Sunday, April 8, 2012

"I Don't Want to Be Gay": What Do You Say to a Friend Who Wishes He Were Someone Else?

"Can I talk to you about something important?"

While I always welcome questions outside of the normal range -- "Where are you from?" What do you do?" "Top or bottom?" -- and I'd do anything to help a friend, I can't think of eight worse words in the English language: "Can I talk to you about something important?" They're right up there with "We have to talk." They're never followed by anything good.

At least I knew my friend wasn't about to break up with me. But what he revealed after a dramatic brace-yourself-for-a-whopper build-up that had him apologizing in advance for what he was about to say actually may have been as difficult to hear as "I want to see other people" or "Let's take a break." Not because of what he said but because of how tortured he looked while he was saying it. If I felt that way, I can't begin to imagine how incredibly tough this revelation must have been for him.

"Jeremy, I don't want to be gay."

There he said it. To see the look on his face, you would think he couldn't possibly have said anything worse. It was like he thought that I might interpret his words as a personal insult. It's not that he has anything against gay people, my friend explained. It's just that he doesn't want to be one of them. It's not even that he wants the wife and kids and white-picket fence. It would just be so much easier if he did. Compounding his personal dilemma was a moral one: What would his ultra-religious family think?

With or without the religious angle, it's a question that plagues every gay person in one way or another before coming out. For some, it's a matter of disappointing your parents, or being completely ostracized by them. For my 23-year-old friend, it's a matter of disappointing not only his parents, but his entire religious culture, which has strict, unyielding rules regarding sexuality, ones that he is not sure he has the strength or desire to break.

I wasn't sure what to say. I didn't want to tell him that it gets better. It does, but what use is that to a young person in the throes of confusion and fear over his sexuality? Yes, it gets better, but how do you get to the place where it's better? It's not just a matter of time. It's what you do with that time that counts.

Patience is a virtue that doesn't overcome this particular hurdle on its own. Yes, there would be some waiting involved, but there would have to be action on his part, too. I told my friend that he has two choices: He can submit to the will of others, and live the life that has been laid out before him by tradition. I'm not sure how his religion stands on deceit, and whether that is as great a sin as homosexuality, but the greatest sin in this scenario would be the one he'd be committing against himself.

In saying that he doesn't want to be gay, my friend never mentioned any aspect of gay life that he finds unappealing, other than that his community would not accept it. That's a good start. Unlike so many young men who are struggling with their sexuality, he isn't dealing with internalized homophobia. Any self-hatred he's feeling is being reflected off of other people. He doesn't think life wouldn't be easier -- better, even -- as a straight man because he'd compared gay people to straight people, and he'd found the latter to be somehow superior. Life would be be easier, better, only because he wouldn't have to challenge centuries of tradition. Nobody would be disappointed.

His other choice, I told him, would involve determining how important it is to him to become his own person. He'd have to figure out the role he wants his culture and religion to play in his life, and if they are more important than his personal happiness. If he decides to live a life of truth, he must find a way to make his identity be about more than his culture and religion, or his sexuality. Easier said than done, I know, especially since one can adjust his or her culture and religion but not his or her sexuality. That is what it is, and there is no escaping it.

In the end, he'd have to learn to accept that. Being gay is just one more thing that he can't change, like his height and his shoe size. So rather than focusing on what he wishes to be, or what he doesn't wish to be, it's important to decide how he's going to live with what he is. Does he keep it to himself or shout it from the rooftop? That's for him to decide. The road to self-acceptance will be long one, filled with bumps and potholes. The speed with which he covers it is up to him.

I didn't know if I was helping him. He said I was, but he didn't look any less torn. I couldn't tell him which road to travel, but I could promise him that if he had the courage to take the more daunting of the two, he would end up in a far better place.
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