coming out

Rekers’ Rentboy

First published at 365gay.com on May 7, 2010

So, we have a new line to add to the file labeled “Seriously?!?”—alongside Reverend Ted Haggard’s “I bought the meth but didn’t use it,” ex-gay leader John Paulk’s “I had to use the bathroom and had no idea it was a gay bar,” Rep. Eric Massa’s “I’m just a salty old sailor,” and Senator Larry Craig’s “I have a wide stance.”

Now add Reverend George Rekers’ “I hired him to lift my luggage.”

As a co-founder (with James Dobson) of the conservative Family Research Council, a board member of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), and an author of numerous anti-gay works, Dr. Rekers is a major right-wing figure.

And so he did what any straight, family-oriented Baptist minister would do when looking for someone to carry his luggage on a ten-day European excursion. He went to rentboy.com and hired a prostitute.

I can’t make this stuff up.

The Miami New Times broke the story [http://www.miaminewtimes.com/2010-05-06/news/christian-right-leader-george-rekers-takes-vacation-with-rent-boy/1] this week, complete with details from 20-year-old blond Puerto Rican rentboy “Lucien’s” profile: his “smooth, sweet, tight ass,” his “perfectly built 8 inch cock (uncut)” and the fact that he’ll “do anything you say as long as you ask.” These are important attributes for travel assistants, no doubt.

A blogger at Unzipped.net [http://blog.unzipped.net/2010/05/meet-homophobe-george-rekers-rentboy-fuck-slut-lucien.html] quickly uncovered the rentboy’s profile, which identifies him as Boynextdoor/Geo and was purged of some of the earlier sexual content; the profile has since been removed from the site to protect the young man’s privacy.

(Incidentally, we SHOULD protect the young man’s privacy. 20-year-olds don’t typically go into prostitution because it’s the best among many excellent job opportunities.)

Lucien/Geo is the same age as a son that Rekers adopted four years ago, which might not be relevant were it not for Rekers’ vigorous opposition to adoption by gays. Rekers testified in favor of nasty homosexual adoption bans in both Arkansas and Florida. Indeed, on the blog page [http://professorgeorge.wordpress.com/2010/05/05/misleading-internet-reports-about-professor-george-rekers/] where he repeats his lame luggage excuse, there’s a link labeled “Should homosexuals be allowed to adopt children?” This leads to a page full of outright falsehoods, including:

“Large research studies consistently report that a majority of homosexually-behaving adults have a life-time incidence of one or more psychiatric disorders, while a majority of heterosexually-behaving adults do not suffer a psychiatric disorder…. So my professional conclusion that homosexually-behaving adults should not be allowed to adopt children is based on research and logic.”

And perhaps personal experience.

This is not funny. It is not even sad. It’s disgusting. And I’m tired of feeling sorry for these people.

As the Gay Moralist, I like to give all people the benefit of the doubt. It’s not a strategy so much as a matter of empathy. I was once a closeted homosexual conservative myself, and I came close to entering the Catholic priesthood. I often wonder whether, had my life gone slightly differently—different influences, different opportunities, different choices—I’d be missing truths that seem obvious to me now.

I even wonder whether I might have acted out sexually in inappropriate ways—hiring male prostitutes privately while railing against homosexuality publicly, or hitting on college seminary students (not children) in my priestly care. While I’m no longer a believer, the phrase “There but for the grace of God” still resonates with me.

I am not denying that we’re responsible for our choices and actions. I’m simply saying that there are often mitigating factors beyond observers’ ken. I don’t know Rekers personally, and I can only make an educated guess at what demons he wrestles with.

But I know from hard experience that the best way to tame demons is to start being honest with yourself and others. That, instead of using self-respecting gays as a proxy for whatever internal foes you’re fighting.

Unsurprisingly, not even Rekers’ religious-right buddies are buying his “lift my luggage” line, or his more recent claim (in a message to blogger Joe.My.God) that he spent time with the youth in order to share the Gospel: “Like John the Baptist and Jesus, I have a loving Christian ministry to homosexuals and prostitutes in which I share the Good News of Jesus Christ with them.” [http://joemygod.blogspot.com/2010/05/dr-george-rekers-patron-of-male.html]

Lift his luggage? Share the Good News? These lines make great double-entendres for late-night comedians (“Is that what the kids are calling it these days?”) but they don’t get Rekers a whit closer to addressing his real baggage.

Remembering Prom

First published at 365gay.com on March 26, 2010

Recent reports about students in Mississippi and Georgia seeking to bring same-sex dates to prom stirred memories of my own prom experience.

The year was 1987. I was “straight” then—or so I convinced myself. I knew I had “gay feelings” (as I put it), I knew I had no straight feelings, and I knew that people with gay feelings but no straight feelings are gay. And yet, by not letting these various ideas “touch,” I avoided drawing the obvious conclusion. (This, from someone who would later teach elementary logic.)

I had never been on a date with a woman before, or even kissed one. Sure, there was that time in fifth grade when I played spin-the-bottle, but as soon as I figured out what the game was, I ran from the room.

By the time I reached junior high and high school and noticed my “gay feelings,” it was easy to find excuses:

“I go to an all-boys Catholic school; I don’t know any girls,” I told myself and anyone in earshot. “Besides, I’m planning on becoming a priest” (which was true, starting around sophomore year). Pressure’s off!

Except that it wasn’t. Because my “normal” friends, even the ones who planned on priesthood, sought and found girls. I wasn’t feeling what I was “supposed” to feel, and it frightened me.

Patty Anne was someone with whom I served on the parish council. She went to an all-girls Catholic school. I called to invite her to my prom, she accepted, and minutes later she called back to invite me to hers. They were on consecutive nights, so I got a deal on the tux rental.

My prom went smoothly, and at the end of the evening, I gave her a prim kiss on the cheek.

Her prom was a little more involved. One of her friends with whom we were sharing the limo hosted a small pre-event party. Upon arriving, I had two very gay thoughts in rapid succession:

(1) [Upon seeing Patty:] That dress is hideous compared to last night’s.

(2) [Upon seeing her friends’ dates, all of whom were from a local military academy and looked stunningly handsome in their dress whites:] Uhhhhhh….HELLO!

I laugh about this now, but at the time, (2) was terrifying. Not-noticing girls was one thing, but noticing guys was quite another. And these guys, all dressed up and nicely groomed to impress their girlfriends, were hard for me not to notice.

These were the sorts of things spinning through my head on the post-prom limo ride to a club in Manhattan. Patty and I had the backwards-facing seats on either side of a small television; the remaining couples shared a large bench-seat facing forward.

Suddenly, the other couples started making out.

“Thank god for this little television separating us,” I thought.

But the television couldn’t protect me. Before I knew it, Patty was sitting on my lap.

We made out. It felt wrong—and that frightened me further.

When the limo dropped me home later that morning, I needed to “process,” so I hopped into my car and drove over to my best friend Michael’s house.

It was 6 a.m., and I stood in his backyard in my disheveled tux, throwing clothespins at his window to rouse him without waking his parents. (When his mother finally entered the kitchen, she glanced at me and asked, “Oh John—would you like an English muffin?” as if there were nothing unusual about daybreak guests in black tie.)

I think that conversation with Michael was the first time I told anyone other than a priest or a psychologist that I had “gay feelings.”—all the while continuing to insist that I was basically straight. Baby steps.

A year later, when I moved from “gay feelings” to just plain “gay,” Michael was among the first people I came out to. It would take another year beyond that before he mustered the courage to come out to me.

Which brings us back to Constance McMillen in Mississippi and Derrick Martin in Georgia, two brave young souls.

Constance’s prom has been canceled. A private prom is being held instead, and many of her classmates claim to hate her for “ruining” their regular prom.

Derrick, by contrast, will be allowed to attend prom with his boyfriend. The bad news is that his parents have kicked him out of the house over the incident.

How many more children must suffer because of these perverted values? How many more must live in silence and in fear, forced to choose between pretense and rejection, all while being denied the simple joys their peers take for granted?

For that matter, how many more adults must suffer?

That last question became especially poignant after I received comments from Michael on a draft of this column.

You see, Patty Anne, Constance, and Derrick are all their real names. “Michael” is not. He asked me to change it because, as he put it, “I am still pretty covert in my professional life.”

Coming Out at the Border

First published at 365gay.com on March 12, 2010

The border guard didn’t even look up when she asked the question: “Citizenship?”

“U.S.”

“And why are you in Canada?”

I paused. She looked up.

I was going to Canada to give a lecture, which would be easy enough to say. But then there would be the inevitable follow-up question: “A lecture on what?”

Instantly I thought back to a story once told to me by Glenn Stanton, my frequent debate-opponent from Focus on the Family. Just prior to Canada’s legalization of marriage for gays and lesbians, Glenn went there for a right-wing conference. When the border guard asked him, “Why are you in Canada?” he responded with “For a same-sex marriage conference.”

His border guard shot back, “We don’t need that shit here.”

After relaying the story to me Glenn added, “I thought to myself, what if it had been you, John?”

To which I responded, “Welcome to my world, Glenn.”

I live in Detroit, just next to Windsor, Ontario. I go there occasionally for dinner with friends, and most times the crossing is smooth. But if you happen to catch a border guard who’s having a bad day, or who’s on a power trip, or who’s just congenitally an asshole, be prepared for an unpleasant delay. I generally aim to give border guards all and only the information they absolutely need.

And yet a frequent theme in my advocacy work is the importance of coming out. Not just on National Coming Out Day, or at pride parades, or when writing columns for the gay press, but at any time when reference to one’s (actual or desired) significant other—or more generally, one’s life—would be appropriate. Coming out is an opportunity to teach diversity, and to be a role model for those around us and those who come after us.

More than that, it’s a chance for simple honesty: there’s something profoundly dehumanizing about treating one’s sexual orientation as a dirty little secret. I don’t want to be complicit in that.

So (for instance), last Valentine’s Day, when a Trader Joe’s employee presenting roses to female customers offered me one, saying, “Maybe you have a special girl at home to give this to?” I responded, “I’ll give it to my special GUY at home, thanks!”

Giving a diversity lesson to a Trader Joe’s employee is one thing; giving one to grumpy border guards is another. Military uniforms intimidate me more than Hawaiian shirts do. In the past, I’ve been harassed by Texas State troopers for kissing (yes, kissing) another man, and it wasn’t fun.

After that Texas incident, I filed a formal complaint, which resulted in the trooper’s being put on probation and having to take classes on Texas state law. I’m not afraid to stand up for my rights, but like most people, on some days I just don’t want to be bothered.

I admit I’m embarrassed to share these thoughts. It’s not just because of the great figures who have stood up for our rights even when it’s been inconvenient or dangerous: luminaries like Frank Kameny, Harvey Milk, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon and Harry Hay. I’m sure even they had days when prudence trumped other virtues.

It’s because I was facing a CANADIAN BORDER GUARD, for goodness sake. They’re not exactly the SS.

So I’m embarrassed that the question gave me pause. But I share the story anyway, because it speaks to the tremendous power of the closet.

“Why are you in Canada?” She repeated the question, startling me from my deliberations.

“I’m giving a lecture at the University of Lethbridge.”

“A lecture regarding…?”

“Gay rights.”

Now she paused.

“Have you ever been to Lethbridge?” she finally asked.

“No.”

“Well, good luck with your talk.” Then, as she stamped my declarations form, she leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, “Really, good luck. It’s redneck country, you know.”

A Story of Comfort and Joy

First published at 365gay.com on December 18, 2009

Allow me to share a favorite holiday story.

It was late-November 1989, a year after I first came out. I had been dating a guy named Michael for over a month, which made him (in my mind, at least) my first “real” boyfriend. I was twenty and he was turning twenty-two, and we decided to drive into the city to celebrate his birthday.

“The city” was Manhattan. I was living with my parents on Long Island while going to college; Michael lived nearby. Together with his cousin and his cousin’s boyfriend, we piled into my 1985 Camry and made the trek west along the Long Island Expressway, crossing the Williamsburg Bridge into the Big Apple.

Dinner, then drinks, then dancing—or more accurately, sitting in the corner flirting while other people danced. It was the kind of young love (lust?) that makes one largely oblivious to one’s surroundings.

So perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised, upon exiting the club, to discover that it had been snowing for several hours—hard. No one had predicted a blizzard that night, and it wasn’t as if we could check the weather on our iPhones. (Remember, it was 1989.)

We rushed back to the car and headed slowly home. About a third of the way across the Williamsburg Bridge, traffic stopped.

We waited a minute, then five, then ten—and still no movement. The snow around us was blinding. Meanwhile, the cousin and his boyfriend were soundly asleep in the back seat.

So Michael and I did what any two young lovebirds would do in such a situation: we started making out in the car.

We kissed; we caressed; we cuddled. It felt like we were there for an hour, though again, we were largely oblivious to time and space. It was joyous.

Eventually the traffic flow resumed and we made it home okay.

Michael dumped me a few weeks later (Merry Christmas, indeed) and what remained of our relationship was more disastrous than that night’s weather. But two decades and numerous boyfriends later, I still count that bridge experience as one of the magical moments of my life.

It wasn’t just because it was new and exciting, or because of the Frank Capra setting (Snow on a bridge? Seriously?).

It was because, at a time in my life when I still struggled to make sense of being “different,” the experience sent a powerful, visceral message: Gay is good.

The message didn’t arrive by means of a philosophical argument or someone else’s testimony. It came through direct experience. Those once-scary feelings were suddenly a font of great beauty, and intimacy, and comfort. I had previously figured it out in my head. Finally, I knew it in my heart.

In this column I have often extolled the virtues of long-term relationships. I believe in those virtues—and am ever grateful for my eight-year partnership with Mark, the love of my life.

But I don’t believe that homosexuality has moral value ONLY in the context of long-term relationships—any more than heterosexuality does. That quick flirtatious glance across a crowded room; that awkward kiss with the cute stranger at the party—such moments make life joyful, and there is great moral value in joy.

And so, this holiday, I wish my readers joy.

It has been an incredible, fast-paced year on the gay-rights front. We gained marriage equality in several states only to lose it again in Maine; we had ballot victories in Washington State and Kalamazoo, MI; we elected a lesbian mayor in Houston and a gay City-Council President in Detroit.

There are reasons to be hopeful, and there is much work left to be done. We will keep fighting the good fight.

Yet let us also step back and enjoy the simple yet profound joy that is part and parcel of why we’re fighting. Kiss someone under the mistletoe, and remember that life is good.

Wishing you all the best in 2010.

On Not Being Like Other Boys

First published at 365gay.com on November 13, 2009

It’s November, which means bookstores have next year’s calendars on display.

When I was a teenager, this annual occurrence unnerved me. The “male interest” calendars”—think “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model of the Month”—held no appeal for me. Instead, I would nervously reach for a Chippendales calendar, hiding it behind something innocuously themed (race cars, puppies, whatever) so that I could stare admiringly at half-naked men. As soon as I noticed anyone approaching, I would throw both calendars back on the shelf and dart out of the store.

I laugh now at the thought that I could ever find the overly pumped and coiffed 1980’s Chippendales dancers appealing. But when I see these calendars on the shelves today, I still feel a residual emotional tug. Like the underwear models in the J.C. Penney catalog (and so many other ordinary features of American life), the calendars were a painful signal: you are not like other boys.

I noticed a calendar display in a bookstore the other day just shortly after receiving an e-mail from a reader complaining that I waste too much time trying to win over straight society’s approval. “When are you going to stop seeking other people’s acceptance?” he asks.

My answer? I’ll stop seeking it once we get it.

The calendars reminded me of why. It’s not because I’m still scared that other people will know my “secret.” Today, I can walk into a bookstore and look at whatever I want. Indeed, I sometimes make a point of picking up the “female interest” calendars just to remind myself—and anyone else watching—that I can. It’s my way of saying: No, I am not like (most) other boys, and I’m okay with that. Honestly, I really don’t give a flying fig whether you give me a dirty look when I do it.

But there are plenty of boys and girls growing up who are not there yet. They still get unnerved when they see the calendars, or the catalogs, or countless other possible triggers. They still feel that nauseous shame and isolation. They have yet to learn that the feelings they dread can eventually be a source of great joy, and beauty, and comfort.

Social approval can make a huge difference in the lives of these kids, not to mention those who come after them.

This is one significant way in which LGBT people differ from most other minority groups. Whereas black children generally have black parents, Jewish children generally have Jewish parents, and so on, LGBT people can have any sort of parents—and most often have straight ones. Far from being able to take for granted our parents’ understanding of the discrimination we face, we often have to struggle for their acceptance, too.

So while their parents’ opinion on homosexuality may not directly matter to me, you can be damn sure it matters to them.

I don’t mean that they can’t go on to have happy, fulfilling, successful lives even if their parents ultimately reject them. I just mean that doing so will be harder—needlessly, sometimes tragically so.

Moreover, it’s not as if I have no stake at all in their parents’ opinion. As we’ve seen over and over, their opinion affects how they vote. And their votes make a difference to our legal rights, whether we like it or not.

Of course it isn’t fair. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

So I’ll stop seeking their approval when we get it, and not a moment sooner. Because their approval helps make our political struggle easier. Because it’s crucial to the lives of their kids, some of whom are LGBT. And because it’s the right thing.

Maine, Detroit and the Closet

First published at 365gay.com on November 9, 2009

When I was a “fag” on the junior high playground, getting punched hurt even when I saw it coming. So too with Maine this past week.

Like many, I was dispirited but not surprised when we lost. The rights of minorities (gays especially) generally don’t do well when put to a popular vote. And the opposition’s central message—that gays want to influence schoolchildren—remains as effective as it is sinister.

The message conjures up the image of gays as child molesters—a myth debunked but never fully extinguished.

A slightly less sinister (but still false) version portrays us as anti-family and anti-morality. Still another falsehood is that we’re trying to “recruit.”

Then there’s the underlying truth that sustains the myth as plausible. Yes, of course marriage equality will affect what children are taught in schools, because if same-sex marriage is legal, they will naturally be taught that it’s legal. That it’s an option for consenting adults who want it. That women sometimes fall in love with women, and men with men, and live happily ever after.

We should not shrink from saying these things, but we do. No doubt, the ugliness of the sinister versions—not to mention our opponents’ penchant for quoting us out of context—makes us nervous about discussing the truthful version. And that’s surely one lesson of this loss: the closet is still powerful, and our opponents use it to their advantage.

But we will not go back in the closet again.

We will keep telling our stories. We will keep showing our faces. We will keep getting married, even if—for now—Maine doesn’t legally recognize our relationships. We will not go back in the closet again.

And though we’ve lost this particular battle, we will continue to win the war.

On the same day that Maine voters took away marriage equality, Detroit (where I live) elected an openly gay City Council President. This, in a city that’s 84% African-American and where churches exert considerable political influence. The rest of the country hardly noticed, but Detroit defied several stereotypes on Tuesday.

His name is Charles Pugh. A popular newscaster before running for City Council, Pugh was actually endorsed by both the Council of Baptist Pastors and the AME Ministerial Alliance. They knew he was gay and they endorsed him anyway.

One could argue that Pugh was endorsed—and won—because of name recognition. Detroit elects all nine councilmembers at-large, and the top vote getter automatically becomes council president. It’s a dumb system in several ways, and in the past it has resulted in famous but incompetent councilmembers—Martha Reeves, of Martha and the Vandellas, leaps to mind. (Incidentally, in this year’s primary Reeves was voted out, and in the general election voters overwhelming approved a referendum for council-by-district.)

But even if Pugh’s landslide can be attributed to sheer popularity, it sends an encouraging message about the way the world is changing. Being openly gay is no longer an absolute bar to getting public support. And even those who regularly oppose us will sometimes let other factors trump whatever makes us scary otherwise.

Meanwhile, the more they know us, the less scary we become.

It’s unfair and unfortunate that we need to work harder than our opponents to win. They win by exploiting fear, which is easy to do when you’re in the majority. We win by building relationships—by letting voters know who we really are. That takes time.

So our opponents have a soundbite edge, but we have a long-term advantage. The closet is crumbling.

In the wake of the Maine loss, we will catch our breath and press on. We will continue to live our lives; we will keep speaking our truth. We will stand up in the firm conviction that our love is real, and valuable, and worthy of equal treatment under the law.

Because whatever legal roadblocks they may put in our way, we will never go back in the closet again.

A Personal Tragedy

First published at 365gay.com on October 2, 2009

Chad and I met on my first visit to Detroit, back in the spring of 1998. “Damn, he’s good-looking,” I thought to myself–a familiar reaction for those who met Chad. He was thin then–he didn’t become a gym bunny until a few years later–but it was his handsome face and his unassuming manner that captivated me. He had piercing blue eyes and a gentle, welcoming voice. I was in town to look for an apartment, but I remember hoping that we would meet again upon my return and that the “boyfriend” he introduced me to was merely a temporary fling (I was single at the time).

As it turned out, his relationship with the boyfriend grew stronger and I acquired one of my own in the months prior to relocating. But Chad and I became friends, and a year later we decided to buy an old duplex together and move in with our respective partners. Within eighteen months both relationships soured, a development we always jokingly blamed on the house. Nonetheless, Chad and I kept things platonic. He seemed to have difficulty being single, and no sooner did he break up with one boyfriend than he would cling to another.

Seldom did his friends approve of the choices. The bolder ones would tell him what the rest of us were thinking: “You’re good-looking, you’re an attorney, you’re charming–a total ‘catch.’ Why are you dating this mooch?” Chad’s good nature sometimes got the better of him; besides, he seemed desperately afraid of being alone.

He was also deeply closeted. Having grown up with a fundamentalist upbringing, attended school at Hillsdale College, and chosen a fairly conservative profession, he was terrified of people–and in particular, his family–finding out that he was gay. Once, when we were walking through a suburban downtown with our boyfriends, he suddenly disappeared. A few minutes later we discovered that he had ducked into a store after spotting some law-school classmates across the street and fearing that our presence would somehow “out” him.

While the dual life he led took an emotional toll on him, it also created (or perhaps exacerbated) some unfortunate character traits. To put it bluntly, Chad was someone too comfortable at lying. This manifested itself not only in his closetedness, but also in his cheating on his boyfriends, and ultimately, in his gradual spiral into drug use, which he kept largely hidden from those friends (like me) he knew would object.

Of course, it’s hard to keep some things hidden for very long. I had heard from mutual acquaintances that Chad was using crystal meth, though he denied it (and later, when that became too implausible, falsely claimed that he had since stopped). Eventually he lost his job, not to mention many of his friends.

I tried to remain close with him, even after I moved out of the duplex, but it became increasingly difficult as his drug use increased. One day a routine check of my credit report revealed missed payments on our mortgage. Chad, I discovered, had not paid for months, even though he continued to collect my contribution. I will never forget the look of shame and despair on my friend’s face when I confronted him: he had hit rock-bottom, and he could no longer conceal it.

We met for lunch about a month after that. I urged him (as many times before) to get counseling, and for the first time he seemed somewhat open to it. He claimed that he was taking several steps to get his life back on track. I was reminded that day of the reasons I had grown to love him: his gentle, reassuring manner; his endless well of charm; his fundamental kindness. Maybe, I thought, he could get treatment for his depression, stop self-medicating, and tap into his enormous potential. I felt hopeful.

Two weeks later, I stopped by the duplex to pick up a check from my tenants. Chad was outside, pleading with the electric company not to turn off his power. I called him later, but he never answered my call or returned my message (it had become a familiar pattern). That was the last time I saw him. The following week, on September 29, 2004, Chad committed suicide, hanging himself in the basement of the home we had once shared. My tenants found him. He was 32 years old.

At the reception following his memorial service, the boyfriend I had met on my first visit to Detroit turned to me and said, “We failed him.”

“Yes,” I replied, “but he failed us too.” Five years later, both claims still pierce me.

Coming Out Advice

First published at 365gay.com on September 25, 2009

One of the best bits of advice I ever received while coming out was from a nun.

That’s right—a Catholic nun. Not even a lesbian nun, as far as I can gather. Sr. Julie was one of my theology professors in college, and she was one of the first people I confided in after busting open the closet door.

She had the sort of reassuring demeanor that inspired confidence, in both senses of that term: I shared secrets with her, and her support emboldened me. Looking back, I suspect that some of my candor was excessive, but Julie never let on if it bothered her.

The advice in question regarded a crush I had on a straight neighbor named Neil. I had a penchant for crushes on straight guys then—probably because I knew so few gay ones. Hoping to see more of him, I would ride my bicycle repeatedly up and down his street so that I might “accidentally” catch him venturing outside to fetch the mail. I would write about him in my journal at night, and my heart would leap every time he would call—which was never often enough. When I did get to spend time with him, I would fret for days beforehand about what to wear, how my hair looked, etc.—things that I knew he never noticed, or cared about.

In short, I was a twenty-year-old behaving like a 12-year-old—and a pretty desperate one at that.

I knew how silly I was acting, and in fact I was quite ashamed of it—though apparently not too ashamed to tell Sr. Julie.

“Julie,” I fretted, “I’m a college student—an adult!—and I’m acting like an adolescent.”

She looked at me with her serene eyes and said firmly, “But you are an adolescent…”

“No,” I interrupted—I mean I’m acting like I’m in Junior High.”

“Of course,” she explained gently. “Because, when it comes to dating, that’s precisely where you are. In Junior High, when your straight friends were all dating, what were you doing? Keeping to yourself. You never had those adolescent experiences that others did. They’re silly, sure, but they’re part of the process. You’re just starting out. So be patient with yourself.”

It was one of those “lightbulb moments”: You’re new to this; be patient with yourself. I had only been out about a year, without any real dating experience, and yet I was beating myself up for failing to handle my crush like an “adult.” (Eventually I would learn that even adults don’t necessarily handle their crushes like adults.)

Then Sr. Julie sang “Climb Every Mountain” and sent me on my way.

Okay, I made that last part up. But the rest of the story is true, and the exchange has stuck with me for two decades.

I should mention that it came as no surprise to me that a Catholic nun could give such good relationship advice—to a gay guy, no less. The priests, nuns and brothers I knew in college were sensitive, humane individuals. It saddens me that, in the minds of the public, their humanity is often eclipsed by the misdeeds of the hierarchy.

Still, even though I no longer share their Catholic faith, I carry their lessons with me.

I remember Julie’s insight, for example, each time a young gay person comes to me for relationship advice. “You’re new to this; be patient with yourself,” I tell them.

I remember it, too, when I reflect on the various ways in which homophobia harms people. It is difficult to exaggerate the enduring damage done by robbing youth of key formative experiences. And while I’m grateful that more gay youth today can experience their adolescent growing pains alongside their straight peers, we still have a long way to go.

And I remember it when, even now, I notice myself replaying the scripts learned in Junior High. It’s not just about romantic life—though I sometimes suspect that, contra Freud, it’s really 7th grade that holds the key to one’s sexual psyche. It is, rather, a more general insecurity, a nagging doubt: “Will they really like me?” followed by the vestigial coda, “But what if they knew my secret?”

It is no longer a secret, of course. I’m an out gay man happily in an eight-year relationship. Neil is a distant memory. Sr. Julie, whom I have not spoken to in decades, is now a high-ranking university administrator. I owe her a thank-you.

We’ve still got far to go

First published at 365gay.com on July 31, 2009

I’m not usually a touchy-feely, share-your-emotions, “Trust the Process” kind of guy. I’m a philosophy professor. I revel in cold, hard logic.

So it was with some trepidation that I signed up as a faculty member for Campus Pride’s annual summer Leadership Camp—which, since it was mostly run by lesbians, student-activities directors, and lesbian student-activities directors, promised to involve a lot more “processing” than I’m normally comfortable with.

To me, “faculty member” normally means strolling into a lecture hall a few times a week, speaking, answering questions, and then retreating to my office while TA’s keep students at a safe distance. Here, it meant being a full-time camp counselor, den monitor, relationship-advice provider, and taskmaster. (Faculty are volunteers who pledge to raise money to support Camp; students’ tuition is subsidized by donations.)

To me, “camp” normally means archery, canoeing, bonfires, and so on. Here, it meant six straight days of workshops—on subjects ranging from Working with Media, to Leadership and Privilege, to Fundraising Tips, to Resume Building and more—with a schedule running from 8:30 a.m. to at least 11 p.m. every day. (We did get to make s’mores, once.)

And what did I learn during this intense time with our movement’s future leaders?

For one thing, I learned that our right-wing opponents should be afraid. Very afraid.

The 50 campers were some of the brightest, most energetic, most thoughtful college students I’ve encountered in over a dozen years of teaching. I could comfortably retire from advocacy work tomorrow knowing that these young people are primed to take over.

But I won’t retire tomorrow, because I also learned anew how much work remains to be done.

One of the main reasons I volunteered for Camp was to explore a personal concern: namely, that my “Gay Moralist” angle is rapidly becoming obsolete. Sure, there are still people who believe that same-sex attraction is wrong, shameful, unnatural, and so on, but these people are allegedly being replaced by a new generation for whom gayness is a non-issue. For this new generation, coming to terms with gay identity is scarcely an accomplishment—or so rumor has it.

The rumor is badly wrong.

The truth is that even among bright, energetic, thoughtful, educated GLBT youth, the struggle for self-acceptance is often painful. That’s not merely because adolescence is painful, period. It’s because personal identity and social identity are intertwined, and these kids have family, neighbors, teachers, elected representatives and even friends who are NOT THERE YET.

I wouldn’t deny for a second that, on average, GLBT youth today have it easier than their predecessors. One of the most poignant moments of Camp was watching the students—most of whom are around 20 years old—interact with 84-year-old movement veteran Frank Kameny. In 1957 Kameny was fired from a government job for being gay, which sparked him to spend the rest of his life fighting for equality. This year, Kameny finally received a formal government apology. When President Obama signed the memorandum granting partner benefits to federal workers, he handed his pen to Kameny.

It’s because we all stand on the shoulders of people like Frank Kameny that these youths may see more progress in the next decade than he witnessed—and personally fought for—in the last half-century.

And yet, the fear of rejection is still present, and real. The closet, though shrinking, is real. The pain and the tears and the wasted energy…all real.

These obstacles are especially formidable for those at the margins—for example, those whose identities don’t fit into neat gender dichotomies, or those whose challenges are compounded by issues of race, religion, class, and so on.

We spent a lot of time talking about “privilege” at Camp. As an affluent able-bodied white guy who frankly enjoys his comfortable surroundings, I find such discussions unsettling. And as someone who spends a lot of time fighting the religious right—not to mention detractors within the GLBT community—I’ve developed a pretty hard shell. One needs it in this line of work.

Yet for all my resistance to touchy-feely processing, I’m grateful for an opportunity to be jolted out of my complacency. I’m grateful for the visceral reminder that, despite all of my education, and the nation’s progress, and my own best intentions, I still have a lot of learning to do.

I left Camp with a deeper sense of the movement, its challenges, and my own role in it. And if that could happen to me—a jaded 40-year-old philosophy professor—I can only imagine how profoundly the youth were transformed. My thanks to all who were involved.

For more about Camp or to support its work, visit CampusPride.org.

Why it Matters that Adam Lambert Came Out

First published at 365gay.com on June 12, 2009

So, Adam Lambert comes out in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, and you’re thinking, “What’s next? Rolling Stone announces ‘Water is wet'”?

I get where you’re coming from. But there are deeper lessons to be gleaned.

First, notice how Lambert comes out—in a music magazine, with his sexuality occupying a relatively minor portion of the article. And he does so with the candid yet indirect phrasing “I don’t think it should be a surprise for anyone to hear that I’m gay.” The gayness is almost taken for granted—embedded in a sentence about public reaction, rather than placed front and center.

That approach reflects a larger trend in how society—and in particular, younger generations—view gayness: as a simple matter-of-fact, not something to be belabored. The contrast with Clay Aiken’s “Yes, I’m Gay” People Magazine cover is subtle but important.

And yet, second, there’s an ambivalence in the article that captures the national tone on the issue. Lambert says, “It shouldn’t matter. Except it does. It’s really confusing.”

He’s right on all three counts.

“It shouldn’t matter.” American Idol is a singing competition, and Lambert wanted to—and should—be judged on his vocal performance. His decision to wait until after Idol to answer the gay question, he claims, stemmed from his desire that his sexuality not overshadow his singing. (It may also have stemmed from a desire for votes, and I couldn’t blame him for that. It’s not as if he lied about being gay or took great pains to hide it.)

“Except it does [matter].” As Lambert himself put it in the interview, “There’s the old industry idea that you should just make sexuality a non-issue, just say your private life’s your private life, and not talk about it. But that’s bullshit, because private lives don’t exist anymore for celebrities: they just don’t.”

The music industry doesn’t just sell songs; it sells images. For better or worse, personal backstory is part of that (especially on Idol).

What’s more, gay celebrities give hope to closeted gay kids, who need to know that they’re not alone and who sometimes don’t have gay role models in their everyday lives. That’s not to say that Adam Lambert is any more representative of gay life than any other gay person. It’s just to say that his representation, such as it is, will reach more people.

“It’s really confusing.” Yes indeed. We live in a nation where, for some people, much of the time, gayness is a non-issue, and for others, virtually constantly, it’s huge. American Idol is one of those “common denominator” phenomena (say that three times fast!) where these different groups interact with each other. Often they can do so while avoiding the issue of sexuality. But not always.

And the tension here is not just between groups; it’s also internal. When Lambert says, “I’m proud of my sexuality. I embrace it. It’s just another part of me,” he unwittingly raises a question—one that opponents often hurl at us: “Why be ‘proud’ of something that’s ‘just another part’ of you?” Why take pride in a trait that you didn’t choose and is supposed to be no big deal?

Answer: because it is a big deal. It does matter. Maybe in an ideal world it wouldn’t, but we are still far from that world.

Ironically, it’s a big deal precisely because our opponents insist on making it a big deal. Thanks to them, Adam Lambert (like every gay person) has to negotiate the issue of revealing his sexuality in a way that straight people never do. I think he’s handled it admirably.

Lambert told Rolling Stone that “I’m trying to be a singer, not a civil rights leader.” Fair enough. But it’s also fair to note that civil-rights change doesn’t only come from civil-rights leaders. It also comes from countless small acts of revelation by ordinary and not-so-ordinary people, including Adam Lambert.

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