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My way out

My way out


The author of a compelling new book for gay men, The Way Out, relates his own journey from the closet to the party scene to despair to enlightenment--and invites you to join him on his path to affirming the true self.

I have spent my entire life looking for the way out of pain.

However, no matter what form it took--fear, depression, bitterness, anxiety, jealousy, loneliness, addiction, anger, judgment, self-criticism, you name it--and no matter how much it hurt, for most of my life I didn't think of it as pain. Rather I qualified these feelings as symptoms of my imperfection. In other words, I thought the pain was me.

As an adolescent growing up in the suburbs of Birmingham, Ala., in the '70s and '80s, I was in a lot of pain. But by the time I was 16, I was sick enough of being listless and depressed to do something about it. I decided that I wanted to be happy. And I was certain that the way to do this was to correct my imperfections.

The most serious of these imperfections was my homosexuality--it was my fatal flaw, my original sin that I had not chosen to commit. Though by my midteens I had accepted that this condition was never going to change, I could not really accept that I was gay. To me that would have meant accepting that I was a lonely, pitiful and defective human being, that I was not loved by God, that I was less than straight men, that the only others like me were shadowy discards from society. Doing that would have meant accepting that I was never going to be happy, so that was out of the question.

My sexual attraction to men, however, was by no means the only imperfection I needed to cloak. Compared to the fabulous Pretty in Pink teens I grew up with, I was absolutely riddled with imperfections--I wasn't beautiful; I wasn't rich; I wasn't masculine; I wasn't confident; I wasn't athletic. As I became hyperaware of these inadequacies, too, I slowly became both ashamed and embarrassed to be me.

To remedy this I became devoted to getting gorgeous and becoming popular--in other words, to getting "perfect." And college became the set where I was able to successfully act the role of a privileged pretty boy. Playing this role felt like the very first shot of morphine after a lifetime of debilitating pain, and I often felt high. But whenever the morphine wore off, I would find myself hurtling back into the void, and it was as if I had never left.

Meanwhile, my sexuality was literally in the closet--that's where I kept my gay porn, on a high shelf in a small closet blocked off by a large chair. I even did such a number on myself that, whenever I saw a guy I thought was gay, I would find myself thinking, "Ugh, how horrible that would be." Then I would momentarily move into a kind of twilight zone of awareness of the fact that I was this person I pitied. I was in a state of shock over my own being.

Then in 1993 I made a monumental shift in how I experienced my life when I rebelled against the depression that still tormented me and looked inside myself for the first time for its source in the form of my own thoughts. Not only did learning how to fight my thoughts mark the beginning of the end of depression for me, it awoke a nascent awareness of my power to change the reality of my life by looking inward rather than outward. As a result, the way I lived my life began to change.

First I ditched my plans to go to law school and decided instead to follow my lifelong dream to become a writer. Even more significant, for the first time in my life I began to question my belief that I couldn't come out of the closet and be happy. There were few images of gay people in the media then, so it was still a very lonely time to be gay. And I couldn't even say the word "gay" out loud, so I was at a total loss as to how to go about coming out.

Then opportunity struck. One night I read in Details magazine that they were starting a new section that readers could submit stories for. And I had a revelation: I would write an essay about life inside the closet and thereby come out in the process. As much as going through with it scared me, and as much as it seemed an impossible long shot that it would be selected, I became aware of a silent, certain knowledge about what to do next: write that essay. And so I did.

Despite my sense of certainty, I was shocked when I got a call from an editor in New York saying they loved the piece and wanted to run it with a picture. At the time I was getting ready to move from Mississippi, where I'd gone to college, to Boston for my first magazine internship. Added to the mix of my new life "up North" and working in publishing would be the fact that I would be Out. Me. Out of the closet. Gay and for everyone else to see. I couldn't even imagine it.

The impact of this article had a tectonic effect on my life, and the result was miraculous. When the issue hit the stands I was, in one swoop, out to the world. And quite unlike my fears of rejection, I actually received a flood of warm congratulations from friends and family. Then the real shock came when dozens of young gay men from all over the country began to write and call looking for guidance. I myself was now a gay image in the media, and a coming out mini-guru. It blew my mind.

Most miraculous of all, though, were my feelings. I was the same person I was the day before, only significantly truer to myself, and it felt amazing. I was, to put it mildly, in a state of bliss, reborn.

The big lesson for me was that it had been my own ideas that I had to be a different person from who I truly was in order to be happy that had prevented me from experiencing the bliss of authenticity. Growing up, my mom would regularly quote William Shakespeare: "This above all, to thine own self be true." Finally I understood what she, and Shakespeare, meant.

It wasn't for another year and a half after I'd moved to New York City that I decided to become "gay" in the cultural sense, because I was terrified to let go of the "straight" Southern frat boy sensibilities I had cultivated so carefully. The first guy I slept with--a very "straight-acting" guy I met on the subway--only reinforced these notions, for he, too, slept with men but wanted nothing to do with "gay life" because he was a "real man."

But when my roommate, Dean, took me out to a legendary club in downtown Manhattan called the Tunnel, and I popped an ecstasy and got a load of gorgeous, glamorous gay men with hot bodies, I changed my tune. I thought, If this is what being gay is, I want to be it.

By the time I was 27 I felt I had arrived: I was a bartender at a famous gay bar, scored a gig as a nightlife columnist for a gay magazine, had become a known party boy in both Manhattan and Miami Beach, and laid myself out in a black-and-white spread for a Rizzoli book of homoerotic nudes. And just like in college, I was high as a kite from my successes. But it was an extremely fragile feeling, and all it took was a guy not calling me back to then have to spend weeks getting control of my thoughts again in order to recover from depression.

It seemed no matter how "perfect" I got, the void would always get me in the end.

By the time I was 29, after four jam-packed years mastering gay life, I was spent. As Etta James would sing in the blues bars in Mississippi, the thrill was gone. And what it would take to get the high back--harder drugs, riskier sex, getting supersized by steroids--I wasn't willing to do. I still longed to be happy, but that route looked like an express train to the grave.

So I felt I had no choice but to drop out of the scene. From that point I lived in a state of withdrawal from all the morphine, in the form of attention, I had become addicted to. Looking for some kind of compensatory rush, I found myself compulsively gorging on sexual conquests, and after two years of that I found myself functionally impotent. By that time the emptiness I felt had crept into everything I did. I felt, in a word, bereft.

It began to dawn on me that I knew a lot about being high, but not much about being happy. I needed answers. I needed a way out. But it was not easy to find. Gay culture continued to advertise the dream of gay heaven--that the right boyfriend, the right party, and the right sexual conquest was the answer--but I'd wound up in hell. And well-meaning gay friends and mentors suggested that my real problem was that I was just thinking about it all way, way, way too much.

Of course, the problem wasn't that I was thinking too much. It's that I was seeing more deeply.

Then one day I was sitting out on my stoop on 21st Street in the heart of gay Chelsea brooding over the tremendous sense of loss I was living in when the wordless voice spoke up again, and I knew to get up and go to the bookstore. I marched two avenues over to the Barnes & Noble and walked directly to a book I recognized as the one I needed to read immediately.

It was the Dalai Lama's Transforming the Mind. I picked it up and read something that resonated through my being: Not only does all suffering emanate from my thoughts, but I have the power to change my thoughts.

And so I got to work. Gay party boy became gay spiritual boy. At first it was torture. I lived in a virtual isolation tank and became an audience to the movies playing in my head, no matter how painful they were. And with no one to project the movies on and precious little to anesthetize the pain they caused me, I discovered something profound.

I discovered that I was the creator of my life, not a victim of it, and I created in two ways--consciously in a state of awareness, and unconsciously without awareness.

This helped me discover the true nature of my emotional pain, which I unconsciously created with my own thoughts. Being unaware of this, I believed that the pain came from outside of me or was an intrinsic part of me. Consciously I could see what I had been doing and with the power this knowledge gave me, I could stop using my own mind against myself, ending the need for anesthesia to cover the pain up or internal battles to fight it off. And as I began to heal I discovered that an infinite abundance of happiness existed inside me; all I had to do was to learn how to want it, and how to receive it.

Though I was putting all this newfound insight into practice, for a long time I still felt empty and removed, and in a great deal of conflict. It was as if I had one foot in my old life but the other foot was still hanging in the air.

Then one misty April Sunday evening after about a year and a half of living in limbo like this, the other foot hit. I was walking down 22nd Street between 5th and 6th avenues when I was suddenly awash in something I can only describe as extreme clarity and awareness.

I was then hit by a tidal wave of bliss that was so consuming and brought such tears and convulsions that I could barely walk (though I held it together enough to cross the street to avoid people, who surely would have called 911 had they seen me up close).

Though at first I didn't understand what was happening, slowly as I made my way home I realized that I had become connected to who I truly am, which is pure consciousness. At that moment I was infused with the very antidote to feeling bereft. That one moment of realization was enough to change me forever.

What I have gone through and continue to go through has been experienced by many people throughout the ages. But what made bringing my own path to light so challenging was the fact that there was almost no mention of gay people or the gay experience in any tradition I explored. This glaring absence is mystifying to me, but there is no need to investigate it. The same truth applies to everyone on Earth, and the same light exists in every person.

But gay men, like every other group, have a unique path tailored especially for our growth. This book is intended to help you see how your life as a gay man is, in fact, tailored with perfect precision so that you, too, can discover who you truly are. In that way, as my friend Thomas says, being gay is a gift, and I wrote my book, The Way Out, in part to help you realize it.

Coming out of the closet is usually thought of as the singular answer to the gay "predicament." As transformative as it is, coming out is not enough, for there is now a gay world ready to take over your mind and fill your head with yet another "reality" about who you are. All you have to do these days is become conscious enough to realize you aren't straight, move over into gay society, and then slip right back into unconsciousness by letting gay society tell you who you are and who you should be.

It's like waking up from a coma in intensive care only long enough to shuffle over to another unit where the bed is a better fit and the pain medication is more intense and then going right back to sleep.

And because of this, like practically every other group on the planet, gay men are having what the philosopher Joseph Campbell called a "schizophrenic crack-up" from aligning ourselves with gay culture's programmatic life rather than listening to our own hearts.

And these days we are being assaulted with programming from every direction. Gay culture itself bombards its denizens with views of ourselves at once outlandishly self-aggrandizing and tragically self-destructive. Mainstream popular culture, once virtually silent about our existence, is now telling us we are genetically programmed to be "fabulous," but please don't have our gay sex or our gay love anywhere in the open. And many of our political and religious leaders are waging what they say they believe is a holy war to keep gay people from receiving any sort of societal or spiritual support and legitimacy.

Living at the center of this tornado, every gay man is left to ask himself, am I the coolest, trendiest, sexiest thing ever, or an illegitimate cancer on society?

Which is it?

The answer is that we are neither. In fact, we are not even gay. We are, like everyone on the planet, spiritual beings on a physical quest to realize our true nature. And the only way to the realization of this truth is through the process of letting go of everything you think you know, of every limit you are sure exists, of every fear that has gone unquestioned; for letting go is the only way to make room in your mind for something new.

The book A Course in Miracles points out that your perception only allows in what it already believes to be true, so if you are not willing to let go of your existing beliefs, you have no chance of seeing that you, too, are the sole creator of your life, and you have more power than you could ever imagine.

Letting go includes letting go of any ideas you might have about what "spirituality" or "consciousness" or "God" or even "gay" means, because they are just symbols on a map, nothing more. Don't get hung up on them. And trust me, this something new that letting go will reveal is utterly miraculous. The point isn't just to accept or reject this, but to test it out to see if it might be true for you too.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am not perfect. As Candi Staton sang so poignantly in the old disco classic, "I'm a victim of the very song I sing." However, like many others, I have been given a message that I put into practice every day, and that I am here, now, to pass on. And it is that, indeed, I am perfect. And so are you. We are perfection itself . . just not yet realized.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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