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.