Sunday, February 2, 2014

I Am: Coming Out as a Gay Father in a Mormon World

This is a retrospective post. I began the process of coming out almost 3-1/2 years ago (can it have been that long ago?). A huge part of that process involved (i) overcoming shame and internalized homophobia and (ii) discovering and/or recovering who I really was/am as a person. It also involved dealing with my relationship with the LDS Church, of which I had been an active member for over 25 years.

A Merging of Worlds

I think I navigated the initial process of coming out fairly well, all things considered – especially given the fact that I had been deeply closeted for decades - really for almost my entire life. I (re)discovered much about myself, about who I really am – though this was an on-going process. I still found myself dealing with issues relating to internalized homophobia, but I had come a long, long way from where I was before coming out.  

During those months of coming out and self-discovery, I had regular visits with my children.   Although I experienced some disorientation from time to time as I moved from my gay world to that of a “Disney Dad” (as one friend termed it), there was basically a bifurcation between the two spheres. All of this started to change when, almost simultaneously, my wife initiated divorce proceedings and I met the man who became my partner, my soon-to-be husband. 

Initially, I found myself going back into the closet, so to speak, because I didn’t want either my children or my wife to know about my blossoming relationship with my partner. I felt those same old feelings of shame, secrecy and blurring of identity.

I hated not being able to be “out” about my relationship with the man with whom I had fallen in love. I hated those old feelings of having to hide, which in turn engendered feelings of shame. On the one hand, I knew I had to be prudent and circumspect; but on the other hand I hated feeling that I had to compromise due to who I am – a gay man living in a Mormon culture and part of a Mormon family.

Over the course of the ensuing months, we worked our way through divorce proceedings and I gradually introduced my children to my partner. Gradually, both they and my ex-wife learned that I was living with my partner, and both she and the children came to know and understand the nature of our relationship. The old bifurcated world of “Disney Dad” and “out gay man” merged into one world as I established a home with my partner.  He became part of my children’s lives and they are a part of his life and of our life together.  

This merging of worlds, however, forced me to face new issues as I continued the process of coming out as a gay father. I came to some interesting realizations as I experienced the stress produced when my new reality butted up against the Mormon reality of my children.

What Gay Mormon Fathers Face

Of course, I wasn't alone in what I was experiencing. I knew of a number of men who were in the same situation as I. Though coming out at any age, particularly within the Mormon culture and construct, is difficult, the coming out process for men who were married, had children and were active in the LDS Church was and is uniquely challenging. Not only must such men come to terms with their true innate sexuality, but they must also – if they make the decision to come out, or if it is somehow made for them – go through a process of coming out as a gay father.

  • They must reconcile the “Plan of Happiness” (i.e., the Church's plan for a happy and fulfilling life, involving heterosexual marriage, children, church activity, etc.) – which they have tried to live for years or even decades – with who they really are.
  • They must find meaning in having lived what in most instances amounted (to one degree or another) to a lie – however well-intentioned – to themselves and/or to their spouse and their children. 
  • They quite often find that the belief system that framed their entire existence during their marriage - and provided a purpose to life - is no longer valid.
  • They discover that their role as a father was so tightly entwined with LDS teachings, Church activities and Church culture that, once they have either chosen or been forced to leave the Church, that role must – to one degree or another – be reinvented.
  • They find themselves ostracized not only as a gay man but also as a gay father.  They are often accused of choosing to abandon their wife and children just so they can “go out and have gay sex” or “live a gay lifestyle.”  In the process, they are frequently demonized and dehumanized, their most inner selves laid bare to assault and ridicule.
  • They are faced with helping their children cope with a situation that not only (usually) results in/contributes to divorce, but also in trying to help them get to know a man they thought they knew, but who in reality was largely a shell, a false persona, an actor on a stage who was trying as best he knew how to play his part.
  • They are faced with efforts by others to shame them, to deny or erase their existence, to cover-up who they are, to make excuses for them, and to deny access to their children. They are not supposed to exist. Their mere existence, who they are, is treated as an affront that could have deleterious results to the psyches of their children.

The Loss of the "Forms" of Mormon Fatherhood

It was during this time, while reading Eckhart Tolle’s bestseller, A New Earth, I came across some passages that I found jarring and directly applicable to this situation I have just described:
“There are many accounts of people who experienced [an] emerging new dimension of consciousness as a result of tragic loss at some point in their lives. Some lost all of their possessions, others their children or spouse, their social position, reputation, or physical abilities. In some cases, through disaster or war, they lost all of these simultaneously and found themselves with ‘nothing.’ We may call this a limit-situation. Whatever they had identified with, whatever gave them their sense of self, had been taken away.”
To paraphrase Tolle, I realized that many of us, as gay men who had been Mormon fathers, lost – whether literally or metaphorically, whether we surrendered it or it was taken from us – much of what we once were and found ourselves with “nothing.” Whatever we had identified with, whatever gave us our sense of self, had been taken away or simply left behind. 

When I read what Tolle had written, what occurred to me is that I had identified with - in Tolle-ian language - the “forms” of Mormon fatherhood and with the Mormon heterosexual priesthood idyll.  “Ego,” writes Tolle, “is always identification with form, seeking yourself and thereby losing yourself in some form. Forms are not just material objects and physical bodies. More fundamental than the external forms—things and bodies—are the thought forms that continuously arise in the field of consciousness."

Freed from Form

For many years, I realized, I had sought my identity – and in the process lost myself – in the “forms” of Mormon fatherhood and the Mormon heterosexual priesthood. These forms provided a framework in which to conduct my life. When I came out, I lost that framework. But, this loss provided opportunity: “When there is nothing to identify with anymore,” writes Tolle, “who are you? When forms around you die … your sense of Beingness, of I Am, is freed from its entanglement with form. The ultimate truth of who you are is not I am this or I am that, but I Am.”

So, this collapse presented opportunity, as well as a choice. “Whenever tragic loss occurs,” writes Tolle, “you either resist or you yield. Some people become bitter or deeply resentful; others become compassionate, wise, and loving. Yielding means inner acceptance of what is. You are open to life … When you yield internally, when you surrender, a new dimension of consciousness opens up.”

So, instead of trying to graft the Mormon fatherhood form onto my new life situation, I gradually, then abruptly in moments of clarity, came to see that I needed to let go of that form which was tightly entwined with LDS teachings, Church activities and Church culture. I then could allow myself to embrace new opportunities to define for myself my role as father. I accepted myself as gay and gave up trying to somehow reconcile that reality to the “Plan of Happiness.” I shut off the fuel-supply to efforts by others to shame me, to deny or erase my existence – because it is only by continuing to ascribe to that old form that these people could reach me and hurt me.  

Of course, this was not something that could be done overnight, but it gave me a vision for moving forward into a new consciousness, a new way of thinking, that could bring great joy not only to myself, but also to my children.

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