Since early last week, when I received a comment from Aries Boy in Indonesia, on how difficult accepting himself as a young, gay man has been, I've had time to reflect on my own journey to self-acceptance, which, for the most part, happened over two decades ago.
As I think back, the biggest issues I had with accepting myself fall roughly under two headings:
1). What would people think of me when they knew I was gay?
2). What would I think of myself as someone who was gay?
What would people think of me when they knew I was gay?
Make no mistake, for as long as I remember, people knew I was gay just by looking at me (although, of course, I didn't believe it to be true or I denied it). If my appearance alone didn't tell them, then, surely, my voice inflections or my mannerisms did. I didn't go out of my way to be effeminate, I just was, partly because I was born that way and partly because I was raised with an absent or aloof father (not enough positive masculine influence) and an domineering mother (too much feminine influence).
There's a difference between suspecting someone is gay and having it confirmed. As long as people speculated I was but I didn't address it or kept denying it, there was always the chance I wasn't. And, despite all the indications to the contrary, people would give me the benefit of a doubt. On the other hand, when I confirmed it, then there'd be no doubt left in their minds, and, as a result, I'd have no choice but to accept whatever consequences came my way--mostly bad, I expected, based on people's opinions and feelings regarding gay men in general.
When I use the generic term "people," naturally, I refer to those nearest and dearest to me. I had only a few friends at school (mostly girls who were unattractive, overweight, or odd in some way that made them outcasts, too). So I could hardly afford to lose anyone within my immediate family who was the least bit close to me. Which, as I write this, seems strange now because I wasn't particularly close to any of my family members either (except, perhaps, my mother). But what I had was still something I needed to hold on to, since, without it, I'd have nothing at all.
A piece of this process for me was finally admitting to myself I really was gay. By the time I got to my early twenties, I knew I could no longer hold on to the hope I'd one day be interested in girls in the same way most other young men were. I just didn't look at girls, or young women, that way. While I could admire an attractive female for her beauty--and had for most of my life--I wasn't the least bit sexually turned-on by them. So, step one for me was, I knew once and for all I was gay and could no longer deny it. But that doesn't mean I accepted myself as a young, gay man--not yet anyway.
I'm getting a little ahead of myself in the story now--which I'll address in the second section of this post--but I got to the point, some time after acknowledging I was definitely gay, where I could no longer reconcile all the negative opinions and views and ideas people, or society, or our culture, held about gay people, now including me, with who I knew I was inside as a human being. I remember the exact time I woke up, not from sleep but from accepting all the crap I'd been led to believe about gay people. I remember saying out loud, I'm not like that. I'm not like that, and I don't deserve to be thought of or treated like that.
This awakening was a revelation to me, and it would change my life forever. Don't ask me, after years and years of being treated like crap and thinking of myself in the same way, where I found the internal strength to turn that around, but I did. Of course, the transformation didn't happen overnight. I still had some work to do to compare the widespread negative views held about homosexual men with the person I was, and to realize, little by little, I was better than all that. But, in my heart, I knew I was a kind and decent and good person, and, for the first time in my life, I began to stand up a little straighter (no pun intended) and to lift my head a little higher.
What would I think of myself as someone who was gay?
Perhaps the biggest obstacle I had to face, on the journey to self-acceptance, was overcoming my perceptions of gay men in general, based on what I'd gathered and experienced firsthand.
What did I know about gay men to that point? In addition to what I'd learned being gay supposedly was from my school classmates--all of which was negative and cringe-worthy--as well as the media, neighborhood gossip, and the like, my own experience with gay men was no better. Many had leered at me on the street, like dirty, old men lurking in the bushes; one freaky-looking one had told me point-blank he had a great, big hard-on for me; and another forty-something one from Vancouver had tried, when I was just thirteen-years-old, to pick me up so he could "show me a few things." Understandably, if this is what being gay was--that is, if there was even the chance I might turn out like any of these men--I wanted no part of it.
For many years, until well into my twenties, this was the perception I had of all gay men, whether it was true or not. I can't think of a single positive experience I'd had with anyone who was gay until I attended my first gay dance, which also happened to be a 1986 New Year's Eve party. There, I saw a variety of gay people, men and women, many familiar to me from the community, some who I imagined were probably similar to the ones I'd had experiences with previously, but many more who were just like me--good, kind, and decent people. In that regard, the dance was a pleasant, eye-opening experience.
In particular, I met a young man from Vancouver, who took a liking to me. Yes, I could have taken him home following the dance, we'd gotten along that well, but I didn't. Instead, what I took home was a lot of great memories of the time I'd spent with him, talking, dancing, enjoying each other's company. In many respects, that young man played an instrumental role in helping to change my opinion of gay men in general. No longer did I think they were all old and dirty with only one thing on their minds. Rather, I knew there were all kinds of gay men, many of them just like me.
That was one liberating experience. I came away from the dance not only feeling better about being gay--not nearly as riddled with shame as I had been before--but also knowing I could be whatever kind of gay person I wanted to be. I could define what being gay meant to me and not allow myself to be defined by what my misperceptions of it were, or what others's misperceptions of it were.
As I walked out of the basement of the old church on the corner of Ethel and Bernard early on January 1, 1986, where the New Year's dance had been held, I felt as though the weight I'd carried for over two decades had been lifted. I had yet to come out, which would unexpectedly happen in just a few hours, and which I knew would be one of the most difficult things I'd ever done, despite feeling so much better about myself, but I'd taken an enormous step toward self-acceptance. And I knew, whether or not my family accepted me as a gay man, I would somehow make it through. Somehow.