David Nygaard sits down in a leather wingback chair in the middle of his jewelry shop on First Colonial Road in Virginia Beach, the afternoon sunlight beaming through the storefront. Anxious, he clears notifications on his cell phone before tucking it back into the front left pocket of his tan slacks.
He leans forward, resting his elbows on the tops of his thighs, gazing through the floor-to-ceiling window panes. For a minute or two his eyes follow cars as they pass by before he sits back and settles into his chair.
A long gold chain peeks from his collared shirt and falls over his neckline – a double-sided gold and diamond cross dangling from the middle of it.
One half, he says, belonged to his mother, Sandy.
His oldest son, tending the counter about 20 feet away, glances over every so often, watching the back of his dad’s head.
Stories like the one Nygaard is getting ready to share haven’t made headlines so much in recent years, but perhaps, because of Nygaard’s past, his story is a little different.
In what he hopes will allow him to be his most authentic self, Nygaard, with a casual grin, prepares for the next chapter of his life at the age of 53 – he’s coming out as a gay man.
Living to other people’s expectations
Nygaard has lived here – or nearby – for most of his life. He’s a graduate of William and Mary and even taught some classes at Chowan University.
For most local residents, Nygaard’s name has long been synonymous with marriage proposals and wedding bands. He’s been helping happy couples symbolize their vows with precious metals and stones for nearly 35 years — except for a few when his business was closed after filing for bankruptcy.
The family-owned store, which opened in 1978 by his mother as Sandy’s Touch of Gold at Waterside, is well known.
Ask around about local jewelry shops and you’re bound to hear about him.
Some, though, know Nygaard in a different light.
As a business owner and family man, Nygaard has outwardly been a conservative Christian in his community. When his company had seven stores and dozens of employees, he was once a member of the C12 Group, an organization that touts itself as the “largest network of Christian CEOs” that works to “strengthen marriage.”
Marriage, according to the group, is defined only as between a man and a woman. They have also been known to work with FamilyLife, which is staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage.
Nygaard said he hasn’t been affiliated with the group for several years.
While both of these pieces of the puzzle make up a large part of his life, Nygaard said he decided it was time to live life for himself.
“I’ve always found myself living to other people’s expectations and not having been true to myself,” he says.
About five years ago, Nygaard and the mother of his six children divorced. It didn’t have anything to do with his sexuality, he says.
“I think a lot of people’s coming out story is different from mine,” Nygaard says, his eyes softening a bit. “Some people feel like they lived a lie. I didn’t really live a lie. I was, really, happily married.”
For Nygaard, this isn’t something that is so easily defined. This part of his identity has always existed, but time changes things, he says.
His once-fluid sexuality has changed, too.
‘It was a wake-up call…’
Near the end of 2014, Nygaard’s life took another turn when he found something he wasn’t expecting.
“I fell in love,” he said. “And I found that that relationship couldn’t be what I wanted it to be if I was hiding from it or running from it.”
Slowly, Nygaard told his family and a few close friends. Though he admits he feared their reaction, he was met with love and acceptance.
“We were kind of curious about if he was actually gay or not. We had our suspicions,” Nate, Nygaard’s 17-year-old son, says. “When he came out to us, it was a relief because I could tell it was something that he really wanted to get off of his chest.”
Nygaard’s six children supported their father, Nate says, because he’s like a best friend to them.
Nygaard’s mother, Sandy, even got to know his boyfriend, Matt Sheely, before she passed in July 2015.
“Today, that means a huge amount to me that he was able to connect with her on that level,” Nygaard said. “If I had just kept it secret, he would have never had that opportunity to connect.”
Weeks after her passing, Nygaard and Sheely took their blended family – three of Nygaard’s children, Sheely’s daughter, and Nygaard’s father – on a vacation to Orlando.
The trip, he says, was almost surreal.
“If you had told me ten years ago that I would be taking my boyfriend – my partner – with my dad and my kids on a vacation, I would have thought you were crazy,” he says, laughing.
Fast forward to December of 2016 when Nygaard suffered a major heart attack – one so serious, it’s called the “widowmaker.” A major artery in his heart was 100 percent blocked.
“Most people don’t survive those,” he says. “It was very serious.”
The medical emergency helped to solidify his decision. It was time to live for himself.
Historically, conservative religions haven’t always been accepting of those that identify as LGBT. Tactics like conversion therapy – a process that is essentially an attempt to reverse homosexuality – have been used. At times, people are ostracized from their families and communities.
They’re often shunned, as Nygaard puts it. According to Del. Jason Miyares [R-82nd], who refers to Nygaard as being “like a brother” to him, Nygaard has already been cold-shouldered by some of his church community.
“I was just utterly appalled at the way he’s been treated by people within the church,” Miyares said. “We’re commanded to love our neighbor and that neighbor can come in a lot of different forms.”
Miyares, who more than 10 years ago met Nygaard and his family at a church Miyares no longer attends, said Nygaard told him about his sexuality about two years ago. He said he’s proud of how his friend is taking advantage of his “second chance” in life.
Nygaard’s sexuality, he says, has shifted his religious practices.
“It certainly has made me wrestle with — how does faith speak to this?” he says.
Nate recognized his father’s struggle and said that the family joined a more progressive and accepting church.
“I feel like that helped my dad because it helped open up my dad’s and our minds more,” Nate says. “He’s gone through a lot, and I have, too, but I’m there for him, always.”
There is a problem in conservative circles concerning the treatment of LGBT people, according to Nygaard, and that’s something he hopes to help with. In recent months, he’s started to have what he calls tough conversations within his religious community in hopes that the dialogue will continue.
The word conservative just doesn’t fit who Nygaard is anymore, he says, and the one-way dialogue between religious leaders and followers is due for an update.
“I think that as a Christian that we need to put a face to the issue,” Nygaard says. “It’s easy to talk about an issue without a face. I think the more gay Christians come out, the more there is a face to the issue and it’s less of an idea and more of a person.”
This article was published in partnership with WYDaily’s sister publication, Southside Daily.