By: Daniel Sernicola
My hand shook as it unfastened my seatbelt. I slowly climbed out the broken window of my overturned car and examined the wreckage. Tires were still spinning and Jim Brickman’s Rocket to the Moon was playing on a continuous loop from the speakers. The roof of the car was smashed down to the driver’s seat. Help was needed, but on the quiet back road in my hometown it was unlikely to arrive quickly. I slowly walked towards a house that sat back from the road and standing on its porch, knocked on the door. No one was home.
A woman’s voice screamed, “There he is!” As I turned around, people were coming out of the woods where they had been looking for my body. The woman ran towards me and held me as tears ran down her face. She whispered in my ear that God must have been with me. A man placed me in his truck and drove me to my home just a few miles away. I was numb and could barely remember how to get there as I gave him directions.
My dad was in the kitchen cooking pasta as he did every Sunday. As I stood next to the man, he knocked on my parents’ door and told my dad that I had been in an accident. My dad calmly thanked the man for bringing me home and put down his spoon as he prepared to put on his shoes. Anger filled his face and the veins in his forehead were popping out – I just wrecked a car owned for three short weeks. Yet, he didn’t say a word as he grabbed his keys and drove me back to the scene of the accident.
As we pulled up, we saw the flashing lights from police cars and an ambulance. We got out of the car and the moment my dad saw the wreckage, he grabbed me, holding me tight and sobbing. It’s the only time I ever saw my dad cry. Thoughts of anger turned to compassion as police told him I was lucky to be alive.
Home from the hospital, I rested on our living room couch. Looking over at the coffee table, I saw my keys and began to scream and cry wondering what had happened and trying to piece together a sequence of events.
I was a senior in high school during the fall of 1996. It was October 12th and there was excitement as the camera flashed during my senior photo session. An hour later I had a date. Sure I had been on dates with girls before, but this was the first time I went on a date with a guy. I was nervous, but as the night progressed I realized that we were basically two guys hanging out and having fun. It was care-free and on the drive home, I couldn’t stop smiling.
From the age of four years, I recall feeling different and looking at other boys. The word, “gay” wasn’t part of my vocabulary and wasn’t talked about in our home, though I remember my mother and sister laughing at a very flamboyant man selling his items at a yard sale. Kids at school made fun of me calling me the dreaded “f” word. In my conservative church, sermons preached that homosexuality was wrong and a sin. Confusion filled my mind as I struggled to fight off feelings of attraction towards the same sex. Hours of prayer didn’t erase the feelings as they became stronger and more intense. I wrestled with feeling that even though I was born gay, everyone around me told me it was wrong.
I was on my way to church the morning of the accident. It also happened to be the day after my first same sex date. In my 17-year-old mind, the only sense I could make out of everything that took place was that my maker was punishing me for finally acting on my feelings. It wasn’t fair! I may have walked away from the accident with a concussion and no broken bones, but one thing was broken for sure; my spirit.
The following week at school, I passed notes back and forth in my Algebra class with one of my best friends. I decided to tell her about my date, knowing she would be accepting of me. It felt amazing to finally share with someone 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, I knew something was different as I walked down the hallways of my high school and people turned away from their lockers to look at me, whispering to each other. It was surreal and appeared to happen in slow motion. This was interrupted by a football player knocking my books out of my hands and my belongings being scattered all over the floor. My friend’s boyfriend found one of our notes in her locker and shared it with the rest of the school. Being bullied was not new to me, but I wasn’t prepared for the year that was ahead of me.
I was beaten up weekly and weighing 140 pounds, it was futile to fight back. I’d take the punches and kicks waiting, hoping for the torment to end. When I finally had the courage to talk to school administration, I was told that I brought everything on myself since coming out. 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 witnessed my intense emotional pain and depression. A trip to the family doctor was supposed to help, but instead worsened my situation. I was put on heavy anti-depression and anxiety medications which brought on suicidal thoughts and feelings. I tried taking my life a few times and, fortunately, I survived. Later, I stopped the meds on my own having realized that prior to being on them I had never once thought of ending my life. A year later, reports were published stating that the two medications I was on caused suicidal thoughts in people under the age of 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, and I was beaten down.
20 years later, it’s 2016. I’ve been out as a gay man for over half my life and I’m 37 years old. Life has changed. My family is now accepting; I’m surrounded by loving and supportive friends; and best of all, have my own family consisting of an incredibly amazing partner and big, goofy dog. Society has changed. Gay marriage is legal in all 50 states when it seemed like a huge and unfathomable dream at one time. Ellen DeGeneres now has the number one talk show in the country after her sitcom was cancelled in 1997 when she came out. And schools now have gay/straight alliances and student groups.
It appears everything is 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 youth don’t have to face the same situations I went through twenty years ago, the truth is that they are facing worse situations. Behind the closed doors of the family unit, parents are still struggling with acceptance of their LGBTAIQ+ children.
A few years ago when my partner, Jake Hays, and I began our 200-hour yoga teacher training, we were asked what groups we’d like to work with and what our goals were as teachers. We immediately thought of LGBTAIQ+ youth and decided we wanted to start a yoga program for them in Columbus. Through our practice teaching, we held classes and asked participants for donations to the Yoga on High Foundation that would be earmarked for this program. The Columbus Coyotes and local performers Nina West and Virginia West also helped raise money to go towards the development of this program.
Kaleidoscope Youth Center was thrilled when we approached them with our idea as yoga classes had been on the list of programs they desired. We made fliers with our standard publicity photos on them, and were excited when the first night of our classes finally came. Not one student wanted to come to yoga. We were saddened, but not defeated. We realized that in our photos, we are big guys and look exactly like some of the people who bully the youth on a daily basis. So, I went to the center to meet with the youth. Through tears, I shared every detail of my personal story hoping to make a connection with them. The following week we tried again and the room was packed!
Who are the youth of Kaleidoscope? They are you and me. They have had to face adversity and trauma at young ages. Many have had horrific struggles including bullying, homelessness, human trafficking, rape and more. Yet, they have hopes, dreams, and bright eyes ready to conquer the world. They come to their mats each week, looking forward to the peace and calm the yoga program provides.
The yoga program was developed specifically for them and has evolved and changed to meet their needs. Kaleidoscope Youth Yoga incorporates a variety of yoga tools including physical postures, mindfulness practices, breathing exercises, meditation, relaxation and Reiki. The program is designed to inspire and empower the youth, offering them an opportunity to begin to heal from difficult life experiences. Through these practices, students are invited to find a connection to their true self by learning valuable coping skills in addition to fitness and body positivity in a safe environment infused with compassion, humor and empathy.
Together, we practice yoga and their personal stories slowly come to the surface. In the spring a young male to female transgender youth showed up to class in a dress, proudly proclaiming that she’s probably our first student to practice in a dress. We shared her pride, knowing the dress was more than clothing to her, it was an identity. We celebrated as a girl who was homeless and has practiced with us for over a year was excited to tell us that she was able to graduate high school and moving into her first apartment. And the meaning of joy was realized when another girl rested in savasana receiving Reiki for the first time. At first, her face showed pain and uncertainty. As soon as she felt Reiki, the corners of her mouth turned upward and she beamed, later proclaiming that Reiki made her feel safe. These are just some of the stories and there’s many, many more to tell. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve practiced yoga – together.
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 twenty 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. As Robert Frost so eloquently wrote, The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.