Bursting Through: I Love You Anyway
By Steve Petersen
Queer men of my generation were raised to be straight. I have to believe it wasn’t done out of malice but lack of knowledge. That didn’t make it any less damaging or the journey to self-acceptance any less brutal. To that end, I have spent a lot of time seeking validation. Sadly, in my community that does not make me special, but all too ordinary.
A while back my therapist suggested I read the book The Velvet Rage. The book, by psychologist Alan Downs, describes the gay man’s journey from shame and anger, to searching for validation to finding one’s authentic self.
When I started seeing my therapist, I was a bit lost and exhausted in every way. Picture a person on a hamster wheel or a computer that is always trying to load the next page with no luck. After reading The Velvet Rage I recognized I was in transition.
I had put shame and fear behind me and had moved past my search for validation, but I had not quite reached authenticity. The book referred to this stage as being in “the tunnel towards authenticity”. I needed a little help finding my way through the rest of the tunnel. The book was a brilliant way of getting me moving forward again.
As I was reading the book, I thought about something that has been pokin’ at me for a long while.
ASIDE: I love the term “pokin’ at you.” It always makes me think about the brilliant and funny (and queer) comedian Paula Poundstone. In one of her HBO stand-up specials she does this bit about a Snickers commercial. The tag line was “Snickers, when your appetite’s pokin’ at ya pokin’ at ya.” This is where Paula found the humor and I fell in love with the phrase “pokin’ at you”.
But let’s get back on point and focus on what has been “pokin’ at me for a while.” When I was on my coming out journey in the early 90’s there was a phrase people like me heard regularly. It was “I love you, anyway.” It was meant to comfort and reassure me that nothing had changed for them, but it always poked at my heart a bit. Not a constant jab but rather a recurring pain that never seemed to go away.
“Anyway” made it worse. It gave love a qualifier. A qualifier that unknowingly implied I was unlovable, but they were able to rise above it all. It also dismissed a very difficult journey of self-discovery. At best, the coming out process for me was rough. It came with a lot of self-acceptance and reconciling that I would not and could not have the only type of life I had ever known.
It meant letting go of the idea of ever being married or having a family of my own. Once the words “I’m gay” came up from my heart and out through my mouth, everything changed.
I told myself “I love you, anyway,” came from a good place and I believe that it did. I tried to focus on the words “I love you” but I couldn’t hear them anymore without “anyway”. It didn’t matter if that word was there or not, it was always in my internal dialogue.
I’ve always felt the word “anyway” made it far too easy for those who said it. My entire world had changed and they summed it up with a lame adverb. I didn’t have much of a choice but to accept “anyway” and frankly I wasn’t aware enough or emotionally strong enough to reject any sort of acceptance at the time, conditional or not.
But “anyway” did keep poking’ at me at different times and in different ways throughout my life. One of the most memorable ways was when I lived in New York City and was dating a man named Mike. Mike surprised me one night with tickets to Sam Harris’s HAM: A Musical Memoir.
Sam Harris was the grand champion singer of Star Search in 1983. Star Search was a talent competition that laid the foundation for shows like American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Next Top Model. Sam won the competition with his version of “Over the Rainbow”. Men were not allowed to be openly gay on television then, but I’m confident that song choice was a nod to his sexuality—pretty bold and brave in 1983!
Harris’s one man show told his very real, very raw and very vulnerable life story. He spoke about his painful journey of coming out and searching for self-acceptance. He was roughly the same age as Mike and I so his story was very familiar. As Sam shared his story, I found a tear or two trickling down my face. I reached for Mike’s hand and looked at him. His tears were not trickling down his face, they were streaming like rain down a window. As our eyes met, he said through his tears, “They fucked all of us up so bad!”
Mike and I talked about it later over dinner. We shared similar stories of qualified acceptance and love. He had also heard “I love you, anyway” more than once. It was both heartbreaking and helpful to know that the man I loved and I had a shared experience that was rooted in qualified love.
Mike and I didn’t make it as a couple. I realize there are a lot of factors that contribute to a failed relationship but in retrospect, I can’t help but think that the damage of qualified love, of “I love you, anyway” contributed to our inability to connect the way we needed to.
I put a lot of emotional walls up as I came of age and learned about the love of hate, that I was different and how being different could cause me harm both emotionally and physically. One of those walls, maybe the one that was the hardest to get over and nearly impossible to get under, was the one built by an adverb I have come to dislike: anyway.
I’ve lived a lot of life since I first heard “I love you, anyway.” When I started creating Bursting Through I knew it was in there somewhere, but I thought it was buried deep down in the roots and Bursting Through was starting from a place of “Beyond Anyway.”
It turns out, it wasn’t as deep as I thought and it is still “pokin’ at me” but cannot be fixed with a Snickers, but it can be fixed or at least stopped. If a Snickers can’t help, then what can? Simply tell people it is hurtful. Be kind but firm and let them know that despite coming from a place of love that anyway is a qualifier that needs to be eliminated. Love should never be combined with anyway.
Bursting Throughs’ mission is to recycle hate into love through storytelling, activism and the celebration of the relationship between Queer and Straight people. I don’t feel that “I love you, anyway” ever came from hate and needs to be recycled, but I do think it needs to be put in the dumpster, anyway.
This article was originally published in the Mental Health & PRIDE Celebration Issue of Las Vegas PRIDE Magazine, and can be read in its original format here.