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As the camera flashed for my senior photos on October 12, 1996, I was feeling excited. I had a date later that day. Sure, I’d been on dates with girls before, but this would be my first one with a guy. I was nervous, thinking about what would happen if someone I knew saw me, the etiquette of who should pay the bill and who would initiate a kiss at the end of the evening. As the night progressed (dinner and miniature golf), I realized that we were basically two guys hanging out and having fun. It was carefree. On the drive home, I couldn’t stop smiling.
From the age of 4, I recall feeling different and looking at other boys. The word, “gay” wasn’t part of my vocabulary and wasn’t used in our home (though I remember my mother and sister laughing at a very flamboyant man having a yard sale once). Kids at school made fun of me calling me the dreaded “F” word. It was just obvious I was different.
In my conservative church, sermons preached that homosexuality was wrong and was a sin. I tried to obey the teachings of my church and fight off feelings of attraction toward the same sex. But I was confused. I had questions: how could a creator, who was supposed to be incredibly loving, have given me such a seemingly impossible burden? It felt like some sort of cruel joke. Hours of prayer didn’t ease the feelings. They only became stronger and more intense. I wrestled with the internal conflict that everyone around me thought the way I was born was wrong.
The morning after my first same-sex date, it was though my maker himself was trying to make that message loud and clear. I was driving down a back road in my small hometown on my way to church when a dog ran in front of my car, causing me to veer off the road. My car rolled a few times and landed upside down, smashing the roof all the way to the driver’s seat. The only sense my 17-year-old mind could make of the accident was that God was punishing me for finally acting on my feelings. It wasn’t fair! I may have walked away from the accident without any broken bones, but one thing was broken for sure—my spirit.
The following week at school, as my best friend and I passed notes back and forth in Algebra, I decided to tell her about my date, knowing she would be accepting. It felt amazing to finally share the secret I’d been keeping for my entire existence. I had an outlet in her to discuss my thoughts and feelings. It was enough.
A few weeks later, though, I knew something was different as I walked down the hall of my high school. People turned away from their lockers to look at me, whispering to each other—almost in slow motion. It felt surreal. Then a football player abruptly hit fast forward, knocking my books out of my hands and scattering my belongings all over the floor. My friend’s boyfriend had found one of our notes and shared it with the rest of the school. Being bullied wasn’t new to me, but I was not prepared for the year ahead.
I was beaten up weekly, but weighing 140 pounds, it was futile to fight back. I’d take the punches and kicks, waiting, hoping for the torment to end. I avoided telling any of my teachers for fear it would make my situation worse and my parents would have to get involved. When I finally had the courage to talk to school administration, I was told that I had brought everything on myself by coming out. I felt defeated and wanted a way out. My grades were slipping. There were some days I’d drive to school but couldn’t bring myself to walk inside. I’d turn around and go home or spend the day at a park or shopping mall. My parents, sensing something was wrong and knowing of my gay friend, started asking if I was gay. Finally, I told them the truth, my truth. They weren’t accepting, but witnessing my intense emotional pain and depression, they tried to help by taking me to the family doctor. I was put on heavy anti-depression and anxiety medications. The drugs only made things worse, bringing on suicidal thoughts and feelings. Unable to imagine facing more days of torment and more people who didn’t understand me, I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t make it to my 18th birthday and tried taking my life a few times. Fortunately, I survived—and stopped the meds on my own, having realized I had never once thought of ending my life prior to taking them. (A year later, research was published showing the two medications I had been on caused suicidal thoughts in people under 18.)
My entire world as I knew it had changed, and it felt like I had no control over anything. There was also the heavy feeling of being alone. My family, peers, church, and my maker all seemed to have abandoned me. Hope didn’t seem to exist. I was beaten down.
Coming Full Circle
Twenty years later it’s 2016, I’m 37 years old, and things have changed. My family is now accepting. I’m surrounded by loving and supportive friends. And best of all, I have a family of my own, consisting of an incredibly amazing partner and big, goofy dog. Gay marriage is legal in all 50 states, which seemed like a huge and unfathomable dream at one time. Ellen DeGeneres, whose sitcom was cancelled in 1997 when she came out, now has the number one talk show in the country. And gay/straight alliances and student groups are now common in schools.
Everything appears to be moving in a positive direction, but sadly, this isn’t the case. As a society, we witnessed the shootings at Pulse Night Club in Orlando this past summer. We also saw the state of North Carolina pass an anti-transgender restroom law. While we hope that our youth won’t have to face the same circumstances I did 20 years ago, the truth is that they are facing worse. And behind the closed doors of the family unit, parents are still struggling with acceptance of their LGBTAIQ+ children.
This is why my partner, Jake Hays, and I wanted to start a yoga program for LGBTAIQ+ youth in our city, Columbus, Ohio. Having started yoga for its fitness aspects (mainly flexibility), like so many do, we were quickly drawn in by the underlying spiritual benefits of the practice. Emotions I had suppressed for years slowly came to the surface through my practice. Through flow, I found freedom in my body and mind. Moving in unison with a room of people gave me a sense of belonging. Breath practices relieved my anxiety and left me with a deep sense of calm. Already a practicing Buddhist at that point, yoga seemed the perfect fit to accompany my spiritual journey. My meditation practice became more meaningful, and I was finally able to clear the chatter of my mind. It was liberating to feel expansive and vast through my entire being. Jake and I wanted to share this bliss with others who we knew could really benefit from it.
With the support of local organizations, we have been able to develop a yoga program to meet the specific needs of underserved youth in Columbus. These young people, who have already faced adversity and trauma like bullying, homelessness, human trafficking, rape, and more, still have hopes, dreams, and bright eyes ready to conquer the world. They now come to their mats each week, looking forward to the peace and calm yoga provides. The program inspires and empowers the youth to connect to their true self, offering them an opportunity to heal. Using a variety of tools including physical postures, mindfulness practices, breathing exercises, meditation, relaxation and Reiki, the program offers students valuable coping skills in addition to fitness and body positivity in a safe environment infused with compassion, humor and empathy.
As we practice, their personal stories slowly come to the surface. In the spring when a young male-to-female transgender youth showed up to class in a dress, we shared her pride, knowing the dress was more than clothing to her, it was an identity. We celebrated as a homeless girl shared with us that she was able to graduate high school and move into her first apartment. And the meaning of joy was realized when another girl received Reiki for the first time. The corners of her mouth turned upward and she beamed, later proclaiming that Reiki made her feel safe. These are just some of the many stories to tell.
On October 2nd, the Board of Directors of Kaleidoscope Youth Center, upon the recommendation of staff and participants, presented Jake and me with an award of Distinguished Community Partner of 2016. Amy Eldridge, Executive Director of Kaleidoscope stated, “The Yoga program that you have established at Kaleidoscope is a tremendous contribution to the well-being of our youth, and is providing them with skills that will support their well-being well into the future.” It seems fitting that this takes place 20 years after my own coming out as a gay teenager. It feels as though everything has come full circle and yet we know there’s more work to do.
It takes courage and bravery to come out and live an authentic life. It’s a deeply personal decision to be open about who we are with ourselves and others. It should be done in our own time and in our own way. Yoga can help though. If you are thinking of coming out or someone close to you recently has, try this powerful breath practice and mantra for courage and support.
A Mantra Meditation for Courage to Come Out
Start by focusing on your breath, knowing that each inhale brings you empowerment and each exhale invites you to let go and release negativity. Even out the length of your inhalations and exhalations. When you’re comfortable with this practice, alter it by inhaling for a count of 4, holding for a count of 4, and exhaling for a count of 8. The slight hold of the breath provides wisdom and self-control, while the extended exhale inspires restoration and increases intuition by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Try 4–8 cycles of this breath practice, then say the following mantra aloud at completion.
May all beings/I be at peace in revealing their/my beautiful and hidden places.
May all beings/I be happy and know the joy of sharing their/my authentic selves/self.
May all beings/I have strength today and always in knowing that it gets better.
While it can be exciting, coming out can also be scary, isolating, and overwhelming. At times, it may be difficult to see your journey of self-discovery getting better. If you or a young person you know is in crisis, feeling suicidal, or in need of safe and judgment-free support, visit thetrevorproject.org. For more information or advice on coming out, please visit hrc.org/comingout.
This piece is adapted from a post originally published on the Yoga on High blog.
About Our Writer
Daniel Sernicola, teaches yoga in Columbus, Ohio, with his partner, Jake Hays. Both are committed to the empowerment of their students and specialize in creating compassionate, safe, and inclusive yoga environments. In October 2016, their work with underserved youth was recognized with a “Distinguished Community Partner of 2016” award. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram @danielandjakeyoga.