Saturday, April 9, 2011

Coming Out. Part Two.

Writing from a theoretical perspective regarding the shift in my understanding of my sexual identity is one thing; living through that change was quite another. It was by far the most difficult period of my life: the only one during which I had to use medication in order to be able to cope. Even reflecting on that time decades later has made it difficult to sleep. The situation was made worse by its reverberations with what I had put my wife through in relation to my previous life-choice: monastic life or marriage. Once again, I was exposing her to uncertainty, loss, sadness and anger. Throughout our life together, I felt a particular sense of sadness and remorse when she sang the folk song, Water is Wide, which I always felt referenced myself.  It was one of our favourites from the time we had first met as students; one verse held incredible prescience :

                                         I leaned my back against an oak
                                        Thinking it was a trusty tree
                                        But first it bent and then it broke
                                        So did my love prove false to me

I was even more concerned about my sons; Raphael was five at the time and Julian three. My wife and I were both adults; we were both implicated in the course our life together had taken since marriage and, however difficult the situations facing us, both had adult resources to cope with them. The boys were much more vulnerable to potential long term consequences of what we were about to live through and decisions that might emerge. As is the case with all of us: they didn't get to choose the family into which they were born.

Sometimes it seemed desirable to retreat to what had been my previous way of understanding my sexual self; putting the gay part of my self back into the closet. Many metaphors reflect how impossible such a retreat is: you can't go home again; you can't put the genie back in the bottle; you can't put Humpty Dumpty together again. Once you've come to see and understand something central and vital about yourself in a radically different way, you can never again be the same person you previously were; however much you may want to; however much you may try; going back as exactly the same person is not an option. During that period of emotional crisis and turmoil I began to keep a journal in order to "preserve a sense of my own continuity, to assure myself of my own identity" and in order to describe to the boys how it might come to be that I could both love them very much and make a decision leading to not continuing to live with them: a decision that tore at the core of how I understood myself and the person I wanted to be. Unfortunately, I didn't date events in the journal, so the dates I've used here are approximate ones determined with John Southin's memory supplementing my own.

The first person with whom I shared my reflections regarding how I had come to understand my sexuality was my wife. I hoped that she would be able to make a connection between her involvement with women's liberation and my growing interest in gay liberation. While she did show some understanding of that connection on a theoretical basis, she was, understandably, very threatened by what the implications could be for our lives. Her emotional responses were, in fact, very similar to those she felt during my conflicts about becoming a monk; only more intense. The next people I spoke with were Peter and Sheila, both of whom were very supportive of both of us. They encouraged me to follow my thinking in whatever direction it might lead and encouraged Christine and me to find ways as a couple of accommodating my changed identity. What I desperately wanted was to continue living in the collective with my wife and children and somehow find a way of accepting that I was gay at the same time. However, thinking, as I sometimes did, that I could accept being gay on just a theoretical level without acting on it wasn't realistic; at least not for me.

I had maintained contact with my friend from William and Mary, Peter, after graduation. He had gone to Stanford when I went to Claremont and there were some visits in California between my wife and me and him. When we moved to Montreal, he had moved to New York City and our visits continued; one occurred at the point in time my being gay was beginning to be addressed in the collective. Without knowing what was being discussed amongst us, he told me in private that he was gay and had recently come out. His disclosure shook my world in a far more dramatic and concrete way than had my theoretical reflections on my sexual identity; even more so when he shared that he had always felt attracted to me. I had been comfortable enough with my bisexuality in College to have accepted, quietly to myself, that I found Peter attractive; especially the Summer we had roomed together. Following my prescription that attractions to men were not to be acted upon in my adult life, that realization went nowhere. This time I shared that I was attracted to him and informed him of the reflections I was having regarding my own sexuality. For the first time in my adult life, I was in the presence of another man where there was a mutually acknowledged sexual attraction and we both identified as gay. We made a decision not to act on that attraction because of the possible impact on my wife and children.

After Peter left to return to New York, I told my wife of our conversation and she clearly felt very threatened, but relieved by the fact that Peter and I had no intention of being sexual with each other. Several months later Peter visited us again at a cottage we rented for the Summer in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. One evening after everyone else had gone to bed Peter and I had stayed up talking about our situation. Without verbally acknowledging what was happening we moved closer to each other, started making out and ended up having sex with each other. Experiencing a passion that I had denied to myself for more than a decade was very powerful, though both Peter and I regretted what had happened and he left the next day. I felt too guilty about that encounter to disclose it directly it to my wife, though I did tell her that I felt it was important for me to act on the attraction I felt for Peter. She was even more upset and threatened after that conversation, but said again that she wanted to try and work things out in a way that we could stay together. What we both wanted was to keep our family intact while my exploration of my sexual identity continued. I would have preferred that the first sexual encounter between Peter and I not have happened at the time and place that it did; up to that point I had been honest with my wife and had wanted to keep that honesty intact.

At about the same time, it must have been late in 1969 (I don't remember hearing about the Stonewall Riots in New York City that marked a tipping point for the gay liberation movement and occurred in the Summer of the same year), letters were published anonymously by several gay students in the University student newspaper: the McGill Daily. They expressed feelings of isolation and experiences of discrimination and hostility at the University. I was upset by those letters and contacted John Southin, a professor of biology at Mcgill, who I knew to be gay, and asked if he would be interested in taking some action in support of those students.  John agreed and I approached the staff of the Daily, who I had also come to know through anti-war activities, offering that John and I write a brief opinion piece on attitudes at the university towards gay people and the need to combat those attitudes. They were very supportive, in fact, enthusiastic, and published the article. Interestingly, despite our bold support, neither John nor I identified ourselves as gay in the article; I didn't want to embarrass my wife and John had his own reasons. An interesting fact that made the gay liberation movement particularly difficult was that progressive supporters of gay liberation were usually suspected of being gay themselves; while supporters of other minority groups were, generally, not assumed to be members of the groups they were supporting. Accordingly, to state that you were in favour of gay liberation was, much more so then, than now, to expose yourself to the stigma of actually being gay.  Consequently, publishing that article served as a de facto coming out to the University community.

Despite the facts that I had discussed publishing the article with her beforehand and that I hadn't explicitly identified as being gay in the article, my wife was terribly upset when it appeared; more upset than she had previously been. No doubt publishing that article was the first public manifestation of the change in my self-identity; it was also the first public reference to what we were personally experiencing; the first public reference to her husband's being gay. I imagine she felt some shame and embarrassment with that association and wanted to disassociate herself from it. In addition, I subsequently learned that she was not as open about homosexuality as she had related to me and was one of the feminists who opposed accepting lesbians into the women's movement at her own, neighbouring university; another reason to be particularly embarrassed by a public association between her husband and the gay liberation movement.

A month or two later, during the Christmas Holidays, Peter decided to make another trip to Montreal, but to stay in a hotel, rather than the collective. It was known to the three adults in the collective that it was my intention to have sex with him on that visit. It was the first time in my life that I had a truly passionate, sexual experience with someone I deeply cared about; as I lay in bed with him afterward, Christmas music was playing on the radio and I felt very, very sad. It was becoming increasingly clear to me that continuing an emotional and sexual relationship with Peter would not be emotionally supportable by my wife; however much she wanted to be able to accept it. I knew I was asking a lot of her and fully respected her feelings and values. I could see she was being destroyed by what she was living through and sometimes feared for her emotional well-being. I have known other couples of various sexual persuasions who had worked through situations similar to ours and remained with their families in an open relationship; I realized we weren't likely to be one of them. I didn't and don't feel that making value judgments concerning people caught in a situation such as ours is either helpful or appropriate. We were  both acting upon and responding to the situation we were facing in our relationship with the resources, the strengths and vulnerabilities, we brought into it as individuals; however much we may have loved one another; however well we may have responded within the limits of those resources; our relationship was not likely to survive.

It was increasingly evident that the children were being negatively effected by the emotional turbulence that my wife and I were going through; they may have been buffered a bit by living in a collective. She had decided to see a psychiatrist and by accident or choice ended with one who was quite traditional and conservative. I had one interview with him at his request; sitting in one of the lower chairs reserved for patients, while he sat on the other side of an impressive desk and said nothing. Even before identifying with being gay, his was the type of intimidating approach to psychotherapy that I considered oppressive. It wasn't until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association decided homosexuality was not an illness; Canadian psychiatrists were somewhat slower to accept that conclusion. I would imagine that my hostility was palpable during the interview, even though few words were exchanged. In his next meeting with my wife he informed her that I was a very disturbed person and needed help. She also turned to the the Church for support after several years of our having drifted away from it.

Naturally, both her psychiatrist and the Church encouraged her to end our relationship; probably the best counsel, if, from my perspective, for other reasons than those that would have motivated their advice. I think it was in the Spring of 1970 that my wife told me that I would have to either change identifying myself as gay and acting in accord with that identity or leave her. Conversion therapy wasn't an option for me both from my own political ideology and the fact that it doesn't work. The most it had to offer me would have been a return to repressing my sexuality and the negative impacts that had on other aspects of my personality; a return which I felt would have just as strong a negative impact on the children and our life as a family as the pain through which she was currently suffering. I felt that she was right; the hurt was too much; nothing more could be done to salvage our togetherness as a family; the time had come to move out. As might have been expected, it was a traumatic separation for all of us.

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