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Photo by: Ximena Ibarra
Learning to love yourself for who you love
Kelsey faked a smile for two years before he grew comfortable with his sexuality.
July 7, 2018
Faggot. Queer. Freakshow.
Those three words were racked up in senior Tayten Kelsey’s head. They’d slipped out of the mouths of his peers in the hallways of PHS. They’d slipped out of the mouths of his own family.
They’d made him feel unconfident at a time when he was trying to figure out who he was.
One night, after a long day at school, Kelsey couldn’t handle hearing them anymore or accept himself. He cried, struggling to understand why people couldn’t see him from himself — a nice guy. A debater.
So he popped a combination of prescriptions into his mouth, ready to end his life.
“For a long time, I felt worthless, like a burden,” Kelsey said. “That night, I really did feel that way. I just remember thinking that life would be easier for everyone if I just wasn’t there.”
But a few hours later, Kelsey’s best friend called him. Mason Sutton, a 2018 graduate, yelled through the phone about how much he loved him.
Sutton stayed on the phone with him for hours, telling him how to get the medications out of his body. Kelsey ultimately flushed the medicine out, and survived.
“He was going through a rough time in his life,” Sutton said. “I think I was just there for him and I think that meant a lot to him. I am his friend and I love him.”
But for Kelsey, this was just another day. That year, he was struggling to find himself, and his identity. He cried after school on a frequent basis. His absences piled up because he didn’t want to show people he was weak.
He couldn’t accept who he was.
“I will say this over and over again to whoever; I don’t want anyone to ever feel how I felt,” Kelsey said. “I don’t wish that upon the worst person that I can think of.”
It’s been a year since he persevered and found his way out of this “dark place,” filled with substance abuse and depression.
But it all started in eighth grade when he realized that he was attracted to boys.
“That realization terrified me,” Kelsey said. “I didn’t know how people would react and I didn’t really know how to come out. I didn’t know how to handle my situation.”
So he found a word that was easier for him to say instead — bisexual. He came out as bi to a few of his friends.
“I thought maybe it would kind of just happen and go away,” Kelsey said. “It was easier that way.”
Every day, he falsely convinced himself that he wasn’t gay — until one night when he watched Connor Franta’s most recent YouTube video. Franta — a role model to Kelsey and openly gay YouTuber with millions of subscribers — spent the video talking about his experience coming out.
“He looked so happy and that was something that I just really felt I could have,” Kelsey said. “I decided it was my time to be happy for who I was wanting to be.”
That realization terrified me. I didn’t know how people would react and I didn’t really know how to come out. I didn’t know how to handle my situation.”
— Tayten Kelsey
A few weeks into his freshman year, Kelsey told his eight closest friends that he was gay. One by one, they stopped talking to him and exited his life. For four months, Kelsey had no friends.
“The first part of the struggle was losing my friends because I was hoping for acceptance and I didn’t receive it,” Kelsey said. “I was very upset.”
He stopped going to social functions. He shut everyone out of his life as much as he could, aside from a few acquaintances.
“I didn’t have the confidence to make friends,” Kelsey said. “I didn’t really have the confidence back then to do much.”
He thought he would stay without friends forever, with no one to talk to, until he met Sutton through a mutual acquaintance.
Sutton, a confident guy who didn’t care about what anyone thought about him, talked to Kelsey any time he needed him to, offered advice and gradually started building him up.
He complimented him and reminded him that he was proud of him and that he’d be his friend, no matter what. To this day, he still does.
Kelsey soon became a part of Sutton’s “squad,” which consisted of alums Danny Bell, Ethan Tomasi and Patrick Sullivan.
“We include him in things that we do,” Bell said. “He’s gay, whatever, but we don’t treat him like a different person. He is one of our boys, and that’s just the deal.”
As soon as Kelsey joined the group, his confidence started going up. He punched away the self-doubt that consumed him and made him turn to substance abuse, anxiety and self-hatred.
“I think all of them really have, in a way, saved my life — whether it was you know, calling me at the phone at midnight or just being there for me when they didn’t even know they were there for me,” Kelsey said.
He started to ignore what anyone thought of him, with the exception of the boys.
“His self-confidence has gone up because we don’t care about what people think about us, so he shouldn’t either,” Sutton said.
Kelsey’s family members, however, didn’t know he was gay.
He worried that his family wouldn’t accept his sexuality. But after hearing his friends’ words of encouragement, he knew it was time to tell his family who he really was.
He had one of his friends tell his mom, Kasey Zimmerman, at a debate tournament in the fall of his sophomore year. When they drove home from the tournament, they talked about it.
“This is who he is and you’re either okay with that or not and he’s okay with that,” Zimmerman said. “He’s my son, I love him no matter what. If I was in his shoes, I don’t know if I could be as confident as he is about it.”
Kelsey told his grandma and grandpa next, who both also “didn’t blink an eye.”
“There is nothing [he] could do in this world, ever, to make us not love him or feel any differently,” said Maricia Stafford, Kelsey’s grandma. “We’re proud of him.”
Though Kelsey’s family members support him and his decision, they still fear the possible backlash he could receive for it.
“[I was] not upset because he was gay, but upset because [I knew] what this world is like and some of the people in this world,” Stafford said. “Just the bad stuff in the world where people are such homophobes. That thought crossed my mind and you can’t help but think that.”
Regardless, Kelsey said he’s grateful for the support he received and views himself as more fortunate than most people in his situation.
“I am lucky because of the people that I’ve found,” Kelsey said. “I feel like everyone goes through a crucible, whether it be something small or something big like how I went through. It either makes or breaks you and I think it made me.”
He wants to start a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) chapter at PHS to provide an environment where people can talk about LGBTQ+ rights. He said he would talk to anyone in a heartbeat if they were in a similar situation.
“[People] have told me that my confidence has inspired them,” Kelsey said. “I am confident in myself and who I am. I feel like them being able to see that really helps.”
He no longer has to fake a smile on his face — he is finally happy, and in love with himself.
“I may not know what I’m going to do, but I know who I am,” Kelsey said. “I am Tayten Kelsey. I am proud of myself. I am happy to be who I am.”