Tuesday, May 24, 2011

15 for 15 VII: Pride, or Anti-Pity

"What have you done today to make you feel proud?"  --Heather Small

"You can take away my job, my vocation, my marriage, my home, and my life, but you can't take away my pride." --C. W.


"I'm on my way, can't stop me now.  And you can do the same."  Pride may be one of the seven deadly sins, but frankly, there are a lot of deadly sins that are not counted among these seven sins, such as hate, fear, and pity.

I say, let's redefine these deadly sins.  What have you done today to make you feel proud?

To say I'm fan of Showtime's series "Queer as Folk" is an understatement.  When my friend, David, a fellow Minnesotan and a life mentor, first lent me his recorded episodes on VHS tapes back in New York City more than 10 years ago, I knew I loved this rag-tag bunch of metro-homosexuals.  It is sexy, edgy, real, funny, semi-pornographic at times, but that is the reality of our lives.  No apologies, no regrets.

Just now, I finished watching the series finale (the last scene is in the link to the above quotation), which ended with the song above--"What have you done today to make you feel proud?"  Not "make me feel proud."  Not "make God feel proud."  Not "make your parents, your teachers, your employers feel proud."  But you.  The very you who is reading this sentence right now, and who is typing it.  Because feeling proud is something new every day, like God's manna from heaven, something not just to re-live, or re-make, but something that comes up as a requirement for us to live as flourishing, loving, proud, and fierce human beings.


I've taken a few weeks' sabbatical on this series of writing 15 reflections on 15 years of being out.  In the meantime, I visited the scene of my coming out, my alma mater, Lawrence University.  I hadn't been there in nearly 10 years, and many people have come and gone since then.  Many buildings are new, many people are new, but as I approached college avenue and rode past Main Hall, the cobwebs fell from my eyes, and I saw the place that was so formative in my life--not just my intellectual life, but my emotional life, and the life that I found worth fighting for after so many years of fear.

Every corner of this university, especially the Conservatory of music, had a memory, or many memories.  The friends I made, the friends I lost, the people I loved, hated, the people I passed who have themselves passed on to another dimension, those places that are now silent, that used to be the center of activity.  "Mozzi sticks!!!"  I could hear one saucy Union kitchen lady yelling as I waited for one of the dearest friends in my life that I haven't talked to now in 10 years.  Now, silent, a closed door, like that friendship feels.

But pride is on the other side, waiting to open the door.

I wasn't exactly proud of myself when I got to college at age 18.  My parents were proud of me, and for that I'm both grateful and fortunate.  The pathway to 18 and beyond is filled with so many possible wrecking points, that in some ways I think it is a miracle that as many people make it to that one, lone spot as do.  But the hardest times do not pass when one makes the first forays out onto one's "own."

It's coming to own one's own that can present some of the tightest spots of our lives.  And the road there is lined with those who have made it only part of the way, not because of their own faults, but because others made the road so damned impassable.  But the road is not *necessarily* impassable. There are angels who can help you get through, if you can open your eyes when they are most tightly closed and see.

And we need to help those angels along, and to be those angels of our better natures.


I put writing this entry off because in many ways it is the hardest one to write.  The time I've taken getting here mirrors the time I've taken getting to any place in my life where I can be proud both of who I am, as well as what I've done.

It's hardest, sometimes, to cut oneself some slack, let alone others.  In fact, I think we often treat ourselves with harshness that would make us go to the mat for our friends and loved ones if we saw them being treated the same way that we sometimes treat ourselves.

So pride is not such an easy thing, for a number of reasons, for a number of people.  Being told you're worthless, scum, lowest of the low, perverted, wrong, abnormal, sick, damned, and a whole host of other horrible things, seems to sink in with some time, and sinks us.  A lot of people who are not themselves LGBTQ have experienced this kind of soul-murder.  So why does so much of the animus come to those of us who are LGBTQ?

Because, I sense, we expose the beauty and diversity that is each person's in this life, that so many are afraid will give them such fulfillment, that it will literally blow their minds.

People are diverse, they're not of one mind, they know themselves often much better than they are known, in short, people are not on one standard track of being recognized, comfortable, productive, and beneficent to themselves first, as well as to others.

And the LGBTQ community, as far as we are a community, is the exemplar of this diversity.  While our sexuality, "lifestyles," and the choices that we make to live more fabulously every day make us part of who we are, we live, each of us, being "repairers of the breach," reconcilers, and living those lives away from the quiet desperation that makes people die a death much worse than that of the body:  the death of their spirits in their limited time in this life.


Those who wish to say that our relationships, that our lives, in all their color, do not count as much as theirs, miss one of the greatest gifts of this brief life:  that life does not all have to be the same, and that we have agency in making of our lives what God would, I don't just think but am certain, want us to make of our lives:  as absolutely much as we can.

Many of those who couch their opposition under the name of the God of all life, look at gay pride parades and festivals as the exemplars of our shame:  leather daddies, open sexuality, sodomites laughing and parading their difference through the streets, people who are one step away from taking us all down the fast road to hell.

Well, I have a message for these purveyors of doom:  those who fear the rainbow are bound to be crushed by it.  Not crushed by the triumph of "fag enablers," but by their very own, human, and misguided fear.  And that makes me pity them, although I know that fear as well as they do.

I remember my first pride well, in the summer of 1998 in New York City.  It was the first time in my life that, for just a few hours, in a small part of the world, I felt like everyone in the world was LGBT or Q, where nobody had to explain anything about what I had felt all my life, where I could feel, even if briefly, the home that is so common to so many people, where I came home from a lifelong exile.  And that feeling is not something to fear, but to celebrate.

This pride is the pride that we take in our own lives, in our own feelings, in the exultation that each of us and a human being can feel in our humanity, not in the humanity that is imposed upon us, but in what we ourselves know is our truth.


Pity, not humility, is the antithesis of pride.

I know pity well--I'm prone to self-pity, one of my deepest flaws.  Self-pity, in feeling that I have not made enough of my life, that I have not attained my calling as a minister of the Word of God, that I have not sustained a long-term relationship or marriage, that I have not yet peaked in the arc of my living, afflicts me as it does many, and seeks to quash the beauty that my life can, and often does, have and has to give.  This feeling of self-pity almost kept me from going back to Lawrence, the goal of which was to celebrate the awesome life and contribution of one of the most fabulous Lawrentians ever, our late archivist, Carol Butts.

I am eternally glad that I opposed the poisoned source from which these impediments derived, to avert what would have been a true pity:  missing out on this fabulous celebration and reunion.

I was proud that day that we gathered Carol's family, friends, and colleagues, to celebrate her memory and contributions, as she has so long deserves.  I only wish she could have been there with us to enjoy a well-deserved honor.

Now, this is hard to say, but I think it is the truth:  LGBTQ people are often trained more in pity than we are in pride.  We are made the victims of people who cannot accept the truths of their own lives, let alone the lives of others, and we cry out altogether too often in the pain that others inflict on us, and that we inflict on ourselves. But we also shout from the rooftops, and within the halls of power, that God indeed does love us in equal measure, that we are human in equal measure, and that our relationships are equal, not because we fight for them to be, but because they just are.

I had the chance to be proud for a while last week, in the midst of fighting against a vote by the Minnesota State Legislature to hand off for the people to decide what rights we should all have under the law.  I am grateful to Rep. Debra Kiel, freshman representative of district 1B, my home district, for hearing me out.  I hope truly that she thinks and prays about what I had to say to her.

The most important thing I had to tell her was this:  We are equal in our humanity, and we are equal in our baptisms (those of us who are Christian), but we are not equal under the law, and the law is very important, and something that our representatives, such as herself, have in their hands.

Hundreds who protested this anti-gay constitutional amendment made me proud, standing, singing, and shouting for our rights at the very door of power.  Organizations like OutFront Minnesota, Project 515, and the new Minnesotans United for All Families, are all helping to gather the power of our communities around making justice for all families a reality in Minnesota.

A few Republican representatives made me especially proud, most notably Rep. John Kriesel, whose experience in the war in Iraq, and particularly serving with a gay soldier who was killed, made him see that this anti-gay amendment must be opposed at all costs.  (His speech is here.) He said "I'm proud of this, because this is the right thing to do."  And he was absolutely right.

My parents, each in writing their representatives, made me proud as well, just one of many times.


Pride is not just doing what you're told.  Pride is knowing that you are worth more than others say you are, that your worth is from a source beyond yourself, beyond your own family and community, beyond your own accomplishments, from a source that reaches out to all of humanity, the wonderful and the awful, that for those of us who believe reaches to God and comes from God.

This kind of pride feeds our lives and gives them meaning.  It's not a sin.  The hate that challenges who we are, that hate is a deadly sin, literally.  And that is what Jesus came on this earth to oppose.

We hit the mat for a moment when the MN State Legislature passed this sorry bill (a.k.a. SF 1308 and HF 1615).  But we are not going to stay down.

We're going to kick such ass on this anti-marriage amendment.  Not because we're going to be louder, tougher, and more determined than those who oppose our relationships, but because we're simply going to love them more than they hate us.

We are going to love their scared selves into a place of salvation.

Jesus is not going to come down from the sky to save them from us, but, rather, Jesus is going to work through us to redeem them, until there is no more "us" and "them," but only "we."

And that's something to be proud of.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

An Open Letter to Jim Wallis on LGBTQ “Civil Rights.”

I am taking a break this morning from my meditations on coming out, which shall continue soon, to express my disappointment in Jim Wallis & the Sojourner's Board's decision not to run an ad supportive of LGBTQ people submitted by the Believe Out Loud campaign.

10 May 2011

Dear Jim,

I was among those who were disappointed by your response to the Sojourners Magazine’s “editorial” decision not to run the Believe Out Loud ad that is supportive of LGBTQ Christians.  Unfortunately, a lot of people who call themselves progressive seem to have taken this as an opportunity to give you and Sojourners the old heave-ho as having anything to do with progressive Christianity.  This is unfortunate, as was your response that attempted to backtrack and promote a position that is, in fact, contrary to the one that you and Soujourners has taken with this ad.  You state:

"Given the time Sojourners is now spending on critical issues like the imperative of a moral budget, the urgent need to end the war in Afghanistan, and the leadership we are offering on commitments like immigration reform, we chose not to become involved in the controversy that such a major ad campaign could entail, and the time it could require of us. Instead, we have taken this opportunity to affirm our commitment to civil rights for gay and lesbian people, and to the call of churches to be loving and welcoming to all people, and promote good and healthy dialogue."  (This is taken from your longer response, found here.)

The Believe Out Loud ad is merely proclaiming that we, too, as LGBTQ people, should be welcome in Christian churches of our choosing, and that we have as much of a place in pouring forth our ardent prayers, and bearing the mutual burdens of our brothers & sisters in Christ, as those who would keep us from the altar and deny us God’s means of grace.  Although many could agree with the feeling of being excluded or looked at funny when they newly enter a church, this is especially the case for LGBTQ people. 

It is unfortunate to see that words mean more than actions to you and the Sojourners Board in this case.  Not only because you seem to think that the only urgent needs lie outside of the realm of sexuality, but because you would say that you’re in favor of civil rights, while seeming not to care that millions of individuals are using the name of Jesus to torment and even to kill LGBTQ persons here and throughout the world. 

This is a teachable moment, Jim.  It is a moment in which you can publicly state that what is happening in Minnesota with our legislature near a vote to ban same-sex marriage in our constitution is wrong not only from a civil standpoint, but a moral one as well. 

This is the moment in which your voice should be the voice calling Uganda to account for its seeking to introduce a law that will lead to a holocaust of LGBTQ lives in that country, and should be condemning the use of Jesus’ name to condone and even initiate the deaths to come in that country.  Is this something that would embarrass you to say, and detract from your work of justice in other areas?

It saddens me to say, Jim, that your words of support have no currency with those to whom they would count as long as your actions do not match them.

But, if you wish to be helpful, but cannot be, Jim, don’t worry:  We are working tirelessly to liberate you and thousands like you who do not yet feel you can help us, for reasons of controversy or whatever other business considerations you might have. 

We are also tirelessly working to liberate the Gospel of Jesus from the hands of those who would use it to condone violence here and throughout the world.  Because it is a matter of justice that the Lord of Life not be used as the Demon of Death. 

You are needed, Jim, and so is Sojourners.  The welcome of the Christian Church here and throughout the world is not ornamental to the cause or justice, nor is it merely a civil matter.  The name of Jesus is at stake here, as are the lives of those who could perish under it.   

I will be praying for you.

In Christ,

Chris Wogaman
Minneapolis, MN

Saturday, May 7, 2011

15 for 15 VI: The First Time, or I'm Finally Out!

The day had to come.

Earlier that day, I was agonizing, as I did every day, over the guy I was in love with but didn't, or couldn't, tell.  When he told me that he was in love with another guy, I told him how I felt about him, and there it was.




But the one to whom I am out and whom I love loves another.  I want to laugh and cry and vomit.
                                                                                                    --May 6, 1996

Those were the hardest years of my life, so far, both preceding and following that statement.

Since that time, I've come to think that emotional puberty, which happens around age 20, is harder than physical puberty.  I went into a cocoon, psychologically, and to some degree physically as well.

Like many young men of that age, I grew out my hair, on my face as well as on my head.  I actually had hair to grow out back then.

Along with this growth of hair around me, I continued growing barriers around myself psychologically to keep people out.  I became so good at it, that by age 21, I could say that I hadn't kept any friends consistently since I was a kid, and although I made friends in college, it would be some time before I worked on those friendships at all.  Mostly, I was insecure, overly-competitive, and didn't want anyone to know I was gay.

It all ended that night.


My view of the world has changed so drastically, I can't.  This is the night I have been waiting for for so long...

I knew after that night that something more than my sexuality had come out.  I had come out, started to destroy the cocoon of secrecy that I'd built around myself with hundreds or thousands of "saves," putting my mind to work several moves ahead of where a conversation might be going so that I would not have to answer certain questions or lie.

The piano had been my adolescent lover, and the eccentric pianist Glenn Gould had been my "virtual" lover, long before the idea of virtual had come to my mind.  I was safely hidden behind an intellectual exterior in which I could be busy thinking about things, or practicing the piano.  I became enveloped in the works of Ayn Rand, who, from her physical and emotional grave, egged me on to be different and alone.  Being an individual was the most important thing to me, so much so that when I went to college, I wanted to do an "individualized major," which at the time was kooky, although has caught on since.

Through all of the nights that I had gone to sleep for 10 years wondering if I was hopelessly lost, or if I was "the only one," I knew in those moments, on that night 15 years ago, that I was never going to be the only one again.

The first time I came out was like returning from a long, lonely exile in a foreign land, whose customs I sort of knew, and whose language I spoke with great difficulty because I kept tripping over the words, but whose food I didn't enjoy, and whose oppressive culture I could not wait to escape.

This feeling of exile, of not being welcomed in your homeland, is perhaps common to a lot of people for a lot of reasons.  People can challenge this feeling only in the company of those who are "like" them, or perhaps in books, movies, other media, or characters of their own making.  But it's not the same as connecting in person, with real, live people whom you know are enough like you so that you don't have to mouth a barely familiar language that everyone else seems to know fluently.

My whole perspective on the world changed, because that night I no longer had to think in terms of dynamic equivalence, translating the lives of others, and particularly the loves of others, into something that made sense to me in my own mind and deeply felt experience.   My world changed that night because it finally became my world.


I'm so confused and elated and nervous and sick and ecstatic.  Sleep seems light years away.

A million feelings went through my mind and heart all at once, so powerful that I felt like I was going to go insane or literally explode, internally combust, go up in the flames of gay fabulosity before I knew what those even could be.

I felt, in that moment, that I had crossed over a threshold of experience that I thought I would never cross, and entered a world I could only sense existed, but had been there all the time.  And what I wanted felt further out of reach than ever, because my feelings were not returned.

Feelings are a funny thing--substantial, but not quantifiable; ephemeral, but lasting; they are the ultimate paradox.

And feelings seem to give us permission to act in any way that we wish.  I did that, and was not proud of how my feelings affected the object of those feelings.  Objectifying another, especially one about whom we feel strongly, seems impossible to avoid, but in the cold light of long reflection, I would have acted quite differently.  At that time, though, I simply could not.  One learns not to repeat certain mistakes, even though some of those mistakes seem to fall into a pattern of action that, no matter how many times one tries to reason his or her way out of them, seems to keep coming back the same way.  It is almost like an addiction, and the effects can perhaps be just as harmful.

Still, I came to value those feelings only by finally experiencing them, and putting them out there in the world.  If they are returned, that is somehow a bonus, but there is no way in which one can or should force another person to feel what one does not feel.

Being forced into feeling what one does not feel is precisely the aim of the closet.  It is not only a place of privacy and safety, but it is a place that often compels people to feel that that is the only place in which they can be safe.  And that is not right.


Many first times have come since that one those many years ago:  first lovers, first boyfriends, first poems, first culinary delights, first times being without a home, being on my own and unsure of what to do next, first trips to Europe and Africa, first times walking the streets of Paris and New York and San Francisco, dreamlike places that I never thought I'd be, but that have come to define my personality and my life in ways similar to this lived sexual orientation.

First times are indeed very special, even if they aren't anything special in and of themselves.  I remember the first time I changed a headlight on a car, the feeling of accomplishment that I had, and the feeling of empowerment.  First times can, but do not always, empower us to try for higher levels of experience, and  make us realize that what never seemed possible actually is something we just haven't tried yet.  Of course, that doesn't go for everything.  Like eating liver.

Tonight, I celebrated these many years of being out, and all the gifts and challenges that have come with it, at the lovely Nicollet Island Inn restaurant in Minneapolis.  Here was one of the fabulous courses with which my table was adorned:

The colors, the flavors!  This was living.  And this is what life can be like:  a colorful, delicious feast.

For we are called to the great feast, to the Gospel feast, to the feast of honesty and integrity that adds all of the flavor to life.  Facing one's areas of pain and struggle honestly, and for a long time, can yield much greater treasures that can be bought and paid for with money.

And you are always welcome at my feast.

Friday, May 6, 2011

15-for-15 V: Who I Am, or Identity, Equality, and Value

I know who I am.  More or less.


It's easy to say that sexuality is just a small part of our lives, that it's not "who we are."  It's also easy to say that sexuality is our entire life, that it's all we are.

When I say that I am gay, and thereby oppose the words that headline the first entry in this series, I equate myself with my sexual orientation, I own that part of myself, and I use it to define myself.  I am Chris, but saying that is not quite the same way of defining self, because "Chris" doesn't have a definition in itself.

Saying "I am cold," similarly, describes a passing state or feeling.  "I am rich," or "I am poor," too, might get at something true for a while, which shapes who we are and how we are, but these descriptors are not necessarily identity characteristics.  Our "net worth" does not come in how much money we have in the bank the day before the stock market crashes and wipes out our assets.

Yet people debate the extent to which sexuality is a passing phase, essential to our beings or a choice, or a product of our doing.

I think that sexuality is a very big part of our lives, because it affects how we relate to ourselves, others, our society, religions, and to every huge factor in our lives.  Sexuality goes far beyond those with whom one has sex, far beyond one's private domain, and indeed beyond one's "personal preferences" or "lifestyle choice."  The term "lifestyle choice," in fact, has always been both nebulous and insulting, highlighting an ornamental, act-based idea of sexuality that somehow people might chose out of boredom with the "normal" way of life.  It doesn't get at such a large part of what I think is connoted by the term "sexual identity"--the source of one's passions.

What "turns you on"?  What "floats your boat"?  What gets your blood pumping, and what paints your sky? What brings a flush to your cheek, or a spring to your step? Sexuality is in our blood, and blood is thicker than water. The sinoatrial node might physically produce the electrical force behind the beating of our hearts, but sexuality is the metaphoric animating principle behind that and every aspect of our creative lives.

Sexuality goes a long way beyond T & A.  (Especially if you're gay.)

II.  Defined by Difference?  Enlivened by Equality?

Being different gives a person the opportunity to spend a lot of time thinking about things that people who are not different probably don't think much about.  Some might take exception with my use of the term "different."  But when you're defined in ways that lead to a different set of rules for how you can live your life, you're different.

Difference, in the case of sexual identity, means that you do not necessarily follow the life patterns and roles that are set in place for you when you're born.  The consequence of that difference is that society sets out for you the same expectations, but a different set of rules.

I'll be the first to own that sometimes those of us with this difference of sexuality, or any difference, spend too much time thinking and talking about it, and not enough time living it.  That is because justice has not yet come for many of us, and because our siblings in difference around the world and on our own shores are still being mocked, beaten, assaulted, shamed into self-hatred and worse, and indeed put to violent death.  We think about this difference because our world won't let us forget.

In thinking about this difference, we often talk about "equality."  Frankly, the more I think of it, the more insulting the idea of asking for "equality" is.

It is insulting to argue for equality, because we are equal, and we don't ask anyone else to be equal to us. I would never look at someone and say, "Prove that you are equal to me."  People who don't realize that LGBT people are fully equal in our humanity and our relationships are fully equal in their legitimacy will not do so because we say they are.  

We spend so much time defending, and that leaves less time actually to live.

My leap came when I realized the value of my own feelings, at least to myself, not that they were equal, but that they were valuable.


Sexuality is a value.  And one person's sexuality is no more a value than another's.

Sexuality is a value in what it does to enliven and paint the skies of our lives.  It is also a value in how it challenges and points out our brokenness.  Everyone has a broken aspect to their sexuality.  This is one of the chief reasons why same-sex attraction scares people--because thinking of it as an attraction that is fully broken, wrong, diseased, or criminal, gives people who think like that a way to avoid confronting their own brokenness.

It's hard to name all of the discrete experiences of our lives that name our sexuality in one way or another.  Holding hands in the movie show, as one old song put it, is something that people without a difference would not think twice about doing, and might indeed take pleasure and gain social status by being seen "together."

One can name one's sexuality in any number of subtle ways, in a look or a few carefully placed words, in whose names one mentions casually in conversation, in pictures that adorn one's public spaces, or in the stories that we tell about important experiences in our lives that involve other people.

People who cannot be public about their sexuality find any number of ways to avoid it becoming known.  My most potent memory from my high school years involved sitting in the library on a study break with some guys who began talking about how a girl was admiring another guy's ass.  I interjected, without realizing that I was in danger of totally outing myself to some of the not nicer people:  "Oh, she could do better."  Snap!

This comment did not escape their attention.  One shot back with a look on his face that I've seen a couple of other times, in dangerous situations where they see the gay within you and don't like what they see. The words exploded, "Oh yeah??  Who??!"

A breathless moment passed.  It seemed like they had gotten me, and that all I had feared would now come to pass.

From out of nowhere, the word came into my head and out my mouth with as little thought as I had given when I initiated this crisis just seconds ago:


And with that, they laughed their asses off, and I breathed an internal sigh of release.  Way too close for comfort.

That's such an innocuous experience, and yet given the context of being forced to avoid saying any little thing that might "tip them off," I had just dodged what I feared would be metaphoric and literal bullets.

Just imagine all of the experiences, in all of the years, that all of those who do not want to be "found out" go through, and the weight that puts on one's shoulders.

Every experience that one might have to pass through in order to stay in the closet is an experience in which sexuality makes itself known outwardly in our lives.

Who I am, who you are, is partially defined by the weight we carry, what we do with it, and what we let it do to us.

But we are also defined by what lifts us.

And someday, hopefully within my lifetime, the widest part of our society will support the enlivening force that takes us through each day, that connects with the Holy Spirit and taps us into God, that is our muse for writing, singing, and creating beautiful things, the enlivening force that makes our relationships live, and our words take flight, that sends our rockets to the farthest reaches of physical space, and gives us the energy to dream a better world, while living with greater fulfillment in the one we have.

Who will we be then?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

15-for-15 IV: Gaining My Religion

"God hasn't brought you this far just to let you go now."
                                               --Loretta Hernton


Somehow, I got dragged back into church after foreswearing it for Aristotle.

It was going to be so neat and tidy:  Let God be whatever God was supposed to be, which I supposed wasn't much, pray when I really needed something somehow expecting that would work, and stay in my rational mind as well as I possibly could.  That was my "lifestyle choice" for a good long time.  Looking back now, I mouthed the words of atheism, but my heart wasn't in it.  It was like me trying to be heterosexual.

This is not to say that atheists, agnostics, humanists, and persons of dozens, if not hundreds, of world religions do not have a heart, and, indeed more of a heart than I.  But I could never have come to the religious belief I have without being openly gay.  Indeed, some of the most "Christian" people I know, and some of the better theologians, are atheists, and some of the beastliest things I've seen and heard have been done in the name of Jesus.

I've always been a doubter and a sceptic when it comes to faith.  Indeed, faith without doubt is like pig iron; it is brittle, and breaks at the least trial.  Doubt to faith is like the carbon that turns iron into steel, making it strong and pliable enough to shift without easily falling down.


In college, I never felt like the church was any place for me to be.  After I left home, I left the church as well, as many young people do, except to earn some money playing organ or piano for services here and there.

My family attended a Methodist church quite faithfully, each Sunday, so it was a part of my upbringing.  In fact, I've not lived a day without being baptized, as I was baptized the very day I was born.  It was a lifestyle choice, yes, first made by my parents, and then myself.  But I never wanted to be a part of the "Christians" that I saw at college, because I knew that their company was no place for the likes of me.  But "my religion" has become far more than a casual choice or accident of birth.

Strangely enough, in coming to understand the part of myself that had to come out of the closet, especially in the context of what really mattered in my life and in the universe from my vantage point, I couldn't escape the many elements that had affected my life through religion.  Yet, even though I am certain I never went to a church service in which the pastor or priest said that homosexuals were going to hell, somehow I got that message through the air, or the airwaves, because enough other people were saying it:  God condemns gays.  I know that to be a lie, in some cases very carefully manufactured for maximal political effect, but it was a lie that helped keep me in the closet.

My first summer in New York, where I have lived 5 years of my adult life, I recall a subway evangelist (there were many) approach me on the uptown platform of the A train at 42nd Street.  He said to me, "Do you have Jesus?"  I answered, and can still clearly see and feel what I felt when I said it, "I already know I'm going to hell."

That frame of mind, however, is not where I would stay.


As someone who went through seminary, I learned how to tell my "faith journey" while standing on one leg, like Ayn Rand claimed she could do and recite her whole philosophy (which I'm sure she could).  And not only did I go to one seminary,  but two:  Yale Divinity School/Institute of Sacred Music for my "Masters of Divinity," a title to this day that makes me laugh with images of donning leather and picking up a whip to recite the Word of the Lord, and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, which granted me a CATS, a Certificate of Advanced Theological Studies, which sounds like something between a pet and a medical procedure.   Altogether, I became a Master of Divine Cats who could whip out a faith journey narrative like last-minute pancakes for unannounced company.

My path was somewhat untraditional, lacking a particular influential mentor, but common as well to others who went to seminary.  I was raised in the church, left the church, left God, found out that I hadn't left God, got peppered with dreams and "coincidences" that forced me to think about God, as well as felt an increasing desire to know more about religion, to experience more, to become a pastor, at which I would have laughed when I was in college, and, after a time, to go to seminary.

I first came back to the church in Harlem, at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church on the corner of 145th and Convent Avenue.  There was a big pink cross up in front, and a fiery preacher, Minister Grant, who along with the choirs made the Word of God come vibrantly to life.  They let me use their piano to practice as I hadn't one of my own at the time, and it helped get me in the door on a Sunday morning when I wasn't doing anything else in particular.  Piano of God #1.

Later, after I moved north of Harlem, I found the Lutheran church down the street from where I lived while looking for a piano to play.  Piano of God #2.   Something seemed to be at work to unite the place where my heart resided during my teenage years, in music, and where it was starting to find itself more and more, in a wider place within my being.

My interest in Greek, my undergraduate major, led me to pick up a Bible for the first time in years when I was shopping at the Chelsea Salvation Army in New York one Saturday afternoon.  The teller gave it to me, saying, "We don't sell Bibles; just take it."  The beautiful Greek characters brought the Scriptures to my mind fresh and alive, and made me want to know and experience more.

When I picked up that volume and looked at the title page, I saw the name of Bruce Metzger, who had led the committee that edited that Bible from the Greek manuscripts. Since he was still living in Princeton, where he taught for many years, I resolved to go and meet him.  This desire led me to my first experience at a seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary.  Before that visit, I hadn't even much of an idea what seminary was.

A dream during my visit to that seminary convinced me that I must go to seminary, but not yet, so soon after coming back to the church.  I later learned that I dreamt a verse from the Book of Jonah (also found in Psalm 42):

and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows
passed over me.  (Jonah 2:3; RSV)

I passed through the overwhelming flood in that dream, which I had seen Fantasia-style, in the 3rd person, encapsulated safely in a gleaming crystal case.  The waves rolled a mile over my head, but I was safe, as the waves all went over me.  I woke feeling as though I had been washed deeply, like in a steam bath but without the sweat.  It was as though I had been baptized again.  It was if I had been Jonah, running from God, and right into the belly of a whale.

In these formative years, I learned to appreciate the energy and deep commitment of those in the National Baptist tradition at Convent Avenue.  I also spent time with extremely conservative Mennonites; formed a small Bible study in which I translated the Greek version of the week's Gospel passage, complete with long footnotes describing theological concepts; took several courses at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian's Center for Christian Studies; discovered writing poetry there through a course on Modern Poetry and the Book of Hours; celebrated communion every day at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church on my lunch breaks; and hung out at Union Theological Seminary, all while starting to worship at a Lutheran Church.

Perhaps most powerfully, every morning in New York, I would also shut my eyes and pray on the A train on the way to work, envisioning myself encapsulated in a ball of light.  Everyone in the train was part of that prayer, wishing them peace, healing, and love.  It was the only time in my life I can say my prayers were regular and absolutely transformative.  Not so after seminary.


Religion in America seems often to chase LGBT people away with dreadful visions of a tortured afterlife based on our particular "sin" in this life.  I believe instead that these religious voices are simply making for a tortured life for us here on earth, and have nothing to do with the possible afterlife.

Shortly after my denomination, the ELCA, voted to allow open and partnered LGBT people to serve as ordained clergy in 2009, a series of articles popped up on the LGBT news-blog Queerty.com written by Lutherans about the changes voted in, which many in the church had been working hard to get enacted for many years.

Given the voices of hatred towards LGBT people from people calling themselves "Christian," it is no wonder to me why many would be forced away from the church, indeed run screamin.  Personally, after the last several years of waiting for a church and wondering if this vocation to the ministry will ever pan out, or if I will just look like I was aimlessly drifting for 10 years, I can genuinely empathize with the feeling that churches can seem at best irrelevant and at worst actively, vocally, and indeed politically harmful, even deadly in their narrow and rigid messages of wide sin and narrow salvation.

So why go back to a religion that has spent so much energy on actively opposing me and millions of LGBT people?

Because God bewitched me, "jokester that she is," as one of my clergy acquaintances says.


The brain in me that worked so hard to keep me in the closet for my first 10 years of knowing I was attracted to my same sex, which worked so hard on problems of philosophy, music theory, and politics, which reached out to the farthest reaches of the universe and tried to reach beyond, to the other side of the universe into whatever might be beyond, and that dismissed the possible reality of God, ended up taking a back seat to my gut and to my heart after I came out.

Why do we do what we do, think what we think, and feel what we feel?  When I was younger, I thought that we human beings functioned best when we did not let our emotions get involved, but used as pure of reason as we could, unclouded by the irrational heart. But when my heart and mind connected, which I strongly feel was not until after I came out for the first time to other people, I dropped my insistence on pure reason, and learned I was a gut sort of person.

The heart has its own knowledge, the brain its own, the gut as well, the soul another, close to the spirit.  If all lie in separate containers all the time, and do not converse, they can grow lonely, proud, and dictatorial, as each of us becomes without the benefit of kind and challenging human interaction, hearing various points of view, and feeling closely how our opinions affect the lives of others.

God works through our minds, but surpasses the bounds of reason.  Sexuality, as well, cannot be the sole concern of one organ over another.

In coming out, I set myself on a path to connect with God in a way that never would have happened if I'd attempted to make sense of life with whatever share of reason I was given between my ears and behind my eyes.

And that path is not over yet.  God hasn't brought me this far just to let me go now.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

15-for-15 III: Honesty

"It's not lying if they make you lie."
                  --Brian Kinney (Gale Harold), "Queer as Folk" (Showtime)


Now, be honest.  You might not rejoice in the death of Osama bin Laden, but is there no part of you that was at least relieved to hear that he had finally been killed?  And if relieved, grateful?  A seed of inappropriate glee, perhaps, that would taint you as someone who can't quite live up to the great martyrs of peace of the past?

The last thing most of us would want is for people to know all of our true feelings all the time, because a lot of those feelings could affect our relationships, jobs, and general reputations should they be known.  So we have to be selective in what we tell others.  Honesty, true, unadulterated, 24/7/365 honesty, is nearly impossible to have within the recesses of our own minds and souls, and quite impossible to achieve in dealing with others.

But some level of honesty, with others, about ourselves and our views, is absolutely essential to who we are.  We must select what we will present, and in presenting, create the "I" that others see through their eyes.

Honesty is central in coming out of the closet, but it is not simple.  It begins with people being honest with themselves about their true feelings, and that may lead into a crisis that may or may not resolve itself with becoming honest with others.  Some may come out, at an early age, without any complications in their own minds--I've met people for whom this is the case.  But for many others who are gay or lesbian, a wide variety of complex factors and fears affects this kind of honesty with others.


Foremost are the factors of one's fear of losing close relationships with people they think might not take this news well and decide to end the relationship.  And this has indeed happened with a number of people who have come out as gay or lesbian, particularly before the last two decades.  It has happened with me.

At one time, not long ago, and indeed still to this day, the economic factors of losing one's job or not being able to gain employment were key to keeping people in the closet.  I worried, and am not proud of doing so, that I would be disowned if my parents knew I was gay, and I did not see how I could pay for college if I were to come out when I was still in high school.  I sensed anyway that I would become like Stephen King's Carrie had I come out in high school, with a bucket of blood hanging over my head at every turn, ready to end forever any cool factor that I had built up.

The fear of being beaten or abused has also been central to people not coming out, for this is still a realistic fear for many who are young, and more who have moved on into their own lives, yet live within tight restrictions on their expression within those lives.

Even in a society as tolerant as ours, we are far from living in a "safe" place as openly gay and lesbian people everywhere we go.  Where we might choose to hold hands, might give in public the most innocuous signs of affection towards those for whom we feel affection, things that I would guess every heterosexual person takes for granted, is still greatly limited, in many cases only in those establishments that openly accept or cater to gays and lesbians or the neighborhoods immediately around them.

In vast parts of our country, we're still sitting in the Stonewall Inn on June 26, 1969, when the police could come in at any moment and take everything in our lives away at their whim.  Police raids have famously happened within the last few years in Fort Worth, TX, and Atlanta, GA, hardly small and conservative towns.

The fear of not being able to follow out one's calling in life, whether as a pastor, a professional athlete, a teacher, an actor or actress, musician, business person, or in many other walks of life that still carry a heavy expectation of being heterosexual for the sake of those for whom the business or organization is run, still keeps people in the closet and in relationships that begin as relationships of "convenience," though might develop into more.  

One of the hardest things to do is to be honest with oneself about the hard things within oneself, let alone to be frank with others.  But both are essential, I would say, to living other than a life of quiet desperation, in the words of Thoreau.


I first was compelled to be honest with myself about being gay because of an overwhelming sexual attraction I had to someone, who although I didn't know, I knew was gay.  I saw him every day on the bus that I took from the St. Paul University of Minnesota "farm" campus to the main campus in Minneapolis, on the east bank, when I was there in the summer of 1994.

Perhaps it was his mannerisms that first tripped my nascent gaydar.  Perhaps it was the sticker on his bag that said "I fuck to come, not to conceive."  But soon I heard him talking about being gay to someone else on the bus.  That cinched it for me.

I remember getting off that bus and walking behind him, trying to come up with even a lame pick-up line.  But I was afraid of sex, and afraid of contracting HIV, which in 1994 could still be a death sentence for many who were living with it, before the arrival of most anti-retroviral drugs.  Fear of many kinds kept the lid on a boiling pot of hormones and emotions for yet another period of time when it could have come off.  The result was the journal entry that I shared in my first entry in this series.

Later, I was compelled to be honest with others about what I felt, because I learned that those feelings went beyond mere sexual attraction.  I learned that I had feelings for someone else that were just like those feelings that I had watched in most every movie ever made, and that were described in the vast majority of songs ever written.  If people could make those movies, and sing those songs, then I deserved to value and honor those feelings in myself, as imperfectly even as I expressed them at that time, as well.

I became honest with others when my heart connected, perhaps for the first time, to my head, and I could no longer deny that I, too, had a claim to my feelings and had needs that issued from them, and not only from my penis or my brain.  I still hadn't experienced anything that I longed to experience physically, but I knew what it was that I wanted, to be with another man, and what I could never have:  a Jane to my John, a Mrs. to my Mr.  

As deeply as I had tried to feel romantic attachments to girls, and then to young women, nothing could connect with my deeper reality.  No kiss with a girl could do anything more for me than leave me feeling weird, and that wasn't fair to either of us.  No amount of visual stimulation could have any effect beyond moving my retinas from one part of a page or screen to another.

For a long time, I thought there was just something wrong with me, that I needed to try harder, and I'll be honest, I never prayed to God that things were different--I didn't even think to do so.  Some have described this feeling as noticing at some point that you had boarded the wrong airplane, flying to the wrong destination, yet without any way to alter the course.

It would be a long time before I sat back and enjoyed the flight.


The quotation above, which the character Brian Kinney says several times in the TV series "Queer as Folk," resonates with me on many levels.  Lying, and the moral approbation that might be attached to it, is morally wrong only so long as you have any other option at all.  It is like the legitimate defense of killing only when one's life is in immediate danger, only in the case of outing oneself, it's everything that attaches to one's life, and in some cases, one's physical life itself.  This is a fear that some gay and lesbian people carry with themselves every day.   

I tend to judge those who have not come out most especially when I do not remember what it was like before I came out.  It's easy to cast such stones when you forget that you were once (and perhaps sometimes are still) afraid of being hit with them yourself.

If everyone who could come out would come out, in all circumstances, to all people, all the time, there would be no closets, not because there wouldn't be anyone in them, but because there would be no need for them.  That area of privacy in one's life is there almost exclusively because of the possible repercussions and fears that I stated above.

"It's nobody's business but my own" only so long as were that business to be made known, there would be negative consequences.  Inconsequential business has no need of privacy.  Otherwise, why not put up that picture of your hottie love muffin in the office, like everyone else does, or talk about your weekend, or mention your wife or husband in your sermon, or talk about that experience that changed your life and the person who was there to hold your hand when it happened?

But reality remains:  it's not safe for everyone to come out in every circumstance at all times. The closet is still a place of cold refuge for many, many people.


I do carry a rather unattractive chip on my shoulder about the consequences of honesty I have faced in my own calling to being an ordained Lutheran minister, as one who is yet neither ordained, nor a Lutheran minister.  I have the same training, with the same professors and mentors, as dozens of my seminary colleagues who are now ordained and in church calls.  Yet, my last four years of waiting for even an interview for a first call in my present denomination looks like this:

  • Make sure you file everything on time.
  • Thank you for filing everything on time and completing your requirements.
  • We approve you for ordination and think you will  be an excellent pastor.  You have wonderful gifts for ministry.
  • Why did you have to put your sexual orientation in your paperwork?  Nobody else does.
  • No church will give you an interview unless you "fly under the radar," "don't lead with your sexual orientation," and "feel things out as far as their attitudes go before you say anything about being gay."
  • We don't have any churches for you, but your name comes up all the time in our conversations about churches looking for first calls.
  • That church would be great for you, but it is not a first call church.
  • We gave that church to someone as a first call even though it wasn't a first call church--it just fit them.
  • There are no churches at the moment that would be open to someone like you.
  • We're afraid of even recommending you to that church, so why would you want to interview there?
  • Any church would be lucky to have you as its pastor.
  • The bishop has said that he can do nothing for you.
  • The bishop has your paperwork and will follow up with you shortly.
  • You're too outspoken.
  • All of the bishops admired your integrity, but they cannot do anything as long as you say you will not be in compliance with the rules.
  • There are too many other candidates waiting for a first call for you to be considered in our synod.
  • We gave that church to someone who wasn't in our synod because it was a good match for them, even though we have several other candidates waiting for call.
  • You have demonstrated maturity, compassion, and extraordinary patience throughout this process.  We admire your consistent positive attitude.
  • A lot of people are affected by the economy because pastors are not retiring since they have lost their pensions.  But we still placed 5 of 6 candidates whom we received in the Fall draft in first calls.
It goes on like this, and it is little wonder that a part of my spiritual life has atrophied.  But, to be honest, that is also my responsibility to say "enough is enough," and move on with my life.  

Honesty has not been the best policy in my dealings with the church, and something seems wrong with that.

Thankfully, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has moved into a new period of honesty in which it can value the honesty of its clergy and commissioned lay persons and stop forcing its pastors and candidates for ordination to lie about being gay or lesbian, as it did for more than 20 years.  Before August 21, 2009, a pastor could be brought up on trial for publicly admitting he or she was gay or lesbian and in a relationship, and a church could be completely removed from the ELCA in an expensive and embarrassing church trial; thankfully this is no longer the case.  

Yet the pre-change reality remains in the ELCA, and no change has happened in many other denominations.  And gay and lesbian persons are by no means the only people who are disadvantaged in the current ELCA system of approval, call, and ordination.  


Being honest, as being a bully, is not a simple issue.  It's not the picture of George Washington and the cherry tree, or of "Honest Abe," whose early business practices, though unsuccessful, were apparently unflinchingly honest.  These stereotypes of being honest are not such that any mortal can attain, just as no human besides Jesus could be sinless, and I question what that meant for Jesus.

The issue of marriage, beyond being an issue of civil rights for gay and lesbian people, is an issue of honesty:  being able to be publicly honest about who your better half indeed is, as well as being honest about the limitations and realities of any marriage.

The main argument that I would lift up in favor of same-sex marriage is not even equality, because we are equal, and to debate our equality and the equality of our relationships is an insult.  I think a better argument is to state the honest reality:  that conservative moralists are imposing unreachable expectations on those marriages that they do allow, while at the same time, by opposing same-sex marriages, they suggest that these "traditional" marriages could be blown over by the first stiff gay wind to hit them.  I want to think heterosexual relationships are stronger than this.

There are also a vast number of people who vote against same-sex marriage, and a vast number of politicians who introduce this as a wedge issue into political discourse, who are far from being honest about their motives.  

Each Minnesota legislator who has voted in favor of advancing a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, as in all 30 states that ban same-sex marriage in their constitutions, and each citizen voter, should face a crisis of honesty on their position against same-sex marriage.  Is a same-sex marriage going to "destroy" opposite-sex marriages, or are a host of factors already in place, from no-fault divorce, to economic injustice, to exceedingly high societal demands, threatening these marriages?  

Bad relationships, impossible demands of perfection, and economic adversity, among other things, destroy marriage, not gay and lesbian relationships.  


Perhaps death is the most honest thing there is.  There's no saying it is anything that it is not.  There may be many varieties of death, but when someone is stone cold dead, that's that.  Which is why it is so important to live your life while you have it.

I wonder sometimes what it would be like if honesty were more constitutionally a part of who we are.  It's not a natural human state, but must be taught by instilling a guilty conscience as constant punishment for not being honest.

Being who one is honestly should not entail being guilty.  Some things about ourselves could benefit from change.  Sexual orientation is not one of them.

What, for you, are the most difficult things to be honest about with yourself, dear reader?  And what in your life has initiated a crisis of honesty in dealing with others?  I think we all have substantial experience in debating these questions within ourselves, and some of these parts of ourselves have forced us into our own versions of the closet.  Closets are not just for people of a particular sexual orientation:  there are endless varieties of closets.  

My hope is that we might someday very soon reach a new level of honesty in our national discourse on sexual orientation, race, gender discrimination, and a host of other issues that can get better only when we start being honest with ourselves and with others about what we think and how we feel, without descending into banning people's relationships constitutionally, breaking off relationships because we disagree, and falling deeper into a pit of partisan tar.