Guest Opinion: Fitting in is not belonging

  • by Loren Olson
  • Wednesday July 20, 2022
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Dr. Loren Olson. Photo: Courtesy Dr. Loren Olson
Dr. Loren Olson. Photo: Courtesy Dr. Loren Olson

The sign that welcomed visitors to Wakefield, Nebraska said Pop. 1,030. The town's size didn't vary in all the years I lived there. It was a close-knit community linked by culture, economy, religion, and blood. The people not only knew each other, they knew each other's histories. Most families had many interconnecting links. In the generation before me, four Anderson brothers had married four sisters. Most of the family names were Swedish, although a few Germans had settled there too. Five Lutheran churches were scattered over a ten-mile radius from Wakefield. Church services were held in both English and Swedish until the early twentieth century. Most people looked alike, thought alike, and believed alike.

Wakefield was pastoral, but not in the sense of its being a charming and serene small town in rural America. It was pastoral because the Lutheran pastors were leaders in the community who made clear the distinctions between right and wrong. To an outsider, Wakefield appeared normal. The people who lived in Wakefield thought it was better than normal.

When I was nine years old, a neighbor made a deal with me. If he bought a power mower, I could use it to mow lawns around Wakefield to make some money for the family. The one condition of the deal was I would mow his lawn regularly too. We needed the money.

I always struggled to start the mower. One day, I called my widowed mother at her work and sobbed, "I can't get the lawnmower started again."

She responded, "Of course you can. You're a man, aren't you?"

How does one answer that question? I thought, "Men fix machines; I can't fix mine; I must not be a man." I felt as if she'd ripped off one testicle.

Now, as an adult, I can see my mother had intended to encourage my nascent manhood. All I could think was, "If my dad were here, he would have taught me. How can I learn to be a man without a dad? I will never measure up."

I tried to play Little League baseball because it was expected, not because I wanted to. But the coach said, "Loren, you throw like a girl." He implied that he didn't want someone like that on his team. I never went back.

My sense of being a misfit in small-town America picked up momentum during my last years in high school. I felt cramped by the small size of our school. Opportunities were limited. You were either headed toward farming or college. Boys who lived in town couldn't take shop classes. Only girls could take home economics and cooking. I felt continuously pressured to play a role.

It might be reasonable for you to ask, "How could you not know you were gay?" For many years, I asked myself that same question.

When I try to explain how I didn't know I was gay, I say it was like a child's belief in Santa Claus. A young child never doubts that a fat old man flies through the air with eight reindeer plus one with a light on the end of his nose. As the child matures, things don't quite add up. But the child is reluctant to let go of this myth. He or she has a lot of good reasons not to investigate the discrepancies. Finally, the secret is exposed. The child must accept the fact that he or she can no longer cling to a deceitful legend.

Some people in the twenty-first century would like to return to the cultural values of the 1950s. They do not understand what small-town America was like for some of us. We understood complete truth was not possible. Those of us who tried to fit in but couldn't believed there was no place for us.

Through those years in Wakefield, I asked myself, "Do you have a place for me?" I never felt it did. The people of Wakefield would be surprised that I felt that way. Their myopic attitudes did not allow small-town Americans to see how pressures to conform suppressed our differences and excluded us. I needed a sanctuary — a place where I could misbehave and still be accepted, feel free to reveal the hidden truths about myself, and choose another life made of my own decisions.

I tried to fit in, but fitting in isn't belonging. And nothing is lonelier than pretending to be someone you're not. My escape began in 1961 when I left Wakefield to attend the University of Nebraska.

Dr. Loren Olson is a practicing psychiatrist and essayist and popular speaker on mental health and LGBTQ issues. This is excerpted from his new memoir, "No More Neckties" (Oak Lane Press), pp. 13-20. Reprinted with permission.

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