They were devout, and they kept a strict eye on what their children were up to; but they wanted us to grow up to be resilient and self-reliant, and they hated seeing other members lord it over their kids. One girl my age showed up at our house for dinner after services and sat stock-still on the sofa while a bunch of the rest of us played on the living-room floor. When someone told her she could join in, her mother materialized to put the kibosh on that so fast she cut ruts in the carpet. "Oh, no, no, no. She knows she's not supposed to do that stuff on the Sabbath." (We were, like, playing some Bible game, not D&D.) One was given to understand that she was supposed to spend the Sabbath staring into the middle distance and thinking pious thoughts. My parents were horrified, but naturally they weren't going to say anything to Frau Goering that would undermine her authority in front of her daughter.
There were other strained silences. Another dinner guest on another Sabbath somehow got into talking about how, whenever he saw gays demonstrating on the news, it made him want to go after them with a baseball bat. He continued in that vein for five enthusiastic minutes. The other adults looked a bit embarrassed, but whether because he'd taken things too far or because he'd said something you just weren't supposed to verbalize, I was never quite sure. Of course, in one sense that would have been a difference without a distinction anyway, because next to Anton LaVey and Ozzy Osbourne, homosexuals were those who were most consistently cited within the Church as representative of what was wrong with the World. Perverted and evil, unhappy and evil, emotionally stunted and evil, socially unstable and evil, alcoholic and evil, pedophilic and evil, and (this was the '80s) diseased and evil. Now, someone is certain to want to interject here: "Wait a minute! The overwhelming majority of Christian sects, not to mention other world religions, have prohibitions against homosexuality. There's nothing here that's specific to WCG." And that's fair enough, but it seriously underestimates the added pressure of being part of a sect that's constantly haranguing you to obey the in-group rules or suffer damnation and not to process any input from "the World." I sometimes joke that growing up in the Church was the best possible preparation for my college and grad-school courses on Japan, with its emphasis on "harmony" at the expense of thinking for oneself. Karel van Wolferen wrote in The Enigma of Japanese Power, his classic study of Japanese social and political control:
He's talking about one of the most insidiously effective ways Japanese society enforces conformity: by making people feel they have to be on their guard even among their most intimate friends and family—lest they slip, express unapproved thoughts, and receive a ruthless smack-down. It's the sort of dynamic that writers about gay life have often noted. Kids who grow up black or Jewish almost always have black or Jewish family who support them. Their parents may be stern with them in the sense of telling them to stiffen their spines and not whine in the face of bigotry, but they affirm their identity, and they certainly don't say over and over that what makes them a minority also makes them sick in the head. That isn't the norm for gay kids, and it certainly wasn't the norm for gay kids in the Church in the '80s, who grew into an awareness of who they were with a concomitant awareness that their kind was one of the pulpit's favorite illustrations of perdition on Earth. And I do think it's fair to say that that awareness starts, for most of us, way before adulthood.
It wasn't until I was in grad school that I was able to use the word gay to describe myself, and it was only a year or two before that that I could even think, consciously, This boy wants to kiss me…and damned if I don't want to kiss him back! Nevertheless, at least from the time I was a pre-teen, whenever homosexuality was mentioned—on the news, in the Youth magazine, in services—my antennae went up and my pulse quickened. I knew, in an inchoate way, that it was about me. But you can convince yourself of just about any load of malarkey if you work at it, so I spent my teen years believing that I wasn't interested in girls because I hadn't met one I clicked with, because right now I was more focused on studying and getting into college, or because I just kind of wasn't a sexual person. There are people like that, right? People who just naturally gravitate toward asceticism. Contemplatives. They're too deep to be sullied by passion, which is a good thing, yeah? I was, I guessed, one of them. A natural born monk. I didn't figure out how wrong that was until four or five years later, but fortunately, something else happened in the interim: I got into AC. I went.
After four weeks, I realized I was going to go completely bananas if I stayed there. And when I told my parents, they backed me up. They didn't really get it, no. (Why would anyone want to leave God's college?) But they'd meant what they'd always said about my needing to decide what was best in my own life once I turned eighteen, and they agreed to pay whatever
they could toward my education at a
Eventually, all the contradictions became too much, and I really did go bananas. I'd been gung-ho about piling on the coursework my first two years, so I was able to throttle back and take a bunch of things pass-fail while trying to focus on my major requirements. But I couldn't study, couldn't sleep properly, had to force myself to eat, and was putting a ridiculous burden on my friends. Fortunately, this no longer being Ambassador College, there was little stigma about going through student health for a referral to a psychiatrist. The one I was assigned to was attached to a research institute at the university hospital, and he was great—lucid and sensible. We met regularly for the whole academic year, but he'd set the tone during one of our first few sessions in September: "You can't tell me how you feel about anything. Nothing. That is not normal. That is not healthy, or else you wouldn't be here. There are a lot of people running about who could stand to listen to their feelings a little less—you'll get no argument from me about that—but wanting to live a disciplined life is no excuse for barricading yourself away from what's going on in your own head so you don't have to recognize and deal with it." I'm paraphrasing, but I'm pretty sure I remember nearly verbatim. It was exactly the right kick in the ass at the right time, affirming without being indulgent.
At the same time, things got much worse from there. Accepting that you have a lot to work through is one thing, but doing it is another. The year was brutal. But my doctor wasn't the only resource I had to draw on. My friends were beyond accommodating. My professors unobtrusively checked up on me. My parents knew I was seeing a doctor and regularly asked how things were doing but didn't push for details or ask why I wasn't going to the minister. In fact, I did go to the minister of the Philadelphia congregation a few times. I liked him. He had a dry sense of humor and a can-do approach to problems, and he cared about people. But his advice didn't go much beyond what I was already getting, in much more results-oriented form, from my doctor. I still felt like hell at the end of the year and decided to do the first semester of my senior year in London to clear my head. It worked. When I came back, I felt like a different person. It was as if a switch had flipped. I'd had stomach pain and stress headaches daily in high school; and while they'd abated a great deal in college, they'd still made me miserable a few times a month. They were gone. Just gone. I had my normal energy and sleep schedule back. I was back to being a sounding-board for my friends when they needed it, rather than dumping on them constantly and making them frantic with worry. Those weren't the only changes. One Saturday, one of my buddies in the program saw me eating lunch in the residential hall and sat down across from me. "Don't you pack off to North London for church Saturday mornings?" "I did, but I'm an atheist now." He laughed through a forkful of egg. "You just became an atheist in the last week?" "It was a long time in coming, actually."
I didn't mention that I'd also acquired a boyfriend. It took a few more months before I could call myself "gay"—it's easy to be all "bi" and experimental in college—and once that happened, I knew I had a decision to make. I'd started grad school and was living in New York by that point, and my parents were excited to have me home for my last winter holiday in the house in which I'd grown up; they were moving in January. And while I was there, I knew I had to tell them. I loved my parents, and I liked them as people. I was not of a mind to start regaling them with intimate details of what was going on in the City, since I didn't think those things were any of their business, but I knew what would happen over years of explaining that I was spending a key holiday or going on vacation or buying property with my "roommate." They'd know they were being excluded from the most important parts of my life, and it would turn into an unspoken sticking point. I saw it with my middle-aged closeted friends and their families. So it was either risk disappointing them by being distant or risk disappointment by telling them I was gay. Neither option was wholly appealing, but coming out had the advantage of forthrightness and, at least, demonstrating that I trusted my mother and father to deal with the truth.
In the decade and a half since then, guys wanting advice on coming out have asked me countless times how the conversation actually went—as in, who said what. I don't remember, really. I know that I kept the announcement itself simple (as in, "Well, I'm gay"). I know that their immediate reaction was to stress that they didn't love me any less and that they were sure a lot of pain had led up to my telling them. I know that we soon got to the point at which they recommended counseling with some ex-gay ministry or other and were miffed that I wasn't interested. And it was probably good that I was only in their house for another day or so. I'd had years to get used to the idea, and now they needed their own time to deal with it. Over the next few months, I heard from a handful of family friends from the Church, and they all wished me the best. I understood them as offering goodwill rather than approbation, but that was fine. Being approved of really is less important than knowing you're doing the right thing. And being happy. The Church was right about that, even if it got the particulars wrong.
The Painful Truth Interview:
1) I noticed on your website http://whiteperil.com that your leanings, politically speaking, seem to be of the conservative nature. Why is that?
Right into the minefield, huh? Interesting that you should phrase the question that way, because hovering in it seems to be the assumption that it's just a matter of course for gay men and lesbians to be left of center, and I don't really think that's the case. For the record, I call myself a libertarian or a classical liberal, but personally I don't bridle at being called a conservative. I believe the individual is the basic unit of consciousness and conscience. Therefore, the state has no intrinsic value; it's just a channel for pooling individual resources in those cases in which it's the best institution for the job. And that means the government should be kept small, and power should be localized as much as possible to keep too many decisions over day-to-day life from being made by remote functionaries. If members of congress and their bureaucratic hangers-on were ever forced to move back to the provinces and actually run a profitable enterprise under the rules they keep foisting on the rest of us, Washington might look a lot different.
Something else that goes along with that: you have the right to pursue happiness, but no one is obligated by law to ensure that you catch it. The government protects you and your interests from harm—if we're invaded by a foreign power, or if someone tries to defraud you, or if there's a large-scale natural disaster. It referees impartially among citizens. Then it steps back and lets them make the trade-offs, among all of life's many possible choices, that they're happiest with in their individual lives. It's not there to coddle you indefinitely or (barf!) to raise your self-esteem. As to how I came to believe as I do…well, part of it was timing. I was born in 1972, so I first started understanding political discussions during the Reagan/Thatcher Era. The Berlin Wall came down when I was finishing high school. I came of age when we were in the process of winning the Cold War because our system clearly worked better than the alternatives at producing prosperity and giving people choices, even if what they chose was not what their village or clan elders deemed best for them. So I'm in favor of limited government and free markets (nowadays labeled a "conservative" position) both because they work in practical terms and because they're better than the alternatives morally and ethically.
2) How do you feel about gay marriage?
I'm very much in favor of civil unions. Same-sex marriage? I think gay political activists have mismanaged it, constantly turning the focus back to how much we love our partners and how much it would mean to be accepted. It's the government's job to make you feel accepted? There's an interesting development! I think it was a very healthy development when gay thinkers, in the late '80s and early '90s, started saying, "Look, it's not the '70s anymore. Gays have grown up just like everyone else. We have partners. We have stable households, and we're as much a part of our communities as our neighbors are. Adults accept responsibility, make commitments, and stand by them. Maybe we should stop with the in-your-face bohemian crap all the time and think about whether making official, public commitments isn't a good idea." Sane, lucid, cultivated gay commentators with a deep sense of history and a lot of political smarts--Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bawer, later Jon Rauch and Dale Carpenter and others--started articulating what that would mean.
The first opposition was along the lines of, "Well, gay people don't fall in love for the long haul; they just have transient sexual couplings." At that point, it really was important to say, "No, look, as strange as it may sound to you, we fall in love and nurture and protect each other in our relationships. Lots of gay couples have been together for decades, quietly in little towns. The idea that we all spend weekends hanging out in dodgy inner-city bars making ourselves available to all comers is inaccurate." The problem is that gay advocates got stuck in that mode, repeating, "But we LUUUUUVVVVVVV each other!" like broken records. Meanwhile, straight opponents kept developing their arguments and making them more sophisticated, and they came up with a lot of questions about the way institutions function in a free society that the most vocal gay activists have yet to answer. Has marriage through the ages mostly been about protecting children? If so, do the liberalizations of the marriage and divorce laws mean that marriage has been detached from that function? Since institutions are designed to serve the community at large as well as their own members, what benefit to society is there in making gay marriages legal? Writers such as Rauch and Carpenter are dealing with those issues, but unfortunately they get drowned out by other, louder, dumber people.
3) Would you say that when the government got involved in the marriage business by offering civil ceremonies, (essentially competing with the church) that under the United States Constitution you have the right to marry as equal treatment under the law? And if so, why should the religious community even protest this if it is protected under the constitution?
I don't know that this is an equal protection issue in legal terms. The idea of having a civil marriage contract was originally to confer responsibilities--you couldn't just start a family and then walk away with impunity. Nowadays, of course, all anyone talks about are all the goodies you get when you marry: marriage gives you a lot of state benefits that aren't obviously connected with providing for the children that might result. But still, it's worth asking whether the contract governing a homosexual union has to cover the same issues as a contract governing a heterosexual union. I'm not a constitutional-law scholar, so my conclusions are necessarily going to be tentative; however, I personally don't see why civil unions don't meet the case. As a corollary to that, by the way, we might cast an eye over all the perks and penalties attached to marriage and ask whether trimming the list might not eliminate some of the distortions in economic decision-making that, say, the tax code is notorious for causing.
4) The fact that you studied in London as an undergraduate and lived 11 years in Japan must have contributed to your ability to both come out and view gay issues from a worldly perspective rather than an American-centric one. How has distance from your family and native culture transformed you?
I think the primary effect has been to make me much more appreciative of what it means to be an American than I might otherwise have been. Our ancestors are the people who didn't just accept the realities they were born into. They thought you could make things better. If your place of origin wasn't providing you with the opportunities you wanted, you could get on a boat or a plane and come to somewhere unfamiliar and start over. And even those who aren't here because their ancestors chose to be here, they're the survivors. The plantation and railroad managers treated them like less-than-human work machines, but they didn't knuckle under. And we've all inherited that way of thinking—the rude, brazen vitality and the conviction that problems are for fixing. By contrast, being Japanese is, in a very fundamental way, about adjusting to reality. That strain in its culture has produced a lot of good. I love Japan to death and am very, very glad to have spent my formative adult years in Tokyo. But if you're going to have to go in one extreme or the other, I say as an American that it's better to overdo trying to improve things than to overdo resigning yourself to the way they are already.
5) What would you say to those young adults in the Armstrong churches that may be struggling with their sexual identity or homosexuality? Should they try to fight the urges or give in to them?
I don't think it's my place to make those decisions for other people. The most important thing is doing what you believe is right. If you're firmly convinced that the Bible is the revealed word of God and your interpretation is that homosexuality is a sin, you're going to have to do without that kind of intimacy and find your happiness elsewhere. Since that's not what I believe, I have no practical advice about how to do so, understand—I'm just saying that I'm not going to sit here and tell people to do something they themselves consider immoral. For those who are questioning, my advice is: Go and observe, and learn. Anti-gay groups love to cite research that supposedly shows that gays are harmful to themselves and society. When they do, look at the research. In my experience, every single study that purports to find a higher-than-average pattern of self-destructive behavior on the part of gays uses skewed sampling, biased question sets, and overconfident interpretation of data that doesn't plausibly account for factors besides homosexuality. I don't think these researchers, or those who refer to them, are purposefully cooking the books. But ask yourself: if their purpose is really the disinterested pursuit of the truth, why don't they apply the same rigor to studying sexuality as they do to other things?
The flaws I'm talking about are not obscure by any means. You don't have to be a genius to figure out that, for example, if you only study people in therapy groups, you're going to find—surprise!—that most of them have psychological problems. That doesn't tell you anything about what you'd find in a random sample. Speaking of quick-take sampling, if there's a gay neighborhood handy, look around it. Look at the people in the bookstores or cafes. Does the contention that the mean life expectancy for the population you're looking at is somewhere between thirty and forty-five make sense? Do they look like people who can't get their lives together and are miserable and alone? That people are content with their lives doesn't mean they're not sinning, if you believe the Bible; but again, does what you're finding out square with everything you've been fed in an effort to persuade you that there's empirical evidence that homosexuality is a sin?
6) There are a lot of theories going around as to cause for homosexuality. Is being gay a decision and a conscious choice about one's self-identity or are you born that way?
No, and no. I doubt it's completely programmed from birth—I think the most likely explanation is that there's a genetic predisposition that's cemented through environmental factors in early childhood—but the evidence that we're born gay strikes me as insufficient. (It's not just the anti-gay bloc that wishfully interprets thin data, unfortunately.) A homosexual orientation is not a choice; if you doubt that, talk to any gay man or lesbian who spent years fighting and fighting and fighting his or her inner nature before finally accepting it, and you'll be set straight good and quick. At the same time, you do get to choose what you do with it. Like most other components of personality, homosexuality can be used for good or ill. You can be a selfish, grasping, shallow brat and act as if the world owed you an endless stream of partying to make up for the hell you went through coming out, or you can recognize that everyone has problems to deal with and focus on being a solid, generous-minded person now that you know who you are.
7) Some religious groups are trying "reparative therapy" — the effort to make homosexuals into heterosexuals through a variety of techniques, including counseling and religious instruction. What is your opinion of this?
That if it worked reliably, we'd know it. And before anyone starts in on liberal bias in the media and difficulty getting the truth out and blah-blah—please! Communication is wide open in this Internet age. If there were a program that had a demonstrable high success rate at converting queers into happy, well-adjusted straight people, every local church web page would have gotten the news by now, irrespective of whether Anderson Cooper gave it air time. I mean, come on. These people call it "unnatural" when homosexuals follow their instincts.
So how do you learn 'em to behave "naturally"? By isolating them at some counseling facility with behavior modification exercises, shoving them into intrusive group-therapy sessions, and reprogramming them. If feminists tried that kind of nonsense in the name of emancipating women from the "false" consciousness of the patriarchy, religious conservatives would quite rightly go ballistic. They'd say, as they do of radical feminism as it's actually preached anyway, that if women's consciousness takes that much manipulation to change, it can't be that false to begin with. Now, once again, I think that if there's a market of people who believe their homosexuality is sinful, there's no reason counselors shouldn't be permitted to serve them. People bang their heads against the wall trying to do all kinds of things they're not suited for. If you're unhappy about being a fag and want to sign up to be given an electric shock every time you start humming a Donna Summer song, in the hopes that you'll be conditioned out of it, be my guest. It's a free country. And since I make it a practice to assume people know their own minds better than I do, I'm perfectly willing to believe that there are some homosexuals who learn to function as heterosexuals and make a permanent go of it because they really, really want to. Great. That doesn't mean you can generalize based on them, or that it's a great idea to believe you can achieve their reality.
8) I have read that social science evidence agrees that the best environment for the well-being of children is a household with both a mother and a father and that a homosexual environment, on the other hand, can model homosexual behavior to children. Do you feel that two people of the same sex are able to raise a child as a balanced individual or would this be detrimental to the best interest of the child?
I've never seen a shred of evidence that children reared by gay parents are more likely to turn out gay. As with reparation therapy, if there were reliable, replicable studies that had indicated as much, they'd be very visible. What there is is a great deal of evidence that there's a significant difference between children who grow up with both biological parents and children who do not. Actually, I don't even know whether there have been many studies of what happens when the mother isn't present. Absent fathers are a much more pervasive problem, and the data seem pretty conclusive (to me, as an educated reader who's not a trained social scientist) that in households without fathers, you get children with higher crime rates, higher recidivism rates, lower educational achievement, lower earnings, more health problems.
I don't remember whether it was Christina Hoff Sommers, Kay Hymowitz, or Heather McDonald—they all write a lot about family policy—who quoted it, but there was pretty persuasive research a while back that even having a stepfather didn't close those gaps. That doesn't mean children without both biological parents are sunk, obviously; it does suggest that deviating from the stable nuclear family is not something you want to do frivolously. Kids are not pets or sociology projects. At the same time, there are always going to be children who don't get the ideal start. If there's a child up for adoption for which the gay household is the best available candidate, people want to argue that it's really better for them to stay in the limbo of the foster-care system? I mean, my friends are not a scientific sample, but I know several gay guys who adopted at-risk kids who are now past adolescence, and not one of them is gay.
9) It is well known that sexual abuse is another factor that can contribute to a homosexual orientation. Your attraction to other males, could this have been attributed to being molested at an early age?
That's "well known," is it? I know that individual people tell anecdotes that are then inflated into generalizations by people whose confirmation bias pushes them to believe anything that indicates homosexuality is pathological, irrespective of whether it passes basic tests for social-scientific inquiry. Again, the people who are provide these "data" are people who end up in the doctor's office—of course, they have sex problems, or otherwise they wouldn't be there. You don't hear about those who, like me, were never molested as children because we don't keep getting ourselves in desperate straits that require medical intervention.
I'm not trying to make light of the problems people who have been molested have to deal with. And if someone who's spent his first years of adulthood drugging himself numb and hooking up with a string of abusive people decides he doesn't want anything more to do with homosexuality, that's for him to decide. But that doesn't mean his sense of how he got where he did is accurate.
10) I have read that a common contributor to same-sex attractions is a disruption in the development of gender identity. The relationship between a boy and his father is the initial source of developing a secure gender identity. Did you have a healthy father-son relationship with your father at an early age?
Sure. My parents married young and had some problems adjusting, but for the love of Pete, if that made you homosexual, every working-class kid in America would be gay. They also joined the Church when I was two years old, so I don't need to tell you how clear the sex roles were in our household at least from then on. But, I mean, my father is a steelworker. He tinkers with the car and builds furniture in his garage workshop. My mother is one of those women who really wanted to be a housewife, and she threw herself into it—baking all our bread, cooking all the time, the whole nine yards.
I don't remember any more before the age of three or four than just about anyone else does; it's only fair to acknowledge that. But as far back as I can remember, my father and I got along great. I very much take after him, actually. Some of my earliest memories are of helping him with his woodworking, at the age when "helping" involves grabbing the smallest ball-peen hammer in the toolbox three-quarters of the way up the handle and running around banging it on everything. I was much more bookish and less athletic than, I think, my parents expected a child of theirs to be; but again, I know a lot of people whose personalities were clearly not in line with what their parents had dreamed of, and they're not gay.
11) When you became aware that you were different from other boys, at what age was that?
Well, I was always kind of an odd duck in a bunch of ways, so I'm not sure I can really parse it. I'm fairly sure the first time I was called a fag was in elementary school, and I knew that wasn't good, though I had no idea what the implications were. Or what I was supposed to do differently.
12) Did you ever feel that you should have been born a girl rather than a boy?
No, I can't remember feeling that way. I definitely went through phases in which most of my friends in school were girls, and I thought—this I definitely remember—that it was annoying that girls were allowed to like bright colors, and I was considered strange for it. But I liked playing with my Tonka trucks, too.
13) And the final question, what would you say to the parents of adolescent children who are gay or that they suspect are gay (mistakes they might make to cause the kid to commit suicide or cause great mental harm such as self esteem, etc?)
LOL. Are you actively campaigning for hate mail here—asking a gay man to tell good, Christian parents how to bring up their children?
Well, for what it's worth, here's what I think. There's nothing I can say that's going to mean anything to parents who believe God wants them to thrash the homosexuality out of their kids by any possible means, so I won't bother addressing them. I'll address those who are willing to accept that their children may not live as they would like them to but are scared by all the stories about self-destructive behavior and by the anti-gay attitudes that still exist.
The most important tools you can give children are how to treat others well, to work hard, to be forthright, and above all to do what they honestly believe is right. And serve as an example. If that's how they've learned to think, they're unlikely to slide into behaviors or groups of people that aren't good for them. If they do, they'll figure it out and right themselves before long.
Also bear in mind that the kid may not be gay; maybe she's just a teenager. I have quite a few friends who have teenaged kids who've asked me, "Do you think my oldest is gay?" and often the reason they're asking is tenuous at best. If you have a child who's just having an awkward time and want to make it clear that you won't disown him if he tells you he's a homosexual, fine. Say so and then leave it alone, and don't harp on it. "My parents are all eager for me to be gay just so they have an explanation for why I'm not acting like the perfect little daughter" must be no less frustrating to feel than "My father just can't accept that staying in this town and taking over the hardware store like him isn't what I want," or "My mother doesn't see that I'm not cut out for Wellesley just because she went there." Despite the pain that's usually involved, I think most kids are best off figuring these things out for themselves.
As for causing a gay teenager to commit suicide, I can't imagine how otherwise loving and supportive parents would just kind of slip up with consequences that are that extreme. Actually driving someone to suicide generally requires hounding or picking away at him mercilessly. Of course, if you do get the sense that your child really can't cope with things and needs more help than you can provide, find a psychologist you trust. That's a case-by-case decision.
Some links of interest: