This is my final “I’m From Driftwood” story, originally published in May 2009.
One fine morning in third grade, I awoke in a very good mood. As a pretentious eight-year-old addicted to public broadcasting, I planned to spend the day, as sometimes I would, speaking in an English accent. Befuddling classmates and fooling strangers as to my origin, I was just quirky me expressing my happiness. Halfway through that morning, my mood would get even better.
We had times when we were allowed to wander the classroom in order to investigate different “learning stations.” It was a good idea in theory, but I dreaded the “listening” station. It consisted of a record player with eight bulky headphone sets slinking from it like an octopus. The rule was that the first child to arrive at the listening station could pick the record. We had a collection of perhaps a couple dozen records, but you’d never know it from the class’s listening habits. Every time, I arrived late, and every time the first arrival had pulled out the “101 Dalmatians” record. Not only that, but every time they selected the same track–the “K9 Krunchies” dog food commercial. They would play the track to the end, lift the needle, and play it again. It drove me absolutely mad to hear that inanity over and over. And there was no convincing my classmates to play anything else, even from the same record.
But this time would be different. Finally, I was the one to reach the listening station first. And this meant…a different record! This time I could play anything I wanted–anything other than those simpering puppies and their corny commercial! So I pulled out a different record, some sad Russian tale of a little boy who had to eat lentils all the time, and placed it on the turntable. “No, we don’t want that!” cried out the other children. “Play something else! Play ‘101 Dalmatians’!”
“But I’m the first one here,” I retorted in my approximation of British schoolboy English, “that means I get to pick the record.”
Quite the brouhaha ensued, enough to bring the teacher over. “What’s the matter?”
“Mrs. Benson, he won’t let us play the record we all want!”
“But I was the first one here, that means that I get to pick out the record, that’s the rules.”
“But,” Mrs. Benson replied, “no one else wants to listen to the record you chose, and we need to pick what’s best for everybody.” Angry and broken-hearted, I sat back as the poor little Russian boy gave way to that damn dog food commercial.
My voice was noticeably Midwestern the rest of the day.
There was a lot for that eight-year-old boy to absorb that day. “The rules” are fluid and unpredictable, and cannot be called upon to determine order. “The one in charge” can be put down with a revolt. And most importantly, the rights of the minority must cede to the caprice of the majority–individuality must yield to mob rule.
I originally posted this story to I’m From Driftwood in May 2010. It seemed an appropriate follow-up to yesterday’s stories.
This is hard for me to write. I risk incriminating people with whom I am making peace. I now recognize that they, as well as I, were operating out of ignorance. Yet I must tell my story on behalf of those with similar stories. Many of them are unable to speak for themselves, either because they live in fear, or because they have already lost their lives.
I realized I “had homosexual temptations” during my senior year of high school. I had no one to turn to with it. I felt uncomfortable discussing it with church leaders, and the other youth group members spoke gleefully of “flamers” going to hell. My last week of church camp before heading off to Bible college, I opened up to one of counselors. He recommended I let the authorities at my college know about my “issue” so they could help me through it, so I could grow closer to God and be a witness to others, so that they might not go to hell.
I did so almost immediately after arrival. They said I’d best not let other students know about my temptation, as I might upset them, and they strongly recommended counseling to help me overcome my attractions. However, I convinced myself I could conquer my temptations on my own. I’d read that I was probably just going through a phase. God had the power to conquer any sin, and I was a Christian, a child of God. This would ultimately be as simple as staying close to God.
However, it burdened me to hear other students speak of their own issues with sex, alcohol, and so on, whilst I was to remain silent. I decided to confide in a few students I deeply trusted, for advice and spiritual support. I fell in love with one of them. Try as I might to guard that information, it leaked to the authorities. They informed me that if I was to remain in school, I must attend regular counseling to overcome my “issue”.
The first two counselors claimed their technique could conquer any “sin issue” in six to eight weeks. This proved to be wildly optimistic. Making simple behavioral changes did not alter what went on in my mind and my heart. It didn’t change my thoughts, desires, and hopes. It didn’t change the dread I awoke with whenever I dreamt of holding hands with a man.
I then met for about two years with a counselor who had previously held a position of authority over me and with whom I still had some connections outside counseling. In secular practice, this is forbidden. The counselor is to approach the client with a clean slate, and influence outside the office taints the delicate nature of the counseling relationship. However, in the church, authority figures routinely counsel those under them.
Those sessions proved difficult for me. Despite my following my counselor’s advice to the letter, I still thought about men. I wanted to hold hands with them, to kiss them. I would fantasize about sharing my home with a man for the rest of my life. Interestingly, thoughts of sex with men were rare. I tried to shut down my sexual drive in order to avoid the inevitable guilt and shame.
All the while, my mental health spiraled out of control. My lifelong depressive state began alternating with rapid, uncontrollable thoughts—paranoia, terror, self-destruction. I felt that my evil homosexual desires were destined to be known regardless of what I did, that my Christian witness would collapse and I would cause people to go to hell.
One night, a random comment from an acquaintance tipped the scales. I realized that I was a Christian, but I was also gay. I had always been told that Christians go to heaven and gays go to hell. I was thus a contradiction, and in my whirlwind mind, contradictions couldn’t exist. I had to do something. I had to end the contradiction.
I almost did it. I almost flattened myself from a leap off an overpass. But at the last minute, I called a suicide prevention line.
I spent ten days in the hospital. They determined what others had suspected, that I had bipolar disorder. I struggled to put my life together after my stay, but ultimately, it was best for me to move back to my hometown to recuperate.
Once home, I thumbed through the Yellow Pages and discovered an ad for a counselor who promised to deliver clients from homosexuality. I leapt at the opportunity. Here was a specialist, someone who would understand exactly what I was going through, someone who had helped others overcome their temptations. Perhaps now I could conquer my shame. Perhaps I could one day walk down the streets without strangers yelling, “Hey, faggot!” at me. Perhaps now I would not cause someone to go to hell.
For two years, I got the same message. “You have homosexual temptations because your father was distant and your mother was smothering.” But my mother was pretty lenient. Also, why didn’t my brothers have this issue? “Well, it wasn’t that your father was distant and your mother was smothering, you just perceived it that way, and your brothers perceived it differently.” We argued a lot. If I was doing what he told me to do—stay devoted to the Bible and pray—and it didn’t have the desired result, he would tell me I just wasn’t doing it right or doing it enough. If I fell away from the practice, he berated me for not staying close to God, that I clearly wasn’t serious about being healed of homosexual temptation. He began demanding that I attend the same church as he, since his was the only local congregation who had ascribed to his therapeutic practices. In the end, he closed his practice owing to finances.
Looking back over my journals from that time, I see I was already expressing doubts about these treatments. I had had no results in nearly eight years. But the message of the counselors and churches remained—I simply needed to work harder. Until the point that I had no doubts that I was in fact a heterosexual, I would not have a close relationship to God, I could hold no position that even looked like a leadership role in the church, and I would be a “stumbling block” to others—I risked causing others to go to hell.
Two more years I continued with counseling from different leaders at church. They told me nothing I hadn’t already heard. Any doubts I had were quashed by the proclamation that I was not right with God. Yet one reality grew clearer to me: the more I tried to draw close to God in the way these counselors had told me, the further from God I grew. It is said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing repeatedly expecting different results. By this definition, I was insane.
I approached one of the counselors. I told him it was clear to me that what he was telling me to do was actually pulling me further from God, not drawing me closer. What if I were to remain in the congregation admitting that I was a homosexual—that I was gay—and that that was okay? I didn’t even bring up whether I thought it would be okay to date or have sex or anything—I hadn’t reached those conclusions yet. He told me that I would always be welcome in the congregation, but because they loved me, they would constantly warn me of the error of my ways. I decided I could not live in that kind of unbalanced relationship. That was the last day I attended that church.
It has been quite a journey since then. I moved to Minneapolis, “The San Francisco of the Midwest.” I have affiliated with religious groups who audaciously claim that God loves me—and everyone else—just as I am. I am not beholden to mere human opinion. My relationship with God is much closer than it was in my younger days, though its shape is much different from what I expected a close relationship with God would look like. God is replacing bitterness with grace, resentment with reconciliation, and despair with hope. Perhaps one day I will build a home with another man—or perhaps I will be single the rest of my life. Regardless, I know that the love and acceptance I sought in God’s representatives, I have found in God.
Interestingly, in the 1 1/2 years since I wrote this, I’ve grown increasingly agnostic.
Some of my posts will be older writings which can be found elsewhere on the internet. I figure it would be smart to collect all my best writings in one place. It also, well, lets me be lazy on occasion, and it is a cold, rainy, dreary day in Minneapolis.
The following story was originally published to I’m From Driftwood in April 2009. I have made here a couple of minor edits. This account illustrates my sense of humour (I claim to have no sense of humour but some friends claim otherwise). I can’t try to be funny, my jokes fall flat, but funny things happen to me, and I can relate them.
I checked for the source of the sound, and felt a small hole in the crotch of my jeans. “Fifteen hours,” I assured myself. “Fifteen hours, and I can unpack my bags and change pants.” I consoled my mom for the millionth time, telling her I would be fine, as we both fought back the tears and my brother prepared to drive me to the Greyhound station.
The previous three weeks had been a whirlwind. I had received notice that the funding for my philosophy degree at Indiana University had been cut sharply, and that my state insurance had been eliminated. When you live in a small town in a conservative state and have a serious medical condition, you don’t mess around—you move. Spending several sleepless nights on campus computers, I talked with friends about where to move. Toledo? It had an intriguing opportunity for me to advance my art career, but it was too small for my taste. Chicago? I loved to visit, but it was too big for me to live in. Seattle? Nice, but too far for moving on a budget. Minneapolis…
I pulled out the ticket. Bloomington to Indianapolis to Chicago to Minneapolis. I had packed as many of my belongings as I could into the Greyhound maximum of four bags— two to go below and two carry-ons. (More of my possessions would follow thanks to friends visiting Minnesota, and the rest would go in a landfill.) Surely, my two smallest bags would fit into the overhead compartments. Unfortunately, my memory of the size of Greyhound buses proved very optimistic. “You can’t fit those on here, they’re too big, they’re gonna have to stay off,” called out the driver gruffly. “But, I’m moving, I don’t have a choice!” I begged. He relented. I stuffed the smallest bag underneath my seat, and straddled the other carry-on…
Behind me lay most of the world I knew. Sure, I’d studied awhile in St. Louis and interned in England. And sure, I was born in a different town, but Bloomington was the map of my heart. Bloomington was where I started coming out—and felt stifled in expressing it. Bloomington was where I had made most of my friends—and lost most of them as I came out. Bloomington was where I got my education—and had it taken away. Bloomington was where my art career budded—and smothered under a lack of opportunity.
What was I losing, really? My relationships with family were always awkward; perhaps they would benefit from distance. The economy would be far better outside my college town, where a Bachelor’s degree would get you $6.50 an hour and cup of coffee—and I didn’t even have the Bachelor’s degree. I was sure I would thrive where I could live out and proud. The past was behind me; a bright future lay before me. And my present?
We pulled into the downtown Chicago station for a 2 1/2-hour layover. I knew one of the little shops in the station would have a travel sewing kit. My plan was to safety-pin together the ever-growing tear. I figured it worked for my punk friends, so why not me? Frazzled from a severe lack of sleep, I gingerly slipped six safety pins along the course of the rip. After all, it only had to hold eight more hours, right?
We stopped at the McDonald’s in Tomah, Wisconsin at the cusp of night and day. If Greyhound weren’t contracted to stop at McDonald’s, and were I not starving, I would have avoided that grease trap and tried to at least get a nap. Sleeping with a huge duffel bag squeezing me into a seat proved to be impossible. I blearily ordered a caramel sundae and an apple pie, hoping to God that no one in the restaurant noticed my deteriorating jeans, the rip now down to my knee. I had yet to learn Upper-Midwestern passive-aggressive behavior, to learn that they wouldn’t say anything until after I was gone. At least, I thought, I’m wearing boxers.
Minneapolis at last! I was crazy, I thought, moving to this city without ever visiting. But crazier things had been done. I just had to call my friend Chris to pick me up, and I could finally get rid of these jeans. Except… “Sir, I understand your situation, but there are families with young children in here, and I’m going to have to ask you to step outside the station.” Great, I’m in a strange city, half-naked, being kicked outside where I could get arrested. I crossed my fingers, hoping that Chris would hurry up. Indeed, a few minutes later, my chariot arrived, and the first thing we did was to go to his place for me to change my pants.
It is coincidence that I am posting this story on the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard. You catch a glimpse of homophobia in my life in this story. Shepard’s death affected me profoundly, and I will write more about how so later.