01 December 2010


It was one of those glorious wet snows. Huge flakes frosted the tree branches, carpeted the ground, plastered white-out all over the vehicles in our driveway. My husband Dave and I were headed for town that Saturday morning and I was out of the house first for once. Not enough time to make a proper snowman, not really, so I quick fashioned a dinky one, rolled up three mini-snowballs using the fluff accumulated on the rear windshield of the car. It stood all of nine inches tall. Fine twigs served for spidery fingers and a whispery nose.

While Dave puttered in the house, I played in the snow. I started with a fist-sized snowball beside the driveway. By the time I'd rolled it past the tire swing and over to the redbud tree, it was thigh-high and had left a widening trail of green grass and dry leaves. I rolled another, then another, stacked them atop each other, and packed in additional snow to hold them in place. I hurried. This was no cool young rocker dude. This was a stout middle-aged fellow in a pale white jumpsuit spotted with crinkly brown beech leaves.

My husband waited in the truck whilst I armed the snowman with two sticks and nosed both sides of his head with two more. I wanted two-faced Janus to preside over our yard. I tilted his roadside nose up to give him a spirited air. His private face I turned downward so he could admire the sizeable genitals I fashioned on that side of his body pointed away from passersby.
In less time than it takes to tell I had brought two snowmen into being. In turn they had brought me simple pleasure both in the making in their taking their place in the white world. Dave and I left for town and I thought little more about them. But they weren't finished with me. They yet had lessons to offer.

I eyed Janus when we returned. How like me, this man of snow! On his public face, an upbeat expression, arms held high as if to embrace the world; on his private side, a raging hard-on and thoughts hot enough to threaten a total melt-down. How like me, this man of snow! Creature of a season, temporal, his hold on life so tenuous, of such short duration. How like me, this man of snow! His pale skin flecked with blotches of dried leaves, one arm larger than the other, cracked in the head. Imperfect but with his own quirky sense of humor and sense of self.

On Sunday afternoon I winced to see he had toppled face-forward, smashed his penis into the ground. The mini-snowman atop my car fared better and on Monday morning made the trip into work intact.

There, I learned I had violated a law I hadn’t even known about: men shall not make cute little snowmen and put them atop their cars. If they do, they certainly shall not leave them perched there for the others to see. This message came at me in various ways. Several of my coworkers made a point of alluding to the little passenger. One asked, "Did you get attacked by Frosty on the way into work?" My supervisor was surprised to learn I myself had made the snowman. "I thought one of the guys put it up there on your car," she said.

I then understood she'd seen it as probable harassment. She wasn't the only one. That night a gay friend phoned me. "The guys at work giving you a hard time?" he asked. "I drove by there today and saw somebody had put a little snowman on top your car."

Dang. And here I thought he was cute.

The message to me—and to how many others—is endlessly enforced: Thou Shalt Conform to Gender Roles. You are a man, therefore you will like what men are supposed to like. You will act as we expect you to act. Cross the line and you set into motion a whole lumbering societal machinery; it's aim: crush individuality, maintain order and control, minimize resistance.

A landmark study published this fall reports that 41 percent of transgender persons surveyed have attempted suicide (compared to 1.6 percent of the general population). What does this say about our society? Some of us, more than others, pay a high price to live as individuals, lead lives of courage, say yes to the heart's deepest leadings.

Courageous or not, conformist or quirky, our lives are soon over. We all of us are made of snow. Already we are melting. My advice: Play. Create. Laugh. Love.

This essay appeared in The Community Letter, December 2010

01 November 2010


The following Thanksgiving story features ups and downs, pathos, passion, more than a hint of extramarital sex, murder-suicide and a surprising plot twist. It sounds like a Hollywood movie—or maybe like life itself. I've fleshed out some details with period research and my own imagination.
As I envision it, this particular Thanksgiving starts out as have many others at the Thompson residence, that big place in the town's better neighborhood. The kitchen hums with activity. That's some good cooking you smell.
The six kids will be arriving soon, along with their families. Thanksgiving has a way of shining a spotlight on family. Mrs. Thompson wants to have everything ready. Oh, it's not as if the President were coming. He and Mrs. Coolidge are upstate this weekend, several hours northeast of Big Stone Gap. Big honor for Virginia, hosting the vacationing First Couple for five whole days. The President read out the traditional Thanksgiving proclamation a few days early this year to allow him to get away from it all.
That's what John Winton Thompson wishes he could do—walk away from everything. Instead, the very walls seem to be closing in around him. He feels trapped, desperate. And all because of that Catron woman.
Rosa Bishop Catron moved to town a couple years ago, lives alone in a little house down by the hosiery mill. Been married three times, has three sons (three that people know about). She's quite the character. Ask almost anyone in town. Young, too. At 41, Rosa is 14 years his junior. She makes him feel like a kid again. Or did at first. Today he feels old, terribly, terribly old.
And angry. Very angry.
He fingers his pistol. How could he have let it come to this? As former deputy sheriff of Wise County, he once swore to uphold the law of the land. He knows rules. He's about to break a whole lot of them.
I wonder how he leaves the house this morning. With a goodbye to his wife? A promise to be back in time for dinner? He won't make it. For John there will be no clink of glasses around the laden table, no clattering of plates. No happy family gathering, no feasting, no giving of thanks. Rather, the taking of life.
Here's what the Virginia Post, Wednesday, December 5, 1928, has to say: "TWO DEAD FROM DRINKING POISON HERE THURSDAY, John Thompson Forces Catron Woman to Drink Drug and Then Poisons Himself — Both Die Within Few Minutes.
"John Thompson, 55, former deputy sheriff of Wise County and road contractor, and Mrs. Rosa Catron, a resident of the district around the hosiery mill here, are both dead as the result of an affair which occurred Thursday morning at 11:00 o'clock in which Thompson is said to have forced the woman to drink a deadly poison at the point of a pistol and to have taken the remainder of the deadly poison himself.
"Thompson it is stated went to a local druggist Thursday morning and purchased forty cents worth of strychnine and a bottle of Abbott Bitters. Upon being questioned by the drug clerk, he declared that he intended to poison some rats. He then went to the home of [Rosa Catron], and according to her story told just before she died, poured the drug into the bottle and told her to drink it. When she refused, she said, he drew a pistol and threatened to shoot her. She complied and drank a part of the poison. He then told her what she had taken whereupon she rushed of out the house to the home of a neighbor where she told her story as doctors worked over her in the half hour before her life was gone.
"Thompson was found in the Catron house dead as the result of drinking the remainder of the deadly drug.
"According to the woman, Thompson and she had been acquainted and had quarreled for reasons not disclosed. Thompson is survived by his wife and six children while Mrs. Catron is survived by three sons."
That's the official story. Now for the plot twist. According to genealogist Brenda H. Reed (, members of the Catron family believe Rosa killed John, then drank the brew herself.
Who knows what really happened. That's life—not knowing. That's life—ups, downs, passion, love, loss, wonderful moments, elusive truths. We all die in the end, that's life, too. Yet we're called to give thanks. The most contented, gentle angry person I know is a gay man who looks life full in the face, as it is, and without flinching, with deep sincerity, says, "thank you."
This essay appeared in The Community Letter, November 2010

08 October 2010


Had you asked me if I was “driven,” I would have said, “No.” Had you asked my wife or our three young children, they might have given a different answer. They might have mentioned my long hours away from home, the nights I slept on my office floor, the way I’d pack the kids off to the grandparents’ whenever a major deadline loomed at work.

Had you asked if I was running from something, I would have given you a blank stare. I kept busy to avoid seeing how unhappy I was and why.

My frantic pace ground almost to a halt when I came out to myself and to others as a gay man. Voicing this realization cost me my wife, my children, my friends, my employment, my church membership, and my religious beliefs. I went from a desk job at an evangelical Christian college to making biscuits at a fast-food restaurant just off the interstate.

Five days a week for over a year I watched the sun rise with a co-worker. She’d motion for me to join her — “You got to see this!” — and we’d peer at the oranges, pinks, purples, and blues of the broad Indiana sky, often sticking our heads out the drive-through window to get a better view. These moments reminded me that the world presents itself anew every morning; just as night follows day, day also follows night. With this in mind I begin to rebuild my life.

This article appeared in The Sun, Issue 418, October 2010

02 October 2010


The news hits hard. Friends of ours—coupled a few years longer than our 14—are calling it quits on their relationship. My husband Dave and I didn't see it coming. Apparently, neither did they. Or at least, not both of them. Less than a week ago we asked one of the men what he most wants from life. "To grow old with my partner," he said.
The news of these friends' impending breakup sends a chill down my spine, as if someone somewhere is walking across my grave. It reminds me that at some point my relationship with Dave will end. We will part ways by choice, chance, death or the thousand other ways relationships terminate. We know this.
I remember an article I read about the nature and duration of gay relationships. The author cited the results of a multiple choice survey question that showed newly-partnered couples were most apt to predict their relationship would last "forever." The longer the partners had been together—25 years, 30, even 40—the more likely they were to predict their relationship would last "another month." Perhaps with age comes the realization that nothing is sure, nothing lasts, everything changes whether we like it or not.
How to live in such a world?
The answer is perhaps scribed on a plaque that hangs on a wall of our home. The words are right there in front of my face, penned in a flowing calligraphic hand by my former wife. She copied them from a similar plaque in my parents' house. I can't read the words. They're in Finnish, language of my grandparents, but the translation is etched in my mind: "We have all we need. What we don't have, we don't need." Sage advice about how to make do.
I’ve taken these words to heart. I am notorious for wearing tennis shoes until I walk out the sides of them. To do farm work I slip into a pair of old black dress shoes, their soles strapped on with layer after layer of duct tape. We lay our table with cloths that were new 50 years ago. My husband spent this morning sewing patches onto one of them.
I harbored hopes that my first marriage could be patched together, that my wife and I could make it last as long as my parent's “'til-death-do-us-part” relationship. It was not to be. My wife needed a man who needed a woman, who could love her in ways meaningful to her, to join her in a union of opposites. I needed a man to companion, to brother, to twin with, to form a union of equals.
Even so, I continue to sit with the questions raised by the dissolution of the marriage. Was it best to call it quits? Was anything to be gained by making it last? How would life be different—hers, mine, our children's—had we stayed together? The fallout seems severe: my three sons, now young adults, have nothing to do with me, nor have they had since they were children.
But perhaps I overstate the case. I have found deep happiness in life since the marriage ended. Has my former wife since found something similar? Have our kids moved to a place of satisfaction and joy? How can I know? Will I ever know?
And why the importance placed on making it last—making anything last—in the first place? Isn’t the message of life that everything changes? That we are always in a state of becoming? That existence is one long lesson in letting go?
And yet.
Maybe the deeper truth of the proverb—and I have no clue how to say it in Finnish—is that we do have all we need somewhere deep within. Deep down inside us resides the wisdom to know when to hold on, when to let go, when to take what is as it presents itself. We already possess the gumption, patience and discernment to navigate the river of life, the One-River that bears us all along on its ever-flowing, ever-changing, ever-the-same path to the Sea of—what? Being? Eternity? Nirvana? Truth?

This essay appeared in The Community Letter, October 2010

01 September 2010


When I was a teen, growing up in a politically and religiously conservative family, an older acquaintance passed along a shoebox filled with pulp fiction novels he had outgrown. Although I can't remember its title, one of the books—about an adventure at sea—contained a passage that made my heart race.
As I recall, the author described an incident in which male captives were paraded on deck. The protagonist was ordered to fellate them to prove their virility. When he fumbled the task, another man took over. The protagonist was amazed at how quickly his replacement brought each man to orgasm. When the first man had to undergo this treatment, the other captives laughed at him. They grew subdued as it came their turn.
That short passage—surely no more than a page or two long—leapt out at me. Totally innocent, only through ignorance, I was unsure exactly what was being referred to. I assumed it was masturbation by hand, something I'd only recently discovered. (I had no concept of oral fellatio.) The account thrummed with sexual tension and titillation. I was sure it was sinful. Reading it was a guilty pleasure, and one I indulged in over and over again.
Yet I never stopped to wonder why the passage interested me, never pondered the implications of its attraction for me.
Never, that is, until after I came out at age 34. Until then, I resolutely refused to consider my same-sex attractions as anything other than sin, a vile temptation, the cross I had to bear. I hated myself. I felt depressed. I sought forgiveness and release in religion. I married a woman, hoping she would save me from myself. I tried to be the ideal church-goer, husband, father, son and employee. I failed miserably on all counts.
Since coming out, I find great joy (most days) in being myself, in celebrating my same-sex attractions, in following the poet Mary Oliver's admonition to "Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves." The world now looks different to me, as does the future, as does the past.
Still, I try to make sense of my growing-up years, try to piece together what I knew when, figure out how I could delude myself so long, how I could close my eyes to what I didn't want to see. Was it my need to please? The power of overt and covert societal messages? My wholesale acceptance of church doctrine? Sheer stupidity?
I want to believe in magic—that if I ever locate the book, find the passage I remember, it will serve as a wormhole in the space-time continuum, will suck me back into the past, put me right back to age 13 or 14. This time I will say, "Ah, yes! This is who I am! I am a boy who loves other boys! I am a boy who finds himself attracted to males. I will use this information to make sense of my life. I will make choices in line with who I now know myself to be. I refuse to live shut up and shut out of society. I will find others like me, who can like me and accept me as I am, for who I am. I will walk through this door, through this opening, through this invitation into a world of being and belonging where I know myself, accept myself, am accepted by others, can celebrate life and living in ways that are meaningful to me."
Whew. What will happen if I can go back and be that self-aware at age 13? Probably I will never know. After all, wormhole time-travel is still a bit iffy.
I thought I'd found a copy of the book online one day last month. A week later, my hands trembled as I turned yellowing pages to the opening line, "If I had known then what I know now, I would never have consented to set out on such a voyage."
Alas, while this was one of the shoebox novels, it does not contain the passage (and passageway) I seek. Perhaps time travel is not in my future. The hard reality and mixed blessing is that I cannot go back, cannot refashion past choices.
Better I take a hard look around me right now. To what self-knowledge am I closing my eyes today? What call on my life am I refusing to hear—an invitation to political action? To seek justice? To walk with integrity? To answer my heart?
I shape the future by choices I make in the present, not the past. The time is now. The job is at hand.

This essay appeared in The Community Letter, September 2010

02 August 2010


My husband and I attended Pride Day in Indianapolis with friends of ours, a gay couple partnered 27 years. This was their first-ever Pride event. Their straight son attended last year, encouraged his dads to go with him this year. What should we expect? they asked. I didn't know what to say.
Like sex, Pride is better experienced than explained. It's party time, yes. Celebration and song, friends, fun. Our day to shine. To dance. To strut our stuff. To remember where we've come from and how far we have to go.
Pride turned 40 this year. The first Gay Pride celebration and parade took place in New York City, one year after the Stonewall Riots of June 1969. Pride has grown into an international event observed annually by millions.
They weren't all at Indy Pride, those millions. One estimate put the crowd at 75,000. My husband and I arrived before many of them did, met our friends (and their son and his female partner) and easily found open sidewalk space along the parade route. Looking down and across the street, I was struck by the size of the crowd—literally. Have we all grown so large, so hefty? In a subculture that worships the body beautiful, many of us, myself included, do not qualify as objects of adoration.
I looked for those who would fit my sexual attraction grid. Mmm, a 20-something androgyne with long brown hair, slender build, green and white striped shirt, tight jeans. Ooh, a man in white shirt, curly hair, shades, beautiful arms, nice chest.
And there, a smiling middle-aged woman in a t-shirt emblazoned with a rainbow-striped shirt and the words "I [heart] my son." I blinked back tears as I would again when the PFLAG contingent passed, as I do whenever I see the parents I wish mine would have been, could have been—accepting, active, advocating. We met a husband and wife attending Pride for the first time. Their teenage son had come out to them two months earlier. What should they expect?
Hoo boy.
As is traditional, lesbians revved their motorcycles and led the parade. I counted four floats featuring scantily clad sexy men. I lost count of the number of politicians and employee groups. It was easy to keep track of the number of floats featuring scantily clad sexy women: one.
Near us a raven-haired woman in a red head scarf and flowing orange dress stood with her two young sons, ages five and six. Candy-throwers and trinket-tossers targeted the kids. Their mom grew accustomed to this and held out her hand as a matter of course for two of the small packets a parade participant was handing out. After a quick glance at the small plastic bags, she handed them to her boys. Finding no candy inside, the children slipped them into their pockets. I checked the packet I received and found a flyer promoting safe sex, a condom and lube.
Last in the parade line came gay men on motorcycles. As they smiled and waved, we made our way to the vendor booths and concert area. Soon we were elbow to elbow, inching our way along. The sky grew overcast, threatened rain. "Let it get hot and steamy," I thought, "so we'll have men taking their shirts off." As if the weather gods heard, muggy weather ensued. Soon every man and woman I passed—without exception—was hot.
But more than their physical attractiveness, what impressed me was their sheer number. I wanted to take photos of each person I passed. I wanted to find out where they had come from. And where they would disappear to at the end of the day.
Living out in the boondocks, I spend 364 days a year thinking I am perhaps the only gay man in the rural Midwest. Then I come to Pride and am overwhelmed by the mass of people. Here, before my own eyes, proof I am not alone in the world. I am so not alone.
Pride for me builds a sense of community. Pride reminds me that I am welcome in the world, that I belong to a tribe of men who love men, of women who love women, of people who know what it is to live and love in liminal space outside society's easy acceptance. Pride gives me a taste of what it might feel like to inhabit a world in which people are celebrated for who they are, how they are, however they are.
Pride gives me hope. Maybe I can expect more of my world, of myself. Maybe I can be the change I want to see.

This essay appeared in The Community Letter, August 2010

08 July 2010


The Internet was in its infancy when I logged on to a sprawling online community called LambdaMOO, a virtual world built entirely of words, where members took whatever form they pleased. My friend Manimal was half-man, half-leopard. MugWump described itself as “gelatinous amoeba-type goo.” Gang_of_Eight appeared as a group of people moving about in concert, often arguing amongst themselves. My character, Melanie, had breasts that swelled a cup size or two as time went on.

It’s all a game, I told myself. It wasn’t real. So what if my heart pounded when RazorJack, a virtual cowboy with steel grey eyes, a rapier wit, and a heart the size of Texas, strode into my character’s circle of friends? No way I could fall in love with him. I was happily married with children. A romantic relationship with him — virtual or real — was out of the question.

My feelings paid me no mind. I ached to be with him. For the first time in my life, love songs on the radio made sense. He and I spent hours together online — hours I should have spent working. (My only internet connection was at my office.) I often pretended I had to work late so I could be with RazorJack.

I was wracked with guilt. What was I doing to my kids, my spouse, my marriage? I kept trying to leave the virtual world, but I kept crawling back. RazorJack understood. He supported me and was willing to let go if I was. I wasn’t willing. I clung to our relationship.

I lost my job because of the time I spent not working. I lost my wife when I realized why I wasn’t happy at home. I lost RazorJack when I told him I was only pretending to be a woman.

This article appeared in The Sun, Issue 415, July 2010

01 June 2010


He looms large in our living room, silent, dressed all in brown with an olive green overcoat, white rope tied tight around his neck, shoulders, waist, knees. I nearly jumped out of my skin last night when I first saw him. He has startled me several times today. I laugh in sympathy when my husband Dave says, "Every time I see that wrapped bookcase I think it's a man standing there."
Yesterday we were to deliver a set of hand-crafted stepped-back shelves Dave had made as a gift. As rain was forecast, we wrapped the shelves in tarps and roped them down before we realized there wasn't enough available space in the bed of the pick-up truck. We left them behind in the living room. Seen from the side, the shelves look remarkably human.
That we startle easily at a stranger's sudden appearance will surprise no one who has lived with the sobering awareness that violence against GLBT people can strike without warning and with society's tacit approval.
Living in a secluded rural area, Dave and I are constantly alert for strange noises, for the sound of vehicles slowing down outside. Vandals have often targeted our house and mailbox. Not (yet) our bodies. However, it does happen. Recently a gay acquaintance—a kind, gentle sweet man—was fatally stabbed. And friends of friends—a gay retired couple—were bludgeoned to death in their home.
Ignorance breeds fear and fear of gay people lasts a long time in rural areas where people receive little exposure to GLBT persons and culture. Fear can turn to rage, rage to violence.
Yet the threat is not only from without. Seen from another angle, the stranger in our living room might well be me. Those white cotton ropes are the shame-based messages from my past that encircle me, thwart me.
Example: I decide I will at last take the plunge, write a memoir of my coming out experience. I start with great enthusiasm, get up early mornings to write, schedule my time carefully, fill page after page. Six weeks later I fizzle. I'm not good enough to do this; I have nothing important to say; it's too hard. I shelve my dream project.
Example: Put me in a social setting, let me see a man I'm attracted to and I'll come up with 10 reasons why there's no sense in my going over to talk to him. He's chatting with someone else. And if he's not, he wouldn't be interested in me anyway. He's out of my league. What would I say? I can't tell a joke to save my life. And I'm no good at small talk. He wouldn't give me the time of day. I'd look like a fool. He's probably stuck on himself. If he really wanted to talk to me, he'd come my way.
Example: It amazes me how pleasurable masturbation can be. In the blissful moment preceding ejaculation I feel perfectly one in body, mind, spirit and psyche. Such intense pleasure. For free, too! And yet not free—I pay for my fun with guilt, hear the voice of my parents, my upbringing: "What do you think you're doing? You dirty boy. You filthy-minded man. Sex is evil. Thinking about sex is wrong. You always were a bit twisted." So I hide masturbation sessions from my husband. I feel conflicted about what brings me pleasure.
In his poem "Healing," D.H. Lawrence writes about deep wounds to the soul. "Only time can help," he says, "and patience, and a certain difficult repentance/long, difficult repentance, realization of life's mistake, and the freeing oneself/from the endless repetition of the mistake/which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify."
Shaking loose the shame-cords that bind me takes time and effort. Coming out was a first step. Educating myself about gay issues, connecting with supportive people and groups was another. Telling the story of my coming out and listening to others' offered perspective. I limited contact with family members, former friends and others who continued handing me harmful messages—who seemed eager to sanctify messages that strangle.
I may never be totally free of shame or threat of harm, but I can stay aware. I can keep my eyes open to the possibility of threat from without and within, not be totally surprised if and when they appear. I want to make informed choices, do the best I can, live fully as I can as who I am in the time given me. I can easier deal with the stranger in our living room when I remind myself he is still there.

This essay appeared in The Community Letter, June 2010

05 May 2010


Actor Daniel Radcliffe (aka Harry Potter) recently appeared naked on stage in a play about horses. This is all I know about Equus until our community theatre presents the play. I am anxious to see it.

I don't know to expect a psychic thriller, a riveting suspense story, a whydunnit. Back in the 1970s, after reading a newspaper account of a teenager's horrific crime, playwright Peter Shaffer wondered what could drive a person to act in such a way. Equus was his answer.

My husband and I arrive at the studio theatre early. It's festival seating, so first come, first served. We select center seats on the front row. We become unwitting targets for the lead actor's spittle.

We soon learn that 17-year-old horse lover Alan Strang has been working weekends at a riding stable, and one night blinded all six horses with a sharp grooming pick. He has been remanded to the psychiatric wing of a hospital. The psychiatrist assigned to his case addressees the audience as the lights come up.

Behind the rumpled professional in his suit coat and tie, spotlighted in blue against a gray-black set, a young man stands stroking the skeletal, iron-frame, horse head mask worn by a muscled bare-chested actor in tight black jeans. This coupling grabs my attention right off.
So this is how the horses are portrayed. Eerily effective! And this is Alan and this, one of the horses he will viciously attack. Already I'm asking the question, "Why?"

Slowly the answer unfolds. Slowly the psychiatrist lays bare the boy's secrets. By the time of the climactic revelation, Alan's incomprehensible action seems perfectly logical.

Meanwhile, I keep my eyes on the young man who plays the teenager. He has the surly brooding adolescent disregard for authority down pat. His body carriage signals noncooperation and, over time, a struggle to participate in his own healing.

His hands fascinate me. He clenches them most of the time. Rage? The longer I watch, the more I think perhaps they are hoof-like. Too, his mouth. When contemplating an answer he works his jaws in peculiar fashion. Later it strikes me that perhaps he's feeling a horse's bit in his mouth. This makes sense. Alan so identifies—erotically, religiously, whole-heartedly—with the horses he cares for that he begins to embody them unconsciously. This makes his violence toward them all the more heart-wrenching. Perhaps he redirects self-hatred toward the objects of his affection and worship.

The therapist asks hard questions about the cost of appearing normal. He begins to doubt his profession, the ethics of taking away his patient's drive for life, his unique source of meaning and purpose. "That boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have felt in any second of my life," he says. While he doesn't excuse the boy's actions, he grieves the loss of spiritual energy Alan will incur in fitting in, in finding a level of mediocrity that will win him easy societal acceptance.

I find my own hands clenching. Isn't this an issue for the lgbtiqq community? At what cost, assimilation? Do we give over our passion, that which makes us unique, in the hopes of being accepted by the masses? By the brokers of political power? By the boss? The neighbors? Mom and Dad? By ourselves?

"We're just like everybody else," I heard a gay therapist say yesterday, addressing a college classroom of ostensibly straight people.

But we're not. Yet. Are we?

Maybe some of us have grown indistinguishable from society at large. But some of us have not. Some of us are different, and different in different ways. Effeminate men, drag queens, diesel dykes, transgendered persons, the queer homeless teens on the streets of our big cities and small towns, lgbt persons of color, anyone with an especially queer passion for life...are we not often set apart, singled out as different, less-than, second-class, targeted for injustice, indifference and more?

We blind our own eyes to community members who do not look like us, live like us, shop like us, who do not share our specific brand of passion.

Hope lies not in assimilation, not in aspiring to mediocrity, but in finding the difficult balance between pursuing our own passions in a healthy way and co-creating an environment for others to do the same. Whenever I see it, this coupling grabs my attention. Give me a front row seat. Better yet, let me get up on stage and be a part of the action.

This essay appeared in The Letter, April 2010

03 April 2010


I'd heard about Equus only from the notoriety Daniel Radcliffe (aka Harry Potter) received for appearing naked on stage in the revival of the 1970s psycho-thriller drama. I'd not seen Peter Shaffer's play (nor the movie version starring Richard Burton) until Marty Grubbs and the Muncie Civic Theatre cast brought it to life. The show runs through Sunday, 11 April.

In the opening scene a rumpled aging psychiatrist (ably played by Barry McMullen) talks directly to the audience—and to himself. He thinks a lot about the horses, he says. I get the notion he almost identifies with them. Strange way to begin. By the final scene I understand.
Grubbs transposes the setting of the play to Muncie or whichever area small town you are from. Patched-in references to the Hoosier landscape seem forced, while other lines of the play referring to particularly British aspects are left untouched. Yet Grubbs makes the point: the unthinkable could, can and does happen here. Right here. The play centers around a crime of passion: how might an ordinary kid of 17 from a "normal" family from a "normal" city—Muncie, Indiana, say–come to blind six horses? What could bring him to such an act? What implications do his actions hold for the rest of us?
The meaning for psychiatrist Martin Dysart becomes clear. His client has experienced in his young life a passionate intensity that makes what the good doctor has settled for look like an empty husk, an unrealized dream, a sell-out to the demands of profession and society.
And the therapist is asked to cure the patient, to remake him into his own dull, lifeless mold. He begins to doubt himself and his calling.
Teenager Alan Strang (Taylor Anspaugh) has blinded six horses. That much is clear. The mystery is why. The play's structure parcels out this information a little at a time, keeps the audience wondering, wanting more.
Anspaugh's Alan is brooding and recalcitrant, believable in his evasive answers and adolescent scorn of authority. He gives a convincing display of the deeper currents running below the surface. I watch his hands (or are they hooves?—he tries his most to be human when he spreads his fingers–) clench and unclench, the startle movements he makes, the way his mouth works, almost as if there were a horse's bit between his jaws.
McMullen's Dysart paints the psychiatrist as tired, very tired, yet committed to the boy, and awake enough to voice the questions that come up for himself. He alternates between loud and soft, focused and weary. He confesses to his magistrate friend (and perhaps would-be paramour) Hester (an engaging Rita Wessell) the lack of passion in his life, yet his involvement with and commitment to Alan's treatment belie his words.
Alan works weekends at a riding stable. Under the push-pull of his very religious mother (Kelly Myers) and religiously irreligious father (Scott McFadden), Alan has devised his own rituals of worship that involve the horses he adores. He must deal with his sublimated sexual desires and fumbling attraction to an older, more experienced female coworker, played by Tonya Kunkel. She shows the girl as warm and tenderhearted.
The psychiatrist Dysart is torn: can he heal his patient? What will be lost if he does? He brings the audience right into the story, asks them to ponder the questions, as well.
Black. The stepped-back set is black, blue and gray, echoing the dark cave of the psyche Dysart warns us we will peer into, the layers through which we must descend. The few pieces of furniture (a desk, a couch, a bed) seem somehow out of place, spots of the familiar in a landscape of dreams.
The tightly written script keeps me enthralled, alternately repulsed and thrilled. It asks me to think.
The play includes nudity—kudos to Grubbs and the Civic for not shying away from play for this reason—and it serves the plot in making a dramatic psychological point. The characters bare themselves on many levels and take the attendant risks. Their courage moves both the story and members of the audience.
Still, Muncie is not the easiest town to get naked in, literally or metaphorically.
Most days I can easily meet the overly devout Christian mother on Walnut Street; the repressive father who wants nothing to do with God-talk may be sauntering along High Street right now. And the troubled Alan Strang—the play asks me to look inside and see if he's not within me. So too, to look for the weary sell-out, the one who has settled for less than what might have been.
Is there yet hope for healing of these disparate characters within me? What might such healing look like? What do I give up in the way of spiritual energy in order to fit in, to be accepted and acceptable?
As I was born and bred in the Midwest the play sounds several themes with special resonance for me: the role of religion, of belief in a divine spy cam that sees all, of passion, of sublimated sexual desire, sexual naiveté, what and how therapists work and what they claim to heal, the power of secrets, the importance placed on fitting in and appearing normal. Too, there's something about the connection between my regard for chickens and Alan Strang's love for horses. Animals can serve as teachers, companions and open a doorway to that which is beyond our ken.
In some ways I identify with each of the characters: the disturbed passionate teen, the doubting healer, the bewildered parents with secrets of their own, the winsome girl, the compassionate upholder of law and order, the blustering stable owner (Jeff Rapkin), the tough-as-nails nurse (Debby Girtman), the horses (Drew Eberhard, Nick Gilmore, Brad Root).
The horses. Perhaps it is the horses I most closely identify with in the end. On stage they are represented by bare-chested actors wearing huge skeletal metal masks in the form of horses' heads, platform footwear ending in horseshoes. Eberhard's Nugget makes a very sensuous equine companion (would that the erotic connection between Alan and Nugget were explored visually—what we see as the lights come up on the opening scene looks very stand-offish; it doesn't carry the charge one might expect from the story). In the play the horses are a source of primal mystery, stern lessons, controlled power, divine love, selfless service, and ultimately, senseless sacrifice. Who looks deeply into the horse's eyes may be looking into the human heart, as well. Equus invites the audience to do just this.
Muncie Civic Theatre
April 2-3 & 8-11