The engagement photo the author (right) and his fiance snapped. (Photo: Photo Courtesy of Steven Romo)
“I like to keep my private life private.” Those words I used to say so often echoed around my head while I scrolled through my phone’s notifications.
A few weeks after I proposed to my boyfriend, we posted about it on social media. And before I knew it, it had spread online, showing up on gay media sites and even mainstream newspapers.
I’m not exactly sure why it took off. Maybe because my now-fiancé and I worked at competing TV stations in Houston. Or because neither of us were very publicly out beforehand. Whatever the reason, it made me chuckle to see the selfie I snapped of us grinning and holding up our ringed hands at the top of several articles.
I remembered a time not long before when I thought it wasn’t important for me — and certainly not important to anyone else — that I was vocal about being gay. Now, I know how wrong I was.
My journey to being intensely private has been a long one. I grew up fluent in secrecy. My family kept the way we lived from everyone, even freezing in place when Girl Scouts or magazine sales people came to the door, so they’d think no one was home.
We couldn’t let anyone see the swarms of roaches that littered our walls. Or the piles of dog waste left behind from our herd of chihuahuas that used the carpet instead of going outside. We had all somehow silently agreed not to let anyone else know.
I also had another secret even my family didn’t know. I was gay and trying with all my might not to be. Keeping everything inside and walling myself off from the world was like second nature to me.
There didn’t seem to be any evidence that the world would ever have room for people like me. I’d have to always hide who I was to fit in, I thought, if there was any hope of a happy future.
We started going to a church when I was around 12. The social connections and exposure to functional families were monumentally helpful to us. But some in the church taught me that not only was gayness shameful as I learned basically since birth, it was also against God’s plan. I wasn’t born this way? That was news to me.
So, I focused on my career instead, defying the expectations everyone had for me, which were not high, especially after I dropped out of school in the eighth grade (before scrambling to get into college later). I was successful in breaking into TV news. I worked my way up through stations until I became an anchor in Houston, one of the biggest cities in the country.
Through it all, I figured love just wasn’t in the cards. The idea of any happy couple existing in my family seemed unlikely at best. But a happy, out gay couple? It didn’t even register as a possibility.
In my last HuffPost Personal essay in 2019, I described how being open about my upbringing helped me, and about how during my childhood, stories are what saved me. As a kid, I would shove piles of junk food containers and other trash away from the television in my living room and watch everything — from “Saved By the Bell” to “Sally Jesse Raphael.”
Among my favorites was “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” I’d sit in a lawn chair we kept in the living room and clack around on a beige keyboard I’d salvaged out of a neighbor’s trash. I pretended to be on my own germ-free ship warping through space, separated from the squalor around me as I watched adventures on the dusty screen.
I was thrilled at the prospect of this diverse, near-utopian future. But as I figured out I was gay — despite my best efforts not to be — I was disappointed to never see that aspect of myself reflected back.
It was the same for all the other television shows I watched, and the books I would check out from the library. I was desperate for any of them to say ”gay” in a positive way. There didn’t seem to be any evidence that the world would ever have room for people like me. I’d have to always hide who I was to fit in, I thought, if there was any hope of a happy future.
As an adult, I no longer thought that way. Instead, I decided society had progressed enough that it didn’t matter anymore if I was vocal about who I was. My family and friends already knew, as did most of my co-workers in my Houston newsroom. I wondered: Will one more overt coming out post or rainbow flag in a Twitter bio make a difference? Can’t I just live my life without a big declaration?
Then something happened that changed everything.
I’d gone so long keeping my upbringing a secret, I was surprised to hear myself telling it all to this masked, socially distanced stranger.
He was a reporter at another Houston TV station, also named Stephen (thankfully, with a different spelling). We met while on assignment in 2018. A Republican candidate for Congress was hosting a campaign watch party at a Mexican restaurant, and though she’d clearly lost, she wouldn’t concede the race. So, the event that should have lasted an hour sprawled out much longer, giving me time to say hello to the tall competitor with the friendly smile.
That meeting led to many Instagram direct message conversations. Until one day two years later, after he left his station’s news department and became a meteorologist, I asked this newly minted weatherman out for coffee. It was in the midst of the pandemic’s shutdown, and we found one of the only places still open.
I’d gone so long keeping my upbringing a secret, I was surprised to hear myself telling it all to this masked, socially distanced stranger. But tell him I did. About the roaches and the dropping out. About the family member who was in prison for child abuse and assault convictions. About my mom who died at 43 and who I’d never gotten to reconcile with.
He looked at me with compassion and interest, but importantly, not with pity. He’d grown up in a religious family, too. One even more steadfast in their beliefs. He told me his coming out led his parents to question their faith, eventually leaving the church they attended. They’ve since found one that’s open and affirming to LGBTQ+ people.
They loved him so much they turned their world upside down, altered their beliefs. And he spoke about them with such tenderness — it was clear he knew how special that kind of family was.
If I’m honest, I loved him within the first few weeks. A surprise to me that I even had the capacity. Inside, I’d decided I didn’t need love like that, and maybe I wasn’t even capable of it. I’d be gay, sure, and maybe even have a partner. But love in a public, yelling-from-the-rooftops, kind of way? That didn’t feel like it was made for people like me.
Within a few months, life dropped another bombshell: a job opportunity opened up that would take him to New York City.
It should have been much more difficult than it was, but I knew the New York opportunity was one I couldn’t let him pass up. My mom didn’t leave me with much of anything when she died. There are no knick knacks or treasures. But one unintentional inheritance has helped guide me ever since: the soul-quaking knowledge that life is short.
So, I walked into my boss’s office with a smile on my face and put in notice that I was quitting. There were only the most fleeting prospects of any work in New York. While I hoped to defy the odds and achieve gainful employment again, it was far from a guarantee. Still, I knew how precious the love I found with Stephen was, so I took the leap.
I also bought two rings—one for each of us. Then, on a trip to New York to find an apartment, we decided to take a walk down Sixth Avenue. It was a muggy summer night and the streets felt wet even though it wasn’t raining. As I leaned up against a massive concrete planter, I pulled the rings out of my soccer shorts’ pocket and I asked him if he’d marry me. He said yes. We got teary-eyed. Then, we snapped the selfie.
Later, we told our families via FaceTime, before heading back to Houston to wrap up our lives there. We wore our engagement rings everywhere, even on air at work as we each finished out our few remaining newscasts in Texas. We were eager to tell coworkers and friends about the engagement, but we didn’t post publicly about it.
Our relationship felt so precious. Away from public scrutiny and snark, it had been an oasis. There was a temptation to keep it that way — until I told a good friend at work about popping the question. She concluded her squeals and congratulations by saying, “Don’t worry. I won’t say a word to anyone.”
That’s when it hit me how much I wanted to be open. I was proud, and the idea that anyone thought I wanted this to be a secret seemed too much like shame. I suddenly felt ready for any criticism or congratulations that may follow. We were in love. Nothing else mattered — not what anyone thought or said.
When I told Stephen about the exchange, he said he felt the same way. The next day, we each wrote posts about the engagement and hit send at the same time. Almost immediately, there were bigoted comments, some telling us we were going to hell. Some criticisms were less coherent but even more hostile. However, messages of kindness and support quickly poured in to drown out the hate.
I share this because I feel like my love story is the closest thing to miraculous that I’ve experienced. And the idea that our love is less than anyone else’s is dangerous.
Most kids are taught that heterosexuality is the ideal from their earliest moments. Letting children know that gay people exist, and do in fact love each other, is not only OK — it is vital.
Hearing about and learning about LGBTQ+ people at a young age will not spontaneously turn kids queer. How do I know this? Because hearing about straight people did absolutely nothing to turn me into a heterosexual. Hearing about LGBTQ+ people in positive ways, though, can make all the difference for children who feel different — who feel afraid — and who are wide-eyed and desperate to see that the world has room for them.
I recognize that within the LGBTQ+ community, it’s even more difficult for others, and that I benefited from privilege by being cisgender, for one. There are people who face far more backlash and even physical danger for being open about who they are. Feeling like you do not belong can take its own toll. A recent CDC survey found about one in four LGBTQ+ teens attempted suicide in the first part of 2021. Attempted, not considered.
I was shocked to hear those numbers, but familiar with the feeling of youthful hopelessness. I’m glad I held on, because even though I couldn’t see it, there was a place for me. There was a life in store beyond my wildest dreams.
As a professional storyteller, it’s almost embarrassing that it took me so long to realize my own story could be of value. It wasn’t until I had already shared this one, last secret that it hit me: Maybe, to someone, my life might be a signal that the world would have a place for them one day, too.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.