“Losing you [when you joined the church] was like a guillotine blade that beheaded the loving richness I had in my life. [After you joined the church] I saw you withdraw from life. The relationship between your withdrawal from life and your involvement in the church appeared to be proportionally related: the more you became fervent about the church, the more withdrawn and less talkative and sadder you became.
“It was surely due to the instinct for survival that you beheaded your true self, or tucked him away under the folds of your memory and heart. In order to survive and achieve a happy life that the church promised to be yours after so much trauma, guilt, shame and lack of love [in my childhood and youth], you had to get rid of your Self. As you couldn't actually kill that self, you had to pretend that it never existed.”
So wrote my sister last fall after I began the process of coming out.* Her very astute perceptions about what happened to me when I converted as a young adult validated very strongly what I already knew. I sensed this even while on my mission, which I served after joining the Church. But this realization was locked away a long time ago and frankly took a back seat to the consequences that flowed from my decision to reject my gayness and abandon much of my old self when I got married.
I use the term “reject” deliberately. Paradoxically, it was on my mission that, for the first time in my life, I came the closest to truly accepting my gay identity and choosing to live life as a gay man. I also felt that, toward the end of my mission, I was starting to recover some of who I was before I joined the church.
Then I came home and embarked upon an extremely tumultuous “courtship” with the woman who became my wife. One of the reasons for the tumult was my struggle over what to do with my life: gay or straight; active Mormon or leave the church; married or not married?
Ultimately, I made my choice: heterosexual; married; Mormon. I knew I was gay; my wife knew (before our wedding) of my “struggles” involving “attraction to men.” However, in getting married (and buying into everything that went along with that) I felt that I was making the “righteous” choice, i.e., the choice sanctioned by God and his church. I would get married because it was the “right thing to do”; and, similarly, I felt I could reject my gayness and repress any homosexual inclinations because that, too, was the “right” thing to do. I had decided that I wanted to, and could be able to, function as a righteous heterosexual priesthood holder should.
I did not then realize the toll that this choice would exact upon me and – ultimately – upon my wife as well as my children.
I use the word “toll” deliberately, in the sense of one of its definitions: “a grievous or ruinous price.” Only after coming out, in hindsight and after finally accepting who I am, did I begin to understand the nature and extent of this price – the price I paid to deny and betray my true sexual identity, and the price I paid upon abandoning many aspects of my identity.
In turning away from my true sexual identity, I think – subconsciously – that my gay self felt that it had been betrayed. It had emerged to some degree on my mission, but now it was to be repressed and discarded, not only temporarily, but forever. But one cannot deny the essence of who one is and remain healthy, mentally, emotionally and even physically. Perhaps for a time; but not, I have learned, in the long run.
Though consciously I felt like I was willingly making this choice, it was only after coming out that I started to realize how deeply that betrayal of my gay self affected me subconsciously. It created a tension in the very core of my being that gradually built up resentment and anger, continually being added to and hardening like the dome on a volcano. In retrospect, I now clearly see the presence of constant pressure, which made day-to-day life a challenge, difficult, frustrating, void of happiness, full of stress. This pressure would also build up and erupt from time to time, expressing itself in anger that, combined with the after-effects of child abuse, made for a toxic mix.
The situation might have been different if I had not been on the “priesthood path” – if there had not this constant pressure to be a model husband, a model father, a model provider, and a model priesthood leader, i.e., if I had had just a little more freedom to be me. But I was determined to do everything expected of me, everything asked of me, in order to prove (to myself, ironically) that I could overcome my “same sex attraction” and be a “faithful” “worthy” priesthood holder, a successful Mormon husband and father. I became my own worst enemy.
As it was, my rejection of my gayness was virtually complete and total as I steered clear of any “distractions” (i.e., any situation that would in the remotest degree entice or tempt me to indulge to the slightest extent my gay self). Meanwhile, the subconscious pressure created by the truly existential bind I had put myself in manifested itself in migraine headaches, irritability and a general sense of deep unhappiness.
However, in addition to this “existential bind” resulting from a betrayal of my gay self, I now see that I also abandoned many other aspects of my identity at the time of my marriage. Because I felt the need to commit myself heart and soul to the marriage, I felt that I not only needed to repress the gay me, but I also had to abandon many other aspects of what had been my identity.
Why? Because the old me – the one who loved music, drama, art, literature, history – was tainted with homosexuality. The presence of the old me would only have been an embarrassment; he would have been a third wheel in our marriage, out of place in the “new order of things.”
How a third wheel? Well, letting go of my old identity, I embraced a new one. My wife and I really had very few things in common; our interests are quite different, even divergent. The one thing we had in common when we got married was a belief that we were “supposed” to get married to each other, along with a belief that as long as we remained faithful in the church, everything would work out.
The situation might have been different had my wife been interested in the same things I was, but she was not. If I had not been determined to do practically whatever it took to make my marriage a success (partly because of my parents’ failed marriage, but also to “overcome” the “gay factor”), if I had not had the specter of my homosexuality always in the background, threatening to “out” me and destroy my celestial marriage (perhaps it was my gay self, seeking revenge), then I never would have subjected myself to this abandonment of my old self.
I now realize the toll that this abandonment exacted. Subconsciously, it created another huge conflict that only added to the conflict I felt after betraying my gay self.
Looking back on it, I can see how much I subconsciously raged against this abandonment. I had abandoned my “core,” but yet I raged against feeling that I had to adopt someone else’s core as my own. I raged against feeling like I had to be a certain way in order to be accepted, to be true to the path I had chosen. Yet I had to be accepted in order to fulfill the path I had chosen. It was a hopeless conflict that played itself out day after day, month after month, year after year, adding to my sense of unhappiness, alienation and lack of fulfillment, exacting a terrible toll.
Let me state plainly that I am not blaming my wife for any of this. No. This was my problem, my fault. And I am not prepared to say that getting married was a mistake, nor am I saying that my marriage was all bad; far from it. But, in terms of my identity, my psyche and, as a result, the mental and emotional health of me and my family and children – in terms of all this, my decision to get married took a dreadful toll.
So, where did I go upon coming to these realizations? Well, I began. I began by deciding to affirm my sexual identity instead of continuing to try to repress and deny it.
I then began the process of trying to recover my identity – the person I was before my marriage, then the person I was before I joined the church, and – ultimately - the person I was or might have been, but for the abuse I suffered as a child. Next comes the process of mourning and healing: mourning lost opportunities, mourning unintended consequences of living a lie, mourning pain inflicted on others as well as self. Then, hopefully, healing.
Meanwhile, I am grateful for the strength I have found inside myself as I have begun this journey.
*A version of this post appeared this past Saturday at Main Street Plaza http://latterdaymainstreet.com.