A few days ago I read Kevin Thornton's HuffPost blog post "I Was a Teenage Fundamentalist: How I Resolved the Conflict Between Jesus and My Sexuality." (You should read his before you read mine.) I was immediately taken with his ability to draw such a distinct portrait of my life. I mean, he doesn't even know me, yet there I was, beginning to take shape in the words I was reading. I knew that he was telling his own story (and that his story, like mine, is not unique), but the similarities were uncanny -- at least through the first paragraph.
Churchgoer? Check. Singer of the Baptist hymn "Just as I Am"? Check. Early '90s? Check. Dark secret? Check. He's from small-town southern Indiana; I'm from small-town Kentucky. There I was, coming into focus. I was standing in front of my pew in the church building where I attended worship services with multiple members of my family, singing my heart out for Jesus, concealing my truth, hiding my secret, scared to be me.
I had no one to talk to about any of the desires and feelings that were bubbling just under the surface, struggling for freedom, trying to take a breath in the light. I couldn't talk to my pastor, he who pounded on his pulpit while his raised voice told me of the fire and brimstone that God rained down on the sodomites of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins -- the major sin being homosexuality. (Uh-oh. He's talking about me. I'm beginning to feel those homosexual desires.) I couldn't talk to my friends, because they would just as easily call me "queer" or "sissy" as come to my birthday party (then call me "queer" or "sissy" at the birthday party). I couldn't talk to my parents. Oh, no. I didn't trust them to understand or accept the fact that their son was gay. (I didn't know what my parents would do with the information, but I was so riddled with fear that I couldn't find out.) So I kept pushing those desires and feelings down, keeping them at bay. I was tormented, alone, scared.
I never experienced any "pray the gay away" organizations like Thornton's referenced Exodus Ministries. But I spent more time on my knees, behind the closed door of my bedroom, crying, pleading, begging, praying to not be gay, than I can even remember. I created my own hell of trying to "pray the gay away." The gay feelings never went away, though. I attended worship services three times a week. I prayed. I sang. I had invited Jesus into my heart and believed my soul had been saved from eternal damnation in hell, but I was still gay. Those homosexual desires never changed except to grow stronger.
Thornton says that going away to college saved his life. I never thought of college as saving my life. That's probably because it took so long for me to start living my life after I got there. Getting there did help, though. It got me out of my small town. It opened my eyes to other ideas and beliefs. It helped me start questioning and forming my own opinions. I was drawn to and surrounded by people living the life I wanted to be living -- I was on the five-year plan with a double major in performing arts and advertising -- but still it took me until the summer before my fifth year to finally achieve enough courage to come out. I didn't get to college and suddenly find my freedom. I was thinking differently, yes, but I still felt the heat of that fire and brimstone keeping me restrained. The truth is that I still feel the chains that want me bound to those beliefs that were so rigidly instilled in me in my youth. I'm still afraid of that fire-and-brimstone hell.
I've recently come to realize that that scared child is still very present inside me, and he's been responsible for many of the fear-based choices I've made in my life. He's also very responsible for the fears that I still allow to prevent me from living my adult gay life to the fullest, without concern about parental disappointment and eternal damnation. And unlike Thornton, I never really resolved my conflict with God. It's a struggle, and I'm trying, but right now I feel as if I'm stepping away from God completely so that I can come back on my own terms with my own goals for our relationship. I should have done this years ago, but fear (like I learned in the pew of my church building) is something that is used to keep one in line and therefore holds one back.
Thornton says that communication is the way he resolved his situation. I believe in the power of communication. But with communication can also come disappointment. One has to find the courage to hear even as he finds the steadiness to speak. I recently took a huge step out of my comfort zone and, for the first time, shared with my mom my childhood feelings of fear and loneliness. I shared how afraid I was, how untrusting. I opened that door before I even realized I was turning the knob. I'm in my 40s now, but it's never too late to start a dialogue. It's hard for me not to feel as though I've wasted a lot of my life living in fear, but I also believe there is truth to the universe presenting things to you when you are ready to accept them.
Not long ago a friend of mine presented me with the concept of getting my hands dirty. Holding back and not communicating, at least with my mom, was me not getting my hands dirty, not rocking the boat, even at times being a victim. I realize now that I was afraid more of being disappointed in her possible answers or responses than of having the conversation. I may never change the mind of someone who believes that homosexuality is wrong, but there is no comfort, no freedom, in living in silence or fear. There's just avoidance. Even a baby step forward is a step forward. I'm glad Mom and I took that step together.
As you might have noticed, that portrait of me that Thornton began drawing with such seemingly definitive strokes veered into Monet territory: recognizable from a distance, fuzzier upon closer examination. There's still conflict in my life between God and my sexuality. That's based on deep-rooted religious fears more than on anything else. There's still conflict between my family and my sexuality. That will probably never change, but I know I'm loved. What can change is me. That scared inner child has to grow up and face his fears. I have to be willing to speak -- and hear. I have to change my expectations. I have to change my pattern. I have to believe that "just as I am" is good enough.