Hello, and welcome Episode 24 of This Little Light Of Mine. My name is James Powell and I’m glad that you’re able to join me for today’s story episode, ‘Toxic Outing’.
We have finally arrived at the moment that I’ve dreaded for my entire life. My ‘coming out’ with my parents.
Since my last story episode called ‘Validate Me’, I’ve had another personal reminder of how strong and addictive the drug of validation can be in my life.
On the night before the US inauguration many social and racial justice accounts on Instagram suddenly, and without warning, disappeared. My @MyLightShinesBright was one of them. In an instant the community and mental health platform that we had been building to talk about religious trauma, LGBTQ2S+ inclusion, and anti-racism was gone.
My panic and anxiety were instantaneous, and I watched my reaction move quickly from shock to shame.
Phase 1: Question/Deny reality
What happened? How could this happen? This can’t be happening! This has to be a mistake. What do you mean there is no human support for IG? There must be something I can do to fix this.
Phase 2: Shame/Blame spiral
I must have done something wrong? I attached so much meaning to the growth of this community, what will people think? I have to hide this somehow. I’m going to be seen as a failure. I’m nothing without this! What will I do?
Phase 3: NEW mysterious phase
Breathe. Accept these feelings. Be with these feelings. Share these feelings. Know that I’m not defined by these feelings.
While this experience continues to be extremely frustrating it has been an important lesson of sitting with and sharing some of my inner feelings. What I’m learning is that when I bring some of my internalized shame and anxiety out into the light of day, I am able to explore a healthier path forward.
I’m also learning that all of my thoughts and feelings are valid, I don’t have to do this all on my own and that I am surround by people who want to help AND I have the internal resources to handle whatever comes across my path.
And on that note, a big thank you to all those who reached out to say, ‘where did you go?’, checked in to ‘see if I was okay’, and to share some of experiences that many others have been having with social accounts being disabled.
In today’s story episode I take you back to another point in my where I didn’t think that I had the internal resources to handle whatever crossed my path.
For many queer children the act of ‘coming out’ and declaring that they don’t fit the expected and assumed heteronormative mold can be a process that is fraught with shame, anxiety and in some cases fear of physical harm and abandonment from those closest to them.
For the majority of my childhood and teenage life coming out to my family was an impossible obstacle that I did everything to avoid.
Here’s today’s story episode called ‘Toxic Outing’
My final year of university seemed to go on forever. I had just moved back from studying abroad in Hong Kong and I only had four ridiculously unimportant half credits to complete before I could officially graduate.
Every personality profile or assessment has always clocked me appropriately as being the guy with a huge vision, quick to innovate, pivot and take advantage of new opportunities, extremely competitive, incredibly sensitive and harshly critical of myself.
These ‘tests’ also consistently say that follow-thru on details, compliance and listening to authority aren’t necessarily my strong suits.
This made my final year of studies extremely difficult for me. I kept focusing on what a complete waste of time, money and energy this was. And yet the competitive part of me didn’t let me stop driving to be in the top 2% of my graduating class. At the time having the words ‘with high distinction’ on a piece of paper that nobody would ever see was of the utmost importance to me.
My internal pendulum kept swinging back and forth between hovering over the ‘drop program’ button on the university’s registrar site and spending insane amounts of time cramming so that I could ace every project and every exam.
We were approaching mid-terms of the fall semester and my parents reached out and invited me home for a visit. They mentioned something about coming along with them to some church fundraiser thing and then spending the night at home. I hadn’t seen my family in a while and felt obligated to accept their invitation and told myself that at least I would be able to visit some of my friends from high school if I was going to spend the night.
As the weekend approached, I learned that we were going to a fundraising dinner for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. Ravi and his family went to our church growing up, his wife was the director of my children’s choir and we would go to Sunday school with his kids. I never followed Ravi’s ministry as it grew but I knew enough that he was no ‘friend of Dorothy’.
I want to pause here to share Ravi’s public thoughts on my ‘problem’ of homosexuality. This is what he taught other Christians to ‘think’ and ‘believe’ about me.
Before you continue, I want to provide a severe trigger warning as I consider this conversation an example of hate speech and religious abuse.
If you do choose to watch the following video, I want to ask you to pay attention to the following:
- How Ravi uses his leadership and academic persona to intellectualize LGBTQ2S+ humans into being ‘a problem’… or 3 problems as he shares
- He doubles down on the sacredness of race, ethnicity and sexuality but completely skips over the history of Christians using the Bible as justification for slavery and genocide based on race.
- Marriage is the most sacred relationship you can enter
- He implies that LGBTQ2S+ relationships can’t include agape love, God’s love, and without that, he claims that eros, or romantic love is GONE.
- The sacred marriage vow and procreative act is between a man and woman says, ‘I do to one’ and ‘I don’t to all of the others’. Any departure from this is not acceptable in the sight of God.
- So, if you’re not procreating, you’re not acceptable to God. Does this mean that God finds ‘the pill’, condoms or any other safe sex methods unacceptable? I guess God would also find any tubal ligation and vasectomy as unacceptable. Better get on those reversals people.
- And what about couples with no children? Is their union not Biblical? Is a marriage without procreation unacceptable to God?
- How do we deal with it? We love the sinner, but we hate their sin. We’ll love you but we will continue to believe that God can and will ‘change’ you, we will also believe that sin stalks at your door and is ready to take you hell. But let’s love everyone!
- As history shows us, ends up that Ravi was a very dishonest person who didn’t come near to practicing what he preached. In fact, he and his organization went to extreme lengths to shun, silence and discredit anyone who tried to share his actual human practices.
Testing my sexual tendencies
The other information my parents shared with me was that we were also going to the fundraiser with another church family and that they were bringing their daughter along. My parents seemed oddly eager about me having the chance to catch up Rachel.
I can’t remember a single thing about the fundraiser that night other than the extremely awkward end. As we were getting ready to leave my Dad turned to me and asked
‘Is there somewhere that we can drop you and Rachel off on the way home?’
I must have looked at my Dad like he had three heads, glanced over at Rachel to confirm she had no idea what was going on, and said,
‘What on earth are you talking out?’
‘I just thought you guys might want to grab a coffee or some dessert and catch up some more.’
What in the world is my Dad trying to do? The last thing I wanted to do with the rest of my night is to spend more time carrying on this church charade. I’d already devoted three hours to rubber chicken, polite conversation and pretending to be engaged. It was time to get home, get change, borrow the car and see some actual friends.
‘No thanks Dad, I’ve made plans with friends at home’
Rachel looked relieved at my decline and I thought that would bring a close to this portion of the evening.
But it didn’t. My Dad, in his familiar relentless salesman style continued to push.
‘You’re sure? We can drop you at a Starbucks, a diner, or maybe some sort of café?’
With his extra push I could feel my entire body tense as memories of what it was like growing up in our house flooded my mind. I recalled the years of strict compliance and where I felt like my every movement, choice, thought and belief weren’t my own. After living away from home for four years my Dad was still trying to control my actions.
‘Yes, I’m sure’ I said as I clenched my jaw.’
‘I doesn’t have to be a long thing.’
The anger inside of me was erupting and the lava was pulsing through my veins. I don’t know how I maintained my composure.
‘DAD, I’m sure. Let’s GO’
‘Fine, but don’t say I didn’t ask’
The long ride home
The entire car ride home I was enraged but like always I did my best to keep that inside as my mom played peacemaker and tried to make polite conversation by asking what I thought about the Ravi portion of the night. My typical one- or two-word answers soon turned into silence as we listened to the radio and made our way home.
As soon as we arrived home, I grabbed my bag out of the car, ran inside, greeted our family dog and ran up to my old room to get changed before heading out for the night.
Coming back downstairs I tried to be as casual as possible by asking which car I could take out for the night.
The response from my Dad knocked the wind out of me.
‘Before you go, your Mother and I would like to talk with you about something in the front room’.
The airless chamber
Nothing, absolutely nothing good ever comes out of talks in the front room. 13% of me was pissed. 17% of me was annoyed. 70% of me was absolutely terrified.
We all walked into the front room and as my mom closed the French doors behind us, I knew I had walked into a trap. I was locked with my parents inside a comfortable yet airless tomb.
I sat in a chair facing my parents who sat on opposite ends of a sofa on the other side of the room. With one glance at my mom’s already watering eyes I knew that I was about to be devastated.
My father started out with the words
‘we have reasons to believe that you may be struggling with same-sex attraction’
Hearing those words my entire body went limp and I immediately started to cry. The moment that I had been dreading and dodging for years had finally come to be.
There was no escaping this moment. There was nothing that I could say. There was nothing that I could do. My tears admitted my guilt and all I could do was sit there and wait for what was next.
My Dad went on to explain that while I was away in Hong Kong that I had called home to ask for some sort of insurance number that I had written down in reference pages in the back of my Daytimer. I immediately realized my fatal error (if only iPhones had been invented 15 years earlier)
While on that phone call from Hong Kong, I had directed my mom to the box that I had packed my planner into and told her to open the back cover and that the information I needed would be easily located.
As the story was told to me, the planner ‘accidentally’ fell to the floor and when my mom picked it up, she couldn’t help but read what was on one of the pages.
They know everything
Being young and in love (or so I thought) I had used my Daytimer as a diary where I would document all of the new things that I was doing, trying, taking and experimenting with my first boyfriend Hugh.
Ya, my parents had both poured over all of that deeply personal information and had kept that to themselves for months in preparation for tonight’s private family outing.
My mind was spinning in a million different directions. I was enraged at the violation of my privacy. I was trying to rewind and review all of the conversations and visits that we had had since they had found out. I was ashamed and embarrassed that my parents knew all they did about me. But most of all, I was scared for what was going to come next.
Sticks and stones
My memory of the rest of the conversation is blotchy at best but there were many words exchanged that were permanently tattooed onto my soul. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can cause a lifetime of trauma.
“This is most hurtful thing a Father could ever learn about his son”
“Do you know what this will do to our family? Can’t you see how this is already killing your Mother?”
“Have you considered how this will destroy your career and all that you’ve worked for?”
“Do you still consider yourself a Christian? How?”
After those initial rounds were discharged into my being, my Dad reloaded and both of my parents started a new line of questioning.
“Why didn’t you come and speak to us?”
“Is this because I wasn’t around enough when you were younger? Do you see me as an absent father?”
“Is this because I was always here? Did you feel smothered by me? Was I an overbearing mother?”
“Did something happen when we left you in the nursery at Church? Did somebody touch you?”
“Remember that odd babysitter who spanked you without our permission? Does that have something to do with this?”
At last, the questioning had finally come to an end. I was numb, weak, and exhausted and just needed to get out of the house.
“Can I just go?”
We need to contain this
“Go? We haven’t even begun to talk about how we are going to address this situation”
And with that my parents started to open up about the research they had done on ‘this topic’, the others in our Church and in our past churches that they had reached out to for advice and how that had helped to inform them on creating their initial containment plan.
Yes, I said containment plan. Like the plans put in place when a nuclear reactor leaks. To my family, I was now toxic.
What was of paramount importance was that nobody needed to find out about my same sex attraction.
My parents were aghast to learn that I was fully out to all my friends at university, all my colleagues at work and to most of my friends from high school.
I was quickly and forcefully informed that this type of openness did not fit within the Powell family containment plan and that my shameful secret was not going to be shared with my sister or brother, my grandparents, any extended family members, or with anyone else from our church community.
“Fine, can I go now?”
I still wanted to borrow the car, and I knew this wasn’t the time to push back, argue, or heaven forbid stand up for myself. But then again, I was never permitted to argue, share my actual opinion or use my authentic voice if it didn’t align with the black & white views of our fundamentalist beliefs. My Father was the head of our household and when these decisions were made, that was it.
Let us pray
“Before you go, we need to pray and ask God to help us through this challenge”
Is he serious? I couldn’t imagine anything that I would want to do less than to listen to my Dad speak to God and beg Him to intercede on ‘this challenge’.
I tensed up my body even more, dug my toes into the carpet and waited for this spiritual abuse to finally be complete.
“You can go.”
And with that I was released. I grabbed the car keys and headed out to see my friends. I have no idea what we actually did that night, but the one thing I do know for sure is that I would have never mentioned a single word about the hell that I had just endured.
It was time to wipe those tears away, shove all those emotions back down inside of me, plaster my plastic smile back onto my face and be the James that all of my high school friends expected me to be.
My sister & brother
A few weeks later I was obliged to return home for Canadian Thanksgiving weekend. My plan was to keep all family time to a minimum. Once again, I asked to use the car so that I could meet up with other friends who would be home for the holiday. I was given permission as long as I picked my sister and brother up from their shift at DQ and dropped them off before going out. I agreed and I was out the door.
I picked up my sister and brother and as I was driving them back home my sister shared two words with me.
Part of me knew exactly what she was talking about and yet another part of me knew how adamant my parents were about NOT letting my dirty little secret be known to others.
“Know about what?”
“About me, what?”
“Oh Jim, about how you’re struggling with same-sex attraction”
I froze, focused on the road and didn’t say another word for the rest of the drive home.
I do remember my sister saying something about how she still loved me, my brother agreed and as they got out of the car when I dropped them home, I remember feeling some form of support.
The next morning, I confronted my parents and asked them how they could have betrayed my trust again and wanted to know why they felt it was their place to share such an intimate part of me with my siblings.
My father reminded me that he was the head of our household and reiterated that we are a family that doesn’t keep secrets from each other.
With that, my mother invited me upstairs saying that she had something to show me.
Circle of Shame
We walked upstairs and into a spare bedroom. She closed the door behind us and pointed out a massive white Bristol board that had been affixed to the back of the door.
This was the first time I laid eyes on ‘The Circle of Gay’. (my pet name for this project, not theirs)
This piece of art was simple yet very functional. Staring back at me was a massive circle with my name written in block letters in the middle of the circle. Surrounding my name, but still within the circle were the names of my parents, my sister, my sister’s best friend, my brother, and my brother’s best friend.
My mom explained that every member of the household has been instructed to consult ‘The Circle of Gay’ each morning. They were to study the names within the circle so that there would be no confusion or accidental sharing of my secret. The circle of gay was a containment and tracking device.
The circle of gay was a physical manifestation of my family’s shame over who I was created to be.
It was an emotional roller coaster writing this part of my story. I didn’t realize how much shame, hurt and pain that I had been holding onto for so many years.
Indoctrination of silence
This is a hard part for me to share because of the indoctrination of family honour and silence that was a central part of my religious upbringing.
So many of us have been taught ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all’. We are also implicitly and explicitly that what goes on inside of family systems needs to stay inside of family systems, remember the commandment ‘honor thy mother and father’?
In trauma therapy I’m learning how this form of silencing is part of my core wound. As a child my young mind felt that speaking my truth and ‘coming out of the closet’ would have ended in being kicked out of the family and living on the streets. I see how this core wound has continued to impact my life and I get retraumatized in situations where I am forced or coerced into be silenced.
Cycle of abuse
I’ve learned that this silencing or staying in the closest is part of what keeps the cycle of abuse continuing. Silence breeds shame and shame breeds abuse. As I say this I want to be sure that I’m NOT shaming or pressing anyone to come out before they feel safe to do. Only you know your personal situation and your personal safety needs to come before all else.
That being said, a common trauma response for victims and survivors of child abuse is called ‘parentification’. This is when the victim of abuse takes on the emotional responsibility of their abusers. This role reversal sees the child victim or survivor acting as the caregiver for their adult abusers.
Parentification doesn’t only happen in childhood. Parentification creates a state of chronic stress and relational trauma and shame that can extend for a lifetime. This same type of chronic stress happens in workplaces, relationships and politics.
I could see the impact of parentification show up for me with today’s episode. As I shared my truth, I wanted to hold back to protect my parents and my family. I struggled with sharing my experiences because I didn’t want my parents to experience any pain, shame or judgement.
Compliance and control
I can see how parentification has spread into other parts of my life too; at work, with doctors and therapists, government officials, the CRA, or anyone that I believe has power. Growing up in an extremely religious environment taught me that I need to protect those in power. Speaking up, speaking back, questioning or not believing was not tolerated. Control and compliance were prioritized and expected. I learned early on that my feelings, my desires and my voice had very little worth (and in some instances, my desires were taught to be sinful).
Hide, suppress, deny
As an adult I’m learning the consequences of NOT coming out. When we don’t share who we are. When we hide, suppress and deny our truth we get sick. This is the reason we shop, eat, sleep, drink, sex, please, Netflix, spend, drug, game, work, perform, Instagram, cut, porn ourselves to death. We are attempting to emotionally numb, escape and deaden ourselves from speaking our truth.
Coming out isn’t a one-time event for queer people. Coming out is an ongoing process of truth-telling for every single human. Coming out is a continual mental health imperative for each and every one of us.
Social justice is mental health
We need to continue the work to encourage, protect and share movements like Black Lives Matter, Indigenous reconciliation, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Metoo, corporate whistleblowing, reporting of church sexual/emotional/spiritual abuse and all other causes that encourage humans to speak their truth.
These movements need to be viewed as vitally important and receive priority funding for their mental and whole health impact in our world. When we say #LetsTalk and ask, ‘how can we move the dial on mental wellness?’ these are some of the movements that need to be top mind.
We must protect our children
AND we must protect our most vulnerable. We must fight for and create protections for our children who do not have the resources to speak their truth. Our children rely on the protections of their caregivers but what happens when their caregivers bring into harm’s way? For me, and for many other queer children harm came in the form of homophobic and hate filled theology of the church.
We currently have zero protections, warnings, guidelines, regulations or anything to protect our children from this abuse. Our society continues to look the other way while this abuse continues to happen in plain sight and is funded by your tax dollars.
Are you in the closet?
So, what about you? What truth have you been holding back or hiding? Are there places in your life where you need to come out?
Speaking your truth isn’t toxic. But the impact of hiding your truth may be… as they say. We are only as sick as our secrets.
Thank you for joining me today and before we go, I want to remind you that you have a powerful voice that was designed to be heard. Our world needs all of you and we need to hear your truth.
Until next time, be safe and know that you are loved.