Journey - Chapter 4
Awareness of Orientation during High School
BY JERRY MCKAY
Earlier, I mentioned my roommate Kelvin, and that we were roommates for almost four years. Speaking generally about our friendship, Kelvin said that, “from the start, at Kingsway, I never thought of you as being anything but a regular guy. I admired your spiritual status on campus and felt honored that you would consider rooming with me, an underclassman. I will always be grateful for that and recall many pleasant memories of our times together. We enjoyed similar activities and friendships.”
Then he asked this question. “Did you ever feel sexually attracted to me or other guys we were friendly with? I certainly never suspected it.”
His question is a perfect segue into those moments when I was aware of my attraction to the same sex.
The short answer to Kelvin’s question is, yes, most definitely, I was attracted to him. I felt different things for different people, and I wasn’t attracted to every guy just as no heterosexual is attracted to every person of the opposite sex.
It is important to understand that although I write as if I were fully aware of my orientation the truth is I was not that aware of the extent of my attractions and how they affected me. To use a common phrase, I was not out to myself. By that I mean I had not consciously named what I was experiencing. Throughout high school, for sure, and on into college, I never defined myself as homosexual or gay. I would not name my experience for another ten years. I did not do so for at least two reasons.
First, I lacked the vocabulary needed to say anything to anyone. The only language references I had were Biblical. From the Old Testament, I had terms like abomination and sodomite. From the New Testament, I knew what Paul seemed to say about those people in his letter to the church in Rome—they were people with dishonorable passions and unnatural desires. While I had feelings that seemed to fit Paul’s description, I don’t remember thinking I was one of those people. The text did trouble me a lot, however.
This lack of vocabulary was compounded by the fact that there was nothing about my world that was set up to help me name what I was experiencing. There was no gay-straight alliance group on campus, no stated policy by the school counselor or nurse that acknowledged the existence of LGBT people and their concerns, and no internet for any personal research. If there was anything in print, it was hidden away in reference books in the library. Preachers never even talked about the subject in the early 70s.
I have no idea what would have happened had I confided in a dean, a teacher, or the pastor. I expect there were some understanding faculty on campus, but I had no idea who they might have been. Talking to someone would have broken my sense of isolation; but based on the experience of others, I would probably have been shamed into silence and or requested to withdraw from school. Had that happened, I would have been devastated. Instead, I lived my moments of awareness in isolation.
Despite this vague sense of awareness, I remember what I felt and how it affected me. Sometimes my attraction was subtle and more like background noise—always there but manageable. Other times, it led me to modify my behavior in subconscious ways. On other occasions, it broke into my awareness and overwhelmed me.
My first example of awareness reflects the subconscious tension I felt about being physically attracted to roommates like Kelvin and others in the dormitory and how I changed my behavior because of it.
Living at a boarding school, even a Christian school, had its challenges for someone physically attracted to the same sex—those community showers.
Jerry & Kelvin↓
Group of week of prayer speakers
Most modern campus residences are similar to hotel suites where two or maybe four people share a bathroom with some semblance of privacy. The showers at Kingsway, however, were rather public—too public, for me.
The showers I remember most were not large and open with multiple places to bathe, but small and intimate. There was one entrance into a small ceramic room that had just two shower heads. When there was a curtain, it was not there as a divider between the two occupants. It simply closed off the small entrance to prevent water from spilling out onto the main floor.
As often as I could, I headed to the showers earlier than necessary hoping to get in and out before others arrived. Although I was bashful, that wasn’t the primary reason for hitting the showers early. I did not want to deal with the distress created by my appreciation of the male body.
I think most guys, Christian or not, would feel awkward if they had to shower with their female friends. If they did peek, they might feel guilty but normal. Even if I wanted to peek, I felt ashamed and abnormal.
I must emphasize that I wasn’t necessarily thinking about what was below the belt. Nor was I thinking about doing anything. I was distressed because, in my eyes, the male body was appealing and I wanted to look at it.
When a friend or roommate, for whom I had a spiritual and emotional attraction, was naked and within arm’s reach, the distress was exhausting. Believe me, it is only when you try not to peek that you realize how much you can see with good peripheral vision!
Living in a dorm meant there were plenty of guys roaming about clad only in a towel. This, too, was stressful. Every time I was met by a friend in his briefs, I was afraid my gaze would be different in some way—a few seconds longer than normal or in a way that betrayed my secret. I’m eternally grateful that Kelvin was not an exhibitionist!
Despite those everyday occurrences, I welcomed my male friendships, but I was always overly cautious about avoiding any physical contact shying away from hugs or simple touch of any kind. The odd unexpected touch on my back or shoulder, though pleasant, was electrifying and made me anxious.
On the other hand, I never minded the fact that activities like assemblies and church services were segregated—the girls had to sit on the left, and the guys had to sit on the right. Being required to sit snugly between male friends in church was a cross I bore willingly. Unlike my classmates, I never did dream of the day when I would be in the upper grades and therefore have the privilege of sitting with female friends.
The old boy's dorm
My next example illustrates how emotionally attached I could be to classmates, roommates, and friends and yet be very much out of touch with those feelings until some event pushed them to the surface.
Within hours of returning to school one year after Christmas break, I learned some news that jolted me emotionally.
Del was one of the spiritual role models on campus, and I admired him. He was articulate, intelligent, and dynamic. He was also attractive. He often led Bible study groups and prayer circles in the dorm. He had been dating one of the girls on campus. I had been okay with that, or at least I thought I was, until he announced that they had gotten engaged over the holidays.
My reaction betrayed my true feelings. Although I was able to put on a happy congratulatory face, I remember being overwhelmed with emotions. I hated that I felt anger, jealousy, and even bitterness. Mixed in with those emotions were feelings of grief and loss. In retrospect, I know I had feelings for Del.
This experience would repeat itself a number of times with respect to other friends.
Many people feel a sense of loss when a close friend or family member announces an engagement. When that happens, we know the dynamics of the relationship will change, and we eventually accept the new reality. Most people have someone to talk to about it.
I, however, experienced a wound I could not talk about. I had feelings I could never have expressed verbally let alone acted on. I had no one to share my feelings with. The only thing I could do was stuff them deep inside.
Constantly experiencing strong emotions and denying them takes a toll. The toll for me was the slow numbing and shutting down of emotion.
My third example was a one-time event and had to do with beauty in the eyes of the heterosexual beholder.
One evening after the mandatory study period was over; a group of us younger guys were hanging out in an older guy’s room. Not surprisingly, the subject of women came up. The older student unquestionably loved everything about women. You could tell he had given much previous thought to what he was going to say because his eyes widened with enthusiasm as he elaborated on why he found women so physically attractive.
“A woman,” he said, “possesses a layer of subcutaneous fat that softens her body to both sight and touch.” This, he emphasized, was in contrast to the sinews and muscles visible on the male body. The implication was that the male body was not appealing.
The comment caught me off guard and made me very uncomfortable.
Instantly, the situation triggered that familiar fear response. It was as if someone had punched me in the gut. I could feel anxiety move through my body. In his comment and my reaction, I was reminded again of what I was supposed to be thinking and feeling. I did not feel the way Perry did, and I knew it.
Perry’s comment startled me so forcefully for another reason. It made me aware of what I had actually been doing while he was speaking. I had been observing every sinew and muscle of his body as he sat there in his armchair wearing only his briefs!
It would have been healthier, for me, if I could have talked and joked about what I was thinking. Instead, I repressed what I was feeling. Even worse, I felt compelled to lie about my truth. Although I was in a state of panic, I made a pathetic attempt to show knowing agreement.
I returned to my room with my mind overrun with those why questions. They were not just questions about why I felt drawn to guys. I was plagued over why I felt no physical attraction for any of my female friends. There was never an end to wondering what was wrong with me.
This is a critical point. I was not heterosexual as is typically understood plus one oddity. I was not attracted to women and also interested in men. I had no attraction to women. This was so troubling because I knew I had not chosen to reject women in some fist-in-the-air act of rebellion against God in exchange for the unnatural. I was not exercising a preference I could turn on or off.
I said my prayers and went to bed hoping things would change, but the next morning everything was the same. The energy I used to manage, repress, and lie was so tiring.
With all of these details about my devotional habits and distress over my orientation as background, you can see how intrigued I was by another of Kelvin’s observations. Although I had often seen Kelvin pray, I would never have said of him, “I remember wondering what was going through your head when you would spend long periods kneeling by the radiator at the window, apparently praying.” Then he added, “I thought in subsequent years that you were possibly trying to figure yourself out.”
Kelvin had no idea how accurate his wonderings were.
My final example of sexual awareness and accompanying distress revolved around a summer job. I had two summer jobs between the time I enrolled at Kingsway and my graduation in 1974. One of those involved evangelistic endeavors. The job in question illustrated what it might be like trying to work in church ministry and cope with same-sex attraction.
As part of a church-sponsored student work program, I joined a two-person team that went to help a local church with its evangelistic activities. As it turned out, I was teamed up with one of my camp counsellors from years back. This time, Don was around 20 and as attractive as ever. I was about to turn 17.
A local family provided us with room and board. We spent every day together driving around Bellville in an old black and white van full of Bibles, Bible study guides, and evangelistic literature. We helped the local pastor with church services, carried the weight of that summer’s Vacation Bible School, and went door to door signing people up for Bible studies. It was a rewarding summer, and it was my introduction to what a pastor’s life might actually look like.
The only constant downside was my orientation. It was exhausting showing up at someone’s door for a Bible study or trying to lead out in a church service with the image of a tanned shirtless construction worker filling my thoughts. There was construction going on all over Bellville that summer, and those guys didn’t have an ounce of subcutaneous fat on their bodies.
The old black van
Those why questions drained my energy and detracted from my work.
While Don may have had visions of a scantily clad woman on his mind, I doubt he beat himself up because of them. If he did have twinges of guilt, I’m sure he never thought of himself as an abomination or a sodomite. I doubt he went to bed weary from a tyranny of whys plaguing him. If he had had a few lust-filled thoughts, at least, his were natural.
I am also sure Don did not end his day distressed because he had found me attractive in the way I found him attractive. Like other friends and classmates at Kingsway, Don was attractive not just physically but spiritually. This combination made my feelings of appeal and guilt more potent. As always, I suppressed, denied, and prayed in silence.
For a moment of comic relief, I want to share a bit from one of my other summer jobs.
That summer, I attempted to sell religious and health-related magazines door to door. That experiment did not last long. I hated it. First, I despised our uniforms.
Being Canadian we dressed in our colors—red and white. Every day we headed out in our red shirts, white ties, and white polyester pants, or skirts, depending on your gender. Those colors would have worked for a gymnastics team, but not for walking the streets of Ottawa. I felt as self-conscious as a dog that had just had its coat sheered too short. That wasn’t the real reason for abandoning that job, however.
No matter how informative those magazines were or how much the team leader tried to encourage me to continue in “the Lord’s work,” I knew I would rather pile lumber than try to convince people to buy magazines. That summer I learned I was not a salesman. I quit and headed back to Kingsway to work in the furniture factory for the remainder of the summer.
And Then There Was Dating
In addition to all the same-sex attraction stuff going on, I did date during high school. Although my dating may have outwardly resembled that of my heterosexual counterparts, I know I never felt much like they did.
Another of Kelvin’s observations confirmed what others saw me doing. Regarding my social life, he wrote, “I remember wondering why you were liked by quite a few girls but you seemed unable to get too close to them.”
He specifically remembered two of my “girlfriends”—the only two, in fact, that I remember. We apparently shared a common interest, because he said he was especially surprised “when I broke up with Beverly at a time when he thought she still wanted to be my girlfriend and he, in fact, had a secret desire for her to be his!”
Regarding my other girlfriend, he noted that Donna and I were “always good friends but never a ‘couple’.”
For most of one year, I “dated” Beverley in what should be described as “in form only.”
I don’t remember how we started to date. I think it was just the natural outflow of circumstances and expectations. Most were dating or trying to date in one way or the other.
Beverley was a grade ahead of me, but we were a part of the same circle of friends. She was shy and beautiful and kind. She was also a talented pianist. Of course, she was spiritual. Throughout one year we went to those after-sunset Saturday night activities—skating, movie night, and concerts. Like the others who were dating, we exchanged letters on “letter night”—the night approved for runners to shuttle letters between the dorms.
Once, probably twice, we went as a couple to the big social events of the year —Open House and Reception. Each event included a formal dinner with suits and gowns and corsages. I still have the photos!
Although there was nothing obligatory about holding your date’s hand as you escorted her to and from dinner, there was an understanding that such a display of affection might occur. On those special evenings, I did hold Beverley’s hand, but that was the extent of our intimacy. I never struggled with wanting more.
For one summer, we wrote back and forth sharing our day-to-day activities, but again that was it. Not that there needed to be anything steamy going on between two high school students at a Christian boarding school, but there really was little about our relationship that could have been considered more than platonic—at least from my perspective.
I don’t remember when or why I ended the dating relationship. It clearly took everyone, included Kelvin, by surprise. I suspect I was just tapping into something deep inside of me that knew it had to end because I wasn’t going to be able to move it forward in any meaningful way.
My relationship/friendship with Donna was more complicated.
Our on-again-off-again friendship would last for years and went beyond high school through college and included mission service together. Sometimes it seemed we were dating and at other times we behaved more like friends. We shared theological and spiritual interests and a love of nature. We had the kind of deep conversations that only soul mates can have.
Compared to Donna, I was the dim bulb. I had to work hard for my grades while she breezed through most classes with minimal effort. During exams, I always needed the full two hours allotted to finish the test, while Donna would pack up and leave the room after an hour.
The first time that happened, I assumed she didn’t do very well, and I felt sorry for her. In fact, she scored higher than I did. That experience repeated itself every semester.
We were in the band together, as well. She played the flute. When visiting small churches we occasionally accommodated a request for special music. I am positive we were the only trombone-flute duet anyone had ever heard. Somehow, we made it work.
Donna and I attended at least one of those elaborate yearly social events as a couple, and I did hold her hand on those evenings. We spent a great deal of time alone, but again, nothing intimate ever happened, because I never initiated anything. I never struggled with any vow of chastity. There were no desires or urges to struggle over.
Ironically, the absence of any sexual urges on my part only heightened the respect I had in the eyes of many, and of course, no Christian girl wanted to be the one to lead me into temptation. I know I confused Donna, because I was definitely confused, and we confused everyone around us. I have more to say about Donna later.
A few final thoughts as I bring this part of my life to a close.
Because people saw me going through the motions of dating, they rightly assumed I shared at least some of their passions. There was something ironic about being known to have a deep faith and an even stronger control over earthly desires. If friends had only known that my orientation was the force behind my control, they might have felt better about their struggles, and I would have felt more honest and authentic. Having godlike control over my urges, however, meant that male friends used to confide in me about their relationship problems and urges.
I often heard about “the kiss” that took place earlier in the evening and the guilt about wanting more. I watched friends open their love letters, and shared their excitement about being in love. Later, I consoled them when their relationships ended. On the rare occasion, I was approached by a troubled and timid soul who wanted me to share my thoughts on the subject of masturbation. The query usually implied he struggled with the vice but had no one to talk to.
I guess I seemed like a safe and understanding person to go to. I always tried to listen and counsel with compassion. All the while, I was strangely silent about anything that was going on in my heart and veins. Editing out the important stuff of life became my norm. Only the experienced observer would have picked up on that. Although I was able to manage the tension, it was not easy; and clearly some wondered about me but couldn’t put a finger on what I was about.
My high school years rank near the top of enjoyable periods of my life. Friendships developed that have continued to this day, and those friendships made up for much of the void my orientation created at the time. I graduated from high school in the spring of 1974 and started my Bachelor in Theology the following September while still at Kingsway. During my first year of college, I made a decision that would significantly impact the next six years. While trying to finish my degree in theology, I would crisscross the Pacific three times as a student missionary in Japan.
Before moving on to my Japan and second year in college, I want to digress and look at two published sources that created a lot of angst, affected my self-image, and set me up for future difficulties. One source was in the Bible—the first chapter of Romans—and the second was the Adventist publication You and Your Health. q
|The Messenger (the paper for the Canadian Union)|