Journey - Chapter 8
Awareness of My Orientation
BY JERRY MCKAY
My orientation continued to manifest on a daily basis, and there were times when it intruded noticeably. As in high school, it sometimes caused me to modify my behavior. Four examples have stayed with me all these years.
But before I continue, I feel it’s important to reiterate that, even though I can now write about these situations with a high degree of awareness, at the time I still had not named my experience. I did not identify as homosexual or gay. I was, however, growing increasingly aware of how differently I experienced the world compared to my male friends.
My first example, although a simple one, involved my living arrangements and my roommate whom I will call Rick.
Although our apartment was spacious, we shared one small bedroom with two small beds. Throughout the year, I was as discreet and stealthy about dressing and undressing as I could be. It helped that I could use the washroom and shower in private. I think Rick was surprised at how quickly I could undress and get into bed. Often, by the time he came back from a trip to the bathroom, I was already curled up in bed and facing the wall!
Although I am a bit bashful, my motivation for being so speedy was not about ensuring my privacy but about decreasing my stress over seeing Rick in some state of undress. While that was not always possible, it worked well for me. Perhaps too well because years later, after learning of my orientation, Rick commented on how overly discreet I had been around the apartment. Again, by overcompensating because of my orientation, I had drawn attention to myself.
Before moving to my second example, I want to mention an intuitive observation on the part of my roommate. I was surprised to learn, in a recent conversation with Rick, that he felt I had mood swings during the year. Mood swings! I had never heard anyone say that of me before. He told me that I seemed, “low for a long period during the winter and came out of it in spring.”
That he picked up on this impressed me. My orientation always took me down a notch or two emotionally. I didn’t set out to hide my mood changes, but doing so had become second nature. In truth, I was very much out of touch with my emotions. Low-level depression and sadness were always present.
My second example specifically involves bathing – this time with a Japanese twist
However discreet I was in our apartment, fate would not let me escape being naked with others in public. I still had to contend with the occasional visit to the sento-- the communal bath house. If you haven't experienced a sento, check one out on YouTube. Nothing boosts stress like scrubbing down surrounded by male colleagues and strangers while being attracted to the male body.
At the sento, everyone sits along the wall on little stools – naked, of course. Although you have your own faucet to work from, all bathing business is done in public. Once you've scrubbed and rinsed, you can join whomever you like in the various pools of water -- hot, warm, or cold. You have to leave your little washcloth on the rim of the pool before climbing in. As a result, naked men were continually climbing in and out of the pools in front of me. If you don't like walking about naked, you can use your washcloth to cover up. That was my preference. It was not everyone's practice, however.
On occasion, we were invited to join a student at the local bath house for this cultural experience. I didn’t mind the cultural part of the experience, but it was still awkward for me. On other occasions, when on a school-sponsored ski trip, summer camp, or teacher’s retreat, public bathing was often the only option. On those occasions, going to the sento meant I would be surrounded by naked students, naked colleagues, occasionally a naked boss, and, of course, my naked roommate.
In general, I didn't have much difficulty with the over-sixty crowd. (I can say that, now that I’ve arrived there myself!) Those around my age, however, were more of a challenge. Whether they were stark naked or hiding things behind their towelettes, there was still too much maleness around for me not to notice. You can avert your gaze only so often in a sento before stumbling into someone or something.
As I have already said in various ways, I was attracted to the whole person not just what was behind a strategically placed washcloth. Many times, it would have been far less distracting if a bather had just put a bag over his head. I could become preoccupied with a man’s eyes. A killer smile could make me weak in the knees faster than an exposed groin. Those who don’t know homosexual men and women well might dismiss the power of a beautiful smile as it relates to orientation. It is no less significant for us than it is in heterosexual attraction.
As always, I didn’t understand why. With every desire to look or be close came memories of Honolulu. I was afraid I might look at someone too often. It is difficult to explain how tiring it was to be attracted to people and constantly trying to look at them while looking through them.
During those moments of preoccupation with the male form, however, plotting how to secure sexual intimacies was far from my mind. All I wanted was to be closer to the one who had captured my attention. Of course, as a fair-haired foreigner, others were peeking at me, too.
Because of my hyper-awareness, I never enjoyed the sento experience as I could have. Many times, as I did at school, I went to the sento earlier or later than most. Doing so reduced the visual stimulation, but it also meant I was cheated out of the hottest water. Often, I wished I could have joined the women. I never became preoccupied with a woman’s eyes or smile, and I never had the nagging desire to visually explore their bodies. Again, I could not have explained why.
My next example, while a bit odd, illustrates the kinds of things I told myself in response to events around me.
During a pep talk at a teacher’s retreat, an associate with the language schools for the Far East made it a point to remind us that, while we were surrounded by Toyotas, “the Cadillacs” were back home!
Except for the Amerocentric overtones in his comment, we got the message. He was asking us not to date. He didn't want the guys bringing Japanese girlfriends back to North America or the girls settling down with a Japanese man. My internal dialogue was revealing.
No sooner had his comment registered than I said to myself, “Don't worry. That’s not going to be a problem for me.” The response was so immediate and forceful that it startled me. I knew intuitively there wasn’t the slightest possibility of my falling in love with a Japanese girl.
While this incident was not as jarring as when Perry made his subcutaneous-fat comment, it bothered me nonetheless. It reminded me again of what I did not feel and who I was not attracted to. Japanese women weren’t going to be a problem because I was drawn to the men.
Although I tried to shrug off the implications of my response, I was haunted by them and they triggered all those why questions. All I could do was stress over them later in prayer.
Despite the angst that little event created, the pep talk had a hidden bonus. Knowing we were not expected to date for the year took the heat off that area of my life. Not surprisingly, I shone in the no-dating arena. Unlike the great Ulysses, however, some teachers did not have the option of being tied to the mast of their ship and therefore could not resist the song of a Toyota or two.
Later in the year, an up-close-and-personal incident captured another place in my memory.
As in many Asian cultures, the public expression of affection between men is not frowned upon as it is in North America. Boys and young men, like women, can be seen showing affection—holding hands, for example. Once friendships have developed, even foreigners might experience the same expression of affection.
As was often the case, one evening after classes, students and teachers were hanging out in the school office. I was sitting on a small bench with a male student beside me. We were about the same age and had developed a good rapport. While joking and laughing with the others in the room, he matter-of-factly put his left leg over my right leg, entangled his arm around mine and rested his head on my shoulder. I froze like a deer caught in headlights.
No one else seemed to bat an eye, but I became hyper aware of my feelings – again. His expression of friendship was appreciated, but it sent that familiar rush of anxiety through my body. Because I was good at hiding my reactions, any discomfort on my part was obscured.
An event which would mean little to most people, and would have been received with an air of normality otherwise, distressed me. It touched that part of me I was trying so hard to ignore. That momentary event burned into my memory because I knew I liked his playful affection more than anyone in the room realized and that I secretly longed for more.
By more, I don’t mean I wanted to manipulate him into my bed as You and Your Health suggested I would. At the same time, I was nineteen going on twenty and very much touched-deprived. When a male friend touched me, I became painfully aware of it. All I wanted was for my student-friend to hold my hand a little longer and feel the warmth of his body next to mine. Had a female student done the same, I would have responded with similar panic but for completely different reasons.
Although some of these examples may seem insignificant, each left me feeling abnormal and defective. Even though I had done nothing wrong, I couldn't help thinking of Paul's comments in Romans about those people with dishonorable passions and God’s wrath. I couldn't help wondering if I might be one of those sinister people described in You and Your Health. As always, such thinking was demoralizing.
What about Donna & Dating
As I mentioned, to my relief there was to be no dating—not that year, at least. Even though I was not tempted by any Toyotas, there were
plenty of opportunities. Female students, young and old, did show interest. When they did, I relied on my missionary commitments to politely ignore any advance. It always felt like I was breaking the third commandment – using the Lord’s name “in vain” – to avoid being honest with others and myself.
However, I wasn’t without female friendship; Donna was in Japan. The year was better with Donna there even though she was 450 km south of Tokyo. She had been sent to Himeji. With 500,000 people, Himeji was a village. Its claim to fame was Himeji castle, the largest and most beautiful castle in the country. In 1993, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From Himeji, we stayed in touch by letter and phone.
Being able to share our experiences only deepened our friendship. Whenever possible we would visit each other in Himeji or Tokyo. During the teacher’s retreat, we were inseparable. When together, we constantly talked about God and faith. We did everything together – except share any intimacy.
To say we had decided to keep our friendship platonic would have been false. Despite the numerous opportunities available to us, there was never a hint of temptation on my part to even hold Donna’s hand. I’m quite sure I could have. It wasn’t for a lack of desire for intimacy that kept my intentions pure. It is just that when there is not an ounce of sexual interest seeking expression, it is easy to spend inordinate amounts of time in very private settings and have nothing happen.
If our relationship was ambiguous, it wasn't Donna’s fault. She did indicate interest in subtle ways, and I knew it. I just couldn’t reciprocate.
One of the ways Donna indicated interested was with a 125-page 4x6 book of poems and photographs she made for me. The first page simply says: “To Jerry: Who is my friend.” Several of the poems, she had written. All of the photographs were taken during that year. Not surprisingly, I made several appearances in the book.
My first appearance was a picture of me taking a picture. On the accompanying page, she had copied a two-sentence poem by Martin Benson called Photo. It read: The young man sat while the camera gunned him down. Now he lies in the tomb of remembrance.
The second photo was of a letter I had written earlier in the year. While the paper and ink revealed nothing significant, the poem Friendship of the Mind said more.
For days and weeks, no words have passed.
For time gone on I have not seen you.
Though this absence the gift of friendship could have died.
But for me, I need not to always speak and see
Because for you, my friend, cannot friendship grow in the mind?
The last entry in the book was a photo of me standing at the base of a set of concrete steps leading into Japan’s Inland Sea. While you can't see the sea, I was pensively looking out across the water. On the opposite page was the poem by Beverly Axelrod –
Believe this: I accept you.
I know you little, I know you much,
but whichever way it goes, I accept you.
Your manhood comes through in a thousand ways,
rare and wonderful.
I'm out in the world, with an infinity of choices.
You don't have to wonder if I'm grasping at something
because I have no real measuring stick. I accept you.
When Donna gave me this gift, she knew nothing of my orientation. She could not have known how meaningful and prophetic her last entry would be.
Each photo and poem said something about Donna, me – us. Even though I acted as dumb as my uncle’s gate post, I knew there was a message behind this gift. My response was just a reworked version of my habit of looking at people to look past or through them. This time, I looked past or through her gift because I did not want to see what was right in front of me. I can’t imagine how exasperated she must have been at times. As a good Christian girl, however, she never initiated anything.
With respect to Donna, I have one anecdote involving her that sheds light on my mindset.
As a rule, Adventists don’t, or didn't, play cards for the same reasons most conservative-leaning denominations frowned on the practice. Adventist young people did play Rook, or as it is often called, “Christian cards,” It was a popular game in the men’s dorm, but I seldom played. If, as I thought, “regular” card playing was a tool of the devil designed to waste my time and lead me into more serious vices, why wouldn’t a substitute serve the same purpose? Even though I wasn't a stickler about playing, I would rather no one played the game.
So, when Donna and I were together over Christmas and the subject of Rook, or in our case “missionary poker,” came up, we had a lengthy discussion about the practice. The outcome was that she decided to give up Rook. Fortunately, her roommate had also decided to do the same while back in the United States for Christmas.
I mention this last anecdote because it illustrates my conservative state of mind at the time. If I were so tightly wound that playing Rook troubled me, you can imagine what my dishonorable passions were doing to me psychologically and spiritually.
When my year was up—which felt more like a month—I understood Perry's enthusiasm for Japan. Despite all of my initial apprehensions and the shadow of my ever present orientation, I did not want to leave. I loved everything about the country and the people. And Tokyo–I thrived in that immense and intense labyrinth of a city.
I was exceedingly happy living in Japan. It was far beyond anything I could have imagined and I was thankful I had agreed to go. My initial reluctance compared to the final outcome taught me a valuable lesson about making judgments. Never again would I make a decision about a place or a person based on second-hand, uninformed or preconceived notions. There is just too little about “the other” that I do not know on which to form such judgments.
I did not leave Japan without one final incident that made me famous among school administrators. I was the first student missionary to miss a flight home.
When I arrived at the airport check-in counter, I opened my carry-on bag to get my passport. It wasn’t there. I’d left it on a desk at the school. Although someone tried rushing it to the airport, they did not arrive soon enough. Instead of traveling with my hyper-excited fellow teachers back to North America, I watched them leave without me. Nine hours later, I was on a late night flight out of Tokyo.
The half-empty flight took off in heavy rain. It was June again and rainy season. In seconds, the lights of Tokyo vanished below the clouds. I had an entire row of seats to myself making the flight that much lonelier. It was like leaving summer camp again. I think I cried for most of the flight across the Pacific. I felt as though I was being torn from a very dear friend whom I would never see again.