THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 102
Growing up gay
If you think about it, almost every gay man grows up in a heterosexual household. It is not the character of the household that makes a person heterosexual or gay - it has to do with their genes, their hormones, the relationship with their parents and a number of other influences. So gay men are born into heterosexual households. And so far very few people at all are brought up by gay couples!
It has to be admitted also that many heterosexual households have been biased against homosexuality. Not necessarily militantly so - but the general slant of opinion during the past few decades - the lifetime of most of the gays living today - has been against homosexuality. In conversations in the family there would be inferences made. There would be silences. And there would be remarks made against gay people. That is a fact of life. We should not feel badly done to because this is the case. It is just how people are - or rather, have been. It is to be hoped that a change is happening across the Western World, if not yet in other areas.
It follows that every gay person growing up in this period has had an extra problem. They have all the usual problems of adjusting to the rapid physical and emotional changes in their bodies as they grow through puberty to sexual maturity. Then the gay youngsters also have the problem of sexual identification. As they become aware that they are not like other men (or women as the case may be) they start to question why they are different. They ask themselves whether they are really different or whether they are just going through a phase. Added to all the anguish that teenagers normally go through there is the added problem of dealing with the incipient homophobia. If they come to the conclusion that they are gay, then they have to learn to disregard the slights and criticisms made by heterosexual parents, siblings and friends. Gay young people can very quickly feel alienated and alone. This is one reason why suicide among gay adolescents is higher than average.
Well, we all have to go through the pains of growing up. No need for self pity there! Lets not think of ourselves as victims - very disempowering! But what are the strategies adopted by gay teenagers in these circumstances when they have to face their homosexuality? If, because of the surrounding anti-gay feelings, they don’t want to accept the truth about themselves they may opt for some compromise with reality. Three ways of dealing with this difficult situation which they might adopt are:
Firstly, they may imitate heterosexual males. The intention here is to hide the fact of their homosexuality. They do not want to be spotlighted, nor become the target for comments and, possibly, abuse by others in their peer group. Having a girl friend is a good way of protecting themselves from suspicion, and many gay men start out by choosing this route.
It is perhaps interesting to ask how these gay men see themselves. Is it not clear that they are, at least to some extent, ashamed of being gay? They want to hide the fact to make life easier, but they may also hide the fact that they are gay because they feel a sense of shame.
The second way forward that a young gay man may take is to simply deny his homosexuality even to himself. He may deny the whole thing and shut it from his mind. The idea is just too difficult to be faced. He is, quite simply, ‘in denial.’ This young man will probably aim to get married and have kids. Then that will firmly set him on the right track which he wants to follow. He decides on this course because he wants to be heterosexual; maybe he is frightened of being homosexual. Being homosexual strikes him as a prison sentence, rather than a joy. He does not want to face the fact that his body and emotions are telling him that he is attracted to men.
Then there is the third way forward - in this scenario the young man decides that he has some gay tendencies, but he really doesn’t want to be gay and so he decides to change. This man is ripe for involvement in the ex-gay ministry. He wants to try the various so-called solutions proposed - often by the elders in his church - by which he can eradicate this gay thing from his life. Maybe he will go for prayer. Maybe there will be exorcism by one of the elders or some visiting preacher. He will follow the rules and suggestions that are provided for him by others who believe in this approach.
Let us be quite clear - by decision, will power and determination it is possible to channel one’s actions in a certain direction. But that will never change his nature from being homosexual. He doesn’t become heterosexual because he acts heterosexual.
There are many other ways of dealing with one’s gay sexuality - and there are many variations to the above three paths. But they all seek to deny expression of the homosexual element in their lives. They all seek to establish firmly that the people involved have a heterosexual outlook on life, and therefore will probably go on to be married and have a family.
There are problems arising from all these approaches. Let us agree at the outset that the man whom we are taking as an example is really homosexual. Let us posit that as a fact beyond doubt. Then I would suggest that, whatever course is adopted, that homosexual nature will, eventually, either come into the open, or his going against his true nature will wreak considerable turmoil on the person trying to control it.
We are not talking here of suppression of the sexual instinct. That is much more acceptable approach. Every celibate monk and nun and most Christians know about the need for suppression of their sexual instincts. It is the fight to be in command of your body and not to let the body rule you. It is what St Paul talked about in several of his epistles. There are no hidden perils when one fights to be in command of one's instincts. We call that disciplined living and every Christian who is trying to follow Christ knows that struggle - and in all sorts of areas of his life - from the time he first becomes a Christian.
No - what we are looking at here is the repression, not suppression, of the sexual instinct. What is this repression? It is when, for example, a person feels ashamed of their gay sexual desires and thrusts those feelings deep down inside himself. It is the shame and guilt that accompanies the feelings that cause the problem. Such shame and guilt will fester and erupt later in various ways in the life of the person. The person will not necessarily know the cause of the feelings and attitudes they have, but they will spring from the festering guilt and shame associated with the repressed sexual desires.
It depends on the circumstances and the nature of the person, but what may happen is that, sooner or later, the repressed gay desires break through the conscious restraint that the person has exercised, and may well then cause mayhem in the person’s life.
In one case I know of it was over thirty years later that the shame and guilt, which caused the repressed feelings, broke through into consciousness. It was as if the inner nature of the person had said to the conscious mind ‘You may think you have put the lid on me, but I have been brewing up a head of steam in all this time and here I go - I must exit or you will have a mental breakdown!’ To repress the sexual orientation of a person is always a dangerous thing.
Let us move on. Lets suppose that this young gay man decides to accept that he is gay. What happens next? He then has to rethink his whole life. What is his aim in life to be? Does he want to find Mr Right and settle down? Or does he want to explore his sexuality for the foreseeable future? Before he has gone any distance, he will have to decide a big question: whether he wishes to stay in the closet or whether he wishes to come out to certain people, or even to the whole world. If he is going to explore what he has discovered about himself he is probably going to have to come out to at least one other person! However, it is important to stress that no gay person can ever come out and be done with it, once for all. We live in a heterosexual world and the process of coming out continues with each new person you meet. Is it appropriate to tell this new acquaintance about your being gay or not?
It must be added here that we are talking about gay people who have been brought up in the period when being gay was unacceptable. Nowadays it is acceptable in society to be gay. It seems therefore that young gay people today do not have quite the same problems with declaring their sexuality as older people do.
When one tells someone - especially someone who is close, such as a friend - that one is gay there is also always the urge to explain how it is you have reached that point. The story we tell is of course truthful as far as we can tell. But it is also the explanation we ourselves have worked out and finally accepted about how all of this came about. Were we gay from birth - or did we know from a very early age? Or did it appear when we had swimming at school? Or was it that time I went camping with a friend? Or was it much later - when suddenly I fell in love with another guy my own age. He was lovely but, unfortunately, straight. We each have our own story to tell. But always it is the story we have concocted from what we know of our past to explain to ourselves how it has come about that I, of all people, am gay.
If we decide not to come out to everyone, or decide, perhaps, to come out to a very few real friends, then we place ourselves in a somewhat different position. We basically then have these two choices - to stay in the closet or to tell people. If we decide to stay in the closet (except perhaps just one or two people), then we pick up a heavy load and place it on our backs where it will stay as long as we remain in the closet. This is the burden of secrecy. It is not just that one does not wish to disclose something to other people - it is much more than that. It has to do with our whole attitude in life and to people. If we stay in the closet it encourages that side of us that enjoys the cloak and dagger approach. It promotes a feeling of managing and manipulating the situations in which I find myself. I am not saying that that is wrong - nor that everyone should come out of the closet. What I am saying is that to stay in the closet has a price and we will pay that price over the years, whatever else we do.
When you try to keep a secret it means constantly watching what you say, how you act, what clues about your real self you are leaving around. Staying in the closet means paying a price. But then there is also a price to pay if you broadcast to the world that you are gay! So you pays your money and you takes your choice!
At the end of the day what is supremely important is the attitude we take towards ourselves and our homosexuality. If we are carrying theological baggage from an evangelical (or other) background, then we may find ourselves weighed down with guilt and regret. This may even make us want to be rid of our homosexuality. On the other hand, if are able to see that this arises from man-made rules and cultural attitudes that stem from the long history of homophobia, then we may be able to see that there is a loving God who accepts us just as we are.
The first way will leave us with huge problems - with a morbid feeling of being sinful, with guilty feelings, and with a despair that we will never be able to change ourselves. Maybe also we will also fear that we are always going to be outside the sort of Church fellowship that we want so much to be a part of.
The second way - that of healthy acceptance of ourselves as we are and confidence that we are loved completely by God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ - is the better way. It allows us a positive attitude and it enables us to move out from guilt and shame and move into the glorious light of the love of Christ.
If we are able to exit from the dreadful weight of condemnation heaped on us by some Christians, then we are able to become creative and positive again. We are able to be inspired with good initiatives by the Holy Spirit. We are able to live again, free in the freedom that Christ has won for us.
In time we may find that , by the grace if God, we are able to go a further step, This is to actually thank God for making us gay. As I have quoted before, I once talked with a Vicar and his wife. After stating that I felt gay Christians should be accepted in the church the Vicar disagreed but his wife agreed, saying that she thought that God wanted that. When I went on to say that, in fact, gay Christians could thank God for their sexual orientation - then the wife of the Vicar drew back and said that she wasn’t so sure she would go that far! Clearly, for her, there was still sin and guilt attached to homosexuality.
I am so grateful that God has led me to recognise that I am gay. I see now that if I had not come to a knowledge of this my life would have been much smaller and much more cramped. By accepting that my homosexuality is God’s gift to me I have been released from all shadow of guilt and fear about my sexual orientation. I am, of course, still responsible to God for how I act and there I have to ask forgiveness periodically. But for my orientation I rest in the grace of God and see no difficulty or problem in doing just that. This is where I hope all gay Christians can rest - safe and rejoicing in God’s gift of their sexual orientation. Difficulties and pain have been experienced along the way - but that is nothing compared with the knowledge that I am accepted just as I am - whether gay or heterosexual - by the loving Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.