Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sex and the Young Franciscan

Writing here is easy sometimes, and sometimes not easy at all.  I want to write about some things so that I can work them out in my head.  When I sit down to write about those things, it’s usually not easy.  This is one of those times.

I did one year of graduate work in German language and literature and I took lots of undergraduate German courses while majoring in philosophy.  During these German studies, I learned about a genre of poetry from the middle ages called Minnelieder (love songs).  Minne was a special kind of love, I was taught.  It was the chaste love of a knight for a lady—love from afar—love that promised protection and constancy but did not include physical or sexual expression.  It was considered the highest form of romantic love.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, was one object of  MinneMinne most often, though, was directed at a human living lady who was considered beautiful, noble, virtuous, and unattainable.  Minne existed around the time of the Crusades and later.

As I think about it now, I’m not sure what to believe about Minne.  It seems to exalt the traditional Roman Catholic hatred and fear of human love and sexuality.  At the same time, it seems to embody the selfless love that universally is considered the highest expression of human affection.

My sexual history is strange.  I was sexually active as a young gay teen, having sex with several boys my age that was consensual and mutually enjoyable.  I had a lot of sex between the ages of 11 and 14.  Then, on New Year’s Day, 1961, I made a promise to god that I would stop having sex.  I made this promise because for years I had wanted to be a Franciscan priest and I knew that to be a friar, a priest, or both, I would have to be celibate.  I kept that promise.  Sex stopped for me right before my 14th birthday.  Interpersonal sex, that is.  I had to wait until I went to the seminary, in September, 1961, to have any success at stopping masturbation.

Once at the seminary, I started having a series of crushes on my fellow seminarians.  In all my time with the friars, almost until I was 22, I never had sex with anyone, including the objects of my lustful affections.  The crushes were a form of Minne.  They elevated the object of desire to some kind of perfect being. I worked tirelessly to please these boys.  I wanted friendship and love from them, but I never ever expressed that desire.  I never once in all those years, with any of those boys, said the words “I love you,” although love them I did, as best I could given my immaturity.  Most of the time, the boy would become a friend, although some of the friendships were ruined on the rocks of my neediness and insecurity.  If ever any of those boys felt a  reciprocal sexual attraction, I had no inkling.  I’m almost positive none of them felt sexually drawn to me because, as I understand myself now, I was selecting these specific boys precisely because they wouldn’t have any sexual attraction for me, Just as the knights of Minne selected ladies who were totally unattainable.

This pattern continued when I left the seminary.  I developed crushes on a series of straight men through my 20's and 30's.  I had very strong sexual attraction to these guys, but I didn’t have the guts (the balls) to act on that attraction, so I picked guys who wouldn’t, couldn’t, reciprocate my feelings.  I told none of them, at the time, how I felt about him, how sexually drawn to him I was.

This behavior ended when I came out of the closet, finally, at age 40.  At the time, I had a major crush on a psychologist, a bright guy with a Ph.D. from an Ivy League school, who genuinely loved me as his best friend.  He was, like all my other adult crushes, totally straight.  His friendship, and his professional insight into who I really am, helped me to come out of the closet.  Only then did I feel comfortable telling him how much I had wanted him sexually.  Of course, he already knew all that, but it was a healing process for me to talk to him in detail about my sexual feelings for him.  Later on, I had similar conversations with other guys on whom I had had adult crushes, and I found out that most of them, too, knew all along how I felt.  Once I came out, and went into five years of therapy with a gay shrink, I no longer was attracted to straight men.  Just being honest with myself about who I really am seems to have cured me of that impossible habit.

Was spending all this emotional energy on impossible crushes on totally unavailable men a complete waste?  I used to think that it had all been a waste, a total wash–out, a completely sick thing.  Now I’m not so sure.

From these guys, both in the seminary and in my adult life, I have learned how to love.  I have learned especially how not to be a doormat to some jackass simply because I’m attracted to him.  I’ve also learned how to be myself with guys I like, not aping their likes and dislikes but honestly expressing my preferences and wants.  From these guys, too, I’ve learned that I can love deeply and really without there having to be a reciprocated sexual attraction.  They taught me that Minne does exist, in my life anyway, as a special and rewarding kind of friendship.

Had I never made my promise on New Year’s Day, had I never gone to the seminary, had I come out when I was in college. . . all these “what–if’s” plagued me for years.  Now, though, I look back on all these guys and sort of pat myself on the back.  All in all, they were and are a great group of men.  They all are bright and giving men who, still today, “melt my butter,” as Dolly Parton says in Steel Magnolias.  Each one of them, even today, would do about anything to help me if I needed them.  I am lucky to have had each one of them in my life.

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