Andy Neilson is living proof that ‘it gets better’
by Donalevan Maines Sugar Land Middle School is a “no-hate” zone, say the signs that welcomed 26-year-old Andy Neilson back to his old campus last month.
“It’s a big difference from 13 or 14 years ago,” says Neilson, who was ostracized and bullied there after coming out at age 12. “The reaction was pretty terrible,” he remembers. “It gets better? I didn’t hear that.”
Instead, he says, “People would poke me from behind and ask me if I liked it. The adults didn’t do anything about it. “Once, a kid started shouting Scriptures at me. I shouted back, ‘Oh, f–k off.’ I got detention
A movie buff, Neilson remembers seeing heartthrob Michael Schoeffling as Jake Ryan, sentenced to detention in Sixteen Candles. “That’s when I realized I was full-blown gay,” he says. “I think that was the case with a lot of people.”
Not that Neilson had much doubt. “I had always felt it. But it didn’t occur to me until I was 12,” he explains. “That was the age other people were going out and finding young love. I thought maybe, for some delusional reason, if I came out, it would happen to me.”
Perhaps most unnerving to his classmates was that Neilson didn’t “look or
His revelation didn’t result in other guys coming out, although in retrospect, Neilson says, a friend in eighth grade gave him a “hint” by describing one actor as better-looking than one Neilson had a crush on.
“It didn’t occur to me that anyone else would have the gall to say they were gay,” says Neilson. “I thought I was the only one. I felt absolutely by myself.”
He stayed in a classroom during lunch while everybody else went to the cafeteria. His math teacher, says Neilson, “would come in sometimes, and she was a very sweet person.” On one occasion, he recalls, “I was in a very bad state, very humiliated, and she gave me this sympathetic, concerned look, and it is something that has stayed with me. It just proves how important it is to know that a teacher cares. Imagine how much better it would have been if I had been able to talk to a teacher about what was going on. There are voices out there that advocate entirely against that, which is tragic.
“During this period, I wrote a desperate note to Betty DeGeneres [mother of Ellen DeGeneres], and she wrote back to me—it was through her column at PlanetOut. That was the first time I heard ‘it gets better.’”
At age 26, Neilson has now been out more than half of his life.
“I’ve never had a boyfriend,” he says.
After high school, Neilson went to the University of Texas and studied filmmaking. “I wanted to be the next Jane Campion,” he says. Campion wrote and directed The Piano (1993), which starred Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin, with a haunting score by Michael Nyman.
“I’ve always felt a connection with women characters in movies,” he says. “It’s the women who have inspired me, and Holly Hunter in The Piano was like my soul mate. We were both outsiders. We both have dark features. We both felt isolated.”
“UT was fine,” says Neilson. “I felt at home, but I was so busy. All of my film projects were about outsiders and stuff related to that.”
While he enjoyed making films, he says, “I actually fell in love with my Chinese classes.” He spent two semesters studying in China and hopes someday to open a Chinese-language program at a school. “I’ve found a lot of happiness in studying other languages and would love to share that passion with young people.”
Returning to live in Sugar Land, Neilson works at an arts education nonprofit group in Houston while saving money to pursue further studies.
It was his job that took him back to Sugar Land Middle School in March. “I was so terrified,” he says. “It was my first time back in 13 years. I was almost sweating. The first thing that triggered me was the smell. I’d completely forgotten the smell. But it brought back all of the abuse I’d felt.”
However, to his surprise, Neilson saw signs identifying the school as a “no-hate” zone. “They were all over the place,” he says. “I can’t tell you how peaceful that made me feel. It was therapeutic.”
Donalevan Maines also writes about PJ Raval in this issue of OutSmart magazine.