Monday, December 27, 2010

Coming Out and Self-Discovery: The Life of the Living Dead

Ok. So I realize that the title of this post is provocative. It is intended to be. As a result of some comments I received to my post yesterday, I wanted to write a bit more about how the process of coming out affects one’s sense and knowledge of self. On the flip side, I also wanted to examine what living a life in the closet does to one’s sense of self.

I hadn’t planned to write this post; but once again, I was surprised at how certain elements of a post can unexpectedly find resonance with people.  Yesterday, I posted about “getting out there” and meeting gay guys and about some of my initial experiences in doing so.  In the process of describing experiences I was having and realizations I was coming to about myself, I commented that I experienced moments of awkwardness in social settings because I felt that I had kept the “real” me under wraps for so long, that I had deliberately dissociated myself from my real self out of a desperate need to conceal my gayness. 

Though I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised at this, I guess it only makes sense that, if suppressing my gay nature resulted in dissociation and fragmentation of identity, then embracing that identity (by coming out and actually entering the gay world) would result in discovery and integration of identity. 

And I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, either, to learn that other gay men have experienced the same sort of thing that I described in my post on Sunday.  For example, Trey compared his process of self-discovery after coming out to “unwinding the mummy-trappings - one layer at a time - in which I shrouded myself over many socio/culture-bound years of disguise and self-doubt.”

In response to what I wrote about being hyper-vigilant about my true identity, Clive wrote:  For most of my life, the fear of being discovered weighed heavily on everything I did, everything I said, the relationships I made, and the activities I engaged in. Coming out broke the bonds that bound me for the first time. When I realized that the fear that was my constant companion was of my making, I quickly cast it aside."

Then there was Philip, who described a similar process of self-discovery once he had come out. “I had always thought I was a person out of touch with what I wanted or needed,” he wrote, “so I was surprised to find myself discovering all sorts of very basic things about myself when I started to openly and honestly interact with others - things I later realized my peers had probably learned about themselves when they were the same age I was when I went into the closet.  In other words, going into the closet at 12 years old had greatly stunted my emotional growth. I was basically 28 going on 13.  So bottom line...there were basic things about myself I only seemed to be able to learn through open and honest interaction with others.

What I found particularly intriguing and enlightening (especially at my stage of coming out) about Philip’s comments is that he described a process in which he started out by meeting with a gay married men’s group once a month, which allowed him basically one hour a month to actually live his gay self “out loud.”  Then, upon separation from his wife, he started interacting much more frequently with other gay men, then adding to his circle “gay positive straight folks,”  then (as he wrote) “coworkers then friends then family then just about everybody.”

In other words, for Philip, integration and discovery of self required a conscious effort in a “controlled” environment in which he found acceptance and affirmation and freedom to explore.  In a subsequent comment, Philip said that, especially in the early stages of this process before and shortly after separating from his wife, he was accused by his wife of being selfish.  The truth is I was selfish,” he wrote, “but needed to be in order to process the rush of self-discovery I was going through.  I did try my best to strike a balance between my needs and my family needs but couldn't help her understand because I didn't really understand what was going on myself.  I knew I was going from a state of lots of confusion to a place of greater clarity but I had yet to glean that I was also going from a place of ignorance and self-hatred to greater self-awareness and self-acceptance.  

I smiled when I read Philip’s comment because I have already heard this “selfish” refrain.  Frankly, I think I’m being viewed as “selfish” merely by accepting my homosexuality.  I think that, to my wife, that act, in and of itself, has not only represented a betrayal, etc., but also the height of selfishness.   From the beginning of our marriage, I have felt that I have been “on trial,” i.e., that I had to behave a certain way to be accepted, not only by my wife but by everybody.  (Of course, I realize a lot of this was because of my own issues of low self-esteem, etc.  But to be treated as selfish and self-centered merely to affirm who I am – that has been very disappointing and frankly hurtful.)  

I don’t think I’ve yet realized the extent of the psychic damage that I have inflicted upon myself over the years due to thinking that merely accepting myself the way I fundamentally am represents the height of selfishness.  And living in a culture and belief system that teaches that focus on self is the antithesis of righteousness and a grave sin to be avoided at all costs – all of this has served to compound the extent of this psychic damage.

Philip went on to write of this “selfishness” by stating, “I owned and felt a lot of guilt about my selfishness yet, at the same time, felt driven to continue focusing on me.  I am trying to tell you that it is OK to be selfish. You need to be but the period of selfishness will not last very long.  Maybe a few months before it starts abating.

So I now come back to the title of this post.  I think the mummy metaphor is apt, and I think the title is appropriate, since for much of my life, I was alive, functioning, performing, going through the motions, trying to be all that I was “supposed” to be, yet was essentially dead to who I really was and am.  Coming out has started the process of “de-mummification.”  First, I have to take off the wrappings; then I must reverse the process whereby the lifeblood was drained out of me and replaced by the embalming fluid of conformity, shame and self-negation.  I fully expect this process to take some time, and I know that I cannot do it by myself:  the journey will require effort on my part, to be point of risking being called selfish, but will also require the assistance of others in a “controlled environment” who can affirm, mirror, and accept.  I am so grateful that this journey has begun.


  1. I'm glad as well. To a degree I think I see where you have been and what the results of that path were, where you are, and where you intend to go. It sounds like self-discovery and self-construction for you has, is, and will be both trying and worth it.

  2. I was thinking about this exact kind of selfishness the other day. You and the others that have commented on your blog have said it so well: there IS a certain amount of selfishness that comes with self-discovery. And personally, if that's what it takes to know myself a little better, I'm okay with being selfish!

    I think when others criticize "us" for taking time out to focus on the self, it's because they don't understand the long-term benefits of what is happening inside "us."

    I've learned to appreciate this kind of selfishness by thinking about it as an object lesson. One of the most important purposes of life is to share what one has learned for himself with others, and contribute to the greater knowledge. I picture humans being "intellectual vessels" that share their experience by "pouring" experience into other willing vessels. The experience of one vessel mixes with the experience of another, and a purer, better experience is formed.

    A flawed (and slightly disturbing) metaphor, to be sure, but the point I'm trying to get at is this: that this selfishness of self-discovery is a time where we fill our "vessels" with experience. When we live our lives unwilling to accept who we really are, we are empty, and have next to nothing of ourselves to contribute to the world. We ache with the desire to contribute, and become confused as we are filled with experience of others and have no substance of our own. This selfishness is a time to fill up! It is a time realize and define and create our own experience.

    After accepting the self, one has more to give. Perhaps, after all the introspection and self-discovery, such a seemingly selfish period in our lives isn't really selfish at all.

    Btw: I love the pictures. Even creepy newspaper mummy man :)

  3. I agree that "selfishness" is necessary, particularly when one has continually sacrificed so much of who one is for others.

    I think that, like you, philip and apronkid have said, "selfishness" has a negative connotation in society because we have been taught, often, that the greater good is most important. However, the means to arrive at this good is the determiner, in my opinion. It's the same old question of Means vs. Ends, Might vs. Right. Is it ok to sacrifice one's identity for the greater good of a family or a projection of the self, family and ideals? Is the "you" acting in the projection of self, family and ideals only that: a projection, a shadow, an illusion?

    It seems that you have given generously but the price of that giving has been your identity, not just love or kindness. Of course, you now need to plump-up your self because you've been sacrificed to the bone. It's ok to be whole, to protect yourself and nurture your self. You need this: like someone coming out of the desert without water. You will drink slowly, may get a bit sick from too much, but soon you'll find your balance.

    I find it admirable, the quest that you and all IP bloggers, undertake: the path the be true to who you truly are, finding out who that "you" really is underneath the layers of bandages, and a meaningful road forward where "you" can share enriching relationships and enjoy love, pleasure and depth.

    I am reminded of Plato's "Republic", the metaphor of the cave: how people are bound to see only controlled reflections/shadows on the wall that are staged by others who control light and darkness. The people who are bound believe that this is the reality. However, once they are freed, a bit like Michelangelo's Slaves series of sculptures, they are at first blinded by the "reality" and then see that everything is illuminated (btw: a FABULOUS movie)

    In closing, to you and all bloggers, a beautiful thought:
    "I have toyed with an idea—the idea that although a man's life is compounded of thousands and thousands of moments and days, those many instants and those many days may be reduced to a single one: the moment when a man knows who he is, when he sees himself face-to-face." Jorge Luis Borges

  4. Beautiful post and awesome replies. I can completely see and identify with the metaphor of the mummy, peeling the layers hurt me and hurt those that I loved, but it was necessary in order to discover what was hidden inside. I can't say I'm done peeling the bandages completely but it is alright.

    I also remember somewhere last year the first time that I looked at myself in the mirror and was able to say to myself: "You're a good man, you deserve to be happy and you'll be alright". As selfish as I was feeling then I knew I had to give myself recognition for all I had been through and the encouragement of what I was yet to go through. Your blog and your journey has been a great way to reflect on what I've experienced. I also realize that the writing is only part of what we see from you and that the hour-to-hour and day-to-day life may be different and harder to keep up but if nothing else I hope you know that you may not be the first (and certainly not the last!)but you're certainly not alone.

  5. I think when Mormons pull the "selfish" card, it's nothing more than parroting old thoughts printed in "To The One" as referenced by Connell O'Donovan:

    Despite his reservations as noted above, on March 5, 1978, Packer delivered his now infamous "To the One" speech during a twelve-stake fireside at BYU, since the Values Institute was failing in its mission. Although the entire speech dealt with homosexuality (and briefly with transsexuality), Packer used the word "homosexual" only once (and then only as "an adjective to describe a temporary condition", rejecting it "as a noun naming a permanent one") because he felt that Mormons "can very foolishly cause things we are trying to prevent by talking too much about them". This is not Packer's only theory about the causes of homosexuality - and causation was vital, because, for Packer, finding the cause was an "essential step in developing a cure". In a 4,000 word speech, Packer gives at least six different, often specious or contradictory causes (and touches upon several others without fleshing them out as fully as the main six), thoroughly confusing both the issues and his audience. Howeverly, ultimately Packer settled on speculation that the cause of homosexuality "will turn out to be a very typical form of selfishness". This egregious speech was made into an official pamphlet by the corporation of the church and is currently distributed worldwide for use in counseling Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Mormons. [181]

    Once again, I remain convinced that those who have sought to counsel us as gay men in the LDS Church were merely relying on outdated, ignorant, uninspired data that was congruent with the train of that in that time period. Probably I shouldn't use a past tense when stating this, since it's still pervasive, but moreso in Mormon thought as a whole.

    But getting back to the notion of being "selfish" as it pertains to self-discovery and coming out, I would say this is really an inaccurate description of what is actually transpiring. It's not selfish to exercise one's body, to enlarge one's soul by giving service, to read and educate yourself so you can have a better life, is it? In my humble opinion, seeking understanding of something so incredibly vital to a gay man, in and of itself isn't so much selfish as it is self-preservation and self-care. Calling this journey merely, "selfish" is a cheap shot, reductionistic and simply puts a negative spin on what this journey is about. Personally, others no longer get to drive the discussion anymore as it pertains to my life. This isn't about them, it's about honoring who God made me to be, loving the man that I am and trying to be a whole person.

    Invictus, continue "unwrapping the bandages" and let yourself come out of hiding.

    The closet is toxic.


    Open your heart.

    Love and be loved.

    Your friend,

    Mark (Cochran)

  6. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: “The world owes all its onward impulses to men ill at ease. The happy man inevitably confines himself within ancient limits.”

    My thoughts on the concept of selfishness have already been addressed by my friends-of-the-blog; my two-cents will just be a confirmation.

    I propose that the concept of “selfish” is misunderstood and misused by those using it to indict gay men when coming to terms with their identities. As Mark pointed out, self-actualization is at the core of our daily humanity. If we were to extend the concept as used by our spouses (I am one of the accused), one could argue that it is selfish to: get advanced degrees, compete in sports or pursue any other recognition, exercise, get the scout Eagle rank or the Duty to God award, get your nails done or a face lift.

    At the core of Mormon doctrine is the idea of truth, honesty, progress, and expansion, all part of the quest for self-actualization. God is in it! A Shakespeare fan, I agree with the concept behind Polonius’s advice to his son Laertes: "This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou cans't not be false to any man ".

    It is interesting to consider the concept of selfishness as an element of greatness:

    Mme Roland : " Selfishness, not love, is the actuating motive of the gallant. "

    Robert A Heinlein : " The greatest productive force is human selfishness. "

    Nathaniel Hawthorne : Selfishness is one of the qualities apt to inspire love.

    As Hawthorne pointed out, there are those who would confine us to “ancient limits”, or cultural or social limits. While discretion, tact, and taste are acceptable, martyrdom of the self for the sake of other’s protocols and agendas is not. There is a force in life (nature, the cosmos, the gods) that compels us toward self-actualization. I submit that it is harder and takes more emotional and mental effort to hide ourselves than it does to be our true selves. And the price is much, much higher.

    My favorite poet contributes one of her insightful poems to the cause:

    To my quick ear the Leaves — conferred —
    The Bushes — they were Bells —

  7. Several years ago when I was first making friends who were also gay, I went to lunch with a friend. To be there with a guy who could comment on some other hot guy that walked past was completely freeing. It was the conversation I always wanted to have involving thoughts I had always had but was too terrified to express.

    To be in a situation where that could be spoken, was to me mind-blowing. It was incredibly freeing.

    One Saturday afternoon, I went bike riding past his house (Yeah, I had a crush on him). He had been outside working on a fence. He was gay and out to people including his parents. I stopped and talked to him, and his mom came by. I had the thought in my mind, "She probably thinks I'm gay, too, since I'm here talking to her son like this." And at that moment, for the first time in my life, I didn't care if someone else from the straight world thought I was gay. At that moment it didn't matter and it furthered the change that I was experiencing.

    I'm happy to say that these changes are continuing. I still have a ways to go, but I'm moving in that direction.

  8. (I just discovered that the entire Dickinson poem did not come over; ya have to have the whole thing in order for it to be illustrative of my last point.)

    To my quick ear the Leaves — conferred —
    The Bushes — they were Bells —
    I could not find a Privacy
    From Nature's sentinels —

    In Cave if I presumed to hide
    The Walls — begun to tell —
    Creation seemed a mighty Crack —
    To make me visible —

  9. The miraculous thing about removing a bandage is that we typically find healing and wholeness where a wound once caused pain. The sooner the bandage is removed, the sooner the injury will be a thing of the past and ultimately forgotten.

    But, then, I was always the one to rip the Band-aid from my arm in an instant rather than remove it slowly and painfully.

  10. Thanks for all the great comments, lady and gentlemen! I've used/responded to your thoughts in the post that follows this one. Meanwhile, Utahhiker, glad to see you again - thanks for sharing your experiences; and Trey, thanks as always for sharing the beautiful poetry.