Yokes of Shame
If you had told me, in December 2020, that in December 2021 I would be living in a consensually non-monogamous marriage as a result of my discovery and revelation of my sexual orientation to my partner of almost 12 years, I would have bet against you on that. My husband and I, what we have—that’s for life. I fell in love with him. I love him. He is my best friend. He’s an amazing guy. I wouldn’t do life with anyone else. Our world had to shatter to think about doing life together a different way.
So for me, the hardest part of coming out was knowing that, in my happiness, I would be crushing the person I care about the most, someone who definitely did not need or deserve any more life-altering news this year. Instead of treating the news that his wife — the same woman who went through a mental health crisis, career change, and disentanglement from her emotionally-unhealthy family of origin, all in 2021— is very, very gay as a detonating bomb, instead of being angry, or resentful, my husband has, through his sadness, treated this news, this very inconvenient fact, with grace, acceptance and empathy.
I am sad, too. There is an irreplaceable intimacy built over the course of what we have lived together. Our relationship will never be the same again. There is mourning for the way it was.
But there is also this lightness I have never felt before. Now that I have recently pretty much told the entire world that I am super gay, I have cast off the last of my yokes of shame.
I have always known I was gay, but I didn’t actually realize it until this year. When I realized it, and then accepted it, it was like my life all came clearly into focus. I suddenly came out of the perpetual shadow of inadequacy and insecurity, and fully into myself.
Everything is there. The massive “girl crushes” I had as a kid and buried somewhere I couldn’t find them. Those same crushes, except definitely far less innocent, as a teenager. None of them acted on. That would have required me to acknowledge something that wasn’t allowed to exist in my world, for me. So I repressed, as dutiful good Catholic girls do, and ran hard in the other direction. I threw myself into school, work, whatever was there. I was also having lots of sex with men–early, often, with no emotional strings attached–from my late teens into my early 20s, clearly compensating as my feelings for women started to grow. During this period in my life, I definitely had women express an interest in me, but I was way too chickenshit to actually reciprocate. (There was one time–a few of my close friends know the story-but that’s private). When I was 22, I met my husband, fell hard, and never had eyes for anyone else. My sexual orientation was irrelevant in the context of a monogamous heterosexual relationship, so I didn’t give it any conscious thought.
So how did I realize, then, that I was gay? Why didn’t I sooner?
In order to understand how being gay would have been impossible in the previous ways I lived, it’s helpful to understand the contexts. I went from being sent to a Catholic elementary school run by nuns, with daily Mass attendance, to an all-girls’ Christian school in the Deep South to the bizzaro snow globe of nepotistic old money conservatism of North Shore suburbs of Chicago. I was told that being gay was a morally reprehensible sin, or unacceptable, or it wasn’t addressed at all. The very, very few people I knew who were gay when I was in high school were more or less secretly so; to the extent they were not, their gay-ness was treated as a form of deviance in a society where conformity was highly valued.
Even when I left these worlds, as a young adult, just briefly allowing myself to entertain that aspect of my identity would lead to deep feelings of shameful recrimination. I couldn’t be gay, because I would be a deep disappointment to the person who used shame to control me the most. I trapped myself with my own secret. She couldn’t know, because she definitely would never love me then. So I spent all my energy trying to make her happy, to achieve, to get her to notice me, look at me, but not see that. It’s funny, there’s a book I recently came across on coming out later in life, written by a gay psychiatrist, which postulates that a mother “always knows” her kid is gay. I have no idea whether or not that holds any element of truth.
But that used to be my most unspoken, primal fear. That she knew. And even though I always knew that she probably did, I couldn’t let myself believe it, because at the time, I would have crumbled.
The comments; a sampling, from memory: “Put on a dress. Stop being so masculine. Why don’t you wear more makeup. You need to do something with your hair. Why are you always getting so dirty. Stop playing with the boys. You should be playing with dolls. Why don’t you like dolls? You have man hands. You have your father’s bones. That doesn’t look good on you—it’s not feminine enough. Those are lesbian shoes.”
In the universe where I had a relationship with my parents, I couldn’t be gay, because that’s not something my mom ever showed any sign she could accept.
Sometimes, my therapist, who is a neuropsychologist, says things which very much parallel the Chani astrology app on my phone. As I sat in an appointment at one point earlier this fall, lamenting that I “wonder[ed] how many more layers this thing ha[d],” she reminded me that I was in the middle of a process of radical transformation. That is also what the Chani app has had to say about my year. The confirmation from these two seemingly divergent sources is possible because I have opened my mind to so many things this year; things which were previously expressly or implicitly forbidden to me.
Therapy and astrology are both cornerstones of this new world.
Astrology, which I previously understood as the tiny square buried in the newspaper and treated with the same respect as the fortune cookies from the Chinese restaurant, has become daily balm. It has been oddly soothing because it has forced me to think of myself, my smallness, my relative scale, all in the context of the universe. I have been able to detach the event of my birth from its biological significance, and ascribe to it the astrological significance indicated in my natal chart, which has given me a completely different understanding of myself. As someone who never felt totally comfortable with their sun sign, learning about my rising sign, with which it turns out I identify deeply, has indeed been radical.
And therapy. Wow. I consider myself tremendously lucky to have access to (and to be able to afford) a world-class therapist for whom I have enormous respect and trust. The insights I have been able to piece together, the courage I have mustered up— I have first gathered it in that space. And that has changed my life, literally, in pretty much all of the ways.
One of the major realizations I made in therapy that sparked the biggest avalanche of changes was that I was a prisoner to my own shame. It wasn’t until I cast off the last of the yokes—until I took the secret of my gay-ness and gradually started to pry it off before I then finally cast it aside–that I completely realized the extent to which secrets are yokes of shame.
I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about the distinction between privacy and secrecy.
Privacy is something I have certainly previously thought about in the legal sense, or even socio-legal sense, but I am not talking strictly about a rights-based notion of privacy. I am talking primarily about a psychological one, or the Merriam-Webster’s, the “quality or state of being apart from company or observation.” Secrecy, in contrast, is “the condition of being hidden or concealed,” per Merriam-Webster’s again. I am sure there are some fantastic theorists who have spent a lot of time on this and I look forward to digging into their work. My very experiential based assessment of the distinction between the two concepts is reflected right in the definition of secrecy – information which is a secret is information which someone has decided they want hidden or concealed, that they do not want found, whereas information which is merely private exists outside the realm of common knowledge without that cast of emotional currency having been ascribed to it.
Imposed secrecy (self or other) is its own kind of painful horror for the secret-keeper. Having to continue to keep a secret–the keeping itself—besieges the keeper with guilt and recrimination. In instances of emotional abuse, secrecy is a primary instrument of control and manipulation, binding the victim, through the keeping shame, to the abuser.
Secrets have their time and place, but when they are used to control or manipulate, they can ruin lives. They are, in my experience, a poison, if not directly, then through their cousins, fear and judgment. Which is why I don’t have many secrets, anymore, and the ones I am keeping are largely not mine. I have parts of my life which are rightly private, and exist as such within themselves. But I don’t have many things I choose to keep secret.