Journey - Chapter 13
Finished with College, Part II
BY JERRY MCKAY
Despite everything that was going on internally, I made wary attempts at dating. My very confused state of mind affected everyone around me including Donna who continued to hold out hope for a relationship. But her hope was constantly frustrated. I was all over the map when it came to Donna and other female friends. A seemingly insignificant event could ignite my fight or flight response.
One evening, for example, a considerate faculty member sent me into a panic. A few minutes before a worship service was to begin, I sat down next to one of my professors. Shortly after, he noticed Donna approaching. Because there wasn’t room for her, he stood up and offered her his seat. I remember this incident because of a sudden almost overwhelming surge of agitation—even anger. I appreciated his gesture, but in my mind, his action implied we were a couple. Taking place in church, this felt too public. His gracious offer brought reality too close. I couldn’t manage being seen to be in a serious relationship. I wanted to get up and leave.
It was incidents like these that caused me to withdraw from Donna. When I withdrew, I would date others—sort of. When those dates triggered my anxiety, I returned to Donna. One of those ‘dates’ reminded me of her experience of my fleeting expressions of interest.
Occasionally, I helped lead out during Friday evening worship services. My friend Judy* remembered my standing at the front next to Chris and his guitar—surprise, surprise! She remembered my asking her to accompany me to an evening vespers. She said, “It ‘sort of’ felt like a date—but not clearly one either.” She told me the consequence of that sort-of date was that a friend of hers didn’t speak to her for weeks because that friend had a crush on me. “The girls just loved you,” Judy teased, “because of your gentleness and spirituality. But you always felt beyond reach.” Her final comment was revealing. “I always felt safe around you.” This, she added, “was something I believe I shared with many guys I dated over the years—who also turned out to be gay!”
Feeling safe around male friends that “turn out to be gay” is a common experience among women. Without any sexual attraction, there is little or no sexual tension. This absence of sexual tension is often interpreted as a sign of a good or safe mate. Whether with Donna or other female friends, I was not trying to tease or deceive by my safe but ambiguous behavior.
Judy reminded me of one other humorous anecdote. We were part of the same student summer-work program in 1972 selling health magazines door to door in Ottawa. That was the summer we wore hideous red shirts, white ties, and white polyester pants—or white skirt in Judy’s case. According to Judy, she was pulling magazines out of the trunk of a car in the Westgate Shopping Plaza parking lot when a gust of wind blew her white pleated skirt up over her bum as she leaned over the trunk. “I was mortified,” she said, “and you were so calm and cool about it.
I have only the vaguest memory of the incident, I believe, because there was no burning angst associated with seeing Judy’s panty-clad bottom. It was a sexually neutral event for me, whereas seeing a male friend in his briefs would have troubled me and burned into my memory.
It was during my confusing dating behavior that I lost Donna—not to an accident or illness but as a casualty of my orientation.
In the fall of 1979, with graduation fast approaching, Donna, needed clarification as to the nature of our relationship and where we were headed. In a letter, she gently confronted me. She told me that she really liked me, and that together we could do wonderful things for the church and the Kingdom of God. I was panic-stricken when I read her letter. I would have given anything to ignore her overture as I did with most expressions of interest from female friends. In this instance, however, I could no longer play dumb. My heart ached over the loss and pain I knew I was going to create for both of us.
At CUC (now WAU) library
1980 GC Session
Donna and me
You might wonder how Donna could question our future after our friend had insisted that I was homosexual. Donna resolved the dissonance by ignoring the evidence. As she had said, “I had no context to make sense of these things.” When you believe that things cannot be as they are you continue on the same course. It was out of this cannot-be sense of dissonance that Donna sought clarification about our relationship.
I responded the only way I could. I told a partial truth. I told her that I did not feel for her as she felt for me. I had no justification for saying this, but what was I to tell her? We didn’t share the same spiritual interests? Lie! We didn’t share core values and the same sense of mission? Lie! I couldn’t speak the truth because I was barely able to acknowledge it myself. If I had told her I was not attracted to her because she was a woman that would have been the truth. I felt sick to my stomach as I crafted my response. At least, I delivered it in person.
Donna was disappointed and left with many unanswered questions. Without any context, my answer seemed cruel. She told me that her initial response was a simple, immediate but disappointing resolve. “I guess that is what I told myself. I did wonder why. I thought foolish things like, I must not be pastor’s wife material.”
In that moment, I lost a dear friend, a soul mate. My actions removed any reason for Donna to maintain ties with me. If she were to have the future and the family she wanted, she would have to move on. She did. By January, 1980, Donna had left campus to teach at an Adventist college in Korea. We had little contact for a number of years after that.
Donna shared some general impressions and observations of me. “I liked you because you were a spiritual guy. A spiritual giant in my eyes. You were always kind. You were steady and always there. I am an introvert making it very difficult for me to connect deeply with people. I had as much connection with you as I ever had with anyone.” Then she made a comment very similar to Judy’s. “You didn’t scare me as most guys did.”
Much of Donna’s lack of fear was based on that absence of sexual tension. Donna and I had a lengthy history to support her sense of security. During our seven-year friendship, I never initiated anything physical, not even trying to sneak a kiss! In fact, there is not a woman on the planet who can say I ever tried to initiate anything physical except holding their hand while escorting them to an approved social function. It wasn’t because I was in control of my sexual desires; there were none to control. There is nothing like a same-sex orientation to remove all heterosexual temptation. While Donna was safe in my presence, she was always being set up for confusion and disappointment. Absence of sexual interest or desire for the opposite sex is a core characteristic of my orientation. I did not have to work at being chaste—it came naturally. Lack of sexual interest may be wonderful for friendship, but it does not make for a good marriage.
As I have said before, and will say again, my orientation is not a preference in the way one likes both apple pie and cherry pie but chooses apple. My orientation is not a liberal left-leaning construct that I chose to dabble in one day and then pursue with gusto the rest of my life. It is who I am, and I don’t know why.
I asked Donna if anything else caught her attention. To that she replied, “There were times when I thought you were worried about something. I didn’t know what was going on in your head. You often seemed to be pondering things or preoccupied with something. I understand now that the ‘other worldly’ aspect of your personality was because you weren’t engaged in this world as others were.
The highlight of my final semester was a trip to Texas, but even it came with an orientation-related challenge.
Every five years, the Adventist church holds a world General Conference. Delegates stream in from around the globe to look after church business and celebrate all things Adventist. The 1980 session was held in Dallas, Texas. I participated in two capacities. Because of my two years in Japan, I was invited to help out with the Far Eastern Division booth. I was also a member of the college choir. The choir was invited to perform during the conference. I flew to Dallas ahead of the choir.
A few blocks from the conference centre is the Reunion Tower—an iconic observation deck. Like many conference attendees, I wandered over to get a view of the city from the top.
After my trip up the tower, I needed to use the washroom. I never liked public washrooms because they created the same anxiety as gym change rooms, dormitory showers, and Japanese baths. In those places, I was surrounded by men. In public washrooms, I would use a stall rather than stand at a urinal even if needing to pee was my only objective. The only way heterosexual friends can appreciate how I felt is if they think about having to hang out in public situations while surrounded by the opposite sex in various stages of undress. And don’t tell me you wouldn’t be tempted to peek.
My eyes did wander in that looking-at-while-looking-through way. Despite my trying to be discreet, someone was watching me watch him. When a young man returned a lingering glance, I panicked. Memories of being caught staring at a man in a restaurant in Honolulu rushed back, and I was afraid of being shouted at or worse. He did not shout at me, however. Instead, he walked toward me! I completely forgot about needing to use the washroom. I left hoping I would lose him once outside the tower complex. Panic ensued when I realized he was still following me. My anxiety might have subsided if he had stopped when he reached the street—but, no—he kept coming. He trailed me back to the conference center grounds. My heart was pounding when I stopped under a large tree in front of the main entrance where thousands of Adventist delegates were streaming in and out.
My default response was to witness. “How can I introduce this guy to Jesus?” I thought. We didn’t get into that conversion because I soon realized that all he was hoping for was some money. Despite being a poor student, I gave him $10. Always ready to “share my faith,” I got him to promise to meet me again the following day at the same time under the same tree. He did not show up. I was, in fact, very relieved.
After we parted ways, I walked into the conference center in a daze. Once again, I felt as I did when walking through that shed of marauding bees during a summer job back in high school—focused on my work but with my emotions suspended. This time it was a building full of busy Adventists going about their spiritual business. While trying to represent the Far Eastern Division at its booth, my head was spinning questions and confusion. Although I had just helped a guy out with a few dollars, I knew I had met someone like me. I was glad everyone was oblivious to my experience, but it left me feeling very alone.
I know that young man would have sold himself to me if I had allowed it. Nothing happened, but that isn’t the point. The point is that it was my orientation that got me into that situation. And to be very clear, I see us as equals. A lonely would-be minister attending a church conference is not morally superior to a young man ready to sell himself for money to survive. Selling himself did not mean he was homosexual, but I have a good sense he was. Even though we were both homosexual in orientation, my need for intimacy and his for money had nothing to do with our orientation. Sexual orientation—heterosexual, homosexual, or anything in between—is not the same as loneliness, prostitution, or addiction. One of the most hurtful misrepresentations of sexual orientation is this very idea, and it is often perpetuated in church media and from the pulpit.
Needless to say, I was happy when the choir arrived because I could distract myself with friends and our performances. Being at General Conference was a thrill; but when we left, I was more focused on that stranger than I was on the work of the church. Because the bus trip back to Alberta was long, driving late into the night, I was once again obligated to sit in the dark with a male friend! Even with Chris next to me, my thoughts were of my Dallas friend. Like the guy at the bus stop in Honolulu, I have never forgotten the young man in Dallas because he, too, was a mirror of myself.
There was a special moment on our bus trip back home. Because I had missed my graduation in order to attend the conference, I was marched down the aisle of the bus somewhere between The Grand Canyon and Alberta by my choir mates in a mock graduation ceremony.
There was one final fallout from my orientation as I approached the completion of my degree. I should have been promoting myself and actively looking for an internship position at a church somewhere in Canada. I did not. Although I had my degree in hand, I had a growing trepidation about the future. All indications pointed to the fact that my calling was genuine: my work was fruitful; friends saw ministry as a good fit; and there was nothing else I wanted to do. Yet, I wondered why God had called me when I now felt so unfit. I was already guarded about engaging with people, and I was sure that that would get worse. Now, it seemed, a calling that required constant social interaction might be unbearable. I was also very aware of the unofficial policy that an Adventist pastor was expected to be married. If I were to take an internship somewhere, the pressure to marry would be unavoidable. How would I ever manage as a church pastor? The final consequence of my orientation was invisibility.
Except for a few pictures of my march up the aisle of our bus trip back from Dallas, I have no official photos of my graduation. My absence from graduation and lack of photographic documentation aptly symbolizes what was happening to me. Like the actor Grant Williams in the 1957 movie The Incredible Shrinking Man, I was growing smaller and smaller. With respect to the church in Canada, I became invisible at a time I should have been seen.
There was only one place I had felt safe and could see myself using my gifts—Japan! With a prayer in my heart, I called the language school director. There was always a need for teachers, so I could come back if I wanted to. That’s what I did. By the end of that July, at twenty-four years of age, I was back in Japan for a third time—orientation and all.
As I conclude my college years and move into an unknown future, like my friend Andrew, you may be hoping for some resolution to my angst and distress. You may be worn out from cycling through my never-ending loop of attraction, guilt, fear, shame, hope, expectation, questioning, confession, repression, and attraction again. If you are, then I am succeeding in bringing you into my world and, I believe, that of many Christian LGBT people. Yet, to my surprise, when sharing my experience, I still have to work hard at convincing people that I am not a heterosexual guy who just chose to abandon a physical and emotional attraction to the opposite sex because I thought being homosexual would be fun.
When I left CUC, I was under the impression that except for the other guy with whom I’d had an intimate encounter, I was the only Adventist “like me.” It would be a decade or more before I would learn that I shared a similar story with numerous friends and acquaintances from my childhood church, my high school years at Kingsway, and then CUC. A quick count leaves me with a dozen names. That may not sound significant, but behind each name is a family: parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles. That quickly becomes fifty, sixty, seventy people directly impacted by orientation realities. There are many Adventist churches with a membership fewer in number than that. In a few short years, the number of LGBT Adventists I would come to know would increase exponentially.
*The person who shared her sort-of dating experience with me has an important story of his own. Judy, now Jordan, was also on a long journey of self-discovery. Jordan’s story brings timely insights to transgender realities: https://onbecomingjordan.wordpress.com/