Coming out in America

This is the story of K. Ian Shin, who was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church. Even with an active gay-rights movement, not to mention significant breakthroughs by gay activists, coming out in America is still a painful process. It's even harder if you're a Mormon.

Troy Media/January 18, 2011

New York - My family and I had joined the Mormon Church in 1995, two years after we immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong.

My family bought into Mormonism completely (they still do), and our lives revolved around the congregation we attended in the San Francisco Bay area. We went to church twice a week, for two hours on Wednesdays and three on Sundays.

Each morning while in high school, I awoke at dawn to attend seminary, daily Scripture lessons that preceded the school day and that, it was hoped, would impart to youth the spiritual strength to reject the evil temptations found in American public schools (namely sex, drugs and socialism).

More than a religion

It was through the church that I became involved in the Boy Scouts, spending many weekends and summers learning to become a real man by tying knots, riding horses, shooting guns and throwing tomahawks. And I got to wear a fantastic outfit complete with neckerchief, short-shorts, and knee-high socks.

The Mormon Church is more than just a religion; it's a lifestyle. The church's teachings extend far beyond beliefs about salvation and the afterlife to touch everyday behaviours like drinking alcohol (never), coffee (no), and tea (only if it's herbal).

For certain adults, it even regulates daily dress: perhaps you've heard of the Mormon "special underwear?" Chief among the church's prohibitions is the "homosexual lifestyle." For a religion that extols marriage between a man and a woman as the central vehicle by which God's plan for salvation would be fulfilled through divinely anointed procreation, homosexuality makes about as much sense as Elton John playing rugby.

It was in this context that I slowly came to realize that I was gay. I remember being attracted to boys in my class as early as the fifth grade, especially the blond-haired, blue-eyed, all-American ones whom I could never be like.

To fit in at school, I talked about girls, and even asked a couple of them out on dates. Hearing "gay" and "fag" casually tossed around as epithets in the halls made it clear I could never talk to my friends about my feelings. When relatives asked about girlfriends, I said I was too busy with school, with tennis matches, with Scout projects, with Mandarin classes, with speech tournaments: anything but the truth.

It's interesting what happens to you on the inside when you feel you need to conceal the deepest part of yourself out of shame. You begin to lie, almost pathologically, because the rest of life seems like such a sham anyway. And when concealing the truth doesn't work anymore, you loathe yourself so much that you begin to vigorously reject the very thing you are afraid of being. When the church announced its opposition to gay marriage in Hawaii in 1998, I nodded in agreement in the congregation.

Attempted suicide twice

I had no idea what life for a functional, adult gay man looked like, or even that such life was possible. I attempted suicide at least twice, although thankfully I never had the guts to choose a method that might come remotely close to working.

Anyone who has been through the process of hiding his or her sexuality can tell you this: What hurts the most isn't the fear of rejection, although that's certainly terrifying enough. It is the loneliness you feel, the abject despair that you will never carry on a meaningful relationship, the reality that you will never be happy.

In a world so completely devoid of hope, it's perhaps possible to understand how someone might prefer just about anything else to living.

Everything changed when my house was connected to the Internet, and not just because I could finally look at dirty pictures (instead of male underwear models in the weekly department-store circulars).

Wary but nonetheless curious, I lied about my age and waded into the world of gay Internet chat rooms. As I had been warned, there were the requisite seedy characters, but I avoided them and talked instead with other men who patiently listened to my story and assured me that life would get better. Eventually, I found the profiles of two teenagers who lived near me, and they became my first gay friends.

Together we watched episodes of Queer As Folk, all of us entranced by the grown-up life of boyfriends, clubs, and sexual freedom in Pittsburgh (or, as it turns out, Toronto). I could feel myself becoming more comfortable with the idea that I was gay, but there was still the fact that who I felt I was on the inside differed drastically from the image I presented to the outside world. Something had to give.

It finally happened one August evening at the beginning of my senior year of high school.

Ever vigilant and perceptive, my mother noticed that I had uncharacteristically skipped a church event to sneak away with another teenager who I thought was cute and who, I desperately hoped, might also be gay.

That night, she cornered me and asked me point blank if I was gay. I said yes (well, actually, I said I was bi, thinking that somehow it might cushion the blow for both of us). I remember being relieved more than anything that finally someone had dragged the truth out of me, because I was never going to have surrendered it on my own.

My mother told me that together we would overcome this challenge from God (Mormons thought being gay was rather like being alcoholic or dyslexic), that she would help "cure" me.

I wanted to be rid of the feelings as much as she did. I wanted nothing more than to be attracted to girls; I wanted to be "normal."

We flew to San Diego to see a Mormon Church-approved family therapist. After two hours of intense conversation, the shrink gave my mother some surprising news: No one knew whether being gay was a matter of nature or of nurture, so it wasn't clear that I would or even could be "cured." Moreover, I was a good student and active in school and church; I didn't drink, smoke, or do drugs.

If being attracted to other men was the only problem my mother had to worry about, the therapist seemed to say, then she was a lucky mother indeed.

After seeing the therapist, the subject of my being gay became taboo, although beneath the superficial truce there was always the possibility of an eruption. My mother and I fought intensely about my new (gay) friends and even how I crossed my (gay) legs. "Yeah?" I would retort, "Well, I don't approve of your lifestyle either!"

Every action became a symbol of my problematic manhood. I knew I needed to find a space where I could finally become the person I wanted to be rather than the person that everyone else expected me to be. So when it came time to go to college, I went as far away from home as I possibly could, 3,500 miles to Amherst, in western Massachusetts.

There I stopped attending the church that for so long had taught me that my very existence was unnatural and sinful. I met and kissed my first boyfriend. I watched on TV as Massachusetts began issuing licenses to gay and lesbian couples who had waited decades to get married. I made lifelong friends with other gay men who, like me, wanted their lives to be defined not only by the fact that they were gay, but also by the fact that they loved rowing or collected Absolut Vodka ads or wanted to save the world.

Became closer to his mother

Before we could be any of those other things, however, we needed the world to first acknowledge and understand that our sexuality wasn't something to be celebrated or condemned. Our sexuality just was, and there was no changing it.

While I was in college my mother and I gradually became closer. Having come out to her and revealed my most closely guarded secret to her, I now felt capable of telling her almost anything; there was no longer any reason to lie.

It also helped that she had decided to go back to school to become a teacher. One of her professors was a lesbian who shared stories about her daughter, and my mother was astonished that this family that seemed so different from her own really wasn't so different at all. When I finally told her I was seeing someone, she pulled me aside at the next Christmas to give me a second jacket to match the one she had given to me. She apologized that she didn't know his size, but, in that moment, it didn't matter.

Today, I live in New York City with my boyfriend of four years. We split the holidays to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family and Christmas with mine.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.