Journey - Chapter 17
First Visit with Colin
BY JERRY MCKAY
Once I named my experience—acknowledged my homosexual orientation—a predictable side effect emerged. I found myself wanting to meet others with a similar experience. The only way I knew of doing that was through an ad on the back page of The Japan Times.
Among the ads for apartments, language teachers, and cheap flights to the U.S., was the bi-weekly one-sentence notice for a gathering of gay men. The ad I had purposely ignored over the years was now my portal to meeting people like myself. I called from the language school, but only when it was deserted. The conversation was short. All I needed was the time and location of the gathering.
We were to meet at a coffee shop just outside Nakano station—four stops from where I lived. From the shadows of the train overpass that Sunday afternoon, I watched “foreign” men enter the coffee shop. I could not muster the courage to walk across the open square and enter the building. I promised myself I would go for it every time a commuter train thundered above me, but I could not overcome my fear of the unknown. Disappointed, I went home.
My schedule would not allow for a second attempt for several weeks. The second time, my will to connect overrode my fears; I made it into the coffee shop and I stayed. The low-key event was a big deal for me. Knowing more about Japanese social etiquette than homosexual social etiquette, I opted to sit near a window and nurse a ginger ale. When the organizer welcomed us, I was pleased to learn I was not the only first-timer. I thank the metropolis of Tokyo for indulging me in my goal of meeting or “observing” other homosexuals. I soon learned such gatherings were made up of embassy employees, entertainers, and the male equivalent of my French-model-friend Paula. Between watching and listening, I chatted with a couple of people all of whom seemed quite normal! It was an odd experience being in a room of men who spoke freely about their feelings and joked about their attractions while I feared and buried mine. I was not very forthcoming with personal information. When asked what I did, I said I taught English. While this was true, I was very aware of hiding the fact that I was a missionary. Remaining in the closet, with respect to my faith, felt like a betrayal. It left me feeling like the apostle Peter who denied knowing Jesus just before Jesus’ crucifixion.
Although I had a pleasant time, I left feeling lonely and more aware of how compartmentalized my life was. The world I had just observed seemed antithetical to my goal of change. However, despite the obvious incongruencies, meeting those guys brought me a step closer to understanding myself and lessened my sense of isolation. When I returned to the Adventist mission compound, I withheld the details of this day trip from colleagues.
On May 21, 1982, the second letter from Mr. Cook arrived outlining several options for an August visit. The final details would be worked out once I got back to Ottawa. I left Tokyo on June 20, the day after the baptism of a dear friend.
I was thrilled to be traveling with a friend from Osaka. Jugo had been in my English and Bible classes during my year there. We planned to spend most of the summer together and then return to Japan in September via Europe and a cross-continent train trip through Russia. New York City, however, was our first stop. By the time our non-stop flight landed at JFK, we were like giddy children. Seeing the Concord on the tarmac as we taxied to the terminal signaled the beginning of our adventures.
As a financially strapped missionary, I had made plans for us to stay at the headquarters of an independent church ministry in New York City. When we finally showed up—around midnight—no one was there to meet us. Finding an unlocked door, we crept in and crashed on sofas for the night. Because of the transient nature of mission life, our appearance the next morning didn’t seem to faze anyone.
After a hasty breakfast, we hopped on the ministry's mobile blood pressure clinic/evangelistic outreach van and headed back into the city as tourists. For two days, we walked Manhattan, visiting every major attraction our worn-out feet could handle.
In 1982, New York City was dirty and dangerous. Times Square was seedy, and we soon discovered that certain locations—42nd Street between 7th Avenue and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, for example—were lined with sex shops and peep shows. My anxiety shot up as soon as I realized there were “shows” featuring men as well as women. I didn’t need peep shows, however, to experience distress. On every street corner, well-dressed men reminded me of the nature of my attractions. When my feelings overwhelmed me, I tried my best to thank God for those attractive New Yorkers, as Mr. Cook had suggested in his tapes. I tried to surrender my feelings to God. This was, in fact, a far healthier way of responding to my attractions than fearing and repressing them as I had always done before. This practice did not diminish my orientation, however.
From New York, we took the train to Washington, D.C. to reconnect with old friends. As we traded details about our lives from the past year, I wanted to share the truly meaningful things that were going on in my life, but I couldn’t. While I knew my orientation was a personal issue about which no one need know, I felt increasingly frustrated when my fear kept me from sharing such significant details. I kept silent out of a sense of shame, which in turn ate at my soul.
By the end of June, Jugo and I arrived in Ottawa. I had not been home in two years, so this was a special reunion. I did not see my father immediately because my mother had separated from dad a year earlier. Although their separation did not come as a complete surprise, the letter from mom announcing their separation was a shock that I grieved privately. Since she and my sister, Marilyn, were sharing a one-bedroom apartment in Ottawa, accommodations were going to be tight. Jugo and I would have to share the sofa bed for the duration of our stay—which stressed me for obvious reasons. That fact notwithstanding, I had a wonderful time showing him the city of Ottawa as well as all my childhood haunts—the village in which I grew up, the farm where I spent endless summers, and eventually the family home where my father was living. Jugo then returned to the U.S. to visit other teachers he knew. We planned to rendezvous a few weeks later for the second leg of our trip. In the meantime, I had a secret journey to make.
With little explanation to either my mother or sister, I set out early Friday morning, July 30, for Reading, Pennsylvania, in a rented red Colt. I had seven hours to think about meeting Mr. Cook. I believed this trip was going to be the true beginning of my journey out of homosexuality. I was optimistic about this visit.
Quest Learning Centre, I was told, was in the Penn Hill Condominiums. Once off US Route 422, I approached Penn Hill through the center of the city. Although trees obscured the building, I could clearly see Reading's distinct landmark—an oversized red Japanese-style pagoda at the top of Penn Hill. It sat directly above Quest. For most people, a red pagoda atop a hill in Pennsylvania would simply be an odd tourist attraction. For me, the pagoda was a beacon of hope, a sign of Divine involvement and approval. My quest for freedom from homosexuality was now linked to a place I loved—Japan.
I was anxious pulling into the parking lot, and my heart raced as I pushed the call button announcing my arrival. I had created a mental image of Mr. Cook based on the few pictures included in the Ministry magazine interview. When he approached the glass doors, however, I found myself rapidly adjusting that image. Mr. Cook was shorter than I expected and very slim. I knew, from the interview, that he had a “gamy leg,” as he called it, due to childhood polio, but I had not given it much thought until that moment. As he limped toward the door, I did my best to hide any surprise. With a friendly reassuring smile, Mr. Cook opened the door and greeted me warmly in the British accent I was familiar with from listening to his tapes. As we chatted about my success in finding my way to the building, he guided me to the Quest offices.
The small modified apartment with tiny dark reception area and three counseling rooms didn’t match my expectations of a center that homosexuals were streaming to for help. As well, being late on a Friday afternoon, no one was there. After a few more introductory comments, Mr. Cook said that he had rearranged his appointments so he could devote more time to me. I was glad to hear this because I hoped to get as much information and help as I could in my short visit. As previously discussed, I would be staying at his home, but I would not be meeting his wife, Sharon, as she was out of town. Because it was already late, he suggested we eat out for supper.
As we drove through the streets of Reading in his car, I couldn’t help noticing a particularly attractive man walking on the sidewalk. With Mr. Cook sitting beside me, I felt very self-conscious about my spike in attraction. Whether he sensed my distress or just knew intuitively what I was probably thinking, he took the opportunity to lessen my distress. In a matter-a-fact way, Mr. Cook reached over and touched my arm and said, “He is a good-looking man, isn't he?” For a split second, I felt exposed—caught in the act. Then, an overwhelming sense of being unconditionally understood replaced any embarrassment and fear. Mr. Cook was not judging me. I didn’t cry, but I choked up behind a sheepish smile. That one gesture and comment communicated how deeply he understood my experience. Decades of isolation began to melt away; and as apprehension was replaced with trust, Mr. Cook became Colin.
In addition to long conversations over meals and walks in Reading parks, we had several hours of formal counseling. During those sessions, we focused on my family history, religious history, and my sexual history. We didn’t need to dig far into my family history to discover the purported cause of my homosexuality—my broken relationship with my father. That my mother had had to play a “dominant” role to bring order to the family was deemed another red flag. There was a strange comfort in believing I was a textbook case with respect to the cause of homosexuality.
There was a deep reservoir of pain below my experience that once touched brought up a flood of emotion. As each layer was peeled back, more tears were shed. The weekend wasn't all tears though; we often found things to laugh about. I was fascinated with his story—his victories and failures, and, of course, I was in awe of his marriage. Colin, too, readily shared details of his anguish and struggle beyond those outlined in the Ministry magazine interview. As we talked about faith and hope and what God in Christ could and would do for us, a deep bond developed between us.
Often, after our conversations, my head and body hurt from the emotional overload. Once, perhaps twice, after a marathon conversation, we stretched out on Colin’s living room floor while stereo speakers thundered out the soundtrack from the movie Chariots of Fire. With the room literally shaking from that Vangelis composition, I identified with the Scottish Christian who ran in the 1924 Olympics for the glory of God. I, too, was hoping to win a very personal race.
Although I anticipated going to church with Colin, I had not given it much thought until walking across the church parking lot. Then it hit me. Walking into church with Colin would indicate that I was most likely a counselee and therefore homosexual! My anxiety over being publicly outed was mercifully brief. After being introduced to several of Colin’s close friends, I felt more comfortable. Then curiosity took over. As if in a room of aliens masquerading in human form, I wondered who the other homosexuals were. Would I meet one? What were their stories? How were they progressing in their change experience?
I felt so affirmed sitting in church worshipping God while acknowledging my orientation. I had never felt this integrated before. I felt a sense of pride in my church. How wonderful, I thought, that the Seventh-day Adventist Church was capable of, and willing to, deal with this topic so openly and positively.
I left Reading on Wednesday. During the drive back, with Christian music tapes playing, my mood swung frequently. I was singing one moment and crying the next. I was happy and hopeful even if I harbored doubts about my ability to change. As I approached the Canadian border, my emotional high started to give way to anxiety again. I was determined to act on a recommendation of Colin’s as soon as I returned—tell my family about “my problem” and outline my plan to fix it.
I told my sister the evening I got back. Even though Marilyn was not the church-goer I was, I wasn't sure how she would react. The only comments she had ever made on the topic were based on a short stay in Toronto when she took a course in electrolysis. The location of the school put her near the heart of Toronto’s gay community. Many of her clients were either gay or transgender. She had not said anything derogatory; nevertheless, I felt uncomfortable telling Marilyn I was a member of “that” group.
In my attempt to work up courage, I asked her how shockable she was. How does one respond to that question? The question itself anticipates a shocking announcement. With the assurance that she wasn't too shockable, I faced the situation and came out with a simple but direct statement. “I have grown up with a homosexual problem,” I said. With the introduction over, I told her the reason for my trip to Reading. I also gave her a copy of the Ministry magazine interview to read or share if she knew anyone else “with the same problem.” The teacher in me was always ready to share new information. Even though Marilyn didn’t say much at the time, I felt heard and supported. What she remembers most from that evening was later thinking to herself that our lives would not be “normal.” By that, she meant there would be no girlfriends, no wedding, no nieces or nephews to look forward to.
The next night, I told my mother. Although mom was always compassionate, it was still difficult to tell her that her son was a homosexual. Sitting at the kitchen table once again, and relieved Marilyn was sitting in on that conversion, I broke the news. Once the details were out, Marilyn excused herself, leaving us to talk. Like with Marilyn, as if to soften the blow, I immediately told mom about Colin and Quest. My disclosure and brief comments about “the cause” seemed to make sense to her. “Considering our family dynamics,” mom said with tears in her eyes, “some negative outcome was expected.” It was difficult to watch mom cry, but I knew she wasn’t crying out of anger or rejection. Mom was expressing her disappointment over the pain dad’s drinking had created. She told me that I had often asked her if “daddy loved me.” She felt that dad had been cheated out of much joy for spending so little time with the family. In a moment of uncharacteristic self-disclosure, mom shared how she felt as though all the years covering their marriage had just dropped out of her life. In retrospect, I believe the ease with which she blamed dad was fueled by my explanation of the cause of homosexuality—a distant father. I did not bring up the subject of dominant mothers!
With two family members down, I turned my attention to my father. Although telling dad was going to be hardest of the three, he was the most important. If, as I was told, my homosexuality was caused by our broken relationship, mending that relationship would be the first crucial steps toward fixing my orientation.
That Friday evening, I hitchhiked the 50 kilometers to Almonte where dad was living. I planned to go to church and at some point over the weekend tell him. He was not home when I arrived, which was no surprise as he often came home late after drinking with friends. That fact notwithstanding, the house felt unusually quiet and empty. When mom moved out, the heart and soul of our home left with her. Without mom’s touch, the house seemed dark, even abandoned. Sleeping in my room that night left me feeling more melancholy than usual.
I was happy to be worshipping at my small childhood church that Sabbath. After my two-year absence, I was welcomed warmly. The friendly faces, the traditional hymns, and the familiar smell of old wood and paint on a humid summer morning was comforting. With all that was now unfolding in my life, there were moments when I wished I could just return to the innocence and naiveté of childhood. After church, there was plenty to chat about, but I said nothing about Quest.
Finding the right time and the perfect words to tell dad didn't come easy. Procrastination nearly won the day. It was not until 9 p.m. Sunday that I finally told him. With dad sitting ten feet away on the living room sofa with a half-smoked cigarette between his fingers, I finally threw out an awkward question. “Dad,” I asked, “if I said I was attracted to men, would you know what I meant?” Then, I waited in awkward silence. I didn't expect a profound response; neither did I expect anger or rejection. Dad was a blue-collar guy and had a simple philosophy of life that allowed for personal shortcomings which I had heard him repeat many times. “We are all born under the curse of the earth,” he would say, “and we just have to do our best.” This was always followed up with, “God's mercy is greater than His wrath.” After a longer than usual drag on his cigarette, he calmly said he knew what I meant. With that, I briefly told him about my situation and my visit with Colin. He listened quietly while rolling another cigarette.
When he did speak, he seemed more interested in the hows and whys of my experience than any urgent need to fix my problem. Dad then proceeded with a creative string of cause-and-effect ponderings. He wondered whether it might be “a glandular thing.” Perhaps it was because I had been shut away for too many years in dormitories at “those Adventist schools.” In the next breath, he noted how normal I had seemed as a child in that I always played with the girls! Expanding on his belief that too much religion can make people crazy, he put forward the notion that maybe too much religion had made me feel uncomfortable about loving a woman. I was taken off guard when he asked if I had ever “tried it” with a woman. While his question reduced my experience to a sexual act, I did not want to get into a lengthy clarification. I just answered, “No.” Even Japan entered the picture. Perhaps, he suggested, I had been affected by radiation left over from “those atomic bombs.” Dad also suggested there might be a hereditary reason, “from your mother's side,” he insisted. That theory annoyed me since my understanding put his emotional distance at the top of the cause list. I had no intention that evening, however, of exploring that detail with him. It was enough that dad now knew.
In general, my family took my revelation well. I know this is not the case for many LGBT Christians. My family was not disappointed in me or overly concerned about my salvation. I was the one who had difficulty with my orientation. Coming out to them was the best thing I could have done at that point in my life. It immediately changed our family dynamics. My disclosure permitted me to be less than perfect and more human, and I felt more authentic and connected to them and them to me.
At this point, it would be easy to assume that life was starting to look up for me. In truth, however, I had just returned from a parallel universe where things were not all as they seemed. If I were to stay with a strict chronology, I would do now as I did then—not share certain details about my first trip to Reading until much further into my story. I won’t do that this time. So, before continuing, I will return to my Reading visit.