Like many young people, I had a dream of one day becoming a spy. I wanted to work for a government, living a life of danger as I dodged in and out of countries (complete with all of the technological accoutrement, of course). As I grew up, I came to see that my image James Bond was quite different than the reality of the situation: operatives didn’t have fantastical car chases or always get some exotic beaut. Although I never got the chance to go off and work as a secret agent, I realize that many aspects of my profession allow me to do things that I aspired to when I was smaller: I get to uncover information and, if I do my job well, outsiders will never know that I’ve been here, only that the result was accomplished.
I recently came across an individual who told me of his struggle to reconcile his faith with his sexual identity. This person mentioned his struggle throughout high school to understand who he was and mentioned how he viewed his orientation as something negative. Although he viewed himself as gay (and not by choice), he wanted to work toward becoming straight.
I should say that I read many stories every day but these accounts rarely affect me the way that this one did. As the message of this student processed through my brain, I flashed through the traditional stages of coping, working my way from anger to acceptance in record time. After the student had finished, I sat in stunned silence, letting waves of emotion pass over, and through, me.
I was never angry at this student, really, but more upset at the situation that he had found himself in. I was furious at the world that made him feel shame for what he was. What made me cry a little bit inside was the sense, to me at least, of self-hate that was evident in his voice; on a larger level, I was just heart-broken. I knew that it was not my job to mend him or even presume that he needed fixing, but I couldn’t stop myself from wishing that things were different for him or even just a bit easier.
I get the idea of not being proud of one’s minority status. I thoroughly enjoy my ethnic heritage, for example, but I’m not necessarily going to be participating in a festival. I mean, I’d go and walk around, but I just don’t care enough to host a booth or anything. But what I don’t understand, and honestly probably don’t ever want to understand, is the continued doubt, anxiety, and guilt that you place upon yourself for something that you can’t change. I know why the feelings are there in the first place, but I just don’t understand it when people refuse to let it go. And, while I recognize that you don’t have to like it, I do think that you have to accept some aspect of it.
I realize that as a minority you receive constant messages from society saying that you are “less than” or “different” or “other” but what happens when you start to internalize that thought? What happens when you view a part of yourself as a curse and a plague? We draw arbitrary lines in the sand, and around ourselves, defining who “we” are and daring others to cross. Our lives are a search for identity (and in that identity find meaning), a journey to understand how we fit in with the rest of the people who happen to inhabit this planet—so much of our self is relational. What happens when we begin to believe society’s message that who we are is all that we can ever be? What does it take to commit a form of genocide against ourselves, against our own people, killing off the very thing that makes us real? In this person’s battle, it seems as though he feels betrayed—but which part of him jumped ship?
I have a theory that we are so used to defining ourselves in certain terms because society at large says something about who we should be; if we let go of this characterization we have to craft a new identity for ourselves, which is a frightening prospect. It’s so tough to let go because we have to take a leap of faith and hope that we’ll discover something about ourselves on the other side of the chasm: all we can focus on is the idea of, “If I’m not that, who am I?” I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but one of the stories in “The Joy Luck Club” has always informed me: the idea that people often don’t know what they’re worth. There’s a power, I believe, in fundamentally understanding who you are but, in order to tap into that force, I think that you have to accept who you are.
I shift in my chair and realize that I agree with the individual’s claim that he could feel however he wanted, but I wonder if he can ever become not gay. Maybe it’s possible…I don’t know. I guess, at the end of the day, I’m filled with sorrow for the burden that this student has to bear. Life wouldn’t be easy for him even if he was “just” gay, but he seems to be struggling with an additional weight that only he can lift. Life isn’t simple for anybody and we all have our own baggage (often of our own making) but I just hope that he works this out. I don’t know him or his relationship to God, but something inside wants to scream, “I don’t believe in your God but I believe that your God loves you. God is love. One of God’s faces is the manifestation of love in its purest form. How can He not love you as you are?” I want to tell this person that life doesn’t have to be like this, that life isn’t always this difficult, and that I wish that he had someone to talk to.
I imagine that it would be difficult for anyone who has had to struggle with self-acceptance to read this student’s story, but, despite everything, I am also hopeful. I am hopeful that this individual gets to a place where it’s no longer about hate, or blame, or shame; a place where it’s no longer “us” versus “them.” I hope that he comes to a place where it’s not about fighting but about peace. I hope that this individual gets to the point where the lines blur and he realizes that we’re all “us” and we’re all “them”; I hope that this individual realizes that the solution has only ever been acceptance of some form. I hope that this student learns that it’s a process of growing, and, in that process of growing, developing acceptance. While I would say that this person doesn’t have to live a gay lifestyle if that’s not what he wants, I do wish that he would find a sense of calm. I am hopeful because this individual managed to take a risk, becoming uncomfortable for a second even though he ended up crashing and burning. I am hopeful that the fires of this student’s Hell will dissolve all that is unnecessary and allow the spirit underneath to shine. I am hopeful that this student will one day see that it is really about love, even if it’s just about learning to love yourself (which is the greatest love of all).