“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” – C.G. Jung
The struggle to be authentic and embrace oneself is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult experiences in one’s life. That is certainly true for me. If you’ve seen the movie “Love Simon” recently, there is a part where the main character admits that “announcing who you are to the world is pretty terrifying. What if the world doesn’t like you?” I believe there comes a time when we need to shed the expectations of others (society, friends, family, church, etc) and embrace who we truly are. Not just embrace but celebrate!
As stated in previous posts, I am complicated. Full of different layers that all interact with each other, making a beautiful mistake named Tony. Like the weave of a tapestry, each thread has its own unique properties but when woven together, they combine to make a beautiful piece of art worthy of celebration.
One of those threads for me is my sexual orientation. It has taken me over 40 years to embrace who I am and of course I am still in process. My story regarding being a gay man is similar to many gay men of my generation. I did not ask to be gay and I certainly did not choose to be this way. I tried everything I could to NOT be this way. For many years, I was simply in flat out denial of it. I told myself plainly “I am not gay” and anyone who challenged me on this received an adamant denial from me.
Looking back, I think many people knew, or at least suspected. I was accused of being gay in high school by occasional classmates for various reasons. I dressed differently than most (I refused to wear jeans) and I was not wise or discerning in the ways of dating. For example, there was a girl in grade 10 who apparently had a crush on me that I was not aware of. So, another boy accused me of being “gay or something” if I didn’t catch or pursue her.
I also had a friend who I dated for a short time but that we stayed friends for many years. She was masculine looking in her dress and demeanour which of course didn’t help. I said at the time that “I don’t care what they think” which was true, but it aggravated rumours of my sexual orientation.
I think I was first aware of being gay when I was about 8 but I didn’t know what it was called. I’ve had colleagues dismiss it as “childhood curiosity” rather than developing sexual identity but that curiosity led to fantasizing as a teenager and eventually engaging in same sex encounters. I think my mother knew when I was about 4 or 5. As I mentioned in a previous article, I used to like to wear girls’ clothes when I was little and mother was apparently not impressed. She hurled all sorts of demeaning, shameful and abusive words at me, calling me an “f-ing little girl” and threatened exposing me to the world as a “little faggot.”
I was so afraid to be gay. I want you to imagine for a moment the torture I experienced with this inner conflict. I believed no one would love me if I was gay but had these feelings I didn’t know what to do with. This led to years of ambivalence and inner conflict. I would resolve to be “straight” and deny any dreams or fantasizes I would have and then, after 6 or so months, would act out in some way (buy porn for example), and then be so horrified that I would throw out everything I have and determine to “never do that again.”
This adamant denial was further strengthened when I started attending church. “God condemns homosexuality” which I internalized as “God condemns you if you’re gay.” I did the ex-gay ministries, I got married to a woman, had children, sought out counselling any read any book I could to help me not be gay. All the while, feeling this intense desire to be close to a man. To be loved by a man. I reasoned it was because I didn’t have a father figure or that what I really needed was a “best friend.”
Throughout my teens and onward, the belief that I “am the problem” for being gay and that “once I get this resolved, life will be ok.” That was the driving force for me throughout my life and certainly well into my marriage. To be fair, my now ex-wife knew I was gay before we married. But, being good kids in denial, we got married anyway. I got married because I so desperately wanted to be accepted by the church and God and believed this is what I needed to do to achieve that. For her, my sense is she got married to provide grandchildren to her parents. Don’t get me wrong, we cared about each other at some level, mostly as good friends. But I don’t believe that was the primary motivation for either of us to get married. If it was, she would have left me when I disclosed I had sex with men and I would have been aware enough to walk away.
As I got older, I stopped being afraid of exploring the question of who I am. Of course, the church responded poorly. The church threatened I would never see my children again and compared my sexual orientation to being an alcoholic. But for all the years of being a part of the church, I still was not acceptable to them. So why would it matter now? I began to question my theology and the practices of the church, and I started questioning why kind of model I was being to my children and to others. If I truly value authenticity and genuineness then I need to find a way to live it out.
That conversation ultimately led to coming out when I was 42, my marriage ending and my leaving the church (the rejection by the church was mutual).
While coming out has been a long and difficult process for me, I recognize everything happens in its own time. I have become open to who I am and being able to celebrate who I am and the many threads that make up the uniqueness of who I am.
Struggle and pain will always lead to new life. Just like the butterfly. It needs to struggle to break out of the cocoon to have the strength to fly. If we help the butterfly, it will die. It needs the struggle to survive. So it is with us. Embracing self, and the struggle to achieve it, is ultimately what gives us strength. At least…that’s what it’s done for me.