By the time he reached high school, David Salisbury knew one thing for sure: "If I don't claim everything I am, without apology, then I'm going to get destroyed by this place."
David had been shy as a child, preferring nature to the company of his peers. "We had a big woods by my house," he remembers. "I would walk around out there on my own. Sit by the creek and read."
Then in junior high came his growing involvement with witchcraft, and the dawning realization that he was gay. All of which, in suburban North Carolina in the late 1990s, "really kind of puts a target on your back," he says.
It might seem as if he had a choice: hide what made him different or expose himself to the world. But to David, hiding was never really an option. His adopted religion taught that he was responsible for creating his own reality. And he couldn't imagine a world where illusions masked the truth.
"I always tell people I've never seen the inside of a closet — broomstick or otherwise," he says.
David's family was ostensibly Catholic, but they never practiced much. His parents separated soon after he was born, and his mother remarried and had five more children. A spark was lit during a weekend visit with his father. Eleven-year-old David — who'd always been interested in magic and "anything fantastical" — noticed his stepmom's crystal ball and books full of spells.
"She told me, 'If you really want to know, this isn't just a game or something I'm casually interested in. There's a whole faith around this,' " he remembers. But she and David's dad divorced before he could learn more.
In seventh grade, David made a new friend, and when the topic of the occult came up, she told him that her mother was the high priestess of a local coven. "I was like, 'What? Hold on.' I didn't believe her at first," he says.
She invited him home to prove it. "There were crystals, and shelves and shelves of books everywhere. They had a snake. It sounds a little dark and creepy, but it was actually a very light, beautiful, sun-filled, nature-y kind of home," he says.
"Miss Tina," as he came to know his friend's mom, answered all his questions that day and then sought his mother's permission to teach him more.
What he encountered through Miss Tina was a worldview and practice that gave him a sense of control over his life. "Witchcraft is very much based on personal responsibility," he says. "So when I would go through rough times I would always have those guiding principles of the craft that would say, 'This is your doing. You're creating your own world. Are you going to wallow in what's happening or are you going to change it?"
He dove in, soaking up as much time with Miss Tina as he could, saving up lunch money to buy books and attending holiday celebrations with the coven. To a kid whose greatest solace was nature, a religion that focused on the changing seasons and the lunar tides had deep resonance. He loved Wicca's reverence for the divine feminine and its emphasis on personal empowerment.
He describes the Wiccan religion as one founded on the belief that people operate best when "connected with environmental energies, so that we can meet our own greatest potential."
"A lot of what I call magical practices are based on finding and claiming your personal power, your place in the world," says David, now 30. "So you end up gaining this strong compass of direction and confidence."
That self-possession was enough to help David ignore the objections of his stepfather, a devout Christian who opposed both David's sexuality and his chosen religion, and the taunts of his classmates. "If you just own everything that you are, it's really hard for bullies to pinpoint something to pick on you with," he says.
David's Wiccan belief that "we're responsible for making things the way we want them to be" drove him into activism. He started his high school's environmental protection group and led the gay-straight alliance. And instead of going right to college, he took an internship with PETA and became a vegan.
What he thought would be a semester-long deferral turned into a three-year job traveling the country to educate consumers about animal abuse in circuses. "It was probably some of my most favorite years of my whole life," he says.
But in 2009 he moved to Washington for a job with a different advocacy organization and the chance to build a more stable social circle. He immediately found a community in the Firefly House, a Washington Wiccan group with a strong advocacy bent.
David, who has bright blue eyes and a tattoo of a broom on his left forearm, also hoped to find romance, though he knew that it might be difficult. Dating in Washington is challenging for anyone, but especially so for a gay vegan witch. "Usually people have just one weird thing they do on the side, but I had all this together," he says.
For years, his dating life was "a mess." On one first date, he ordered a veggie burger. The man he was with called it an "interesting choice" and then added, "Well, at least you're not one of those all-out animal rights people. Those people are so terribly annoying." Check, please.
So David woke up every day to perform his morning rituals: meditating, lighting incense before goddess figurines and burning sage at the altar in his apartment. He became a coven leader, started writing witchcraft books and threw himself into one progressive cause after another.
"He puts more work into things than anybody I've ever seen," says Nikie Little, a friend from junior high. "Every project gets every part of him."
And three years ago, OkCupid matched him with a vegan, punk-rock-loving animal rights activist. Over dinner, that man told David he had studied the occult. Today, they share an airy condo in Silver Spring with their black cat, Olive.
This Halloween, David will join the other members of his coven for a silent dinner, called a dumb supper, to mark the holiday they call Samhain. Each participant will bring the favorite food of a deceased loved one, and once the solemn meal is finished, the gathering will turn into a more traditional Halloween party.
David knows that witches still get a bad rap. And he doesn't expect that to change in his lifetime. But he hopes to upend the stereotype with each person he encounters.
"Sometimes all it takes is a few seconds for someone to meet someone and say, 'Oh, well, they seem like a regular person.' Or, 'Oh, they seem kind,' " he says. "That act alone just shatters so much misconception."
This Life is an ongoing series about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. If you know someone you think should be featured, email email@example.com.