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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
I am a 40-year-old gay man who is heterosexually married. We have a couple of teenagers and live in a good neighborhood, go to church and from outward appearances have a great life.
But I’m miserable. You see, I have made some really dumb decisions in my life because I haven’t always been happy with life in general.
For example, my life on earth was sprung from two checked-out, laissez-faire parents who gave me no structure. So what did I do about that when I was a teen? I became Mormon. I needed structure, a sense of identity and got it. What did I give up in the deal to become Mormon? Transparency. I already knew I was gay. So I told them I wasn’t, got baptized, served a two-year mission, went to Brigham Young University and got married — all according to script.
When I was single, I felt conflicted. My attractions ran toward men, but I have always enjoyed women as friends. And then I met my wife. We were friends first, so she knew I was gay when we married. We doubted we should get married, but we were getting old by Mormon standards. We were counseled by our church leaders to forget our concerns about my sexual orientation and move ahead with the relationship. They said if we had enough faith and enough trust in God, our marriage would be successful. No one mentioned the immense level of distress we would both suffer almost as quickly as we married. No one told us how to deal with the fact that regardless of our faith, we were a mixed marriage of sorts. Gay man and straight woman. Great as shopping buddies, but not as husband and wife, I think.
So you know how issues like these — those pesky issues that just won’t go away because you don’t talk about them, and how they resurface in odd ways? Yeah, ours have popped up incrementally and collectively throughout our 18-year marriage. We both gained a ton of weight. We are in huge amounts of debt. And we have this enormous secret between us that our kids are trying to figure out — that their dad is gay and this is the reason for the dull ache that is so pervasive in our home, despite the perky Mormonspeak at the breakfast table.
What do we do? She won’t talk about the gay thing and after years of bullying by her on several levels, I want a divorce. But our debt is huge and she hasn’t worked in years (albeit she is well-educated) and we have five more years until our kids are both out of school and on their own in college. I don’t want to stay. I’m getting older and want for us both to be happy.
Gay Mormon From the Not-So-Happy Valley
Dear Gay Mormon,
First, because you sound like you are nearly at the end of your rope, let’s say this: Your situation is not at all hopeless. You can work this out. You can have happiness. This is not the end of the road. This is more like the beginning.
Next, let’s say a few things about how you ended up here.
Your decisions were not dumb. They were courageous. They were not courageous in the sense of a courageous individual asserting himself against the group, which is how we often think of courage in our individualistic culture. They were courageous decisions in the collective mode; you placed the world ahead of yourself. You humbled yourself and tried to make a go of it in the traditional way. You could not know how powerful was your individual self, how relentlessly it would beat against the tide of heterosexual Mormon society. It was a complicated gesture that you made, too, seeking to silence your own self in order to keep it alive, fearing that exposure placed it in more peril than silencing it. The church colluded with you in this, giving the message that such inclinations as we have that do not conform can be adjusted and accommodated and eventually muffled if not extinguished. You probably hoped that they were right. You did not want to live at odds with your society and your family. So you chose to try and live within the culture to which you belonged. In spite of impulses to flee, or to denounce, you chose to stay in your marriage. You chose to stay in your church.
It was harder than you expected it to be. But you kept making accommodations. So did your wife. The enormous force of who you are pushed day and night, seeking acknowledgment and expression. Like a steady wind it pushed to bend you its way, and to push back you compensated. You could not go out and find a lover, or challenge the church, or announce that you are gay, or even enter into intimate dialogue with anyone about how you feel. One thing you could do is eat. So you ate. Another thing you could do was spend money. So you spent money.
Now you feel the oppressive accumulation of all your accommodations. Let us make no mistake: You have certain problems because of your accommodations. But these accommodations may have been absolutely lifesaving at the time. They were not a bunch of dumb decisions. They were courageous attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable.
Now the truth has become clear: You must live as who you are. You cannot go on like this.
It is natural at such a point to look at how desperate we are, how full of regret, to amplify our feelings and dwell on them as if by sheer intensity our feelings could save us. And they may, in a way — by making the present moment unbearable and forcing us to take action.
You must take action. But you did not get into this situation in one day, and you are not going to get out of it in one day, or with one simple solution.
You are just going to have to change your life.
In moments of crisis like this we need to connect to a community.
You have a lot to offer. I suggest you work with other gay Mormons.
You have a story to tell.
Think of all the gay young men who now stand at the same precipice where you once stood, looking out at the future, thinking of their family and their church, trying to make the most compassionate, selfless and reasonable decision. They cannot possibly know the pressures one must live under. It is probably tempting to do what you have done. So you can help people understand how sacred the individual self is. You can help them understand that though we do not know why things are the way they are, they are the way they are. Does that sound moronic? Well, you know what I mean, don’t you? I mean that you can fight it but it’s not going away.
Perhaps what I’m suggesting sounds egotistical. You see folks out there on the soapbox telling their stories and you wonder: Why should they help anyone? Why should they even try? There must be an angle.
Here is the angle: When we get desperate enough, we find that only by helping others can we climb out of our own unimaginable hell.
I myself reached such a point of isolation as a writer that I had to admit I needed help and community, and so sought, in my way, by helping, to be helped. I think my situation is analogous to yours. I too had been living a lie — that I was, as a writer, a perfectly autonomous being, fully educated, in need of no further growth. What strange, demented thinking!
Seek community! Tell your story! Open your heart!
Help and in helping be helped.
“Since You Asked,” on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition.
What? You want more advice?
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)