It had been six years since I delicately disclosed to my teenage son that I was dating a woman for the very first time. But my surprise announcement was quickly eclipsed by his sardonic response. “Mom, I always knew you were a lesbian!” he quipped, without a hint of surprise.
How did he know? I soon learned that while I had spent close to two decades teaching him the importance of living authentically, I was actually revealing parts of myself that had long been buried, years before he was even born.
It was, in fact, because of his birth that my truth was ultimately exposed. You see, ever since my son was a toddler, I thought he may be gay. Perhaps it was because most of his childhood friends were girls; perhaps it was because he shied away from anything stereotypically masculine, like competitive sports; or perhaps it was because I saw how he struggled at the beginning of each school year when it came time to selecting a class notebook. He would always first choose the kind covered in pink and purple Technicolor, only to place it back on the shelf, while sighing, “I don’t want the other boys to make fun of me.”
So, as he grew, I made it my mission to point out when someone else chose to live inauthentically, only to regret it later. In 2004, for example, when former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey made headlines for declaring his homosexuality long after being married to a woman and having children, I reiterated the importance of being honest with oneself from the very beginning. Whenever a headline splashed across a newspaper’s front page announcing yet another LGBT youth’s suicide due to bullying or some other form of reproach, I reassured my son that I would always accept and love him for who he is. So, years later, when I received that long-anticipated phone call from my then college-age son announcing proudly, and decidedly, that he was in his first relationship with ‘someone named Michael,’ I knew my job was well done, at least for him. There was still one more person who needed to come out.
“I always knew you were a lesbian,” my son continued, “because when I used to tell you that I thought I may be attracted to the same sex, you said that you felt the same way when you were my age. Even though you said it was natural for all teenagers to feel that way,” he continued, “I knew you were really hiding something.” While, at the time, I had certainly convinced myself that I was solely expressing my feelings to help him feel more secure with his, I did later discover that I was actually revealing my own.
Thinking back, I recall being attracted to girls from the time I was a pre-teen, only to repress it due to my parents’ strict religious rule that I only ‘marry a Jewish boy.’ Being the dutiful daughter, I did as I was told, twice in fact, and buried my attraction for the same sex so deeply that it disappeared from consciousness for over 30 years. But repressing my true self influenced more than just my relationship choices. It also affected how I related to others, in a myriad of ways.
I was constantly on edge, struggling to resist reacting out of anger over the most minor of circumstances. Whether it was driving behind another car that was traveling below the speed limit, or an error in calculation at the local food market’s check-out counter, or a meal that was not prepared ‘just the way I like it’ at my favorite restaurant, my outbursts were over-zealous, and far-reaching.
It was only by reaching back into my long-time studies and training in the field of psychology that I fully understood why. I recalled, as a former Adjunct Professor of Psychology, teaching about Carl Jung, the early 20th Century Swiss psychiatrist known for his breakthrough theories about the importance of leading an authentic life. “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are,” Jung wrote, and trying to be ‘normal when it violates our inner nature is, in itself, a form of suffering.’ More recently, I read about how inauthenticity can also lead to extreme anger and violence in James Gilligan’s, Preventing Violence. After studying the most violent of criminals, Gilligan found that the basic cause of violent behavior is the wish to eliminate feelings of shame and humiliation. “It is not surprising that people will hide who they truly are,” he surmised, to avoid feeling ‘insulted, disgraced, teased, or taunted.’
Now that I am living a more authentic life, I no longer experience those spontaneous spouts of anger but, rather, those of inner peace and comfort. Still, I often wonder how my life would have been different had I never feared being rejected and unloved. What if my family had provided me with unconditional love and acceptance, regardless of my orientation? What if I had felt free to make my own decisions, rather than forced to make theirs? Fortunately, I’ve now discovered that all of these ‘what ifs’ can easily be answered just by looking in the direction of my grown son, where honesty, purpose and pride prevail.
Lori Sokol, Ph.D., is the executive director and editor-in-chief of Women’s eNews, and an award-winning author. She is in the process of turning her experience into a book about the importance of coming out later in life.