by Thomas Ehnert
It was Pridefest, 2011. I was walking home from work and could hear the thud, thud, thud of the music coming from what my friends simply called “Pride.” Unlike my friends, I wasn’t going to Pride. I told them, “I have to work.” What I told myself was, “Being gay is nothing to be proud of. Being this way destroyed my life.”
I had only come out the previous August. For three decades, I coped with being gay by not admitting I was gay—not to myself or anyone else. My own personal religious beliefs meant that I tried everything to keep myself not in a closet, because closets have doors! Someone might have opened that door and discovered my secret! I built myself into a full-blown mighty fortress with no doors, in or out! I began construction when the thought first came to me as a five-year-old, “I’m not like the other boys.”
Over the years, I built the walls higher and thicker in an effort to keep myself in, and to keep other people out. I threw myself into my religion. I prayed to become straight. I made a chapel in my parents’ basement. Come to think of it, with its gray concrete block walls, my private chapel resembled a fortress! I went to parochial school. I went to seminary. I became clergy. I married. I had a child. Despite thirty years of effort and angst put into my fortress, I was still gay.
By August 2010, I couldn’t live in a fortress anymore. The two words, “I’m gay,” were like a wrecking ball. Every time I revealed my truth to someone, it bashed against my fortress. I knocked down what I had spent thirty years constructing. I lost most of my family and all my friends. Some stopped communicating with me. I stopped communicating with others before they could stop communicating with me. Even though I lost my profession, home, and income, what hurt most is that I hurt so many people. I lost my sense of dignity and pride.
Ten months later, in 2011, my first “Pride” came, but I was not yet proud. I was free from that awful mighty fortress. But being gay was still nothing to celebrate for me. I was like someone coming out of a prison. I had to get used to freedom.
By 2012, Pridefest weekend was so different for me. I participated! What happened? Once my fortress was torn down, I could actually let people into my life. I could let them know the real me. My mom accepted the real me and was proud of the real me way before I was! I had other supportive family too, friends who became like family, and life-affirming clergy. I had spent years building up walls. They built up me.
Now as I look back, this is what I’ve learned: for GLBT people, pride is not optional. For us, pride is a virtue, an ethical value, and a spiritual principle. Pride is a moral imperative. Yes, the old dictum says, “Pride goeth before destruction.” But among us, shame, guilt, fear, and self-loathing go before destruction. Those feelings lead into a fortress. Those feelings lead some of us to substance abuse, depression, loneliness, and suicide. They were companions in my fortress too.
The other thing I’ve learned is that being gay didn’t destroy my life. Living in my fortress wasn’t a life! Pride goes before real life for us—an honest, self-respecting, confident, and peaceful life. It takes such exhausting deceit and never-ending anxiety to build, maintain, and live alone in fortresses! So this month, celebrate Pride by tearing down whatever fortresses remain in your life. Be there for someone who’s still in the demolition phase. Our work isn’t done when we’re out of our fortress. Our work is done when none of our GLBT family feel they have to live alone in a closet, or a fortress! Our work is done when every member of our GLBT family can embrace a real, open, and honest life wherever they are. Celebrate that dream this month! Work to make that dream a reality for others, every day! Have a proud Pride!
Tom Ehnert is a dad, a former Lutheran pastor, and lifelong student of spirituality. If you’d like to share more about your spiritual journey, contact him at [email protected].