Thursday, August 31, 2006

A gift of hope from an extraordinary young man

On Thursday, I had a day from the bowels of hell at The Evil Empire, and it took the entire AA meeting, getting introduced to the mother of my sponsee's child, and a pralines-&-cream ice cream cone to detox from it. But I find that my Higher Power usually holds the best gifts for last, and tonight that gift was waiting for me in my Gmail inbox.

In previous posts, I've shared about my history in a Masonic youth group called DeMolay, and how part of my struggles about coming out to a dear friend would be to put the kabosh on ever participating in DeMolay advisorship again. (And there's a hundred other good reasons not to do that - but it was still aggravating.)

The email was from a DeMolay advisor in Buffalo, NY - saying that he'd found my blog, and thought I'd be interested in an article in the Buffalo Evening News, an editoral written by his son.

His gay son. His gay DeMolay son.

The article is a little over 2,700 words, and ran in the August 31st edition of the paper. I got a copy of it from their archives, and would be glad to share it with you if you click on my email link or comment below. It describes his coming-out experience as a 15-year-old student at Grand Island High School in Grand Island, NY. He came out to two of his best friends, and they in turn encouraged him to come out to his parents, and then to his close circle of friends. Then a year ago, he came out to the entire school on National Coming Out Day 2005. It goes on to describe some of his fears, hopes, and experiences as an out gay teen.

I read that article, and my first reaction was, " What an incredible story..."

My second (and entirely self-centered) reaction was, "Damn... I wish I'd had a tenth of the courage this guy has when I was 18..." I was just completely blown away by this young man and his journey.

And yet - Abram Morgan and I, despite more than thirty years separating us, have much in common in our stories. He starting his "outing" with two good friends; mine began with my two dear friends in AA who were gay, with whom I have shared much that has been important over the last two years. And the first two straight people I told were also two friends whom I trusted deeply.

Like Abram's father, the people I was most worried about were the ones for whom my sexuality was no surprise (like my friends Eric or my other Kansas friends) or no big deal.

Like Abram, I am less afraid of other people's emotional reactions and more afraid of their physical reactions. My friend Tom would walk through Hyde Park with a black leather cowboy hat, a black leather bomber jacket, and an enormous bright purple scarf that pretty well screamed its message. But, as I've often teased him, it's a little easier to be that "screaming" when your a former Special Forces soldier. When you're an out-of-shape ball of confrontation avoidance (as I am), it's a little tougher to pull off the bravado...

But I am learning...slowly.

There are, however, a couple ways in which I envy Abram Morgan his life and his courage. I remember back to my own days as a 19 and 20 year old in DeMolay, and how two of the guys in my own "posse" got caught "in the act." It immediately fractured the gang into two almost evenly-divided groups. The homophobes were on one side, yelling "Fag!" and other niceties, while the "homo-lovers" (as we were called) gathered around our two buddies and did our best to buffer them from the hatred and invective. It was also tragic that while a couple of us did actually end up coming out ourselves, the majority of the "friendly" crew were (and are) straight. And accepting, and loving. (But none of the homophobes would believe that, of course...seems they never do. All gay-friendly folks just have to be fags....)

Ten years later, as an advisor, I listened to a young man tell how he was being driven out of the chapter by his friends - guys whom he had trusted and cared for. He wasn't gay - but he had admitted to them that he'd had some kinky sexual experimentation (with his girlfriend). But even that admission was too "gay" for a trio of his friends, who were deeply, deeply homophobic - and in the end, these morons drove the young man from the chapter, and he ended up utterly disappearing. I often think about him, and hope he found the ability to trust again.

I'm glad that Abram hasn't had to deal with crap like that.

But a comment by Tom on my earlier post is worth repeating here. His partner, Michael, had commented about a coming-out encounter that had gone well, and he'd ended by saying, "Not all stories turn out this way, of course. But it was a great treat for me!"

Tom's comment is insightful:

True enough, but freedom comes when the story turns out the other way -- when the person you come out to rejects you because you are gay -- and life goes on.

That's when the fear that you might be rejected goes away -- you realize that you will be rejected from time to time.

All three reactions -- acceptance, indifference, rejection -- are part of being gay, and all are positive in their own way.
Tom is, of course, absolutely right - true freedom is in having nothing to lose by others acceptance or rejection. It's a place I haven't quite reached - but the openness of people like Abram Morgan give me faith and hope to keep striving.

Thanks, Dad Morgan, for sharing your son's journey with us. And than you, Abe, for following an ancient instruction that we share from our common DeMolay background: Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16, NIV)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

A backward weekend glance

It was a pretty darn good weekend - despite the fact that it started off with a trip to the dentist to fix a broken temporary crown. (Ick.) But once I got home, took a nap, got my poop in a group (so to speak), and got on the road, it was a good weekend.

The weekend had two worthy moments. I had brought along the movie of the musical Rent, because I hadn't gotten to see it at home for two weeks straight (so to speak). Saturday night, after getting my new glasses and having a nice dinner out, Sue asked what we should do for the evening. They talked about going out to a movie, but Jeff had to get up early, so I suggested watching Rent together.

Now I had no idea of the storyline - but you didn't have to watch for long to get the fact that there are a number of both straight and gay people living in a tenement city in New York, and almost all dealing with HIV/AIDS. And I have to tell you, it would have been really uncomfortable watching that if I were still closeted. I'm sure I would have been wondering, "What are they thinking about this? Do they suspect?..." About a third of the way through the movie (Jeff having gone to bed), I said to Sue, "Man - I had no idea this movie had all these themes wrapped up in it," and she said, "Yeah, and I probably never would have seen it if you hadn't suggested it..."

Side note - if you are one of the benighted ones (as I was) who haven't yet seen Rent, run (not walk) to the video store and rent it. Do it today.
Another VERY cool thing about the weekend was that my encounter with my DeMolay advisor friend went well. We had breakfast at a local diner, a place which could be nicknamed Breakfast at Hooters - truly beautiful young ladies serving breakfast and lunch.

And during breakfast (as I expected) he made an impassioned pitch for me to join him in his work with DeMolay. And later in the conversation, I let him know that, much as I might like to join him, I just wasn't qualified - and made it clear what "not qualified" meant. It was kind of funny - I think it took him by surprise, for a second or two.

But, in his typical direct style, he said, "Well, are you a pedophile?"


"Have you been arrested?"

"For what? Of course not! I've been celibate for more than a decade!"

"Then what's the problem??"

Well, we went back and forth, but in the end I told him that I felt it was just asking for trouble, and I didn't think it was a wise place to go. And I told him that I really had thought about doing the "don't ask, don't tell" thing - but it just wasn't worth it to continue the lies. So I wasn't going to go there - period.

And it sure seemed like it was OK, and we were OK.

I have to tell you: No one who has not had to "come out" (about anything) can ever know how wonderful those two letters are.

O-K. No big deal. No drama. Life goes on, and a silent prayer of thanks goes up.

A similar experience happened two days later. Tuesday, my young sponsee Matt was downtown and I took some time from the work insanity to have coffee with him. He got downtown a little early, so he was standing out on the plaza (which borders the Chicago River) when I came down to meet him.
Backstory: In the past, when we'd meet in Hyde Park for coffee, we would frequent the C-shop at the University of Chicago, and he would ogle the attractive young co-eds bouncing through there. It wasn't until after I came out that Matt put two and two together, and figured out that while he was watching the attractive young ladies, I was noticing the equally attractive college-aged young men. Neither one of us were exactly panting in heat, of course - for vastly different reasons - but it finally dawned on him that we might be having similar (if mirrored) experiences.
Anyway, The Employer's offices are in the same building with CDW, a firm which seems to have made "being an Abercrombie-model wannabe" a condition of employment. And a number of the attractive lads seem to enjoy taking breaks out in front of the building, by the river.

As I came out of the building, and spotted Matt, the plaza was populated by a fair number of "the CDW boys." And as I called out to Matt and walked up to him, he hugged me, smiled and said, "How do you make it down here with all these good-looking guys! If these were girls down here, I'd be in real trouble!"

Now, my young friend's orientation is not in question - not in the least. (In fact, to be fair, I had mentioned the "CDW boy" effect to him before, in passing, as one of the few perks of that particular office he knew a little what to expect.) But to me, it spoke volumes that a straight guy would even notice "the scenery" - and realize the effect it might have on his gay friend. And it also spoke volumes that he would be comfortable enough to bring it up - let alone joke about it.

It was just another measure of being "OK." And it felt really, really good.

It's at times like this that my despair for the straight world fades, ever so gently, and I think, "There is yet hope..."

Monday, August 14, 2006

An encounter I'm not looking forward to...

For years, my friend (who shall remain nameless) and I were advisors for the Order of DeMolay, a Masonic youth group. It was a great outlet for whatever paternal instincts I had - and, at that point, I just knew that being married and "living the life" would save me from my baser instincts. DeMolay had been a big part of my life as a teenager, so being an advisor just felt like giving back to those who had given to me. I took to it like a duck to water - and had a blast with it.

My friend and I were like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in "The Road to..." movies. Like twin sons of different mothers. Though he was a decade and a half older than me, the age difference never seemed to matter. Our wide-ranging interests and similarly-warped humor brightened many a journey together. We were always getting into scrapes, always ending up at odd places, and had 13 years of great, great memories and lasting friendships. Many of the young men I sponsored are now leaders and advisors in their own rights - one young man's son is leader of a chapter near our town right now.

When my life fell apart, leading me to unemployment and eventually divorce, I left DeMolay completely. I remember having a somewhat tearful dinner with some of my young charges, and trying to tell them that my needing to leave was because of my own problems, and had nothing to do with them. I really loved working with them - the whole mentoring/teaching/nurturing thing just called out to me deeply.

I can honestly say that at the time, I had sublimated my sexuality at that point so deeply that the idea of "being inappropriate" with any of the guys was completely unthinkable. Did I envy a couple of them their good looks? You bet. Was I ever tempted to touch them in any way other than a very "brotherly" hug? Not once.

But my life took me in other directions. Though I joined the Masonic lodge out in a midwestern state, it just had very little appeal to me at that stage of the game. It probably didn't help that in those midwestern regions (and isolated instances elsewhere), there had been some instances of sexual abuse by advisors - and as a result, the adult organization had nothing I wanted. So I never got involved, and stayed involved with the church instead.

The impending move back to my hometown, on the surface, means having the opportunity to get back into advising in DeMolay again. My friend - who has never, ever indicated that he even suspects my true orientation - has invited me to go with him to a DeMolay ceremony this weekend when I am visiting. And though it sounds like fun, just to revisit for old time's sake - I' afraid I know what the real answer is.

You see, I am absolutely certain that "the boys" would be no temptation to me - that's just not ever been a turn-on to me, ever. But I also know that the organization has a "youth protection program," complete with a "comprehensive background investigation" - and the experience of several friends back in the Midwest shows pretty convincingly that there is no room in the ranks of advisors to teen-aged boys for homosexuals. Celibate or not, doesn't matter...if I am a self-identified gay man, my understanding is there's no room for me as a DeMolay advisor. Not even as a DeMolay visitor. Period. Paragraph.

And I'm definitely a self-identified gay man. No doubt there. I am what I am...

And I've already decided that I'm not going back in the closet for anybody. Not family, not friends, certainly not for God, and not for any organization. So the choice is clear.

I just hate the prospect of disappointing my old friend. Not that I think he'd be particularly disappointed that I'm gay - no one's waiting for grandkids from me, at this late stage of the game. I just hate knowing how much my buddy and friend would like me back - and in more than a couple ways, how much I'd like to go back.

But I'm pretty damn sure that road is closed, now and for a long, long time to come.

It will be an interesting discussion...

(Update: for some perverse reason, this post shows up as the #1 listing when searching for "DeMolay sexual abuse." For that reason, I've eliminated all references to my friend or the town. I thought about wiping the post entirely...but in a day or so, the history will be gone....I hope.)

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Burning bridges with Biblical literalists

I was re-reading Jeffrey Siker's closing essay in his book Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate (see the post below for my long-winded review) while eating breakfast at Valois restaurant in Hyde Park this morning. Valois is what my ex-father-in-law used to call "just a joint:" a cafeteria with no real atmosphere but that serves good food cheap. It's frequented by everyone from college kids to elderly condo dwellers, but on Sunday morning there are a large number of black folks of all social strata who come there for a good cheap breakfast after church.

Near the end of my meal, I went to the restroom, and left the book on the table with the rest of my food. As I came back, this very-nicely dressed older black man at the next table touched me on the arm, pointed to the Siker book, and said in a gently chiding tone, "Son, don't you know that there aren't two sides to that debate? The Bible is clear about what God thinks about that topic."

I'm sure he was trying to be kind. I know, in my heart, it was a chance for witnessing. But I'd been reading on half-a-dozen blogs about how Biblical literalists have stomped all over gay folk, and I just wasn't ready to buy it.

I looked at him with what I'm sure was a shocked expression, and I just blurted out, "Yeah, well, that same Bible was used to justify keeping black people in slavery for more than a hundred years....talking about slaves submitting to their masters, if I remember right. Do you suppose the Bible was right about THAT, TOO?"

Well, about a dozen heads (mostly black) turned and stared - so I picked up the book, left the other half of my pancakes behind, and walked out. So much for building bridges between gays and biblical literalists...

Alcoholism, Homosexuality, and Gentile Inclusion

I know, I's been a month since I've posted on here. I'm trying...forgive the length of this post in advance...

This particular post has been percolating in my brain ever since I was in Kansas in February, and my former ministry parter and pastor tried to make a point about the analogy between alcoholism and homosexuality. At the time, I knew there were some big things wrong with it, but I just couldn't put voice to the ideas in my head. So there it sat for months...

But I've just found Some Guys Are Normal, and I've found great inspiration in Brady's writings. (Congratulations on the wedding, too, Brady - that's truly "absolutely fabulous.")

An earlier post of mine deals with the whole issue of the analogy between alcoholism and homosexuality - one that is gaining popularity in the more loving, caring parts of the "but it's still a sin" branches of the Christian Church. This monster post is basically a response to my Kansas friend, but also a response to Brady's post...

The very best discussion about this topic I've found is in Jeffrey Siker's The Church and The Homosexual: Both Sides of the Debate. I've mentioned this book before, because it's one of the most evenly-balanced books I've ever read from a straight author about homosexuality in the church. It gives voice to very disparate and passionate views on all sides of the homosexuality discussion. I think every pastor should own a copy (hint, hint for my former fellow seminarians...)

(late revision: the original essay that Siker wrote was available online for quite a while at "Theology Today." However, "Theology Today" has now become a subscription-only site, so while the essay is available online as a PDF file, it is only available to subscribers. Wish I had copied it off the web before that happened....)

In his concluding essay to the book, Siker addresses one huge question:
How does the church determine what is sinful or not sinful, what is inauthentic or authentic human existence before God? Similarly, how does the church recognize and accept the power of God's spirit at work, especially when such recognition and acceptance involves conflict with previous understandings of God's empowering Spirit? (p.181)
One of the struggles in answering this question is when the Church tries to reconcile its understanding of the Bible with the lived experience of gay Christians - people who have a valid and real faith in Christ, who are also seemingly unalterably homosexual in orientation.

That's where the idea that Christians should treat homosexuality like alcoholism comes in. While I don't agree with these arguments, I also can see how on the surface, it could make sense:
- Some people do have a predisposition to alcoholism - just as some have an innate same-sex orientation.

- While alcoholic orientation is tragic but not sinful, most churches believe that active alcoholism is considered sinful. A number of mainstream churches (but by far, not the majority) would similarly agree that homosexual orientation is not sinful, but same-gender sexual activity is sinful.

- An alcoholic predisposition is seen as a consequence of humanity's fall from grace. But the alcoholic must turn away from drinking, even if they cannot repent of their alcoholic orientation.

- An alcoholic - or a homosexual - will remain so for life, even if one abstains from their core activity.

- The church does not want to invite destructive behavior into the church. In the case of alcoholism, there are financial, social and family ramifications. In the case of homosexuality, the perception of many otherwise accepting denominations is that welcoming homosexuals into the church is the equivalent of inviting promiscuity, infidelity, and child sexual abuse into the church, and that it defies procreation as defined by God.

(Of course, we won't even address the mess of infidelity and promiscuity that straight people bring into the church. Watch VH1 or MTV anytime, and tell me how much promotion of promiscuity, infidelity, drug use and materialism is being promoted by the gay commmunity....)
However, Siker points out a number of ways that the alcoholic/homosexual analogy breaks down. He says, "These limitations are so serious that in my view they render the analogy not only useless but dangerous."  Siker notes:
- The damaging effects of active alcoholism are almost always obvious; this is just not true for a majority of the gays who engage in homosexual activity.
(Aside: I assume he means sexual activity, here, and not just the destructive homosexual activity of gay fashion, gay art, music and dance, not to mention the horrific effects on local neighborhoods of beautifully-decorated gay homes, tastefully-thrown gay dinner parties, committed gay partners involved in the lives of their adopted children, etc. ...:::here endeth the mini-rant - back to the sane discussion:::)
- the American Psychiatric Association recognizes alcoholism as a disease, but clearly does not do so for homosexuality - so we're comparing apples and oranges.

- Importantly, most gays do not see being gay as something from which they need to recover. It's true that the church sees both alcoholism and homosexuality in similar light (as sinful moral choices), but a significant majority of GLBT people do not. (Siker's book does contain an essay about "ego-dystonic homosexuals," gay people who truly believe that homosexuality is wrong, and choose to live celibate lives because of it. It's another worthy read, if only to understand that topic.)

- Alcoholism is based on the act of drinking - and most straight people who talk about gays focus on the act of gay sex. But while there are lots of people (straight and gay) who are just into sex for sex's sake, many gays (like many straight folk) see sex as only one small component of being in a committed relationship.

After all, to focus on "tab-A and slot-B" as the heart of being gay is like focusing on plain fornication as the only reason for men and women to be together. In both cases reducing sexuality to just "the act" just objectifies the participants and turns sex into idolatry.

Siker says, "To focus on the sexual act is to miss the point of the larget context of the relationship. It is to dehumanize and depersonalize gays and lesbians, caricaturing them only interms of their sexual activities rather than seeing them as whole persons with lives that include more than sex."
Siker sees the answer in Peter's vision and encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10. Peter has a dream in which all the creatures of the field - even reptiles - are lowered down from Heaven in a sheet, and the voice of God says, "Kill and eat, Peter." Ol' Pete's horrified - that stuff is unclean in his Bible (what we call the Old Testament). The voice of God is pretty clear on this, too: "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean" (Acts 10:15). And just to make sure he hasn't misheard, it's repeated two more times.

Then Peter gets the word to come to Cornelius's house. He goes, and.... well, let's let Luke tell the story:
He said to them: "You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?" (Acts 10:28-29)
Cornelius says he got a message from God in a dream, saying to send for Peter and to listen to him (interestingly enough, the same commandment the disciples got from God: "This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!") So they listened, Peter preached, the souls were converted, and the Spirit of God fell on these unclean Gentiles. And boy, our buddy Pete caught merry hell from the church establishment when he got back to church headquarters.

Sound like a familiar story to you?
It does to me, too.

Associating with Gentiles was sinful; they were outside the Law, and outside the people of God. In the same way, gays and lesbians are seen as "abomination" under the Law (unless you read it right), but we are no more outside the love of God than the Gentiles were. Including us in the Kingdom of God can't be that much harder than it was for the Jewish Christ-followers to include the unclean Gentiles, can it?

At Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago (one of the few things I will miss about this town), in 95% of the church activity, there is neither male nor female, Greek nor Jew, free nor slave, gay nor straight. There are condo dwellers and urban campers - sometimes in the same pew. The director of volunteer services for this 4,000 member congregation is also one of the founders of Fourth Forum, a fellowship of GLBT folks (and GLBT-friendly straight folks) - and he is seen for who he is - a gay man, a servant of God and a servant of the church. And not in that order...

May that day come quickly for the rest of your Church, Lord.

These words could have been written specifically to the GLBTQ community:
I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us
so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:14-21, NIV)