Saturday, April 16, 2011

Being Out. It Got Worse.

I know that, in general, being out is better than being in the closet and it certainly has been for me; however, I am not alone in having experienced an initial period of emotional turmoil after coming out. It's very important in encouraging young people to come out to prepare them for that possibility: coming out is not a magic bullet that will take away isolation, unhappiness and oppression. In fact, bullying might increase; families and friends might react negatively, or more negatively, than anticipated; desired opportunities for sexual intimacy might not materialize. In talking with someone, especially a young, financially and family dependent person, about coming out, their resources for coping with such possible, negative consequences should be explored. Hopefully, coming out is easier now than it was when I came out, but that is far from universally the case.

I was fortunate in that John Southin was not only a professor at McGill, but also Director of Student Residences. When he heard that I was moving out of the collective he offered me the position of Resident Faculty Advisor, which provided a small, two room apartment in one of the student residences. Having a place into which I could move without moving "stuff" and where I could take my meals in the student cafeteria provided a smooth transition from one form of collective living to another. In addition, it was a space where the boys enjoyed visiting me; there were ping-pong and pool tables, a TV lounge, Parc Mont-Royal at the doorstep; often excitement. My wife and I decided to have shared custody of the boys, rare for that point in time, and they were to live with me every other weekend and for a month in the Summer. Within a year their time of living with me gradually began extending; in their early adolescence they both choose to live with me full time; however, not knowing what the future would bring, that initial period of separation was very difficult for all of us.

Knowing that children often blame themselves for the breakup of their parents, my wife and I felt it was important to explain to them that we both loved them very much and continued to love each other, but could no longer live together. Our approach to them as parents in relation to things that were difficult for children to grasp had always been to give them a simple explanation at first, then be open to answering their questions as they occurred to them. It wasn't long before one of the boys asked how it was that if his mother and I continued to love each other we didn't want to live together. I responded that Daddy preferred being with men, which, in response to further questions, was refined to Daddy prefers sleeping with men. Along with that information I gave a warning that some of their friends might not like that fact and it would be better not to share it outside the family. At the time of our separation that information seemed to satisfy what they needed to know; they seemed to be comfortable with it, as did, later in their lives. their friends. That comfort did not make the pain of living apart from them any less for them or for me.

The months immediately following moving out were extremely emotionally difficult in two regards: no longer being available to the boys on a daily basis and suddenly being available to other men. I remained in close contact with Peter and Sheila, the other couple in our collective, and sometimes stayed with them and the children when my former wife was out of town. I knew from them that they were feeling increasingly estranged from her and concerned about the impact our separation was having on her. They also shared with me the difficulties the boys were going through after I had moved out: Julian was difficult and crying a lot of the time; Raphael was often angry and was getting into fights at school, which was very unlike him. As I have related in a previous post, one of the reasons for living in the collective was to share child rearing responsibilities amongst the four of us. I had the impression that Peter and Sheila felt they were now left with a larger responsibility for our two children, as well as their own, which must have been experienced as both stressful and unchosen. They never complained about that increased burden and remained very supportive of the choices I had made. I was even comfortable sometimes bringing over new, gay friends when I visited. Nevertheless, I worried about the impact the additional stress on Peter and Sheila might be having on the children; there had always been some tensions related to our differing parenting styles, which risked being aggravated by stress.  In addition, given what they reported my former wife to be going though, I worried about her emotional availability to them as a mother.

When I stayed with the children at the collective during the absence of their mother and when they visited me I realized that they were suffering. Once when I came into the house to spend a weekend with them, they both struggled to get into my lap at the same time, while saying over and over, "we love you Daddy." Often, when they visited me, they would cry when it came time to go home and wanted to stay. While I was aware that some of their behaviour was normal in children going through a separation, that was little consolation. What was most difficult were those occasions when I would learn that one of them was sick or experiencing some conflict and I couldn't be there for them as I would have been in the past. I had, for example, been a major caregiver for Julian when he suffered asthma attacks and now was powerless to comfort him. While the boys were usually happy when they visited me and we enjoyed our time together, I knew they desperately wanted our family to be back together and felt largely responsible for their emotional pain.

The other source of emotional crisis was my sudden availability and freedom to respond to other men. As it happened, the first person to approach me after I left my wife was a woman; a friend of ours whom we had known for years. While it was a bit unnerving, it was relatively easy to let her know why, being gay, I wasn't available. Subsequently, there were many gay men. The gay men I was coming to know tended to form two groups, somewhat overlapping: men that I was meeting through political activities and those I met in bars. In regard to the former group, there happened to be only one to whom I was attracted and we became friends, sometimes having sex together, over a relatively long period in gay-time; it was probably several months. Both of us being on the political left and involved in the sexual revolution, we were against the formation of exclusive couples, which we saw as bourgeois, so we never considered ourselves boy friends; well, almost never, I did over hear him a few times saying we were lovers, but he wouldn't have told me directly. Naturally, in accord with our political values it was not a sexually exclusive relationship, so it offered no shelter from continuing to respond to other interested men.

The men who presented difficulties for me were those who frequented bars; to whom I was more likely to be attracted than the politicos. At the time, bar people usually hadn't been exposed to much in the way of sexual liberation, were often on the right of the political spectrum and had dreams of love and marriage; at least as close as they could get to being a heterosexual couple before civil unions or gay marriages had been recognized.  I had been sheltered as an adult from having to say "no". Consequently, there was a series of men, usually met through a sexual encounter and followed almost immediately by a profession of love, the desire to form a couple and, occasionally, being introduced to family and friends as their boyfriend. Although I thought I was being clear at the start of our several weeks together that a couple relationship wasn't what I wanted, those relationships almost always ended with turmoil, hurt and anger. I began to feel overwhelmed, emotionally exhausted, and to express that stress, as I had in the past, partly through physical symptoms: eye twitching and blocks in the functioning of the not adequately autonomous, autonomic nervous system. I ended up in an emergency room and when the staff learned I was gay and having sex with other men, their shame-inducing attitudes and unhelpful, inappropriate suggestions for treatment were typical of the lack of care received by gay people in medical establishments of the time.  Happily, I was rescued by a specialist who immediately recognized that the problem was stress, not an STD. I had been a person who liked spending some time alone, who needed time and space to himself, and now felt swamped by the demands of others; this was all too, too much; I began thinking of retreat.

The proverbial straw that nearly broke the newly liberated camel's back came in the form of a member of the clergy: the priest who had befriended me and my wife when we first came to Montreal. Although I am a great fan of cognitive dissonance, his ability to compartmentalize conflicting elements of his reality rendered me speechless; not an easy task to accomplish. When he learned that I was gay and had left my wife, he invited me to spend a weekend at his chalet in the country; the same chalet my wife and I rented during the Summer and in which my first, adult,  gay, sexual encounter occurred. After dinner and three bottles of wine he confessed to me that he was gay and we discussed the various intersections of our sexual identities in the time we had known each other. I went to sleep in a rather boozy condition in his guest room and was surprised when he joined me and proceeded to have sex; he had sex; we didn't. I wasn't at all attracted to him; another illustration of my lack of comfort in saying "no".

I woke up early in the morning, remembered what had happened the night before, gratefully realized he was no longer in bed with me and went back to sleep. I awoke later to the smell of bacon frying and got up to the breakfast he had prepared. He told me he had just come back from confession; probably having visited a priest he knew in the area who would take a forgiving attitude toward his particular expression of mortal sin. He related that we should become less distant friends because he, being associated with the University, could let me know how other people were responding to my coming out, while I could provide someone with whom he could share his homosexuality. Instead, I decided to distance myself more from him, as I couldn't get my head around how he could want to be a closer friend and have needed to rush off to cleanse his soul of the sin he had committed with me. Some weeks later, perplexity turned to anger when I learned from Peter and Sheila that at the same time he was serving as a spiritual counsellor to my wife and had arranged for a young priest, whom I knew was a protege of his and who would set off the weakest of gaydars, to provide counselling to my two sons. I feared that he was not only supporting my wife in her faith-based hostility toward homosexuality, but facilitating the exposure of my sons to the same values.

I was emotionally torn as to how I should respond to that situation, if at all. On the one hand I felt she had the right to know that the priest who was giving her solace from within the Church was being duplicitous. At this point in time, she even refused to be present for dinner when Peter and Sheila invited a friend of theirs whom she knew to be gay, so I didn't imagine she would have turned to a priest she knew to be a homosexual for support. On the other hand, I felt it would be wrong of me to deprive her of that support and was suspicious of my own motives: were they partly based on anger toward the priest and her? I discussed the dilemma with several friends and their responses weighed in on the side of her right to know, so I told her that I knew the priest was gay without saying how I knew. He was the only person I've ever outed and I needn't have worried so much about the consequences; much to my surprise, she immediately rejected the information and maintained that I was lying to her. I needn't have worried, either. about the consequences of my sons being counselled by his protege-priest; they later related to me that he had told them their father was doing the right thing, but they mustn't tell anyone he had said that.

During this period I often identified with the Oscar Wilde poem: "each man must kill the thing he loves". I felt that nearly every person I encountered: wife, children, Peter, Sheila, gay men with whom I had been involved, ended with being hurt by me. One friend of my wife, who with his wife had been friends with us as a couple, a fellow academic and convert to Catholicism, told me I was the devil incarnate. I questioned if I was strong enough to live an emotionally and sexually liberated life. The urge to retreat into myself that I had first chosen when I made the transition from adolescence to adulthood became increasingly stronger and the family as a shelter more attractive. I felt I was falling apart; not able to cope with what I wanted and intellectually professed. I wrote a letter to my wife proposing we attempt a reconciliation, having little idea what that might mean. She, wisely, wrote back saying she was open to discussing that possibility, but suggesting I spend a couple of weeks with the boys, at the same spot in the Eastern Townships of Quebec where so much else had happened, in order to consider if I really wanted a reconciliation. I think it only took a week of the quiet, of no emotional demands except those of the boys and of appreciating the relationship I continued to have with them and, yes, for the tranquillizers to have their impact, to realize that retreating back into myself and into the family wouldn't work and wasn't what I wanted from my life. When I left the chalet after my wife returned, I told her that she was right to suggest the period of reflection and I knew our relationship wasn't salvagable.  As I drove away down the same country road I often use today, looking out over Lake Memphramagog and the mountains beyond, I accepted fully for the first time that my life with the family was over. I started to sob so hard I had trouble seeing the road, harder than I've ever done in my life; I finally said goodbye.

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