Coming to terms with being gay is hard. Sometimes, all we have are ourselves, but sometimes that’s all we need.
“I’m so deep in the closet I’m suffocating,” someone wrote to me this week. He’s married, has several kids, and attends an evangelical church that condemns homosexuality. The desperation in his letter was palpable.
Few know how difficult it is to accept something about yourself that you would give anything for it to not be true. The fear, the pain, the anguish, the anxiety, the disbelief that it’s happening to you; the loneliness, the crying, and the utter desperation that leaves you empty and hopeless. It is certainly anything but a choice.
So we put on a brave face. Some of us get married and have children. We learn to “do the right things,” smile, go to church and pretend we’re just as normal as everyone else. We lie. The fear of rejection and isolation drives us to believe about ourselves what we want others to believe about us.
Some of us are so hopeful about the promise of change we sign up for conversion therapy programs or seek out a therapist to help us make it all go away. It’s often our last hope. The fear of loss of our families, reputations and social standing drive us to behaviors we wouldn’t normally do: promiscuity, substance abuse, or almost anything to numb the pain. We create alternate realities, which we believe align with the world we’re living in. At some point, however, it all comes crashing down.
Most stories of self-acceptance for gay or transgender men or women who grew up under the guise of fundamentalist religion are not easy ones. They get “caught” at some point and are forced to face their realities. The armor begins to crack and eventually their worlds fall apart. Sometimes it takes months, sometimes decades. Eventually, the pressure becomes so intense there is an emotional breakdown, or a coming undone of sorts.
Then, at a time when the person needs the most support, he or she is instead met with anger, animosity and a sense of betrayal from friends and family. LGBT suicides are highest among those who don’t have support from their families and friends.
The fortitude it takes to get honest with ourselves is intense and defiant. It goes against the learned grain that we are worthless, shameful, unacceptable to God and unworthy to love or be loved. If we manage to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and fortunately most of us do, we don’t always have the family support we would like to have.
I recently interviewed my own family for a documentary I’m co-directing called Project Change. It’s a film about the survival of human authenticity in a culture that has tried to change gay people to fit a religious ideology. It was difficult to learn how my parents truly saw me. Unfortunately, I believe they speak for many families of LGBT people from fundamentalist backgrounds.
In almost the same breath, we can be wonderful people but – because the Bible says so – we are no better than prostitutes, liars and cheaters. There is nothing we can do to change their view. It feels like being condemned for a crime we didn’t commit. We’re convicted without any evidence, other than the words of a stranger. Our families, who we expect to stand up for us, instead take the side of the prosecution.
As I’ve written before, three things must be present to change someone’s mind, cognitive dissonance (two opposing thoughts), experience, and critical thinking. Because of our families entrenched belief systems, they can stay in cognitive dissonance for years, but refuse to think critically because it would confront long-held beliefs that would change their worlds. Similar to what many of us experienced; similar to what many of us fought against for years and refused to acknowledge.
The painful reality is that no matter how far we travel to find self-acceptance, our families may never go with us. I wish I could assure the man who wrote to me this week that everything would be OK; that his wife, kids and church would be fine with him if he were just honest. That’s what I want to say. That’s what I want to believe. Instead, my heart breaks with every letter I receive. I know, too well, the journey they are on and that the outcome will either be incredibly tragic, or incredibly rewarding depending on a number of factors, some of which are completely outside the control of the person struggling.
Many of us end up creating new families and finding new friends. We find people who share our experiences and understand the pain of rejection. Even that can be a challenge because we’ve struggled so long to accept ourselves it’s difficult to accept others. For some people, self-hatred can drive us for years, even after coming out, without the help of a good therapist or support system.
Some of us, the lucky ones, eventually make peace with our families and learn to agree to disagree. We understand that there may never be total acceptance and that their version of God and the Bible may always stand in the way of sharing our lives and creating truly meaningful and intimate relationships. It’s the sad reality that hangs over most conversations and lingers in the laughter. It’s the elephant in the room that is never talked about and only thought of in silence.
The difficulty is learning to live with the pain of knowing that your family thinks you’re a failure. It’s easy to cut them off, feel angry and justify the bitterness, but it’s not productive. Anger and bitterness never take us to where we want to be, but remove the power of becoming what we’re meant to be.
People, even family, only have as much power as we’re willing to give them. Words are nothing more than words and ideologies, religious or otherwise, are nothing more than a system of beliefs. Neither of those define us, nor determine who or what we are. Unless we let them.
I’ve watched my own children struggle with finding their place and personalities in the world. I’m aware of my and their mother’s influence on them. Like most parents, I have regrets about some of my behaviors and reactions as they were growing up. I wish I’d been more supportive and less critical when they were younger. At the same time, I know the challenges we have faced as a family are things that will either help them grow stronger, or cripple them. I try to apologize and make amends as I realize my mistakes. Eventually, however, the choices will be completely theirs and I will be little more than a cheerleader on the sidelines.
They, like the rest of us, will choose the words they want to believe and decide the best way to achieve the goals they want to reach. My words, no matter how affirming, mean little if they don’t believe in themselves.
Sometimes, all we have are ourselves, but sometimes that’s all we need.
Photo – Flickr/Stefano Corso