I was 14, just starting high school at an all-boys public school in the Bronx, when I began to feel a strong physical attraction to other boys. I was quiet and observant, and I didn’t yet know if I should, or could, act on those emotions.

My high school locker room completely bewildered me—a small space full of sweaty boys, constantly fighting, and pulling each other’s pants down. Curious, I couldn’t help but glance at some of them while they changed. And I can tell you; I was not the only one looking. Off to the side or in the background, I often overheard boys say things like “nice dick” and “you got a hairy ass.” At one point, I saw a boy playfully touch a classmate. In the corner of the locker room, and still in the closet, I felt a moment of joy: What if I wasn’t alone? What if there were other boys that felt the same way I did?

That moment was short-lived. In actuality, the same boy that touched the boy in the locker room, later called him a “faggot” in the hallway. It happened daily. I would see guys touch each other’s private parts and call them “faggots.” I was alone and horribly confused. I wondered if I could share my desires with some of them, but the fear of being called a “faggot” stopped me. At my school, the very place that I first observed queer curiosity, I was scared to come out, fearing my own physical and emotional safety.

It wasn’t just the school locker room where I heard homophobic remarks. In church, the pastor would say, “I know you love your sons. But you also have to spread the word of God and tell them the truth. Gay people are an abomination and are going to Hell if they don’t get right with God.” These statements led to countless hours of reflection, and a terrifying fear that God might strike me down at any moment. But even at 14, I knew I didn’t totally believe him. How could I be condemned to Hell for loving the wrong way?

I was raised in a strict Christian household and lived with my grandmother and mother. My father was not in the picture, although I would see him sporadically from the age of two, when he left my mother, to the year I turned 16. When I was little, I preferred the company of girls during my trips to the park, and I would sometimes play with dolls, showing little interest in sports. My father would say, “Stop acting like a little bitch.”

Years later he warned: “If you turn out gay, I’ll fuck you up.” But by then I had already lost respect for him. It was a good thing I didn’t see my father often.

Imagine me, a young black gay Christian male, trying to reconcile my sexuality with school, home, and church life. What happens to a black gay Christian who lives in a household that hates him; who really believed that he was going to Hell. Who would ask God for forgiveness every time he fantasized about another boy?

I eventually became comfortable enough to admit I like guys. Two years after curiosity flared in the locker room, I came out. I first told my close, straight friend, then classmates, then anyone who asked, then my grandmother, and, finally, my mother. Perhaps it was the support of friends, aunts, and those around me that made me not want to feel ashamed about myself anymore, even if that meant God damning me to Hell.

By the beginning of senior year, I went from “I’m gay” to whoever asked, to “Can you stop saying faggot please?” every time I heard the word. I was ready to be wholly true to myself and my sexuality. I began to imagine life in college, and envisioned a more inclusive post-high school existence.

Looking to strengthen my resume, I decided to participate in a school-based mentorship program, which was dedicated to developing strong black mentor-mentee relationships in the workplace with black professionals. One day, for a lesson on proper dining etiquette, the program took us to a Spanish restaurant. The room was well-lit and the atmosphere emanated a fancy air that was almost palpable. Unlike some of my classmates, I had experienced restaurants like this before, so I wasn’t nervous at all. I gazed around, admiring the patrons: strong, muscular men in suits. Just before the fish tacos and appetizers arrived, a mentor cautioned: “One piece of advice, if you want to be a successful man, do not mess around with those pregnant girls. Find yourself a good woman!” he said, smirking.

Everyone but me chuckled, laughs ricocheting across the table.

“Well, I like guys, so I don’t have to worry about that,” I said, trying to end the conversation.

“Oh, okay,” he said, staring at me and clenching his jaw. I could see he was trying to contain his anger and disgust.

The whole table—fifteen students, three mentors—looked at me, then at him. I cowered in my chair, embarrassed and uncomfortable. I suddenly felt isolated, a great distance growing between me and the group. Only after he released me from the lock of his eyes, did he continue the conversation about the sort of “good women” we should seek.

A month later, I decided to no longer participate in the mentorship program, and every time I was asked why, I made excuses about being too busy.

In time, I retreated into my fantasy world, where I was not sixteen and gay in a homophobic environment, but a world where I was older, in in the future, when I would arrive to a beautiful home from a long day at work, and be welcomed by a husband who loves me and bears my burdens on his shoulders. In this fantasy world, I am loved, desired, accepted.

After that night, I was desperate to be in a different environment. I explored several outlets and, with the help of an organization called Urban Word, learned that I could use spoken word poetry as not only a place to recite my story, but as a platform to advocate for social justice. Over the course of the past year, I have been trying to figure out just how I might go about that. In the process, I lived two secret lives: I became this other person, scared to be open up about my sexuality in my poems, and, even worse, I was hiding my poetry from my family. Maybe that’s why I never quite got over my nervousness during performances. Still, I always managed to channel my anxiety, and never worried about what others might think when I discussed coming out on stage, even though I couldn’t speak freely with my family about it.

It was in this new world that I found my real mentor, Timothy DuWhite, a 24-year old black queer poet who embraced me with open arms. I first met Tim at the Urban Word Poetry Slam semifinals a year before I became an active member. We connected and discovered that we both had been through similar issues involving our sexual identities. It was a moment that I had been searching for: to find a kindred community who accepted and nurtured all parts of my identity.

A month ago, I graduated from high school. Before I addressed our class in my valedictorian speech, I scanned the crowd, a sea of people before me. I saw the boys from the locker room, my mother, my grandmother, my teachers, and my best friend—and I understood them all, each in their own ways. I was thrilled to be leaving and moving on, but I could see that many of my fellow graduates were facing similar hurdles, ones that I had encountered, and had only masked their truth with homophobia. The culture we live in, though it has made strides in the last decade, still makes so many of us—the boys who like boys, boys like me—feel unwanted, feel like outsiders. But I no longer choose to stand on the outside.

James Fisher grew up in the Bronx, New York. He is as an incoming freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, where he will be a senior writer at Abernathy Magazine. During his time as a member of the UrbanWord Slam Team, James performed at the Apollo Theater, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and Lincoln Center.

[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]