Monday, November 14, 2011

An Open Heart

This was a difficult piece to write.  I did not enjoy visiting this dark place, one I had to admit I have.  If you too are gay, perhaps you can relate to my words.             


On one of the first episodes of the new daytime talk show "Anderson," the host, Anderson Cooper, interviewed his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt.  During the course of the episode, viewers learned that, at just ten years old, Vanderbilt was the pawn in an ugly and highly-publicized custody battle between her mother and her aunt; her husband, Wyatt Cooper, died on the operating table during open heart surgery in 1978, at the age of just 50; and, ten years later, she watched as her son, Carter, jumped to his death from their fourteenth-floor New York City apartment, while she did everything to stop him.

I don't presume to suggest I've lived a life filled with the number and severity of tragedies and losses that Vanderbilt has in her eighty-seven years.  And yet, you might want to ask my parents if they didn't feel a sense of loss when I came out to them; if they didn't consider it tragic when the illusion of who they hoped I was, was replaced by a stranger in some respects--someone they'd have to come to terms with and learn to love again, someone who would force them to relinquish the dream of their little boy growing up to have a normal courtship and marriage, resulting in grandchildren.

And, if you could, you might want to ask that twenty-year-old young man I once was, who, in ways he wouldn't fully understand until decades later, lost his childhood and teenage years to the fear of being something he knew he could not be; who, when he should have been playing with other children his own age, was rejected by them, making him feel isolated and alone; and whose grade school experience was a living hell, defined by unrelenting verbal and physical abuse, for no other reason than he was who and what he was, which happened to be different from everyone else.

None of us sail through life free from tragedy and loss, darkness and adversity, and all of us are affected by it in one way or another.  The choice is always ours as to how we let it affect us. During the opening introduction of the episode on Vanderbilt, Cooper remarked that, despite what his mother had gone through, not only had she survived and thrived, but also she had avoided becoming hardened and tough.  Instead of growing a thick skin, Vanderbilt has always remained open to people and open-hearted.  While watching the program, I had to ask myself the question, could I say the same about me?

And the answer was, no, I can't.  As much as it shames me to admit it, the biggest challenge I have is with people.  Those who know me might be surprised to learn that.  When I first meet people, I seem open and accepting enough of them.  Because I know firsthand how it feels to be shunned and rejected, I go out of my way to be pleasant and personable.  I'm so certain they're able to tell I'm gay that I try to disarm them, to win them over, prove with a smile, a firm handshake, or a few appropriate pleasantries that, despite what they might suspect about me, I'm still all right.  I'm still worth knowing.  

Foremost in my mind, of course, is always the question, what if they didn't just suspect but knew for sure I'm gay?  How would they react?  I look for the little signs in their demeanors and mannerisms--the hand they hesitate extending to me; the embarrassed, uncomfortable flush that crosses their faces; the stepping away from me as though I could infect them.  In the event a mutual acquaintance introduces us, I wonder if he or she has said something in advance, as though my sexual orientation is the only noteworthy thing about me, as though they need to be prepared so as not to let on they know.

How much of this is paranoia on my part, and how much is out-and-out reality, I don't know for sure.  But what I do know is it's my reality as a gay man, and it's colored every interaction I have with people.  How can it not?  It's all I've known since I was a child.  My guard is always up.  I'm always on the defensive.  I'm always watchful and suspicious and untrusting.  On the surface, I appear like everyone else--willing to embrace people, to give them a chance, even to invest in friendship.  But in the back of my mind are the questions, why are you being nice to me? And, what do you want?  

A process goes on inside my head.  The questions run as though on a continuous reel: Would you have anything to do with me if you knew I'm gay?  Are you civil to me only because you think that's what's socially expected of you?  Are you going to try to get from me whatever you want, then reject me as was likely your first impulse?  Do you just tolerate being around me for the good of someone else, to keep the peace, to give the illusion of being open-minded and accepting?  Or do you wish you could be as far away from me as possible; wish I, and those like me, would just go away?      

And even when I think I have a genuine friendship going--the other person showing me in one way or another that he or she accepts me and has no problem with my sexual orientation--I still wait for cracks to appear.  I know they're there; it's a question of how close they are to the surface, the degree to which they're uncomfortable being around someone who's gay.  I wonder, do they talk about me behind my back?  If they do, surely, it can't be anything good.  After all, I'm gay, and everyone knows gay is wrong and immoral, so why should I expect anything different. The sad fact is, I don't.    

Every time we get together, they have another chance to screw up, to prove what they really think of me as a gay man.  Many people say they don't have a problem with gay people, but I'm not so sure.  As long as you don't get into anything too deep with them, they may not have a problem, but take the conversation to the level of those between heterosexuals and watch them squirm.  Few, for example, want to know about the difficulties inherent in finding a suitable partner.  Few want to hear about dating problems.  And, believe me, no one wants to hear about intimate issues, physical or otherwise.        

Yes, I'm an adult now, still falling back on old patterns of behavior I learned when I was in school--treating people I meet as though they're the children who bullied me, who destroyed my innocence, crushed my spirit, and forced me to be fearful of everything.  But where did the children I went to school with get the idea that being gay is bad, evil, and unacceptable?  From their parents, of course, from adults.  Kids don't come to this realization on their own--adults lead them there, usually through teaching them religious dogma, hatred, and intolerance.

I wonder if some, many, or most other gay and lesbian people have the same challenges I do being around straight people.  If they, too, would have to admit they don't have open hearts.  That they've been hurt too often, at the hands of too many, for too long, to remain vulnerable and gracious and beneficent.  If they've been burned so many times that they had no choice but to learn the hard lessons of what people can really be like.  And, as a result, they've shut themselves off, building a wall around them and trying, usually in vain, to reduce the possibility of being hurt again.  


  1. Well, Rick, this one I am going to respond to. When I think back 14 or so years to our first meeting, I didn't know you were gay. We kept the conversation to work-related talk, but I remember asking you some point blank questions in an attempt to get to know you. You answered very directly, and to this day I am so glad it was you, and not someone else, who told me you were gay. I also remember thinking at the time that it made no difference whatsoever.

    Over the years we've maintained a pretty open and honest friendship. We've shared a lot of successes, milestones, and even a good number of crappy situations. That's what real friends do. We may not spend a lot of time together or communicate on a regular basis, but I always know you are there for me, just as I am for you.

    So, here's the bottom line. When I think of you, you're simply my friend. I will reiterate my thoughts from that long ago first meeting - you being gay still makes no difference whatsoever.

  2. Interesting, Wendy, after all the posts I've written since you last commented, you were compelled to comment on this one. I'm glad you did.

    I remember that first time we met. My relationship with Chris was pretty new, and, although I was out of the closet, I was still tentative about telling people I didn't know well that I'm gay. You made me feel very comfortable, and I believed the risk in telling you about myself was minimal (that is, I didn't think it would get around the centre any more than it already had, or jeopardize my employment in any way--hey, you never know).

    I, too, value the friendship we have, and I reiterate everything you said. You and I have had some pointed email exchanges over the years (as was our last in-person discussion at Waves), and I've never once felt disrespected, as I hope you haven't. You'll admit we are two very different people, with different approaches to life and especially different views about organized religion. Still, we get along well, and our friendship means a lot to me.

    If I could just add that I believe this post says more about me, and my view of people, based on many bad past experiences and encounters, than it does about people in general. Still, I've learned a certain way of interacting with others (which I'm not proud of) that became clear through thinking about and writing this post, and it's something I realize I do automatically, without giving it any thought. I assume the worst, and I'm pleasantly surprised when it doesn't happen. But that doesn't account for anything negative said about me behind my back, which I've sometimes found out about later on. You never know.

    I realize what I wrote in this post doesn't put me in a positive light, and that's one of the reasons why I hesitated publishing it for almost two months after it was written. That said, yesterday, I received a wonderful email from a young reader who wrote my words give her the opportunity to consider her own closed heart and to look for ways, she said, of opening it a crack. THAT is why I shared this piece with everyone. I'm asking all of us to consider how we close ourselves off from others (in different situations, for different reasons), and, through our new awareness, to seek ways to let others in.

    File this one under understanding ourselves better, so we can learn to like and love ourselves more.

    Thanks so much for your comment.

  3. I think Dan Savage once said it would be helpful if all of the homophobes had blue clouds over their heads, so when he walked into a roomful of people, he'd know which ones really didn't like him, despite the fact they all seemed friendly enough. So your fears are probably not unique to you. One of my other favourite funny writers, Wade Rouse, wrote about the reactions people have to seeing him with his boyfriend, that it's either a discomfitted look with the slow dawning realization that they're a gay couple, or it's an indulgent smile, as they (supposedly) think, "Aw, look at the cute gay couple." It's weird all the second guessing people do, even us straights. I ended up on some public transit recently with a gay couple who were travelling with their infant daughter, and we chit chatted a bit about flying with babies, but I thought, would I go out of my way to smile at a hetero couple who were travelling with their kids? Probably not. And while I think on the one hand, it's nice to show a smile rather than some other look, it's too bad that I feel the need. I mean, if it truly doesn't matter, then I should see a gay couple getting on a plane with their baby, and my only thought should be, "Oh please let her sleep for the whole flight!", right?

    This is my long-winded way of saying that you're right, I think people do process things about people as they meet them, but do they process the fact of your being gay more than they would if you were different from them in another way--male versus female, religious versus not religious, conservative versus hippie? I think it's human nature to catalogue differences, and to quickly sort out compatibility. So it would probably be disingenuous to suggest that people don't notice at all, because it's human nature to do so, but does it matter, that's the main thing. Also, some people are just squeamish about discussing personal things, like sex. I have some friends with whom I've never discussed sex in over 20 years, and yet with my good friends, oy, there's nothing we don't talk about. It's funny, but my daughter was telling me she was talking to this gay friend of hers, but she didn't want to hear about his sex life, and he didn't want to hear about hers--basically, they're both completely squicked out by hearing too much information about sex at all, it was pretty funny. So personal comfort levels may have more to do with it than the gay/straight thing.

    And Rick, I promise I won't say anything behind your back, unless I see a picture of you wearing really high-waisted jeans, in which case, all bets are off.

  4. Sarah, I love the comments about Dan Savage and Wade Rouse. Boy, can I relate to them. The way you described what Rouse wrote is perfect. I get it. I know exactly what he's talking about. I doubt there isn't a gay couple around who hasn't had that experience at least once or twice.

    And may I say I love how you spoke to the gay couple with the child. Maybe you wouldn't have made the effort to speak to a straight couple with a child, but, for me, that's not the point. Through your friendliness, you showed your support of them. Do you know how many straight, judgmental people would have given them dirty looks (I'm sure they already have), first for being gay and second for presuming to be parents? Many straight people have no tolerance for gay couples raising children, for all the reasons I'm sure you're already familiar with. So, on behalf of the gay couple, thanks for being you and for making their day. You made a positive difference by being kind and warm.

    Thank you for making the comment that practically everyone assesses people upon meeting them for the first time. I know that has to be true. In the case of those who encounter gay people, though, I know they're thrust into facing feelings and judgments they normally don't encounter, and it's all too obvious how they feel and think through the small nuances of their body language, voice inflections, word selection, and the like. Most people are pretty awful at hiding their true feelings, especially in social settings where they feel pressured to respond in a way that's inconsistent with their constitution. If you're the gay person facing this, you have no choice but to grow a thick skin. It's unfortunate, but necessary.

    Thanks for the laugh about the high-waisted jeans. Please, if you ever see me wearing something like that, you have my permission to call the fashion police immediately and have me thrown in the clink where I rightfully belong. (But you know since I'm gay, I'd never be caught dead in those, right?)

    Great hearing from you, and thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed comment. I appreciate it.

  5. Hi Rick,
    I didn't see the television episode, but I don't think Gloria Vanderbilt's tragedies compare. She has dealt with great loss and turmoil, but for many LGBT youth (and adults) the challenges arise from personal rejection. For us, we have to be aware of becoming too guarded and too suspicious in our social interactions.

    I would love to say I don't care what other people think, but I have that Ellen (Degeneres) complex: I'd like people to like me.

    For the most part, I'm okay with women. Even if a woman thinks I'm bound for Hell, it's not as potentially unpleasant as meeting a straight guy. The guys were the ones who led the taunts when I grew up. The guys were the ones who would yell out of their cars as I walked home late at night along Davie Street. The guys are the ones that still make snide gay comments at the gym and on Skytrain. There is a reason for being guarded. There remains a fear of the unknown.

    What could happen?

    In time, as I get to know a few straight guys through work and as spouses of women friends, I relax and I think they relax, too. That said, I can only think of one straight man whom I'd call my own friend,...someone beyond a colleague or a husband of a gal pal.

    Sarah commented, above, about how nice it would be if homophobes had blue clouds over their heads. There was a time when I proudly drove a car with a pink triangle smacked on the back bumper. At times, I wouldn't mind a pink cloud over my head to make me a visible minority. Get things out in the open in case my stereotypical hand gestures and voice tone are not clear enough.

    As an adult, I'd say that, in many ways, the overt responses are easier to deal with than the covert (and the imagined covert).

  6. Rural Gay, one of the big reasons why I hesitated publishing this post is because I thought being gay, and everything that goes along with that, couldn't possibly compare to the tragedies and losses Gloria Vanderbilt experienced. But you are right. In many respects, ours are worse because of the constant personal rejection for who and what we are, which we have no control over.

    I agree straight boys and men are by far the worst in terms of the taunts and bullying. I don't recall even one girl picking on me when I was in school. That said, I wrote a post some time ago about a young woman, who opened her car window on Homer Street and yelled "fucking homos" at Chris and me. So the taunting can come from anyone, at the most unexpected times.

    I wish I had a good straight male friend, even one. Alas, again as I've written before, I miss that connection to my own gender, not in the form of a gay man but a straight one (it has to do with my masculine identity and validation). I think a lot would be gained from having such a friendship, on both sides, but straight men simply aren't secure enough to open themselves to us. And maybe we're not comfortable enough around them either.

    At the risk of repeating myself, I also wrote a post about what would happen to us if we had some physical identifying feature that told everyone we're gay, in the same way, for instance, African Americans have varying shades of black skin that tell everyone they're black. I wrote, what if we were born with unmistakable pink triangles on our foreheads? What then? Things would be out in the open, all right, but I can't imagine how much worse circumstances would have been for us over the decades. In some respects, we're lucky we can blend in; in others, I believe we're at a disadvantage, as you suggest.

    Oh, yes, haven't we all had experiences of being talked about behind our backs. I know it goes on, as I write in this post. It has my entire life. What really hurts is when it comes back to me, as it often does, and I learn what was said and who said it, especially if it was from someone I trusted. You go through only so much of that before you believe you can't trust anyone, resulting in shutting yourself off from people in general, including those you can trust. It's an unfortunate situation all around.

    Many thanks for your interest in my blog, and for taking the time to leave a comment. I appreciate your insight and your contribution to the discussion.

  7. I have to say that I force myself to keep an open heart with others.

    Simply due to the fact that I don't like being the person that I become when I question everything about a person's motives.

    Yes, it's natural, and indeed, necessary to have a filter that helps you decide the intent of a person's actions and how they affect you.

    As I continue to work on who I am, I know that I must become the change I want to see in the world. Though it's obviously something that has been around since before me, it becomes more and more true as I get older.

    I cannot react to people the way they react to me, or I'm one more 'lost' person bumping and crashing into others waiting for the next shoe to fall.

  8. Wow! Nicely put.

    I can't help but think everyone, straight or gay, struggles to keep an open heart, because of past unfortunate experiences that have shown us what people can be like. But, in writing this piece, and reflecting on some of my own experiences, past and recent, I think gay people really have to work at this.

    It's too bad we grow a thick skin, develop a chip on our shoulders, to protect ourselves and our hearts. But awareness is half the battle, right? When we become aware we do it, then we can change (be the change you write about).

    Thanks again. I appreciate your contribution to this conversation.

  9. Thanks for having such a wonderful blog. I am enjoying reading all your entries.

    I am one of the few fortunate young men I know who not only realized he was gay when he was 14, but also came out of the closet at that time. I came out to my family, and a couple of years later I was outed at school by a gossipy friend who just couldn't keep her mouth shut. As a result, I became very acquainted with what you are talking about in regards to social niceties and abuses.

    Because of the kind of work I do, keeping an open-heart is mandatory or I wouldn't be able to help others; but I too have felt the reluctance to do so when it comes to being gay. The source is a fear of being inflicted with pain. It's a classic pavlov reaction to past negative stimulus. You expect it even. But I'm finding that part of maturing is also returning to a state of innocence, to that time when we were young and didn't know what gay and straight were, or that how we felt could be categorized as right or wrong. We just existed, as we were. It was a time before the conditioning.

    I find that disarming other people is a matter of showing them unconditional love and compassion, and through doing so, they will end up having to choose between what their heart is telling them about you - which is that you are a kind and wonderful person - and what their social programming is trying to force them to believe. In my experience, people will choose the former over the later most times. That's what my parents did. I know it's not that way for everyone, but if you want to receive love, you also have to hold space for people to experience it. That's how you "hack" the social programming. It's tough to do this, I know... holding a space for love when you are afraid takes a kind of courage that most would rather just avoid. But I swear, this is the way.

    Changing hearts, not minds, is how this will be turned around.

  10. Greg, what a thrill to receive your comment. And I sincerely appreciate your kind words about my blog. I'm so happy you're getting something out of reading what I offer here.

    I can't imagine coming out at the age of fourteen. I give you a lot of credit for that--for knowing definitively what you were at such a young age, and for having the courage to declare yourself to your family. I think that says a lot about their love for you, and about how being gay is somewhat easier for young men and women who came of age after the '70s and '80s.

    I especially love the final thought you left us with, and I couldn't agree more. In the end, I'd like to think it's what the heart compels us to do that will always triumph, because, honestly, I don't believe the heart is ever wrong.

    That said, I don't think we can ignore the detrimental influence of religion, which, for many people, is more powerful than the heart or even family. It still astounds me that some people, because of their strict religious beliefs, outright reject previously cherished family members for nothing more than their sexual orientation. How can anyone ever justify that?

    Your advice is refreshing. I've written other posts here where I suggested the only way people will ever be won over, where gays and lesbians are concerned, is one person at a time. Truly, when we have the chance, I believe each of us is responsible for making the best possible impression, because each of us represents not just ourselves but all of us as a whole.

    Thank you for taking the time to write a supportive and helpful comment. I hope to hear from you again.

    Happy reading.

  11. The following comment was received from an individual named Ryan Hoody on Monday, June 11, 2012. While I appreciate all comments, particularly those that positively recognize what I'm trying to do with this blog (i.e.: restore self-esteem in gay and lesbian people so they make better, more self-respecting choices), sometimes, comments come cleverly attached to advertising that I don't approve of on my website. Such was the case with Ryan's comment, seen below:

    I'm glad you're willing to write about and share your experiences. Although heterosexual myself, my best friend in the world is gay and one of the most phenomenal individuals I've ever met. Perhaps that's half the battle with gay rights and legislation--most of the people making the decisions have never taken the chance to get to know gay people.

    Thanks for your words, and I think a significant paradigm shift is underway!


  12. Ryan, thanks for your comment. I appreciate your kind words.
    You'll note I've shared them with my readers in a different format from the specific comment you left. You can read my explanation for this in the above comment from me.
    Thanks again.