On certain weekday evenings, the creaky metal gate of an old church in East Village opens to welcome a group of young men into a safe space. The men leave something at the door—a macho facade, a burden, or a natural stoniness against strangers—as they enter into the meeting room with tall windows that look out onto 9th Street. The high walls are painted, hung with photos and rainbow-colored drapes; by the door, multi-colored condoms spell out the year 2012.
At the front of the room is Franklin, a quiet guy who doesn’t seem so different from the rest of the people there, except that when he speaks, the hubbub of the room dims to silence. He was hired on earlier in the year as an mPowerment Trainer by ASCNYC to help run SWAG (Sexy With A Goal, an intervention for young men who have sex with men), the group that is meeting tonight. Tonight, Franklin announces, the topic is anger. The men start to talk, and Franklin sits back, only speaking up occasionally to guide the conversation and remind rowdier members to give others a turn.
It wasn’t so long ago that Franklin was sitting on the other side, a shy kid from the Deep South who was completely out of his element in New York City’s gay scene, but who had come to rely on SWAG for the few hours a week he could forget about his baggage and just be himself. Around the time he started going to SWAG, Franklin still felt like he didn’t belong at ASCNYC. He had fallen down on his luck, and was living with an abusive boyfriend when someone recommended the agency. The lobby had scared him, bursting with a colorful array of clients and loud personalities—he had never been comfortable in crowds, and he didn’t feel like he was supposed to be there.
Franklin had always felt different. As an infant with a heart murmur, Franklin’s parents kept him safe inside the house. He remembers his childhood staring out of the window in his farmhouse in Garfield, Georgia, watching the rest of his family work or play outside and wishing he could be there with them. Despite his mother’s careful precautions, however, there would be things that she was unable to save him from. When Franklin was four, a cousin staying with his family started to abuse him. The abuse continued daily until the cousin finally moved out—Franklin was eleven.
After his cousin left, Franklin turned inwards. Because of the abuse, Franklin had developed a roiling animosity towards all men, directed first and fervently at his father. He believed his father hated him—shy and small, he could never be “manly” like his father wanted him to be. Angry but not wanting to show it, Franklin stayed away from people, going on long walks through the woods with the dog, writing poetry, or playing country music in his room.
Then, around the time he was in the fourth grade, something strange happened. He had his first crush—on a boy. He couldn’t understand it, because for so long he had hated men. He started to hear the word “gay” used derogatively, but didn’t quite know what it meant. When he finally looked up the definition in the dictionary, the realization sunk into his stomach like a heavy stone: that was him. He was gay.
Please take this away from me.
Franklin prayed. He wrote letters to God, pleading, hoping that miraculously, he would wake up one morning to find that he was “normal.” Raised in a deeply religious family, he had been told since birth that being gay was a sin, that gays would end up in hell. He hurt himself, burning the hot metal shell of an old civil war bullet into his flesh, giving himself frostbite, rubbing his skin with an eraser until it hit the vein. Nothing worked—he was still gay—and soon it seemed that only option to escape his gayness was to end his life. He was sitting in his room holding a kitchen knife to his chest when his little brother accidentally barged in, and thankfully, stopped him from going further.
Ironically, it was when Franklin joined the military that he would start to become comfortable with his sexuality. Compared to Georgia, men in the military were openly and unabashedly gay. Franklin met his first boyfriend, a guy named John who would share fireguard duties with him, staying up all night and talking, not waking up the guards for the next shift so that they could spend more time together.
His parents found out about John when one night, Franklin's father saw him asleep in his bedroom with John's arms around him. He had left the army by then, and John had come to visit as a friend. That evening, a panic attack had come on and John had held him, like he always had, until they both fell asleep. The next time John came to visit, Franklin's father refused to let him see John. That was when everything came out—Franklin's childhood, his cousin, the abuse.
Though Franklin knew his father was a deeply religious man, he had also never seen him so angry. Franklin's life had been distorted and unalterably changed by his childhood abuse, but that night he defended his cousin against his father's anger, saying that he was just a child at the time who didn't know better.
Today, Franklin still forgives his cousin. He believes that when a person lashes out, it is because they are hurting inside. He does wonder how he would have turned out if all of that had never happened—perhaps he would be more outgoing, more relaxed, more eager to take advantage of his talents and skills. But he also wonders if he would be as empathetic or as strong a person as he is today. He is now able to take the obstacles of life in stride, knowing that nothing is insurmountable. Franklin relates to those around him, understanding that a vulnerable person could be hiding behind any type of exterior.
He is also finally starting to feel comfortable in his skin. He’s reconciled with his father, with God, with himself. He stuck with ASCNYC despite the initial discomfort. Going to SWAG every week not only gave him a safe space where he could be gay without judgment, it helped him come to terms with his own vulnerability. It was his friends at SWAG who supported him to leave his abusive boyfriend and become more involved in the agency. Franklin started to volunteer at ASCNYC. Seeing the good work that was done beyond SWAG, he completed the Peer Recovery Education Program and became a Peer. As a Peer, Franklin became the leader of the group that had saved him. He sends out SWAG alerts and initiated a “food for thought” section that summarizes the discussion of the previous meeting. When a staff position opened up, he was encouraged to apply. Though hesitant at first, he remembered everything he’d gained from the group, and got the job.
In the church on 9th Street, Franklin stands at the head of the group. The setting sun slants in through the windows as he reminds the members to be respectful of each other and the space. Because he is naturally soft spoken and reserved, some are surprised to see him so adamant and passionate at SWAG. “People need what we have here,” he says, his voice firm with certainty. Franklin, though small of stature, expands his quiet presence with SWAG beyond the tall ceilings of the room.