I returned home this past summer in Northern Wisconsin at the lowest point of my life. I had dropped out of graduate school as the anxiety and fear of being gay had begun to strangle my will to live.
I walked into the bedroom of my childhood home and saw my hunting bow case laying there. After eight years, I picked it up, took it out, and started shooting again. I took our ATV and drove it at our cabin in the woods. I breathed in the fresh air and scent of leaves, wood and dirt. I returned to the spot where I shot my first buck and listened to the sounds I had missed for so long. I found clarity. This is where I belong, I realized. I am gay, and I am content here.
As the election map in my home state lit up red, and as it lit up red all across the country in small towns like my own on Nov. 8, 2016, the doubt I had about sharing this story slowly slipped away. In a time of political and social uncertainty for so many, I have realized there is a power and resistance inherent in owning my role as a part of the LGBTQ community. For too long, I took advantage of the privilege that comes with pretending to be a straight man. I want to help others be their authentic self. That could not fully happen until I became mine.
I'm not sure how many people who read this will have been in the woods of Northern Wisconsin in November, but the smell of pine trees and the crunch of the last leaves falling from the trees is unforgettable. If you remember seeing the ocean for the first time or have been to the Grand Canyon, I promise it competes.
I still remember my first bow hunt with my dad where I was allowed to hunt. So much goes into preparing for a hunt. Scoping out the best spot to put a stand, understanding where the deer will be and when and why. Taking the time to bait at scheduled intervals, and timing it just right so the deer come in where and when you want them to.
Hunting is one of the strongest bonds that I shared with my father. It is where we built some of our best memories. There is a camaraderie we all share as hunters, whether in a hunting party or just passing someone the opening morning of deer season in their hunting gear. Hoping they get their buck, as long as it's not before you and isn't bigger.
Growing up in a small northern Wisconsin town of 2,000 people and living in a Christian household doesn't leave you with a lot of gray area. I learned that "being Gay was bad, choosing a lifestyle of sin would lead you to Hell." I was bombarded with the use of the words “gross” and “wrong” as synonymous to gay. People talked about being gay as if it were a sickness or at best something to be hidden. So that's what I did — I buried it.
In the high school football and basketball locker room and on the baseball field the words “gay” and “faggot” were used as insults to the opposing teams. At the hunting shack the talk was about girls. I worked hard to ignore any "gay thoughts." I was not gay I told myself. I couldn’t be.
Even as I struggled to understand the feelings I had and how it was impacting me, being in the woods was refreshing for my soul. The best part about the deer stand is the quiet. It isn't dead silent though.
You can hear the breeze or the rustle of leaves as a deer walks in and your heart starts beating a little faster thinking it might be a trophy buck. My time spent there in high school brought me peace most of the time. I had so much time to talk with myself and imagine, and more importantly for me as a Christian time, to talk to God. It was also this time to think that made me give up hunting for a period of my life, and made me give up a lot of other things that were important to me.
Because I was gay, I thought I will never fit in. A gay man cannot enjoy hunting, or sports, or have a family, I thought. The typical belief about the mentality of a classic American hunter leaves little room for deviation: it tends to skew far to the right and masculine. If you are struggling to understand, try this. Imagine a photo on the cover of “Outdoor Magazine” with a man in camouflage holding his bow in one hand with a monster buck at his feet. Now imagine his other hand intertwined with his boyfriend smiling on the other side.
I can vividly picture my parents driving me to college in 2008 and the thought crossing my mind that I would always be alone. I wouldn’t have a family or kids even if I had an incredible career. It wasn't a self-pitying thought, or one with any sadness in it. It was a belief I had created for myself, and for a very long time it sent my life on a trajectory that brought little contentment. This was also the year I gave up hunting, and I wouldn't pick up my bow again until that day this summer in my bedroom when I felt I had nothing left.
In college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I struggled to connect with people around me. I studied relentlessly and worked tirelessly in the gym on my appearance to make up for what I now know is just a perceived flaw: the gender of the person I will someday have a chance to love.
I thought if I could just be perfect in every other way, if I could have a great job, if I could look attractive, make enough money, then someday when I came out it would be easier for people to love me. I pushed myself further away from the things I cared about — hunting, basketball, nature, friendships, family. I never went on dates in college, or had those crazy nights out where you start talking with someone you find attractive and feel the excitement of flirting.
I have struggled to feel confident and content in my life, but I am making progress. I have even spoken with a few hunters who are gay and enjoy the sport as much as I do. My friends and mentors in life have responded to my coming out with overwhelming acceptance. I know they have witnessed my struggle to be authentic, and it has made them love me more in my vulnerability and journey to living honestly.
I was afraid to come out to my family, who still live in the same town where I was raised. My fear was out of worry of losing them, out of the fear that they will be treated differently because of me being gay. Even still, I have begun creating an identity for myself, as I hid for so long behind the face of who I thought people wanted me to be.
It is important for me to share my story, because we live in a world that tells us who we can and cannot be every single day. A world that tells us how we should look and act in certain places if we want to belong — whether we are straight or gay, Christian or Muslim, Black or Hispanic. I'm asking that you stop believing this. I stopped hunting, something I love for too long because of these "rules.”
Just like in sports, when life presents times of adversity and loss, there is the opportunity for profound greatness to rise up in people. That’s the beautiful thing about human beings. We have an incredible resiliency. Often, it takes the hard moments, the moments we don’t see coming, to show us who we are and what we are made of.
The single most important reason I am happy to be gay is because it has challenged me to look at people and see only someone who is deserving of compassion and kindness, even though the world may tell me to see something else.
Luke Zoesch, 26, is a 2012 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an incoming MBA Candidate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison class of 2019. He lives in Minneapolis. He can be reached at facebook: https://www.facebook.com/luke.zoesch, snapchat: lzoesch1990, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski