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Friday, September 4, 2015

Fearfully, Awkwardly Avoiding the Gay: My Experience With SSA

What were your early impressions of the word "Gay?"

At a young age, I suppose I didn't understand it. I was a bookworm and a recluse, preferring my family, social only in so far as I was dragged by sibling into street hockey and kickball at first, and then later social among only extremely comfortable friends. As a home-schooler, I was outside of mainstream school culture, and understood words not by their slang meanings, but dictionary definitions. Gay was very much still slang when my generation was growing up, so as a non-insider, I'd hear the word 'gay' and assume it meant "merry."

My first introduction to another possible definition was on the basketball courts near my home. My older brothers' friends constantly teased me, as part-and-parcel of their duty and loyalty to my elder bros. Something which I accepted in stride (while pugnaciously fighting it back.) Smack talk was passed back and forth as much as the basketball, and amidst it, someone called me "gay," asking if I was a "lesbian."

This was due, I now suppose, to my unfeminine hairstyle, long cargo shorts, dark colors, and 9 yo tomboy hatred of all things girly. I revolted (vocally, if not literally) against skirts on Sundays and "pink" was a word that could flair my temper. But I wasn't familiar with "lesbian." Sex and sexuality hadn't carved out a place in my mind. The oldest brother chimed in that I wasn't, and to quit it, confusing me by breaking away from smack talk. "Gay means happy." His friend explained, grudgingly followed his cue. To other questions about 'lesbian,' my bro told me to ask Dad. I don't remember if I ever did. However, being the brat I was, I DO remember snottily saying "I know that's what GAY means, I read it in a book!" How did you look at the sexes? When did concepts of sexuality hit your radar?

It took a long time for sexuality to be more than an abstract concept fun to debate. When puberty hit around 12-13, and I found I still wasn't attracted to boys, it was confirmation in my mind that I was enlightened, advanced, wise beyond my years in knowing that men were worthless outside of the realm of my beloved sports: Desirable as companions only because they were better at sports than me, and ever convinced that this wouldn't be true for long. I'd liked the combative nature of my friendships with guys and my brothers friends, but was convinced that combativeness was the only correct relationship between the sexes, at least until childhood was over.

Largely, I was in awe of and confused by girls. I had brothers galore above and below me for the longest, and no rosettta stone to use for interpretation. I was yanked out of grade school very young, so this family environment was what formed me. My limited experience with my own sex, aside from parents and grandparents, who I didn't percieve as peers, was of scorn: First from-them-to-me, and then from-me-to-them in kind. I didn't like girly stuff, so girls viewed that as an unwelcome criticism. I went into school as a tomboy, and was ridiculed for it.

My own sex was a mystery. Even with the few girls as friends that welcomed me, I was kinda outside. I observed their idea of fun like a tourist watching exotic mystics at strange and foreign ceremonies. The braiding of hair, painting of nails, gossip about boys and superficial fastidiousness. These were literally like abstract rituals and strange votive rites in my mind, and I decided I didn't want to adhere to that unknown religion if I couldn't understand it. It didn't help that my primary and most girly friend somehow 'walked both worlds,' being sportier than my brothers, and prettier than anyone I'd knew at the time. I couldn't reconcile those realities. But I'm glad she was there, or I wouldn't have known one relatable girl in a million.

Did you apply either the terms "Gay," or "SSA," to yourself, then?

No. I'd never heard the second, but I used neither. Partially because it was completely undeveloped. (With that last friend, contempt for the mystery mixed with genuine affection despite not understanding were the confused feelings of my friendship towards her.) Partially, because it was at least a year later that I'd moved from admiring to admiring and being attracted, and even then, I couldn't sort them out from each other. There had been an immense shake up in my circle of friends, and I found myself suddenly in the opposite environment, of some few boys and vastly, mostly girls. Half of them were of the older, faithfully Catholic, zealous for God, and incredibly intelligent variety. It made sense for me to admire them, and as girls, they continued to be mysterious. For the first time, I was fascinated instead of repelled. The majority of evidence for their sportiness was more maternal, they ran around and played with smaller children, even when those kids weren't siblings! Quickly, I found that was something I could imitate, and everyone seemed to expect and approve it.

I didn't even apply the those terms then, although by 15 they both definitely fit. I had girl-crush after girl-crush, and even called them that in my head on rare, honest occasions. But it SEEMED for me to be simple teenage-dom. People admire people. There were moments of strong attraction, seemingly undeniable and obvious looking back, but I brushed them away. I knew what they were, but rationalized.

Anytime I felt 'weird' towards a girl, I'd think: "I feel odd because everybody's odd as a teen." "Of course I like the way she looks, she's pretty." "God wants us to love beauty, right?" I'd blame it on my physical state, or some imagined sinfulness: "I was just really, really tired," "It was just a lot of adrenaline." "I'm envious, it's just weird envy." Sometimes, I'd shift the blame on her being very good, and down to pretending it's just that girl: "I just LIKE her, she's NICE."

I'd stuff down instance after instance, until it was a daily, then weekly, then monthly reflex. At first, instances came less often as I got to know each friend, but alarmingly, I was able to see my attraction more distinctly each time, and they were harder to ignore. I'd forget for months at a time that I'd liked or was attracted to a girl, then one particularly pretty smile would bring a new fluttering of heart, with every single memory of old moments crashing down behind it. 

I would spiral into awkwardness and confusion, and usually run and hide while I build up my narrative of lies to hide my attractions behind. It became harder, more stressful, but I'd eventually forget, and go back to anticipating eagerly time spent with those same girls. Why lie to yourself? Why was it so hard to say "I'm gay?"

Association. I used to be SO bothered by the word "gay," and was was afraid of having it put to me for the longest. As a teen, I only associated it with the lifestyle behind it, and the media narrative that we "don't get to choose." I'd hear the straight, secular apologists of the world didactically proclaiming that we needed to accept the perversion of homosexual sex. They'd even proclaim that, though gays were loving and could be just as monogamous, we must also accept the infidelity and licentiousness and bar-hoping from the sex-crazed underbelly of 'gay culture,' or we were all 'homophobic,' because that was just a part of these men's sexualities.

There was a fateful month when it dawned on me that "gayness" was an overhanging feature of my reality. I'd found myself drawn, for the first honest time, towards first one, then a second guy. Both very mildly, but they were enough. The similarities of the two types of inclinations, homosexual and heterosexual attraction, threw themselves my face, and the illusion was shattered for the last time: it was not just a 6-year, implausibly-long series of similar instances of girl-crushes and attractions "fed by adrenaline" and "weird feelings when you're tired." These were the feelings that everybody called "being gay." But it was too late.

I took refuge, mentally, in the word "homosexual," but it was a terribly poor refuge. The "Gay" world might have been the world of sin, but "homosexual" was the word of damnation. It was the one that angry Christians used to talk about the encroachment of marriage and Christian rights. These malicious, nefarious subverters of our culture were the destroyers of all our sexual ethics. It was a softer replacement for "sodomite," and calling someone "homosexual" was tantamount to calling them crap instead of shit. I hated it, and it seemed there was no word for someone like me.  The world had linked 'gayness' and the sinful behaviors of gay culture intrinsically in my mind. I was afraid that if I let it be put to me, or put it to myself, I'd be dragged into it or driven into it by screaming Christians and coaxing secular-ites. 

I drifted. Until, finally someone introduced the concept of "Same-Sex Attraction" as an experience rather than identity.

How did this happen, and what did the term "Same-Sex Attraction" do for you?

It was the beginning of being set free. Before this, there was an agonizing half-year of consciousness but no comfort. It was like all the painful and awkward attractions of my teen-dom on re-run, with the inability to even begin shutting out new ones. My defenses were gone, and I was terrified of girls AND guys. I was even scared of beloved friends who'd never been a source of anxiety before. I avoided them at a crucial moment of my life, and I regret that more than anything. 

I'd told a school friend, vaguely Catholic, and gotten a blank stare without help. I remember listless, but awkward questions. She didn't see why it was more concerning as anything but a curiosity. In a spurt of bravery, I tried again, and I'd confided my confusion to a closer friend. I didn't know what to expect, but she blew me away. Her reaction was love, understanding, and patience. 

When it was appropriate, she told me of a group called Courage, which fortunately she had just that week stumbled across, and told me to give it a look over. The website, the testimonials, and the message was pure hope. I could be a faithful Catholic! Meetings weren't an option at the time, so I joined a listserve, and was met with reassurance. Courage patiently explained that sexuality was one part of a person, and attraction as experience rather than a determinant for who I am and how I must grow, I was SO INCREDIBLY relieved. I didn't think it was possible to flourish as a human being, rather than just coping, while experiencing SSA!

My culture had been telling me that to be "gay" meant resistance to the Gay lifestyle was inevitably to be found impossible, or at least wounding, stunting, stifling. I'd know, as a Catholic, that behavior is a choice, but believed the lie that choosing to be faithful would and must be stifling! The fact that they referred to chastity as a cross for homosexuals, (and offered no explanation) just reinforced that apprehension. It was a matter of extreme fear and concern, and the reason why I'd buried the phenomena of being inclined towards other girl deep down in the first place.

So you agree with Courage, and Fr Harvey, SSA over GAY?

The Late Fr. John Harvey, who I've never been blessed with meeting, is often quoted: 
"Yes. I avoid using the terms “gay” and “lesbian” for good reason. An individual is more than a sexual inclination….To refer to him or her as a “homosexual” is to reduce that person to a sexual tendency….The terms “gay” and “lesbian” are an even further reduction of a person’s own wondrous complexity…." [Fr. John Harvey, “Homosexuality and the Catholic Church: Clear Answers to Difficult Questions,” Ascension Press, 2007, p. 28]
I think he is wondrously right. But when I say this I don't strictly mean it in reference to the idea of avoiding the three terms "gay," "lesbian," and "homosexual." I mean "an individual is more than a sexual inclination," and that these words often reduce people to those inclinations. But my point is, they don't have to, and they shouldn't. They are reductionist only because the people who uses them think in reductionist terms.
This language will still exist years from now. Our own-English translated Bibles use the words "homosexual" and "sodomite," and no one in the secular world has ever overlooked it. If we ever win the war of words among Christians on Fr. Harvey's terms, we will have succeeded in making Christians sound like morons.

The Church has grown in psychological knowledge, and deepened in it's grasp on the Gospel. She proclaims the same truth, but with more confidence than ever that these experiences, same or opposite-sex attracted, are only experiences. Not invalid, but not defining, and certainly not identities. Out identity, we are told, is "Child of God." And secular gays look at us like we're nuts. To them, either we're in denial, or off in some separate sexual realm. "That's all well and good for you," they determine, "But you see I"m gay. This is my identity."

We move the goalposts when we change the vocabulary. They don't relate to the term, so to them, "SSA" is "Gay, weak-sauce." Either it results in two camps, a not-gay-man-who-still-likes-men camp (what?) and gay man camp, or else it flops entirely. But if what Fr. Harvey said is true, "an individual is more than a sexual inclination," then "gay" and "lesbian" as an identity don't even exist. They are not, and never were, who we are, or who the secular-gay-man is. The only things the could be are what we've been describing all along: One part among many of our beautiful humanity. 

These words need to be captured, not destroyed in the vocabulary wars. Same-Sex Attracted is precise, but clinical-sounding, and works as an explanation of concepts, but not a descriptor of qualities. With "gay," it's familiarity is a point of connection in so many minds! To be able to say "gay" and know, without thinking, that it's an friendly adjective and not the person, would be a boon to bar-stool evangelization everywhere, and rescue so many teens from the fears that I faced. "Gay" will be around for a while. It's time to stop letting it be bait to a romanticized underworld, a Christian bludgeon, or ignorant slur.

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