At this time ten years ago, when I turned 30, I had just moved to a new city. In the city I’d moved from, most of my friendships were pretty new. I moved very suddenly because I had to; my opportunities had completely closed up. So I settled into a big city to start a new life. The world was so big and fresh and wonderful. Life begins at 30, I declared.
Today I turn 40. I’m about to move to a new city. In the city I’m leaving, many of my friendships are pretty new (at least judging from my party RSVP’s). I am moving with plenty of advance notice because I get to. The city I have been living has opened up possibilities to move on. So soon I will be settling into a little town to start a new life. The world is so big and fresh and wonderful.
Life begins at 40.
Many across the United States are aware that Minnesota is in the midst of a nasty battle for a constitutional amendment (an amendment the Republican-led state legislature felt so important that they had the state government shut down entirely via lack of budget until the amendment was put to ballot) that will restrict the rights of emancipated adults to engage in civil contract (the contract of legally-recognised marriage) and restrict the religious freedoms of churches who wish to follow their beliefs by marrying same-sex couples. This concerns me. Not because I am gay (I don’t think I’m quite marriable). If I were straight as an arrow, I believe this would still concern me. See, this battle is being fought by and large by people who claim they are fighting this battle in the name of Jesus. When I read the Gospels, I see that Jesus repeatedly lambasted those who wanted to embroil themselves in other people’s moral affairs. He actually praised the Pharisees for their practises of personal piety, but then condemned them for legislating everyone else’s morality ad nauseum. This Jesus has been forgotten somewhere along the way.
I’m also concerned because I live in the Twin Cities, what I sometimes call a “gay bubble,” and so many I converse with are utterly convinced that the anti-marriage amendment will be defeated, no problem, and they’ll point to some random poll to prove it. Yet every single poll I’ve encountered has said that, though a tight race, the amendment looks like it will pass. Moreover, I know a number of people who are working at various levels of Minnesotans United for All Families who all confirm my assertion and refute that of my acquaintances. I think living in this gay bubble inures people to attitudes outside the bubble
But as concerned as I am about this amendment, I am even more concerned about a second ballot issue which has garnered less national attention. The proposed amendment would require a “photo I.D.” in order to vote. Can’t afford the fee for a photo I.D.? Well, just head down to your DMV and they’ll make you a special, free voter ID. It sounds innocuous enough, doesn’t it? But then the truth rears its ugly head….
The hue and cry that got this proposed amendment put on next week’s ballot was claims of rampant voter fraud. Extensive studies have demonstrated that this rampant voter fraud simply doesn’t exist. The claim that it’s easy-peasy to just go down to the DMV? Never mind the many mitigating factors that can keep someone from the DMV. Just ask the good folks in Wisconsin. They were told that they could do just as Minnesotans are being told, to go down and get your free ID at the DMV. But then the DMV employees were instructed specifically by the state government to do everything possible to *discourage* applicants from obtaining these voter IDs. (Watch this video to see these tactics in action.) Or voters of a certain political persuasion (read: Democrat) had their closest DMVs taken away from them outright. Never mind that the implementation of this special voter ID will cost in the neighbourhood of $50 million with no clue as to how to fund it.
If this sounds like a diatribe against the Republicans, it is somewhat, but only because they are the ones who have seized upon this issue. (I have diatribes I can write against the Democrats, but that will have to wait for other writings.) Look at the stats across the country. There is a clear correlation between the ease with which one can vote in a particular state and the likelihood that that state will favour one party or the other in elections. (I say this having come from Indiana, one of the more dependably Republican states, which is also one of the hardest states in the country in which to vote. For example, you have to be registered at least thirty days before election time, and the polls close at 6 p.m.—the earliest in the entire country.) The Republican leadership are well aware of this correlation, and have admitted as much. So, on the surface, this is appears to be a matter of one political party subverting the political process to gain control, which is in itself repugnant. (For the record, I agree with George Washington in thinking that political parties are an inherently bad idea.)
But the heart of the issue is much more insidious than a simple power play. It is nothing less than the assertion that some human beings are inherently inferior to other human beings. A couple of months ago, I haphazardly ended up in a debate (I hate debate, or rather what is mislabelled as debate these days) on Facebook with a friend of a friend (there is no enemy like a friend’s friend). I gave him my personal account of how, two years ago, I was nearly turned away at the polls under the existing laws for reasons related entirely to poverty. And this friend of a friend asserted that he didn’t care. He didn’t care about whether circumstances beyond my control kept me from the polls. Furthermore, he stated that he could hear a million stories that were the same, and they still wouldn’t change his mind about ensuring that this repugnant amendment becomes enshrined in the Minnesota state constitution.
He stated it right there: he believes his Story is more important than mine, or those of the hypothetical million others, and by extension, *he* is more important than I or the million others are. And I maintain that the belief that some human beings are inherently better or worse than others lies at the core of most of our social ills.
And that is what this fight—what many fights—are about. It would take unmitigated gall to walk up to someone and say, “Yeah, you know? You could vote just fine last year, but I’m taking away your ability to vote next year.” Of course, most backers of this amendment would dare not express such unmitigated gall to someone’s face, instead hiding behind the anonymity of the ballot box and the socioeconomic, racial, and cultural cloisters that keep nearly all of us from ever truly learning the experience of anyone whose Story isn’t like our own.
Last night I went to a Halloween party. As I rode the bus through increasingly conservative neighbourhoods out to the inner-ring Saint Paul suburb of my hosts, I saw on a number of lawns a maddening sight that was the impetus for writing this article: signs, side-by-side, one saying to “Vote No” on the anti-marriage amendment, but to “Vote Yes” on the voter suppression amendment. This repeated sight angered me because the posters of the signs could not see that both of these amendments are cut from the same cloth of inequality: that homosexually-coupled individuals are inherently inferior and don’t deserve to live lives of the same quality as their heterosexually-coupled counterparts, and that the poor, the disabled, the elderly, college students and anyone else who doesn’t “fit” that look to be marginalised by this amendment are inherently inferior and don’t deserve to participate in one of the foundations of a functional democracy. Both of these amendments maintain that some people are fundamentally inferior to others, an assertion that undermines the very notion of democracy.
And so, I turn back to my earlier illustration of all of us hiding in our own little homogeneous cloisters. We have the gay, the lesbian, the ally who will fight tooth and nail for their own rights and of those close to them, but are at best indifferent to the rights of those who do not run in their own circles. And that is repugnant.
To vote no on both of these amendments is to affirm the dignity and equality of all our citizenry and to support democracy. It is the absolute least we can do. May we do this and far, far more to uplift our species.
A final note: this is my last word on the subject. And I will not be lured into what-passes-for-debate-today on the subject, because there is no possible way you can convince me that some human beings are inherently better or worse than others.
Edited 28 Oct 12 to add a link regarding Indiana voting shenanigans.
Edited 5 Nov 12: I also want to add that supporters of the amendment have stood on the idea that the amendment will “reduce voter fraud.” The evidence of voter fraud is virtually nonexistent, far smaller than the statistical margin of error. Yet this amendment would remove from thousands the ability to vote in order to sift out one or two voting cheats. From a mathematical standpoint, this makes no sense.
Edited 5 November: Fact-checked, figure “hundreds of millions” for implementation of Voter ID measures brought down to “in the neighbourhood of $50 million.” Still way too much for an unnecessary measure
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.
ETA: I have been challenged by a friend to expound and improve upon what I wrote. I’m learning….
I had said in my post earlier today that I wanted to speak briefly about how Matthew Shepard’s murder affected me personally. I was going to wait until tomorrow to write this, but I didn’t want to give myself the opportunity to forget to do so, and I didn’t want the palpability of the anniversary to escape me before I could write of it.
It is funny how the memory can play tricks on you, because, for the longest time, I had misremembered his death as having occurred whilst I was still living in St Louis, but this is impossible, as I moved from St Louis to Bloomington, Indiana in May 1998. So, I had been living in Bloomington, but not for long.
I understand why I had got confused about the timing, as the year 1998 was a confusing year for me. I began the year living in St Louis, my residence since 1992, when I began Bible college. I had had to leave school the September previous for financial reasons, but was bound and determined to remain in St Louis, believing that to return to my hometown would indicate I had failed at life. I set up my life in a little apartment in the suburb of Florissant, and thought I was living life well, but I was not. I could not hold a job as I drowned in depression. Then, waves of peripatetic paranoia left me unable to take care of myself at all. By April, I had decided–as best as one can decide when one’s mind is racing a mile a second–that, if to be gay and Christian was a contradiction, and that contradictions ought not to exist, I should therefore cease to exist. One call to suicide prevention led to a hospital stay, which led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and in May 1998, about to lose my apartment for lack of rent–though I had convinced myself I could make the money somehow, I most reluctuantly returned to Indiana to live with my mother.
For most of the time that I had been in Bible college, I had participated in what is commonly called “ex-gay therapy”, but which the counsellors themselves call “reparative therapy.” [Tomorrow I will repost the story of how that came about.] Upon flipping through the Yellow Pages randomly, I came across an essentially one-man organisation called Freedom Through Christ Ministries. Their sole purpose was to convert gay* people into heterosexuals, unlike my previous counselling experiences, which carried out their work under the more generic umbrella of “Christian counselling”.
So, I moved back to my hometown, which for some reason thinks of itself as gay-friendly. (Sorry, but if I’m frequently harassed for just walking down the sidewalk by myself, I’m not going to presume I won’t be harassed walking hand-in-hand with my boyfriend). I began almost immediately thereafter a “therapy” designed specifically to make one not be gay (or, as I like to call it, to turn into a giraffe, because it’s just as likely and just as necessary). And then, right after that, I read of the murder of a gay man in the national headlines. You can understand that these three factors, simultaneously, were in and of themselves enough to keep me in the closet for several years thereafter.
*They do not use the word “gay” because they do not believe that there is a such thing as a gay person, or a homosexual person. All people are heterosexual, some just have “homosexual temptations”
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.