Weeks before graduation from my small-town high school in the spring of 1975, I was caught by a state trooper having sex with another man in the woods of Maine. We were two minors (the other boy an unknown from out of town), exploring our sexuality in the backseat of a Volkswagen bug. The implications surrounding this event changed my life and the lives of many around me forever. No legal issues came of it, surprisingly, but on a social and cultural level the world began to change very fast.

The trooper called in his discovery to the station, and word got out quickly throughout town that I was queer. A few days later at my graduation party, in front of 150 or so friends and neighbors, and for all to hear, the town bullies stopped me at the door and screamed, “Get out, faggot!”

What could one do but leave and fast? Immediately I lost most of my friends (whether guilt by association or fear of the unknown). Someone tried to run me off the road. Incessant hang-up calls were made to my home in the middle of the night, waking my folks. Co-workers spoke no more unless by necessity. Friends disappeared.

I had to tell my mother what was happening, and I needed her help. I cried as I spoke the words, “I’m a queer.” She handled it well, thankfully, and was helpful in getting me out of town. She told my father a lie about the need to start school for the summer session to get a jump on academics. He wouldn’t have understood or handled the issue well.

My confiding in her brought us closer emotionally, more than ever. We have always talked and shared personal stuff as I was a bit of a momma’s boy — the fourth of six kids. I was the “good one;” she was my angel.

Ten years passed. I owned one of the priciest hair salons in Portland. I styled local news people, politicians, high-end clientele. I was out, comfortable in my skin and proud of what I had accomplished. I also began a meditation and spiritual practice in 1983.

I decided to return to my hometown for my high school reunion in 1985. Just a few of the girls that I used to skip school with spoke with me. One said that night, “I want to hang out with the fag!” Those women were happy to see me, as I was to see them, and the healing began.

In 1987, I moved to Los Angeles. I went for change, to study Zen Buddhism, to try to work in film and maybe find a lover. I worked on a few films and TV shows. I met and worked with celebrities, and I felt worldly. I embraced life and held nothing back. Social mores began to shift. At my 20th reunion in 1995, the “guys” I hung with during high school were friendly.

In 2010 I returned again for the 35th reunion. By then I had been a yoga and meditation teacher for 10 years, teaching 15 classes a week at four yoga studios. My life had been nothing like the life in a small New England town, yet something about our personal history never leaves us. This time, the reunion’s reception was ever more gracious and accepting. I took the time to “tell my story” to many who were either once friends or just acquaintances. All whom I encountered were open and friendly. Any past feelings of disconnection had washed away with time.

Forward to the present: I returned a year ago to Portland, and this November the state of Maine was the first state in the union to vote to pass gay marriage rights. I am proud of the shift in consciousness. I have been away a long time.

Mainers are independent, but what I didn’t know is that mindsets had changed dramatically since my departure in 1987. I thought that the major urban cities were the only places for a gay man like me. Well surprise, surprise! The beautiful state of Maine has become home to many from afar who have found in Portland a stunningly beautiful small city, full of acceptance. The city has become a mecca for the free spirited, yogis, foodies, hipsters, artists, music lovers and finally, the “gays.”

I’ve been told many times since reconnecting with old acquaintances that I had made a difference in their younger lives. All my stylists went on to open their own salons. Straight, closeted or gay, many clients had come to my salon, Akari, and realized, like I had, that we can be out, proud and respected. I, for one, am thrilled to be “home” where Mainers have more rights than even Californians.

I am now in training to mentor other HIV positive men. (I’ve had it 10 years). I teach yoga for healing HIV, among other classes. I go with the flow because I’ve always been open to it, and it feels right. I’m also back to styling hair and helping people feel joy both inside and out. Time is our friend, and I am grateful that all we have to do is show up, “be present” as we say, and be yourself.

Dana Marcoux does hair at 02 Salon, teaches yoga and lives in Portland.