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Europe, in Reflection

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Someone brought out a stack of family photos and slapped them down on the kitchen table. “Have you looked at these yet? They are from the family vacation to Europe, back in 2001.”

I grabbed the stack of pictures and began leafing through them. My first impression was of how young we all looked. 18 years brings a lot of change. I am 40 now; I was 22 then. My younger sister, Sheri, is now 36; she was 18 then, right out of high school. My father and mother, now 80 and 75, had been 62 and 57.

For Mom and Dad, 18 years brought with it a lot of age and health struggle, graying of the hair and a lowering of the posture. But it also brought new grandchildren and great-grandchildren, new marriages for both of them, new perspectives. Times were changing, and we with them.

And for Sheri and I, 18 years meant finishing college, starting our families, losing weight, leaving Mormonism, and coming out. It meant leaving an old life behind and beginning a new and authentic one. The differences were startling.

I viewed 22-year old me in the photos with kindness and understanding. Chad then was just off his mission and attending an all-Mormon college. He knew he was gay, but he felt he was broken and beyond repair. He was resigned to a Mormon fate of temple marriage and children, never knowing the touch of a man. He had determined he would never be happy because that isn’t what God wanted for him. He held on so tightly to that.

I flipped through these photos and I saw a young man full of ambition, with a clear heart and head, so ready to embrace the big world out there. But his soul and spirit were so locked up. He had bright brown eyes and a careful but happy smile. He had thick hair that curled when it grew long. He wore baggy shorts and tent-like shirts over his Mormon undergarments. He so hoped to be seen by the world around him. He so badly needed the world to notice the space he occupied. He smiled so wide, but was so sad.

Sheri walked up behind me. “Whoa, look at these!” She sat next to me and we laughed about the pictures. I looked over at her now, the skinny, vibrant, blue-eyed, short-haired beauty next to me. She runs now, for health, because she loves it. She watches what she eats. She i married to an incredible woman. She loves herself.

And then I looked down to the Sheri from those old photos. Her hair was longer and parted down he middle, and it hung limply on the sides of her face. She had headphones in, using them to drown out the world around her. She wore baggy clothes, shielding herself in them. Every photo in the series, one after another, showed her glowering at the camera. Not just not smiling, but refusing to smile. She looked so unhappy, so closed off, from everyone around her and from herself. It broke my heart to see the differences.

Sheri gently jostled my arm. “Do you remember that day on the trip when you threatened to punch me in the face? I was so mad at you!” Sheri was looking at the photos and ha mirth in her voice. She was teasing me. But I felt a sharp jab of pain at the memory.

I kept the humor in my voice. “Do you remember the whole story? Do you remember why I said that?”

Sheri shrugged. “I think so. But it definitely wasn’t okay, especially after what we went through with Kent when we were younger.”

Kent was our abusive step-father, the man who had terrorized us when we were teenagers. I felt another jab of pain.

“Okay, hang on. Here’s the story. We are in Europe and everything is fucking beautiful, all  Swiss Alps and Black Forests and ski chalets and cuckoo clocks. And you are all up in your music for days at a time while we sat on the bus for hours. I’d grab your arm and be like ‘look at those mountains!’ and you’d just ignore me. Meanwhile, Mom is back there crying because for some reason she agreed to go on a European vacation for two weeks with the man she has been divorced from for over a decade, and Dad never has a word to say, and I’m all locked up inside like a good little Mormon boy.”

Sheri looked up, a bit defensive. “Hey, I had my own stuff going on!”

“Oh, I know. I’m not saying you didn’t. We both had a lot going on. So no blame. Just setting the picture. I’m in the prettiest place I’ve ever been and I want to share it with someone and you keep ignoring me!”

“Well, I didn’t want to talk to you!”

We both laugh and smile. We are close enough to have conversations like this and have them remain light-hearted.

“Okay, anyway,” I continue, “we were in Austria, and I was really fucking lonely, and I asked if yo would go explore a church with me, and you said no, and I was like, ‘Sheri, please!’ and then you told me to fuck off! And I quote, ‘Fuck off, Chad,’ like so unnecessarily. And I was all Mormon so language super-offended me back then, so I responded with anger. ‘If you ever tell me to fuck off again, I’ll punch you in the face.’ That’s what I said. And of course I didn’t mean it! I could never hit someone! It was just the thing I said to get my point across. And I did, and then I immediately regretted it and apologized, but you ignored me for, what, five more days after that?”

Sheri looked me in the eyes and a bit of shock passed there. All the details came rushing back to her. “Oh. Yeah.” She was quiet a moment. “Well, I ignored you cause you pissed me off!”

“Oh, I deserved it, probably. I was pretentious back then.”

We changed the subject and kept looking at the pictures. My eyes kept switching back and forth between the sad looks on our faces and the amazing scenery. The Eagle’s Nest resort, set in the Alps. Sheri’s headphones. The green rolling hills of Salzburg. My fake smile. The centuries-old Gothic cathedral. Sheri’s glower. The intricate woodcrafting in a local shop. Dad’s stern and sad frown. Flower boxes filled with colorful blossoms on Bavarian homes. Mom’s pain hidden so carefully behind her smiles.

Minutes later, Mike and I walked outside, taking a few hours to ourselves before the big family dinner that evening. I got behind the wheel of the car and closed my eyes briefly. I was shocked to find tears suddenly cascading down my cheeks.

Mike gripped my hand. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. Nothing’s wrong. Just… that conversation with Sheri, remembering who she was, who I was, who we all are now, all that pain in a place of such beauty. I’m just–remembering.

Grieving.

Happy.

Changed.”

 

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Ghost of Christmas Past

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During my social work education in college, I took several classes that focused on tools related to understanding complicated families. One of those tools is a genogram. Squares represented men, circles were used for women. Lines connected romantic relationships, and little dashes meant children. An X over a person represented death, a double line through a relationship represented divorce. I’ve used genograms with hundreds of clients over the years now. Some families look clean and organized on paper: father, mother, brother, sister.

My family genogram ended up looking like a massive printer malfunction, or like someone dropped a pizza on the floor. It was rampant with divorces and remarriages, couples who had kids that were his hers and theirs, and adoptions. If I could add slashes and dashes for prison sentences, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, faith crises and drug addictions, well, we’d have Picasso’s Starry Starry night in family tree format. Beautiful, but far too much to take in one glance.

But each little square and circle on that paper represent a human fixed in time, someone with experiences, heartbreaks, setbacks and successes. And each of those people, most of them related to me by blood, have their own changing stories, their own epics. For most, the endings remain unwritten. But even the youngest of my siblings is in her late 30s now, so there is a lot of history to draw upon.

And that takes us to 1985.

Back then, my family was my entire world, that and religion. We have one family Christmas video preserved now. It’s beloved to me. It was made in December, 1985, when I was newly 7 years old. I was the little brother, the sixth of seven children. Back then, Mom and Dad were still married, if unhappily. My little sister Sheri was three, and she had thin yellow hair that grew down past her waistline. (Many years later, Sheri and I would be the ones who came out of the closet). And all of the older kids were there, ranging from 11 to 20 in age at the time. Grandma and Grandpa were there, my mom’s parents, and my oldest sister’s boyfriend. The video shows us all around the Christmas tree, singing songs, laughing, performing special talents for each other, opening gifts. My mom and sister Kara played the nose harps as a joke, someone did a piano solo. We each took a day of Christmas and sang all twelve verses in little one-line solos. The camera pans around the room as we each share what we are thankful for. At one point in the video, I take out my recorder from school and I play a carol for the family, not actually playing the instrument but more realistically just blowing notes through it, generating the sound with my voice and sounding like an eerie robot. Later in the video, I ask if I can lead the family in a song. I stand in the center of the room, right in front of the camera, and I lead the music, just like I’ve seen Mom do in church a thousand times, except I forget to bend my elbow. I lead on the right cadence with my wrist hinging in every direction as my family laughs at me, and at the time I didn’t understand what was so funny. I was beaming. Family, music about Jesus, Christmas. It was perfect. I’m smiling from ear to ear.

That was over 30 years ago. 33 Christmases ago, to be exact. That realization startles me. And in another blink of an eye, it will be 30 years from now and I’ll be seventy and my children will be men.

But what if I could go back? If I could time-travel, step back into that room as a grown man and just watch it all as it happened… I wouldn’t be able to experience the family just then, in the present like that. I have too much perspective for that. I’d see everything that lies ahead for each person in that room as I watched them. If I wanted to, I could tell Grandma and Grandpa the days they die on. I could tell Mom that she only had to put up with my dad’s anger and depression for five more years before she would finally choose to leave him. But then I’d also have to tell her that her next husband would be worse, he would use fists and control and insults and profanity to terrorize her for a few years. But then, I could tell her, then she’d meet the man of her dreams. She’d be 60 by then, but he would make her so happy for the rest of her life. I could tell my dad that he would never really change, that in 30 years he would be nearly 80 and still sad and quiet and angry and morose. I could look him in the eye and tell him how I felt about his depression and the way it ruined him, and about the impact it had on me.

Would I change anything if I could? Would I want to? Would I warn them about their futures? Would I grab my oldest sister in a hug and tell her that she wouldn’t be able to have children, but that she would finally choose to adopt three when she was in her mid-40s, and that it was definitely not going to be easy after that? Would I tell my second sister that she would meet the love of her life at age 18 and they would go on to have six children together, but also tell her that this picture perfect world would not be easy, that it would be full of health struggles and financial burdens? Would I warn my only brother to stop touching me in our bedroom when the doors were closed tight and no one could see? Would I tell him to stay off the drugs and to change his ways before his three marriages, his criminal charges, his domestic violence issues, his animal cruelty issues? Would I tell him that he would father three incredible children, and that all three of them would turn out great not because of him but in spite of him? Would I grasp my middle sister, Kara, and tell her that she’d have to put up with 15 years of two terrible marriages so that she could have her four children, but that if she could just put up with the abuse, drugs, and anger from her first two husbands, she would finally meet the man who would make her happy? Would I tell her that her kids would add up to seven before she was done, and that she’d have her youngest child around the same time she became a grandmother? Would I warn the sister just above me in age to never start smoking, never start drinking, as those habits would dominate the rest of her life?

I love all of my family, of course, but when I watch this old video, I see Sheri and I the most. Sheri was the baby of the family, the quiet, introverted, and obsessive little girl would grow up to be a kind, loving, incredible woman. But first she’d have to get through her boy clothes wearing and no makeup high school years, and then brave coming out of the closet in her early 20s, and it would not go well at first. If I could change things, I’d want her to do it early, to not wait until she was in her 20s. I’d want her to save herself the years of religious indoctrination, to not waste a single moment thinking she was anything but amazing. Maybe instead I would just reassure her without changing events. She has a future, I would tell her, one with a wife, a full-ride college scholarship, a life full of opportunities. I’d tell her that in many ways she would grow up to be my greatest example, despite being younger than me.

And then I look at me. If forty-year old me could go back in time and spend an afternoon with seven-year old me… my heart breaks just thinking about it. I have a son that size, just 7 years old. He’s so small. He watches the world around him with hope and wonder, and he sees the best in everyone. Someone being a bully just breaks his heart. He has so much to learn. I see him in 7-year old me. I’d wrap little me up in a giant bear hug, and I would ask me how I was feeling. I would ask, and I would listen. I feel like no one ever asked me back then. I would ask the questions no one was asking me then. How do you feel about your dad’s sadness? Do you like church, do you believe in it, what do you like about it and what don’t you? Do you know it’s okay to have doubts? I’d ask what was happening behind those closed bedroom doors, and tell him that that isn’t okay for someone, anyone, to touch him like that, and I’d encourage him to speak up and I would tell him I was there to protect him. And because he would be too young to understand, I would try to find a way to tell him how my life has gone. I would tell him that gay people are normal, and that anyone who tells him that he is broken or an abomination or that he can be cured or that he should just ignore it and hope that it goes away, that those people are wrong even if they don’t mean to be. Believing those things would take some of his best years away from him. At worst, those people are big homophobic meanies, and at best they are just misinformed. I would tell him to come out, early and to the right people, and that he should spend his adolescence being real, learning how to love himself and take care of himself, learning how to fall in love and make friends and how to dream big. I’d tell him to love church but recognize that it is flawed and that it doesn’t have all the answers, so he should keep the good and let go of the rest. I’d tell him to eat well, to exercise, to find healthy outlets for his emotions. I’d tell him to not waste two years in missionary service, that he’ll regret it later. I’d tell him he is beautiful just the way he is, all the parts of him, the compassionate and the creative, the social worker and the storyteller, the singer and the quiet thinker. I’d tell him to not be so lonely in his 20s, to not wait so long to kiss, to hold hands, to fall in love, to have sex. I’d tell him to never compromise and marry a woman just because he believed it was the only possibility for him, because both he and she would end up hurt.

But then, I’d take it all back. I’d regret every word. He’s 7, and telling him all of that would put far too much weight on his shoulders (and goddamnit, he was carrying too much weight as it was). If I told him all of that, I’d want to run screaming into a corner, because if he changed anything, If he didn’t spend those years thinking he was broken, if he never served a mission, never learned to believe God hated him, never married a woman… that if he came out of the closet even six months earlier, than his two sons wouldn’t exist. And they have to exist. The world can’t BE without them.

Instead, I’d have to tell him to be strong. To hold on. To know that his suffering in the long run would pay off, because he would eventually come out, he would eventually find love, he would eventually learn to love himself. He would be 32 when it finally happened, so he only had 25 years to be depressed, then he could learn to live. And in coming out, he’d break some hearts, he’d have to redefine everything, and he would have to navigate a new life with two beautiful little boys, and it was going to be so hard for a while but it would be so worth it because those little boys would be the lights of his entire world, and he would learn how to see himself as a light as well. And I’d tell him that the greatest payoff of all of this, all the years he spent hurting, is that he would raise his sons to have all of the things he never had.

I can’t change then. But I can change now. I can give my sons what I wish I could go back and give to me then. I can ask questions and listen to their answers. I can talk about hard things. I can teach them about nutrition and exercise, about compassion and kindness and integrity. I can teach them to love themselves, to follow their dreams. I can teach them about taking care of the planet, being kind to animals, and reaching out to the underdog, the outcast, the misfit. I can teach them to be themselves, to love themselves, and to follow their dreams. And if I can do all of that for them, then I don’t need to change the past.

Because someday, 30 years from now, perhaps my boys will look back to this time in 2018 and wonder what could be different. Maybe they would choose to come back and give warnings about dire future events, or give hints to themselves about how they can have happier lives if they make different choices. But my greatest wish would be for them to look back to now, right now, and see it as one happy Christmas in a long life full of happy Christmases, with nothing they would want to change.

Love the Gay Away

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The four “recovering Mormons” took the stand and, one by one, introduced themselves to the audience. All of them had found solace and belonging in a new faith community, an Evangelical church, and now wanted to share the good word with the public. A room with a few hundred people watched as they spoke on the topic of leaving Mormonism to find new religion.

The first woman spoke about her lifelong struggle with depression as she fought to be the perfect Mormon daughter, wife, housewife, and mother. She internalized her doubts and pains for years before learning about some of the more bizarre Mormon doctrines (like “the second anointing”), and she suddenly spiraled right out of the church. She replaced her depression, she said, with a profound love for Jesus.

The pastor of the church gave a fascinating account of setting up a Christian organization within the confines of Utah, which he profoundly described as different than any other place. The bulk of his congregation, which had grown by about 150 members per years over the past few decades, were made up of those who had left Mormonism, or at the very least who were constantly influenced by the Mormonism around them. He was handsome, cheerful, and charismatic, and it was easy to picture him leading a congregation in a sermon and inspiring them to belief and action with his words.

Everyone present talked about a great love for the Bible and for the teachings of Jesus, and they discussed everyone in the room being welcome. I remained skeptical, but happy to see this resource in this community. I remembered the months I had spent as a Mormon missionary in Philadelphia, two decades earlier, investigating other religions, and after a while all of them felt mostly the same with just a few differences.

And then the next member of the panel introduced herself. She was likely in her late 30s or early 40s and wore comfortable clothes, jeans and a jacket. She had short blonde hair. She reminded me immediately of my sister Sheri, who lives on the East Coast with her wife, and I wondered if this woman might also be gay. “If she is, then cool, they welcome gay people here,” I thought. And then the woman started sharing her story.

She talked about growing up with damaged parents and being raised by her grandparents, leaving Mormonism after coming out of the closet (“ha, I was right,” I thought), entering a series of bad relationships, and eventually finding Jesus in this faith community. She then began to refer to her lesbianism in the past tense. She now realized that she was part of a worship community that taught her actual truth, she reasoned, and if she truly loved Jesus, then she had to do as he commanded. Sex was to only be in the bounds of marriage, and marriage was only between a man and a woman.

I leaned over to my friend next to me and whispered, “oh, gross”, feeling the strain of all of the years before that I’d had in the closet. It exhausted me to see yet another person going through this damaging reasoning, away from Mormonism, years after being actively gay, only to return to the closet in the name of Christianity.

 

My friend whisper back, “Wait, is she saying she is ex-lesbian?”

The host of the event asked the woman that, followed by several other questions. He is an accomplished host, a straight male with a wife and family who was excommunicated from Mormonism for asking hard questions, and one who has done advanced research studies on LGBT change efforts in religious communities. He recounted basic research that showed that change efforts were universally successful, that mixed-orientation marriages almost always fail, and that the worst of all of the options for overall mental health was a life of celibacy (which is what the Mormon religion and other faith communities currently expect from their active LGBT members).

But the woman dug her heels in. “The more you try to persuade me, the more I extend my roots into Jesus.” She talked about finding more love in Jesus than she ever could in the arms of a woman, wanting to marry a man eventually (one who loved Jesus more than she does, she said), and about teaching others in a ‘homosexuality and Christianity group” in the church about her story. She said the church had a lot of gay friends, some of them even married, who attended or who came in for lectures in the group.

The charismatic paster then grabbed his mic, talking about how at the last sermon he gave, “four or five gay guys” came up to him after the service and shook his hand, saying how much they enjoyed it. He then reemphasized that everyone was welcome, and that we are all “sexual sinners” who have to become right before the Lord.

“Gross,” I muttered again. Because as a “sexual sinner”, he still got to have sex with his wife, and he was propagating the expectation that those who are gay never get to enjoy sex at all.

Listening there, I had the bizarre realization that this experience was the direct counter-point to Mormonism, yet still the exact same homophobia and discrimination. Growing up Mormon, I was told homosexuality was evil, abominable, and curable. Lately, the narrative had changed yet remained the same. Now homosexuality was seen as something that couldn’t be altered, but that must be just ignored and denied, for those who had sex even with a same-sex married partner would be shunned and kicked out. Yet here, the message was one of celebration and joy. Instead of “follow our rules or you are out,” it was “Everyone is welcome here! Jesus loves everyone! We don’t care about your sins cause we are all sinners! (And also, gay people are worse). Let Jesus love your gay away!”

I walked away from the broadcast feeling confused, angry, and sad. While each person has their own individual journey, including the right to be celibate or in a mixed-orientation marriage, I was so weary of people putting themselves on a platform to say “I did it, so you can too! Look at me as an example! If I can suffer, you can join me!”

I walked back into the cold night sky contemplating the ideas about Jesus, a bizarre concoction of unconditional love and required suffering, and realized that pretty much any moment I spent in any church was a moment I could be spending somewhere else. And if Jesus is real, I’m pretty sure he would be okay with that.

Brattleboro: Coffee and the Meringue Queen

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The view from the coffee shop window was perfect: a gentle, sloping, wide river lazily flowing between a set of old railroad tracks and a moderate hilltop covered in the greens, browns, and oranges of fall. I found myself hoping, almost desperately, that a train would go by and shake the building so that I could count the boxcars as they went by, the way I did as a child.

“In high school, everything is going to change. Even junior high is much more intense than middle school. I mean, when I was younger, I could just have fun, but now I have to get really serious about my studies. I either want to go into international relationships or one of the sciences, depending on how a few things go this year. I’m only in eighth grade, but my mother tells me that this is the time to get ready for the rest of my life. She feels like girls are the future. My dad agrees.”

I tried tuning out the loud voice behind me, turning back to my computer to focus n editing my novel. I’d finished my memoirs months before, but hadn’t taken any time to proofread and edit it down, and that was one of the major reasons I was here in Brattleboro, Vermont, taking a week in new spaces so that I could focus without distractions.

“I mean, look at everything happening in the world. There are so many terrible things! But that’s why girls have to step in and save the day. We make up half of the population and we simply have to step up and clean up the mess if we are going to save the future. First from this administration, then from the top down or the bottom up everywhere else. I think we can do it! And for me, it starts with my education. That’s why I wanted to meet with you. I’d like more female mentors to teach me along the way.”

Now I was intrigued. I turned me head to casually look at the table behind me. A young woman who looked about 20 years old (but who was only 14 by her own words) sat facing an older woman. The student with the loud voice was beautiful, blonde hair that hung to her shoulders, green sweater, gold necklace, no make-up. She looked like someone who would start in a Disney show for teens. The older woman had her back to me, but she had on a black felt hat and a black scarf, and she was hunched over a cup of steaming coffee. I turned away, eavesdropping a bit more. I couldn’t hear the older woman’s soft voice as she spoke, but I continued hearing the booming alto of the teenager.

“I love that you were a teacher. I love that you taught poetry! And I love that you were part of building this community out here. Maybe we could meet every other week or so and just talk? I would love to read your poetry and share mine with you and hear about your stories here. May I read one of my poems now?”

The girl then read a short poem about sweeping crumbs under a rug, then using the rug to cover an ancient stain on her floor, and then transitioned that into society’s mistakes being swept under the rug historically, finishing the thought that perhaps it is best to leave messes out in the open and try to clean them up instead of just hiding them. I was stunned. Suddenly a Garth Brooks’ song came on the radio, and I was distracted by the bizarre contract of his words with hers. “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care.” That song now, during her impassioned speech about history, feminism, and owning mistakes? I couldn’t help but laugh as I turned my head, and the teen girl briefly made eye contact with me, clearly annoyed at my gaze. I turned back away, still smiling anyway.

The old woman spoke for a long while, and I got lost back in my book editing, but soon, the young woman was talking again, this time about her family.

“It’s me and my two brothers. I’m the oldest. My parents are really cool. We all contribute to meals. Like, my mom makes all the fish. Sockeye, bass, everything. I don’t like salmon much, but we do a lot of fish around the house. We use lots of vegetables, of course. Me, I’m the desert person. I love desserts. Always from scratch. I make French macaroons, and I use lots of berries. My favorite is meringue. I’m the meringue queen, I guess you could say. Did you know you could do meringue out of chick peas? It’s delicious.”

I looked across the table at my sister, who was sipping at her iced latte and reading a book. She attends an all girls’ college nearby, where her wife works in administration. A quarter of the all-female student population was international, and the school embraced transgender women as part of its student body. Hours before, we had checked into an Airbnb, where a female homeowner named Carol welcomed us, and we learned that she was a pastor at a local church. Next door to the coffee shop where I sat was a church with a giant rainbow banner proclaimed ‘God isn’t done speaking’. Just last night, I saw an online music video by Amanda Palmer that showcased incredible women saving the world through mothering, the final image of the video being Palmer herself pulling out a breast to feed a Donald Trump looking alike, soothing him to sleep as she took his phone and Twitter feed away. And behind me, a young feminist who loved poetry and meringue was seeking out a feminist mentor to learn the history of women.

As the two women behind me packed their bags to leave, I clicked on CNN to see the latest headlines. A tweet from Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault, shaming Al Franken for being accused of sexual assault. More allegations that all opposing news is “fake news”. More allegations against Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey. A massive oil spill. More Russian connections drawn toward Kushner and the Trump administration. Political revolution in Zimbabwe. A story about a homeless man posing with his wife’s corpse before dismembering her.

Literally every story about horrible men in power abusing that power and doing horrible things. I shuddered from exhaustion. Then I looked at my sister, then at the departing mentor and student, then back at the slowly flowing river, and I realized there is far more hope than the news headlines convey.

It would just make patience, trust, and a lot of strong voices working together.

Pulse

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What is happening today will be the history we talk of tomorrow.

Truthfully, America’s history of full of brutal attacks, so many that we can barely remember some that happened only weeks ago, no less ones that happened years ago. But some are so terrible, so bloody, or so unique that they find a way of imprinting on our long-term community consciousness.

You may not remember Ruby Ridge, or the Washington DC sniper, or Haun’s Mill, or Fort Hood, or the Green River serial killer, or Andersonville, or even Trayvon Martin, but you do remember…

9/11.

Pearl Harbor.

Matthew Shephard.

The Challenger explosion.

Stonewall.

Sandy Hook.

Added to that list, those events which will imprint upon our community consciousness I believe, will be the Pulse.

With all of the horrible mass shootings that keep taking place, with it being almost commonplace, we just grow accustomed somehow to the terrible. It isn’t that we don’t care, it isn’t that we don’t feel, it’s that it is too much. It is too much for our brains to process.

Picture your day-to-day routine. Pick any place. In line at the grocery store, with your children at a public park, dropping your daughter off at school, at the movies, sitting at a table waiting for the food you ordered at your favorite restaurant. In any of these places, a man with a gun could walk in, his only intent is to kill as many people as he can. He ignores cries for help or people cowering in corners begging not to be seen, he just shoots and shoots and shoots.

We watch violent movies all the time. That violence is okay to our minds generally because we know it is fake. We know it is makeup and special effects. In a situation like this, though, there is blood and brain and bone and body.

Those lives that were cut short. Boyfriends holding hands, sons texting their mothers goodbye, people rushing for every exit. This is the world we live in right now.

Gun violence is happening in every corner of this country. California, South Carolina, Florida, the northeast and southwest and every place in between. It is horrifying. It is terrifying.

It’s only been about 60 hours since the Pulse shootings. We’ve attended vigils. We learned about the attacker. We’ve seen the names of the victims. We hugged our friends and shed some tears and lost some sleep.

But this time, this time something must change. How could we have let this continue after Virginia Tech? And Fort Hood? And Sandy Hook? How can we have let all this happen without changing things?

The country seems divided politically, as it always does. One side is crying out for stricter immigration reform, going so far as to suggest a ban all Muslims from American soil. The other side is calling for gun reform; not for taking guns away but for making mandatory background checks, mental health evaluations, and perhaps waiting periods before gun purchases.

I don’t understand why things aren’t changing. I can’t comprehend it.

In Salt Lake City, I work as an on-call crisis responder. Since the Pulse shooting, I have been called out twice, in my own city, to respond to the scenes of robberies where guns have been drawn and lives have been threatened. Twice. Since the Pulse. Angry men pointed guns at innocent people and made demands. No one was killed, but in both of these cases, the victims went home with deep emotional scars that may take years to recover from.

As I type this, several survivors of the Pulse shootings are fighting for their lives in hospital beds. Mothers are going to their sons’ apartments and cleaning up their belongings: their laptops with unfinished projects, their journals which now have a last entry written in them. Bosses are cleaning off the desks of their dead employees, putting their family photographs and coffee mugs into a cardboard box. Funeral directors are preparing coffins and urns, and memorial halls are being booked out.

It’s Tuesday and tomorrow is Wednesday and my heart still hurts and I don’t know what to do to make sure this never happens again.

Pride

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The year I was born, the first Pride flag flew. It had eight colors on it, each representing an inclusion of human character and history.

Pink represented Sexuality.

Red represented Life.

Orange represented Healing.

Yellow represented Sunlight.

Green represented Nature.

Turquoise represented Magic and Art.

Blue represented Serenity.

Violet represented Spirit.

The flag was commissioned by Harvey Milk, an elected official in San Francisco who served as an openly gay candidate after decades of political activism. He had a large following in his local neighborhood of the Castro, where he legitimized gay relationships and fought tirelessly for equality. The original flag was designed by Gilbert Baker, who drew inspiration from a number of sources.

The flag was first displayed in San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade that year. LGBT people marched in celebration of their lives, the rainbow representing safety and inclusion, sex and love, equality and peace. And then, just a few months later, Harvey Milk was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone. Orders for the flag sky-rocketed and in time it became a natural symbol for gay Pride.

While LGBT people are not the only group in the world to have suffered simply for being who they are, their struggles can not be overlooked. Over the centuries, they have been hidden, dishonorably discharged, imprisoned, put to death, denied health care, forcibly sterilized, disowned, fired, denied rights, electro-shocked, disenfranchised, ignored, condemned, beaten, murdered, and looked over simply for being attracted to the same gender or for having a different gender identity.

The rainbow flag now shows six stripes (hot pink and turquoise having been removed years ago, primarily due to the availability of the fabric at the time). It is hung in windows throughout in businesses and homes around the world, it is placed on the bumpers of cars, it is hung from flagpoles in public buildings, and it sends a message, quietly and colorfully, that all are welcome within, that LGBT people are celebrated instead of just being tolerated, that equality is a guiding principle of that home or building or community. A simple message, and profound.

This weekend in Salt Lake City, is the Pride festival. The rainbow flag can be seen everywhere. A festival occupies a major section of the city, where booths filled with food and advertisements, political endorsements and inclusive religious communities, free hugs from gay Mormons and free condoms from sexually affirming clinics, will be on display for families. Tomorrow morning, an hours-long parade will march through the streets, with businesses and organizations, clubs and churches, will march and sing and ride on floats, all with messages of love and inclusion. It isn’t about “gay agendas” or “gay lifestyles” or “religious tolerance and discrimination”. It isn’t about overt public sexual expressions or loose and scandalous morals. It is about respect for individuals who have a history that dates back to the beginnings of the world and factors into every society, every community, every family and culture.

Gay Pride is about Sexuality. And Life. And Healing. And Sunlight. And Nature. And Magic. And Serenity. And Spirit.

For me, Gay Pride is about loving who I am exactly as I am. It is about my first kiss with a man at age 32 and feeling my heart and spirit come alive. It is about holding the hands of my sons in a public park, where we will play catch and hide-and-seek, and them knowing that I am gay. It is about the tears I used to shed during my evening prayers, asking God for a cure. It is about hundreds of gay fathers marching in the streets of Seattle while thousands of people cheered for us in every direction. It is about standing tall and proud, not broken, and being lost in a see of humanity, shades of every color and aspects of every gender in each and every person. It is about dancing, arms spread wide, while music resonates within me and light washes over me. It is about learning where I have come from, and barely understanding where I am going. It is about falling in love, and having my heart broken, and standing back up again. It is about joining with my brothers and sisters, cis- and transgender, and standing tall, hand in hand, united despite our differences.

A stranger asked me yesterday, in kindness, how I would define my “gay lifestyle.” I smiled because I’ve been asked that question before, far too many times. And my answer was simple.

“My gay lifestyle is a lot like your straight lifestyle. I get up and brew my coffee. I exercise. I go to my office where I try to help others. I write and read in my spare time. I watch movies. I travel. I spend time with my friends. I raise my children to be happy and healthy and well-adjusted young men. I pay my bills. And I date men.”

The man sat back, surprised for moment, and then made eye contact with me and nodded.

“We really aren’t that different, are we?”

 

the Bisexual Ballet

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It started with two women kissing.

One, her long flowing hair pulled back into a ponytail that fell all the way to her hips, pulled the other, her hair short and even, in by an arm, their legs flowing beautifully out to the side, and they gently kissed.

Soon, a young man joined them, in a tight white shirt and jacket over jeans. He danced with one woman, then the other, then both.

The dancers took turns in various trysts, drawing into their partners, then pushing away. He would want one, then the other, then both, then neither. He was needed by one, then the other, then both, then neither.

At various points, the dancers stood to the side, pulling out their cell phones and ignoring the others, while the other dancers sought to reclaim their attention. One dancer, frustrated, pulled the phone out of the hand of the other, then checked it, leading the other to snatch it away in frustration.

A full orchestra backed the dancers, harps and horns, strings and pianos and drums, but they somehow faded into the background behind this powerful portrayal of human need.

I was moved by the performance, caught up in the idea of this new generation realizing that one person can’t always meet your needs, nor can two people. Ultimately, each person must respond to their own needs, then join others to find fulfillment, energy, attraction, love, desire. What we need yesterday isn’t what we need now, and what we need now isn’t what we will need a few hours from now.

The dancers pulled a set piece around, revealing an intricate office space, where they continued to vie for each other’s attentions in the workplace. Another flipped around to represent the home of one of the dancer’s, as the man and the woman arrived and departed, together and apart.

As the dancers leaped and pirouetted, gave and took, flowed and formed, I thought of all the couples I know, and the constant negotiation to get their needs met through all of the chaos and distraction of day to day life. Technology, errant glances from strangers, work, emotional baggage, personal pain.

The short-haired girl pulled tightly into the man, breathing him in deeply, clutching on to him in utter fulfillment, and then moments later pushed him away, frustrated that it could not be sustained. She danced on her own for a moment, then latched on to the dancer with the ponytail, then pushed her away too.

Back and forth and in and out and up and down and around and over. I need you, I want you, leave me alone, no one understands me, you are the only one who understands me, she understands me too, it’s so wonderful, it’s too much, it feels good, it hurts, i love you, i hate you, i don’t understand you, you have never made more sense to me, hold me, let me go, why didn’t you come after me, you should know what i need even when i don’t say it, i told you what i need, how am i supposed to know what you need, why can’t you need me more, why doesn’t she miss me, i miss her, i need space, i want i need i desire i love i hurt i feel i breathe i ache i am at peace i’m so happy i may never be happy.

I looked around at the audience in the symphony hall, dressed for the symphony and ballet. The numbers before this had been beautiful also, but this one was a limit pusher, two women kissing on stage in front of a primarily Mormon crowd in a primarily Mormon place. A couple in front of me clutched their hands in their laps and gave each other a few errant glances of disapproval, as if to say we should not be seeing this; when the number ended, they refused to clap.

An older woman in a daring gown, sequinned and black and purple, seemed hauntingly fulfilled by the number, and I wondered if she was thinking back to lost loves and unfulfilled desires.

Soon the number ended, in a crescendo, with all three dancers laying on the floor in each other’s arms, him and her and her, but they were already moving again as the light’s dimmed. They had found satisfaction, and were all ready to begin searching for it again.

I stood for this one, my hands powerfully clapping at this flawless performance. I clapped for the dancers and the orchestra, but mostly I applauded the choreography.

I applauded this brassy, bold, bisexual ballet.

 

 

Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide

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Sally Ride loved science more than anything.

And when her parents fostered a sense of purpose in her, during her upbringing primarily in California, Sally knew could do anything she wanted, at a time when many women did not realize their potential. In fact, after she made history by being the first American woman in space (two Soviet women beat her to it), she devoted decades of her life afterwards to inspiring middle school age girls to love and be inspired by science.

And when Sally recognized that girls are vastly under-represented in the fields of science (including math and engineering), she realized that 13 year old boys who get a C in science are told they can grow up to be anything, and that 13 year old girls who get an A in science are encouraged to be nurses and housewives.

And when Sally herself realized she was willing to live up to nothing less than her potential, while hitting tennis rackets on a nearly professional level, she put herself through college, excelling in a field dominated by  men.

And when NASA, after decades, finally opened up its recruitment to women, Sally applied, and moved to Texas to train as an astronaut. She worked tirelessly, using her analytical brain to solve complex problems, practicing for untold hours until she was skilled and it all made sense.

And when Sally was selected to be the first woman from the program to launch, she herself became an international celebrity, something she was quite unready for. In fact, Sally was a very private person. She had never even told her husband Steve, at the time, about being a lesbian, about falling in love with a woman in college. For, like so many others, it took her time to sort out her feelings from the expectations of her culture.

And when, for months before and after the launch, Sally endured exhausting questions from reporters: What makeup will you wear in space and If the pressure gets to be too much, will you just weep and They are working you so hard, you have no choice but to submit, I guess it is like being raped, you might as well just lay back and enjoy it and do you worry that the flight will harm your reproductive organs, and Johnny Carson made jokes about her bra on television, and Billy Joel immortalized her name in the song We Didn’t Start the Fire, tucking her smoothly in between Wheel of Fortune and heavy metal, suicide in his complicated lyrics, Sally smiled, nodded, quipped back, and asked the reporters why they weren’t asking these same questions to the male astronauts on her team, a team of equals.

And when Sally received her NASA uniform, she had the tag read, simply, Sally, not Ride or Dr. Ride, just Sally. 

And when Sally chose to be an astronaut, and her sister chose to be a minister, Sally’s mother joked that at least one of her daughters would make it to Heaven.

And when the Challenger exploded, and later the Columbia, Sally worked tirelessly until she found out why, exposing corruption within the industry that had resulted in the deaths of her peers.

And when Sally fell in love with Tam O’Shaughnessy, a beautiful and independent woman she had met years before, she quietly left her husband and moved in, telling no one, even her family.

And when Sally got cancer far too young, she suffered quietly, telling no one except her closest loved ones until the very end. And when Tam planned a memorial for Sally, and wondered how she should define their relationship, Sally thoughtfully considered coming out of the closet finally, but worried about its impact on NASA.

And when Sally died at age 61, and Tam told the world about their decades long relationship finally, the critics came out of the woodwork. The homophobic were outraged that a lesbian was such a public name. And among the LGBT community, they berated Sally for not coming out as a gay icon years before. And Sally’s family grieved on their own terms.

And when Sally’s name was used on scholarships and elementary schools and even a mountain range on the moon, Sally must have smiled, somewhere somehow.

Because Sally Ride loved science more than anything.

 

Why Barbara Jordan is My Hero

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On July 13, 1976, a New York Times article read:

“It is a classic American success story: A poor child of extraordinary intellect, driven by parents who sought a better life for their offspring; an ambitious student who turned to the study of law because it seemed to provide the key to influence; a young politician who, not despairing after defeats in two attempts for public office, was elected on the third try; a state senator and then a member of Congress, who sought out and gradually won the confidence of the powerful and who was not beneath compromising and making deals to win some of that power.

It was, in short, the road to success that white men had traveled since the country was founded.”

A few months ago, I had never heard of Barbara Jordan. I started doing daily posts on an LGBT history site that I created, and one day I came across Jordan. I clicked on a few links and watched her powerful and moving speech at the impeachment trial of Richard Nixon, where her mix of clear-headed and unbiased focus, social justice, and powerful oratory skills stirred my soul, and then I saw her moving speech at the 1976 Democratic National Convention and had to sit down I was so impressed. Then I learned that both speeches are considered in the top twenty of best American speeches given in American history. So I quickly sought to learn more about her.

Born in 1936, Barbara Jordan grew up in the poor sections of Houston, where segregation ensured lower education standards, poverty ran rampant, and unadulterated racism often resulted in lynchings, violent mobs, and unfair legal sanctions and punishments.

Barbara’s hero was her grandfather, her mother’s father, John Patten. Despite a meager upbringing, Patten married and had a family, and opened a candy shop, establishing a business with which he planned to provide for his family for their entire lives. When a young black man robbed Patten’s store one night, Patten grabbed his gun and chased the man into the streets. When white policemen saw Patten with a gun, Patten put up his hands to surrender, but one of the officers shot him in the hand. Patten was later put on trial, where the police claimed Patten had shot at them multiple times, and an all-white jury convicted Patten to ten years in jail. Patten served 8 years in filthy, undernourished conditions. He lost his business, and one of his children died while he was gone. Upon his exit, he began peddling junk, and he taught his favorite granddaughter, Barbara Charline, how to work hard and how to stand up for herself.

Barbara witnessed the impacts of racism and segregation on a daily basis growing up, but she was able to view the entire system with a keen mind. She excelled in school, learning how to emphasize her talents and challenge her shortcomings, and pushed herself through Harvard Law School. Settling back in Houston, she began running for public office, and quickly learned how the local white politicians wanted to take advantage of her talents and race to further themselves. She lost two elections before staking her own claim and digging in on her own terms.

Over the following years in her terms of government, first in the Senate, and then in Congress, Barbara developed the unique ability to stand firmly for African Americans, and for women, while maintaining alliances with the white politicians around her, particularly one with Lyndon B. Johnson during his time in office as president. She was sought out hundreds of times for public speeches, was considered for the vice presidency by Jimmy Carter (though she ended up turning down an offer in his White House unless he offered her the position of Attorney General; he didn’t), and had a group of national followers who wanted her to run for President, but she felt the time was not right.

Jordan had the unique capacity to remain in the moment, something I strive for on a daily basis. She could take insurmountable tasks, like researching and dusting off old policies and procedures, without the benefit of the Internet, and spending weeks and months compiling notes to form clear-headed arguments. She addressed her needs, formed boundaries, celebrated life, valued her friends and loved ones, and maintained a balance of self-care, career aspirations, and personal relationships. She lived, and she lived large, and she lived well.

Barbara died just short of the age of 60, after a years long battle with multiple sclerosis and, later, leukemia. At her side until the end was Nancy Earl, an educational psychologist, a white woman, and Barbara’s best friend, lover, and partner for 30 years. Barbara lived in a time when she could not come out as lesbian, and likely had to introduce the love of her life as her “roommate” or “friend” in public. They weren’t allowed to marry, but they lived as if they were. Earl and Jordan loved each other deeply and fully. They owned a home together and traveled together, an interracial lesbian couple in Texas, keeping their home life a secret from the public. This both delights me and makes me sad.

Barbara Jordan was the first southern black woman elected to the House of Representatives, the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after the Reconstruction, the first black woman to address the Democratic National Convention, and the first black woman to be buried in Texas State Cemetery. Since her death, Jordan has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, has been put on a postage stamp, has been placed in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and has had numerous schools as well as a main terminal in the Austin airport named for her.

Barbara Jordan broke down barriers for women, for African Americans, and for LGBT people, in the face of oppression and impossible obstacles. Her skills and talents led her to rise above. Now envision a world in which all are given equal opportunities for success, when systems of oppression and privilege are not in place to hold others back. What have we missed out on because we favor the majority and make it easier for them to succeed?

I am proud to call Barbara Jordan a personal hero. My world is better because she lived.

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