JOURNEY - CHAPTER 23
"Robert & Reading"
BY JERRY MCKAY
I assumed 1983 would bring change, but I didn’t expect it to begin on January 1st.
After New Year’s dinner with some of my mother’s friends, I felt restless. Socializing with people who knew nothing of my present experience made me tired. I called a friend and went out.
Everyone was still celebrating the New Year at bars and clubs. In contrast to the New Year’s dinner, I didn’t mind being in these standing-room-only crowds of strangers. That I was in a gay bar was not lost on me; nor that I found the environment comforting. My restlessness from earlier subsided. The music, while a bit hypnotic, didn’t prevent me from drifting off in thought. Since I hadn’t left God standing at the entrance of the bar, I chatted with God about what was going on around me and about my hopes for the New Year. When not musing about unearthing my heterosexuality, I was watching people.
As the evening progressed, one guy captured my attention. Occasionally, our eyes met long enough to acknowledge each other’s existence. I liked what I saw. Men in beards held a special appeal. As the story goes, I eventually approached him from behind, tugged on his belt loop, and said hello. Conversation was impossible in our present location, so we eventually left the bar for a restaurant. From the restaurant, we went to his place. I stayed the night.
Robert was a shy 30-year-old federal government employee who had only recently moved out of his parents’ home. No one in his family knew of his orientation. Robert was not a worldly wise homosexual. The opposite was the case. In the five months I had been in Ottawa, I had learned more about the gay community than he had in all the years he lived and studied in Ottawa. It was only a New Year’s resolution fueled by loneliness that motivated him to go out that evening.
That Robert “took me in” so easily was a surprise. His only explanation was that he very quickly felt very comfortable with me. By the 10th of January, he had given me the keys to his apartment and invited me to come and go as I pleased. I immediately moved between mother’s apartment and his.
Spending so much time with Robert was obviously inconsistent with my convictions and goals. I believed I was crossing the line from sporadic sin to permanent sin; from occasional sexual “falls,” of which I could repent, to the supposed greater evil of a committed relationship. Despite my convictions, my actions were in line with a desire to experience a relationship even though “relationship” was a rather premature term to use, given my situation.
Because I was intentional about what I was doing, I was also an observer of my experience. My journal entries record the joy and conflict that came with my decision. And, as I had been doing up to that point, I determined to keep my thoughts and actions open to God. Several entries were as prayers.
“My Father in Heaven,” I wrote, “In the past ten days, I have felt warmth and happiness. The happiness is not without conflict because I cannot accept a homosexual relationship. I cannot accept it because I believe it is ’confusion,’ and not the identity you intended me for.”
The sentiments in my prayer reflect a rhetorical question Colin had asked me to consider weeks earlier. “Now that my guilt is gone—now that the fear is gone—what reason is there for leaving the H identity?”
The absence of fear and guilt that Colin spoken of was based on the gospel—the Good News that “in Jesus” I had access to the unequivocal and irrevocable gift of forgiveness. That meant I was free to live, move, and breathe without guilt or condemnation. The caveat, Colin emphasized, was that while there was no condemnation for my homosexual falls, I must not get stuck in homosexuality. I must use this grace-filled space to persist in my pursuit of unearthing my heterosexuality. This would represent my faith in action.
Even though I believed I was not glorifying God in pursuing this relationship with Robert, I could not deny that being able to share with another—in word and physical expression—the things I imagined a relationship should afford was, in fact, emotionally and psychologically healing.
Although I never told Robert, I remember the moment a shift occurred within me. We were standing in the kitchen shortly after he returned from work one evening. During a simple embrace, I felt barriers coming down. While I’m not sure if I was letting Robert in or I was letting myself out, I had never felt the degree of “coming to rest” with someone like that before—not with my parents, Donna, or any other human being. It was a transformative moment and confusing. True to form, I analyzed that experience for weeks.
For Robert’s part, the poor guy had no idea who he had taken in. I was about as foreign to him as one could be. Robert knew nothing of Adventism let alone my inseparable relationship with the church and my experience of it—Sabbath keeping, vegetarianism, my years in Adventist boarding schools, my studies in theology, and four years of mission service in Japan. And of course, he knew nothing about Colin Cook and my two recent visits with Colin. After telling Robert, within a week of meeting him, about Colin and my plans to move to Pennsylvania in order to take part in the Quest Learning Center “change” program, I don’t know why he didn’t show me the door, but he didn’t.
Robert did not relate to my spiritual conflict over my orientation. Not that he was comfortable being homosexual. He, too, felt the angst associated with being so out of step with family and the rest of the world. He loved his father and had a good relationship with him, but he carried an unspoken scar. Robert told me how his dad would repeat the story of “clocking a guy in a washroom” once for propositioning him. There was an obvious message of disgust for such people in his comment. Robert was also well aware that, as an employee of the government of Canada in 1983, his career would be over in an instant if they discovered his orientation. At the time, in addition to being seen as a moral weakness, the government considered homosexuals at high risk for blackmail. Despite all of this, Robert had determined to accept the state in which he found himself—a state he had not chosen—and to make the best of his life with dignity.
My “relationship” with Robert did not derail my plans to go to Quest for counseling. I communicated regularly with Colin, including telling him about Robert, and I continued to meet with the support group I had started the previous fall.
After the break over Christmas and New Year’s, the wife of the couple who hosted the support group called to tell me that the others in the group were ready to meet again, listen to Colin’s tapes, and chat. During that call, she seemed nervous. When she told me she had been doing some research, I got nervous. I feared she had been reading the Adventist Health Encyclopedia: You and Your Health or had got hold of a copy of the Christian Maturity Manual! If that were the case, I understood where her nervousness came from. She didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t ask.
To be honest, I was half-heartedly interested in continuing with the group. Through no fault of theirs, I felt I was doing more educating about homosexuality than recovering from it. In retrospect, I probably did more to reinforce stereotypes about homosexuality and instill the idea that orientation can be prayed away. Yet, I agreed to meet a few more times.
While I appreciated the fact that she had taken the time to call, her last comment annoyed me, even angered me. She reminded me that the “signs of the times” all pointed to Jesus’ soon return and that we needed to prepare. It annoyed me enough to write about it in my journal. “PREPARE,” I wrote in all caps. “What a word! How do I prepare?”
Although her comment was well-intended, I felt it dismissed my faith experience. I was trying to be as intentional about and responsible for my choices and actions as sincerely as I could be while remaining in open dialogue with God—a posture which my church community had encouraged me to practice since childhood. In her comment, I also heard the echo of an anxious theology that stubbornly persists in many churches; a theology, I believed, I was called to reject.
I also heard the implication that God had no idea what I was going through, and that should Jesus suddenly return and I were still homosexual, things might not go well for me. It was difficult enough for me to manage my conflict and fears let alone take on the anxious projections of others. I believe my visceral response was the Spirit’s rejection within me of the suggestion I should fear my Savior’s return.
I hoped Jesus’ return wasn’t around the corner. Not because I was unprepared and afraid, but because I didn’t want to be robbed, in the here and now, of experiencing the miracle of unearthing my heterosexuality. Despite all the confusion and angst I was experiencing, there was an underlying anticipation of healing.
Because I still expected healing, the theme of women continued to preoccupy me. I constantly compared every experience I had with Robert to what I hoped to experience with a woman. Sometimes my efforts created hope, but more often the vision failed me.
I have touched before on how people were eager to encourage me in my pursuit of healing—like those in my support group. People shied away from knowing what that actually meant for me in practice. To walk in my shoes, one had to move beyond squeamish religious sensitivities and journey with me into what I did, hoping to reach my objective.
On January 18, for example, I asked myself a list of questions. Could I just sit with a woman for hours, do nothing and enjoy her company? Of course, I knew I could do that much. Donna and I had done that so many times. Could I have held Donna’s hand? Yes, I was sure I could have. Doing so would have had a very platonic feel to it, however.
Then I escalated my exercise in imaginary physical intimacy. Could I come up behind her in the kitchen perhaps and affectionately put my arms around her? What if I touched her breasts? Could I bathe with her, I wondered? When my “could I” questions progressed to the bedroom, my imaginings went limp.
Reciprocal “could I” questions were just as difficult. Contemplating receiving a woman’s affection was as much of a challenge for me, perhaps even more so, than thinking about initiating affection. It was one thing for me to imagine exploring a woman’s body with desire; it was another thing altogether to imagine her touching me.
Two days after recording these imaginings, I glanced through a Hustler magazine at a local drugstore, hoping to further elicit an illicit heterosexual response. After my Hustler exposure, I wrote. “I feel more comfortable with the female body now, and I think my fear has lessened. I look through these magazines via the freedom I have in Christ.” But then I added, “While looking at some pictures, I had a sudden sense of dread and an overwhelming rejection of the female body. I try not to panic and move beyond these responses in faith.”
There are several verbs in this entry that say more about my experience than what most would notice. I often used phrases like I feel, I think, I sense, I believe, and I perceive. They didn’t describe any actual change—just what I was hoping for. When the contrast between “sensing and perceiving” collided with my experience, anger and frustration would emerge. Spending time with Robert elevated my awareness of this conflict.
“Robert drove me to the apartment as usual.” I wrote in late January. “We held hands as he drove. Inside his apartment, we embraced and kissed affectionately. I felt comfortable except for the nagging conflict that this is not right. It makes me angry at God—I don’t feel that I caused this “orientation.” This is just the way I am. I am not comfortable with the level of anger I feel. I want to hit something. I feel I am being forced to do what I can’t do. Why can’t I just express my love and affection to this man? Instead, I feel pressured to love someone I feel nothing for. I am sorry I ever wrote to Colin. I am confused again—angry and confused. One minute I am ready to fight for what I believe, and the next I get angry. Damn it—I want to lash out. I couldn’t give a damn about eternity. As Robert waits on the sofa for me to sit with him, all of this races through my mind. I smile at him. I am exhausted.”
With February came several events that pushed me further toward my objective of moving to Reading. First, I received a letter from Japan.
At the request of the Far Eastern Division and the Japan Union English Language Schools, the Appointees Committee of the General Conference voted to pass on to you their request for you to serve for a two-year period on a special service basis….
It was affirming to know Perry had initiated this request, given my status. Many wouldn’t have done so. The letter had a second purpose, and this brought my move to Reading to the forefront. Perry and I hoped the letter—if needed—would assure U.S. authorities that I had a job waiting for me; that I wasn’t planning on staying in the U.S. indefinitely. While I expected the letter, it threw me into turmoil as it meant I had one more reason to move forward. The only thing that prevented me from moving to Reading, sooner than later, was money. With Colin’s encouragement, I started looking for financial supporters.
Within a few days, I was sitting in a church member’s home for an uncharacteristic visit. Maudella and I chatted for a few minutes from across her kitchen table. Maudella had known me since Easter 1964 when mom walked through the doors of the church with my sister and me in tow. In her eyes, I was still that 8-year-old boy, become missionary. Though she didn’t show it, I know she was not prepared for me to announce that I was homosexual. I followed my confession with a request for financial help—not from her personally, but from the church. I showed her the letter Colin had written for just such an occasion.
This letter is to confirm the suggestions I made to you on the phone the other day.
Because of the difficulty with your wanting to counsel at Quest but your not being an American citizen, it would be impossible for you to work in the U.S. legally…. Therefore, I think the best arrangement would be as follows: You should try to find someone or persons who would sponsor you to the sum of $3000 for six months. This would allow you to come into the United States on a visitor’s visa.
After Maudella glanced through the letter and collected her thoughts, she told me the church was broke as they had recently purchased a new church building. All she could offer was a promise to give my letter to Harry the head elder for consideration.
My search for money extended to calling the President of the Adventist Church in Canada that same week. President Morgan was sympathetic, but not in a position to use church funds in this way. However, he said he would call a pastor in Ottawa—which he did.
All of my requests for money meant “outing” myself many times. I’m astonished at how I could dump such deeply personal information on people and then ask them for money. I would slowly learn that there were long-term permanent consequences for announcing one is homosexual.
A few days later, the pastor came by to talk about “my problem.” He questioned whether I needed to go to Quest for six months; perhaps a month or two would be sufficient. That would make it financially feasible. This suggestion, coming from a pastor, made me think this might be a message from God. I had to call Colin.
Colin’s primary concern was that I was in the middle of so much personal exploration that limiting my time spent in counseling might be detrimental. By the end of that conversation, I had returned to my original plan—go to Reading for at least six months. I was back to raising at least $3000—three thousand 1983 dollars!
I showed Colin’s fundraising letter to my support group, as well.
Most of the money I needed came from mom and dad. While neither of them was pushing me to go to Quest, they were ready to support me in whatever way I felt I needed. One support group member gave me a very generous gift of a thousand dollars. To his credit, President Morgan sent me a personal cheque for $200.
Even with money coming in, I was often in an agitated place spiritually. It was most apparent each Friday afternoon as the Sabbath approached. “In an hour the sun will set, and Sabbath will begin.” I wrote. “And although I have not been faithful to it, the Sabbath has been faithful to me. I am depressed, however, as its sacred hours approach.”
The significance of this confession would be lost on most unless the reader appreciated my relationship to the Sabbath. From the time I became a Seventh-day Adventist, as a child, Sabbath keeping had served two purposes. It was a day of physical and mental rest; 24 hours of spiritual rejuvenation. As well, its sacred hours had become a weekly reminder to me I had a Creator who was also my Deliverer. On the Sabbath, God felt especially close, surrounding me like time itself. Most significantly, however, my twenty-year relationship with the Sabbath had always been experienced within community. Now, as the sun set, it acutely reminded me of how separated and estranged I felt from my spiritual community.
With plans to move to Reading moving forward rapidly, my level of stress increased. On February 28, I wrote, “I had chest pains this afternoon to the point of having difficulty breathing. I know they are related to my battles, but I’m troubled by the intensity.” Robert, my parents, money, Colin were all coming together to create a profound weight. Growing ambivalence about going to Quest created much of the psychological burden. “When I consider Quest, I get anxious. I know that I must go. I have so much to work through. I know Colin will push me. Despite my fears, I will go; I will get angry, I will cry, I will face myself, and I will exercise a faith that heals…”
With finances in hand, I prepared to move to Reading in mid-March. Understandably, Robert’s sadness became more apparent with every box I packed. The night before I left, we talked about my leaving. He was hurting more than he let on. I was hurting, too. I knew that where I was going, I would have friends to support me. Robert would have no one. Robert had fallen for a guy who had a lot of experience with shutting down emotions and moving on to new experiences. I regret that his pain was collateral damage from my war on my orientation.
At 7 a.m. on Wednesday, March 16, 1983, Robert took me to the bus station where I boarded a bus with a few boxes bound for Reading, Pennsylvania, and Quest Learning Center.