Darren Calhoun recalls being 12 years old during a sex education class at school and wishing he wasn’t gay.
“I remember expecting that one day I was going to magically be attracted to girls, but I was beginning to have crushes on guys,” Calhoun says in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “I began to pray, but that feeling never went away.”
Calhoun, who grew up in a Christian home on the South Side of Chicago, kept his sexuality a secret for years.
“I would look in the mirror every morning asking myself if I was going to be gay the rest of my life,” says Calhoun, now 38. “I didn’t know anyone else who was.”
He was living a double life until it became too much to keep inside. At church and at school he was quiet and hid his sexuality, but he would then turn to chat lines and telephone party lines where he could talk to other gay men.
But going to college in 1997 changed everything. He began to build friendships with people who were gay and became more confident.
“I took a creative writing class and wrote a poem that was kind of me coming out,” he says. “I said I was black, Christian and gay.”
The response he received from the student body — and his parents and family — was positive, but there were a few people in his life who were very religious who constantly told him that this was “not what God wanted for my life.”
After studying the Bible with a friend on campus he began to interpret the scripture in a negative way.
“I felt very helpless and shameful,” he says. “It led me to stop identifying as gay, but I acted out and secretly hooked up with a lot of people.”
Calhoun decided to go to the pastor of the church and ask for help.
“He said he was going to make me right,” says Calhoun. “It was very subtle at first. He said I had to get rid of my gay friends, pray more and live in his church’s basement in Chicago.”
Calhoun went from identifying as gay to hiding it and keeping his desires inside.
“I felt ashamed about my sexual orientation,” he says. “My testimony and my history had kind of been deleted. He [the pastor] wanted me to act like it had just never been true.”
Two years later, he went to his pastor again and said he was still struggling.
He was told that to “show my commitment to God,” he had to move to the church’s Indiana location.
“Moving there was a very, very sharp cut from everything in my life,” he says. “My father passed away right before I moved, but I could barely process his passing. I was focused on getting right with God.”
Calhoun had to drop out of school and was given $50 a week. He also had to quit his photography business that he had on the side.
“The pastor wouldn’t let me go to my best friend’s wedding because I had to be more spiritual,” he adds. “I was under his supervision 24 hours a day and was told to fast two days a week. He said this would help me become heterosexual and let me go to heaven.”
Over time, Calhoun realized that this wasn’t healthy.
“It was becoming clearer to me that this wasn’t healthy, and I knew I shouldn’t feel ashamed,” he says. “I called my mom, and she came to rescue and drove me home.”
Wounded and hurt by what had happened, it took Calhoun 10 years to build up trust again. When he returned to Chicago, he began to rebuild the life he left behind.
Now an advocate for the Born Perfect Campaign, he also got back into photography and is in a band called The Many that creates music that acknowledges the “hard stuff in our world.” And on Sundays, he leads his church in worship.
“I’ve gone from being forced to hide parts of myself in a basement to literally being able to stand up and remind people that God loves everyone,” he says. “That includes me as a black, gay man.”