"Love is Love"

I came out of the closet when I was 23 years old. I have harbored same-sex desire all of my life. It took me a long time to acknowledge the nature of my sexual orientation because for so long I thought it either a fetish or passing phase--something out of which I would grow if only I dated women. And I did. Through high school and college. Until I decided to join vowed religious life in the Roman Catholic Church.

Upon graduating from college I decided to enter a community of men known as the Christian Brothers, who vow themselves to poverty, chastity, and obedience out of dedication to a life in educational ministry. Saint John Baptist de La Salle, a 17th-century French priest, formed the society as a means by which to provide free education to France's urban poor. Today, the De La Salle Christian Brothers run primary, secondary, and higher educational institutions around the world. They ran the high school that I attended in Baltimore and the college I attended in Philadelphia.

The Christian Brothers who taught me were some of the best teachers I have ever had: organized, affable, engaged, and engaging. Dressed in black robes and the white bib-like collar known as a ribatum, the ones I knew carried themselves with dignity. For a young man whose imagination was shaped largely by images of the Holy that such men embodied, their presence, like the light pouring through stained glass saints, was nothing short of numinous. They inspired awe and I found in their daily routine the kind of life I felt called to lead as early as the fourth grade, when I first started altar serving: a quiet one of prayer, study, work. I was raised in an environment that encouraged such activity, disciplined into early morning wake-up calls for daily and Sunday mass--all of the way through high school, during which time I had a paying job as church sexton (or sacristan).

I wanted to be a Brother. It felt natural to me considering I did not feel drawn toward married life, certainly not with another man (unthought of at that point). I was far too afraid of my own desire.

Looking back on it now I see that one of the reasons I joined the Brothers was because I was enamored of so many of them. It would have scared me to admit it then, but I see now that I was looking for a kind of emotional outlet for the same-sex desire that had, in the secret recesses of my fantasy life, revolved around men who looked and acted like them--the priestly type: middle-aged and seemingly wisened by life experience, men whom I was conditioned to worship as proxy for God in the naiive devotionalism of my strict Roman Catholic upbringing. I found in vowed religious life a means by which to sublimate all of that pent-up energy into a "higher calling."

Problem is, I fell in love in the flesh with another Brother. The experience taught me what it felt like to be unrequited in love, which then led me to realize that what I was looking for I was not going to find. At least not in a religious community.

So I left the Brothers after four years of service and set my sights on Berkeley after relocating to Southern California to stay with my parents for a time of resettling. It was a heartbreaking experience, particularly in light of all the wonderful friendships, with students and faculty alike, that I was leaving behind. I had come to grips with the loss of this first love--the Brother with whom I had broken the vows. (Hip-hop saved me during that time and a lot of the stuff I was listening to was coming out of the Bay Area, coincidentally enough.)

What I remember understanding in that process of leave-taking was that I could not become my own man were I to stay in the order. I needed to experience relationship. I needed to create my own life free of institutional and institutionalizing norms that do not allow for the expression of any kind of physical intimacy between men, breeding suspicion of "particular friendships" and guarding against connection with witty banter or the dull small talk of cocktail hour conversation. I was dissatisfied with the bourgeois, complacent lifestyle we seemed to be living in house, even as all of us were working hard to serve young people, often underrepresented youth, in the school.

I thought, too, that I was perhaps looking for a collective father figure in these men, maybe attempting to fill an emotional absence I have always felt in relation to my own father--a topic to which I'll return in a future post. For now, let suffice to say that in the dearth of finding such a figure, it occurred to me that I needed to be a father to myself. I went solo, figuring my shit out as I spent a gap year in So Cal with the folks who, on the heels of my trailblazing older sister, came West after six decades in Baltimore. It was a lonely time for me, but I got through it as I always have tough times: with the help of a pen and a pad.

Nine years later I am back in my parents' house for another gap year, having graduated with a Ph.D. in theology from a graduate school located on what Berkeley calls affectionately: Holy Hill. My search for the Holy led me there, allowing me to further sublimate my still budding desire for the Other into ancient texts and contemporary commentaries on them. I was in and out of relationships, though I am not sure they were justifiable so; they were so short. But in that span of time I experimented--wavering between abandon and asceticism, excess and deprivation, as I figured out what kind of love I was really looking for. It wasn't going to come in a hook-up. I had a string of those and they always left me feeling guilty and afraid. It wasn't going to come in a love-at-first sight encounter or as an immediate outcome of sexual intrigue with a stranger. I had a string of those, too--one with a psychic who read my past lives (I was a persecuted monk in medieval Christendom). Turns out love, like anything, is a process.

Actually allowing it into my life has been the tricky part. I pathologized my desire for so long as some kind of "daddy complex"--a form of arrested development out of which I would grow first by dating women, then by joining a religious order, and then, finally, by swearing off sex and love altogether. I engaged in the last of these efforts to ward off my demon sexuality through a twelve step program for sex and love addicts, which I still in many ways consider myself.

With the help of program I have become better equipped to manage my emotions and create an inventory of the ways in which I wrong myself and others in relationship. But I left that, too, because it had become a kind of stranglehold similar to that which the Church had on me. I was very strict with myself during the nine months of step work, meeting weekly with a sponsor and filling an entire Moleskin journal with personal inventory--listing all those to whom I had done wrong, how I had done them wrong, and for what reasons.

Through the influence of a wise monk, a man I had met through my Jungian therapist, I started opening up to my desire, allowing it free play without judgment, accepting into my sense of self the uniqueness that is my predilection toward older men. It was only after I could say "yes" to myself as a gay man in the fullness of what that entails--actually being in relationship--that I could begin to love in earnest.

It was during a retreat with this monk, in tandem with my therapist, in which we focused on the needs of my "inner child," that I learned the strength of self-acceptance and the radical vulnerability it requires to name one's attractions. I learned, through dreamwork and finger-painting, that the little boy within me has been seeking validation all along and that he was not going to find it in heterosexual courtship, in religious life, or in twelve step program. Rather, he was going to find it first by way of self-embrace, by way of my adult decision to love that little boy within, to accept that what I was experiencing in terms of my same-sex attraction, in all of its particularity, was not pathetic, nor a perversion, nor some Freudian maladjustment to the reality principle. It was as if I had come out again, ten years from the time of my first step forward.

Thus enters my first long-term relationship. It involved a man who was 59 when I met him two years ago. He is a big, moderately hairy individual--what in the world(s) of LGBTQI community is dubbed a "chub" and "bear." We lasted a year and four months before I was worn out from the exhaustion of care-giving (he had become ill with HIV) and the constant clashes in personality between us. I moved into his place within seven months of meeting him. It was much too soon, but I was convinced that he was "the One" and, furthermore, I wanted to get out of my parents' house where I had relocated after finishing my coursework and before starting my dissertation. I considered him a "twin flame." We had our tender moments of shared beauty in love. But his age became apparent as he fell sick with an infection that had us both down for the count: him in terms of the actual sickness, me in terms of tending to him in the thick of it. It was a turbulent time that ended with an abrupt and painful separation. I could not stay faithful and he asked me to leave before I decided that he didn't have to ask me; I was going to go anyways.

I recovered from that experience by honing all of my energies into finishing my dissertation and showing up twice a week at a local community college to teach writing to freshman (a job I quit recently to focus on my own craft). Dealing with that failed relationship was hard because I was hard on myself. I once again turned my same-sex attraction into a pathology. I blamed myself for getting into it too quickly with someone who was never compatible from the start and wondering how that could have happened. How I could have been so blind to the reality of the situation? Which was that, berating myself, he was "too old." I could hear my older sister's voice--which for so long has been the voice of respected reason and wisdom--in the back of my head: "I told you this is why I don't think it's healthy for you to be in relationship with older men. Eventually you will have to take care of them!"

But that kind of thinking, I am now realizing as I make progress in my second attempt at a long-term relationship, is terribly unhelpful. We love who we love. I am not, at least consciously, nor do I think unconsciously, looking for a "daddy" in these men I call lovers. Indeed, if anything, I am looking for a mate, a companion, a friend. And in loving them, I learn how to love myself--to be my own parent, my own father figure, in the frame of adult love. It just so happens that these men I call friends and lovers, that the one in whom I have found a true friend and lover, are old enough to be my father. If one cares enough about another person, then one is down to care for that person irrespective of difference or disability or whatever else may function to infect what could otherwise be a healthy relationship with dysfunctional stigma. At some point in a partnership, someone will fall ill, anyways, and the one who is not ill will be obligated, if not intrinsically motivated by love, to provide assistance in sickness.

As it turns out, this man was not the one I wanted to take care of. As it turns out; my present lover is. In the context of unconditional love, the playing field becomes equalized; we agree to take care of each other whether we're an "age appropriate" match or not. As I pay more attention to the life-stories of my partners, particularly the one I'm with now, the more I realize that I am drawn to people who share in similar life experiences, who grew up in much the same way I did. My coming of age as a gay man bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the many gay men I've met who grew up as "Baby Boomers" and before. Who, despite the cultural revolution of the 1960s, still had sexual stigma to deal with in immediate families and the cities and towns where they lived--stigma based largely on the heteronormative prejudices of Christianity. In this regard, the seeming mismatch in age between me and the men in whom I have found both friends and lovers betrays a match in experience, making us age appropriate in a different kind of way. We came of age according to the thinking of an age. My parents might as well have been the parents my partners had: quiet and a bit fearful around the fact of who their child is as a gay man, but unconditionally loving in their own, homophobic right.

To treat my desire as some kind of psychological sickness or disorder misses the point. And the point is this: I love another man. I love him like I love no other. He is my brother, my mother, my father, my sister, my cousin, my aunt, my uncle, my nephew, my niece. He is my friend. He is my family. In him I have found the Holy as it exists within me, within that inner child whom I embrace by allowing embrace, by letting myself be loved and to love in return.

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