Saturday, April 30, 2011

15-for-15 II: Bully, or It Gets Better

My first crush was on a bully.  And it was probably not you.


Last Fall, the nation was gripped by reports of young gay and lesbian people committing suicide.  Although this is sadly nothing new, this was the first time perhaps many people became exposed to the issue of higher rates of suicide for LGBTQ youth.  A report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force recently profiled even higher incidences of abuse against Transgender persons.

"Bullies," such as Dharun Ravi, Tyler Clementi's roommate at Rutgers University, whose abuse helped to incite Tyler's death, have had their actions come to greater prominence and national disdain.  Some of the other prominent suicidal deaths have also focused on the actions of others who abused them.  In light of these deaths, schools have reviewed their anti-bully training and policies, and calls have gone out from all corners to end bullying as we know it.

I, too, became involved in the anti-bullying campaign supported by some parents, teachers, and students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, which I wrote about last year in these pages.  But I did not pause to remember at that time that when I was 12, I developed a crush on a bully.


He wasn't the first bully I knew, by any stretch of the imagination.  I remember one of my childhood acquaintances, a year younger than myself, gutting a living toad with a fork when I was about 5 years old.  It was one of the worst things I have ever seen in my life.  Several years later, this same fellow walked up to me in the hallway of our elementary school with a strange, big smile on his face, and proceeded to punch me, hard, in the stomach.  And what do you think he turned out to become?  A serial killer who had his start with small animals?  No.  A dentist.  Bingo.  Mind you, a few years after that, I hatched a scheme not much better, and tried to pay 2 friends a quarter each, to catch frogs so that I could cut off their legs (the frog legs, not my friends' legs) and sell them to the local grocery store.  I  doubt that I would have found any humane way to have done in the frogs.  Thankfully, they refused the money, and saved me from becoming a frog murderer.

This bully wasn't perhaps even the first boy I had a crush on.  That could conceivably have come as far back as age 3, when I had a fascination for an older boy on a dirt bike.  Once, when I was about that age, I remember going up to him and his friends, who were sitting in a grove of trees, and announcing to them that my Mother had told me I could spend 5 minutes with them.  I don't know if she had actually said that, or if it seemed to me like a convenient lie.  As soon as I sat down, I heard, "Well, time's up."  I'm sure many wouldn't think of this as a "gay crush," but there you have it.

I did have a number of crushes on girls throughout my younger years, at about the same time most boys were just interested in playing baseball and riding dirt bikes, which I enjoyed very much as well, but when the boys started to take to their bike rides with girls, I turned inward and started playing the piano, which carried me sexlessly through my teenage years.


I met this particular enthralling young bully while playing baseball, probably when I was about 9 or 10.  I don't remember him being such a particularly dreadful person at that point in his development, but my memories are sketchy.  He was my age, and liked baseball too.  He also liked to beat kids up.  I hear that once he beat up someone's kid sister.

In a few years, after my hormones started going completely kerplewie with puberty, I remember watching him walking down the hallway, in a white button-down shirt, like he had been enveloped by a cloud.  I had a feeling of exhilaration, fear, and a longing that caught in my throat.  The next year, in gym class, I saw him without that shirt, or anything else, on.  I had an electric shock go through me that I have since heard described as a spontaneous orgasm.  The only time in my life.  It was literally shocking, and told me this was no ordinary feeling I was having.

Needless to say, I never said a thing about this crush, to him or to anyone else in my class.  This is the first I've put it out there, not quite "Boys in the Band" style, sitting around by a phone late at night and calling our old crushes up, but it has met your eye, dear reader.  This was a big part of my life for a few formative years.

When we were sophomores, he used to stab me with pens in my legs.  I guess I was hoping it would have been something else besides pens with which he was stabbing me.  My health teacher gave me permission to beat the shit out of him, but I didn't.  I was still somehow in his thrall, and at the same time I couldn't hurt someone to whom I was attracted like that.


How do we come to be attracted to people who treat us like shit?  At the very least, the issue of who is a "bully" and our relationship to them, is complex.  I can only think that I knew what I was, a little gay homosexual faggot, and that somehow in my complicated understanding of myself at that age, I deserved to be beat up.  This wasn't long after Boy George, one of the first gay cultural icons, released "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me."  Boy George creeped me out, and I didn't want to be anything like him.  But something resonated with me and this song, even at that age.  The names of derision for people who looked at other boy like I did, as well, resonated in me, and I sat in it all like a lobster starting to be steamed in a deadly stew.

I hear from people of all sexual orientations this inclination to fall for those who hurt them, especially from women who endure physical and emotional abuse for years, from one person or from a variety of lovers or partners who seem to be similar.  Women still often don't receive the best messages about themselves from society either, particular as sexual beings.

Reader, whatever your age, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, whatever your place in life, if this is you, nothing in you deserves to get you beat up.  Nothing.  Ever.

It wasn't as though I was never the bully myself.  I will never forget kicking a little kid, maybe 2 years younger than myself, in the gutter in front of my house.  He annoyed me, but he didn't deserve that.

I was a bully to the first boy who kissed me too.  It was such a surprise, standing at the top of the stairs of the house I grew up in.  I don't remember what I did at the time, but I did not react well.  And a few years later I beat him up in an elementary school fight.  He wasn't the only one, and I got beat myself a few times.  And elementary school isn't that last time I could be said to have bullied someone.

But, seriously, nothing, no thoughts, desires, impulses, ideas, that take place in our minds, hearts, or emotions, deserve to get us abused.  We do not bring abuse on ourselves.  We do not deserve it.  Nor do we have permission to abuse others.  Ever.  From anyone.  Not even from God.


Many people are hurt at some time by other people labeled as "bullies" of all ages--random people, acquaintances, neighbors, professors, lovers & spouses, bosses, road ragers, clergy--and we are, sometimes, ourselves those who practice harassment, violence, humiliation, intimidation, and a variety of other horrible things against those we know and don't know, and sometimes even against those we love.

Is "bully" really a helpful term for those who are beating up, abusing, sexually harassing or violating, calling horrible names, stalking, embarrassing, and doing all of these things against someone in person, by text message, on Facebook, and in a number of other media in this media rich age?  Isn't "terrorist" perhaps a better title, given that what they are doing is inciting terror?

It's easy to hate these people, especially when each of us probably has a seed of being one of these people inside of us.  I know I do.


"It gets better" is an apt message--but it must go further.  It must add the word "when."  "It gets better when..." for example, when we treat ourselves with the respect, integrity, and love that we don't get from everyone else, and when, perhaps, we see that bullies are not necessarily a monolithic "other."

A recent scene in the TV series Glee's episode "Born This Way" features a reconciliation of sorts between Kurt and Dave Karofsky, whose violent abuse and threatening of death to Kurt forced Kurt's transfer to another school.  Dave, as viewers know from pervious episodes, is dealing with some sexual orientation issues himself.  But Dave can never again abuse Kurt, and must give himself some breathing space in his understanding of his own sexual orientation.  He sees that he cannot continue to do what he had done, and admitting to that and following through were key for that reconciliation to work.

In real life, the abuse of Jamie Nabozny, profiled in the recent terrific documentary "Bullied," led to a nationally-profiled court case that turned on the honesty of one of those who had tortured Jamie on a regular basis, confessing his torture in open court, which honesty came even after high-ranking members of the Ashland, Wisconsin, school system had sought to cover up their complicity in Jamie's abuse by claiming never to have heard of it.

In each case, things got better when the truth was told, or at least understood by those who committed acts of violence, and when those who were abusers had an opportunity to step out of that role, which can be as stifling and life-draining as the role of "victim" that seeks to complement "bully."  But sometimes even reconciliation cannot be possible or even desirable.  Sometimes it gets better only when we can get some distance, and peace within ourselves.

We should not be our own judges, despite the fact that we often judge ourselves far more harshly than others would, and yet we should not destroy each other with judgment either.  Yet there must be justice, for the person who is bullied, and for the bully.

Moving beyond the easy categories of "bully" and "victim" might be one way in which we can start to get that justice for both.  Admitting truth of wrongdoing and seeking reconciliation may be another.  The work of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation is central to bringing to light this kind of truth about wrongdoing towards LGBTQ people on local and national scales.  

Tomorrow I will explore the idea of honesty, admitting truth, in more detail, and how this has impacted my own journey in these last 15 years of being openly gay.

Friday, April 29, 2011

15 for 15: 15 Meditations for 15 Years of Being Openly Gay

"Mourn your losses, because they will be many.  But celebrate your victories, because they will be few."
                     - Debbie Novotny (Sharon Gless), Queer as Folk (Showtime, 2003)


I don't know whether this line, which I know from the Showtime series "Queer as Folk," is actually original to it, or quoted from elsewhere.  But it is right on the money.

There are few occasions for celebrating anniversaries in our lives:  marriage or relationship, sobriety, the opening of a successful business, and ordination are the ones that immediately come to my mind.  As of today, I cannot celebrate any of those in my life.  But there's one I can celebrate, which is coming up a week from today.

15 years ago, on May 6, 1996, I came out to another person as being gay for the first time in my life.  I had come out to myself, actually admitted to myself that I was gay, only two years before.  The homophobia that I had learned over my first 19 years, which came from many sources, was deeply a part of me when I wrote: 

I have heretofore not revealed my most innermost thoughts and secrets, not to these pages, let alone anyone else.  I'm afraid that the pages may fall into the hands of others, after I have written what I shall write and my secret will be revealed to all.  For now, I will reveal it only to these pages--a large step indeed.  

I have known since puberty that I am attracted to the male, and not the female, body....It is definitely not a choice that I have made--not as some homosexuals, I would choose not to be one.  My attitude would bring me severe reprimands from most other homosexuals, and my inclinations would obviously bring me nothing but hardship from all of my friends and family. 

...I am definitely not gay, in the strict sense of the word.  I do not act faggishly.... I merely find the male body sexually attractive. ...I do not particularly want to form a true love relationship with another man.  I do not want to marry another male, just as I do not want to become involved in the traditional gay causes--the psychotic activities of many of these politically active homosexuals sickens, surprises, and depresses me.   --6.24.1994, 9:45pm.

To look back on these words, as I have from time to time over the years, both saddens me, that I ever felt that way, and gives me a feeling of empathy for so many who "struggle" with homosexuality, whether because they are gay or lesbian themselves, or because they oppose even the slightest positive mention of homosexuality.  They also give me an imperfect empathy for others who struggle because others seek to marginalize them.

How I get from that day nearly 17 years ago, through the anniversary whose original day came some two years later, to today, is complicated, and yet it is part of the most important work I have done in my life:  coming to terms with something in myself that up until 2003 in these United States, could be punishable under the law.  I have come a long way personally, and attitudes across the nation have changed significantly, in these 15+ years.

Thankfully, as Dan Savage said, it gets better.


I write these following meditations over the next 2 weeks to recognize this journey of my own, which is the journey of so many, even those who are not gay or lesbian, for the closet, the suffocating privacy that we impose upon ourselves because we fear what will happen if we don't do that, is the reality for many who suffer through their lives in silence.  

I don't mean these meditations to be a judgment on those who do live in the closet--they must do what they must do, as I must do what I must do.  If anything, I would want any invective here to go towards those who enforce the closet on others, because my guess is that many who inhabit this liminal place between being secret and being known would choose to be who they are in public, if they felt, as I did not at the time I came out to myself, that they would not incur wide wrath, loss of key relationships, jobs, homes, personal injury, and even death.  Death and significant harm still comes to people who are gay and lesbian for that very fact alone.  


Over the next 15 days, from tonight until two Fridays for now, I will write one meditation each night on some aspect of this journey.  In each case, I will not identify the others who are a part of my journey at this time by their real names.  
My plan for the structure of these writings will occur as follows:
1. 15-4-15: 15 days of meditations for 15 years of being openly gay
2. Bully or It Gets Better

3. Honesty
4. Gaining My Religion
5. Who I Am
6. The First Time 
7. Pride
8. Why I Must Be Out
9. Coming Out Everyday
10. Stereotypes:  Lonely & Sad
11. Stereotypes: Promiscuity: Fuck Them All
12. Stereotypes: The Homosexual Menace
13. Self-Acceptance
14. Other-Acceptance
15. Anti-Bully or Walk Hand-in-Hand

This exploration will be framed by the experience of bullying, and working against bullying, which is ongoing work for me and for many.  The way we treat others does depend to a great degree on the way in which others treat us, and in the way we treat ourselves.  The crisis of anti-gay bullying is something that has become much more public in the last 6 months, but is something that goes back millennia, and something that may take more than a lifespan to repair.  

My ultimate aim, besides making this experience public and, hopefully, resonant with some others, is reconciliation:  self-reconcilation, other-reconciliation, and communal reconciliation.  I don't know how I will accomplish some of that at this point, and some is just part of a long-term process that cannot be completed in a couple of weeks.

It is my hope that any who choose to read this will find it in some way helpful and worth reading.  Even if that is not the case, it will be a helpful exercise for me, and, I hope, might inspire one or another person to undertake a similar project with themselves.

Ultimately, love, of self, others, community, and God, takes leaps as must faith, and, in the words of one of my favorite spiritual figures, Father James Huntington, "Love must act as light must shine and fire must burn."  

I appreciate your company, dear reader, along the way.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Christ Without a Cross Dies Twice

"For me, kind Jesus, was thine incarnation,
thy mortal sorrow, and thy life's oblation;
thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion.
for my salvation." --Johann Heermann tr. Robert Bridges


Our culture denies death. Our culture denies death's power by saying that it is nothing, only a change. Our culture denies death's sorrow by making of it a celebration. And our culture makes of death's horror a cheap cologne that smells more like bacon than decomposition.

The challenge of Christ's death and resurrection is the greatest gift that the Christian church can give this culture, indeed any culture. But Christ without a cross, especially among his followers, dies two deaths: the actual death, and the death of relevance, for Jesus as just another man who died, another sucker whom the state overpowered, another dupe of the Caesar, no matter how many nice things he did or good things he taught, is doubly dead.


The doctrine of atonement, the idea by which the death of Jesus makes good for the sins of the world, for our sins, is problematic for many to say the least. The idea that this act of Jesus, casting aside his Messianic crown for us, was in fact an act of divine child abuse, God killing God's own son, or the act of a political prisoner alone, seems to me fairly pervasive.

One powerful idea given me in seminary was that instead of a Mel Gibson-style pornographic torture fest, Christ's torture and death on the cross was an interchange of God's justice for our constitutional human injustice, happening through Jesus as through an electrical conduit. More than a felix culpa, a "happy fault," that "allows" God to build something better out of our faults, this interchange is an exchange of all that is just in God for all that is unjust in a creation that goes its own way. We get a better deal.


I'm hardly a heavy-duty theologian, or a student of literature and art and cinema who can quote all of the concepts that I'm referring to here in the history of human achievement. But it seems pretty clear to me that many in the church, uncomfortable as we are with death, might seek to hide Jesus's death behind bunnies, eggs, candy, and parades.

What is an age-appropriate explanation of the crucifixion and resurrection to children? I'm by no means an expert, but talking directly about Jesus dying, and God bringing Jesus back from the dead, seems like it could be very powerful for those whom we often forget about when tragedy happens, because it seems even more difficult to explain it to children, who know something bad when they see, hear, feel, and experience it.

It seems to me that Christ without a cross dies twice, as I said above: his actual death, and the death of his relevance to us as Christians and to our or any culture, time or place. Our culture is not exclusively Christian, but it is one to which we might share a word from this perspective of death and resurrection, and at that a word of hope. Jesus without resurrection is Jesus without hope.

Perhaps we are ashamed because we cannot explain God's place in evil, either the evil of the crucifixion or the evil of natural disaster, war, famine, and other engineered acts of evil that we humans perpetrate on other humans?

Perhaps it is so difficult to believe in the resurrection that it is easier to sugarcoat it than try to explain it to others, much less ourselves and our own people? I can't say I understand the death and resurrection of Jesus all that well, but something in me believes beyond the need to sugarcoat my own impending death with the cross, to use the cross as a means of escape from reality, as must appear to many who do not share this same belief.

A church that sugarcoats the death and resurrection of Jesus with the candy of culture may well be as odious as a believer who uses the cross to deny his or her own death. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said famously in Cost of Discipleship:

"As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death--we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls people, he bids them come and die....In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both life and death" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 89-90. New York: Macmillan, 1959, Touchstone ed. 1995).

There is a broader point of forgiveness and mutual burden-bearing to Bonhoeffer's message here, but the necessity of death, and of death in Christ for a Christian, is of central moment.

Any version of Christ that can escape the tomb without the cross is not the Christ. Any version of Christ that gets caught in torture without the work of God in resurrection from the tomb is not the Christ. But my sense is that our human tendency is more to liberate Christ and ourselves through him without taking the hardest steps to and through the cross.


I wonder if a failure to encounter Jesus in all of his shame on the cross, around the crucifixion, and jumping right to the resurrection, may not be an element of what has chased people away from church by the droves?

Not only has there been a cultural shift since the 1960s that shows a marked decline in the relevance of church in much of American society, but perhaps the church itself has aided in people leaving it through downplaying its own relevance through its core concepts, and through becoming a place of trying to make people feel good about themselves in a way that a gin and tonic could do much better.

As a kid, and as an adult, direct talk has engaged me much more than beating around the bush. I don't want to hear about a Jesus who is merely a glory-machine, triumphing over death without experiencing it. That kind of Jesus doesn't make much difference to me or anyone else.

I want to hear about a Jesus who went all the way, who experienced everything I have experienced, and who came through it in a way that I can know meant a lot to him, not only an insignificant key change in the tune he was whistling, but a whole shift in the reality of what death and our relationship with God means to me and to humanity.

We crucify Christ again by forgetting the cross. We crucify Christ again by forgetting the tomb. We crucify Christ again by forgetting the resurrection. It is only with each of these elements, and by accompanying Christ in these places, and in teaching this to our children, and in insisting on our reality to the wider culture, challenging first its denial of death, that we respect most profoundly the God who has given us Godself in human form, and who has loved us so much that even death can't separate us from God.

Loving Jesus, the tomb awaits, but not yet. Nor your glorious resurrection. Not yet. Keep me for a moment from it, that its power and glitter not overwhelm me. Keep me for a moment with you in death's embrace. Amen.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"The Stone that the Builders Rejected"

"The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone." --Psalm 118:22


For some reason, I thought this line appeared at some point during the Holy Week readings, but as it is, the only time we who follow the Revised Common Lectionary will be hearing it this year is on Easter.

Yet this phrase informs the whole Holy Week leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, and particularly what happens through God's raising of Jesus on the third day. The stone, which didn't look like much, which was mis-shapen, mistaken, mis-heard, the stone that rolled the wrong way down the hill, that didn't quite seem to fit the tomb, those stones from which God would raise up children, all these stones were rejected. Those in charge, the builders, didn't happen to think the stones would fit, or that they should properly be included in the plans for such a magnificent building.

Not only did the rejected stone end up being used, but it became the most important stone of all, on which the entire edifice was built. What this edifice is, who the builders were, who the stones were, is all part of the Christian faith tradition, and important questions to wrestle with. But for now, simply, I'm hearing the stone that was rejected, and marveling at how it became a cornerstone.


It's hard not to read myself into this line, and perhaps a bit perilous at the same time. We all experience rejection, and few are probably really spectacularly happy at being rejected. I fear reaching out to people whom I think might reject me, because that has happened plenty. I'm cautious of putting my written work out there in the fear that it might be rejected, which is pretty much what generally happens to written work for which people seek publication. I'm self-conscious about talking about a faith in a loving and graceful God that challenges the view of God and Jesus presented by many who go by the name "Christian," even though sharing that graceful vision of God is more vital now, more life and death, than ever.

The stone has been rejected. Accounted unworthy by those who are supposed to know what is worthy and what isn't. Rightly tossed to the side, and thankfully out of the way.

I would not be the only person who has been at some point rejected, in many ways, not least of which by the church. I have also been accepted in many ways, by many people, and not least of which by the church.

But instead of the rejection stopping the stone, it becomes the cornerstone. It risks everything and comes out ahead. I don't know if I'm that adventuresome, or just wish to hold on to what I have, modest as it might be. The stone could have stayed stuck.

The time comes to risk it all does come, and at that point, rejection cannot be a defining issue.


I've been questioning lately whether that time is coming for me. My job, at which I'm gratefully accepted, will not last forever, and I must find new employment in the next 6 months. Plenty of time not to have that end come as a shock, but I need to get serious about ministry, if that is to become the calling in reality for which I've been called, educated, and sent into a land of limbo. This is not so different from a lot of people who have been affected by the down economy of the last 3 years. To have employment has been a blessing that I am not unaware of.

Many of us, no matter our sexual orientations, have faced this challenge of being rejected in many ways at many times.

I've recently become aware that a lot more people than just myself have been waiting for years for their first calls to become pastors in the ELCA. A number of these people mention how difficult it has been to piece together a life while trying to retain hope that God indeed is back there somewhere, having something to do with this lengthening road that seems not to be leading anywhere.

In times when you still hear that there's a clergy shortage, we would be hard-pressed to understand why, when sitting as rejected stones next to the road. But perhaps we will become the cornerstones of the new buildings, the new ways in which the church will need to be in the time to come?


Many question, rightly, the place and shape of the church in the years to come. My work church is joining my worship church and another church in a 3-way configuration in which each church will have its own worship space, retain its own identity, and share space. The reason is because each of these churches built their buildings and envisioned their futures with about 90% more people than they have now. The old ways, as the old buildings, are crumbling. New people with new ideas are going to be key in bringing the Gospel to new generations who will not be content just to debate the curtains in the library or whether or not mums should be the flower on the altar Sunday mornings.

What are the words that we stones, whether we've been rejected, included, or are yet becoming, can speak to a church that often seems to stand in stone-deaf silence to the needs of its people?

I was grateful the other day to share an idea for a welcoming church start in an area that has no LGBTQ-publicly welcoming Lutheran churches with the bishop of the local ELCA synod here. He listened patiently, kindly, and said that my idea would be hard to implement. I responded that truth that what would make it a hard proposition is what would make it especially necessary.

Congregations that proclaim their welcome most earnestly, and are often welcoming in many ways, often fall short when it comes to LGBTQ people. That is one reason why there are still only about as many ELCA congregations that are publicly welcoming of LGBTQ people as there were congregations that left the ELCA in order to be particularly unwelcoming or because they felt the ELCA had abandoned its Biblical principles.

What God will make of us stones is yet to be seen. But our church needs us, as it needs every potential leader, ordained or lay, who prayerfully feels compelled to make a difference, because the time for that difference to be made is passing us by.

If we do not wish harsher varieties of Christianity to control the public perception of "Christian" for good, some of us have to start speaking up more, and some of our churches and denominations need to get behind us and figure out how best to use our gifts.

In the meantime, this stone is open to being included, open to listening to other stones that have been or have felt rejected, as well as to pushing his agenda for God's grace and justice onto the builders who need to hear it.

Gracious God of all that we are and all that we can ever be, lift us up to be there for your people who are lost in the night, who wait for you as watchers wait for morning, who feel that you hate them, that your are angry at them, that you wish them destruction, that you are damning them to an eternity of torment for some arbitrary reason. Is this your will, God, that people doubt you because you seem cruel and whimsical? I have a harder time believing that than that you do not exist at all. In whatever way you can, work through each of us to raise up another dear stone who has felt rejected, that we might build up your cathedral of grace on earth as it is in heaven. Through Jesus, the rejected stone who became the chief cornerstone in your plan for reconciliation, we pray. Amen.

Friday, April 15, 2011

My NOH8 Story on a Day of Silence or Meditation on my Namesake

Back in February, I had the chance to attend one of the most wonderful gatherings of LGBTQ people I've ever had the chance to attend: the Creating Change Conference, in Minneapolis. What made this gathering so great was that it best represented the whole "tent" of queerdom: young and old, men, women, and people who didn't cling to one binary gender, gay, lesbian, bi, and a rainbow of transgender persons, genderqueer, poly, allies, intersex persons, you name it, and persons from the group were beautifully, wonderfully represented.

Among the activities that weekend was the opportunity to become part of the "NOH8" campaign, the brainchild of young gay celebrity photographer Adam Bouska, originally in response to the Prop 8 campaign (which likewise spawned this blog), but now reaching far beyond California and the issue of anti-gay prejudice.

For a mere contribution of $40 (far from a pittance for many people, and an unfortunate bar to the full representation of people who would best represent this campaign), anyone could feel like a supermodel for justice for a few seconds, and come out with a professional portrait of their own activist selves.

At first, I didn't think I could justify this price and this indulgence, as cool as it was. But then I looked at my special shelf, and saw on it my clerical collar, gathering dust, and my Great-Grandfather's watch, a prized heirloom that my Father has let me take care of. Both of these items are very special to me, the one a signature part of my vocation to the Lutheran ministry, and the other, a prized possession of one after whom I was named. The combination of the two inspired me to have that photo taken, and to represent fully who I am to this cause for freedom and equality.

What follows is the description that I provided Adam in helping to understand the meaning behind this pose. I don't know that it will gain any kind of wider audience, and so I share it here for the few of you for whom it might be of interest. I love my vocation, and I love my Great-Grandfather, even though we could never have met. I respect his hard work and dedication to his profession, which the watch honors after 30 years of service. And I am proud of his name, Elsworth, which is my middle name and my Father's middle name, as I am of the man who gave it to me.

Love should never keep one from being honest about love; yet that is what Prop 8 does. May that proposition, in time, fall to the ground as an embarrassment to those who supported it, as much as the pride I feel in opposing it with my whole being.

"My pose for the NOH8 campaign was filled with symbolism both personal and of wider-reach. This pose represents family, time, tradition, my personal and our communal struggle for equality and justice. I wore around my neck my Great-Grandfather's watch given to him for 30 years of service in 1953. I also wore one of my clerical collars.

My calling is to the ordained ministry of Word and sacrament in the Lutheran church, the faith into which my Great-Grandfather was baptized on his deathbed. Yet being openly gay has prevented me from getting a church and being able to wear the collar as an ordained person.

Time, literally entangled around my neck, is therefore represented on at least 3 planes in this image: 1. The time of tradition, weighing physically and metaphorically on my vocation (as it has on many others); 2. The time (4 years) I have been waiting to become a pastor; 3. The duration of our movement for Gay and Lesbian rights, which began in America around the time that this watch was presented to my Great-Grandfather.

I never knew my Great-Grandfather, but am proud of his work and love him. I am, along with my Father, his namesake. Our middle name, Elsworth, was his only given name. Yet past, present, and future meeting in one place on this point is bittersweet. I have encapsulated this experience in the following poem:

Time Entangles Our Necks

Time entangles our necks,
breathing life and death
past years of pressured peace and silenced dreams.

Great our Grandfathers'
wishes, ambitions for
Their Unseen, a gleam
of semen stretched
through several faltered
beams of forced omission.

Faith of our fathers,
stopping still
cockblocking their sons,
frockboxing their daughters
behind a god who pressed in law
what certain ancient lawyers saw.

Faith remains, lifeglue,
more than a living,
or escape from dying,
shining too from the
eyes of the future who
know what the sins
of the past could do:
a lasting screw.

If our great grandfathers only knew.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ideas Percolating: The Church, HIV/AIDS, Poetry & Community


I had a few good new ideas at the beginning of the year, most of which seem to have passed on for want of development and conversation. The main energy this year was around community. It's time I got my butt in gear and started to write about them.

The element of community was central in the Anoka/Hennepin School District controversies that I briefly joined in the fall. The District has made its position quite clear on matters of LGBT equality, e.g., having been sued into allowing a lesbian couple to walk together in a high school pep rally last January, canceling performances of a play written by youth for youth for 7th and 8th grade students in Anoka because an anti-gay adult complained about a segment of the play where a young person comes out, and denying any connection between anti-gay bullying and any of the suicides of the previous year in the District, which went against testimony they received over a period of several months in their meetings.

While I continue to support the cause for justice for students in this District, I pulled back from involvement as it became clear that my involvement wasn't directly helpful. But I have other ideas in the works that may be. Time will tell how those will pan out.

Perhaps this community orientation, the need for one community to call itself on how it treats a segment of its population, helped illuminate other thoughts.


Here are three ideas I wish to resurrect with the Easter season:

1. Positive portrayals of Christianity are vital to communal well-being, especially for young people. The voice of condemnation, which belongs rightly to no person, has been too prominent for too long in the church's voice in our society among others. Challenge of culture is one thing; condemnation, or condemnation veiled in "concern," is another. Does one condemn the condemners? This is a good question that begs some further consideration. Progressive faith voices have leveled challenge against judgmental Christianity and judging Christians, but it's still yet to stick on a wider level. But we owe our society the best voices that our faith can provide, and those voices do not preach hate in any form.

2. HIV prevention needs a new focus on the role of community. It's not enough to tell someone to wear a condom, to scare people into abstinence or safer sex by telling them what will happen if they don't, or by shaming people about sex and sexuality. The latest study from the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York, Gay Men and HIV: An Urgent Priority, highlights the rise in HIV contraction by gay and bisexual men over the last 5 years (particularly between 2005-2008), and one of the highest risk groups is, bingo, "among white MSM (men who have sex with men), the bulk of new infections are occurring among men in their 30s and 40s" (p. 6), which happens to be my age/race group.

The report offers some ideas for this rise, among which are the factors of social isolation, homophobia, and drug use. I could offer them my perspective on why for some of us staying HIV negative seems an ever-increasing struggle, and for others a lost cause. There are a lot of assumptions and judgments around HIV that still carry the prejudices of the 80s, the ideas of "innocent victims" (or victims at all), of certain people deservedly being punished for having the "wrong" kind of sex or for being "promiscuous," and of honest discussions about sex, its meaning in our lives, and our actual practice of it being still to a great degree taboo. These prejudices and judgments must continue to be challenged as they are killing us.

Can we have an honest conversation about barebacking among gay/bi males? It would involve us being honest about the judgments we have around sex and, more importantly, around each other. Gay men can, it's no secret to ourselves or others, be fairly judgmental at times about whom we would choose to relate to from within the gay universe. Age is a factor, money, accomplishment, ability to exclude or include certain people, HIV status, and most certainly body type. These are not hard and fast reasons for being included or excluded in one group of gay men or another, but they often do influence who will talk to you.

The reasons why people have unsafe sex are not just because we're stupid, uncaring, amoral, disgusting people who (according to some with whom I don't agree) flout God's laws and bring upon ourselves and others destruction, and not just because people outside of the gay community are spewing homophobia. Some of that homophobia comes from within, and needs to be faced honestly and together in smaller and larger levels of gay community, and some of it comes from within ourselves, and must be honestly faced there, with a leading edge of grace in both situations that is sometimes harder to use with oneself than with others.

Can you imagine having an honest conversation about some of these issues in church? Now that we have finished fighting the battle for whether or not Gay and Lesbian people can become pastors or have our relationships blessed in the ELCA, to what further conversations about sexuality, which have been forestalled around these other issues for so long, could the church aid in shedding its grace and commitment to honesty? Long and still a proponent of much homophobia, not only does the church have AIDS, as we have said even in our churchwide assemblies, but the church helps to cause AIDS and HIV transmission, and that still needs to be faced.

There's much more to say on this, for another time. But think about how, if you're HIV negative, HIV is not just someone else's burden, and how, if you're HIV positive, you can work claim the support that was there for you in the community during the hardest years of the AIDS holocaust. That support is there, if only from people like me, who don't always know how best to lend it.

3. Poetry can help build, enliven, and liberate community. This idea came to me as part of a Lutheran Poetry Project, which still has yet to be realized. It came to me as a way to put my own negative energy around being marginalized in my long wait for a call into something positive, and something that all those who have felt marginalized by the church could tap into. You don't need to be a professional poet, published, recognized, lauded, or even much cared for, in order to write poetry, and put your situation out there in your own voice. And your voice may be the one that speaks a needed word of truth and consolation to another who is struggling out there in the night.

I heard something last year that I've not been able to verify, but I would not have difficulty believing to be true: African-American women typically wait 5 years for a first call in the ELCA. Is there a way to verify this? There are not a lot of African-American women who are in training to be pastors in the ELCA.

I had a very dear friend in seminary who was an African-American woman who passed away before the end of her seminary training; she would have been a spectacular pastor, and indeed was to me and many others in our year as neighbors in the seminary apartments at PLTS. I miss her terribly, especially her wisdom and strength. The loss for the church of her ministry is as well incalculable. But are there women like her whose voices are ready to be engaged, yet are being left to the side? That, too, is an incalculable loss for a church in need of its best, strongest, and most graceful voices.

What could these voices, the many besides my own who have felt dishonored in waiting so long for the church to implement or even realize our love and capacity for ministry, have to say to a church that is struggling to define its future in a landscape that does not see Jesus or the church as central, as some have called "post-Christian"? Christianity is itself now marginal in a way that it probably has been at many times in the past, yet is only coming to our consciousness in the last 40 years as being marginal, forgotten, unnecessary, even many times either unhelpful or hurtful to Christians and those who believe other creeds or faiths or profess no particular faith alike.

The stone that the builder rejected will become the cornerstone. This was as true for Jesus himself as it is for his disciples along the way and today whose voices are being forced out of the church due to neglect or more aggressive challenge of the central truths of their lives.

Yet these voices may yet become those who have the most to say as we continue to live lives of faith and honesty, perhaps redefined in some ways in this new age, but close as always to the heart of Christ, which beats most strongly for those most forgotten.

These voices could speak powerfully through poetry, and perhaps are. An effort to bring these voices together into one prophetic source is sorely needed.


All of these ideas have community, our interrelations with others, as well as our self-community, the internal dialogues that we carry on with ourselves, at the center, and see that how we talk together will determine how we as individuals will fare. For far too long in the past, and with renewed vigor in the present through the Tea Party, society has been seen as nothing more than a bunch of individual blips moving past each other on an increasingly complex and desolate screen.

How can new landscapes of conversation and interrelation help inform our future together and individually? I'll be thinking of some of these things more out loud here, and would be grateful for your thinking through them, perhaps in conversation, or at least in your own way.

Our only way forward as a country, church, as families, and as individuals, is with more, not less, care for community. My hope is to stir up a few new directions in finding some ways to approach that building of community. I'd value your effort in this direction as well.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Here Comes Spring!

In the last few days, the ice has completely melted from Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles, both 2 minutes out my apartment building's back door. This means that Spring is finally here. But of course, Minnesota winter always promises a late relapse, happening as late as June some years. So we Minnesotans enjoy what Spring we can, especially after such a dreadful Winter.

Here is my little bit of Spring in a bottle, refracting sunlight through my flask of maple syrup (yes, that is what it is!) against the backdrop of the newly melted Lake of the Isles.