Witness

This piece of writing may forever be known as the one that changed my life. Or it may do nothing at all and then I’ll end up feeling grossly conceited for even writing that statement. Either way, there’s no going back now.

Never in my life had I thought of myself as desirable. From a very young age, I learned to view myself as unworthy and unlovable (and it took me a really long time to even figure out how to articulate this feeling).  Of course, I had friends and family who enjoyed spending time with me, but I was all too aware of this looming, incessant darkness within me that was barely protected from the world by a thin veil of insecurities. And as far as I knew, I’d never be able to lift it. I didn’t necessarily know what this darkness was, but it never left; throughout childhood, grade school, especially middle school and onward. Even when I would seemingly be enjoying myself with friends, whether at school, at the movies or at the very rare occasion of a party, I would have to keep this darkness contained within a steel fortress. I not only feared myself, but I had to fear everyone else around me and what they would say if they knew. The fear that someone would ask that stinging, gut-wrenching and horror-provoking question: “Are you gay?”

Sometimes it was brought forth with love, but mostly not. Mostly it was, “Dude, you’re a fucking faggot.” Yeah it hurt, but how could I know that I wasn’t? I did, after all, feel these weird attractions that I couldn’t explain, and with relentless comments like that flying around so frivolously, how the hell could I ever speak of it out loud? Small towns like Brookston, Indiana aren’t necessarily built on trust and loyalty – not when there’s a juicy rumor to be found in someone else’s business that could deter you from reconciling with your own backwards behavior. Nah, we need to exploit that shit – especially when YOU could have the exclusive status of revealing some deep, dark, personal secret that no one else knows about! After all, it’s only someone’s self-worth and dignity you’re fucking with. It doesn’t personally affect you at all if the whole town finds out! You’re basically a salesman for the rumor mill and everybody wants what you’re selling! Keep up the deeply important work! You go, Glen Coco!

It’s no wonder that during these formative years, my anxiety developed into a debilitating side effect of holding this secret back. When I was thirteen, I had my first uncontrollable panic attack while home sick from school. I possessed nowhere near the kind of self-awareness I have now, so I was really lost. Thank God for my sister and my mother for pulling me through this horrific experience. I was so paralyzed by these anxiety-driven thoughts that I just had to sit there sobbing while my sister literally guessed what was wrong with me. It was too terrifying to even vocalize. Instead, I would just shake my head or nod whenever she came close to the answer. I will never forget that experience, and until now, we were the only ones who knew about it. The mental games you can play with yourself when suffering from a severe anxiety attack like this can lead to some seriously disturbing thoughts.  However, even after getting this off my chest in this moment, I never spoke of it again.

It was in 2014 that I found the courage to voluntarily lift that thin, dark veil and tell someone how I’d been feeling my entire life. I was in Los Angeles by this time, having moved here in 2012. The first recipient of this delicate information was one of my best friends, a beautiful human butterfly who we’ll just call “E” – she is still one of my best friends to this day. The next person, however, was slightly more intimidating to approach: my Catholic priest. This was where the water got real muddy for me. Before this moment in time, I had absolutely no idea who I was. Before moving to LA, I never felt that anyone (besides maybe my sister and mom from that fateful evening at thirteen) truly understood what was going on inside my head and my heart. Even though I had a good amount of friends, I always knew that this was a part of myself that I could never reveal to anyone. As a result, I never felt that I could distinctly ascertain my own personal identity. Of course, the cultural interpretation of how one should “come out” and live “proud” was never something I could relate to in the slightest (I may have been a cheerleader in high school, but the assless chaps were a little too off the beaten path for my taste). So, at the age of 24, I found myself seeking an alternative path without even knowing it.

After countless evenings of sobbing to Monsignor in the confessional, it occurred to me that maybe being a “gay Catholic” wasn’t so impossible after all, but I had no idea how to make it a practical and embraceable lifestyle. A practicing gay Catholic is certainly an unusual concept, especially these days with so much cultural talk about “identity” and being encouraged to solely embrace one aspect of our personalities. But being "gay" has never been a lifestyle to me. I want people to see me as a loving, strong-willed Christian, first and foremost. I don't need people looking at me and strictly thinking "That's a gay guy!" That is incredibly limiting to my identity and removes the possibility for me to be seen as anything else. Culturally, we’ve adopted this “boxing system,” which insists that if you identify as one thing, then you belong in this box and you must think and feel this way. “But I’m gay, and culture tells me that if I’m gay, then God hates me! And clearly ‘culture’ knows who I am and wants what’s best for me, so it must be right!”...right? Maybe not.

By seeking an alternative for myself, through faith, I slowly began to realize that my identity was not something that could just be told to me by a news anchor with a political agenda. My identity was something that I had to cultivate and nourish into existence out of my own unique experiences. I realized that the only real reason a “gay Catholic” seems unconventional is because we live in a culture that has built decades’ worth of resentment towards a God who dared want better for us. He dared ask us to seek Him instead of our own self-imposed and subjective morality. Trust me, I get that a firm belief in an omnipresent God is beyond unpopular, especially in an Instagram-ruled world, where every “like” reassures us that we are way more important than we actually are. Well, my friends, Instagram is lying to us. Ya know who doesn’t lie to us? Politicians. Ha! Jokes. It’s God, God does not lie to us. I am a witness to the unbelievable grace that can be attained by seeking Him through self-sacrifice.

Being a practicing, religious young person does not mean that you have every single part of your life in picture perfect condition. What it does mean is that you possess enough self-awareness to realize that you can do better. I have experienced great temptations, just like anyone else. I have given into those temptations because I didn’t want to acknowledge my limits (and because I can’t say no to a free Stella Artois). However, the true change came once I realized and accepted that those actions have no place within the parameters of my self-worth, derived from my faith life. Yes, coming out can be scary and horrifically unpleasant, but it’s a one-time thing. Holding on to my morals and living up to the standard set by those morals is an ongoing and constant challenge. The trade-off is that I feel most empowered when I actively seek to follow His path for my life. It’s a path that comes with struggles and sacrifice, but I know that the happiness and success that lies ahead of me is far beyond my Earthly comprehension. Now, in denying these temptations (which never go away, tbh), I have been able to define my identity more clearly than if I were to give in to every fleeting desire that I may experience on a Saturday night. 

This month, the gay culture is in the spotlight more than ever. Things that will be repeated over and over again are slogans of “PRIDE” and “LOVE” and the “cheerful” or “happy” elements of what is considered to be an event of celebration. What we will not hear about is the destructive aftermath of those recovering from the hangovers, spiraling into pits of anxiety and depression because of bad decisions or paralyzing thoughts of unresolved insecurities. The drinking, the sex, the partying – it’s a Band-Aid. As obvious as that may seem, it does more harm than good to keep falling back into the same, cyclical patterns of depressive behavior. To me, my sexuality is not really something to be exceptionally happy or sad about – it’s just something that I live with – why does it need to be lived out in such an exclusive way? I don’t run through the streets shouting that I’m Catholic, so why would I do the same for my sexuality? Yes, we have experienced repression and crippling anxiety and depression, but let me tell you, these parades are not even close to the form of recovery or resolution that culture tries to convince us will lead to healing and self-worth. Quite the opposite, actually.

We seem to have reached a point where we want to vocalize the dangers of mental illness and support those who suffer from it. Why then are we not shining a spotlight on the rampant depression and anxiety that ravages the gay community? Especially the young people who are struggling the most? All religion and politics aside, it is proven, even in the most secular, bipartisan sense, that young gay people turn to drugs and alcohol as a form of dealing with repressed homosexual feelings. Let’s talk about the deep issues, the dark things that matter – the issues that, once identified and healthily acknowledged, will truly lead to an immense amount of healing. I wouldn’t be where I am without hours upon hours of therapy – and spiritual direction (pro bono). To me, these parades are about covering up the real issues that most people are too afraid to acknowledge and therefore heal from. Let’s get to the root of the issues and incite real, meaningful change.

To those celebrating this weekend, to those also struggling with this life-altering and often terrifying experience -- I truly understand you. I feel you and get you way more than any celebrity or false god who tells you that you can be your own savior. Sometimes we don’t have the strength to save ourselves. That’s why we need something (someone) else to reassure us, who is infinitely more compassionate and forgiving than any other human who is equally as fallible as ourselves.  There is so, so, so much to be discovered and cultivated from the darkest experiences of our lives. I hated and resented most of my teenage years just because a handful of ignorant pricks were too insecure to admit that they were actually the ones getting blowjobs from their “straight friends” in the locker rooms. But where would I be now if I let those people define me? Those people know nothing more about my God-given purpose in this life than they know their own ass from their elbow.

Pride doesn’t come from a parade. Real pride doesn’t come from drunken debauchery and hooking up with strangers. True pride comes from dignity in our values. Dignity comes from an intimate understanding of your moral boundaries and knowing that it takes a lot more than a wink and tequila shot to allow someone to reap the rewards of the love you have to give.  This is a dignity that only comes from one place, and that place is far more divine than the apartment of the stranger in the assless chaps.

Patrick Lehe4 Comments