Mailbag is an occasional Q&A of your inquiries regarding faith, sexuality, and relationship from an LGBT perspective. We aren't theologians or counselors, but we're walking the same path as many of you and will do our best to answer the questions you have. You can submit your own question here.
Hey Dave and Tino,
I love your blog. For years I was rigidly Side B and waiting on God to perform a miracle. Hearing your story was incredibly helpful and allowed me to finally be honest about my situation. I am now out to everyone, am Side A, and am dating. In a lot of ways, it's liberating and healing. But it's also challenging.
One big challenge is the “ick factor". For example, I've been seeing a guy for a month now. We're similar, we have fun together and I genuinely enjoy him. But it makes me uncomfortable to hold his hand, or to kiss him. Both are things he seems to need from a partner, but cuddling, kissing, and affection freak me out.
I recognize this is a symptom of decades of internalized shame. But public displays of affection between guys makes me cringe. I don’t like seeing PDA and I don’t like being part of it. I feel proud when people find out I'm gay and say, "I’m surprised! You act so straight." I like the benefits that come along with seeming straight. And even though my gayness isn’t a secret anymore, I'm horrified of any association with a gay stereotype, which to me includes PDA with other men.
I aspire to have a healthy, monogamous relationship with a man, and I want to be able to look at pictures of us without feeling grossed out. Already, I can see how my attitude on this subject is hurtful to those I'm in relationship with. The reason I decided to date (in spite of my hangups) was because for most of my life, I've forced myself not to do or think certain things. Is it delusional of me to think that exploration, trial, error and mistake-making are more authentic and healthy than fear-driven obedience?
Thanks! I'm grateful for your perspectives.
Sick of the Ick
Dear Sick of the Ick,
Thanks for your the great question. A lot of LGBT people deal with this "ick factor" when they first start to date. And I think the ones who wrestle with it most tend to be the more "straight-acting" ones who haven't been viewed as gay before. They’ve been able to hide for years, to come out on their own terms. But public dating revokes that control, and suddenly they’re forced to own their identity even when it’s inconvenient or undesirable.
Believe me, I can relate to feeling gratified whenever someone doesn't immediately peg me as gay. I still do. But I've come to understand this draw toward passing as straight not as a worthy attribute but as a character flaw. It's a superiority complex, plain and simple. When we take pride in not appearing overtly gay, we're creating a hierarchy of worth. It’s a despicable practice in the wider LGBT population. What we're essentially telling ourselves is: "I may not be straight, but at least I'm not effeminate like those other guys." We're creating a workaround in our minds that allows us to accept our homosexuality, but provides sufficient separation from us and those “other” gay people. We may be a part of this LGBT population, but we're still different and distinct from them.
And it's not just gay men. Gay women also put "femmes" on a pedestal right next to the gay man's "masc jock."
"It's sad, especially for someone like me who tends to be more attracted to those kinds of [less traditionally feminine] women," writes Trish Bendix, editor-in-chief of AfterEllen.com. "They have such little visibility and can feel less appreciated, certainly. I think for gay men and women, we try and resist the mainstream stereotypes (effeminateness or butchness, respectively) but in reality, those things are still very much a part of our greater identities and we're doing ourselves a disservice by pretending and presenting otherwise!"
Why is a preoccupation with appearing "straight-acting" so critical to your dating question? It's about identity. Aside from the ramifications of how this frame of mind diminishes the worth of others, it's destructive to you. If we take pride in seeming "straight-acting," then we will feel uncomfortable in any situation when we’re seen as "gay-acting." That includes the whole realm of PDA. Nothing is more "gay-acting" than holding hands, kissing, and cuddling a person of the same sex. But affection doesn't have to be in public to trigger a response. This "ick factor" can arise in private, too, because you’re perceiving yourself as gay-acting—meaning, you’re seeing yourself from the outside and are afraid and disgusted that this is how others may see you. It's this disembodied self-critic that is so destructive.
The solution: You need to kill the critic. But how do we do this? The first step is to recognize when the critic appears. When you feel icky about something, ask yourself: What is this feeling about? What exactly is icky about this situation? What does this situation say about me and who I am? The next step is to express the ickiness. If you're going to attempt to date, you need to be upfront about these issues you're working through, and only date someone who can patiently respect your boundaries. For example, when Constantino and I were dating, he would gently press into me and test my borders, and when I felt uncomfortable I would tell him I was feeling "icky" and he would stop. He didn't share my feelings, but he could relate to them and would give me the space I needed. But there also needs to be growth and change in those boundaries over time, or the relationship won't progress. Sometimes you need to initiate touch so that your partner doesn't feel rejected. In time, you need to become more comfortable with touch, and you have to learn to accept that you will at times look "gay-acting" because—guess what?—you're gay! The largest paradigm shift may not be coming out to others, but in seeing yourself as gay. If you can't be OK with that, then you will always struggle with your self-identity.
Finally, you need to learn to live in the present. I notice that with Constantino, I never get the "icky" feeling when I'm in tune and fully present with him. It only occurs when I'm self-judging and observing myself from the outside. The more in tune you can be with your partner, the less space there will be for that voice to spew its commentary. That's just something that takes practice and a patient partner. For me personally, the change has seemed slow, but when I look back at myself even just a year ago, I can see how much I've truly changed in regard to touch and public perception.
This is all about, as you say, thoughtful exploration. You don’t want to hurt someone, but you can't know if you're ready to date until you try. I firmly believe that if our sights are set on God, it's better to walk the tightrope of life and stumble than to never step off the platform. Another way to put that: "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take." That’s from Wayne Gretzky. See? Super straight-acting.
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland.
Photo by Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, used through Flickr Creative Commons.
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