Growing Up Gay and Catholic: The Quest for Acceptance
In this blog post, Joey opens up about how his homosexuality affected his ability to find a genuine support system and manage his mental health, particularly because of his religious upbringing.
This post is part of a series dedicated to sharing personal stories, journeys, and insights about mental health and anxiety from members of our community.
Sitting in the church pew at ten years old, one thought kept racing through my mind: “I’m probably going to hell.” When homosexuality was occasionally brought up in religious sermons throughout my 13 years of Catholic school, I regularly watched churchgoers seated around me nodding in agreement that marriage between people of the same sex was forbidden and that a life of chastity was the only path for people with “intrinsically disordered” inclinations, like me. Sitting through these sermons was really hard. I remember my blood boiling, my hands shaking, and just wanting to run out of the church and cry.
I started to worry about the future; if I lived my truth as I grew older, would I go to hell? And if I did, did it include lots of fire and chains, like I saw on TV? As a child already prone to worrying and catastrophizing throughout my struggle with my yet-to-be diagnosed Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), it was definitely a very scary place to be – both mentally and emotionally. I already worried excessively about homework, most social situations, and future events in general. But to worry about the fate of my soul, in addition to all of the above, just felt like too much to handle.
I was forced to question everything around me, having been thrust into a world that had already, by default, imposed restrictions on my way of life. And with these restrictions came a stigma. It was definitely something to “not talk about.” I observed that speaking up about it at the wrong time could have negative consequences – not only for me, but for my family, especially within the church community. If I could not open up about my sexual orientation, I decided that I also would not speak up about my excessive worrying. It felt safer to just keep quiet and not say anything, rather than risk giving too much information away – even to people whom I should be able to trust, like my parents.
Considering that most of my family, friends, and classmates were all part of the same church community, I felt like I had no one to turn to, except the unending anxieties in my mind. Worrying about whether or not I’d spend an eternity suffering in hell was one thing, but even more painful was – to put it simply – the feeling of being alone.
Searching for certainty
As a naturally quiet and shy kid, I did not often meet people from other walks of life throughout my early years. As I entered university, however, I quickly realized that the world was so much bigger than the singular Catholic bubble that I grew up in. I met people from different religions, backgrounds, and worldviews, some of whom didn’t see anything wrong with living life as an openly gay person. In fact, some of them didn’t even care. But despite finding people who were more accepting, I remained quiet. My fears of opening up to other people had grown too large.
Over time, it became more and more difficult to live my life without a genuine support system. As I gradually shed some of my Catholic beliefs, it felt as if the proverbial rug was continuously being pulled out from under me. I was in a constant state of skepticism, doubt, and uncertainty. As someone diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, uncertainty was particularly difficult for me to tolerate. I desperately wanted to see the world in terms of black and white, to definitively know right from wrong, and to finally find my place within the world, but all I could ever see was an unending vacuum of grey.
I was hungry for answers. I read the Bible. I started reading books and commentaries, trying to understand the cultural, intellectual, and philosophical roots and historical contexts of the restrictions and stigma that I experienced. I talked to a few religious leaders over the years (some, even within the same denomination) all giving me differing accounts of their views on homosexuality.
But no matter how hard I tried, the certainty of the black and white answers that I so desperately craved never came. All the while, I continued to feel more and more alone and my anxieties continued to escalate. With more reading and more analysis only came more questions, doubts, and isolation.
Signs of connection and support
Frustrated and alone, I decided to shift gears. I tried to focus on fostering relationships with the people around me and connecting more genuinely with them, instead of only looking to books and religion for all the answers.
I began making a deliberate choice to confide more in my family and friends, choosing to be more honest about both my sexual orientation and my mental health. Over time, I came out to my close friends. And to my surprise, they accepted me anyways. The fears I had built up over many years about opening up and revealing my homosexuality slowly melted away.
Thankfully, I started to see signs from my parents that they would accept me no matter what. A few years back, my Dad took me to attend the Pride Parade, here in Vancouver. I remember him even jokingly asking me, “Are you gay? It’s okay if you are!”, to which I responded by sheepishly (and extremely awkwardly) shrugging and laughing it off. Though just a small statement made in passing, it meant the world to me. Even if I wasn’t yet ready to open up to my family, I could rest easy knowing that they would accept me whenever I chose to open up – a luxury and blessing, to this day, that I never take for granted.
I started to build up more evidence that maybe – just maybe – it was okay to be who I was and that opening up about myself was not as bad as I feared. Slowly, I became more confident that maybe something wasn’t wrong with my sexuality, despite the institutions that continuously told me otherwise.
The big reveal
Eventually, I mustered up the courage to publicly submit an article to Daily Hive during Pride Week about my experience coming to terms with my sexuality. The goal of this article was not to come out, but mostly to self-reflect and help myself process my past. Looking back, I wasn’t sure whether people would find it, read it, or even care; I guess I just wanted to feel heard.
What I wasn’t expecting, was that it would result in one of the happiest and most memorable moments of my life. The day the article was published, I was sitting alone in a park and taking a quick lunch break. Suddenly, my phone started pinging repeatedly. I saw that it was packed with messages from people in my life, both near and far (including from my relatives in the Philippines!) telling me how happy and how proud of me they were. In disbelief, I remember the tears running down my face as I blankly looked at the bright blue sky and supportive messages continued to pour in. For so many years I had lived in fear, and I felt proud of myself for how far I had come. To finally be acknowledged and supported for my true self, rather than who I fearfully curate myself to be, is one of the greatest joys I’ve ever experienced.
Though it was a beautiful moment, it still wasn’t quite that happy movie ending where the credits rolled and uplifting music started to play. Did I still worry about what people thought of me? Did I still catastrophize about the afterlife? Did I still worry about being punished for living a life more aligned with my identity? To all of the above – definitely; I guess a lot if it is just part of being human. Although I still experience a lot of anxiety now and then, I can’t argue with the sheer relief in no longer feeling alone with my worries.
Although my coming out experience ended up being quite positive, I know that’s not the case for many people. I feel very lucky and privileged to have met the people in my life, and I will always acknowledge and remain grateful for that. If I chose to bottle things up and remain stuck in my mind instead of allowing myself to be seen and heard, I sometimes think my life might have turned out very differently, and not for the better. While I do sometimes still lose myself pondering and worrying about the philosophical and religious implications of living my truth, it’s so much more manageable with a support system behind me, and my partner, whom I love 🙂
If you identify as LGBT2SQ+, are part of a community that does not accept you, and/or struggle with managing your mental health, I sincerely hope that you’re able to reach out and find a support system that works for you, and that you’re able to find people who care for you – just as you are. Especially when you might face many cultural and social barriers to full acceptance, opening up and finding people to confide in can be way more difficult, not to mention the internal battles that you might have to fight along the way. Although it may take some messy trial and error, I think that getting the emotional and social support you need can be one of the most important things you can do for your mental health, in addition to seeking professional help.
And if you’re a parent (or even just a friend!) of someone who might be struggling with a combination of their sexuality, their religion, and/or their mental health, I implore you to check-in with them once in awhile. Maybe even throw in a few quick sentences to let them know that you accept them, no matter how they identify. Even if your child (or friend) might not yet be ready to speak up, those few sentences, even in passing, can make a world of difference. Speaking from personal experience, I know it made a huge difference in my life; having the comfort of my parents’ and friends’ acceptance helped me feel like I was not truly alone and, whether they knew it or not, to feel love at a time I actually needed it the most.