Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Secret Destinations on the Journey Out of the Closet

It has said that it is far easier to travel than to write about it.  I can relate.  I travelled out of state this past weekend to attend my first large Pride event, and so much happened to me within the space of those few days that I am struggling to find a place to begin expressing all that I learned, felt and observed.

Miriam Beard wrote that “travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”  At some point over the weekend, I realized the truth of this concept.  Though I have travelled much during my life, to places far and near, with family and with friends, for purposes both noble and ordinary, it was on this trip, more than ever before, that I realized the value of travel to educate, enlighten, discover and inspire.

I was the guest this past weekend of my friend MoHoHawaii.  He was the first person to comment on my blog.  As the weeks passed after I began my coming-out process, he provided me with valuable advice, insight and support, becoming my mentor and friend.  I met him at Christmas-time as he passed through Salt Lake, and he extended an open invitation to visit him and his boyfriend.  It wasn’t until this past weekend that I was able to take him up on that invitation.

As he wrote about on his blog yesterday, MoHoHawaii and I began a conversation as soon as he picked me up at the airport, and this conversation continued well into that night and basically continued throughout the weekend.  We talked a lot about a lot of things, including the Church, spirituality, coming out, and family relationships.  

“All journeys,” wrote Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, “have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” It was while we were eating a late lunch last Friday afternoon, continuing this on-going conversation, that I arrived at the first of a number of “secret destinations” that were not part of the formal “itinerary” for the weekend and which I hadn’t anticipated visiting. 

We had been discussing coming out and various facets and ramifications of that process.  As we talked, I found myself going down pathways into my inner self that I hadn’t previously travelled.  Then I came to a place that surprised me.  Suddenly, without warning, I found emotions welling up within me because I had discovered that, deep within me, there was still a huge pool of shame connected with me being gay. 

Later in the weekend, I would visit another destination, also unplanned and lying close to the one I have just described, at which I discovered that there was still a part of me, quite powerful and resistant to change, that had been refusing to give me permission to come out. 

Who knew? 

I didn’t, prior to coming on this trip.  I thought I had worked through the shame, worked through the coming out.  But I was reminded just how deep and virile are the patterns of thought that have been engrained after living most of my life in the closet.  I had sensed that there was something that had been holding me back from taking the next leg of my journey, but I hadn’t been able to pinpoint and understand the cause.  I may not have discovered these secret destinations had I not come on this trip, had I not had the conversations and the experiences I had with MoHoHawaii and others this past weekend, because, as Hermann Melville wrote, such places are “ … not down in any map; true places never are.”

There were other secret destinations discovered throughout the course of the weekend of which I hope to write later.  Suffice it for now to say that each of these “destinations” shared one thing in common:  they helped me to see myself and the world differently.  As Henry Miller wrote, “one’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”  The same concept was expressed by Marcel Proust thusly:  “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

So, I’m grateful to MoHoHawaii for being such a wonderful host, to be sure, but even more so for being a friend and helping me to discover these places inside myself.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Of Lesbians, Laughter and Love

My sister-in-law is a lesbian.  We have known this for almost 20 years, but she has never really been “out and proud.”  That was really not her personality so far as I had known her, and this was certainly true with respect to her family, where her “lifestyle” was never discussed.

“Joan” has been with her partner for over 15 years.  “Gayle” has typically been friendly enough when I’ve been around her, but I always felt an emotional distance, as indeed I did with Joan.  I strongly suspect that this was due to the fact that, although my wife and I did our best to be “open-minded” and accepting, Joan and Gayle still felt some judgment from us because of our active membership in the Mormon Church.

I recently had an opportunity to travel to the city where Joan and Gayle live.  I hadn’t seen or spoken to them since coming out, and I had no idea how Joan felt or what she thought about the breakdown of my marriage to her sister, let alone what she thought about me coming out.  Would she “side” with her sister and reject me? ( For which I wouldn’t have blamed her.)  Would she think me terribly selfish and irresponsible for coming out after all these years?

I thought about contacting Joan and Gayle while in their city.  But I was apprehensive.  I vacillated and sought advice from my friend with whom I was staying.  He gently encouraged me to reach out in a non-threatening way, and I ultimately went with his advice by sending an email, asking how they would feel about meeting.

I’m glad I did.  I received a warm response and we arranged to meet on “neutral” ground – a gay-friendly restaurant in the gayest part of the city.  My friend and his boyfriend would go along for moral support.

As we sat in the restaurant waiting for them, I became increasingly nervous and apprehensive.  How would it go?  What would we say?  Would it be painfully awkward?  How would they feel?  What would they think?

I kept glancing toward the street.  Gayle had called to say they would be running a bit late.  My fingers drummed the table.  Turn.  Look.  A good stiff drink is what I needed.  Glance again toward the street.  I explain my increasing nervousness to my friends.

Then, I heard my name.  A voice from above.  I looked up and there, standing at a railing overlooking the area of the restaurant in which we were sitting, were Joan and Gayle.  Smiling.  Not a hint of nervousness or judgment in their eyes. 

I hadn’t expected them to enter from the rear of the restaurant.  (How typical:  events had panned out in ways I hadn’t anticipated.  When will I learn to open my mind to other possibilities?)  I got up and met them on the steps at the end of the railing.  I already knew.  The looks on their faces and the feelings that they radiated told me that they had accepted me; they didn’t judge me; they loved me.

I gave Gayle a hug and Joan an even bigger hug.  I was fighting back tears, the kind that easily (for me) turn into sobs.  We went to the table and sat down.  Thereafter followed a delightful hour or so of conversation, sharing, laughter.  Joan told me I would always be a part of the family, no matter what.  There were no words of second-guessing or judgment regarding my coming out.  Curiosity, yes; a desire to understand, yes.  But nothing beyond this.

(The fact that I had been concerned at all may sound surprising to some who read this.  After all, they are lesbians:  they know all about coming out!  I have thought about this over the last couple of days, and I think I have realized that I am still working on giving myself permission to come out.  It might be perfectly fine for someone else to come out, but there is a part of me that is still withholding his permission and doesn’t approve of what I’m doing.  It was this part of me that had been feeding my apprehensions that day.)

As I sat talking to Joan and Gayle, I felt a dawning awareness of something that I had never before sensed in Joan:  she was totally at ease.  No nervousness.  None of the anxiousness I had always felt and seen in Joan over the years at various family gatherings and which I had assumed was simply part of her personality.  And Gayle was more open than she had ever before been.

And then it hit me; I realized why Joan seemed more at ease than I’d ever seen her, despite the fact that I am divorcing her sister.  I realized why Gayle could do something she’d never done before, viz., refer to Joan as her wife.  Duh.  They no longer had to pretend with me; they no longer had to be guarded.  They could simply be themselves.  And I in turn could be who I am.  We were all completely “out” to each other in an environment in which we felt totally safe.  The result was amazing.

It was as if we had entered another dimension – a dimension I had felt and experienced on other occasions in other circumstances during the course of my visit to that city.  It was a dimension of authenticity where genuine love, respect and friendship flourishes; where self-acceptance feeds self-knowledge. As “new-agey” as that sounds, I know it is real.  I experienced it.  And I’m so thankful that, at this point in my life, I’ve discovered it.

I had other realizations as I sat there.  I’ll mention only one, which caused me to feel regret and shame.  I realized that Gayle had never been openly acknowledged in the family as Joan’s spouse/partner, and that she and Joan had never been allowed to live “out loud” within the family circle.  Tolerated, yes.  Acknowledged privately, but not publicly.

I felt terrible for whatever complicity I may have had in this.  I also realized that a big reason for this situation is that all of Joan’s siblings were or are still are active Mormons.  As such, we could bring ourselves to be “liberal” and “tolerate” Joan’s “lifestyle,” but we could never bring ourselves to openly acknowledge, let alone celebrate, who Joan is and what she and Gayle have together.  We are/were not programmed to allow ourselves to do that because to do so would be too conflicting.  And that goes beyond sad, beyond unjust, beyond simply unfortunate.  It is immoral. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Truth of All Things: Unexpected in Common Hours

This is another in the Gay Gospel Doctrine Class series of posts that takes a lesson from the LDS Church’s (Adult) Gospel Doctrine class and presents it from a gay perspective.  Today’s lesson is based on Lesson #24 in the Gospel Doctrine Manual (“This is Life Eternal”).

The scriptural readings for Lesson 24 center on the 16th and 17th chapters of the Gospel of John.  The setting is the Last Supper.  This is Jesus’ last evening with his apostles, and he is sharing parting words of inspiration, revelation, guidance, admonition and direction with them. 

It is during the course of this evening that Jesus discourses about the Holy Ghost, pointing out that this member of the Godhead will not come unless and until He (Jesus) is gone:  “for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (John 16:7).

The GD manual conveniently lists the following “missions” of the Holy Ghost:  comforts (John 14:26); teaches (John 14:26); brings truths to our remembrance (John 14:26); testifies of the Savior (John 15:26); guides us into all truth (John 16:13); shows us things to come (John 16:13); and glorifies the Savior (John 16:14).

Many, if not most, who read this blog will be well-versed in the role, mission, and operation of the Holy Ghost.  We Mormons start learning about the HG in Primary, particularly as we prepared for baptism.  Then there were countless lessons in Young Men’s and Young Women’s lessons, Sunday School lessons, Seminary lessons, firesides, talks, family home evenings, etc., etc., etc. (which in turn equipped us to teach these same lessons and principles as missionaries to non-members throughout the world).

And what were the purposes of these lessons?  Ostensibly, the objective of these lessons was to teach what has been a fundamental doctrine of Mormonism since the day Joseph Smith went into the woods, i.e., that each person has the right and the ability to receive divine guidance in the daily conduct of their lives and gain a testimony of truth (and not just the truth of the Church, mind you, but as Moroni pointed out:  “by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things [emphasis added] (Moroni 10:5). 

I say “ostensibly” because, in the modern Mormon Church, this emphasis on the role of the Holy Ghost has arguably been increasingly counterbalanced, if not overtaken, by an emphasis on the principle of obedience to Church leaders and their (authoritative, read definitive) interpretation of existing scripture.

Nevertheless, the gift and power of the Holy Ghost remains at the heart of Mormon doctrine.  When Joseph Smith was asked, "wherein [the LDS Church] differed from the other religions of the day," he replied, that it was in "the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying-on of hands,…[and] that all other considerations were contained in the gift of the Holy Ghost" (History of the Church 4:42).

Now, I’d like to take these principles and apply them to one particular situation that is of crucial importance to every gay or lesbian Latter-day Saint.  Where does God stand on the issue of homosexuality?  Or, in other words, is gay okay? 

Although I’m sure there will be some who will quibble with the following statement, I stand by it as a general principle:  There is no more important issue facing a believing gay Mormon than the issue of whether or not God accepts such a person as they are, i.e., gay.

Countless are the cases where Latter-day Saints have tried to pray the gay away, trusting and believing in their leaders’ assertions that homosexuality is a perversion, is impure and unnatural, is an abomination in the eyes of God.  Innumerable (only because we can never know just how many Mormons have offered up such prayers in the secrecy of their closets [double entendre intended]) are the cases where gay Mormons have sought a witness, through the power of the Holy Ghost, that they can and will be “healed” of this affliction.

Countless though such cases be, I have never read nor heard an account where a gay Mormon has testified that they have received a spiritual witness that homosexuality is indeed an abomination, that they have received a witness that, though they were born gay, God expects them to deny who they are, condemn this aspect of themselves, and become “cured.”

I have, however, read a number of accounts where gay Mormons, after spending countless hours on their knees, have finally asked a different question and, wonder of wonders, have received an unexpected response by the power of the Holy Ghost, who testifies of the truth of all things.  One such account is the following, available here:

“I nearly didn't survive as a result of the hatred I had developed for myself, due to the guidance I had received that being gay was immoral, wicked, sinful, and evil. Finally, just before I turned 18, a thought occurred to me that I should kneel down and ask Heavenly Father himself if being gay was so wrong. I had always been taught these things, but I had never actually asked for myself.

“I have to tell you, the overwhelming feeling of comfort I received was more powerful than anything I can possibly describe. I was forced from my knees into a weeping slump on the floor. I wept with joy that I wasn't evil after all. I wept in grief for all the wasted years spent hating myself. I wept at the confirmation that not only was being gay okay, but it was part of God's plan for me. I wept with bliss at the knowledge that I had a future with a loving husband and adoring children. I had finally come to terms with my sexuality and fully embraced the fact that I am gay. I was finally ready to come out to the world and live honestly. I was sick of the shame I felt in hiding all these years.”

Other accounts are available here.  The common threads through all these stories are (i) surprise and (ii) joy.  Surprised by joy.  (I think someone wrote a book about that.)  I can personally testify to such surprise and such joy, for I have experienced them; I have received my own witness through the most sublime spiritual experience of my life. 

I hope gay Latter-day Saints will continue to lay claim to what I believe is rightfully theirs:  a witness of the Holy Ghost unexpected, to crib from Thoreau, in common hours; a witness that will testify as to their divine nature, which in their case means being a gay son or a lesbian daughter of their Heavenly Father, who loves, accepts and affirms them as they are.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Grateful for Years in the Closet - Redux

“I’m going to be honest.  There is a part of me that deeply regrets not coming out before I was married, or at least not too far into my marriage.  But let’s face it.  It’s hard on the psyche to accuse oneself of a betrayal of a large swath of one’s adult life.”

So I wrote in late November of last year in a post in which I reflected on certain realizations or lessons I had come to or learned about why I should be grateful for all the years I spent in the closet.  I’ve lately had occasion to ponder anew about all those years, so I thought I’d republish an edited version of that post, along with some thoughts I’ve had in the months since I originally posted it.

Point #1:  I wasn’t prepared to live life as a gay man when I decided to get married

I was far too far into the closet and into my Mormon religion in order to take that step at that time.  Furthermore, I didn’t really think of myself as “gay” then, just someone who was very attracted to men.  Despite flirting with the idea of coming out of the closet while on my mission, I really had bought into the Church’s teaching that I could be happy living in a heterosexual marriage and that I could control my attraction and be a better person because of these choices.

Point #2:  Though in a sense I was living a lie, I couldn’t see it at the time.

Most of my childhood and youth were spent trying to please other people and to hide the real me (which was not limited to just the gay me).  I also didn’t really know who I was: I had spent so much of my life with my false persona, I actually thought it was the real me.  Though I had some moments of connection on my mission, I had grown and continued to grow so out of touch with my real self that I could not possibly have allowed myself to come out at that period in my life.

Point #3:  Being married and having children forced out childhood abuse issues.

I did not start to come to grips with abuse I suffered as a child until almost 10 years into my marriage.  I never would have reached that point, I don’t think, but for the fact that my “buttons” were constantly being pushed, day in and day out, by the demands of marriage and parenthood.  Recognition of the abuse and the subsequent counseling I went through helped me to crack – for the first time in my adult life – the false persona that had encased me for so many years.

Point #4:  Low self-esteem and poor self-knowledge fostered co-dependency.

I’ll be honest.  For most of my marriage, I was co-dependent with my wife.  I felt like I needed her, and the thought of separation and divorce scared the hell out of me.  I was willing to go to great lengths to preserve our marriage, and I did so.  I was not emotionally healthy enough to assert myself, to feel good about myself as a heterosexual, let along as a homosexual.

 Point #5:  I had to be prepared to ask the right questions.

At a certain point, I was prepared to ask, and did ask, the right question. The problems that my wife and I had experienced in our marriage during the several years prior to my coming out prepared me for what happened.   Last summer, I had a sort of epiphany in which I suddenly realized that there could and would be life after divorce, if that is what it came to.  In fact, life might even be better.  

This experience strengthened me and helped me to move past codependency.  As my therapist had told me, “You need to be a position where you can say to your wife, ‘I choose you – not because I need you, but because I want you.’”  My revelatory experience helped me to move past needing to choosing, thus preparing me for the possibility that my wife might not choose me or that, ultimately, I might not choose her.

Point #6:  My marriage gave me wonderful children.

I am grateful for my children.  I have wonderful children whom I love.  For far too long, however, our relationships were governed by external mandates rather than internal, authentic love and caring.  I believe very strongly that coming out has helped me to see and relate to my children in a healthier way, and I know intuitively that my relationship with my children will continue to grow more authentic as I grow more authentic.    

Point #7:  It’s healthy to ask “What If?”- so long as I don’t get stuck there.

I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t ever wonder what my life would have been like had I come out years ago, rather than at this point in my life.  I particularly regret the passage of my youth, masquerading as a heterosexual, hiding in fear behind a mask.

However, wishing something “don’t make it so”.  Even though a part of me mourns what might have been, an older, wiser part (not the emotional part, and definitely not the sexual part) of me forces a “reality check” and tells me that I should be grateful for the years I spent in the closet, which prepared me and brought me to a point where I could come out.

Nevertheless, I have gone through several “regret cycles” since November (and will no doubt experience more in the future).  I let myself go through these because I know it’s healthy.  Regardless of how many times I tell myself that things couldn’t have been different, there’s still a part of me that says, “Bullocks!”  So I let it out, mourn it, process it, learn from it, and then go on.