Becoming Myself: Growing up Gay in a Straight World

In support of the well-being of lawyers across the professional spectrum—from students in the classroom to attorneys in all walks of legal life—we have launched a Mental Health Impact Blog Series, in partnership with alumnus Jim Warner ’92. Comprising deeply personal essays by community members who have struggled with mental health issues, the series provides restorative insights and resources to fellow lawyers in need. Read them all here.

The Mental Health Impact Blog Series coincides with a Law School-wide initiative, which will include lectures and workshops to support and promote mental well-being. To get involved in the activities or to write a guest post, contact jim.warner.uk@gmail.com.

The article below is adapted from alumnus David A. Mill’s full-page editorial published a decade ago on the eve of the first gay pride event in Salem, Massachusetts.


I was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on Oct. 9, 1942, but I was nearly 50 years old before I began to deal with the reality that my sexual orientation was principally gay and was the root of my so-called mental illness. That realization was torture for me, a culmination of a half-century of guilt and shame. I still shudder to recall the terrible isolation of that journey.

As a young boy learning to fish in the Danvers Mill Pond, I readily internalized strong feelings of shame into a core belief: I was unacceptably flawed. It crippled my sense of self and prevented me from following the normal, healthy stages of adolescent development. I was consumed with the task of hiding the fundamental truth of myself from others around me—first my family, then my town, then the Prep, my college, my profession … everyone and everything. I pretended all the while to be something I wasn’t. At the time, to me, it was the only way that I could survive. It was really lonely.

From grades one through eight, I attended the finest public schools in the country, in Danvers, where I grew up. I then attended St. John’s Prep, a great place for me. My teachers, all Xaverian teaching brothers, were generous, courageous, brilliant, and committed, and I remember several every day in my prayers.

However, the relentless social message of the time was that all normal, healthy people are straight, and anything other was to be destroyed or, at the very least, kept hidden.

On to Boston College and Boston College Law School. I often reflect with gratitude that I had the benefits of working at Vic’s Drive-in and the Village Green restaurant for 11 years while I was attending high school, college, and law school. Those places gave me somewhere to hide from my intensifying depression, which, by the time I reached Boston College, was profound at least one day out of three. Shame kept me from ever attending a single football game in my four years at BC, and to this day I have not a single friend from my undergraduate years. The disconnect was then, and for years after, very painful.

By the time I entered law school, the depression was pronounced. I attended Catholic Mass often, continued to say the rosary, and pleaded that Jesus would fix me and make me like other men. I dated kind, graceful, and beautiful women with the hope that “something would click,” in the words of one of my many psychiatrists. They promised that my mental illness could be cured and that they would mature me into a traditional heterosexual. Tragically, I believed them.

At the end of law school, I matriculated to a mental hospital to undergo medical psychiatric treatment for my “mental illness.” In truth, I now know that I was not mentally ill, and never had been. I suffered the panic and depression that resulted from acute, catastrophic aloneness that came from the shame of growing up gay in a straight world. For many years, I never knew that I knew another gay or lesbian person. I never discussed the shame that polluted me spiritually and emotionally. Some 40 percent of my person was invisible to those around me and, indeed, to a great extent, to me.

In July 2001, when Governor Jane Swift nominated me to be the first occupant of the 23rd seat on the Massachusetts Appeals Court, I was often asked: “Did you always want to be a judge?”

Well, not really.

Indeed, becoming a judge was not among my wildest dreams. For the first 50 years of my life, as a closeted gay man, a principal hope was to keep my sexual orientation (and consequent fear, doubt, and insecurity) hidden, while I attempted the promised cure. I was told, and believed, that I was unspeakably mentally ill. 

I was not the only one. British mathematician Alan Turing, an undeniable genius, created a primitive computing device that helped decode German naval war codes during World War II, assuring an Allied victory. He was convicted of “gross indecency with a male” in March 1952, when I was 10. Instead of prison, he was sentenced to chemical castration—injections of the female hormone estrogen, designed to suppress his homosexuality. The injections destroyed his athletic frame (he would have run the marathon for Britain in the 1948 London Olympics if it hadn’t been for an injury) and turned him into a bloated creature. It also set the diffident genius on a slow, sad descent into grief and madness. As a consequence, on June 7, 1954, when I was 12 years old, and just weeks after Turing’s 42nd birthday, he killed himself by taking a bite out of an apple that he had dipped in cyanide.

A later, more positively impactful moment in my life came when several historians filed a brief, amici, in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), which was decided when I was 51, in which the Supreme Court on June 26, 2003, struck down all laws that prohibit sex between consenting gay adults. The historians noted that discrimination against homosexuals became widespread in the 20th century and reached its peak between the 1930s and the 1960s. Gay men and women had been labeled “deviants,” “degenerates,” and “sex criminals” by medical professionals, government officials, and the mass media. The federal government had banned the employment of homosexuals and insisted that its private contractors ferret out and dismiss their gay employees. Many state governments had prohibited gay people from being served in bars and restaurants, and many municipalities had launched police campaigns to suppress gay life. The authorities had worked together to create or reinforce the belief that gay people were an inferior class to be shunned by other Americans, and homosexuals were penalized as a genuinely subordinate class of citizens. Same-gender sexual expression was criminalized, carrying the possibility of imprisonment in every state.

Such was the cultural paradigm for my parents, my siblings, and me during the first 35 years of my life. When I argued my first case before the US Supreme Court, homosexuality was still defined as a mental illness, and the faith tradition of my Polish and Irish ancestors labeled me then as “intrinsically disordered.” (My father was with me in the courtroom. He never had a clue as to how lonely I really was.)

No. I never wanted to be a judge. Why would I want something so absurd, so beyond imagination?

During my confirmation process in 2001, I was prepared for harsh treatment. Augmenting my somewhat establishment credentials, I had slowly become, somewhat modestly, visible as a gay man. I represented Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and the city of Boston in Connors v. Boston, 430 Mass. 31 (1999), considered by some to be a predecessor to Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, 440 Mass. 309 (2003), often called the “Massachusetts Gay Marriage Case.” (“The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals. It forbids the creation of second-class citizens.” 440 Mass. at 312.) But instead of being treated negatively, I was unanimously confirmed by the Governor’s Council, with no mention of any “gay issue.” I could not believe it.

I will paraphrase from “The Velvet Rage” by Alan Downs: The truth is that I grew up disabled. Not disabled by my homosexuality, but emotionally disabled by an environment that taught me that I was unacceptable, not a “real” man, and therefore shameful.

I have seen lots of change. I am very proud of the town of Danvers and its diversity committee. When I was elected town moderator, Selectman David McKenna noted with a smile of his own pride that the town of Danvers had elected “an openly gay moderator.” The courts in Massachusetts have been leaders in protecting the sensitivities of lesbian and gay people by according to us full dignity as human beings. It was a long time coming. Sometimes the progress boggles my mind.

I experience the Salem gay pride event, now known as North Shore Pride, as celebrating and affirming me as a whole and worthy person and a proud son of the city of Salem. Public pride is a good thing for me.


David A. Mills is a former chair of the Board of Trustees of the Essex Agricultural and Technical Institute, was a member of the Danvers town meeting for more than thirty years, and is a former town moderator. He presented on criminal law and land use topics for MCLE for more than thirty years continuously. He was awarded the LAMBDA Student Association at Boston College Law School’s Integrity Award in 1993. He served as an associate justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court until he reached the mandatory retirement age in 2012.

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