268. deliquesce

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birthday-cake-on-fire-fire-and-ice-the-birthday-hepivk-clipartThis past Sunday was my mother’s birthday.

Her 65th birthday, to be exact.

Unlike many gay men, I don’t have a particularly close relationship with my mother. Ironically, of all our immediate family members we’re probably the most alike (aside from my youngest sister), so naturally there was often a lot of conflict between us.

The last interaction I had with her was in May of 2014, just after I’d purchased a new pair of glasses thanks to the reforms of the ACA (a.k.a., “Obamacare”). She commented on them one evening, and when I told her how I’d managed to procure them, she made a snide, “joking” remark to the effect of: “You’re welcome since my hard-earned tax dollars paid for your socialist health insurance glasses.”

This is the same woman who once went on an extended rant about how Michelle Obama is conspiring with companies like FitBit and Nike to collect our private health data so that the government can dictate to us what we can and can’t eat, how we should exercise, etc.

I don’t think I’ve ever told my mother to fuck off, but I came close that evening.


Last night I was going through some PDFs in my Downloads folder and came across a document containing the email exchange that took place the night that I was outed to my family. Reading through those messages brought back some intense memories.

Because there are still days when I wonder whether or not I’m being the unreasonable one in deciding to cut my parents out entirely. They do love me, in their own way, and no doubt they miss me.

Then I re-read those emails and was reminded of exactly why they’re not in my life.

For new readers, I came out in August of 2008, and was outed to my parents on 16 November 2009 via an anonymous email, which turned out to be from a friend of my first boyfriend who was furious with me for having broken up with him in October.

What followed in the hours after their receiving it was a series of replies (that, I admit, grew increasingly hysterical on my part) concerning who sent the email, who they’ve told, who knows, etc.

This was a big deal at the time because I was actively involved in the music program at the church we attended, and I was also teaching piano lessons at a Christian music academy, so my employment could’ve been jeopardized.

In one email, my mother commented:

We are sad that you have chosen to go against God’s design, but we love YOU. This isn’t any different than your anger or any other sin—sin is just choosing your own way rather than God’s. Does He love you any less? No—you are His creation. Do we love you any less? No. … In fact, it kind of feels as if you’ve spent your life trying to do something to make us not love you. We’ll be here when you’re ready to talk.

This is what makes it difficult to parse the emotions here. On the one hand, they aren’t spewing hate speech, which is good. However, there are so many dog whistles in that one paragraph: homosexuality is a choice, it’s a sin (like murder or drug addiction), God intended you to be heterosexual.

Also, you’re to blame for feeling alienated from us.

I wrote in one reply:

… [One] of the biggest reasons why I’m [angry much of the time is] that I can’t be myself around you all and be accepted, and [I’ve always cared about that]… [it bothers me that you seem to be] assuming the worst about me… that [you’d automatically think] I’m living like the rest of the world…

I’m angry because I’ve had to hide all these years and keep walls up to keep you all from [finding out and] attacking me.

In another exchange of messages, my mother expressed dismay at my stating that I’d felt uncomfortable before talking to them about my sexuality, that online dating is “SO very dangerous, so we are concerned for your safety” (because gay men are sexual predators, riddled with AIDS/all STIs), and that I should be talking to a “godly counselor.”

Here’s another part of how she responded the next day:

I can understand why you wouldn’t like women—I don’t like the woman I was when you were younger either. But you can’t let the Enemy keep you in that place so that you see all women that way, you know? … Do you think that you’ve allowed your emotions to control your thinking, rather than letting the Word influence you thinking so your thinking could influence your emotions?

So the reason I’m homosexual is because she presented such a terrible model of femininity that it turned me off to women completely? That I was lured into this “sinful lifestyle” by secular, Satanic notions of, what, moral anarchy?

In another email she suggested that gay Christians who write about revised scriptural interpretations on homosexuality have fallen victim to “Satan’s counterfeit of God’s Truth”and that “it depends on whether you want to know what God thinks or to feel better about the path you’re on.”


There were a lot of words sent back and forth during those two days, and there’s also family history that complicates things further.

Bottom line is that, to this day, my parents refuse to revise their views on my sexuality. It’s easier to put that safely away in a box, pretending that my sexuality is somehow detachable, unlike theirs, which is integrated.

It’s not so much the blatant ignoring of my sexuality that is bothersome. It’s the stolid, willful exclusion of all my sexuality represents: finding a partner, introducing him to my family, our parents meeting, getting married, navigating the choppy waters of where we’ll spend holidays.

These parts of myself are not disjunct. They can’t pick and choose which ones they’ll interact with.

It’s sad but clear which path they’ve chosen.

One that doesn’t include me.

267. eponym

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forgiveness-and-reconciliationSuffice to say that, at least in American society, we have a pretty muddled notion of forgiveness. It’s often used in the sense of a pardon: to let someone off the hook; to pretend as if a wrong never took place.

The OED provides several useful definitions:

  • To remit (a debt); to give up resentment or claim to requital for, pardon (an offence).
  • To give up resentment against, pardon (an offender).
  • To make excuse or apology for, regard indulgently.

The concept of forgiveness is a strange one for me. For one, it was a bedrock of my community’s theology growing up, through Bible verses such as:

  • This is my blood, which ratifies the New Covenant, my blood shed on behalf of many, so that they may have their sins forgiven. (Matthew 26:28, CJB)
  • If you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. (Matthew 6:14, ESV)

We were supposed to be “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32, NIV). If we’d been properly taught the theory of forgiveness as children, we might have had the tools to process hurt and loss, to work towards reconciliation and/or healing.

How different my life might’ve been.


For many evangelicals, what forgiveness meant in practice was that we were supposed to be doormats for each other, meekly turning the other cheek (no matter how egregious the offense) and forgetting about it, as if nothing had happened. Growing up, if one brought up a past wrong that had supposedly been forgiven, that would be met with an exclamation of, “See, you didn’t really forgive me!”

Is it any surprise that, in some churches, crimes like rape go unreported and unpunished?

We also learned some profoundly confusing lessons about forgiveness. On the one hand, you have New Testament Jesus who teaches us to roll over and let people do whatever they want to him.

Then there’s the Jesus of the Book of Revelation who makes the Bride from Kill Bill look like My Little Pony.

There’s also the god of the Tanakh (which Christians call their “Old Testament”) who Richard Dawkins describes in The God Delusion as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction,” who wipes out virtually the entire human race in the flood, kills people for all manner of reasons, etc.

Some disturbingly mixed signals.

There were also certain sins that were seemingly unforgivable, such as sex outside of marriage—well, women who had sex outside of marriage, that is, who were forever branded as sluts, unclean, polluted, unmarriageable. “Unrepentant” homosexuality, too. These were sins God could never forgive, and conveniently, neither could his followers.

So we were supposed to forgive, but only under certain circumstances; and if we truly forgave someone, we were never supposed to bring up the offense again, even if they continued to hurt us (Matthew 18:21-22)?

Needless to say, I came into adulthood with convoluted ideas about forgiveness.


Among the lessons I’ve since learned since then is that, to quote Lewis Smedes, “to forgive is to set a prisoner free and realize that prisoner was you.”

It’s not about forgetting. It’s not about the other person. It doesn’t even require reconciliation.

Forgiveness is ultimately about freeing yourself from bitterness, grieving a loss from hurt or suffering, accepting that the past won’t ever be different from what we want, and intentionally moving forward into a healthier future.

A couple of months ago, my current therapist asked if I’d forgiven my parents. I told her that I didn’t know, that I don’t know what forgiveness feels like. I explained what I’d been taught about forgiveness, and she responded with some of the above views and current teachings on the subject… that it’s not about the other person, it’s about you, etc.

Frankly, I don’t think I’m still angry at my parents. Rather, those feelings have morphed into sadness—sadness for a relationship that will probably never be there. My friend Tom has reiterated his hope that somehow we’ll find a way to reconcile, to reconnect. To which I usually respond that maybe we will, but it’s unlikely.


I’ve probably written about this before, but quite a lot has changed in the years since I came out (2008) and since I became an atheist (2011). In the nearly six years that have followed, my parents and I have gone on increasingly divergent paths. They have clung more staunchly to their evangelical Christian faith and their conservative values, whereas I am heading further to the left with every passing day. It’s not that there isn’t room for common ground.

There isn’t much commonality left, period.

Sure, there are shared memories, inside jokes—but these feel more like when you awkwardly run into an old work colleague and realize the spark of friendship is gone. Jokes that were once hilarious now seem a desperate attempt to make something relevant that long ago lost its currency.

Prior to my becoming an atheist in 2011, what my parents and I shared—despite our differences—was our faith. Even though I drank and swore, and (when I became sexually active) had sex with men, we could still agree on the basic tenets of our Christian faith.

So it wasn’t out of resentment that I disowned my parents. Rather, it’s merely that we don’t have anything in common beyond genetics. I don’t expect them to renounce their faith and join PFLAG any more than they (as much as I’m sure they pray daily for my soul) expect me to revert to the person they used to know.

It sucks to not have parents who accept me for who I am (as other LGBT friends do, whose parents eventually did a 180-degree turn), but it’s healthier than closing my eyes, pretending nothing is wrong.

Yet things are not all bad. While I don’t have a native home to go for the holidays, I do have chosen homes and families now. That’s not Pollyannaish gratitude.

That’s moving on.

253. deference

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gaymenA quick update before I head back to working on my final project for this semester.

It’s so odd to be saying that again after having been done with my undergrad nearly eleven years, but here we are, working on a master’s in library science.

At least this time it’s pursuing a career and field I’m suited for!


A few weeks ago, a friend asked what kind of guy I envision myself with. After thinking for a few moments, I responded, “It’s difficult to say. Honestly, I don’t trust myself or my taste in guys anymore because the ones I’m typically attracted to end up being unavailable—either they’re not interested in me, or they’re already taken, or they’re straight.”

It’s to the point where my reaction to seeing an attractive guy is to simply shut down because the act of processing the cyclone of negative and conflicting emotions has become too exhausting.

But it’s the third category—straight guys—that has proven to be the most frustrating because it historically makes up the majority of my unrequited crushes. We gay guys do it all the time. We fall for the straight guy, not necessarily because he’s a challenge or a worthy conquest (or at least not for me), but because he’s decent, kind, uncomplicated, and adorable.

And finding a guy like that in the gay community, especially one who’s smart and reasonably well-adjusted… well, that’s like finding a unicorn.

But I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to this question of why I tend to fall for so many straight guys when I know it’s a doomed enterprise from the beginning. Could it be that I’m that masochistic? That it’s an unconscious means of controlling the situation by choosing a path that I at least know the outcome to? That I simply enjoy being miserable?


To answer this question, I’m turning first to a subject that I’ve also been giving some thought to lately: porn. Specifically, how it shapes our tastes and expectations as gay men, and how it redefines what we consider “normal” or “acceptable” about real life.

In other words, has fiction and fantasy so radically altered our perceptions of physical beauty that we reject otherwise decent, eligible guys [read = guys who don’t spend every spare moment in the gym, who may not have washboard abs, a v-shape frame, biceps and calves that go for days, firm pecs, etc] because they don’t meet the impossible standard we’ve come to expect from men in porn?

While the notion of porn addiction is (although, like any addiction, real and destructive) largely exaggerated by Evangelical fundies and prudish conservatives terrified by the idea of sex without shame or fear, exposure to porn is not without its mind-altering effects.

Well… here.

It comes down to a design flaw in our brains owing to the fact that we’re dealing with hardware several hundred thousand years out of date. Our brains still think it’s the year 20,000 BCE out there on the African Pleistocene.

Particularly for the male brain, sex is hardwired to the reward center of the brain—the ventral tegmental area or VTA, which is most often linked with dopamine. When you point an organ built to procreate and survive in scarcity conditions at a virtually endless supply of sexy images… well, here’s a passage from a 2013 Guardian article:

Many abused substances directly trigger dopamine secretion – without us having to work to accomplish a goal. This can damage the dopamine reward system. In porn, we get “sex” without the work of courtship. Now, scans show that porn can alter the reward centre too.


Aside from the brain and expectation-altering effects, I’ve also been pondering why so many guys are attracted to certain genres of porn, or to certain body types, or certain subcultures (jocks, leather, circuit boys, etc).

One theory I have is that these attractions are largely about guys trying to fulfill some unfulfilled experience in their formative years. For example, guys into jock culture, who may have agonized as closeted teen boys over the fit physiques of their straight classmates in the locker room in high school, it makes sense their adult attractions would include that fantasy.

(Obviously it’s much more complex and dynamic than that, and there are a myriad of reasons people find certain qualities or activities arousing.)

Porn is more than just entertainment. It’s about fulfilling virtually every fantasy ever conceived of, which is why Rule 34 of the Internet is: If it exists, there is porn of it.

For me, porn has only deepened my growing frustration with the seeming recreational attitude of many gay men towards sex, to the point where I don’t even bother any more. It’s made me resentful and angry, which has caused me to pause and wonder if that is how porn has reshaped my expectations of sex and intimacy.


Which leads us full circle back to my response to my friend’s question a few weeks ago.

Why do I always fall for straight guys?

My theory is that, just as the jocks may be trying to exorcise the demons from their memories of the high school locker room, I may be re-enacting my initial experiences as a deeply closeted gay boy in an Evangelical Christian community. Being surrounded by (presumably) straight and painfully attractive guys who were completely off limits shaped my brain and sexual attractions in ways that I’m not entirely sure can be undone.

Do they need to be undone?

Perhaps, if I ever want a realistic long-term relationship with a real guy who isn’t merely as a catalyst for resolving past identity wounds.

There’s the realization, too, that I don’t actually know what I’d do with a boyfriend at this point, or if there’s even enough of me to sustain a relationship. One deep dark fear is that I’m an empty shell, and he’ll wake up one day, see that, and leave.

This is a lot to work on.

For now, however, a paper calls.

248. quiddity

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GoldRingIt’s the last rose of summer.

The autumnal equinox is three weeks away, the days are getting shorter, and grad school starts up again for me on Friday. I’ve read over the syllabi for my two cataloging courses this coming term and it’s perverse how excited I truly am to finally dig in to this subject.

And in keeping with all of the changes in my life over the past couple of months, I’ve now decided to stop wearing the gold ring my parents gave me as a birthday present around age fifteen or sixteen. I can’t quite remember which birthday it was, but fifteen sounds about right.

So eighteen years, I’ve been wearing it.

A simple gold band that has confused and intrigued countless numbers of people—many of whom assumed it meant I was married.

I’m not even going to think about how many guys assumed it meant that I was unavailable when in reality I’ve been quite available all this time.


The official story I’ve told people about its origin is that it commemorated the first time I made it through The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which isn’t entirely untrue.

I’d actually finished the series around age thirteen, so it was more a belated token, a symbol of my undying love for Tolkien’s world. By age fifteen, I’d read the entire trilogy about four times and had made the first of several aborted attempts at getting through The Silmarillion.

The nerdy birthday present story always makes for an easy out for having to explain a much more complicated picture. It engenders amused if not outright delighted reactions, from “That’s so cool!” to “That’s unbelievably nerdy!”

And, of course, I get asked about whether fiery Tengwar letters appear when the ring is heated, which it doesn’t, and if I’ve looked, which I haven’t. Frankly, I read the books long before the movies were made.

I’m not a connoisseur of cheap tricks!


Like the One Ring of Tolkien’s world, the truth about my gold ring is more layered than meets the eye, and requires some specialized knowledge of arcane cultures.

Specifically, purity culture.

Promise (or purity) rings came into fashion in evangelical Christian culture during the 1970s, around the time Christianity was finding its own version of Catholic kitsch. This was also in the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, when fundamentalist Christians started pushing back against what they saw as insidious decadence and rampant immorality of secular culture.

(And yes, it was entirely demonic in origin.)

The ring was to be worn as a reminder of the vow to remain sexually chaste until marriage, when it would be replaced with an actual wedding band—divine permission to finally get it on.

By the time I was a teenager in the mid-1990s, “purity rings” and the public signing of purity pledges by adolescents were commonplace in churches. Undoubtedly horny teens, conditioned to fear their own sexual natures, took part in public church ceremonies where they signed pledges to “take the high road” to defy a culture that urged them to “just give in.” The pledge was a promise to abstain from all forms of sexual activity—including masturbation.

Once a year at my church, teens were invited at one point in the Sunday service to come to the front to sign a large poster and take that vow. It was partly inculcation and largely peer pressure, but it was mostly shaming.

So there are Christian men’s support groups for battling sexual temptation; software that actually notifies a designated and trusted friend if you look at “dirty” websites; and books like Every Man’s Battle, to shame young people for their otherwise normal sexual urges.

I’ve no idea if I signed one of those pledges or not. It would’ve made an excellent cover, seeing as I was realizing then that abstaining from sexual activity with women wouldn’t be a problem.


Thankfully, my ring had nothing to do with any of that, although it was obliquely related.

On the inside of the ring is engraved a reference to a Bible verse: 1 Timothy 4:12,

Don’t let anyone look down on you because of your youth; on the contrary, set the believers an example in your speech, behavior, love, trust and purity. (Complete Jewish Bible.)

Boys in Evangelical circles don’t get quite the heaping of shame about sex and their bodies that girls do. Rather, young people are taught that men are sexual beasts who’d run amok if not for the controlling influence of women—and the Holy Spirit, of course! God, in his infinite wisdom, gifted men with insatiable lust that’s supposed to be expressed only in the bedroom, between one man and one woman whom the Lord joins together for life, regardless of whether they’re even sexually compatible.

But why worry about whether you’ve made the wrong choice in a life mate, or wonder about what it might be like to have sex with other people? God took time out from creating the universe in six days to match-make for everyone thousands of years into the future, ensuring each of us a mate for life!

… except for the ones he “blessed” with singlehood.

Naturally.

DontMasturbate

For me, however, the ring had a more sober meaning.

The verse was a signal from my parents that I was transitioning into adulthood, into manhood, accountable directly to God for my life and the choices I’d make.

I was supposed to start taking on the mantle of a godly man and leader, the kind of man a godly wife needs to be the Christ-like head of our household.

Thankfully, things didn’t go according to plan.


Their message impacted me in a way they couldn’t have anticipated.

I wasn’t a kid anymore.

I could think for myself, take responsibility for my direction in life, and not merely abdicate that power to someone else.

It would take thirteen more years to figure that out though.

Now, my hand is a blank slate—rather like my future.

IMAG0948[1]

247. beatific

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The-art-of-courtly-love-2A few years ago, my friend Sarah Howell moved to New York City to start a career in stage management. She’d been working in Minneapolis for a while and building a solid reputation for herself, and when the opportunity to move east presented itself, she sold everything and jumped at the chance. And unlike some of my friends who have tried their hand at Broadway, she is doing quite well! It helps that, unlike the denizens of aspiring actors in NYC, competent stage managers are hard to come by.

So I’m incredibly proud of her and her work, and wish her continued success!

When I googled her most recent show (called Love In the Middle Ages), another page appeared in the search results that caught my notice, a University of Oxford Arts blog article by Clemency Pleming titled Did love begin in the Middle Ages? I’ve come across papers and books in the past suggesting that our modern notion of romantic love is actually a relatively recent development in human history.

Well, recent compared to 20,000 years ago.

Pleming quotes professor Laura Ashe, who says that before the Norman conquest of England,

Anglo-Saxon literature had a very different focus… The world of the Anglo-Saxon warrior, at least in poetry, was based on the bond of loyalty between fighting men. Love in this world means love for your fellow warriors, and the idea of sacrificing yourself for the group.

In the Middle Ages, however:

There was a transformation in culture, a series of church reforms in the 12th century took Christianity from a rather austere view of God the Father to a new focus on Christ’s humanity.

The spiritual lives of ordinary people were recognised, and people were encouraged to have a more emotional and personal relationship with God as individuals. And romantic love – giving yourself to another person – provides a justification, in the medieval moral compass, for the pursuit of self-fulfilment as an individual.

Even tragic love stories are based on the idea that the living individual is to be celebrated and that it might be better to stay alive after all.

Ashe identifies this as something of a turning point in how we view the importance of marriage in society. Where once it was approached more like a contract or a business transaction for the sake of convenience or practicality, people now began to view it as something to aspire to.


I’ve been thinking about that recently in relation to myself—specifically, examining why I’ve been so obsessed the past few years with finding a boyfriend and potential future husband.

It’s impossible to ignore daily reminders that I’m single. Coworkers pepper their conversations with references to spouses and kids, vacations and trips “up north” to the cabin. Adverts not-so-subtly tell me that I’m incomplete, that there’s no one to share in meaningful experiences with, to share the picture frame in tagged social media posts.

I’m a “me.” Not a “we.”

As I’ve written about in other posts, there is also the element of needing to prove wrong the voices from my past that claimed gay people don’t have relationships. I was taught that gay people were promiscuous, hedonistic, riddled with diseases contracted from hundreds of sexual partners and their deviant sexual practices, and would eventually succumb to HIV/AIDS.

But there’s another latent evangelical Christian element at play in my subconscious—the primacy of marriage and commitment in that culture.

From my earliest recollection, marriage was the holiest sacrament after communion. While sacraments aren’t really a Protestant thing, we held it in the same high regard. After becoming a missionary, marriage was the ultimate calling for Christians. It was a living parable, the means by which God shaped Christian men and women into more godly people.

And there were so many analogies that, in hindsight, are just plain fuckin’ weird. Marriage is a mirror of Christ and the Church… of the Trinity… of God’s love for us… of how we’re supposed to give of ourselves for Jesus.

But of course the real reason evangelical Christians are obsessed with getting married is so that they can finally have sex, which is likely a contributing factor to why the Christian divorce rate is comparable to that of non-Christians.

So while I don’t buy into any of that anymore, there’s still this core notion buried deep in my subconscious that marriage is somehow a benchmark of success in a person’s life. It won’t be perfect, by any means, but it’s an indicator that a person is stable, attractive, and self-actualized enough to find a partner and build a life together.

Now, I know intellectually that that’s a crock. Unstable people get married, as do aimless and irresponsible people, and those who are unattractive by conventional standards (which also doesn’t mean much).

And there’s no such thing as security. Partners sometimes cheat on or abandon you, and eventually everyone dies.


I guess what’s frustrating is that I’m not so desperate to be in a relationship that I’ll date anyone. That’s how I ended up with Jay (my ex of 2½ years) for nine months. And I’ve seen friends and acquaintances languish in unhappy marriages because they’re afraid to end it and be alone.

It’s why it goads me to see ex-boyfriends and lovers just fall so seemingly effortlessly into new relationships. The other night I foolishly looked up Seth on Facebook and found out that he has a hot boyfriend named Martin and two adorable dogs.

Big mistake.

It renewed the mental loop of thinking that what appears to be a smörgåsbord for him and others in the Midwest is a veritable dating wasteland for me. That it appears so easy for them.

Everyone says good guys are out there.

So where are they hiding?

I need to get over this belief that I’m somehow less-than for being single, and determine if finding a partner is at the root of the anxiety, or if this is more old programming wreaking havoc on my current happiness.

238. caustic

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cups08I’m now into the twelfth week of classes in my library science master’s program, and between working a full-time job and doing monthly music for Sunday Assembly there hasn’t been much time for writing. With seeing my therapist every two weeks, there’s been plenty of personal reflection, but not much time to actually meditate about it, which has been difficult. Writing is how I process those things, but when one’s life seems to be flying along at 600 miles-per-hour, some things take a back seat for the sake of steering.

So a few weeks ago I was finally on my friend Keith’s podcast, Vita Atheos. It’s terrific, and you should check it out. It’s devoted to “telling the stories of atheists, their journeys towards non-belief, and the struggles that they faced in the past, or still face today because of their lack of belief.”

We’ve been talking about my being on for a while now, partly because of how unique my dual coming out story (gay and then atheist) seems to be in the community. It was an interesting experience being interviewed, and the conversation actually ran about two hours and fifteen minutes. And I didn’t even get to talking about my family!

It had also been a while since I’d told my deconversion story in detail. Most people in my life know the details so we don’t have to rehash them. Although recently, there have been conversations about the weird, fucked up things that I was taught growing up. At times it feels as if I truly came from another culture, or even from another planet entirely.

Because there are few analogues in “normal,” mainstream life—that is, for those who didn’t grow up in a conservative, fundamentalist, religious community. The “real world.”

One of the themes that has come up with therapists over the past few years (including my current therapist) is a sense of being just broken and fucked up from all of the religious programming in my early childhood years, further compounded by internalizing the homophobia that surrounded me at home and in my community. One of the things that’s come up is my inability to truly forgive myself for not knowing better, for not being stronger, for not coming out sooner and standing up for myself.

But as Lalla Ward is quoted as saying to her parents in The God Delusion: “But I didn’t know I could.”

That sort of historical musing is easy to do. It feels good to put ourselves on the moral side of history—standing up to the Nazis in Germany, or standing with Martin Luther King, Jr. against racism. Fifty years from now, children will read with similar horror about homophobia and opposition to gay rights. Of course I wish things could’ve turned out differently, and that I wasn’t trying to rebuild my life and constantly struggling under the weight of depression, anxiety, and inherited self-hatred.

The past few months I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around why I’m currently so obsessed with my age right now and being gay and single at 32. I think I’ve written about this before, that part of it the need to validate myself against the messages I got growing up, that gays don’t have relationships. Part of it is the rampant ageism in the gay community, and the fixation on being young and fit, and I frankly don’t see myself as either of these things anymore. I don’t have time to work out, so I’m still rather scrawny; and now that I’m in my mid-30s my metabolism isn’t what it used to be. I’m not overweight, but I am “gay fat” by the standards of the community (i.e., not having a gym-perfect body, BMI is over 12%).

Maybe it’s just Midwestern gays. I’m starting to wonder if that isn’t what it is.

The reality is that I’m where most of them are when they were in their early twenties, leaving me feeling hopelessly behind and outpaced. It seems so easy for everyone else to find boyfriends and relationships, and I don’t even know how to date. Perhaps it would be easier if my standards weren’t so high, or if I could just have fun; but it’s difficult as it is for me to connect with other humans in general, and I’m really not one for casual dating or sex, which frankly doesn’t leave many options in the Twin Cities since that seems to do it for most guys around here. Everyone here seems to be on Manhunt, Grindr, or Scruff.

#notmyscene

But there’s a much darker reality that I’ve just recently become aware of. It’s so new that I haven’t had time to put it into words, so this may not make much sense, but here goes:

Basically, at this point, I don’t know if I could be with someone when I can’t even accept myself.

Central to Christian fundamentalist teaching and Calvinism is this notion that humans are basically shit because of Adam and Eve. An ongoing theme of my childhood was a virtual obsession with sin and confession, because God is always watching, and Satan is always trying to trip Christians up. Constant vigilance. What could go wrong with teaching a child to believe that they were born flawed, and that even the most minor of unconfessed sins could land them in Hell for eternity?

So even though I know intellectually that I’m likable, even desirable, I don’t feel it. It’s the emotional equivalent of an eating disorder, I guess. What I see in the mirror is not everyone else seems to see. I see trash, failure, ruin, someone whose prime years were stolen by religion.

It’s as if, because I deem myself unworthy, I reject anyone else’s approval of me as a matter of course. Is that arrogant? Probably. But when you grow up fearing the disapproval of everyone around you, it becomes the lens through which you view all relationships.

An examined life may be admirable, but can also be unlivable.

229. baleful

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“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

− Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion”

Musee_de_la_bible_et_Terre_Sainte_001

This past April, I was delighted to reconnect with a friend from college, Noelle, who is currently documenting the rebuilding her life after leaving fundamentalist Christianity:

https://noellemarieblog.wordpress.com

She writes with such elegant frankness and vivid detail of her early experiences as a young Evangelical. In one of her recent blog entries, she recounts when her father sat her down to explain the facts of life: that is, that we are disgusting, perverted sinners who deserve an eternity in Hell for the heinous crime of being born (because Adam and Eve, y’all); whose only worth is the fact that Jesus loves us in spite of our hideous, evil selves.

Noelle’s Jesus is not the Jesus of recent evangelical Christianity, the deity that Richard Dawkins pointedly describes in his controversial 2006 book. She believes in a loving God that bears no resemblance to the hateful, spiteful, malevolent deity we were taught to believe in, love, and fear as children. Though we aren’t geographically close, it’s been an honor to renew our friendship and to be able to encourage her in whatever way I can in her journey towards rebuilding a life based on truth and authenticity.

It’s an interesting time to reconnect as I’m essentially doing the same work of rebuilding my own life after living adrift for so long. It’s daunting work, especially the further down the rabbit hole I get into therapy, as I realize how many unhealthy fundamentalist Christian scripts there are still rattling around in my mind.

In talking with other ex-Evangelicals, one experience we’ve all had in common is how ingrained mask-wearing was to our upbringing and daily lives as Christians. It’s a curious phenomenon, especially in a culture that supposedly holds honesty as a virtue. From an early age, we were inadvertently taught that there are certain faces you wear to church, our in public, at home, and with different social groups.

There’s a lot of pressure to appear spiritual, godly, and pure. Shame is employed as a means of policing behavior in the church under various guises, usually as concern for someone’s spiritual well-being. Prayers would be offered, sometimes publicly, for people who were known to be “struggling” with certain sins. “Helpful” advice would be proffered, with corresponding Bible verses to justify behavior that would otherwise be considered intrusive and even offensive.

“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (Galatians 6:1-3)

As I grew up, I developed personas (even different personalities) for various situations and people. I knew which face to wear at church, at Bible study, at choir practice, at youth group, at church band rehearsal, and out at the bar with friends. When I came out gay, I was one person when out with friends and another just a few hours later when I’d go to church. I even went to service one day after having had phone sex with my first boyfriend the previous night.

It was schizophrenic.

And none of this would be were it not for the culture of externalized self worth and affirmation that’s central to the fundamentalist Christian worldview. Every desire and action for the evangelical Christian is subject to the approval of God via the Bible — that is, the approval of those “qualified” to interpret the Bible based on their personal beliefs and prejudices.

The result is that for many years, even after coming out gay and then atheist, was that I was constantly and unconsciously looking for the approval and affirmation of others who I looked up to and considered authority figures.

“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)

I didn’t trust myself or my own desires. After all: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). It took almost an entire decade to accept that my same-sex desires weren’t pathological, or evidence of my rebellion against God’s will.

To an extent, I still don’t trust myself. I struggle with the worry that I spent too many years ultimately pursuing the wrong career and educational path for me, having allowed other people’s ideas about what I should want for a career trump my own desires; that I lack the practical experience to make informed opinions about everything from dating to job searching; that, after everything, I’m just a poor imitation of a real human being.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4, ESV)

An insidious effect of these early formational lessons was coming to believe that what I wanted didn’t matter. To have personal desires was to be selfish. “Dying to self” was the chief ambition of the Christian. “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”

I’ve often said that fundamentalist Christianity relies heavily on Stockholm syndrome—of teaching people to be their own jailers and tormentors. And the system only works so long as you believe in it. The moment that you stop, it all falls apart, emotionally and psychologically.

Until a few months ago, my personal desires were virtually indistinguishable from the desires of people around me. Understandably, this had profound effects on friendships and romantic relationships.

More on this next time…