Secrets of the Closet

The author, age 23.

The author, age 23.

The gay press has been floating around a story about a pastor in Michigan, Matthew Makela, who recently resigned from his position at St. John’s Lutheran Church because it was exposed (mild pun intended) that he had an active Grindr profile. He is a 39 year old husband and a father of 5 children. It has also come to light that one of the young men in his congregation was told by the pastor he “might as well kill himself since he was gay”. The young man told a local news channel that he had considered taking his own life over the reception he received from his pastor.

Obviously, it’s a sad story and I have compassion for the young man who came forward with his experience. I can imagine being a high schooler, afraid that no one would accept me if I shared the secret of my sexuality because I was one. Not that I ever told anyone at that age, I was too afraid. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s, 22 to be exact, before I told anyone that I thought I was gay.

In one interview, the young man, Tyler Kish, said that he has found compassion for Makela because he realized that “everything he told me, he was, kind of, telling himself too.” And I don’t doubt that that is true. If I can relate to Tyler Kish, it must be acknowledged that I can relate to Matthew Makela as well.

That I was quoting Demi Moore at all, it should have been apparent to anyone who knew me that I was gay. I was a youth minister in a small town in Missouri, just out of Bible college. My only friends were the kids in my youth group, every other 22 year old in town was long gone, ready to build their lives in larger towns and cities like Springfield and Kansas City. St. Elmo’s Fire was one of my favorite movies and to anyone who would listen I would affect Demi Moore’s husky lament, “I never thought I’d feel so old at 22.” It was the refrain for that year in my life and I am sure that weariness is one of the things that got me on a Greyhound to New York not long after turning 23.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know I went to Bible college to try to not be gay. You also might know that I had lived in New York a few months before I really began my journey out of the closet.

Allegedly, Matthew Makela has been living somewhat of a double life. He was a pastor with a wife and children, but also maintained a rather provocative Grindr profile. There are pictures and screenshots of conversations that are now public knowledge. I’m sure more about Makela’s secret life will be revealed in time.

I’ll say this up front because if you are reading this, it’s a valid question, but I never had sex with a guy when I was a youth minister. I never so much as kissed a guy. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have my secrets.

I don’t remember now how I acquired a list of gay bars in Kansas City, I think I must have found one of those gay travel books in a bookstore and written the places down on a piece of paper. I remember the first night I drove to Kansas City to do a bar crawl. I went to about 5 or 6 places, all in the downtown area. This was the early 1990s and I was confused that most of the places had no signage to tell me I was in the right place. I don’t remember every detail of that night, but most of the places I visited were dark and run down and the customers were old. I’d enter, do a tour of the joint, and leave immediately. There was one place where I stayed about an hour. It was large and there was a dance floor and the crowd was pretty cute. I didn’t order a beer or anything, I was a Christian after all, so I just kind of stood there looking around. A tall, handsome, slightly effeminate man smiled at me, I smiled back. We started a conversation, I told him it was my first time in a gay bar, that I was a youth minister. I probably told him that I wasn’t even sure I was gay. He told me he was an antique dealer and lived in Iowa. The dance mix of Amy Grant’s Baby, Baby came on and I asked him if he wanted to dance, we did. While we danced, I wondered if this guy and I might share a kiss or more. I also wondered if Amy Grant knew her song was playing in a gay bar. And if so, what would she think? I don’t remember the details but the antique dealer let me know he wasn’t interested in me. As he went off to pursue someone else, I hung out for a while, then feeling slightly rebuffed, decided to leave and go home. I remember rolling down the windows on that late night 90 minute drive to my little town, the wind tunneling through my car. I was elated and scared and titillated and ashamed and hopeful and fearful as I steered my way home. I think I had a couple more of those KC gay bar crawl nights before I eventually left the midwest, but that first night is the one that sticks in my memory.

You might remember those 900 numbers were big in the early 90s. Somehow I had found a couple 900 numbers that were geared for men looking to meet other men, by telephone. I only did it a couple of times because each time, though it was advertised as something like $2 a minute, the charge on my phone bill was $150. Twice, after dialing 900 numbers, and furtively talking to a flirty stranger for a couple of minutes, I received my bill and was shocked and scared to find $150 charges. I only made $250 a week and I didn’t know how I would pay off a $300 phone bill, but I did pay it in increments. I was afraid that someone, somehow, might find out the secret of my phone bill, but if they did, they never said anything.

That I received the International Male and Undergear catalogs should have been a pretty obvious clue what was going on, too. One of the church members was the town postmaster. It was a small town. Did he notice my catalogs? During my time there, I always wondered if he might share my secret to the church board or worse, his children that were in my youth group. Looking back, I’m sure small town postmasters know quite a bit about people’s secrets.

At one point, I decided to put a personal ad in the Springfield newspaper. It was very simple: “22, masculine, brown hair, brown eyes, GL, bicurious looking for similar.” (Well, I DID have brown hair and brown eyes.) I remember driving to pick up my responses at the paper’s office. I received a large manila envelope filled with about 25 letters from various men in the area. That night, I sat down on my living room floor and sorted the letters from definite no’s to maybe’s to yes’s. I ranked them all and called the first few ones that appealed to me most. One guy was a bagger at a Dillon’s grocery store and for some reason that sounded hot. We talked on the phone a few times and he was in the closet too so we had something in common. I don’t know why, but I pictured him looking like Ralph Macchio. In the end, we never met. One guy was ranked 5th or 6th on my list but we ended up talking on the phone on a Friday night. He convinced me to drive to a town an hour away so we could meet in a Wal-mart parking lot. (That sounds safe.) Before we met, he told me he’d been living in Texas and had started the process of coming out and he encouraged me to do so myself. We told each other what kind of cars we were driving and when we met, he was not what I hoped. Too chubby, too pimply. I didn’t even get out of my car. I think he was disappointed that I didn’t want to get to know him so he coldly told me, “You’re gay. You can act like you aren’t, but you are.”

I also corresponded with a guy, a couple of years older than me who had grown up in Stockton and now lived in Springfield. He had been a ballet dancer, had trained in Russia. He might have been getting his master’s degree, I can’t remember for sure. We went on a date to a Mexican restaurant and then to see a touring production of A Chorus Line. It was not a perfect date, but that was the night I decided that somehow, some way, I was going to go to New York. And a few months later, that’s exactly what I did.

When I was a youth minister, I wondered how the long term burden of holding in my secret might affect the rest of my life. I mean, I really thought I was in it for the long haul, a lifetime of ministry, but I wondered if I might marry a woman, have kids and still have this secret life. I imagined a scenario not unlike Matthew Makela’s where one day, my secret would be exposed, and I would embarrass myself and all who loved me. And I don’t know Makela, but I can’t imagine his beginnings were all that different from mine. One day you’re a confused kid turning to Christ to make sense of your biggest burden and you blink and 20 years later, you’re on Grindr, looking for a man to man massage.

I look back on things I said as a youth minister from the pulpit and in classes and counselling situations and I wonder about how judgemental I was. In my gauzy recollection, I THINK I was a pretty compassionate pastor, but I’m sure I had my moments.

I know this, I’m grateful for that tubby guy in the Wal-mart parking lot who told me I need to wise up and accept the fact that I was gay. I didn’t take his advice immediately but he was one of the many who pushed me out of the closet into the life I lead now.

Like Tyler Kish, I have compassion for Matthew Makela. I remember how damaging the closet was for me at 22 and I can only imagine what it must feel like at 39.

The fact is, no matter who you are, no matter what your burden, there is something of Makela in all of us. We’re just trying to figure it all out. Like my friend Vanessa said about Don Draper recently, we make decisions sometimes that take us in the wrong direction from happiness.  I don’t think Matthew Makela will ever see this, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have something to say to him.  First of all, you’re gay, you can act like you aren’t but you are.  But also, more importantly, you will get through this.  There are hundreds, thousands of men and women who have had similar experiences, similar journeys, we have survived, and so will you.  Peace be with you.

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Dear Daisy

4453551996_b1d8ffa745_oIt’s rare for me to spend more than a few hours on a blog post, but I have been working on and off on this one since Thursday.  Up until, just now, I didn’t feel that I was saying what I wanted to say, in the way I wanted to say it.

On Thursday, by chance, I saw that one of the kids that had been in my youth group when I was a youth minister many years ago had unfriended me on Facebook.  She popped into my head and I thought, hmmm, I wonder what Daisy is up to? When I got to her FB page, I saw the little +1 Add Friend rectangle on her profile.  I was a little shocked.  Not surprisingly, it is not my first FB unfriending, but it’s the one that stung the most.

Thursday, not long after discovering the information, I started working on a blog, also entitled, Dear Daisy.  That blog was an actual letter to her which sortof snarkily started off, “I guess you will probably never read this because most people who find my blog, find it through Facebook and ever since you unfriended me, I don’t now how you would even know to look for it.”  Like I said, I’ve revisited that original blog every day, tweaking it, but ultimately, it never felt right enough to publish.

I will tell you a little about Daisy.  She is a singer.  I remember not long after I was hired to be the youth minister at her church, one of the elderly ladies was telling me bits of information about all of the congregation’s young people.  I remember Velda Blagg saying, “And Daisy!  Daisy has the voice of an angel.”  And she did.  When Daisy sang a special in church, usually an Amy Grant song, it was something the entire congregation looked forward to hearing.  Most who have heard her sing would say that she has a God-given gift.

Another thing about Daisy that I think about fairly often is when her mother died suddenly while I was her youth minister.  Her mother was a force: magnetic, beautiful, sharp-witted, opinionated.  Also, she was a teacher.  Her death was one of the first lessons in how fragile life is and how everything can change permanently in an instant.  I marvelled at the poise with which Daisy handled her loss.  She was just weeks from going away to her freshman year of college, yet the Daisy I remember continued to lend support to her father and three younger brothers.  In college, she studied music, because she wanted to glorify God with her music.

We have not had a lot of contact since the time that I was her youth minister.  Even before FB entered all of our lives, she did know that I was gay.  I know that she is still very religious, but I’ve never known her to post anything anti-gay on FB.  Our FB messages were usually about light things, like dreaming of meeting up in New York to go see Broadway musicals together.

At one point in the last few days, I thought I knew why she unfriended me.  Since I’ve started this blog, I talk about a lot of different things. Granted, every word I write, it’s with the cognizance that my mother will probably read it, but I would give my blog a PG-13 rating.  And I talk a lot, A LOT, about being gay.  I wonder if it might be painful for Daisy to see how different I am from the man who was her minister, her pastor, at a very formative time in her life.  If I was a man who once made her love Jesus more, what am I now?

I thought about Daisy and the rest of the youth group quite a bit all weekend.  Something about the action, unlocked some memories that I hadn’t thought about in 20 years, sweet memories.   Yesterday, I posted a blog about a young voice teacher, roughly Daisy’s age, who got to sing on stage with Kristin Chenoweth at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend.  I included a link to her account on BroadwayWorld.com where at the end, she talked about walking to her car after the concert with her dad and him reminding her that he prayed 11 years ago that she would be able to sing with Kristin Chenoweth.  That touching moment made me think of the beaming pride that Daisy’s dad always had for her.  He was a stoic guy, but whenever Daisy sang, whether it be at church or concerts or pageants, he always shed more than a few tears.  He was and is the kind of guy who would pray for his daughter to sing with Kristin Chenoweth, or maybe Amy Grant.

Anyway, I am not angry that Daisy unfriended me.  I do hope that if she did not hear about Sarah Horn from me, that she heard about Sarah Horn from someone.  Those magical musical moments that I talked about yesterday, are something Daisy’s knows a lot about.  So, Daisy, if you ever read this, and I hope that someday you will, know that, Facebook friend or not, I will always love you.  

What Susan Said

1072354In the summer of 1992, I worked at a summer camp in Maine. In the first few days of being at the camp, I fell into a friendship with another counselor I’ll call Steven. Steven and I became fast friends, both Midwestern, both religious, both bespectacled. Steven was 19 and I was 22.

That summer, there was a Rich Mullins song that I often listened to on my CD Walkman called What Susan Said. It starts off, “Two lonely-eyed boys in a pick-up truck
And they’re drivin’ through the rain and the heat
And their skin’s so sweaty they both get stuck
To the old black vinyl seats
And it’s Abbott and Costello meet Paul and Silas
It’s the two of us together and we’re puttin’ on the mileage…” I felt like Rich Mullins had written this song just for me and Steven. We’d borrow his friend’s pickup and we’d go for drives. One day off, we drove from Maine, through New Hampshire, into Vermont and back to camp, talking about the kind of things two people talk about when their friendship is new. Over the course of two weeks, I felt like he was the best friend I’d ever had. I was, at this point, ostensibly straight. We talked about girls and God and I talked a lot about how I’d been a youth minister, just less than a year before. But one night, when we were sitting on the roof of the main bunk house, I told him something that had burdened me. I told him that I thought I was gay. He was the third person I ever told. He told me that he’d kind of been wondering if maybe I might be. Earlier in the summer, he told me that he’d had a friend who was bisexual and the way I’d asked a lot of questions about that guy stuck in his mind. When he did not freak out over the first piece of information, I told him that I thought I was in love with him. He was very quick to tell me that he was straight, that I knew that he liked Claire (one of the other counselors). He also started to cry. He told me that he thought I just wanted to be his friend. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation played out, but at the end, I did think that we would remain friends. As it turned out, we never really talked at length again. He called his mother to tell her about it and she told him that I was one of those gays that preyed on young men. (Again, he was 19, I was 22.) For the rest of the summer, he kept his distance. If the Rich Mullins song had affected me one way before my confession to Steven, I clung to it that much more after our friendship was severed. I’d listen to the song as I lay in bed at night, hoping and praying that I would either not be gay or that Steven would love me.

As it came to pass, neither prayer came true. When camp ended, I moved back to New York and began the process of coming out to myself. Steven was the last straight I guy that I fell for.

Rich Mullins was a singer that I saw a lot of when I was growing up. He would be at week-long youth conferences I attended, so besides being on stage, I witnessed the way he interacted with others. Long before I heard What Susan Said, before he even wrote it, I thought that perhaps Rich and I had something in common. (I have no validation of my theory.)
I’ve attached a YouTube video of the song. I’d hoped to find a version of Rich singing it in concert instead of the generic video I’m posting. If you ever attended a Rich Mullins concert, you know he had a gift. He was funny and serious, humble and arrogant, simple and erudite. There is another line in the song about how love is found in the things we have given up more than in the things we kept. I often wondered and still wonder if Rich Mullins had a Steven in his life. Someone must have inspired such an intimate song.

Years have passed since that summer. Rich Mullins died in 1997 in a tragic car accident. Some would think it ironic that a Christian song would have played such a reflective part in my own coming out process. But when I hear the song, it takes me back to those days when I was on the precipice of my journey to become the person I am today. And Steven, I sometimes wonder what happened to him, but I hope that if I ever come into his mind, as the final words of “our” song say, I hope he’ll have the strength to just remember, I’m still his friend.

Words Have Consequences

Ray Barnhart and friend  (not Sarah), 1998.

Ray Barnhart and friend (not Sarah), 1998.

“Words have consequences. Very, very good rebuttal for those who want to normalize perversion.”  This was the introduction a friend of mine from childhood wrote on an anti-gay article she posted today on Facebook.  The article itself was just typical “Biblical” anti-gay spewings, not completely relevant to what I’m going to share, but if you want to read it, you can do so here.  Anyway, this person, whom I’ll call Sarah, was someone who grew up with me at the same church.  We were in youth group together and she briefly attended the same Bible college I attended.  She is extremely intelligent and graduated near the top of her high school class.  I have not seen her for over twenty years, and like so many modern relationships, our only contact is via Facebook.  About a year ago, she randomly posted, “I really want a sari.”  Because I am a former sketch comedy performer, I have a closet full of many props and costumes that I’ve acquired, just in case, you know,  I can use it in a sketch.  It so happened that I did own a sari so I sent her a message asking for her address and I sent her the said sari.  (Heaven knows what I’ll ever do if the Groundlings one day ask me to play Indira Gandhi on the main stage.)  A few days after sending the gift, I received a beautiful, thoughtful handwritten note from Sarah.  I’m sure I still have it somewhere, because I’m sentimental about gestures like that.

Her actions today are nothing new, she has frequently posted anti-gay material, all from her Biblical perspective.  And let me say, she is not the only person on my FB friend list who posts items of this nature.  Most of my friends tell me I should unfriend these people and though I’m tempted, I do like hearing about their lives in general.  I like the pictures of their dogs and kids and cakes they’ve baked.  I want them to live rich joy-filled lives.  And while I have many friends that are conservative Christians, only a handful repeatedly post anti-gay agenda and musings.  I wonder about the pathology of someone who posts over and over and over again that they really, really, really like Chick-Fil-A.  Also, it hurt my feelings.  

There is something about Sarah that I wrestled with sharing publicly.  Although I have clearly changed her name, it would not be hard to figure out her identity if you were to look at my FB friends list.  But when I think about Sarah, it’s something that comes to mind.  As I stated earlier, we briefly attended the same Bible college.  When I was a junior, she was a freshman.  And then a few weeks into her freshman year, she got pregnant.  She left school immediately and went back to Independence and married the father, her longtime high school sweetheart.  I remember her telling me she was afraid to tell me she was pregnant for fear I would respond judgmentally.  In my recollection, I responded with love and support.  At least that’s the way I remembered it, perhaps she did sense judgment from me.  I remember how sad I was that she left school because I felt her life goals would be out of distance because of the unwanted pregnancy.  I hope I only treated her with kindness.  As it turned out, from what I’ve gleaned from her Facebook profile, her life goal was to be a loving, nurturing wife and mother, the kind of wife and mother she did become.  And I don’t think there is any loftier aspiration.  In every picture of her, she is beaming at her many children.  Most of her posts are about something cute or intelligent or mischevious one or more of her children has done.  Clearly, there is much that I like about Sarah.  

I just wish she didn’t post things like this.  There is a part of me that thinks a woman who thinks as expansively as to want a sari, would be moved by the plight of Edie Windsor.  Maybe I’m just an optimist.  Maybe I’m a fool. I must say we agree on one thing, words do have consequences.

Blogger Ray Barnhart

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So, something interesting happened after I posted one of my recents blogs, The Truth about Paul which I’d written about an incident that took place while I was in Bible College. I was kind of proud of it and yesterday morning, I thought I would send it to the gay news website, Towleroad.com. I did not have a lot of expectations, I just thought, just send the link, who knows what could happen.

I could lie to you and say that I completely forgot about sending it, but the truth is, all morning, I kept checking the statistics on my blog. If you are a blogger, you know about statistics pages. They tell you how many views you’ve received, which of your posts are getting the most traffic, what countries are viewing you, what links led people to you blog, etc., etc. If you are a blogger, I hope you are a more rational, less obsessive compulsive individual than myself. Because I am obsessed with my stats page.

When I started this blog a few weeks ago, I told myself the blog was for me. I wanted to write about the subjects and post the pictures and videos that appealed to me, what I would want to read if I was reading a blog. That’s what I told myself. And I’ve been pleased with the following my little blog has collected along the way. I’ve received some nice compliments, I’ve interacted with a few members of the wordpress blog community. I’ve also felt a pride that I’ve been writing. I am not the greatest writer and I think of myself as an even worse editor, but I’ve started to see possibilities in my writing that I had not seen previously.

Anyway, getting back to yesterday. At one point in the morning, I checked my stats and I had 115 views, which is good for me. Anything over 100 is always good. I knew that that traffic came from my friend Alan who has 2,373 friends on facebook who had reposted the piece with a kind endorsement. Alan is one of those special people who remembers meeting every person who comes into his path, kind of like Marilu Henner, but likeable. Anyway, at about 11:00 am, I had 115 views and then at 11:15, I checked again and I had 345. Something was up. I went to the Towleroad website and sure enough, they had pasted a link to my blog in an article about Daniel Dobson, the man who was the springboard for my post. : “Daniel Dobson, son of prominent West Michigan minister, talks about being a gay Christian. “It’s morally right for me to do it. I feel I have something good to contribute to the conversation, something positive.” Blogger Ray Barnhart offers a response to Dobson’s disclosure.” ( http://www.towleroad.com/2013/05/news-20.html#ixzz2V10D0hBt) They referred to me as BLOGGER RAY BARNHART!

I was so excited and of course, I spent the rest of the day checking my stats every 6 seconds. It kept ticking up until it petered out this afternoon. In 24 hours, my blog had 1400 views, an easilycrestfallen record. I can now say that someone in Iceland has read my blog. (Þakka þér, nýja vini!) It was exhilerating, then exhausting and then it gave way to depressing. It was this little bright spot in my day, my year actually. And now I feel the way I always felt on the Sunday after my town’s yearly Fall festival, Neewollah ended. The carnival came, we ate the jaffles, we crowned the queen, we listened to the Oak Ridge Boys, and now it’s over. I guess I should be happier, but there are reasons why I call my blog easilycrestfallen.

A Few Words With Amy Grant

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A Few Words With Amy Grant

From the moment I heard Lorrie Mullins sing “My Father’s Eyes” at Hidden Haven Church Camp, I loved Amy Grant. My first concert was Amy Grant’s “Age to Age” tour in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My fourth (second and third were The Imperials and Michael W. Smith/Petra, respectively) concert was Amy Grant’s “Unguarded” tour at Sandstone in Kansas City, where I made my best friend Missy mad by making out with a girl from Topeka that I met. One of my signature songs that I used to always sing at churches was “Arms of Love.” Amy Grant was a VERY big part of my youth, and I still love her as an adult. If it had been up to me, Three Wishes would still be on television. This interview (linked above) has been touted as Amy’s first interview with the gay press. It’s an interesting read, whether you are gay or Christian or a gay Christian, or even if you are the kind of person who says there is no such thing as a gay Christian. I’m not going to dissect the interview here, I just wanted to share it.