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.

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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