Interestingly, the questions asked by Steve (below) are issues I have been privately wrestling with for a while. Steve asks:
What is it like to have spent 20 years not being able to be your true self, no matter how sincerely? What is it like to start over in the dating pool when you’re not 20? Do you feel, in any way, that those years are, “lost?” – Steve S.
First question, “What is it like to have spent 20 years not being able to be your true self, no matter how sincerely?”
I was in the ex-gay world for a little over 23 years and in leadership of some sort for 20. The first time I was “out” in the ’80’s, I was not a very healthy or responsible person. I didn’t have good coping or relational skills and plenty of dysfunction as a result of abuse and trauma. So when I became a Christian, I didn’t have a broad sense or definition of “true self” until I entered the ex-gay/Exodus International world. It was all new to me; there was very little healthy personal experience to counter it.
The world I had entered into disarmed my skepticism with humility, compassion, and friendship. I believe they genuinely wanted to love me and believed that the only way to do that was to encourage me to overcome my “struggle.” Alan Downs in his excellent book “The Velvet Rage” describes that type of dynamic very well. He calls it “inauthentic affirmation.” They taught, encouraged, and affirmed a false reality. They, of course, didn’t see it as “false” and genuinely believed it is their only real way to affirm me and because I was starving for attention and affirmation, I allowed it to happen. Then I internalized and echoed the systemic bias. False or not, any affirmation on a core level was like food to the starving. And, I ate it up.
In my heart of hearts, I knew I was not living out my “true self.” However, I was also afraid of the consequences of “going back.” Since I had not experienced much of life as a truly healthy gay man before that point, the fears of repeating past hurts as well as the unknown fueled by the stigmatized views I had adopted kept me where I was for a very long time.
What might be surprising to some people is that “overcoming homosexuality” wasn’t the only topic taught in these groups. I did develop healthy coping skills, overcame co-dependency and emotional dependencies, and overcame fear of other Christians. Lots of peripheral issues were addressed that did impact my life for good. I also discovered my innate gifts and strengths that I still operate in today. So, because I was experiencing some forms of healing and growth, I thought my sexuality was “changing.” It was taught that dealing with all that would help me “overcome” my “same-sex struggle.” Plenty of things changed except of course my sexuality. Now I know that the peripheral issues should have just stood on their own and not be forced into the ex-gay worldview. As a gay man, I should have found those same lessons in the broader church environment and resources, not sequestered away in the church closet with unattainable idealized goals.
Next: What is it like to start over in the dating pool when you’re not 20?
Well, it’s interesting. I tried a few of the dating apps early in 2015 and didn’t enjoy them. Might check them out again but not rushing to download. Life is SO different than when I was out in the ’80’s. I dated two guys last year, one for about six weeks and one for almost six months. I respect them both and love the man I was with for six months. I am glad we were together.
However, I spent two decades trying to convince myself that I was divinely “called” to celibacy. I dated one woman during that time for a year (2005), but other than that, I conditioned my brain to think of life stemming from a celibate frame of reference. It’s been hard to get my brain in the game of being open to dating. Not because I don’t want to, I do. But I am so used to not doing it; it’s hard to recognize when a fella might be interested. Then, when I flirt, I am such a goober goofball! Even with those two men last year, it was a surprise to end up on a date with them. 🙂
Seriously, think about it, 23 YEARS of thinking I would be single till I died. Now, even though I look forward to being with the man I can hold, enjoy, and love life with, my habits and thoughts don’t often veer into “go on a date” realm. I also recognize I am learning lessons and having experiences many people obtain when they are younger goober goofballs :). It’s weird being a 48-year-old dealing with the romantic feelings, notions, and lessons usually experienced in the early 20’s. Some of it is very humorous, and at other times I feel embarrassed.
All of that said, I am a quick learning goofball and have already edited the new application for potential Mr. Future Thomas-Husband. 🙂
And the biggie (to me), “Do you feel, in any way, that those years are, “lost?”
Earlier this year, through our mutual friend Daniel Karslake, I met Don & Craig Barton. They have been together for 25 years, married with children, and have a beautiful life together. They just sent their twin daughters off to college. They are successful, spiritual, humble, kind, gracious, funny and I just love how much they love each other and those around them.
When I look at them I don’t think, in any way, “I could have had that life.” I don’t envy them or have any sense of jealousy. When I see their posts on Facebook or have visited with them at a couple of events since our first meeting, I am simply happy for them and enjoy their company. I find them encouraging and inspiring.
Don and Craig met one year before I went to my first ex-gay group meeting. While they built a life together, I lived within the false confines of adopting beliefs born out of stigmatized religious teachings and unnecessary cultural burdens. While I am not comparing my life to theirs, I have wondered what would have happened if I went to a gay church instead of the ex-gay group all those years ago. Could I have met the man of my dreams? Raise children? Be successful in a career path not hijacked by being “called” to be a celibate ex-gay leader for so long? Maybe, and maybe not.
The “what if my life had…?” game is not something I like to play around with regarding the past. However, for around 20 years I didn’t allow myself to ask “what if” type of questions in the present. I lived in a world of inauthentic affirmation that in effect blinded and limited me from true romantic love, personal fulfillment and the freedom to explore life from my God-given core relational state of being as a gay man. Asking “what if…?” is a necessary and catalytic question for me in the present. It’s a question I did start asking a few years before we decided to close Exodus. I believe that God led me down that path and out of that false ideological prison and toward this life-giving new direction and journey.
The way I arrived at the observations in the above paragraph has been raw and sometimes awful. I have wept, grieved, even despaired a couple of times for the “lost” opportunities. It’s been hard to recognize, adjust and live with the consequences/limits on the possibilities I have now. I’ve struggled with bitterness and depression over the “what if’s” that could have happened over those years if I had not been involved in the ex-gay world. It’s all a little too much sometimes.
While I have flashes of that depression/anger still, I am coming to peace with all of it. The truth is, I have a good life today and a hope-filled future. Life is good, our Creator is good, and I am glad to be who I am and where I am at now.
What I have not lost
What I didn’t lose is my love for Christ and His love for me. We have an amazing relationship and our spiritual communion has always been intimate. I have not lost the steadfast friends I made during that time and survived the Exodus Civil War, it shutting down, and my coming back out of the closet. I heard many life-giving sermons, amazing transformative teachings, and read many many great books. Over those years I did have wonderful experiences and have always sought to gain wisdom and understanding. All of this, learning from the good and bad, hopefully, has equipped me to be a healthy/responsible gay man in a number of ways.
So, yes, I “lost” quite a bit because of being involved in that world. But, our Creator is good and being gay is one of the many gifts he has built into my life. I am at peace with being a big gay goober goofball, maybe for the first time; and that’s ok. It’s also my hope that by sharing my experience other young people will steer clear of ex-gay ideology and making some of the choices I made.
Being free is good.