randy r potts

Illustration by Max Fleishman

When religion failed me as a gay man, I too filled the gap with a man who held me.

Eyewitness testimony suggests that Omar Mateen, who shot and killed 50 people in a gay club in Orlando, was often seen at gay clubs and on gay dating apps in the years before the attack. Much has been said of Mateen’s motivations; in his call to 911, he bragged that he was dedicating his attack to a slew of radical Islamist groups, some of whom are at odds with each other. 

We still don’t know to what extent his religion or perceived orientation informed his attack, but we do know this: Whether you are raised Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, if you come from the conservative variety, there is no home for you in the community of your birth as an out gay man or proud transgender woman or anything in between.

I don’t know if that fact was responsible for the rage that built in Omar Mateen—and I am not excusing any act of violence—but that exclusion is responsible for a rage that has built in me. 

Those of us from conservative religious communities—my grandfather was Pentecostal televangelist Oral Roberts—know there is no acceptance for us on the immediate horizon. Not even in 2016, not even after marriage equality. For that reason, when I watched the video released by Univision of an older gay man who said he’d spent months holding and comforting Omar Mateen, I gave thanks and I also cried. I have watched the video at least a dozen times now, simply to remember that embrace. When religion fails, men like this man on Univision fill the gap.

I know from experience: When I was married to a woman and in the closet, an older gay man held me, too.

Photo via Randy R. Potts

Gay men like the one in the Univision video are therapists, and there’s a very concrete reason Mateen might have sought informal rather than formal therapy. I talked to Candy Marcum, an LGBT therapist who’s been practicing for 25 years, for her perspective, asking her if she’d ever had a client like Mateen. She shook her head. Never, not even once. “My experience is that when people reach out for a professional counselor, they’re wanting not just help in accepting their homosexuality, but they also want to help whoever’s in their life—their parents, siblings, maybe a spouse, children,” Marcum said. “They’re trying to do what’s best for them and their family.”

But too many closeted people know that that scenario—parents, siblings, a spouse, children who are accepting and loving and affirming—may never be possible. Not just in Texas, or small towns, but in Orlando, too. For Mateen, it was the informal therapy of sex and cuddling—or nothing at all.


A cheap motel, 39th Expressway in Oklahoma City, a winter day, overcast. As we lay in bed together naked—me, the little spoon—I trembled. We’d met for sex many times before, but this time, I was close to tears. His erection against my back slowly softened. He massaged my shoulders, tousled my hair, kissed my neck. I fell asleep, and when we woke we dressed and went across the street for Mexican food.

I ordered migas. I still remember how they looked: a mess of softened tortilla chips rising like waves from the salsa verde and melted queso. At 4pm on a weekday, the restaurant was empty and the waiter left us alone to our thoughts—prayers, really—as we told each other all our unrealized dreams. He was 39. I was 27. He had a male partner. I had a wife and children. For him, it was an affair. For me, simple faith: “The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). 

Photo via Randy R. Potts

When I saw the man on Univision talking about his relationship with Omar Mateen, my heart skipped a beat. I knew this man. Not the individual, an anonymous Hispanic man in Orlando, but that kind of man: an older, out gay man, the kind of man a young, closeted gay man might run to for refuge. A young, married gay man with children who doesn’t relate to other gay men his age, men who usually want one of two things—a hookup or a relationship—but not all the things in between: the cuddling that’s more than a hookup, the meals without the expectation of a relationship, what single people call “wasting my time.”

The man on Univision, describing Mateen: “He was a very sweet guy. Very cuddly—he loved to be cuddled… He looking for love, he looking to be embraced.”

When we talk about L and G and B and T, we talk first about sex—heterosexuality, homosexuality, sexual relations, sexual orientation—but the bulk of our romantic lives are not about sex. Even if we’re lucky, sex takes up, at most, 5 percent of the time we spend with a mate. When I was married and closeted, it wasn’t just sex I wanted with a man; it was the other 95 percent as well.

Closeted LGBT people often pour years of dreams—years of things hoped for—into the sex act because that other 95 percent seems impossible: holding hands, going to movies on dates, sitting next to each other in public. It is all part of another world. A forbidden world, an impossible world, an imaginary world that can’t and won’t connect to the world we know.

Man on Univision: “I ask him about the Muslim religion and he say the Muslim religion is a beautiful religion, a spiritual religion, a religion where everything is about love. He said religion is, like, ‘everybody’s welcome.’”

Too often for closeted people from conservative backgrounds, the landscape of our families and places of worship cannot be overlaid with the moonscape of our romantic lives: If Omar Mateen really was gay and had decided to come out, it’s likely he would have never been able to sync his new out-of-the-closet life with everything that came before. For those of us in that position, the anger that builds is palpable: Me, I feel it still. I am disinherited from my family, informally excommunicated from the Pentecostal church of my childhood, and I am aware—every moment of every day—that that may never change.

Just this week Matthew Vines, the most public face of the fight for LGBT equality in the conservative Christian church, wrote this of the church where he spent most of his life:

If I were massacred tomorrow, if I were gunned down, would anyone there care? Do I still matter to the people who used to love me the most? And even as I write those words, I can only wonder if I will now hear from people I haven't heard from in years, only to tell me they are offended that I asked those questions. Not to tell me that they would care or that they do love me. But I know this much: They will not hold me as I cry. They will not make space for me to mourn. They do not want me as I am, and they will not even let me grieve this slaughter without being offended by my grief. And that is not love.

It’s not that we gay folk from conservative faiths have given up: There are many reasons for hope, many reasons, even, for faith. Trey Pearson, another formerly closeted gay man with a wife and kids who comes from a background like mine, had a profoundly different coming-out experience than I did. Many of the victims in the shooting were also supported strongly by their friends and family, even though many of them presumably came from Latin American Catholic backgrounds. Eddie Justice, who didn’t make it out of the club that night, texted back and forth with his supportive mother while hiding in the bathroom. 

This week there is hope, there is rage, and there are moments in which I give thanks. For all those taken from us, we say: We remember. We say your names.

Randy R. Potts’s work focuses on portraits of minority communities in conservative areas: conflicts over the place of faith, guns, race, and orientation especially. His writing and photography have been seen in many publications, and he is working on a reported memoir project which will appear entirely on Instagram as a serial in fall 2016; you can follow the account now @thebirdiejean.

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