Life at 14 years old is…let’s just say…confusing. Our hormones are raging. Some of us start “peacocking” – showing off and bowing to peer pressure, dressing a certain way to be attractive. Others? Well, we just try to survive. Trying to figure out who we are, and where we fit in.
Andrew Kohn was a rising freshman, silently trying to come to terms with his sexuality. We met that summer at sleep-away camp. At 6’7” I couldn’t miss him! Our friendship was instant. He didn’t seem to have any interest in “peacocking” but fading into the background was not an option. He was known as the BFG (Big Friendly Giant). And friendly could not be a more appropriate description. Unfailingly kind and considerate, Andrew was everyone’s go-to goofball. Everyone knew him at camp. Yet, he often felt alone as he silently struggled to know who he was himself.
We kept in constant contact during the school year and our closeness only increased. He became my true friend and closest confidant. Always liberal with compliments for me, he seemed to avoid talking about himself. Not being able to get him to open up, I quietly began to worry I wasn’t being a good friend. Worse yet, in a brief flirtation with vanity, I feared he might have a little crush on me, because he was always seemed to be holding something back.
Then we began our sophomore year of high school and everything changed. We were having lunch at our favorite burger joint chatting about me, of course. Then as he finished the last of the fries, he looked at me and calmly said, “There is something I need to tell you.”
He paused for a moment. “I’m gay.” Before I could even think of what to say I blurted out, “When did you know?”
According to Andrew, his self-discovery was an arduous journey that none of us even knew he was on. Unlike all of his friends, his attempts at liking girls kept failing. He admitted, “I kept trying because I didn’t want to be different.” And that kept him silent on his journey until our last summer as campers.
As part of our camp’s Outward Bound-type program, he and a small group embarked on a 10-day journey through the woods of North Carolina, with nothing but what they could carry on their backs. He considers the 24-hour “solo” period of the trip as a defining moment in his life.
“The second I got there it began raining, unfamiliar sounds surrounded me, I was terrified.” Always focused on friends and wishing his life was less “complicated,” he was finally alone. “When there was no one else to distract myself with, I was forced to face what I didn’t love about myself, and asked myself, ‘why’ did I feel so sad about it?” So he took a hard look at why he associated something bad with being gay, “I relived my life leading up to that moment.”
He recalled playing a floor hockey game in sixth grade where a player accused Andrew of fouling him. “Later on in the locker room the kid yelled at me, calling me weird and gay like it was an insult. I burst into tears after.”
Over the years, school just became a place to conform, he was scared of being singled out again. “I thought I was different, and different was no good. I didn’t want to be gay. I didn’t want to have to worry about this issue, so I denied it. I tried to go after girls, but no matter how cute they were, I just wasn’t attracted to them. And I just became more and more sad. I felt deprived of the things other kids my age had. I wanted to love myself and for someone to love me.”
As he began to consider what he denied himself for fear of acceptance, he came to a realization: there were things he couldn’t change.
“I am gay, I cannot change that, and I can’t force people to accept me. I can only be me. And not accepting myself won’t change anything or help anyone…including me.”
According to Andrew, it was the first time he could dig down deep enough to believe it. To not judge himself. To love himself enough to know, no matter what, who he truly is can never be wrong.
This act of self-kindness allowed him to stand up, face the forest, and finally say the words “I am gay” out loud and embrace them.
He got a taste of a life free of judgement, and full of kindness that day. Because he was no longer judging himself, but being kind to himself.
The rest of the trip flew by, gone was the dread tugging at his very existence. “I couldn’t stop smiling.” And if there is one thing I can tell you about an Andrew Kohn smile, it is highly contagious. He returned to his position as the center of fun, like the sun rising after a chilly night, casting warm rays of friendliness on those around him. Only now, he didn’t hold back.
Accepting who he was made him happy, and that happiness was reflected in every life he touched.
On the day Andrew came out to me, it all made sense. He seemed like a new person, unencumbered, confident in every six feet, seven inches of himself. Andrew’s journey ended with happiness because he finally was kind to himself. He finally loved himself. And it transformed his life.