Coming Out in Rural Virginia
By, Eric Harrold
Bath County Virginia is by all accounts a place with high visual appeal. Its forested mountains coursed by winding roads and numerous hiking trails with breath-taking views go easy on the eyes. For well over two centuries, its countless visitors have been drawn to its natural beauty and in the winter of 2007 I became one of them. I came to work for Douthat State Park as an outreach educator to work with local schools. On a visit to Valley Elementary in the community of Hot Springs I happened to meet a middle school student named Gage Thomas.
“I was in 6th grade and knew I was a gay male,” says Gage. “I was only 12 years old. I was a blonde haired, blue eyed boy with not a care in the world, playing with my Barbie dolls. I knew I was quite different.”
As if middle school didn’t already offer enough problems, Gage had concerns about how others would react if they were to find out that he was gay. “I was afraid of what could have happened if I said I was a gay male. But a lot of people around me were very caring, especially my teachers,” he says.
This gave him somewhat of a false sense of security and led to a decision that he would come to regret. “It all started by telling a group of friends that I thought I could trust but I thought wrong!” Gage recalled.
First came the teasing and then the bullying for a kid who already wasn’t very comfortable on campus. He didn’t feel as though he fit in and coming out only led to more isolation as it wasn’t worth the risk to put himself in situations where he might find more bullying as opposed to gaining a new friend. “School was a very hard thing for me,” says Gage, “I didn’t feel as though I was good enough for anyone to want me as a friend.”
Gage was 14 when he finally came out to his mother. “It was very hard because I thought my mother wouldn’t accept me,” he said. “My mother protected me after that, and we became really close. I looked up to her for everything. She was my role model.”
During his senior year in high school, the unimaginable happened when Gage lost his mother. This was the hardest thing that had ever confronted him to that point in his life. What was worse, there was no support from others in his family after his mother passed away. There is still no communication with his father, who did not know how to accept him being gay.
After completing high school, he started working at The Omni Homestead Resort, a popular vacation destination which caters to effluent clientele, most of which come there to play golf. “I worked there for 2 years, best time of my life,” says Gage. “During that time I fell in love for the first time.” He met a guy named Joshua, who was a Texas native.
They had lived together for a couple of months when one day Gage spontaneously decided it was time for his first move. “I had packed all my stuff the week before,” he said. “And the day after New Year’s I had this great idea to travel, and we headed for San Antonio. It took a lot to actually make the decision, but I knew I had been through enough. All I took with me in my heart was faith in God! I think to myself all the time - I just picked up and moved to a different state with a guy I had just fell in love with.”
Gage cites multiple factors that compelled him to make a move that many kids growing up in a rural area are reluctant to consider. “I had a lot of motivation when moving from Bath to Texas. Part of the reason was because I didn't feel loved for who I actually was, and the death of my mother took a big toll. I just couldn't take no one being there for comfort when I needed them to be. The romance with Joshua helped me a lot., He showed me a lot of love at that point, and knew how to make me smile,” he said.
His relationship with Joshua was a short-lived romance that sadly ended about 3 months later. “I was thinking how I would make it in a city only being 19 years and not knowing anyone else,” says Gage. “But I did!” He made new friends instantly and he credits those people for helping him find his way, living independently of his family for the first time in his life.
“When things broke down with Joshua and I, I had a good friend named William Bailey who took me into his home, fed me, clothed me... basically showed me around the gay community,” recalls Gage. Bailey’s personal condition has been a revelation for Gage. “William Bailey is a good friend of mine basically a father to me, he has full blown AIDS. I learned what the disease does to you. It’s very rough on your body, but this man gets up every day to do his daily tasks.”
Gage’s experience has shown him there is a lot to love about the city where he arrived a complete stranger. It appears that a lot of much needed support was there waiting on him. “My life in San Antonio is absolutely fabulous. Living in San Antonio you feel freer to be who you are, and most people aren’t judgmental. The San Antonio gay community is huge and loving, and we all stand for our rights as a community. Also a lot of straight men and women love the LGBTQ Community.”, Gage stated. “I love San Antonio being a gay male here. You have a lot of opportunities, such as being a model or working for organizations that raise money for HIV/AIDS. I would love to open a private company to raise money for the LGBTQ community and AIDS research.”
San Antonio has offered an interesting contrast to life in Bath County and it has fed a desire to experience more new places. “Moving to Texas has been a journey,” he says. “I want to move to California next, and enjoy the ocean and mountains again.”
Gage has a message for youth of today that are struggling to come to grips with their sexuality, which he agrees is something of an accident of birth. “Don’t be afraid to be yourself and let the world know who you truly are – your sexual orientation shouldn’t be something to be ashamed of,” he says. “You are born as you are.”
Having met Gage at such an early age and knowing how he faced those battles courageously with tenacity and perseverance, it gives me a tremendous amount of respect for him to know that he rose above it all and sought out a happier place. I’m sure he’ll be able to offer wise counsel to others whose path he crosses that find themselves confronted by similar circumstances. Be brave, be strong…be Gage!