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6527212 February 27, 2009

Wicked Gay: An Aberration Story

Just because we are different does not mean we are worth less. It could be just the opposite.

Some people are born green, and I don't mean environmentally conscientious. I mean green as in strange, different, odd, deviant, and scary. Just like Elphaba. Well, maybe it's time we all took off those spectacles we so graciously accepted from the Wonderful Wizard of Oz who parented, molded, or preached to us. Who has really been to Oz, anyway? Who are these people who claim to know all the answers, and pass out free glasses in a needy, lonely world when all we really need is love?

Newsflash: Love is patient! Love is kind! Love does not wear green glasses!

Last weekend I saw the play Wicked for the first time. What struck me most was the simple yet powerful way the story demonstrates how a well-meaning crowd of ignorant, mislead people can drive both cultural and individual destiny. The person who is different, who has a unique understanding or perception of the world--who is green--cannot easily find a place in such a society. Well, sometimes life sucks, so this may be the reality.

But does it have to be?

Kenneth was born green, or at least he looked that way to all the unsuspecting folks who wear those asinine glasses. He is a gay man who grew up in the deep South. Kenneth and I graduated from the same high school class. In fact, it was he and I who choose to leave high school early, each seeking to escape what plagued us. We both had flying monkeys at our backs and green burning holes in our eyes. I'll always remember seeing Kenneth in the school office on what was the last day of school for both of us ... only us. At seventeen, looking into Kenneth's eyes, I knew that he felt green, and because I was green, too, in my own way, I felt a bond form between us that I still feel today.

Since then, both Kenneth and I have burned those silly glasses. We have fully recognized them strapped over the eyes of family, friends, co-workers, and strangers alike. I say it's time for a bonfire! Perhaps no one mourns the wicked, but does anyone out there understand us? In the end, despite what makes us green, we are exactly like you. The irony is that our differences are our common bond.

As a gay man who grew up in the deep south during the 1970s and 80s, it was particularly challenging to fit in, particularly as a teenager. Can you clue us in as to what you went through?

Well, just growing up in the South and surviving is an accomplishment. Being gay, trying to grow up and get out is another story. You have to hide who you are. You are told that people "like that" are shameful and going to hell. They are possessed. I can see how gay and lesbians would run like hell to get out to the east or west coast as soon as they can. Think of the wide use of alcohol and drugs in the gay community ... thanks to all the preachers and such who told us we were doomed for hell.

When did you realize that you were gay, and how did you cope as a young man?

I knew early on ... by the time I was in the 9th grade. How did I cope? I decided that I would hide in the church and school activities. This worked most of the time.

People our age who believe they weren't impacted by prejudice in the deep south during the 70s and 80s must have stayed indoors a lot. How did you ultimately overcome the stigma of being gay at a time and place when African-Americans were still struggling for equality? Do you feel that things have changed for the better now?

I didn't overcome the stigma--I just learned to live around it. My father was not the most kind of men to deal with, so I took shelter, let's say, from my mother. She was a great friend and protector. Things really haven't changed. People just don't talk about it as much. We are still the butt of jokes, and a topic that gets some of the Baptist, Pentecostal, and Non-Denominational ministers all worked up.

You're planning to attend our 25th high school reunion this summer. Will that be an easy step for you? How did your high school experience influence how you view yourself as a gay man?

The reunion will be a great step for me. All those who talked about me, made fun of me, etc. are now having to deal with life in ways they couldn't imagine back in high school. How could they? I have a feeling most are now overweight, have kids to support, are unhappy with jobs or life situations. Now look at me. I love the partner I'm with; love the work that I do; go on great trips; always learning how to do something new; look forward to getting up each day. Pretty nice I think.

I have an abiding appreciation for all the wonderful things about the South; however, I also realize that the culture is sometimes unable to easily accept difference. Many people don't realize how they mentally and emotionally separate people into categories, which influences their words and actions. They are a product of years and years of cultural influence. (For more on this, read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.) At church we sang. "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight" ... but all around, people failed to live by that code. We were bombarded by mixed messages. Should we forgive those people?

Try to educate them? Ignore them? It's hard to ignore your upbringing and your family. Forgive them for what ... doing as they were told??? You also need to look at it this way ... the south is joked about all the time for being backward thinking, talking odd, dressing funny, and eating all the wrong foods. They have enough to deal with including cleaning their Francis I silver patterns. (By the way, according to the Southern Primer, if a southern lady has that pattern, she's a bitch ... my phrasing).

Being teased and bullied can be extremely painful to children and teenagers, and leave life-long scars. When my daughter was six, she got a "Bully Note" sent home because she hit a boy in the stomach out of silliness. It seems that, at least in my neck of the woods, the schools are trying to stamp out this behavior at a young age. Do you feel that enough is being done in the US school system to combat serious physical and emotional bullying?

NO! I hear on the news all the time of some kind of injury or fatal action by teens in schools. There is even churches in this country that do nothing more than motivate kids to act in violence against those who are not just like they are. We have a long way to go before this behavior is away from the kids and schools.

I think some understanding parents are still uncomfortable discussing issues such as "being gay" with their kids, while some parents propagate their intolerance in the home. Were there any kids or adults who helped you cope? What can we do as parents to help our children be more accepting of kids who are different than them, regardless of what that difference may be?

No one was there to help me. I tried my best to be secure in the protective walls I built around myself. Parents need to really stress to their children that all people are different, be it the color of the skin; the accent they have; gay or straight; wealthy or not. We need to get them to understand that different is not bad, but a new adventure for learning. We need to get them to understand that being different is what they are to those who are different from them.

After all these years, do you believe that your earlier struggles helped build your character? Have you been able to discern positive outcomes as you settled into your adult life?

That is a yes and no kind of question. Yes, I have been able to overcome the struggles, and stand on my own feet and fight the battles that I choose and need to fight. Pray that God, Budda, Goddess or whomever you choose, help you when you go into battle against me. I'm armed with knowledge and words that will slice you in two (figuratively). Yes, having to grow up as I did does make you confident, strong, and accepting.

If you could say anything to the world about growing up gay in a hostile environment, what would that be?

Hummm ... let's see ... You shake your heads at the amount of suicides, drug use, rapes, murders, etc, but then continue raising your offspring to be haters of man and the world. If you want change, then first, change yourself. Teach yourself about the advantages of those who are different. We all have something to offer in this world. Take the time to learn what the something is. You'll find out that you're in the middle of a wonderful world with fascinating adventures just by befriending someone who is from India, working close with someone on a project who is a gay man/woman.

Just because we are different does not mean we are worth less. It could be just the opposite.

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6527212 January 09, 2009

On Being Gay: An Aberration Story

"We are who we are, and the more people can accept that fact, the better the world will be."

Aberration Nation is not about world peace, going green, or gay pride. It's not about healing all the ills that exist in our growing culture of materialism and instant gratification. It's about individual self-reflection and optimism. It's making lemonade out of lemons and smiling through our tears, knowing tears are part of package, and that tomorrow is a new day filled with opportunity and greater wisdom.

David is gay. Like many of us, he has come to understand and embrace his aberration with open arms. Like my own creativity and intellect and obsessiveness, it's part of who he is--not to be squelched, belittled, or misunderstood. When I was a little girl, I was taught that God knew every hair on my head even before I came into this vast world. If he created me and each strand of hair on my head, why would he inflict creativity upon me only to expect and watch me struggle to ignore it? Wasn't it my gift? Why would an unenlightened, average thinking, uncreative world expect me to be someone I cannot be?

Last week I watched a program on the History channel about alternate universes. While I wasn't convinced of their existence after an hour of listening to the multiple fascinating scientific theories, I was struck by the vastness and mystery of the universe. I wondered how some people can be so resolutely sure about the origins, purpose, and future of our world. It is faith, arrogance, or a lack of intelligence that drives these all-knowing faces toward an enigmatic light, and farther away from me?

David, on the other hand, remains beside me in all his earnestness and honesty. He is a hero. His words relay to us the simple truth of who he is. If you can suspend all preconceived notions and stereotypes, you'll also hear the singing heart of us all. The sound it makes is as vast and beautiful as the universe.

So you're gay. Can you explain to us what that means in your own words? As you likely know, some of us still don't get it.

Being gay is really no different than being straight, bi, whatever. It's simply a matter of who you're attracted to and who you fall in love with. It's hard to put a definition on it. When I first came out and realized who I was, the question I was asked most often was, "How do you know you're gay?" I'd always ask, "How do you know you're straight?" It's just a knowledge that you have deep down inside.

I am a man and I'm attracted to men. That's the fact that makes most people uncomfortable because it's seen as being wrong. So many people say it's wrong--the church, the government, in some cases the media--and I just don't understand that. The way I look at it, it's all a matter of who you love, and therefore so many people are saying the entire ideal of love is wrong. That makes me angry. The church preaches tolerance and love, but only by their standards. The government is supposed to be there to uphold our freedom, yet they won't let gays marry, so we're not entirely free. The media will run any number of shows (The Bachelor, Bachelorette, etc.) that basically mock the idea of marriage (I cannot even begin to think that these people can find true love in a couple of weeks on a TV show!), but since it's about heterosexual couples, it's OK. It can be very infuriating sometimes, but I accept that this is how the world is right now, and just move on.

I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who can argue the same points against gays, but this is my perception.

How old were you when you realized you were gay, and how did you handle it? It's tough for many heterosexuals to understand. Many people still believe that being gay is a choice. Did you chose or did it chose you?

On some level I always knew I was gay. However, I never knew anyone else who was gay; I had no frame of reference to understand what I was feeling. I remember being in middle and high school and being attracted to other guys at my school, but not understanding what I was feeling, I just put it off as jealousy. I was never athletic. I wasn't in the popular crowd, and so I just put these feelings off as longing to be like these other guys--not necessarily that I was attracted to them. It wasn't until I was in my early 20s that I met anyone else who was gay. I remember the first time I was taken to a gay bar. It really opened my eyes to the fact that there were others out there like me. It was a real relief! I think it may be easier for young people today to come out, as being gay is more mainstream in the media and whatnot, but ten years ago, it still wasn't so easily accepted.

And no, there's no choice in the matter, just like there's no choice in being straight. The only choice that can be made is to not accept yourself, and therefore go the way others want you to go--the accepted way. I know people like that, and they are miserable. It's unfortunate, but there's nothing anyone can do for them. They need to accept themselves and be proud of who they are. When I first came out, I got that quite a bit from people too. They told me I was choosing to be the way I was trying to be. Trust me, at that time, if making a choice was involved, I would have chosen differently. My daily fear of not being accepted and wondering if I was going to be a disappointment to my family was too much to bear some days. But I couldn't lie to myself anymore, so I took that chance to choose to be true to myself. I've never looked back.

I was raised to feel that heterosexuality was a bad thing, that no sexuality--or at least hiding it--was best. It took me years to crawl past that message, and stop feeling guilty about what I wanted or what I had to express. Once you were open about your homosexual identity and/or life, how did your family and friends react? Was there anyone who refused to accept you?

I lucked out with regard to my friends and family. My true friends immediately accepted me. In fact, one friend told me how much happier I seemed as soon as I came out, that I had become the person I was supposed to be. The few people who didn't accept me faded from my life, either by their choice or mine. I didn't ask them to leave, but if they couldn't accept me and move on with me, there was no place left for them in my life. It was a selfish choice, but at the time, I needed people around me who were accepting; I didn't need anymore self-inflicted challenges like fighting with people to get them to accept me. So many of the friends that I've made since I came out are so much more family now. I wouldn't give them up for the world.

My immediate family wasn't surprised at all. My step-father at the time had some problems with it at first but finally accepted it. His father never came around to the idea of my being gay, so that made family functions tough, but eventually we just adopted our own version of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and moved on. That family isn't a part of my family anymore (my mother divorced a couple of years ago), and so my family has openly accepted me. It isn't even a discussion anymore.

I did have one particularly bad experience at a previous work place. I was informed that I could file a sexual discrimination charges, but what would have been the point? I was already in the process of switching jobs, and it wasn't worth it to them or me to make an issue of it. The people in the wrong knew they were in the wrong, and that was enough for me.

Since our bodies, who we love, and how we need to be loved are such a major part of our identities, why do you think people are so opposed to individuality? Why do they want us to all be the same? Do you think it's simply a religious belief or something more?

At this point, I don't often run into people who don't accept me, but I know my limits. Would I go wandering into a straight biker bar announcing I'm gay? Absolutely not. I try to have as much respect for those around me as I want them to have for me, so if I'm going somewhere where I will be the minority and it would make those around me uncomfortable, I don't advertise myself as gay, but I don't go out of my way to hide it, either.

I think most people who want us all to be the same are ashamed of themselves in some deep way. If everyone could be like them, it would somehow release them of their shame. Individuality can be a very intimidating aspect to some people because it takes a lot of strength to be the person you're meant to be, regardless of what others think. Expressing individuality can come across as intimidation as opposed to individuality; it's almost like some people are challenged by the individuality of the next guy.

While this aberration or difference (from the mainstream) has surely not made certain parts of your life easier, could you be any other way without sacrificing a huge part of yourself?

I don't think I could be any other way. I would probably have to sacrifice every part of who I am right now if I was to change myself. I have a wonderful circle of friends around me that are more family than friends at this point.

I am who I am. Are there things that I would change about myself? Of course. I'd like to lose some weight. I'd like to improve my lot in life. But these are superficial things that anybody might want to change. But the innermost parts of me that are ME. I wouldn't change anything about myself now. I couldn't change it. I consider myself a good friend, good brother, good son; just a good person. I'm proud of myself for overcoming the challenges that have come my way over the years and still maintained MYSELF.

Have you found ways to calm the fears or discomfort you may notice in others at times, or do you ignore non-verbal cues or words that relay resistance to your life and who you are?

I just pay attention to people. I think the biggest thing I can do is make people understand that I'm no different than anybody else. There is this general idea that all gay men think about is sex, sex, sex. That is not true! We are not attracted to every single guy who comes our way. We are no different than anybody else. In general, I think most people have a hard time accepting me (or anyone who is gay) because they have preconceived notions. If they would just take time to ask questions and listen, most people would be surprised by how normal we are.

What is the best approach when we suspect or know someone is gay? Should we ignore that side of them? Should we ask -- or does that make us incredibly rude? Sometimes it feels uncomfortable to ignore the elephant on the table, and sometimes it feels uncomfortable NOT to ignore it. How do we best just get rid of it?

Just take the cues from the person and treat them like you would any other person. If they're comfortable enough with themselves, generally it will come up in conversation--but in incredibly normal ways. You might overhear a guy talking about his boyfriend, or a woman talking about her girlfriend. Take it in stride. Get to know the person for who they are, not who they are attracted to. And usually, at least in my experience, they will help you. I know I try to. I will always answer any question put forth to me about who and what I am because I'd rather people ask questions as opposed to making assumptions. I don't recommend opening a conversation with, "So, I think you're gay. Am I right?" Just talk to people and LISTEN! Listening is so important when you're talking to someone new. More than once, people have heard what they wanted to hear because they really weren't listening to me at all.

If you could say anything to the world about being gay, and have them really listen, what would it be?

I am not different from you. I'm attracted to men. Big deal. I still need to breathe the same air, I still need to sleep, eat, drink, do everything that normal, straight people need to do. Just because I have sex with the same sex doesn't make me strange or abnormal. Take me for who I am. I do that for you. You like to have sex with the opposite sex. Do I judge you for that? Hell no! We are who we are, and the more people can accept that fact, the better the world will be.

We've come a long way over the ten years since I've come out, but there is still room for growth. Would I change anything that has happened over these last ten years? Absolutely not, because there would be no guarantee that I would be where I am now, and I'm happy with where I am now. And I'm happy with me. And I'm happy with you. Has it always been easy? Nope, but I can bet everyone has had some sort of trouble along their path, and we are no different in the end.

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