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A Hard Man to Understand

I return from an extended – and unintended – hiatus. It was never my intention to be gone from this blog for so long. I had got wrapped up in the finishing touches of my undergraduate career. Three weeks ago, I completed my Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing. This is a milestone that, three years ago, I never thought I’d reach. And now I move on.

To Alaska.

I accepted an offer from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, and this August will be relocating to pursue an MFA in creative writing, with a focus in nonfiction. I am both excited and nervous as I move on to this new phase of my life, but I figure that’s typical of anyone making a major life change.

***

I’m not quite sure when my father died. I remember that his funeral was Memorial Day weekend, 1997. At the time I was in a haze of pharmaceuticals, intended to bring me down from what was believed at the time to be a manic episode but what is now understood to have been a severe anxiety attack brought on by the perils of trying to turn into a heterosexual within a homophobic environment. When I was 23, there was much I could not articulate to myself, let alone to the doctors, so they took their best guess based on the precious little information I permitted myself to divulge to them.

So, when I got the news that my father (whom I had not seen in five years) lay comatose in a Louisville hospital, I was already emotionally buffered by a medicinal regimen that had me sleeping sixteen hours a day. My aunt Joyce, whom I hadn’t seen since I was three, called one evening with news, flew me out to Louisville to see my comatose father. There, I met an entire side of my family who had had zero interest in my siblings or me until that point. They had to make a good showing of seeing their dying brother, even though several of them hadn’t bothered to tell their own spouses he existed.

What put my father into the hospital was tricky to unravel. Ostensibly, he had a heart attack, but the full story was more sordid. By all accounts, he had contracted an STD, and for treatment, he had obtained a topical ointment from the Amish neighbors his family has been friends with for decades. But my father, his mind muddled, took the ointment orally, which left him keeled over on the side of the road. Heart attack via poisoning. One of the teenage sons of the Amish family found him and arranged for an ambulance.

Thus I found him intubated in Louisville, surrounded by a family who had regarded him at best as a black sheep. My father was the only one out of the seven Baker siblings who was not sent to college; in fact, he was barely literate. Though I don’t know too many details, he was brutalized by his parents – my grandparents – growing up. As I’ve done some digging, I’ve discovered this abuse may have been a chief cause for his antisocial personality disorder.

I was once told that you can’t psychoanalyze dead people, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. My father was always resistant to treatment, because, as he put it, he was the only one in the world who didn’t have a problem. Yet when my mother, suffering a mental breakdown from his abuse, checked herself into the hospital, her doctor, after hearing my father rant a mere five minutes, deduced he had schizophrenia.

But, from all the digging I’ve done, I think that antisocial personality disorder is the most accurate diagnosis. First of all, my father seemed genuinely unaware of what a friend was, or how to make them. This affected my childhood greatly, since he didn’t allow me to make friends. When I was five, he bought me a dog because I was lonely, and when I was seven, he proposed that he and my mother adopt a child so that my siblings and I would have someone to play with.

He was also notoriously impulsive. In second grade, I came home from school one Friday to find that I was to get in the truck because we were taking a weekend vacation to Opryland. We kids crammed in the back, in the covered flatbed. When we got as far as English, Indiana, we picked up my maternal grandmother, who took the front seat whilst my mom joined us in back. The rest of the way to Nashville, my father cussed my grandma out in every way imaginable. We all crammed into our pop-up camper-trailer for the weekend. At Opryland itself, we didn’t do really do anything – my father ranted about the cost of concessions, so we didn’t eat or drink at the park.

On the flipside, he could be cold and calculating. When I was seven, I came home from school to discover that no one was there. This had never happened to me; there was always, at least, my mom and siblings. My father didn’t allow my mom to go anywhere but the grocery store, and he monitored the fuel gauge in the car to make sure she didn’t go anywhere else. I thought that my family had disappeared off the face of the earth and that I would be all alone in the world for the rest of my life. At seven.

They showed up an hour later. My father declared that he had just custom-ordered a brand-new Buick Park Avenue. (Custom-ordered mostly to get a Diesel engine, because my father, a truck driver by profession, stated that the only real automobiles had Diesel engines.) My mother was distraught; she didn’t understand how we could afford another car when we couldn’t afford groceries. She also didn’t understand why we couldn’t afford groceries. All she knew was that the grocery budget he gave her was getting smaller and smaller, eventually to the point that he no longer gave her money for food at all. She didn’t know that the money was going towards drugs and sex workers.

Now, this sounds pretty random and impulsive, right? To buy a car on a moment’s notice, when you aren’t exactly wealthy? Here’s the thing: he demanded that the car be put in my mom’s name. So, later, when he wanted to make himself look good to others, he would demonstrate his generosity by pointing out how he bought his wife a car, never mind that he forbade her to drive it. And if he wanted to make my mom look bad, he would tell people how she was wasting his money by buying a new car.

There were efforts at various points to get my father the help he needed. But antisocial personality disorder is notoriously slippery, for some of the reasons I mentioned above. As far as he was concerned, he didn’t have any problems, so he wasn’t about to pursue help for himself, even in the face of his obvious struggles in life. At one point, my mother, in fear of her life, had the police ambush my father when he came home from work, and they put him in jail for twenty-four hours for observation. But he was released on his own recognizance. They told my mother, “He’s high as a kite, but there’s nothing we can do about that.” And my mother, completely naïve about drug culture and possessing a singular grasp of the English language, had always thought the expression “high as a kite” meant “angry”, not “on drugs”. And when my father held up his fourth wife – the one after my mom – at gunpoint, he was put in jail for three months and then underwent a psychological evaluation. He was then released. He later told my mom, “They tried to put me away, but they didn’t know what they were doing. They had me checked out by a woman.” Implying that he knew his way with women, how to manipulate them to get what he wanted.

My mother barely escaped with her life when I was eight. My father (who, remember, was a truck drive and hardly ever home) was awarded temporary custody because he had a job and my mother didn’t. For six months he put us under the care of an estimated 20 random strangers. He offered a free home and generous pay to anyone who would take care of his kids. And he didn’t know any of these people because, remember, he had no idea what a friend was or how to make them. These were people he knew of second- and third-hand through work acquaintances and suchlike. Some were serious drug users who had no business around any kids. One couple had never been in a house with plumbing before, and didn’t understand how anything worked, including the thermostat, which they asked me to operate. I, at eight, thought you set the thermostat for the temperature outside, and we were going through a record-breaking heat wave. One was an eighteen-year-old with a one-month-old baby.

None of them were fit to take care of us, But they all quit as soon as they realized how dangerous my father was, he with the always-loaded pistol and the constant, very real threat that he’d use it. As far as my father was concerned, the only thing that mattered was that my mother not have any access to us, because that was the one thing she wanted out of life, and he was bound and determined to take it from her. After six months of this random, half-assed caregiving, my father broke his leg on the job, and “cared” for us the rest of the summer. I don’t want to say what all we kids went through because I don’t have the permission of my siblings to divulge some of what went on, and I likely will never get that permission. Suffice it to say that all four of us endured things no child should.

You would think the courts would have been more observant of what was going on with us kids, given the circumstances. But remember that my father “knew his way with women”. We were assigned a caseworker named Cecilia who was to come to the house once a week. And my mom warned Cecilia up front that my father would try to manipulate her, and would start treating her like his first wife Leila, who died in a mysterious motorcycle accident that many believe my father planned, but was able to slip through the fingers of the law by having the right last name in a small town. When Cecilia would come to the house, my father would ask her to make him a cup of coffee. And she obliged. And when the courts asked for follow-up on Cecilia’s observations, she merely stated, “Oh, he’s doing the best he can under the circumstances,” at which point she was dismissed from our case for loss of objectivity. She later confided to my mother that she was dead on, that my father was trying to turn Cecilia into Leila.

After nine months of divorce proceedings – intentionally dragged out by my mother’s attorney so as to get past my parents’ ten-year anniversary, thus qualifying us children for my father’s Social Security insurance – my mother was awarded custody. And my father began his slow drift from our lives. (At one point, he lived in Houston for five months without anyone knowing it.) He would drop by our home haphazardly, in bald defiance of the one-hour notification ordered by the court. He made such a stop one weekend towards the end of my high-school career. I was busy with extracurriculars that weekend, so I didn’t get to hear him declare that he didn’t love us kids and never did, that he thought he didn’t know how to love. It was probably the most honest he’d ever been.

The last time I saw my father conscious was at the beginning of my first year of Bible college in St. Louis. He showed up unannounced on campus with a hundred-dollar bill. (My father’s family only ever pays for anything with hundred-dollar bills. You cannot look poor.) He’d done the same after my high-school graduation, promising me a hundred dollars a month until I graduated from college. I saw the money three times total, the last being that visit the beginning of September 1992. That was the last I saw or heard from my father again.

The Amish family showed up at the funeral before the service began, but left before the actual funeral, because to stay would have been a violation of their faith. The only people at the funeral were his extended family; he died friendless. My aunt Joyce was selected to write his eulogy for the funeral director to deliver, because my father was the oldest and she was the youngest; thus, she knew him the least and was therefore the most likely to be able to say something positive about him. The best she could muster was that he was “a hard man to understand”. My father had grown so heavy, it took eight of us to carry his casket. When he was buried in the cemetery of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church that Memorial Day weekend 1997, alongside Leila, his siblings remarked how odd it was that he was born on Veteran’s Day and died on Memorial Day weekend, yet never served in the military. The military was lucky to not have had him.

So, this weekend, as I am bombarded with the red, white, and blue of militarism, my thoughts don’t go to my culturally expected obligations to the relative location of the uterus from which I plopped, an obligation I will never understand. Instead, I think of the man who was hard to understand. I think about all the folks out there who need proper psychiatric attention and will likely not get it because of the red, white, and blue they plopped into at birth. And I think of how my goal in life ever since that weekend has been to be understood.

Friend Redefined

When you have an EMDR treatment, the therapist tells you that the memory you are reprocessing in therapy may come back to you a lot over the coming week, and that you should take that opportunity to continue thinking and processing, don’t resist the thought but just go with the process. My thoughts from my last session (detailed here) have left me pondering two interrelated ideas: abandonment and friendship. I’ve experienced a good deal of abandonment from numerous people throughout my life, and, partly as a consequence, I’ve had to constantly redefine what it means to be my friend.

Kindergarten was really the first time I ever met children my own age. And, so it seemed, everyone liked everyone else and  played with everyone else. It didn’t occur to me that there were kids who didn’t like me. (Imagine my shock when I worked in a daycare, and the three-year-olds cliqued off Mean Girls-style.)

But then I got to first grade, and everything changed. The children grouped up during recess, and I was left out. You see, I was the boy who played with dolls, thus violating the strict gender-segregation codes instilled in us by the pink-aisle marketing mentality. (I will say this for my parents–they let me shop in whatever aisle I wanted.) On occasion, a girl might let me play with her, but for the most part, I was a pariah.

At this point in my life, “friend” meant “playmate”, and I didn’t really have any. Sometimes a fourth- or fifth-grader would feel sorry for me and tell me, “I’m your friend,” but, of course, they didn’t play with me. Now I understand the vast developmental differences that justify why they didn’t play with me, but at the time their words sounded hollow.

In second grade, I developed a strategy. I would befriend “new kids” their very first day of school, before anyone could turn them against me. And I would have a playmate — until my friend moved away, which always happened, often in a few months’ time.

By third grade, with a sporadic history of playmates, I altered my definition of “friend” to “someone who doesn’t make fun of you to your face”. That was fully half my class. I had a lot of friends.

In fifth grade, it was “someone who sticks up for you”.

In seventh grade, it was “nobody”. What friends I had in sixth grade were not in my classes, and had taken an interest in girls.

In ninth grade, it was “people who spend time with you” — not far removed from “playmate”.

The line between “friend” and “enemy” blurred sometimes. Some of the members of my church youth group bullied me, but the youth pastor said it was because they liked me. And so I let them bully me some more.

In Bible college, “friend” meant “someone to whom I can entrust my secrets” — and I was carrying the biggest whopper of a secret: I was gay.

At age 29, it was “someone who stuck with me after I came out of the closet”. For a while, that was two people.

At 30, it was again “nobody”, as I pulled up stakes under duress and moved to Minneapolis.

It stayed “nobody” for two years. Then I randomly fell into a large circle of friends. And we spent a lot of time together. And we played games. And we would entrust our secrets to each other.

And along the way, I joined Facebook. I reconnected to friends I had lost along the way. As well as a lot  of acquaintances. But we don’t call it “acquaintancing” on Facebook. We call it “friending”. So in social media, the count of those who are considered my friend is artificially high.

But then, two years ago, I went back to school. For various reasons, I fell out of the circle of friends with whom I had spent time and played games and entrusted secrets. This hurt. I doubled down and focused on my schoolwork.

Now I look to relocate in a few months. And I find that my social life the last two years is nearly as bereft as it was my first two years in Minneapolis. I currently have some opportunities to develop new relationships, but it seems like a fool’s errand since I’ll be leaving them soon.

And I’m stuck wondering if this move will mean inventing a new definition of “friend” to tide me over until everyone leaves again.

On the Impossibility of Turning into a Giraffe

You will notice above this post a link to a new page. This page will lead you to the .pdf of a multigenre essay I wrote this past summer, entitled “On the Impossibility of Turning into a Giraffe”. (Alternately, you can click here.)

The essay details the history of Exodus International, from the perspective of former leaders and clients, as well as from my own experience. I have chosen to publish this story for free and online so that anyone may have access to the information therein, and learn about the inherent dangers of attempting to change one’s sexual orientation. I hope that this work might help anyone who wants to know more about this history, or who might be considering such treatments.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Singleness

For a while, I have been describing myself as “very single”. I haven’t been in any sort of relationship in 2 1/2 years, and in that time, I’ve only dated a handful of times with no serious outcome. And I know some of my friends get exasperated with my conversations about why I am single, why it is so hard to find anyone to go out on a date with, why, when I do go on a date, a second date rarely follows but not because I don’t want one.

And I’ve been puzzling through this. I went to a party on Saturday and got in a wonderful conversation with a new acquaintance on the subject of dating in general. We both agreed that OkCupid seemed to be the best way to meet men in the Twin Cities, but that “best” is not very good at all. We both lamented the fact that the gay culture in the Twin Cities is so heavily focused on bars (it doesn’t interest me at all).

But then he asked me, “What’s your type?” And I fumbled around with this. “Compassionate… intelligent… ” But he said, “No, what’s your type? What kind of guy are you attracted to?” And I couldn’t really answer beyond what I’d said.

I thought about this conversation after I got home. I wondered if the problem was that everyone was playing Monopoly, and I was trying to get in the game, too, but was using the rules for Scrabble. I don’t know about other cultures in the US, but the gay male culture, when it comes to dating, is deeply segmented according to physical traits and romantic and sexual proclivities. And, in all seriousness, those things don’t matter to me. Most men have some trait I find physically attractive. I don’t need to date an Adonis, I just need to have enough physical attraction to sustain the relationship. It’s about being realistic–there has to be some attraction, but the Adonises are very few and far between. I haven’t made sexual compatibility a factor in dating, either (though not doing so actually ended one relationship I was in).

My primary goal isn’t romance (which is great) or sex (which is also great) but companionship. And for me to know if a guy is going to be a good companion, we have to be around each other awhile. Unfortunately, the amount of time I need to determine this is much longer than most men (who may be more focused on romance) are willing to give me.

For the longest time, I figured there was something horribly wrong with me. All these wonderful guys (and I assumed they were all wonderful since they left before I had a chance to find out anything bad about them) left me; therefore, I assumed I was bad, wrong, damaged. And I had to work really hard on my self-esteem and self-image to get beyond the idea that my value and sense of self-worth depended on others’ opinions of me.

I got to the point where I started being happy about myself and my life. But still, though I thought myself a good guy now, I was still single. And as I saw all the happy couples around me, as my closest friends settled down and I saw them less and less, the idea was sinking in that I would always be single. I’m no spring chicken, and I came out relatively late (by today’s standards, anyway) , so I’ve felt like I’ve been in this massive game of catch-up. And I’ve wondered if it’s too late for me to catch up enough.

At the party, my acquaintance said, “If you want to date, then there will be someone to date.” But that hadn’t been my experience at all. Or had it?

Today a friend of mine posted an article from Cracked (an aptly named website if ever there was one, it is so addictive). It highlights the reasons why someone might not be having success with online dating. And I read through the article, and realized I’ve had one or two of these issues at various points. There was a time when I was terribly needy and lonely, and not fostering good mental and emotional habits. I think (most days, anyway) that is all behind me.

But it was reason #4 that really stuck out to me. My acquaintance said Saturday that if I wanted to date, there would be someone to date. And the article states that some people can’t land dates because they present themselves as having lives so full that there is no room for anyone else.

And you know what? There’s not! I spend a lot of time on school, extracurricular activities, and the chorus I sing in. I don’t have much time. Plus, I have absolutely no idea where I’m going to be in a year–that is up to the grad-school gods to decide. And the application season is heating up, and that is only going to take more of my time. I would feel sorry for any guy who tried to enter my life for a long-term relationship right now. He would find himself suffocated by my trying to get my career off the ground, and stuck with the uncertainty of whether to follow me around the continent for the next little while.

And you know what else? That’s not a bad thing. I’m going to school for a reason. I’m writing for a reason. And those reasons are all good. Just because there isn’t the sort of space and stability for a relationship right now doesn’t mean it will always be that way. And even if it doesn’t happen, even if I’m always single, there are certainly greater tragedies in the world, and I can still lead a rich and fulfilling life.

I think part of the challenge lately has been the drive for same-sex marriage in Minnesota. It has been almost the sole focus for the gay community in Minnesota for over two years, first to turn down an amendment to ban it, then to support a law to endorse it. Those of us who are not presently engaged in relationships sometimes feel totally left out of the picture–I know I’m not the first to express this sentiment.

And so, I’ve felt that if I’m not at least maintaining a pretense of wanting a relationship, even if I’m not really looking, then I’m somehow defective. And again I’m placing my self-perception in the hands of others.

But it took a random conversation at a party and random article from a comedy website for me to realize there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time, and I see myself getting happier by the day. My future is quite bright at the moment. And if I’m happy and working on good things, isn’t that all that matters? I know that singlehood can’t possibly negate someone’s attempts to make the world better, and that’s what I’m trying to do.

So, if you are reading this and are single, ask yourself why. And if there are good reasons why, then rejoice!

Among the Leaves

Tonight I have a wonderful professional opportunity. I will be one of twelve poets (yes, on occasion I write poetry, too) reading at Minneapolis Central Library as part of the city’s Pride Week. The readings will be from two books: Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience and When We Become Weavers: Queer Female Poets on the Midwestern Experience. [I have absolutely no clue why it’s not letting me link the full title there–must be a bug.] I have six poems in the former book and will be reading two.

Now, it is a very funny story how I ended up in this anthology. This time last year, I was in Introduction to Creative Writing, taught by G.E. Patterson at Metropolitan State University. As is typical of many such classes, the course was broken down into three units: poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. I wanted to get done with the poetry unit as soon as possible because I did not like poetry, contemporary poetry in particular. I thought contemporary poetry was sloppy, no structure, no reason to it. Lines were broken randomly, and all the classical features I had been taught in high school were tossed to the wind. Besides, I think like every high schooler, I didn’t think that damn wheelbarrow meant anything.

But Mr. Patterson opened my eyes to poetry. Seemingly random breaks were used to emphasize words and to create new meaning. A poem was not meant to tell a story, but to capture a moment. A poem must be read multiple times before you can catch all of its meaning and intention. And, of course, he had me writing poetry that fit this new paradigm.

At about the end of the poetry unit, I went to the launch party of couplets for a shrinking world, a poetry collection by my friend John Medeiros. The party was to open with a reading, and as is typical of everything in the creative world, it was getting a late start. So, being an extrovert who was there by myself, I got to talking to strangers around me. Behind me was a gentleman named Raymond Luczak, who, upon hearing that I was writing poetry, said, “Well, I thought I knew every gay poet in the Twin Cities, but I guess I didn’t. Listen, I’m publishing an anthology of poetry from queer male poets. The deadline for submission was two weeks ago. But, if you can submit to me eight poems germane to the Midwestern experience within 24 hours, and they’re good, then you’re in. I’ll publish six, but I want eight to pick from.”

I’m not one to pass up opportunities like that, so I agreed, and after the festivities, headed home and pored over my poetry–all of which at this point was school assignments. I figured out what might fit the theme, and came up only with five poems. It was getting late. I went to bed, thinking I could write poetry better after a good night’s sleep, with a fresh mind. (To this day, I prefer to write in the morning.)

The next morning, I looked through some of my prose work and found a piece that could be reworked into a poem. After I rewrote that piece, I pulled two more poems out of thin air. I e-mailed the poems to Raymond with about five hours to spare.

He contacted me straightaway, and said that he liked the work, but that one piece needed to be tightened, and that another was poorly expressed and came off unintentionally racist. (When I do something unintentionally racist, I want to be called out for it so I can contemplate how I could have done things differently, and correct course in the future. The surest corrective of white privilege is humility.) So I tightened the first piece, and wrote yet another new poem to replace the accidentally offensive work, resubmitted, and got the okay.

And that is how I got my first publishing credit. I think there are some lessons in this story:

If you’re a writer, go to literary events as much as possible. It pays to keep your big yap open. Strangers are some of the coolest people–you never know who you’re talking to. Write enough so that you have a healthy backlog of material–you never know when some finished work will come in handy. Pressure can produce creativity. You don’t have a say about how something should affect a group you don’t belong to–to believe otherwise is a cornerstone of privilege. Keep your eyes open: opportunity can pop up in the strangest places. And to have strangers read your work is one of the most awesome and humbling things in the world.

Oh, yeah, if you’re reading this and live in the Twin Cities area, consider dropping by for the reading this evening:

Gay Pride: Poetry Reading
Minneapolis Central Library
Pohlad Hall, 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN, 55401
Tuesday, June 25, 7–9 p.m.

Listen to local GLBTQ authors who contributed poems on the Midwestern experience in two Squares & Rebels anthologies: “When We Become Weavers” edited by Kate Lynn Hibbard and “Among the Leaves” edited by Raymond Luczak.
This project is funded with money from Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
Presented in partnership with Queer Voices Reading Series of Intermedia Arts.

[Despite what the library website says, registration isn’t necessary.]

Retreat

When I was in eighth grade, I went on my first winter retreat. I had been attending my church for less than a year, and this was only my second out-of-town trip with my church’s youth group, the first being a canoe trip the previous summer. I didn’t even know exactly what a retreat was, but it sounded like a lot of fun.

My youth group, as well as the youth groups of three or four other churches, traveled 45 minutes east to a church camp in Brown County, Indiana. The area, popularized by early-2oth-century painters who established an artists’ colony, is most famous for the “Little Smokies”, its rolling hills that turn brilliant red come autumn, attracting a million visitors a year, mostly in October. Tucked in these wooded hills was the church camp. Here, young people could get away, have fun, and learn about God.

The featured speakers of this trip were a foursome from Wichita, ranging in age from 18 to 23. They performed music (which I remember best because they insisted that we not applaud their performances, as “the praise should only go to God”), acted out goofy sketches, and most importantly, informed us of their most important mission: to assist youth in establishing Bible-study clubs in our public schools.

We learnt all the ins and outs of the Equal Access Act of 1984, under which we were permitted to start the Bible studies. There were stipulations, of course. A club had to have a faculty sponsor but could not actually participate in the meeting. We had to approach the school administration about starting the club, and the Kansans equipped us with all the documents necessary to do so. We could not publicize the Bible study with fliers, relying solely on word of mouth.

The most important matter they impressed upon us was that, if a public school allowed one club, by law, they had to allow for all clubs. If the school had a chess club, it had to allow a Bible study as well, as long as it abided by the law. Conversely, if a school allowed a Bible study, it had to allow any other club, even, as they told us, a Satanist club. (Why folks back then thought there were Satanists around every corner I have no idea, since I could see no evidence of it in my school. But t-shirts featuring heavy-metal bands like Metallica were supposedly a sign.)

My, how times have changed. The movement in recent years, in light of prominent cases of bullying and suicides, has been to start GSA’s–Gay-Straight Alliances–in public schools. These spaces are intended simply to provide moral support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other sexual- and gender-minority students, a respite from the taunts and violence they face. But it seems good evangelicals will not allow for this because, apparently, gays are worse than Satanists, and have been putting a stop to GSA’s at every turn.

The law looks a little different now, too. In her book The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, Katherine Stewart details the impact of the 2001 Supreme Court decision Good News Club v. Milford Central School, which now gives broader permissions to religious groups in public schools, including (as Stewart details in the book) faculty-sponsored evangelism and the ability for churches to meet in public schools rent-free (and thus paid for by tax dollars, as the churches will use electricity, water, etc. paid with tax dollars). As to that last point, I bear in mind to point out that this is not the same as, say, when church caught fire when I was a senior and we rented from my high school until we could build and move into a new building a couple of years later. These are churches meeting in schools with no plans to vacate or pay rent.

But back to my earlier point, about “the gays” supposedly being worse than Satanists. This whole toxic mentality is so far removed from the Jesus I was taught about from the Bible. Matthew 5:44: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (New International Version). I see little love from many evangelicals towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Instead, I see vitriol, bitterness, and explicit moves to undercut any attempt to be treated equally under the law. (For instance, this article describes well the state of affairs with regard to same-sex civil marriage.) And I don’t see prayers for “enemies” being the most common response to the day. The ballot box and the lobbyist have replaced prayer.

I’m not a Christian anymore, but I’d be a fool  to claim that some of the ideals I learnt as a Christian haven’t stuck with me. Unfortunately, the values I most cherish and live by–love, equality, compassion–are becoming harder and harder to find in those who bear the name of the one who taught those values. I’m fortunate to know Christians who break this mold, and to them I say, live boldly, defy your leaders when they replace the pulpit with the political party, and may you continue to live graciously and compassionately.

Advance in love. Do not retreat.

Nuance

Well, yesterday’s post proved to be interesting. I had written the essay–dashing off 2,700 words in 90 minutes, and I never write that fast–to be posted to Facebook. It was only after I was finished that I thought it might be nice to post to my blog. The result is the most-viewed 24 hours I’ve ever had, which is particularly surprising since I publicized that entry less than usual.

And now I deal with the aftermath. Oh, that sounds more dramatic than I intend, but I figured there would be consequences to what I wrote–in fact, I believe that is true of every word we utter. Perhaps the biggest challenge is addressing misunderstandings regarding what I wrote. And I dashed it off quickly–I’ve already had to do some copy-editing since posting it, and ordinarily, something of this magnitude I would have written several drafts of beforehand. My argument is not as tight as it could be. So today I attempt to fill in the gaps and clear up the confusions.

I believe the simplest way to do this is to explain what I am not saying:

I am not saying that I expect people’s religious convictions to disappear, or for religion to disappear. Never mind the fact that I have operated within the religious worldview and understanding the thought processes, reasoning, and motivations intimately. From a far more pragmatic perspective, religion isn’t going anywhere. It’s been with us for thousands of years, and doesn’t show any sign of disappearing anytime soon. I know some atheists who won’t be happy until every vestige of religion has been wiped off the planet. Aside from the lack of respect involved in such a stance, I wouldn’t doom myself to a life of unhappiness in that way.

I am not saying that I don’t want people to abide by their convictions. After all, am I not asking for the same? What I am saying is that those convictions don’t have the standing to create laws by which some human beings are treated as inferior to other human beings. Yesterday I laid out why having a secular government is necessary for the protection of religious liberty, and why creating a theocracy not only punishes those whose views vary, but is no guarantee that your own religious views are going to be respected. But I am not trained in the law, and I don’t know how better to explain why this works than I did yesterday. I can tell you that, if you believe God gave you a brain, then God gave you a brain for a reason, and that God would want you to look deeply and contemplate whether what I have to say is true. Not just feelings and conviction, but reason and logic–wouldn’t you say that God gave you those as well?

I am not saying that you’re not free to believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, or that business should close on Sunday, or whatever. I am saying that this belief is insufficient to justify laws that make me and millions of other people inferior in the eyes of the law. As one old friend, a conservative evangelical pastor, put it, “I need not approve of something to allow it.” That is using reason and logic. That is using nuance. Understand, though, that the belief is going to make it a good deal more difficult for us to be absolute-besties-forever. Some kinship of mind is most helpful in one’s closest relationships. On the flipside, one cannot negate the impact of shared history. It’s nuanced, see?

I am not saying that you are not allowed to express those convictions. You are free to believe and say whatever you want. But I am free to decide who to have in my life. It took me a long time to figure that one out, to gain the self-respect necessary to decide that people who are adamant in making my life worse do not have to remain in my life if I so choose.

I am not saying I only want to surround myself with people who agree with me. Heaven knows* that’s not the case in my life. I am saying that if someone maintains that the law should be written so that I am treated as less than a full citizen, it’s absurd to assume that that person can truly believe that I am their friend, since the word “friend” implies equal footing, not a relationship between superior and inferior. And if you think the law should see me as inferior, you are implying that you see me as inferior, whether you intend to or not.

I am not saying that I just don’t want to be offended. Some people who rail against politically correct speech get all in a lather about how it’s absurd for us to constantly worry about offending people. This line of reasoning misses the point. It’s not about offense, but respect. You have no control over whether you’re offending someone. That is in the other person’s court. You have complete control over whether you’re respecting someone. And not just saying you respect someone, as the owners of the NFL team in Washington say about their name. When the only people whose opinion on the team’s name really matters say it’s not respectful, the owners are betraying their intents when they say, well, we’re respecting you anyway and we just don’t understand why you don’t feel respected. Respect entails listening and honoring someone’s reasonable wishes. When you say you believe I should be treated as inferior to yourself in the eyes of the law, that is not respect.

I hope I have clarified the matters that sprung up from yesterday’s post. I hope people understand that I’m not trying to cut people out of my life willy-nilly. I am trying to develop a reasonable and healthy habit of establishing boundaries within my relationships so that all of us can lead the healthiest lives possible. Sadly, sometimes the exercise of those boundaries entails having to say good-bye.

*Understand I’m using the phrase idiomatically, and not betraying an actual deep-seated belief in heaven.

Friends

I just posted this essay to Facebook. It is largely addressed to certain individuals on my friends list. However, I thought it might be useful to post here as well.

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This is going to take me a long time to write. I’m writing it as a Word document first because I want to get it just perfect before I post it to Facebook. The things that I have to say need to be careful and measured and precise. But in the process, I cannot remove the fire and emotion that is motivating this post in the first place.

I was an evangelical Christian for a long time. I was at church three to four times a week, not counting special events. I studied the Bible and prayed every day. And I talked with everyone I could about becoming a Christian. I had been convinced that the only way they could avoid eternal pain and torment was to become a Christian. I didn’t want anyone to endure that agony; therefore, I wanted everyone to become Christians.

But then two life-changing events happened to me, at about the same time. First was the growing realisation that I was not turning into a heterosexual. I had only been attracted to males all my life, clear back to when I was a preschooler. Never mind that I had a hang-up on Greg Brady when I was three years old—all of this was certainly and undeniably a choice, my church told me, and the only way God would *really* love me (as opposed to just “loving” me the way he “loves” the people he sends to hell) was if I worked my absolute hardest to be attracted to women and not to men at all. But I wasn’t even most concerned about my going to hell. Instead, I was worried about being a “stumbling block.” If you’re not familiar with the term, it basically means that your words and actions can cause someone else not to consider God and God’s true character so they will not choose God and they will end up going to hell. And, remember, I didn’t want anyone to go there.

And so I went to “therapy” to turn into a heterosexual. I put it in quotes because no professional medical organization considers this to be genuine therapy. In fact, they consider it to be dangerous to those who pursue it. Given that, for the entire ten years I was involved in this “therapy,” I was either suicidal because my trying my absolute hardest to please God wasn’t working, or I was in a dead fog with no aspirations in life, since I had to put all other dreams on the backburner until I turned into a heterosexual, I concur with these experts. But after a full decade of figuratively (and sometimes literally) beating my head against the wall, after working my absolute hardest and seeing absolutely no change whatsoever, I realised that maybe this didn’t actually work. More audaciously, I thought that maybe I didn’t need this therapy for God to love me.

I came to this radical conclusion—that God might actually love me without my going to therapy anymore. I assumed I would never date a man, let alone have sex—I still assumed God wasn’t okay with this. I was simply saying that I wasn’t going to turn into a heterosexual, and that God was okay with that. But the church I was going to was not okay with this, and they of course knew exactly what was okay with God. When I asked them if I was welcome to continue with the church, they said that I was always welcome, but, because they loved me, it was their obligation to constantly tell me what a horrible mistake I was making and that I was sending myself and others to hell. I replied that I could not be expected to maintain that kind of unequal relationship. Never mind the fact that there were members of the church who were known to engage in premarital *heterosexual* sex and who were also budding young alcoholics who were in the same positions of leadership in the church I had been barred from for not turning into a heterosexual fast enough or perfectly enough.

The second event wasn’t so much an event as a person. I have always had a difficult time making friends. I grew up in a household with severe abuse and neglect issues which have left me with some social impairment. I’ve fought mightily to overcome these obstacles, but more often my fighting has backfired, my best efforts thwarted as I’ve struggled to fit in. The same was true in college—the school in which I was enrolled when I was attending the aforementioned church. I was always reaching out to make friends with my fellow students, in spite of the fact that, as a nontraditional student in classrooms full of folks fresh from high school, I didn’t fit. It only occurred to me later that I was so desperate to reach out to my classmates because my only other relationships, the ones at my church, were far more strained and abnormal than I could admit at the time.

So when I clicked with a classmate, I rejoiced. I befriended a classmate who was kind and funny and smart—pretty much anything you’d want in a friend. He was also planning on becoming a rabbi.

My church had taught me that I had to reach out to absolutely everyone, and do my absolute best to convert absolutely everyone to Christ so they wouldn’t go to hell. But here was this friend who would never, ever become a Christian. It seemed absurd to try. But it also seemed absurd to abandon our friendship over this one issue. After all, I was taught that the greatest commandment was to love, *not* to convert.

All of these things happened over a decade ago. I have changed so much. I am an out and proud and (sometimes) confident as a gay man. Not only am I no longer a Christian, but I am now an atheist. Yet the echoes of those experiences hit me full force on a regular basis—particularly because I am now on the other side of the equation. I have friends who tell me that I need to turn back to Christ, that they’re not going to give up on me. I have friends who tell me that I can’t possibly be an atheist for no other reason than they can’t understand how it’s possible.

To those friends, I say this: which is the greatest commandment, to love me or to convert me? Will you love me as I want so much to love you, even if I reject your religion out of hand? Or will you consider this a case of “pearls before swine” and move on? I’m always going to be here. But if you can’t respect my request that you not proselytise me, then I’m asking you to leave. You will only be dragged down further in your guilt over your not converting me (trust me, I get it, I was drowning—unnecessarily—in that guilt for the longest time), and we both will only ever be exasperated.

Now I wish to address those who believe we need to ensure that the laws of the land dictate that marriage—a legal contract, I don’t care how you slice it, since the government can recognise a marriage not carried out in a church, and a church can choose not to recognise a marriage the government deems valid—must only be between one man and one woman. The only arguments I have ever seen that even pretend to hold water are Biblical in nature.

Let me explain why a Biblical standard for law in the United States doesn’t work. I will keep coming back again and again to the Golden Rule—to do to others as you would have them do to you—and the Great Commandment that we are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. This is, as I was taught, the cornerstone of the Christian faith—all the Law “hangs” on the commandment.

First, I get the desire to want to follow God, and to have that desire to inform every decision. But the way you live your life does not of itself form the standard to rule a country. There’s this idea that we are a “Christian nation” and that the laws must conform to Christianity. (More on this later.) I ask, whose Christianity? Methodist? Pentecostal? Lutheran? (And, of course, this gets into the eternal argument of who is “really” a Christian, which I’m not going to engage.) This country was started by folks who wanted the freedom to practise their own understanding of Christianity rather than conform to the Church of England. If you decide that your version of Christianity is the one to form the laws of the United States, then you are doing the exact same thing the Church of England was doing. Never mind the fact that there are a number of Christian denominations (and other religions) who support same-sex marriage rights. You’re denying them the same freedom of religion the Church of England denied the Puritans. Do unto others…

And none of this even touches the subject of other religions. I get the idea that you think that your worldview alone is correct and all other religions are wrong on every level. I used to live deep within that understanding. I get it. But here’s the thing—that standard can’t be used for the governance of an entire country, particularly a country as diverse as the United States. The standards of law must apply to all citizens—even those who do not conform to a particular religion, or any religion. That’s why the law must transcend the tenets of any particular religion. There have been any number of Islamophobes stirring up the false notion that Christians in the United States are somehow being forced to abide by Islamic law. In terms of manufacturing fear, it’s a smart move. Folks don’t want to be forced to conform to a religion they don’t belong to. Bear that in mind when I say: Do unto others…

Speaking of stirring up trouble, there have been a number of organisations and personalities over the past 35 years who have been spreading lies to Christians and threatening them with accusations of being unpatriotic or un-Christian if they dissent. When I was in high school, a gentleman came to my church to teach us our “rights as American Christians.” What he had to say was pretty familiar to us now: that the United States is a Christian nation, that the Founding Fathers were Christians who wrote the Constitution to conform to Christian law, etc.  But one particular statement stuck in my mind. The gentleman declared that Thomas Jefferson had intended his doctrine of separation of church and state to be a “one-directional wall,” by which the state keeps out of the church but not vice versa. And he gave a *quote* from Thomas Jefferson in this regard. But here’s the thing: You can track down this quote as much as you want in vain. Jefferson never said any such thing. The man in my church *lied*.  People are lying about a lot of things. They are lying about the intent of the Founding Fathers. They are lying about the intent of same-sex couples. Do your research. Challenge every notion. Learn the truth. The truth will set you free.

And now I want to pull this discussion back to more personal concerns. I have people who say they are my friends, but who say that they cannot abide by the law allowing me to marry someone on the same basis they would choose to marry someone. I’ve already made all the arguments as to why your religious opinions shouldn’t inform our nation’s laws, and why this actually benefits you. Still, this means nothing to some of you.

This is how I hear it: that this issue exists only in the vacuum of your own theories, and that we must conform to the laws in this vacuum of your theories. But guess what? This is affecting real, flesh-and-blood people. I don’t live in a vacuum. I have a long, complicated story that’s led me to where I am—a story some of you haven’t bothered to ask about or wanted to listen to, telling me that my story is impossible. And I am one of millions of flesh-and-blood people not living in your vacuum.

Now, my mother always taught me to put myself in someone else’s shoes, so I’m going to ask you to do that now. I want you to go back to when you were in junior high, high school, to the first time you fell in love. Now I want you to imagine your parents finding out and kicking you out when you’re 13, 14. I want you to imagine yourself tiny and afraid on the brutal streets.

I want you to imagine going to school and managing to get to class and do homework in spite of constant harassment and threats. (This is *me*, by the way.) I want you to imagine worrying you’ll get beat up or worse on the way out of school every day.

I want you to imagine getting fired from your job because someone saw you out on a date the other night.

I want you to imagine you and your spouse. I want you to imagine going to a restaurant and getting kicked out when you hold hands. I want you to imagine the two of you going on your dream vacation, only to have your reservation rejected because you want to share a room. I want to imagine you having kids, and the school only allowing one of you to pick them up from school. I want you to imagine your kid sick in the hospital, and only one of you allowed to visit. I want you to imagine *yourself* in the hospital, and your spouse not being allowed to visit. I want you to imagine that you die in that hospital, and your relatives swooping in and leaving the spouse you leave behind utterly penniless.

Because of current laws and social norms, everything I’ve said is real life—not theory—for millions of Americans. I’m talking about baseline empathy, the minimum standards I’d hold someone to in terms of basic morality. And if you can sit there and tell me that you’re okay with the fact that millions of human beings equal to yourself go through such ordeals and more, then you have no empathy. Moreover, it means you’re okay for *me* to go through these things, even though you’d say you’re my “friend”. I don’t need you dragging me down in my life. I don’t need to feel like one of my slave ancestors, who has found his freedom, only to have his former master chasing him down at every turn trying to drag him back to the plantation. You say that I do not deserve the same rights and protections under the law as you. You—who say that you’re my friend—thus see me as inferior, whether you care to admit it or not. I can’t see how that can be called a friendship.

If you have the guts to maintain this stance, then you have the guts to defriend me. I want you to. I want my Facebook friends list to be shorter in the next week, because people have read this and can’t assent to the idea that human beings ought to be treated like human beings. The only way I want to see this number stay the same is that you’ve actually bothered to read what I’ve said and have taken it to heart. I left a relationship with a church because it was built on inequality. I’ll leave a relationship with an individual for the same reason. But I have some slight glimmer of hope that folks will take what I’ve said to heart. It’s up to you.

And if you can’t assent to any of this, if you do drop me from your friends list, then my parting words to you are to please raise your children to be loving and kind. If I can’t have hope for you, I can at least have hope for them.

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Read the follow-up to this essay here

Analytics

Two posts in one day. If I’m going to procrastinate on something (*cough* homework), then I’m at least going to be a productive procrastinator.

One of the more interesting things about WordPress is that you can access very detailed analytics about who is reading your blog and how they are finding out about it. Amongst many tools is a feature that tells you what Google terms people are using to come across your blog.

The first fascinating bit of information is that, despite my very liberal leanings, people are finding my blog for a conservative perspective. This is, of course, because I once lived a conservative life, or at least failed to navigate a conservative world. And a lot of people have stumbled up on my blog via Google in the quest to become a heterosexual. I can tell this is the reason because of the exact words they use: “homosexual” rather than “gay,” “conversion therapy” or “reparative therapy” rather than “ex-gay therapy.” When I plugged users’ exact phrases into Google, I discovered that I was the very first post in some searches.*

I believe wholeheartedly in the power of the written word. People are coming across my blog because they are desperate to be “cured of homosexuality.” If my story of how attempting to do so nearly destroyed me can save even one person, then this will have all been worthwhile.

 

*By the way, if you write about very rare medical conditions you have, people will easily find your blog via Google, as well.

Anthology

I have often said that one of my weak points is self-promotion.  Well, let me fix that here.

Cover. Courtesy Raymond Luczak.

My poetry was recently admitted for publication in a new anthology called Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience.  This is my first official publishing credit, and I am proud, humbled, and excited, all at once.  If you are interested in purchasing the book, you can do so here.  The book will be released October 1, 2012, and pre-orders currently include free shipping (through September 30) .  Plans are also underway for a Kindle edition.  Having read an advance copy, I can attest that I’m in there with some excellent poets.