A funny kind of love

His invitation to celebrate Thanksgiving pulls me up short. I read it again, then once more, then squint at it and read it aloud. “We would love to have anyone—everyone!” It’s from my one-year-younger brother. He posts it to the private Facebook group for members of our extended family.
But he doesn’t mean it, not the way it sounds. Anyone, everyone? He can’t mean it that way. He’s inviting my husband Dave and me to Thanksgiving dinner?
It’s been years since Judas (not his real name) and I spoke to each other. He leaves my occasional letters unanswered. Except for funerals, he boycotts family events to which I am invited. Not that there are many. I’m the black sheep of our family. The rest of the flock is afraid I shed. They don’t want dark ringlets of wool all over the davenport. They take their cues from our Bible-thumping brother. He preaches in the type of church we five siblings were raised in—one that excludes gay people from fellowship.
His invitation reads like the title of a children’s sermon: “Thumper Invites Black Sheep for Thanksgiving Dinner.” Has he lost his mind? Or has he changed it?
I’m guilty of pickling in formaldehyde people I haven’t seen for years. I expect high school friends to look just the way they did when last I left them, and to hold the same opinions and beliefs. I expect my favorite college professor to appear in a wrinkled green suit with a narrow black tie, rap his knuckles on the table as he talks to me. I’m surprised almost every time I reconnect. People have moved on in my absence, grown more wrinkled, wiser and dear.
What if Judas did have a change of heart, does indeed mean to invite me for Thanksgiving? Ooh, that will upset my applecart. I’ve convinced myself I am the bigger (and better) person because I reach out to him from time to time, am willing to overlook his offenses. But it’s easy to be noble in a party of one. Maybe he’s calling my bluff.
I could ask him if “anyone—everyone” includes me. Sure, I could. But do I want to? He testified against me at my child custody and divorce hearing. Do I want to open myself to outright rejection again? And what if he says “Yes, come on over.” Do I want to sit down to table with him?Nov-0W-3-bw-vignette
But maybe we could build bridges, set an example for the wider family, recapture some of what we had as kids—those long talks when we were supposed to be asleep, when we were marooned in the wild cherry tree, closeted in the clubhouse in the garage’s rafters.
I email him privately, keep my tone neutral, my words few: “May Dave and I join you for Thanksgiving Day?” I leave it at that.
So does he.
A month passes. His silence rankles. What do I want? Not for him to change. There will be no miracles here. I want common courtesy, the decency of a reply.
My follow-up email elicits a direct response, a first in over 15 years. For this alone I am grateful. Judas writes to inform me that no, I am not welcome in his home; the invitation was not family-wide. He’s doing what he believes God wants from him. He’s sure I am doing what I feel is best. He signs off by twice saying he loves me.
A funny kind of love, this, wrapped in religion and dubious convictions.
But some of my own convictions are suspect: Chickens are the most intelligent life form on the planet; Horseradish is the secret to the good life; When in doubt, sing.
So my brother says he loves me. Well, well. I happen to think love is our only hope. I’d like to believe it is enough.

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A prayer to the god of new beginnings

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True to its deep nature, again this spring the world burst into bloom all around the farmhouse where Dave and I live. A small woods borders our house on two sides. In drear months we see the houses north of us. Come spring, however, the trees begin to green. First, soft yellow-green fuzz and a smattering of sea foam on the woodland floor. Then we go to bed on one night and wake up to windows shuttered with leaves a hundred shades of green. Bye, bye, neighbors. See you in November.

Meanwhile, we feast our eyes on an ever-changing array of color. My retiree husband has a green thumb. (Mine’s flame orange; I manage to kill even cacti.) Dave has fashioned garden spots across our yard, filled each bed with perennials that bloom variously throughout the growing season. Something flowers from early spring to late fall. Weekdays, if the weather is decent, we lunch outside when I come home over the noon hour.

June 6 this year marked the thirtieth anniversary of my wedding a woman, and the start of a long chain of events set in motion by this decision. My mood was somber, my thoughts heavy that Thursday through the egg salad sandwiches, carrot and celery sticks, and chocolate cake Dave had prepared. Our shared meal over, I nosed the car onto the road. A moment later I braked, stopped waving goodbye and instead beckoned for Dave to come look. Smack dab in the middle of the road stood two newborn fawns. Little dinky things, no bigger than a minute. Brown and caramel-colored, their sides dotted with rows of white. Spindly legs, big eyes and ears. Their mother stood at attention on the other side of our farm gate, head held high, ears forward.

I watched a long while, then eased the car forward; I had to get back to work. The twin fawns ran toward the gate. One edged up alongside the fence; the other panicked and stopped in the clear, threw its legs akimbo and tried to bury its nose in the dirt. I slid by, marveling all the while. One can live long in such moments, witness to wonder.

So. When I went out to feed the chickens the other morning I found two sparrow hatchlings fluttering against a windowpane in the barn. Their parents had made a nest in the rafters near the poultry quarters. These young’ns had tried their wings, knew enough to want the blue freedom of sky, but hadn’t mastered the trick of flying up to the opening at the top of the window frame. I thought they might scatter at my approach, but they they stayed put. I raised the glass. One immediately flew out and perched on a low branch. The other beat against the pane even as it lifted. Exhausted, the little bird finally dropped to the sill, found open the way of escape. It landed on the ground in the tall grass. I listened to the two of them twittering.

I breathed a prayer to the god of headlong flight and new beginnings. “May you fare well,” I said aloud and thought of the dozen or more gay men whose coming out I have been privileged to witness. For me, there is no moment so holy, no movement so fraught with portent as when one is coming in/out to oneself, saying “yes” to what is, to life, to wholeness and being. Facing the unknown, answering a call deep within, no guarantee of success, but a decision nonetheless to live true, real.

May we all be so brave and responsive. May we all in season answer the call to burst forth, wobble, run, spread wings, perhaps even fly.

This essay appears in the July issue of The Community Letter

Photo credit: bigpenguin2000@flckr.com

Pride Day in the Midwest: in a word, DIVINE

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Getting to Pride this year took some doing for my husband Dave and me. A late-late-night drive home after a school reunion hours north on Friday, an early morning, then the hour-and-a-half drive south on Saturday. The parade had already kicked off when we arrived. We criss-crossed streets to head it off at the pass, catch as much as we could. 

What’s the deal with Pride, anyway? Sure, I go because we are F-A-M-I-L-Y and this is our statewide reunion. And you betcha, I go to drool over the sexy men. But more, I go looking for God at Pride. Really. Or almost really.

Earth’s crammed with heaven, says the poet, and I suspect she’s right. You can run into the holy most anywhere. Some people claim to find the ineffable in church, others in nature, in an empty bottle, a hot body. A box. Many places.

Me, I see the divine at work in the union of opposites. In the allegedly impossible flight of the bumblebee. Every year in the turn of seasons—even as the world dies a wintry death, new life springs forth. In moments so beautiful, so perfect, they hurt. Times when love means everything and nothing at the same time. When what looks to be an ending proves a beginning. It’s an old old story. The god dies; the god lives; in dying the god lives forever. Blessed be.

Not knowing any different, I intuited my coming out gay as a holy moment, imagined I was standing on sacred ground. Looking back now, I think if ever I lived in the tension of paradox it was then. I was 34, 35 years old at the time, yet I was newborn. It was all over for me; it was only getting started. One day I was exuberant; the next, ready to kill myself. My life was falling apart around me even as it was at last coming together. It was nothing I had done, yet my wife, church, friends, parents, colleagues pointed (or flipped) the finger at me, said it was all my selfish fault.

It was a crazy mixed-up time. Nothing made sense, or if one thing did, it was that nothing does. I caught a glimpse of the big picture with all the clarity of one going over a cliff; what I saw was my feeble attempts at orchestrating life made the least sense of all. Says Annie Dillard, “we are most deeply asleep at the switch when we fancy we control any switches at al

Oy. I so often reduce people, issues and situations to a series of toggle switches. On or off. This or that. Night or day. Male, female. Gay, straight. Yes, no; us, them; right, wrong. Hot, not. Every once in a while I wake up to what I’m doing and remember earth’s crammed with paradox. Life’s less an either/or proposition, more a both/and.

Both/And? Damn. If it were up to me, I’d have some moments last forever, others I’d squish between my fingers and rub out of existence. Same with people. To embrace the whole of life is to embrace both pleasure and pain, longing and fulfillment, love and loss. And who can do that?

Yet the mystery of life drags us in this very direction. All is one. Mitakuye oyasin. We’re all related, all one family, all one flesh, all one single metaphysical truth.

Across the globe this month, LGBT persons and their allies celebrate what it means to be gay at this present moment, honor those who have come before, look ahead to what is to come. They gather to march and demonstrate, party and celebrate. In a very public way. With joyous abandon. In over the top display.

Pride celebrations bring together people from across the LGBTIQ alphabet soup spectrum, uniting opposites and in-betweens in one glorious if all too short-lived spectacle. I took in the Pride festivities in our Midwest state capital this year and gaped slack-jawed at the creativity, daring and diversity of our community. I marveled at the sheer number of people present. Where do they come from? Where will they disappear to? Like me, many returned to small towns and regular jobs, to lives of quiet courage, to being themselves in a less-than-embracing world.

We are family, and for one full fabulous day this June I experienced it. I embraced the walking contradictions all around and within me. And in the paradox of their being one —our being one—I glimpsed the divine. Such sightings sustain. The flags furled, music silent, the crowds gone home, Dave and I were almost home. As we drove up our country road, ankle-high corn in the field to our left, beans popping up to our right, he turned to me and said, “you know, after spending the day at Pride, I feel less lonely.”

Photo credit: Ryan Ready (rufin_ready at flickr.com)

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the June issue of The Community Letter

An open letter to my friend, on his being outted

Dear one,

I grew up on the farm and was this unschooled: I didn’t know a post-pubescent boy needed to bathe every day in order to be welcomed in polite society. You pulled me aside and had a talk with me about the matter. You were kind, nonjudgmental, and to the point. “We must accommodate to our surroundings,” you said, and excused me to go take a shower. My face burned as I left.

Although you taught me, mentored me, worked with me over the next few years, we never spoke of this incident again. We discussed many other subjects. I’d ask a question; you’d pause and take a breath as if the matter required oxygenated thought. Then you’d twist your mouth a little to the side and deliver a considered, witty, impassioned response with the kind of nervous energy that characterized everything you did. You were an odd duck. Bold wardrobe choices, fussy personality, fluttery hand movements. Mannerisms today I’d describe as “queeny.”

Thing is, I think we were more alike than either one of us wanted to know. I think we were both striving mightily to remain unaware of our sexual orientation. I moved away, eventually married. You sent a gift when my first child arrived. We stayed in touch, saw each other every once in a while. I found reasons to ask your help on various projects.

Once, after telling me a good friend of yours is gay, you made a statement that struck me as peculiar: “Of course, I’m always very careful whenever I’m around him and we’re alone.” I gave it little thought at the time. Now it seems telling.

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When I came out as a gay man, I was kicked out of my church, marriage, job. No place for me in polite society. You and many other former friends were conspicuous by your absence.

I have my own theory about why you were silent. I’d love for you to correct me if I’m wrong. Here’s my take on it: like me, you grew up in a society and religious milieu that taught gay persons were criminal, depraved, sinful creatures who’d crawled out of some black lagoon. Like me, you repressed and suppressed same-sex attractions. Like me, you turned to church and religion as salve and salvation. Like me, you kept it all out of sight, out of mind until the day you couldn’t do it any more. Like me, you took tentative steps toward learning more, leaning further into territory you’d always considered forbidden.

And then you were found out.

Way I heard it, you left incriminating images open on your office computer. The cleaning crew spotted them, reported you. You’d long worked for a church-related organization, very religious, very conservative, very small town.

“We don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’re going to do something,” your employer said. This on a Friday. You had the weekend to think about it. You knew well enough what would happen—you’d lose your job, marriage, church, friends, your standing in the community.

You didn’t show up for work on Monday.

They tell me there is a moment of euphoria as a person drowns, when all is bliss and joy. I hope you found it. I hope you experienced relief and release. I hope you relaxed into one long moment when all was well, you were acceptable, had nothing to hide, no one to hide from, no one to harm you.

From a pew at your funeral,  I listened as the preacher said, “We don’t know why he chose to take his own life.”

I wanted to stand up and shout, “The hell we don’t!” But I kept mum.  We must accommodate to our surroundings.

I used to believe the coming out process, though painful, ultimately liberates. Your fate is not my idea of freedom, your baptism not my preferred mode of salvation.

 

This letter appeared in the May issue of The Community Letter
photo credit: Ephemeral Scraps at flickr.com

Knot what you believe. Not at all.

Had you even turned 20, Andrew, before you took to heart your church’s teachings on same-sex attraction? Before you took the rope in hand, snaked it up and over the beam, slipped the knotted noose around your neck? What could you know of death, of life?

Researchers say that for many people, five minutes or less pass between their making the decision to end it all and making the attempt. Was yours a snap decision, made when you learned your mother had discovered your secret? Or had you been toying with the idea of suicide all along? I can imagine you worrying it like a loose tooth, pushing it back and forth in your mind as I did, weighing its merits as a way of reconciling your being gay with your strongly held religious beliefs.

Seductive, the idea that death would end the pain and torment, free you from never being good enough, from knowing that who you were at the very deepest level was flawed, dirty, sick, beyond redemption. Not that you didn’t try. Not that you didn’t pray. Not that you didn’t fast and flagellate yourself and exercise all you knew of faith. But God did not answer your prayers, relieve your suffering or take away your persistent attractions. And you got the message in countless ways from parents and peers, church and society, that same-sex desire is wrong, shameful, depraved.

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You learned to make the hangman’s noose in Royal Ambassadors, the Southern Baptist knock-off of the Boy Scouts. Did you approach knot-tying with the same fervor you brought to religion? Did you do it well enough that yours was a quick death? From what I read, it’s easy to bungle hanging oneself. The resultant death by strangulation can be excruciating. Three months ago in Oregon an openly gay 15-year-old who’d complained of being bullied hung himself on the school playground. He died two weeks later, after being taken off life support. I can’t imagine his parents’ pain. Nor his. Nor yours.

I remember mine. Morning of my 35th birthday I wrote a suicide note to my wife and young sons. I had a plan. Had tested it. Knew it would work. I’d had all I could take. Believed my death would be best for my wife and children. Soon as they left for town, I was going to take my leave, as well. Like you, I could in no way reconcile my religious beliefs with who I had discovered myself to be.

You directed your last prayer heavenward. “What did I do that was so wrong?” you cried in anguish, tears wetting your face. “Why can’t you love me?” Then you turned and took up the long white rope.

Although I didn’t see you die, I did hear your mother’s scream when she found your body. The entire theatre audience did. Many of us sat there in silence, stunned. Some of us wiped our eyes. We grieved your death—you who only ever lived in our imaginations.

You’re a fictional character, Andrew. In a play. You die every time Dell Shore’s Southern Baptist Sissies is presented. Though you’re a work of fiction, you’re an all too real stand-in for LGBTQ youth across this country, across this world, who every day face disparaging messages from friends, family, religious systems and societal institutions.

Suicide isn’t the answer. Killing yourself resolves nothing. If it’s death we need, it’s the death of small thinking, entrenched prejudice, bigotry and hatred. And it’s happening all around us, due to quite natural causes. Even conservative pundit George Will sees it. “Quite literally, the opposition to gay marriage is dying,” he told ABC television’s “This Week.” “It’s old people.”

Younger people support gay and lesbian equality in far greater numbers than do their elders. Change is coming, Andrew. A new wind is blowing. I wish you were here to experience it.

This essay appeared in the April issue of The Community Letter

An open letter to my niece on her coming out

My dear woman,

You can’t imagine the excitement with which your coming out letter was read aloud in our house. Or maybe you can, you who received the cheers of your church youth group when they got the news. We’re excited. Not because there’s strength in numbers (there is) and one more lgbtiq person has joined the family (you have), but because the benefits of your living out of self-awareness are many, and we’ll all feel them: you, your immediate family, these two uncles of yours, those in your circles of influence.

May you go far. I spent years flailing in repression and denial, trying to move forward through life. I might as well have been swimming the 100-meter breast stroke in mud. How much further and faster you’ll progress buoyed by self-awareness and self-knowledge, carried forward by a societal current moving towards inclusion. The impact of the decisions you’ll make, of the support, advocacy, love and nurturing you’ll offer the world will be amplified many times over.

Holy ground, this coming out. Sacred space, the paths by which we come to know ourselves and share who we are—the stuff we are made of—with others.

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Not that being aware, not that being out will free you from hardship, heartache, despair. Life will bring these your way no matter what. But you will be better prepared to meet the challenges head-on, with eyes open.

Your coming out reminds me how far we as a society have progressed and how far we have to go. I was 35 when I came out. In 1995, 22 states had laws on the book that made of us criminals, that defined our expressions of physical intimacy as illegal acts. Mainline religious bodies condemned us to hell. True, the American Psychological Association had removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses while I was in high school, yet my wife readily secured the services of a counselor with a reputation for turning gay men straight, and a medical practitioner who claimed to be able to do the same. Didn’t work.

Soon after I came out to my best friend, he approached the president of the small evangelical Christian liberal arts university where I was employed. “Did you know you have a gay man on your staff?” my friend asked.

“Stop right there,” said the college president. “I don’t want to hear any more.” I was grateful for his unwillingness to discuss the matter.

Yet look who’s talking now.

Two days before your letter arrived in our mailbox, the president of these United States referenced the gay rights movement in his second inaugural address. He enfolded it into the larger American story of the struggle for human rights, referencing in one breath Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall. President Obama rattled some cages when he said, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law; for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

To hear our struggle given voice, our journey made visible, our lives accorded value, all from so elevated a platform—what a launching pad for your coming out. You’ll not be swimming in mud, girl.

All the same, you’ll face some people who will sling dirt your way. Last night, on a long drive home, your Uncle Dave flipped through radio channels. He listened in on a long harrangue about the evils of homosexuality and the subversive influence of gay people. Such voices still pepper our airwaves. May their words not lodge in your heart.

By countless acts of courage and resolve—undertaken in love, anger, sorrow and joy—lgbt pioneers made it possible for all of us who have followed to witness and work for an ever-rising tide of acceptance and appreciation, to continue to call for change. I’m so excited to cheer you on in this journey, to wonder what chapters you and your generation will add to this ongoing story. With your coming out letter you’ve turned the first page.

With love to you, from your

Uncle Bryn

This essay appeared in the April issue of The Community Letter

Stunning the Blond God

From what I am told, I map the geography of his upper body. A faint trail leads southward from the oasis of navel. Northward, the ridgeline runs through a ripple of abs to where well-defined pecs rise up, capped by salmon-brown peaks of aureole and nipple.

Strong neck, square jaw, stubbled chin. Lips full in the flower of youth. Dusting of moustache, unapologetic nose, blue blue eyes. Windblown bangs drift across his forehead. What in his upbringing could prepare him to fathom his own beauty?

He recently came out to himself after growing up in a conservative, homophobic religious tradition. His rugged good looks and generous endowment garner attention, praise, devotion. Heady stuff, I imagine, for one who spent years denigrating himself and his “sinful” desires.

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He has thrown himself into the gay sexual scene with abandon. He supplements his sensual exploration with heavy drug use. He regularly engages in barebacking and other unsafe sexual practices.

“I suppose I should get tested.” he says and laughs. His voice tone says he has no such intention. His behavior says he wants it all, wants it now, wants it with no holds barred. No time to think, no time to consider. Take, taste, feel, feel, feel.

In his poem Syringe, Jim Wise describes

The stunning blond god,
His muscles straining against
The taut flesh of a body he
Was just learning to enjoy.

The godlike youth in the poem employs sex as a means of getting heroin into his system. He strips sex of its potential for celebration, emotional connection, a sense of being present to another human being. People make such choices. So do gods. I feel sad when I tot up the costs.

What the gay youth, so recently out, seeks in his headlong rush, I don’t know. To heighten sensation? Numb the pain of losses incurred in coming out? Blot out the confusion of so many new choices? I doubt that he knows himself.

I do not condone his choices, yet I recognize the wild eruption of feeling, the recklessness, the sense that the shackles have been thrown off and anything goes. I felt a similar rush in my coming out journey.

Yet behavior has consequences, understood or not. And desire exerts a powerful pull. The gay poet Cavafy observes (in this translation from the Greek)

He swears every now and then to begin a better life,
But when night comes with its own counsel,
Its own compromises and prospects—
When night comes with its own power
Of a body that needs and demands,
He goes back, lost, to the same fatal pleasure.

In coming out I encountered men who shepherded me, acted as mentors, offered sage advice, modeled appropriate behaviors. I also found men who stood ready to take advantage of my naivete. While I learned something from both sets of men, I have maintained friendships with only one group.

We do others a favor, and bless ourselves and our entire community when we treat others with respect and genuine regard. We can celebrate the body electric—the body erotic, the body taut with pleasure and discovery of its own sexiness—in a way that honors the sacredness of all life, affirms the expression of our sexual selves, and builds community at the same time.

 

 

This article appeared in the September issue of The Letter.