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Understanding identity and affirmation

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I was raised a Boy Scout. I was also raised a Christian. Today, I identify as neither.

gay_friendly_church_s_200With 20/20 hindsight, one gets to piece together markers on the highway. For me at 11 years old, I didn’t understand my fixation with Aaron Carter singing “I want Candy.” Now I know he was one of my first gay crushes. But don’t get me wrong, I also had a crush on Natalie Portman in the Star Wars prequels. They were both cute to me.

The funny thing that happened at my high school in the 2000s is that being gay was pretty acceptable. Sure, you were still the rainbow in the room and it was gossiped about incessantly, but for most young people it was going to be OK. Yet within that acceptance was an expectation of dichotomy. You’re either straight or gay.

For a long time, I didn’t know how to interpret my feelings. I felt frustrated and would have preferred to be gay because at least I would fit neatly into a label. Instead, I felt like I was in my own world, expected to be sure of myself when I myself wasn’t sure. Some weeks I felt straight, some weeks gay. Sometimes it just depended on the hour.

It wasn’t until age 20 that I truly came to accept that my sexuality was fluid and figuring out an identity for it didn’t matter. I like labels, but I couldn’t figure out what to label myself. Sometime around age 15 I told a friend I thought I was bi. It went fine. But in the remaining two-and-a-half years of high school, I think I only told three other people. Part of that was that it was still hard to understand myself. The other part, though, was that I felt like I was expected to be something. Questioning wasn’t valued — I needed to either be or not be.

At the same time I was trying to figure myself out, I was part of two communities that were (at best) silent about my emerging identity

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I’ve always felt like I let my dad down, not becoming an Eagle Scout. He was an Eagle Scout and an active scoutmaster in the troop. I hadn’t come out to my parents yet, but I knew he liked Scouting. Even after my brothers’ involvement declined — like my own — he stuck around to lead the troop. With Boy Scouts, I was keenly aware every time we had to utter the phrase “morally straight” in our oaths. I think I stopped saying that phrase at a certain point because I didn’t want to lie. Slowly, I went to fewer Monday night meetings, went on fewer weekend excursions, and slipped into the shadows of the troop. My participation declined until about age 16 when I basically left scouts altogether.

No one in the troop every treated me poorly. In fact, many people were there to help me succeed. I learned skills, had some great times, and built solid friendships that last to this day. Yet a significant part of the person I was growing into was ignored. I’m not sure I was afraid of being kicked out — Scouts was full of too many nice people that I doubted would force the issue. Yet I ultimately felt like the whole me wasn’t valued and welcome, which drove me out.

The other community I grew up in, our local UCC Community Church, was not open and affirming. I never even heard the phrase “open and affirming” until I worked on a marriage equality campaign. When I discovered this lovely little phrase, I went back and looked at the website for the church I grew up in. All I could find was some bland language about the church not taking a stand and letting it be about the individual person.

Similar to my experience with Boy Scouts, my sense of not being fully accepted by the community drove my decline in participation. Though I didn’t believe in a god, I was open to participating in the community that I had grown up in and showed up for every Sunday. Yet my fear of not being accepted because I was different prevented me from being out, from being myself, and feeling like I was welcome.

When communities aren’t open and affirming, particularly the latter, diversity melts away and disengages. For me, the affirmation is the more important part. The affirmation says that not only are you welcome as an individual, but you are welcome specifically because of your identity. Affirmation is why the colorblind mentality isn’t good enough. Affirmation recognizes the value of different cultures and embraces difference. It sees difference as an asset, not a barrier. Affirmation is also a first step at leveling hierarchy and power differences because it recognizes the force of history, culture, power, and oppression that come with a person.

Open and affirming also isn’t just something that can be put on a poster above the door. Open and affirming is about a culture, and the best part is that it’s ultimately not just about queer folks, despite its use often as thus. Open and affirming is about getting to know the individual and supporting and loving the individual for their full self. It moves beyond labels and boxes to authentic and positive relationships. And with those authentic relationships, it allows for the questioning and finding of self for belonging.

I wonder what my life would look like being a part of communities that affirmed my searching. Would I still feel this craving to belong? Would I worry that I’m always going to be an outsider, just passing through? Would I be better at accepting others for their whole selves with their flawed imperfections, because I felt accepted for mine? I’ll end this with one final quote that describes my goals for community, from Jean Vanier: “One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn’t as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.”

About Robert Hemphill

Robert Hemphill is in the midst of a year of service in Spokane. He is active in several non-profits creating community and building relationships for social change. He has worked as an organizer on several issue campaigns in the midwest, and hopes to continue a career in building community and developing voices.

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