(Dis)Quiet Time

My glorious friend Cathleen Falsani has just co-edited a collection of writing by folk who might identify or be identified by others as 'misfits', reflecting on their relationship with the Bible, a text that I was immersed in, growing up in northern Ireland, got so used to that I can't imagine a time when I wasn't thinking about, and for me defines the challenge of having to wrestle as human beings with the fact that most glasses are both half empty and half full, life is lived in the in-between spaces, and the point is learning to love it. I love the poetic explorations of Scripture, and I sometimes feel threatened by what some of us have done with it. The book is called (Dis)Quiet Time, and you can find out more about its mystery and wonder here.  I'm happy to be counted among its wandering contributors, and here's the opening of my essay in the book, which is about how my passport was stolen when I visited Golgotha.

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A Story for International Coming Out Day This is a long post, but it comes from the heart. I welcome your comments.

I’ve waited a long time to write this, and I’m still not sure.

I have been afraid all my life.  Afraid that you might find out about me. I have sustained insults, devoted myself to other people’s plans for me, avoided people that I used to know because I’m scared of what they might ask me, hidden who I am from myself, been interrupted every day with thoughts that I am hateful and broken and deserve punishment.

I have felt this way, not because I have done anything wrong, or anything more wrong than the rest of us, but because I love men. And I, myself am a man. I also love women, but that never invited persecution. I identify as bisexual, and since I started to think about being any kind of sexual, I have never known a time when I didn’t feel this way.  Men are beautiful, women are beautiful, and I see no difference between the two loves. Asking me to deny my attraction to men because it’s incompatible with my attraction to women would be, as a friend taught me, like saying to someone who loves the great outdoors that they have to choose between mountains and rivers.

When I was an evangelical Christian teenager, as more conscious desire developed, I knew I had to confess it. I was living in a Charismatic Christian subculture, and in that subculture, what we were supposed to do with sex, it seemed, was to tell others as soon as we ever thought about it. So I talked to youth leaders and pastors and counsellors about my inner confusion - I was attracted to guys, and I knew this was wrong, and would they help me?  Looking back, I admire the courage of the lonely 15 and 16 and 23 year old who made himself so very vulnerable to people who didn’t know what they were doing. I laid my inner life bare to adults who presented themselves as therapeutically competent, but whom I now understand to have been sincere people whose understanding of sexuality owed more to self-reinforcing puritanical ideology than healthy psychology. They were trying to be kind, but I believe the message we all imbibed together contributed great suffering. They labeled me as someone who ‘struggles with homosexuality’, which was sinful, and only prayer and counseling would heal me. For them, the root of my sinful desires was simple - a hybrid consequence of the experience of being sexually bullied, somewhat isolated or picked on at school, and having a father with a tendency toward a bad temper.

Yet my dad affirms my sexuality, there are loads of people with absent or violent fathers who don't turn out to be gay or bisexual, and the allusion to sexual abuse is one of the more insidious elements of the ill-informed attempts at ‘diagnosing’ sexual orientation as a kind of spiritual disease.  I did experience being sexually bullied, but that didn’t make me bisexual. It’s the other way round - I believe now that being bisexual is what made me a ‘safe’ target for sexual bullying. I don’t know why I’m bisexual. It has just always been this way. It came before the teenage misfit years, when I thought no one would love me because I had big hair and was socially awkward.  It preceded the couple of rejections by girls that left me wondering if there was something wrong with me (but it just happened to be my turn to be the kid who got ostracized).  It did not wait until after my experience of being sexually bullied at ten years old. I think the boy who bullied me was broken himself, and was trying to find a way to express his inner confusion, but did not know of a way to do that safely. So it collided with whatever was mixing around inside him and came out as trying to intimidate me into doing something I did not really want to do. I bear him no ill will, because I think he was projecting what had been imposed on him by a culture that was still prosecuting people for same-sex behavior only a couple of years before this happened.  People used to tell me they thought I was attracted to men because I had been sexually targeted in this way; the truth is, I was sexually targeted because I was already sexually marginalized.

But the people in my religious community didn’t understand enough to tell me this. To reverse my sexual attraction to men, they said, I needed to embrace the love of a Heavenly Father who would meet me in ways that no earthly father could; repenting for my sexual desire would be the starting point. Even then it seemed paradoxical that the only path to receiving such love required me to first feel deeply ashamed. The theology was not atypical for conservative evangelical Christianity - with muddled thinking that claimed a categoric difference between ‘orientation’ and ‘practice’, asserting that until I actually did something with my genitals and someone else’s, my attraction to men was only theoretical and could be made to disappear (the same logic was never, of course, offered to suggest that straight virgins could somehow be considered only hypothetical heterosexuals; nor did it recognize that the mind and the body are profoundly interactive). The Charismatic variation included superstitions and hyper-supernaturalism that added an extra layer of psychic damage - it was suggested to me, among other things, that sex between men could transmit demonic entities; and eventually, when I was 19, that I had one of those demons attached to me, even though I had never had sex.

You have to understand - these were lovely people. I grew up with them. They taught me to believe that God loved me (despite His penchant - I still thought God was a ‘He’ back then - for eternally torturing people who believed the wrong things), and that each of us is invited to pursue a sense of vocation or mission that will make life extraordinary.  They initiated me into work for peace and reconciliation in my tormented homeland. They encouraged me to dream big dreams, gave me a hug when I was down, brought me casseroles when I was sick. They were my community, they gave me a place to be when other parts of my life were too hard to cope with, and I will not denounce them. They were just believing their thoughts, and then trying to do what they believed to be right. Their vision of God was an evolutionary leap forward from those communities who would have burned me at the stake for acknowledging how lovely I find men and women, or for even asking questions about my faith. In fact, their affirmation of the validity of questioning was one of their greatest gifts to me, because that seed grew into the strength to finally move on from that culture and community. Just over a decade ago, at age 27, I found the courage to leave the church that had given me so much, and taken so much away.

But by that time, I had internalized messages about myself that nearly killed me, alienated from my body to the extent that I eventually piled on about 80 pounds more than was healthy; celibate for almost the first decade of my adult life in hopes that God would cure me mingled with the fear that if He didn’t, I would only damage any potential partner. I met only one openly gay man before my mid-twenties, the shadow of cultural homophobia creating so much invisibility where I came from that churches could assume, Ahmadinejad-style, that they had no LGBTQ people among them. Because I doubted I was either gay or straight, I was further confused by the historic tendency of bisexuals to be joked about, made invisible or denied the validity of our experience in both straight and some gay cultures.  I was hurting, and felt like a victim most of the time. It contribute to me hurting others, I know this for sure. I fell in love with an extraordinary woman, and for five years we built a life together. But the unresolved questions I had about my sexuality overshadowed things, the hidden inner struggle and self-loathing overcame me, I lived too much from this shadow, and the relationship did not survive. I projected my shit - pain and selfishness both - at the world, and the person I loved ended up suffering greatly. I hurt her, and her family, and I am so sorry both for this pain, and that I did not know how to integrate my sexuality and spirituality before this happened.

The journey between then and now has been complicated and painful, simple and joyful, frightening and brave. I can’t quite explain it, but maybe I will be able to someday.  Hopefully it will suffice to say that a few years of working with being honest about myself, letting myself be loved for who I am amidst an invitation to no longer hide, and lifting my eyes up - even momentarily - from my sense of victimhood to begin to live in service with and among others, helped set my direction. There has been grief, and there has been gratitude, often both at the same time. I am so sorry that I hurt other people because I did not know how to integrate my struggle, or to transform it into the gift that I now know it to be. I hope that, in writing this today, I may add to the voices of millions who are being invited to share their stories, partly to free ourselves, and partly to build a bridge for people who are still being actively oppressed.

Now I often feel that I can welcome the pain I experienced because it pushed me to face the reality: that I am a man who loves both men and women, and on the cusp of my 40th birthday, I don’t believe that’s going to change. I am so sorry for the pain I caused others; but I welcome the pain caused me because I learned so much love from it. I am learning to accept myself. I am learning to be grateful for the gift of bisexuality. I have learned that in some cultures, bisexuality is understood as a spiritual gift, a charism that can offer the presence of healing, through seeing multiple dimensions of a story, or tending to the wounds of men, women, and our otherwise-gendered siblings. I have found profound solace in rites of passage work, restoring the rituals for emotional initiation that post-industrial culture has largely abandoned yet so desperately needs. And I have joined in partnership with another man, a man not ashamed of his sexual identity nor his religious heritage, whose love heals me more. It is a privilege to know him and to share our life together. And more recently I have begun to accept that my sexuality is both a gift and not the defining feature of my life. I am a writer, a film critic, a retreat leader, a festival curator, someone who works to reduce violence, a lover of nature, a pretty decent cook and party host (so I’m told), a good friend, a storyteller, an imperfect guy who sometimes feels the universe ready to break open within him when he looks at mountains and rivers both literal and figurative.

The messages I internalized really did nearly kill me, but they are quieter now. I still sometimes feel a tightness in my throat, a heat in my chest, and my heart races as I get triggered into the fear that I am going to be destroyed. The difference now is that I don’t think God is going to do the destroying. I’m more afraid of the parts of our culture that have not yet changed. As I’ve said, I did experience one act of direct sexual bullying as a child, but the far more potent abuse was that which was embedded in the homophobic and biphobic church and political culture I was born into. How can you expect to feel safe in a culture that actually prosecuted people for being gay until you were seven years old? How can you avoid internalizing the terror that there is something irredeemably wrong with you when the dominant messages in your culture equated your love of men and women with the most dehumanizing things? How can you believe that you are worthy of love when most of your political and almost all of your religious leaders, for most of your life, have not just rhetorically claimed that you are hateful and disgusting or participated in upholding the social structure that supports those beliefs, but resisted every attempt at healthily affirming your existence, even when people as heroic as Desmond Tutu and as mainstream as Barack Obama encouraged them to? Well, you can, actually, by choosing to look for community with those who will affirm you with integrity, and taking time to learn to love yourself through their eyes. These are the early adopters of social evolution, the ones who choose compassion over dogma, those who understand that love between human beings is always a manifestation of God, whatever God happens to be. Such communities are everywhere, and even if you can only access them through the internet, you can start talking in a safe place about your questions right now. And it is amazing to behold that this is all coinciding with massive shifts in the legal landscape. Yesterday the state in which I live began affirming marriages between people of the same sex. That’s wonderful. I celebrate with everyone who gets to feel a little more free, and a little more secure, because the law is catching up with the truth. I look forward to doing it myself.

But if you’re one of the people who is opposed to such changes, let me say this: you are loved, you are not alone, and I don’t condemn you for what you feel. I believe that you are scared, and that you have acted on the basis of sincerely-held beliefs. I suspect you fear that things that are very important to you are going to be taken away. I understand that fear, having had so much taken away from me by a culture that still to some extent does not acknowledge that I exist.  But I won’t do the same to you.  You are not bad people, and I would be happy to be your friend. I don’t want to argue endlessly about the theological rationale for same-sex relationships (there’s loads of other places where that happens), but I do want to talk with you about how we might share common space as fellow human beings, in mutual respect and even love.

With my friend Fr Richard Rohr, I believe that oppositional energy only recreates itself, and so I am not interested in using this space to seek redress.  In fact, I want to apologize for not living from the fullest self, the most beautiful, the kindest version of that which is in me.  I am sorry that I withheld from people the gift of who I am, because in my judgement, this diminished them too.  I care about the stories we tell, the call to transcend the myth of redemptive violence, to steward the earth with integrity and delight, to live in mutual interdependence and love with people we know, and to not do harm to people we don’t. I am thrilled that the law is changing to reflect our beautifully evolving understanding of the expansiveness of love.  I want to love those who have hurt me, and thank them for their gift. I also want to acknowledge, with tears, that we stand on the shoulders of untold numbers of people who had their most intimate lives exposed and used as justification to torment them, many going to their own deaths. I get to write this, in fact, I believe I may have a responsibility to write this, precisely because others were not allowed to. Thank you, to all my queer family members who suffered before we got to where we are today. We will try to honor the gift you gave us. And to those who still suffer, I say SOLIDARITY. Your freedom is not far off. We will see to it together. To those straight people who still have the privilege of safety in a homophobic culture, I ask you: please educate yourselves about what you can do to truly support the expansion of our community values to include making amends for the suffering of the sexually marginalized, and welcoming the gifts of all sexual identities. And then do it.

And wherever you find yourself today - afraid or rejoicing, angry or excited, mournful or inspired, please don’t hate each other. Oppositional energy only recreates itself. Beauty is what will heal us. This isn’t about me. Today I’m going to go look at something beautiful, and let it inspire me to do something beautiful for someone else. Whatever you think of what I’ve written here, I’d like to invite you to do the same.

Gather Ye Rosebuds

I am wary of commenting in the light of Robin William's death, for at least two reasons - while his work meant something to me, I didn't know the guy, so I don't want to intrude; and it risks devaluing other global traumas, invoking more compassion for one famous person than may be shown for thousands of Syrians or Palestinians. But as suicide is not an act exclusive to celebrities, and whoever saves one life saves the world entire, I feel I want to say some things. I've not written much before about my own experience of depression, partly because it's often too depressing to write about (!), and partly because it's difficult to put into words. But I want to, this morning, because I remember the way Robin Williams affected me, and I feel I owe some of that back. In 'Dead Poets Society' and 'The Fisher King' particularly, I saw a vulnerable and wise soul, inviting us and himself to deeper levels of authenticity. I remember thinking it sad that his character in 'DPS', while capable of inspiring extraordinary lives among his students, was not able himself to take the steps necessary to live the way he dreamed of (blink and you might miss it, but there's a scene where he reveals his love for a woman living in London - yet he does not seize the day to move there). The analogy with whatever torment led him to take his own life yesterday could be obvious, if we could be sure of it. But apparently one who brought so much joy and inspiration to so many just maybe wasn't able to see it for himself.

Gather ye rosebuds, his John Keating would quote, and the boys under his tutelage would choose to step beyond what another poet called the narrow circle of self. They - and we - might consider living differently than our unconscious sociology would otherwise have determined. I was 14 when I saw 'Dead Poets Society' - just the right age to be marked by it. 16 when 'The Fisher King' came out, and I was compelled by a story of healing trauma through the mingling of a great romantic act with the very ordinary, very miraculous fact of friendship between two stumbling human beings.  22 for 'Good Will Hunting', in which it felt like Williams' therapist was speaking directly to me when he said to Will 'it's not your fault'. Some folk - a little older than me - are 'Star Wars' guys. I think I'm a 'Dead Poets Society' and 'The Fisher King' guy, or at least it feels that way today.

Like I said, I haven't written much about my own experience of depression before, and I don't feel quite ready to say a whole lot, but today I want to reach out to anyone reading to let you know that you're not alone, and whatever darkness you find yourself in, today is not your forever. The way to work yourself out of the pain is to walk through it with others. Fighting against depression does not work, because, as Richard Rohr says, oppositional energy just recreates itself. But asking for help transcends oppositional energy, and opens up horizons that you never knew were there, because until you asked for help they did not exist. A new reality is formed, and today becomes different than yesterday, because you have something you did not have then: a problem shared, a burden beginning to be lifted, a stronger bridge across which to walk.

I don't want to say much more now. I do want to invite you to talk, especially if you're feeling it today. Reach out to someone you know; or go to a 12 step meeting locally; or if you're ready to take a bigger step toward healing, have a look at communities like The Mankind Project or Women Within, communities which have helped me name my shadow in the safety of a community of peers who see ourselves simply as people stumbling on a journey toward hope.

Someone once said that the purpose of art is to help us live better. Sometimes this unfolds subtly or in an oblique way, but in a couple of films, Robin Williams cut to the heart of it: gather ye rosebuds, and seize the day, and know that it's not your fault. The rosebuds are right in front of you. Trust me. There are new ones every day.