I don't think I was born to my parents at all. I think they opened a box of lime-flavored Jell-O, ripped the top off the brown packet inside, poured the powdery contents into a bowl, stirred in boiling water and ice cubes, and–voila!–there I was. Ready to be poured into a waiting mold. All my life I've let others define my boundaries; decide what shape I am to fill.
On the other hand, I'm convinced my friend Bill began life as a hawthorn tree. His parents planted him in the good earth, watched their sapling son grow tall, strong and iron-willed. Like the sharp-spiked hawthorn, Bill can be worse than prickly if you get too close. Grab him the wrong way and you'll be sorry.
Bill seems to have an inborn ability to summon boundaries. Something comes up automatically in him, some self-protective mechanism which I totally lack. He swells up like the puff adder who when threatened pretends to be a cobra. Mess with him or those he loves and you're in for a world of trouble.
Mess with me and I probably won't even notice. Or if I do, I'll tell myself I deserve whatever ill treatment comes my way. I am the puffball. Threaten me and I just sit there. Step on me and I emit a little gasp and spew green spores into the air.
Growing up, I didn't know I was gay. Didn't know the meaning of the word. Didn't know there was a word to describe who I was inside. Knew I was different; couldn't tell you how. Knew that difference was wrong. Knew I was somehow flawed, disordered down deep inside, sinful, wrong. All this without ever learning there was a term to describe me, without learning there were others like me, that who I was had validity in and of itself.
Instead, I picked up on the message that who I was inside was worthless. That if I were to find acceptance and place in the world, it would be granted me to the extent I made my mother happy, to the extent I followed religious teaching, to the extent I paid attention in school and followed the rules.
I grew adept at molding myself into the exact shape of others' expectations. My parents wanted an obedient cheerful child. Voila. The church wanted a good boy, one who told his friends about Jesus, who memorized Bible verses and volunteered time and energy. Voila. Teacher wanted answers, homework done, legible handwriting, no lip. Voila.
Later I met the demands of professor, employer, girlfriend, fiancée, wife with similar aplomb. I look back now and shudder to remember my boss praise me with, "You have a real knack for knowing what I want." Voila. That's how I survived in a world where I felt nobody would want me if they really knew who I am. Given a whiff of your expectations, I'd mold myself to them. Captain Jell-O rides again!
I wish I could say coming out changed all this. My mother would probably say so. She experienced my coming out as a slap in her face. To me, in coming out I signaled I would no longer kowtow to what and who others wanted me to be. At least in this one area I would claim my right to exist. I would claim my own life. I would live into it. My announcement met with something less than widespread acclaim.
"Bastard," said family. "Not here you won't."
"Fired," said employer. "Not here you won't."
"Reprobate," said church. "Not here you won't."
"Betrayer," said wife. "Not here you won't."
Suddenly I was running naked through a forest of hawthorn trees. Bloody business, that. Some of the puncture wounds are still tender, 16 years later.
I have not altogether broken with the past; coming out did not reshape me into an entirely new person. I'm still beset with Jell-O-like tendencies. What's changed for me is that I now ride though life with greater awareness of when and how I'm shaping myself into another's mold. Sometimes I make conscious choices to shape myself this way or that; sometimes I refuse to bend and flex. Sometimes only afterwards do I say, "Gosh, how very Captain Jell-O of me!" I then resolve to be on the alert, watch for it the next time. I forgive myself and move on.
I'll never be a hawthorn tree. It's not my nature. And why be something I'm not? I'm proud of myself those times I ask this same question when I feel the urge to take up my Captain Jell-O cape and ooze to the rescue.
This essay appeared in the May issue of The Community Letter.