The Great Communicator 

  It’s been awhile since I’ve done a storytelling show, awhile since I’ve blogged. My second to last storytelling was a real bust. I was a little drunk, always a crap shoot. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to say but thought, hey,  it will all come together. 

It didn’t come together. I was scattered, rambling on about Friday Nights Lights that I’d just finished binge watching. Eyes glazed in front of me. I talked about a scene where a hymn called “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” followed the lives of the characters. I said something about grace, how lost souls understand grace the most because we are so lost. I likened myself to Tyra Collette, the misunderstood pretty girl from the wrong side of the tracks, a modern day Madge Owens. I had no ending because I didn’t even know what I wanted to say. 

Driving home that night, I beat myself up, why do I always keep going back to the same themes of church and God and faith and grace? I thought, you don’t even believe in any of that anymore and yet, it’s still haunting you. Like a ghost.

  A few months ago, inspired by the beauty of several New York churches I’d visited on vacation, I decided I wanted to start going to church again. So I attended the Sunday morning service at a church that I’d always driven by and marveled at its grandeur. And then I went back the next week, which I think I wrote about, and the next week. And I know we don’t get extra jewels in our crown in heaven for perfect attendance, BUT I haven’t missed a Sunday since February. 

As I said, I haven’t been blogging much lately. I write a few paragraphs or sometimes just a few sentences and sometimes just a few words, and then I get stuck, and think what is it I’m trying to say here? There was a time when I wrote regularly and I’d sometimes fall into a rhythm, where entire blog posts would just spill out effortlessly. 

When I swim, I often have some dynamite ideas for blogs but then I pick up my phone to write and think, no, that’s not going to work. 

Even if it started with an architectural crush, the thing I love about my church most is that I feel welcome there.  It does not escape my notice that every Sunday the pastor makes a point to remind parishioners that all are welcome. I’ve known churches where the minister made it a point to bring up the “sin” of homosexuality every time I was in attendance, so I know the effects of repetition. But more than the gay stuff, I feel that I am welcome with my doubts and my questions. That whatever point I’m at in my spiritual journey, I have something to offer.

Every Sunday, there is a thirty minute organ prelude to the service. Yesterday, the organist concluded his prelude with Nothing Compares 2 U and then Purple Rain. Purple streamed from the lighting behind the church’s altar. A tribute to Prince is nothing I would have expected in the churches I grew up in and yet, I found myself profoundly moved by this gesture. I don’t say this in a mean way, but Prince seemed like a pretty scarred, broken man. And yet he had this incomparable gift, gifts actually. Could Nothing Compares 2 U be a song about God? Nothing can take away these blues because nothing compares to you.

I don’t know why there are so many religions, and then sects and denominations within those religions. And then disagreement within denominations and congregations. Is it our fault that we don’t know how to listen to what God is saying? 

  Something struck me tonight, as I drove home from a longtime co-worker’s going away party.  A little prosecco in me, nostalgic about the way people move in and out of our lives. As I left, one of the newer busboys asked me if he’d overheard right, me telling someone that I went to Bible college. And then he told me how he’d been a missionary and a minister in his home country. He told me he hoped to go to a Bible college here in Southern California. It seemed so fated or providential that we would have that conversation.

Similarly, it seems fated and providential that I find myself back in church after a 20 year absence. 

Anyway, the something that struck me on that drive home, will most definitely strike some as sacrilege. And don’t even look at it as something I believe, merely something to ponder, but maybe sometimes God feels like he has a hard time communicating with us too. Maybe sometimes he knows he wants to say something but he doesn’t know exactly what it is, or how he wants to tie it up, bring it home. Maybe he even looks out and sees a lot of glazed over eyes and thinks, what’s the point? Maybe God has writer’s block. I don’t know.

I’m sure, to some, the thought of a fallible God is unappealing. For me, I kind of like the idea of it. If we love people in spite of and sometimes because of their failures, why couldn’t we do the same with God? 

I don’t really know. Don’t come to me for the answers, I’m more or a questions guy. Especially at this moment. But it’s nice again to entertain these questions about God because ultimately, with every one, I think,  it brings me closer to Him.

Advertisements

The Facts of Life

3039_1084349233848_8185094_nAs a person who receives some satisfaction from documenting his experiences and thoughts in words and sharing those words with others, I sometimes I ask myself, what is it about my writing, my point of view, that is my essence. Who am I at my core? Obviously, I am an Angeleno, a reader, an art lover, a Kansan, a former New Yorker, a swimmer. But what makes me me? What are the hallmarks of my writing?

I was talking to someone last night and we were discussing our separate junior high and high school experiences. And I said that for me, junior high and high school are never very far away from me. For me, and perhaps it’s because those years were not what I wanted them to be, I can be in the middle of the most random moments, like taking a table’s order, or walking down Larchmont, or drinking my morning coffee, or driving along Mulholland (Full confession, I do not drive along Mulholland nearly as often as I should.) and suddenly, often inexplicably, I am in Ms. Willis’ Algebra II class, or receiving my 2nd place medal at a Chanute Forensics competition, or getting in trouble for talking too much in the Living Christmas Tree at my Bible college, or standing in the lunch line at IJHS.

And I don’t think I am the only one who finds his memories almost oppressively accessible. I think many people remember many things from 25 and 30 and 35 years ago, but often, people don’t like to wade into that muck. Because, really, it’s muck and often muck can weigh you down. The past is the past.

But you know, just to play Devil’s advocate, you CAN learn from your past. You can ponder it and say, I don’t want to ever do or feel THAT again. Or you can say, there was a purity or joy that I want to bring back. For instance, I don’t remember a happier childhood time than the summer or weekend days when I would visit my friend Chris and we would play all afternoon with his sister’s Barbies. I marvel at how much of my childhood was spent dreaming of having my own Barbie doll. Every September, when the Sears, JCPenney and Montgomery Ward Christmas catalogs came, I would memorize, circle, cast a spell on every single item in the Barbie and fashion doll pages of each book. It’s crazy, I know. So much yearning for something that the culture I lived in told me was bad.

On New Year’s Day, as I was swimming, I thought about my friend Alan, with whom I spent most of New Year’s Eve. I’ve talked about him here before from time to time. We grew up together in the same small town, but, probably because even then we could both smell the gay on each other, it wasn’t until our adulthood that we became friends. And now, he knows this too, he is one of my best friends. That night, as a group of us sat at our friend Traci’s dining room table, discussing Serial, (Am I the only one who has little doubt that Adnan did it?) we also talked about Independence, gossiped a bit, showed our LA friends the mugshot of a childhood classmate that had (Drew Droege in Chloe voice) recently come to our attention. While we laughed over Malbec and Mu-Shu Pork, a Happy New Year text came in from our childhood friend Curt. Curt and his husband live in Ecuador, but were in Independence the same weekend I was there in December and we got to connect. I told Curt that I was with Alan and he wished Alan a Happy New Year too.

While I was in Kansas, I spent a good deal of time, documenting the trip with Alan and another friend Joel. Joel and I knew each other growing up, but our friendship was cemented when we took Mrs. Spencer’s American Literature course through the junior college one summer. It’s a bit of a magic trick to make something written centuries ago feel personal and contemporary, but that’s what she did in that class. There were only a handful of us, but whenever I see someone from that class, we always nod our heads and say, “THAT was the BEST class.” And then the other says, “YES, it was!”

So, yes, that first weekend in December, Alan and Joel and I spent a great deal of time texting each other about the weekend’s sightings, happenings, uncoverings, nuances.

I ached to have a large circle of friends when I was growing up. I mean, I had some friends, but I remember a lot of Friday and Saturday nights hanging out with the Ewings, the Channings, the Stubings and Mr. Roarke when what I really wanted was to go to the movies with friends my own age. I don’t doubt that I was an oddball. I mean, I don’t think anyone else was tape recording episodes of The Facts of Life and listening to them over and over again every night as a lullaby before bed.

The thing is, what I really wanted to say, when I started this Miss Havisham of a blog post, is that I’m grateful for my fellow gays from Independence. Not long ago, one of us, probably Alan, uncovered on FB someone else from our little town, who, it appears is living a gay life in a large city, far from Kansas like the rest of us. In trying to glean as much info as possible from his profile, I got a sense, true or not, that he wanted and succeeded at putting a lot of distance between himself and his hometown. And I certainly don’t judge that decision, there is a part of me that thinks that way too. But, I also felt a little sad. Sad that he doesn’t seem to have an Alan or a Joel or a Curt or a Chris to say, “Yeah, I remember. Growing up in Independence sometimes SUCKED, but look at us now. Look at how fabulous we’ve become.”

Letters, I Do Get Letters.

BzIkodzIcAAfEIg.jpg-largeWell, I suppose by letters, I mostly mean emails or Facebook messages, but from time to time, I do receive privates correspondence from people, usually from people I know, about something I’ve written here.  Just the other day, I received a card in the mail from a junior high and high school classmate full of encouragement.  What a sweet gesture, I thought.  We seldom communicate with cards and physical letters anymore and when you get something in the mail, it’s a treat.  So, thank you, T, you made my day.

Also on the same day, I received a FB message from a fellow classmate from Ozark Christian College.  I have thought about it quite a bit since reading it.  I responded that day and he responded to my response that day, but I really don’t know what to say in going further.  When you read this, you might have your own thoughts on the matter.  For the sake of anonymity, I will call him Andrew.

Here it is:

Hey Ray – I have been struggling for a while to ask you some questions about your life now. I am frustrated because I do care about you as a classmate and brother in Christ but I just cannot reconcile your contradictions. I am not attacking you or trying to start an argument – and I am sure you have posted your story – but help me understand why you think you are right and I am wrong? I am asking this in COMPLETE humility and a desire for compassionate understanding. Thanks

This was my response to him:
Andrew, thank you for taking the time to send me a message. I don’t doubt that I sometimes contradict myself, I believe most of us do at times. You don’t have to reconcile the person I was when you knew me to the person I am now. I think I understand how you see it as your job to help me and I don’t mind that, but I don’t see it that way.

Still, if you would like to write a guest blog, I think it would be a great conversation starter. You really could take any direction that you want. My sense is that you have been thinking and praying about this and I’m sure you have something to say that many people want to hear. Yours is the first message of this nature I’ve received from my OCC classmates and I’m sure you are expressing what many feel and think. I would love to have your POV.

This was his response to my response:

I appreciate that Ray – I will definitely consider that – I do want you to understand that I do not feel it is my job to help you. I think as a friend it is my responsibility to completely understand your POV and choice – if I don’t agree so be it – but I have been wrestling with this because I am angered by what I consider over-reach in the gay community – and the threats against those of us who are Christians. So that is what I am trying to reconcile – thanks for your kind response – I look forward to more dialogue !!

Now, let me say, I do appreciate his attempt to have a conversation.  I don’t doubt that he is expressing the thoughts of many of the conservative Christians I know. And I do think it was sent with good intentions.  Is it overstepping the boundaries of what is “polite” to initiate this exchange? It’s possible.  Andrew and I were amiable at OCC, but I never considered him one of my closest friends and I doubt he considered me one of his closest.  Does that make a difference?  Maybe, maybe not.

I think it’s somewhat audacious to talk about one’s perceived “over-reach in the gay community” to someone who knows first hand what it means to not have the same rights as any member of the heterosexual community.  If it appears that fighting for equal rights for myself and my community is an over-reach, I can’t apologize, it’s something too important to me.

Another thing that I’ve thought quite a bit about in the days since receiving the letter is him telling me that he can’t reconcile my contradictions.  And maybe this is just me, but what I heard, whether it was intended or not, is that he sees me as a hypocrite.  I am sure I am.  I think most of us are, but I really try to be a forthright, honest, accountable person.

There is something that I have skated around since I started this blog.  I have avoided talking about my personal beliefs in terms of God and the Bible in specific terms for only one reason, I don’t want to hurt my parents.  They do read this and while I’m sure they know my belief system is not identical to theirs, we do not discuss it.  If they were to ask me, I would tell them, but, we don’t talk about it.  It certainly isn’t rare for parents and children to see the world differently.  But one of the many things I love about my parents is that they focus on what we have in common, the things that do connect us.

I have been torn about even sharing these exchanges from my classmate.  He asked me why I think I’m right and why he’s wrong.  I could ask him the same thing, and I suppose his answer would be that’s what the Bible says.  But I could respond with, “No, that is how you interpret what the Bible says.” Even among people who identify as Christians, there are widely varied interpretations on many subjects. And it must be said, not every person esteems the Bible as the inspired guidebook for one’s life anyway.

I know how I go on and on about wanting to be the bridge between the GLBT community and the conservative Christian community, but there is a part of me that gets defensive when I receive messages of this kind. And I must say, that’s stupid of me, because Andrew really is just initiating an honest conversation and maybe having that conversation can lead to something good. I mean, if Melissa Etheridge and Mike Huckabee can be friends, isn’t there hope for all of us?

I do welcome your thoughts, even if you are going to tell me something I disagree with. And ESPECIALLY if you are going to tell me something I agree with. Either way, it means we are talking, communicating, and somehow that conversation might inevitably be the channel for connection.

I do want everyone to like me, it’s part of my needy nature. I know it’s just a handful of people who read this, most are people I have known in my lifetime. Most I rarely see in person. But if you are one of my old friends in Kansas or Missouri or Oklahoma, you do have GLBT folks that you work with or go to school with or are the parents of your children’s friends. And even if you read my blog and think, you know, I really don’t agree with Ray, he’s arrogant, a jerk, contradictory, hypocritical, not nearly as smart as he thinks, that is okay. My bigger hope is that somehow me sharing my journey creates a sensitivity, an understanding, even a love, for those people, members of my tribe, who ARE in your lives. Many have been rejected by their family or their friends or their church and it’s my belief that you being there for them, really being a friend, would be a good thing for them and also for you.

Teenage Dream

brady2A friend of mine shared a video on Facebook of two little boys lip-syncing to a Katy Perry song. He captioned the video, “Honey, the gay babies.” I clicked to watch it and it appeared to be two little boys, perhaps in the Philippines, one in a dress and one in a bikini top and a towel wrapped around his hips like a long skirt. I’ve posted the video, you can see it here for yourself.

I watched it and I must admit, I had a complex reaction. Don’t get me wrong, I am rooting for these little boys. I want them to grow up to be fabulous and I believe that they will, but there was something, I’m not exactly sure what, that unsettled me.

The biggest night of my life, when I was 8, was going to be the little talent show, my cousin Susie and I were to put on in my living room for New Year’s Eve. I had a tape recording of The Brady Kids singing both It’s a Sunshine Day and Keep On. Susie and I had worked for days learning the songs, the choreography. On the afternoon before the show, Susie accidently taped over about 10 seconds of one of the songs. When I realized it, I became inconsolable. I really thought there were going to be talent scouts in our home in rural Kansas for the 8:45 New Year’s Eve show. Every one tried to calm me, it’s okay, it’s just a few seconds. But even then, I was easily crestfallen. Still the show did go on. After we returned from bacon-wrapped filet mignon dinners at the Whistle Stop restaurant, Independence’s fanciest steak house, Susie and I changed into our costumes and sang and danced our two songs. By then, something had been lost. There was polite applause from my parents and relatives, but I couldn’t hear it, I was still bereft. My odds of being in The New Mickey Mouse Club with Lisa Whelchel and Kelly Parsons were slim to none.

I couldn’t help but think of that little 8 year old me. (Susie, if you’re reading this, I apologize for being the world’s most annoying, high maintenace 8 year old. It’s a wonder you still talk to me, I love you!) But these little boys reminded me of this fire I had, really I always had. I always wanted to be on a stage, prancing about. And because the performers I loved most were women, they were the ones I emulated. I really did want to grow up to be Carol Burnett. Or Jan Brady.

As I watched, I told myself that it was chiefly the sexual element of their dance moves that bothered me most. I don’t want kids to think about sex, I want everyone to stay as innocent as possible. I’m like Mary Jo on Designing Women who, on one memorable episode, said, “Don’t have sex,” under her breath every time she talked to her teenage daughter.

But as I watched these boys, I wondered if I was disturbed also by how feminine they were. I know that when I was that age, I received a lot of messages from a number of different sources, to butch it up. Act like a boy, don’t play with dolls. Don’t put a towel on your head and pretend it’s your long blond hair. My first grade teacher, Miss Bartlesmeyer, punished me for talking to the girls too much by making me go a week of only talking to boys. I got caught at one point whispering to my friend Sheila and received an added week of punishment. (Miss Bartlesmeyer, if YOU’RE reading this, I don’t think you had the best approach to teaching.)

So I have posted this video here, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts. You might have your own reactions when you watch the video. If I am a little uncomfortable about watching this, does it mean I have my own unresolved internalized homophobia?

I do want to say, I think these little boys are amazing. They are talented and confident and inspired and fabulous and I hope the world is always kind to them and tells them they can accomplish anything, because they can.

“Where Did You Get That Dress? It’s Awful! And Those Shoes and That Coat! Jeez!”

stephen-stuckerairplaneA few months back, I participated in an intimate reading of a friend’s play.  He had written the play years ago, before the group of us became friends.  When we gathered, he told us there was a great part for each of us.  My character’s name was Russell.  He was passionate, silly, camp, funny, ridiculous and wise, the kind of part any actor dreams of playing.  And if I say so myself, I was pretty darn good.  I know it was just a little reading at a dining room table with a group of people who loved me even before we ever got to the first page, but still, it was a fun night.

And driving home, I thought about my characterization, how it just kind of spewed out of me, I didn’t have to second guess how I would say a line or do an impression, I knew what to do instinctually.  And let me confess, for me, anyway, that’s not always the case. I thought about Stephen Stucker, because I realized, that a lot of what I was doing came from him.  I’d like to think it wasn’t a complete copy, that I took what I’d gleaned from a master and gave it my own take.  At least that’s what I’d like to think.

Now, okay, maybe you didn’t know immediately who Stephen Stucker is.  To be honest, I didn’t know his name until I went to IMDB a few years ago.  Most simply, he is known as the gay guy from Airplane.  I’ve posted a YouTube video of some of his character’s best moments.  They are all priceless and when I watched it, it reminded me of all the times I watched that movie on HBO when I was a kid.   I remember doing the bit “Oh, I can make a hat, a broach, a pterodactyl…”  on a regular basis for anyone that would listen.    I loved that guy.  I certainly did not understand at 12 or 13 why he resonated with me, I just thought he was funny.  And I wanted to be funny, too.  

When I did a little google sleuthing about Stephen Stucker, I found that he was born on July 2, which is my birthday, too.  Like me, he  hailed from the midwest (born in Iowa, raised in Ohio) and he eventually made his way to Hollywood.  His IMDB page only has 11 credits, but most are significant like Airplane, Airplane II, Trading Places, The Kentucky Fried Movie and Mork and Mindy.  He died of AIDS related complications in 1986. He was 38 years old. Besides work as an actor and musician, he is important in GLBT history because he was one of the first actors to publicly disclose his HIV status.  I’ve also posted an appearance he made on the Donahue, not long before his death.  His comments are polarizing, his histrionics at times, disturbing.  But he’s still, in the midst of his illness, clearly, full of life.

I wish I knew more about Stephen Stucker. I found an archived interview with him online where he spoke about how supportive and loving his entire family was as he battled AIDS. It moved me because I know that when you’re going through life’s challenges, it’s nice to have family holding you up. Maybe one of these days, a sibling or niece or nephew or close friend will come across this blog and share a story or two. I’d love that. To me, he is so much more than that gay guy from Airplane, but when you think about it, that’s really not such a bad thing to be known as either.

Don’t Try So Hard

Amy_Grant“It’s the stuff we love when we’re young that sticks with us the most,” said Amy Grant last night while she was in concert at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.  I think I had thought that sentiment before, but I’d never verbalized it.  It’s something that I’ve thought about since her concert, which was amazing.  I believe everyone has a singer or music group that resonates for them the way Amy Grant resonates for me.  She is central to my adolescence and college and even early 20’s.  For my entire life, friendships have been built over a shared love of this woman.  

I experienced a wide range of emotions last night.  When she walked out after a cursory introduction and started singing You’re not Alone in this World, I was ebullient to be at an Amy Grant concert again after a 22 year gap.  When she sang, 1974, I remembered being in my Bible college dorm listening to her on my Sony Walkman.  When she sang Hope Set High, I thought about my years as a youth minister and the kids that were in my youth group and how for years after leaving the ministry, I felt like I’d let them down.  When she sang Sing Your Praise to the Lord, I thought about its songwriter, Rich Mullins, who sang at nearly every Christ in Youth conference I ever attended.  When she sang a cover of Put a Little Love in Your Heart for her encore, I thought it was a perfect choice because, in my mind, Amy Grant has always been about love.  

The crowd was very electic last night.  My friend Richard and I were sandwiched between straight couples in their fifties.  There were also young straight couples, girls night out groups, and of course, several members of the GLBT community.  Richard and I became friends when we met through mutual friends at a Happy Hour in a Mexican restaurant in Silver Lake and one of us mentioned Amy Grant.  I actually think that I gravitated to Amy Grant as a boy because I was gay. She’s Christian music’s Cher.

There was a lesbian couple sitting in the row in front of us. When Amy Grant started singing one of her new songs, Don’t Try So Hard, I saw them lean in and whisper something to each other. One of them reached out and rubbed the other woman’s back. The lyrics about the gift of God’s grace resonated with them and then I looked around at the audience, many of whom were having an emotional reaction. And I myself, absorbed the lyrics, I remembered my 17 or 18 or 19-year-old self who tried so hard to not be gay. When did I realize or will I ever fully realize that I’m lovely even with my scars?

A Few Words With Amy Grant

images-2

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.