The home video shows Jimmy Schleisman sitting in the corner of the basement, drawing a unicorn in the hard lines of a 6-year-old’s hand.
“Jimmy, why don’t you draw an airplane?” his dad asks.
“I don’t like airplanes. I like unicorns,” Jimmy responds.
Twelve years later, Schleisman – now a sophomore marketing major – takes a deep breath and stands up in the middle of a Phi Gamma Delta chapter meeting. In front of all his fraternity brothers, he says it.
“I like boys.”
The college guys go quiet. When the silence is broken, no one echoes the words Schleisman had heard all through middle school. Those words that he had Googled one day after school. Faggot. Queer.
It’s about time, one brother said. Everyone laughed. “We’ve got you, man. You do you. We love you no matter what.”
But Schleisman never got the chance to hear his father say those words. Schleisman was 9 when his parents and three siblings piled into the car and drove to Kansas City for a spontaneous Worlds of Fun trip before Easter Sunday. But the rain fell hard the next day and the rest of the weekend’s dreary forecast sent the family back home to Lincoln.
It was 10 in the morning when a woman lost control of her pickup truck and came flying across the grassy median. The truck hit the family’s minivan head on. Schleisman’s seat belt snapped and he woke up with the top half of his body on the hood, glass shards all around him.
Raindrops had collected in his hand in the few minutes he had been unconscious. He didn’t notice the 12-inch gash on his leg or the pain from his fractured ankle. The shock was too great; pain was an afterthought. He stood and stared at the mangled mess of the van as ambulances’ sirens grew louder and the cars of good samaritans began to line the shoulder of the road.
By the time Schleisman passed out from blood loss, he knew his parents were dead. No one had to tell him. He just knew.
His dad had died instantly. A broken neck. His mother and sister died a few hours later in a hospital room. Severe brain trauma.
Schleisman, his brother and his sister went to live with his grandparents. When he finally returned to school, nearly two months after the funeral, the kids quickly found his weakness. He was shy. Withdrawn. A bit feminine. A target.
Last week – for the one-year anniversary of his coming out – Schleisman set up his own home video. In a sleeveless shirt that revealed his thick biceps, Schleisman sat cross-legged on the top bunk in his room. More than 950 viewers have watched the YouTube video and heard his message of strength and purpose.
“When you are told every day that you are worthless and don’t deserve to live because you are different, you start to believe that,” he said into the camera.
There were passing thoughts of suicide in his middle school years, he tells those on the other side of the screen. Schleisman is talking to the kids who want to start their own coming out story.
He tells of the “100 percent support” he’s gotten since he finally looked at his reflection last February in the mirror and told himself he was gay. He had just woken up in a cold sweat.
“In the dream, I was running, escaping something,” he said, the deep resonance of his voice suddenly dropping off. “I finally just stopped and said, ‘Face this monster. Face whatever the fuck is chasing you.’ And that’s when I woke up and was honest with myself.”
After forcing himself to try relationships with girls during his four years at the all-boys Creighton Preparatory School, every time he said it, a weight was lifted. “I’m gay.” First to his roommate. Then his fraternity brothers, his family, and lastly, his right-wing, conservative grandfather.
“They all knew,” Schleisman said. “They had always known. It was just a matter of accepting myself.”
In the year he’s been out, Schleisman hasn’t received any negative comments on campus or from anyone in his circle of friends and family. That’s an encouragement, he said, and a testament to a future of acceptance.
“I want to be a part of the change,” he said. “I don’t want to just sit at home and do nothing while the people I identify with are out in the streets, fighting for the right to say a wedding vow.”
If his dad were here, Schleisman said he has proof that he would be on the long list of his supporters. That proof is the last seconds of the home video, after the boy in the corner professes his love for unicorns.
“He’s probably going to be gay,” his dad says to his brother-in-law.
“Probably is,” the uncle agrees.
The camera jostles and shows a dad’s large hands on his son’s head. He ruffles the 6-year-old’s hair.
“Yeah, but he will be the cool kind of gay.”