In any twelve-step program, as I understand it, step one is taking ownership and responsibility for who you are and what your struggle is (I warn you, I will fumble over this, so please be patient). I begin with this phrase because my addiction is not singular. It isn't just alcohol or nicotine or drugs or sex or porn or *insert possible addiction here*. My addiction is any or all of these at any given moment. How I've made it this far without any one of these crippling me is a miracle, but still, I struggle. And I'm tired of pretending that I don't. Secrets are too much, and they take too high a toll on one's life...
In my closest relationships, tension is a constant. I value friendships with people whose backgrounds, ideologies, and beliefs are not exactly like mine. I hold dear conversations with friends who are willing to challenge me, willing to play the devil's advocate. In friendships with people who tend to be more amicable and less challenging, I feel numb, almost stagnant. It's when there is a tension, a tug-of-war you might say, that I feel most alive, most human.
I grew up being told that no same-sex relationship is stable or healthy. None of them every really last. Even if they do, they're a poor substitute for God's original plan of heterosexual relationships. And yet here I am almost four years later. Sure, we have our rough moments, but they're the same rough moments that I've seen straight couples face.
Maybe you heard it first at age nine from the front row pew. Your pastor said it in ten seconds, and it felt like hell and shame hurling down on you. Maybe you heard it in the car with James Dobson declaring to the nation, to your family, that perverts like you don’t get to have God. Maybe you heard it everywhere.
Maybe you opened the Book and saw six or so verses with their crushing words and you felt your soul crack wide open. Maybe you read them with a lump in your throat and tears down your face and trembling hands. Maybe a part of you died.
For some people, many in fact, bondage, domination, and sadomasochism can be healthy parts of one's sex life. For many, it can actually be vital in developing insight into one's own character and building self-esteem. Granted, here I am saying this, a man whose own sex practices would make french vanilla ice cream look kinky. Still, we live in an age where people become sexually active at a younger age, where sex education is seemingly no longer the responsibility of one's parents, and where fidelity in relationship does not necessarily mandate sexual monogamy.
I did not come back from Phoenix feeling like my old self. As a person whose introvert/extrovert is fairly evenly split, events where I'm surrounded by nearly 500 people drain me. Although enjoyable, they require significant energy on my part. This year was no different. In fact, it was even more intense. It felt like starting over, and anyone who knows me well knows that I struggle with starting over. Many of us do. Needless to say, right now, I feel spent. I feel weary. I feel like a nomad wandering through uncharted territory, uncertain of my final destination.
It's been awhile since I've written about sex. Today, well, it's on my mind, mostly because of a session with Blake (my therapist) this morning. To be honest, it had been awhile since Blake and I talked about the subject either. Between tackling my physical health and my discernment and emotions around leaving the UMC, our sessions went by rather quickly. Today, however, we made it back to the subject.
A week ago Monday, I went in for a follow-up doctor's visit. I'd been to see my new primary care physician for the first time only three weeks prior. Part of taking care of myself, I realized, was seeing the doctor on a more regular basis for a reason other than being sick. My blood work had come back (except for my cholesterol—apparently there's a possibility of mixing up blood work when you see the same doctor as your husband... oh well). Everything came back normal except for one thing: my testosterone levels.
Ask anyone who knows me, and they'll tell you that I'm either middle-of-the-road or more effeminate when it comes to my mannerisms. I've never been "butch," except for that one week during the holidays when I would go home to Kentucky and put on my "straight face" there for a while. But I digress... my doctor decided to put me on TRP (testosterone replacement therapy). It's a clear gel (kind of like hand sanitizer) that I put on my shoulders, neck, and chest every morning. For some people (based on the reading I've done), it takes awhile for the effects to kick in. It would seem that I am not part of that group. I felt effects within the first few days: increased energy, improved mood, and heightened libido.
There are two things in my life that I often struggle with: sex and anger. That's one of the other effects of being on "T"... heightened aggression. To be blunt, I don't feel like myself. Instead I feel like that 10 to 14 year-old boy when puberty finally hits and, all of a sudden, he's faced with emotions and "feelings" he's never really faced before. But I've lived through that once before, and like may people, I don't really want to again, especially when it brings to the surface two things with which I've wrestled.
I know what you're thinking: you're married, so either you're celibate or you've gotten past the "sex stuff" enough to be intimate with your partner. And most days, I have. I've grown a lot when it comes to understanding what is and is not a healthy sex life or healthy, ethical sexual practices. If you want to know more about that, feel free to ask. It's a conversation better served one-on-one than in a post written to the entire wired world.
For the record, when it comes to sex, you will rarely hear me use the word "moral/morality." I'm more concerned with ethics, with how we treat one another in such an intimate setting. I do my best not to make faith-based judgments on what is or is not "right" or "godly." Instead, I try to focus on what's healthy, well thought-out, and beneficial for all those involved. The long and short of it for me is this: if sex (whatever one might define that as) takes place in the context of mutuality and respect for the personhood and humanity of the other person(s) involved, then I think that's a healthy sexual ethic from which to begin. Beyond that, I think anyone who is going to be sexually active must learn for him or herself what works and what is healthy at a holistic level (mind, body, and soul).
In my own life, sex has often been used more often to become detached or disconnected than to become intimate or transformed. It's been a way to both face and escape the shame that has come from being a gay man who does not feel called to nor has the strength to be celibate. I have always felt at my best in a relationship, even if said relationship was not the healthiest. But since being with my partner, Frankie, I've been able to experience sex—physical intimacy—in a different, healthier way. I've been able to connect rather than detach. I've been able to face my fear and shame instead of running from it. Now that my hormone levels are stabilizing and I'm back in the "prime of life" as I've heard from so many others, I'm learning how to not turn to sexuality or sexual intimacy as a coping mechanism or a distraction, but instead to use it to show affection and learn something new about myself in every instance. Rather than wrestling with my fear, shame, guilt, internalized homophobia, or anything else that might keep me from being a self-loving whole person, I choose to embrace myself as a full person, hormones and all.
This past weekend was, for intents and purposes, one of the more prominent gay high holy days here in Chicago: IML (International Mr. Leather). People come from all across the nation and beyond to embrace their inner kinky side. From 21 years and up, people — mostly gay men, but there are a decent number of straight-ish people — come to buy gear in leather, rubber, neoprene, metal, and various materials. They come to watch as Chicago's Memorial Day tourists encounter leather daddies in ass-less chaps, vests, and enough back hair to help out a few cancer patients. They come to make out and "play" with random strangers and old friends alike, engaging in activities varying from a completely platonic makeout session to bondage, domination, submission, sadism, or masochism scenes that most of us would rate NC17, or choose not to watch at all. For those of us less connected with the kink world, IML is our version of the old turn-of-the-century sideshows that accompanied the traveling circuses. It's a place to go and see something with which we might never actually identify ourselves. We shift into "other" language, using they and them to describe the people that we are not like. But for some of us, there is a change that takes place when we show up at the Hyatt Regency down off of Wacker and Michigan (fitting street name, right?). We see something, or someone, and all of a sudden, we learn something new about ourselves.
I was reading a blog entry this morning on In Our Words, a queer blog project. The entry was about the frequent disdain present for and aimed at a particular subset of the gay community, twinks. Most often, the term is used to describe gay men between 18-21 who have slender builds, little to no body hair, and often a more effeminate persona about them. While the age bracket fluctuates thanks to the magic of skin care product, the stereotypes hold fairly steady. I have some friends who blog for IOW, and so I've been following the site for awhile. This particular post struck a pretty big chord with me.
Growing up, I was never athletic. Slender was a far-off dream. And hairless, well, over the years I've maintained the same level of hair, although it's progressively lost the battle against gravity. Until a couple of years ago at my first IML, I was unaware that there was a term for me as well: I'm a cub. Unfortunately, as much animosity as I had and still have towards "twinks," I seem to hold just as much for myself, though not necessarily for those who share my shape/physique.
So how does all this come together? What's the point? Well, as someone who tends to do more introspection than anything else, I felt like, after attending IML for 3 years in a row, it was time that I actually did some tangible reflection on the experience(s)...
If you go to IML, the types of people you may encounter are as tall as they wide. Additionally, the range of interests and intentions are just as varied. Me... well, prior to meeting my partner, I was pretty much as vanilla as they came. Hell, if it were possible to be something more vanilla than vanilla, that's where I would have been. I knew the terms and a decent amount about the "kink" community, but it was not my niche... or so I thought.
Then I met Frankie, and his friends from both his pagan brotherhood and his circle of "recreational" friends, and I realized that I had more in common with most of these men than I ever had with most of my pre-existing gay male accomplices. Specifically, when it comes to body image and persona, within this community, I shared some major similarities. I care a lot for self-exploration. I require trust within sexually intimate situations. I highly value relationships. And I rely on the input of others to help me learn more about myself.
Last IML, Frankie got me a t-shirt that says Trophy Cub. For most, this is just corny and adorable. For someone like me who has always struggle to feel physically and sexually adequate for another person, it was a badge of honor. It was someone telling me, "You're enough for me. In fact, you're more than enough. You're what I want, and I choose you." Here we were standing amidst this veritable smorgasbord of body types, personalities, interests, and fetishes, and someone chooses me, possibly the most average, easy to please guy of the bunch. I wasn't much into pain or bondage or 3/4/5+somes. I wasn't into leather, rubber, neoprene, or other apparel materials. I wasn't caught up in being called "sir" or "boy." I was simply me, a guy with a slight tummy, a fuzzy patch of hair right at the base of my back, an average "endowment," and most different from many others, a call into ministry. If there were ever a place in which I felt like "one of these things is not like the other," it was amidst that crowd.
I found myself people watching amidst the crowds. When my eyes would come across anyone who remotely resembled a "twink," I would internally cringe with hatred, disdain, and sheer envy. Why were they lucky enough to have the perfect head of hair, fashion sense, physique, below-the-belt endowment, and tan level? Why could they feel comfortable wearing a singlet or a harness or another other piece of fetish apparel while I barely felt comfortable in a polo and cargo shorts? Better question: what had I done to not deserve those traits? Why did I get left out? Dammit, I had every right to be angry, and worse, I had every right to make them feel as bad about themselves as I felt about myself. I was the one who spoke about them when they were within earshot, ensuring that they knew how I felt. Unbeknownst to me, I was telling them more of how I perceived myself than of how I saw them.
Yesterday, I grabbed lunch with a close friend and neighbor. We went to the Bear-B-Q at Sidetrack down off of Halsted. Here I was among this crowd of guys who could most likely crush me, yet I felt so at home. I felt like I could be myself without scrutiny or judgment. I didn't feel like there was anyone calling me too fat or too thin, too tall or too short, too butch or too fem. As lunch went on, the crowd grew more diverse, including younger and thinner and smoother guys. I could have felt uncomfortable or awkward, yet I did not...
I felt just right.
I've had a lot on my mind lately, mostly because being on break from school has given me more time to think about non-school-related topics. Mostly, though, I've been thinking about relationships, sex, intimacy, ethics, morality, and the intersections of all these various subjects. F. and I know couples who are exclusive emotionally but open sexually. We also know couples who are comprised of multiple persons, and who are open sexually to encounters with individuals outside of their core group. It's only been a couple of years since I was exposed to this, to a realm of relationships outside of those identifying as monogamous. And I must say... I'm intrigued. After coming out, I first had to deal with the morality of non-heterosexual intimacy. Simultaneously, I had to cope with the fact that, since marriage is defined by most as between man and woman, and since I would never be able to marry a person of the same gender, any physical intimacy I had would be outside the context of my being married, and by the standards of those who raised me, would be "sinful," fornication, unholy. One can imagine what this would do to my morale.
Upon delving into the realm of same-sex relationships, I realized that, for one reason or another, monogamy didn't really fit. It felt awkward, as if I were limiting myself to loving one person (physically and emotionally) when I felt I had the desire and capacity for sharing that with more than that. Nonetheless, I tried it. I felt like it was more moral/ethical than letting myself run rampant. First relationship - failed because he wasn't really that into me. Second relationship - failed because I wasn't ready or really all that into him. Third relationship - failed because we weren't really that into each other. Then F. came along, and we opted to allow our relationship to be open. I'd never felt more free, but as of late, more questions have come to mind.
First, I must admit I have a slight problem. For me, sex is rarely ever just physical. It almost always carries with it some level of emotional attachment. For someone trying to limit his emotional attachment to one person, this makes things difficult. Because my first sexual encounters came after having been kicked out of my home church and betrayed by those I trusted and loved, sex became a coping mechanism for me rather than a means of sharing affection and developing connection. I used sex to build within myself the semblance of self-esteem, of self-worth, of being wanted, desired, needed. Even with therapy, as time as progressed, this is still a challenge for me. During times when I feel disconnected and even invisible, I use flirtation and seduction to balance and center myself. As to be expected, though, it often leaves me feeling isolated as such measures are not always reciprocated. In those instances where it is reciprocated, it often leads to encounters that, while often enjoyable, are fulfilling only for a short time. Though this is not always the case as of late, it still surfaces at times.
I'm working on this bit by bit. Lately though, it's been more difficult. Since losing Nanny and being cut off from my mother, I feel as if I've been spiraling, a trend I've seen before. It scares me, even though I'm aware of it and trying to keep it in check. Most days, I just want someone to slap me sideways and tell me to get a grip. Hasn't happened yet. Probably won't. So I'm left slapping myself it would seem.
Mostly though, I've just been hard on myself lately. For not getting the best grades I could have gotten. For letting myself become apathetic in my faith. For isolating myself from those I love, detaching and removing myself from the picture. For not taking care of my body, or my mind. For letting the depression and the paranoia defeat me, keeping me from abundant life. The list could go on... these are just things that came to mind the quickest, the things that cause me the most angst and heartache.
F. and I will be married in 97 days, and I love him more than I ever thought I could love someone. I also know that he loves me more than I ever imagined being loved. I also know that, if circumstances led to someone else being a part of our relationship, he would be alright with that. I'm questioning if I would. Should we stay open, or be monogamous? Would being polyamorous be a good move for us, or would it be detrimental? Am I ever going to feel whole, unbroken, or will I always deal with this demon whispering in my ear, telling me I'll never be enough... I've gotten so used to his voice that the idea of no longer hearing it seems preposterous. Will I always feel this nagging tingling in my wrist, aching for some red catharsis to match the emotional one I so desperately long for, wait for? I've gone this far in life without doing fatal harm to myself. I don't intend on starting now. However, that doesn't change the reall presence of emotional pain that seems to be constantly urging me onto such measures. For now, though, my tears will have to suffice to silence the voices inside my head.
I keep waiting to wake up. Despite going through a full semester, despite feeling the bite of winter start to rear its head, I keep thinking that I'm going to snap out of this nightmare, realize it's June 11th and she'll still be here. That I'll get a call from her, talking about life, summer, plans for the fall and what not. But I won't. It's December 7th, nearly 6 months after losing her, and somewhere a couple yards below the surface, her body is decaying, encapsuled by a concrete vault. It's still stiff, lifeless. I'm still here in Chicago, finishing another semester of seminary, two more sermons added to my repertoire, still getting hitched in 4 months, still struggling to make sense of it all.
She's not the only person who has been on my mind. I've been growing closer to a friend of mind - closer than I ever really have to a straight male peer, especially one who is completely affirming of my identity. Lately, I've realized I may have been becoming too dependent on his friendship. I may also simply be paranoid, but having had boundary issues in the past, I'm hypersensitive about how I interact with people, especially men.
In the realm of gay men, it's not uncommon for even the most platonic of relationships to have hints of sexual tension, flirtation, or even varying degrees of physical intimacy. Being someone who's identified physical touch as one of his primary love languages, and who has also seen sex/sexuality play a role in numerous relationships/friendships, I know this to be far too true.
Throw a straight man into my world, and everything gets turned upside down. Don't get me wrong, I love a good hug more than most, but it's hard to always know how to stop there. Why am I so hell-bent on touch, on affection? What does healthy physical affection look like? Have I really become such a stereotype of the "gay community"? And what it is about the "straight man" that is so alluring, enticing?
I know this is a disjointed post, but these are the things on my mind and heart right now. I've already lost one best friend to death this year... I don't think I could bear to lose one due to self-sabotage. This is one area in which I'm aware of my own faults and brokenness. I'm an extremist to the core. When I first started experimenting sexually, I did a pendulum swing from having sex to wanting to go to an Exodus conference and jump back into reparative therapy. I'd go from wanting no sexual contact at all to wanting it in binge amounts. I'd go from feeling full of life, vibrant, joyful to wanting to take a razor to my wrists (a pendulum swing I still struggle with). And here I am swinging between accepting myself and loving my partner to envying the straight guy and the "normal" life he can have to wanting a healthy platonic relationship to transition into a sexual one.
I'm in a vulnerable place right now, more so than I've been in for awhile. Not completely sure what to do about it. I've got two more papers to write before my semester is officially finished. I'm not seeing my blood family for Christmas. I'm fighting against body image issues and eating disorder symptoms again. I'm chain smoking. I'm using sex more as a means to detach and distract rather than to focus, show love, and connect. I'm torn between exploding and putting everything out on the table and shutting down, holing myself up, and hiding from the world and everyone I love. I've not written a post this transparent in awhile... hoping it doesn't backfire on me, especially with those I love most. But I need to put this out there, and let some of it go...