Friday, March 03, 2006

Baby-steps, and "Why are you doing this?"

First, to my blogging friends, my apologies. It has been a long and emotional week, and I have light-years to go to catch up with your writings. That's the goal for this weekend, anyway. So please be patient...I really have missed the chance to be able to stay connected with y'all.

Lots of baby steps on the road to Gayopolis - so get a cup of coffee and settle in...

I had not intended for this weekend to be a big coming-out time - as I wrote earlier, it was a weekend for the memorial for a friend, not discussions about my sexuality. But there were a couple folks who I was going to be able to see face-to-face for the first time since deciding to come out publicly, and it seemed like a good chance to come out to them while I was visiting in Kansas.

Friday night, I had a late-night coffee-n-conversation with my friend Eric, who I've mentioned a couple other times in this blog (here and here). It was his dad who died - and so we talked a while about how Eric was doing, and the events of having his dad die while he was out of town. He asked me about stuff about my spiritual life - where I was going to church (no one specific place), how I was doing, and so forth. But when a lull came in the conversation, near midnight, I said, "OK, I know this weekend is not about me, but while it's just us, I have one burning question I have to ask..." He raised one eyebrow and smiled, and I said, "So...you really weren't surprised?"

Turns out that Eric had more-or-less guessed my orientation back in 1997. Back in college, Eric's roommate Rick came out to him, and the two of them remained friends and roommates throughout their KU days. Rick came to stay with Eric's folks in late 1997, as part of recuperating from some surgery. During that visit, I'd met Rick, and evidently I asked Rick and Eric both about Rick's being gay, and how it affected their relationship. In the course of that visit, Rick had evidently asked Eric if I was gay, and Eric said I probably "had some tendencies in that direction." (Yeah, Eric...just a few...)

Eric asked an interesting question, though. As best I remember it, it was, "So really - why are you doing this? Most of the time, when people have come out to me, they are generally looking for approval of their adopting a homosexual lifestyle. Is that what you're looking for? And if not, why are you bothering?"

It's an important question - if only because in many ways I am coming out without the "carrot" of a same-sex relationship, and yet without the "stick" of gay-related disease. For a lot of straight folks, there would really be no other reason to come out. And (for better or worse) I have neither issue in my life, for now.

I gave this answer several times this weekend, when the question came up, and I think it's important to share it here:

"First, because I'm tired of living the lie, and having the folks who care about me not really know me. For me, my sexuality is a non-issue, in many ways - but it's a non-issue that I've expended incredible amounts of energy to hide from people. So the first part of this is simply about being honest - with myself, and with you. It's just easier to be open and honest."

"The second part is more general, if no less important: there is a very prevalent stereotype of homosexuals and the homosexual lifestyle that absolutely does not apply to 90% of the gay and lesbian folks I know. Everyone keeps talking about this 'homosexual lifestyle,' but so far I haven't received my Homosexual Lifestyle Starter Kit, with the hot cabana boy, crystal meth and and a spandex outfit. Maybe it was sent out, and I just wasn't there to sign for the delivery."
(hat-tip to GeekBoi for that classic line...)

"But the only way that this stereotype is ever going to die is going to be when gay men like me are willing to step out of the closet and stop hiding their 'gay lifestyles,' which are so damn normal in so many ways!"

"The only way that people are going to come to understand gay life is when they realize the vast number of relationships
that they already have with gay men and lesbians all around them. The fact is, it's simply harder to hate what (and who) you know."

"And especially in the Christian church, when people debate 'the homosexual question,' when my straight church friends think about them, I want them to think, Oh, yeah - they're talking about my friend Steve..."
So that's why I'm doing this. And Eric appreciated the answer, I think.

Of course, there is another side of this topic for me, as well.

To be rigorously honest, yes - I'd like to have at least a slice of the homosexual lifestyle. I'd love to have a host of gay friends to go along with the wealth of straight friends I already have, and (someday) a loving and intimate relationship with someone. And in the couple times I was asked this weekend, I didn't shy away from admitting it either. As I've half-jokingly said to several folks, while celibacy is non-fatal, it certainly isn't a lot of fun. (And, thankfully, it is ultimately treatable, given willing practitioners.) For so long, I'd resigned myself to living and dying alone. While I don't know what God has in store for me, I do hope I can find a way to do better than that, with God's help.

And so the weekend went. The conversation with Eric ended well; the conversation with my sponsor Barry on Saturday morning went well, and he ended up in the "well, I'm neither surprised nor unsurprised - but it changes nothing" column.

I had a particularly interesting discussion with one of the young men I'd sponsored in AA before I left - I'd come out to him earlier, via email and phone. But Ryan actually asked a question that floored me: "Now I know that while you sponsored me, you never put a move on me, and I trusted you with my life more than once. But now that you've come out to me, I have to ask you, strictly as a gay man: Do you think I'm attractive?"

Trust me - that was an "oh, wow..." moment. He had me flustered for a moment or two.

After all, as an AA sponsor, I've always believed that sponsorship relationships are really a holy calling - even more so than I'd ever thought of my calling to ministry. And at the time I was sponsoring this fellow, I'd thought myself so personally unattractive that even if I found him attractive, I knew for certain that whatever was there would never be returned, regardless of his orientation (which is definitely near zero on the Kinsey scale). So I'd never, ever thought of Ryan in that way.

Until then.

In fact, it kinda ruined any chance I'd ever have of sponsoring him again. Because yes, to me he is a rather attractive guy.

When I told him that, along with how uncomfortable it was to admit it, he smiled. "You know," he said, "my wife keeps saying things like, 'Those women better keep their hands off you,' and I've always wondered why she thinks I'd be attractive to other women. I just never ever believed it from her..."

And then he smiled, a little sheepishly, and said, "...but I knew you'd tell me the truth."

That brought tears to my eyes.

At dinner Saturday night, before the Sunflower Roundup AA conference, I was listening to my buddy Mike talk about some struggles he was having with various lady-folk, and I half-jokingly said, "That's where we're both alike - when it comes to relationships and sex, it's the same old three problems - 'too much, too little, wrong kind.' You do 'too much,' and I end up doing 'too little' and 'wrong kind.'"

Mike smiled, and said, "Oh, so you're finally gonna tell me you're gay, huh?"

Trust me – that was not the reaction I was expecting...

So, I hemmed and hawed, and finally said, "Well, yeah, actually, that was on the agenda..." He laughed, and said, "Bruce [my first Kansas AA sponsor] and I have been wondering for years when you were finally going to tell us!"

Yeah, Mike...well, it took a while to figure it out for myself, actually...

And that was pretty much the end of that.

Sunday morning was one of my more challenging encounters. I was staying with a friend and semi-retired Lutheran pastor - one who I'd been a ministry-partner with in my original Kansas congregation. He and his wife have been good friends over the last seven or eight years, and they have been some of my biggest supporters when I came to Chicago to seminary. They were two folks I'd hoped to have some time to have a talk with over the weekend, but my schedule and theirs had kept it from happening so far.

So it was a little surprise when, over coffee and orange juice Sunday morning, John said to me, "So, Steve...I've heard that you've been telling people that you're gay...and that it was on your web-site. But I went over to your site, and I couldn't find anything. Is this true?"

Well, that wasn't the way I'd intended to start that conversation, but that worked...

To make a long story less long, John works part-time at the church I'm still a member of back in Kansas, and he'd heard this from my senior pastor, to whom I'd come out via email back in November. Since I'd told Pastor Joe that I was going to be sharing this with several other folks in my circle of church friends, he evidently talked about it with John...which was entirely cool.

John and Judy were the first ones of my friends to suggest talking to Exodus International. Exodus had started out as an "ex-gay ministry," and for years supported efforts to convert people back from homosexuality to a hetero orientation. Over the years, their success rate has dwindled - several of their public "success stories" have in fact returned to "the lifestyle" - and so their focus has changed to getting people to accept their homosexuality as a special kind of spiritual challenge, and to help encourage them to live a celibate life.

In fact, I've talked to folks from Exodus a couple times - both back in the "God can change you" stage of the game and in the more recent "you can live with this and not sin" mode. John and Judy likened homosexuality to alcoholism - in both cases, it's important to accept that you never stop being what you are. But so long as you don't take the proscribed actions (either taking a drink, or engaging in same-sex relations), you can live just fine.

I pointed out to them that I already had the celibacy thing down pat - the first 12 years ought to have proved that - and that, as part of my former plans for ministry, I'd planned on living celibate for the balance of my ministry life. So the whole celibacy thing was a non-starter for me.

For me, the central issue is that I was made this way - I didn't wake up one day and turn to the "dark side" (no pun intended). My sexuality is hard-wired at the core of my being - period. There was no choice made to be gay - and I've done lots of prayers and crying out to God to not be this way. So either God is a cosmic Creator with a quality control problem (the One who says, "before you were knitted together in the womb, I knew you" who nonetheless evidently dropped a stitch or two) - or the way I am is part of the order of Creation.

In the end, they told me they loved me, that I was always welcome in their home, and that God was going to use me in powerful ways. They also gave me a video from the Exodus folks, which I actually agreed to watch. And I sent them a thank-you note for their hospitality, with a link to this blog. I hope they read it. I love them both dearly, and I hope they can come to understand (even if they don't agree).

There is much more I have to write about this weekend, as well as a post or two about the idea of God as Crazy-Boy, but I need to get dressed and out the door to work. But if you've made it this far, I have to say thanks for sticking with me. This is an amazing journey...

4 comments:

  1. steve
    glad it went well....I know that it is hard to run into disapproval from loved ones....this forces us to keep the secrets that devour our souls from the inside out. As per usual, I would say a lot more but time doesnt allow it...my daughetr is running around like a mad-toddler.

    pete

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  2. About the problem of being attracted to guys you sponsor: From my days as a formation director in a religious community (think seminary staff, those of you who have no idea what that means), I am well aware of some nightmare stories where the director took advantage of a seminarian sexually. [Incidentally, heterosexual seminary staff sometimes take advantage of opposite-sex seminarians, so don't get your shorts in a knot. Or else, get them in a non-discriminatroy knot.] So I was always on the lookout to make sure that I didn't fall into that trap with the occasional attractive -- physically, intellectually, even spiritually -- student. This is always necessary in "helping" relationships. One of the very first workshops that students at the Catholic Theological Union have to take is on professional behavior and boundaries.

    Because of my specific job, and even though I was out to superiors, I did not always have the choice to just pass the guy along to someone else. But since I was aware of my feelings and could make choices about my behavior -- what I said, what I did and even what I allowed my mind the dwell on -- I did not personally ever find myself tempted. So I don't think you have to disqualify yourself forever automatically now that you can be open to yourself and monitor yourself. As an AA veteran, you know that part of this monitoring is reporting regularly to your own sponsor about what is going on.

    When I was "interviewing" the guy who has been my sponsor for a few years, I told him up front that I found him attractive and asked if that would be a problem. I told him I did not anticipate it being an issue, because I was still in the monastery and had every intention of continuing to honor my commitments as a celibate. He said he didn't think it would be a problem, and if it became an issue, we would deal with it then. It never did, not even after we began the gay kiss-hello-and-goodbye. Of course, I became incensed once when he said that he chooses not to sponsor people he finds attractive -- all of a sudden I wanted to say, "What am I? Chopped liver?"

    So my take on that is that it CAN be a major problem. I have seen cases of real abuse and think that both parties need to be aware of possible issues. But if you are working on rigorous honesty with yourself and others, if you apply the principles of the program to that relationship, if you have some significant time of stability as an out gay man under your belt, and if your own sponsor thinks it would be possible, then it can work.

    It does remind me of a story about John of the Cross, one of the most respected spiritual writers and spritual directors in Catholic church history. He once directed a woman who was a spiritual fraud, and he did not discover it. Someone else did, though, and then John's friends asked him why he had missed it. He admitted that he had become fond of her, and that blinded him to what was going on and kept him from challenging her on things that bothered him. That was not necessarily a sexual attraction (not necessarily non-sexual, either), but it doesn't matter. He let his emotions get in the way of the objectivity he needed. If John of the Cross was vulnerable, I am certainly vulnerable.

    And on a happier note, congratulations on so many outings, as it were! Baby steps cover a lot of ground when you keep taking them.

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  3. Steve, what a weekend!
    I am so taken with your honesty and integrity. I hope to do so well when I grow up!

    Your call to sponsorship is a call to ministry. You may get to the ordained stuff one day, but your ministry is no less real or powerful than those who wear funny collars.

    Your sponsee asked if you found him attractive because he knew you would tell him the truth - that sir is a high compliment! (And he knew a queer always can tell the best.)

    Your journey helps me in mine, and gives me hope. Thank you.

    Cheers, Joe.

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  4. "After all, as an AA sponsor, I've always believed that sponsorship relationships are really a holy calling - even more so than I'd ever thought of my calling to ministry. And at the time I was sponsoring this fellow, I'd thought myself so personally unattractive that even if I found him attractive, I knew for certain that whatever was there would never be returned, regardless of his orientation (which is definitely near zero on the Kinsey scale). So I'd never, ever thought of Ryan in that way."

    Well, Steve, you know my views on the matter, so I won't go into them in depth.

    My view, based on my own experience and the advice of other experienced people over the years, is that the danger of inappropriate behavior is, while not unimportant, much less important than the distortions that enter the sponsor/sponsee relationship when we either like or dislike a sponsee beyond a general neutrality. I think either emotion -- attraction or the opposite -- creates a distraction, and subtly change the dyamic of the relationship, with the danger that we might not give the advice/suggestions we would give without the emotional component. It is all to easy, as Damien Scott points out, to be "blind" when we need to see with sharp, unbiased eyes.

    I sponsored a man I thought was attractive for a couple years, as you know, and I made sure that my sponsor monitored the situation on a weekly basis. It worked, but it worked because my sponsee and I were both fully aware of the danger and kept an eye on it, and my sponsor monitored the situation on an ongoing basis.

    So my suggestion is that you talk this over in depth with your sponsor, and include a rigorous examination of your sponsor/sponsee relationships, past and present, in your 4th Step inventory this time around. If there is a problem, you'll see it if you are rigorously honest. If, after you've taken an inventory, you don't find a problem, then you'll rest more easily.

    I think that you handled the weekend well, and I hope to see you soon.

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