On Thursday, June 13, at 4 p.m., hundreds will trek from the Orange County Courthouse to Orlando City Hall-in high heels-to raise funds and awareness to combat domestic abuse. I’m co-chair of the first “Walk a Mile In Her Shoes, Orlando.” For me, the issue is personal.
It was 2002. At 36-years-old I had a great job, a beautiful home, and had even lost 40 pounds. I felt great and was ready to come out. The decision was a cause for celebration, but like so many members of the LGBT community I also felt some fear-mostly of rejection, and of being so exposed.
I certainly wasn’t afraid of domestic abuse. That was someone else’s problem.
One night at a downtown club, I noticed a younger man staring at me. Uplifted by the attention, I reached out my hand and asked him to dance. You could say it was love at first sight. But what followed in the ensuing months was unimaginable.
I’m not sure exactly when things changed. If there were warning signs during the initial honeymoon phase, I looked past them. Yes, he was extremely jealous, but I figured that’s how most gay men acted.
John (not his real name) also had an issue with alcohol. He didn’t get sloppy, or happy, or even sad; he got abusive, and mean, and even more jealous. In a new relationship, that’s a lethal mix.
And I had just come out. The last thing in the world I wanted was for anyone to see failure or fear.
The first time he hit me was after we had been dancing at a gay club downtown. One of my friends walked over to say hello, and it was as if the lights turned off in his eyes. He pulled me aside.
“You want to sleep with him don’t you?” he seethed, in a display of pent up anger and hatred. He didn’t even hear my reassurance that this was not the case.
John had driven, so I walked the 10 miles home, watching him pass by me several times in his easily identifiable Jeep. When I arrived, he was waiting on the front porch. He lunged at me, filled with more anger than I could ever have imagined a person could possess, and screamed that I was a “cheating bastard.”
I’m not a fighter. That night I took a beating like a person who felt he deserved it. When I finally managed to break away, I went to my bathroom and looked in the mirror. There was blood all over my face and in my hair, my eyes were black and blue, my lips swollen, and I realized he had bitten me on the cheek. It was only then that I recalled what he said when he bit me: “I’m going to mess up that beautiful face.”
I called the police, but when the officer came to the door I explained through the cracked door that I had made a mistake. He asked how I’d gotten hurt. “Odd thing, I feel off the back step,” I said. “I guess I had a few too many.”
That started the lie, and the enabling. If I had let the officer in, it might have prevented everything that followed. But I didn’t and it continued. We moved in together.
My relationship with John lasted more than a year. Abusers want to you to focus solely on them, and when you aren’t, they get your attention in the only way they know how. He told me many times how his dad beat his mom, even shooting her once. John also treated his mother horribly, yet he professed a passionate devotion to her.
There were nights I can remember lying in bed in fear. I’d wait for him to fall asleep. Then, sneak out of my house to my car and just drive. I was safe then. I slept in my office and checked into hotels. I drove to the rest area on I-4 near Longwood, just to sleep. I slept on my mom’s sofa, as she told me I was “nuts for letting him stay in the house.” I was now living in my own jail and paying for it in countless ways.
Everything changed Christmas Eve 2004. I took a walk after John had picked another fight. As I neared my house, I watched through the front picture window as he ripped apart a perfectly decorated Christmas tree. Decorations flew everywhere, some that had been in my family for decades, and one-by-one the strands of lights went out. I can still see it today.
I stormed through the front door and begged him to stop. “Where were you,” he screamed. “Cheating again?’ The following morning I had another black eye to disguise, but I had decided I was done.
I called his parents in West Virginia to come get him. If not, I would have him arrested and they could deal with the consequences. Ironically, the only person he would listen to would was his father, the very person who’d taught him the power of abuse. A few weeks later, I loaded his things in his car and called a transport company to deliver them.
That was more than 10 years ago and I haven’t looked back. I allowed myself to heal, and came to realize I didn’t deserve what he’d done to me.
Believe it or not I still hear from him, but from the safe distance of email or Facebook. He’s changed. He’s sorry. He wants another chance, and it’s not like he cheated or lied. It’s the language of abusers. And even though I tell him over and over that the damage of the past can’t be repaired, it’s as if he can’t hear me. He doesn’t get it. Abuse is not forgivable, and certainly not forgettable-at least not for me.
I’ve been in a few long-term relationships since, and I’m sure they suffered from the aftershocks of what I experienced. But I’ve never told anyone, not my family or closest friends, the story I’m telling you here. I finally decided to share and let go of the shame. I don’t fear him anymore.
Domestic abuse can happen to anyone: straight, gay, female, male, transgender, black, white Hispanic. But it doesn’t have to happen to you!
The first “Walk a Mile In Her Shoes, Orlando” steps off at the Orange County Courthouse at 4 p.m. on Thursday, June 13. As many as 500 participants are expected, and all are encouraged to wear high heels. There’s an optional $20 registration fee, and walkers are encouraged to obtain pledges. All proceeds will go to Harbor House, a respected-and LGBT friendly-domestic abuse shelter in Orlando.
For more information, visit WAMOrlando.Kintera.org.