Learning to hate

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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.

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“Mom, it’s me, I’m gay.”

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I pulled my car into a remote parking lot, undid my seatbelt, and twisted the rearview mirror down so I could look myself in the eyes. My cheeks were bright pink and fluffy, and my eyes brimmed with tears. How long had I been crying? How many tears could I possibly have left? I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and let a stream of sadness roll down my cheeks and onto my shirt. The day had been terrible already, but I had to get this over with.

I picked up the phone and dialed my mom’s number. She answered at the first ring.

“Hello, son!” She had such enthusiasm in her voice. She was always singing, playful, sweet. Hearing her voice usually brought me joy. Today, it brought more pain.

“Hi, Mom.” My voice was cracking. There was no way to hide that I’d been crying.

She shifted to concern. “Chad? Are you okay?”

“I don’t think I am. I need to tell you something. Something hard. Is it a good time to talk?”

“Of course it is. Are you okay? Is it Maggie? The baby? Little J?” She immediately asked about my wife, my 2-year old son, and our unborn child.

“Everyone is fine. Physically. I just—are you sitting down?”

“Chad, yes. I’m sitting down. What is it, you’re scaring me. I’ve never heard you like this.”

“Mom, I’m gay.” I blurted it out abruptly. It felt like throwing a baseball indoors, unnatural and loud and not knowing what would break into pieces. The words floated there, heavy and painful, then passed through the telephone wires like a poison.

I heard a gasp, a long silence. “Oh, Chad,” she whispered, and that simple phrase was a knife, slicing open my heart. My gut clenched tightly as I began to sob, the tears running down my cheeks now. I pathetically hit the steering wheel with the palm of my hand. “Chad, hey, hey, my boy, my boy, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Her voice was soft, soothing, and in a flash I considered everything we had been through together. My father’s depression, the divorce, her second marriage to a man who hit us both, me being molested as a kid. I was 32 years old and she was still the most important person in my life, along with my wife and kids.

A few more sobs and then I tried, pathetically, to get more words out, to reassure her, to help her understand. “I’ve—this isn’t new. I’ve always been gay. I’ve known it for as long as I can remember, since kindergarten even, but I never knew how to tell you. I’m sorry, I’m so so so sorry. I’m so sorry, Mom.”

Her voice took on a tone of strength, but I could tell she was crying too. “You listen, the first thing you need to hear is that I love you and I will always love you and I will never stop loving you.”

More tears, more pathetic sobs. “I know, Mom, I love you too.”

There was a brief, pregnant silence, and then the hard questions started. “Does Maggie know?”

“Yes.” I swallowed, wiped my face again, got a hold of myself. “Yes. She knows. She knew before we got married. But—but I just told her again. I met a guy when I was on my business trip, and we kissed, and—and I didn’t feel broken anymore, Mom. I’m so used to feeling broken. I’m so tired of feeling like I’m shattered into pieces. I—I felt normal with him, like things would be okay, but now Maggie is hurting, and she’s pregnant, and we have a home and a kid and—and everyone hates me and—“

Mom interrupted, both stern and sad. “Oh, Chad, my sweet Chad. Hold on, hold on, just wait. Nobody hates you.”

“God does.”

“God doesn’t hate you! You have a stronger testimony of God and of our church than almost anyone I have ever met. God sees you and he loves you and he knows you. He’ll help you with this. Have you talked to your church leaders?”

I stuttered for a moment, then chose to remain silent. There was so much subtext with that question. I could tell her about the bishops I had come out to, asking for help from. I could tell her about the Miracle of Forgiveness and how it cruelly promised a cure if I just sacrificed enough. I could tell her about all of the years of being broken, depressed, disconnected, about all my years of faithful church service and dedication all in the hopes that I could be cured of being gay. I could tell her about the therapy, the journaling, the Priesthood blessings. Instead I just said, “Yes, I’ve talked to my bishop.”

“Good, son. I’ll be okay as long as I know your testimony is solid.”

And here I had to consider how honest to be. I could tell her that I wasn’t sure my testimony was solid anymore. But if I told her that, she would go into a full panic. Coming out and leaving Mormonism would mean that I was willfully turning from God, that I was breaking my temple covenants, that I was choosing a life of sin and pain. If I turned from God, I was turning from my eternal bonds to my family, and I wouldn’t be with them in the next life. Instead, I just changed the subject.

“I’ve told Maggie. I’ve told my bishop. I’ve told a few friends. And I’ve told Sheri.” My sister’s name brought it’s own pain. She had come out of the closet years before, and my family, including me, hadn’t reacted well. Sheri and my mom were still working on repairing their relationship all these years later.

There was another long silence, and I could tell my mom was crying. I thought of all the things I should say. I’m sorry for letting you down. I’m sorry I’m gay. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to find a cure. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I’m sorry this hurts you. But I didn’t want to apologize anymore. Maybe I should lie. I don’t have to be gay, I’ll keep trying to change. Don’t worry, I’m going to save my marriage and be the son you want me to be. I’ll make this right with God through repentance. Nothing is going to be different.  But I couldn’t lie anymore. Maybe I should reassure her. I’m still the son you always knew! I’m still me, I just want to be a better version of me! All the things you knew about me before, they are still true, I’m just… different… now. The words in me, the tune, it’s the same, but I have more confidence now, more love for myself. You’ll see. I’ll always be there for my sons, and Maggie and I will figure this out. Those were better, but the words wouldn’t come.

Instead, we just sat and cried together, hundreds of miles apart. And I realized I would have to have this same conversation with each of my sisters, my friends, my coworkers, the members of my ward. The word would spread to neighbors, cousins, old college roommates and mission companions, everyone I’d ever known. “Remember Chad? He’s gay!” I hit my head against the steering wheel and cried even more.

Weeks later, when some of the trauma of my coming out had passed, my mom called me again.

“I always knew you were gay,” she told me. “I knew you were different from the time you were a child. I was so afraid of it. I so badly didn’t want that to be true for you, because it would make life so much harder. And seeing you come out, it breaks my heart, because you were in all of that pain all of these years and I never knew it, or at least we never discussed it. I’m so sorry for your pain, my son. And I don’t know how this all works when it comes to religion, but I know I love my church, and I know I love my gay kids. Those two truths do now cancel each other out. So we will keep working on it, on us, because I love you, and you love me.”

“The difference now,” I whispered, “is that I’m learning to love me too

Ghost of Christmas Past

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During my social work education in college, I took several classes that focused on tools related to understanding complicated families. One of those tools is a genogram. Squares represented men, circles were used for women. Lines connected romantic relationships, and little dashes meant children. An X over a person represented death, a double line through a relationship represented divorce. I’ve used genograms with hundreds of clients over the years now. Some families look clean and organized on paper: father, mother, brother, sister.

My family genogram ended up looking like a massive printer malfunction, or like someone dropped a pizza on the floor. It was rampant with divorces and remarriages, couples who had kids that were his hers and theirs, and adoptions. If I could add slashes and dashes for prison sentences, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, faith crises and drug addictions, well, we’d have Picasso’s Starry Starry night in family tree format. Beautiful, but far too much to take in one glance.

But each little square and circle on that paper represent a human fixed in time, someone with experiences, heartbreaks, setbacks and successes. And each of those people, most of them related to me by blood, have their own changing stories, their own epics. For most, the endings remain unwritten. But even the youngest of my siblings is in her late 30s now, so there is a lot of history to draw upon.

And that takes us to 1985.

Back then, my family was my entire world, that and religion. We have one family Christmas video preserved now. It’s beloved to me. It was made in December, 1985, when I was newly 7 years old. I was the little brother, the sixth of seven children. Back then, Mom and Dad were still married, if unhappily. My little sister Sheri was three, and she had thin yellow hair that grew down past her waistline. (Many years later, Sheri and I would be the ones who came out of the closet). And all of the older kids were there, ranging from 11 to 20 in age at the time. Grandma and Grandpa were there, my mom’s parents, and my oldest sister’s boyfriend. The video shows us all around the Christmas tree, singing songs, laughing, performing special talents for each other, opening gifts. My mom and sister Kara played the nose harps as a joke, someone did a piano solo. We each took a day of Christmas and sang all twelve verses in little one-line solos. The camera pans around the room as we each share what we are thankful for. At one point in the video, I take out my recorder from school and I play a carol for the family, not actually playing the instrument but more realistically just blowing notes through it, generating the sound with my voice and sounding like an eerie robot. Later in the video, I ask if I can lead the family in a song. I stand in the center of the room, right in front of the camera, and I lead the music, just like I’ve seen Mom do in church a thousand times, except I forget to bend my elbow. I lead on the right cadence with my wrist hinging in every direction as my family laughs at me, and at the time I didn’t understand what was so funny. I was beaming. Family, music about Jesus, Christmas. It was perfect. I’m smiling from ear to ear.

That was over 30 years ago. 33 Christmases ago, to be exact. That realization startles me. And in another blink of an eye, it will be 30 years from now and I’ll be seventy and my children will be men.

But what if I could go back? If I could time-travel, step back into that room as a grown man and just watch it all as it happened… I wouldn’t be able to experience the family just then, in the present like that. I have too much perspective for that. I’d see everything that lies ahead for each person in that room as I watched them. If I wanted to, I could tell Grandma and Grandpa the days they die on. I could tell Mom that she only had to put up with my dad’s anger and depression for five more years before she would finally choose to leave him. But then I’d also have to tell her that her next husband would be worse, he would use fists and control and insults and profanity to terrorize her for a few years. But then, I could tell her, then she’d meet the man of her dreams. She’d be 60 by then, but he would make her so happy for the rest of her life. I could tell my dad that he would never really change, that in 30 years he would be nearly 80 and still sad and quiet and angry and morose. I could look him in the eye and tell him how I felt about his depression and the way it ruined him, and about the impact it had on me.

Would I change anything if I could? Would I want to? Would I warn them about their futures? Would I grab my oldest sister in a hug and tell her that she wouldn’t be able to have children, but that she would finally choose to adopt three when she was in her mid-40s, and that it was definitely not going to be easy after that? Would I tell my second sister that she would meet the love of her life at age 18 and they would go on to have six children together, but also tell her that this picture perfect world would not be easy, that it would be full of health struggles and financial burdens? Would I warn my only brother to stop touching me in our bedroom when the doors were closed tight and no one could see? Would I tell him to stay off the drugs and to change his ways before his three marriages, his criminal charges, his domestic violence issues, his animal cruelty issues? Would I tell him that he would father three incredible children, and that all three of them would turn out great not because of him but in spite of him? Would I grasp my middle sister, Kara, and tell her that she’d have to put up with 15 years of two terrible marriages so that she could have her four children, but that if she could just put up with the abuse, drugs, and anger from her first two husbands, she would finally meet the man who would make her happy? Would I tell her that her kids would add up to seven before she was done, and that she’d have her youngest child around the same time she became a grandmother? Would I warn the sister just above me in age to never start smoking, never start drinking, as those habits would dominate the rest of her life?

I love all of my family, of course, but when I watch this old video, I see Sheri and I the most. Sheri was the baby of the family, the quiet, introverted, and obsessive little girl would grow up to be a kind, loving, incredible woman. But first she’d have to get through her boy clothes wearing and no makeup high school years, and then brave coming out of the closet in her early 20s, and it would not go well at first. If I could change things, I’d want her to do it early, to not wait until she was in her 20s. I’d want her to save herself the years of religious indoctrination, to not waste a single moment thinking she was anything but amazing. Maybe instead I would just reassure her without changing events. She has a future, I would tell her, one with a wife, a full-ride college scholarship, a life full of opportunities. I’d tell her that in many ways she would grow up to be my greatest example, despite being younger than me.

And then I look at me. If forty-year old me could go back in time and spend an afternoon with seven-year old me… my heart breaks just thinking about it. I have a son that size, just 7 years old. He’s so small. He watches the world around him with hope and wonder, and he sees the best in everyone. Someone being a bully just breaks his heart. He has so much to learn. I see him in 7-year old me. I’d wrap little me up in a giant bear hug, and I would ask me how I was feeling. I would ask, and I would listen. I feel like no one ever asked me back then. I would ask the questions no one was asking me then. How do you feel about your dad’s sadness? Do you like church, do you believe in it, what do you like about it and what don’t you? Do you know it’s okay to have doubts? I’d ask what was happening behind those closed bedroom doors, and tell him that that isn’t okay for someone, anyone, to touch him like that, and I’d encourage him to speak up and I would tell him I was there to protect him. And because he would be too young to understand, I would try to find a way to tell him how my life has gone. I would tell him that gay people are normal, and that anyone who tells him that he is broken or an abomination or that he can be cured or that he should just ignore it and hope that it goes away, that those people are wrong even if they don’t mean to be. Believing those things would take some of his best years away from him. At worst, those people are big homophobic meanies, and at best they are just misinformed. I would tell him to come out, early and to the right people, and that he should spend his adolescence being real, learning how to love himself and take care of himself, learning how to fall in love and make friends and how to dream big. I’d tell him to love church but recognize that it is flawed and that it doesn’t have all the answers, so he should keep the good and let go of the rest. I’d tell him to eat well, to exercise, to find healthy outlets for his emotions. I’d tell him to not waste two years in missionary service, that he’ll regret it later. I’d tell him he is beautiful just the way he is, all the parts of him, the compassionate and the creative, the social worker and the storyteller, the singer and the quiet thinker. I’d tell him to not be so lonely in his 20s, to not wait so long to kiss, to hold hands, to fall in love, to have sex. I’d tell him to never compromise and marry a woman just because he believed it was the only possibility for him, because both he and she would end up hurt.

But then, I’d take it all back. I’d regret every word. He’s 7, and telling him all of that would put far too much weight on his shoulders (and goddamnit, he was carrying too much weight as it was). If I told him all of that, I’d want to run screaming into a corner, because if he changed anything, If he didn’t spend those years thinking he was broken, if he never served a mission, never learned to believe God hated him, never married a woman… that if he came out of the closet even six months earlier, than his two sons wouldn’t exist. And they have to exist. The world can’t BE without them.

Instead, I’d have to tell him to be strong. To hold on. To know that his suffering in the long run would pay off, because he would eventually come out, he would eventually find love, he would eventually learn to love himself. He would be 32 when it finally happened, so he only had 25 years to be depressed, then he could learn to live. And in coming out, he’d break some hearts, he’d have to redefine everything, and he would have to navigate a new life with two beautiful little boys, and it was going to be so hard for a while but it would be so worth it because those little boys would be the lights of his entire world, and he would learn how to see himself as a light as well. And I’d tell him that the greatest payoff of all of this, all the years he spent hurting, is that he would raise his sons to have all of the things he never had.

I can’t change then. But I can change now. I can give my sons what I wish I could go back and give to me then. I can ask questions and listen to their answers. I can talk about hard things. I can teach them about nutrition and exercise, about compassion and kindness and integrity. I can teach them to love themselves, to follow their dreams. I can teach them about taking care of the planet, being kind to animals, and reaching out to the underdog, the outcast, the misfit. I can teach them to be themselves, to love themselves, and to follow their dreams. And if I can do all of that for them, then I don’t need to change the past.

Because someday, 30 years from now, perhaps my boys will look back to this time in 2018 and wonder what could be different. Maybe they would choose to come back and give warnings about dire future events, or give hints to themselves about how they can have happier lives if they make different choices. But my greatest wish would be for them to look back to now, right now, and see it as one happy Christmas in a long life full of happy Christmases, with nothing they would want to change.

Stan, the Man

If I give it a bit of thought, I realize Stan Lee was likely the greatest influence on my creative ventures, more than anyone. There are other influences, sure. Robert Jordan and C.S. Lewis and Carolyn Keene and my own mother, as well as all of the authors of my beloved Choose Your Own Adventure books from childhood. But Lee, he created the universe I would spend my lifetime with. He set up an entire age that would capture me for decades. More than anyone, he inspired my awe.

I’ve learned a lot about Stan Lee’s life over the years, but for the purpose of this blog, I’ll focus on his creative endeavors, the one that impacted me the most. For years, the comic book industry had been dominated by super heroes, ones who transcended all of the romance and cowboy and war and monster books that filled every shelf in America through the 40s and 50s. Superman and Batman are the most widely remembered. The stories were simple and short on substance. Super hero keeps his identity secret from his friends and foils plot by fill-in-the-blank villain, be they mad scientist, alien warlord, or misunderstood monster.

But then, in 1961, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put together the Fantastic Four, and they changed the industry completely. They made their heroes flawed. They were fallible, they made mistakes. They overcame overwhelming odds in order to triumph over villains. And the villains suddenly became relatable, with variable motives and intentions. The lines blurred, and suddenly everything felt more human.

Stan Lee gave us the Thing, a man who hated being transformed into a lumpy orange monster, and one who took his rage out on the world even while being as lovable as can be. He gave us Spider-Man, a young man who dedicated himself to good after one of his own mistakes resulted in the death of his Uncle Ben. A line-up of X-Men, who were hated by the world for being different. Daredevil, who was a blind attorney by day, a hero who could jump off rooftops by night. The Hulk, a scientific Dr. Jekyll with a secret Mr. Hyde he was ashamed over. Iron Man, a selfish playboy billionaire with shrapnel near his heart. Thor, an arrogant God of Thunder who must learn humility at all cost. Stan Lee was an idea machine, giving the world more and more heroes to wonder over. Ant-Man and the Wasp. Dr. Strange. The Silver Surfer. Magneto. Green Goblin. Dr. Doom. Dr. Octopus. The Human Torch. The Inhumans. The Black Panther. Captain Marvel. The Skrulls. Loki. He brought back Captain America, and then he grouped up random heroes into the Avengers. And it was later he added more characters that he loved, ones who hadn’t had titles of their own: Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Quicksilver, Black Widow.

It’s been over 60 years, and these character names still headline comic books, multi-million dollar movies, toys and clothing lines, and cartoons. They’ve become household names, some gaining more notoriety than ever in just the last few years.

Now granted, reading these old 60s comic books from the year 2018 can be a bit uncomfortable. The heroes are overwhelmingly white and male. When girls did show up, they were often given passive powers and, when not fussing over their hair or outfit, were generally relegated to the kidnapped and tied-up damsel. And characters of other races, including Asian and Black, were generally characters. But over the years, that would evolve, as the comics addressed more relevant issues.

I didn’t start reading comic books until the mid-1990s. By then, many of these series were numbering in the hundreds, an impressive feat when you consider most books produced about 12 comic books per year. Picking up Amazing Spider-Man #300 meant the book had been running for 30 years. Stan Lee wasn’t really writing anymore by then, a man near 70 years old. The company had changed. Some characters had surged in popularity and added entire franchises. Characters died and came back. Storylines became complex, frequently saturated with complex and intricate plot devices. Was Spider-Man the clone or was his clone the clone? Cable was the product of Cyclops marrying the clone of his love, Jean Grey, and bearing a child, and sending that child to the far future to be raised, and then that child coming back to the present followed by a clone of his own. There were alternate dimensions and timelines, time travelers, shape-shifters, and teleports to save any character from seeming death. There were secret shadow organizations, and characters still alive from World War II who should have been dead decades ago. Marvel invented a sliding time scale, basically stating that although the characters debuted in the 60s, you could just presume that they had been around for ten years or so before you picked up the book. And as long as you didn’t mind the decades of history, the suspension of disbelief, the occasional continuity gaff, and the fact that you couldn’t possibly afford every book on the shelf, well, you had a whole world you could get lost in.

And that was exactly what I needed at the time. Things were getting tough at home. My step-dad was lashing out with anger more frequently, and it was getting more difficult to hide the fact that I was gay and pretending to be straight. I desperately needed an escape. And so, one weekday, I bought an X-Force comic book off the grocery store shelf. And it was amazing. Within a few years, I was working at a local comic book store by special arrangement: they paid me in comic books. And by the time I left on my Mormon mission at the age of 19, I’d collected thousands of them, meticulously preserved in bags and lined up alphabetically and numerically in dozens of cardboard boxes that lined the walls of my room.

And on that mission, for two years, reading comic books was my secret sin. I could buy them when no one was looking, hide them under my mattress at the apartment, read them when my companion was sleeping. Again, I could escape. All through college, I raided back issue bins in comic book shops, carefully scanning for every issue that I didn’t have. And always the hardest to come by was the original Stan Lee stuff, the primordial works from which an entire universe developed.

Even now, comic books are a part of my life. Everything for me is digital nowadays. I don’t keep my books in boxes, instead I keep them on hard drives. Every week, dozens of new Marvel books come out, still charting the stories of these classic characters and their extended families. The heroes from the 60s should be elderly, or dead and gone, but we readers just pretend they are perhaps in their late 20s or early 30s. I still love the X-Men, although their school has blown up 35 times by now, and every one of their members has died and come back from the dead at least twice. I’m still captivated by these classic characters. I sip my coffee and click through my pages with love and excitement. My brain auto-plays the sound effects of Thwip and Snit, and the classic phrases still leap off the page at me. Flame on! Hulk Smash! With great power comes great responsibility! It’s clobbering time! By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth! By Odin’s beard! Oh my stars and garters!

Everyone who followed, all the other big names that have also become something, they only succeeded because of the platform Stan Lee created. Luke Cage. Iron Fist. Wolverine. Punisher. Moon Knight. Cable. Elektra. Ghost Rider. Deadpool. The universe got a lot darker for a long time, then it got lighter again. And in the new comics, the world looks a lot different. There are gay characters running around everywhere now. Women play a much more prominent role. Many of my favorite titles star characters that Stan Lee must have been proud of. Moon Girl (a 9-year old black girl, the smartest person on the planet) and Devil Dinosaur (her big red T-Rex). Ms. Marvel (a Pakistani-American teenage girl, a Muslim). Squirrel Girl (a plucky computer nerd with a squirrel tail). I sit down with my children now and read these stories, sharing with them the joy of these characters, ones who make us laugh and smile.

I got the news today that Stan Lee died at the age of 95. I haven’t given him much thought in recent years, except to smile whenever he’s made a cameo in a Marvel movie or show that I love. Before I got that news, just this morning, I read the latest Spider-Man, and just last week I looked at the last episode of Daredevil on Netflix. And it dawns on me how much he transformed my life.

Thank you, Mr. Lee, for giving me another world to escape to. It was a complicated world, a rich one that expanded far beyond your original concepts, but then again, you started it all. You built a civilization under the ocean, and another beneath the surface of the Earth. You made up entire countries, some that floated in the clouds, some that nestled between existing borders. You gave men and women powers from a myriad of sources: alien experiments, exploding chemicals, radioactive spiders, godly interventions, magical training, Gamma bomb explosions, radioactivity, or just an accident of birth. You made me believe anything was possible, and that, no matter how complex and flawed the world might be, that good always triumphed and there was always another adventure beckoning.

Thank you, Mr. Lee, and Rest in Peace. Excelsior! 95 was a good long time, and your universe lives on.

Stan

 

I don’t dance like I used to. Partly because I’m in a relationship with a guy who doesn’t like to dance much, and partly because I’m a little older now and I vastly prefer going to bed early.

But there remains something so magical about a dance floor in a gay club, full of loud beats that shake the floor (and my own bones), where men (mostly gay) and women (mostly straight) shake their asses and throw their hands in the air while they scream out the lyrics to their favorite songs. It is a beautiful space to celebrate life and leave the world behind.

I don’t fit with the standard gay club culture. I don’t use drugs, and I don’t like getting drunk. I enjoy one drink, perhaps two, enough to loosen the wires in my brain and let it all go, perhaps just dipping my toes in the world where my head spins slightly and I get a dopey grin on my face. But I stop there. I don’t like getting drunk, or sloppy. It results in nausea and headaches, and I’d much rather live with energy the next day instead of a hangover in bed. On top of that, I’m the guy that gets to the club before it’s really busy, and I prefer to leave when I get tired, generally around midnight, which is when a lot of the crowd starts to arrive. I’d much rather wake at 7 the next morning, and I’m certainly not equipped to sleep until noon.

Every gay club has its own character and flair. Some seem to cater to youthful crowds, where long lines congregate at the bars for cheap or overpriced drinks, people pack into the patio or outdoor areas to talk loudly or smoke, and others cram into the dance floor in hard packs to strut and perform, or to shuffle from foot to foot while they sip on their drinks. Some clubs are huge, with upstairs levels or basements, cages or dance poles, tiered stairs to dance on, and multiple bars, indoor and out. Others are simple, a section of floor around a bar, with stools and standing room early. Some are seedy, with old porn photos on the wall, trophies for the latest Mr. Leather contest winner in glass cases, and long dark hallways where, in earlier years, gay men might venture for anonymous sex.

I’m currently staying in Phoenix, Arizona, for a few days, and whenever I travel to a new place, I’m always curious about the local gay culture. (A few months ago in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I discovered two gay bars, one that was very trendy and was, literally, empty of people on a late Friday night, and another that had multiple levels and was filled with people who looked like they’d stepped out of 1995). Within a two mile radius of the place I’m staying in Phoenix, I discovered no less than seven gay clubs, knowing I’d likely see none of them, or maybe just one. Some had normal names, like Charlie’s and Stacy’s, and others more trendy names, like Kobalt, but there were a few holdovers from the days when gay clubs had, well, gay names, like Cruising’ 7th, and the Rock. Each club tends to have its own feel and vibe, and its own crowd that it caters to. (Note that in some cities, gay people just frequent regular bars, there being no real separation in the communities, everyone equally integrated).

So on Thursday night, I headed over to Kobalt to watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race, one of my favorite pass times in a crowd of gay men who tend to scream, applaud, and laugh raucously at the screen. There were multiple tables full of congenial, and mostly white, men in their 20s and 30s, and we had drinks and laughed together. It was wonderful.

Friday night, I walked past Cruisin’ 7th, and popped in out of curiosity. I found a small seedy space with about 12 men propped on bar stools (keep in mind it was 6 pm). One of them aggressively flirted, clearly very inebriated, offering to buy me ‘just a shot or two’ as I casually turned him down.

“I’m just here celebrating because I’m finally out of a terrible relationship. I supported his fucking ass for too long and he fucking left me anyway. And he thought was was so special, he made me grieve for two months before I got on with my life. And he couldn’t even finish medical school! He thinks he’s so smart, but he didn’t even know what an ampersand was! Come on, just one drink!”

Later that same night, I sat through a mediocre play on the campus of Arizona State University, about three employees who swept up popcorn in a movie theater. In it, one of the characters, a young black man, struggled with his homosexuality, which had resulted in depression and a suicide attempt in his past, and another young woman admitted to being bisexual, causing her to fight off rumors that she was lesbian. And somehow, more than anything else, the play, and the very brief experiences with the gay community in Phoenix, left me with thoughts of how the world is changing for queer kids, and how grateful I am to witness that firsthand and peripherally all at once.

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Children are listening

On countless Sunday church meetings growing up, I would perk my ears and open my heart and spirit, desperately listening for Priesthood leaders to deliver counsel on how I might cure my homosexuality. They remained silent, week after week.

Every six months, at General Conference, when the inspired prophets and apostles of the Church spoke to the membership, I would fast and pray and listen, and they remained silent time after time. I was left to my own efforts.

It was all the messages that fell in between the blanks that resonated the loudest with me. Men are to marry women, men who aren’t manly enough are sissies and failures, there is only one path to happiness.

And for a long time, I felt silenced, and alone, like I was the only one who could possibly be suffering like that. It wasn’t until coming out years later that there were dozens of others around me, also quietly suffering, silent in their pain and thinking they were alone. I know at least a dozen others from my high school, dozens more from my college class, and at least 10 other missionaries from my Mormon mission. And most ironic of all, one bedroom over, my sister Sheri was struggling with the same feelings.

And now I’m raising my children, and I’m seeing dozens of clients every month who grew up with the same stories, some of them past tense and some of them present tense.

“My brothers called each other ‘fag’ all the time, and I knew I was one, and I knew that I was bad.”

“My parents wanted me to wear dresses and that just wasn’t me, and so I wasn’t as good as my sisters who were girly-girls. And the fact that I liked girls, too, forget it.”

“My mom was completely okay with me having a boyfriend. But when he and I broke up and I got a girlfriend, she just pretended we were roommates. For the next ten years.”

“My parents and my boyfriend love me as the man that I am, but I have no idea how to tell them I’m a woman. They keep saying ugly things about the transgender bathroom situation, and they have no idea that I’m right next to them, transgender myself.”

I live in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is a place of startling statistics, but a new one recently made the national news. Utah is now the only state in the country where the leading causing death for youth is SUICIDE. And many of those teen suicides are directly related to their shame over being LGBT in homes and cultures where those messages aren’t supported.

After I came out of the closet, at age 32, one of the first films I watched was Prayers for Bobby, a movie based on the lives of Bobby, a gay Christian, and his mother, Mary, a devout believer in her faith. After years of trying to not be gay, Bobby ended up taking his own life, and Mary went on to find compassion for gay people, and realized what she had done wrong in raising her son. Her words, the first time I heard them, moved me to tears, sobs, and shakes. I still get emotional when I read them. She delivered these words in a local government setting, trying to gain support for her cause, and sharing the message she had learned at much too high a cost.

“Homosexuality is a sin. Homosexuals are doomed to spend eternity in Hell. If they wanted to change, they could be healed of their evil ways. If they would turn away from temptation, they could be normal again if only they would try and try harder if it doesn’t work. These are all the things I said to my son Bobby when I found out that he was gay. When he told me he was a homosexual my world fell apart. I did everything I could to cure him of his sickness. Eight months ago my son jumped off a bridge and killed himself. I deeply regret my lack of knowledge about gay and lesbian people. I see that everything I was taught and told was bigotry and de-humanizing slander. If I had investigated beyond what I was told, if I had just listened to my son when he poured his heart out to me, I would not be standing here today with you filled with regret. I believe that God was pleased with Bobby’s kind and loving spirit. In God’s eyes kindness and love are what it’s all about. I didn’t know that each time I echoed eternal damnation for gay people, each time I referred to Bobby as sick and perverted and a danger to our children. His self esteem and sense of worth were being destroyed. And finally his spirit broke beyond repair. It was not God’s will that Bobby climbed over the side of a freeway overpass and jumped directly into the path of an eighteen-wheel truck, which killed him instantly. Bobby’s death was the direct result of his parent’s ignorance and fear of the word gay. He wanted to be a writer. His hopes and dreams should not have been taken from him but they were. There are children, like Bobby, sitting in your congregations. Unknown to you they will be listening as you echo “amen”, and that will soon silence their prayers. Their prayers to God for understanding and acceptance and for your love. But your hatred and fear and ignorance of the word gay will silence those prayers. So, before you echo “amen” in your home and place of worship, think. Think and remember, a child is listening.”

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While these issues hit me as a professional frequently in my therapy office, they far too often hit me personally as well. A very dear friend of mine recently came out as gay to me, and another close friend told me she is transgender; both are vastly afraid to come out to their peers and family, to make painful transitions into new lives. And another dear friend of mine recently called me to tell me her son’s best friend, a well-known gay Mormon teen, had taken his life. I sat with her as she shared how much pain she was in, and how scared she was that her own son would be next.

Outside of all the statistics, outside of the war between conservative and liberal or church and state, there are human lives all around us, children and adults listening in every corner of every room, many of them suffering. Lives are at stake. Choose your words and actions carefully.

Children are listening.

Pulse

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What is happening today will be the history we talk of tomorrow.

Truthfully, America’s history of full of brutal attacks, so many that we can barely remember some that happened only weeks ago, no less ones that happened years ago. But some are so terrible, so bloody, or so unique that they find a way of imprinting on our long-term community consciousness.

You may not remember Ruby Ridge, or the Washington DC sniper, or Haun’s Mill, or Fort Hood, or the Green River serial killer, or Andersonville, or even Trayvon Martin, but you do remember…

9/11.

Pearl Harbor.

Matthew Shephard.

The Challenger explosion.

Stonewall.

Sandy Hook.

Added to that list, those events which will imprint upon our community consciousness I believe, will be the Pulse.

With all of the horrible mass shootings that keep taking place, with it being almost commonplace, we just grow accustomed somehow to the terrible. It isn’t that we don’t care, it isn’t that we don’t feel, it’s that it is too much. It is too much for our brains to process.

Picture your day-to-day routine. Pick any place. In line at the grocery store, with your children at a public park, dropping your daughter off at school, at the movies, sitting at a table waiting for the food you ordered at your favorite restaurant. In any of these places, a man with a gun could walk in, his only intent is to kill as many people as he can. He ignores cries for help or people cowering in corners begging not to be seen, he just shoots and shoots and shoots.

We watch violent movies all the time. That violence is okay to our minds generally because we know it is fake. We know it is makeup and special effects. In a situation like this, though, there is blood and brain and bone and body.

Those lives that were cut short. Boyfriends holding hands, sons texting their mothers goodbye, people rushing for every exit. This is the world we live in right now.

Gun violence is happening in every corner of this country. California, South Carolina, Florida, the northeast and southwest and every place in between. It is horrifying. It is terrifying.

It’s only been about 60 hours since the Pulse shootings. We’ve attended vigils. We learned about the attacker. We’ve seen the names of the victims. We hugged our friends and shed some tears and lost some sleep.

But this time, this time something must change. How could we have let this continue after Virginia Tech? And Fort Hood? And Sandy Hook? How can we have let all this happen without changing things?

The country seems divided politically, as it always does. One side is crying out for stricter immigration reform, going so far as to suggest a ban all Muslims from American soil. The other side is calling for gun reform; not for taking guns away but for making mandatory background checks, mental health evaluations, and perhaps waiting periods before gun purchases.

I don’t understand why things aren’t changing. I can’t comprehend it.

In Salt Lake City, I work as an on-call crisis responder. Since the Pulse shooting, I have been called out twice, in my own city, to respond to the scenes of robberies where guns have been drawn and lives have been threatened. Twice. Since the Pulse. Angry men pointed guns at innocent people and made demands. No one was killed, but in both of these cases, the victims went home with deep emotional scars that may take years to recover from.

As I type this, several survivors of the Pulse shootings are fighting for their lives in hospital beds. Mothers are going to their sons’ apartments and cleaning up their belongings: their laptops with unfinished projects, their journals which now have a last entry written in them. Bosses are cleaning off the desks of their dead employees, putting their family photographs and coffee mugs into a cardboard box. Funeral directors are preparing coffins and urns, and memorial halls are being booked out.

It’s Tuesday and tomorrow is Wednesday and my heart still hurts and I don’t know what to do to make sure this never happens again.

Pride

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The year I was born, the first Pride flag flew. It had eight colors on it, each representing an inclusion of human character and history.

Pink represented Sexuality.

Red represented Life.

Orange represented Healing.

Yellow represented Sunlight.

Green represented Nature.

Turquoise represented Magic and Art.

Blue represented Serenity.

Violet represented Spirit.

The flag was commissioned by Harvey Milk, an elected official in San Francisco who served as an openly gay candidate after decades of political activism. He had a large following in his local neighborhood of the Castro, where he legitimized gay relationships and fought tirelessly for equality. The original flag was designed by Gilbert Baker, who drew inspiration from a number of sources.

The flag was first displayed in San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade that year. LGBT people marched in celebration of their lives, the rainbow representing safety and inclusion, sex and love, equality and peace. And then, just a few months later, Harvey Milk was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone. Orders for the flag sky-rocketed and in time it became a natural symbol for gay Pride.

While LGBT people are not the only group in the world to have suffered simply for being who they are, their struggles can not be overlooked. Over the centuries, they have been hidden, dishonorably discharged, imprisoned, put to death, denied health care, forcibly sterilized, disowned, fired, denied rights, electro-shocked, disenfranchised, ignored, condemned, beaten, murdered, and looked over simply for being attracted to the same gender or for having a different gender identity.

The rainbow flag now shows six stripes (hot pink and turquoise having been removed years ago, primarily due to the availability of the fabric at the time). It is hung in windows throughout in businesses and homes around the world, it is placed on the bumpers of cars, it is hung from flagpoles in public buildings, and it sends a message, quietly and colorfully, that all are welcome within, that LGBT people are celebrated instead of just being tolerated, that equality is a guiding principle of that home or building or community. A simple message, and profound.

This weekend in Salt Lake City, is the Pride festival. The rainbow flag can be seen everywhere. A festival occupies a major section of the city, where booths filled with food and advertisements, political endorsements and inclusive religious communities, free hugs from gay Mormons and free condoms from sexually affirming clinics, will be on display for families. Tomorrow morning, an hours-long parade will march through the streets, with businesses and organizations, clubs and churches, will march and sing and ride on floats, all with messages of love and inclusion. It isn’t about “gay agendas” or “gay lifestyles” or “religious tolerance and discrimination”. It isn’t about overt public sexual expressions or loose and scandalous morals. It is about respect for individuals who have a history that dates back to the beginnings of the world and factors into every society, every community, every family and culture.

Gay Pride is about Sexuality. And Life. And Healing. And Sunlight. And Nature. And Magic. And Serenity. And Spirit.

For me, Gay Pride is about loving who I am exactly as I am. It is about my first kiss with a man at age 32 and feeling my heart and spirit come alive. It is about holding the hands of my sons in a public park, where we will play catch and hide-and-seek, and them knowing that I am gay. It is about the tears I used to shed during my evening prayers, asking God for a cure. It is about hundreds of gay fathers marching in the streets of Seattle while thousands of people cheered for us in every direction. It is about standing tall and proud, not broken, and being lost in a see of humanity, shades of every color and aspects of every gender in each and every person. It is about dancing, arms spread wide, while music resonates within me and light washes over me. It is about learning where I have come from, and barely understanding where I am going. It is about falling in love, and having my heart broken, and standing back up again. It is about joining with my brothers and sisters, cis- and transgender, and standing tall, hand in hand, united despite our differences.

A stranger asked me yesterday, in kindness, how I would define my “gay lifestyle.” I smiled because I’ve been asked that question before, far too many times. And my answer was simple.

“My gay lifestyle is a lot like your straight lifestyle. I get up and brew my coffee. I exercise. I go to my office where I try to help others. I write and read in my spare time. I watch movies. I travel. I spend time with my friends. I raise my children to be happy and healthy and well-adjusted young men. I pay my bills. And I date men.”

The man sat back, surprised for moment, and then made eye contact with me and nodded.

“We really aren’t that different, are we?”

 

the Gay Library

I’ve been researching LGBT history for several months now. I read biographies pretty constantly, generally chosen at random–in fact, I’ve read about 100 of them now, and I’m consistently inspired by the stories that I learn. It was a few years ago when I started realizing that LGBT people show up in nearly every story, nearly every facet of society. Natalie Wood was surrounded by gay friends, Oprah Winfrey had a gay brother, Richard Nixon interfaced with gay reporters and politicians, J. Edgar Hoover himself was believed to have been gay and a cross dresser. Facts kept showing up again and again and again.

In many cases, the stories of LGBT people were ones I should have been taught in school. Bayard Rustin, a prominent leader in the Civil Rights movement, was gay. Barbara Jordan was a black female lesbian senator in Texas, and she investigated Nixon after Watergate. Sally Ride, first woman in space, was gay. Playwrights, singers, artists, performers, activists, world leaders. All names that I knew, just never taught that they were gay. These stories needed to be told.

And so I launched a YouTube channel, after months of planning and research. Every name that I looked up taught me about another 3 or 5 or 10 people I needed to research. I compiled lists of hundreds of names. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, allies and enemies, and the history around them, including works of fiction and government policies. I started sharing the stories online, one per day with enough to last years. The research was all out there, I just had to dust off the right resources, one at a time, to make it happen.

So when I went to Los Angeles, for a little head-clearing adventure away, I learned of an entire library devoted to LGBT topics, and I knew I had to see it. Yet another long bus ride across town (the transit is not great), I finally wound up on the campus of USC (University of Southern California) and entered the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.

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ONE magazine was formed by a group of brave queer activists in 1953 and ran for several years, making information available to the public about LGBT lives, theories, and studies, beginning to normalize LGBT lifestyles in the public eyes years before it was customary to do so. The magazine eventually closed down, and now the Archives were named for it, complete with a large framed wall piece with all of the magazine’s dozens of covers featured.

The space inside was small and very well organized. Shelf after shelf, row after row, all dedicated to LGBT books. Periodicals, art books, coffee table pieces, biographies on famous LGBT individuals, LGBT fiction, erotica, novels and short stories, almanacs, research compendiums. Upstairs were framed photos celebrating past activists from the area.

I talked to the woman at the front desk for some time, asking about the history and organization of the place, and told her of my current projects. She was kind, interested, and helpful in orienting me to the space.

I walked down the long rows almost lovingly, overwhelmed by the entire space. I contemplated my upbringing, not even knowing the word gay, and when I did learn it, I knew it was something bad and immoral, something to be scorned and avoided. But to be here, seeing it all archived, compiled, celebrated… it was thrilling, moving, and awe-inspiring.

I pulled out books at random, scanning through their contents and enjoying every word. I chose a few and spent a few hours perusing. There wasn’t nearly enough time. It would take a lifetime to read every book. I purchased a few small ones that I could carry home, thanked the librarian, and headed outside, where I sat in the sunlight and thought of this part of the world’s history that has become a new quest, grateful to know there are resources out there I wasn’t aware of previously.

Ah, look at all the lonely people

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I remember a year or so after coming out of the closet, getting caught in the middle of a group of men who were all in pain and causing so much drama, rather like a bad episode of Melrose Place where everyone loves everyone else and everyone is both a hero and a villain… and I remember absolutely loving the feeling.

It was a typical Saturday night in Salt Lake City and a few friends and I decided to go out dancing together. It was March, a beautiful spring evening. We loaded the car up with five of us, all friends of mine, and though the other four knew each other, I was the common factor among them; none of them knew each other well. So there we were, five gay men in our 30s, all of us formerly Mormon, ready to go out for a night on the town. None of us were in the mood to drink alcohol, so we planned to just go dance our asses of at the local gay club. We got their around 10 pm so as to avoid cover charges, though we all knew the club didn’t get busy until 11:30.

There were only ten other people in the club that night when we arrived. Versions of popular songs by various artists played, each with a techno beat and a loud bass line, and we spent our evening dancing around then heading out to the patio to talk, back and forth. The club got more and more busy throughout the night and overall we had a good time. But oh the drama that developed.

Friend A tried flirting with and dancing with friend B a few times, but when B, who recently had a breakup, wasn’t interested, A found a mutual friend of both of theirs and made out with him for a while on the dance floor, making sure B could see. B pulled me to the side to confide in me and that is when his ex walked in, arm in arm with another guy, and then B wanted to make the ex jealous and danced with another guy, which made A furious.

Friend C was sad that night, feeling like he would never meet anyone and fall in love ever, and friend D tried consoling him, but C left the club without telling anyone and went for a long contemplative walk during which he ignored our texts, only to return when we were ready to go looking for him. D was relaxed and enjoying himself, much as I was trying to do, but at the end of the night, he ended up going home with A, leading B to get even more disgusted with A and C to ruminate on how he didn’t even get flirted with.

I remember laying in my bed that night with a giant smile on my face. Though the evening had been stressful and not as relaxing as I had hoped, I had the incredible sense of power and comfort that I actually had friends, drama and heartbreak included. I had spent so many years without true friends, without experiences like this, that to suddenly have that in my life felt like such a wonderful blessing. I remember rolling over in my bed that night, feeling wonderful and a having a general sense of ‘okay, this is what it is like to be single and gay in Utah, even for a guy in his 30s. Some day soon, I’ll meet somebody and be in a relationship and…’ I drifted off to sleep.

That was over three years ago, and the novelty of being single has long worn off. Just a few nights ago, I had a group of friends over, and I love being surrounded by people I care about. Some of them are partnered and they cuddled next to their partners, hands clutched tight. Others looked across the room at the person they have a crush on or used to have a crush on. Others chatted on their phones with the boys they hoped to date next. At the end of the night, I checked on my sleeping sons, tucked them in tightly, kissed their foreheads, and climbed into bed. I no longer go to sleep thinking I’ll meet someone soon. Instead, I just go to sleep.

It took me a long time to understand the psychology of being gay, and it is intensely complex, as all human psychology is. Simply put, human beings go through active brain development from birth until approximately the age of 25. In the beginning, the brain pathways are forming enormously fast, using the blueprints of DNA, or nature, and coding them with the development of experience, or nurture. The first few years of active development turn into the slightly slower development of learning and relationship formation, which then meld into adolescence and hormones, and finally into adulthood. Many of the developments happen at particular ages, such as the early building blocks of language and motor skills. When something happens to interrupt that learning process, personality can be impacted long-term, lasting throughout the life span. For example, if a young girl is abandoned by her father, she may grow up having difficulty trusting members of the opposite sex, and that aspect of her personality will show up in different interactions in different ways throughout her life span. There are volumes and volumes written on this topic and I can only cover these thoughts briefly here.

Now most kids recognize an attraction or interest in the opposite gender relatively early on. It might be as early as first grade or even younger when they start having ‘crushes’ on kids, and it is only a few years later when sexual interest and attraction develop. For most gay kids, they develop an understanding that their attraction to the same gender is wrong, it makes them different from other kids, and they learn a coping mechanism to deal with it; they hide it, suppress it, or ignore it, even as young children. So a few years later, when sexual interest develops, heterosexual Janie gets a crush on heterosexual Charlie and they go out and kiss and break up and she cries over her heartbreak and falls in love all over again with Sam just a few months later, and her brain, at age 13 or 14 or 15, learns how to process this and handle it. But homosexual Linda has a crush on heterosexual Sally, and she can’t tell anyone, so Linda instead pretends to have a crush on heterosexual Bobby, and she never learns how to love, or be loved back, or to have her heart broken, or to get over it, and instead she only learns how to hide.

Now for many gay men and women who grew up in religious environments, such as Mormonism in Utah, there is the additional damage that comes from growing up believing that their homosexuality was a curse from God, an affliction like alcoholism, and/or entirely curable through therapy or faithfulness. Coming out of the closet often results in a loss of faith, rejection by religion and family, and a loss of community.

Now, fast forward to five gay men in their 30s at a nightclub in March, having their hearts broken, feeling rejected, feeling like they are doomed to be lonely forever. Suddenly, those lessons that most of the straight kids learned when they were 13, the gay grown-ups have to learn while they hold grown-up jobs and grown-up relationships. And some of them, like me, have kids to raise. And it is difficult and painful and there is so much at stake.

I can’t tell you the dozens of men and women I know who turn down love because they think they don’t deserve it; who value sex more than they value relationships; who fall in love but run from it because they think they are settling too quickly and maybe there is something better out there; who grow despondent and depressed because the person they like doesn’t like them back; who grow jaded and bitter toward those who don’t have the same values and motivations that they do; who isolate themselves or cry themselves to sleep or think that loneliness is the only long-term option. And these are the people, these often damaged and in pain individuals, who are dating each other and looking to each other for their own loneliness to be filled up and taken away.

Coming out of the closet and experiencing the authenticity of self is a powerful and incredible thing. After so many years of hiding, it is wonderful to have a clear head and a full heart, like coming up for oxygen after years of holding breath. It is also intensely confusing and painful. You have to learn to experience not just happiness, attraction, and fulfillment, you have to learn how to process shame, desire, rejection, and confusion. There’s no easy way through it. Friends help, therapy can help, journaling can help, a supportive family can help. But ultimately it is a path that simply must be taken and a journey that must simply be experienced.

My only advice for those going through this part of the journey to authenticity is to be kind to yourself, to take it one day at a time, to surround yourself with people who love and validate you, and to know what you are looking for so that when you find it, you are prepared to embrace it, work for it, and be happy and alive.