Blood-red Horse of Course, hairless and stuffed with cotton batting. I loved him. He was hairless because I loved him, because I'd plucked out his fur bit by bit, fuzzed it against my face and in my ear each time I lay down to sleep. He'd gone threadbare for love. Threadbare and shabby. And because he'd gone threadbare and shabby, my parents disposed of him.
I remember it this way: we took Horse of Course for a drive to the county dump. Down one long dirt road, then another, ending in an clearing ringed by pine forest. A parking area afforded space for several vehicles. I only ever saw it full at dusk. In our northern Minnesota backwoods, the dump was where the night show took place. At twilight, cars sidled in, families, young couples, old folks. Drivers parked so their headlights would shine out over the star attraction, the black bears that came to rummage through the day's leavings.
But this was daytime drama under a harsh bright sun. Dad parked the '47 Chevy atop the small rise. Nobody else there. A fire burned in one of the garbage piles below. I watched my red horse tumble over the edge, bounce down the sandy incline, land in the burning waste. I do not remember holding my mother's hand as I stood there. I do not remember feeling any tears on my face. I was two, maybe three years old.
"That never happened," my mother said, an edge to her voice, when I recounted this memory to her a year after my dad died. She and I were standing in her dining room beside a china cabinet filled with dishes, dolls, cups, gee-gaws. My husband Dave and I had trekked to southern Missouri to spend a week doing house and yard projects for her. "That never happened," she said again.
"That's the image I have in my head--Horse of Course rolling down the hill and into the fire."
"Well, it didn't happen." A long pause as she looked off into middle distance. "I wish we would have let you keep him."
I pressed the issue no further. My mother already blamed herself for my having come out gay. I figured this was another case of self-recrimination. You wouldn't have turned out like this if I had let you keep your stuffed animal. Why was I so worried about what the neighbors would think?
The lesson I learned at an early age: You cannot love what you love because you love it. You will love what we tell you to, whom we permit you to, that which we deem acceptable.
The message I hope my kids catch instead: Follow your heart. Love what and whom you will. Love matters more than anything.
Our family relocated to Indiana when I was five. Growing up, I was taught I owed my first allegiance to God, then to mother, church, family and Minnesota, in rank order. I was to trust what God and church said over what I heard anywhere else, including my own heart. Especially my own heart. "The heart is deceitful above all things," my mother said, quoting Jeremiah 17:9, "and desperately wicked. Who can know it?" Not my heart but God's word as written in the Bible served as instruction and guide.
Listen for God's voice deep within? No way. Too much like transcendental meditation, Quakers or the Moonies. Too woo woo. Too tricky to determine when it was God speaking and when it was me.
I knew it wasn't God speaking when I found myself attracted to other boys. That was the devil. That was my deceitfully wicked heart. That was sin, pure and simple, complex and tenacious. That was my ticket to hell, sure-fire assurance I would burn for eternity.
+ + +
Christmas morning the year I'd turned three, much was made over one specific package with my name on it. I tore off the paper to find a stuffed gray donkey with lonesome eyes of two large black buttons, each sewn atop a drooping oval of white felt over a larger drooping oval of red. One floppy gray ear held a small jingle bell. Pedro, read the attached nametag. Set down in writing, no questioning authority. "His name is Peed-row," my mother announced.
Peed-row carried me off on many an adventure. I did the same for him, toting him about by his deaf ear. My mother sewed that ear back on countless times. When I at last lost the ear altogether she made a replacement from the toe of a white cotton sock. By then I'd plucked about half of Peed-row's fur. During my high school days, Peed-row became my confidant, listened with a grave and soulful expression as I poured out my heart, told him about how the kids pushed me around, what names they had for me. Peed-row listened and I loved him for it. I wrote out my last will and testament, directing Peed-row be given to my brother Steve, passed on through the generations. I tucked this document behind a loose brick in the school entrance hall.
Today my brother and I are estranged over my having come out. Today Peed-row straddles the headboard of the four-poster rustic pine bed my husband and I share, presides with somber eyes over the activity of love.
+ + +
Church told me if I had faith, prayed earnestly, threw myself into the arms of God I'd be given victory over temptation. Over the allure of Frank Stassek's square chin, enormous dark eyes. My attraction to the shapely curve of Rick Scheesler's shoulders. The pull of pounding thighs as Rodney Young ran the basketball court.
I believed my same-sex attractions were not part of me. They were a foreign incursion by an power that did not have my best interests in mind. My job was to fight, conquer and overcome these desires, never to give them place or purchase in my mind or heart. I tried to resist, to rid myself of these attractions to no avail. No amount of prayer, faith, fasting, self-flagellation seemed to matter. Same-sex desire constantly reminded me what a failure I was, how far I was fallen from grace and God, how weak my will to live aright.
+ + +
My parents had allowed my year-younger brother Steve to keep Teddy even when that faithful companion was bare of all fur, missing his music box, weak in the joints. At age 8, my brother David, five years my junior, still had his much-loved stuffed bears--Pinky and Big Teddy. Then 13, I knew I was different from both brothers, deficient. I coveted whatever it was they had that made their life easier. Somewhere I'd taken a wrong turn. I fixated on the fact I'd never had a teddy bear. I put it atop my Christmas wish list. My parents were puzzled by this odd request, but obliged. I knew they had when I checked the gifts secreted in their bedroom closet. But it didn't happen, whatever magic I was hoping for when I opened that package on December 25, acted surprised. I turned the wind-up key; Rock-a-Bye Baby tinkled forth, devoid of answers. comfort. I never pulled any fur off that bear.
+ + +
At 24, I married a strong-willed woman, sure she would be my salvation on earth even as I believed Christ would be my salvation in heaven. Didn't work that-a-way. I was still tormented by the allure of men. And despised myself for it.
Deep the lesson was scribed in my soul: hate yourself for thinking, feeling, being this way. And count this hatred your highest virtue. (Hate yourself and love yourself for it? Nowadays, I count this a simple recipe for insanity.)
At the time, I didn't know how or where to find the answers I was seeking. More to the point, I didn't know how to phrase the questions.
My coming out process held several turning points. I sensed God speaking to me one Easter, believed deliverance from this lifelong curse of same-sex attraction was immanent. I swore to do my utmost to help it happen within a year. Eleven months later I stumbled into an internet message board chockablock with the stories of people who claimed to be what I had believed was impossible--both Christian and gay. Could such a cross between fish and fowl exist? Yet I recognized myself in their accounts of the lifelong struggle, the never measuring up, the deep deep knowledge that something within is flawed.
Could I be gay? No way. Yes, surely. No, unthinkable. Your answer please.
Declaring myself a gay man would end my marriage, end so many things, so many relationships. And yet I reeled from the possibility there might be a place for me in the world, a name for who I was, a reason why I felt as I did. This got my attention, whispered of life to come, of hope.
But could I square this with what God had to say in the Bible on the subject of homosexuality? No, I could not. And this stopped me cold. Almost.
How do I know if I'm gay? I put this question to the online bulletin board participants. How could I know, really and truly know? Said one respondent, "If you have to ask, you can't be gay." There. I had my answer. But it didn't ring true for me.
Another man joked that he had a sure-fire test. I emailed him privately to say I was all ears. He suggested I imagine I'd died and gone to heaven; God offers me choice of two beds--one with the most beautiful woman in the world in it and one with the most gorgeous man; which would I choose?
My heart sank. This was not the test to lay to rest all my fears. "I'd choose the bed with the man in it, no question," I responded. "But since I'm in heaven, I can't choose a sinful response, so I would know God is OK with it."
This the crux of the matter: what would God think? What would my family think? My church? Minnesota? All these people and forces who held sway over my life. Whose opinion was more important than mine.
+ + +
Family shopping trips were rare excursions when I was a boy. The September I entered Mrs. Hewitt's third grade class, my parents took all five of their children to a department store in the big city. There I was taken by one particular stuffed animal--a six foot long snake in bold magenta. Cloth eyes, red felt tongue. I made sure my parents knew how much I wanted it. "We don't have money to spend on each of you kids right now," my mother said. I nodded. I knew our family wasn't rich. Come Christmas my heart leapt to find that pink-red snake in a package under the tree, my name it. My father had purchased it on that very trip while I was across the store with my mother. Now I smile to think of my parents giving me so phallic a symbol. And my naming it Ferocious. He was soon wrapped around my arm, my neck, my chest, my affections. In childhood he served as jump rope, lariat, repelling cable and more. In my coming out I took him with me when I moved out of the house. He served as touchstone, lifeline, reminded me I am permitted sometimes to love what I love.
+ + +
In coming out I made the conscious decision to look within my heart and trust what I find there, to believe in the value of my affections, the validity of my experience. To love what I love. Ferociously. To say yes to life in the form it presents itself.
This turned my world on its ear. Family, friends, church, employer, trusted others threw me out, consigned me to hell, eyed my tumble from grace. In mind's eye I stood alone on cliff's edge, stared out over a vast wasteland, flicking flaming tongues below, wondered what would happen to me.
Life happened to me. Pain and anguish and loss and loneliness. Joy and wild gladness, healing and acceptance from members of my own tribe. Laughter and love. Yes, love happened to me, too. Came along a man when I'd had all the stuffing knocked out of me. Picked me up and held me. At my lowest ebb, loved me.
Dared I trust him? Dared love him? I listened to my heart. Yes, it said. Yes.
Yes, I said. Yes. We've been together ever since, some 16 years.
With practice and a certain long difficult repentance, I keep learning to listen to my heart and to trust the wisdom within. On my best days I experience this as living in tune with the divine, expressing gratitude and love, celebrating those times when these manifest in exuberant joy.
Other days, life sucks. Finding the grace and gumption to say "thank you" and meaning it as much as possible, this is the heart's gift. To recognize weakness, inadequacy, failure, pain and to be present to it. Accept it. Say yes.
I shall never be perfect, not in the way I once thought I was called to be. But as I listen to my heart I discover I live in a world infused with the sacred. I choose awareness as often as I remember to do so. I feel my feelings, breathe into the moment, realize I am not alone, walk in wonder, embrace mystery. Say yes.
An abbreviated version of this essay appeared in the December issue of The Community Letter