DIFFERENT BUT NOT SO DIFFERENT: Keyser native talks about growing up gay in small town

Barbara High
Mineral Daily News-Tribune
Mark Miller sits at home one evening this week as he talks to the News Tribune about growing up gay in Keyser in the 1980s.

KEYSER — Most people growing up in Mineral County seem to feel it is an ideal location and a dream, but for some that dream experience can be somewhat of a nightmare - especially if you’re different and brought into the world in 1964.

For Mark Miller, who was born that year, it would prove to be a trial.

“I always knew I was different,” Mark said recently as he sat down to talk with the News Tribune. “As young as 6 or 7, I felt different from the other boys.

“As soon as you know you’re different, you take on the burden of being judged and feeling guilty for being different. You don’t accept yourself, and you fight it,” he says.

For Mark, he knew he was different because he would look at the boys instead of the girls, and "mainstream" society said then that was wrong and so it had to be kept secret.

“It is hard and it hurts,” he says. “It is a burden you have to learn to accept.

Being LBGTQ+ was a nightmare in middle school

“I was an outgoing child, and I was very quiet and reserved about being different,” he recalls. Although elementary school didn’t prove to be much of a problem for Mark, since relationships and sexual orientation were not a focus with children that young, middle school would be where Mark’s nightmare would become a reality.

“At the age of 13 through 15, I could not have cried enough,” he says.

Keyser native Mark Miller gestures as he talks about being bullied in middle and high school because of his sexual orientation.

Although Mark had never told a soul about being different, so even his family didn’t know he was gay, that would not protect him from the torture he was about to receive.

“I was outgoing and talented at an early age, and I was interested in dance, drama and gymnastics,” he says. Those interests, however, made Mark a target to other children. He was called a slur by the other children, even before they knew he was really gay.

It wasn’t everyone, but it was several kids that seemed to be filled with such hate and who were angry, and also showing signs of being racist as well. They had singled Mark out for dancing and doing gymnastics, and they weren’t comfortable with that, so they tormented him daily.

“I came home everyday crying and cried all the time,” he told the News Tribune. “I wasn’t spiteful or cruel, and I never did anything to anyone to ever deserve or get the hate I got from them."

At that time, Mark was still keeping quiet about his sexuality, but that did not spare him their taunting and name calling.

“It hurt so bad,” he said. “It was the hardest experience to ever go through. I knew I was different, but I couldn’t help it.”

Mark said he never wanted to be different or to feel that way. It was a very negative, dark, and depressed feeling to be different and feel so alone.

“I would never chose to be that way and be treated like that if I could have helped it; nobody would chose that,” he said.

Focusing on his talents

At that time while Mark knew he was different, he also knew he had talent. He decided that since he was so outgoing, he would focus on that. He steered toward developing his talents. He focused on his dance and gymnastics and proved to be quite the athletic child. Sadly, that brought more teasing from several boys.

“I don’t know what they were raised like,” he says, “but they were so angry and I did nothing to be called ‘faggot,’ ‘fairy,’ and ‘fruitcake.’” 

Mark said that is why suicide rates are so high among young gay people. “It is so hurtful, and you always remember the trauma. Even though I was popular for my talent and dance moves, I was tormented,” he said.

It had gotten to a point in late middle school that Mark, who was still in secret about his sexuality, went to a teacher about his bullying. He says it was no secret that he was being bullied, and he was in need of help.

“My teacher, who I believe sensed that I was different, actually got on a microphone and announced that if anyone was caught calling me names or being mean would be put out of school.”

Mark says that was the first time anyone had ever stood up for him.

As Mark continued developing his talent, it made him strong physically, and he began to start to develop his first crush. That secret crush went on for a few years, stretching into high school. There, Mark’s crush grew and he decided to write the boy a letter. The boy had always been nice to Mark and even though he told Mark didn’t feel the same, after receiving the letter he was never mean to Mark.

Mark says he later learned that the boy had a gay brother, which “wasn’t something people would know at that time.”

After that, Mark became very tired of living with his secret and had begun to drink to escape that feeling. It became so unbearable for him that he decided to speak to his pastor about it. Being raised Catholic, his family attended church regularly and lived a religious lifestyle. Mark spoke to his pastor and told him that he realized that he was different and knew he was gay. He says the pastor simply told him to do his penance for his "sin."

“It was obvious that they didn’t feel I was God’s child with feelings like that, so I never went back,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a part of something that felt I was wrong. I still practiced my faith and kept a relationship with my Lord Jesus Christ though."

Being in a dark place as a gay man

After that experience, Mark says he slipped into a dark place. He began to have a complete breakdown at this point, and he just didn’t want to be there anymore.

“I continued to drink and I took pills that I could get,” he said. “I was skipping school and I was lost in this deep sadness.”

Mark said he was afraid to tell his family and everyone he cared about and felt it would be easier not to be here. It was at this time that he attempted suicide.

“I had taken a bunch of pills and was found unconscious,” he recalls. “An ambulance was called. I can remember hearing the commotion around me; my mom was crying and my brothers and sisters were scared.”

After having his stomach pumped, Mark was kept for a week to help him emotionally.

When he was released from the hospital, Mark could simply not take it anymore and he gathered his family and confessed to them that he was gay. Several family members said they already knew, yet nobody set down with him to talk about it. 

“My one brother had difficulties accepting it completely, and my father was not okay with it; he jus didn’t understand.”

Mark and his father became estranged and it would be many years before the two would have a relationship again.

“After I came out to my family, I had an awakening of sorts and I didn’t care who knew after that,” he said.

So Mark went into his senior year of high school and tried out for cheerleading and made the team due to his dance skills and gymnastics.

“It was 1983 and I was the first gay boy cheerleader,” he recalls.

Being a cheerleader definitely gave other boys a bigger reason to target him, and he says although he put himself out there by joining the team, the bullying still really hurt.

“It just made me an easier target for their hate,” he said.

“I had brothers growing up and I learned to fight with them, so I learned to defend myself,” he says.

Mark remembers one time someone tried to turn the bullying into something physical, but he was able to take care of it. “Nobody tried to get physical with their abuse after that, but the mental abuse was so cruel that it still left me with trauma,” he said.

“Honestly, I credit my mother as the reason I survived,” says Mark, explaining that his mother was loving and supportive.

“I think having her and being as outgoing as I was with such a dynamic personality kept me strong enough to get though it.”

Mark says his centerstage attitude and confidence have served him well in getting through the dark times. “My suicide attempt was a cry for help; I was hurting and it was a dark time. Yet through it all I have maintained courage, dignity and spirit that Mark Miller has,” he said. “Even through the pain and hurt. I mean, I was traveling with the cheerleading team and was getting the hate from the other schools as well. It was like that was the only thing some people could see in me was my sexuality. They only saw that one part. Like, why focus on that instead of my talent, dancing, gymnastics or my personality?” he asks.

 Marks still questions why so many focus on that one thing, which is just a tiny part of the amazing person that he is.

“They only saw that I was gay, and that is all they cared about,” he said.

Mark said he never felt accepted in this area, or even safe for that matter.

“Things were always said and I did not feel safe and lived my life here in fear,” he says. “With crimes against gays, including murder, at the time being so high around the country, it was a scary time.”

Slowly finding acceptance

So with that, Mark, after being voted Most Talented by his classmates, immediately left the area upon graduating.

He says he left here so young because not only did he feel unaccepted and fearful here, but he also knew he would never be successful here.

“It is the reason so many young gay people head to bigger cities,” he says.

Mark first headed to Florida, where he continued his dance training and even danced at Disney World and  won Mr. Dance of Florida. He then competed nationally. After more traIning, he headed to California.

“I was 21 years old and I knew I was talented and I wanted to try California,” he says.

When he made it from L.A. and then to Say Fransisco, he says he never felt more at home.

“They had gyms just for gay people to work out,” he explains. “I had finally found my people, my place, my home, where I felt comfortable and could be myself.”

He didn’t feel alone anymore, and actually blossomed there.

He did ballet training, campus theater and events, and was even called to audition for Madonna, Paula Abdul, and Janet and Michael Jackson.

“I met Madonna!!” he says of one of the highlights of his experiences.

Mark made his living through entertainment and dancing. He also sang and worked at a gym, which he continued for 20 years.He even appeared on “Entertainment Tonight.”

“I was well known in the gay community and I had become successful,” he says.

All of this at times was not easy for Mark, however, who was still carrying a low self self-esteem from his youth and unresolved trauma from being tormented for years.

“It all caused me to make some poor life choices at times,” he admits.

Mark dealt with the trauma in multiple ways, including a period of drug addiction. It was when he started working the 12-Step Program to combat that addiction, however, that his life really changed and he became the most successful.

“It changed my life. I learned a lot of lessons and got wiser,” he says.

It was at that time that he was able to reconnect with his father and really got close with his higher power.

“I lived an amazing life after that,” he said.

A return to Keyser

Mark lived that life for 33 years and never looked back on his life in his small hometown. One thing that he knew was that he would never go back to live there again … that is until COVID hit and he and his brother made the decision to return to Keyser for a year.

“It was hard to return to a place that I couldn’t wait to get away from 33 years earlier,” he said. It was scary and he didn’t quite to know what to expect.

“Returning to Keyser was an eye-opening life experience,” he said. “The city offered me friends, a community like me, acceptance.”

Mark said that now Keyser has offered him a slower, more peaceful life of quiet and solace with new friends. He also found Keyser to be more accepting than it was when he left.

“I mean, I left this town with such hate and ignorance, and found family and friends that I always wanted,” he says. “Now, I’ve come back to make a lot of new friends here.”

Mark says even some people he has come across that didn’t understand his way of life before are now open and have talked to him, and they all accepted him after that. “They meet and talk to me and they see me as this person who is so much more than my sexual orientation, and we have became friends,” he says.

“Did I get some prejudice? Sure,” he says. “There is still some ignorance and hate, but not like when I left.

“I went out and sang in clubs with my brothers, and was able to be myself. Did I get the whispers and the occasional limp wrist behind my back? Sure,” he says, “but they can only take my power if I give it to them.

“I am comfortable in my own skin and those few won’t get to me.”

Mark said Keyser had definitely experienced growth and come a long way since he grew up here.

“Kids today can take the same-sex date to prom; that is something I never could have done,” he says. “Keyser is not what it once was, and I am grateful.”

Mark said since returning home he has been able to talk to old classmates who told him they admired what he had accomplished in life.

 “It was so nice and so many followed me and saw my awards and recognition I got for my dancing and stuff. It was like my small town had truly evolved into this nice place,” he says.

Mark says returning made him realize that people are people and everyone and everything changes. “People are way more accepting and were okay with me being me,” said Mark. “I am what I am and people like me for me. I was told they didn’t care that I was gay and that they liked me as a person.”

Mark said coming home to Keyser was an awesome experience and yet he always knew he would be returning.

The time is almost here now for him to leave.

“I returned kind of afraid of what I would find; what I wasn’t expecting was that I would be torn about leaving this time because it is hard,” he said.

“I can tell you that if I do in fact leave, I will be taking a newfound love for Keyser with me!”