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.