Today, Oct. 11, is National Coming Out Day. According to the Human Rights Campaign, it’s a day to “celebrate living openly and honestly,” and possibly come out of the closet for the first time. The theme of the event this year is “Talk about it.” If it were only that easy…Nathan Hildreth’s parents were 14- and 15-years old when they had their firstborn. Along with a brother and sister who came later, Hildreth was raised in a devout Jehovah’s Witness family that was well known in its tight-knit religious community. His father was the son of the congregation’s leader, and Hildreth, now 31, was a missionary by the time he was 17.
“We were kind of like the model family,” he says. “And me being the oldest child, I had more pressure on me than any other youth in the congregation to be the most spiritual.”
That’s why when his father found the men’s underwear section of a catalogue hidden in 12-year-old Nathan’s room, he ignored what he must have know it signified.
“At a very early age I was doing anything I could to shield or cover the fact I’d been having attractions to guys,” says Hildreth.
And with so much pressure from his religious upbringing, he might have been able to hide it for a very long time. But when Hildreth was 19, his picture-perfect family began to disintegrate. An injury forced his father to be homebound, and that triggered a latent bipolar disorder, Hildreth says. His father mistreated his family and began to get into cocaine. When people in their congregation found out, Hildreth’s family was no longer admired-or even supported.
“Here they preached inclusion, but everyone started distancing themselves. I finally realized what was going on,” he says.
With his family in shambles, Hildreth worked the graveyard shift at a drafting company to help his mother pay the mortgage. He would frequent a nearby Applebees and eventually became friendly with a waitress named Kelly. It was taboo for Hildreth, whose religion disapproves of socializing with non-Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“‘Bad associations spoil useful habits.’ That’s what they say,” Hildreth says.
At that point, nobody else knew he was gay. He couldn’t tell anyone in the congregation, and he didn’t know anyone outside of it-except for Kelly.
“She was my little outlet,” he says.
One day at Applebees, Hildreth noticed a boy sitting at another table with his family.
“There was this beautiful boy smiling at me,” he says. “He was clearly flirting with me. It was the first time. I was scared shitless.”
He gave Kelly his phone number to pass onto the boy, and eventually they began secretly dating.
“I was so happy because for the first time in my life I was able to be me,” Hildreth says.
But his family was going through trying times. His mother, he says, was suspicious. Why was he walking around with a big smile on his face when his father was in jail and they were having money troubles? After repeatedly asking and getting no answers, she broke into a padlocked box in his room.
“She found out everything,” Hildreth recalls.
His mother kicked him out of the house and told the congregation elders. They made an announcement, the news spread, and pretty soon, Hildreth had no where to go.
“I lost every single friend I had in a matter of two days,” he says.
He even lost his good-paying job because his bosses, also Jehovah’s Witnesses, said they found security camera footage of him removing “confidential” documents from the recycling bin. But Hildreth knew what was really going on.
“They fired me because I was gay,” he says.
He was living in his car when one day he went in for job interview and came out to find his car repossessed-with all of his clothes in the trunk.
Soon after that, Hildreth found help from a gay man he met at a coffee shop. The man gave him a place to stay and helped him get back on his feet. After a few years of shuffling jobs and homes, Hildreth now has a successful career in real estate. And after a lot of work, he’s repaired his relationship with his family.
Considering his traumatic experience of being unwillingly thrown out of the closet, Hildreth has sympathy for others struggling with their gay identities. Coming Out Day, he says, might not be enough for some people.
“If they’re dealing with a lot of stuff, it’s probably not going to encourage people to come out,” he says. But, he admits, it might help if they hear other people’s success stories.
And while Hildreth’s coming out experience has been full of pain and adversity, it is, without a doubt, a success story.