The Differences

 

 A couple of days ago, I spent the afternoon with two friends from Bible college, Heidi and Greg, who were visiting Los Angeles with their teenage children. We walked around Hollywood Boulevard and the Chinese Theatre and eventually made our way over to the La Brea Tar Pits. It was a joy to catch up with old friends and show them around my city.

Now, I know how my blog posts have a tendency to unfold. I tell a story and I say, either the people I am talking about are in the wrong or I’m in the wrong or we were both in the wrong. I’ve read the back log, I know the pattern. And especially when I write about any interaction between the gays and the conservative Christian community, I have a history of pointing fingers. Sometimes my diatribes are late night rants that I second guess in the morning. Other times, it’s something more thoughtful, a gentle nudge of “hey, let’s just look at this, how can we do better?”

Well, let me start by saying, that is not the nature of this particular blog. The hours that we spent together were lovely. I never felt a judgement from Heidi or Greg or their children about my life. The words “lifestyle choice” never came up. 

When we met, they had just come from a tour of Paramount Studios and they told me they got to meet Dot Marie Jones from Glee on the lot and Greg took a picture (or 3) with her. I thought to myself, good for them for wanting to take a picture with not only an out lesbian, but also someone playing a transgendered character on television. I honestly don’t know that every conservative Christian would jump at that photo op, but of course, it honestly moved me that these old friends did.

At one point in our afternoon, Heidi pulled out her ticket from the tour. She wanted to give the ticket to me because the quote on the ticket, credited to Cecil B.Demille, said, “The greatest art in the world is the art of storytelling.” There was a bit of awkwardness because I wasn’t really sure she was giving me the ticket or just showing it to me. And then she wasn’t sure if I really wanted the ticket. And then the ticket became a running joke throughout the rest of our afternoon, a punchline really. 

Heidi was one of my best friends in college. I know this won’t translate, how could it, but Heidi and another friend Sheri and I once went to a weekend conference to Lake of  the Ozarks (as glamorous as it sounds) where the entire time we kept singing this three part harmony song called “I don’t know.” All we did was sing “I don’t know” over and over and over again. Like Michael Row the Boat Ashore with significantly less lyrics. I KNOW, I told you the story wouldn’t translate but it made us laugh all weekend. It made us laugh for weeks and months and years after, too.

While I had friends in high school, I never felt like I was part of a tribe until I went to Bible college.  I just wasn’t skilled at making friends until my time at Ozark. And even though I don’t see life exactly the same way as most of my former classmates do, I still feel a connection to them. 

Tuesday night, even from the moment we said our goodbyes and our cars took us in opposing directions, I felt a little sad. I couldn’t quite name it, we’d had a great time, laughed a lot. There was still a connection, I concluded. We still have things in common. They are still the loving people I remember and I could tell, they are raising their teenagers to be loving, interesting, sharp-witted adults, too. I didn’t feel like their icky gay friend. (Note to self, HBO series pitch or perhaps just a great Katy Perry song: My Icky Gay Friend.) 

So, if they didn’t do anything wrong and FOR ONCE, I didn’t do anything wrong, why did I feel melancholy? 

It has occurred to me before, that I have spent my entire life feeling I need to explain myself. When I was a fervent, Evangelical high school and college student, there were always people who asked, “Why are you such a Bible beater?” When I came out of the closet, for years, I had people question why I would choose to be gay or choose to live the gay lifestyle. Even still, I get asked versions of that same question. I assume that, to some extent, I will contend with that for the rest of my days.

As I drove home, and later that night, I imagined the conversation Heidi and Greg might have had about me. That it was great to see me (I hope), that I’m not so gray or wrinkled or overweight that I’m no longer recognizable as the Ray they remember. But also, I imagined a sigh, and then, “He’s so special, I just wish he still loved Jesus.” In my mind, I did not imagine a judgement, merely a wish that I might still be a part of the club, or even better, the tribe, they are still a part of. 

As much as we will always have things in common, there will also, always, be differences. And that’s okay. Really, it is.

I’ve thought about that Paramount Studios tour ticket a lot since Tuesday. I did keep it. It sits on my desk now and when I look at it, I smile. This morning I saw that Heidi posted a pic of us with it, joking about my tepid reaction, and it tickled me. Nearly 30 years later, she still makes me laugh.

I always wonder how people see me, too much so.  I know. But I have to remember to think it without overthinking it. That maybe Heidi doesn’t think of me as gay or Christian or not Christian or lost or found, forgiven or I don’t know. Maybe she just thinks of me as a storyteller.

And she is part of my story, as I am part of hers.

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The Books We Read In College

irv0-002I am reading a book right now that I’m not really in love with.  All of the characters are unlikeable and it’s set in New York in 2001 and I know something catastrophic is getting ready to happen and I look forward to it, because, like I said, I hate all of the characters.  

One of the characters was an English major in college, she says at one point that she looks at the books on her shelves and realizes that she read them in college but can’t remember anything about them.  I pondered for a moment about the books I read in Bible college. From the entire four years there, between assigned and pleasure reading, I only remember one book definitively.

If you and I have talked books, you might even know how much I love this book.  It’s a “like” on my Facebook wall.  I’ve read it now 3 or 4 times, but you always remember your first.  I don’t remember when I started John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.  It must have been over Christmas break of my senior year.  I came back to school a few weeks early to go to some kind of convention that was being held on campus.  I loved the feeling of walking around campus with 30% of its usual population.  And everywhere I went, I carried A Prayer for Owen Meany with me.  I ate lunches in the cafeteria by myself, just me and the book.  I don’t remember a single thing anyone talked about at that convention, but I remember that book.  My roommate had not yet arrived for the spring semester and every night I stayed up late reading.

On one of those nights, I stayed awake later than usual, so committed, so spellbound.  I measured the bulk of  the remaining pages in my hand, questioning whether I should turn in and finish the next day or keep going.  I kept going.  And then I finished.  If I tried hard enough, I could probably explain to you why the book resonated so deeply with me, it’s about unconventional people, it’s about complicated relationships with religion, it takes place in New England (and Canada).  There is also something about the ending, the theme of fulfilling the perceived will of God, that spoke to the 21 year old version of me on his final chapter of undergraduate life at a Bible college.

All this is to say that I remember this vividly, that the moment I read the last line of A Prayer for Owen Meany,  “O God—please bring him back! I shall keep asking You,” I shut the book and started weeping.  I lay on my little dorm super single bed with a royal blue Montgomery Ward bedspread and wept for poor dead Owen Meany and broken John Wheelwright and John Irving for being so brilliant and for me, preparing to go into the real world and not feeling equipped to do so.  And I cried until I was done and then I wiped my tears and put the book on my shelf, took off my glasses and went to sleep.

And right now, just thinking about that experience, that kinship, I am there in that January in Missouri cold dorm room, under those covers, reading a book about the world out there, beyond Joplin.

If you’ve read this far, you are probably on your own journey, thinking about that book or maybe two that you read at that time, such an impressionable time.  And you felt like John Irving or maybe Alice Hoffman or maybe Armistead Maupin or maybe James Joyce had written something specifically, singularly just for you.  And what a gift, when you think about it: you will carry that book with you forever, wherever you go.

I Look to You

Whitney Houston I LOOK TO YOUI thought about Whitney Houston a lot this month.  I remember the day she died quite vividly.  February 11, 2012.  I was on my computer that Saturday afternoon and the news popped up on Yahoo.  I had been at work, just a few blocks away from the Beverly Hilton when she died.  I do not know of a celebrity death that has affected me more.  I loved Whitney Houston.

Her music was part of the soundtrack of my formative years,. I remember watching MTV in hopes that they’d play the How Will I Know video and then dancing to it, alone in my room. There was also something about her story that resonated with me: she was a church girl. She grew up in the church and sang in the church and talked about her faith in interviews.

Not surprisingly, she was a polarizing topic at my Bible college. Her albums had songs about faith sandwiched between songs about infidelity or sexual longing. I remember belting out I Wanna Dance with Somebody in my ’79 Monte Carlo on those long drives from Joplin to Independence to visit my parents.

Like many of our first loves, somewhere along the way, I lost track of Whitney. I saw The Bodyguard, of course and had a boyfriend give me a cd single of I Believe in You and Me. (As it turned out, he did not.) But somewhere between 1991 and 2012, I stopped buying Whitney’s music.

And then she died. And I started listening to her all over again. I bought the greatest hits collection on iTunes and I found this song that she released shortly before her death.

As a chubby, awkward, gay boy growing up in Kansas, I would stare at the picture of Whitney on the cover of her first album and think, “She’s just so pretty!” And then, after her passing, I found myself staring at the cover of her last album, I Look to You in a similar way. She was still so beautiful, of course, but her face gave some indication of the struggles that she had endured, the struggles that she had seemingly overcome.
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Whitney Houston had her demons. She had this voice and face and look that was a gift from God, but there were things that she struggled with. And as much as I loved her because of her beauty, I think I understood her because of her weaknesses. I have demons myself. Some you know about, others I hope you never know about.

I love this video. As someone who grew up in church, it’s a plea from the broken to a merciful God. At the end of the day, whether we are Grammy winners or restaurant hosts, we all need a little help. So, if you have a few minutes, have a watch and listen. And don’t be too judgmental about your own brokenness, because at the end of the day, we are all the same: the lost looking for a cause, the weak looking for strength and the melody-less looking for a song.

Charlene

italian-food-cultureThe summer between my junior and senior year in Bible college, I interned at a church in Syracuse, New York. It was my first experience living far from home and I loved it, but this story is not about the summer, it’s merely about one of the characters I met in Syracuse.  Her name was Charlene and she was in her fifties, she was Kathy Bates mixed with Margo Martindale and a dash of Rue McClanahan thrown in for good measure.  She was a member of the congregation and had an infectious laugh and warm heart.  She worked as a caregiver for an elderly woman and she lived in that woman’s home.  Years, later, when I read  Stephen King’s Delores Claiborne, I thought about Charlene and the tales she told me working a similar job.

In the first weeks of my internship, Charlene came up to me at church and told me she wanted to take me to lunch after the service.  She took me to an Italian restaurant and told me to order anything on the menu that I wanted.  She made sure I ordered an appetizer (fried ravioli) and a huge entrée (lasagna) and a dessert (death by chocolate) and even asked me if I wanted to order wine.  “It’s okay if you want some wine, I won’t tell anyone.”  I resisted, though I’ll tell you now, I was a bit tempted.  The reason this meal lingers in my memory was the generosity with which it was offered.  She wanted me to eat like a king.  She told me not to worry about how expensive the meal was, it was something she wanted to do.  

She took me to this Italian restaurant two or three times that summer.  If she had an ulterior motive, it never surfaced.  I believed then and believe even more now, that she just wanted to do something nice for another person.  It wasn’t until years later that I realized what a sacrifice these meals must have been for her.  She did not even have her own apartment, merely a room in her employer’s house.  She did not drive a new car, I don’t think she had a bountiful 401k. Now, of course, I am much closer to Charlene’s age than to the age of the boy, sitting there stuffing his face with fried ravioli.  (It was good.)  I’m certainly not as economically set as I’d like to be and some nights, I lie in bed worrying about my financial future.

A few months later, in December of that year, I had an opportunity to do something nice for someone. In fact the someone in question was Charlene, she had quit her job and moved to Joplin to go to Ozark Christian College. While there were things she liked about the environment, I believe that being a 50-something non-traditional student living in dorms in an ultra conservative part of the country bore its share of challenges. But she was beloved on campus for her wit, kindness, and unfiltered opinions. At Christmas time, she did not have enough money to go home to Syracuse for the break. She couldn’t afford a plane ticket. It so happened, I had a $400 voucher from whatever airline I flew home on in August (I’d been bumped from my flight.) For months, I’d dreamed about how I would use that voucher. The day I talked to Charlene and she told me she wasn’t going home, I must say, it pained me a little when the idea of giving my voucher to her came into my mind. I thought about it for a day or so, and then I decided I’d let her use my voucher. (These were the days when vouchers were transferrable.) I’ll never forget how excited Charlene was when we drove to the airport to buy the ticket. She was so grateful. It’s 25 years later, I still don’t regret my decision. Whatever trip I could have taken would never have had the value that it did for Charlene.

It’s kind of obnoxious that I’m telling you, bragging sort of, about an act of kindness that I committed so long ago. If I was truly humble, I wouldn’t share that part of the story, but the big reason I share the story is, I think generosity does not come naturally for many of us. Or at least it doesn’t come naturally for me. It’s something I have to work on, cultivate.
And yet, if generosity was something that Charlene struggled with, I never saw it.

So, now that I am a drinking man, I can raise my wine glass to toast a wonderful woman. Wherever you are, Charlene, you taught me a lesson in kindness that I will never forget.

Fuzzy Navel

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When friends talk about all the keggers they attended during their college years, I always feel not a lot, but a little jealous. My Bible college did not condone drinking alcoholic beverages, it was cause for expulsion. I didn’t really think about it a lot, I didn’t pine for Chardonnay (then). I accepted the rules and believe me, my friends and I still had a lot of fun.

But then there was one night. I think it was my senior year. Two of my friends and I were hanging out, I don’t remember what we were doing, maybe walking around Northpark mall, or getting frozen yogurt at TCBY, I don’t know. But one of us, out of the blue, suggested we go drink fuzzy navels. Was it me? Maybe. There is at least a 33% chance it was my idea.

My friends, I will never reveal their names, not even now, agreed that it sounded like fun. We discussed the if’s, the how’s, the why’s, the when’s. We decided we would do it. “What the hay?!?!” So we drove to a liquor store and I bought a fifth of peach schnapps and then we drove to Dillons and bought a half gallon of Orange Juice. Then we drove around Joplin looking for a spot to drink our fuzzy navels. If I recall correctly, and I’m not saying I do recall correctly, we parked on a quiet road on the outskirts of town. And we made our drinks, probably the three weakest fuzzy navels ever made. In retrospect, I wonder what we drank out of? Did we have ice? Some details I don’t remember, but I do remember we giggled as we sipped our drinks, conjecturing about who had the most to lose if we got caught by cops. We felt like the sons (and daughter) of anarchy. “I think I’m drunk.” “Me too.” More giggles.

After about an hour of this raucous heck-raising, we hightailed it home, promising each other we’d take our story to the grave. Yes, in a way, I’m breaking that promise, but like I said, I’m not naming names.

So, in a way, we were typical college students, sowing our wild oats, or more accurately, wild oat. It was the only time I ever drank in college. Clearly, I’m not ashamed, but I am glad it was an isolated event. If it happened more than once, it wouldn’t hold in my memory the same special way. And even still, when I read or hear about a fuzzy navel, I think of those two friends, and I certainly hope the same goes for them.

My Mother is Irrepressible

Irrepressible
This post is not about my mother, although to be honest, she is a little irrepressible. When I was a freshman at Bible college, my favorite class was (no surprise here) English Comp. It was taught by a woman who was effortlessly chic, no small feat for a professor at a small Midwestern Bible college campus. I remember writing my first paper hoping, praying that I would impress her with my writing. This post isn’t about her, either.

I remember the first day that that professor stood in front of us with graded papers in hand. She told us that she was going to read the best paper from that particular assignment, the best out of all of her classes. She told us the name of the student, a girl who was in a different class, a girl named Katie Bunton. She wrote a paper entitled “My Mother is Irrepressible.” Mrs. Stark raved about how well-crafted it was, how she’d she started with the line, my mother is irrepressible and then told story after story about this woman, ending each story with that same refrain.

I remember listening to Mrs. Stark read the essay, thinking, argh! I wish I’d written something as good as that. I didn’t even use words like irrepressible. I can tell you now, I was a little jealous of this Katie Bunton and I did seek her out to tell her about the way Jackina Stark raved about her composition. I don’t remember what I wrote about, but I do remember “My Mother is Irrepressible.” You might be surprised by how many times that phrase has popped into my head in the last 25 years, partly because I aspire to be irrepressible. Most days, I am about the most repressible person you will find.

This Katie Bunton went on to marry a guy who is now the president of my Bible college, Matt Proctor. They have six (SIX!) kids and I’m sure it’s tricky juggling motherhood and a fairly high-profile ministry. If you are reading this and you have ties to Ozark, you might know that the last few months have had the added chaos of dealing with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Not long ago, she posted something on the OCC Facebook wall about how they’d nicknamed her cancer Jezebel. Of course, I thought about that essay from all those years ago, the musings of a 19-year-old girl talking about her mother, who was probably roughly the age that we are now.

I doubt that Katie Bunton will ever read my blog. To say that our lives have taken wildly divergent paths is an understatement. Sometimes, when life presents challenges, we harken back to the simpler times in our life when what grade we got on an English composition was our most pressing worry. Well, Katie, if you read this, I know you’re still that irrepressible girl who wrote about her irrepressible mother. I know that irrepressibility has served you and continues to serve you. And yes, vainglorious fool that I am, I still wish I’d been as smart as to write something as indelible as “My Mother is Irrepressible.”

The Truth About Paul

sc000bcfb9Today I read an article that a friend posted on Facebook about Daniel Dobson, the son of a prominent evangelical minister coming out as a gay Christian.  The person who posted the article is someone with whom I attended Bible college.  Most of you know that I graduated from Bible college, Ozark Christian College, in Joplin, Missouri, to be specific.  I entered in the fall of 1986 with a prayer that if I went to Bible college, God might help me not be gay.  I spent four years there and even still, I consider that period among the most formative of my lifetime.  There were many things I loved about Bible college.  I loved my friends, we laughed A LOT.  We prayed a lot and the spirit of the campus lent itself naturally to intimate relationships.  I myself have been out of the closet now for over 20 years and I still maintain friendships (thank you, Facebook!) with many of these people.

Reading about this Daniel Dobson made me harken back to my time at Ozark Christian College.  There was an incident that occured in my junior year that I will never forget.  There was a non-traditional student whom I’ll call Paul Fielding who was in his 30’s.  We were not close friends, but I liked him and I thought he was a funny guy.  One day, mid-semester, there was a rumor floating around campus that Paul had cancer and that he’d left immediately to go home to a state that was 1500 miles away from Missouri.  The next day, in several classes, teachers mentioned Paul’s illness and prayers were made.  In chapel (we had chapel services every Tuesday and Thursday) either the president or the dean of students made a special announcement about Paul’s cancer and again, a long prayer was made.  There was much talk of Paul’s illness, asking God for healing.  We never saw Paul again.

A few months later, I asked my friend whom I’ll call Matthew if he had spoken to Paul and if he knew how his cancer treatment was going.  Matthew and Paul had been good friends.  Matthew told me that Paul was doing well.  Then he asked me if I could keep a secret and  I said, “Of course, I can keep a secret!”  He then proceeded to tell me that Paul did not have cancer at all and he’d been expelled from Ozark for going to a gay bar.  (This is a gay bar??? I’m leaving just as soon as I finish my LEMON DROP!!)  He continued to tell me, and I must admit to the details being a little fuzzy, that he got caught by another student who was a prominent figure on campus, a performer in the college’s premier singing group who walked into the bar, saw Paul, got scared, went to school authorities, and ratted Paul out.  This other character, I’ll call him Luke, did not get expelled, although he was removed from the college’s premier singing group.  

When I meet people, I always assume that they assume that I’m gay.  I wear pink, I gesture a lot with my hands, I’m not above belting a Whitney tune.  I am a Chardonnay drinking, VW driving, bruschetta eating, 2(x)ist underwear wearing, Rupaul’s Drag Race watching gay stereotype.  It’s hard to remember a time when my biggest fear was someone finding out that I liked guys.  There were guys on campus that I suspected of being gay and I always kept my distance from them.  I remember the dean of students was a little mean to me and I thought it was because he knew what I knew and what I was afraid everyone knew.  So much torment over something I had no control over.

I still have so many questions about the entire Paul Fielding incident.  Were they cruel or compassionate when they asked him to leave? Who came up with the idea that the entire college faculty replace the word cancer for homosexuality every time they referred to Paul?  Isn’t that lying?  Did any faculty member consider going rogue with a “Guys, we should just tell the student body the truth!”? Did the school ever reach out to Paul in the aftermath?  Did Luke ever feel like an asshole for ratting Paul out?  Did Paul ever come to terms with his sexuality?  Does Luke still wrestle with his sexuality?  Would the event play out the same way if it happened today? And most importantly, why do I still care about this incident so much, 25 years after the fact?  

I do think I know the answer to the last one.  When I learned about about Paul’s eviction, my first thought was a fear that if anyone ever found out the truth about me, I would have not a place.  I would have been shipped off, written off with a cursory prayer.  In the matter of days, there was no more room for Paul at Ozark.  The thought of being kicked out terrified me.  Apparently it still terrifies the subconscious me because about every six months I have a dream that I’m in college and the administration has found out I’m gay and they’re expelling me.  So, well, make of that what you will.

I do have a few things I wish I could say to that 20 year old me who was sitting in his friend’s dorm room finding out the truth about Paul while struggling with his own sexuality.  Chiefly, it’s going to be okay.  You will become the person you feared becoming and you will be okay, better than okay.  Your life will be full of joy.  Your life will be full of love.  There will be a place for you.  You will have friends that will always be there for you.  And you will no longer wear that Coca-Cola shirt that you think you look so cute in.