“I reached a point where I could no longer tread the water of lies; I could no longer maintain the facade; I could no longer be an imposter to myself. I was alone in the vast ocean of lies I had formed, and I was drowning.”
This is the third in the #OwnVoices Series here on my blog where I share the stories of Pasifika LGBTI from around the world. Phineas Hartson wrote to us from Sydney Australia, and Princess Arianna Auva’a in American Samoa. It takes courage to share our stories in a public forum and I’m grateful for all those who are willing to participate in this series. Today’s guest is Penehuro Williams, who lives in Las Vegas Nevada. I’m extra buzzed to welcome him because Penehuro is my cousin – and not in that vague way that we Samoans are often #cousins (where you have to recite a complex family tree of extended branches to find the link…) – but super close cousins, as in his mum and my dad are siblings. Having said that, Penehuro and I have never actually met in person, so I was thrilled he accepted my invite to come on the blog.
Penehuro was born and raised in American Samoa. He joined the US Air Force in 2009 right after high school and was a meteorologist with them until he got out in 2015. He now works at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). He’s also going to school, majoring in cellular and molecular Biology.
This is his story.
I distinctly remember the moment I first thought to myself that I could be gay. I was about 8 or 9 years old, and was walking to my 4th grade classroom one morning when the thought made its grand appearance in my head. It was a peculiar thought – one that made my heart beat rather swiftly – but it was not unwarranted. I was not like the other boys in my class; most of my friends were girls, which was odd at that young age where boys and girls seemed to stick to their own gender; I did not enjoy sports, which nearly every other boy in my class did; and, most importantly, I developed an attraction for a particular boy in my class, an attraction that eventually became my first crush. I do not know how I came to learn of the word “gay.” At the time, I do not think I fully understood what the word entailed. What I did understand of the word, however, was enough to know that it was taboo – a topic discussed in scandalous whispers by adults behind closed doors; it was different – not something seen in the everyday bustle of life; and most importantly, it was unnatural and hence, inherently bad.
With these definitions of the word “gay” in mind, I spent the next 6 years suppressing this unnatural part of me. And it was not until another 5 years had passed that I began to achieve self-acceptance. Overall, it took 11 years of internal struggle before I finally began to love myself.
Growing up in American Samoa, where strong, cultural values and an irrevocable faith in God are foundations of society, I had more than enough reason to stay in the closet. The biggest reason was fear – fear of being unloved, fear of being disowned, fear of being an outcast, and fear of rejection. These fears motivated me to consciously adjust my mannerisms to convey a more masculine appearance – sit up straight, keep your head up, widen your stance, cross your arms. I figured if I was more like the other boys my age, the less suspicious I would seem. Every day I woke up in the morning, and just as natural as it was to brush my teeth and get ready for the day, it was second nature to smile and lie through my teeth to everyone around me. After years of practice, the lies eventually became such a part of me that they fell from my lips as seamlessly as the rain fell from the clouds. And like a constant downpour of rain, the lies accumulated, gradually building in a pool of water around me. Eventually I reached a point where I could no longer tread the water of lies; I could no longer maintain the facade; I could no longer be an imposter to myself. I was alone in the vast ocean of lies I had formed, and I was drowning.
My life line came in the form of a beautiful and intelligent girl I met during high school. We connected over similar interests and over time developed the best of friendships. During my sophomore year, I decided to come out to her. Something in me compelled me to open up and to let her in. I anxiously awaited the entire day, getting more nervous as the hours dragged by. Finally, at the end of the school day, I asked if she wanted to accompany me to the library because I had something to tell her. When we finally found a quiet table and sat down, my heart was just shy of beating right out of my chest; never in my life had I been so nervous. I was so nervous, in fact, that I could not speak. I could not bring myself to say out loud the words that had been eating me up inside since I was in the 4th grade. I resorted to grabbing the nearest book, flipping to a random page, and began pointing out the letters instead: I… A… M… G… A…. But before I could finish, she jokingly said, “You’re gay?” and laughed, obviously thinking that it was some kind of ruse. My response was utter silence. And in that silence, I broke. Tears streamed down my face and dotted the book I was using. I looked up, expecting to see some form of disgust or admonishment, but instead was met with a pair of warm, teary eyes. I do not remember what all was said after that point. The only thing I can recall is the overwhelming feeling of relief that swept through me that day. She accepted me exactly as I was, and by doing that, she saved me from myself; she saved me from drowning in the lies I had so easily become accustomed to; she saved me with a hug, with love, with friendship, with understanding, with an open heart and an open mind. Out of all the amazing and wonderful things she did for me that day – things I cannot even begin to describe – the most important thing she did was give me hope.
The newfound hope I received invigorated me to find, heal, and build myself – my true self. I was able to leave high school happier and more content than I thought I would ever be. And when I joined the United States Air Force, serving across the continental United States and abroad in Europe, I found even more hope in the widespread acceptance from my fellow airmen.
Contrary to the fears that plagued my 11 years of internal struggle, the reactions I have received thus far have been overwhelmingly positive. This is not to say that I have not had my share of negative reactions. About a month ago, I attempted to donate blood but was rejected due to my sexuality. It was a harsh reminder that despite recent accomplishments made in the name of equality, there are still every day aspects that can render one feeling like a second-class citizen – rejection is definitely one of those aspects. And that rejection is one of many.
Diversity is one of the many beauties of life, and through it, people will have a variety of views. Many people, from close family to strangers, have and will continue to disagree with my life. Armed with a repertoire of Bible verses, a lack of understanding, and maybe even an ignorance to understand, people will criticize and judge as if I am not my own biggest critic; as if I did not spend little more than a decade tormenting and trying to understand myself; as if I did not spend years begging God to change me; as if I did not become so distraught that suicidal thoughts were regular occurrences. My sexuality is as much an innate part of me as the very flesh and blood people see, and I can no more willfully change that than I can the color of my eyes. Ultimately, I have worked too hard and for too long that, quite frankly, no amount of criticism, prejudice, hate, or ignorance will ever put me back to those miserable years I spent in the closet. I am happy.
So to the young boy or girl struggling to come to terms with his or her sexuality; to the young boy or girl navigating the complexities of adolescence and puberty, struggling with his or her gender identity; to the young boy or girl who does not fit the social norms of society; to the young boy or girl suppressing an identity out of fear; to the young boy or girl who may be drowning in his or her own pool of lies, desperately gasping for a breath of understanding, know this:
You are beautiful, you are not alone, and you are loved. Courage comes in many forms, and by simply existing and dealing with struggles most people will never encounter, you exemplify a form of courage. In all honesty, your struggles may not disappear entirely. Someone, somewhere, will always dispute your truth. And that is fine, because your struggles are not entirely yours. They are shared amongst hundreds and thousands of people across all oceans, over all continents, and from all walks of life. Though the world may seem immensely harsh and cruel, there are people out there who support and believe in you.
My name is Penehuro Williams, and I am one of those people.