First published at 365gay.com on September 25, 2009
One of the best bits of advice I ever received while coming out was from a nun.
That’s right—a Catholic nun. Not even a lesbian nun, as far as I can gather. Sr. Julie was one of my theology professors in college, and she was one of the first people I confided in after busting open the closet door.
She had the sort of reassuring demeanor that inspired confidence, in both senses of that term: I shared secrets with her, and her support emboldened me. Looking back, I suspect that some of my candor was excessive, but Julie never let on if it bothered her.
The advice in question regarded a crush I had on a straight neighbor named Neil. I had a penchant for crushes on straight guys then—probably because I knew so few gay ones. Hoping to see more of him, I would ride my bicycle repeatedly up and down his street so that I might “accidentally” catch him venturing outside to fetch the mail. I would write about him in my journal at night, and my heart would leap every time he would call—which was never often enough. When I did get to spend time with him, I would fret for days beforehand about what to wear, how my hair looked, etc.—things that I knew he never noticed, or cared about.
In short, I was a twenty-year-old behaving like a 12-year-old—and a pretty desperate one at that.
I knew how silly I was acting, and in fact I was quite ashamed of it—though apparently not too ashamed to tell Sr. Julie.
“Julie,” I fretted, “I’m a college student—an adult!—and I’m acting like an adolescent.”
She looked at me with her serene eyes and said firmly, “But you are an adolescent…”
“No,” I interrupted—I mean I’m acting like I’m in Junior High.”
“Of course,” she explained gently. “Because, when it comes to dating, that’s precisely where you are. In Junior High, when your straight friends were all dating, what were you doing? Keeping to yourself. You never had those adolescent experiences that others did. They’re silly, sure, but they’re part of the process. You’re just starting out. So be patient with yourself.”
It was one of those “lightbulb moments”: You’re new to this; be patient with yourself. I had only been out about a year, without any real dating experience, and yet I was beating myself up for failing to handle my crush like an “adult.” (Eventually I would learn that even adults don’t necessarily handle their crushes like adults.)
Then Sr. Julie sang “Climb Every Mountain” and sent me on my way.
Okay, I made that last part up. But the rest of the story is true, and the exchange has stuck with me for two decades.
I should mention that it came as no surprise to me that a Catholic nun could give such good relationship advice—to a gay guy, no less. The priests, nuns and brothers I knew in college were sensitive, humane individuals. It saddens me that, in the minds of the public, their humanity is often eclipsed by the misdeeds of the hierarchy.
Still, even though I no longer share their Catholic faith, I carry their lessons with me.
I remember Julie’s insight, for example, each time a young gay person comes to me for relationship advice. “You’re new to this; be patient with yourself,” I tell them.
I remember it, too, when I reflect on the various ways in which homophobia harms people. It is difficult to exaggerate the enduring damage done by robbing youth of key formative experiences. And while I’m grateful that more gay youth today can experience their adolescent growing pains alongside their straight peers, we still have a long way to go.
And I remember it when, even now, I notice myself replaying the scripts learned in Junior High. It’s not just about romantic life—though I sometimes suspect that, contra Freud, it’s really 7th grade that holds the key to one’s sexual psyche. It is, rather, a more general insecurity, a nagging doubt: “Will they really like me?” followed by the vestigial coda, “But what if they knew my secret?”
It is no longer a secret, of course. I’m an out gay man happily in an eight-year relationship. Neil is a distant memory. Sr. Julie, whom I have not spoken to in decades, is now a high-ranking university administrator. I owe her a thank-you.