I am all of these, and there is no changing that.
Guest Post by Fr. “Jack Sands”
I sent an email to my friend Dr. Olson with these four words describing myself: gay, priest, exhibitionist, and shy. I wrote, “These four words do not go together!” I was struggling with my sexuality and was looking for some comfort.
Dr. Olson emailed me back and said, “I disagree. They go together for you, and that’s good enough. Those words may collide with your self-image, and the greater the difference, the greater the shame and guilt you feel. It may not be the image of the man you wanted to be, but it is who you are. Here you are now!”
I was not happy. I was looking for a different answer. I thought, “If I could just get rid of the word priest, everything would be all right. Then I could be free in public about my sexuality and not worry any longer about being caught.”
The fear of being caught has caused so much stress in my life. I was ready to get rid of that stress by coming out as gay and leaving the priesthood. I figured that would solve all my problems. But not so fast!
Instead of agreeing with me, Dr. Olson challenged me to accept myself the way I am, not the way I magically wanted to be. I was not expecting that.
The reality is, Dr. Olson was very much right. I have been trying to separate my life into little boxes disconnected from each other all my life. The farther the boxes were from each other, the easier it became. That way I could have this little life that was nice and tidy.
The only problem was that it was creating more stress and denial in my life than I could deal with. In so many ways I was torn between two seemingly incompatible lifestyles. Gay and priest seemed miles apart.
Exhibitionist and shy seemed even further apart. I felt like I was living a life of contradictions. Dr. Olson challenged me on my perception. Though it seemed to be a life of contradictions, it was my life and, more importantly, who I am.
As I look back at my life, I can honestly say that my decision to become a priest and my first same-sex attractions occurred around the same time, when I was about twelve or so years old. I didn’t understand my sexual feelings at that age. In deciding to be a priest at such a tender age, I also had no clue what it meant to be a priest.
My shyness comes, as Dr. Olson suggests, from my fear of disapproval. I withdraw into myself and don’t let others in. If I keep others at arm’s length, I’ve convinced myself they can’t hurt me. That isn’t true at all.
When I exhibit myself, others give me the approval I so desperately seek. It makes me feel good when someone says, “Nice ass!” Maybe, as Dr. Olson put it, I seek approval because I look to others for approval that I can’t seem to find within myself.
As I approach sixty, Dr. Olson is right: I can’t change the person I am. I am gay. I am a priest. I am an exhibitionist, and I am shy. They are who I am. There is no changing that. I cannot take one away and still be the person I am. I am who I am.
The challenge for me going forward is to accept myself in a world that wants to define who I am by using its words. But I have done that to myself as well.
When I acted like a priest, I didn’t have to deal with my feelings of being gay or how the church treated people in the LGBTQ+ community. I never worried that being a gay man would affect my priesthood, right or wrong, or whether I was seen as a sinner or a saint.
I liked being the bad boy. I enjoyed the pleasures of sex that were forbidden as a young child. Being gay allowed me to escape the reality of the real world in which I lived.
All of that is changing. I want more out of life. The boxes are getting wet, and the contents are leaking into each other. The life I made for myself is beginning to crumble.
What do I want out of life now that I am almost sixty years old? The answer is simple: self-acceptance.
Until I can accept myself as a gay and shy priest and exhibitionist, no amount of acceptance from others will matter. Acceptance from others begins with acceptance of myself. I am learning that is most important.
Sometimes I think my life would be so much easier if I were not a priest. The reality is I have been a priest for over twenty-five years now and spent more than ten years in formation. That is over half my life.
I need to appreciate my life as a priest and the way it shaped me into a loving, caring, forgiving, and empathic person. The priesthood has been good to me. I cannot deny that. To do so is to deny my past, and those who deny their past also ruin their future. I don’t have time left to do that.
At the same time, I cannot allow being a priest to constrict my life. I took a vow to be celibate. However, that does not mean I took a vow to be lonely for the rest of my life. I think we have a need to be loved and nurtured.
I hope to someday get married and have a husband. Until then, I have a lot of life to live and I have a lot of love to give. To receive love, I first must be willing to love others. In loving others, self-love takes care of itself.
Now is the time to step out of my self-imposed boxes and let others love me. No more excuses. I am what I am. I am a lovable man who is proud to be gay, a priest, an exhibitionist, and shy. While those four words may not describe the man I intended to be, they define who I am now.