Have you ever been asked a question with an obvious answer, but then had to take most of the day to figure out how to answer it? This happened to me yesterday; Sarah asked me why advocacy for gay equality is so important to me. Someone had asked her that question while we were marching in the Portland Pride parade, and she answered that she was mostly there because of me, and wondered how I would have answered. I thought it was an easy answer until I tried to put words to it. The real answer brought me back to some stuff I haven’t thought about it in depth for quite a long time.
Towards the end of fifth grade, right around the time that puberty started to set in, I developed 2 crushes. The first was Olympic gymnast Kim Zmeskal, who was my first celebrity infatuation. The second was a boy in my class at school. It was a confusing situation at minimum. As middle school started, pretty soon it wasn’t just one person, it was all sorts of people. People of both genders, both people I knew, and people I saw on TV. I didn’t have words for my feelings, but it was at this age that I started getting zealous in my faith, and the leaders of the youth group started giving talks on sex. Lust, we were taught, was a sin, and we should pray for deliverance from it. Masturbation, we were taught, was wrong, since it can’t be done without lust. I didn’t necessarily disagree with these things, since, as my dad was fond of saying, “if you disagree, you’re not disagreeing with me, you’re disagreeing with God.”
With my feelings and my faith in sharp disagreement, middle school was a rough three years. Words like gay and bisexual were rarely used. Those sorts of things were so obviously sinful that it wasn’t worth bringing them up. I heard about a guy at church who “used to give into homosexuality” before marrying his wife, a very large woman who seemed a strange match for him. Homosexuals were not “gay,” because gay implies it’s not a choice, and being gay was most certainly a choice. Stealing is a choice, murder is a choice, and having sex with your own gender is a choice of rebellion.
Except it wasn’t a choice. I hated how I felt. My prayers consisted mostly of praying NOT to feel the way I felt. My freshman year, I now believed these feelings were permanent. I had my first girlfriend, and I was attracted to her, but this did nothing to stop my attraction to other boys my own age. I spent most of that year, when I wasn’t at school or at church, in my room, drowning in fear of my feelings. I’d listen to Jars of Clay and Counting Crows over and over, usually falling asleep to Soul Asylum’s “Misery Inc.” on repeat. I didn’t blame God for how I felt; This was clearly a problem with me.
Following freshman year, as puberty wrapped up its cruel and unusual work, my feelings for guys disappeared, almost overnight, and permanently. Female lust was back with a fury, and lusting for guys seemed weird, almost gross. The loss of those feelings was like behind freed from prison. I entered sophomore year with a zest for life I hadn’t had in a long time. I joined a bunch of choirs, quit the sports I’d grown tired of, quit doing most of my homework, and did my best to have fun with life, as I hadn’t done at all freshman year.
When Sarah asked me the question, and I thought back on this awful time in my life, it’s awful to realize how little help was available. I knew literally zero people who were tolerant of same sex attraction. In the mid-nineties, in my universe, there was no Human Rights Campaign, no PFLAG, and if there were Pride parades, I would have viewed them as evil because of dogma. The books I was reading, the sermons I was hearing, every influence in my life told me my feelings were wrong, and evil, and I was choosing to have them. How much more tolerable would life have been if I could have trusted someone with my experience? I half-confessed them to my dad once in a moment of weakness. My parents took me to a Christian counselor, but I wouldn’t admit that my feelings were sexual, so the sessions didn’t do much good. It wasn’t until I’d graduated college and was going through marriage counseling that I finally admitted out loud what I went through. I owe Mark McLeod a huge debt for helping me take the shame away from my memories of those years.
I may not be a person that’s influential to anyone in the same situation these days. But with 2 kids, someday I might be. And I feel like I owe it to Freshman Me to be visible and available in my support of anyone with feelings society tells them are wrong. They’re not wrong. They’re not a choice. There are people who care, who will accept you even if your parents or your church won’t. And even if you hate your feelings like I did, being able to talk about it might make all the difference.
My lasting memory of Pride yesterday is the face of my friend A.J. as he got to march through the streets as an out Gay Christian. He walked with his mom, and his church. The pride on his face was palpable; Maybe for the first time, every important segment of his life was screaming with validation. May all future people be so fortunate.