A Neverending Negotiation

 

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Today, Eric and I celebrated the 7th anniversary of the day we met. Pretty cool. I don’t think I post a lot about Eric on FB or IG, but today I posted a cute picture of my dog Millie and Eric around the time Eric entered our lives.

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The picture got over a hundred likes on FB, a big hit. Now, what I am going to say, it is not a judgement, merely an observation. I promise. But, whenever I make a reference to Eric, even the most innocuous one,  I sense a hesitation that comes from some people who I went to Bible college with. I can just feel them hovering over the blue thumbs up button thinking, I want to be supportive as a friend but I also don’t want to make a statement that would indicate that I don’t interpret the Bible conservatively.  I get it. It’s all good, really.  I truly believe that the evangelical Christian has a challenge today negotiating what they believe is scriptural truth against how they interact with the LGBTQ friends and family that they love.

Something happened to me when I was home in Kansas. I was visiting my friends who run a business in my hometown and they asked me if I knew a person. For the sake of the story, we’ll call him Jimmy Roberts. I said, “Yes, I know Jimmy Roberts, he is a very good friend of my parents.”  They proceeded to tell me that Jimmy had written a letter to the editor in the local paper expressing his dismay that the public library was one of the sponsors of a recent Southeast Kansas LGBTQ pride weekend.

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I wasn’t exactly shocked that someone would write a letter to the paper expressing disagreement with the festival, but it did strike me as somewhat extraordinary that this dissenter happened not only to be my parents’ friend but really their best friend.

I do not live in Independence and there is no one I know in this world who has done more for my parents in the last year than Jimmy and his wife.  They have checked on them regularly, taken them to doctors appointments, cooked them meals, spent an afternoon with them at the ER. You get the idea.

When my friends told me about this letter, I had to track it down.  Of course, I found it at the library, which was the impetus for Jimmy’s letter in the first place.  Jimmy did not feel that a government funded entity should support something LGBTQ because not everyone in the town agreed with that “viewpoint”.

I will be honest, when I read his letter, it bothered me.  First, that anyone would write those words, second, that this was a good friend of my parents and third, I wondered if perhaps my parents felt the same way about the LGBTQ community and the pride festival that Jimmy did.

I went home and asked my parents if they knew about the letter.  They had not heard about it or read it.  My Mom asked me to send her a copy so she could read it and I did.  We did not talk about it.

A couple of hours later, Jimmy and his wife, came to my parents’ house to visit them.  They knocked on the door of the back room where I was sitting watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (gay) on Netflix (also kinda gay).  My dog Ricky barked and they let themselves in.  Jimmy’s wife, who Ricky had been quite taken by on their last visit, bent down to pet him.  As he barked, I tersely said, “He’s really worked up tonight, my parents are in the living room.”

Jimmy and his wife went into the other room and for the next 45 minutes I could hear them talking to my parents, about what I did not know.  Although I was pretty sure I knew what they weren’t talking about.  I will say this, but I have a fantasy, all of us LGBTQ offspring do, I sat there in my parents’ den wishing that they somehow could have said to their friend, in a loving but firm way, “Hey, that letter, that’s not so cool.  Especially since you know our son is gay.”

I wrestled if whether or not I could say something.  And if I could say something, what would it be and what should it be? I decided against it and then I thought about the pictures I’d seen, posted on Facebook, of the SEK Pride festival. It had been held weeks before I came to town.  These twentysomethings, just kids, many dressed in various forms of drag.  (There was a lot of glitter.)  For one night, they were free and celebrated and fierce and loved. And I just wished there was a way that these kids, my tribe, could have a better time living in my hometown than I did. But how could I say anything in a way that would make Jimmy see how utterly special and desperately needed something like a smalltown pride festival is?

In the end, wise or foolish, as Jimmy and his wife were leaving, as Ricky was both barking at him AND allowing him to pet him, I told Jimmy that I had read the letter.

He gave a nervous laugh.

I told him how when I was growing up here in this town, when everything I knew, like my church and my school, were telling me something was wrong with me, I was grateful for that library.

He reiterated his point, that a government funded entity should not support a viewpoint that not everyone believes in.

It was a very awkward 5 minute conversation. My mother and his wife quietly bearing witness to it.

He told me that he didn’t think he’d ever treated me differently than anyone else and I agreed with him. He and his wife have always been kind to my face. But, when he was the minister of my parents’ church, on every occasion I was in town visiting the congregation where I grew up, on every occasion, he brought up the “sin” of homosexuality from the pulpit. At first, I thought it was a coincidence, but eventually, I started tracking it, and well, every time I was in the church, homosexuality was addressed.

I’d like to say that our conversation that night was cordial. I was impassioned and nervous and scattered and loud. At one point, Jimmy started to suggest a book or a video I should read or watch, and I shut him down. (I guess he thought gay people had never had a Christian offer a book to fix them before.) I said, “No, I’ve read exactly what you have to say on the topic and it is heard and it is noted.” (Dramatic? Me?)

They left soon after and his wife meekly offered, “Thanks for taking care of our dog the other day.”

“You’re welcome,” I muttered. I had been happy to help them with their dog earlier in the week. I had been happy to lend a hand to thank them for all they have done for my parents. And then I’d snarled like a pit bull at them.

After Jimmy and his wife left, I told my Mom that she probably didn’t appreciate me confronting him. She said she understood where I was coming from. I told her that I felt like I had to say something to stand up for all the kids growing up in Independence who feel like something is wrong with them. I told her about my friends’ friend, not being accepted by his parents. And I started to cry. “Are you okay?” my Mom asked? “Yes, I’m fine.” “I know you didn’t have an easy time of it growing up here.” I could tell she wanted to hug me and a part of me wanted to hug her too, but instead I went in the other room.

After a few days, because that is what we do, my parents and I, we moved on.  The letter was never discussed.  I did not see Jimmy and his wife again and I don’t really know what I will say the next time I do.

If you are reading this and feel compelled to leave a comment, please do not bash Jimmy.   My parents read all comments.  Goodness knows, Jimmy will probably read this too.  Our conversation did not go the way I hoped it would and I must admit, I bear the responsibility for that.  After he left and I was still emotional, still seething, it hit me that the decades of rejection I’d always felt from my little town had welled up and he had been the somewhat unlikely victim of my eruption.

If the evangelical Christian has a neverending negotiation with how to show their love to their LGBTQ friends and family, I suppose we LGBTQ friends and family have an eternal negotiation as well, of how much to feel safe in that love, how much can we share, how much we should expect to be accepted.

My Mom probably doesn’t know this but of all the beautiful things she has written to me in my 49 years, and I have a cornucopia to draw from, it was three little words that touched me the most.  Three words I will carry with me until I take my last breath.  In Christmas 2010, after just meeting Eric for the first time we went to a restaurant and the waiter took a picture of my parents, Eric and myself.  I posted it to Facebook and my Mom was the first to comment beside it, for all the world to see.  “Nice looking family,” she wrote.

And we are.

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Imagine You Are on a Beach

I was on death’s door this afternoon. With a lump on my tongue and swelling in my glands and a raging headache, I made an appointment with a doctor. 

I couldn’t get in to see my doctor so they sent me to another doctor in my network. 

The nurse brought me into a room and started to take me blood pressure and pulse. “I have white coat syndrome,” I whispered.

She stepped back. “Okay, don’t look at me, I won’t look at you. Imagine you are on a beach.” 

I tried to do what she asked because I really liked her and she reminded me of Niecy Nash’s character in Getting On.

“What, do you think you’re running a race?” she asked. 

“I told you I get nervous. What was my blood pressure?” 

“150 over 82.” (High, obviously.)

“If you take it in a few minutes, it will go down.”

“Have you felt depressed, down or hopeless in the last six months?”

“Yes.” As in, hasn’t everyone?

She handed me a questionnaire, to gauge my depression, downness, and hopelessness. I scored ones (occasional depression, not frequent or constant depression.) 

“I’m not suicidal or anything, I just don’t feel very good.” 

For some reason, good or bad, she moved me into the room across the hall, the only difference, the new room had a window with views of the Beverly Hills flats. If I squinted I could see the building that used to be Loehmann’s.

The doctor came in, skeptical. Since this was our first meeting, I tried to explain that I am a hypochondriac who is deathly afraid of doctors. I hoped this would be our ice breaker. It was not our ice breaker.

He asked me about my symptoms.

I told him about the bump or lump in my throat. I told him that my Dad had oral cancer twice. He looked at it and poked it with a tongue depressor. “This?”

“Yeth.”

“That’s a taste bud.”

“Oh. Well, my glands have been swollen.”

So he felt my glands.

“Your glands are not swollen.”

“Oh, can you look under my tongue? It feels like there are weird spots.”

“Looks fine. Nothing unusual.”

“I was thinking it might be oral thrush.”

“Oral thrush was white spots, you  don’t have oral thrush.”

“Long dormant oral gonorrhea?” 

“Unlikely.”

“What do you think is causing my headaches?”

“Has there been anything in your life that has caused you stressed lately?” 

“Yes, my job, you see—” 

“Well, work could play a factor.”

“You see, Doctor, I am a very sensitive person.”

He nodded. He told me I looked healthy.  I asked him if he could still write a doctor’s note since I missed work. He said he would.

“But don’t tell them nothing’s wrong with me.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll just tell them you have oral gonorrhea.”

I thought, he likes me, he really likes me.

He then checked my blood pressure. 120/80. Then he left the room. 

Niecy Nurse came back to take my blood since I needed that checked for my blood pressure medicine. 

“120/80, so I guess it was you all along,” I bragged.

“You’re really going to say that to me before I stick a needle in your arm?”

We laughed. Old friends laugh.

She drew my blood. I survived. 

I asked her my favorite question, “Say you go home today and there is an envelope with $10,000 that you must spend on a vacation and you must leave tomorrow, where would you go?” 

She told me that she just returned from where she grew up, in South America, and that she would love to take her three kids back there for another trip. 

I asked what country she was from and she told me Guyana and we talked about the massacre that happened there so long ago. 

“I’m surprised you remember, no one remembers.”

There is a silence, unacknowledged, but I know we are both thinking of what transpired this weekend. 

I also thought how could anyone ever forget the Guyana tragedy?  It was probably my first introduction to the evil that exists in the world. Nowadays, we have a Jim Jones or a Sandy Hook or a Columbine or a Virginia Tech or an Orlando, every few months.

Clearly, all this sadness takes an emotional toll, but perhaps there is something physical that happens too. And my connection to this particular atrocity is simply that I’m gay, just like most of the victims. That I am a person who has danced in a gay club, thinking, this is home, this is life. I didn’t know one person that was at Pulse on  Saturday night, but the stories that come forward, I can’t shake them. I don’t want to shake them. 

So I sit down and write a story about my trip to the doctor where I try to see the funny, because you know,  life can be funny.  And it’s important to laugh, especially when all you want to do is cry.

Ray, I Hope You Know

  On Sunday, after church, I went to an orientation for people interested in joining the congregation. About 15 of us, we all sat around a table and wrote our names with sharpies for name tags we affixed to our shirts and blouses. 

The minister came in and introduced himself, shared a bit of his life story and asked us all to share our names, what we do, and briefly, our religious history. Not surprisingly, the group was filled with folks like me who had grown up in church and somewhere along the way, stopped going. 

When it was my turn, I shared that I had gone to Bible college, had been a youth minister, and that after I came out of the closet, that was the end of all of it. Also, for whatever reason, in the beginning of 2016, I decided I missed church. So, after more than 20 years, I started looking for a church home. 

After we went around the room, each sharing a bit of their own story, the minister told us about the church, its history, its positions, its outreach. Then he asked the room if anyone had any questions. The room sat quietly for a few seconds until finally, he said, “Surely the former youth minister has a question for me.” Everyone chuckled, I chuckled. “Actually, I do.” Another chuckle. I asked my question, so boring of a question that it doesn’t warrant repeating. 

A few others asked questions, and not much later, he dismissed us. As I left, my friend Richard and I went to shake the minister’s hand and say thanks. 

The minister said, “Ray, I hope you know that you are welcome here. We have many LGBT members.” I laughed because, as I shared in my last blog, at this church,  someone, everyone, is always reminding us, as often as possible, just how welcome every person is. 

I was a little high all that afternoon. And it wasn’t just the welcoming the gays part. But there was something thrilling about being called out for my time in the ministry. The former youth minister. And that somehow, if God had used me before, maybe God could use me again. 

As I was reading a book today, another memoir of a Midwestern gay who moved to New York to make his way, I had a flash of that exchange that took place on Sunday. “Ray, I hope you know that you are welcome here.” My eyes got blurry and I had to put my book down and I started to weep. It had not been emotional in the moment, but now, with some reflection, I thought, I have waited 25 years to hear those words from a church.  I’d actually waited my entire life. From the time I was the little guy in a tan leisure suit and a wooden cross necklace, until the day I left, at 23, I was always trying to turn myself into the straight version of Ray. And here someone, an entire congregation, was offering the possibility, that Gay Ray, could be what God wanted me to be all along. And the idea was shocking, but also, a comfort. I bawled. 

And you know, I must be honest. There is a conflict, because within this joy, this discovery that there is a place for me, after so many years, I can’t help but resent the churches that turned me away in the first place.  And then I wonder, DID they turn me away? Or did I just go away because I was afraid I would hear those words, “You are not welcome here.” I knew the 411. I’d been paying attention every Sunday. Church is no place for the gays. Being gay is something you repress or pray to heal. And if you aren’t healed of it, your faith wasn’t very good to begin with. And your parents are taught in church that if you are gay, it’s because they did something wrong. And your parents, as hard as they try, it breaks their heart that you’re gay. And you go through life, knowing that, even though they love you, you broke their hearts. And their churches don’t offer them comfort and say to them, “You did nothing wrong. You are amazing parents.”

It’s a lot. It’s enough to burden a person’s soul.

I know it must seem like I say the same thing over and over again. I do and I know that I do, but I cut myself some slack because I don’t think I am the only person who has struggled to feel welcome, to feel home. And I know that I have conservative friends in conservative churches that have young LGBT kids in their congregation and it would mean so much to me, if that is you, you could reach out to those kids and tell them how much you are rooting for them. That your church is their home. That they are welcome.

I know that some of you grew up, completely, all the way, house, kids, dogs, vacation home, grew up, but for some of us, childhood never seems very far away. And the people whose approval we wanted most in our youth are the affirmations we seek for the rest of our lives.  And we are all a little broken, all a little weary. And don’t think you can tell someone too many times that they are welcome, because,  maybe the opposite is so ingrained, that it takes a really long time to hear it.

Us Vs. Them

tim-tebowIf you’ve met my Mom, you no doubt love her. She is a sweet little lady with a big heart. She is also a Christian and, like most Christians, she makes her decisions by asking herself, “What would Jesus do?” 

Yesterday, my Mom shared on Facebook something that someone named AskDrBrown posted about Caitlyn Jenner. It was a picture of Tim Tebow, in heroic profile, with the caption, “The people who are applauding Bruce Jenner for ‘being himself’ are the same people who condemned Tim Tebow and told him to ‘keep his beliefs to himself.'” 

Let me be clear, this is not about my Mom and me. I don’t think that she posted this comment about someone in the LGBT community to hurt my feelings. I think that as a Christian she probably feels that the Liberal Left is often persecuting and judging the Religious Right. Certainly this kind of contempt that we see on places like Facebook and Twitter and in the media go both ways.  And I see what she posted as her way of saying, “I am a Christian.” I respect that.

Of course, I thought quite a bit about what she posted all day yesterday. I wrote about it in June, but there is a part of me, that when I see people write negative things about Caitlyn Jenner’s identity, I somehow take it personally. (I’m not saying that kind of sensitivity is a good thing.)

An aside here, I like Tim Tebow. I mean, I certainly don’t know as much about him as I know about, say, Bethenny Frankel, but he seems to me like a decent Christian guy, trying to glorify God in the way he lives his life. He does not go out of his way to say homophobic or transphobic things, that I know of, anyway. And, because I AM gay, I have noticed that he is quite handsome, in my humble opinion.

The thing that I found myself really thinking about yesterday was not my Mother, but this AskDrBrown who originally posted the transphobic/Caitlyn-phobic comment in the first place. It’s a classic effort to polarize the world we live in: Liberals vs. Christians, LGBT vs. Conservatives. While I don’t think my Mother had malice in her repost, I do sense that, for AskDrBrown, cruelty was part of his intent. Why else would he refer to Caitlyn as both “Bruce Jenner” and in the male pronoun? Whether AskDrBrown thinks Caitlyn is going to heaven or not, it’s unkind, heartless, petty, judgemental and provincial to not respect a person’s wishes of how they would like to be addressed. 

I know that, in a way, it truly is Us vs. Them. This social dichotomy is one of the themes that runs through my entire blog. I grew up conservative, identify as liberal in adulthood. I have many people close to me that are big cheerleaders on each side.  Sides exist and probably they are necessary. But I also think that this Us. vs. Them pathology has its problems too. And let me be the first to admit my own guilt.

My 30th high school reunion is coming up next summer. I am planning to attend. I think. I enjoyed our 20 year reunion but back then, none of us were on Facebook, we didn’t know exactly how we all landed politically, and spiritually, and socially. No one had seen pictures of Eric and me at pride festivals. I hadn’t seen pictures of classmates with the deer they just shot. By the time next year’s reunion rolls around, I will probably have a clear handle, from each classmate, about who plans to vote for Hillary, who plans to vote for Bernie, who plans to vote for Jeb and also, yikes, who plans to vote for Trump. Can I really spend an evening or a weekend reminiscing with someone wearing a Trump/Cosby ’16 t-shirt and ball cap? Do my classmates really want to see the choreography I do when Taylor Swift’s Welcome to New York starts playing? Well, I hope so, because WE ARE THE CLASS OF ’86. And we have history and memories and shared laughs and shared tears. We have our differences, yes, but hopefully, for a weekend anyway, we will only focus on what we share. Right?

I hope that a little good can come out of AskDrBrown’s mean spirited Facebook post, and that is that I can be a little kinder, a little less polarizing. We are all in this together, the conservatives, the liberals, the football players, the decathletes, the doctors, the restaurant hosts, the deer hunters, the Meryl Streep superfans, the Kansas moms, the Real Housewives. It is not Us vs. Them, merely We.

Call Me Caitlyn

caitlyn-jenner-boobs-060115I had a hard time falling asleep last night, many things on my mind.  One of the things bouncing around my pea brain was all the turmoil around Caitlyn Jenner that I noticed on Facebook yesterday.  Certainly, she was all over the news on Monday, but it was not until yesterday that I noticed several of my Facebook friends picked up and shared the story about her receiving the Arthur Ashe Courage Award from ESPN.  It wasn’t until later in the day that I understood what had transpired.  After ESPN announced the award’s recipient on Monday, several people suggested that someone named Noah Galloway, an Iraq war veteran, amputee, motivational speaker and Dancing with the Stars contestant, should have won the award.  If you are reading this and think I am only talking about you, please understand I saw several comments from people I know and people I don’t know claiming that Bruce Jenner could not possibly be a hero.

I wrote a little something on my Facebook wall, that I thought it careless and cruel to invalidate Jenner’s experience that because she is not a war veteran, her story has no value. Of course, most of the people who commented hold similar viewpoints as me. A couple of people stated that they did not see Jenner as a hero, which lends the question, what defines a hero anyway?

On Sunday, I was interviewed for a project, which I can’t really say too much about at this point in time. One of the things that came up in this interview was how playing the victim was a recurring storyline in my life. I asked the interviewer, “Why do you think that is?” He suggested that maybe, because I knew even as a child, that if I was gay, I could be rejected by my family and everyone I knew, it might have somehow set a course for my life. It seems incredible to me, but there really are boys and girls growing up today that aren’t taught at an early age, that there is something wrong with who they are in their core. For me, the message I received from church, school, family and peers was clear, do not grow up to be gay. And you know, I’m still a work in progress, but it seems it is possible that that fear of rejection has played a part in my adult refrain of always seeing myself as an outsider, trying to claw my way into acceptance and love.

Bruce Jenner’s story is different than mine, as is Caitlyn’s. One of the things that inspires me about Caitlyn is that she hopes she will be a better person than Bruce was. It inspires me because I have my own moments in my yesterdays that I am ashamed of. I’d like to be a better person in the future than I was in my past. On Monday, I did not think to myself, Call Me Caitlyn. But this morning is a new day. This morning I realized why yesterday’s anti-Caitlyn comments frustrated me. That it took me so long to make the connection is a startling reminder of how slow on the uptake I can be. I am Caitlyn. I am not an Olympic gold medal winner, I am not a reality star, I am not transgender woman, but we are connected. If Caitlyn puts the T in LGBT, goodness knows how much G I put in it. And I love my little umbrella, my L’s, my G’s, my B’s, my T’s. We were all, most of us anyway, just little kids growing up somewhere, afraid that the world would reject us if they knew our secrets.

To be honest, one thing that Caitlyn’s journey has reminded me of is that some of the world will hate you when they find out your secret. But others will lend their support and, if you are strong enough, you will make it. You will thrive. Maybe you will even become a hero. Yes, there might be some disagreement as to whether or not you actually are a hero, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t one.

Leonardo DiCaprio is a

Leonardo-DiCaprio-dans-TitanicIt was December 1997.  I remember it vividly for a couple of reasons.  My parents and I met my brother and my two nephews and niece at Simple Simon’s pizza in Independence.  I was visiting from LA for Christmas and it was to be my one chance to see the kids.  I had been close to them when they were smaller, but as they grew up, it seemed we had less in common.  They were roughly 15, 13, and 11, I believe.  The day before, my parents and I had gone to see Titanic.  I innocently asked the kids if they had seen the movie.  It was December 1997, and if you remember, it was the movie everyone was talking about.

“Leonardo DiCaprio is a fag,” my oldest nephew bellowed. “I hate that fag,” my other nephew agreed.  And that was the beginning of a 15 minute conversation among my two nephews and niece about the sexuality of the most beloved, yet apparently, polarizing heartthrob of 1997.  The boys talked about how they didn’t want to see the movie, because Leonardo was a faggot, a fag, gay.  My niece bragged, “I don’t care if he is a fag, I still love him.”  

I was actually 29 in 1997.  I was newly out to my parents.  My brother said nothing to them to stop them.  He wouldn’t have.  Just a few years before, back when I looked up to him and tried my best to build a relationship with him, his best friend would regularly call me Fag and Gay Ray to my face, in his presence, and he never asked this friend to stop. My parents also did nothing to stop the conversation.  I watched both of them, clearly pained to hear their grandchildren say cruel things about a community of which their youngest son was a member, but they both stared down at their pizza, hoping the conversation would stop.  Eventually, the three started talking about something else on their own.

I’m not sure why this day popped into my head today.  But it’s something I’ve thought about from time to time in the years since it happened.  I think about it whenever the movie comes on television.  I thought about it when Eric and I went to the Titanic exhibit in Las Vegas last summer.  I thought about it the only time I saw Leonardo DiCaprio in person.  (He was with his girlfriend at the time, the insanely gorgeous Bar Refaeli.  I thought to myself, he doesn’t look gay to me.)  I also thought about it when one of my nephews passed away a couple years ago.

I am a forgiving person, I really am.  I still love my nephews and niece, I only wish the best for their lives, but there was a shift after that day.  They were kids, I don’t really know if they were li’l homophobes or just talking the way every other teenager talked, especially in Kansas in 1997.

On that day, I sat there hoping that someone would speak up.  I hoped it would be my brother.  I also hoped it would be my parents, who struggled so much with my sexuality, especially in those early years.  If only one person had just said, “Stop, don’t use that word.  There is no reason to ever call someone that word.”  Of course, looking back, I know who that person should have been: it should have been me.  I should have told my family, “I wish you would not use that word.  I’m gay and words like fag and faggot hurt people’s feelings, specifically, my feelings.”  And if I had, maybe it would have been the beginning of a conversation or an education or a connection.  

By not saying anything, I backed away and I never gave these kids the chance to move forward.  I do not know if they grew up to not like gay people, we’ve never talked about it.

I’m a lucky guy, I know that. I have friends who have been my friends so long that they are family now. And I’m lucky that those friends are actively, vocally, passionately supportive of me and my community. And I’m lucky that I have the relationship that I do with my parents. But when I think about that day, it does still haunt me. If I’d been brave enough to say something, who knows what I might have gained in the long run.