Why I Forsook Gay Identity, Part 2: What Gay Identity Meant To Me

In this post, I’m going to briefly describe a few characteristics of gay identity as I experienced it, in order to give some idea of what I’m talking about before I spend the rest of the series sharing why I became concerned about that identity. It’s not rigorous analysis or anything, but I hope it will help flesh out a little what my gayness meant to me. 

(Note:  I am not pretending to define the word “gay” here.  When I talk about gay identity, I’m talking about patterns of thought, ways of seeing oneself, what kind of significance we ascribe to our homosexual attractions, what they mean to us.) 

And yes, I’m very aware that the identity I’m about to describe is strikingly immature in some respects.  Several of the things I talk about would probably only be issues for a younger or freshly out gay person, as most people tend to mellow a bit as they grow up and get on with their lives. And some of this is possibly also very ’90s.  So…if you want to make fun of me for having been a gay teen in the ’90s, well, you’re a little late to that (well-attended) party, but go right on ahead. 

Importance

I saw my gayness as a very important, perhaps the most important, fact about myself.   I’ve said elsewhere that if you had asked me to describe myself in three words, “dyke” would have been one of them. But that was an understatement. In fact, if you’d asked me to describe myself in one word, “dyke” would have been it, even after becoming a Christian.  Every morning when I looked in the mirror, the first thing I saw a dyke, and was quite pleased by that. When meeting other people, I felt that if they came away from our encounter not knowing I was gay (if that were possible!), they hadn’t really met me and they didn’t know who I was at all.

Tribalism

I felt this powerful bond with other queer people, that our shared sexuality was this hugely significant thing. I would sometimes feel I had more in common with a gay girl who was otherwise nothing like me than a straight one who was practically my clone in every other respect. It went way beyond the ordinary affinity that comes from shared experience or adversity.  Gay people were my people.  In my isolated small-town teens, I longed for the day when I could surround myself with them, as my high school had little more than a handful of troubled closet cases. Upon arriving at college, I threw myself into queer circles energetically, and later found myself in a bit of a social pickle when my conversion snuck up on me all of a sudden. After I became a Christian, I was tormented by feelings of guilt from being such a traitor, but nonetheless continued to feel a much stronger connection to gay people than to my new “family” of believers in Christ.

Superiority

I saw my gayness as being about far more than sexual or romantic inclinations. It was about having all sorts of other qualities, about being a generally superior sort of human being. All kinds of virtues were attached to gayness in my mind–a clever wit, an independent streak, a creative bent, a knack for sports (on the girls’ side), a flair for design (on the boys’ side). Of course, I didn’t actually possess most of those, but I belonged to a group that did, which was just as good.  I savored those studies and reports which claimed that gays were smarter, more successful, and contributed more to society than straights.   There was also a sense of identification with the accomplishments of the Great Queers of History, a sense of pride in their awesomeness, as if the achievements of Sappho, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Alan Turing, and Bayard Rustin were something for me to brag about. I blush to remember this, but in high school I once indignantly declared to a hetero classmate that while everyone had their vices, few were worthy of the vice of great men.

Nobility of the Cause

Being gay was something that was always worth suffering and fighting for.  This started in middle school.  I’ve learned recently from talking to straight people who were picked on, beaten up, etc., as kids–for being geeks or losers or whatever–that the mistreatment they endured never held any great meaning for them.  It was just a profoundly unpleasant experience, a miserable time of their lives, and they were just glad when it was over.  In my mind, however, my suffering at the hands of my peers on account of my queerness was woven into the struggle for gay rights, this grand cosmic narrative of good versus evil.   Somehow, just by being myself in spite of the consequences, I felt I was fighting a little battle in the great war for justice and freedom and equality, doing my part for the cause. (In retrospect, that was all incredibly silly, but it sure did help me survive early adolescence.)

Once I got out of high school and away from my parents, I tried to make myself as queer-looking as possible, but unfortunately most people just assumed I was a straight boy. (Or occasionally a gay boy, which made for some awkward situations!) So I stuck all these gay buttons on my backpack, hoping some ignorant hetero would notice and get in my face about it. The few times I did get serious negative attention, I was admittedly a bit frightened in the moment, but after it passed I would be very proud of myself for being such a fighter and messing with those bigots’ comfort zones. (Miraculously, despite my mother’s dire predictions, I never got gay-bashed during this time, although I did have to call upon my gifts as a sprinter on one occasion.)   I saw Matthew Shepard not as a victim, but as a martyr. I was very out, and was convinced that anyone who didn’t instantly respond well to that wasn’t someone who was worth knowing. I gloried in discrimination and homophobia in the way that some American evangelicals yearn for persecution and harassment to the point of hallucinating it.  I was a zealot.

Essentiality

I used to think that my gayness lay at the very heart of who I was. That it was somehow tied to my essence, in a way that was unlike almost any other desire or trait. More essential perhaps than even my gender/sex. (Gender was a collective social fantasy, but sexual orientation, now that was real. That was BIOLOGY.) Certainly on an entirely different plane than any other kind of sexual preference or taste. I can hear the voices in my head even now: “How dare you call it a taste? How dare you suggest that it is a preference? It’s at the core of your being! Your bones are gay! Your soul is gay!”

Normativity

I saw myself as someone who was meant to be with a woman. My gayness meant that the proper shape of my life, if all went well, would involve Ms. Right(s).  It was part of what I was made for, in some incoherent atheistic sense. Even after my conversion to Christianity, I still found myself feeling this weighty sense of normativity and telos. The Bible seemed clear on this subject, and the Christian witness over the millennia seemed even clearer, but how could they be right? How on earth could a good God possibly not want me to be with women? Wasn’t that cruel and destructive of Him, preventing me from being what I was supposed to be, from fully living out what my life should be like?

Celebration/Delight

For me, seeing myself as gay meant seeing my same-sex attractedness in and of itself as something to celebrate and delight in. It made me different, it made me special, it made me extraordinary, it set me apart from all those run-of-the-mill breeders. I saw it as an asset. I saw it as a beautiful thing. I saw myself as transcending the petty, trivial distinctions of sex and gender. I saw myself as a true lover of women, one who could appreciate their worth, care for them, and love them in a way that no man ever could. I saw same-sex love as being a higher love than any other, precisely because of its biological purposelessness, and considered myself gifted that such a love came so easily to me. 

Attachment

I was very attached to the homosexual direction of my sexual attractions, and generally found the thought of their changing horrific. Perhaps in my preteen years I would have considered the hypothetical “straight pill,” but by the time I was an older teen I definitely would have spat it in the face of whoever was offering it to me. I had fought too hard to be queer to let it go, even if doing so would have made my life easier in many ways.

(go on to part 3…) 

24 Responses to Why I Forsook Gay Identity, Part 2: What Gay Identity Meant To Me

  1. franksta says:

    “Gay teen in the 90s”–gack, you’re young.

  2. franksta says:

    Oops, wasn’t finished. This is really good. A lot of your points, especially Essentiality and Normativity need to be understood by the straight Church (labels, labels) in regard to how they communicate with those with SSA.

    Interestingly timed article from the NY Times:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/01/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/01RParenting.htm

  3. [...] is just stacked). Sometimes, you make up for the disadvantages you suffer by being X by making X a huge part of your identity, and making your membership in X a noble [...]

  4. Maureen says:

    This is exactly how I felt, until the last few years, about being a science fiction fan, and in school, about being a nerd. Hm.

  5. Jenn says:

    This is so random, but I wonder if I have to feel the same way. Becasue lately I have been thinking that it doesn’t matter what my sexuallity is, because I am not defined by it. I am defined by who I am and who I touch in this lifetime. I don’t know, I’m just freakin’ confused for sure…

  6. Ben says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I always enjoy reading your insights.

    Six months ago I would have argued with you over the appropriateness of a Christian identifying him- or herself as “gay.” Something changed in those six months, and here I am comfortably using that label for myself. I think I got sick of trying to hide from it, and of not acknowledging what really goes on inside me, despite all the years I’ve spent coming to terms with my sexuality and being fairly certain about how it relates to my faith and vice versa. I don’t fear it any more and I no longer run from it.

    I used to be involved in an Exodus referral ministry and I took issue with people referring to themselves as ex-gay. I found the term harmful, but I don’t remember exactly why. Maybe it was because I don’t like the idea of negative identity, defining ourselves by what we’re not. (Perhaps it was also because the “ex-gays” were just as gay, for all practical purposes, as those who identify as gay.) I was more keen on calling myself a “child of God” (really the only label that should matter to Christians, no?) and forgetting all the other stuff. I think I mentioned that idea in a comment here once and got shot down.

    Your post made me think of how I have felt for many years like I do not belong with Christians, socially. Ever since I was in college I’ve noticed that they’ve been my non-Christian friends who seem to genuinely like me the most, accept me, and have more in common with me. And just as long as it’s been true, I’ve found it frustrating.

    A minor pet peeve: I decided long ago that I wasn’t going to force myself to like sports, and it seems that no matter what church I’ve been involved in, there isn’t much else that guys have to talk about with each other. Nodding along gets real old. :)

  7. ck says:

    Just wanted to say I’m enjoying & looking forward to more. I like the term “spectacularly butch” as it combines the oft-mistaken-for-gay-boy-ness in the first term with the masculinity in the second. I actually enjoy being able to use the men’s room when there’s a line for the women’s :)

    Nothing more substantive to say tonight, so I’ll just wait for part 3…

  8. [...] I did it was by reading St. John of the Cross and then this essay by Disputed Mutability (found via Eve Tushnet). Annoyingly, I can now see that I tricked myself into this same sort of [...]

  9. Anonymous says:

    Hmmm, the first part made more sense than part 2. In some way :)

    This Part 2 said you tried to be what you weren’t, which is of course a silly course of life. Conformity. Expectatons. Bound for Failure in a big fat handbasket, some day. And nobody should do that.

    Although, we must say, that “identity politics” etc etc never made any sense to us. Butch/Femme… huh???? Gawd, we drove some lesbians mental with our indifference in the 90’s. And ya know, we really like hanging out with their husbands and kids today :)

    Like CK, waiting for Part 3 with baited breath. Cheers dear!

  10. Jay says:

    Hey DM,

    This note is to let you know that I’ve awarded you the Thinking Blog Award for blogs that make you think. If you’d like to participate in this award:

    1. Simply add the graphic to your blog and link it back to The Thinking Blog.
    2. Write a post awarding 5 of your favorite blogs that make you think.
    3. A link back to the person’s blog who awarded you would be appreciated =)

    That’s all there is to it! I’m presenting this award to you because your blog make me think on a regular basis. Be blessed and pass it on!

    The graphic can be found here: http://www.thethinkingblog.com/2007/02/thinking-blogger-awards_11.html

    That is also the link to the post detailing the award which you should link your award to.

    Here’s the link to my post mentioning your blog:

    http://collegejay.blogspot.com/2007/04/thinking-blogs.html

    Blessings,
    Jay

  11. Maureen:

    Welcome, and thanks for sharing your thoughts. When I first saw your comment, I was totally baffled. “Science fiction fan? Seriously?” I could imagine other kinds of identities working that way…but not that one. But after reading your own post, it made a lot more sense to me.

    Jenn:

    I’m SURE you don’t have to feel the same way. I think I was particularly hardcore and obsessive about my identity, which is probably why it gave me so much trouble.

    Ben:

    Welcome back! :)

    One thing that I think is very relevant is where we are coming from. If someone is coming from a place of denial and shame and confusion and silence regarding their sexuality, then I could see the word “gay” making a lot of sense for them. (Which is why I try to say in my previous post that I don’t want to make this too much about words, but more about the meanings and associations we ascribe to words, and why I’ve tried so hard to emphasize that I don’t think this is a one-size-fits-all kind of issue.) But if someone’s coming from a place of being super-fired-up about their gayness and totally in love with it, like I was, then maybe a different approach makes sense? I remember my college disicipler telling me “You know, you could stand to be a little more ashamed of yourself.” :)

    I agreed with you totally about “child of God” as one’s primary and ultimate identity, and I suspect that most other identities can readily turn into distractions or temptations. But I still think there’s a place for acknowledging the influence that certain characteristics can have on our selves and our lives.

    I think the negativity of terms like “ex-gay” is sort of a mixed bag. On the one hand…yeah, you don’t want to put a ton of emphasis on what you’re not instead of thinking about what or who you are. We shouldn’t be defining ourselves primarily in reaction to what we’re not. At the same time, though, I think there’s a place for acknowledging one’s past and how one has changed over the years. Who I’ve been is part of who I am. Anyhow, mostly I use the word not because I’m in love with it as an identity, but because I can’t think of a better word that’s as readily understood. If I want to butt my head into the ongoing conversations about exgays, it makes it easier if I use that label myself.

    Finally, I’ll be talking more about my experience with the Christian friends / non-Christian friends thing in my next-to-be-written part of the series, part IV. So I’ll leave off saying much about that for now.

    ck:

    Actually, “spectacularly butch” was inspired by a remark you recently made on Warren Throckmorton’s blog, where you said something about being “reasonably butch.” I thought “reasonably” was an awfully funny modifier to use, and I decided that I wanted to gesture in the direction of something altogether beyond reason. :)

    I never actually used a men’s room when there were other men in it. I don’t know why–I guess in retrospect it seems like the obvious solution to the problem. I suppose I was always nervous that as soon as I entered the men’s room, that would be the one time in a million that I didn’t pass. Or that I would get read as a gay boy.

    Anonymous:

    (don’t I know you from some other blogs?)

    I never really thought of it as trying to be what I wasn’t. I suppose that would be the Exodus take on it, but it doesn’t really make much sense to me. I felt very at home in the sort of identity I describe above, up until and even during the period in which I decided that I had to give it up. Yeah, I had some some obvious conformity issues, which I don’t doubt I would have outgrown naturally if my life hadn’t gotten derailed by the whole conversion thing. I’m not defending the sort of identity experience I had, saying that’s what people ought to do. I’m just describing what it was like for me, in all my stupidity. :)

    LOL regarding your remarks about identity politics and your indifference, and especially the “we really like hanging out with their husbands and kids today” part. Perhaps any definitive statement a woman makes about her sexuality is a little bit like building one’s house on the sand.

    Jay:

    Thanks. :) I don’t really do memes–too many traumatizing experiences with chain letters in elementary school–so I don’t think I will pass it on. But I am honored.

  12. I think of myself not so much as butch (even “reasonably,” let alone “spectacularly”) as just really not femme. Clothes and fashion don’t come naturally to me.

  13. Steve Boese says:

    Hey DM… I’ve been reading up on your identity series… very sweet and thoughtful stuff.

    Much of what you describe here speaks to misconceptions and fears I had in 1993 about what the coming-out experience would be like for me… changing a core kernel of myself, separating from one tribe in order to align with another. I was married and had not talked to anyone about feeling attracted to other guys, and didn’t feel like I was leading half a life or being counterfeit.

    I love your emphasis on critical thinking, too, in your thoughts about Peterson’s show… in my background, that was perceived to be essential to faith and values.

    Thanks for all your good work…

    –Steve

  14. Lynn:

    Yeah, I’ve sort of moved into the realm of “really not femme”. It’s taken some getting used to, but I’m pretty cool with it now.

    OPHO-Steve:

    You make me laugh…only you would find this sweet! Thanks for sharing your thoughts about your experience of coming out at a later age–it’s sort of a fascinating contrast for me because I can’t imagine what that would be like. It took all the strength I could muster to keep quiet about my sexuality til the age of 15–which coincidentally would have been 1993. :)

    And yeah, the critical thinking thing is real important to me. My mind is probably full of errors, but at least they are of my own making!

  15. I knew nobody who was out and gay, when I was 15. I didn’t even know that my nearest out and gay relative was gay; he lived far away, and none of the adults in the family told me that part until I was in college (freshman year, when I wrote my father to tell him about getting involved with some gay rights activity combating some seriously homophobic ballot proposition, Dad mentioned this gay relative to me in his letter back, as if I was supposed to have known about him all along).

  16. Yeah, I didn’t know anyone personally who was out and gay when I was 15 either, but for some reason that didn’t seem relevant at the time. :)

  17. Steve F. says:

    Hmmm…I knew that I was different at 15, but nothing more than that. I knew people who were gay when I was 17 – but I wanted no part of it at that point. I spent the next 33 years trying to fix/change/repair myself, or trying to get God to do so. Nothing.

    You’ve posted some well-thought out, deeply personal writings here…and I don’t want to ever call into question your experience. This is definitely your road, and I’m glad to honor it.

    However, you and I have definitely had radically different experiences. Rather than try to cram it all in here, I posted it to my blog over here.

    Thanks for sharing your story, and contributing to the discussion. As Jay says, you are definitely one of the most reasonable ex-gay voices I’ve heard – and I’m grateful for that.

  18. Hey Steve F,

    Welcome, and thanks for sharing your thoughts, here and on on your blog. Yep, we sure have had some different experiences. :) Sorry for my slowness in replying to your blog…I should have a response shortly.

    dm

  19. Ned says:

    Hi there — been reading your blog, I was linked to it via our mutual friend Bob who I believe had linked you to mine.

    It’s interesting that we arrived at similar conclusions w.r.t. the notion of a “gay identity”, but via very different routes. However, I’m not ex-gay at all — I’ve been in a very stable relationship for about two years now (though I have no problems calling myself bisexual). My perspective is different because it is more based on Eastern spirituality and my own spiritual experiences, but my main people Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were 20th century spiritual synthesizers, and in some sense, their work is a synthesis of the essentials of Hindu spirituality and mystical Christianity.

    One comment I have to offer is that a lot of the problems that you attribute to the “gay identity” aren’t necessary essential to gay (or non-gay) relationships at all. In fact they are all characteristic of the narcissistic human condition in general, gay or non-gay, black or white, male or female, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. They are all characteristic of *ANY* exclusivist human identity — an identity based on the illusion of a separate sense of self. So there’s no point in stereotyping *any* group — whether it’s gay people or queer people or whatever.

    I just see myself as a soul who is in a relationship with another soul, and both of us just happen to embody female bodies.

    I think my perspective might be a bit too New Age-y for you! However, I really appreciate some of the points you have mentioned in this post. If you’d like to get in touch with me, by all means drop me an e-mail. Thanks for the unique perspective, and blessings on your path.

  20. Ned:

    Hi! Yep, I found your blog through Bob–really fascinating stuff. One doesn’t often find something *different* on the web, and, you sure are different. :) There’s a lot to take in there…it’s not so much that it’s too New Age-y, it’s more that it’s coming from premises and a perspective that I’m very unfamiliar with. But yeah, as far as I can tell, there seem to be interesting resonances between our conclusions.

    I agree that the problems I describe here could in one way or another arise with other kinds of identity, especially if the social circumstances were conducive to it. So yeah, I wasn’t specifically trying to attack gay identity across the board, as opposed to all other identities. It’s more that…for me…gay identity was my problem. This doesn’t mean that it’s a problem for everyone, or that people can’t have the exact same sorts of problems with other identities, but for me, that’s how it worked out.

    I think we have pretty different ideas about the self and the body/soul relationship and the gender thing, though. :) But I think I’d need to take more time to learn your views more thoroughly before having anything remotely intelligent to say about that disagreement.

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, and blessings to you as well.

  21. Ned says:

    Hi here, thanks for your reply.

    You’re right about our (from my perspective superficial and surface-level) differences. I am interested in occultist-mysticism which tends to be considered heresy in most religious circles. The perspective I’m drawn to is emanationist, nondual, evolutionary, and panentheistic — all in God, God in all, and all *as* God. But I’ll be the first to admit that practicing this yoga is one of the hardest things I have ever attempted in my entire life — it is really about learning to die without dying.

    In Christian mysticism I can think of Meister Eckhart, Teilhard de Chardin, Simone Weil and Thomas Merton who have espoused similar ideas. In contemporary circles, Matthew Fox’s works have appealed to me.

    Well, that’s about it. Take care and good luck (or rather providence ;-) ) with everything! Peace.

  22. Ned says:

    Oh, and I almost forgot — Jacob Boehme! I recently read a paper comparing Sri Aurobindo and Jacob Boehme and the things they write about are uncannily similar.

  23. [...] She wrote an excellent three part series on Why I Forsook My Gay Identity. Read Part I and Part II and Part [...]

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