To relate how I finally told my wife and family that I am a gay man, I have to first off answer the main question most people will ask: When did you know you were gay? Thats hard to answer, though, because like many men, I knew it, and yet I didnt acknowledge it (accept it).
My life always has been marked by a hidden duality. To an acquaintance, I appear to be a driven "type A" professional; an athletic, masculine man; a family guy with three well-adjusted and loving children; and a man of faith who has spent almost every week of his life in church. I am, indeed, all those things.
The tough men of my childhood
But since early in my childhood, I KNEW there was something different about me. Although you would not characterize me as effeminate in any way (I look like a Marine, for gods sakes!), I have always been "unusually" sensitive and different from the point of view of societys concept of a boy or a man. I wasnt interested in any of the rough-and-tumble activities of my peers (it took until I was a grown man to realize my athletic abilities, and since then I have run four marathons!) I didnt have an interest in the primary activities of the men in my family, hunting and fishing. (My family is what I call "pioneer stock" -- both my parents are from hard-working rural backgrounds. They all look like the men on the old Marlboro commercials!)
My earliest memories of hanging out at my grandpas service station are of tough cowboys smoking unfiltered cigarettes, talking about their latest drinking bouts, hunting trips and sexual conquests (often combined into one!) Compared with all the men I saw in my life, I felt uneasy, different, almost from another planet. My father is a man of few words, and I literally have not one memory of him holding me, saying he loves me, or even taking the time to play with me as a child. (He was a shift worker at a refinery in Houston, so my two brothers and I didnt see him often.)
So from youth, I began to adopt a somewhat withdrawn posture, to distance myself from others. I simply couldnt let people see the "real" me: The boy who was much more interested in studying Hinduism, fantasizing about traveling to Europe, or writing a novel, than playing football, killing frogs by throwing them in front of cars (a favorite pasttime with the boys in my neighborhood), or shooting guns.
Fantasizing about men while experimenting with women
Sexually, this same duality was at work. As I grew into adolescence, I fantasized about other boys, but I began to develop sexual relationships with girls. I lost my virginity at age 14 with a neighborhood girl, and I was very sexually active with my girlfriends all through high school. And at the same time, I was also beginning to experiment sexually with a couple of the boys in the neighborhood, both of whom now live "straight" lives. (One was a captain on the varsity football team.)
Like so many men, there was simply no way that I could confront what now appears so obvious. I spent hours convincing myself that other boys were no different from me, and the sexual experiences with two "straight" boys in my neighborhood helped me confirm that. And yet, like shooting pangs in the chest, the constant drumbeat of my "difference" pounded away at me.
Furthermore, I knew no one who was gay. This was the 1970s in Texas! The only guys who were identified as gay in school were, well, GAY! They swished, they talked like girls, and they just stood out in every way. I didnt. In fact, I made SURE I didnt stand out. I began to pile on accomplishment after accomplishment, to show the world that I was "normal" and worth something. I was editor of my high school newspaper, president of several clubs, the schools delegate to "Boys State," etc. I was so very normal, wasnt I! (?)
This same pattern continued in college. I gave relatively little thought to my sexual orientation, and I basically "deep sixed" my concerns once I met the woman who would become my wife shortly after we graduated from college. In fact, in college I met for the first time other guys who were of the "sensitive" and aesthetically and intellectually inclined type. I also began to think that my urges for sexual intimacy with a man were just a "flaw," a concept consistent with the fundamentalist Christian beliefs I adopted when, at the start of my freshman year, I walked the aisle at a Baptist revival and accepted Christ as my savior.
I could write for days about my courtship with my wife, but the main point is: It was a genuine courtship, I really did fall in love (I still love her deeply), and I never doubted that I could be her husband. In fact, I prayed every day for 14 days before I decided whether to ask her to marry me. I have journal entries from that period where it was obvious I was struggling with whether this "secret" part of me would keep me from being the husband I wanted to be. I concluded, after agonizing prayer, that God would give me strength to "deal with" my urges for male contact.
In college, my sexual experiences with men could be counted on one hand. They were of the garden variety one commonly associates with "straight" guys who dip into the forbidden realm -- mutual masturbation in a bathroom stall, and a late-night oral-sex encounter in a dorm room. After each episode, I felt like a dirty rag for days, if not weeks, and I prayed fervently that I would be "stronger" next time I walked past a particularly popular "cruising " place on campus.
Once my wife and I married (a week after we graduated from college in 1982), homosexual urges diminished to the lowest point of my life. She and I were embarking on a great adventure together, and the intimacy and relationship was strong, at least I considered it so! Four years later, our first child (a daughter) was born, followed three years later by another girl and two years later by a son. My ability to repress homosexual urges was securely intact during this phase of my life, but the general feelings of being "different" never disappeared. I had male friends, but wouldnt let them get too close to me, for fear of being discovered for who I was.
Religion provided most of the answers and coping mechanisms of my life during this period. I relied on my faith in an inerrant Bible to convince me that I had a huge "flaw" that only God would ever have to know, and that I would be forgiven, so long as I kept "fighting the good fight" against the evil within me.
Jumping into a pressure cooker
As any married man who struggles with gay feelings will tell you, stress and pressure inevitably "torque up" the temptation to act out on urges. For me, the crucible was found in Washington, D.C., where my family and I moved in 1995. Professionally, I was a model of achievement, having accepted a high-profile position with a member of Congress. Inside, I was in constant turmoil, uncertain about whether I was "up" to the pressure of a demanding job, and feeling somewhat unsure about whether uprooting my family from back home was the right move.
Leaving the "buckle on the Bible Belt" for the more liberal and tolerant East Coast upset my finely crafted apple cart in other ways as well. For the first time, I talked to and met several men who seemed completely well-adjusted as gay, "out" men, living and working in a city that was composed of so many different kinds of people that some of the Southern judgmental mores Id been taught seemed irrelevant, and maybe even WRONG. I began to think about what it meant to these men to be gay, and it was not at all what I feared it would be. In fact, I saw that they were much happier and well-adjusted being who they are, than I was trying to be someone I was NOT.
My marriage, as you could guess, began to show signs of stress during this time. I am the first to tell you I didnt make many good choices when it came to balancing my work life and home life or being open with my loving wife (who was always encouraging me to talk to her). In fact, I began a very destructive cycle of acting out on my sexual urges, feeling guilty, becoming depressed and angry at home, and somehow making my wife feel like it was HER fault.
I also began to see counselors to deal with feelings of hopelessness. I alternated between Christian counselors and what my church friends would call "secular" mental health professionals. This increased my sense of hopelessness, catching me between the Christian injunctions to refrain from homosexual behavior and the "secular" philosophy that there was nothing devious about being gay, unless you hid it from your marriage partner.
I sensed my life was building toward a crescendo in 1998, when my father almost died as a result of a freak accident. I rushed to his hospital bedside on Thanksgiving Day, praying fervently that he would survive. (He did, and is doing very well today.) The wrenching experience opened up a huge set of issues for me, relating to my mortality, my identity, my relationship with my father, and my personal quest to be happy. (At this point, I was anything BUT happy!)
A crystallizing moment came for me on the plane back to Washington from Texas, when I realized for the first time: I cant blame my dad for any of my problems. It was so simple, yet it placed me on a path to deal honestly with ME for the first time, I think. I understood that he was just a fragile, broken man like me. Sure, he was basically absent from my emotional life as a child, but in the final conclusion, what am I to do with that fact? Hate him for what he wasnt? Or accept him for who he is?
That big thought led me to other fairly radical conclusions over the next year. I came to understand that I had no one to blame for anything in my life that I didnt like. I began to rethink what I had been taught about homosexuality. I studied for endless hours the different conclusions religious groups have made about what the Bible says about it. I read the propaganda from both the gay world and the "Gays Can Change" movement, and saw a counselor who was firmly in the latter camp. I kept believing that God wanted me straight, and that all I needed was a new, breakthrough way to get there with Him.
As you can imagine, I became even more conflicted and confused during this process. The path is, indeed, darkest right before you reach light. The bottom line is I began again to act out sexually with men, and to become obsessed with gay sex. As much as I believed I was trying to deal honestly and openly with my essential identity, my behavior became reprehensible, and I trashed my marriage vows. I truly believe I was looking for a way to get "caught" so that I could finally force this secret into the light.
The moment of truth
That perverse desire came to be, as my wife discovered my activities. We entered counseling, without success, until I came home from work on August 3, 1999 to find my bags had been packed with all my clothing. She kicked me out, in full view of the children, who had no clue what was going on. It was the most humiliating moment of my life. It also was the consequence of my inability to deal honestly with my wife on an issue that could no longer be ignored.
The moment I drove away from my home, I knew I had left forever. I saw the consequences of violating a sacred trust between husband and wife, and I knew I could never again restore the vows. What followed was a volatile mixture of emotional trauma and yet also the emergence of hope, joy and contentment. In fact, my worst moment of my life was the cornerstone on which I have built the most satisfying moments of my "new" life.
Getting there has been hard, however. My wife and I spent the next few months working out the details as to how often I would see the children at my apartment (two miles from them), how much financial support I would provide (she was not in the work force) and how or if we would continue to discuss our future. I had to confront an immense pain from not seeing the children except on a "visitation" basis. I wondered if they would forget about it, stop loving me, begin to think I was "bad," or outright reject me. (They do not know the truth about their father, yet.)
There were times when I had to pull over to the highway shoulder because I was crying my guts out, after having dropped the kids off at my "former" home, knowing I wouldnt see them for days. I made an emotional plea to my wife late one night, sitting on our front porch at midnight, for forgiveness for cheating on her. I realized that, although coming to terms with my sexuality was a traumatic event for me personally, no pain I could experience would equate to her pain at being jilted.
Coming to acceptance, gaining peace
Somehow, though, as fall wore on, I began to calm the emotional storm resulting from the breakup. I have to give credit to Dave, a dear friend and fellow traveler, for his endless hours of counseling and common soul searching. (Like me, he and his wife separated when he came out to her.)
On those lonely nights, I read and read and read (see Resources on coming out). The hope and joy at surviving this ordeal finally emerged. I once and for all decided to accept (meaning to cease trying to change) the fact that I was GAY (not bisexual, as I had pretended) and no amount of effort could change that. (As a friend said, its like swimming upstream all your life, then finally letting go and flowing WITH the current for the first time. Its a relief like no other.)
I also realized that what happened to my marriage wasnt avoidable, since I could no longer deal with the pressure that my identity confusion was wreaking on our family. A capstone moment came when I talked with a Lutheran minister in my town who kindly, gently looked into my eyes and said, "You are OK. Of course God loves you. He wants a lot more from you than you are giving to him, of course. But changing your sexual identity is NOT one thing he wants from you. Just be who he made you to be."
Today, I certainly dont have it all figured out. I am taking life one day at a time, though, remembering to keep love and respect for others in the central place in my life. (I certainly haven't gotten that one down, yet.) Subsequent to coming out to my wife, I told the truth to my three best friends from childhood and college, my mother and father, my inlaws, an aunt and uncle, a cousin and my two brothers. (Ill write an entire chapter about that experience at another time.) You could say I took the "full scale assault" approach. Half a year later, I truly feel loved and accepted by all of these people, although I know its particularly hard on Mom and Dad to understand and accept.
I dont know what the future holds, but I know it doesn't contain the shame I had always carried around with me for not being who I thought I was supposed to be. I cant begin to tell you how many wonderful feelings I have in finally coming to terms with myself, warts and all.
Resources on coming out
"God's continual insistence on orientational authenticity saved me just before work, food and alcohol addictions took my life! So what possible good came from voluntary disclosure in my case? I'm alive, and this summer I'll be there to walk my daughter down the aisle on the occasion of her marriage. I'm saying that without disclosure there would have been no authenticity, and without authenticity, I believe I would by now be dead."
-- Dr. Terry L. Norman,
"Just Tell The Truth: Questions Families Ask When Gay Married Men Come Out."