Thursday, January 6, 2011

What Does It Mean To Be Gay?

Contrary to what some may have thought after reading Monday’s blog post, I am not (a) going back into the closet, (b) reconciling with my wife, or (c) about to conclude that I’m really heterosexual.  In deciding that I wanted my blog to be an honest reflection of my life as I come out and adjust to life as a gay man, I felt that I needed to describe what I had been feeling last weekend.  Writing that post also helped me to sort out just exactly (well, maybe not exactly) what I was feeling and to attempt to articulate it. 

I have continued to think about these feelings over the past few days, and I *think* I have come to some additional understanding of what’s been going on.

In this period of reflection, I was reminded of a question I posed a couple of months ago to a mentor who has been “out” for a long time.  The question:  “What does it mean to be gay?”  I was sincere when I posed the question, and he gave me a sincere answer.  His basic response wasn’t remarkable (sorry GPL); it was basically what one would have anticipated, speaking in terms of sexual, romantic and emotional attractions and attachments to persons of one’s own sex, rather than of the opposite sex.

To which, I would have responded (but had moved on to other questions by then), “Yeah, I know, but what does it mean to be gay?”

I have since realized, particularly within the last few days, that what I really meant by that question is this:  “What does it mean for me to be gay?”  And, of course, neither my mentor nor anyone else can answer that question for me; I must answer it myself.

As I have pondered this question – once I figured out that this was the question – some rather significant realizations have dawned upon me.  First of all, I realized that my “gayness” – which I think can more correctly be referred to as “my gay identity” – has been submerged and hidden for decades.  It has never, in point of fact, been allowed any kind of manifestation that remotely resembles open, adult and real expression.  I have grown into adulthood and lived most of my life with an integral part of myself bound and gagged in the basement, so to speak.  Some guy masquerading as a heterosexual with all kinds of hang-ups has been playing out my life – the life the guy in the basement was supposed to be living.

As I thought about this, I realized – duh – that I really have no idea what it means for me to be gay, because I’ve never lived that part of myself out loud.  Nevertheless, there was a part of me that already sensed this and was looking for that identity.  But rather than looking within, he was looking without.  He was looking for examples, for role models, like a man looking for a ready-made off-the-rack suit of clothes.  Try this one on; no, too big.  Try that one on; no, too small; try that one on; no, wrong color. Try this one on; no, wrong fabric.

It was then that I realized that I – without even understanding what was going on – had been looking for my “gay identity” by this process, i.e., as if I was looking for an off-the-rack suit.  Not only did it (finally) occur to me that this was entirely the wrong way to go about discovering my gay identity, it is entirely the wrong metaphor as well.  The realization I ultimately came to is that – drumroll – my gay identity is not something I “put on”; rather, it is something that must grow organically out of me, like a new layer of skin.  Somewhat like the “inner child” that is often spoken of in psychological therapy that is there in the psyche, hidden away, waiting to be released – in me is also the gay person that has always been there, but never allowed expression.

In the past few days, I have realized that a lot of the anxiety and angst that I was feeling last weekend was, I think, attributable to me looking “out there” for my gay identity and not finding it.  I knew I was gay, but I didn’t know who I was supposed to be, how I was supposed to fit in, what my life would look like; and all of this was causing me to feel a tremendous amount of unease. 

Now, I am taking a step back.  Having realized that my gay identity is within me, not “out there,” I have refocused my attention on who and what I am.  This process enabled me to come to yet another realization:  that for 20+ years, I have pretty much defined myself as a husband, a father and a member of the Church (with all that this entails).  Because of who I was when I got married, I totally bought into this and willingly donned this identity, wearing it to the exclusion of anything else – until I realized I couldn’t do it anymore.  But the point is, I think, that this was a ready-made identity.  I didn’t have to create an identity; I just wore the one I had.

Now, however, I must forge my own identity – organically.  No off-the-rack job anymore.  This is going to take time.  It will sometimes be uncomfortable.  It will sometimes be anxiety-provoking.  But it will – hopefully – produce real and lasting results.

Which brings me to yesterday’s post.  I focused on the following quote by Rainer Maria Rilke because I came to sense his words being directed at me as I contemplated what I have learned.  My life and future as a gay man is “everything unresolved in my heart.”  What I must do now is “live the questions”, i.e., go out there (and inwardly as well) and discover and develop my gay identity, grow it organically.  That is what I must live.  And if I do so, then someday, gradually, perhaps without even noticing it, I might live my way into the answer.

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves,
as if they were locked rooms or books written
in a very foreign language.
Don't search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now,
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps then someday …
you will gradually,
without even noticing it,
live your way into the answer.”


  1. What does it mean to be gay?
    What does it mean to be straight?
    What does it mean to be human?

    I think it means to be happy being oneself with all of its inclusions, vulnerabilities, restrictions and complications. It means not having to put on a mask and being OK with it. Having finally accepted who I was allowed me to be more comfortable in my own skin with the things I liked and made me feel good.

    I finally felt comfortable saying I really liked cooking, fashion and that I really I liked chick flicks out loud and didn't feel like I had to hide it. It meant I could sign along to music--I can't carry a tune to save my life, so this one is still a work in progress. But it also meant that I could finally hug, flirt and do harmless banter with other guys openly and without worrying what people would think. Personally it also meant that I could finally find out what it was like to kiss, feel and love a person (in my case just happened to be a guy) and get that surge of electricity and passion like nothing I'd ever felt before---I'm sure I'm missing a lot of other reasons, but those are just some of the few that stand out for now. I hope that makes sense and doesn't disclose TMI! :-)

  2. I can relate to this a lot. After I came out I had the experience of not fitting in to what I perceived was gay culture at the time.

    Here's an analogy for you: imagine you were left handed in a society that strongly stigmatized lefthandedness. You could imagine that handedness might then be a larger part of your identity than it would be in a culture without such stigma.

    Like handedness, sexual orientation is really a minor variation. Gay people are just as capable of love, commitment and happiness as straight people. They are just as capable of jealousy and various kinds of pathology as straight people, but no more so. Gay traits run the entire gamut of human traits. The problem is that we traditionally have had to exist in a society that suppressed sexual diversity. We're romantically left handed in a right-handed world.

    Social stigma influenced the shape of the traditional, culturally defined buckets of gay persona (the nelly queen, the bull dyke, the party boy, the clone, the closet case, the Marlboro man, the drag diva, etc.). These personas were all defined in contrast to the norms of a society that was hostile to all expression of homosexual orientation and nonstandard gender expression. Today they are all are losing cultural relevance. They are like Stepin Fetchit and blackface in the days of stronger cultural stigma associated with race. Nowadays, exaggerated "black" traits seem anachronistic and impossibly racist. Exaggerated "gay" traits are almost in the same spot.

    It's getting a lot better for us now, despite hiccups like Prop 8 and the planks of a few Republican state platforms that would round up gay people and imprison us (I'm not making this up). Nowadays you can pretty much live your life openly and without fear.

    I'm glad you realize that there's no need to take the exact same route as anyone else on the road to personal emancipation. You've figured out that there's no ready-made identity you need to assume. You can be as masculine or feminine as seems natural to you. You can cry at silly romantic movies or you can take up skydiving and motorcross. You can wear whatever clothes you like. Sing in the chorus or study ancient Greek. There's no need to avoid gay sterotypes or to adopt them as a persona. There's just you, whoever that turns out to be. And I'm sure that, given what you've written over the past months on this blog, the result is going to be beautiful.

  3. I think that these realizations are key and are not at all "duh". So often we all look for RTW identities, answers based on something that can be "put on" instead of organically grown from within and that is sustainable. ...

    Grow your own wings from inside and as you go out there, yes, I believe that the answer will come ... live your way to finding out.

  4. omg- thanks for putting this into words, I had this same struggle when I was first coming to terms with my sexuality a few months ago. I started looking for someone to follow. A life to adopt. When I got the courage to attend a gay social gathering, I was horrified. I was not like these people. I didn't talk like or dress like them. I didn't fit into that image. I thought, "maybe I'm not gay." It was a horrifying thought because I had just accepted that I was... something that took me my whole life to admit. And after going through that, I really didn't want to be thrown back into questioning myself.

    But I came to the same conclusions you did. That my identity wasn't out there to be found... it was inside me. I just had to let it out and watch how it manifests itself. This process has been absolutely wonderful!

    I don't think it is bad to have role models... it is just that gay mormons don't have any. Gay people in general are lacking in role models because gay relationships are not validated by society. Wouldn't it be great to be able to look up to that gay couple in the ward who are so kind and serve so well in their callings and have such strong testimonies? We don't have that. Not yet. I, for one, plan on changing that. Someday I will be that gay couple in the ward. :)

  5. @Miguel - Hugs back to you, man. Thanks as always for your warm, sincere comments.

    @MoHoHawaii - Your insights and viewpoints are always helpful, always appreciated. Thank you particularly for your parting words. I'll always remember how I felt when I read them. (( HUG ))

    @Libellule - Thank you for helping me not feel badly about my "duh" moments. :) Your support is incredible. Thanks for taking the time to faithfully read and respond to my blatherings. Consider yourself hugged!

    @Gay Mormon - Wow! Thanks so much for sharing your experience and validating my introspective musings. You mirrored back to me exactly how I was feeling and have felt. And you're right: it would make a huge difference if we had those gay couples in the ward to serve as role models.

  6. When I got the courage to attend a gay social gathering, I was horrified. I was not like these people. I didn't talk like or dress like them. I didn't fit into that image.

    This is a very common reaction, but sometimes need to stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zones and accept diversity when we see it in others. (As Mormons we aren't very good at the diversity thing. : _))

    I'd recommend making friends with some of those scary folks who talk and dress in ways that horrify you. Listen to their stories. You'll be surprised at what wonderful people they can be if you take down the wall that separates you from them.

    Part of blazing our own trail is learning to respect and admire those who might have done this before us but taken a different route.

    Just a thought.

  7. @MoHoHawaii- I definitely don't judge them and I do talk and make friends with them. I think what I meant wasn't clear. I wasn't horrified by them. I was horrified that I didn't fit into that group either... as if that was the only way a person could be gay. I had already decided that I didn't fit in with the heterosexual people, but when I realized I didn't fit in with this particular group of people, which I thought was representative of what it was to be gay, I was lost. Their stories are amazing, and they are amazing people.

  8. @Gay Mormon-- I'm glad you are getting to know these folks and at the same time stepping back to figure out who *you* are. If there's any message here, it's to relax and figure out your own path. Your path is not going to necessarily be the same anybody else's.