These Hallowed Grounds: Nathan’s Story

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I’ve had Nathan Kennedy write here before and it’s been for all the best reasons. Nathan has written many posts that have really resonated with me, taught me so much about the joy of coming out and how to move forward in this unique identity with dignity. He’s good people.

If you haven’t already, check out his blog here. 

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The other day I bought some shoes. The dearth of great selections at most department stores and retailers disappointed me as usual – after all, I have the unfortunate combination of extravagant taste and cheapness. I bypassed several racks, refusing to bedeck myself in either Chacos or Sperrys, instead perusing the clearance racks to see what overlooked gems remained in stock. I didn’t know it, but this shopping day would prove to be a major personal milestone: it would help me learn a crucial ingredient to what it means to be “out” as an LGBTQ person.

 

I came out a while back. Well, I came out on my personal blog and my Twitter account, and though I’ve always been “out” to my closer friends, my understanding of what it means to be “out” has changed at different times. Most of the time I just think, well, I’ll just be myself and people can figure it out. They usually do. I honestly don’t like spelling it out – I just let my personality speak for itself.

 

And then I stood in the shoe department at JCPenney and found myself face to face with a pair of white leather loafers, as sleek as they were attractive. I had that familiar impulse that we all get when we see something that we like so much. I have to have those! Yes, it sounds vapid, but it’s true. I don’t like shopping that much, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune from that instant infatuation with particular consumer goods that lifestyle marketers cash in on. A marketer would tell you that I didn’t see on the rack the other day a pair of shoes but an identity, a ploy known very well to retail marketers obsessed with peddling fashions and clothing. Smoke and mirrors the illusion may have been, but the fact that these shoes were so damn awesome wasn’t.

 

But I hesitated to buy them. My interior shriek of delight (which, I assure you, was very interior) dampened as I realized that to wear these shoes is, according to some law somebody made up some time ago, “less than acceptable” in some gendered, socially accepted norm. My main concern, once I came to put it into words, reduced to a simple, “No, I can’t wear those. They’re too gay!”

 

They’re too gay.”

 

I let that realization sink in for a moment. Obviously marketed toward men nonetheless, I hesitated to buy a pair of shoes I really loved because I was afraid that people would see me as gay. But I am gay—I’m not only gay, but I’m out. It’s not that my wardrobe tends to be on the dull side; walking down the street, I’ve heard crude epithets hurled at me from a car full of mulleted college students. I’ve been at the grocery store picking onions only to hear someone in a group of frat boys mutter just loud enough for me to hear, “[Expletive] fag!” Middle school and high school were a series of emotional gauntlets I somehow survived. I’ve never described myself as “effeminate,” but I’ve come to terms with the realization that regardless, I’m most definitely queer.

 

And yet, I mourn the fact that I don’t always feel at ease with my surroundings because I am gay. I live in Texas. There are some places, contexts, and crowds that to be conspicuous is at best unwise or, at worst, dangerous. Even walking down the street, shopping in the grocery store, or going to church can be an occasion of high vulnerability. I’m sad to say that even with family, I haven’t always been at ease. When I was 14 and my parents began to fear that I was gay, I remember a big fight breaking out with threats of being kicked out of the house and dying of AIDS and my mother forcing me to read out loud the Bible passages supposedly condemning homosexuality. I remember one of my high school teachers explicitly telling the class that it’s not okay to be gay. I remember my Boy Scout leader having a conversation with one of the other leaders saying that if he were to find out one of his Scouts were gay, he’d show them the door. Coming out has been a process that’s involved great risk to my relationships, standings, and, perhaps, my safety.

 

About four years ago, I pushed myself to the point of a severe nervous breakdown. In the course of living out what I believed to be God’s will for my life – celibacy, spiritual perfectionism, and obedient submission – I carried on too hard and too fast for someone of my constitution. I was in a Catholic seminary at the time, and if my behavior wasn’t policed enough by the institution, some part of my mind took exceeding pleasure in policing it for me. Every mannerism, inflection, and aspect of my appearance and personality fell under uncompromising internal and external scrutiny. As time went on, I began feeling the effects of severe anxiety: extreme insomnia, lack of concentration, and withdrawal. Eventually, my body began to feel the physical effects of this anxiety. I had recurring, splitting headaches, and my left arm developed a sizeable tremor. And then, one beautiful post-Easter Sunday morning, I blacked out and collapsed. A trip to the emergency room led to a CAT scan, an MRI, blood work, Percocet, and a referral to a psychiatrist. It led to my decision not to return to the seminary after the end of the semester. Most importantly, it led to a process of growth and change that, in time, would help me learn to live a more authentic, honest, and joyful life.

 

I believe that a great many of us have been so enamored with an image of God that bespeaks of some demanding, judgmental, perfectionistic entity whose call to discipleship is heavy on the Cross but light on the joy, that to break away from it means a radical break with one’s very notion of God. For me, it means that I’ve been so damaged by this “god” that I had to leave “god” to find God. This false god granted me no identity outside of an ecclesial structure or theological system; it convinced me that discipleship consisted of an endless series of “purifications” that would leave me broken, deconstructed, and crushed with no way to go but up. This “god” had no likeness to human love—it certainly had nothing to do with the kind of love I felt drawn to. This god was no more than a projection of my own interiorized voice of self-criticism and inadequacy—and I suspect that when a great deal of people talk about God, that voice is exactly what they have in mind.

 

So much of my process of coming out has been preparing for and recovering from being deeply hurt. It’s also been listening to voices of support while ignoring voices of detraction. It’s meant learning to make coming out my choice, based on my readiness, not someone else’s idea of how or when my coming out should be, if ever. Given what I had been through, it somehow occurred to me what a defeat it would be were I to pass up on a pair of shoes simply because I was afraid to seem “gay.” My ability to acknowledge and embrace who I am was hard-won and precious.

 

I bought the shoes. They currently encase my feet, dangling over the chair I sit in, revealing a hint of black argyle socks on crossed legs. In keeping with the pervasive lifestyle marketing techniques of which retail is resplendent, they’re “so me.”

 

That’s what coming out really is, after all. It’s looking at the different options for your life and, having come to know yourself, you forge the path that is “so you.” You make the outside of your life reveal the inside of your soul. That involves a lifelong process of discerning and choosing, of a journey outward to express and deepen your journey inward.

 

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For those of us who are LGBTQ, we have the decision to make as to how this affects us. How does being LGBTQ affect my interior life, and how is that to look on the outside? What direction does my experience of being LGBTQ move me in, and in what contexts do I find the most meaning in it?

 

Most of all, how does being LGBTQ deepen my experience and my understanding of what it means to be fully, truly, and authentically human?

 

And yes, people will make fun of me for being the guy in white loafers. They will mutter their insults and their epithets, try to convince me that the God I seek hates everything about my sexuality, and even have me fear for my very safety at times. But they can never take from me what I have won for myself: the unity of my outer and inner worlds; the integrity of my identity with my expression. That, after all, is what being out means. It’s the reclamation of the humanity of my sexuality – and the refusal to submit it to inauthentic definitions.

 

I cannot tell any soul what decision to make regarding coming out. It’s a profoundly personal, dare I say, sacred codification of one’s experience and identity, to which I remove my sandals (or white loafers) and stand in awe at the revelation that takes place to another’s soul. I can only ask anyone considering it to be as authentic as possible. Don’t cut corners in your soul-searching, and don’t try to side-step difficult issues. To those who have family, friends, or loved ones going through this process, my advice is this: stand in awe at the burning bush that you see before you. What is happening is a miraculous revelation that demands respect and humility, regardless of what you believe regarding homosexuality or gender identity.

 

Remember, always, that this is a person’s sexuality, one’s own or another person’s. The ground on which you are standing is holy.