Eric Buss • High Cotton • Age: 22 • Charleston • 7 years out

Eric Buss is a line cook at High Cotton. He grew up in Beaufort, attending Battery Creek High School. He’s been studying part-time at the Culinary Institute at Trident Technical College since 2003, working towards being a chef. He counts himself lucky not just for landing a “real fun” job at High Cotton, but also for the acceptance he’s found at home and in Charleston.

What was it like to come out of the closet in your mid-teens?

I pretty much knew I was gay back in fourth or fifth grade. I was always comfortable with it. My mom thought it was a phase I was going through because she’s a good Christian woman and whatnot. It took her a while to realize that it’s not something you choose. I came out in high school in Beaufort County when I was 15 because I was tired of living a lie. I told my immediate family first, then my friends. I figured it would show me what good friends they were. Everybody didn’t really care, and nobody turned their backs on me except for a few people. I had one friend who said if I was gay she’d never talk to me again. When I finally told her, she said, “Why didn’t you tell me about this before? I don’t care. I love you just the same.” I thought, “You could have said that in the first place instead of keeping me worried for four years.”

Was there any kind of support for you as a gay teen?

Where I grew up there wasn’t a gay scene at all. I was pretty much alone. Moving to Charleston opened my eyes to the whole gay scene. It’s nice to know there are people feeling the same way. It’s great just to be out and to be comfortable around others.

Any negative experiences?

There’s been a little bit of name-calling. People talk behind your back. But they can’t tell I’m gay by looking at me. At work, people knew me for me and then found out I was gay. In New York you can be as gay as you possibly want, and you don’t have to watch your back unless you’re really feminine and everyone can easily tell you’re gay. One of my friends here was beaten up. That’s one time in four years that someone I know was jumped for being gay. I have another, a 42-year-old friend whose parents still don’t talk about it. They know he’s gay, but it’s never brought up. His dad walks out of the room when he visits, and his mom won’t bring it up. My mom sees that it’s not any of her business. I also have a couple of friends in D.C. who came out, but their parents threw it off in the beginning. When they realized being gay isn’t a choice, they came around. The first few years didn’t go so smoothly for them, though. Not everyone is as lucky as me.

What can be done to improve gay-straight communication in Charleston?

Straights think that if a gay guy goes up to him, “He’s going to like me.” This town is opening their eyes to the truth. In the future I’d like to see people getting more knowledge, not casting judgment before they know what they’re talking about. Gay people can help them out too by sitting down and talking with them. I’ve sat down and talked to my manager about me being gay. I was impressed that he would sit down with me and ask questions instead of writing me off. That sort of attitude could open people’s eyes a bit more to the whole gay scene. — Nick Smith