Change is Hard: Literally
Remember that swirly mix of emotions that happen right after you start coming out? I bounced between intense joy and deep, paralyzing fear but I found the fear to be more persistent and nagging. That terrifying thought: “What if I’m wrong?” wouldn’t let me have peace. Even when I became intellectually affirming and started dating women, I’d lie awake at night staring at the ceiling terrified that they were right and this is wrong. I tried to ignore the inner voice that was quietly nagging at me, keeping me from rest without much success. This discomfort has many names depending on who you ask: growing pains, conviction, the Holy Spirit, your conscience, or dissonance. I found comfort in understanding what was happening in my brain as I navigated this paradigm shift. So, let me share with you what I’ve learned by understanding this dissonance through the lens of neuroscience.
Neuroscientists have given us the term ‘confirmation bias’, the term used to describe our propensity to single out information that supports and confirms our pre-existing ideas and beliefs. Our brains are wired to disregard information that might contradict or challenge our beliefs. So, when we encounter information or ideas that are foreign to us, our brain categorizes it as a threat and starts to release panic hormones to move us away from change. Not surprisingly, this function of our brains is strongest when our ideas or beliefs are deeply ingrained, emotional, or culturally supported. (see: conservative Christianity’s toxic beliefs and attitudes about LGBTQ folks).
Let’s take a look at this in action: My wife and I have two great dogs, we love our city and have worked our asses off to be oriented towards growth this year and it really shows. Yet, my parents still haven’t said Lauren’s name out loud to me after 4 years together and sometimes the effects of my two brain injuries leave me feeling dejected and apathetic. Our queerness is not the driving factor in the joy or pain that we encounter in our lives. Good things happen. Bad things happen. Life goes on. However, my parents have been cultured in a way that encourages them to reject my attempts at a deep relationship with them in the name of “love”. My father relies on metaphors of me in a burning building, “awaiting my imminent eternal destruction”. To him, my sexual orientation is to blame for the lack of relationship we experience. He uses this to defend his deeply held belief that my queerness is rooted in brokenness and sin. “Don’t you see what you are doing to our family? You are choosing sin over family and faith”. He is experiencing the pain of our broken relationship and blaming my identity, instead of his own core beliefs, for his distress.
Upon reflection and after temporarily setting aside the emotions that his words cause me, all signs point to bigotry and homophobia as the virus causing pain and disconnect in this relationship. However, because of his dogma, he renders himself incapable of seeing the truth of the situation. His brain is sending those panic signals and adrenaline every time he thinks about his daughter being queer and he names this sensation ‘conviction’. He finds more comfort in blaming a symptom, the broken relationship, for the true underlying sickness of bigotry. This leaves him with a cognitive dilemma: Question how I see LGBTQ people or Question how I see my child? His brain is wired to walk the beaten path of seeing LGBTQ folks as less-than and other. His brain is wired to question how I know that so many people in the LGBT community wrestle with these kinds of dilemmas in their own families. Every call from your brother reminding you he thinks you are perverted. Each time an old friend utters, “I love you, but…”. We are asked to defend our existence as queer people and then shamed if we actually try. This creates an impossible dichotomy for us as we work to understand ourselves. This kind of gaslighting is devastating, often sending people into therapy to try and understand and make sense of the pain. How many of us have tried to stifle our authentic selves and questioned our experiences because we’re threatened with or afraid of rejection?
Repeat After Me: I am Valuable
First, let me assure you that you are valuable. You are important. You are wanted. God celebrates you and created you just as you are. There is a place for you, friend. If you’ve been met with anything less than joy and celebration for coming out, find someone, anyone, who will remind you of these truths until you believe them. This journey is not a sprint, and you’re going to need people. Sometimes those nasty messages of hate, rejection, blame, and exclusion will creep in, and you might be tempted to believe that they are true. They are not. This is often the whisper of years of conditioning leading to that stubborn whisper of internalized homophobia. This can be hard stuff. Don’t try it in isolation.
Find a Good Therapist
Second, take care of your mental health. Find a good therapist who is familiar with these topics and who can affirm you on your journey. Regardless of where you go, do your research. Call therapy practices and ask if they are affirming of LGBTQ people. If they don’t know what you mean...run. Some questions you might want to ask a potential therapist: 1) Have you worked with LGBTQ people before? 2) Do you consider yourself affirming of queer folks? 3) How do you or your practice feel about conversion therapy/ trying to change sexual orientation? 4) How familiar are you with current LGBT issues? 5) Do you have any religious beliefs that will inhibit your ability to provide care for me in a counseling setting? Don’t settle until you find the right therapist for you, because the process is intimate and full of hard work. You’ll need a space to grieve losses, celebrate wins, deconstruct and reconstruct paradigms, and learn new ways of thriving as a queer person of faith. This isn’t just true right after you come out. The journey is long and winding; remember that you can always ask for a hand to help you walk the path.
Seek Out Affirming Spaces
Third, I encourage you to find safe, affirming spaces to be in. I hear over and over again how healing it is to find people “who just get it” and can connect on this level with you. If you’re starting from ground zero, a good first step is to go online. You can find queer Christian spaces on Facebook, Twitter, and national organizations like The Reformation Project or Q Christian Fellowship. The Christian Closet has a recurring online support group available for those who want to connect to others while navigating the ups and downs of identity and relationships. Then move to something local. You need people. Try looking for a local pride center, local pride organization, or search for affirming churches on Church Clarity’s website. This can be the beginning of finding your chosen family and continue to heal in community.
The constant journey towards authenticity can be both freeing and exhausting. Coming to better understand your identity should be celebrated. You are not inherently broken. Challenge this belief every time it resurfaces. The work it takes to find spaces and safety can be hard, but it is necessary for thriving. You are wanted, and you deserve to feel that way. Dissonance abounds on the journey out of shame and into confidence, self-acceptance, and yes, #Pride.