WHITEWATER — Tyler Sailsbery started typing, and then he cried.
He erased what he wrote and started again ... and again, and again for what felt like 30 times over.
Then Brian Laning called. It was June 20, Brian’s birthday. Brian and Tyler talk at 10:30 p.m. every night, so Tyler knew he had a deadline.
But Tyler needed 15 more minutes to finish Brian’s birthday present. He would have to call him back.
Then, finally, Tyler finished typing and hit send.
His secret was out. He was out. There would be no more “living in the shadows.”
Tyler, owner of The Black Sheep and Casual Joe’s restaurants in Whitewater, composed a 314-word Facebook post for Brian. The two were dating and in love. The owner of the prominent local business was gay.
“I immediately wanted to delete it,” Tyler said. “And then I wanted to go to bed. I just didn’t wanna know what the ... I didn’t wanna know. I didn’t wanna know what was gonna happen.”
Sitting in front of the restaurant on Whitewater Street, Brian said Tyler was “super adventurous.”
Tyler agreed. It’s like he’s not afraid of anything. Except for years, he was afraid of that moment—of letting the world know who he really is.
There were personal reasons. Tyler didn’t want others to think differently of him. Coming out, he said, felt like a political stance. He didn’t want to alienate people.
Tyler, 34, hid his internal tension in his job. He said he became a workaholic because he assumed he would be single until he died.
“And I thought, the only thing I have in life is this,” he said. “I didn’t think there was anything else for me ... for a family, for a relationship. So I could be married to work and not worry about anything else.”
There were also business reasons. Tyler kept all of this to himself because he owned a business in a small town. His employees depend on him. What if coming out tanked the restaurant? He thought this was his problem, and that he shouldn’t bring it in to work.
But living that way “sucked.” Tyler said it felt “crappy.”
Brian, who lives in Milwaukee, couldn’t really hang around the restaurant. He couldn’t join Tyler at events or activities around Whitewater. There was an hour-long drive before the two could enjoy breakfast together.
Tyler couldn’t tell people about his first date with Brian, which was near the beginning of 2018.
The first time the two hung out, Tyler made dinner at The Black Sheep—while it was closed. He wanted it to be somewhere public, but not too public.
Slowly, Tyler began to tell others close to him about Brian. Before telling his parents in March or April 2018, he told two employees.
“I needed somebody to hear it,” Tyler said. “Because I needed ... I just needed to be able to say it out loud and not have to worry about what the reaction was.”
Then came June 20. Tyler was close to sharing his story, but he needed one more push.
Lacey Reichwald, owner of the neighboring SweetSpot Cafe, was meeting with a colleague at The Black Sheep. She has known Tyler for about 11 years.
She said it surprised her when Tyler was talking openly in front of her colleague, which caught her attention. Maybe he was ready.
“Sometimes it’s just ... I need to say it to somebody to feel strong, because I feel weak,” he said.
Lacey is a business owner, so Tyler asked her what would happen.
“I never wanted to push him. I just wanted to encourage and support him,” she said. “Whether or not he decided to share it, I was gonna be proud of him.”
The restaurant was quieting down. Tyler told his staff he needed to go home and take care of something.
“So I said, ‘I want to do this,’” Tyler said. “‘I think I’m gonna do it.’”
When Tyler woke up the next morning, he wanted to make the Facebook post private.
Even though the response, which has more than 900 likes and 300 comments, was “overwhelmingly supportive,” the very acknowledgement of his true self still was uncomfortable.
Brian came out when he was 14, so being open about his sexuality has come naturally for some time.
“It was a little weird having to sort of come back in the closet a little bit when I was in this relationship,” Brian said.
But no more. Brian’s first reaction to the birthday surprise: He was “stunned.” Turning to look at Tyler, he said he was proud. Brian knows coming out “has to be championed by that person” and can’t be forced.
Why did Tyler share this, despite all his fears and reservations about coming out in a small town?
“Because I love him, and I want to be able to share that,” Tyler said. “I want people to see loving relationships. I want to be an example of a loving relationship for others so that they can see that it’s OK, and everything is gonna be OK.”
Tyler said he didn’t receive any vile or hateful responses. Two of the messages, however, said he should have kept his personal life private.
But Tyler responded and said people shouldn’t be afraid of sharing who they are. Much of Tyler’s decision came down to reaching people who are living in the shadows, as he was.
“There is so much support and love out there,” he said of his message to those in similar situations. “I understand that it is not easy. But together, we’re gonna make it easier for the next person. Together, we’re gonna make the world better.”
And without sharing who he is, people who discriminate against the LGBTQ community won’t change how they think.
“If they can’t see us, we don’t exist,” he said. “So I wanna help us be seen.”
Now, Tyler and Brian can be seen.
It’s still new, though. The two hung out for a few days after Brian’s birthday.
They finally got to post pictures about it on Facebook “like a normal couple,” Tyler said, beaming after putting his arm around Brian as they sat for an interview outside The Black Sheep.
Neither imagined such a slight display of affection would be possible for them.
As he was with his original disclosure, Tyler was hesitant about doing an interview. But his hesitance is exactly why he felt he needed to do it.
Tyler remembered seeing a Facebook post from an openly gay Milwaukee restaurant owner to celebrate June as Pride Month. One person left a nasty comment vowing never to eat at the restaurant again.
While it is “awesome” that he hasn’t experienced anything like that in Whitewater, Tyler said it got to the heart of why he needed to stand out.
“The kids that are reading this that are not out of the closet are being told that that’s where they have to stay. And that’s not OK,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “So I needed to say, ‘OK. Here’s another business.’ And we’ll say, ‘Here’s another business, and there’s another business, and there’s another business until the voice is so loud that it is OK, and that you are alright, and that you have a choice to live your life and follow your dreams.”
Brian leaned over and gave Tyler a kiss on the cheek.
“And he’s worth it,” Tyler said.