Note: As detailed elsewhere, children’s art invokes for me the curiosity, wonder, and “beginner’s mind” that makes for an especially productive conversation. “As children we fall in love with the wonder of being alive,” Tsoknyi Rinpoche taught, with “the things around us fascinat[ing] us” – inviting people to make space for mindful practices (including mindful listening) that move us towards, “falling back in love with the sheer wonder of being alive.”
“Everyone in a complex system has a slightly different interpretation. The more interpretations we gather, the easier it becomes to gain a sense of the whole.” – Margaret J. Wheatley
Within a larger world historically disapproving of same-sex relationships, it’s little wonder that “acceptance” has become an important focus – both as reflected in relation to surrounding friends and family, and in the internal experience of those who experience same-sex attraction. In this latter, more personal sense, what exactly does acceptance mean?
Like all questions, this one does not live in a vacuum. Moments such as the following interaction by a man with his father, illustrate some of the painful context surrounding this question: “he yelled at me…pulled me aside and he told me, ‘If I ever catch you acting or talking like a girl then I will beat you.’ It was a big turning point in my life….I started to hate myself…I wanted to get rid of it, and cure it. I hated that I had these attractions and I would hide it. I would lower my voice every chance I got in public and I would make sure I walked a certain way” (VH-JN)
As reflected here, it may be important to start talking about the opposite of self acceptance – including a fakeness and duplicity constantly projected onto the world:
- I felt at times as if I had two lives, two parts of me – the public part that everybody saw, and the strange part that I didn’t know what to do with. But I lived with it; I was so afraid and ashamed of it that I kept it completely hidden. (VH-LWJ)
- I was scared to death of letting anybody find out. I was scared that my parents would find out. I was scared that my friends would find out and so I hid them. I kept them all secret. I had a lot of shame…all kinds of shame about these feelings and I made certain that they would never be revealed to anybody. (VH -PMD)
One man even worried that his church wouldn’t allow him to serve others if they knew about his feelings of same-sex attraction: “I was scared to death they weren’t going to let me go on my mission if I let anybody know that I had these feelings” (VH-DEC)
More than simply keeping it from those around them, individuals also spoke about trying to avoid and distract themselves from same-sex attraction – e.g., “ignoring my feelings of attraction to other guys” (FB-ME). Others said:
- I thoroughly ignored it and was really good at compartmentalizing and just pretending like it wasn’t there. I was aware of it in the back of my mind. It was a kind of thing I knew was in the background somewhere, and it was something that I just wanted to escape. (VH-SB)
- I tried very hard to distract myself from all the feelings I was having….I tried to get into all these things so I wouldn’t have to think about my sexuality. (FB-AD)
- I took on a lot of classes at school to busy my time and busy my mind. I was hiding and I was trying to cover up my emotions because I was too afraid of feeling them. (VH -PMD)
For some, this avoidance was more aggressive than others, with one man saying, “I was really in denial. Whatever that was it wasn’t homosexuality…I wasn’t gay! I pushed them away, ignored them – thought about anything else. Lots of shame – e.g., ‘Give me anything else! Cancer, alcoholic – but not this!’ (VH-JTB). Others described their past experience using forceful words like stuffing, pushing feeling away: “I dealt with these feelings and I just stuffed them—I bottled them all up. I knew they were all there. Meanwhile, these feelings just stayed under the surface, quite a ways under” (VH -PMD); “I pushed my emotions aside, altogether ignoring them” (VH-AH)
Underlying this kind of fakeness and force, for many, was a strident resistance and hatred: “You know, I just despised that part of me and I wanted it to go away so bad” (FB-KA). Another person said, “I tried so hard to not be attracted to guys. I knew that wasn’t normal. I never heard anything nice said about gay people. Every time I blew out birthday candles I wished to be attracted to girls, every time I threw a penny into a fountain at the mall, every time it was I made a wish – anything – that is what it was” (VH-LJ)
For some, this involved various actions designed to make the feeling go away forever: “I went really crazy, really, really religious and thought that if I was just absolutely the perfect Mormon in every way that nobody could ever think that I was gay, and that it would just kind of go away” (FB-KA)
Unsurprisingly, these kinds of inner and outer actions were associated with sorrow and loneliness:
- I remember many times sitting at the lunch table and just being so afraid—so afraid to be me—so afraid that I was going to be rejected….I was so alone. (VH -PMD)
- Middle school was really hard for me. I spent many nights in bed crying myself to sleep. I just was so confused; I felt so alone and I was terrified that someone would find out. I remember one night when I was thirteen I was laying on my bed and it was all dark. I finally admitted that I was attracted to guys and I whispered in the quietest whisper ever so that nobody else could possibly hear – I just whispered, “I am gay,” and I just sat there crying. (VH-LJ)
Before going on, it’s important to point out one enormous area of common ground in the comments above. It seems more than ever, there is a striking consensus at how harmful and dangerous these kinds of forceful, aggressive and controlling approaches to sexuality have become – pressing people to feeling fake and broken, not to mention angry, fearful and depressed.
While there is agreement that this despairing place (and anything that leads people there) is harmful, there is a divergence on how exactly people arrive in this despair and what precisely is called for next. In what follows, six different kinds of acceptance are identified based on people’s stories. Across accounts, individuals take very different approaches to acceptance, with distinct implications that follow.
1. Acceptance of feelings as being there, without needing to be forced away, fought or avoided. A first basic level of acceptance is people simply embracing the experience they are having – consistent with the mindfulness practice of ‘accepting things exactly as they are.’
One man described blessing the sacrament (an ordinance in Latter-day Saint worship), when he noticed some attractive men. A shaming voice in his head started up, “why have to do this again, why now? No one else feels this! You’re the only freak in congregation who feels this way…” He continued, “As I knelt down to say the prayer, another quiet voice said, ‘Jeff – what’s the problem? So you have 20/20 vision, and there are beautiful people in ward…so what if you noticed?'”(VH-JTB)
“Experiences like this helped me overcome shame” (VH-JTB) the man continued. At this level of acceptance, the experience of feeling same-sex attraction is understood as not something to feel bad about: “I know that same-sex attraction is not the end all problem that I used to think it was. I came to find out that as I met more people like me that it was perfectly possible to have a happy normal life; the shame that I had started to melt away as I met other people (VH-RC)
As reflected here, neither is this experience seen as something that is highly strange or unusual: “I’m not that much different from anybody else. I don’t have this completely weird alien thing that’s wrong with me” (VH-JO)
This also means individuals don’t have to fight or force a particular attraction away.
While people reach different evaluations about same-sex attraction, this kind of basic acceptance can become a relieving and de-burdening experience for many people: “It was a huge burden off my shoulders [when I was] finally able to admit it to myself. I, I just I love life now. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Beyond the basic value of accepting experience, what exactly to make of the experience reflects meaningful differences – as explored later on.
2. Acceptance of sharing openly about feelings as potentially helpful. As reflected above, people often spend years not acknowledging these attractions to others as well:
- I was happy on the outside – and I even fooled myself into thinking everything was okay…there was always hiding behind that happy face everyone expected I would put on. I said the things I knew I was supposed to say – but I didn’t believe a single word of what I was saying. (VH-JL)
- As you get older and they start asking you about girls and who you think is cute or hot and I just remember having to make up stories about it – having to pretend like I understood what they were saying or I agreed with them. I just kind of went along with it because I knew if I said what I really felt that it would be completely different and completely awkward. So you put on a façade and pretend like everything is fine and I guess you get really good at it and keep your mouth shut. (VH-ML)
- I had a lot of people that come up to me all the time and they say, “Jeff, you are the happiest person I know,” and I am thinking to myself, “You are talking to somebody who is actively thinking about killing himself.” I would say, “Okay, why am I the happiest person you know?” And they would say, “It’s because you’re always smiling.” I’m like, “If you only knew that the reason why I smile is so that you didn’t know how messed up I am.” (VH-JO)
Given this kind of a past, being able to simply talk openly about one’s feelings of attraction represents another significant de-burdening for many: “I remember just feeling a weight lift off my shoulders just being able to say that out loud” (FB-TY)
Putting some kind of language on it allows people to feel more honest: “But I’m so glad that I was actually able to tell her, no matter what manner was, because it’s out there now and it was the first time that I’ve actually been able to feel like I am one person and not two…not feeling like I am some person that I’m portraying to people and then the person who I think I really am on the inside” (FB-CH)
Although open sharing is another relief for many, how exactly to talk about same-sex attraction is another question of meaningful difference. For instance, many in this moment of honesty adopt a language identifying with the gay community – “I am gay…I am bisexual…I am transgender.” For others, this identification does not resonate, with a preference for describing their “same-sex attraction” as something they are primarily experiencing.
How exactly people understand “being gay” in relation to acceptance can also vary considerably across people. For some, it clearly implies embracing this attraction as natural, healthy and fundamentally who they are (see #4-6 below). Others who speak of “being gay” do not assume any of these things, instead simply reflecting the basic acceptance of experience and feelings (if not actions in line with the feelings, see also #7).
3. Acceptance as acknowledging God’s love. As reflected earlier, communication and assurance from God figures into a deeper level of acceptance for many: “For the first time in my life, I realized that God loved me just as I was, with those attractions and that it was okay. All the shame that was attached to them, I was able to let go of. It has been a great, wonderful blessing in my life, bringing me to the place where finally, I am at peace with me” (VH-DUL)
One person said, “I needed to get this figured out – I fasted and prayed, and I asked, ‘if you’re even there, show me something – do you love me, care about me? Does what I’m going through even matter to you? I felt this amazing rush of energy…and knew He was there….I knew God lived’” (VH-JL).
- I can honestly say that I love myself, for the first time in my entire life. I can honestly tell you that I know that Heavenly Father loves me and that that doesn’t change. That me being a lesbian has nothing to do with how much he loves me, and how much he loves all of his children. (FB-AN)
- I came to find out that God was okay with me being me; me being imperfect, and all my weaknesses, all my flaws; He was okay with all of it. He kept telling me that it was okay to be myself and I didn’t have to worry what other people thought about me and that when other people thought poorly of me they were missing out on an opportunity to learn from me. How other people thought about my situation did not have to define my life and my happiness did not have to be a function of how they treated me, of what they thought about me. I know that I am a child of God. I know that He loves me and I know that is what really matters. (VH-RC)
While feeling God’s love was another common catalyst for acceptance, what exactly it meant in practice is where meaningful difference emerged – with distinct interpretations of what these assurances mean, as touched on below.
4. Acceptance as embracing feelings as right, good, healthy and natural. Based on different, unique experiences, some people reach a point of accepting same-sex attraction as valid, healthy and good: “The thought that crossed my mind was, ‘maybe it is okay…’ As soon as that thought crossed my mind I felt an overwhelming feeling of love from God like I had never in my life felt before. It was one of the strongest feelings I’ve ever felt” (VH-LWJ)
Describing a conversation with a friend about same-sex attraction (his and others), another person said, “They’re perfect and they’re beautiful just as they are.’ And then I started to cry because I’m perfect and I’m beautiful just the way I am…it’s so nice to love and accept me. To not have to think about what I need to change. To not try to make myself fit in a box I never fit in” (FB-JE)
Others who may otherwise be accepting of experiencing same-sex attraction, do not feel right about embracing it at this level – as something natural and good.
5. Acceptance of feelings as who you are. Many also come to see and accept same-sex attraction as central to who they are:
- I’m happy with who I am. I’m almost accepting of who I am. (FB-MA)
- And that’s how I hope to proceed is authentic as possible as I embrace who I am in all parts of my identity. (FB-AN)
Others who accept the basic experience of same-sex attraction do not go on to identify with it as central to their fundamental identity (read here for more exploration of this contrast).
6. Acceptance of feelings as a challenging life experience. For others, the acceptance of feelings does not imply either that this is ultimately good or “who they are” fundamentally. Instead, some speak of accepting this as a life challenge to face with grace: “The Spirit told me ‘Jeff, you need to own up to this as a part of you…’ In my prayer life, the spirit kept urging me to accept this as a part of me, a part of my journey, a part of my growth. I never felt that God condemned this vulnerability – I never ever felt condemned by God. But I certainly condemned myself” (VH-JTB)
As reflected in many accounts, there is a distinction between accepting feelings and clinging to/grasping after those feelings. One man explained that it wasn’t a problem that he was attracted to other men – adding, “There is a problem when you fantasize further than that” (VH-JO). Jeff above also drew the line between feeling something and lusting (VH-JTB).
Living Out Contrasting Visions of Acceptance. As with the other questions considered in this series, depending on the interpretation and view of acceptance adopted, distinct implications follow.
Different ways to ‘live-out’ attraction. Depending on the particular view of same-sex attraction, individuals pursue different ways of ‘living it out.’ For instance, once people embrace same-sex attraction as natural and healthy (and especially as who they are), they are likely to also accept the following and yielding to these feelings in actual life experience. One person described reaching the point “that I’m actually being who I am in every facet of my life” (FB-CH).
By contrast, those who do not necessarily accept same-sex attraction as natural, healthy and who they are, may not feel comfortable living it out in the same way. One man said, “I never pursued it in any form or aspect” (VH-LWJ). Others, however, may however “live-out” their attraction in other unique ways – stopping short of pursuing romantic partners in their same sex.
Different social responses. Given the charged atmosphere around, the particular narrative of acceptance also prompts unique social responses. Most obvious, perhaps, is the extent to which those who accept feelings as healthy and who they are celebrated in larger culture (if not within religious conservative communities).
The larger trend is clearly towards celebrating and glorifying this kind of acceptance:
- I’m in a place where I accept myself and accept my relationships, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful things about me (FB-L)
- But what I’m really grateful for is that…I’ve embraced who I am. I’ve been living life as full as I can. And so I can look forward to the future with confidence that the individual I am as both gay and Mormon is an individual to be celebrated. And I celebrate myself and I have those that rally around me to help me do that. (FB-AN)
Anything short of embracing same-sex attraction fully is increasingly framed as dangerous and unhealthy – “It’s very important to me to live a genuine lifestyle. And I spent the first half my life, certainly forty years, pretending to be something that I’m not to please others. And well I know that my actions don’t always please everybody that’s a part of my life, I have to live the kind of life that will make me happy and bring me honest joy” (FB-BR).
From this vantage point, the alternative to full acceptance is varying levels of denial: “that’s when I realized that I had to stay in denial or, or suffer I guess I wouldn’t even admit to myself because if admitted to myself then that meant it would be true I refused to admit it even in my head to myself ‘cause that would make it true” (FB-L).
From this perspective, the final version of acceptance described above wouldn’t even be accepted-as-a-kind-of-acceptance!
From another perspective, the #6 version of acceptance is both legitimate and crucial to preserve – allowing people who do not see same-sex attraction as fundamental to who they are to embrace a life in line with that conviction.
Rather than a downer, for many this can reflect some hope at being able to follow the path they value most: “I may not be married and I may not have lived very long, but I know that by living the gospel of Jesus Christ I can be married, I can have a family, and I can have all the blessings that I have desired from the time that I was a little kid” (VH-RC)
Different decisions about family. Depending on the perspective of acceptance taken, this may lead to very different decisions about family.
For instance, there are many accounts of people coming to accept same-sex attraction as “who they are” – who then decide to leave a spouse and children to pursue a same-sex relationship.
Those who accept same-sex attraction as a something they are experiencing – without a need for shame – may not feel the same press to leave their marriage and pursue a same-sex partner. Even so, one man spoke of the new uncertainty that arose in his marriage as he accepted the basic experience of the attraction. “I allowed myself to be a man attracted to men…[My wife] was there by my side working through it – of what does this mean, what does it mean for you, for us, for her, what does it mean for our children? What does that mean?” (VH-LWJ)
Obviously, there are major implications that stem from the particular view of “acceptance” adopted. Making these levels – and their ensuing consequences – is the purpose of the foregoing. As with all the essays, the aim is to help facilitate a more productive conversation – making authentic space for people to make choices best for them.
In summary, there is a remarkably large amount of common ground in (a) concern at the various levels of self-loathing and un-acceptance that are engendered within the gay/SSA communities and (b) appreciation for the value of a basic acceptance of the experience of attraction as something non-shameful and okay to talk about, as well as an acceptance of God’s love. In that experience of God’s love, there is also a common (albeit clearly not universal) appreciation of people’s basic goodness – reviewed elsewhere.
What exactly to make of these basic assurances is something about which wide variation exists.
All in all, perhaps people on all sides can appreciate the courage and difficulty of life journeys as people explore these complex and life-changing questions. As one person said, “really has been through this long, heart wrenching, heart breaking process that I have been able to find the courage within myself to pick up the pieces, and to put my heart back together” (FB-AN)
Flirting with Curiosity Questions:
- What does personal acceptance mean for you in the context of the LGBT/religious conservative conversation?
- For the people you know who experience same-sex attraction or identify as gay, what does self-acceptance mean?
- Is it a problem when the same terms (“acceptance”) are being used in our larger conversation, with widely different meanings?
Notes: [If you have other questions to add, accounts to include, or further clarifications to suggest, please post them below!]
 This list does not presume to be either comprehensive or complete; instead, it reflects my own best map of what I’ve seen in the larger discourse and individual narratives gathered. Like all the other maps, I plan on continuing to revise with further input and examples; please send suggestions!
 The term “feelings” is used here as a generic short-hand for same-sex attraction. While acknowledging that same-sex attraction goes well beyond affect and emotion (to include physiological/biological urges), the generic term is used to keep the focus on variations in acceptance – and not distract with the continued usage of terms (like “same-sex attraction”) that have become charged and controversial.
**I received this note from a close friend after reading this blog, describing her husband’s experience (with his permission), as someone who “has gone through several levels of acceptance throughout his life”:
At one time he fully accepted himself as “gay” and approached another male and was rejected, to now having almost no same-sex thoughts and using mindfulness to let the thoughts pass by…He never imagined that he would be married and have kids. He mourned the family he would never have. Then when he met me and told me his “secret”; my ability to love him unconditionally and truly accept him is part of what has changed his life.
I have also gone through varying stages of acceptance of his attractions and have grown from having some jealousy and resentment to full acceptance of all the parts of him. I love the part of him that makes him gentle, kind, and an amazing father. He is soft spoken and this has been a blessing to me, as he has never yelled at me. He has low testosterone but we have never wanted him to take hormones that might change his personality. He has great fashion and helps me find the best clothes that flatter me and it’s fun to shop with him. Many of the stereotypical “gay” traits are reasons why I love him. I fell in love with him BC he was safe and I’d never felt as safe with anyone else. His “gayness” was part of what I loved. He also tells me that I am the only female that he’s ever been attracted to and that he’s “too vain” to marry someone he wasn’t attracted to. I know that he values the covenants and promises we made together in the temple and I have never worried about him leaving me or having an affair. We see his thoughts as an earthly trait and something he can’t control or choose, but he can choose his behavior and how long he thinks about other men. He has honestly found that accepting the thoughts as “just thoughts” vs feeling shame and self-hate, he has less of them than ever.