My Coming-out Letter
From: Daniel Pearson
To: Richard Pearson
Subject: Time for me to come out
Date: Wed, 9 Mar 2005 22:41:07 +0200
I'm tired. I'm tired of fighting with myself. I'm tired of suffering in silence. I'm tired of keeping a secret from almost everyone around me. A secret that multiplies upon itself over and over. I'm tired of pretending to everyone that everything's OK. I'm tired of not talking about it with my parents, even though I know that you know and you know that I know that you know. I'm tired of the silence that is born of shame. I'm tired of the shame. I'm tired of trying with all my might not to let the multitudinous voices of my environment brow-beat me into believing that I'm a monster, only to fail and wallow in self-loathing and self-dread.
I believe could be happy if I gave up my strict obedience to the Torah and just let myself be gay, but until recently I didn't have the strength to attempt it. I might be happy if I could give up being gay and just be a good Orthodox Jew, but only if I could be certain beyond a reasonable doubt that the Torah is the uncorrupted, infallible word of G-d. Without such absolute faith, I am certain that have neither the strength nor the desire to attempt such a drastic alteration to my psyche.
It's truly distressing that I've been devoutly practicing a religion for my entire life when I don't really think that actually I believe in it. I guess for most of my life it didn't matter. You don't need faith when you find obedience easy. All those famously "hard" things about practicing Judaism were never a burden to me, and thus never challenged my supposed faith.
When I first figured out that I was gay, I didn't let it bother me at first. I thought that I could just muster up my strength, face the test that G-d had set before me, and live happily ever after. I didn't expect it would be easy, and it took me nearly thirteen years to reach the point where I came to believe that it was impossible. What motivated me to persevere for so long if it wasn't faith in the Torah and mitzvos? What else could have made me endure so much suppression of emotion, such rigid control over desire? I think at first it was a fantasy that starred me as the saint. When that fantasy wore away, it was fear of sullying the image of Judaism that I was constantly aware of representing to the larger non-Jewish world all around me. When I was no longer living the life of a lone Jew in the eyes of others, it was the fear of being rejected by the Jewish community without knowing how to live outside of it. When the well of sentimentality finally ran dry and I decided that a real self-love was better than love from others based on falsehood, the only reason to continue adhering to the Torah was its own truth.
Only if it were really, irrefutably, infallibly true would it be worth all the pain of sacrificing a vital and real chunk of my identity. And that's when I realized it: I can't convince myself beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Torah is true. No matter how hard I tried to convince myself, no matter how much I read, and how much I thought and thought and thought, I could never eliminate the possibility that it wasn't all a fraud. Even if the Torah was originally the divine decree, I couldn't rule out the possibility that errors crept in to corrupt it over the millennia. I certainly can't make any sort of intelligible case against homosexuality as inherently immoral without resorting to inexplicable divine fiat. So right now, the only thing keeping me on the track of Orthodox observance is mere inertia, and that's not going to last much longer.
So, tag, you're it. You're the only person in the entire world who has a chance of convincing me to believe. It honestly pains me to dare place such an onus on you, especially when I have trouble believing that you could tell me anything that I haven't told myself. But it's true: you're the real reason for any love of Judaism that I've ever experienced. It's not because of anything you've ever said, nor any intellectual concept that you've imparted. It's because of hearing you say Sh'ma to me in bed as I went to sleep; being tossed into the air to the singing of "Shabbat Shalom -- HEY!!"; the incomparably beautiful sound of a kiddish where every other note is off-key; the inexhaustibly funny sound of the stanza of L'cha Dodi with all those "orriree ooree ooree" syllables; because of a litany of a god-fairy woman who brings her food from a farm. If anyone can do it, you can.
But I'm not even sure that I want you to succeed. I'm more than a bit bitter about the silent martyrdom that I've lived for most of my life. The shame of living in the closet has damaged me so deeply and so frequently that I'm not sure that I can forgive the Torah for creating that shame.
I was just a tiny child (who knows how old?) when I noticed that it was a little strange that the pictures of male nudes in Mom's art books were titilating and giggle-provoking while the pictures of female nudes provoked nothing at all. I remember thinking that there must be something anatomically incorrect about the statues and paintings, perhaps censored; surely an authentic representation would evoke something. It's almost charming to remember how innocent I was.
When you and Mom transferred me from TA to public school, I remember feeling a certain sense of relief. I distinctly thought to myself, "Remaining sequestered in such a homosocial environment probably isn't healthy for a person anyway: it could probably foster some sort of abnormal same-sex attraction." The fact that I was worrying about such things at eight years old is a pretty clear sign that an unconscious fact about myself was starting to bubble up, despite my resistance toward acknowledging it.
When I was somewhere between the age of 7 and 11, I experienced a tiny little episode that was so brief and minor from an external point of view, yet so stark and striking from an internal perspective that I could no longer explain away my sexual responses as anything other than what they were. I was trailing behind Mom at some sort of shopping center or mall. She was busily engaging in her interminable hunt for bargains, blissfully ignoring me with the trust that is borne of being the Child That Never Gets Into Trouble. I was content to be left to my own benign devices, gazing and pondering at anything around me that could stave off the gentle waves of boredom that accompanied these long shopping trips, occasionally breaking my reverie long enough to notice and follow when Mom wandered far enough away. We were visiting an art store of some sort, I think; at any rate, I was flipping through a huge stack of posters, arrayed with a great variety of subject matter and color, lacking any apparent order or organization. I unwittingly flipped the next poster to reveal a sepia-toned, photographic, full-body portrait of a heavily muscled football player, completely in the nude except for a strategically positioned football held in his hand. Unlike the gentle, abstracted expression that Michaelangelo's David aims off into deep space, this man's piercing eyes were aimed straight at yours, radiating confidence and power and virility. I was instantly overtaken by an electric feeling of heat coursing through my entire body. It felt like every square inch of skin on my body was flushed redder than a cardinal's feather. After an eternal second of transfixion, I hastily flipped the preceding posters back on top of the shocking one and my gaze darted in every direction, afraid that someone might have seen me. My heart raced at a frantic pace. I felt guilty about looking at such a racy image, even more so because it was the "wrong" kind of image, but I also craved deeply to look again, to renew that intense flash of electric elation. I hid my feelings as best I could and spent the next few hours feeling both sick and euphoric at the same time. Though I was too shocked to fully process what I had just experienced, a tiny corner of my mind wordlessly understood a simple fact: I felt lust for grown men. But the implications were still incalculable.
Around the age of 13 or 14, after I became fully conscious of the fact that my libido responded almost exclusively to masculine imagery, I became rather resentful of it. For my entire childhood, I had always thought boys were crude, immature, insensitive, offensively loud, and just generally infested with cooties. Suddenly finding masculinity to be a provocateur of lust seemed like a cruel joke of fate. I became even more distant from boys than before, if that was possible. There was a part of me that was flawed, a nest of unacceptable desires within my heart. But didn't everyone have their flaws and bad desires? Doesn't everyone have a Yetzer Hara? I'd rarely felt any desire for anything forbidden before, at least nothing as intense as this. So I just assumed that I was a bit of a late-bloomer in the Yetzer Hara department, just like I was a late-bloomer in many other respects. Thus the course was clear: reject your evil impulses. End of story.
So, through my entire adolescence and adult life until now, I thought I could fight and win against these base animal impulses and grow up to lead a normal Jewish married life. I've always been so fond of the company of women that marriage with a woman never seemed unpleasant at all. And after all, I love children so much that I could never imagine a life without raising them. But during my entire high school and college careers, I avoided any sort of romantic relationship. The first excuse was that I was living in mostly non-Jewish environments with practically no Jewish girls for me to date. The second excuse was that there was no point to dating until I was ready to get married, and I wouldn't be ready until I had finished schooling and could make a living of some sort. Thus it was easy to tell myself that I had everything worked out.
In fact, when I was about 17 or 18, Becca and I were riding in the car together alone, and she asked me about my sexual orientation. Well, she didn't actually ask quite so bluntly, but her euphemism was clear enough that I unhesitantly responded, "Oh yes, I'm happily bisexual." This wasn't strictly a lie, since I'd rate myself a 5 on the Kinsey scale (as explained at http://www.kinseyinstitute.org/resources/ak-hhscale.html), and at the time I was full of hopeful, optimistic self-assurance that I could pass any test G-d set before me, just like I could ace any test they set before me at school.
But ignoring something doesn't make it go away. The locker room in high school was, of course, a nightmare: heart frozen in my chest, eyes rigidly averted lest I see something that could cause an erection or other response that someone might notice. I was barely unobtrusive enough and lucky enough to escape the threat of Jew-bashing; I was certain that I would never survive the threat of faggot-bashing should I ever be found out.
The chronic depression caused by being ashamed of just being myself was the probably the biggest reason why I lost my scholarship at UMBC. In my first semester, I took a lifeguarding class whose enrollment included Costus, an international student from Cyprus who had a body like a Greek god. I still can't believe that I didn't fall apart when, during one of the final tests, I was his partner in taking turns simulating the saving of a drowning person, an exercise which of course involved a great deal of contact between bare flesh. That class was just the beginning of the emotional, psychosexual, and moral roller-coaster that crashed with the loss of my scholarship.
One hill on that ride that I particularly remember was Matt, one of my co-workers at my summer job at the Science Center. Since we basically had the same job, and since that job was largely physical and commonly involved crawling through the hot, cramped space inside various exhibits, I had many opportunities to smell his sweat. The maddening effect that odor had upon me has permanently convinced me of the reality of pheremones.
After losing my scholarship, working in the soul-draining, Dilbertesque environment of Kop-Flex for eight months initially seemed like the purgatory I craved to punish myself for my desires. But it didn't take long for the place to bloom into yet another a hellish garden of temptation. One of the new interns that appeared after a few months was a broad-shouldered crew cut that was built like a bull. I absolutely detested myself for lusting after him. He could have been no purer a cliche of the dumb jock that long experience as a nerd had taught me to hate. I kept as great a distance from him as I could in the office. But one day after work I found myself following his car with my car out onto the beltway, following him to who-knew-where. After a few miles I shook myself, turned back in the right direction toward home, and loudly berated myself, "What the hell are you becoming?! Some kind of psycho stalker?!"
After re-starting at UMBC with a new major, I felt fresh enough to buckle down with resolve not to repeat my past failures. I was, of course, much more successful with computer science than with mechanical engineering, but I still wasn't free of my inevitable doom. One of the best friends that I made during that time was Eric, a Polish exchange student (no, it's not your imagination; every other student at UMBC at that time really was from outside the US; probably still is). At first he was just a particularly acute example of the seemingly endless stream of acquaintences in my career as a "Linux guru" that fawn over me to milk my enthusiastic brain for all it's worth. But eventually our friendship developed beyond the domain of computers and I shared with him my most cherished of experiences: showing him all my favorite woodland spaces that are scattered around Baltimore County. Soon after, I had a conversation with him through the medium of an Internet-based chatting program. I confessed my sexuality and confessed that I had feelings for him. He said he was sorry, but that he wasn't at all gay and couldn't reciprocate. In my heart, I wanted to continue being friends, but the shame that lay nestled in my breast uncoiled slinkingly and choked me with guilt for having put him into what must have been such an uncomfortable position. So it wasn't really the same after that, and the friendship cooled away to little more than a memory. I think the thing I regret most about my life is the terrible number of friendships I've withered to death upon the altar of the ugly god of shame.
At least I have one friendship that I managed to keep in spite of the sort-of kind-of romantic relationship that it almost was. One year on the night after Yom Kippur, I was on my usual post-Atonement spritual high. I sat in my usual place in front of my computer, chatting the night away in a slightly frivolous way in the Internet chat room that my main circle of school friends shared at the time. I soon was drawn into a private conversation with Steve Killen, a friendly face I'd met as he worked as a student employee in the computer labs. (You might remember him as one of the gaggle I brought over for the Pesach Seder that one year. Then again, in the confusion of that night, you probably don't. He was one of my co-workers at freshmeat.net for many years.) Early in this private conversation, Steve surprised me indescribably by admitting that he found me attractive. I hadn't paid him that much serious attention before, and I'd had no previous suspicion that was even slightly queer, but I found myself indubitably eager to reciprocate. The flattery of the experience was almost overwhelming. It was also unprecedented. No one had ever told me I was attractive before, and I had always thought that "plain" was the most charitable description my physical appearance would ever warrant. This incredible and unexpected boost to my self-esteem arrived in the midst of circumstances that could hardly have been more depressive. You were still away in Chicago after what had already seemed like a truly ludicrous number of years with no end in sight, and Jonathan and I were living alone with Mom while she continually spewed a polluting cloud of misery and grief punctuated by unpredictable flares of spite and fury. The tiny voice that scolded me for pouncing on a homosexual advance like a puppy dog mere hours after my supposed Atonement was completely quashed by my starving need for affection and self-esteem and escape.
But that tiny voice did not have to wait long at all to get its revenge. While our nascent and awkward little get-to-know each other dance played out with long Internet-mediated conversations, hanging out around the school-grounds, and him introducing me to classic Japanese animation in his living room, my inner angst stealthily and swiftly gathered all the force of its gravity. I wondered exactly how far I would be willing to go with this. I told myself that maybe I'd just indulge in the more minor acts. I could never really bring myself to violate the Big Prohibition, could I? What if the heat of passion robbed me of my inhibitions? Could I really trust myself? I found myself obsessively spending every spare moment searching the Web for writings that would convey to Steve the awesome seriousness and inner conflict associated with my situation as a religious Jew who is gay. I found some essays by Rabbi Steve Greenburg that were just what I was looking for. I dumped a pile of documents on Steve's head and asked him to read. He never showed much enthusiasm for the material. After a week or two, I realized that we did lots of fun things together, but didn't do a whole lot of touching. Despite the fact that I was pretty nervous about this endeavour and wanted to move slowly, even I thought this was a little too slow. A few days later, as we were driving to a computer hardware flea market, he let me know that this wasn't really working. After thinking about it, I figured out that Steve was just trying out a little college experimentation and wasn't really looking for a serious relationship, which was the only sort of relationship I would entertain. He didn't really want to be immersed in my life-or-death drama. We remained fast friends and he went back to dating women. And that was the closest I ever came to having a boyfriend.
So, after reaching the home stretch of my college career with only a few more cute-teacher-induced course failures and other miscellaneous crushes, I finally made my first visit to Israel. As I approached on the airplane, I couldn't clear my head of the silly notions that the purity of the Holy Land would magically clean my polluted heart of its waywardness. Thus those notions fell with an extra-flat note when I experienced the predictable anxiety of sharing hotel rooms with other young men who were all but strangers. Over the course of the two-week tour I gravitated toward one of my trip-mates, Clint, a young black man from the Mid-West who had recently converted to Judaism. It was quite predictable since I've always felt a special affinity and empathy toward people whose situations make them vulnerable to being an outsider. I suppose growing up with the constant acute awareness of being different from everyone around me in one way or another made me very sensitive to it. His soft quietness was such a sweet contrast to the brash overconfidence of most of the other members of the tour, many of them mostly motivated by little more than the opportunity to get laid in an exotic country. I remember silently and gingerly positioning myself near him as the group traversed the trip's many and varied activities. I remember my shy, embarrassed pride at the many compliments that the two of us received for singing duet at the Shabbos table so skillfully. I remember sitting next to him in the circle the group formed the second Motsei Shabbos of the trip while Rav Binny, our tour guide, told everybody his legendary stories. I remember how he took off his outer shirt because of the heat of the room, his undershirt leaving his arms exposed up past the shoulders. I remember how I put my arm around him during the emotional group sing-along that followed the stories, how I furtively glanced at the curve of the muscles on his naked arms and felt them gingerly with my hand. I squeezed his arm ever so gently as we all sat there, and I focused on wordlessly radiating toward him all the warmth and welcome I possibly could. Was it just my imagination, or did his demeanor reflect something of what I was feeling then? Late that night in my hotel room, I couldn't sleep. I stood in the bathroom, staring meaninglessly into the toilet bowl, and an internal voice reproached me, "What do you think your doing? You're trying to seduce the most vulnerable person here. You're taking a fresh-as-snow convert to Judaism and trying to dash him against the rocks of your perversion. You're a ruthless hunter, preying on the weak. How disgusting!" I was overcome with guilt. For the remaining days of the tour I suddenly started avoiding him, erected an invisible psychic wall. He seemed more than a little put off by my sudden reticence. He soon started to seem downright disturbed. At a dinner that was one of the last events on the tour he sat near me and sometimes muttered things that I couldn't quite pick up but which somehow frightened me with uncanny hints of violent darkness. It was time to feel nauseated by an entirely different kind of guilt. Guilt for leading on a tender soul only to hurl it away into the cold with vicious force. I don't know: maybe my fevered imagination warped the subtle signals of his countenence into a bizarre distortion of reality. All I know is that I can't stop feeling remorse for a heart that I may or may not have broken with the subtlest flirtation in the world.
When the next year brought me to Israel as a fresh and eager immigrant, I soon became familiar with a thrilling new frontier of emotional turmoil; a frontier I'd broken with Clint not so long ago: falling in love with Jewish men. Falling in love with a Jewish man had such a remarkably different feel, a meaning and tone that was so different from falling in love with a non-Jew. My bigoted inner critic had such an easy time denigrating any feelings for a shaygetz, "You can't possibly have any serious emotions for that insensitive, uncircumcised pig-eater. This is just another gross instance of your Yetzer Hara. Your better nature would make you throw up if you tried to do anything with him." But affection for a holy Jew that radiates all the fine spiritual qualities that I admire? That had an entirely added dimension of nobility and thus a weird paradoxical validity.
It's been my curse that my time spent in Israel has been so filled with encounters with men who are kind, sensitive, handsome, intelligent, and caring. I can't count the number of times I've had to live through the cycle of meeting a guy, knowing at first sight that I would fall for him, struggling to avoid falling into that same trap yet again, failing as I circle around him like a moth to a flame, and finally realizing that the only way to go on is to plunge the metaphorical knife into my heart and cutting out yet another slice. To scream at myself, "No! Stop feeling for him! Stop! Stop feeling!!" It's amazing how successful you can be at stopping your own feelings. Of course, the price is to start feeling nothing at all.
After moving to Israel, my previous excuses for avoiding the dating scene dried up, but that didn't keep me from procrastinating anyway. I told myself that I would just wait until I met a woman that interested me. Never mind the fact that a whole busy city full of eligible bachelorettes couldn't spark even a slight interest. Occasionally, I would let myself be set up on a blind date, and each time was a miserable exercise in false smiles and pretending not to be completely bored. But facing the possibility of never finding a wife finally made me search my heart for the real reason why I avoided dating. I eventually admitted to myself that I suffered extreme anxiety about revealing my sexual orientation to a prospective wife. I didn't want to try to build a marriage on secrecy and deceit, but I was terrified of the act of revelation. How would I ever find a woman willing to live with someone like me? How could I ever guarantee her that I'd be happy with her? How could I actually ever tell someone that I cared about, when the risk of telling would be rejection?
The damage done by the closet is also the real reason why the IDF didn't recuit me. I was terrified of the thought of serving in the army. I wasn't afraid of the danger to my body, but of the danger to my soul. I didn't know if I had the strength to live in such close quarters with so many other men without either revealing my secret or secretly indulging it somehow. On the written psychological questionnaire, I confessed to having periodic self-destructive and suicidal impulses. But later, when I was sitting in front of the army psychologist, I just couldn't force my throat to utter the real reason behind those suicidal thoughts even though I wanted to so very badly. I was far too repressed to explain the insidious, twisted logic that spoke to my crushed heart with its silver, forked tongue: "This is one of the sins that you must give up your life rather than commit. You've felt temptation so strong that you would have given in instantly had you only been able. If you ever actually committed this sin, you'd certainly feel so guilty that you'd kill yourself. Isn't it better to die now in innocence rather than sin? At least it would end the pain." I think the only thing that's saved me from suicide was the belief, no, the abject fear that there would be an afterlife in which my suffering would not in fact end, but might even multiply.
It seems like the longer I live, the more frequently and deeply I fall in love with various men around me, all of whom are completely unattainable because of the closet's iron bars. I wonder if you can imagine how much more painful unrequited love becomes when it can't even be acknowledged, must be kept an utter secret because of the abject fear of witnessing a reaction of disgust from the beloved upon discovering the truth. One of the biggest reasons that I moved away from Jerusalem was to get away from a number of friends and acquaintences with whom I'd grown infatuated. It was easier to run away than face the pain.
But I don't think that the unconfessible crushes are even the worst part of living in the closet. I think the worst part is the shame of feeling like I have to keep a secret. Over the course of my three years living in Jerusalem, I tried several times to release myself from the chains of secrecy. To stop bearing my burden in utter loneliness. Everyone I approached for guidance in the matter advised me to keep it a secret, mainly because it would "hurt my chances for a shidduch". I can't imagine a more brain-damaged reasoning! The act of seeking such guidance was so emotionally costly that I could only do it a few times before completely giving up. I felt so stupid for choosing to request advice from people who proved to be such idiotic fools. Couldn't they understand how any secret, if kept long enough, poisons the keeper's soul and builds an invisible wall that cuts him off from any real connection with the world outside? Couldn't they tell how painful it was for me to crave the understanding and support of the community around me without knowing how to reach out for it? I felt I should have known better than to trust them. With each of these failures I felt betrayed and violated and humiliated. Since these morons couldn't help me, and I had no idea how to unburden myself without aid, I had no choice but to live my life under a brittle mask of a smile, despising everyone around me for being so easily fooled by this deceit. I've lost any faith in the Jewish community being able to accept me without demanding to change what I am. I've been sent a blazingly clear message that they just don't want to know.
Since moving to Tzfat I've avoided making new friends, not wanting to repeat the experience of stupid, tragic crushes any more. For the first time in a long time, I've had the peace and quiet to reflect on what I've learned about myself over the years. I've finally found the courage to explore what it would be like to live without the chains of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 around my heart. I've not changed my actions in any external way, but I have changed my whole perspective. For the first time in my life, I'm not blaming myself for how I feel. For the first time in my life, I'm letting myself look at a handsome guy without an internal censor whiplashing my ego and reflexively wrenching my eyes and mind away with fear and loathing. For the first time since discovering what I am, I'm not torturing myself with guilt, not tearing myself apart into two horribly shredded pieces. For the first time in more years than I want to think about, I don't feel like a monster.
I'm very sorry if you're saddened by the fact that I didn't choose to talk to you in person when you were here or at least talk to you over the phone, but I have great difficulty expressing myself in speech regarding emotionally sensitive matters. It's only in writing that I can find the words I need to bare my heart.
I'm giving you the choice of whether to share this letter with Mommy. I think you're in a better position to decide than I am. On the one hand, I think she has the most to benefit from this information, since she's always been the person most in denial about me, and thus more closed off from any real part of me than anyone else in the family. But on the other hand, I do worry that learning the contents of this letter all at once would break her heart and drive her to some sort of despair that I can barely imagine. Without question, all of this has to come out sometime. There's no one in a better position than me to attest to the fact that a secret kept only festers into the bitterest of all poisons. The time has come for me to stop avoiding the ones I love in a vain attempt to avoid being hurt.