Monday, July 28, 2014

Becoming a gay Pentecostal atheist

When I was a child I was very involved with Jesus. Pentecostal children are expected to obey their parents and avoid sins that would embarrass the family in front of church members. Other than that, intensive participation in the church is not really expected until you grow up, get married and start having kids of your own. There are plenty of counterexamples of course, and those few children who are especially tuned in to Jesus are often encouraged to begin “preaching” at an early age. I was tuned into Jesus but, thankfully, my parents didn’t push me to preach. Instead I was allowed to follow my own interest in the piano and by the time I was in my teen years I was the church pianist.
While other children were barely able to sit still in church I was listening to sermons, singing hymns, praying with fervent intensity and actively seeking a meaningful relationship with god. I was a bit different from the other kids around me. Even outside of church I was overly engaged with spiritual pursuits. At school I hid in the library during breaks and study hall. As the librarian's aide I took advantage of my private office to play gospel music on my little cassette player and gather spiritual strength to get me through the school day. I occupied my time on the bus with reading the Bible. If I’m being honest, this was as much an attempt to avoid interacting with the other kids as an exercise in piety but you can digest a fair amount of religious content during twice daily one-hour trips. After school I spent afternoons and summers exploring the woods, running with the family dog, reading books and doing homework, all the while in some form of prayer or meditation. Prayer was a constant for me and I probably didn’t go more than a few hours without talking with god during my entire childhood.
I didn’t know it then, but I wasn’t a preacher or church musician in the making. I was just gay. Gay people usually have a mystical side to their personality and many cultures make great use of that quality. Sadly, ours does not (yet). Instead, people all along the queer spectrum are excluded from religious life in multiple ways. In my case I was told, and believed, that being gay was a demonic possession that would separate me from god, family and a meaningful life. This falsehood was so central to our Pentecostalism that it blinded me to my true nature for many years. This violent belief still permeates Pentecostalism and American society in general. The result is wounds so deep and lasting that thousands and thousands of young people lose their lives while struggling to be authentic to themselves.
Over the years I have miraculously avoided much of the sexuality shrapnel while watching friends and acquaintances fall all around. I don’t enjoy evoking war imagery but it seems authentic to my experience. Today the noise around queerness has quieted considerably, at least for me. I know what I believe and I’m comfortable with my existence in the world. It doesn’t hurt that the world itself is becoming a bit more sane with respect to sexuality and gender issues.
My childhood was a blessed time. I loved Jesus and he helped me through the troubles of adolescence and the teen years. And then, unexpectedly, my spiritual life was shattered in the process of coming out. I lost the ability to really talk with god because I lost trust in god. My most fundamental relationships fell apart - my parents deserted me, friends rejected me and the authority figures at my college indicted me. More importantly, the relationship I had with god could not absorb the challenges posed by my emerging identity. In the process of figuring out how to be an authentic adult I found that I had to leave god behind.
Perhaps things would have turned out differently if I had encountered good role models. I did know a couple of Pentecostal people who were gay but I didn’t want to be like them. They were laughed at and scorned and were tolerated only because they pretended to be straight. Everyone joined in the pretense when they were present and later laughed at them behind their backs. I knew I could never live like that, denying reality, pretending to be other than what I am, pretending that no one else knows who I am. Most of all I didn’t want to be part of a community of believers who acted like that. The role models I saw around me were untenable and my solution was to create my own brand of atheism.
My atheism has always been a Pentecostal atheism. By that I mean that I've continued to seek truth and authenticity. I do that through an introspective and recursive interior conversation that is a lot like the prayer process I used as a child. In fact, I still pray once in a while but I don’t really believe that there is anyone listening. I pray when I need to. I pray when I need that kind of comfort. I pray because I still believe in the value of some of the religious experiences of my childhood. I can’t inhabit those experiences in the same way I did as a child, but I don’t run from them. Instead I take what I can defend and what I can use and discard the rest. Learning to pray in this new way has been a blessing and it has been on my terms.
Pentecostalism is much more than a religious experience. It is a culture that emerged from the working class struggles of the late Nineteenth Century. Once you peel off the anti-science foolishness and the political bullshit of the culture wars it is easy to see its roots extending back to Colonialism and the Enlightenment. At the core of Pentecostalim are the principles of self determination and personal agency. The struggle of my life has been to use those principles to bend that culture towards my experiences of biology and personality.
Anthropology tells us that every culture has its shortcomings and contradictions. Each culture has imbedded within it rules that produce designated winners and preordained victims. Our saving grace is that all cultures change and individuals can shift the rules. None of us gets to live in the Garden forever. We must make the future out of what we are given.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

I was kicked out of Rhodes College for being gay

Well, sort of. I was kicked out in an unofficial way - the "we hate you and we will make your life hell until you go" kind of way. But it was Rhodes College and I was fully and completely gay.

To be fair, it was a long time ago. 1991 is (doing the math) -- OH SHIT -- that's 22 years! Correction: it was ages ago.

I often think about my experience at Rhodes but it rarely occupies my mind for long. Today was different. It came up in conversation with a friend this morning. I don't know what we were talking about but it was apropos to the conversation and for some reason the pain of this old event seemed particularly fresh to me and I have dwelt on it off and on all day.

I burst out of the closet like a tiger through a flaming paper hoop. My idea of gradually introducing the idea was to show up in Russian History II wearing shiny teal polyester pants, a burgundy red button up shirt and matching red eye liner. Fair dues though, I had been working up to it for nineteen years and this was, to me, just another small step towards self-realization. Window dressing, if you will.

That was the spring of 1989. By that fall I had tired of shiny polyester and was growing impatient with eye liner as a means of self expression. I was reading The Advocate and going to the sad, sad gay bars of Memphis on the weekends. I was also searching for allies on campus. I found a few potentials but scared them off with my brash openness, my inability to blend in. I didn't lose much sleep over that though.

Probably the smartest move I made was to seek counseling services on campus to help me sort through the major issues I was having around the need to cram my Pentecostal self, my gay self, my blue collar self, my high-academic-achieving self, my searching self and my lonesome self into one consciousness. This worked well for me. I could talk to someone and they got paid to listen. In the process I came up with the questions that lay beneath my growing pains and I figured out the answers to a lot of them.

My next smartest move was to fall in love with a guy old enough to be my dad. Jay was HIV positive and didn't bother to let me in on that secret until we had been dating for several months. I decided we should get married. I am typing this as a nearly 45 year old man and, yes, I am cringing as I type. Back then I was 19. Don't even ask what was going on in my head. If you imagine the worst cluster fuck of co-dependency, insecurity and naivete, you're on the right track. That isn't the point of this story though. I've worked through most of that. The point is my decision to marry led me to the campus chaplain, Steve.

Steve was not ready for me. He was open minded though and, after some prayer and study, agreed to enter into a period of couples counseling with us both. He didn't promise to marry us. He said he would work prayerfully with us and see where that led. Over a period of a couple of months he learned a lot about gayness and we learned a little about couples counseling. Steve took us at face value, never judging, never disrespecting in spite of his inexperience. In the end he agreed to perform our commitment ceremony in the Voorhies Chapel.

It was Fall semester, 1990. We dressed and drove to the chapel. Our guests arrived early. My dear sister Rebecca was there. The chaplain arrived fifteen minutes early with a grim look on his face. The college president, James Daughdrill, had summoned him and delivered the news that if we were married he would be fired. Jay and I made the decision in less than a minute. Steve has stood by us through this process and grown with us. We would not be responsible for the loss of his job. The wedding party followed us back to Jay's apartment in Midtown where we ate the wedding cake and had drinks. It was not a celebration.

Since coming out I had faced several threats and confrontations on campus. My dorm mate moved into a different room. My dorm room was vandalized repeatedly. After our wedding was scuttled the abuse intensified. Obscenities were hurled down to me from windows as I walked across campus. A couple of times things were thrown at me. I was a leper in the Refectory. I received death threat phone calls late at night.

At some point I requested a meeting with Daughdrill to discuss the difficulties I was facing on campus. He refused to meet with me and instead sent a dean to run interference. I was told that no one had committed any crime but to let them know if that happened. The dean informed me that Daughdrill was very busy and would not be able to meet with me.

My grades took a nose dive. I was unable to study, concentrate, couldn't physically relax on campus. I was unable to get an appointment with my advisor, the chair of the Political Science department, until I caught him in the hall and pushed the point. When I explained my situation he did not seem surprised and was not helpful. In fact, the air in his office had a distinct flavor of disdain. I got the message.

As my life became less comfortable on campus I spent more time off-campus. By Christmas Break I had moved into Jay's apartment and my transition away from school was complete. That is how I went, in five semesters, from having high hopes of academic success at a highly regarded private college to being a college drop out. That is how I was kicked out of Rhodes College for being gay.

According to their website, Rhodes now has an LGBT Working Group and a nice little anti discrimination policy here. The school is still affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and that denomination has recently published a lengthy and carefully constructed statement about same sex marriage.

Apparently there has been some growth within the denomination and on the Rhodes College campus. I would like to visit again some day and see whether the on-the-ground reality matches the online presentation.

I would also like to reconnect with Steve. Aside from a couple of boyfriends, he was the first adult man I interacted with on an equal footing. His practice allowed me to see myself as a man. I hadn't gotten that previously from my dad or from men at church or school. That meant a lot to me then and it still does today. I would like to thank him for that.

Sunday, July 7, 2013


This poem is published in Wendell Berry's 2010 volume Leavings. I read it yesterday morning and must have re-read it four or five times during the day. It is a very sneaky poem, beginning with an obvious easy question and gradually working up to one of the most basic (and ignored) conundrums of life as a member of society.

1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.

3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.

4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

Of course, no one would kill a child for energy or an ideal. If the child is in front of you and you know her name, you will not kill her. You might step between her and the bullet and give your own life. Lots of people have.

What if you do not know her name, see her face? What if her existence is within a small rectangle on a monitor and you are at a command center thousands of miles away? Her parents are Afghanis? Does that make the killing any easier?

I'm burning babies every day as I drive to work. Their ashes are invisible to me; I do not examine my exhaust pipe.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The letter that will probably get me fired

I teach part time at a community college where my division (anthropology) is combined with the psychology and sociology divisions. The rivalries between members of the departments are at times divisive and fierce. The rivalries are mostly over meaningless bullshit. This morning I received an email from a colleague that said "YAY". The email was in response to an earlier email from the department chair stating that anthropology would be moving to the history department. Said faculty member has a long list of historic gripes with the other members of our present department. Having just arisen and still waiting on the coffeemaker to belch forth my morning sanity I hit 'reply all' and said "I wonder if the adjuncts will be treated like janitors there too?"

Well, the shock and awe that followed was monumental. You would think that we adjuncts had been hidden in a closet all these years. Various full timers upbraided me for "attacking" and "causing pain" (Boo-fucking-hoo). Others showed me various levels of support in person and (in one case) by email (brave since that is admissible in court and there is no more reticent sub-species of Homo sapiens than your run-of-the-mill college professor).

Further background:
I have in the past received special dispensation to attend departmental meetings, participate in specialized faculty training and development (you know, the basics of professional life) - but only because I made a fuss. Adjuncts are normally excluded from these things.

Below is the letter I wrote this afternoon after thinking more on the topic. I am surprised at the depth of emotion I am still feeling.While I live this on a daily basis, this email was my first time discussing it in a public forum. I do not broach all the issues faced by the adjunct work force but I think I hit the high lights. If you teach full time at an institution of higher learning in the US your department is likely functioning exactly as I describe below. Please think about it.


Some days I feel like an animal with his leg in a trap.
I should explain my outburst. I was in a good mood this morning so when I read ___’s email I was a little off guard. I have always kept my thoughts to myself because if I speak my mind I risk losing my job. Unfortunately, I failed to guard my thoughts this morning. Since I have opened this can of worms in public it is only fair that I clarify my thoughts in public and leave no doubt about where this is coming from. After all, the inequality I am speaking of is being acted out publicly every day, by each one of us.
I have been teaching anthropology classes at _______ for seven years. I have been unable to find a full time job. It is also clear to me that there is no chance of a full time position being created for me at _____. At the same time, the longer I spend in this menial job, the less suited I am for any good job outside of academia. What has changed for me during the past year is my realization that the _____ job position descriptions are highly inaccurate. The adjuncts are not filling temporary positions. The positions are full time. It is the humans filling the jobs who are temporary. It really, really sucks being a permanently part time human.
We all know about the low pay and no benefits when we accept these jobs. Maybe a lot of adjuncts think there is a full-time job just over the horizon. I thought I would find one. I have seen just enough adjuncts getting hired into full time jobs to keep my hopes up. As I have sought jobs and watched the teaching labor market it has become apparent that colleges all over the country are trimming their course offerings and replacing retirees with the permanent part-time positions. At the same time, graduate schools are pumping qualified applicants into the teaching market like a 24-hour sausage factory.
I know that none of this is your fault. I also can’t forget that your office, your computer, your vacation leave, your sick leave, your maternity leave, your sabbaticals, your expense accounts, your salary, your professional support, etc., are all paid for with funds that are generated by the work of my large underclass. I learned all about inequitable economic systems as a college student. Is it any surprise that I would experience existential angst once I realize that I’m mired neck deep in one without an apparent resolution or even an apparent avenue of escape?
What am I looking for? When I ask myself that question I go through that sociological checklist of things that people get from their work: money, status, sense of belonging, a mission. I know there is no money or status associated with being an adjunct. What’s left? I love to teach so I have a mission that has sustained me this long. The sense of belonging is largely absent. A number of people have voiced their support to me today and I really appreciate that. Of course everyone has always been very nice to me and I find that invaluable. The problem is that I have no role other than providing low cost labor to a faceless, dehumanizing system.
I’m not one to complain without offering solutions. In my neighborhood organization there are no temporaries or full-timers. We all play a role based on our interests and abilities. I help manage an annual budget of about $2 million and organize a number of public events, direct actions, and community building activities every year. No one “invites” me to a board meeting because I AM a board member. I have a specific role in the organization.
I appreciate being “invited” to _____ faculty meetings but it also underscores the fact that I don’t really belong there. I have no role. Who decided that the people who teach 75% of the classes here, who generate the lion’s share of the revenue, have no role? Who decided that we aren’t interested, aren’t able, aren’t qualified to share in the governance of the organization? When I’m feeling trapped I don’t chew on my leg like an animal. Instead I look for meaning and meaning is the thing I’m lacking in this job.
I apologize for getting all political and making everyone uncomfortable. I didn’t intend to storm the Bastille when I got up this morning. I don’t envy any of you full-timers. You have those positions because you are highly qualified. I don’t feel especially singled out for marginalization. I am a part of an enormous group of people in exactly the same position. Many of us are also highly qualified but we are never going to find full time teaching jobs because the numbers just aren’t in our favor.
I do think you full timers, especially in the social sciences, have a moral duty to be aware of the political and economic landscapes of our discipline. I know you teach Weber and de Tocqueville but how much consideration have you given to how that applies to our own field? Even more importantly, please consider how our jobs (and lives) can be made a little bit more meaningful as our slice of academia (and apparently all post-secondary academia) continues to adopt the corporate model. We’re all a bunch of smart people. Why are we so behind on this? I love to teach and I want to continue teaching at _______. The crappy pay would be more bearable if I was more of a colleague and less of a servant. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

What is the most important thing in life for you?

That is a really difficult question for me; it has taken several decades for me to have an answer that I feel comfortable with. I do have an answer now - loyalty.

I have had other answers in the past but they always felt a bit like whichever tattoo design I was considering at the time - cool, thoughtful, even true - but not really worthy of engraving into my flesh.

Loyalty is not my latest catch phrase, not something I just started thinking about a few days ago. When I say that loyalty is the most important thing in my life I mean that the pattern of my life, as it has played out so far, is one of connections and separations that can each be labeled as either loyalty or disloyalty.

Every so often I have an extended period of life review to reconsider past decisions, get myself grounded and look toward future actions. My most recent life review has been in progress for a couple of months now and the verdict is in. The one thing that I treasure in my friends is loyalty. The few times I have severed a relationship, a lack of loyalty has been at the core of that decision.

I will explain with one story, maybe one of the most important in my younger life. When I was 19 I met a beautiful young man, about my own age. I was a college student, gingerly stepping out into the grown up world. Ron was a beautiful country boy with a quiet masculine demeanor, a roguish sense of humor and the simpleness of most of the other country boys from western Tennessee. His tan hairless skin was always charged with electricity and he was as elusive as heck. When we were together he had a talent for being fully present. His attention was like a laser beam and even though he was no intellectual heavy weight, he held my attention night after night.

The thorns on this rose were two-fold. He smoked pot and was uneducated. I knew then that we were an unlikely match but my heart was set on him in a singular way. I have always been too clever by half so eventually I looked elsewhere for serious companionship and we enjoyed each other's bodies intermittently for a few years.

I took a job waiting tables at a shitty Mexican restaurant in Memphis and soon struck up a friendship with a young waitress, Autumn. In one of life's weird coincidences, Autumn turned out to be the younger sister of Ron's best friend and next door neighbor. I had known Autumn's older sister for a couple of years before meeting Autumn on the job.

Eventually Autumn and I moved two thousand miles away to Oregon on a whim one summer. Our boredom with Memphis life was so overwhelming that a one-way Greyhound bus ticket sounded better than anything going on in Tennessee. I eventually ended up in northern Idaho, filling my life with adventure, romance, discovery and self-discovery.

Ron and I had not spoken much before I left Tennessee but I immediately began to miss him. I called Ron about a week after leaving town to inform him of my excitingly spontaneous adventure. He was so angry and I could tell that under the anger was hurt. We never spoke again.

Eventually though, after a few years in Idaho, my thoughts returned to Ron and I began to wonder what I had lost. Were our differences really so fundamental? Had I given up the one true treasure that had fallen into my lap so many years before?

My heart began to turn towards home. I decided that I would finish my college degree in Tennessee and get on with the business of being a grown up. If I said that finding Ron was not one of the contributing factors in returning to Tennessee I would be telling a lie. He was somewhere between the back of my mind and the tip of my tongue - not really sure where exactly.

I rented a U-Haul truck, loaded up my furniture and pets and headed across Montana. Somewhere in Wyoming I pulled off onto a farm road and slept that first night with the sound of coyotes and wind in my head. At first light I was up and back on the road. A couple of hours later I stopped to fuel up. I pulled back out onto the highway with a gas station coffee nestled into my lap, ready for the new day, hopeful and expectant. A car full of boxes and blankets pulled into the gas station just as I turned left back out onto the highway. I was still a bit sleepy so I must have been mistaken, but the face behind the steering wheel was Ron's.

I have since learned that extraordinary coincidences are not as uncommon in life as you might think, but at the time I could not conceive of the possibility that Ron was moving west just as I was moving back east. I knew it could not be true. I had seen his face and yet I didn't turn the truck around to check. It was just too unlikely.

By the time I reached Nebraska I was sure I had lost Ron a second time. There would be no turning back, no way to find him without knowing his destination. And besides, there had been another man in the passenger seat. If Ron had been in that car, and if he was moving west, I had lost him for again and to another man.

Autumn had long since returned east and we had stayed in touch so when I got back to Tennessee we talked often and I poured out my heart to her regarding Ron and my longing to find him. She thought the encounter on the highway couldn't have been Ron but she said that neither she nor her sister had heard from him in years. Apparently there had been a falling out between Ron and the sister at some point and they were no longer friendly.

The next couple of years were pretty dreary for me. I worked a difficult job that I hated and lived like a miser to save enough money to finish my undergraduate degree. My thoughts often turned to Ron and I developed an ache in my heart. I realized that leaving him without a word was unforgivable. I had loved him in my heart but assumed that I could always find him when I needed to. Now I couldn't find him even to apologize.

Then came the internet. One of those early search engines eventually rewarded me in the most cruel way with Ron's obituary. I still can't think about that very often. In truth I can't fully remember where I was or exactly when I stumbled across that bit of death-dealing. I think my mind has created a half-assed firewall against that day. I can only remember that it happened.

The obituary was posted on a personal blog page by "a friend" so I emailed the blogger and explained that I too had been a friend and that I did not know Ron had died. He replied to my email with a phone number. Upon calling the number, I learned the most dreadful news of all.

Ron had never left Memphis. During my time in Idaho Ron had become infected with HIV and had developed AIDS. He had died only a few months before and I had been living in the same vicinity as he for a few years. Even worse, this friend (unknown to me) knew a great deal about me. During our phone conversation I learned that Ron had been intensely in love with me. He would pour his heart out to this man about how he had loved me but had never told me of his love and how I had left him. This stranger recited the details of my appearance over the phone, my facial features, my abundance of body hair, my mannerisms, my speech patterns. He knew stories of some of the crazy escapades Ron and I had gotten up to all those years before.

As you can imagine, this revelation seared my soul and I shared my pain with my commiserating friend Autumn. She was, as always, a reliable shoulder to cry on when I needed it. That was about 12 years ago now. From time to time, the story of Ron and my selfishness came up between us and eventually Autumn tossed me one final bombshell.

One day, probably in 2006, Autumn admitted that she had not been ignorant of Ron's whereabouts when I returned to Memphis. She had known about his HIV status and had even talked with him, but hadn't told him about my return. Autumn decided to lie, in her words, to protect me from getting HIV from Ron. In all this sad tale, this is the most capricious and cruel twist, at least from my point of view.

I suppose she lied for understandable reasons. Her intention was to protect me but I have never felt thankful for that. Having lived out in the big bad world on my own for quite a while now, I have managed to avoid lots of trouble on my own. I'm not helpless in the face of danger and I wouldn't have been in danger of dying from contact with Ron.

A couple of years ago Autumn and I had a large disagreement about something completely different and parted ways, but our split was already waiting to happen. Both Ron and I had longed to see one another again and I know we could have found resolution for our relationship. Autumn stood in our way, mute, until all hope was gone.

I couldn't trust her after 2006 and you can't be friends with someone you don't trust. I believe Autumn did what she thought was best, but she didn't act as a loyal friend. A loyal friend would have counseled me, perhaps even cautioned me, but would have then trusted me with my own decisions.

 I admit to having blindsided more than one so-called friend with a loyalty test from time to time. When I sense that a friend isn't a real friend I do something outrageous, something sure to provoke them into showing me whether they will take my side or abandon me when the heat is on. I prefer seeing a person's true colors to living with doubt. That technique has saved me a lot of grief over the years.

I never gave Autumn a loyalty test. Instead, she blindsided me with a lie so enormous that I can't forgive her. And I can't see it as anything other than disloyal.