Tag Archives: independence

I don’t like disagreeing with people. I tend to do it badly. Either I’m silent when I should be vocal, which makes people assume I agree with them when I don’t, or I rip somebody’s head off about something that doesn’t matter at all, like the other night when I badly hurt a dear friend’s feelings during what was supposed to be a lighthearted argument about the merits of Bob Dylan as a vocalist.

I’m also not, as they say, a joiner. Is that a personality trait or a personality flaw? People are supposed to be part of things. But being part of things makes me scared, because what if the thing doesn’t go the direction I want to go? Or what if it stays at a place longer than I want to stay and I am stuck? Or what if it drives badly? …I perceive that I am talking, suddenly, about carpooling in somebody else’s car, which I also hate. But it comes to the same thing.

I just got inked again, a big visible tat this time. Did I do that because I wanted it? Or was it one more way to say to the world, “Hah, I’m an orthodox Catholic but I’m all tatted up, too! Plus I’m gay! What do you think of THAT, eh!? YOU CAN’T PUT ME IN YOUR BOXES.”

Being a lone wolf seems really cool and independent and, like, brood-y, when you’re a teenager or, okay, a twenty-something, but eventually — I speak from the vast age of 30, at which point I have of course left childish things behind me, completely and forever — it turns out to have been a pose. Like how in seventh grade, Tim S. and I used to stand on the sidelines while other people played touch football, and talk about how we were superior to all those dumb jocks because we enjoyed intellectual pursuits and we weren’t like everybody else.

But actually I was just scared, and I bet Tim was too.

You would think that the one community I’d be okay with joining would be a community of outsiders like me: weird first because we’re Christian, weirder because we’re gay, and weirdest of all, maybe, because we’re those things and also celibate.

But as usual I’m hesitant and scared. As usual, there are some pretty good reasons; and as usual, those reasons aren’t a good excuse for standing on the outside.

I was 14 when I realized I was gay. I thank God that it didn’t take too long for me to find a mentor — my often-quoted Father T — who was kind, patient, sympathetic, and didn’t mind my ringing his doorbell at all hours to come sob on his couch. But before I even found him, I found and devoured Father Harvey’s The Homosexual Person.

I haven’t picked up the book in over a decade, but I remember what a relief it was to discover that maybe the unacceptable feelings inside me were based on something good and true and beautiful, even if that something had gone askew. In college, I read Alan Medinger’s Growth Into Manhood, and began to try to live my life more or less by its principles. A couple of years after graduation, I plucked up courage to attend the Journey Into Manhood weekend put on by People Can Change — if you haven’t heard of them, they’re an ex-gay organization that is mostly areligious.

I’m profoundly grateful both to Medinger and to People Can Change. I believe that they both blessed and damaged me. But I still think the former has been deeper and more permanent than the latter — which, it now strikes me, could be said about a great many of the things and people I have loved.

When the ex-gay movement imploded — which is, I guess, a Thing That Happened, whose apex can be more or less dated to the moment when Alan Chambers issued his apology — I felt like the metaphorical frog in boiling water. All around me the movement had been slowly getting discredited, and I knew it was happening, dimly, but in the back of my mind I still held on to most of its principles; and when more and more people spoke out about how badly they had been hurt by it, I didn’t ignore them, exactly, but I didn’t quite take them seriously, either. But suddenly the water around me was unmistakably boiling.

So I’m in an odd spot. I can’t give up the things I learned from People Can Change and their ilk, at any rate not yet. Their broad-stroke narrative about the genesis of homosexuality still seems true in my case, even though I no longer hold out hope for the kind of change they used to talk about. I still think my love for men has a sizeable chunk of misplaced desire for paternal affection, even if it’s not fashionable to talk that way anymore. And I still don’t have any problem with calling homosexuality fundamentally disordered, despite the panoply of blessings that have entered my life by that strange gate, and continue to do so.

I’m still working all this stuff out. I just hope the cool kids still like me.

My seven-year-old niece is learning to play the piano, and I am her teacher.

The first few lessons were all uphill, until she discovered that what she thought was an imposition could instead be a challenge. Now I watch her face for the expression that means she’s found the live wire, the current: she’s caught hold of something she wants to know, and is riding that wave until she learns to crest it. She looks up, triumphant, waits for her high five.

My job is not to impress things on her mind, but to steer her in the right direction and let her natural tendencies take over. When I see frustration on her face, I ask if she wants to try something else. For her part, she can gratefully accept the offer, trusting that I’ll turn her towards something else that is good for her to know; or she can decide to be stubborn, hammer out the same five notes over and over, letting her frustration fuel her desire to conquer, pounding the pattern into her own brain by force of will.

Either way works, and the way that works best is the way she chooses.

Occasionally her will has to be overridden. There is something she doesn’t understand, and doesn’t understand that she doesn’t understand. It looks hateful and petty and pointless and senseless, but I will insist (though she thrash and whine) that she learn the difference between a quarter and a half note, because if she doesn’t then the next thing won’t make any sense.

If I, who am evil, know how to teach my niece Twinkle Twinkle, how much more does God the Father know how to teach me to sing with the angels? And I will thrash and I will whine, and sometimes I will thank him and sometimes I will blow raspberries at him.

He doesn’t mind, because he knows I am only seven.

“I remember,” I told my little brother on my last visit home, “when I realized that dressing fashionably wasn’t a betrayal of Gershom principles.”

I don’t mean my mother dressed me in flour sacks, growing up, or that there was ever a firm, spoken injunction against trying to look like we fit in anywhere. But aren’t unspoken rules the strongest kind?

When I was about 13, I was driving somewhere with my dad and we passed a Public School Kid,1 shuffling along with a t-shirt too big for him but not big enough to cover the boxers that showed above his sagging pants. He had two or three piercings. To my eyes, this was a scary, badass dude.

My dad let out his standard grunt/sigh of weary disapproval — this kid was everything that was wrong with the world! — and said, “Steve. Thanks for not being like that.”

He had no idea that what I heard was: “Thanks for not fitting in anywhere.”

Not Being Like That was one of the unspoken-but-firmly-established principles of Gershomhood, which included a whole list of things — some (as I now consider them) good, some bad, mostly neutral, but all verboten, under pain of disenfranchisement or at least mockery:

  • Eating conspicuously healthy food
  • Buying brand-name clothing
  • Being too intellectual
  • Being too lowbrow (with exceptions for The Three Stooges and Leslie Nielsen)
  • Hugging
  • Holding hands during the Our Father

Etc., etc. I don’t know whether this list seems consistent to the untrained eye, but to me the indefinable quality of Gershomhood runs through all of it, as unmistakable as a pungent odor, immediately identifiable to anybody with the right habit of mind.

It all had a weird power over me, due to my intense desire to belong. My fear at being caught listening to Celine Dion2 probably approached, in intensity, my fear of being discovered to be gay.

I’m not trying to tell you that my parents ruined my life by not encouraging me to use hair gel.

Yeah, it took me a while to understand — for example — that owning new furniture wasn’t a sin, and that going to therapy wasn’t a sign of weakness. But there’s nothing unusual in a kid unreflectively absorbing his parents’ preferences and turning them into prejudices. Some of it I probably made up myself and later attributed it to them; I wonder what my siblings’ list would include? (Feel free to chime in here, guys.)

After I had been at college for a little bit and had begun seriously to experience Other People, I think I went through a period of being sort of self-righteously un-Gershomly in front of my parents — I bet it really showed ‘em when I pierced my eyebrow3 — but eventually I settled down and just tried to do my own thing, whatever it was; even if it sometimes happened to coincide with the sort of thing my father would approve of.

To this day, though, I get a kind of transgressive thrill when I eat at a vegan restaurant, shake hands during the sign of peace, put on cologne in the morning, or call somebody “dude”.

What about you? What were your family’s unspoken rules? Do you still follow them, or have you forsworn them completely, or have you just plain stopped thinking about them?

1 The Public School Kid was a firmly-established archetype in my childhood. They swore, listened to Metallica, and wore their caps backwards, even when the brim would’ve been useful for keeping the sun out of their eyes. STOOPID.
2 I don’t really listen to Celine Dion. Or maybe I do. Do I even like her? I’m not sure. I’m just worried I don’t hate her as much as I’m supposed to.
3 I bet most passive-aggressive people would be surprised and chagrined at how often their vengeful strategems go — not ignored, not resisted — but completely unnoticed.

Sal

flameSal and I see each other every year or two. He’s the last of the three men in college that I tried to attach myself to, but unlike with the other two, once the infatuation faded, I still wanted to be his friend.

Sal is an extraordinary person — affectionate, compassionate, and profoundly unconventional. He led a life that, at the time, I considered extremely romantic: never staying in one place for too long, picking up a job here or there, going homeless for long stretches of time. He’s also the only straight guy I know who likes hugs more than I do, and he doesn’t seem to wonder whether people think he’s odd for it.

By the time I became friends with him, I had learned what could happen when I didn’t guard my heart, and how easily affection could turn into obsession and dependency. We were roommates my senior year, which was the only year he spent there before moving on to something else.

He was hard to guard against, though. Once, before spring break, he gave me a poem he had written for me. Nothing sappy, nothing particularly about me, but it was for me, written with me in mind. I remember standing on the porch at home, reading the thing and feeling the warmth spread. Feeling pleased and worried at the same time, because I knew where that warmth could lead. It had happened twice before and I was terrified that it would happen again.

The first few years of our friendship were a battle for me. I was learning how to be close to another man without being too close; to admire but not to worship, to let down my walls without erasing my boundaries. Our occasional visits were intense and poignant: standing next to all that warmth, I wanted to throw myself into the fire.

A lot has happened since those years. I’ve learned a lot about standing on my own, not depending on others too much for my sense of self, being my own man. But I was still knocked for a little bit of a loop when Sal showed up at my door a few weeks ago, at the end of a spell of vagrancy, wondering if I was looking for a roommate.

He’s been sleeping on the couch since then. He’s got a job at the gas station down the road, working the graveyard shift. I don’t exactly know what to do with him. We’re as close as we’ve ever been, but the old charge is all but gone, thank God. I’ve prayed about it, I’ve sought the advice of Father T, and in both cases the answer has been the same: Do what you want to do, and what you think is best.

Just got to figure out what that is.