I had always heard people say “sexual orientation is a choice. You choose to be gay or straight.” Well, I chose to be straight and here’s how that choice worked out for me.
Finding My Closet
Growing up, I was quite an active kid. But my hyperactivity was often interpreted as naughtiness. So, all day every day, my mother would threaten me with “I’m going tell your father,” who was then expected to come home, take off his belt, and beat the tar out of me. When my father did return from a long day of hard work, the dog, which was not supposed to be in the house sitting on the furniture, would leap off the sofa and prance to the door to greet him. That was my cue to scram!
My favorite refuge was the dirty clothes bin in my parents’ bedroom closet. I would flee to the room, slam the door behind me, and bury myself under the pile of smelly laundry. My mother washed the clothes in the morning, so I had no fear of being dumped out into the washing machine at night. I hid in the closet until the high anxiety subsided. Little did I suspect that I was on the course of spending the rest of my life in an equally frightening closet.
Feelings behind the Door
abom·i·na·tion | \ ə-ˌbä-mə-ˈnā-shən
Definition of Abomination
- Something vile, detestable, shameful
- Extreme loathing or aversion
- Something to abhor
Such were the feelings that pervaded my total existence from toddler to teenager and into young adulthood: those of self-loathing, self-deprecation…an anathema—cursed by God! But who instilled me with such self-condemnation? No one in specific and everyone in general. Like many, I was born and raised in a heterosexist, antigay, homophobic society, which was founded on religious teachings that denigrate any form of manliness other than machismo.
Although I had been conscious of my sexual orientation as early as the age of four, I only recall my first major castigation at about the age of nine. Walking down the corridor in primary school one day, I was holding my books across my chest. Apparently not manly enough for the tastes of some instructors, I was apprehended by one teacher who, physically forcing my forearm down to my hip, asserted: “This is how real boys carry their books.”
Repressing my hidden secret, I masked my true inner nature with a tough exterior of virility, only to subject myself to tormenting bouts of guilt, shame, anger, and depression. I felt as if I had been branded with an invisible scarlet letter, which stigmatized me as a social misfit—an abomination. I hadn’t chosen this sexual orientation, and I couldn’t make it go away. I felt hopelessly and helplessly trapped. During my senior year of high school, these negative sentiments culminated in thoughts of suicide. Fortunately, catechism paid off and the fear of an eternity in hell prevented me from acting on them.
As a successful teenage swimmer that kicked off workouts of 10-15 kilometers a day with an hour of weight training, I was—let’s say—easy on the eyes. I won over the female contingency of the student body with my muscles and flashy style of dress—another cover-up of my genuine nature. Although I gloated in the attention of onlookers, I was invariably intimidated by some members of the same sex whom I equally attracted with my sensual allure but successfully repelled with pointed aggression. Could they detect my scarlet letter?
Locked in the Closet
Right after my Holy Communion at age 12, I begged my father to write a letter to dismiss me from the Catholic Church. Prior to that time, I had believed in God, but the constant physical and verbal abuse by nuns at school was beyond all that I could bear. Labeled an apostate, I soon turned my attention to politics, music, fashion, painting, pottery, and sports. It wasn’t until my freshman year in college and the death of my grandfather that I began to rethink the existence of God.
Initially, I was horrified at the thought, but in my sophomore year of university I conjured up the courage to confess my concealed condition to the leader of a campus Christian group, which I had begun attending. His response was to pair me up with an ex-con for discipleship and, then, escort me to a therapist whose first words were “you don’t seem gay.” In due course, I wound up in weekly counseling sessions with the pastor of a center city church that ran an ex-gay ministry, based on reparative conversion therapy.
His counsel, which was baptized in theology, was simple: I had to repent and be healed of my “sin.” Healing consisted of transforming my thought processes. I simply needed “right” thoughts accompanied by “right” actions, which involved prayer and fasting, connecting “meaningfully” with men, dating women, and finding a wife. Oh, yea—and no self-gratification, which would only reinforce the wrong thoughts!
For the next 23 years, I diligently carried out the reparative teachings to the letter. I was actively “renewing my mind” by thinking “correct thoughts.” I got married. I prayed and read the bible daily. I also fasted two days a week after the conclusion of my initial forty-day liquid fast. To my surprise, after 2 decades of conversion therapy, my sexual orientation had not changed one iota—I had merely suppressed it! Did I necessitate a greater exertion of faith? And why now were these feelings surfacing so strongly?
Although my wife was cognizant of my struggles prior to marriage, she—like I—was under the impression that I had been “healed.” In essence, the therapeutic steps that I had been applying merely equated deception. But now we concluded that I had not applied myself sufficiently. Heeding the advice of my then employer, I reenrolled in an assortment of reparative conferences and workshops that counseled me more intensely, some even attempting to cast the “evil spirits” out of me. All the more disturbing, not once did I encounter an individual who had successfully transitioned from gay to heterosexual.
Suffocating in the Closet
As for me, I can honestly say that I exerted all my energies in applying this type of ex-gay conversion therapy. But the more I focused on replacing my thoughts and feelings, the more I weakened emotionally and psychologically. What everyone failed to realize were the detrimental effects of reparative therapy, which only reinforced my self-loathing and shattered my self-esteem, making my life increasingly miserable. To this day, I deal with the long-term devastation of having been married to someone that went diametrically against my natural inclinations.
Eventually, my employer visited me with a reparative counselor to present me with an ultimatum—that I leave my home in Italy and move to the Netherlands for a year of rigorous ex-gay treatment. In the event I refused, I would lose my job. Irritated by their blackmail, I relinquished my position. In retrospect, I could have sued the company, but I was too fragile. The psychological abuse had taken its toll.
Just when my life was unraveling, I met a priest on the airplane as I was returning from business in Portugal. Hesitantly, I accepted his invitation and paid him a visit at his monastery in the center of the city. There, for the first time, my eyes were opened: I did not require faith to change but rather to accept myself. “Pack your bags,” he advised, “and go overseas to a gay environment where you can receive the help you so desperately need.” Abandoned by almost everyone whom I knew, I had nothing to lose.
For the next few days, the priest and other brothers accompanied me to gay cafés and the gay beach. Although I was apprehensive, I saw firsthand the life that I should have been living all along. At least when the most difficult day of my life arrived, I could muster up enough courage to pack two suitcases and kiss my camouflaged life goodbye—forever! I boarded a plane destined to the US where I would confront my agonizing conflict.
Flinging Open the Door
Living life in a closet beneath the pile of dirty laundry that society had heaped upon me was a dismal existence. Yet, exiting into the threatening antigay environment that awaited me on the outside was all the more intimidating. Was I ready for rejection and ridicule? I yearned to live in the light of just being me as the darkness of concealment became loathsome. So one day I opened the door. Confused, fearful, and disoriented—I exited.
Assailed by nightmares for months, I was consumed by guilt for having left my wife. Pelted by doubts and insecurities, I felt as if everything in which I had believed was crumbling beneath me. I was tormented by the haunting thoughts of fire and brimstone, as well as the condemnation that was hurled at me by all those who had forsaken me, writing me off as backslidden, an apostate, a sinner—an abomination.
Such was my state when I arrived in the US where I located a gay counseling center through an advertisement in the local gay newspaper. Apprehensively, I phoned for an appointment and began meeting regularly with a counselor who explained the futility of trying to change my sexual orientation, which I never chose in the first place. My only choice was to accept it.
At last, I understood that rejecting my natural attraction and romantic feelings to the same sex was the source of my self-inflicted punishment, condemnation, depression, and shame. I had been brainwashed by anti-gay theologies, homophobic society, reparative therapies, and ex-gay ministries—all of which instilled me with self-hatred.
In one session, my counselor encouraged me to become involved in gay clubs where I could develop healthy gay relationships. “Do you have any hobbies?” he pried. “Swimming,” I responded. Strangely that evening, one of the swimmers of the gay swim team just happened to be volunteering at the counseling center. My counselor introduced me to him; he was a gay lawyer.
Borrowing a suit and goggles, I trailed behind the gentleman, who presented me to the team before the workout. For the first time in my life, I found myself amongst a community of LGBTQ men and women—professionals from every walk of life. Latinos, Blacks, Asians—they all had one thing in common: they were all swimmers, and many of them were impressively good swimmers. Oh, yea! They were all queer too!
I spent three years living and working in the US, receiving counsel in self-acceptance, and swimming with the team. After workouts, we often dined in assorted restaurants around the city, at which time we spoke about the issues of life that I had not addressed previously. I often went dancing with them in the clubs until late at night, just to wake up early for work or to study for my MBA, which I obtained at that time. We also competed against other teams within a worldwide network of gay athletes. I even took gold in the international finals.
I was reliving my youth exactly how I wanted to live it the first time. But starting life over as a middle-aged gay man was not all fun and games. I had to face the verbal and physical abuse of the antigay world that surrounded me and, since, I have been punched, kicked, and even told to leave non-gay locales. Once, a carful of backwoods teenagers tossed bottles at me simply because I was walking through the “gayborhood.” Screeching off into the distance, they hurled insults like “faggot” at me.
What’s more, I had not advanced through the various developmental stages of life as a healthy gay man and, hence, lacked the faculties to manage a crush, fall in love, or develop a sound intimate friendship. Consequently, I stumbled through years of bittersweet relationships. What would the man of my dreams even resemble?
Since my mindset had been tainted against homosexuality from a tender age, I approached the bible with the subconscious bias that all passages not only forbid homosexual behavior but condemn homosexuals, as well. When I came out of the closet, I was unable to reconcile my true inner nature with numerous verses of the bible, particularly those passages that have been distorted to badger gays. Hoodwinked by mainstream antigay theology, I rejected any other interpretation and, thus, rejected God and religion for nearly a decade.
Life outside the Closet
Coming out of the closet did not allow me to leave open all doors in life. Most family members and relatives would not accept me. My immediate family, former friends, colleagues, and acquaintances renounced me across the board. Despite attempts to explain my situation, I was deemed a traitor by the religious establishment. Realizing that explanations and arguments were useless, I slammed the door shut to them all and started life over from scratch.
Obviously redefining myself at the age of forty has by no means been easy; but I have managed to open enough new doors, which have led me to a rewarding new life. Most importantly, I have opened the door of my heart and embarked on a brand-new journey whereby I can accept myself for who I am and, in turn, accept others for whom they are—with no conditions, no terms of agreement, and no hidden agendas.
Loving myself enabled me to love others and embrace the love of my life—the man I had waited for decades. I am no longer trapped inside the four walls of society’s norms, nor am I confined any longer within the walls of homophobic institutionalized religion. I have completed my exodus, stepping through the doorway and out of the great religious and societal travesty into a world where I am free to be me. Sure, I still have scars; but they’ve become my war trophies.
Let’s face it. Coming out has cost me: I lost everything and everyone. But I found myself in exchange. Through the death of my partner, I found Orthodox Judaism, which rehabilitated me from a state of deep grief and mourning to life. I now have a profound and renewed relationship with God. I no longer have trouble reconciling my sexual orientation with the bible or my newfound religion, because I did make a choice—but it was life.
Francesco (Yehudah) Di Maio
Director of Community Engagement, Eshel