01 December 2014

Winkum, Blinkum and God

Shout “Hallelujah!” in this part of the Bible belt and odds are someone will answer, “Amen!” Here we’re surrounded by evangelical Christians, a group not known for their warm embrace of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people. In my coming out experience, theirs was the loudest, nastiest voice telling me to get lost, assuring me I am sick, sinful and on the fast track to damnation.

I do a better job nowadays at throwing away such demeaning messages—but what to do with the people who repeat them? My one brother, for instance. And my three sons. They root their rejection of me and other gay people in church dogma. 

Of course, not everyone takes the same stance. Other evangelicals in my family and Dave’s are more accepting; they’ll interact with us face-to-face. But ours is an uneasy truce. It includes a don’t ask–don’t tell provision: gay topics, activities and issues are taboo subjects of conversation. Vast swaths of the life Dave and I lead remain under wraps.

Maybe this is natural. Maybe I'm off base in pining for full acceptance by others, particularly self-identified evangelical others.

To be sure, Dave and I do have evangelical friends (well, two) who are wondrously accepting and whole-person affirming. They sympathized when I related a recent encounter with my best friend from college.

Ken and I hadn’t seen each other since 1983, not since the day he’d served as best man when I married a woman. Years later I’d written him to say I'd come out as a gay man. He’d responded, “Go to hell.” That was the last I heard from him. Then the other day this note arrived: "It’s been a long time. Lots of water has gone under the bridge. I'd like to hear your story. Can we get together to talk?"

We arranged to meet at a restaurant. When Ken arrived I recognized him right away.  He’s hardly changed in appearance nor, I soon learned, in his acceptance of gay people. He began dropping hints. How important church attendance is to him. How he uses every opportunity he finds to model the love of Christ to those outside the church. How angry he gets at people who claim to be Christian but don't follow the rules.

But he’d asked to hear my story and I obliged. I gave him an overview, stressed the innate nature of my being born gay. As we said goodbye he told me he understood I had been dealing with same-sex attractions from an early age, but he drew a different lesson from this than I did. “If I were convinced I’d been born a bank robber,” he said, “I wouldn't see that as a lifestyle choice that honors God.”

(When I related this comment to a gay friend he laughed. “You got ‘bank robber?’ I got ‘ax murderer’ from my college roommate.”)

Much as I lament the traditional evangelical stance towards gay people, I understand it. After all, I was raised evangelical myself. I know first-hand the sense of entitlement that comes with believing yourself to be one of God’s chosen few, granted special power and privilege.

Power and privilege act as blinders. They blot out a wider world view. While I recognize this in my evangelical neighbors, I have a long way to go towards seeing it in myself—especially when it comes to my being white, male and middle class. I’m certain people of color, women and those less well-off than me can spot ways I rely on power and privilege. Thank heavens I see it myself every once in a while.

Times I do drop my blinders I discover all over again the world is far bigger and more interesting than I know. It’s right there for the looking all the time. To which I say,  “Hallelujah!” (Do I hear an “amen?”)

01 November 2014

A funny kind of love

    His invitation to celebrate Thanksgiving pulls me up short. I read it again, then once more, then squint at it and read it aloud. “We would love to have anyone—everyone!” It’s from my one-year-younger brother. He posts it to the private Facebook group for members of our extended family.

    But he doesn’t mean it, not the way it sounds. Anyone, everyone? He can’t mean it that way. He’s inviting my husband Dave and me to Thanksgiving dinner?

    It's been years since Judas (not his real name) and I spoke to each other. He leaves my occasional letters unanswered. Except for funerals, he boycotts family events to which I am invited. Not that there are many. I’m the black sheep of our family. The rest of the flock is afraid I shed. They don’t want dark ringlets of wool all over the davenport. They take their cues from our Bible-thumping brother. He preaches in the type of church we five siblings were raised in—one that excludes gay people from fellowship.

    His invitation reads like the title of a children’s sermon: “Thumper Invites Black Sheep for Thanksgiving Dinner.” Has he lost his mind? Or has he changed it?

    I’m guilty of pickling in formaldehyde people I haven’t seen for years. I expect high school friends to look just the way they did when last I left them, and to hold the same opinions and beliefs. I expect my favorite college professor to appear in a wrinkled green suit with a narrow black tie, rap his knuckles on the table as he talks to me. I’m surprised almost every time I reconnect. People have moved on in my absence, grown more wrinkled, wiser and dear.

    What if Judas did have a change of heart, does indeed mean to invite me for Thanksgiving? Ooh, that will upset my applecart. I’ve convinced myself I am the bigger (and better) person because I reach out to him from time to time, am willing to overlook his offenses. But it’s easy to be noble in a party of one. Maybe he’s calling my bluff.

    I could ask him if “anyone—everyone” includes me. Sure, I could. But do I want to? He testified against me at my child custody and divorce hearing. Do I want to open myself to outright rejection again? And what if he says “Yes, come on over.” Do I want to sit down to table with him?

    Maybe we could build bridges, set an example for the wider family, recapture some of what we had as kids—those long talks when we were supposed to be asleep, when we were marooned in the wild cherry tree, closeted in the clubhouse in the garage’s rafters.

    I email him privately, keep my tone neutral, my words few: “May Dave and I join you for Thanksgiving Day?" I leave it at that.

    So does he.

    A month passes. His silence rankles. What do I want? Not for him to change. There will be no miracles here. I want common courtesy, the decency of a reply.

    My follow-up email elicits a direct response, a first in over 15 years. For this alone I am grateful. Judas writes to inform me that no, I am not welcome in his home; the invitation was not family-wide. He’s doing what he believes God wants from him. He’s sure I am doing what I feel is best. He signs off by twice saying he loves me.

    A funny kind of love, this, wrapped in religion and dubious convictions.

    But some of my own convictions are suspect: Chickens are the most intelligent life form on the planet; Horseradish is the secret to the good life; When in doubt, sing.

    So my brother says he loves me. Well, well. I happen to think love is our only hope. I’d like to believe it is enough.

01 October 2014

My Big, Fat Gay Marriage Issue, Resolved

        The minister signed our marriage certificate with a flourish, then said, “One of you needs to sign here as ‘husband’ and and one over here as ‘wife.’” It was 2005. Dave and I were wed in Canada on our ninth anniversary as a couple, soon after Ontario legalized same-sex marriage—so soon that gender-neutral forms were not yet available.
    When we returned to the U.S. our marital status lodged in the Twilight Zone. It’s still there. We believe we’re married. A whole vast country north of us believes we’re married. But what happens in Canada stays in Canada. According to those with saying power, Dave is married to nobody. Guess what that makes me.
    Being nobody wears on a person. Researchers have long documented the negative effects of the stigma of homosexuality on gay people. Recent studies show that residing in a U.S. state that outlaws same-sex marriage has a direct adverse effect on the mental health of lesbians and gay men.
    It makes me sick to live in Indiana in a marital state of perpetual confusion. Here’s my marital history: Not married, 23 years. Married, 14 years. Not married, seven years. Married, but not according to my state or federal government, nine years. Married and recognized as such by the state, 36 hours. Back to married-but-not-married, two months, followed by 10 days of being married. Then back to yes-but-no, then over to yes-but-not-really, not until the Supreme Court says it’s okay. (Did you follow that?)
    In June a federal judge ruled Indiana’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. As gay couples lined up to obtain marriage licenses, Dave and I marveled. We could sip coffee at our own kitchen table as a bona fide married couple. For all of three days. The court ruling was stayed, pending appeal. For us, it was back to life in limbo.
    Our summer vacation offered a breath of fresh air. We spent 10 consecutive days touring several states and two provinces where marriage equality is the law of the land. “This is the longest we’ve been married since we got hitched,” Dave said.
    Toward the end of our trip we visited Niagara Falls, took in the view from the Canadian side, along with a thousand or more other spectators. So much water rushing over the brink made me have to pee. When I returned from the rest room I soon spotted Dave among the crowd. It’s not all that difficult to recognize someone you care about.
    At the same time it’s easy to dismiss those you refuse to see. Experience has taught me this. My three children have severed contact with me over my having come out gay. As has my brother. As have former friends and fellow church members. No place at the table for the likes of me.  
    Where am I welcome? Life keeps me guessing. This past weekend I attended a college class reunion. I almost didn’t show up. I often encounter judgement and rejection from people who knew me before I came out of the closet. I feared more of the same should my classmates learn I am gay. I tested the waters. The first time a fellow alumnus asked about my spouse, I mentioned Dave by name. I was peppered with questions, taken to task for believing homosexuality cannot be changed, and charged with a lack of religious faith. Sheesh. Thereafter I mostly dodged questions about marriage and family. I avoided some conversations altogether. I shut down, hung back, withdrew. I was present but not present—off in limbo land again. This is familiar territory; I check in there frequently to visit my marital status.
    Not long ago, the federal court of appeals ruled against Indiana’s gay marriage ban. The state has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But I’ve been thinking: Dave and I could settle the matter now. As our state government is so antsy about keeping marriage between a husband and wife, we should send the folks in Indianapolis a copy of our Canadian marriage license. It’s there in black and white: on March 12, 2005, Dave took me to be his lawfully wedded wife.

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01 September 2014

As the Lady From Joisey Said . . .

The Rape of Ganymede by Rubens
    “We think we know everything. We don’t know shit.” The name of the play escapes me, as does the plot, but this line sticks with me, as does the image of the world-weary drag queen who delivers it.
    Growing up, I thought I was in the know. My brand of church taught that we had the inside track on salvation, knew exactly what God wanted. It was up to us to point out to others how wrong they were.
    My eyes opened when I came out gay in mid-life. I went from a desk job at a religious organization to biscuit maker at an interstate truck stop cafe on the early morning shift. One of my co-workers was a large imposing woman with a thick New Jersey accent. I loved her sense of humor and take on the world. I often told her so. “Aw, ain’t you sweet,” she’d say. “You want to know what I think? I think you’re full of shit.”
    I didn’t want to believe her. These twenty years later I begin to think she was spot on.
    Last month I wrote a short piece about the brevity of life, how everything changes and how quickly. How to manage in such a world, I wondered aloud, and concluded: “Live as fully alive and fully aware as possible. Choose love. And gratitude. Laugh often.”
    This on a Wednesday. 
    Thursday morning, my employer called me into his office to tell me he’s decided to change my job description. I’m to identify prospective customers and sell them on our services. “I know this has been a revolving-door position,” he said, noting the average tenure of marketing personnel at our company is three months—people get fired when sales quotas are not met. “I’ve decided this is what I want you to do.”
    Had my anxiety been rocket propellant, there’d be a big hole in his ceiling. I am no salesman. As a kid, I tried peddling magazine subscriptions, and in college, vitamins. I proved an abject failure on both counts. After college, armed with a communications degree and no job prospects, I went into telephone marketing. That career topped out at a week. My next position, also in sales, lasted four times as long: I sold popcorn and caramel apples out of a wagon at the Covered Bridge Festival in Parke County, Indiana. I haven’t looked back. Until now. My boss orders me to walk the plank. 
    What I wrote about living awake and aware, embracing what is? Ehhhnhh.
    When change stares me in the face, I notice I sing a different tune. I go all queasy—and with good reason.
    It has to do with the story I heard Saturday at graduation open house for a friend who just earned her Ph.D. in psychology. As we ate out on the deck, we heard the neighbors’ chickens. Erin told us they’re being picked off one by one. Coyote? Hawk? Conversation turned to a YouTube video she’s seen: a family sets their baby bunny free to live in the great outdoors. Hop, hop, hop. As Dad videotapes its first steps toward freedom, a hawk swoops down and carries off the little rabbit squealing.
    “Run, run, be free!” said Erin, gesturing wildly. “Then wham-o!” A bunch of us laughed.
    “That’s not funny,” said her mother-in-law, who finished chemotherapy two weeks ago.
    “I’m sure it wasn’t funny at the time,” Erin said. “But isn’t that life? It’s what happens.”
    Indeed, life pulls no punches. A bald-headed woman. Bunny nuggets. Me a salesman. Everything changes in an instant and it’s not funny. It’s tragic—except that it’s also somehow comical.
    We traipse through life thinking we know the score.
    “We don’t know shit,” says the drag queen, kneeling at her friend’s grave. She carries her purse over one arm, in the other, a toilet seat lid.

01 August 2014

Brief matters.

1. “A walnut killed him,” a relative says at the family reunion this summer, speaking of my great uncle. “He had a lot of food allergies,” says a second cousin. Apparently, Uncle Louie was deathly allergic to walnuts and didn’t know it. I stare at a sepia photograph of a young married man with big ears and bigger plans.
Live like you mean it, Louie. Hear me? Love like you’re gonna die at 31. ’Cause guess what—

    2. Blend the peel of an orange, a patch of velvet cloth and a gold doubloon with a Georgia peach and you’ll approximate the color of day lily my husband Dave has growing out back. Gorgeous blooms. But don’t blink. As their name implies, each blossom lasts but an afternoon.

    3. The pain is intense, and it isn’t as if I haven’t been warned. Dave pointed to the hornets' nest being built above our barn’s double doors, said he planned to kill its inhabitants. I made a case for living and letting live. They'll interfere with our painting the barn this summer, he said, and will probably sting us when we go in and out. Not if we don’t bother them, I said. I’m reminded how physical pain rivets my attention, even as I mutter, “this, too, shall pass.”

    4. After our long cold winter, the attack of the mayflies didn't happen at my workplace this year. There are usually one or two days the entrance to the building is heaped with mayflies that have expired beneath its bright security light. These creatures spend most of their life as nymphs in the nearby Missinewa River. Come spring, they transform en masse, unfold new wings, fly, mate and die—all within a few hours.    

    5. Love me, love my cock. My hens, too. Our barnyard chickens are more pets than livestock. I was stricken last fall when a dog maimed my favorite hen. Three weeks ago she went broody, determined to hatch a clutch of eggs. My heart swelled to think of this scrappy survivor bringing life into the world. Yesterday she responded in soothing tones to the peep-peeps of her lone new arrival. Today her nest is empty. No sign of her chick anywhere; only a broken eggshell to prove she is a mother.

    6. My oldest son is seven years old when I come out to myself and others. I lose my court gambit for joint custody, then see my visitation hours cut and cut again until finally a judge issues an order barring me from seeing my children altogether.  

    7. Pride Day in Indianapolis offers a flash of rainbow warmth and dazzle. Then it's over. Back to life as usual. Yet for one brief Camelot moment, a shared sense of acceptance and freedom.

    8. Life itself might well be an orgasm, fast as it shoots by. I’m at the age now where years collapse into months, months into hours. My elders assure me the pace only quickens from here on out.

    9. In the wake of a recent federal judge’s ruling same-sex couples here in Indiana are allowed to marry. No having to travel out of state or out of country (as Dave and I did when we wed in Canada in 2005). For three days I revel in the notion my state finally has to accord Dave and me this measure of dignity, humanity and equality. Then the 7th Circuit Court stays the order. Now, a colleague bustles over to tell me what she heard on the radio: same-sex couples who wed here are to return their marriage licenses and collect a refund of fees paid.

    10. All things change. All things change. My crib notes for living in such a world: (a) Live as fully alive and fully aware as possible. (b) Choose love. And gratitude. (c) Laugh often. (d) Avoid nuts.

01 July 2014

I Found Captain America Where I'd Least Expect Him


My husband Dave and I arrive late for a poetry reading—open mic, read your own work or somebody else’s—and watch the Midwestern version of Captain America approach the podium: trim well-formed body clad in blue jeans and a cardinal-red dress shirt, top button opened to reveal a white undershirt. Black cowboy boots match a thick black leather belt with shining silver buckle. Bright blue eyes, unapologetic nose, strong stubbled chin. Dark brown hair close-cropped up the sides, growing out of a crew cut on top his head. Captivating smile, a mixture of confidence and self-consciousness with a dash of eager-to-please stirred in. His introduction is promising: “I really like this poem and I love the man it’s about.”
    He launches into the reading and my ardor cools. Flip-flops into foreboding, actually. Captain America narrates with pietistic fervor a piece of religious propaganda about the life of Christ. What starts as a sexy male daring to read a poem about the man he loves turns into a quasi-militaristic call to sacrifice lives for God and country.
    I find myself thinking, Don’t trust this man. He will hurt you. This man hates you and your kind. He doesn’t believe you’re human. He thinks you deserve everything you get. A man like him fatally stabbed your friend Carl. Remember Andy and his partner? Clubbed to death by a man like this. And Dick’s suicide? Brought on by people with this sort of religious fervor. Their thoughts, words, theology and way of life willed his death. No, this man is not safe. Keep your distance.
    I plan to. Eying Captain America, I now see him as a red, white and blue coral snake. Beautiful, but deadly. He symbolizes the irrational knee-jerk prejudice and homophobia I fear most. I’ll be careful not to out myself with him around. I wouldn’t want to meet him alone on the sidewalk afterwards or have him drive slowly by our house fingering his shotgun.
    He reaches the final line at last, slithers back to his seat. I do not join the general applause.
    Later that day, at another venue, Captain America takes to the podium again. He reads his own work this time, a revealing look at his childhood. Abusive home, alcoholic father, raised in squalor, often scrounging for food and affection. His words are heartfelt and moving. Life has not been easy for him. It’s a wonder he’s standing before us, looking as sane and sensational as he does. I clap as loudly as anyone.
    Why must life be so complicated? I want to go back to hating him in peace. Instead, I must do the hard work of reconciling this conflicting information, the paradox that most human beings are, the mix of good and evil, of positive and not so nice. But really, the work to be done is in myself. Deep inside.
    It’s not Captain America whom I fear and mistrust, so much as it is that part of me that still is quick to judge others, that believes I’m right, that divides the world into us and them. I’m right to mistrust this energy, but it’s this energy in me I need to be aware of and wary of first of all. Psychologists call this a negative projection, not recognizing an annoying quality in myself and attacking another person for it. A positive projection can be something I admire in another person (Captain America’s beauty) but unconsciously devalue in my own life (my own degree of handsomeness). Whenever I refuse to accept something as a part of myself I project that something onto others.
    It takes energy to shoot out these projection missiles, but it takes work to withdraw them, too. It takes me waking up to the idea that I can’t blame others for my own failings, nor look to them as superheroes who may save me from myself.
    The adage rings true, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Time to don my mask, take up my shield, get ready to roll.

01 June 2014

Party Ever After

It wouldn’t be practical, let alone possible, but I’d love to take ’em all home with me, the LGBTQ+ folks who show up to Pride Day in our capitol city each year. Where do they all come from? Do we bus them in from neighboring states? Run special charter trains from the coasts? Are they posers, straight people pretending to be gay for a day, and has my gaydar grown so rusty I can’t tell the difference? Whatever the truth, their sheer numbers amaze me. I didn’t think our sleepy Midwestern state could cough up so many people ready to party.

Is that why they’re there, to party? Some look eager enough to celebrate—some as if they were a bit over-eager—but every year I pass many folks who look zoned out. Bored, even. Were they hoping for something more, something different? What did they expect?

My reasons for attending Pride are varied. One, I go to ogle. We live in the boondocks, Dave and me, and hordes of sexy men don’t exactly beat a path to our door. I go looking for them at Pride. I pray for sunshine so shirts will come off. I feast my eyes and my imagination. Last year my attention riveted on a shirtless man in skimpy red shorts. With his long curly hair and olive complexion, he looked the spittin’ image of my first-ever lover. Suddenly I was 30 years and a thousand miles away, reliving a magical summer spent as a camp counselor in England.

Am I the only one who does this? The images of attractive men I collect on Pride Day will nurture and sustain me throughout the year.

Too, they’ll remind me I am not alone. This is how crazy I am: I live with a man, sleep beside him every night, yet sometimes believe I’m the only gay man in a hundred miles, two hundred. Recalling Pride Day’s extravaganza reassures me, reminds me, wakes me up to reality.

This is not altogether pleasant. Living where and as we do, Dave and I do not often feel safe expressing mutual affection in public. I treasure our time at Pride Day, revel in being able to hold hands, kiss whenever we want to. For these several hours I let down my guard, walk about in public without looking over my shoulder, wondering if we’re safe.

This year it’s our turn to host the family reunion for my great-grandparents’ clan. A couple months back, I mailed out letters to folks I don’t even know, encouraging them to attend. The reasons I offered are valid for Pride Day, too. After all, what is Pride, but a big ol’ Family reunion? Here’s what I said:

  Come for the people. Come connect with folks you don't see often enough. Or ever.
  Come for the stories. Come tell a few of your own. Funny ones. Sad ones. Stories about how we get through. How we are.
  Come for the food. Not such a bad idea.
  Come connect with real people, in person.
  Come because you're getting older or wiser or both, and you've begun to realize that family means more than you knew; that in connecting with your relations, you connect with yourself in ways you can't quite understand but feel somewhere deep down inside.

Of course, Pride Day isn’t all happy, happy. My eyes get glued to the beautiful people and my internal critic takes over: “Gee, aren’t we old. And fat, and out of shape. And about as pretty as a mud hut.” A crowd of people can be the loneliest place in the world. Every year I see a man off by himself sobbing as if his heart is broken. Probably it is. We've all known the feeling of heartbreak.

Here's what I’d like to do: gather him up, hold him close, remind him that being self-aware, being out to himself and others is reason enough to celebrate.

 I’d like to invite him—and you, and all the rest—over to our place the day after. ’Be right proud to have you.

08 May 2014

Why I Will Not Rejoin the Evangelical Church Today

This is a guest post at a favorite blogger's site. Since early this year I've been religiously (ahem) following posts by blogger Esther Emery I stumbled across her writing when she was in a no-godtalk phase. She's since opted to go back to overt mention of Jesus; she self-identifies as an evangelical Christian and writes for an audience of her peers. Yet she also has much to say to me.
Side note; I sometimes wonder if she and gay standup comic/musician Kevin J. Thornton were twins separated at birth. Both write with verve and near-scandalous honesty/transparency. Both are voluble about their relationship with religion; both have gone off into the woods in search of a deeper experience of life (Kevin came back in short order; Esther and her husband built a yurt and stayed); both are creative and pursue life with passion; both have written books aimed at encouraging others to live their true selves. Both sense there is something more to life than meets the eye.

I often find myself reacting to Esther's posts—she stirs me up inside, makes me think and feel. I love this about her writing, I who spent much of my life wanting to be accepted, wanting to prove myself acceptable, feeling the need to cover up, cover over, say the right thing, offend no one, please everyone in reach. I couldn't let folks see who I really was on the inside—one, I didn't know myself, and two, I suspected if anyone ever did see the real me they'd send me to hell. (I was right about this. And got to taste it first-hand when I came out in mid-life. My gosh, the furor raised and fervor with which I was roundly condemned. If William Congreve is correct, and hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, then evangelical church surely places a close second.)

Esther's candor speaks to me. Too, her ready acceptance and advocacy for LGBTQ+ persons. When she asked me to compose a guest post for her blog, I was happy to do so. Happy and sad at the same time, because of the issues raised. She'd recently posted about her decision not to leave the evangelical church, even though she finds its actions incompatible with her own beliefs. I'm in a much different place, and for many reasons, not the least of which is the lasting harm done to LGBT+ people by the evangelical church, all in the name of Jesus.

The harm done LGBTQ+ persons in the name of evangelicalism is all too real, and lasting. In this guest post on Esther's blog, I offer a glimpse of the real-life consequences. I begin like this:

At his funeral one minister after another called him “the consummate Presbyterian.” I can believe it. He was fussily exacting in all he did, and he went at it with a will, impassioned, dedicated, committed. Consummate. He had been a leader in his church, at the local level and beyond.

At his funeral, one minister after another called him innovator, helper, instructor, teacher. He had made a difference locally and across the state because of his skill and efforts at networking, pooling resources, thinking creatively to serve more with less.
At his funeral he was described as a thinker, philosopher, colleague nearing retirement, mentor, exemplar and friend. His sense of humor was noted, as well as his encyclopaedic knowledge of classic American cinematography. 

But at his funeral no one described him as gay. No one described him as conflicted, soul-torn between who he felt himself to be on the inside and what his religious-based employer, his church family, his small-town evangelical Christian community told him about men who are attracted to other men.

Read the rest of it HERE.

photo credit: Jonathan Cohen at

01 May 2014

I Did. I Almost Did. I Do.

    Did I grow up hearing the word “gay” mostly on Saturday mornings while watching cartoons as in,

    When you're with the Flintstones
    Have a yabba-dabba-doo time
    A dabba_doo time
    You'll have a gay old time

and notice a gay old time week in and week out involved a grown man getting locked out of his own house and hammering at the door to be let back in?

    I did.

    Did I make my way through the world compliant and quiet, the middle child, a people-pleaser who valued appearances because they helped keep the peace and make folks happy?

    I did.

    Did I embrace the Bible thumping tenets of my family with a fervor all my own, label my same-sex attraction sinful temptation fanned by the flames of hell, plead with God to remove from me the stubborn desire to lust after other boys, promise to read my Bible two hours every day, never backtalk my mother and become a missionary when I grew up, if only I could be cured?

    I did.

    Did I hear whispered that homosexuals are monsters, child molesters with horns and red eyes who lisp and can’t hit a baseball, and know for a fact I wasn’t one of those even though the part about the baseball fit?

    I did.

    Did I lean on my reputation as the shy studious type to avoid dating women in high school and college as much as possible?

    I did.

    Did I learn to live in my body as in a house divided, keep at arm’s length the despicable part of me that lusted after men, assure myself this wasn’t the real me, and succeed so well that as a college senior I could find excuses to bathe whenever our floor’s resident Greek god padded his way down the hall to the group showers wrapped only in a towel, and envy the towel, yet banish from consciousness the idea I might be gay?

    I did.

    Did I marry a hard-headed woman in the sincere belief I was doing what was right, honorable and holy, and in the hope she would save me from myself only to learn she did not have the power to change me?

    I did.

    Did I become father to three sons, change diapers, read stories, play Robin Hood, sing songs, make funny voices and discover that parenthood, while demanding, did not lessen my attraction to men nor its accompanying self-hatred?

    I did.

    Did I finally devise a way to kill myself and test it on several small animals to make sure it worked?

    I did.

    Did I successfully use it on myself?

    No. I almost did. Although I peered into the void, I did not follow through with my planned suicide. After I composed my final farewell, I made a small choice for life, postponed my death for an hour, then a day, a week. (At such times grace may be measured in minutes.)

    Even as I believed hope was gone and all was finished, a whole new world was waiting to be born—a world I had never dared imagine, never heard described in positive terms, never believed would receive, bless and nurture the likes of me. A world in which I am acceptable as I am, loved without having to change, remake or undo myself. Nowadays I often see it reflected in my gay friends and chosen family, in our shared laughter, warm embraces, genuine regard.

    Here’s the thing: this world had been there all along. It had been and was and is within me. Within each one of us.

    The path is uncharted, the way perilous, the door hidden, the night dark. Yet life endures. Life cloaks itself even in catastrophe, calls to us ever and anon, in tones loud and soft.

    May we with courage listen, respond, reach deep, take hold the key, unlock and prise open the door, step into all that awaits us there.

    Did I commit myself to such action, to shaking myself awake and having a go at it over and again?

    I did. I do.

+ + +

Illustration credit: Spooky Dad, at flickr

01 April 2014

Between the Sheets

    “Can we add a second person to this room?"
    Yes, you can. But you’ll want a different room, one with two beds.”
    “No, the one we reserved is fine. We’ll only use one bed, anyway. Both nights.”
    “Not a problem,” she said. “But the price is the same either way.”
    “One bed is fine,” I said.
    Both Dave and I took out our credit cards. As the clerk looked on, we haggled over whose to use. I pushed mine her way.
    She processed the card. “He’s bigger than either of us,” she told Dave.
    We all laughed.
    Even though she drew us a map, we got lost in the warren of multi-room units. In the dark we had turned right too soon. The room was chilly when at last we found it. I cranked up the heat, unpacked the knapsack, hung our coats and dress shirts. Dave had signed up for a two-day workshop; at the last minute I’d opted to come along for the ride. We readied for bed.
    While brushing my teeth I heard his low insistent tone, “Bryn, come here. Bryn, come here.”
    I spun about.
    “What do you think this is?” He pointed to an insect crawling across newly turned down sheets. It looked like a large reddish-brown tick, only bigger, and with horizontal segments comprising its abdomen.
    “Is it a bed bug?”
    “Could be. I don’t know they look like,” I said.
    “I don’t think you can see them; all you find is bite marks in the morning.”
    “Let’s squish it and take it down to the front desk. Maybe she has access to the internet and can look up what a bed bug looks like.”
    Dave tore the clear wrap from a plastic cup. I scooped the creature into it, then replaced the covering to keep it from flying out.
    We dressed, donned jackets.
    “We’re back.” I said this as if it were good news.
    “I see that.” She said this as if she weren’t so sure.    “Do you know what a bed bug looks like? We found this critter crawling under the sheets.” I set the glass on the counter.
    “They look like a tick, that’s all I know,” she said.
    “Then this might be one.”
    She approached, hands up, palms forward, as if we were pointing a gun her way. She took a quick look. “Now, I can handle pretty near anything,” she said, “but when it comes to bugs I go all ‘girlie.’”
    She offered us another room. “This one has two beds. That’s all we have left.”
    When we moved, Dave and I straightway checked the sheets—again and again. Lifted mattress, bed covers, mattress pad. No sign of bugs. No bite marks come morning.
    A few days later I did an internet image search and learned our beastie was indeed a bed bug. I also learned (from the Utah Department of Health website) about these common misunderstandings regarding bed bugs:
•  You can’t see them. (You can.)
•  You can feel it when they bite. (You can’t.)
•  No bite marks means no bed bugs. (Not necessarily.)
•  They only infest filthy hovels. (Flesh and blood attract them, not dirt.)
•  They only affect other people. (Wishful thinking.)
•  They’re not all that big a problem, really. (Oh, really?)
    These misunderstandings echo ways we often dismiss pestilences we’d rather not notice/admit/own: A planet in crisis. Blood for oil. Power to the One Percent. Institutionalized injustice. Prejudice. Arrogance. Self-absorption. Shame-based living.
    We sleepwalk, learn not to see. O who will awaken us to the bite marks on our own flesh? We have made this one world bed for ourselves and now we must li(v)e in it. What do we want between these sheets?

01 March 2014

Is it Love that Brings You Here or Love that Brings You Life?

Even when they filled with tears, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was tall, dark-skinned, gorgeous. And singing in slow tempo, almost in lament, “There is no map for where we go . . . .” He was a soloist with our capital city’s gay men’s chorus, performing Naked Man, a song-cycle that voices the experience of growing up gay in a less than accepting society. I identified with his words. I’ve felt in me the aching loneliness in his voice, the yearning, the presumed being lost. Years now have passed but his voice still rings in my heart: “There is no map for where we go . . . .”

When I came out at age 35, I had no idea where I was or where I was going. I’d been so deep in the closet I believed I was the only gay man in Indiana. In 1995 I was that clueless. Felt that alone. Knew no role models, had met no gay men, found no Damron guide to gay life. Somehow I found Dave. (Or he found me, we’re not sure which.) Oh, happy day.

The 70-year-old poet Mrs. Stevens, a character in a May Sarton novel, reflects on her past loves: “I lived with their faces. I knew their every gesture by heart. I stalked them like wild animals. I studied them as if they were maps of the world — and in a way, I suppose they were.”

At this moment, my map of the world is lying on the davenport near the wood stove fast asleep. He laid down about 20 minutes ago still wearing shoes and eyeglasses, stocking cap and three sweatshirts. It’s wintery cold in the house and the couch sits near the heat. While my husband of 18 years naps I study his face.

He looks youthful, though time is making tracks, especially about the eyes. He’s sleeping with cap pulled down, blanket pulled up. Still, Dave’s is a face I know well. I tell myself that were I blindfolded in a room full of sexy men I could identify him by touch alone. OK, it's a favorite fantasy of mine.) Still, my fingers know the contours of his cheekbones, silkiness of skin, scratch of stubble beard, drop of droopy eyelid. I think I’d know him even in the dark.

Dave grounds me in ways I recognize, but can’t begin to fathom. My boss told me her husband nearly died last week in a work accident.

“You were that close to becoming a widow,” I said.

“Don’t even go there,” she said. “I know I’m a hothead and act like I have it all together, but I can’t open a jar of peanut butter without that man. He’s my rock. He keeps me anchored.”

I know what she means. As my map of the world, Dave offers a sense of direction, helps me stay the course, gives me the confidence I can make it from Point A to Point B. Heck, were it not for him, I sometimes wouldn’t know there is a Point B. He helps my world make sense—or better, helps me make sense of my world. Comedian George Burns was not joking after his beloved Gracie Allen died when he said, “My world is much less safe.”

Indeed, for each one of us, the world is a safer saner place when we are loved, known, accepted and embraced as we are. This the gift we offer one another. This the gift we give ourselves. There may be no map for where we go—few the footsteps and faint before us—we may stumble forward, grope in the dark, but as the soloist intoned, “we’re not lost, we’re here.”

01 February 2014

Growl, Grumble, Whimper, Whump

snow on trees, man looking upThe deep-throated snarl carries in the night air, from woods’ edge crosses the short span of yard to our listening ears. Two whimper-whines follow. Again the menacing growl, again the whines. This call and response repeats several times.

“What do you think it is?” my husband whispers.

“I’m not sure, but suddenly going out to the barn to feed the geese has lost its luster,” I say.

Dave was carrying in firewood when he called from the back door, “come listen to this.” I’d stepped into the snowy night without a jacket. Now I shiver from more than cold.

The guttural snarls are too throaty for a raccoon, too deep for a squirrel, and too close for comfort. Coyote, I bet. We regularly hear their yipping yowls in the woods around us. But on this dim overcast night, the ground glazed with snow, I conjure up images of timber wolf, tiger, puma, panther, zombie. . . .    

“Think some creature is getting killed?” Dave asks.

“Sounds like a youngster getting too close to an adult and being warned off,” I say. “Or maybe Mama is forcing the little ones to keep moving when they want to curl up and sleep.”

The sounds gradually grow softer and further away. We both feel relieved. (All the same, the geese don’t get fed until sunrise.)

This morning I find paw prints on the other side of our fence—prints made by padded feet far bigger and heavier than those of our cat. Yowza. I set off to see who else has been wandering the woods: deer, rabbits, squirrels, small birds. At the north edge of our property I watch two flights of Canada geese glide in for a landing in the neighbor’s cornfield. I honk a hello and wish them luck in finding grain underneath the snow.

I feel extra happy when snow blankets the ground—maybe because I am Minnesota born or maybe a bit batty. At any rate, today’s weather forecast has put me on top of the world. We’re to expect one to two feet of snow. Way it looks now, we’ll get that much before 2:30 this afternoon. A heavy wet snow. Sticks to tree trunks and limbs, looks like corn dog breading on the small short branches. Our beech tree, still covered with leaves, gains so much weight its lower limbs drag the ground.

I happen to be looking out the kitchen window when a hackberry tree, its bare branches bowed low, reaches a tipping point. Suddenly it shrugs off its coat of winter white. Bent branches straighten and the entire tree snaps to attention. Snow catapults into the air.

Other trees are less melodramatic: an upper limb dumps its load. This in turn hits against lower branches and knocks them clear. With a whump, an isolated avalanche lands beneath that particular tree.

Dave suggests a walk. Soon we are plodding through knee-deep snow, ploughing through drifts higher yet. Hard work, but oh, the splendor. Stunning sights at every turn. The sky come close, the world white, us among the clouds. Every dry weed dressed in ermine. Each standing tree a masterwork of line and form, saplings bowing at its feet. All through the woods, Nature’s already graceful limbs frosted fluffy soft, limned in ivory.

These trees are participants in beauty, simply by being what and where they are, I think to myself. Not that it’s a cake walk—witness the creaks and groans we hear, the one loud crack—but surely it’s worth it to be robed in such glory. Ah, that I, too, could be a participant in beauty.

As if in answer, branches overhead unload their excess weight and plaster me with snow.

01 January 2014

A Blow Job — And All Best Wishes for the New Year

The telephone rang—our son calling from Indianapolis to say a tornado had been sighted minutes away and was headed in our direction.

All day the wind had been blowing hot and cold, blustering its way across the Midwest. My husband Dave and I had been keeping a weather eye on the heavens. There’d been quite the cosmic argument up there and Somebody had overturned the barbecue grill, set gray-white-black briquettes scudding across the firmament. 

We dashed outside (it made sense at the time) to batten the hatches on the chicken coop. We were almost back to the house when the wind took a sudden turn. Heavy rain pummeled us. We nearly tumbled into the basement.

Turning the radio on, we listened to a litany of storm warnings and watches. Our governor had hurried to a homeland security bunker somewhere we learned and was now urging all citizens to take cover, stay alert. It seemed a bit overblown.

But maybe not. About this same time a tornado was tearing through a town the next state over. Dave and I would later look at a news magazine photograph of the devastation. Trees denuded. Landmarks leveled. More than a thousand homes blown away, damaged or destroyed. 

Suddenly our lights went out. Radio silence descended. We’d be among the lucky ones; no tornado would strike our little home and power would be restored after 24 hours. Some of our fellow citizens would sit in the dark for a week. 

Dave and I lit candles, then darted upstairs to grab crackers and spoons and fill two bowls with the chili we’d had bubbling in the crock pot all day. Before we ate I offered a simple prayer of thanks. “Amen,” we said together. I opened my eyes to see my husband sitting across from me in the flickering light. We smiled to each other. Then he said, “May we always have this much.”

His words caught at me, lodged in my heart. It was one of those moments that even as it unfolded I knew would stick with me for some time to come. One, Dave is a gorgeous man: bright eyes, energetic, a swimmer’s build, kissable lips, cute butt. Two, candlelight was casting a romantic glow on a scene already sharpened with the tang of danger. Three, there was the sentiment itself: gratitude for simple things, awareness of how much we are given, shared pleasure in each other’s company, a present blessing, and hope for the future. 

In Dave’s words I hear my wish for all of us in this new year: shelter from the storm, nourishment for the body, comfort in good company. May we always have this much. 

And may we nurture the capacity to be grateful for it. There is wisdom, not to mention mental health, in being thankful for small things. A basement. A bowl of chili. Crackers. Candles. We can spend more time feeling happy when we are happy with what we already have, when we look for reasons to be grateful rather than for excuses to growl.

May we nurture also awareness. May we recognize what is going on around and within ourselves, our present blessings. May we listen to the heart and live true to its leanings.

Too, may we surround ourselves with people and projects that add to our experience of life, not sap our energy. May we ourselves be joy-bringers. 

Nature is not sentimental; our circumstances can change in a moment and without warning. Our time is short: why spend it chasing after the wind? Rather, let’s choose mindfully to embrace life. In gratitude. And with all the energy we can muster. May we always have this much. 

This essay appeared in the January issue of The Community Letter

Photo credit: Dave Malkoff. tornado damage, Washington, Illinois, with modifications to original photo