Prologue: Experiencing joy as a sexual being is part of what it means to be human. Societal folkways, accepted without question, have smothered opportunities for gay people to understand, through the normal maturation processes (afforded straight people), what it means to be a sexual being. Here I write about that process and my reaction having gone through it as a gay man (see Deep Places) and emerged on the other side healthy and whole spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. The first three paragraphs are about the relationship between experience and knowing. Feel free to skip down to the fourth paragraph if you wish. Please accept my apology for the length of the post.
Coming out as gay was my first step in finding wholeness, and psychological and emotional health; it was the beginning of experiencing joy as a sexual being. I write out of the wellspring of personal experience, who I am, and not from scholarly research, or from a psychological, biological, or even a spiritual viewpoint.
Professionals of these disciplines might question my ability to be objective about my own experience. A psychologist might say that I cannot accurately understand my own experience without external observation; therefore, any interpretation I draw from my personal experience without such external observation is inadequately based. A biologist might say that understanding my reactions to specific stimuli as a human animal is critical in understanding my personal experience; therefore, an in depth biological study is required. A practitioner of spirituality might say the human experience cannot be fully understood apart from spiritual experience; therefore, a spiritual understanding is required before I can accurately interpret my personal experience.
I agree with each of these three perspectives to a degree, and do not question the truth that they inform my experience as a gay man: Psychology is the scientific study of the mind that, particularly as it influences behavior, helps me understand why I do what I do. With that understanding, I can affect change that would enhance the way I experience life. Biology is the study of living organisms from several specialized areas, anatomy and behavior being two. A study of human anatomy and behavior can instruct me in knowing why my body functions as it does. Spirituality relates to my spirit or soul as opposed to my material or physical body. Understanding my spirituality informs my character, emotions, and spiritual sensitivities thereby increasing the likelihood that I can understand the deeper, sensitive side of my experiences. As a Christian minister, and son of a Christian minister, I particularly agree that a spiritual understanding informs personal experience.
These three disciplines are indeed helpful for enriching my understand of myself. However, as I acknowledge the importance of these disciplines—yes, I have indulged in such studies, which therefore influence, however subtly, what I write—I want to talk about my experience. I am a human being, first because I experience life. Without experience, I cease to exist. And it is at that formational level that I experience my gayness.
My world is as big as my experience, and no bigger. It is only through experience that I can say I truly know. Knowledge that affects belief and practice is acquired through experience. This existential approach to epistemology, experience in real life, provides confidence and security for action. Without experience, knowledge is sterile, devoid of energy and life.
Experiences in life often precede knowledge. As a teenager, I instinctively tried different things to discover my individual identity. Through experience, I began to know myself. However, because of a huge barrier to understanding my sexuality, I had yet to discover the fullness of who I am. Societal conventions as I came of age were dramatically skewed toward heterosexuality (Gay sex was actually illegal when I was a teenager and young adult).
My straight friends openly expressed their sexuality; society expected it. (When speaking of expressing their sexuality, I’m speaking more broadly than “having sex.”) That is, my friends engaged in activity with the opposite sex—holding hands, arms around shoulders, kissing, dating—and thereby gained experience. They had not read sex manuals, books on establishing sexual relationships, or otherwise searched for knowledge. Their knowledge came from experience compelled by an instinctive desire. I didn’t have that particular desire, which was born out of heterosexuality, and therefore I wasn’t drawn to opportunities to experience my sexuality—social expression of gay sexuality was taboo. I walled it off into a room and locked the door.
My instinctive desire was for experiences with boys. The attraction had a sexual nature about it but was not overtly sexual. I wanted to be around them, I roughhoused with them; the physical contact was stimulating, often to a point of physical excitement, which I didn’t understand. When I saw an opposite-sex couple together, I instinctively saw why she was attracted to him. When a good-looking guy walked by, my head often turned and I would discreetly watch him pass and sometimes catch another look over my shoulder.
As the years passed, I availed myself of opportunities for more serious exploration of these sexual feelings, yet did so without admitting to myself that they were expressions of a gay sexuality. It was as though I was operating on two tracks, a pretend heterosexual one—a pretense that lasted from 1953 until 1998 but was not fully released until 2013—and a real gay one. I forced myself to entertain opportunities to engage in the former (the pretense of being straight), and suppressed the desire for and denied the reality of experiences I had in the latter (the reality of being gay).
Later, after embracing my gay orientation, I could look back with greater understanding, recognizing that, in the normal course of maturing, I missed experiencing my sexuality due, not to my own failure, but the failure of society to recognize and embrace the reality and legitimacy of a gay sexual orientation.
I am writing from a personal perspective, but not a shallow one. The psychologist, the biologist, and the spiritual leader would each have something to say: that my experience is rooted in their specific discipline—that it is a base biological phenomenon, that it is rooted in the mind’s automatic responses to stimuli, or that it is wrapped up in a connection with a higher power (My spiritual connection is with the Christian God and his Spirit through Jesus the Christ). I do not quibble with these disciplines. However, regardless of their intellectual understanding or interpretation, it is still my experience. I own my feelings, my responses to stimuli, my acknowledgment of attraction, my desire for interaction and relationship.
Identifying myself as gay was the beginning of a grander depth of self-understanding. Through the years, I read voluminously and studied deeply all aspects of homosexuality from the perspectives of many disciplines, particularly the disciplines of psychology, biology, and spirituality (most specifically Christianity in which there is both straight and gay Christian perspectives in scholar research). But it was not until I embraced my gay sexual orientation, self-identified as a gay man, that I felt the freedom of joy in my sexuality begin to settle upon me. Once again for clarity, I’m not talking about gay sex, but rather the fullness of what it means to be a sexual being.
Now I have joy in being gay, even though sometimes it is difficult to give freedom to that joy because of society’s continued resistance toward full acceptance, which, however, has moderated quickly over the last few years. Even when overt expressions of my sexuality are difficult due to societal mores, I still find an inner peace and experience personal satisfaction.
Whether or not I am sexually active—What constitutes being sexual active? Is sex to be reserved for marriage whether it is opposite-sex marriage or same-sex marriage? How does belief about marriage influence practice? Should people both gay and straight wait until they’re married before having sex? What does responsible sex mean?—I now have joy as a sexual being. I fully accept who I am as a gay man and find expanding freedom in doing so. Being gay is far more than sex, and I now understand my gay orientation through the joy of my sexuality.