Thursday, November 8, 2012

Full Circle, with Tears and Joy

"By and by, when the morning comes,
When the Saints of God are gathered home,
We'll tell the story of how we've overcome,
and we'll understand it better by and by."

I began this blog 4 years ago, in the aftermath of the passage of Prop 8 in California, when the country took a turn towards equality in its election of Barack Obama as our president, while some of our states took a sharp turn away.

On Tuesday, my home state of Minnesota took a turn towards equality when we voted down a similar amendment to our constitution by a margin of 52-48%, the first time any state in the union overturned an effort to dehumanize LGBT people in its state constitution. We shouted and laughed and wept tears of joy.

But underneath it all, for me at least and I think for many others, were another kind of tears. These are tears for those who didn't make it to see this day, who died of AIDS and suicide, those young people who didn't make it to see their high school graduations like Justin Aaberg, whose death pierced my heart as it pierced the hearts of many. The following is my reflection on this experience:


What I hear and feel most deeply around the defeat of the anti-gay marriage amendment in Minnesota is how deep it has hit so many of us in our souls, and how that power has come out of our eyes through those gentle drops of soul-rain. 

Having to prove one's humanity again, and again, and again to those who deny it is not only tiring, not only demeaning, not only frustrating. It is also deeply sad. It is sad for me and it is sad for those who cannot be moved, whose binders and blinders are so thick that they cannot see what is in front of them: LOVE. 

And that makes me sob like a baby.

And I think, man, I've been at this for 25 years, what about those who have hit this soul-draining homophobia for 35, 45, 55, 65, 75 years, those who died who never had a moment like we had on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning when this cursed proposed amendment took a header down the stairs of history?

What about those who deal with multiple stigma being put on them from the outside of their beautiful bodies and souls that grows inside them like a mold that grows out of control, about those throughout the world who do not have time to worry about their sexual orientation oppression because that is too much of a first-world problem, about those who have scarce dared to tell another soul what is most on their heart? 

What about those who suffered in silence or out loud, those young people who were made to feel like villains for being who they were, who were physically, spiritually, and sexually abused, who took their lives rather than living another day in a world that they felt could do nothing but hate them?

And then I see them: The Saints of God.

Those who are streaming in from all times and from all places, who have been washed in the tears that Jesus has for those who have undergone torment not only *in* his name, but *under* his name. Those whose faith has been kicked down the stairs along with their bodies, spirits, and souls, all the while those who are doing the kicking are repeating: JESUS, JESUS, JESUS, seized with anger or laughter or just plain blank-slate horror in the name of the Lord.

And the Saints stream in from all times and from all places, singing in the name of LOVE. 

And they know. 

They understand. 

They in glory shine. 

They have seen what there is to see. 

And they have overcome.

By and by, when the morning comes. When the saints of God are gathered home. We'll tell the stories of how we've overcome. And we'll understand it better by and by. 

"Festival of Lights," © 2000 John August Swanson

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Remembering October 11, 1998

Part of why I always get a little sick this time of year is what happened 14 years ago. I'll never forget sitting in the little room I was sleeping in then in Manhattan, thinking about the boy who was dying in Laramie. After he died the next day (October 12, 1998), signs went up all over the West Village/Chelsea that said "Bring Your Anger." At the time I thought that message wrong, but in retrospect, I've rarely been angrier than I was when Matthew Shepard was beaten to death. That night there was also a peace march held around Union Square, which I missed, but instead I had my own peace march up 8th avenue, and the candle somehow stayed lit.

So much has happened since 1998, but in some senses, little has changed. The fight against Gay and Lesbian families in Minnesota with the marriage amendment is a classic case of how it is still acceptable to find any rationale necessary to try to defame, diminish, and even destroy us. But our humanity, and the integrity of our families, triumphs over the darkness contained in chants of "religious liberty" and "protect our children," because the One who created and unites us also gave us those parts of ourselves that are most human. And for me, like for Matthew, that part is gay.

No matter what some Christian voices say, God loves what God created, and nobody, of no denomination, of no ranking, of no nationality, of no level of wealth, of no language, political persuasion, education level, or any other factor can separate us from the love of God.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Stop Sacrificing "Fem" Boys

The following article appeared in yesterday's New York Times opinion section, written by Moroccan-French writer Abdellah Taïa.  It outlines one young man's experience of growing up in a strict Islamic society and being effeminate, yet it resonates so closely with a similar experience in our own so-called "Christian" culture.  This article can be found here.

Morocco was the most sexually complex environment I've ever been in, now 14 years ago, and only briefly. I met a young guy like Abdellah when I was there, not long after I came out in my own world. I can't say I can't imagine his fear. I think a lot of gay men and lesbian women can relate to a fundamental lack of safety, to being sacrificed to an ideal of religion or society that demanded someone had to die. 

Yet, in our own culture, the hatred by gays of "fems" is not uncommon. "If I wanted to date a girl, I'd be straight," is a line that all of us gays have heard, or said, at some point or another. 

Although bands of drunken "straight" men might not come to our houses and call us out for sex in the US (*this* is akin to sodom, not same-sex couples who want to get married), they do throw us against lockers, down stairs, and tie us to fence-posts. They do lust after us, while hating us and our "sin," mocking us, and making us at times kill ourselves, while wanting to get off on us. They make some of us *want* to sacrifice ourselves. 

But we who are gay do that to ourselves as well--we beat up each other and ourselves for some of the same reasons. We eat our own, as I've heard it said. And I'm not beyond reproach in this. Such is the price of being marinated for years in a culture of homophobia--we all come out smelling the same.

My heart breaks for all the boys who still endure this here and abroad, and for the boy that I was who ignored what other boys did to one of us who was effeminate, who couldn't "pass" as I could, the boy I was who was perhaps glad that someone else was getting the torture. 
Never again. The world, starting with me, and I hope with you as well, must support and protect them.  We must stop sacrificing them and encouraging them to sacrifice themselves.  Nothing is worth that sacrifice, certainly not ideals of behavior and religious principles.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

We are All Made of Stars--a Reflection for Ash Wednesday


A report came to me on the way home from Ash Wednesday service at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis about another two journalists being killed while reporting from Syria about the brutal crackdown of President Assad.  In some ways, it was hard to tell at first that they were talking about one of these reporters’ deaths, because they were saying how funny she was, how caring and full of life.  

But you knew what they were saying.  Marie Colvin was dead, killed in the line of her duty, while being a witness of violence against one’s own people in a part of the world that has seen much violence.  As one mentioned, she was covering this story, and had now become part of it.  

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Marie Colvin was not dust yesterday.  At least nobody would have said so.  

Today, hearing these words, “you are dust,” sounds demeaning, diminishing, depressing, and final.  But I am here to hear them said, and here to pronounce them:  Child of God, whether or not you believe in God, however you believe or not, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Some days, it is true, I do not feel much above the level of dust.  I don’t know what I am doing, where I am going, how I will bring my life to amount to much more than a pile of dust when it is all said and done.  

Sometimes, it seems like all my dreams are but dust, all my accomplishments, dust to the wind, all my caring for others, dust to brush off one’s sandals.

Sometimes, dusty roads are the only ones that seem to lie ahead.

The problem with that is--whenever you try to hold on too tight to a handful of dust, it breaks free and takes to the wind.  Dust calls to dust at the thunder of dustbowl storms, and all the dust has gone over us.  

Because we are all made of stars.


My ancestors fascinate me, because they are now dust, and yet they blipped across the screen of the world for some great moments.  I have images of some of them, back about 130 years at most.  

These ancestors were made of stardust, and part of my image of them is that once again, their souls returned back to the stars, to the structure of space that is all in God.  My dust comes from them, and theirs comes down a path that extends billions of years into the past.  And the past extends to the maker of what is, was, and is to come.

Pages on which information about my ancestors is written crumble, as do their pictures.  People who do not value these things throw these pictures away, and the ground or a fire claims them.  They were somewhere, and now, like my ancestors themselves, many of these mementos of them are also dust.  

In some time, objects and humans come to resemble each other.  But although we are made of stars, we’re made of more than makes up our things, mementos, pictures, records of our existence.  

We are also made of memory, and possibility, made of hydrated dust, but also of the starlight of life that shines from God through the prisms of our bodies, and into the future. 


The message of Ash Wednesday, which pronounces such harsh words, also calls us to release our tight grip over the dust of our lives, and not to worry so much about where we will go when we return to dust, because all of that dust is in God.  

“People they come together, people they fall apart...”

Moby’s song “We Are All Made of Stars” says it all.  

Christians turn again to the face of God explicitly on Ash Wednesday, but each of us must to daily, hourly, practically by the nanosecond, given our instinctive need to turn away from God, to run right straight into the sun, and experience all of the separation and desolation that our desperate hearts can give us.  

But those hearts are made for loving as well; they are filled with the water of oceans as well as the dust of stars.  God would not give us lives to live if all they were is dust.  We would have stayed in the stars.  

Today is another day to live, to struggle with continuing to live in the face of trying conditions, to mourn those who are not living, to anticipate the day when we and our loved ones will not live, and yet, to live with all of the strength in us that fights to keep the flame of life alive, set ablaze by the spark of God's love.   

Blessed friends, we are all made of stars.  Let your star shine with the internal light of love given you before the ages began, and the eternal light of the one who made this universe and everything in it.        

Friday, November 11, 2011

Fred & Hans: A 95-year Mystery from the "Great War"

"Hans Bach, from his sincere friend, Fred. J. Livingstone, Corporal R. A. M. C., Netley Hospital England.  Mar. 25th 1915."

Nearly 15 years ago, when I was poking around in a curiosity shop in Cologne, Germany, I found this picture.  The young man's beauty first caught my eye, in his simple military uniform, and a look on his face that I cannot describe--lips slightly parted, head slightly tilted, eyes open to the world, light on one side of his face and darkness on the other, and fully relaxed, almost in an ecstatic, somewhat removed reverie.  I have wondered all of these years who this beautiful young man is, and what became of him during or after the war to end all wars.

More than that, I wondered how this picture of an English soldier made it into the hands of someone who, by all accounts, looks to have been on the side of the enemy.  Who was Hans Bach?  Was he a young student that Fred befriended before the hostilities broke out that perhaps put them on opposite sides of the fence of mortality?

Were they friends, brothers, lovers, star-crossed, brought together by a fate that so soon turned as would put them in each others' harm's way?

A little digging on the internet today puts Laffutte, the photographer, at 184 Western Road in Brighton & Hove, about 60 miles from Netley, where Fred was serving in the great hospital there with the Royal Army Medical Corps, in which he was a Corporal in 1915.

Which makes me wonder...was Hans an enemy soldier that Fred met, and perhaps helped nurse back to health, while he was a patient at Netley Hospital, having been wounded in the war?

The Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley was opened under Queen Victoria's rule in 1863, after 7 years of construction, being then the largest military hospital in the world.  During WW1, it was the site of over 50,000 patients, some of whom were perhaps German prisoners of war as was the case 25 years later during WW2, although the hospital also treated American soldiers in vast numbers.

We will likely never know what the relationship was between Fred and Hans, what became of them (despite searching British military records for someone whose name and age would have matched Fred's), or whether they met at the hospital or before.

But what is certain is that they lived, that they served, that they had a fondness of some kind for each other, and that they found themselves as a part of one of the bloodiest, yet most hopeful chapters in the history of the human struggle of battle.

In that we may honor their memory, and the memories of millions who served, fought, loved, and died, today, 11.11.11, 93 years after the first Armistice Day.        

Eight is Enough

Three months plus since I started writing a 15-entry series on 15 years of being out of the closet, I've finished only eight of them.  I wanted to finish what I started, but so far have not.  And it's gotten in the way of writing further entries, even though there's been much to write about in the meantime.  Well, eight is enough, and now starts some new material!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

15 for 15 VIII: Why I Must Be Out

"You must remove any mention of your sexual orientation from your paperwork, resubmit for assignment elsewhere, and not mention it in any interviews with churches."

       --ELCA Official, recommending the only way she saw me being able to get a first church


I am resuming my series of 15 meditations on 15 years of being out today, because on this of all days, I understand more deeply every LGBTQ person's obligation to be out, if they can:  because we can.

This ability is definitely not available to everyone.  But if there are to be fewer people of all ages who are forced by our society, by their religions, employers, civil governments, families, friends, and other major factors of their lives to be in the closet, those of us who can be out must be out.

One year ago today, Justin Aaberg took his life in Andover, MN, not 20 miles from the gay mecca of Minneapolis.  I cannot, nor can anyone, ever know the despair that Justin felt that led him to the point of ending his life.  Organizations such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which lead in suicide research and prevention, caution against drawing too strong a line between being bullied, harassed, raped, humiliated, and taunted, and one's suicide.  

The reasons for suicide are complex.  But it cannot be disputed that Justin suffered significant ill treatment, not because he was gay and out, but because those who could have helped prevent this abuse did not, and because those who abused him were pushed in that direction by their parents, their religions, their popular cultures, and yes, in some cases their educational system and civil governments.

Because Justin can no longer be out, I must be, because I still have a voice, and that voice must both speak and be heard for my own dignity and that of others.

Because Justin was out when he could be, he was able to be a friend to those who, along with him, underwent this kind of abuse at the hands of those who knew all too well what they were doing, and did not stop to consider what they were doing meant to someone who did not deserve such treatment.
That kind of friendship is vital to those who live in fear and persecution.  It sometimes does mean the difference between life and death.


I have not always been able to be out.  And because I have not always been able to be out, I must be out now, whenever I can be.

At some point in my life, it no longer became possible for me to acquiesce in this system of oppression that said I had to be in the closet.  The closet was never a safe place, because it has its own side affects, and sometimes what is meant to save actually can help to kill.  But the closet remains, its door ajar, every time a new person comes along and I face the challenge of opening or closing that door.  It becomes all too easily a default position for one's whole life, even in our country, where homosexuality is no longer criminalized in our laws.

Still, in dozens of countries throughout the world today, one can literally be put to death for being gay.  Uganda is not the only country that has contemplated, or even passed, strict laws against homosexuality.

In the countries in which one's life is literally at risk for being LGBTQ, the closet may be one's only means of survival.  When it is, it should be used.

But for those of us who have passed the age of majority, live on our own in countries that do not actively seek our destruction, and can make choices about where and how we live, I at least put the question to those who are not out but could affect much positive change in their circumstances if they were:  Why not be out?

Ultimately, the choice is up to each person who could be out whether or not actually to be out.  There regrettably still are consequences, in employment, in housing, in family life, in vocation, and in other fundamental aspects of our lives, to being out.  Being out is not simple, and is sometimes problematic.

That said, I am convinced that the more people who are out who possibly could be, the less these systems of oppression will have the opportunity to tell us who we are, where we can work, where we can live, whom we can marry, and what we as human beings are worth.

And the more who are out here, where we can be, the more support there will be for those who are being persecuted throughout the world, and the more voices speaking from a place of personal authenticity will be raised to shout to the world that such violence against people cannot continue.  

This is why we must be out.


I have paid my own price in being out in terms of my vocation to the ordained ministry.  I actually did hear the words spoken above, by an official of my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), that if I wanted to live into the vocation for which I'd been educated, trained, and in which many people over the years have supported me with their prayers, money, time, and energy, I would have to forsake the part of my personhood that got me there.  I would have to deny the animating energy that puts life into my living.  I would have to be dishonest, and that was that.  

Yet that was much higher a price to pay than not getting a church, indeed, much too high a price for me to pay.  And true to her word, to this day, not one church has interviewed me to be their pastor.
The same person later told me, after the rules of the ELCA were changed to allow open and partnered LGBTQ people as ministers, that she deeply regretted ever having to say such a thing.  I can understand that regret.  But I’m not the only one who has been told these things, and the church should be the last place to encourage duplicity.  

Beyond the actual harmful messages that those in the ELCA and in many other church bodies have told and still tell those who are LGBTQ, these churches yet have to atone for encouraging their own ministers of the Gospel to lie in order to become ministers of the Gospel of truth.

And the church ought not to be in the business of making liars out of its leaders.
On the civil and societal front, being out is key to ever securing our rightful place at the table of full citizenship, and to make it impossible for political leaders to use me and people like me as political fodder to scare their like-minded constituents into getting them elected and re-elected.  
In Minnesota, my home and current state, we are now known for the wacky anti-gay politicians that we are producing.  Rep. Michele Bachmann, and her unfortunate husband, Dr. Marcus Bachmann, are using LGBTQ people and the fear of some around same-sex marriage in order to help launch their presidential campaign.  

But I have a deep feeling that if he could be out, Dr. Marcus Bachmann would be out.  

Instead, he runs a clinic that seeks to change LGBTQ people by telling them that they do not have to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, in fact, that these ways of living are wrong and contrary to God's word, and that they are even "barbarians."  One man went undercover to discover and communicate the truth of what Bachmann's clinic practices, which you can read here.

Because Dr. Marcus Bachmann, and other purveyors of anti-gay "research," "therapy," and anti-gay religious-based rhetoric, such as Dr. George Rekers, whose research helped ruin lives while he got to vacation with paid gay companionship, cannot be out, I must be out.

For in order to stop such therapy from having legitimacy in the eyes of many as it still does now, those many must know who we really are as LGBTQ people.  And when they cannot know who we are from us, they must take the word of people who wish us erased from the pages of history, from the present, and from the future.


There are many reasons to be out, and many reasons why I feel I must be out.  But being out and coming out, as a complicated, ongoing, and life-long process, still presents times when I could say that I'm gay but I don't, because in the moment it feels too hard to do so.  In offering to elderly people why I am not married, for example, I don't say it is because I cannot marry, or because I don't have a boyfriend, but simply that I am not married, end of story.

These sorts of moments, which are moments of truth that pass as the proverbial ships in the night, are so important because they are where real change happens, and where, once frankness defines the basis of a discussion, real connection can possibly happen on more than an intellectual level.

Of all the reasons why I must be out, perhaps greatest reason is the prospect of those deep, personal, and connected conversations, and the relationships that can ensue from them.  

My hope, for myself and others, is to find the strength in the most difficult moments to speak out the truth of our lives to those for whom that truth might effect the most ultimate good. 

Together, we can achieve that good, for ourselves as individuals, and for those whose voices cannot be heard.