Tag Archive: gay


Micro-Aggressions

On my way to the north woods of Wisconsin for a much needed spring break, I heard a new term on the radio: micro-aggressions. The term refers to the many little ways that people, in particular white people, most often privileged white men, continue the legacy of racism with snide side comments and little asides thrown out carelessly, denigrating African-Americans and their accomplishments. It’s almost as though these insecure people seek to cement a privileged position and are afraid, on some level, that giving another race equal treatment under the law will somehow take away from their rights.

There’s that famous cigarette ad saying from Virginia Slims: “You’ve come a long way, baby,” and when it comes to civil rights we have indeed come a long way in the last fifty years, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t have much work to do. Racism is no longer socially acceptable so I find people making derogatory remarks under their breath, usually among peers who don’t dare confront them or disagree.

At the same time, we have the dilemma of the well-meaning heterosexual white man who has inherited a position of privilege, and may indeed feel guilty about having certain birth rights, but doesn’t know how to start or continue a conversation about race and racism. I’m thinking in particular about a friend named James, Gentle James of a previous post, who doesn’t feel comfortable making much of any comment on race and racism for fear of speaking out of turn, or God forbid, not being forward-thinking enough.

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, recently tried something radical in having his baristas, also known as partners, write on random coffee cups the term, “Race together.” I think theoretically it’s a great idea to try and start a national conversation on race relations, and indeed the coffee community would seem like a great place to start, but I’m not certain that the average Starbucks customer wants to have any kind of meaningful interaction at 7am while waiting for that first cup of coffee. Perhaps if Starbucks had framed the conversation, saying that on Sunday afternoons, baristas will be approaching people to talk about racism, the whole project might have had better parameters. The way it played out, as I was driving out of town, one of the Starbucks employees who is a casual friend of mine named Dominique, waved at me through the drive-thru and asked about my weekend plans, while another employee, a black man named Marquise who I really don’t know all that well, rushed to the window, seemingly in the effort to raise the profile of the African-American community. Is it really fair to put the onus on all the minority employees to insure that they are noticed and appreciated? How does Howard Schultz contend that his employees respond to someone who might very well react in a racist fashion? Is it enough to say, “We don’t need the business of close-minded people?” So I guess my point is, I give Starbucks an A for effort in its attempt to redress the wrongs of recent racist flare-ups, but only a B minus for the way the company has executed its “race together” campaign.

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Spooked

I’m not sure why people are still sometimes afraid of that which is different. My friend Rosie and I recently toured Ireland, and the trip was, for the most part, a great success, but one incident stands out in my mind and continues to haunt me.

Rosie and I ate an amazing dinner at the Market House restaurant which is adjacent to the Abbey Hotel in Donegal, but the restaurant told us that to use the restroom we would have to head over to the lobby of the hotel. I myself have the bladder of a squirrel, and had already made two trips to the restroom during our extended, leisurely dinner on one of the longest days of the year, but after I paid for our meal on what happened to be Rosie’s birthday, she excused herself, and I followed her over to the hotel.

There was some kind of emergency medical technician arriving on the scene, and the hotel clerk looked at me and said, quite distinctly, that the Abbey Hotel was having a “spook” alert. I’m quite certain I did not hear her wrong, and I stood in silent shock, first hand witness to true Irish racism. Rosie is African-American, and I am white, but I’d never before been confronted with true hatred based on one’s skin color. I have, while in the midst of a gay neighborhood, been called a fag by a passing car, but most of the time, I live out my days without directly confronting prejudice. I think part of the reason the quite recent police shooting of African-American youth Michael Brown stirs up so much controversy and strong reaction is that living with prejudice is a reality for a certain subset of our citizens.

During the first five days of our trip, people kind of assumed that Rosie and I were an interracial couple, and we were greeted on the west coast with a kind of curiosity–we definitely stuck out in the very heterogenous white population–but no one said anything, and we were treated courteously. That changed in Donegal, a small fishing town, and I staggered out of the hotel like a drunk, even though I don’t drink. I’m left reminded of the Robert Frost poem, that we have “miles to go before we sleep.”

During my most recent 10 day trip to Ireland, I had the good fortune to visit Blarney Castle and kiss the Blarney Stone (I have the pictures to prove it). I had ridiculed those who rushed to kiss the stone, figuring they were suckers of a good tourist scam, but I have to say that seeing the grounds turned out to be one of the major highlights of my trip. The grounds, including the Poisonous Gardens and the secret wishing well, were beautifully laid out, and we explored the castle grounds over the course of two and a half hours.

As happenchance would have it, the day Rosie and I visited, gay choruses from around the United States were also visiting, including groups from Atlanta and Minnesota, who were also making a trek to kiss the Blarney Stone. A transsexual named Ann introduced herself to us and volunteered to take our pictures, incorrectly assuming that we were an interracial couple, facing the same prejudices she did as a man who lives as a woman. Unfortunately, Ann was not exactly blessed with the ability to “pass” as the other gender, but probably faces a fair amount of prejudice and ridicule on a daily basis. I’ve been told by some that I’m not apparently or obviously gay, and that I can live among heterosexuals invisibly, and this is both a blessing and a curse. At times I’m probably more obviously gay than others, but living in the western burbs of Chicago, I’m careful not to throw my sexuality in the face of others. It’s a Bill Clintonesque “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

I had imagined the Blarney Stone as some kind of boulder or rock outgrowth, and didn’t really envisage it as part of the castle, but it was great fun to stretch out backwards and kiss the stone while being held by a handsome redheaded Irishman. In a strange twist, just before Rosie went to kiss the stone, the guy in charge thoroughly wiped down the wall. It was done with some measure of good humor on his part, and I would have thought, had he been truly prejudiced, he would have scrubbed the wall after she kissed it, not before. We did experience prejudice while on the trip, but that occurred more during the later half of the trip. The Irishman in charge did wipe down the wall after each kisser, but didn’t seem overly concerned with “disinfecting” it, except as some kind of blarney joke. There was a rather ribald humor to the whole expedition, and all the GLBTQ choruses from around the United States dominated the scene, scouting out camp photos in the cavernous rooms as we climbed the stone staircase en route to our thirty second smooch designed to guarantee we would always be blessed with the gift of blarney. I have yet to see how completely I will be blessed with this gift.

I did, however, realize how lucky I am to live in America at this particular time in history. As a nation, we may have “miles to go” yet, but I’m aware that I’m afforded the liberty to “live out loud” if that is what I choose. It may cost me some friends, but it likely won’t cost me my life.

An Abundance of Riches

I’m sure you’ve heard the term, “When it rains it pours,” but you may not be familiar with the lesser known declaration, “I have an abundance of riches.”

I suppose calling out, “When it rains it pours,” could be used to positive or negative effect. You could complain about how life heaps challenge upon challenge upon you, overloading you, weighing you down, or you could, I suppose, look on the bright side of things, and say that good things come in twos and threes and then, “when it rains, it pours.”

On the other hand, declaring that you have an abundance of riches can hardly be misinterpreted. In my case, after a long dry spell, a veritable 12 year desert drought, I’ve had an abundance of people expressing an interest in dating me lately. I’m inordinately busy, however, and not especially free to commit myself to one special person so I’m learning, in early middle age, to take it slow. What can I say? I’m a slow learner. . .

I’ve recently developed a crush on a guy I’ll call Kevin. We’ve met “accidentally on purpose” several times at a local coffeehouse and are slowly getting to know each other, and I’m enjoying the romancing going on, but I have to admit, there’s an something I can’t quite put my finger on. I think he might be somewhat emotionally unavailable. I don’t have too much experience dating bisexual men, but I do believe he has a child from a previous relationship (This is as yet unconfirmed. He kinda muttered something about having a child). It’s not a complete deal-breaker, but at the same time, it doesn’t bode well for developing a serious, committed relationship. One thing I’ve learned is that I’m marriage material, and I’m not going to have a fling just for the sake of having a fling with a handsome man. And he is a handsome man.

Now the difficulty is that there are two or three other people on the horizon expressing an interest, tentative though that interest may be. Juggling has never really been my forte, and I have school and a trip abroad to Ireland planned over the next month so my motto, at least for the time being, is: “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Meanwhile, consider me a rich man.

City Boy

Are you a city mouse or a country mouse?

A tale of old originally titled, The Town and Country Mouse, as part of Aesop’s Fables, the story tells of a proud city mouse who visits his cousin in the country and then scoffs at the simple meal his country cousin prepares so the more extravagant city mouse in turn invites his compatriot to come to see big city life. The country mouse takes him up on his offer, but during their opulent meal, they must scurry for safety when dogs invade their digs, and each mouse, I believe, determines that he is the more fortunate of the two. Neither envies the other’s circumstances.

I myself just got back late last night from seeing a play in the city with my friend Rosie. While the drive home took only an hour and a half, the drive into Chicago took nearly three hours, and though I listened to an audiobook most of the way, I still found myself cursing my distance from the city. There’s always been a kind of divide between my friends who are city dwellers and suburbanites. I happen to be an ex-city dweller, and have lived on both the north side and south side of Chicago. The city, I have found, is very neighborhood-specific, and as a Chicagoan, you also feel a sense of pride and belonging that differs, in part, based on whether you live in Hyde Park, are a South Sider, or live on the north side in Andersonville, Edgewater, Wrigleyville, East Lakeview, Rogers Park, or any of the many other neighborhoods. Of course there are many more neighborhoods, neighborhoods peopled with Polish or Irish or Mexicans, and a lot of your identity can be determined based on where you live. I also think I had a sense that I was more hip and urbane, somehow more current and relevant, and that I was living life more audaciously when I was a Chicagoan proper.

Now I live in the far western suburbs, and though I grumble at the distance into the city, I don’t think I would trade my sense of increased space, or the greater sense of peace and well-being I have now. I feel more able to spread out, walk around my three bedroom ranch house–even if I’m only pacing when trying to come up with a story idea or simply to glance through my book collection as I look for a book I’ve misplaced–or leisurely walk my Beagle and Akita around my neighborhood.

It was great fun, back in the day, to pack a towel and swimsuit, and take the El train north to Hollywood Beach to lay out on the sand, great fun to head to the Music Box theater to see the latest art house film, great fun to check out the latest ethnic restaurant, and I have to confess, now it’s much more of a trek to plan a day in the city, but I don’t feel nearly as claustrophobic and cramped as I used to feel. One time, while living in the city, I was even broken into, although the rather inept robber quickly scanned the studio apartment and stole the VCR (this was back in the day before DVD players took over), leaving behind my fairly new laptop computer. The police suspected it was a drug addict who wanted to quickly fence something to fuel his drug habit.

For many years, as a Chicagoan, I didn’t have a car, and had to walk everywhere, or take the El, and I used to think myself somehow superior to suburbanites, simply because I felt closer to the pulse of life back then. Now life is perhaps more measured, lived with a greater deliberateness, but I wouldn’t trade the sense of peace I feel. I always felt vaguely frantic and rushed as a city boy in a way that I no longer feel hurried.

It makes sense to me to get up on a Sunday morning, pour a cup of coffee, and read the Sunday paper or the New Yorker magazine. I can still always head into the city when I want, but city life doesn’t dictate my very essence.

Butch It Up!

A disclaimer: I live in a small town, a town so small that until quite recently it was considered a village. Our town is nestled about an hour west of Chicago, and people have chosen to live here for various and sundry reasons, including its proximity to a major metropolitan area as well as for some citizens, the advantages of being in a small town where everyone knows your name.

I am part of a library book club, and have made friends that way, but recently went to check out a mens’ group at my local Catholic Church. I made sure, when I walked in the door, to drop my voice into a gravelly hyper-masculine tone and monitored my mannerisms. It occurred to me that I was seeking to “pass” as straight in much the same way that in the not-too-distant past some light-skinned African-Americans may have sought to “pass” as white. Why the good opinion of strangers mattered so much to me remains a mystery?

Being both Catholic and gay poses certain challenges. Until quite recently, the position of the church seemed to be something along the lines that having a gay sexual orientation in itself was not sinful, but that acting on it was, an untenable position, if ever there was. Our new pope, however, Pope Francis I, has made public declarations about homosexuality, saying, “Gay people should not be marginalized,” and, going further, “When someone is gay and seeks the Lord, who am I to judge him?”

The problem with the meeting was more than me merely feeling judged. A good forty-five minutes was spent discussing how to snare new members rather than focusing on the spiritual needs of the thirteen of us present. The guys had a lengthy discussion as to how a significant monetary donation to help high school students do service work projects during their spring break would raise the visibility of the mens’ group and attract new members. Everything revolved around getting more butts in the seats, and it certainly seemed to help if you happened to have discretionary income to donate to those causes the mens’ group deemed worthy. Though they appeared friendly to me as a newcomer, I found myself wondering how welcoming they would be if they knew for sure I was gay? A lie by omission is still a lie. I kept thinking of the old song played during the Sesame Street skit: “One of these things is not like the other.”

In the future, I suspect I will go where I feel I can fully be myself, where I can date a man without feeling liking I’m sinning simply by being who I am. In my mind, I think we Catholics would benefit not by concentrating on our sinfulness, but rather by focusing on leading more spiritually centered lives.

Retreat Home

Conscious living. . .A buzz word in our modern, hyper-fast, race-to-the-finish-line society. People, by nature, seem to seek what they don’t already have, and we have romanticized the notion of slowing down to enjoy the view, lest life pass us by, but so few of us actually achieve a sense of conscious living.

I feel torn, several times a week, by differing value systems. Some gay men worship the body electric, and put all their focus, time, and energy into working out. That, indeed, is but a subset of the whole population, but I’m self-centered and vain enough to want other’s approval, even if it’s only for being in great shape. Then, there’s the value system of the small town, village really, in which I live. There, the greatest emphasis is placed on being a good person where you’re also encouraged to fit in and not make too many waves, and this can sometimes mean not being disagreeable–being liked. In this community, many diverse people are tolerated, but you certainly don’t want to stick out for being too progressive or controversial. Yet another group whose approval I court are the intellectuals and writers and the writing community at Northwestern as well as throughout the Chicagoland area. There’s a subtle sort of competition among my fellow MFA students to see who is the most talented and who has the most potential to go far.

Last, there is the Christian and Catholic community to which I have just come home on a visit, twenty years after I graduated. I went to a small, private, liberal arts Catholic school, St. John’s University, in upper Minnesota, about an hour and a half north of the Twin Cities. I am, in effect, on a retreat home, a retreat to my spiritual home.

I have, in the course of my life, wandered far from my spiritual roots, starting way back when I was a sophomore, and my former Resident Assistant, Chris Agnew, the student who oversaw our development and encouraged us to come to him with any questions, suffered an epileptic seizure and died in the shower early one morning. I really couldn’t reconcile the kind of God who would take away such a caring, loving young man so early in life. I couldn’t even make myself go to this funeral, held in the big abbey church where his life was celebrated. I didn’t want to celebrate his life; I wanted him still in my life. It was a real crisis in faith, compounded by my grappling with my sexual identity.

I have wandered far, over the years, from my roots, but now I am back for a vacation, and I get to look at the campus with new eyes. There is, indeed, an undeniable spiritual energy to the place, nestled among 2,700 acres and Lake Sagatagan, with a vibrant community of Benedictine monks and priests. St. Benedict was celebrated for the virtue of hospitality, and it is this openness and welcoming attitude that has brought me home, the long way around. I notice an innocence, a lack of jadedness, in the eyes of the summer students, and indeed, among the mentors on campus.

A simpler life is not necessarily a simple life, but this retreat has shown me that it’s okay to embrace a God of my understanding, even if it doesn’t fit the traditional Christian model, and still not be considered a cast out. I have spent so much time and energy trying to fit in among various communities, and now I sense is my chance to take two days to ask myself, who am I, where are my roots, where have I come from, and where am I going.

Much peace to you. I seem to be finding a missing sense of quiet serenity and gratitude up here.

The Big Hush-Hush

Although I’m gay, I have been experiencing great, I repeat, great difficulty creating interesting fictional gay characters. Right now I’m working on a novel where my main character’s best friend, a gay white man named Dewey, is in a relationship with a black man named Prophet who was formerly married to a woman. It sounds just a tad bit like the storyline to a soap opera, don’t you agree? Therein lies my problem. Dewey and Prophet are supporting characters, not even part of the main storyline, but they’ve proven the most difficult to render realistically on the page. I’ve written many scenes between Althea and her husband, then ex-husband, but trying to find the right tone for Dewey and Prophet, striking the right balance in developing a plausible gay characters, has eluded me.

I’m learning that capturing the truth on the page can be difficult, rude, cumbersome even. I think I may unconsciously be afraid to offend my parents by what I write. They haven’t really read much of my work, but when I recently described the plot of my novel to my dad, he responded by asking whether I really needed a gay character at all.

It’s frustrating when heterosexual authors like John Irving, famous for The World According to Garp as well as his most recent novel In One Person, and recent phenom Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding), have free rein in creating captivating characters who have a different sense of their sexual orientation whereas I’m stymied for writing about something too close to home, as if I were writing an autobiography instead of fiction.

It’s an interesting conundrum to be so inhibited because when I first came out of the closet, way back as an undergrad at the conservative Minnesota liberal arts school St. John’s University, one of my all-time favorite teachers Betty will assure you that I came out with a vengeance. What can I say? It was the late-80’s, frosted hair and ear rings were de rigeur for a certain subset. I won’t say that they were ever truly popular, at least not so in Minnesota, but it certainly made a man stand out.

As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve learned to be more polite, to create less waves and avoid controversial topics. One example: my dad is convinced that global warming is a fallacy and the leftist leaning politicians propagate alarmist prognostications to advance their own careers. We don’t discuss Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to prevent climate change. All my dad will say in regard to Gore is that those leftist Hollywood types made him their darling, and somehow won the prize on his behalf.

I truly hope I don’t have to wait for my father to die in order to write a publishable novel. I don’t want to spend so much energy worrying what other’s think about my abilities and talents. Charles Bukowski once famously said that when you get the shit kicked out of you over, and over, and over, you have a tendency to say what you think. I’m just not sure what it will take to get me to write my truth as well as live it.

Lascivious Lifestyle

I just went to see Goodman Theater’s last matinee production of the Shakespeare play “Measure For Measure.” We also read this play for my Renaissance Literature class, a class titled, How (Not) to Be Good in Renaissance England. The class focused on the Seven Deadly Sins and their corollary virtues, and the virtue/vice that week was Lust versus Chastity.

Now Chastity is something I know a fair bit about from personal experience. My friends, who are my friends for this very reason, assure me that “it’s not me, it’s him.” I’m picky enough and virtuous enough that it’s becoming clear to me that even though I’m Catholic, I’m going to have to date a Mormon to find someone who fits my qualifications. The problem is finding a gay Mormon who isn’t emotionally damaged by his religion.

Even in Shakespeare’s day, though, people struggled with what it meant to live a virtuous life. Comedies written in that time period inevitably ended in marriage, and this proved difficult to accomplish when one of the main character’s in “Measure For Measure” is a nun. In class, we learned that this play is one of three by Shakespeare, along with “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “Troilus and Cressida,” that critics consider a “problem play.” Part of the reason it’s considered a “problem play” is because it blends incipient tragedy, moral ambiguity, and low, bawdy humor, but it’s also a “problem play” because it deals with social morass and social problems of its time. The bard set the comedy in Vienna, a city he almost surely had never been to, but the story reflects back on Renaissance England, and the city in question, a stand-in for London, faces moral and economic decay. There’s even a character named Mistress Overdone (wink wink), who almost certainly runs a brothel and is responsible for the spread of venereal disease throughout the region.

The Goodman chose to move the location of the play to 1970’s 42nd Street-style New York City. My mother hates when artistic directors “contemporize” a classic work, but in my mind this modernization makes the play relevant to our generation, though I must admit I squirmed a bit in my seat when I looked around the seats at the matinee and noticed a fair number of the grey-haired generation. But the way I look at it, people go to the theater to be challenged, not to embrace only what is comfortable, and Goodman’s “Measure For Measure” certainly challenges its audience.

Still today, a subset of the population lives a lascivious lifestyle, and unlike the play, things don’t always end happily. Not only do people catch venereal diseases, they also despair that things will ever get better. People using drugs have worn out their relatives, and I personally know of one eighteen year old who’s exhausted his family through his drug use and has ended up homeless. Another close friend had a great job, but got caught up in the drug scene, lost his job, lost his partner, lost all hope, and committed suicide.

Just because you live a virtuous life, doesn’t mean you won’t despair–virtue is no guaranteer of personal happiness–but it does tend to decrease the number of moral issues you bump your head against. Who knows? Perhaps your life will end more like a Shakespearean comedy, not a tragedy.

Equal Under The Sun