I no longer apologize for being gay. It took a while, but I have emerged from the darkness and oppression of denial. Mine is a highly personal and unique story. It is also painful to tell because it does not paint a flattering portrait of me or of the church.
I’ve always felt different, but not because I’m gay, but because I’m highly sensitive to the world around me. As a child I didn’t know what gay meant. I only knew that men held my attention in a special way and that my interests and behavior were different from “typical” boys’.
By the time I was 13 Time, Life, and other national journals began to report on gay men and their lives. I read these articles with a chill down my spine, as if I were doing something naughty but pleasurable. I was fascinated with these men who loved men the way others loved women and couldn’t wrap my head around the concept. I was secretly afraid that I was growing up to be one of them.
I had carved out my own unique way of living as a defense against being bullied. I had shut down emotionally and a quiet, private rage welled up inside me and silenced my heart. I had never dated; that was too dangerous as I was sure I would only be vulnerable to more rejection and hurt. Besides I didn’t have strong enough romantic feelings for either girls or boys; I couldn’t see the point.
I remained curious but totally ignorant of interpersonal romance well into my twenties. I idealized the characters in romantic films but let’s face it, Bette Davis and Tyrone Power were hardly adequate role models! Because I listened to my mother and religious leaders I thought I should value my virginity and so developed a sense of moral superiority around sex. But I did secretly indulge in self-pleasuring, which I had accidentally-on-purpose discovered late in my teens. No doubt I was fascinated with sexual energy. I immediately connected with the sexual release as a relief for my constant emotional stress and sadness. It made me feel powerful but remained a source of shame for years.
In college I continued my fascination with homosexuality, even though I didn’t know any gay people. I commuted, so my closeted home life became the norm. My father had long since made known his suspicion of “queers,” typical of his generation. My mother was uncomfortable discussing anything around the subject of sex. The evangelical protestant student group to which I belonged was very homophobic. I had plenty of support for remaining neuter! When I entered the seminary after college it felt like bliss at first. I believed I was going to find my purpose in life and that I could do so without ever needing sexual relationships.
I wanted to be accepted in the worst way among the other seminarians. I did make a few wonderful friends who had been in the “system” for a long time. Through them I discovered that I was surrounded mostly by gay men and slowly was able to admit to myself that I was in the same boat. Yet I became defensive and judgmental when I heard that some students and faculty members had been spotted in gay bars. If felt they were getting away with something that I wished I could, but was too scared. My solution was to become increasingly conservative theologically, concentrating on studies and the objective “truths” of the church, and staying away from those whom I deemed morally questionable.
Then in my second year I was swept up, head-over-heels for a new student. I idealized him and wanted terribly to love him, but he didn’t return the favor. I’m sure I drove him crazy because eventually he stopped talking to me. My heart was broken. At 23 this was my first experience of infatuation. From that moment on I sought that wonderful feeling; most people call it falling in love with love.
After my fifth year at seminary, and holding a firm belief that could be celibate, I was ordained at the age of 27. I continued to be very hard on myself, especially around the area of self-pleasuring. It remained a block to my being “really holy.” I wasn’t much for “mortification of the flesh” so I took the route of psychotherapy to deal with it and a host of other emerging emotional issues. My therapists were great but despite a seven year stint in Sexaholics Anonymous, I couldn’t kick the habit. So I switched tactics shortly after the twentieth anniversary of my ordination and the death of my mother.
Frustrated and lonely I decided to explore what I had been missing. I wanted to be fully human, fully alive, and satisfy my curiosity. I sought out men to date hoping to find a wider circle of friends and discover what being gay meant for me. I finally enjoyed my first kiss as I jump-started my adolescence at the age of 48.
The church institution had always told us to find our primary support among fellow priests. This had not been working for me. I yearned for intellectual and spiritual connection as well as intimacy and transparency, qualities I rarely found in priests once they had experienced a few years in the trenches. Most guys I’d known were in permanent survival or denial modes, either constantly busy with ministry or numbing themselves with food, drink, recreation, or whatever. They simply were not available.
Whether gay or straight most priests kept their sexuality a secret and acted neuter. There was much fear in being outed or in having sexual partners, male or female, discovered. Such details were shared only with their most intimate confidants. Some of this can be attributed to the male tendency to compartmentalize. Much of it results from a seriously dysfunctional system that encapsulates men in a form of indentured servitude and a shroud of secrecy. If they were caught speaking or acting “inappropriately”, they would be reprimanded or worse. If they left the system before the retirement age of 75, as in my case, they would lose any hope of a pension stipend. Economics still remains a massive issue for those priests hanging onto ministry by a thread.
After returning from a sabbatical in 2003 where I was able to interact with gay priests from all over the country, I sought out ways I could be more openly myself. I never came out to my elderly parents, but I did to my siblings and some relatives and long-standing friends. I had to remain totally closeted in my parish lest I be reprimanded for causing scandal. I softened my tone as I had come to regret my more moralistic attitudes and sermons. I am still saddened by any hurt I may have caused due to my penchant for ecclesiastical correctness (the church version of political correctness). I also came to realize that totally gay and totally straight people do not have a choice regarding to whom they’re attracted romantically; it’s indelibly written in their hearts. In fact if anyone feels they truly do have such a choice, then likely it’s because they’re bi-sexual.
My leaving ministry in 2010 was triggered by an overreaction by some parishioners and a lack of support by the diocese regarding my baptizing a boy being adopted by a gay couple. But I had actually left decades ago. Read more about this in my previous post: A Reluctant Fraud . Seeking liberation from the dark closet of denial was a huge, but admittedly secondary factor in my leaving church ministry.
Being myself requires me to be totally honest about who I am. I have to own up to my true feelings and motivations. My gay sexuality is a precious gift from God. As a gay man I view existence in a way that complements and corrects the dominant male ethos that has been contributing to the spiritual and relational alienation in our world. Hiding behind propriety, church teachings, and avoidance of scandal, or viewing homosexuality as a moral choice, is not living authentically and fully. I choose to live first, and then gradually deal with the rest of my defects. And being gay is not one of them.
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