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    AA Helped Me Accept My Sexuality with Pride

    By Mark Rhoades–

    I grew up in California’s Central Valley, the only child of a hardworking single mother. We lived with my grandmother and grandfather in a small town called Tracy, between Stockton and Modesto. It was 63 miles and a world away from the open-minded, open-hearted freedom of San Francisco.

    I never had to come out to myself; I always knew I was gay. But Tracy was not a place where you wanted anyone else to know you were gay. From an early age, I knew to keep it to myself. I always tried to downplay my innate femininity, and instead to try to find ways to be accepted and liked. In high school, this became especially important.

    One way was actually being seen with a girl. So, I set my sights high. Since eighth grade, I had a crush on a girl whose name was identical to our town, Tracy. She was a class below me and considered the most beautiful girl in the school. Even though we didn’t know each other well, I asked her to be my date to the Junior Prom, and to my surprise she accepted—she admitted she thought nobody would ever ask her. That prom was the highlight of my life up to that point. We had a wonderful time. She laughed at all of my jokes, and we really hit it off. We became friends, and spent all of our time together. I thought maybe I wouldn’t be gay if I loved Tracy. A few months later, we had a falling out, and broke it off. I was sad, but something told me that it was my path. 

    A few months later, “Nick,” one of the most popular guys in the class behind me, became my lab partner in physiology class. (I know, such a cliché.) He was handsome, a football player, and all the girls were falling over him. When I saw him at the park on the Fourth of July, he pretended not to notice me. But eventually we began to hang out with the same group of friends. That group even came to San Francisco for a rock concert. That is when it happened. We spent the night, we cuddled, it was sweet and close. Although he insisted he was straight, we continued to cuddle and hold each other in private. I was on top of the world—I was in a secret relationship with the hottest guy in high school! He was funny, charismatic, charming. We had amazing talks for hours. We would trade clothes and spend time together. He was my true love.

    Sadly, it didn’t last more than a few months. I could sense “Nick” getting scared of being discovered in a relationship with me. He pulled away and stopped returning my calls. I was seventeen years old and thought I had found the one, someone completely spectacular, and suddenly he was leaving. I did everything to keep him—even enlisting my grandmother to make her famous fried chicken when he came to dinner. But nothing could make him stay, and I had nobody to share my pain with, nobody who could understand.

    Fortunately, the universe smiled on me and I made a true friend who made me feel so much better. Jason was one of the most popular guys at school, and being his friend meant nobody would pick on me. He acted like Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, showing up in a toga or with wet hair and a total attitude. We were never romantic, but we were, and are, deeply connected. Having him as my ally in that last year of high school helped me get to the other side of heartbreak. We are still friends today.

    Later that year I went to a party in Stockton. I was introduced to cocaine and my first male sexual encounter the same night. We got pulled over by the police, but somehow evaded a ticket. I was exhilarated by the experience, but disappointed my first wasn’t with “Nick.”

    After graduation I met a man named Paul who was devastatingly handsome in a bad boy kind of way. He would sneak over to my house and we would make out, even though he said he was straight. Paul introduced a lot of drama into my life, and we broke it off when I went away to college.

    I moved to San Francisco to attend UCSF, and lived in the dorms. I was finally living in a place where I could be truly, openly gay. But the transition was difficult. I didn’t know how to be openly gay. I would regularly go to a bar near campus to fortify myself before working up the courage to go to the gay bars in the Castro. I wanted to learn how out gay men behaved, and to see how I fit in. I felt I needed the alcohol for the courage to venture into this new world, but the drinking became out of hand.

    When I went back to my hometown over school break, I decided to come out to my mother and grandmother, saying, “Remember Paul? We were actually dating.” They surprised me by saying, “We don’t have a problem with your dating a man. We have a problem with your drinking. You need to get help for that, and soon.”

    When I went back to school in San Francisco, I began to go to AA meetings. They changed my life. They gave me a new way to relate to the world, and the courage that I was seeking through alcohol. I am happy to say I have been sober for 31 years. AA helped me accept my sexuality with Pride. It gave me the confidence to come out to all of my family and friends and be who I truly am without shame or apology.

    When I returned home for a visit, I began to tell people there, too. In one memorable episode, I interrupted my cousin Lisa and her friend Tiffany getting ready for a party, saying. “I need to tell you that I’m gay.” They responded, “Yeah, we knew,” and continued to do their hair and makeup as if it was no big deal. I guess in a way it didn’t have to be. AA helped me see the value of an authentic life. It gave me a strong foundation in myself that made it much easier to be true to myself and not have to live a secret life.

    Once I came out to the people who knew me, I became proud of being a gay man. I started volunteering and fundraising for LGBTQIA organizations, something I continue to do three decades later. Becoming active in this community gives me a sense of identity and hopefully welcomes others. No matter where you are from, you deserve to be who you are, and to be happy about that.  

    Mark Rhoades is a public relations consultant with over 10 years of experience promoting clients across celebrity, lifestyle, fashion, and consumer industries. Current and past clients include Bloomingdales, Jennifer Newsom, Al Pacino, Joy Venturini Bianchi, and Lisa Vreeland. For more information:

    Published on October 8, 2020