"Same sex attracted (SSA)." Even typing that term makes me squirm as I remember the horrendous shame that I experienced at the hand of this term.
After I let my parents in on the shameful situation I had been hiding and my subsequent refusal to participate in counseling, we all just sort of moved on. Or at least it appeared that way. A couple of years into this denial, I had made it through puberty right about the time that the Internet was taking off in popularity. Online, my "different" thoughts would find validation in various depictions of the male form. As it turns out, my sexuality wasn't necessarily unique—people were doing it everywhere online.
Church Wasn't Any Help
I think now is a sensible time to bring up my church's role in all of this. I wasn't attending my old church at the time, but it was at about this time where I began to feel the effects of my Christian upbringing. Church wasn't much of a help in the sexuality department. For starters, my youth pastor was no exception to the staunch purity culture of the early 2000s that taught the abominable shame that came with having sex before marriage (along with looking at porn, thinking impure thoughts, etc.). Ironically, he would later go be criminally charged with sexually abusing one of our youth students, which nearly destroyed our church of 3000 congregants. I recall one week where, under his direction, the boys in our youth group were brought to the gym, taught a message on the dangers of pornography and lust, then given a baseball bat and told to ceremonially destroy a computer, right there in the gymnasium. I still remember the orange hue that those gym lights cast down onto the angry boys screaming at the top of their lungs and smashing the computer. I certainly wouldn't be telling anyone that I had watched porn, let alone that I was watching the gay kind.
At another point, in small group one evening, a co-leader took an aside in our group to mockingly explain the physics of male-on-male sex, while the boys in the group made gagging sounds and laughed at "those sickos". So, as any sensible kid would do, I told myself that being gay was wrong/terrible/disgusting/sinful. Well, my church told me this, my counselor, my parents—basically everyone in my life. As a result, I learned to do what many LGBTQ people are absolute experts at: I hid from everyone.
I hid my thoughts, even though my parents repetitively asked me if I felt like I was attracted to other guys. I hid my feelings from my friends closest to me, some of whom I was certainly attracted to. In the process, I even professed my high school love to a girl, but that didn't last too long. In retrospect, that was probably for the best regardless of my sexuality.
Aside from my internal struggle, this whole phase of life was rather uneventful on the surface. Like most kids, I found my rhythm in high school as the artsy kid who didn't talk to many people. I wasn't making that mistake again, I was done being called gay. To counter my isolation at school, I was deeply involved in volunteering at my church; I was even on staff near the end of high school. I found myself with secret crushes on some of my male friends, but that never manifested itself into anything substantial.
When I reached college, I had moved across country to Phoenix. This was mainly to get the heck out of Iowa, get a tan and spend time with my childhood mentor, who happened to be a youth pastor. He was a good pastor, not a shaming one. However, that's when my shame started to reach it's boiling point.
As I began to settle into life in Phoenix, I began to develop friendships with guys in my life. These friendships were incredible, yet I found myself developing an overly-protective attitude toward them. Any time a girl would come into the guys' life, I would find myself jealous, upset, and betrayed with no logical explanation for my feelings and actions. I mean, no logical explanation that I could share with those around me. I sensed what was going on. During this phase, all I could do was wonder what it'd be like to be in a relationship with—or at a minimum, what it was like to even have sex with—a guy.
About a year into college, my sexuality came to a breaking point when I had one terribly challenging phone call with my parents. It was on this call that I was forced to admit to them that I was attracted to men. I recall denying it blankly for about 20 minutes, then I finally admitted that I was into guys. Without their physical presence in Arizona to help me, they simply recommended that I begin seeing a counselor. I feel like this was where the real battle against my shame began—reparative therapy.
It was in reparative therapy where I learned that I could change my sexuality; that my feelings were the result of a strained relationship with my male peers, the person who had an inappropriate relationship with me, and my father. As it turned out, I would be taught that I was envious of the gorgeous male friends around me and that I just needed to get to know them better and become more masculine myself. Over the course of about two years, I worked a reparative therapy program heavily. I was attending a group therapy session once a week, where we would discuss our challenges, and then I would visit my personal therapist on a bi-weekly basis. Here, I experienced an emotional rollercoaster, one that ended up taking my parents for a ride as well. I would experience highs and lows that would seem to temporarily hide the deep shame of my sexuality, but then would all crash back onto me in a crumbling mess of pain.
I began Leaving The Closet
That's when I reached the part of the program where the time came to tell my friend that I was attracted to men. Eric was my roommate and was a former high school quarterback—just the sort of guy that was afraid of back in high school. One night, I nervously sat on the couch blankly staring into the cushions for an hour and finally just came out with it, "Eric, I'm same sex attracted. That is, I'm attracted to men." Without any hesitation, Eric looked up at me and said: "Dude, this doesn't change one thing about how I think about you." After about two hours of conversation, he smiled and I sighed the biggest sigh of relief in my life. Eric got up and hugged me for what felt like 20 minutes and it was amazing. I could finally begin healing my strained relationships with men and start becoming straight.
These two years were immensely challenging on all levels. One evening, I remember leaving my counseling session, frustrated and feeling entitled. I was tired of this mystique that surrounded this whole same sex attraction issue in my life. What was I getting so worked up over? I resolved I was going to see what sex with a guy was like, so I found someone online and hooked up with him. It was both empty and extremely satisfying (not to mention incredibly awkward, but I suppose that comes with the territory). Either way, it was no longer a mystery to me. The next week, I told my counselor about the hook-up and he looked at me with a half smirk and said, "So, was it worth it?" I halted my emotional tailspin and thought about my answer carefully: "It was." He just nodded his head and said, "Well then, good." It was transformative moment.
After two years of working this reparative therapy program, I had found myself obsessing over my struggle. I would literally cry for hours, feeling so alone and ashamed of the feelings that I had. This shame was detrimental to me at the time. I found myself diving into fitness, my job and ministry to try to numb out the self-hatred. Almost nightly I would pray to God to help me conquer this issue in my life, often with a hopeless posture toward the prayer.
I was meeting with my counselor to discuss my progress in the program. I looked at him laughing and said, "Travis, I've been doing this for two years and it's been fantastic because I've really built a bunch of great relationships with guys who know about my struggle." He smiled at me with a look of satisfaction and said, "That's great news, Austin!" I laughed and said, "The only problem is that I still fantasize about dating and/or having sex with a little over half of them! My attraction hasn't gone anywhere." He now looked back at me disappointedly and explained that I needed to work the program more rigorously, that it would take time. It was at this point I knew that reparative therapy was no longer going to work in my life if I wanted to let go of the shame I'd been living under.
I decided that, barring a miracle from God, my sexuality wasn't going to be changing, so I had better learn how to live with it and still be in accordance with God's desire for my life. My parents and my friends were heartbroken for me when they learned that I quit this program.
So, I would explore what celibacy looked like.