When I was in the second grade, I used to follow one specific fifth grader around during recess. I’d follow him almost every day—from a safe distance so he wouldn’t see me. I don’t remember his name, but I remember thinking he was the most incredible person on the planet. I even remember asking my parents for braces so I could be more like him.

People like to ask me when I first “realized” I was gay, as if my sexual orientation was some discovery I just stumbled upon. But I’ve always known I liked boys. 8-year-old-Connor knew that better than the 16-year-old one did. I just stopped knowing it when I realized that knowledge would be used against me.

Because it was. Kids bullied me for being gay before any of us even knew what the word meant. It was a label synonymous with being different and bad. And as a kid who desperately wanted to fit in, I knew I needed to distance myself from that word as much as possible. So I decided to bury that part of me before it could become something. 

I started digging the hole the first time someone called me a “faggot” in the third grade. I dug deeper every time someone bullied or ostracized me for being girly or different. I dug and dug until I was left with what seemed like a never-ending pit.

Then I let my truth drop to the bottom. And when my well-intentioned parents suggested I simply give my peers fewer reasons to bully me, I filled it.

I decided to become exactly what my peers wanted me to be. I decided to “like” girls. I toned down my feminine traits and hid my creative interests. I flung myself at the feet of neighborhood boys, letting them treat me like shit as the price of inclusion. 

But the older I got, the harder it became to live a truth that wasn’t mine. I couldn’t admit to myself that I liked boys, but I couldn’t bring myself to feign interest in girls.

And then my peers decided that my halfhearted pretending was no longer sufficient. Because despite being “straight”, I wasn’t straight enough in the ways that mattered. They recognized the self doubt and self loathing brewing inside me and tried to get me to boil over.

Because they didn’t want me to be like them. They never did. They only wanted me to pretend to be so they could eventually expose me for the fraud and outsider we all knew I was. 

I realized then that I’d never be accepted by them.  Gay or straight—I’d never be good enough. So I had nothing to lose by being myself.

At that moment, it was like a shovel broke ground on my truth. I gave up on trying to win over my popular peers, and turned to the theatre kids and fellow weirdos who had always liked me. I found a community of people that wanted to know and embrace the person buried deep beneath the fear and self loathing.

And as I began to accept who I was, I started to dig up the dirt. One day, I was able to unearth the truth I had buried. And that truth wasn’t just that I liked boys. It was that the real me deserved to breathe. 

My dad recently told me he had always sensed my sexual orientation, but was afraid to approach the subject. He feared I’d think he was judging me. More than that, he was afraid of the hardships I’d have to face just trying to find myself.  

I didn’t find myself in the sense that I discovered a part of me I never knew existed. My journey wasn’t about realizing I was gay. It was about freeing myself from the self-doubt and shame that had been thrust upon me by others. It was about embracing the person who was already there, buried. The discovery was the recognition that I had always been good enough.

But my journey isn’t over. It’s a series of never-ending steps. Every time I shy away from public affection or change my behavior to make others feel more comfortable, I take a step back. Every time I open up, I move forward.

I don’t know what my life would have been like if I never had to bury my truth. I don’t know what kid I could have been if I hadn’t been called “faggot” that one day in third grade.  I don’t know what I would have said to that fifth grade boy if I hadn’t been so scared to be myself.

Maybe I would have run toward my truth instead of far from it.

But I choose not to look back on my journey with regret. Because despite how painful it was, It has shaped me into the empathetic person I am today.

I can only hope if I ever run into someone who’s buried their truth like I did mine that I’m ready to help them dig.