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Life and Death

Yesterday I celebrated my thirty-ninth trip around the sun. I enjoyed various celebrations for a couple of days, spent with friends old and new. It was a time of merriment and gratitude and laughter (with just a hint of debauchery–hey, I’m no angel). Yesterday began my fortieth trip.

Today I found out about the death of a friend. She was not a close friend, but I had wanted to be closer. Though she died nearly a month ago, many of her friends are only now finding out. This reminds me of how the modern age leaves us less connected than we like to think we are. She was intelligent and talented and beautiful, with a biting wit and a great laugh. She was a gifted actress, and I had longed to write a piece especially for her.

Today people are writing on her Facebook wall, wishing “Rest in Peace”. I’m not going to interfere with others’ grieving process. I will say, however, that I don’t believe she’s “resting”. I believe that the part of her beyond her flesh and bones, the part that we cherished as “Monica”, is no more. This is the sort of thing for which religious people often think that the nonreligious are cold and heartless, with such a grim and bleak view of the world.

I do, however, believe in immortality–it’s just not immortality as portrayed in religious texts. Monica has left an indelible print on all who knew her. Many times she entertained, encouraged, and comforted us, and that impact will not be lost just because she is no longer with us. And those good, beautiful things about her influence us, even in the subtlest ways. And then we pass that influence on to the others around us in our lives. And so that influence passes even after I and everyone I know will be dead and gone as well.

She left behind two sons, nearly adults, who, though I don’t know them personally, are by all accounts good kids. And I hope they continue to be good kids. I hope they carry with them all the good things about Monica and pass them on as well.

And as I look 364 days in the future, at which point I would unarguably be middle-aged, I reflect on my own mortality. And I recognize that I might not even see 40. Life is so very fragile, and so unpredictable. Which is why, each day, I must commit myself to living my life such that, upon my passing, I have left behind good things.

So today, I live with joy and sorrow, with comedy and tragedy, with triumph and pain. I carry the loss of my friend and the spark she left inside my soul.

Today I live.

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Introductions

I realised a couple of days ago that, for the first time, I am blogging and have at least a small handful of people reading my writing who do not actually know me face-to-face.  This is of course a good problem to have.  But it does leave me feeling like I should impart a bit of my autobiography to aid those who are coming into my my blog and the life it revolves around in media res.

I was born and grew up in Southern Indiana.  I have three siblings younger than me who all came in quick succession.  I was a bright but awkward child, the latter aided by the fact that my father was an abuser, and abusers use social isolation to hide abuse.  Thus, I did not really grow up around any children my own age.

When I turned eight, my mother escaped with us and filed for divorce.  After a fiasco of my father having temporary custody during the divorce, my mother won custody.  However, owing to the abuse, my mother suffered permanent disabilities.  Added to the fact that my father did not pay child support and my mother could not get the courts to get him to do so, I grew up quite poor, in a community with a very sharp class divide.  This experience made me very aware of class-consciousness.

Once we escaped my father, I took an interest in going to church, in part because it was one of the things he forbade.  I ended up in a congregation in the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, and then attended one of their Bible colleges in St. Louis.

During this entire process, I was slowly coming to the realisation that I was “not like other boys”–because I liked other boys.  Not knowing what to do, I turned to the authorities in my life–the college authorities–and the short version of the story is that I was required to attend ex-gay “therapy” in order to remain in school.  I remained in the “therapy” much longer than I remained in the school, which I had to leave for financial and health reasons.

I relocated to my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, and transferred to Indiana University, where I majored in philosophy.  This was a misguided choice of major for a few reasons, chief of them being was that I wanted to go into creative writing for at least a chunk of my career.  It took me awhile to realise that the Jean-Paul Sartres and Ursula LeGuins are by far the exception in the world of philosophy.

But you don’t make every decision in life.  Some decisions get made for you, quite unexpectedly.  In May 2004 I received two letters from the State of Indiana.  One informed me that I would lose my medical insurance, which I needed for the treatment of disabilities, and the second stated that there would be major cuts to my school funding.

One month later, I boarded a Greyhound for Minneapolis, sight unseen.  I only knew two people here, both online–one remains a dear friend.  But I had heard great recommendations for the city, and as I researched it, it had everything I was looking for: progressive and gay-friendly (offering me my first realistic chance of coming out), with a large arts community, a stable economy, and good health-care and transit services.  It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

I got a job in customer service at Minnesota Children’s Museum, which I held for four years until the museum was hit in the first wave of recession cuts in November 2008, when I was laid off.

I was adrift for a while after the layoff, and I got really depressed.  Changes in student-loan laws opened up the opportunity for me to return to college, which I did in January 2012 at Metropolitan State University, this time majoring in Creative Writing where I belonged.

In the midst of all this was a sea change spiritually.  After having to leave the evangelical Church for entertaining the idea of living a celibate but openly gay life (which takes more explaining than this format allows), I ended up in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, where I found a safe space to ask the questions innate to my sceptical nature.  And those questions led me right out of Christianity.  And it was okay.  I spent a while with a small Quaker group, and more recently have sporadically attended a Unitarian-Universalist church.  I mostly see myself as a pilgrim, always journeying, as one friend put it, “always an emigrant, never an immigrant.”  I pick up something valuable wherever I go that I keep.

My day-to-day life now is focussed on school, which I attend year-round.  In my free time, I sing with Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus and serve on Metropolitan State’s arts-and-literature editorial staff.  I half-joke that I am terminally single.  I do, however, live with a bicycle named Wilbur.

Religious

This morning was my second at First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, MN.  It would have been my third in a row had I not been out of town last week.  There is a lot about the congregation I like, and I will keep visiting to determine if indeed it is a good fit for me.  This much I know: the service at this particular Unitarian-Universalist (UU) congregation, in structure, much more closely resembles an evangelical Christian service than a mainline Christian service.  It feels familiar.  It “feels like church”, more so than a mainline service, and far more so than an unprogrammed Quaker service.

Until two weeks ago, I hadn’t attended a religious service in about 1 1/2 years, which, I say, is like most people not having gone to church for 15 years.  In evangelical Christianity, the general expectation is that you go to worship services three times a week: Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening.  As such, it cannot help but be a very large part of one’s life.  One of the challenges as I transitioned into liberal Christianity was that there was not that huge presence on my weekly calendar.  Especially in the smaller mainline congregations, much of the church’s life begins and ends Sunday morning.  Though I understand the reasons why each branch of the Christian religion does what it does, it is the former that makes the more sense to me, because of familiarity if for no other reason.

I say that I left evangelical Christianity for personal reasons, but left Christianity overall for theological reasons.  I am, I think, a doubter by nature, and I appreciate it when I’m given space to think through ideas, rather than to just accept them wholesale.  I am at a place where I will not make any definitive statements regarding the nature of God, or God’s connexion with the universe and with humankind.  I have thus been leery of engaging in any religious services lately.

However, an acquaintance recently challenged me.  He said that, even if I might very much want to chuck God and faith and all the rest, that I myself am, for whatever reason, a religious person, and that it will only do me good to find some way to “scratch that itch”.  I’m hoping the good people at First Universalist may help me in that regard.

Unbalanced

I originally posted this story to I’m From Driftwood in May 2010.  It seemed an appropriate follow-up to yesterday’s stories.

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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.

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Interestingly, in the 1 1/2 years since I wrote this, I’ve grown increasingly agnostic.

“Freedom”

ETA: I have been challenged by a friend to expound and improve upon what I wrote.  I’m learning….

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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”