Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Being present, just as I am

I will be headed to Kansas City for a funeral this weekend.

Jerry Amundson, father of my dear friend Eric, died Tuesday night after three months of degenerative illness. Jerry and his wife Bev had been some of my biggest cheerleaders about coming to seminary in Chicago, and they and Eric's family were among my financial supporters when the bottom fell out of my life financially a year and a half ago. Jerry and Bev have been one of three sets of adoptive parents for me in my sober life the last fifteen years, and they've meant a lot to me.

While Jerry's death wasn't a surprise, it still was a shock. The one rule that everyone who knew him was sure of was, "Don't count Jerry out just yet." So there is a certain emptiness knowing our journey together is done, for a time.

There were a bunch of tears yesterday, as the reports came from the hospital in KC showed that Jerry probably wasn't going to make it, but I'm doing OK with it, now. Acceptance has come eaiser, knowing that he's lived a good life but was in absolute misery at the end. "Well done, good and faithful servant..."

Eric, Jerry's son, is one of about a half-dozen folks in our old church crowd that I'm out to. In fact, he's been one of the most openly accepting of my coming out (he's the guy who called me as "the cute boy from Hong Kong" during his last trip). I've been looking forward to him coming to Chicago for a business meeting, but that trip's been put off several times (due to weather and scheduling).

But there's a bunch of folks that I've not specifically outed myself to - including his parents - and I had a brief debate about having those encounters this weekend. On the one hand, it's an opportunity to come out face-to-face with some people that I love, which is good. On the other hand, I have significant evidence that the world really doesn't revolve around me, and this weekend (or whenever the memorial is held) is about Jerry and his family, not about me and acceptance of my orientation.

For now, I've settled the debate to just be present, to focus on the people and the events at hand - but not to hide if questions come up about girlfriends or "the next Mrs. F." It's the same way I've been dealing with things at work. I don't have to pull an Emmett Honeycutt routine to be out at work - but when we joke about relationships, I'm clear to talk about boyfriends rather than girlfriends, and with my one friend Sabina, who keeps saying "Have you got that straight?" (rather than "Do you understand?") I give her the classic line: "Honey, I don't even think straight, any more..." (And to her credit, she laughs every time.)

I'm guessing the same approach will work this weekend, too. Not camp, by any means - but not hiding, either. No purple scarf (that routine's already been taken) but maybe a pink tie to go with the black suit. Wish I could find a lapel pin like the rainbow "fish" symbol refrigerator magnet my homo-mentors got me, but I don't think I'll have time to go shopping in Boystown before I leave.

Cue the Gloria Gaynor music...

I am what I am
And what I am needs no excuses
I deal my own deck sometimes the aces sometimes the deuces
It’s one life and there’s no return and no deposit
One life so it’s time to open up your closet
Life’s not worth a damn till you can shout out
I am what I am
Amen, Gloria - you preach it, girl.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

What and who I am is not how I look

Late last week, I had a long talk with a young man (ok, not that young...he's 33) who I used to sponsor in AA back in Kansas. He's been through some rough times, and we kind of lost touch. He'd heard through a friend that I'd come out, but we just hadn't talked since last August, when I was really getting ready to move out of the "private" phase and be more publicly out. So it was an interesting conversation...

He was every kind of supporting - delighted to hear about some of the steps I'd taken, curous (as many have been) about the "Why'd you wait until now??" question. Then, out of the blue, he asked, "So...have you met anyone? Anyone special in your life?"

I had to admit that it's only been in the last six or eight months that I've even allowed myself to look at other guys that way. And the standard excuses came out...too busy...too much work...not exactly a circuit boy...but they were half-hearted. And my young friend said, "Well, what are you waiting for?"

Damn good question, Jimmy...

Then, in the process of catching up with friend's blogs, I read Geek Boi's "general coming out" post, where he posted his picture. And I was really shocked...not by the picture (which is really quite nice, actually), but by the words. It was like my words were coming out of his post...

There's a part of me saying "Don't post your pic, don't cross the Rubicon. You're largely anonmyous -- you can always try to be straight later on if the pressure gets too much. Nobody needs to know that you're gay, nobody needs to know anything about you! Hell, you're not cute enough to be gay..." etc,etc ....This is also difficult for me as I have body image issues like you wouldn't believe. I can't help but stare at my picture and just see nothing but ugliness......
I read that and thought, "Sweet Jesus, someone's been reading my mind." Because, you see, I'm right there with ol' GB, folks.

I've been spending a lot of time this weekend thinking about this. I've got pictures of me in high school - and while no one would ever mistake me for a member of the gymnastics team, I was not that hideous a fellow. But I have always had this image of myself as the ugly duckling...and have always been waiting for the magic to happen, and turn me into the beautiful swan. (Hasn't happened, as of yet...) But remembering brought back this set of events that sort of cemented that ugly-duckling image in my head...

Back in my junior year of high school, I was invited to join an all-guys youth group. A group of us got to be good friends, drinking buddies (yes, Virginia, in high school), and hung around together a lot. While I was significantly less rotund than I am now, I really saw myself as horribly obese back then - and showers in gym class showed that I was well behind the curve on the male-endowment scale.

But somehow I fit in with this group of guys - a couple of whom were rather unattractive (even to my jaundiced eye) but most of whom were quite fit and attractive (in what seemed at the time to be a disturbing way). It was a strange mix of jocks and geeks and misfits of all kinds from across several school districts, and yet we still seemed to click in many ways.

One of the ways we'd blow off steam in the summer was going up to a cabin on Lake Erie near Vermillion, Ohio for the weekend. It wasn't much of a cabin - but it had beds, a TV, a flush toilet, and a refrigerator, which was just enough for eight or ten guys planning on spending a weekend drunk and goofing off. I was already an 80th-percentile alcoholic by that stage of the game - so the idea of a weekend drinking sounded like a good deal to me. And, as one of the three guys who were "of age" at the time, I was part of the "bucket brigade" for the weekend, which made me an essential part of the fellowship and guaranteed me an invitation and a comfy bed spot.

There was a lot of sleeping in, swimming, a lot of horsing around, and of course the requisite smuggled straight-porn mags (no porn tapes in those days - the VHS VCR wasn't introduced until later that year, Christmas 1977). (Yes, I'm that old). Sometimes we'd start off with a trip to Cedar Point (not much drinking those weekends until we got back from the Point, of course). But for the most part, it was just hanging around the cabin, the beach, and the barbeque.

After the first couple weekends, it sure seemed like several of my buddies were getting to be much closer with their youth-group brothers than I was. Though all but three of that group ended up well down toward the "zero" end of the Kinsey scale, you'd never have known it from the sounds coming from the sleeping bags on the beach, or the squeaking of the bedsprings in the cabin. Despite the complete absence of women, almost everyone (it seemed) was getting some on those weekends.

Everyone, it seemed, except me.

It was painful enough to know that my romantic life in high school had been pretty bland, never getting past third base with any girl (even my 2-year steady girlfriend). I knew I was no prize physically; but I also knew that these guys weren't going for "attraction" or "beauty"- they were just getting off with whoever was around.

Again - except me.

I started to understand how the red-nosed reindeer felt when "they never let poor Rudolph/play in any reindeer games." I started trying to work my way into the groups - joining them when they took their sleeping bags down on the beach - but when I did that, it seemed there was complete stillness until they thought I was asleep, and then the action slowly started, often with a couple sleeping bags pulled away a bit so they wouldn't wake me.

I remembered waking up one morning with a pounding hangover as the sun was coming up, to find two of my friends asleep on top of their sleeping bags, bare-ass naked and holding each other spoon-style. The lake breeze had picked up just a bit, and they were both covered with goose-bumps. Yet they both had this air of bliss about them, and I could see the navy-blue sleeping bag was sprayed with the dried remnants of the prior night's entertainment. Further down the beach, I could see what looked like two more sleeping-bags zipped together, and another pair of my friends snuggled together in what looked like an excess of "brotherly love."

I looked back at the naked pair in front of me, both turned on and infuriated by what I saw. Standing there, watching these two guys who I'd always considered to be my friends, I had this irrational desire to kick both of them until I smashed their naked ribs in. I remember wanting to find a large rock and smash their skulls. I don't think I'd ever before felt that kind of murderous mixture of envy, disappointment, rejection and rage.

I'd had the empty fear that I'd get old and be alone before, but I think that morning was when I decided that I was never going to be desirable to anyone, period. I eventually ended up having a series of one-nighters with my best friend (the first, and only, male "love of my life"), but only when both of us were drunk. Right about that time, I met a woman who found my personality attractive, and did not seem to find me physically distasteful. Even though I eventually married her, I still felt deep inside that I was truly unattractive and sexually not too competent. And that self-loathing, combined with my dark, skulking doubts about my masculinity, didn't do much for our intimate lives. By the time we divorced, any pretense of intimacy had long since vanished.

When I was first considering coming out, one of my arguments to Tom and Damien went like this: "Let's see...I could either be an overweight, greying, middle-aged, under-endowed gay man, and put myself in line for all the abuse gays get. Or I could be an overweight, greying, middle-aged, under-endowed straight man, and skip all the gay bashing and prejudice. Either way, I'm going to bed alone, it seems..."

That's why when I read GB's "Hell, you're not cute enough to be gay..." comment, it was like I got slapped with my own words.

I've since come to realize that being hot is part of the gay stereotype - which is perpetuated by us average gay guys staying in the closet. While a lot of gay men do look fabulous, being a duckling doesn't make me any less gay - or any less worthy of caring or a relationship. True, I'm probably not going to attract someone like least, not without an offer of a lot of money...

(Ryan Carnes, from the great indie movie Eating Out)

But it doesn't mean I'm going to be alone for the rest of my life, either. It doesn't matter, in the end, what I look like. Being gay isn't about being attractive...I know that now. It's about a physical attraction to men - independent of how I look, or to what kinds of guys I'm attracted. And (though it took a while to see it) I'm now sure that, having come out to more and more people, there isn't any way I can go back into the closet - even if I wanted to. [Cue music: "I Am What I Am"]

But I definitely have to enlarge my gay social venues. Because of my schedule, I haven't had the chance to hang around much with my two favorite homo-mentors lately - and they're moving to Wisconsin Dells in the next month or so. So I've got to get out and get "out" with some of the gay natives - and at least find some friends.

Fantasy life to the contrary, I don't think I'm gonna be going out with Ryan Carnes any time soon- any more than any of my straight friends think they'll be makin' it with any of the Baywatch babes. But my hope (and my prayer) is that I'll find someone who can see past the outside and find some joy with the cuddly bear on the inside.

It'll be worth the effort - and the wait.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Trusting, loving, telling the truth

The closet is not where homosexuals hide - it is where the truth is hidden until we take it out into the light.
This quote is one of many truths that I've been reading, re-reading, and slowly digesting from Rob Eichberg's classic book Coming Out: An Act of Love. Published in 1990, Eichberg drew from the experience, strength and hope of gays and lesbians who participated in workshops called The Advocate Experience from 1978 to 1990. Despite being nearly 16 years old, it is an incredible resource for anyone who's going through the coming-out process.

Eichberg subtitled the book "An inspiring call to action for gay men, lesbians, and those who care." He does a good job of inviting the straight family and friends of people who are coming out into the process, pointing out where they can help and support the ones they love in their coming out process.

The core of Eichberg's work is simply this: the very core of love is honesty. Yet those of us who are closeted are hiding a central truth about ourselves from those we love - precisely out of fear of losing that love. The first section of the book talks about being gay, and the reactions to it. And it names two central fears of so many closeted GLBT's - if someone finds out who you really are, they won't love you anymore...compounded by feeling you are not even courageous enough to tell the truth. Those two fears helped me to refuse to even consider my true sexuality for years - decades, in fact.

But Eichberg's "inspiring call to action" is no less important - that perceptions about gays and lesbians will never change until the world knows who we really are. He writes, "By hiding your sexual orientation, you have contributed to the prevailing stereotypes of what it is to be gay." It's a message that I first heard from Tom and Damien as they encouraged me to take my first steps out of the closet - and one I'm glad that they ever-so-gently hammered home, because it's true in more ways than I could have imagined.

There's lots more that I'm going to reflect on from this book - lessons I'm learning, and relearning at this point. But for now, the work-a-day (and night) world is calling. But there's more to come...

Sunday, February 05, 2006

They should have known all along...

(Me at 3 years old, in a dashing homemade outfit.) Posted by Picasa

Yup, that's me.

Notice the smile?
That's what I'm trying to recapture.

The beautiful blond hair is now a slightly flatter blond with tinges of gray... there's no way (short of Clairol or Grecian Formula) to recover the hair. But it's the childlike joy that I'm going for, though. The smile and the eyes that say, "Anything is possible." This will be my avatar, I think, for quite a while.

(But yeah, from that outfit alone, they should have known how I'd turn out...)

There's lots to write about - lots more than I have time to write today. There's a series of posts that will be devoted to my experience with the book Coming Out: An Act of Love by Rob Eichberg. There's the raw sewage flowing between the evangelical Christians and the "emergent church" movement over Brian McLaren's comments about homosexuality.

But for now, there's two things to share - a funny moment at an AA meeting, and a prayer request. First the fun moment...

Thursday night, I'd had about all of work I could take. I was looking forward to meeting up with a young man I'd been sponsoring in AA and going to a meeting together. This meeting just happened to be one of the two "Hyde Park neighborhood" AA meetings at which I'd come out openly. It's a good group - a short speaker shares experience, strength and hope and then comments follow.

During the meeting, my sponsee spoke up, reflecting on his early sobriety. He'd intended to share how he'd been pretty dependent on me as a guide in his early days. Just about everyone in the room knew that I was his sponsor, and had seen him kind of cling to me, and a few others in the rooms when he was newly sober.

But what he ended up saying was, "Back then, I spent a lot of time hiding behind my sponsor's skirt..."

Now I knew (and a lot of people also knew) what he meant.

And we all saw his eyes go wide, as he realized what he'd said, and about whom. What was written all over his face for that one second was "WTF did I just SAY?" He tried to recover, saying "...pant leg," but it was too late. The whole room was roaring in laughter - me right along with them. One person in particular, who's commented on this blog a time or two, started chiming in with images of me in a pink tutu...and that just made the laughter louder. My young friend turned about 15 shades of pink, and stayed pretty flushed even as the laughter died down.

Later that night, as the meeting ended, he was more than a little mortified and kept trying to apologize that he could have said "something like that." I laughed, and told him that it was a beautiful moment, and the look on his face was worth the price of the good-natured ribbing I took about it. My joy was in being free enough to be able to laugh at myself, and reassure him that it was absolutely OK.

Earlier today, as we were talking, I reminded my friend about his little faux-pas (and got another good laugh out of it). He said, "I just remember when you first told me about it [coming out], and it seemed like it was a serious deal for you. I just didn't want to embarrass you about it." I told him that for me, the joy was being able to say that friends joking around like that was going to be part of being out and free - and I was glad that it happened exactly as it did.

What I didn't say explicitly to him (but need to) is that part of the reason I can be more free about being gay is precisely because at the time that I thought my homosexuality would be a big deal to him, that it wasn't. His acceptance of me as I began the public portion of coming out was the gift that allowed me to "keep on keepin' on," and I owe him a debt of gratitude for that encouragement and support.

The prayer concern is this - there are five people that I need to come out to - my former spouse, my late mentor's widow (and one of my surrogate mom's) in KC, and another set of surrogate parents and two of their children. Each one is still very much a part of my life (if a somewhat disconnected, distant part), and each relationship carries some baggage of its own. So just pray for me, as I begin to write those letters, to continue to be open and honest as this journey goes on.

Because only by being open and honest will I ever be able to recover that little boy's joy and hope.