I started coming out of the closet in 2014 at age 29. This was something I never thought I’d do, and I surprised myself when I finally built up the courage to tell my family.
Shortly after I began this process, I found myself in Bosnia, traveling with some friends who had two small children. They would go back to our accommodations each evening around 7 so they could put the kids in bed at a decent hour, leaving me to wander town alone.
Our first night in Sarajevo, I found out there was one gay club in the city, and I was curious to see it. When I arrived, I discovered the club was nothing more than a tiny basement room with a radio in one corner and a small refrigerator with a basket filled with cash on top serving as the bartender. A man acting as security guard at the door talked to me for a minute or two before he let me enter.
I grabbed a drink, dropped some cash in the basket, and parked myself on a stool in the corner of the room to watch the 20 or so people all mingling and listening to music. After a while, a young woman approached me and told me she wanted to introduce me to her shy friend, Anel. She waved him over, and he and I chatted for a couple of hours before heading out to walk around town so he could show me his favorite sites.
I learned that night that Anel had also recently started coming out to his family. He was soft-spoken and kind. He seemed almost traumatized, like he was carrying a massive weight on his shoulders. He told me being openly gay in Bosnia wasn’t very safe at that time and that police or other locals regularly raided the club where we met. We ended up wandering the city until 2 or 3 in the morning, sharing our hopes and dreams and what it was like to live in places where a good portion of the community and lawmakers didn’t think much of gay people.
For the next few days, I met with Anel around 7 each evening. We strolled the city, talking until early in the morning.
On my last night in Sarajevo, Anel asked me what I hoped my future would look like in a perfect world. I thought for a minute or two and told him I wanted to marry and have a family — that’s what I had always wanted — but that I had never really felt like that was realistic. Anel’s eyes filled with tears as he told me that’s what he wanted as well. He then said something I’ve thought about for years: “It’s hard to have the courage to dream big but the wisdom to dream well.”
I understood him at that moment — he was engaged in a battle with which I was familiar. He was tempering his expectations, trying to have the wisdom not to expect that he could have an uncomplicated life with someone he loved.
Just then Anel realized how late it was and told me the last train back to his neighborhood was about to depart. He needed to go, but he wanted to show me something first. We took off in a sprint through the dark and empty Sarajevo streets, me following him, until we arrived at an old fountain. He asked me to take a drink. I did so. Then he interpreted the sign just to the side of us:: “He who drinks from this fountain shall one day return to it.”
“Now you’re destined to come back,” he said. “So this isn’t really goodbye.”
We both had tears in our eyes. He kissed me and darted off to hop on the train just as it was pulling away. I watched until the train was out of view and made my long lonely trek back to the apartment where I was staying.
I met my husband two months later.
I’ve shared this story with people through the years, and the most common response is that it sounds “so romantic.” But that experience has never seemed romantic to me. It was cathartic. It was beautiful. It helped me to process three decades of constant onslaughts of homophobia that had nearly convinced me I was irredeemably broken and undeserving of happiness.
I returned to Salt Lake City from Bosnia, and our Pride festival happened a week or two later. I attended and saw a joyful community expressing love and support for one another, and I couldn’t help but compare this with that dingy Bosnian basement club.
While my own community still had (and has) a long way to go in gaining adequate empathy and understanding for LGBTQ people, I did feel grateful for the progress that had been made up to that point — progress that allowed me a privilege not yet afforded to Anel: the knowledge that dreaming big and dreaming well sometimes can be the same thing.
Eli McCann is an attorney, writer and podcaster in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his husband and their two naughty (yet worshipped) dogs. You can find Eli on Twitter at @EliMcCann or at his personal website, www.itjustgetsstranger.com, where he tries to keep the swearing to a minimum so as not to upset his mother.
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