Family outcast

Kennesaw teen was forced out of his home last year following a heated family argument about his homosexuality. He recorded the confrontation and the video went viral, resulting in an unexpected outpouring of support.


Daniel Ashley Pierce never clicks on the YouTube video. Watch the disturbing clip that went viral and made him a famous gay teenager, and you understand why. Posted online by a friend, it’s the recording of an intervention of sorts by kinfolk on his father’s side who curse and threaten Daniel before they cast him out of his home for being himself.

Nearly 8 million people worldwide have clicked on the clip, even though there’s no actual video. Instead, there are only voices, an element that makes this family fallout even more surreal. It’s the voices of Daniel’s family, engaged in dialogue. The conversation starts respectfully, but quickly escalates to shouts, profanity and name-calling. In the end, punches are thrown.

It’s the type of scenario best kept within family confines, private. Instead, it got posted online for the world to judge. And even though Daniel has stopped tuning in to the video, it’s still with him. Lives in him. He can’t erase from his mind the words and blows that video captured. Especially at night.

“It replays in my head sometimes when I sleep,” he says. “I have nightmares about it, and I have a lot of ‘what-if’ dreams. But most of the time, it just plays over and over in my head. I’ve been seeing a counselor about that.”

Oddly, the same video that disrupts his sleep and drives him to seek counsel has also brought sunshine to his life. It’s been nine months since the family altercation, and he is now enjoying the bittersweet freedom to be the person he was born to be. And right now, that’s an opinionated 20-year-old gay college student with a partner whom he says “gets me.”

2

A sense of place
Daniel grew up in Kennesaw, the youngest of two sons. Born with severe hearing loss, he’s worn hearing aids since birth. When he was 5, his parents divorced and he lived with his mother until he was 12. After that, he and Dale, his brother, went to live with their father.

“There was never a good living situation growing up,” said Daniel. (Daniel’s family did not respond to repeated interview requests submitted via phone, email and snail mail.)

When Daniel was 10 or 11 years old, he was acutely aware he liked boys. What he didn’t know was what word fit his sexual orientation. He didn’t know what the word “gay” meant, or that it even existed, until middle school.

Things began to change when he entered Kennesaw Mountain High School, then a science and math magnet school with nearly 2,200 students. The campus provided the kind of environment he longed for at home: a sense of place. He spent as much time on campus as he could. He was part of a hearing impaired program whose students had been grouped together practically their entire school careers. For a self-described introvert and shy guy who never went to prom, it was a good fit.

And being gay didn’t matter.

“In my class of a thousand, I was one of 250 gay kids,” he said. “It wasn’t a big deal at all at Kennesaw Mountain. There were teachers who knew I was gay. They didn’t care. I could go to school and be myself for a few hours. I was the classic nerd with big glasses. I was all about school.”

While the campus was his cocoon, home was a different story. Even though his brother knew he was gay, it was kept a secret and never openly discussed. Daniel was particularly wary of broaching the topic with his father.

“It was hard living there,” he said. “I was hiding from myself, and hiding such a big part of me did damage. I worked and stayed in my room. I was depressed in a way, but for many different reasons other than being gay.”

While Daniel was a teen, his father began dating, and he often stayed at his girlfriend’s house, leaving Daniel and his brother alone. When Daniel was 17, his dad remarried and moved into his new wife’s home in Dallas, while Daniel and Dale stayed in the Kennesaw house they’d once shared with their dad.

“My father was not around much after I turned 15,” Daniel said.

In Daniel’s eyes, the remarriage further strained the family dynamic. In the beginning, he believed his stepmother was trying to drive a wedge between him and his father and create hostile situations. But as time passed, the rocky relationship improved. Daniel began to consider her a bridge to his father and, perhaps, an avenue to sharing his secret.

One day, while sitting on the couch with his stepmother, Daniel casually told her he was gay. She took the news calmly, he said, free of judgment. Relieved, Daniel told her he had worried about how she and his father would react. He asked her to tell his dad and recalled her words of comfort.

Don’t worry. You are our son. We love you gay or straight, he remembered her saying. We will embrace you regardless of who you are.

At 18, Daniel took a bold step. On Oct. 11, 2013, National Coming Out Day, he decided to live his life as an openly gay man, even though he suspected some relatives might disapprove. He was depending on his stepmother to smooth things over, but the type of conversation he’d hope to have with his family never took place.

Family by choice

Photo: Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

Photo: Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

3

Family by choice
Today, Daniel calls Regina Ryan his “mother by choice.” She owns The Good Dog Co., a pet nutrition store in Kennesaw, and it’s where Daniel works, along with Teri Bearden Cooper, a longtime family friend, whom he calls his “aunt.” They are a tight trio.

Last year, they joined Daniel and his partner, David Estrada, at the Atlanta Pride parade, sharing a float sponsored by Lost-n-Found, a nonprofit that helps get homeless gay, bisexual and transgender youth off the street. Ryan and Cooper, along with Estrada, would be the first people Daniel turned to on the night of the family altercation.

“People who know Daniel would say he is wise,” Ryan says, “but he’s still young in many ways. He’s still a kid. This whole experience has put him in a place where he has had to learn and deal with issues.”

4

Emotional encounter
It was a mid-August night, and Daniel was headed home in his Ford Focus after a busy shift at the pet store. His cellphone rang. It was his grandmother. She told Daniel she was dropping by the house he shared with his brother in Kennesaw. Just her. He asked what the visit was about but got no answer.

He thought he knew. It was something he and Estrada had talked about recently. They’d wondered if Daniel’s family would try to conduct a family intervention.

“It hit me what they were trying to do,” Daniel said. “I ran the scenario through my head.”

Daniel arrived home about 10 minutes before his grandmother showed up. With her were his father, stepmother, grandfather and aunt. Before they came inside, he hit record on his cellphone.

On the recording, an elderly woman can be heard telling Daniel she loves him. She says she’s known he was gay since he was a tyke.

“You can deny it all you want to,” she says, “but I believe in the word of God, and God creates nobody that way. It’s a path that you have chosen to choose.”

Daniel can be heard claiming his sexuality is not a choice. He cites biology and psychology as “scientific truth,” to no avail. He’s told he will no longer be supported by the family, that he has to find somewhere else to live.

Daniel is heard asking a woman — his stepmother, he said — if he can live in her basement. The woman says no and from there, the conversation turns ugly. A family talk becomes a lion’s den for Daniel. Voices grow loud and angry. Curses are hurled. Punches are thrown. A man tells Daniel he is a disgrace; the defiant son asserts he is not.

Frantic, he contacted Ryan and Cooper and asked them to join him at the house. Bring garbage bags, he said.

The whole affair had ended by the time Ryan and Cooper showed up, followed by Estrada about 30 minutes later. They saw Daniel walk out of the house with a swollen lip. He’d packed what he could carry and handed over the keys to the car and the house. That night, he and his Chihuahua, Rico, stayed with Cooper in Kennesaw. He’s lived there ever since.

5

Video goes viral
Around 1 a.m. that night, Daniel remembered that he’d hit the record button on his phone before all the craziness began. He checked to see if the incident had been preserved. The verbal exchange was intact. Feeling vindictive, he posted the video on his Facebook page.

A day or so later, Estrada posted the video on Reddit, and Ryan posted it on YouTube.

“I felt strongly that it needed to be seen,” Ryan said. “People need to know this kind of thing really happens to these kids, and that it’s not just in the movies, made up.”

Daniel was ill-prepared for the media frenzy that ensued. Within days of its posting, the video was shared on various media sites, and stories about it appeared on Huffington Post, The Independent, USA Today and BuzzFeed. So many news organizations sought interviews, Daniel eventually stopped answering his phone unless he recognized the number.

To help Daniel get situated in his new home, where he was starting over with practically nothing, Estrada set up a GoFundMe account asking for $2,000. Within days, the campaign raised about $93,000 before it was shuttered, and Daniel posted a heart-felt thank-you.

“Oh my, you guys! I am in tears! I didn’t realize that this was even set up for me,” he wrote. “I am so thankful for all the comments, support and donations. I don’t even know how to thank y’all! I wish I could give each and everyone of you a huge hug!”

He requested that additional donations be sent to Lost-n-Found, the Atlanta nonprofit that works with homeless LGBT youth.

Daniel used the money to buy a 2012 Volkswagen and enroll at Kennesaw State University, where he’s majoring in business. An adviser helped him set up a financial plan, and now he can afford his hearing aids, which cost $4,000-$5,000 each for mid-level replacements.

Between the media attention and the financial support from total strangers, it was a heady time for Daniel. Luckily he had his “mother by choice” and family friend to help keep him grounded.

“There were so many people who wanted a piece of Daniel,” Ryan said. “And there were times his head got a little elevated and we had to bring him back down. We kept it very real with him.”

“He’s still young, and he’s still learning and growing,” said Cooper.

Daniel admitted his initial impulse in posting the video was vengeance, but now he recognizes the good it’s done, bringing attention to a serious issue that affects many gay teens everywhere.

“It was posted to get back at my stepmother,” he said. “But there were other forces at work. I saw what good came out of the situation.”

6

‘Able to be myself’
Since that altercation in August 2014, Daniel said he’s had no contact with his father, stepmother or grandparents.

“Am I angry? No,” he said. “Am I disappointed? Yes. Even though all that happened, all that crap happened, I am not mad at them. I wasn’t surprised at the verbal abuse, but when it got physical, it surprised me.”

On a brighter note, the incident reconnected Daniel with his mother, who learned about the incident via YouTube. Mother and son are now in touch. She’s met Estrada and entertained the couple in her home in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

“At the time of the video, I had not spoken to her in nearly two years,” Daniel says. “We didn’t have the typical mother-son relationship. Now it’s completely different. We are past everything that caused us not to speak for periods of time. She has changed as a person. I am older. Those issues aren’t at hand anymore.”

Today Daniel’s life is centered on work, school and his relationship with Estrada, who also attends KSU. They are homebodies who prefer movies, shopping and hiking to clubbing.

“The fact that I could find someone willing to love me is amazing,” Daniel said. “He balances me out and calms me down.”

Nowadays, they enjoy holding hands in public.

“This whole incident has made me able to be myself,” said Daniel. “There is nothing you can do to me now.”

Behind the story

Daniel at The Good Dog Co. in Kennesaw, where he’s employed. He is also a student at Kennesaw State University, where he’s majoring in business. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Daniel at The Good Dog Co. in Kennesaw, where he’s employed. He is also a student at Kennesaw State University, where he’s majoring in business. Bob Andres  / bandres@ajc.com

ABOUT THE REPORTER

Rick Badie, a member of the AJC Opinion staff, moderates the weekly Atlanta Forward economy and leadership pages. In 17 years with the paper, the Georgia native has covered Fulton County schools and the region’s immigrant communities. Prior to joining the Opinion team, he was the feature obituary writer and the Gwinnett columnist. He’s the father of two – Miles, 19 and Olivia, 12.


HOW WE GOT THE STORY

I was one of the millions of people who clicked on the YouTube video of Daniel Ashley Pierce’s family intervention last year. It chilled me. I wanted to tell Daniel’s story in its entirety, from his childhood all the way up to that family altercation and its aftermath. Once the video went viral, Daniel was flooded with so many media requests, he cut off all access. I knew he’d joined the board of Lost-n-Found Youth, a nonprofit that serves the city’s homeless LGBT youth. Rick Westbrook, its co-founder and executive director, approached Daniel and convinced him to grant one more interview — for Personal Journeys. One interview turned into two, followed by too many email exchanges to count. Despite repeated requests, his family chose not to participate. It is Daniel’s hope that telling his story one last time will benefit other gay teens struggling to come out to their families.

Rick Badie
Editorial staff
personaljourneys@ajc.com

Visit Lost-n-Found Youth's website for more information on the organization.