30 August 2011

Outside and inside

I often feel like a little bit of an outsider no matter where I am. I usually spend most of my time around straight people though I am gay. I’ve only recently begun spending time with gay people, but I’ve already noticed that I’m definitely going to have more to talk about with gay guys who like things like backpacking and soccer and science more than things like musicals. I’m usually drawn to nerdy things, but I also am bothered by the ‘I’ve got it all figured out’ attitude that some very learned people seem to carry around with them. I like spirituality and contemplation, but I definitely feel like an outsider in the LDS Church these days since I am generally more liberal, more analytical, and more personal in my religious expressions than the Church’s median cultural environment.

This is definitely not all bad. I really like the fact that I can fit in to some degree with people in different social circles. I learn from others. And I gain a broader perspective by observing diverse groups of people. Perhaps all this encourages me to be a moderate in many areas of life: politically, socially, and spiritually. But sometimes I wish I could fit in more, that I could create deeper connections with people that I admire. It is very rare that I have felt I am on exactly the same page as someone else.

Perhaps the fractured nature of my social interactions mirrors the person inside me. My identities are varied and don’t all fit together like one of those cute little puzzles that my daughter is a whiz at. These identities include being a scientist, being an outdoors enthusiast, being a husband and father, being gay and being a Latter-day Saint. These disparate identities involve some conflicts. I presently don’t know how to satisfactorily reconcile one of these conflicts (the gay-husband conflict), though by distancing myself from the Church I have felt more at peace with the friction generated by being gay and LDS and by being  LDS and a scientist.

I’ve lived with the existence of several identity conflicts for some time, but recently I have wanted more resolution. In a way, the conflicts have left me exhausted. I would like to feel that I am a relatively whole and integrated person, that the important pieces of who I am do not significantly abrade each other. I’d also like to be perceived by others with a reasonable degree of constancy – for example, that those who know I am LDS also know that I am gay, and that those who know I am gay also know that I value the ideal of being a good father. Now that I am open about my sexuality, maybe people will have a more uniform view of who I am, and also be able to see all of the major sides of my personality. However, I also need to be prepared to accept that greater resolution of the conflict between my disparate identities may involve some uncomfortable changes or some compromises. These are presently unknowable aspects of the future. Being more open may also put me in some uncomfortable (or possibly unsafe) situations, but my friends and family have been very supportive so far.

Where did all this trouble come from? How did I get to this place, a place where I have been reasonably successful at much of what I’ve attempted to accomplish in life, but a place where I feel very divided and uneasy internally?

Here are a couple of speculations that may characterize a lot of gays (like myself) who have spent a significant amount of time suppressing their sexuality:

Many gays learn to become masters at compartmentalizing different features of their lives, experts at managing multiple realities or multiple versions of their life story. In most individuals this tendency develops fairly early in life, as soon as it is realized that (1) I am different from others of the same gender around me, and (2) who I am attracted to is going to cause me ridicule, harm, or alienation. Many young gay people quickly learn to hide the attractions, mask or avoid any behaviors that might clue someone into the existence of the attractions, and essentially begin the process of living a separate external reality from an internal identity. Individuals might learn to avoid certain mannerisms that are stereotypically associated with being gay. I remember worrying for a long time that people might think I was gay because of the tone of my voice, especially when I heard it on the answering machine and it sounded so different from what it sounds like to me!

Separating the external and internal identities requires vigilance in order to keep hiding the sexual orientation and, in an interesting way, can lead to a very admirable degree of self control. But there are clearly negative effects. To manage the dual identities, some people may resort to deception. I rarely, if ever, had to lie about my sexuality (because I can only recall one time in college when I was ever directly confronted about being gay), but I certainly was not honest in the sense of telling the whole story. One “advantage” of becoming married was that I had a nearly unassailable shield from being perceived as gay; that perspective seems pathetic now, but it was reflective of my desperate attempts to dissociate myself from anything gay years ago. When I was around others who made homophobic comments, I acted the part by laughing along, though anyone who was observant enough probably could have seen that I didn’t laugh as intensely or genuinely as others. These were all manifestations of deception that I regret.

There are more subtle but potentially equally damaging effects of living dual identities to repress homosexuality. One is the inability to draw close to others emotionally. Unless gay persons can feel safe revealing their sexual identity to trusted individuals, there will always be at least some barriers in terms of feeling comfortable and safe around others. A very core part of the self is decidedly off-limits emotionally; for instance, it cannot be a source of shared vulnerability that helps bind two caring souls together. After coming out, it is possible that this deficiency will linger for some time in developing or existing relationships, because a gay person has developed a pattern of keeping a significant part of who they are secret.

Another potentially damaging effect of dual identities is the toll that suppression can take on self esteem. There is the failure to arrive at internal peace and mature towards confidence in oneself. There is little faith in the internal self because the mind is set on confirmation of the constructed external identity. There may be a very cancerous feeling that something about you is wrong or undesirable or debilitating, but without any solution or reprieve.

Many gays eventually break this uncomfortable duality, but ages at which this is accomplished vary tremendously and there are undoubtedly some who go to their grave never letting a single soul know that they were gay. I really admire those who are able to accept their sexuality at a younger age than me! Today I think many gays are breaking this duality at an earlier age than ever before, because society is finally beginning to develop a more mature, thoughtful and respectful view of the homosexual experience.

“Coming out” involves the joining of these fragmented pieces, an affirmative decision to let external appearances flow from internal identity. Coming out can expose the difficult identity conflicts that a gay person may have accumulated over the years. While I am much happier presently because I no longer feel compelled to hide my sexuality from those close to me, trying to incorporate my newly found perspectives into my broader worldview has brought other conflicts to the forefront of my mind. In an almost tangible way I wrestle with these daily. I still have lots to do in order to feel reasonably integrated, whole and complete. My hope is that, for my own happiness, I can reach a place where identities do not significantly clash, and that, for the well being of close to me, I can do so in ways that minimize negative impacts on others. These goals often seem irreconcilable, but I have to try. 

14 August 2011

Intimacy in a mixed orientation marriage

I have a good heterosexual friend who has been married for over 10 years. We have been friends for a very long time.  Although he has known about my sexuality for many years, and has a generous, accepting heart, I’ve felt that it has been difficult to convey to him exactly how I feel as a homosexual man in a heterosexual marriage. The landscape of my emotions about this topic are still changing as time passes, but some feelings include loneliness, restlessness, and guilt or frustration that I cannot better meet what appear to be the expectations of a “typical” marriage.

One day while hiking in a beautiful place, I tried to explain my perspective to my friend along these lines (with some present embellishment):

“Imagine that you are married to me. Clearly you like my personality because we are good friends.  However, because of the nature of the marriage relationship, you are going to need to be intimate with me on all levels, not just in ways that friends express closeness. Not once of course, but throughout our lives, in large and small ways, from sex to cuddling in bed in the morning to giving me occasional looks that say ‘I love you in every way I can’. Can you build a life intimately connected to me, maintain at least a good percentage of this intimacy with me for decades to come, and be internally satisfied?”
Upon hearing this hypothetical scenario, my friend quickly chuckled. It was not a wholly dismissive laugh, but it was a response that impressed on my mind just how foreign it is for a straight person in a heterosexual marriage to imagine the sort of emotional, sexual, and mental challenges that a gay person faces in mixed orientation marriages. The challenges are omni-present, from those early morning same-sex fantasies when thoughts are largely unfiltered … to social interactions with other heterosexual couples where affection and love seem to flow naturally from one spouse to another in that marriage but are often hard to muster in the mixed orientation marriage … to feeling emotionally drawn to other people on a frequent basis … to feeling some loneliness even when physically close to your spouse.

I think that there is an intimacy ceiling inherent in most mixed orientation marriages. By intimacy, I mean all the ways in which two people can be close: sexually, emotionally, physically, socially, intellectually and spiritually. As gay spouses we hit against this ceiling periodically. Work and other responsibilities generally keep us busy, but then there is an occasion for sex, or a certain emotional crisis in which we want extra support from our spouse, or times when we need to tell the straight spouse how beautiful (s)he is but we just can’t say it with more than an academic understanding and stretched conviction – these are the sorts of times when we hit the intimacy ceiling.

The straight spouses bump against the intimacy ceiling too, but sometimes in different ways. For instance, it may be hard for the straight spouse to understand why his or her expressions of love don’t have a major emotional impact on the gay spouse. It may be difficult to understand why the gay spouse withdraws or needs space or feels a level of emptiness in the relationship. Expressions of physical affection from the gay spouse may be infrequent or seem unnatural. Like the gay spouse, the straight spouse may long for deeper affection and passion in the marriage, or more outwards signs of assurance that the gay spouse is really committed emotionally to the relationship.

The exact location of such a ceiling surely varies from couple to couple (as it does I’m sure for straight or gay same-orientation partnerships). But I suspect that the limitations go deeper – the ceiling is quite a bit lower – in mixed orientation marriages. This seems evident because the capacity of the gay spouse to both give and receive expressions of intimacy in the relationship may be limited. When there are limits present in these relationships (above and beyond what the average couple experiences), extra effort, compromise and compassionate empathy are required. Couples in these relationships may feel that they sacrifice some degree of fulfillment by staying in the marriage. From what I gather, heterosexual marriage is hard enough when even some of the fundamental pieces like sexual attraction and fulfilling non-sexual physical affection are already in place!

Can the ceiling on a mixed orientation marriage be raised? I don’t know. It is a major question inherent in these relationships. Perhaps a key part of the answer lies in the ratio between capacity and expectation. If intimate capacity exceeds expectations or basic needs, then perhaps the relationship can survive and even thrive. If expectations or needs are greater than emotional, sexual or romantic capacity, then perhaps the relationship will not be healthy in the long-term. Capacity and expectations need to be evaluated for each spouse. For the gay spouse, does the capacity to give emotionally, sexually, physically, and spiritually meet the expectations and needs of the straight spouse? For the straight spouse, can he or she bring aspects of love and companionship to the marriage that are fulfilling for the gay spouse?

Each couple in these marriages is different. I strongly suspect that the ability to enhance intimacy in these marriages depends on the personalities of each member of the couple, the degree of homo/bisexuality in the one spouse and the degree of flexibility of the individuals. When the intimacy ceiling can be actually raised to enable greater fulfillment by the partners, great! When individual expectations are lowered too much or needs for intimacy are downplayed to meet a ceiling that cannot be raised, this seems like a less desirable outcome. I think lasting intimacy requires that both spouses can be close to each other in authentic ways.

I hope that as others try to understand mixed orientation marriages, they will be careful to not apply a heterosexual framework in their evaluation of what these marriages should be. If you are straight, go ahead and try a mental experiment. Imagine marriage to your same-sex best friend. Can you make it work? How would you go about it? What aspects would be especially difficult for you? What extra effort, compromise or sacrifice might be needed above and beyond your current romantic relationship or marriage?

09 August 2011


Out of all the spiritual principles that many of us try to cultivate, compassion is probably my favorite. For starters, on a good day I am probably a little bit better at compassion than some of the other worthwhile spiritual values. When it comes to patience, for example, I am pretty pathetic. God, karma, whatever, seem to keep supplying me with experiences demanding patience because I just haven’t gotten it yet. But if I set my mind to it, compassion is something that I can do.

Compassion is one of the most universal spiritual values. Just as air or water seep into every available space, compassion permeates every type of human relationship from friendship to romance. Compassion has an important place in all of the major religious traditions. It can be present at virtually all stages of conscious life. It can be narrowly applied to specific individuals and it can be broadly cultivated for all of humanity.

Compassion requires understanding, or at a very minimum, a willingness to understand another person. This is likely the major point at which we can fail to be compassionate: how often do we think that we understand another person, but we really haven’t tried to understand that person on his or her own terms? How often do we come upon a situation already thinking that we know the “right” answer for someone else? So some effort to move beyond our pre-conceptions and be open to new learning will help us better understand others. A non-biased, non-judgmental, fact-finding (scientific!) approach seems like a great exercise for cultivating compassion and understanding.

There is much more than a feel-good component to compassion. Of course kind and loving acts help us feel good individually. But compassion can soften someone’s heart so that they will be receptive to us and what we can offer.  In this way it is a means for truly connecting with another person. Compassion enables us to view someone else through a lens of shared humanity. It focuses on commonalities, not divisions or differences. With compassion, we can look at another (someone perhaps whom we barely know) and understand some very basic things about that person. We can know something of another person’s sorrows, joys and insecurities. Because we have all experienced basic emotions like pain, disappointment, and excitement we can use compassion as a vehicle for understanding (to some degree) how those same emotions are experienced by another person. We can know that in many ways, we are each on the same journey to find happiness and make the most of life.

06 August 2011

Internal remodeling

As a graduate student, I lived in a coastal town in California. I worked right on the coast and would usually park the car in a residential area a few blocks south of my research building. Along this stretch of popular California coastline, there were constantly surfers coming and going – mostly guys. There were invariably lots of really cute ones. Since I was trying to repress homosexual inclinations at this point in life, I tried not to look, or if I was perhaps being a little less hard on myself, I allowed myself just one glance at someone I thought was attractive.  Needless to say, I was not always successful at keeping these self-imposed rules about stealing looks at guys.

When “temptations” were really bad, I would often remind myself of a statement by George Bernard Shaw that served as a motivation for me in denying my homosexual feelings. To paraphrase, I think: “Life is not about finding yourself; life is about creating yourself.” I really liked this quote. It was empowering, I felt, and it suggested to me that there was no pre-determined outcome for my life. In my case, religious expectations to have only heterosexual thoughts and behaviors bound me mentally, so I could not and would not allow myself to “find” my homosexual self.  I had decided then to be a heterosexual and that was that.

I still enjoy Shaw’s statement today very much for the same idea of personal empowerment, but I have sort of eaten some internal crow over how I should apply this statement in my life. Years of prayer, thought control, fasting and marriage to a woman have really not made me any less gay. Sure, I generally have a respectable degree of behavioral self control, but internally I have not lessened the need for emotional intimacy with a guy, appreciably decreased my physical and sexual attraction to men, or significantly altered the deep seated feeling that only in a relationship with a guy do I have the greatest chance of giving and receiving the best that intimate relationships between two people can offer.

I want to tackle here something that I feel might be a common argument made by those are motivated by religious or other reasons to reject homosexuality as a stable and acceptable form of human attraction. That argument is hard work. Consider these potential arguments: “If you simply had more faith and worked harder at controlling your thoughts, you would not be gay.” “You may never be able to completely eliminate your homosexual feelings, but with enough hard work you can manage them and live a heterosexual lifestyle.”
Alright, let’s look at these types of arguments critically with a series of questions.
The first question is why…why should a person strive to change his or her sexual orientation?  Is there scientifically-rigorous evidence showing that homosexuality itself (not societal harm due to homophobia or discrimination against gays) is psychologically harmful? Does homosexuality directly cause crime, dissolve straight relationships or nuclear families, result in poor performance in school, or negatively affect vocational aptitude? Can anyone unequivocally demonstrate that there is a divine preference for heterosexuality and that the narrow interpretation of holy writ used by some conservative churches to claim that homosexuality is immoral is the only interpretation that God him/her/itself approves?  If change advocates cannot demonstrate any sound social, religious or scientific reasons to alter orientation that would not be cured by eliminating homophobia, then the whole change therapy idea needs to be tossed out the window.

The second question is whether change in sexual orientation is possible.  The short answer, is that yes, across the broader gay population, some change is possible.  However, change is not probable. And for specific individuals, changing from gay to straight may be essentially impossible. Kinnish et al. (2005) and Mock and Eibach (2011) for example, found that at least for men, homosexuality is a stable and largely unchanging expression of human sexual orientation. Most gay people cannot become straight, no matter the amount of effort expended. A valid corollary question is whether a straight person, with enough hard work, can make him or herself gay. If change in sexual orientation is possible with enough faith and prayer, why aren’t more straight people signing up for costly weekend programs to become gays and lesbians? After all, if the disadvantages of discrimination, homophobia, and self loathing turn out to be too much for the straight-turned-gay person, he can just change himself one more time to become straight again!   ;)

The third question is whether hard work is actually the factor responsible for change in orientation in the few cases where gay people insist they have become straight. Perhaps many of these individuals are more bi-sexual than others or are naturally more fluid in their sexuality, so it is easier for them to change orientation over time. Or perhaps, those claiming change only maintain the semblance of being straight because they are isolated socially, or they perform exhausting mental gymnastics to suppress the gay inclinations that are still there. Would such people still be straight if they spent a few hours on my beach in California with young half naked surfers milling about? Will they still be able to claim that they are straight 10 or 20 years from now? There is a difference between actually becoming straight versus simply becoming not gay.  Hard work may accomplish the latter, but I am more skeptical that it can effectively lead to the former.

The fourth and final question: Even if change is possible through hard work, is it worth it? Is the requisite internal remodeling and the potential for harm to other parts of the self worth the change in orientation? Some who are deeply invested in specific religious points of view may claim that it is worth it. But all gays should honestly ask themselves if a high degree of internal tension, persistent anxiety, self rejection or other derivatives of destructive emotions are really going to benefit themselves in the long run. Can positive things be built with so much negative energy?

Personally, my heart seems to tell me that I do not need an internal remodeling with respect to my sexual orientation. If hard work was an effective solution, then perhaps I should have seen some appreciable change in my gayness by now. But alas, many guys are still hot, I still want to have an intimate relationship with a guy on a variety of levels, and I still generally lack comparable feelings for the opposite gender. Prayers, mental discipline, fasting and other forms of hard work are much better spent becoming the kind of person that my core attributes will allow me to be, not the kind of person that someone else thinks I should be. Life is short and the limited energy I have would be infinitely better spent learning how to be more compassionate, forgiving, intelligent and spiritually insightful than re-arranging my core self. I still believe George Bernard Shaw’s aphorism, but making myself the best gay person I can be (along with the best father, partner, biologist, citizen, etc. that I can be) is the best use of my time and energy.


(1) Mock and Eibach 2011. Stability and change in sexual orientation identity over a 10-year period in adulthood. Archives of Sexual Behavior.
(2) Kinnish et al. 2005. Sex differences in the flexibility of sexual orientation: a multi-dimensional retrospective assessment. Archives of Sexual Behavior.