Growing up as a young child, I never really got questioned about whether I liked boys or girls, nor was the possibility of having that option visible to me. It seemed pretty obvious to me at that young age that boys liked girls and girls liked boys, given how the people around me talked and the typical model that I was presented with. Reality was, that the "obvious truth" was simply an illusion that was created by a culture that assumes a cisgender heterosexual norm.
As I grew a bit older, many of my friendships were with female peers and a few select young male friends who seemed to have a similar affinity to being more emotionally open and not afraid to show affection. I would like to think I was an emotionally empathic child, often getting upset when I saw what I perceived as injustice. I would cry at my confusion as to why people were so mean to each other, and often wondered if there was anything I could do to help. I had a lot to learn at that time (and still do!), but somehow knew in my small body that people were being unfairly marginalized and I did not like it at all.
I remember the first time I was asked if I was gay. I didn't really have any concept about what that meant at the time, but the way it was asked led me to believe that it "couldn't be good", so I reflexively answered with a resounding "no"! I had, and have, a curious mind about things that I don't know. So I quickly, being the young child I was, investigated this new word "gay". Once I learned what it meant, I remember being a little bit surprised that I didn't know it before. But why would I? I wasn't taught it yet! I did recognize that I was in fact, not a young gay man. I was pretty certain that I was interested in girls, and had been crushing on them since Preschool, even if I would not admit it out loud. I also remember wondering why people treated it like it was some big deal, or used the word as an insult. People loving each other didn't seem like a bad thing to me. These observations went on throughout middle school, and I wrestled with my own insecurities about my emerging interest in dating and a felt lack of confidence in whether I would be of interest to the young women I had my eye on. This kept me publicly denying interest in anyone, and in me keeping my romantic interests internalized. Fast forward to High School...
My long time childhood best friend Joel and I were on countless occasion either assumed to be, or asked if we were, in fact a gay couple. It seemed as though there was little room for the possibility that two young men could have a really close friendship that included emotional connection, spending much of our free time together, and a lack of inhibition in expressing or showing affection in public! This experience helped to solidified for me the reasons why I was drawn away from a more restricted version of what was seen to be "manly" or "masculine". Joel and I would mostly laugh at the questions or the assumptions and simply answer with a "no, we aren't". At times, we would even play around with people's uncertainty and ask a question back like, "would two men having sex with each other automatically count as gay?" We never quite answered their questions, but it was obvious that the return question caused further uncertainty, question, or assumption. By this point in time, I had a few friends who I knew were gay and/or lesbian. I started to become aware that while for me the questions didn't feel threatening, that I experienced it differently than my friends. For some of them, it was quite scary. Their identity was either being attacked, or the acknowledgement of who they were posed a threat to friendships, family, and even personal safety. This was my privilege as a straight white male. Another positive influence on my learning about the diverse way in which gender and sexual orientation presented itself in other people, was Joel's mother's close friend Dominic. Dominic would often be over at his house, and on a few occasions we all went out to dinner together or to a Karaoke bar, where Joel and I would butcher a song or two together. (Don't fret, we are still known to get on the Karaoke microphone, albeit a bit more vocally skilled). Dominic was the first known personal relationship I had a with a transgender woman, and I still look back fondly at the way in which she helped to shaped my personal awareness of gender variation.
College years for me continued to build my awareness and offered new and unique lessons about the variance that is seen in human expression of sexuality. Being at a university that housed many intelligent individuals, the discussions around conceptual awareness and issues of social justice were fairly common place in my circle of friends. As it seemed to be, I once again found that I easily befriended individuals who were a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. My journey included beginning my undergraduate studies in Biomedical Engineering to landing in the study of Psychology, and thanks to a couple of my professors and mentors, I was more and more decidedly going to pursue a careen in Clinical Psychology. Additionally, given my own experiences and the difficulties that I saw, I recognized that I wanted to work with individuals who were typically under-served. With a bit of work, and probably a bit of luck, I found myself in graduate school.
Masters and Doctoral training (and especially my Doctoral work at Wright State University - School of Professional Psychology [SOPP]) included a great deal of focus on developing greater awareness around a multitude of cultural variables. One of the most important experiences that I had in relation to the title and content of this blog post was our Multi-Cultural Immersion assignment. I have heard of other programs doing a small scale cultural immersion, where individuals are supposed to attend an event that is with a group different than them. Our program required us to become a member of a group, or to attend events of a group, for an entire year. That assignment was the catalyst for how I became the first (and as far as I know, still the only) straight man to be a regular attendee and member of a Dayton Ohio Gay Men's Support Group. At that point in my career, I knew that I wanted to work with the LGBTQIA+ population, and wanted to have more experiential knowledge than I could get from reading. Joining the group was a way to get that.
My initial joining was predicated upon a full disclosure to the group leader as to who I was, why I wanted to join, and a question as to whether the group would be okay and comfortable with having a straight man in attendance. I was assured by the group leader that while it had never happened before, that I was very welcome to attend. With a little wonder as to how I would be received, I attended my first group meeting a week later.
Finding my way to the center where the meeting was taking place that evening was not too difficult. I got there early so that I could introduce myself to the group leader. He was very welcoming and friendly, seemingly excited to have a straight allied male in the group. I sat down and waited as other group members arrived and took their seats around the circle, many of them noticing the new member of the group and saying hello and introducing themselves by their name. The group leader kicked off the meeting by thanking everyone for coming in, and then invited people to introduce themselves to make sure everyone knew each other. As the introductions around the circle started, I found myself suddenly nervous. At first I wasn't sure why I got nervous all of the sudden. I was pretty clear as to why I was there, and with who I am. But what was pulling on me was the feeling of being different than the men who were there. They all shared something that was connecting and I was different. I felt the risk of being rejected or not welcome based on who I was attracted to. I worried about if my presence there was going to lead to them feeling uncomfortable. I wondered if I would be questioned about my sexuality. And I knew that I was going to have to come out to these men! First group, and my immersion experience put me directly in line with the types of thoughts and feelings that I had heard from my friends and clients. There was of course, one big difference. Group was a safe space for them, where the world gave them what I was experiencing. The world didn't give me that, and group was a tiny taste. So I came out.... "My name is Brian, this is the first time I have attended group, and I am a straight man who is here because I am passionate about working as an ally in the LGBTQIA+ community"....
I was welcomed! And... I was questioned and challenged. "What are you here for again?", "Are you sure that's why you are here?", "I tried to pass as straight when I was younger too, it's ok if you question or aren't ready yet." All valid questions, and it started to have a different kind of reflection about the ways in which I thought about my own sexual identity and how protected I really was in having to reflect on how I knew that I knew myself. I learned a lot from my participation in that group. I had to come out each month, to the same men, and to different ones. Each time there was some brief discussion, questions, comments, etc. But I also felt welcomed each time, whether I was a straight ally or there to explore, they were glad I was there. I learned much more in that group than I can write in this blog post, and I am so very thankful that I was honored with being a part of that group. Their willingness to have me as a part of their group discussions allowed more learning than any book could give.
There is plenty more work to do, and the way I see it, growth and learning is never done. Each moment has an opportunity to grow and learn about yourself, and truly joining with others can open eyes to many things. I will continue to come out, and to grown in my own personal understanding of who I am and who others are. Thanks for reading!