JOURNEY - CHAPTER 22
Adrift in Ottawa
BY JERRY MCKAY
At age 26, instead of entering a stable period of my life, I was moody, often distraught, and my behavior changed significantly. It didn’t help that I was unemployed, sleeping on a pull-out sofa in my mother’s small apartment, mourning the loss of a meaningful life in Japan, and facing an uncertain future. According to James 1:6, the person who doubts is like a wave on the sea that is driven and tossed about by the wind. While I was dealing with far more than doubt, in the fall of ’82, the text pretty well summed up my experience. When I wasn’t being tossed about, I felt adrift on a windless sea.
The only person who had any idea what I was going through was Colin Cook. We had regular contact by phone for informal counseling sessions, and ongoing discussions about my move to Reading. If I couldn’t work while in Reading, I would need financial sponsors. Although my parents could help, I wasn’t comfortable asking them for the thousands of dollars I would need for the year-long stay that Colin recommended.
Delaying the move in order to raise funds was frustrating, but I eventually found a job at a local convenience store. To ground myself further and create continuity with my life prior to returning to Canada, I wrote multiple letters to Japanese friends. I went to church—halfheartedly—and I tried to keep up my private devotions.
Because I had finished Colin’s series of tapes on homosexuality and change, I started listening to the series on the 14 Steps of Homosexuals Anonymous. Each step focused on some element that the writer intended to help me unearth my heterosexuality. While there was benefit in doing the personal reflection the steps called for, the constant self-examination left me feeling that I was little more than a struggling homosexual.
A journal entry from early October captured my state of mind.
“Today, while waiting for the bus, I experienced those chest pains again. I haven’t felt like this since I was in grade four, when I feared going to school and having to face a gang of bullies. Everything races at me, and I can’t take it. This afternoon I wanted to run away—not to be gay or straight—just run away. But, where would I go?”
Citing this journal entry is the perfect segue into a comment on journaling.
I journaled extensively. For the next two years, I hauled around a set of journals recording what I thought, felt, and did. Like an angst ridden teenager, I occasionally addressed my journal as if it were a friend. “You are the witness of an eternal spiral of confused and conflicted thoughts, feelings, and emotions,” I wrote, “a spiral that seems to have no beginning and no end.”
My journaling also played an important role in documenting my spiritual life.
When I tell people I prayed regularly, I know some are skeptical. There is an assumption that if I truly had an effective prayer life, my orientation wouldn’t have persisted. There were many days, of course, when my only prayer was a request muttered under my breath as I headed out the door. There were many other times, however, when I was very intentional about prayer. With either my head buried in my hands at the kitchen table or on my knees by the living room sofa, I talked to God at length. I recorded many of those prayers. By recorded, I mean a voice recording. Later, I transcribed them into my journals. Of the 300 pages I wrote that fall alone, over 50 pages are transcribed prayers.
I poured out my soul in those pages. I expressed my hopes, fears, frustrations, and anger. I prayed about and for the LGBTQ people I met. I told God how I felt about them and what I learned from them. I pushed myself to be as honest as possible about my behavior, even when it ran contrary to my beliefs and goals. I expressed my confusion whether I should move to Reading at all or return to Japan and forget everything. On those days when I doubted the possibility of change, or felt I didn’t even want to change, I voiced it to God and then put it on paper. When I was overwhelmed or discouraged, I recorded my praise to God in faith for a victory I had yet to realize, and then wrote it down.
So, when I am questioned whether I ever really came boldly to the throne of grace, I can honestly say, yes. And if the recording angels missed a prayer or two or heaven has lost the records—I still have my copy!
Speaking of prayer, I always enjoyed and benefited from the reflective dialogues I had with God. Now, however, I struggled over a negative side effect. “When I pray,” I wrote, “I get stuck in the middle where there is no one—absolutely no one—and damn it, it is a lonely, empty place.”
Prayer, like a good cry, often left me feeling content and at peace in the moment. In that momentary contentment, I didn’t feel I needed anyone. This benefited me when I was a child and I couldn’t count on my parents for emotional support. It worked throughout high school, college, and in Japan when loneliness was too much to bear. As time went on, those moments of contentment just seemed to mask the disconnect I felt from everyone around me. Prayer was always beneficial, but I increasingly felt it was a substitute for the hard work involved in initiating human connection.
My increasing need for human connection was, in part, what drove me out into the LGBTQ community—no matter the risk. And I saw this as a risk. Page eighty-seven of Journal One recorded my ambivalence. “I’m getting into more trouble, I think. Yesterday, I called the Gay Line and now have the address for the support group Gays of Ottawa.”
My first visit to 75 Lisgar St. took me well out of my comfort zone. For starters, the group met on Friday nights. This alone signaled a change in my behavior, and it bothered me. For the last decade, I had spent the beginning of the Sabbath worshiping with friends or giving Bible studies. I wasn’t going to a Bible-study this Friday evening. I was going to a meeting place for homosexuals.
From the door at the top of the stairs of the non-descript two-story building in center town Ottawa, I could see that the lights were low. The sound of muffled voices and contemporary music softly playing boosted my anxiety as I climbed the stairs. I wondered if I was about to enter a place where angels feared to tread. To guard myself from the possibility of deception, I told myself that I would find nothing there to help me; I would go there once to prove the point. I went back many times!
I don’t know what I expected, but I found nothing threatening—just a small group of people—like me—socializing in a safe place. The friendships I developed there opened doors to other social activities.
Because my orientation did not come prepackaged with life experience, my journey into the gay community was more of an education than the reader might expect. I did so with all the biases and misconceptions anyone might have. My ignorance fueled my fear, and my convictions made everything and everyone suspect. Often, I critiqued the community as a judgmental outsider.
Upon reflection, I know my discomfort wasn’t about associating with LGBTQ people. Rather, it brought me into situations I would never have taken part in, in the heterosexual world.
Dance clubs were foreign to me. I didn’t drink or listen to contemporary music. Restaurants, let alone bars, were not smoke free. I knew, as a health-conscious Adventist, that after a couple of hours in a bar, I had probably inhaled the equivalent of a pack or two of cigarettes. Yet, I went anyway.
As well, I couldn’t read an article in the community paper without explicit ads competing for my attention. Occasionally, I wanted to share an article discreetly with mom or Marilyn but dared not leave a copy on the coffee table.
My criticism was often unfair and said more about my struggle around my “identity” than what went on in the community. Even though heterosexual papers did the same thing—publishing news on the front page and pictures of women in swimsuits and ads for escort services on the back page—the ads for sex in the gay papers felt too close to home. Unlike my heterosexual friends, who never seemed affected by the questionable behaviors of people in their communities, I was sensitive to guilt by association. I felt everything done in the gay community said something about me personally.
The off-color and campy conversations among friends made me uncomfortable. Again, I was slow to realize that this suggestive banter was a way of owning our experience and releasing the unhealthy tension we carried from being labelled the abominations of the world. I remember, however, laughing with those friends over late night meals, from a place of authenticity I had rarely felt before. When with those same friends in the bars, the level of happiness I experienced surprised me. Even though I was more of a hyper observer than a participant, the contrast between the isolation I had known for years and the incredible sense of belonging I felt while moving about in a standing-room-only bar, filled with people like me, was comforting if not overwhelming.
Attending Gays of Ottawa events introduced me to some of our collective pain. One evening in late September, we watched the 35-minute documentary Pink Triangles. It focused on the persecution of gay people, including the atrocities that occurred in Nazi Germany. While I agreed with the beliefs expressed by some religious leaders about homosexuality, the degree of disdain they expressed took me back. I could feel the tension in the room as hurtful, even violent comments these people of faith made about us. I remember feeling more ashamed of being a Christian than of being homosexual.
On another occasion, we watched the documentary Track Two–Enough is Enough. It featured the 1978-80 raids of gay bathhouses in Toronto and the indiscriminate arrests of some 300 people. The treatment of the men by the police was disturbing. And again, the responses of some segments of the Christian community toward my people troubled me.
Each additional detail about the treatment of gay people came with an emotional and spiritual price. I was deeply affected by hearing openly what many Christians thought privately. This knowledge made it harder for me to feel safe with my church family. Knowing I belonged to a despised group was disturbing. I no longer felt as privileged as I had before and was afraid of what that might mean for me personally.
While I explored the LGBTQ community, I also pushed forward with my “change” goals.
Following a phone conversation with Colin, I assembled a small group of church members with whom I could review his tapes, ease my sense of disconnect from my church community; and help me with my personal growth.
In mid-November, I arranged a visit with a couple I had known for years. Sharing pictures from my life in Japan was a distraction from the real purpose of my visit, but it reduced my anxiety. Only when our visit was about to wind down was I able to find the courage to tell my friends why I really wanted to see them. My revelation naturally surprised them, but they were supportive. They promised to look at the material I left them—material Colin had written. They also recommended other church members who might join the group.
Two weeks later, five of us gathered for our first meeting. We listened to the first side of tape one, but we never discussed it in depth. I was more focused on sharing my story, and they were full of questions.
While meeting with the group over the weeks to come lessened my sense of isolation, I spent more time educating them about homosexuality than unearthing my heterosexuality. I talked a lot about Colin, but always edited out the questionable aspects of my first weekend visit with him. I spoke a lot about the “theory” of cause and change, but had little to share about any actual experience of change.
Another point on my to-do list for that fall was to “date” women. Following Colin’s counsel, I didn’t focus on developing a relationship. Rather, I simply opened myself up to heterosexual experiences. I kept an excerpt of Colin’s psycho-theological approach in my journal for easy reference.
“Count yourself not only dead unto sin, but alive unto God in Jesus Christ our Lord. When I [Colin] took that girl Barbara on the bike ride and kissed her in the field, what was I doing? I was reckoning I am alive to my heterosexuality in Jesus Christ. You don’t always feel it, but you go forward anyway. I just planned to take a girl out every week, visit with a girl every week—just visit. I had a plan—I would get to know them—I would really get acquainted with women because I am alive unto my heterosexuality.”
I combined this approach with a visualization exercise we had practiced during my visit to Reading. During one session, Colin tried to guide me through a visualization of a heterosexual experiences. Not a sexual act, just something as simple as unbuttoning the blouse of an imaginary or actual female friend and perhaps affectionately touching her. The visualization exercise didn’t go well, but I determined to keep trying because I believed this was a necessary step toward unearthing my buried heterosexuality.
Several journal entries from the fall of ’82 illustrate how I used Colin’s counsel. Even though I saw my actions as innocuous adventures in faith, I would slowly come to question the merit and ethics of “using” women in this way. My behavior—right or wrong—illustrates the lengths I believed I needed to take to achieve my goal.
September 17 – I went to the bank this morning and dared “look at” the women. By “look at”, I visually explored their physical features, even trying to imagine being intimate. I hoped that in doing this something of the heterosexual man I believed I was “by creation” would begin to emerge. “An interesting experiment,” I wrote, “but I’m not sure of any success.”
September 28 – I had my hair cut today—by a woman. At first, I didn’t want to converse with her. She persisted with questions, and I answered politely. I couldn’t help wondering how she saw me. Did she see me as a man – as a male? As Colin suggested, I responded in praise in the moment. Lord, I praise you for this momentary awareness of myself and this brief female interaction. Then I tried to relax and allow myself to “observe” the moment and enjoy it when she touched the back of my neck when she straightened my collar.
October 7 – Tonight, I watched a TV show about a couple in love. While it was appealing, it was foreign to me. There were moments when I felt less apprehensive than in the past about being with a woman—at least I think I did. When they kissed, it looked appealing. My Father, I praise you for this slight growth in my experience.
October 25 – Last night a girl asked me to dance. We had barely started when she grabbed at my stomach and pulled me very close. My first reaction was to push her away, but I didn’t. As we danced, she started to kiss me! As I thought about how I got into this predicament and how to get out of it, I remembered Colin’s counsel. Rather than stop, I allowed myself to use this “adventure” to explore my heterosexuality. She led and I followed. To my surprise, the experience wasn’t bad—although I don’t know what I expected. I mean, how different could a kiss from a woman be? When our dance was over, I wanted to run out and call Colin. I couldn’t focus on anything else for the rest of the evening. I had been French kissed by a woman in a gay bar! The Lord works in mysterious ways!
Besides my adventures in faith regarding women, I suppose I could say I also “dated” several male friends I met through Gays of Ottawa. I entered into these relationships intentionally, bringing each experience to God, recording them in my journals just as I had with my experiences with women.
While my story is not complete without such a confession, unfortunately, this conjures up graphic images in the public’s imagination about the “gay lifestyle.” An imagination, in my opinion, that often seems to be fed by watching gay pornography!
The tamest forms of intimacy were often the most powerful. When a male friend played with my hair or robbed my back while curled up watching a movie, my dopamine levels would go through the roof. While an internal conflict raged when intimacy went further, I couldn’t ignore how each experience stood out in sharp contrast to any experience I ever had with women. My encounters with men felt natural, whereas those with women felt unnatural, forced, and contrived. I struggled to believe that the touch of my female hairdressers could ever be as pleasant as that of a man.
Because I had walled myself in physically and emotionally for years, I was often unprepared for my bodily responses to intimacy. Once experienced, my soul cried out for more. Unfortunately, I allowed those powerful responses to intimacy to reinforce the “sex addict” thinking Colin had introduced me to and by reading David Wilkerson’s article on homosexuality and lesbianism in his booklet The Christian Maturity Manual. The idea of my being some sort of sex addict became a part of my internal dialogue where it fermented and delayed my psychological or spiritual healing.
I often hear the idea of sex addiction conflated with the discussion on homosexuality. When I do, I get the impression that those promoting the idea have never experienced meaningful intimacy; have grown tired of the complexities it creates, or have forgotten how they once craved it and thrived because of it. On a lighter note, my experience of intimacy helped me to understand why classmates, in high school and college, used to seek me out for counsel after a touch-filled evening left them overwhelmed. Contrary to what the reader might expect, most of my experiences were healing on many levels.
When I spent any amount of time with a friend, another problem emerged: questions about my work and studies inevitably came up. When I confessed that I had studied theology and been a missionary, more awkward questions would follow.
The most distressing questions were whether I went to church and what my plans were for the future. Questions about church and faith made me uncomfortable because of my conflict with being a believer, but homosexual in orientation and sexually active. I was never ridiculed for either because many of those friends felt the same way. In fact, friends often supported my spiritual pursuits and wanted to talk about spiritual things themselves.
Often, it seemed, God would show up when least expected. God didn’t show up to judge or condemn, but to start a conversation about faith! On one occasion, when a friend asked if he could go to church with me, even though it was on Saturday, I remember thinking to myself, “Really, God! You want me to witness now?” This irony speaks to God’s heart and where God’s priorities lie. Regrettably, even though I answered in the affirmative, I never kept those promises because I kept church and my orientation in separate compartments. On another occasion, when I didn’t feel like going to church, the same friend lent me a tie to insure I went!
The only time conversations about God and faith became awkward were when someone asked me what I felt about being gay. Not that these friends had no problems with being gay themselves; many did. It was just that when I shared the details of my journey, my beliefs on the subject, and hinted at my intentions to change, they would get caught up in the theology around sexual orientation and the abuses of the church toward LGBTQ people. Understandably, they felt the need to defend themselves, even with me. Their stories were painful, and the demons of spiritual abuse were legion.
So was the fall of ’82. Although I wasn’t sure how God was intervening in my life on a day-to-day basis, I felt I had evidence that someone was working very hard to keep me from sinking below the wind-driven waves of confusion and despair I often felt.
As with every year, 1982 ended with Christmas celebrations. Being able to spend Christmas with my family was an unexpected treat, and Christmas festivities with LGBTQ friends left me with a new appreciation of Sugar Plum Fairies! Although distracted by Christmas, I was well aware that a new year was approaching. Despite many uncertainties, I held great expectations for 1983.