As a boy, I was called the sorts of names that still echo in my mind some 30-plus years later. Like the F-word. The one used as a weapon against boys who don't quite fit the masculine stereotype of the Marlboro Man. This word, and others like it, were thrown at me like a storm of arrows. So obviously a shield was required, a mask of inauthenticity.
Now imagine my relief when I met a beautiful girl in high school, fell in love, and people were able to see us as a couple that fit the ideal of what Western culture demands of men and women. I was coupled and demonstrating all of the behaviors of a proper, sexually active heterosexual! With her hand in mine, the name calling vanished and suddenly I was considered acceptable. Regrettably, she became part of my mask.
From a very young age, I knew I was different from the norm in television, in music videos, and in advertising. While my friends were prone to ogling women, bragging of their conquests, and making gay jokes, I was joining them on the outside but inside, where my authentic-self resided, something quite different was happening.
From ages 18 to 38, I put on weight. I'd gone from a rather proportionate teen to a large man. But by 2008, tired of wearing my self-loathing around my waist, I'd lost 90 pounds and felt that my body reflected my authentic self in such a way that I no longer wanted to carry the burden of my mask any longer. I sat my wife down and through a strained and quivering voice, unmasked myself in much the way my childhood superheroes did when I said, "Honey, I'm bisexual."
She smiled, as if I'd just told her the sky was blue, and responded matter-of-factly. "Uh, yeah ... I know."
Of course, she'd shattered the confidence I'd held in my mask. For years, I'd felt that I'd represented myself as this very heterosexual, almost stereotypical guy. What I'd failed to realize was that there were cracks that let out small bits of my truth. Yet my belief that my mask was so important had caused me to live until the age of 38 in self-inflicted, self-denying, misery.
No, not everyone who reads this will have quite the same issue that I had.
Not every mask, not every closet is just a place where we hide our sexual identity. There are closets where other truths belonging to our authentic selves are hidden away from the critical eyes of others. Because of our masks, we say and do things that don't align with our truth, don't give voice to our authentic nature, and so we fail to live a life true to ourselves.
My journey toward authenticity is far from finished. So far I've managed to accumulate my fair share of bumps, bruises, and scars along the way. Each has served to offer me some bit of understanding I wish I'd had earlier in life to rely upon so I'd never have built my mask in the first place. Here are some lessons I've learned along the way:
Don't go looking for yourself. Just listen.
I wish I'd done this far earlier in life. That voice, my authentic voice has always been there, I just had to learn how to acknowledge it. My authenticity appears in feelings of fear, anxiety, guilt, and joy. It can be the empty feeling that rises from something as small as eating at Burger King, to failing to speak up when someone says something bigoted. It's the voice that speaks to me of regret once I've contradicted my authenticity or filled me with resolve after speaking my truth.
Life is too short to live it as someone else.
I lived in fear of losing the people in my life who I loved. Yet presenting myself as this idea of what I assumed everyone else wanted me to be wasn't exactly living my life to the fullest. Ultimately, some people left, but the ones who mattered remained. My wife, my children, and some friends stuck around. But, more importantly: I began to live a new life, begin a new relationship with myself.
Not everyone will understand. They don't have to!
I've been told I am gay, that I am still denying who I truly am. Thing is: I'm not. In my lifetime, I've had attractions and feelings for both women and men. But I know how I feel about my wife, our relationship, and my attraction to her. Others can assume all they want but...
Knowing your truth and owning your truth = powerful stuff.
At the end of the day, I'm in here with myself. That's true of all of us and our relationship with the self. We know our thoughts and feelings and deserve to live a life without denying either.
Personally, I want that for everyone. I want a world in which we can accept and be accepting, own our words and truths, and allow for everyone, every man, woman, and child to love themselves without fear. But we can't do that until we eliminate our masks and create a better world through our example.
Upon reading everything above this line my wife asked me to include something about whether I am happier as a result of my decision to unmask. I'll admit that since uttering those words, life has had its difficult moments. There have been times when I wanted to retreat to that easier place behind the protection of the persona which had guarded me so well. You see, authenticity does make you vulnerable ... but only in vulnerability can you truly experience the one thing in life that makes it worth living: unfiltered, authentic love for my wife, my children, my family, friends and, finally, myself.