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01 March 2015

He Saw My Heart; I Was Staring at His Crotch


The Goodwill store is crazy busy—there’s a storewide half-off sale today. The checkout lines stretch from here to next Sunday. My husband Dave saunters over. I signal I’m ready to go.

Dave gestures behind him. “See that man way over there, next to the guy in the red coat?”

I scan the crowd.

“He’s in the far checkout lane, towards the back.”

“White shirt and bow tie? College age?”

“That’s him. I was walking past and he stopped me. Said, ‘You spoke in my social work class last semester. I want to thank you. You changed my life.’

“Really?” I take another look. “How cool. Great. I’m glad he said something to you.”

“That’s for you, too. For both of us. We both would have spoken to that class.”

Dave’s right. We’re often asked to address social work and psychology classes at area colleges and universities. We go as the featured couple or as co-participants in panel discussions. We tell our coming out stories. We talk about what it is for us to be gay in this time and place. We answer questions. Any more, students are generally receptive.

“I wonder which class it was,” I say. “I don’t recognize him. I wonder what he heard that made such an impact. I think you should go over and ask him to elaborate.”

To my surprise, Dave agrees. He’s bolder than I and more socially adept. I tag along. He taps the young man on the shoulder. “We were wondering: could you say a little more about your story?”

Joe College obliges, and as he starts talking I’m able to place him: The Man With the Crotch. Drop-dead gorgeous, dark eyes, Adonis face, olive shirt unzipped to offer a tantalizing glimpse of his chest, tight red jeans, stylish leather shoes. Devastatingly handsome. I wanted to spend the entire period looking—no, gawking—at him. I restrained myself. Whenever I addressed the class I avoided looking his way for fear I’d babble. Not easy to do. He sat directly in front of me, legs spread wide. When I wasn’t talking, I looked down. At his crotch.

After class, Dave and I compared notes.

“He’s so cute.” (We both knew who I was talking about.)

“Adorable. I just wanted to stare at him.”

“Me, too. In fact, I did stare. At his crotch.”

“Do you think he’s gay?”

We thought we’d never really know, but here we are, getting it straight from the source.

Not that it’s been easy for him. He grew up in foster care, was told to hide his sexual orientation—“otherwise you’ll never be adopted.”

Indeed, his family of origin severed all ties with him when they learned he’s gay, booted him back into the foster care system. Eventually the couple he calls his grandparents adopted him.

“And they’re fine with my being gay. They love me, as do my amazing friends.” He turns and points to a motley crew of students behind him. They look our way and grin. They’re a diverse lot—race, gender, body type. All friendly.

Good. He surrounds himself with supportive people.

He says what meant so much to him when we spoke in class was the obvious love Dave and I share. “I was right there with you, crying when you cried, listening to every word, seeing two men who really love each other. You guys changed my life.”

My mind flashes to Bob and Bruce, Larry and Larry. Early in our coming out Dave and I saw separately in these two couples proof positive that long-term gay relationships do exist and can be richly rewarding. Knowing this gave us something to shoot for, confidence we could.

I hope that’s where Joe College is now—buoyed by hope, poised to call into being then will into reality a love-filled life.

“Can I hug you guys?” he asks.

Zowie.

01 February 2015

Sootprints in fnow

Kevin Payravi, Wikimedia Commons

    We live so much of our lives without telling anyone. But not when we walk through a snowy landscape.

Several inches of new snow fell last night and I’m taking advantage of the afternoon light to traipse amongst the trees. I can see by the deer's cloven hoof prints the place it leaped the fence. There’s the rabbit’s dash-dash-dot and the raccoon's little paw print. Here a mouse scrimshandered a thin line atop the snow, then tunneled down under. (Such a little creature to face the great winter.) The squirrel's bounding trail of double dots connects one tree to another, then explodes in a mess of dirt and torn-up earth where it retrieved a buried nut from the frozen ground. Great galumphing footprints behind me testify to my own passage through this little piece of the world.

Traces of my presence—and yours—are not always so visible as footprints in snow, though they may linger after we’ve passed.

Recently my husband Dave and I watched the 1970 film "The Boys in the Band.” We'd heard of it but never seen it on stage or screen. The show opened Off-Broadway in 1968. Says playwright Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame, “...it certainly started a new era in American drama, and was an immense contribution in American literature because it’s so unapologetically gay.”

The action centers around nine men at a birthday party. It's funny, sad and suspenseful all at the same time. The friends trade vicious cut-downs almost as a matter of course. This put me off on a first viewing. Why must they be so negative towards themselves and each other? I've watched it four more times, however, and come to appreciate its humor, heart and snapshot of pre-Stonewall gay life.

In one scene the embittered Michael confronts his college roommate about the latter's reaction to a mutual friend’s coming out.

 “You couldn’t take it, so you destroyed the friendship and your friend along with it,” Michael says. "To this day he remembers the treatment and scars he got from you."

This line sticks with me. Even today, the coming out process for many LGBT people is fraught with peril and littered with former friendships. This was true of my experience. My life has been shaped by a society that had no place—no word, even—for someone like me. I carry the scars of my late parents' eventual and lukewarm tolerance of me. They were unable to fully embrace me as their son once they learned I am gay.

Yet others trail healing in their wake. When I came out at 35 my grandmother was 90 years old and the one person in my family of origin who accepted me without reservation. My mind goes to this scene:  Dave and I sit with Grandma in the church she's attended for nearly 60 years. The pews and paneling are of ash; the aisles carpeted in red with tiny flecks of black. Frosted glass windows discourage daydreaming. Today is Communion Sunday. Grandma learns Dave and I will not be offered the sacrament. Incensed, this little white-haired lady puts away her usual smile and marches up the center aisle, leading Dave and me out of the building.

This memory of my grandmother’s show of support nurtures and sustains me years after her death. As she well knew, people do not remember what you do or say, so much as they remember how you make them feel. Grandma made me feel like a million bucks. No, she made me feel loved.

Love. Such a little thing to arm ourselves with as we face the great cold. And best shared with another—person, animal, plant, planet. For no matter how many our footsteps upon the earth, our trail is soon ended. A few generations pass; the snow melts and all trace of us is gone.

01 January 2015

3 months now my marriage is recognized and still I’m waiting for guests to arrive at the reception


Daddy’s Day at Charlie’s church-based preschool class. The man who plays the title role in our grandson’s life can’t get off work for the hour-long program. Dave and I shoulder grandfatherly duties and attend in his stead. Charlie’s mom ushers us to the classroom door, chats briefly with the teacher, then leaves. Charlie takes over from there.

 “This is my Papa,” the four-year-old says, pointing to Dave. He turns to me. “And this is my Iso Papa.”

The teacher laughs. “Your evil papa?”

Charlie looks daggers at her. “EESO-Papa,” he says, and leads us over to a stack of wooden blocks.

Maybe the teacher spoke her truth in referring to me as Evil Papa. Later she makes an elaborate point of there being a “special friend” in the room. She uses her voice to draw quotes around the term.

“Children, you may ask your father or grandfather or ‘special friend’ to join you at the craft table.” “Boys and girls, I want you to sing your best for your father or grandfather or ‘special friend.’” “Students, you may now offer your father or grandfather or ‘special friend’ a half-doughnut and glass of juice.”

I seethe with anger. Does it matter that she and others locate me outside the family? Label gay people as wicked? Feign inclusivity? Broadcast such messages to four- and five-year-olds?

Sure, it does.

Even before they’re taught to use the potty, children receive training in societal prejudice, gender expectations and roles. I learned at a young age to despise a deep part of myself. I’m coming to realize a lifetime is too short for me and others to undo all those early lessons.

Not that we should quit trying.

Since July, Dave and I have frequented a local film club. We’re the young ones in a crowd of 15 or 20 who gather once a month to watch old-time Western movies. At the club’s 38th anniversary celebration this fall we learned they’ve cancelled meetings only twice—once for the blizzard of 1977 and again for the blizzard of 2014.

Last month we decided to ante up the annual dues, only $10 per person or couple. We approached the treasurer, an amiable white-haired man of short stature and warm smile, and told him we wanted to become official members.

“Do you have change for a twenty?” Dave asked.

“Um, it’s $10 per person.”
   
“Not $10 per couple?"

 “Well, are you two brothers?"

“We’re married, actually,” Dave said.

A bystander chortled loudly, then flushed when neither Dave nor I laughed. He quickly retired to his seat.

The treasurer checked his wallet and waved us off. “I don’t have change.” He, too, beat a hasty retreat.

“That was a conversation stopper,” Dave whispered.

I nodded. “You sure know how to clear a room.”

We talked about it on the drive home, how Indiana’s marriage equality played a role in our actions. “I’m feeling bolder,” Dave said. “More ready to publicly claim you as my husband.”

“Me, too,” I said. “Most of the time. Not the other night at that new theatre. You dropped me off at the door. The usher wanted to seat me. I told the her I was waiting on another person. When you came in she asked, ‘Is this your friend?’ I didn’t correct her. I could have said, ‘He’s my husband.’ But I was in new territory, didn’t feel safe. I kept mum.”

Maybe this happens to others, too—the club treasurer, the preschool teacher, my evangelical pastor brother, my deceased mother, my children. Marriage equality is new territory for them, may feel unsafe, scary. I want them to get over it. Buck up, duck. If our conservative state legislators have to accord me the dignity of marriage, you should, too.

But it may a hard pill for them to swallow. Maybe instead of scorn I can offer a glass of water. While still holding them accountable to treat me with respect, I can offer grace instead of judgment. After all, I’m asking the same of them. For me and my special friend. For every last one of my grandchildren. And theirs.

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.