What We Survived

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“What is the thing you are lucky to have survived? I want you to turn to the members of your small group and share with them, and later you’ll be writing a paper on the same topic.”

I felt nervous as I turned to the other three members of my group, already feeling like I didn’t fit in. I was 23 years old and, as far as I knew, the only Mormon kid in my college cohort of social work undergraduates. I was here at Boise State University in a room full of mostly white students, but there were only a handful of men. After high school, I had spent two years on a Mormon mission, and then another two years at a Mormon university. Now I was here among students who called themselves feminists and who sometimes drank alcohol and I didn’t know at all where to fit in. I felt constantly judged for being religious, and many of them felt constantly judged by me because I was religious, and both of those things were probably true. On top of it all, I was hiding the fact that I was gay, way deep down inside, not daring to tell anyone about my terrible shame.

I boldly agreed to go first, keeping eye contact with my group, hoping to find acceptance there.

“I, uh, went through some pretty tough things as a kid and teenager,” I said, sounding confident even though I wasn’t. I chose not to speak about growing up gay, or about my dad leaving, or about the sexual abuse, and instead focused on more recent events. “Um, when I was 16, I remember coming home one day and finding my 6-lb puppy, just this little black scruffy thing named Sammy, literally broken and lying on the floor in the frozen garage. During the day, my stepfather Kent said she had been causing trouble so he tried to toss her outside in the slow and then he slammed the sliding glass door closed on her on accident. He basically just put her down in the garage to freeze to death. I picked her up and could feel her ribs were broken and I cuddled her underneath the blankets in my bed. Kent came down angry and told me to put her back in the garage and I refused and for some reason he left us alone. He was violent and angry a lot during those years, but somehow that was the worst thing he had done.”

The other students in the group had pained looks on their faces, and they shared in this sadness with me for a moment, then took their turns in sharing their stories. One of the students shared a history of being sexually assaulted and then struggling with eating disorders and suicide attempts afterwards. Another student talked about being in the room when her own mother was murdered. The third talked about a horrific car accident that killed three other people and put her in the hospital, one she nearly didn’t survive.

A moment later, we opened the discussion up to the wider classroom and a handful of people shared their stories. One man had lost friends in combat only to be sent home when he was caught in an explosion, one woman had lost her entire home and everything she owned in a house fire, one had been married to a police officer killed in the line of duty.

I remember sitting there with a sense of emptiness and awe as I looked around this room of brave and incredible people. The only thing we had in common was being here in school at the same time, students in a university program. The professor talked about how humans are powerful and resilient and incredible, how we survive some of the worst things in the world and come out stronger on the other side, although we are forever changed. He talked about how, as social workers, we would be sitting with people in their most vulnerable and tragic spaces and helping them find their strength and their truth. And he talked about how even though we survive painful things, we likely have other painful things to survive in the future.

In many ways, this college experience launched my career in trauma work. Over the following years, I have sat with people in their greatest moments of pain, some of it unfathomable. I’ve sat with the woman who had a gun pointed into her open mouth during a bank robbery, the woman who watched her husband commit suicide with a shotgun right in front of her, the man who found his husband hanging over the breakfast table, the mother who woke up from a coma only to learn her entire family had been killed by a drunk driver, the man who lost his entire family during his 25 years in prison, the man who learned of his sister’s death at the hands of a serial killer, the woman whose husband came out of the closet after 40 years of marriage, the athlete who lost his job and scholarship because of one night of careless drinking, and the mother whose son took his own life because he felt rejected by a church for being gay.

If I were to sit in a group now and talk about what I survived, my answer would be much more recent. I would tell about being a home owner with a child, a pregnant spouse, a business, and major religious responsibilities when I came out of the closet and had to start my life over, rebuilding every relationship and learning how to live.

After I’ve worked in trauma several days in a row, I look at the world differently. I see people as survivors, and there is a weight to my eyes. A few days off with sunshine and fresh air, hugs from my children, laughter with friends, savory food, sweat, sleep, sex, wine, inspiration from history, and chocolate in some form or combination is needed to return the optimism.

It is at times a dark and difficult world. And it is a bright and beautiful one.

And we survive both.

 

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The Silver Sea

Tonight
The sea turned silver
The boiling sun
Took refuge behind a mass of opaque clouds
As yellow light spilled from its edges
In life-giving tendrils

With only a slight shift in vantage
I stood in a scattered crowd of humans
And saw the earth curve
A long arc across the horizon

Unconquerable ocean rolled forth endlessly
Walls of it smashing
Into the ground beneath me
Slowly and incessantly wearing it down

Rushing water drowned all sound
The guitars, the children,
The motors and tinny radios,
The fragile thumping hearts

And the humans stood as one
Facing west
Looking toward the circular world
As pin-prick stars
And spreading shadows
And salt-soaked wind
And whispering water
Held their weight.

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Monty

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Above all else it was those eyes, those steel blue grey eyes that bore down on you even in black and white.

Montgomery Clift had an obsessive way of approaching his movie roles. He liked long silences, pregnant pauses, subtle facial reactions, and characters that were relatable and perhaps a bit irredeemable. And it showed in his films, whether he was playing the cowboy son of John Wayne in Red River or the working class man in love with two women in A Place in the Sun or the lobotomizing psychiatrist in Suddenly, Last Summer or the self-sacrificing soldier in From Here to Eternity.

The entire country seemed to love him and wanted more movies and more, but Clift was picky and demanding, and, honestly, just as obsessive in his private life. He didn’t just drink, he drank, excessively and often. And he took pills by the handful. He spent months and years exploring the world, falling in and out of love with men and women both, picking just a few friends at a time that he would obsess over.

Internally, Monty was as complex as they come, with a complicated family history and an inner turmoil that he could never quite silence. He felt he should be with women, but he desired men, and he judged himself harshly, and he could never quite relax, not until he fell into absolute exhaustion. Monty had a twin sister (who would outlive him by nearly 50 years), an older brother (a serial monogamist with frequent marriages and divorces), a niece who committed murder, a father who lost everything more than once, and a mother who had a secret past as the secret daughter and heiress of wealthy slave owners and Civil War generals.

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And then came the car crash. Monty had been speeding down the hill from the home of his best friend, Elizabeth Taylor, the woman he described as his female self. He was hyped up on drugs and half asleep from alcohol, in between therapy sessions and in between movies and driving way too quickly. Elizabeth herself had climbed into the wreckage of the car and held Monty’s bloody head, clearing his broken teeth from his throat with a finger so that he could breathe, before the ambulance arrived. He lived, but would go on with permanent scarring and chronic pain for the rest of his life forever after. He looked different in his films after that, there was a weight there, and a lack of innocence. Monty had been changed.

He kept up the drug use after that, and the drinking, and he was a little less careful about the men that he dated though no less ashamed. But he kept acting. He played Sigmund Freud, he did stage productions, and he gave his, perhaps, most memorable performance as a mentally feeble concentration camp survivor in Judgment at Nuremberg. He was considered one of Hollywood’s finest, his nearest contemporary Marlon Brando, who is often remembered as the best there has ever been.

Monty died at age 45, decades too early, but he’d aged his body beyond its capacity to survive. He died simply, quietly, naked on his own bed, and the shockwaves of his passing hit the public hard. It was only 1966.

Monty was critical of the Hollywood that he was part of. He put up with the script reviews, the competition for attention and roles, the publicity appearances, the mandated interviews, and the moralistic weight of those in power. “I’m just trying to be an actor; not a movie star, an actor,” he said once, as he turned down scripts, refused deals from major agencies, and sometimes took years off between projects. Whatever might be said about him, whatever vices he may have had, it’s important to realize that he did it on his own terms, and he still made it big, still became a household name.

And those eyes…

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Ho Chi Minh City

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“It all for her, everything. She lucky girl.”

My Viatnamese Lyft driver, Tuan, beamed as he talked about his daughter, navigating the car through the mild hills of San Diego. I smiled back.

“How old is she?”

“Oh, she 12. Her name Lina.” He indicated a photo of her that he kept nearby of a beautiful young Viatnamese girl, black hair and bright smile. “Her mother and I, we work always just for her, just so she can focus on education, have a different life.”

I commented on how beautiful Lina was, and Tuan asked if I had children. I mentioned I had two sons, ages 8 and 5, and he laughed heartily.

“Oh, two boys! They so busy, I guess! Girls more focused, more emotional. You lucky.”

We both laughed.

When Tuan asked, I told him I was a therapist, and he gave a cooing sound for a moment, seemingly impressed. He went on to explain how he worked as a driver all day long, stopping only to eat and relieve himself, and how his wife worked impossible hours as a nail technician. “We both work hard, too hard, but it good for us, for our family. We take care of Lina.”

I looked surprised, raising my eyebrows slightly as we sat at the stop light. “With you both gone all day, who takes care of Lina?”

“Oh! I should have said,” he laughed again. “My mother and father, they live in home with us. Mother is 84, father is 91, but they in good health. They wake Lina, take to school, pick up and feed. We take care of them, they take care of Lina. Wife parents still back in Viet Nam, but we not visit, too far, 20 hours by plane. Lina want to go to Viet Nam all the time, but we cannot go. We cannot even travel California, too expensive, have to pay bills and raise family. Education what important.”

I found myself asking the obligatory American question, the same question any white person has of any person from another country, before I could stop myself. “Oh, how long have you been in the United States?”

Tuan grinned broadly again, the smile almost constantly on his thin face. “We be here almost 20 year. I met my wife back in Ho Chi Minh City, where we grow up. It hot there, too hot, California nice weather. I meet her on a date with another girl, she was dating my friend, but I like her. We get married and move to San Diego, bring my parents here. Have our daughter. We citizens now. Very happy family now, but we work too hard, I think.”

Tuan asked me where I was from, and I said that I’d grown up in the Midwest but that my current home was in Salt Lake City.

He laughed. “Oh, that place have lot of mountains and lot of Mormons. Big families, lots of kids!”

I found myself laughing back. “Yes, that describes Utah very well.”

We drove through several more lights as Tuan talked about the San Diego weather, the seasons, the tourists, and driving. I muttered a few questions from time to time, but had difficulty slowing my own thoughts. I found myself wanting to ask a hundred questions, but refused to ask any of them, thrilled at Tuan’s narration of his own story. I thought of recent immigration policies, of the vastness and beauty of the world, of the rhetoric and fear spreading through the Hispanic and African and Latino and Middle Eastern people I know in central Utah as they wondered what would happen to their families in today’s America.

We pulled up to my lodging, the little Airbnb I would be staying for the weekend, and Tuan gave me a hearty handshake. “You enjoy those boys of yours,” he smiled.

I grinned back. “Thank you, Tuan, it was a pleasure meeting you. Thank you for telling me about your family.”

“I am lucky man,” he said, “but must go back to work. You enjoy vacation in San Diego. Maybe someday I visit Salt Lake City. And maybe someday you visit Ho Chi Minh City, too.”

“I’d like that,” I said, and closed the door as he drove away. I gave a quick wave, one proud dad to another, and both Americans.

Leaving Provo

provoSometimes when I travel I find myself wanting to create an alternate origin story for myself, skew just a few details to make my story a little bit more even-keeled.

Today on the flight to San Diego, I sat on the back row of the plane. We flew out of Provo, Utah, departing from a tiny little airport surrounded by dry fields and, farther off, breath-taking mountains. My car in the long-term parking lot was just across a small road from a literal cow pasture.

I was placed in the middle seat, and the woman to my right snored gently as the baby across the aisle cooed and cried, alternatively. The girl to my left, I later learned her name was Kimber, dutifully scrolled words in her leather bound diary as I read my book, the autobiography of Greg Louganis. She was gorgeous, a shapely blonde with her hair in pigtails under a ball cap, and she wore only a modest amount of makeup, something rare for Utah girls. I glanced at her moving pen from time to time and caught glimpses of angsty words.

Why can’t the world understand that people are just people and I’m so tired of having my heart broken and I just wonder what Heavenly Father has in store for me.

About halfway through the short flight, Kimber cleared her throat a few times, gently trying to get my attention. I could tell she wanted to talk. When we made eye contact, she opened our conversation with a casual “So are you from Utah?” and within minutes she was telling me her entire life story. I have the odd ability to get strangers to open up to me, likely my social work background and my empathic nature; sometimes I love this about myself, and sometimes I don’t.

Kimber talked about being the youngest of four kids and growing up in southern California with her single mother after her father left when she was a child. She talked about playing softball in high school and dealing with getting teased for being a lesbian all the time, even though she wasn’t gay. Her eyes flashed to the cover of my Louganis book, and then she glanced back up, seemingly trying to tell me that if I was gay, she was okay with that. She said she joined the Mormon Church when she turned 18 and moved to Utah for college.

As Kimber peppered me with a dozen rapid-fire questions about myself, I found myself filling in the facts wrong, creating a slightly different timeline for myself with the basic facts of my current life staying the same but my past vastly changed. I told her I grew up in Missouri, went to college in Seattle, and moved to Utah to launch a business. I told her I was a single father of two sons, that I was a therapist, and that I taught college.

Kimber leaned forward in the small space, her eyes alive with wonder, as she told me she served a mission in Oklahoma and had been home for two years, when she began therapy herself, and it changed her life, she said. She held up her journal and said it had become her best friend and her best coping mechanism.

Her voice lowered as she began asking me questions. She had an insider, a therapist as a captive audience for the rest of the flight, and she was going to take advantage of it. Is porn addiction real? she asked, as she confided that her current boyfriend had problems. Is it true that Mormons have more depression and teen suicides? she asked, as she talked about a suicidal friend. Is it normal for girls to want to wait until they are 30 to get married? she asked, as she talked about wanting to explore the world before she took the plunge. Is it more important to be in a relationship 100 per cent, or to have a life outside of the relationship? she asked, as she told me about her desire to be a career woman and not a housewife.

At one point, Kimber held up a finger to stop me. She had to write this down, she said, and began furiously scribbling notes in her journal as the flight attendants announced our landing in San Diego. I showed Kimber pictures of my sons, when she asked, and she commented how they looked just like me.

As we stood to gather our bags, Kimber and I exchanged names, finally, belatedly, and wished each other well. She gave me an extra sincere look in my eyes as she firmly shook my hand. “It was an honor to meet you,” she said, and her intense gaze seemed to convey the subtext that this meeting was meant to be, orchestrated in the pre-existence by God himself perhaps. I smiled at her genuineness and sincerity.

I gave Kimber a bright smile as I walked away. “Kimber, you’re my favorite kind of Mormon,” I said, then turned to the waiting San Diego sunshine, ready for adventures ahead.

5 Hate Crimes

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I’ve spent a lot of time recently researching gay hate crimes, especially those based here in Utah. Across history, there have been far more than you think, and most of them are never reported as hate crimes. As I talk about this research with others, I find how little understanding there is regarding what a hate crime actually is.

A hate crime is defined quite simply as “a crime motivated by racial, sexual, or other prejudice, typically one involving violence.” A crime. A crime can be a robbery, an assault, a sexual assault, any form of abuse, vandalism, battery, unjust denial of rights, unfair discrimination or harassment in the workplace or community, or murder.

When people do think of ‘gay hate crimes’, they tend to only think of “gay-bashing”, in which someone is beat or harmed for being gay, or, in extreme cases, murder. And they usually think of young gay men, not transgender women. They don’t think of rape or abuse or discrimination. And when you ask people to list victims of hate crime, generally only one name comes to mind: Matthew Shephard.

It’s important to understand hate crimes so that we can work to not only educate about them and prevent them, but to prosecute people accordingly. There is a substantial difference between a violent crime against a person, and a violent crime against a person who is targeted because of their minority status. We must protect our citizens, no matter who they love or what religion they practice or what gender identity they embrace.

Below are five brief examples of different kinds of hate crimes. And while you may think that cases like this are rare, chances are you personally know someone who has been the victim of more than one of these crimes, and chances are you personally know at least one person who has committed one of these crimes.

  1. Mike and Brad walked down the road hand in hand, chatting idly about their days, when the older man saw them. He crossed the street and began to taunt the gay couple softly with hateful words. He walked just a few feet behind them, muttering “faggots” and “sissies” and he told them quietly that they weren’t safe there, that they should go back where they came from, that he and his friends would teach them a lesson if they ever returned. He kept his voice low so no one else could here. The man followed them for two full blocks as they walked swiftly, hearts pounding and hands clutched tightly, hoping they were safe before he finally turned away.
  2. Jan was only out as bisexual to a few friends in college. She had a boyfriend now, but in high school she’d had a girlfriend, and she got different things from her relationships with women than she did with men. She’d had two drinks at the party when Adam started bragging to Jan that she wouldn’t like chicks if she had had a real man. She tried laughing it off, but he wouldn’t let it drop. And she didn’t notice when he dropped the GHB into her drink. Later, he got her alone and she lay unconscious while he raped her in her own bed. The next morning, when she woke up, he was still next to her.
  3. Tyler’s dad hit him for the first time when he was 6 years old. Tyler had been mimicking the moves of the dancers on television, and his dad angrily struck him, saying no son of his would grow up to be a fag. Throughout the rest of his childhood, Tyler learned to act tough, to pretend to be interested in sports, and to always talk about the girls he liked, because the moment his dad saw any sort of “weakness” or femininity, Tyler ended up hit. When Tyler was 12, Tyler’s mother told him to just wait until he was 18, then he could finally be himself out on his own, but that seemed like an eternity away, and his nose was bloody now from the latest blow, and he wondered if the world would be a better place without him in it.
  4. Jacqueline knew it was dangerous to walk home by herself, she’d heard the stories. But it was midnight and she had to work in the morning, and she didn’t want to  stay out with her friends until the club closed. Tonight she was in a gorgeous black dress with heels, and she had on a gorgeous blonde wig with red fingernails and lipstick; she felt like a million bucks. In the morning, she would just be Jack again and back at her desk job, where her coworkers had no idea she was really a woman inside. Jacqueline stepped into the crosswalk in front of her building when the car hit her. She never knew who it was inside it, but she hit the ground and moments later felt the car back over her again, and then again before it drove away. She heard the man yell “FAG!” as he drove away, and then she fell unconscious, head bleeding and bones broken. She lay there for several minutes before someone noticed and called the ambulance.
  5. Alison looked at the picture of her wife and newborn son on her desk at work and she smiled. She had never believed a life like this was possible, her legally married with a son at home, in a beautiful apartment in the city and with a job as a paralegal that she loved. That afternoon, she was called into the Human Resources office, where the director informed her that there had been… complaints… (there had been such weight to that word) about Alison flaunting her lifestyle in the office. It was bad for morale, she was told, and it was affecting productivity. The company regretted it, she was told, but they felt it was best for Alison to pack up her things and look for work in an environment that was more supportive of Alison’s lifestyle (that word again). Alison placed her family picture in the cardboard box of belongings and walked out, tears streaming down her face.

At this point in my life, I know hundreds of LGBT people. Very few of those I know have been the victims of violent or blatant hate crimes. But nearly everyone I know has experienced discrimination in some form for being gay–the dirty looks from people on the street, the hateful words from family members, or the refusal of service at a restaurant. It has never been easier for LGBT people to find love and acceptance. But hate crimes still happen, and our history is full of them. It’s important to talk about them, to understand where we come from, and to open dialogues about the dangers we face.

Because every human deserves to feel safe and to have basic protections in place.

 

Dark Valentine

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I hate Valentines Day. Everyone hates Valentines Day.

Valentines Day is the darkest day of the year.

In fact, Valentines Day is the worst.

IF you are in a loving supportive relationship, Valentines Day sucks. You find yourself in a weird sort of competition with other couples to prove who has the most love as expressed through exchanged overly priced gifts.

“My husband got me roses and chocolates and had rose petals laid out on the bed after we got home from our steak dinner, and we have plans to rent a chalet on the ski mountain this weekend with a Jacuzzi. I’m so lucky!” she says, while her coworkers think of ways to top her story. But really they are all feeling either jealous, annoyed, or both as they think of their lack of Valentine or measure up how that Valentine stacks against the one exchanged in their relationship.

OR you find yourself in competition WITHIN your own relationship, wondering who loves who as demonstrated through exchanged overly priced gifts.

Sheri bought her wife Heather a dozen roses and wrote her a love poem while Heather made Sheri a romantic dinner and cleaned the entire apartment, and both of them are thinking, “My gift was better than/worse than hers” and plot ways to use that against each other later.

OR maybe you’ll even be pissed off about why your own relationship is going so poorly and everyone around you thinks you are happy, but you have to stomach another Valentine’s Day with the person you don’t really love anymore. But at least your Facebook status update will make things sound lovely between the two of you.

And IF you are single on Valentines Day, you will either spend it moping about the fact that you aren’t in a relationship, OR moping about your failed relationship (you know, the one you aren’t quite over yet), OR you will spend it with other single friends complaining (either out loud or silently) about not being in a relationship or your last failed relationship. Maybe you’ll get cute and call it Single Awareness Day, but really that’s just another way of lamenting that you think people who are in relationships are happier than you are.

Some advice for those of you who are in relationships: celebrate the day after Valentines Day. All of the over priced flowers and stuffed animals and food drop in price by fifty per cent. And then celebrate a few weeks later with some kind of normally priced (not overly priced) weekend or evening away. Exchange genuine, meaningful gifts, not kitschy expensive things that will never be used again. Show your love in your own way and on your own time, and make it special. And don’t, please, make others drown in your relationship status by flaunting how in love you are. “He bought me a necklace! He really does love me!”

And some advice for those of you who are single: celebrate yourself on Valentines Day. With friends or without, don’t lament on your relationship or lack thereof. Treat yourself to a nice meal, a fancy dinner, an evening away, a glass of wine and an old movie, whatever it is you enjoy. Don’t let a calendar date dictate the success of your live, just live your life and live it well.

This Valentines Day, I’ll be celebrating my children. I wrote them cards and bought them toys they like, and we will engage in family activities and talk about things we are grateful for. Last year, I was on my own on Valentines Day, and I spent the day off of social media before driving to a mountain town and treating myself to a nice dinner with a beautiful view of the mountains.

Don’t waste a minute being miserable today. Valentines Day is dumb.

St. Valentine himself is an old Saint who no one knows much about except that he was imprisoned and later killed for doing nice things and believing in his religion.

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Cupid is a mythical old man baby who shoots iron tipped arrows that force people to fall in love against their will. He’s definitely rapey.

Candy hearts are disgusting. Flowers die. Chocolates make you fat.

And hearts can be full and pink and full of love, or they can be cracked down the middle and broken.

Whatever yours is, celebrate that heart, that it beats miraculously within you and gives you glorious life. Make today about YOU. And don’t worry about the THEM you are so jealous of. Don’t waste one moment of today moping about what you don’t have or what you did have, instead celebrate what you DO have: a beautiful day ahead that you can spend however you desire.

If you’re with someone, be with that person you love. But whether you are with someone or not, make sure you love yourself first.

Facing Gay: Lesson from Avenue Q

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Rod, the gay puppet in Avenue Q, just wasn’t ready to be told he was gay. He struggled to face it within himself, being a Republican conservative puppet. When his straight roommate Nicky, also a puppet and one who Rod happened to be in love with, told Rod it would be okay to come out, that his friends would still love him, Rod still couldn’t face it. He swore he was straight.

A little later in the play, a group of Rod’s friends are talking about him being homosexual, and he throws a violent tantrum, promising them he isn’t gay and making up a girlfriend in Canada that he corresponds with that they just haven’t met. Because if he has a girlfriend, even a fictional one, it legitimizes him, and the others can’t question him anymore, at least in his own mind.

Finally, toward the end of the play, Rod comes out of the closet. He spreads his puppet arms and announces the news dramatically. And the rest of the puppets and people shrug and nod, not in the least surprised. They already knew it. They just needed him to know it.

The only difference between the beginning and the end? Rod’s readiness to face the truth about himself.

As I watched Avenue Q in a community theater production last night, I laughed and clapped and cheered, loving the production, but Rod’s story struck me poignantly as I realized how vastly my life has changed in such a short amount of time. I sat next to a date, with another gay couple to my side. Behind me directly were two middle-aged lesbian couples, laughing raucously at the content of the show. In front of me were two gay couples and a lesbian couple. There were people of all age and type in the theater, but the sheer presence of the gay community at this production filled me with joy. Years before, I would have felt both jealous and disturbed, convincing myself there was something morally wrong with so many gay people in the room.

Reflecting on Rod, I reflected on the years of loneliness prior to my coming out, and the worlds of lies I created to protect myself. I remember being head over heels in love with my straight best friend in high school and wanting to spend every moment with him possible, but convincing myself it was just because he was a cool person and that there were no feelings of romance there. I remember finally accepting the reality that I was attracted to other guys, but created facts to block the pain of that, like that I hadn’t met the right girl yet or that it was only because I hadn’t kissed a girl yet or that God was testing me with the opportunity to make right decisions. Yet even after I was married to a woman, my self-excuses continued, the ultimate being that God would make me straight in some post-mortal existence if I was strong and faithful enough.

In my early 20s, I took myself to a therapist in college and told him I needed help “overcoming my same sex attraction”. A few therapy sessions in, he gently stated that it might simply be that I’m gay, and that there was nothing wrong with that. I emotionally and angrily responded that other people were gay, but that wasn’t a reality for me. I had a gay sister, gay friends, and I loved them no matter what, but that God had different plans for me, I couldn’t be gay, I just couldn’t, and how dare he say that I was. The therapist backed off right away. But I wish he had pushed me farther. It could have saved me a lot of later pain.

In the years since I’ve come out, I’ve seen hundreds of others make that same journey, take that long slow reasoning climb through admitting attraction to the same gender to running down the list of excuses and coping mechanisms to avoid the reality of being gay to finally admitting that being gay is a reality. For many, that is simply the start. Then there can follow years of unpacking personal baggage and bias as they sort out what being gay means and how to incorporate that with their outside world of jobs and families, hobbies and travels.

I’m exhausted by the mental and emotional energy that Rod had to use to stay comfortably in the closet, and I’m exhausted by my own journey there. No wonder finally coming out felt like coming up for oxygen–it was such a waste of effort to convince the world around me, and the world within me, that I wasn’t what I was all along.

And so, to every young man or woman out there who finds themselves attracted to the same gender, and for every young man or woman out there who feels their inside gender doesn’t match their outside gender, I invite you not to waste the time and energy that it takes to keep yourself hidden. There is an entire world out there of love and joy and self-acceptance.

At the end of the play, Rod maintains his friendships; it turns out his friends loved him all along and just wanted to be happy. And Ricky, the roommate he liked, put out a personal ad for Rod, who then got a sexy puppet boyfriend. Although he was just a puppet, Rod’s smile seemed much more genuine in the end.

I know mine is.

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Sends Nudes: thoughts on gay sex and vulnerability

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Welcome to 2017, where, for many, sending pictures of genitalia is more comfortable than exchanging a first name.

I may never get accustomed to this, logging into a dating or chat app and having someone send me a photo of their erect penis, yet say they are discreet or shy when I ask for a photo of their face. A few months ago, during one chat, I got a dirty photo from someone I’ve never met, unsolicited, and when I said I prefer to chat a bit before going there he responded with, “Look, bro, if I wanted a chat, I’d call my mom. I’m looking to bone, not be your friend.”

In the gay male community, there have always been strong elements of sexual expression, and sexual oppression. In the generations prior to mine, men weren’t allowed to be sexual with other men without serious consequences, from being arrested to disowned to fired to attacked to shamed. For most of human history, there has been an element of danger to gay sex–it had to be private, it had to be discreet, it had to be secret.

In Brokeback Mountain, the first time Ennis and Jack have sex, they can’t look at each other and there is no intimacy. Ennis shoves Jack’s face forward and gives in to urges. After that, they develop an intimacy when they are alone, an affection and love toward each other through looks and handholds and private jokes. But in public, there can be none, no errant glances, no physical contact. If someone suspected their love, there would be public shaming, humiliation, lost jobs, and lost families.

And this became the culture of the gay male community, by and large, over the years. The wider public sent the message that gay men do not belong, that they should not be seen, and that they should be taught a lesson if they are seen.

“What they do in their own homes, I don’t care, as long as I don’t have to see it” and “I didn’t plan on hitting him but he looked at me funny and I would have been made fun of if I hadn’t fought back” and “Can’t we just round them up and put them on an island some place where we don’t have to look at them” and “If we let gay people teach in our schools, our kids will get AIDS and turn into fags” became normal messages on television and from church pulpits and around the family dinner table.

And so gay men learned to hide, and to have two lives. In one life, they had jobs as teachers and doctors, dancers and hair dressers, social workers and CEOs, police officers and judges; and they had families with mothers and fathers and often wives and children; and they had lives, on their local bowling leagues or PTA committees.

And in their other life, the gay men noticed handsome men around them and hoped to catch their eye. They learned of public spaces to meet other gay men, in public parks or on the third floor or the local library behind the biography section or in the alley behind a particular club, or in the local gay club or bath house, although those were a bit scarier. And they learned to relate to other gay men on a purely physical level, focusing solely on sex and body image, shaming those that were not their idea of physically perfect or those who wanted some sort of emotional connection. They learned to mask feelings with alcohol and drugs, often to enhance the pleasure of the sex, and then they stepped back into their daily lives.

These social and psychic trends seem pretty rampant in the gay male community among men who, primarily, grew up divided within themselves, longing for acceptance, community, understanding, validation, and love, and who instead divided themselves up into spaces where vulnerability is frightening and sex is simple.

All that said, there is nothing wrong with sex in any of its forms, so long as the person engaging in sex is educated, honest, and ethical with themselves and others. Engaging in random illicit sex with a stranger, a threesome with a few friends, or even a bathhouse orgy, those are viable options for gay men, but they won’t serve as healthy alternatives for loneliness, depression, self-shame, family problems, or religious discord. The person who chooses to be sexually active should do so from a place of self-acceptance and confidence, and the ability to realize that the person or people they are engaging in sexual activities with are also human beings who have stories and families and needs.

I viscerally remember the radio commercial from my youth where the deep voice stated, “Remember, sex lasts a moment. Being a father lasts your whole life.” And there is absolute truth there. The man who chooses to engage in sex should be able to recognize the risks of pregnancy, the potential for STDs, and the ability to realize that the human heart is a part of sex, both for him and for the other person involved. (And yes I realize that gay sex does not result in pregnancies, but the other truths hold valid).

So go, have sex. Have fun. Have adventures. But know yourselves first, and know your motivations. Look at your trends. Can you only have sex when drunk? Are you only seeking to dominate someone else? Can you look your partner in the eye and have a conversation? Are you seeking to escape the stress and expectations of an unhealthy marriage, religious obligations, or the family you’ve built around you? Do you reject anyone who isn’t your ideal of human perfection, your exact type? Do you realize and acknowledge that there is another person there with a story, with needs, with struggles and situations different but just the same as yours? Do you understand the history of where you’ve come, and do you have an eye on where you are going? Do you think that having someone in your bed will take away your pain and loneliness and make you like yourself?

I guess the take away I hope others to get in reading this is just to know yourself, to question your motivations a little bit, to explore your concepts of vulnerability, and to be able to realize there is another person on the other end of that exchange. The world is about more than naked pictures and quick sex, it’s about safety and kindness and attraction and love. But that has to be toward yourself first.

 

 

 

Dolly

“Find out who you are. And do it on purpose.”

dolly_parton-album_cover

I find this to be one of the most inspirational quotes I have ever heard, and it comes from the inestimable Dolly Parton, who did exactly that.

A lot surprised me as I read about Dolly. I have always admired her without ever knowing much about her. I didn’t own any of her albums, and I had probably only seen a few clips of her in movies. I knew some of her most famous songs, like Jolene and I Will Always Love You.

I was baffled by her carefully constructed image. A woman who painted her face, wore thick wigs, and made herself known for her enormous breasts, which she definitely accentuated in her dress, a woman who compared herself to drag queens in style… yet somehow she cultivated a family friendly, down-home, comfortable around the kids personality. She embraced both gays and Christians, men and women, families of all kinds.

Dolly took her talents as a storyteller and a songwriter, her incredible and unique country voice, her savvy business sense, and her talent at drawing people into her as an icon, and she slowly and carefully built an empire up around herself. CDs, radio hits, albums, sheet music, concert tours, television appearances, movie deals, book deals, her own television show, and her own theme park. Dolly managed to make everyone who watched her feel as if they knew her, feel safe with her, while keeping her private life and politics and beliefs incredibly private at the same time.

As a kid, Dolly learned she liked being the center of attention. With nearly a dozen brothers and sisters running around in a rural Tennessee house, and between her dad’s affairs and her mom’s strict rules, she discovered she loved make-up and she loved boys and she loved people looking at her and she loved to sing. In the 1960s, when she went to the big city for the first time to find her fame, Dolly met Carl Dean when he noticed her exposed midriff at a laundromat and flirted with him. They married, and they have stayed married for decades, striking a seemingly perfect balance of having separate lives and careers, a lot of time for each other, and a whole lot of respect for each other. Carl stays out of photographs and interviews, and Dolly respects his privacy.

Dolly never had children. She made a career for herself working endless hours on tours, after years of concerts and radio performances. I watched some of her television interviews over the years and saw the grace at which she handled inappropriateness and invasiveness. When David Letterman said he’d give a year’s salary to see her naked breasts, she laughed it off, and she did the same when he said she was a pretty thing and that he’d like to see her all sweaty. She carefully balanced the ability to be objectified by men and seen as a sex symbol, yet stand for fidelity and morals at the same time.

Dolly cultivated this in her movies as well. In her two most famous films, she combined sexiness with feminism, career aspirations with family values. In 9 to 5, she played the sexy secretary who wore tight clothes and big hair to work, who stayed faithful to her husband, resisted the advances of her boss, and longed for the camaraderie of her female coworkers, hurt when she realized there were rumors about her. And in the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, she played the owner and operator of a whorehouse, a smart and savvy businesswoman who donated to local charities and stayed faithful and local to her boyfriend, the local sheriff.

One paragraph in the book highlighted how Dolly had the ability to be on a car in the middle of a crowded parade in Dollywood. She would wave and smile, wave and smile, wave and smile, and every once in a while she would choose a stranger in the crowd and get a bright smile on her face as she eagerly waved, as if she had seen a long-lost friend. This wave endeared everyone watching to her, making them feel safe with her, like she was their personal acquaintance. This, combined with her down-home country tales and her high-pitched laugh and her grace, has made her an incredible empress of her own little empire.

Perhaps the single fact that endears Dolly to me more than any other has been her ability to succeed in a man’s world with the odds stacked against her, on her own terms. When she “fails”, she learns her lesson and stands back up to fight. She has been unflinching as she has dedicated herself to the hard work it takes to build a name, slowly and carefully over years, and then to keep that name alive for decades. She is a household name, an unforgettable presence.

Dolly tells a story of once entering a “Dolly Parton lookalike contest” among drag queens who dressed as her. She dressed as a caricature of herself, and lost the contest. She tells this story with great delight. When asked about being a ‘gay icon’, she smiles and says she loves all people, and she speaks about everyone should be just who they are and never let anyone stop them.

Sound advice from a woman who has done just that.