A Car Forum Gave Me the Strength to Come Out and Kept Me From Being Homeless

Sometimes you find supporters and advocates in the most unlikely places.

byKevin WilliamsJun 27, 2022 2:12 PM
A Car Forum Gave Me the Strength to Come Out and Kept Me From Being Homeless
Kevin Williams, Kristen Lee, Toyota
Share

It’s a cliché, but it rings true for most queer people I know: A lot of us know what we are when we’re young. I’ve always known I was gay, even from a small age, although I didn’t quite know what “being gay” was. Later on, though, and in the strangest of ways, a car forum helped me figure out and come to terms with who I was. Some of the first people to ever hear—or read, rather—about who I really was were on a car forum made up of members from the former Autoweek, MotorTrend, and Car and Driver forums. 

A decade later, the experience looks odd, strange, and maybe a little terrifying when peering from the outside in. I allowed internet strangers to know such an intimate part of my life, but I realize that coming out to them probably saved my life.

[June is Pride Month and The Drive is celebrating it by highlighting queer people who have incontrovertibly helped shape the automotive landscape we live in. This year especially, with so much stress on our collective shoulders, it feels crucial to remind everyone—and ourselves—that we have the right to be proud of who we are.] 

Windows to the Outside

I started browsing car forums around the age of 13. It was late 2005, right at that sweet spot where the internet had started to become ubiquitous in homes and schools, but before most parents realized that they probably should monitor and screen what their kids looked at on the World Wide Web. This was still the era when popups took you to porn sites filled with ransomware, and Google search results weren’t so assertively full of the same four venture capital-owned sites gaming SEO to deliver the same two takes of information. Still, like every kid with an “old soul,” I overconfidently knew I’d be a pretty savvy internet user, running circles around my Boomer parents and Gen-X siblings who could barely check their email. 

Miraculously, I dodged all the porn and phishing scams. I didn’t look at “bad things” because I was a goody-two-shoes and God-fearing Jehovah’s Witness teenager focused on following the spirit of every law and edict I had heard from my parents. There were at least two things that God didn’t like: homosexuality and fraternizing with unbelievers on any medium. Heck, I remember all sorts of scary horror stories I had been told of a young, too-trusting Jehovah's Witness “falling in love” with someone from an internet chatroom, only for that person to be completely different than what they described, and that put “our young one in danger.” 

Looking back on it now, it sounds like a textbook man-gets-catfished-by-stranger situation but also drenched in religious panic hyperbole. Back then, though, that was more than enough to convince me to never, ever, establish any sort of regular communication with non-Jehovah's Witnesses, especially not on the internet. If I was too brazen with breaking those rules, I’d be ousted from the group and face shunning from all current Jehovah’s Witnesses—ergo, all of my friends and family. Yeesh.

Akron, Ohio

Still, I was a car-curious teenager, thirsty for information. I’m a proud Rustbelter, born and raised in Akron, Ohio. Home of Goodyear and Firestone tires, and in the midst of several auto manufacturing plants from the Big Three, Akron’s always been a car city. At the same time, I was in the closet, but the closet was made of glass, and latent and precocious homosexuality never stopped a religious fundie from trying to undo the inevitable. To my family, gayness and loving cars were total opposites, like oil and water. If I just performed heterosexuality—via liking cars, or playing sports, or cutting lawns—I wouldn’t be gay anymore. 

My mom in particular would try to stoke my love of cars with stories and tales from her past. I think she was trying to metaphorically drive the gay away. But I got tired of hearing the stories of my dad working the night shift at Chrysler, a family friend telling me how he used to work in Lordstown, building Chevy Cavaliers. These stories and the cars associated with them weren't capturing the imagination of a teen who was obsessed with driving Peugeots and Renaults in Forza Motorsport. I didn’t want to hear about drag racing Cutlass Supremes. I wanted to know more about sexy, foreign, good-handling cars that I didn’t see in my neighborhood, and no one was satiating my thirst for this information.

Automobile, Motor Week, Autoweek, and Car and Driver could, though. They had articles written by people with the hands-on experience with cars I had only seen rendered in video games. Plus, car magazines felt like an easy neutral ground, sort of unaffected by the “does your secular entertainment please God?” question I’d get asked by my parents anytime I wanted to experience what the other kids from school were watching on TV. To a 9-year-old searching for any sort of escape from the boring religious periodicals, car magazines were a godsend. I’d often find myself ditching my mom at the grocery store just to stand in the magazine aisle to read them. 

As much of a demilitarized zone car magazines were, I still knew my parents wouldn’t buy them, instead insisting that I should spend more time reading the Jehovah's Witness publications. Sometimes, they’d try and marry the two, sending me articles from the JW-written Watchtower and Awake that had the most tangential relation to cars, but they weren’t very good. I think they were trying to drive me to pray away the gay? 

Lucky for me, I came of age right as the era of the blog and online content started. I was 12, almost 13, and the internet had become cheap and ubiquitous. Now, I could get my car article fix without having to interact with my parents. Eventually, I found myself pursuing the Autoweek and MotorTrend websites every day, absorbing every morsel of information as it was published.

But that still wasn’t enough. I needed more.

“Forum, what’s that?” I said to myself, as I clicked around the website after exhausting all of the daily news. Curious, I clicked and entered the Autoweek Combustion Chamber, which was Autoweek’s then-reader forum. 

I couldn’t look away—and I didn’t want to, either—but I knew that I was supposed to. I liked what I saw. I finally found some people who knew what the fuck they were talking about. On these forums, I didn’t have to listen to my mom and dad hem and haw about how “complicated” Japanese cars were. I didn’t have to listen to my brother blather on about how front-wheel-drive cars weren’t good, and how everyone should just buy a single-cab pickup truck. I found a place where there was really interesting knowledge flying around.

But, like, I wondered—was this walking a line? I had been told about the “dangers of chat rooms,” how unnecessary communication had duped young Jehovah's Witnesses into leaving God, but the Autoweek Combustion Chamber wasn’t a chat room, it was a message board. 

Screengrab via the Wayback Machine

That’s different, right? 

I kept trying to rationalize it. A message board is a place where people posted questions and got answers, which I guessed was kind of like a slow-form chatroom. Even so, I could hear my parents in my head, “You must not become unevenly yoked with unbelievers,” the first few times I clicked the forum tab at the Autoweek (and later MotorTrend) forum. Like most other Jehovah's Witness authority figures, parents, or overly nosy yet hypocritical tweens and teens, that scripture was a thought-stopping staple for anyone we believed was too close to the outside world. 

“It’s not that big of a deal, it’s just cars,” I rationalized to myself, tamping down my parents directive to avoid regular, unnecessary communication with outsiders. Besides, communication and fraternization imply a two-way street. In my head, communication meant I was responding to someone talking to me. At the time, I wasn’t registered on the forum, I was just reading what other people were saying. See? Perfect logic.

Limiting myself to only reading the forums got boring, really, really fast, though. Users were having spirited debates, and I wanted to participate. Eventually, sometime between the ages of 13 and 14, I registered for the forum and started participating in the discussion.

The Start of Cognitive Dissonance

I knew I had broken the rules and was communicating unnecessarily with unbelievers, but I justified it, insisting it was only about cars, and I didn’t participate in the off-topic sections.  But you know that the good threads never stay on topic. I’d say the best forums thrived on threads that flowed like conversations. At first, I tried to ignore off-topic camaraderie, thinking I could just skim past any sort of unapproved joke, but then I realized it was akin to reading a newspaper through a slice of Swiss cheese.

Eventually, the Autoweek, MotorTrend, and other magazine reader forums fizzled out. It was 2008, and the rising popularity of Jalopnik’s blog-and-comment-section website probably inspired legacy magazines to scrap their reader forums. I joined a new forum named CarSpin, made up of all the stragglers who didn’t like the blog and comment section of the new spaces. This forum was small but lively, similar to a local bar. The members liked cars, but really, it was a melting pot for people to shoot the shit about the things going on in their lives.

By that point, I was 16 and had created a happily paradoxical cognitive dissonance. Yeah, maybe I participated in the off-topic subjects, and I became more willing to shoot the breeze with these folks. But in my mind, I wasn’t like them. I had rationalized it to the point where: “Well, none of these folks ever claimed to live by the same standards as me, and they’re all nice folks. Is chatting and joking so bad? It’s not like I’m communicating with any homosexuals.” 

Screengrab via the Wayback Machine

I was fraternizing and learning so much about the world that the members of my own community were not telling me. I was learning about politics, world events, sex, and relationships all through the lenses of others who had totally different experiences than me. 

Still, I had to justify to myself that what I was doing wasn’t bad, but I knew that a lot of other Jehovah’s Witnesses wouldn’t see it that way, especially my parents. Explaining it became too hard, so if I used the forum, I’d do it at school or on a smartphone. If I did use it at home, I’d be sure to use an incognito tab or clear the history, lest my parents get wind of my “regular and unnecessary communication” with unbelievers.

A Forum Meetup Broke My Cognitive Dissonance

It’s not uncommon for forum members to meet up in person. Those meetups get posted about and talked about, jokes are made, and online friends turn into offline friends. Turning an online friend into an offline friend was a bridge too far for me, though, even for my brain full of cognitive dissonance. But the threads were still fun to read.

One day, a forum member posted a thread of a meetup with another. I liked him; he was weird, esoteric, had an NA Miata, and his posts, full of obscure Star Trek references that I only half-understood, made me laugh. 

He also revealed that he had been in a long-term gay relationship for years. It wasn’t a coming out, but rather a revealing of a little bit more of his life to us.

I panicked.

God didn’t like at least two things: fraternizing with unbelievers, and homosexuality. Now, I had been fraternizing, for years, with someone living a lifestyle that I was not supposed to be around. I was supposed to distance myself from this person, because from what I had been taught, associating too closely with this person would surely lead me to eternal destruction.

But I couldn’t distance myself. I liked him, not romantically, of course, but he was funny. He had the same name as me, Kevin. I had never so much as even sat inside a Mazda Miata before, but I learned so much from the things he posted about his car. And now, I knew that we were both gay.

I liked posting on the forum, I was learning so much about how the world worked, and it was all radically different from what I had been told. I knew that the Jehovah's Witnesses would have wanted me to stop posting on the forum, stop being so interested in cars, and stop being gay. That just wasn’t fucking acceptable, or possible. It was unfair.

Shit Hits the Fan

After Miata Kevin came out, or rather, revealed himself to be gay, I realized that there wasn’t much of a future for me in the community I currently lived in. If I came out in earnest to my friends and family, I’d face ex-communication and shunning, and probably never talk to anyone I ever knew unless I went back in the closet. Or, I could keep this under wraps for decades, live a lie, and hope that maybe the community would accept gay people in the next few decades. 

“Gun to the stomach, or gun to the knee?” I contemplated in my head, trying to piece together my options. But the secret was eating me up: I was gay, and I wanted to live my life as an open, out gay man. I was just not quite ready yet for the shunning and ex-communication.

So I told the forum. I was gay, I had always been gay, and I was ready to live my life. I told everyone about my situation: being 19 and only working part-time at a Chevrolet dealership. I talked about my car payment situation, that I still owed money on my 2007 Toyota Yaris S. I wasn’t sure what a car forum would make of my plight; it was such a heavy, dense subject from a poster who had kept to themselves all these years. We were here to debate the Acura TL’s new beak and price out some new computer power supplies, not keep a random Ohio teenager from falling onto the street.

But they delivered.

“If you think you’re going to be homeless, you need to try these resources,” said one forum member, sending me a link to a houseshare. “Are you applying to college? Let me help you edit your application essay,” said another. I had zero resources, was staring down the barrel of losing all my friends, and had no place to go. The forum checked in on me constantly, even passing around a sort of gay collection plate, which gave me enough money to leave my old life. Not only that, but the advice and practical support the forum also gave me kept me from becoming another LGBTQ homeless teen statistic.

Three weeks after starting the thread, I came out to my family. It went badly.

Within 48 hours, I found myself with everything I owned in the back of my Yaris. I was friendless, nearly flat broke, and with a phone full of voicemails and text messages from a community that was supposed to love me telling me to never contact them again

But I made it. Partially from the generosity of the forum and a heaping of dumb luck, or maybe from some sort of cosmic juju that pulled me out of a lot of situations. I was only in my car for a week before a very kind person working the parts department of the Chevrolet dealer took me in and helped me get a place. I got into college, and eventually, I made new friends and built a new community amongst people that I could honestly and openly have conversations with. My old friends and family, never reached out again. I don’t remember a lot of the first year of being out, but I will never forget the immense, overwhelming sense of happiness and feeling of power that came from having full control of my life. When I felt that for the first time, I knew I could never give that feeling up, no matter the cost.

“I can’t believe you’d betray us like this and come out to strangers rather than just keep this matter private,” said one of my brothers, upset that I came out at all. To him, my family, and my friends, the people on the forums weren’t real, they were entirely fake online constructs that would cease to exist the second I logged out. If they did have real lives, they didn’t matter. These people were not supposed to teach me anything. They were not real people.

Maybe he was right. Maybe internet strangers on a car forum shouldn’t have been able to “teach” me anything. But it still happened.

To me, these online screen names were more real than anyone I had ever known. My initial curiosity to only read about car facts online had ended up completely changing my worldview and giving me the confidence to stand in my truth. There’s a certain, near-intoxicating feeling of freedom and self-worth that comes from triumphing over adversity to be who you are. I don’t know if I’d still be here today if I hadn’t learned that.

It’s high-key crazy that a car forum gave me that.

Got a tip? Email tips@thedrive.com