybe because of it, I still lived a pretty sheltered life.
Arriving in Washington in 2009, as the youngest member of Congress, I received a lot of attention. I confess to enjoying it, though in my case, the attention also glided toward speculation. I was a single guy, and people would comment on how I dressed, and about my preoccupation with physical fitness. Untruthful stories were written. Even years into my time in Washington, I was still naïve enough to wonder why the news media would run with an utterly false story about me and a show I’d never even heard of, and still haven’t seen, Downton Abbey.
It took me a while to figure out that it was really just the media’s own way in which they got to say that about me in print…to tie me to a stereotype. In fact, if you want to learn something about the “woke” media, Google my name and consider how prominently that fabricated lie, still without even a single source to back it up, will feature in stories about me by people who otherwise call themselves journalists. It was another way, albeit more sophisticated, to be teased about being gay. A dog whistle.
Once in Congress, I did like I’d always done and threw myself into the distraction of work and what I once understood success to be. That included being responsive to the interests of the constituents in the district that I served. Perhaps correctly, perhaps not, I assumed that revealing myself as their gay congressman would not go over well. I put my ambition over the truth, which not only hurt me, but others as well.
I also, in retrospect, realize that I was just looking for more excuses to buy time and avoid being the person I’ve always been.
I like to think I would have sorted all this out in the right way, had circumstances allowed. As it turned out, the opportunity quickly vanished in early 2015, when I found myself facing an array of false charges involving office and campaign expenses. That ordeal quickly descended into a years-long struggle to clear my name, so all-consuming that I chose to resign from the House and devote myself almost full time to the effort.
Following my resignation, I was neither seeking nor holding elected office for the first time since my teens. Thinking I was out of the political spotlight made me much less worried about others knowing that I was gay. I truly wanted to tell my family and felt ready to do so, starting with Mom and Dad. But just as I felt comfortable enough to come out, government prosecutors weaponized questions about my personal life and used innuendo in an attempt to cast me as a person of deceptive habit and questionable character. My family, friends, and former employees were subpoenaed and asked prying questions about my personal and dating life.
Unfortunately for prosecutors, the most sensational thing they learned about my personal life was that I didn’t have much of one while I was in office. But the government’s tactics in prosecuting my case made it obvious that coming out would be better discussed after the charges against me were dropped. It was ironic and painful; just as I was finally ready to come out of the closet, it felt as though someone had locked the door.
For all the grief that these events brought into my life, I was confident that the truth would win out and that I would be free to share it. I refused any offer of a plea bargain and insisted on going to trial. The trial never happened because, last March, government prosecutors asked the judge to dismiss the indictment and all of the charges against me.
After the four years of legal hell finally ended this past March, the joy of vindication was met with the reality of facing my truth with those closest to me. I made plans to drive to my mother’s for Easter holiday and tell her what I had so long avoided.
In many ways my mind at that point was also oriented towards making up for lost time, socially. I got tickets for the Coachella Music Festival with friends. A few days later, I got into my car, with all the fear and anxiety that I suppose many feel when they finally head off to have that long-avoided conversation with their family. I think it would be fair to say, life intervened.
Halfway through the trip, I spoke with my mother. News broke of my weekend at Coachella. Pictures online made clear what I was en route to tell my mother in person. She told me to turn around and go back to LA. I wasn’t welcome at home for Easter.
To characterize some of these conversations with my family in general, it’s fair to say it has not been a case of instant acceptance and understanding. What I had to share was unwelcome news to every single person in my family, out of the blue in some cases, and was met with sadness, disappointment, and unsympathetic citations to Scripture.
It hurt to hear all this, to say the least. What I had feared from many of them had come to pass. My family had always been my closest friends and biggest supporters, through thick and thin. And I say, not to arouse sympathy, but hopefully, rather, understanding, I felt fairly alone.
My approach since has been rooted in an appreciation for how long it took me to overcome my own resistance to being gay. As much as I would like for my family to quickly change about the way they view it, I’ve come to terms with the fact that it might take my loved ones more time than I would like. And I realize some might never come around.
I do hold out hope that, over time, my family will come to accept me as I am. I remind them that I am still the same Aaron they have always known, the one they were so proud of not long ago. I realize that, having gone through a tough and lonely career ordeal, I’ve come to need them only more.
While feeling at times like my mother’s fallen star, I’ve also been cautioned by my fellow gays active in politics about what to expect from the LGBTQ public. Where was I, they will ask, when I was in a position to help advance issues important to gay Americans?
No one gets to choose when we learn our lives’ big lessons. Mine have been no different. In 2008, as a Republican running in a conservative district, I took the same position on gay marriage held by my party’s nominee, John McCain. That position against marriage equality, though, was also then held by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as well.
That fact doesn’t make my then position any less wrong, but it’s sometimes easy to forget that it was leaders of both parties who for so long wrongly understood what it was to defend the right to marry.
As is the case throughout most of human history, those who advance the greatest social change never hold elected office. I can live openly now as a gay man because of the extraordinary, brave people who had the courage to fight for our rights when I did not: community activists, leaders, and ordinary LGBT folks. Gay bloggers who rallied people to our cause. I recognize this even in the face of the intense and sometimes vicious criticism that I’ve received from those same people.
The truth is that if I were in Congress today, I would support LGBTQ rights in every way I could. I realize that some of my political positions run very much counter to the mainstream of the LGBTQ movement, and I respect them for those differences. I hope people will allow for me the same.
To that end, I hope that others can respect that for me being gay has not required stepping into some entirely new belief system, disconnected from every other facet of my life’s experiences. I haven’t overcome one kind of repression for another.
Looking ahead, I hope that you’ll find me reflecting credit on the gay community – diverse in its thinking, growing in confidence, gaining in equality and acceptance. I’m a freer person, happy to let go of problems that really should never have been so problematic to begin with. Life is better with nothing to fear or hide. Whatever comes next for me, at least the story will be authentic, and good things usually follow from that.
I also hope that in sharing my story it might help shine a light for young people, raised the way I was, looking for a path out of darkness and shame. And maybe aspects of my journey will also give their parents and family some pause before they decide how they’re going to react to the eventual news. The battle for equality is won as hearts and minds once opposed to us are faced with a different set of facts than those they were taught.
This journey has taught me a valuable lesson: that, whether you are gay or straight, it’s never too late to be authentic and true to yourself.
As for my family, I still get occasional emails trying to sell me on conversion therapy, but recently at our relative’s wedding, my mother told me that if there is anyone special in my life, she wants to meet them. I’m optimistic about the future and ready to write the next chapter of my life.