“I have gay friends with whom I occasionally have sex,” someone wrote to me this week. “If my wife found out, our marriage would be over.”
Those are the kinds of candid messages I frequently get from strangers through email, phone calls and private messages. Quite honestly, my heart breaks for many of these men. It’s not just the pain of living a closeted life, but the pain they know their secret lives would cause their children and their spouses if they ever found out.
More than 60% of men “betray their spouses [and] engage in compulsive sexual behavior,” according to psychologist Jay Kent-Ferraro, Ph.D. He is speaking of all men, not just gay men. We men have learned to compartmentalize our lives well, particularly our sexuality. Unlike female brains that integrate things together, our brains can focus on specific issues and block out anything unrelated to what we’re doing at the time. Though we may not always think about our infidelities, our consciences eventually eat away at us.
Adisa, an African man who had recently relocated to the United States pleaded with me to help him reconcile his Christian faith with his homosexuality. “I Know I cannot please God this way,” he wrote, “and I will do anything to make these feelings go away.”
Should we tell people what’s really going on? According to the messages I get, the answer is “absolutely not!” The risk is often too great and the consequences unimaginable. One man said, “I can’t bear the thought of not living under the same roof as my children.” Another man told me, “I’ve been a minister for years, and I’d lose everything.”
I recently heard someone talk about her journey as a transsexual person. The person she wanted to be was the person she felt she was on the inside. The person people thought she was the man they saw on the outside. It was over 50 long, and painful years before the person she wanted to be emerged. The journey was a long one. The fears that kept her locked in a prison of duality mostly came true. She lost her house, marriage, family, and then her income. Was it worth it? She says yes.
Authenticity comes with a price. Sometimes a steep one. But the irony is that many of the things we identify as our security are mere illusions. They are mirages on the rough, hot, grainy desert floor from which we think we find refuge and sustenance. Gradually, our thirst for freedom over powers us. Authenticity, on the other hand, is a foundation on which we create lasting relationships, honesty, and freedom.
Dishonesty also comes with a price. Some closeted men act out in secret as a way to absolve their same sex attractions. They cheat on their spouses and live double lives, while the shame and guilt from their actions cause them to repeat the behavior. Those closest to them sense an emotional disconnect, and usually end up with the residual left-overs of expended energy.
“I don’t really know how to help my friend,” a young woman spoke out at a college where I had just spoken. She fidgeted with her necklace, while hiding her face with her hair. As uncomfortable as she was, she was desperate to reach into this person’s life and pull him to safety. Later, she pulled me aside and said, “It’s my father-in-law. The thing is, I don’t care. The family doesn’t care. We just want him to be happy.” His “secret” was out to everyone but him.
After my wife left, it took me six years before I came out of the closet. I couldn’t let go of the persona I’d created of myself and the person I was certain everyone else saw. Though my insecurities were glaring and the pain and depression palpable, I felt the need to maintain the image. More often than not, the things that keep us from experiencing genuineness are not material circumstances, but fear of losing status, reputation and the appearances we have so meticulously created.
The line between who we are and who we want to be is not always definable. Vulnerability is often the thing we wish we could share, but also the thing we fear most. So we project an image to masquerade the insecurity. Our fear of being “found out” builds a wall that keeps people at bay. Most of the time those are the people who could offer the thing we most want: validation.
However, the reality is that coming out as a gay man isn’t going to solve all of your problems. While it’s a step toward authenticity and freedom, the physical and emotional consequences may not be yours alone. When my children were younger they attended a private religious school. I was keenly aware that to be different in that environment, where many of the affluent families had stay-at-home moms, was to cause undue stress on people who weren’t responsible for my decisions.
The road to health and freedom left me wondering what life would look like to have all of the disparities integrated into one person. It was a gradual process for me. Baby steps included mentally releasing ideologies that told me I was wrong, sinful, and sick. Letting people in and admitting who I was to them on an “as-needed” basis, broke down walls and established security.
We don’t find our true communities until we find our true selves and are willing to share our lives and imperfections with the people around us. Until then, we are nurturing a community to which we don’t belong. When I got real, not only did I find my community, I lost interest in what anyone else thought. It no longer mattered.
I learned that honesty breeds security, while dishonesty nurtures perception. Perception builds walls around us that keep people away and leave us locked up in a prison of our own insincerity. Though virtual, no one can penetrate the barrier of our making. The only way through comes from the inside.