Run of the mill coming out narratives usually consist of an adolescent realizing at some point that he is “not like the other boys.” And after bouts with crushes on friends, adventures in the world of pornography, a “bisexual phase,” and perhaps a period of deep depression or anxiety, he will eventually “come out of the closet” and reveal his “true identity” to those whom he deems worthy of knowing the “real me.” But run of the mill narratives are boring and reductive. What is my “true identity”? Who is the “real me,” the “queer me”? Those kinds of questions can become tiresome to anyone who has read the same story over and over.
Though I went through some of the same phases in the search for identity, my story is a bit different. Upon recognizing that I was queer, like many other queer youth, I felt that I was not “like the other boys.” But I was not very much like the queer boys that I saw (mostly in the media). I had a penetrating sense of my “otherness” and that I was “exceptional.” Perhaps this was a result of being raised as an only child for the first ten years of my life. I was deathly afraid of standing next to the others and blending in with them. I was determined to be different, even if that meant that I would have to feign being so when I turned out not to be so different from certain people after all.
What was the origin of this obsession with being distinct from the crowd and from needing to run away from anything that made me common? Why was adhering to the common queer narrative not queer enough for me?
When I first began to recognize my same-sex attractions, I went into a naive state of denial. I was only looking at pictures of topless men with pristine physiques because I wanted to “look like them,” not because I wanted to sleep with them. I needed to look at them as my motivation. And yet something in the back of my mind told me that was BS. One morning during the summer that I turned 15, the realization that this game of denial was futile hit me hard in the face. I was immobilized by imagining what such a realization could imply. So I started playing another game: the “bi-phase.” It’s a common sport that most gay young men take up at some point, as a “compromise” between their socially unacceptable gayness and a more acceptable heterosexuality. But this compromise struck me as more than just a development of the denial process. If I label myself as bisexual, then I am even more different from other gay people. I knew no other bisexual men, so this could be a new claim to even further exceptionality. I walked around with my undisclosed new sexual orientation with hubris and a hint of snobbery: “no one can touch me.” This became a recurring theme in my continuing coming out narrative, that I wanted no one else to touch my status.
But soon I realized that my bisexual phase was a ruse; nothing really clicked as I tried to make myself be aroused by flipping through the pages of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. Perhaps I should just throw in the towel and accept my fate as an average gay boy, a common place, fag-hag-loving, Beyoncé-worshipping, grindr-using, rainbow flag-waving gay boy. But my heart wouldn’t allow me to settle. My queer instincts knew that capitulating to the gay teen status quo would irreparably damage my image as the “special one.”
What’s next, I asked, as I looked out at the world in front of me, which became increasingly dull and repetitive. I wanted more, and nowhere that I turned was there anyone offering me what I was looking for.
Perhaps my moral conscience collaborated with my queer instincts to lead me to the next phase in my journey toward otherness: the moralistic Christian phase. I never grew up with much religion, just your average nominal Christian, church-attending-once-in-awhile fare. I always believed that there was a God, a rather impotent one though, who was mostly removed from mundane, everyday affairs. But two questions started to emerge as I finished high school: Is there something wrong with homosexuality? And, what is Christianity? According to my records, nobody else asks these kinds of questions. Gay people are either atheists, nominally religious, or “ex-gay” religious fanatics. So I decided I would be a “Side B” celibate gay Christian, because “who does that?”
When I came out to my parents, I refused to turn myself into the simple gay son who just wants his parents to “accept him as he is.” My coming out story would by no means be like any other gay boy’s story. I had to add some flare to mine. So I came out simultaneously as a boy lover and a Bible thumper. My parents (as predicted) were more scandalized by my moral reservations about my homosexual identity, precisely because they came from the Bible. Mind you, my parents, though occasionally attending church services, never owned a copy of the Bible. So hearing their son start referencing the Levitical purity code was rather alarming, more so than revealing to them my sexual orientation. In my book, I was racking up the points. I managed to break the mold of the normal by being queer and by not approving of it on grounds of scripture.
As I entered into the mystifying stage in life that was undergrad, I went on full speed in scandalizing my classmates by my exceptionality, which again, none of them could touch. I choose the perfect school to accomplish my goals: a Jesuit university made up of a student body and faculty who were radically progressive, and many of whom were gay men (at least 50% of the males on campus). I was determined to throw people off by my killer dance moves, my skinny jeans that “slayed all the other tricks” on the runway (that is, the hallway), and my visibly noticeable cross, my Bible in hand, and most importantly, my theology major.
I scoffed at the “gay-straight alliance” meetings, which of course was for the lgbt commoners. I laughed at our Campus Ministry’s attempt to attract students to an “affirming” lgbtqia+ spirituality group, which couldn’t seem to garner more attendees than that one Catholic gay kid who attends Episcopalian church services down the street and his supportive yet reluctant fag hag, who has apprehensions about him being involved with institutions that might be too “backward” to be “affirming enough.” (He was unsuccessful in convincing his atheist boyfriend to attend.) Meanwhile I would revel in my exceptionality, the queer kid who rejects the gay agenda and same-sex marriage. No one could touch me. I would laugh at the affirming allies who, out of their (mostly genuine, somewhat politically derived) care for me, tried to convince me that I “couldn’t be alone forever,” and that at some point I would need the loving embrace of a partner. I remained determined to reject the possibility of someone else touching my status (and in turn, my body) as a true queer purist, the queerest of the queers. And yet, reveling in my own glory did become perversely isolating.
In my sophomore year, I began getting bored with my new found religiosity, and with my “meta-pride” of being a celibate homosexual. My new world revolved around one person. This person, as exceptional as he was, was finding it difficult to draw upon resources to further make himself exceptional. This was when I first met an external manifestation of my “exceptionality complex.” I went on a retreat at which I encountered a Catholic student who followed a lay movement of the Roman Church. In a rather simple, somewhat inadequate way, he invited me to attend one of their meetings. Reluctantly, I showed up the following week. To my surprise, these people had something that I needed to get my hands on. I had never seen it before. I never heard people talk about life in such a way, in a way that I could not have fathomed myself. How did these people “be” in such a way that was truly exceptional, and that was beyond my grasps?! How is it that they understood my deepest questions about life and my desire for fulfillment? I needed to know. As I followed this need, this attraction to their exceptionality, I found myself entering the Catholic Church (about 6 months later).
My “official” conversion stood as a stumbling block for those I wished to scandalize, but also to myself. I was excited to tell my nominally religious family that I was entering the Roman Catholic Church. The more I made them uncomfortable and confused, the more points for me. But as I entered deeper into this new venture, I soon began to realize that I couldn’t sustain my own desire to be exceptional. The intuition I had before meeting these friends was indeed becoming true: I ran out of material. I could no longer scrape up the glitter that would make my life different from the rest; more queer, more other, more exceptional, than everyone else. And the more I delved into that delusion, the further I isolated myself from others. Yet my queer instincts, my need for otherness, would not die down. How could this tragic contradiction be reconciled? I needed to be different, I needed to be separated from that which is common, and yet I did not have the means to make myself so. Perhaps I was not so unique afterall.
But going back to the origin of my attraction to the Church, I remembered a group of people whose exceptionality drew me, compelled me, to follow them. If these were average, everyday people, if these were sinners, people who had limitations and interests and traits just like everyone else, what was it that was among them the first night that I met them? Perhaps what was so attractive was the Presence of something so exceptional among such mundane people and circumstances. And what was so authentic about them was their awareness that they could never make themselves unique enough, thus they were determined to give themselves over to that Presence — the embodiment of pure exceptionality and complete otherness.
What I’ve discovered is that the only way to live my queer sensibility, my need for exceptionality, is in a constant state of tension. I still feel the need to be distinct, to not let anyone touch my status. This manifests itself in a number of ways in my “queer Catholic” life. When I baffle my rather politically-oriented family with theological discourse which is beyond their comprehension. When people give me that quizzical look and that hesitant “huh, that’s…interesting” as they wonder if they really should try to make small talk and ask me where I’m pursuing my masters degree (as a lay student at a seminary). When I strut my way to the pew for the Tridentine mass, wearing my H&M skinny chinos and Topman cardigan. And when I reveal to a new friend that I experience erotic attractions to other men and choose to follow the example of John of the Cross or John Henry Cardinal Newman by offering said attractions to Christ-crucified during daily Mass.
And yet I do these things with an awareness that they themselves don’t really make me very special. I, in fact, am not so different from the rest. I have the same limitations, struggles, needs, and desires as any other person, whether queer, Catholic, straight, or atheist. My status as “exceptional” can be touched afterall. But it’s only after accepting this that I can receive the embrace of That which is truly exceptional and completely Other. Only in this embrace can I find the true fulfillment of my queerness.
photo credits: prayitno, cc; Imagens Evangélicas, cc; Lawrence OP, cc.
JULIAN ALVAREZ studied Religious Studies and Spanish Literature in Manhattan, and is currently pursuing his masters degree in Ethical Theology. His fields of interest include the convergence of Christian asceticism with contemporary questions of gender and sexuality, as well as dialogue between people of different faith traditions.