| Sun Journal
Aaron Williams and Michael Dugay look pretty ordinary walking along the streets of downtown New Bern, unless you notice they are holding hands.
They are gay, in love and engaged.
That doesn’t draw much of a glance in a 2020 world that continues to make strides in social acceptance and justice.
“But, we still have a long way to go,” Williams said of gay issues. “You don’t have to believe what everyone believes, but you do have an obligation to show respect and love.”
Although not marked on most refrigerator calendars, Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day. The phrase Coming Out evolved from the “closet” metaphor, which became common in the 1960s.
The gay celebration of living openly dates to 1988. The date, Oct. 11, was chosen to honor the anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which called for President Ronald Reagan to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Being gay is still a challenge as far as acceptance and rights. Same-sex marriage has only been legal in all 50 states for five years.
Hate groups aren’t rushing to change their beliefs and neither are gender bigots or those who follow some strict religious doctrines.
Still, boyish-looking Williams and Dugay, now both well past age 30, remember when times were drastically worse while growing up in the 1990s.
It didn’t help in their cases that Aaron’s father was a minister and Michael’s dad was a Marine.
The idea of Coming Out was a social minefield of family, friends and the ever-present opinionated strangers.
“When I was growing up, you didn’t come out because you were beat up, ridiculed and bullied,” Williams said. “Classmates would look the other way and even teachers.”
During Michael’s middle school years, he began to understand himself, this coming during an age when hormones and puberty come into play.
“It’s already an awkward phase for a child, but in my case, especially when you realize that you are gay,” he said. “Kids can be cruel to those who seem or act differently. I was bullied and made fun of plenty of times throughout those years. I could never come out for fear of it getting worse. I had many girlfriends to try to hide and cover up my being gay.”
Michael tired of the stress and came out when he was 15 and Aaron did so in his 20s.
They had an orbiting circle of family and friends that neither knew about until they met in January 2019.
They first chatted on social media, and then planned a date. Michael lived in Wilmington and came to New Bern to meet Aaron for a romantic restaurant dinner.
“We never got there,” said Aaron. “We had a picnic on my living room floor and we talked for six hours. We just knew it, that we were going to be together.”
They also found out how close their lives had almost connected through family and mutual friends.
The spark was more than passing attraction and they traveled between New Bern and Wilmington until Michael moved here a year ago.
Aaron, a New Bern High teacher and Michael, who works at Carolina Bagel, are now engaged and plan to be married next spring.
To honor both families, they will blend their names – Aaron Kaulana Nelson and Michael Kaulana Nelson.
Kaulana is Michael’s middle name and Nelson honors the maiden name of Arron’s mother.
They see their upcoming nuptials as a major step in their commitment and love, as well as a positive moment for gays.
“I hope this inspires young people to understand that they are amazing, that they are not different,” Aaron said. “They are uniquely made and have a purpose. Get help if you are depressed. Find someone to talk to and learn to look at yourself in the mirror and know that you are special.”
“I hope my story encourages others to find their own truth, added Michael. “I want those out there who might be afraid to come out to know that it will get better. You can be who you truly are inside. You do matter and you are loved. Be strong and be brave.”
A terrifying experience
Despite their current relationship euphoria and contentment about being gay, everything nearly disintegrated last month.
The combination of a lifelong medical condition and COVID-19 nearly ended Aaron’s life.
He was born with a rare blood disease and had a blood transfusion, causing him to be sickly throughout life.
Aaron felt ill one September weeknight and by 6 a.m., his chest was ablaze with pain, he was coughing violently and his head was pounding.
He was having a full-blown asthma attack. His fright became frantic as he began wheezing.
He texted a friend, “If I go back to sleep, I don’t think I will wake up again.” He didn’t realize the truth in those words.
Michael rushed him from their Bridgeton home to CarolinaEast Medical Center.
“They treated me for asthma and pumped me full of steroids,” Aaron recalled. A nurse told him he was being admitted.
She explained, “You tested positive for COVID. With your asthma, and low immune system, it makes you high risk.”
Then, she added the kicker.
“You are sepsis and lucky that you came in today,” she said.
Due to low oxygen levels, coughing and shortness of breath, his lactic acid level, normally fewer than 2, skyrocketed to more than 5.
The nurse added one last chilling note – “If you had gone back to sleep, then you could have gone into a coma or eventually died.”
Aaron opted to do an experimental viral antibiotic and was released rhe next week. Although he is still experiencing fatigue, he reports being on the rebound and is again teaching virtual classes.
He noted on a Facebook post that COVID-19 was indeed not just a disease of the elderly.
For a straight man, the hardest part of starting a relationship with a woman is asking her out the first time.
For a gay man, it gets complicated. You don’t want to ask a girl out. But, you’ve got a secret and that leads to lies and cover-ups.
Aaron Williams went the distance of in keeping his sexual secret.
“So, I did what I was expected as a pastor’s son. I married a woman,” he said. “I hurt myself, her, and most of all, my family. I was living a lie. I was scared to come out.”
He and his wife were living in Texas and when the marriage ended in divorce within a year, Aaron returned to North Carolina.
“I was a Christian living with a secret. I thought Hell was in my cards because I was gay,” he said.
He finally broke his silence.
“I told my middle brother that I was gay. I was dating a guy secretly,” he recalled. “We both were new to the dating world and I was outed unexpectedly. I was frightened. I then had to tell my family. It wasn’t easy and I can’t say the journey hasn’t been a tough one.”
Coming out doesn’t provide any immunity against life’s normal traumas such as deaths in the family.
They came like a wave.
It began when his middle brother Billy died expectantly.
“He was my best friend. I plummeted into further self-hate,” Aaron said. “I worked hard and smiled more. I covered up the pain. Several years later, my oldest brother, Danyal, killed himself.”
On top of those losses, death claimed his uncle Wilbur Sasser, along with his grandmother and grandad.
Aaron Williams was going into free-fall.
“Life was beginning to look like that Hell that I was so afraid of at all times. My anxiety went into full effect,” he said.
Whispers began about his behavior, which included a DUI.
“What they didn’t know is that I was barely holding on. I was barely living,” he recalled. “People can be so cruel. Then, my family rallied around me. My close friends rallied around me. They spoke life into me and talked me into getting some therapy. This was the best decision of my entire life.”
The pendulum began to swing positive about three years ago.
He has been a teacher for nearly two decades. Becoming the drama teacher at New Bern High School, along with being active in New Bern Civic Theatre, signaled a new, happier chapter in his life.
At the high school, he restarted the GSA – Gay Straight Alliance – which has had solid endorsement by Principal Jerry Simmons and the staff. It offers support, discussion and education – things that Aaron and Michael did not have when they were teens.
Meeting Michael further enhanced a growing positive life.
“Michael has been by my side ever since. He has my back. He loves me more than I ever thought was possible,” Aaron said. “He is my other half. He completes me. I have never been happier. I learned to love myself. I learned to forgive myself. I learned that I was not going to Hell. I learned that being gay is beautiful because God created me this way.”
Michael is pragmatic in his approach to life.
“Everyone has their own stories and memories of finding out who they are as a person,” he said. “It’s these memories, trials, and tribulations that make us who we are as adults. This is what growing up is all about.”
Michael grew up in a middle-class military family. His mother is from Hawaii. His father was in the Marines, a “New Yorker” from The Bronx. He had one sibling, a sister.
Originally stationed in Hawaii, the family came to Havelock and Cherry Point air station when Michael was age 2.
He described home life as strict and structured.
“Growing up, I could tell I was different. I was a more sensitive child,” he recalled.
Like most children, he enjoyed playing outside, climbing trees and playing in the woods.
“I just hated getting dirty, like little boys often get,” he said. “My parents noticed this about me. They also noticed my fondness of my mother’s jewelry and sparkly things. I was told that these were not things that little boys were supposed to like. I needed to ‘toughen up.’ When you’re younger, these quirkier behaviors are overlooked or tolerated with hopes that they will change.”
He attributes his father’s age and generation with some of his difficult childhood.
“He wasn’t able to understand me or what I was going through,” Michael said. “I couldn’t be my true self and lived a lie every moment of every day.”
He was depressed, but good at hiding pain.
But there was a happy ending with his father.
“We have since then mended our relationship,” Michael shared. “He is completely accepting of me and my lifestyle.”
Michael came out as gay to his closest friends as he neared his 16th birthday.
“Coming out in the ’90s and early 2000s was more difficult then, than it is now. It was the scariest thing I had to do, worrying that friends or loved ones would not accept me,” he remembered.
He was surprised by the reactions.
“My life changed for the better once I came out,” he said. “I can truly be myself, love myself, and love who I want to love.”
He moved from Florida back to North Carolina two years ago to be closer to family.
Then, he met Aaron and his family circle widened.
“We have been inseparable ever since and I can’t be happier,” he added. “We are so fortunate to have found each other.”
Oct. 11 is definitely on his calendar.
“I’m so blessed. There were past generations of LGBTQ that helped pave the way for myself,” he said. “We have come a long way, but there still needs to be more acceptance in our community.”
Charlie Hall can be reached at 252-635-5667 or 252-259-7585, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook at Charlie Hall.
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