The Gift of Growing Up ‘Different’
Growing up, Grant just wanted to be “normal” — being gay meant he struggled with loneliness and fear of rejection. Now that he has come out, he looks back and sees that being different has also offered him transformative gifts.
Hanging on the wall of my bedroom during middle school was a full-sized poster of “Oops, I Did It Again”-era Britney Spears. I had inherited it from one of my older sisters, who left it behind when she went off to college. I can’t remember if I had switched rooms with her and unthinkingly kept it up or purposefully peeled it off her wall and hung it up myself. Regardless, the image (along with several tracks from the accompanying studio album) became the locus of a lot of adolescent processing.
Today — after coming out in college and living for the past decade or so as an openly gay man — the poster seems like a bit of hilarious poetry: a sweet, confused, closeted gay teenager keeps an image of Britney Spears on his wall, hoping that somehow it will make him less gay, not more.
I had just realized around that time that I was drawn to guys my age in the same way that they seemed to be drawn to girls. My inability to feel what they felt scared me. I was afraid that I was abnormal, that I would be found out, ridiculed, and rejected — and I was jealous of those who could effortlessly blend in and feel comfortable with the guys. Part of me thought that by keeping the poster on the wall, I could train myself to see what other guys saw, to feel what I was supposed to feel, and somehow achieve the masculinity that both frightened and intrigued me.
It did not work, of course. It was one of a number of failed attempts to “fix” that growing sense of difference, which also included practicing a more confident, masculine walk in front of the mirror, forcefully trying to lower my vocal register, and frequent, tearful prayers to be “normal.” I could not imagine telling another person what I was going through, so I was alone — my loneliness was killing me. I sensed I was hurtling toward an unknown destination, somewhere I did not want to go. It took years for me to open up to someone, and even longer to begin to feel comfortable in my own skin.
But now in my late 20s, having in some sense arrived at that unknown destination, I wish I knew then what I know now: that my difference is much more of a blessing than a curse. That if I had somehow achieved the normalcy I longed for, I would have missed out on some of the best parts of my life: the relationships sparked through shared experiences; the art and literature that helped me understand not only myself, but the world; even the spirituality that spoke to me and shaped me. That difference was, more than anything, an invitation to new life.
Shortly after coming out to a few close friends my sophomore year of college, I got connected to a couple of online queer Christian communities that ended up being lifelines for me. They were spaces — virtual, but yet no less real — in which I did not have to struggle to explain myself, could be open and vulnerable without fear, and find comradery. I built deep relationships very quickly, which soon moved offline as I had the pleasure of meeting several of my new friends in person over several years on road trips, visits home for the holidays, conferences, retreats. Coming out, for me, meant coming in — into a new community, a new family.
As I got to know this new community, I began to see some of the unique giftedness born out of our shared experiences as sexual and gender minorities: sensitivity (both to pain and suffering, but also to nuance), passion and devotion, and a rich culture of celebration and lament — all formed by the need to overcome many obstacles on our way to pursuing God.
In the second installment in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series of novels, More Tales of the City, the autobiographical character Michael Tolliver crafts a beautiful coming out letter to his mother. One section of that letter reads, “Being gay has taught me tolerance, compassion and humility. It has shown me the limitless possibilities of living. It has given me people whose passion and kindness and sensitivity have provided a constant source of strength.” I struggle to say it any better than this. Being gay has been a real means of God’s grace, despite the fact that I so vehemently rejected it at first.
All the most important invitations to new life work like this: what at one point seems like only an unwanted burden or painful loss eventually gives way to gift. Grappling with burden and loss — the discomfort and the dashed expectations, in my case — and searching for the giftedness hidden from plain view can provide real growth and even transformation.
In his classic book on Christian spirituality, The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser speaks of this dynamic as consecration. “To consecrate,” he writes, “means to set aside, to displace from ordinary usage, to derail from normalcy.”
When I first read this line it was jarring. Having grown up in a community of faith, I had long heard of holiness as being “set apart for special purposes,” but it was always a PG-rated version of being “set apart.” I had never understood how painful it could be, how it could feel less like being chosen and more like exile. But the displacement and derailment does not have to be without purpose — they can be avenues, not obstacles.
Rolheiser applied this language of consecration to baptism and parenthood, but he could just as well have applied it to coming out — each of these, after all, involve being given a new family. The language of being displaced and derailed transported me back to middle school and gave me a new vocabulary to better describe what I was going through: I was being consecrated, called out, brought into a new kind of life and new community made possible through being taken somewhere I did not want to go.
And the consecration has transformed me: Because of it, I am more sensitive, more compassionate and passionate, more able to celebrate and lament with my whole heart — stronger than yesterday.