Episode #5: Gay Identity
Karen: Hello and welcome to the Wish You Knew podcast. I'm your host, Karen Bortvedt. Thank you so much for tuning in again this week. Today, as some of you may know, is National Coming Out Day. It is a day that is celebrated by the LGBTQI community as a day when people who hold a sexuality on that spectrum can share that with the world. The holiday has been around since 1988 and it was started with the idea that intolerance exists because of silence and the idea that if people share their sexuality, it, sort of, brings it out of the shadows. That increases awareness and tolerance in the world. So, that is my summary of the event. Today we have a good friend of mine on the show. His name is James and he identifies as a gay man. He will be sharing a little bit with us about his coming out experience and some of the other experiences he has had as a gay man.
Karen: James thank you so much for being with us today on the Wish You Knew Podcast. We are very excited to have you here.
James: Well, thank you for having me.
Karen: So today I mentioned. Today we are talking about what it is like to be gay, in honor of Coming Out Day, which is today, and we are very excited to have your insights into that. If you have listened to the show before you know I have a list of questions that are questions that I have come up with, and some of them are questions from listeners or that have come out when talking with listeners. So we'll just go through that to learn about your story and your experience.
James: Sounds good!
Karen: Let's go back to the beginning, that seems like a great place to start anything. At what age did you realize you were gay, and what was that experience like for you?
James: It's kinda more of a linear path as you come to realize more and more over life. At the place where I am at now, retrospectively, I would say eight years old. There were instances of looking back and seeing myself in certain situations, and being more attracted to men and male figures than to females. But, I would say more consciously of realizing that I was gay was starting at puberty and growing from there; and then really fully recognizing my sexuality for myself at the end of high school and [at the] beginning of college.
Karen: And what was the coming out process like for you, sort of realizing and acknowledging that, to sharing that with others?
James: Yeah, I mean it was really tough because I grew up in southern Ohio and [in] a very conservative area, and [in] a very conservative school so, I definitely had to hide attractions. I had a couple of girlfriends in high school who are still two of my best friends today, which is beautiful. Every time that I would have a homeosexual experience at that time - in middle school and high school - I would end up crying the next day, or crying afterwards praying, praying, “God, I can't be gay. I can't be gay. This can't happen,” and then also making a commitment to myself, personally, that to prove that I’m not gay, I would lose my virginity to a woman. And that would end all *note then* that I was a homosexual.
But, when I got to Marquette [University] - I ended up starting [at] Marquette knowing nobody, I was the first person to even apply to Marquette from my high school - and we went on this Christian leadership retreat before orientation, orientation freshman year started, and I met some really, really awesome people there; and really awesome Catholics there, and people my age who were Catholic. Because I had never really ever experienced [that] before, because I went to a Protestant...an Evangelical Christian Protestant high school. Through that re-finding for myself of my Catholic identity and spirituality, I started going to Mass every single day. Through prayer, it led me to a place of peace, and a place of wholeness and truth within my own life; and this sexual orientation and sexual identity wasn't concurrent with being and trying to pass it off as nothing; as a “I'm a 100% straight man bla bla bla bla bla,” was inconcurrent with this peace that I was finding in the rest of my life. So, I wanted to make peace with my own self. That was the main reason for coming out of the closet and [to] be wholly authentic with my own self and with my own identity moving forward.
Karen: You mentioned as a child, or as a teenager,struggling when you had, I think you said a "homosexual experiences." Did you talk to anybody about that at the time? Or was it just something that you kept to yourself?
James: [Chuckle] No, no... Yeah, something I completely kept to myself. It... I mean... it was something shameful. It was something that was completely anti- the entire society around me. I didn't have an outlet of anybody, it seems, to really be comfortable enough in this aspect to talk about my own self. That being said, I also was an “out” liberal at my high school, because of my own struggles and my own “what's happening in the background” of my life. In the foreground, I was still a big voice of dissention against this conservative society I was growing up around and surrounded by, and also a challenger to all these perceptions. Not only about sexuality, but about the war in Iraq; about Christian servant leadership, and being in solidarity with the poor; and actually doing service rather than charity. So it was all these politics and moralities, and spirituality were very mixed into...and mixed and molded together.
Karen: Who was the first person you told, or verbally expressed, "I am gay," to?
James: One of my best friends from high school. In freshman year of college, when I was home for Thanksgiving, and we were just hanging out. Yeah, so I told him, so that would have been November. And then at Marquette, the second person was... that would have been February of freshman year.
Karen: I think, with any group that is “outside of the majority,” shall we say, there is often confusion as to what language should you use. Do you say “gay?” Do you say “homosexual?” Do you say “LGBTQ?” What... can you talk to me a little bit about vocabulary?
James: Yeah, vocabulary is very important. Let's start with “homosexual.” "Homosexual" is to me, it's very scientific and biological, and I find it to be used in a study, and in academic journals. Where I don't... I want to be known as my individual person; I'd rather not be brushed off, seemingly brushed off, as somebody to study [laugh]. So “homosexual persons,” “people with same sex attraction,” those are very clinical, in a way. I'm a “gay man,” and from the best of my knowledge and experiences, a “lesbian woman,” “transgender individual,” a “bisexual person”; those terms specifically are most accepted by the LGBTQ community.
Another thing about it is: what is the acronym? You could in day-to-day dialog, if you really wanted to, say “LGBTQIA” over and over and over again. But, that's a tongue twister and that's really difficult. So if you're just speaking and you're talking about the LGBT community, or LGBTQ community, that's fine. But if you are writing, in writing, and you want to be as inclusive as possible? You can write “LGBTQ,” you can write “LGBTQ+,” - that plus sign stands for additional letters within the acronym - or “LGBTQIA.” “L” for lesbian; “G” for gay, “B” for bisexual; “T” for transgender; “Q” for queer, and/or questioning; “I” for intersex peoples; and “A” for allies, because everybody likes an ally.
Karen: I think most of those are probably understood. Intersex is the one that might not be as commonly discussed. Can you explain what that is?
James: So, intersex individuals, again, it's similar to using “homosexual” as opposed to “gay”; or as “gay” as opposed to “homosexual.” Intersex people are people who are born with male and female genitalia. In the science community, in biological terms, you can say “hermaphroditic.” But, intersex community has accepted that term for themselves. What they're calling for is [for] the individual [to] be able to choose their own life path without a doctor and/or their parents making the decision at birth for them. Because, doctors and parents would see an individual has more masculine genitalia than feminine genitalia, or vice versa, and they would make the decision based on that to do a gender-correction surgery on the infant.
So what the intersex community is calling for is stopping that gender-correction surgery, because it can lead to, and it has led to, “what if the doctor and parents chose wrong?” and then - the wrong gender - and rather have that child and that individual decide for themselves how they will... how they want to live their own life. As an intersex person, if they wanted a gender surgery later on in life, that is now their full decision to make. Germany in 2013, I believe, it wasn't too, too long ago, has now put on their birth certificates the option of Third Sex, to include this population. On a birth certificate it doesn't always say the box is male and female, the parents can choose if they would like to raise their child Third Sex.
Karen: So for all those listening, you have probably also noticed as I have. James, you have a lot of very specific knowledge. Do you work in this field, or, why is it that you have such deep understanding of these issues?
James: I work in Phnom Phen, Cambodia and I now am a[n] anti-human trafficking researcher and analyst and project consultant. But before, I was working a lot with the LGBTQ community and specifically more with transgendered sex workers in Phnom Penh. Through that work - and I've always been associated with a Catholic organization - so through that work I also learned that there is a lot of education and a lot of hurt between the two communities that needed to be rectified.
So, I started hosting dialogues between the LGBTQ community and the Christian communities in Phnom Penh, and then also just doing general education at university classes, at NGOs, hosting workshops, so that people hopefully can walk away with a better understanding of who is this community, what are some of the issues that they face here in Cambodia, internationally; and critically think how can we all, as human beings together, be with each other and more knowledgeable, not against each other or separate.
Karen: When you're working with religious groups...I know there’s many times I've heard Bible verses or different things quoted as reasons why being gay is wrong or unnatural, or [a] decision that has been impacted by [the] devil society, or I don't know what. You've heard many of these various things as well. What is your response to that, or how do you work within that paradigm and people who are brought up with that belief? How do you start to have someone understand a perspective when they're holding something out like the Bible, or years and years of dogma and tradition?
James: I think this is why, one of the main reasons why, the LGBTQ community is so hurt by the Christian community, and I'm going to specifically talk about the Christian community because that's my experience, mainly. Within the Christian community, when they throw a Romans Bible verse - a Leviticus - at somebody or at a group of people, they're just pigeonholing this individual. They’re not seeing beyond words on a page. They're not seeing the light within that individual as well.
So what I've been calling for in these dialogs, we have a list of definitions, we have a list of rules, before that is established - before these dialogs take place and right at the beginning of these dialogs - is that we're not going to talk about those Bible verses calling homosexuality a sin. We're not going to have that conversation, because we're beyond that conversation. If we have that conversation, that's really what starts all these emotions (are)... popping up everywhere on both sides and people get very, very combative. But rather, let's ask the question for ourselves, and to ourselves, and to one another: how can we be together better, rather than apart? How can my experience help you and your experience help me? And we walk with each other with our own individual experience; with our own individual context. But, we are together. I think that's what the Christian LGBTQ community is being wholly caught up on, is seeing the sinner in both parties.
But there's that Bible verse that says along the lines of, who are you to pick the speck out of somebody else's eye when you have a log sticking out of your own? And then also Jesus says, “no sin is greater than the other.” So let's not focus on sin any more. Because that’s ... when you focus on sin that's a ... that's focusing on darkness. And I think that’s what is evil, and that’s what Satan likes, is when people focus on darkness; when people focus on the dividing factors, between each other, and it causes chaos, and it causes corruption of the heart. Rather, if we can see beyond our question of, “is it a sin or not?” and we can just be. Period. We can just be together and be one, in this movement through life and this journey; in this adventure and sojourning.
Karen: Along the lines of religion: you are Catholic. In my experience I’ve known many people who have left the Catholic church because of the Catholic church's stance on homosexuality and some of the things that had been said in the past. The new pope seems to be working to change that with a more... open perspective. How do you stay Catholic, or why do you stay, when statements are being made that directly go against, or are a judgement on, a major aspect of your identity?
James: I get this questions a lot, and I still come back to this amazing experience growing up, where I was in Italy for New Year's Mass with a school group. I was one of two Catholics in this school group. I mean the Mass was obviously all in Italian, but my friend Aaron and I were able to follow along and know exactly where we were in the Mass, and what was being said and what was being done; with these thousand other people, who were attending Mass. It was just so profound to me that there’s this foundational link that transcends cultures, and transcends language barriers. Spirituality is higher than our own individual experience. It is a connector between all of us who will believe. And however that’s celebrated, be joyful of the fact that it is celebrated. If that spirituality is seeking to harm, then, I don't necessarily believe that that is... that's not healthy, and that's not God's goodness and God's love. If the spirituality is to connect people, make people grow outside of themselves? Then celebrate that fact. And so, I can see that a lot in the Catholic church throughout the years; past experiences, that I have been through. Yes there is dogma within the church. But that spirituality, or those aspects of the Catholic church... how do I put it... aren't necessarily my truths. And also I see that the Catholic church is man-made, so it can be fallible. So it's not to put myself above the Catholic church and say “oh i know better than the church itself,” no. It is to humby refrain from aspects within the church that I know to be harmful. But, to also celebrate aspects within the church that are amazing to individuals throughout the world. And I think that's the common denominator.
Karen: Are there experiences that you have had within the church that have helped to reinforce this understanding for you? And sort of the other side of the coin: are there experiences within the church that have made you question your decision to stay, because of the way you had been treated based on your gay identity?
James: Yes, I have been very discriminated against, from people representing the Catholic church, and it was extremely trying, and reconciliation took a long time. But, I would rather be within the church and be a movement, and shaker, within the church than be outside of the church trying to talk back into the door, because then I would just be another outside critic. I'd rather be within the church and celebrate within the church, and let's move together with our diversity and grow together in, how can we be diverse and yet have common value and common kind of ground. I have seen obviously... if I've only experienced negative experiences in the church that I would still be proud to say I'm a Catholic. I mean, it was prayer that lead me to such a place of peace and solidarity within my own self; that lead me to come out and really embrace my own individualism and own experience outside of myself. And then, seeing leaders within the church celebrate equality and respect and dignity for all persons, over dogma...that's what I've seen, that's what I've experienced, and that's what keeps me so alive. We hear all the time about the “religious right” shutting down movements, shutting down speakers, cancelling events, throwing all this hate speech around and being very very angry. At people within their own church. At other Catholics. It is very sad. It is very disheartening. But there are a couple of things to remember. The extreme is always the loudest, on all ends of the spectrum. The extreme are the minority but they are also the loudest. And, we are the Catholic church. Catholic means universal. We are here as a body of a billion, throughout this world, individuals. So, of course, everybody's perspectives would be different. We are an amazing inconceivably diverse group so of course everyone's beliefs and ideologies , spiritualities. But, let's again, hold together and celebrate that diversity with one common ground. And, holding above all else the respect we have for sharing in the body and blood rather than our own bias.
Karen: The church is one institution within your life. You mentioned your school being very conservative. You mentioned Marquette being helpful in that aspect. But, then, family is a huge aspect of your life. Your family, and friends, and roots supportive when you first started openly identifying as gay?
James: No, not at all. I mean it is a journey. It is a learning curve. It is something that we all have to navigate together. Families like to ostracize a person. Or, there are stories of families who ostracize their LGBTQ son or daughter and that is just sad because how are supposed to learn and grow as a human race if we are only caught up in our absolute microcosm of our human experience and understanding. But relationships are a two way street. So, yes, respect their journey to know you better. And, I'm talking about family and friends. Respect their journey to come and know you. They may be coming to a place of unacceptance or misjudgement. It is hurtful. It is hard a lot of the time but it is hard for both sides. Open communication and being respectful of them, and them being respectful of you is the most important, if you are going to grow together. Now that is not to say that some relationships aren't the most healthy. And, you should always, always keep on trying. No, some relationships can become emotionally and physically harmful and need to be cut of but that is when we need to take a step back and as individuals and as human beings and reflect, what is family? It is not just the biological definition. I mean my family, I have many, many families. Yes, I have my biological family but I also have a family of friends that are beautiful. I surround myself with a family of friends that make me a better person. Who I can go to with full honesty, authenticity and trust. And, that is beautiful. That is really what people should seek to find. There is always a community out there of love and respect and again authenticity that will open any individual with open arms. But, I don't want people to feel like if they come across a relationship that may feel, may feel that other person is judgemental or disrespectful. I don't want them to instantly go to running away but rather the first instinct is how can we grow together.
Karen: What are things that we do that are hurtful? So if I am someone who encounters someone who falls along the LGBTQI spectrum, what are things I may do that are hurtful that I don't realize are hurtful?
James: Well, the first understanding that I have is seeing somebody for only that identity and not the whole person. I mean, I am a multifaceted person. I am a gay, Catholic, man in Phnom Penh, Cambodia doing development work. I am a scuba diver, a skiier, a singer, an actor. I have a passion for Netflix. But, ya. I have a lot of interests and aspects to my life that make me James who I am.
I feel like this is the number one thing too - and this goes beyond just sexual orientation or gender identity, it goes beyond, to race, to ethnicity, to religion, to dietary preferences - see the individual person, and see the whole person, and get to know that whole person, rather than putting the label onto them and walking away. Because both parties end up missing out.
Karen: Are there any examples that come to your mind, things that someone had said to you that maybe they were trying to be supportive and helpful, but because they didn't fully understand, it was actually hurtful?
James: [chuckle] The first thought that comes to my mind is when I was “coming out,” I got a lot of "aw, you can take me shopping!" [laugh] I guess that's not necessarily hurtful, whatsoever, but again, [it’s] a very large stereotype. I do like shopping, I like looking good and clothes and fashion and stuff like that, but it was such a profound stereotype and I got it over and over again. So, they thought they were being accepting, but, it was just putting me into a box; putting me into a stereotype.
Going back to a “coming out” question: I stopped necessarily “coming out,” if you will. I've done that, I did it, and I have a “coming out” process. Now it's just a natural “telling the story of my life,” just the same as a straight person would talk about their wife or their family, or their boyfriend or girlfriend. I don't feel the need to “come out” but rather, “this is me and my boyfriend is there” and I introduce him as such. It’s not “let me sit you down and lets have a conversation about that I'm a gay man.” Let’s integrate this aspect of my life just the same as I would integrate my experiences backpacking. Does that make sense?
Karen: Yeah, this idea you're talking about, of having to “come out,” is something that I’ve thought about since high school: the fact that there seems to be this belief that if you are gay, you must come out and sort of identify your sexuality... for others to know... and make that statement. Whereas if you are straight, there's not necessarily an understanding or belief that you have to have a “coming out party,” because you are part of the majority. Do you feel that in terms of sexuality, should everyone have to “come out?” Should no one have to “come out?” What are your thoughts on that?
James: [Laugh] I mean, I think it's important to have a Coming Our process because it is a minority. Because there are societies around the world where it is taboo, in the lightest and in the absolute most gravest sense of that word, to acknowledge and celebrate for yourself that acknowledgement. Depending on who this society that you're surrounded by, that is a very necessary process to go through, so that dialogue, communication, and respect and education can flourish. So yes, I did have a “coming out” process, and I always will have a “coming out” throughout the rest of my life! But, it has become such a “normal” within my own life, that I'm able to link it to me “coming out” as a[n] Eagle Scout. I'm able to link it to the seemingly mundane. But I think “coming out,” externally is a process, and should be very respected, depending on the society in which you're surrounded by, and the communities you're surrounded by. But I think that “coming out” to yourself, that need for peace within your own self internally, about your own multifacetedness, and humanity, is the most important. Today is International Coming Out Day and I see it as a two-fold: an external and an internal. Coming out for that internal “coming out” is what I see as the most important: “coming out” to achieve peace.
Karen: That's a great statement: to achieve peace through your coming out. It makes me think back to something you said at the beginning of the interview, when you were talking about that process for you and just going and crying. What would suggestions be that you would have for parents specifically, or... I guess anyone it could apply to, to create an environment that allow[s] children, or adults, to be free to explore their sexuality; regardless of what the conclusion is they come to as to where they fall on any of these spectrums.
So maybe it would even be advice you would have given to your parents, and things you wish that they had done differently so that the process would have been easier for you. I think for me this question also comes from the fact that not everybody makes it through that process. You hear a lot about kids who take their own life because they were in a conservative environment, maybe similar to what you eluded to you were brought up in. But they don't find the support that they need, and so they make a different decision.
James: To answer your last question first: there are huge amounts of resources and we live in the 21st century: online, just google it. You'll be able to find communities and information and dialog and amazing forums that really are catered to all aspects of this process, and this trying to wrap one's head around this understanding. Reflecting on my own life, I think one thing that really parents should understand about an LGBT person is the profound trust, and especially if - and parents know for themselves if they've raised their kid in a conservative society their profound trust they need to have for their child - that their child didn't just say this or “come out” to them as a whim conversation. But [they] have really, really thought and prayed - if they are a spiritual person - about this decision to inform their parents. And have went for years with this struggle of understanding for themselves and being at peace with themselves to share this with their parents. Then the parents taking that, trying as wholeheartedly as they can to find peace in that, and to find respect in that individual characteristic within their son or daughter; that respect comes in many forms.
With that respect for their child's struggle and coming to peace for themselves comes the parent's role to understand where they want to be: within their child's life. Because if a child “comes out,” really the ball is then in the parents’ court of how they're going to handle it. If a[n] individual comes out to their parents and the parents are accepting right off the bat: move forward normally. If the parents are not accepting whatsoever, but are “with” their child, still [love] and respect their child, and want to be integrated in their child's life still, then it's the parent's job to hold that love and respect for their child above whatever they believe about the LGBTQ identity, that their child has. If there's no possible way of reconciliation, then the parents are making the decision for themselves that they just lost a beautiful, beautiful aspect of their life, and that's the saddest thing. So I think it is a journey, it is about mutual respect. But the parent has so much power in their hands that maybe they don't even realize a lot of the times. That child “came out” to them, seeking some sort of solace and want to move forward even deeper in respect and communication and authenticity with their parents.
Karen: Two final questions that I want to ask, one is: If you had to summarize in just one sentence, what would you want to say to someone who is struggling right now with their “coming out” journey?
James: Pray. “Coming out” and really, wholly identifying for yourself what is your own truth, take yourself outside of yourself, and pray and bring in spirituality. Spirituality can create such a physical space of peace. When I say pray, I mean: meditate, create for yourself a space of peace so that you can really hear yourself and the world around you. Clear your mind so that you can move forward in understanding yourself better.
Karen: The final question, it’s the same question we end each of the podcast episodes with: What would be three things that you wish we knew?
James: Three things... stop getting so hung up on “is this sin or not?” Rather, focus on “how can we be with each other, together as better people journeying through life on this planet.”
Two: always, and [this] goes beyond S.O.G.I. (sexual orientation gender identity), always see the whole person, and not just a facet, and pigeonholing and stereotyping somebody into a box. but rather, see and celebrate the whole person.
Then three: if you yourself are an LGBTQ individual seemingly surrounded by a conservative and closed, very closed society, seek out, the individuals who are out there to support you. Go online and give The Trevor Project a call, [or] the It Gets Better [Project] campaign... communicate with somebody. Because there’s always somebody out there, somebody who will listen, and who will be able to accompany you through this journey. Another one is The Runaway Hotline [“Safeline” in US; “Helpline” in UK] as well, they're all out there to guide somebody and be with somebody through what can be a very,very trying time.
Karen: Thank you James for all of those insights and for all of those resources. We'll put those in the show notes, so if someone wants to reference, they're there. But thank you for your time.
James: Thank you. It has been fun. It is always a pleasure to talk to you.
Karen: I hope that this has helped all of you to understand more about National Coming Out Day, about someone who is gay, about the process of coming out and hopefully it will help all of us to be more understanding of those who have a sexuality that is different than our own. As always, thank you for tuning in. Be sure to tune in next week, we will be interviewing Keith who is a member of the Latter Day Saints or the Mormon church. You may have heard it called either of those. We actually have not done that interview yet. So, if you have questions. If you get those in by 5pm mountain time on Wednesday October 11. Chances are I will be able to ask Keith your questions s send them over. How do you get those to me? You can do it through the website, www.wishyouknewpodcast.com. You can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, you can find us on Facebook, you can find us on Twitter. You can find us on YouTube. Any of those means will work to get your questions to me but be sure to do it by 5pm TODAY. Wednesday, October 11. I hope you all have a very good week and until next week remember, people are people are people. Keep listening. Keep learning. Keep loving.