Rex’s Essay: Abiding
“You will never be a real man.” The words stung and, incredibly, I believed them.
I don’t know if every boy wonders about his own masculinity, but I always did. My father abandoned my mother when she was pregnant with me.
For the first three years of my life, I was raised by women. My mother had to work to support us and my aunt took care of me, along with my grandmother. The only man in my life was my uncle, but he was gone to work a lot. When he was home, I didn’t get a lot of his attention.
In those first years, I probably didn’t think much about whether I fit in with other males. I didn’t see many other males. My only playmates were my cousins who were close to my own age and lived next door.
My mother remarried and wanted to take me away from her sister, but was resisted. She snatched me away under a pretext of taking me to buy new clothes and I was off into my new life with a new stepfather.
My stepfather was as opposite from my mother’s female relatives as a man could be. He had been a boxer in the military. He was a dairy farmer and tougher than the mean old bull out in the field.
I don’t think he ever really took to me, at least not until I was an adult with my own children. I felt like he tolerated me out of a sense of duty to my mother, but I was not the kind of boy he wanted as a son. His own son, who was far more inclined towards stereotypical masculine interests worked hard to live up to his father’s estimation of what a man should be, and routinely failed.
I often heard my mother and stepfather talk about how fortunate it was that they got me away from my aunt when they did, before I was permanently what my step-dad called a sissy. However, it was not just his opinion that gave rise to my doubts about myself. I knew that I liked different things than my male classmates liked. So many times, when I would try something new and couldn’t do it right away, I harshly judged myself.
At school, I was terrible at all sports. There was no one teaching me how to throw a ball. It was a completely foreign idea that a father taught these things to boys. I thought they came naturally to boys who were destined to become real men.
The Deadliest Stroke
The deadliest stroke to my hopes of being masculine came from the male family member who sexually molested me over a period of about six years. As most predators do, he had to keep me quiet. So, in addition to the usual menacing and blaming that perpetrators inflict on their victims, I was told I would never be a real man. Everything he taught me as a young boy stuck with me. All of his threats terrified me long after he was gone out of my life. I carried the shame of what I believed to have been my fault for years. Worst of all, I practiced what he taught sexually me with my friends.
My mother did notice that at around the age of thirteen, I grew up all at once. She said in later years that she remembered that my voice changed from boy soprano to basso profundo one afternoon. She also noticed that I was no longer a boy in my attitudes and approach to life. My childhood was gone, wiped out by abuse and being sexually precocious as the result.
I felt grown up. I was doing grown up things. I just wasn’t sure that what I had grown up to be was a man. I didn’t think I was a woman either. I missed some mark and wasn’t sure where I landed.
For years, I fought a constant battle of making promises to God, backsliding, and making more promises. I stopped going to church, but I never stopped believing, especially in prayer. One summer night, when I turned sixteen, I had a powerful prayer experience, where the Lord and I made a deal that he would give me the strength to change my behavior and leave those things behind me.
As part of the deal, I had promised to go back to church. I had not been active in the Church since I had been ordained a deacon. I resolved to grow in the Church rather than grow farther away from it. One thing that I did not think to ask for was that my attraction to males be taken away.
Rejoining the Saints
One thing stood in my way of keeping my promise to rejoin the saints. I knew I had to talk to a bishop about my behavior before I could feel comfortable in church. My family moved so much that I didn’t know the bishop. My mother was active, so he probably knew of me, but since my mother didn’t know of my same-sex attraction, she could not have told him about it.
Also, I did not have the same last name as my mother, so I thought it possible that I was not known to the bishop at all, not even by name. These suppositions kept me from picking up the phone and making an appointment. Every time I thought about it, I decided to wait a while and find my courage.
Around this time, my mother was talking about me to her fellow workers in the Young Women’s program. One of the women decided she would call me and invite me to a joint activity with the young men. She was so friendly and inviting that it made me anxious to get the inevitable bishop interview done. I could not make it to the activity she talked about, but I promised her she would see me at church and activities soon. I didn’t think it was unusual for me to have been invited to a youth activity by a leader of young women. It wasn’t about my own sense of masculinity. It was about my estimation of the differences between men and women.
Since the only males in my life had been nothing but disappointing to me and the women in my life had always taken such great care of me, I had the bias that men were to be feared and women would protect and care for me. Men were bad. Women were good, and I wanted to be good.
I’m sure my reluctance to call my bishop was related to this same prejudice. If it had been a woman I was supposed to call, I probably would not have procrastinated it so long.
I wasn’t sure when church meetings started. It was back in the days before the block meetings, so I chose mid-morning Sunday to call the bishop’s office. I figured I had a pretty good chance of reaching him then. I was afraid to talk to anyone else.
A clerk answered and said the bishop was in Sunday School opening exercises and would be back in the office later. I left my name and phone number and waited. After what seemed like hours, the bishop called. I told him who I was and that I wanted to see him.
He invited me to come on the weeknight activity night and meet with him. I showed up, having rehearsed over and over how I was going to explain my behavior and tell him that I hoped I would be welcome. He sat me down and I told him that I had not been to church since I was a deacon. I began to tell him what I had been doing and he stopped me.
He said that he was just happy that I wanted to come back. He asked me how long I had been free of whatever it was I wanted to tell him about. I told him it had been several months, the truth. He invited me to stay for the youth activity and to come to church. I told him I would be at every meeting where I was expected.
Ignorance Was Not Bliss
In the years that followed, I was successful at ignoring my same-sex attraction. I got married and started a family. In my head, the temptations to return to my former behavior never ceased. I fought a constant battle of thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it degraded into behavior that, though it was not immoral itself, placed me in situations where immoral behavior could happen.
I was plagued by all of the same doubts about my masculinity that I had as a child. The fact that I was successfully married and fathering children was not sufficient. I compared myself to all men, and in my own estimation, was inadequate.
I got work in a warehouse and I was excited by the idea of having such a traditionally masculine job. It wasn’t long before I started getting a few muscles. Daily, I pulled a pallet down a long row of tall shelves and loaded it up with fifty-pound bags of grains and other foods. I thought I was really going to arrive at masculinity when I learned to drive a forklift. I conveniently ignored the fact that the other driver in the warehouse was a petite woman.
One day, I was standing on the dock when a van pulled up with a case of cash register tape to deliver. I bent over to lift it up onto the pallet. I felt a twinge in my back and straightened up. I didn’t notice anything wrong and finished my shift.
After an uncomfortable night’s sleep, I went to get out of bed and could not move. I was beyond sore. The lower part of my back would just not operate in a way that would let me get out of bed without waves of pain going across my back and down into my leg.
Even though lots of men in warehouse work hurt their backs, I was certain that this meant that I truly was inadequate as a man. Real men, I reasoned, would not get hurt like I did. Much of this attitude came from my stepfather. I remember once when he cut his knuckles while working on a fence. He just kept working, blood dripping down his hand and into the dirt. I would have immediately gone looking for a first aid kit and postponed finishing the fence.
For three years, through countless visits to doctors and physical therapists, I tried to be able to work again. I had office jobs, but couldn’t sit for more than a couple of hours before the pain would become intolerable. There was no way to be comfortable at home either.
We fell behind in our rent and utility payments. Though I had a valid worker’s compensation claim, the insurance company was unscrupulous in their treatment of me. I endured many trips to court to secure my rights. In the interim time, we lived desperately trying to keep our family fed and sheltered.
I remembered how my stepfather would never have let a woman pick something up if he was nearby. It was a man’s duty to pick things up for women. Our children were young. I could not lift a car seat. I could only hold a child in my lap if my wife lifted him or her for me, and then only briefly. I wasn’t able to help around the house or do projects. If I had something in my hands and it fell, my wife had to pick it up for me. These circumstances only deepened my sense of my own deficiencies as a man. I had invested so much of my sense of self-worth in having a well-paying job that paid the bills and made me feel manly that when I could no longer do that kind of work, I was certain that it was because what my abuser said was true. I would never be a real man. After dozens of visits to chiropractors, physical therapists, acupuncturists, and massage therapists, a surgeon examined me and said he felt I would be helped by a procedure that would remove some of the bone from the back of my spine. After much strife in the courts, I won the right to have the surgery.
I had a quick recovery and was able to sit comfortably, though I would never be able to do hard manual labor again. I was retrained as a computer programmer and able again to meet my family’s financial needs. Some of my self-esteem began to return, but I continued to be uncertain about my manhood.
The Healing Begins
I was called to be the Scoutmaster in my ward. Now there was a manly calling if ever there was one. I had doubts about being able to do it physically, but I was happy to find that putting a heavy pack on my back not only didn’t hurt, it seemed to help. A support that pressed against the lower part of my back seemed to relieve any pressure. I poured my soul into my calling and made friendships that have lasted now for almost twenty years. I still keep in contact with many of the young men I served. My years as a Scoutmaster were some of the happiest I ever experienced.
During that time, I also joined a gym. Through the guidance of a professional personal trainer, I learned how to strengthen myself without aggravating my back problems. I remember one day standing in front of a large mirror working with weights. I saw the muscles in my shoulders and arms and thought, “There’s a real man.”
Sadly, in my day-to-day life, I could not retain that feeling. The company I worked for closed down. I was the last employee out the door, because I was the only one who understood the systems they owned the rights to.
My search for a new job again shook my confidence. No employer seemed to want me. There was a recession going on and jobs were scarce. For several months, we lived on unemployment benefits and occasional contract work I could find. I sunk again into uncertainty about my worth and value as a man.
Some of my old risky behaviors returned. I found myself wanting the company of a man. I still held the notion that another man could somehow instill manhood in me by associating with them. I felt inadequate by myself, but somehow more complete if a man was attentive to me.
I did not usually know if such men also struggled with same-sex attraction. Part of me hoped they did. I became flirtatious and emotionally enmeshed. I felt myself on a course back into the lifestyle I had left so many, many years before.
When one man responded to my advances and let me know he was willing, I pushed him away and realized I needed help. Things got so bad that I felt I needed to start actively seeking some kind of support before I ruined my life, my marriage, my family, and my church membership. I found a support group locally for Latter-day Saint men like myself. I wanted to attend, but I felt that before I could tell total strangers, I had to tell my wife.
It went well. She was sympathetic and supportive. It helped that I didn’t have to tell her I had been unfaithful. She felt I should talk to the bishop. I felt so too, even without any serious sin to confess.
Over the next few weeks, I met with my bishop. It was all so foreign to him, but he tried to be supportive. His idea of being supportive was to be preachy and give advice. One such piece of advice was that I should try not to accept this same-sex attraction thing as my identity, the only thing that I was. Whenever I left his office, I didn’t feel much of anything. I wasn’t upset at him, but I really didn’t feel helped either.
My wife asked me during that time how long all of this was going to take. I couldn’t give her a satisfying answer. She came to my next bishop appointment where he asked me the same question, at my wife’s urging. I told them both that I suspected that there was a good chance I would always deal with the feelings of attraction to men. I assured them that I was confident, having a support system in place, that they did not need to worry about my behavior.
More counsel and scriptures followed. At one point in the meeting, I said that I often did not feel like a man. The bishop was quiet a moment. I saw him fight back tears. He told me how sad it made him to hear me say that. In the time he had known me, he had seen me as a strong, confident, and competent man. He recounted the time I had spent as Scoutmaster and then as Young Men’s President and how much he appreciated my insights in Priesthood Executive Committee meetings. He spoke of me as a husband, father, and ward member. By the time he stopped, I was a puddle of water in my chair. My trust in him grew a great deal that day. His words felt supportive. I felt I could tell him everything. I believed I had his respect.
In that session with my bishop, I think I know what was going on in his heart when I told him I often did not feel like a man. I believe he felt pangs of confronting his own sense of inadequacy in his calling and in his efforts with me. In that moment, what I said struck a chord in him and it overcame him. In the silence that followed, he most likely prayed for guidance to say the things I needed to hear, perhaps even the kinds of things he would have wanted to hear if he struggled the same way.
Another reason I wanted to see the bishop was because I had heard about a mode of therapy that held out the promise that by taking certain steps in my life, I could diminish or eliminate my powerful attractions to men. It sounded much like what I had already been trying in seeking men to be my friends and provide me with support. The only difference was, I could get the assistance of a therapist in doing it.As good as it sounded to me, I still had reservations. At that time in my life, I had been married eighteen years without any serious behavior that would threaten my marriage or standing in the Church. I had obeyed without ever really getting the recommended needs for male bonding met. It is true that it was difficult, but entirely possible to keep doing that.
Nevertheless, therapy that would help me learn how to meet my needs regarding men was worth a try and my bishop was willing to assist me by referring me to LDS Family Services. Another thing happened around that same time. My work informed me that I would be required to transfer to an office in another state for five months. It made no sense to pack up my family and make them go with me.
I would be allowed to travel there every week. My weekly routine became that I would go to therapy at LDS Family Services on Monday morning. From there, I would go to the airport and fly to my work. I would be away Friday after work, when I would fly home.
This was a frightening prospect for me. At a time when I felt myself slipping over the edge in resisting temptation, I was not only being taken away from any prospect I had for forming appropriate and lasting male friendships, but would be away from my wife and children.
I fortunately found a support group that was a ninety-minute drive from my hotel and began attending that. It still left me with three nights a week in a strange city with no friends or family. I felt profoundly lonely in my life before that and it became almost unbearable.
It turned out that my therapist was not experienced in the area of helping men who struggle with same-sex attraction. His ideas did not match the mode of therapy I had heard about. He spent a lot of time helping me with my issues as an abuse survivor. It was very insightful, but I kept wondering when he was going to help me identify a man who would help me meet my needs and thus reduce my desperate desire to be involved in sexually sinful practices.
That desire was magnified ten-fold in a strange city where I could not get it out of my mind that I could do as I pleased and no one back home would ever know. Rather than addressing the issue of things I might do, my therapist preferred instead to focus on current behaviors of concern.
The most difficult of these was the time I wasted every day at work putting myself in a position to look at and objectify men. The facility where I worked was huge. It had its own cafeteria where you could order a lunch and eat it. Day after day, I went there early and sat with my lunch, watching men.
I was not fantasizing about sexual encounters with the men I saw. I was comparing myself to them, judging myself and them in all of the ways I thought they were better than me. They were better than me physically. They were confident, competent, and manly.
As my time away from home lengthened, so did my time in the cafeteria. I worked mostly alone in a far-off corner of the facility, away from the team I worked with. I started going to lunch earlier and earlier and staying longer and longer.
I brought this up with my therapist. He taught me about the ugly messages of abuse and helped me understand that they were lies. I finally confronted the statement that I would never be a real man. After all I had been through, the hard-bought spirituality, the years of striving to do what is right, the times of poverty, the hard work in my callings, and the affinity I had for the Lord, I had done all along what good men do. I was not only a man; I was a good man.
I had endured my life with courage and faith. I was fortunate and blessed to have come through it all so well. My therapist truly admired me. I didn’t need a mentor. What he told me in that last session has been the defining theme of the rest of my life. He told me that self-esteem does not come as a result of the feedback of others. It comes from within as a gift of the Spirit.
One scripture settles the question for me: “But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him” (1 John 2:27).
I know I have great need of family and friends for support. Life is not meant to live alone without help. Yet, I am convinced that my sense of my worth comes from the knowledge I have that my Savior suffered, bled, and died for my sins and to give me the opportunity for eternal life. I don’t need a man to make me feel good about my own manhood. What I thought I lacked has been abiding in me through all of the trials and will remain with me as long as I give it a place in my heart.