In case you didn’t get to read the first part of this, it was a story from Martin McDonagh’s play The Pillowman. In it, a man made of pillows has the job of helping the people whose horrible, awful lives lead them to commit suicide. He goes back in time to when that man or woman was a child, tells them how terrible their life is going to be and helps them commit suicide in a way that looks like an accident, the reason being that parents have an easier time dealing with the tragic accidental death of a five-year-old as supposed to a five-year-old “who has seen how shitty life is and taken action to avoid it.”
So after one last job, the Pillowman decides to go back and visit himself as a little boy. He tells his whole life story, about his job and how awful it is that he has to do this, and the little Pillowboy just wants to help and make people happy, so he pours the can of petrol (gasoline for you state-side folks) the Pillowman brought over himself and lights himself on fire. And as he burns the Pillowman starts to fade away, but as he does so he hears the screams of all the hundreds of thousands of children who came back to life and lead cold, wretched lives because he wasn’t there to prevent it; and the screams of their self-inflicted deaths “which this time, of course, would be conducted entirely alone.”
Apart from being horribly disturbing, it’s a fitting beginning for telling my story. Not that I’ve led a cold, wretched life. In fact, my life has been quite happy. But it’s hard looking back on myself as a happy six-year-old, before I stopped smiling in photos, knowing that that little boy would grow up to be gay, fall in love with a man and most likely have sex with him. Little boys don’t do things like that, not at that age anyway—and especially not when it’s you. In the same way (though not quite as personal) it’s weird looking at my younger sister from when we were kids, and knowing that she would one day fall in love with a man, marry and have sex with him. This thought occurred to me the other day, as slightly twisted as it is. Even looking at pictures of people at weddings as they grow up, looking at who they were and seeing the adults they’ve become who are starting a family of their own.
So here’s the issue that it raises (and why I started out with The Pillowman). By the gauge of society and my faith, my sister and her husband have a conventional and “normal” relationship. My parents love her husband, like the son they never had. (They probably see him more than they do me—and let’s face it, I wasn’t exactly a “normal” son. Apart from being the first-born male, I don’t “do” family very well.) They will probably have kids someday. Then I’ll really be an uncle. (Shit.)
Me, on the other hand—I will probably find a guy and fall in love with him; have to tell my parents that I’m gay (still haven’t done that) and risk either being disowned by them or face enormous pressure to go into an ex-gay ministry and turn straight or basically renounce my faith because a true Christian doesn’t persist in a “life of sin”; probably leave my church (because I honestly can’t see going to service on Sunday with my boyfriend and not hold hands with him); and face stares and whispers for a while, at least until homosexuality becomes more mainstream.
Maybe I’m over-reacting, but this is how it looks in my head.
As I stated in my first post, my family could best be described as non-affiliated evangelical fundamentalist—mainstream Christian, in other words. Was raised with the Bible, went to church every Sunday, and was taught right from wrong. The final word was the Word of G-d, and my father. We never really talked about homosexuality as a family apart from seeing images of hateful Christians on TV and the flamboyant gays they were screaming at with those awful signs. I recall driving past some protesters with signs bearing “FAGS BURN IN HELL” as a kid and not really understanding what any of that meant. I don’t think my parents ever gave me a real answer on that. But gays couldn’t be Christian so that wasn’t even an option in my mind. My dad taught at a Christian community college in a small town in the Midwest where there were no gays that we knew of. This was in the mid- to early 1990s.
Okay. So, happy child.
For the most part I was happy, but I was also very angry. I blamed my firey temper on my red hair and Irish ancestry. Much of the focus of that anger was often at my dad with whom I still have a hit-and-miss relationship. We didn’t get along very well. Maybe I resented him for working so much. He tried to spend as much time as possible with us, but he was away a lot and when he was home he was grading or practising (he’s a professional trumpeter too). I have memories of going to the park with him and family vacations, but the two of us never really connected. Maybe it’s because we’re so similar, something I hate to admit because it’s getting truer every day. I have a degree in music composition, and it’s one of the few areas that my dad and I can connect with. We can look at music scores together that we’ve written, and I still value and seek out his opinion on anything that I write. There isn’t as much much tension between us now. I’m learning to see the things that he does for me as expressions of his love for me, but I think I still resent him for not being more of a “father” to me when I was a kid.
Though they made a lot of mistakes, my parents really did the best that they knew how with the knowledge that they had. In fact, my mom and dad are the first generation in their families to not have pre-marital sex or get divorced. Their family backgrounds aren’t so fortunate. My mom’s dad left my grandmother, my mom and her brother to be with another woman. I refuse to have anything to do with him, though my mom has reached out to him and his second wife.
My dad has the strangest story of all. He’s a middle child of three siblings. His own upbringing was pretty chaotic and painful as a farm kid in rural Pennsylvania, with an emotionally distant and by today’s standards a physically abusive father, and a mother who killed herself when he was six. He was never able to grieve her properly, and actually has a lot of repressed memories from that period. It’s only in the past decade that he’s really been able to go back and put her to rest properly. I’m not sure of the whole story, but his dad remarried and his stepmom had a son who did some cruel things to my father. It’s a miracle that he came out of that as well-adjusted as he is, but that’s a testament to the mercy and grace of G-d.
What that meant for me is that I got shortchanged in the years that most sons bond with their fathers and getting that male imprint. That may be a large reason why I’m gay now, and to be fair, he didn’t know what to do with me since boys were more or less left to their own devices when he was growing up in the 1950s and that’s all he knew. But our relationship has always been strained. He never sought me out or attempted to have a relationship with me, leaving me to go off by myself to write or create or read. He asserts that I never seemed very interested, and I don’t doubt it. I was always an independent-minded child.
Looking back now, there were signs of things to come. For example, I identified more with the villains or the anti-heros in stories rather than with the one who gets the girl in the end. I played with Legos and would make up stories, and the male characters were always doing things together (though at the time I didn’t think of it that way). I enjoyed looking at pictures of shirtless guys (but never drew attention to that). But no one showed me any of that. No pedophile uncle or stranger came along and molested me. I was into guys in the same way that boys are often secretly fascinated with girls. But my culture, family and church held a different standard and so I kept it hidden.
There were a lot of couples, weddings and babies. My dad played for many of them, and I went along. They were always telling me that I’d be up there one day, with the girl G-d had for me, but it wasn’t something I aspired to at all. In fact, quite the opposite. I swore I’d never get married. As my teen years drew on, the interest in girls that everyone talked about didn’t come. The first couple of years of puberty were pretty uneventful sexually.
Emotionally and spiritually it was a much darker time.
One night at an AWANA retreat a couple of the guys in my cabin decided to play a prank on me. It upset me a lot, and I’m still not even sure what inspired me but I waited until everyone was asleep and at midnight got up out of bed, stood in the centre of the room and proceeded to curse every guy who had offended me. It’s still a vivid memory for me, the feeling of power and the inviting of something dark into my life. I got into magick at this time, but thankfully G-d never let me get too far down that path.
The next couple of years were pretty tense, marked by frightening outbursts of rage directed at my sisters and my parents which were no doubt demonically driven because there were some terrifying dreams as well. My parents tried to get me under control but nothing worked. I hurt so many people who just tried to love and help me, but I couldn’t hear any of it. At one point my father tried exorcising demons out of me and I laughed in his face. Not one of my proudest moments.
If there were a few characteristic of my life then, it’s how unhappy, selfish and lonely I was. Outwardly, everything was fine. I was on the drama and music teams in youth group and played for church regularly. So many lessons I learned that have made me the crazy, creative guy I am today! Inwardly though, I was dead. Spiritual things were of little to no importance, and there was something vaugely different about me that I hid from everyone that alienated me from everyone else—including G-d.
It was about that time that two changes started working in my life. One was that being around other kids who seemed to have a passion for G-d ignited for the first time an interest in the spiritual. It seemed important, and I began to see that maybe it wasn’t just about avoiding hell; that it could actually impact everyday life! I began to study the scriptures with friends in small bible studies and groups; had church Sunday morning and youth group Wednesday night; got involved with a Precepts study and gained an understanding of ancient middle eastern customs that has transformed my view of the old and new covenants, as well as the Passover traditions that became communion.
About the same time that I was getting involved with youth group that adolescence began to set in. I noticed that my guy friends were going through kind of the same thing, but they were becoming more interested in girls. As long as I can remember, I’ve never been interested in women much beyond seeing them as people, and then once I started developing sexually it really became apparent that I was into guys. At the time there was no vocabulary for me to make sense of any of that. The word “gay” never even came to mind because it wasn’t even a possibility.
There was this one guy in youth group, Peter, who always made me lose my cool. If there’s one moment I can point back to of when I knew I was gay, it’s the first time I saw him with the new eyes that being a teenage guy affords. When he came around, my heart started racing, my palms sweat; it kind of made me dizzy, and it ached in that one part of my chest when you want something so badly. Thank G-d I’m practically blind because I could just take off my glasses when he was around. That made it rather interesting when I was at the piano helping lead music. I could be totally focused, and then he’d walk in.
Men and women got married. That’s what the Bible taught. Ephesians 5, Genesis 2, and Jesus were pretty clear on the subject. Guys were just friends, which honestly was pretty vague. Hanging out? Playing sports? Video games? I was an intellectual and an artist. None of that made any sense. Now I understand masculine psychology better, but still it’s not a part of me.
Regardless, even as a kid I felt it was something to hide, and then as a teenager I learned to dissociate those feelings and essentially lock them away, learning to blend in. Being involved in AP classes at school and seriously pursuing the piano and music study was a good mask. When other guys were starting to date, I was practising piano 3-4 hours a day and buckling down with hours of homework at night. Perhaps my friends knew something was up, but a high school friend told me recently that most people back then thought I was the ultimate band geek! Even now, it feels like someone else feeling something, and I’m not a part of it.
To be continued…
Next time: college in a nutshell, therapy, and last summer.