Learning to hate

shadow

Hate.

Humans are the only species that hates. We dominate. We smother, choke, and silence. Anything that is inconvenient to us. Anything that isn’t like us. Anything that makes us uncomfortable. Even when, especially when, it is within us.

I was raised by a loving mother in a busy family home. She taught me to follow God, to love my neighbor, to be a good and ethical person who is kind and Christlike. Every Sunday, we sat in church and sang songs of the love of God while learning about family, service, eternal bonds, and sacrifice. It was idyllic. It was wonderful. Except I didn’t fit the mold.

I realized early on that I was gay. I didn’t have the words, but I knew I was different as young as age 5. And I learned to hide. I know I didn’t fit. I wasn’t like the other kids around me. God had made me different. The messages of love I was being taught became conditional, based on my ability to conform.

There were no hateful messages delivered across the pulpit in my Mormon congregation. There were no sermons on how gay people should burn in Hell. There was just no mention of gay people at all, anytime, ever. Mumbled conversations in hallways about the AIDS epidemic being a curse from God toward the immoral, yes. But no hate speech against gay people. And this silence spoke volumes.

Instead, there were reinforced narratives. Poster boards showing the paths that everyone takes to get into Heaven. Worthiness. Obedience. Sacrifice. Church attendance, scripture study, repentance, baptism. Ordinations, temple attendance, tithing, two years as a missionary. And then, marriage to a woman and children and service in the church for a lifetime. All to ensure that whatever came next, after this life, would be good. A life with God, rich with blessings and family.

And I didn’t fit into that. Right off, in learning how to blend in, I learned how to deny those deeper parts of myself. Every television show, every story book, every song on the radio reinforced that men were men, and women were women, and men were supposed to be with women. There was no alternative. I knew no gay people. I had no role models for a successful or happy gay life. There was only one path, only one way. And so I learned to hide. To lie. To seek a cure. To try and fix it. All without anyone ever pointing a finger at me that said “You are broken, fix yourself.” They didn’t have to point. I just knew I was broken.

Until I turned 15. When I was 15, I finally asked for help. And a kind religious leader gave me a book that was written by a long-dead Mormon prophet, a book written before I was born. Homosexuality is a sin. A crime next to murder. An abomination. A curse. A curable curse, but a curse nonetheless. It was detestable, horrific, a blight upon the land. I got the message loud and clear. Everything I’d ever worried about myself in silence was confirmed in print. I was broken. I learned to hide even more.

Hate can be subtle. It isn’t always like a fist to the face, sometimes it is more like shadow, creeping over walls and under doors, unseen until you learn to see it clearly. I didn’t fit. I was an abomination. God created me in his image, but he made me different. He loved me without condition, yet I was an abomination. He expected honesty and authenticity in service, yet I didn’t know how to face myself. I had no narrative, no ability to speak truth. And so I hid. In plain sight. For decades. He hated me. Those around me hated me. And I learned, early and deeply, to hate myself.

The boys at school weren’t so subtle. Manhood needed to be proven there. Athletic prowess, an interest in girls, a tolerance for pain, no show of emotions. Be a man. And anyone who wasn’t a man, they got called the humiliating names, the ones that every boy dreaded. Sissy. Fag. Queer. Homo. Fairy. Faggot. Fudgepacker. Playground taunts would go dark and extreme sometimes. “You can’t throw a ball, you fag, go die of AIDS.” Children saying this. Children.

And every word, directed at me or at anyone else, sent quivers through my soul. They shook me to my core. I was so scared of being exposed. What if someone caught me looking at a guy. What if I got a boner at the wrong time. When if I wasn’t good enough, man enough, at any given moment. And so I learned to hide, deeper and darker. I learned to lie even more. In order to survive.

When I mix these three origin stories: the suffer-in-silence child side, the not-man-enough-little-queer-kid side, and the God-created-a-monster side, it boils down a complicated stew of self-hatred. It’s a miracle I survived. It’s a miracle any of us did. I used to shut entire parts of my brain, my body, my psyche, my spirit. I shut them down so I could stop feeling, so I could try to survive. It physically hurt. I’d stare at myself in the mirror and call myself names for not being man enough. I’d sob my eyes out in anguished prayer while begging for a cure. I’d look girls in the eye and tell them that I was interested in them, of course, as I delivered some excuse for not engaging in physical activity with them. I hated myself, because I just knew that everyone hated me.

Hate.

It’s only in the last few years that I’ve learned to hear and share the stories of others. My story is my own, but it is in no way unique. There are millions of other gay Mormons from across the decades who learned to be silent like I was, who learned to believe God hated them. They considered suicide, and in some cases completed it. They submitted themselves to therapy practices that promised a cure. They got electro-shocked, harming their brains in the hope of reducing or eliminating their sexual attractions. They got married and then cheated on their wives, hoping to never get caught. They were excommunicated, disowned, extorted by the police, and assaulted for being gay. In the worst cases, they were killed, by men who learned to hate other men for being gay.

And it isn’t limited to Mormons. Gay people in every corner of the world, in every country, culture, religion, and time period, have learned the same hate. In some culture, the hate comes from God and religion. In others, it is societal norms or government practices. Hatred has become generational. It’s in the DNA of gay people. It crosses every border and barrier. It is the shadow on the wall, the one I forget to look for sometimes.

I’ve been out of the closet for eight years now, and I love my life. My home, my job, my partner, my children.  I see a future for myself, where I once saw no future. And in my work as a therapist, and as a storyteller, I’ve learned to embrace the stories of queer people as they begin to sort all of this out and learn how to love themselves. They began to see clearly how they learned how to hide in their own homes. And then they start to look at the world around them and figure out how to live in it, how to understand and even embrace the hate and use it to propel themselves forward. It is an epic and exhausting journey, and one that gets easier with time.

And I don’t hate that at all.

In fact, I love it.

Love.

Sends Nudes: thoughts on gay sex and vulnerability

nudes

Welcome to 2017, where, for many, sending pictures of genitalia is more comfortable than exchanging a first name.

I may never get accustomed to this, logging into a dating or chat app and having someone send me a photo of their erect penis, yet say they are discreet or shy when I ask for a photo of their face. A few months ago, during one chat, I got a dirty photo from someone I’ve never met, unsolicited, and when I said I prefer to chat a bit before going there he responded with, “Look, bro, if I wanted a chat, I’d call my mom. I’m looking to bone, not be your friend.”

In the gay male community, there have always been strong elements of sexual expression, and sexual oppression. In the generations prior to mine, men weren’t allowed to be sexual with other men without serious consequences, from being arrested to disowned to fired to attacked to shamed. For most of human history, there has been an element of danger to gay sex–it had to be private, it had to be discreet, it had to be secret.

In Brokeback Mountain, the first time Ennis and Jack have sex, they can’t look at each other and there is no intimacy. Ennis shoves Jack’s face forward and gives in to urges. After that, they develop an intimacy when they are alone, an affection and love toward each other through looks and handholds and private jokes. But in public, there can be none, no errant glances, no physical contact. If someone suspected their love, there would be public shaming, humiliation, lost jobs, and lost families.

And this became the culture of the gay male community, by and large, over the years. The wider public sent the message that gay men do not belong, that they should not be seen, and that they should be taught a lesson if they are seen.

“What they do in their own homes, I don’t care, as long as I don’t have to see it” and “I didn’t plan on hitting him but he looked at me funny and I would have been made fun of if I hadn’t fought back” and “Can’t we just round them up and put them on an island some place where we don’t have to look at them” and “If we let gay people teach in our schools, our kids will get AIDS and turn into fags” became normal messages on television and from church pulpits and around the family dinner table.

And so gay men learned to hide, and to have two lives. In one life, they had jobs as teachers and doctors, dancers and hair dressers, social workers and CEOs, police officers and judges; and they had families with mothers and fathers and often wives and children; and they had lives, on their local bowling leagues or PTA committees.

And in their other life, the gay men noticed handsome men around them and hoped to catch their eye. They learned of public spaces to meet other gay men, in public parks or on the third floor or the local library behind the biography section or in the alley behind a particular club, or in the local gay club or bath house, although those were a bit scarier. And they learned to relate to other gay men on a purely physical level, focusing solely on sex and body image, shaming those that were not their idea of physically perfect or those who wanted some sort of emotional connection. They learned to mask feelings with alcohol and drugs, often to enhance the pleasure of the sex, and then they stepped back into their daily lives.

These social and psychic trends seem pretty rampant in the gay male community among men who, primarily, grew up divided within themselves, longing for acceptance, community, understanding, validation, and love, and who instead divided themselves up into spaces where vulnerability is frightening and sex is simple.

All that said, there is nothing wrong with sex in any of its forms, so long as the person engaging in sex is educated, honest, and ethical with themselves and others. Engaging in random illicit sex with a stranger, a threesome with a few friends, or even a bathhouse orgy, those are viable options for gay men, but they won’t serve as healthy alternatives for loneliness, depression, self-shame, family problems, or religious discord. The person who chooses to be sexually active should do so from a place of self-acceptance and confidence, and the ability to realize that the person or people they are engaging in sexual activities with are also human beings who have stories and families and needs.

I viscerally remember the radio commercial from my youth where the deep voice stated, “Remember, sex lasts a moment. Being a father lasts your whole life.” And there is absolute truth there. The man who chooses to engage in sex should be able to recognize the risks of pregnancy, the potential for STDs, and the ability to realize that the human heart is a part of sex, both for him and for the other person involved. (And yes I realize that gay sex does not result in pregnancies, but the other truths hold valid).

So go, have sex. Have fun. Have adventures. But know yourselves first, and know your motivations. Look at your trends. Can you only have sex when drunk? Are you only seeking to dominate someone else? Can you look your partner in the eye and have a conversation? Are you seeking to escape the stress and expectations of an unhealthy marriage, religious obligations, or the family you’ve built around you? Do you reject anyone who isn’t your ideal of human perfection, your exact type? Do you realize and acknowledge that there is another person there with a story, with needs, with struggles and situations different but just the same as yours? Do you understand the history of where you’ve come, and do you have an eye on where you are going? Do you think that having someone in your bed will take away your pain and loneliness and make you like yourself?

I guess the take away I hope others to get in reading this is just to know yourself, to question your motivations a little bit, to explore your concepts of vulnerability, and to be able to realize there is another person on the other end of that exchange. The world is about more than naked pictures and quick sex, it’s about safety and kindness and attraction and love. But that has to be toward yourself first.

 

 

 

Validated

 

 

validation

I sat next to a friend the other day who was chatting with gay men over a social media app. My friend, who is in his late 30s and is a handsome and successful professional, sent a message to a younger guy, handsome and 19.

“You have a nice smile,” my friend said.

The younger man responded within seconds. “You are one of the ugliest humans I have ever laid eyes on. You think you are good enough to chat with me?”

This was such a brief exchange, and yet it represented to me everything that is wrong with the gay community these days (and indeed, much of the straight community). I’ve given this a lot of thought and come to some conclusions.

When my older son was 2 years old, he used to say things like “Dad, there’s the tree.” I would repeat him, “Yeah, buddy, there’s a tree.” And he would throw a holy fit. “Dad, no! I said THE tree, not A tree!” Toddlers learn the fine art of defining the need for validation, demanding it and hurting badly when it isn’t offered in the right way.

As children age in healthy environments grow, they should be learning the skills to be able to do three things: to accept validation when it is offered, to validate themselves, and to ask for validation when they need it. These lessons are reinforced in the childhood and adolescent years, and practiced often as adults. In short, we always need validation.

When we grow up in homes or environments where these skill sets aren’t emphasized, we lose the ability to do these things. We think compliments are disingenuous, we lack the ability to offer validation to ourselves, and we have no ability to ask for validation and instead simply expect it. We develop unhealthy coping mechanisms to get alternatives to validation in other regards.

LGBT people generally grow up feeling unaccepted, knowing they are different than those around them. Simply put, they learn to hide in plain sight. I learned how to pretend to be interested in girls, how to pretend I was not interested in boys, how to blend in with straight guys. With parts of myself hidden deep down inside, I had no capacity to validate myself. I threw myself into church responsibilities and only considered the most worthy members of the Mormon church as worth the greatest amounts of trust and attention. I sought higher Priesthood callings and opportunities to sacrifice in order to show myself I was a worthy person.

Many other gay men, rather than church callings, throw themselves into building the perfect physique, and only see other men who are their ideal physical type as worth their attention. Others do it in careers, or their definitions of success.

And when others don’t meet standards of self-identified perfection, many gay men (or humans in general) see them as worth less than others. We like being noticed on our terms, and we see these as healthy validations.

Yet there is a simple truth, we can’t be truly validated by others unless we can validate ourselves, and we can’t validate ourselves unless we have integrity, and we can’t have integrity when we feel broken inside, or when we treat others like they are worth less.

As a teenager, I would shame myself so badly over not being like other guys, particularly when it came to competitive sports. I would use humor and excuses to avoid these interactions, feeling miserable inside, and then I would internally blame these other men for not accepting or including me. Because I lacked the ability to validate myself, I expected these strangers to do it for me.

I’ve reached a stage in my life now that I’m confident in myself and the things I’m good at. I can compliment myself and mean it. I can take compliments from others. When I feel a lack of integrity, or when I experience shame or guilt, I’m honest with myself and I ask myself or others for what I need. I don’t expect crowds of strangers, or even my close loved ones, to know what I need when I never asked for it. I don’t let myself be shamed by those who don’t love themselves, or who don’t see me as someone of value because I don’t meet their self-standards of perfection.

In the age of social media, it is so much easier to be cruel to strangers, calling them ugly or worthless in bizarre instant messages or public comments. One I saw recently from one stranger to another: “You think you are hot, but you aren’t. Try a diet and the gym.” It is also easier for people to demand validation from strangers, as we post lengthy comments on social media sites about how we have been slighted by others. A post I saw on Facebook recently: “I went to the club and no one talked to me. Gay people are the worst.”

Validation, integrity, and authenticity are hard and painful battles to be fought. Yet the alternatives are much more painful in the long run: invalidation, feeling broken, and feeling lonely.