This past Thanksgiving, my grandfather passed away. For most people, such an event would be very emotionally-trying.
Yet, from the moment he passed until the day he was buried, I felt strangely conflicted.
As cliché as it may sound, my grandfather was very religious. No — that’s putting it mildly. Religion, specifically Orthodox Christianity, was the dominant force in his life.
He read his Bible daily, went to church every Sunday and observed every fast day —which in Orthodoxy is basically going vegan for the entire period of Lent.
My grandfather had a profound impact on my life and the adult I have grown up to be. Like him, I have been obsessed with history since I was a little kid, and he took every opportunity to feed my obsession with thick, old books of historic legends, such as George S. Patton and Abraham Lincoln.
I also shared his love for religion to the point where, around the age of 13, I seriously considered becoming a priest. Going to church was a transformative experience for me, and I cannot deny that I felt a divine presence whenever I attended.
My grandfather also supplemented my love for the church by sending me various religious books, including the yearly fasting calendar put out by the Orthodox Church. I cherished these gifts, often flipping through them and memorizing the passages within.
He also continued to motivate me to earn my Eagle Scout rank, since he was also a scout and unable to earn it himself.
And yet, despite supporting me and loving me throughout my life, one phrase he said kept reverberating in my mind during the funeral.
It was during a family camping trip. I must have been 14 at the time. We were having our usual theological discussions. All of a sudden, I asked him why homosexuality was a sin.
It is a question I had never been able to understand, and I was hoping he could give me a clear answer on the subject.
“Because it’s an abomination. Marriage is between one man and..,” he began.
I could not stand to listen to rest of what he had to say. It was just like one of those terrible Prop 8 commercials I had seen on TV so many times.
The main issue I had with his statement is that I am gay, and that he essentially called me an abomination. Of course he did not know — I had not even come to terms with it at that point — but that did not make what he said hurt any less.
After that moment, everything about our relationship seemed to change, at least from my perspective. My love for religion waned, as it became clear that what I was and what the church wanted me to be were fundamentally opposed to one another.
Conversations on the phone soon developed a sickening routine — force a cheerful “hello,” lie about how I went church, talk about politics, rinse and repeat in the next phone call.
Even as I came out to all of my other family members, I never told him. I created many justifications for why, such as, “He’s old, why inflict that kind of pain on him?” or “Why ruin our relationship over something that is none of his business?”
However, my reasoning was actually quite simple — I was scared.
I feared the terrible, crushing pain of him telling me that I was a sin in God’s eyes. It was horrible the first time, and I refused to go through that again.
Fast forward to last Wednesday.
I had just landed in Los Angeles and immediately drove across town to St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral for my grandfather’s funeral.
Upon arrival, my uncle asked if I would read the Epistle during the service, a traditional thing to do in an Orthodox liturgy, because “it would’ve meant a lot to him.”
I had not been inside a church in over two years, but I agreed. After I finished, everyone there told me what a great job I did and how proud my grandfather would be of me.
I felt very hollow inside.
The burial the next day did not feel much better. After the ceremony, the family gathered at one of my grandfather’s favorite restaurants in Burbank.
Many people stood up to give tearful testimonials on what a great person he was, how kind he was. I thought about speaking, but I could not think of what to say.
I had always assumed that my grandfather would not understand or accept me being gay. However, confronted with stories about how he had affected so many lives for the better, I felt that I had underestimated his empathy.
True, maybe coming out to him would have been difficult, and maybe he would refuse to speak to me. But how can I know when I did not even tell him?
I have heard many stories about the most die-hard of homophobes changing their opinion when someone they love comes out — perhaps my grandfather would have done the same.
I do not think it is unreasonable to say that every LGBTQ person has that one relative they will never come out to. And if you do not want to tell that relative, that is totally your decision. However, coming out to them just might surprise you.
You might be the one that changes their entire worldview.
And if they do not accept you, that is OK. You should not have to lie about who you are for someone else.
My grandfather indeed was a wonderful, caring and thoughtful man, and I never gave him the chance to redeem himself of his one flaw.
It pains me that he died not knowing who I was.
Sitting in my drawer in my bedroom is a letter addressed to my grandfather. In it, I detail my struggle with coming out as gay, and that I love him and forgive him, despite everything that he has said.
Now, it just sits there and collects dust, because I could not muster the courage to send it.
Kyle Land is a news editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Kyleoftheland.