In a year fraught with painful lessons on life's fragility, I celebrate Queer Pride by forgiving the ones who have loved me the hardest and failed me the most -- myself included.
My last exchange with my eldest brother, a fully professed Carmelite monk and an ordained priest, ended harshly. It was an email parlay that began innocently enough — a basic check-in with each other on our respective happenings. In response to his update I followed a perhaps impetuous impulse to share my joy at the depth and richness of my present partnership — a gay one. It was an unconscious plea for visibility and the fraternal acceptance my display of queer visibility might inspire in my brother.
Growing up, he was one of my closest companions in large part due to our shared proclivities toward a life of monastic solitude that our Catholic faith practice inspired. By letting him in on a shade of my existence I have kept hidden from him for fear of upsetting his doctrinal orientation toward official Church dogma regarding homosexuality I thought we might deepen a connection that’s grown increasingly tenuous over the course of our unique paths toward the fulfillment of life purpose.
What I received instead was a lecture of concern about the state of my soul and a reinstatement of my brother’s blatant refusal to support me in the pursuit of gay partnership. My core wound around being mis- or altogether unrecognized by a family system which has provided little room, if any, for my queer visibility was suddenly activated. I reacted with all the suppressed rage such refusal has festered in me since I came out at 23. I once again felt denied the fullness of my individuality as a man who is gay. I felt reduced to the “catastrophe of being the youngest child,” as a friend puts it, and pulled no punches in a blind attempt to rectify, or triage, the wreckage of this core wound.
“Why can’t you see that there are many paths to God?” I asked in desperation before ending my tirade with what I felt justified in declaring at the time: “Fuck your ‘TRUTH.’”
We haven’t spoken since. This was in October.
I’ve thought of following up with an apology but I am not quite sure how to offer my penance. I am not sorry for my anger nor for the hurt from which it stems. Rather, I am sorry for how I chose to articulate that hurt — becoming the very oppressor I self-righteously condemned by silencing my brother, by refusing his truth (what he would deem as collectively sui generis, or intrinsic, and universally ultimate). I am also sorry for my brother, whose religious leanings delimit his spiritual vocabulary enough to make him feel skittish about even using the term “gay” to identify me.
This pattern of relating to my psychic complexes constellating around family with rage and rebellion is indicative of the work in which I have been immersed to individuate without disowning, excluding or separating from my clan of origin, tempting though that may be in these moments of socially enforced invisibility as I experienced in my brother’s unwanted and unwarranted virtual sermon.
A friend and colleague of mine recently posted a compelling blog piece on the importance of celebrating queer visibility at the intersections of identity for the month of LGBTQ+ Pride and beyond. Recognizing that our identifications are not static but a dynamic interplay of the social positions we occupy at the sites and sights of class, race, gender, sexuality and religion, he encourages each of us who are queer-identified to name those positions as they cut across our association with a particular category of being on the queer spectrum.
In the spirit of his injunction to take Pride Month as an opportunity for advocacy on the part of communities of faith, who, as he says, “bear a particular responsibility to social justice,” I name myself as a gay, cis-gendered white man with Christian humanist commitments oriented toward upholding the dignity of all life. This orientation doesn’t necessarily demand absenting myself from my family of origin, nor does it ask me to pick up a sign and join the picket line or to advance to the front line of the protest, which I’ve done; rather, it prompts me to make my ethical commitments “as visible and intentional in every way [I] can at as many intersections as [I] can name.”
For me this means becoming more visible to myself without attempting to change or fix the worldview of those who participate in my oppression — family among them. The ploy to fix amounts to psychological manipulation if not coercion, activating the very phobias I am trying to heal in the other as they exist in me. Such work is really an inside job — with an invitation to share what I learn without proselytizing.
Otherwise, the pride I celebrate as a gay man is nothing short of arrogance, which itself is rooted in fear — fear of rejection, fear of abandonment, fear of being wrong — and an attendant sense I have to somehow prove my humanity, or my “truth,” as a man with desires deemed disordered by doctrinal decree.
The measure of my worth is not what others think or say of me but of how I conduct myself according to the integrity of my intention to be who I am in my gay, white, male, upwardly mobile, Christianity-practicing body. Much of my own work around owning this particular and peculiar body involves reckoning with the internalization of a shame-based religious upbringing and a family system ruled by the strictures of Catholic dogma concerning same-sex desire.
My battle with the powers that be in this regard demands squaring with my complexes concerning those social forces I deem oppressive and working to uproot them as they manifest in my own biases, preconceptions and prejudices concerning the “other” — be it a Black trans woman, a conservative ideologue, an unctuous “social justice warrior,” a rich White person, a person experiencing homelessness. Or, with my brother in mind, what my rage would judge to be a sanctimonious high priest — the kind that killed Jesus, that rapes the spirit he nurtured by fetishizing his crucified body with the hypocrisies of false piety and cultish devotionalism.
In the case of family, my place at the intersections of various identities, or identifications, entails embodying the Christian mandate to forgive. In the case of society, it entails the Christian invitation to transform my pain and my privilege to amplify the chorus of minoritarian voices of which I am an integral part. I do this by showing up as myself at all times, especially in public spaces where shame tells me to be silent or hidden. It tells me to go ahead and hold the hand of the one I love despite what my projections tell me about curious or perplexed onlookers. It says, shit is messy and you’re going to fuck up but keep on loving yourself and others in spite, nay, because of, your contradictions, your imperfections.
It asks me to respond with compassion and kindness as opposed to rage when I feel my visibility has been slighted. It demands I use whatever power my white body embodies to advocate for those without access to the social services my white-skin privilege affords me. It demands I leverage this power not with an iron fist but open arms. Teaching, writing, the therapeutic container — these have all been my preferred avenues for so doing. My family can make of my life what it will — which doesn’t mean I go back into the closet or weaponize my rainbow flag to establish some kind of retributive comeuppance that leaves me smugly self-satisfied in my status as victim.
I find the justice I seek in compassion and mercy — not in rigorously exacting moral judgments or pronouncements that are not mine, if anyone’s for that matter, to make. Indeed, it is this judgmental mentality out of which I wrangle myself in owning my queerness. For having been condemned, of carrying the scars of condemnation, I refuse to condemn. The great lesson of the Jesus message — which I hear and see reflected in the cultural-historical icons of all mass movements for liberation — is the moral imperative to treat others as we wish to be treated.
How difficult? How hard-pressed we are to dig deep and tap into our capacities for empathizing with the perceived oppressor, for seeing and understanding the ways in which they have been oppressed themselves? For recognizing that we, too, are the oppressor in our denial of the other’s pain — whether they choose to recognize it themselves or not?
For me, this spiritual task — and it is deeply that — starts with letting go of the need to be something or someone other than who I am in the eyes of the ones who say they love me as well as in the eyes of those who hate me. By the same token, it demands I let go of the need to enforce my queer visibility upon the perceived oppressor or victimizer.
I have been out for 14 years now, and not a day goes by I don’t pine to be heard and seen as a gay man in a world of ideological extremes. Instead of taking responsibility for who I am, I have taken responsibility for the oppressor. This self-defeating mission to convert has only landed me in a further stew of resentment and a psychically incestuous mesh of entanglement with family members and those social entities the family as an institution represents: church, government, school. The more zealous my approach, the deeper I entrench myself in the role of victim and, in this, perpetual child — fixated on my woundedness and thus stuck in a cycle of shame and self-loathing that precludes the transformational process toward adulthood.
The struggle, then, really requires a turning inward: a “return” — as poet and philosopher Robert Bly notes in his treatise on male spirituality, Iron John (1992) — “we eventually have to make as adults back to the place of childhood abuse and abandonment” (226). It is a matter of “passing through the grief door” (Bly 236) and thereby restoring to ourselves the dignity we lost in disowning an integral piece of our self-identification in the face of the social forces against which I have railed for so long, often, as evidenced by my angry retort to my brother, ending up at cross-purposes with myself and the discipline of “gaining one’s definition” (to quote rapper Common).
The path to restoration is a rocky one, as it has been for me, leading around dark corners in the shadows of addiction and dependency — manifesting as a relentless search for the emotionally available father, the nurturing mother, the understanding sibling. Never satisfied, always fixated, ungrounded by my projections of archetypal power on these individuals (my actual father, mother, siblings) and their proxies (in the form of church organizations, government bodies, in unsuspecting friends and lovers) that no human or institution can contain.
And this is not necessarily anyone’s fault. There is no one to blame, here. Only to hold accountable. And that accountability begins and ends with me. Yes, the Church has failed to live up to its vision of inclusive universality. Yes, my parents and siblings have refused to see me in all my shades. But that does not mean I remain stuck in a pattern of adolescent angst about measuring up, proving my worth or enforcing my visibility.
“Disregard for the self, an almost overwhelming sense of being less than fully human, is a condition endemic to gay lives,” writes gay author Mark Thompson in Gay Body: A Journey Through Shadow to Self (1997), “It is the price we pay for being ‘other’ in a society of calculated sameness” (87).
Such disregard often turns into a compensatory perfectionism, what Jungian analyst Marion Woodman would call an “addiction to perfection,” that says if we just strive hard enough, accomplish enough, achieve enough, produce enough, then we are capable of being loved. But this is all superficial longing stemming from a core wound of felt inadequacy in the face of our primary caregivers and loved ones. Of feeling like our parents’ love is hinged on how we compare to the value of “calculated sameness” in a social religion predicated on a theology of earned salvation — rooted in a soul-crushing spirituality of atonement.
Gay men have a way of compensating for our perceived deficiencies by reproducing our victimhood in “community” with each other, measuring ourselves and each other by the very standards oppressing us (Downs, 2012; Thompson, 1997): Who has the wealthiest bank account? The cutest boyfriend? The hottest sex? The most successful career? All at the expense of our own individual and collective healing. As Thompson theorizes, we relive the myth of Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection, costing him his life. Taken allegorically, I can say I am Narcissus in my compensatory attempts to reflect someone family, lovers, society can actually accept — to create an image of myself with which everyone will be well pleased.
Fuck that shit.
It took getting a Ph.D. for me to realize I didn’t need a Ph.D. to be who I am. It took entering a religious order to understand I didn’t need an institution to embody the Christian call to holiness (or wholeness). It took multiple long-term relationships with older men to realize that the father I took to be absent in my waking life was simply slumbering deep inside Psyche all along.
But these kinds of revelations don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen through the healthy mirroring of ourselves we find in the radical vulnerability of deep and lasting friendships — in the families we choose. By “healthy mirroring” I mean to suggest the kind of mutual validation we experience in the unconditional acceptance of being seen and heard by, and of seeing and hearing, the ones whose capacity for empathic identification runs deeper than what our internalized oppressions have allowed in the family systems that reared us.
In this sense, we come home to ourselves in a way we never could in the confines of the four-walled spaces that contained us, or couldn’t contain us, as children. There is no straight path toward the kind of gay, or queer, pride this manner of self-love communicates. But it is straightforward in its invocation to “[leave] false sentiment behind: regret for the fathers we never knew, longing for the mothers who know us too well” (Thompson 171). Only then will we stop measuring ourselves and others by standards and values we never agreed to take on in the first place.
Along these lines I profess myself to be who I am: the product of a working-class, Catholic upbringing whose whiteness is a cause for celebrating, rather than flattening, the alterity of the “other” as it exists in me, as it exists in the particularity of the other’s experience. And by this association, arriving more fully at the unconditional self-acceptance awaiting ownership since we were born. It is not up to my parents to do this work for me, or society for that matter. It is mine to claim by letting go.
Through this internal pivot, a differentiation from the familial shadow takes place, and thus an increased objectivity by which to make peace with my self and my family while we are are still alive.
“You’re the true mother and father of your own being,” a friend reminded me recently as I shared my resentments toward the shroud of secrecy covering my gay identity in the context of immediate family.
In forfeiting my adolescent search for approval and thus visibility in the eyes of the “oppressor,” I free myself to be human, finally, in all of its riddling complexity. I free myself to forgive the pain which led those initially responsible for my care to repeated acts of downright denial. I recognize the tensions inherent in my family system are in fact psychic energies rife with potential for the full flowering of my individuality at the multiple intersections of identity: gay, white, male, Christian, humanist. It is precisely by way of these tensions I can profess with pride not only who I am but who I choose to be in the matrix of socio-cultural identifications my gay body embodies.
However failingly, I choose to be the love I seek with the pride of knowing who I am and what this knowledge demands in terms of social responsibility. For what is love without action? What is an inside job with nothing to show for itself on the outside — not in terms of being seen and heard but of seeing and hearing? Of modeling the kind of mirroring we all seek at tender ages?
And so I find justice in mercy, in forgiving the ones who refuse to see me, becoming increasingly more visible to myself as I exist at a cross-section of social forces, categories of being, by which I have come to identify and to which I hold myself accountable today. I understand that forgiveness is incomplete without an acknowledgement of wrongdoing from all involved parties. I don’t anticipate full reparation with my family in this sense but I am doing my part to begin the process of repair — within myself if not between me and the ones I love, who say they love me.
I also understand the importance of rage, of acknowledging it, of finding safe containers in which to express it without causing harm. By the same token, I’m willing to acknowledge that maybe my brother needed to be told to bug off. But then where has that left us?
This essay is one way for me to channel my anger so as to avoid inflicting further damage on already broken relationships. The naysayers will do as they do but to mine own self I hold true. No fire and brimstone in that. I do not need to become the despot I despise in order to feel better about my gay, white, male, Christian, fully human skin. For what I despise is a part of me, too — a hurt part, a wounded part, a lonely part — asking for the kind of love he’s never received but willing to give so that we might all experience the joy of becoming more visible to ourselves and, in this, each other.