I am an innocent person.

For a long time, I did not feel like an innocent person. I felt just like everyone else, just living my life with the same ideals and passions as the next guy. But when person after person told me, “You have a really innocent quality about you!” I began to reconsider.

Growing up my parents taught me a very wonderful, inclusive view of the world. That there was a loving God who created me, who cared about me; that if I put my mind to it, I could do anything I wanted; that I was special and that I could make a difference. I have grown up never knowing anything different. And I am immensely grateful for it. I have never had a doubt that I was special. That may sound incredibly conceited, because it is. But I acknowledge that. I acknowledge the fact that I have a tremendous amount of privilege in the way that I was raised. Not everyone gets to be born into a family with two parents who love them unconditionally, and raise them in a home that values a relationship with God without forcing any negative religious principles on them. I recognize that, having had the upbringing that I did, I am in a much better place to make a difference in the world, in people’s lives, and to help them.

All I have ever wanted to do with my life was to inspire others. Through comedy, through my writing, through acting, through a simple conversation. The idea that I could help someone and have a positive effect on their life is incredible to me. Of course, doing this gives me a tremendous amount of validation, something I shamelessly crave and undeniably need- without praise, I crumble. Now, this is not one of my more attractive features, but it’s one I have come to accept and one that I hope to work on.

While I may be an innocent person, do not misconstrue this as any sort of naiveté. Just because I choose to look at the world as a loving place, at humankind as naturally good, does not mean that I am ignorant to the ways of the world.

All of the wonderful things that my parents raised me with did not and could not shelter me from the world, or from myself. I grew up an intensely lonely and anxious child, always terrified of what could happen. I didn’t make my first real friend until my sophomore year of high school. And, of course, I was a closeted gay kid from middle school until mid high school. People made fun of me for being gay before I even knew I was. I remember a friend of mine who I went to middle school with told me in college, “Oh yeah, I remember everyone used to call you gay behind your back in middle school.” I’m not sure if this was meant to make me feel good, but if it was, it did not.

One of my strongest and most painful memories is of my Freshman year of high school, when we were picking sides for basketball (of course, because apparently life is a teen movie). There were two people left to be picked, me and another kid. A boy named Spencer was the team captain who had to choose between us. As I stood there, hoping not to be picked last, he said, “Well, I would pick you, but I’m pretty sure you’re gay, so I’m gonna pick the other kid.” That was not the first time I remember feeling like I wanted to die, but it sure was one of the more powerful times. Luckily, we had a substitute teacher that day, who I remember said to the boy, “Hey, come on, that’s not cool.” That was, sadly, the first time a teacher had ever defended me. In hindsight it was remarkably little in the face of everything, but I still remember it as one of the kindest things someone has ever done for me.

The New Years’ Eve before I turned 17 I had my first drink. After that, the whole world opened up to me. I finally began to see a way that I could feel comfortable in my own skin, a few moments where I could escape the intense anxiety and loneliness that had plagued me since I was a little kid. I realized I could feel that way every day, and pretty soon I was stealing two bottles of wine a night from my parents. When I first got to the University of Virginia, I thought everything might change. I joined a gay organization, went to gay parties, and thought maybe then I wouldn’t feel alone. The end of my first semester, I got drunk at a party and made out with someone in someone else’s room, on their bed. Clearly, this is something you do not do, but drunk, stupid, first year me thought that life was like a teen movie and that that was okay. I received a Facebook message the next day from the man who’s bed it was, telling me that I was no longer welcome at his home and that I was a bad person. That was the worst message I have ever received, because it was the first time that I thought that it might be true- that I was a bad person. Quickly rumor spread among the gay community at UVA that I had had sex in this person’s bed (not true), and I stopped attending gay events altogether out of embarrassment.

My first experience on a Tinder date led to me getting groped by him in my car the night before I was meant to fly to Alabama for a national audition. I remember driving home after that, at first feeling in shock, laughing a little, and then feeling sick to my stomach. I googled online how women felt after being sexually assaulted, and was shocked at how I felt all of these things. I told myself, “Why do I feel this way? It’s probably my fault, we were on a date, I wasn’t clear enough, I’m a bad person, it’s not like I was raped, he just grabbed me.” I was utterly confused as to why I felt this way, and I calmed my nerves with aristocrat vodka.

I was no stranger to impulsive, alcohol-fueled sexual encounters, although I would never allow myself to go all the way, determined to hold on to some shred of dignity. Still, there were many nights where I would get drunk, feel lonely, download Grindr, go to some man’s home and do things that made me feel ashamed of myself. I am a virgin in only the technical sense- the rest of it went away a long time ago.

But still, even with my alcoholism, my loneliness, my anxiety, my inability to connect emotionally and sexually with another man, I am innocent. I am innocent because I believe that people are naturally good. I am innocent because I believe in a standard higher than the one I have held myself to in the past. I am innocent because I truly do believe that sex is something special that happens best with strings attached. I am innocent because I believe that everyone is capable of making a difference, and that there is good in even the worst of us. Lord knows at times I have felt like the worst of us.

Someone told me the other day, “You don’t seem like someone who has been through an awful lot.” Besides being the most offensive thing you could say to someone, it is also misguided. My innocence is not a result of ignorance, of a lack of exposure to things that would teach me that the world is a cruel and unforgiving place. My innocence is a choice, an optimistic outlook on life despite the inner turmoil I have dealt with. I know that I am only capable of making this choice because of the way that I was raised. The things my parents taught me about love, about respect, and about being a good person haven’t kept bad things from happening to me. But they have given me the ability to deal with them when they come. I wouldn’t be where I am without my parents. I wouldn’t be sober at 22 without my parents. I wouldn’t be alive without my parents. And for that, I am grateful.

Someone also told me recently, “You have such a good, innocent quality about you. Don’t let people take that away from you.” I won’t. I haven’t done so yet.

-Theodore Dandy

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