In case you missed it, check out my Out Front Colorado article on the science behind understanding sexual orientation. Is it determined in the womb? Are we really born this way? More importantly, why does it matter?
Archive for ‘LGBT Rights’
Shades of Gray
Growing up in a Baptist home, being gay was not just an abomination, it was a sickness. A scourge in the eyes of the Lord. So terrifyingly reprehensible that the subject never came up in conversation. Not with my teachers at the private Christian school. Not with friends. Certainly not with my parents or my older brother.
I remember as a teenager coming to the horrifying conclusion that I was gay: a one-way ticket to the eternal lake of fire. I hated myself for it. Pushed it inward with all my strength. Tried (very poorly) to play the straight guy. Ended updating a self-proclaimed tomboy. She was better at sports than I was.
When I graduated high school, I left home and joined the Air Force. The ash grew thicker. I wanted to talk to someone, but Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell kept that closet door sealed. I worked harder to play the part of the straight guy—clubs, strip joints, posters of blond women in bikinis.
It was during this time I found a temporary respite, paid for with headaches, bloodshot eyes, and lost memories of the night before. Friends joked I was a functioning alcoholic. It helped me keep my secret.
But when I moved back to Denver as a civilian, I was choking on the ash. My older brother and parents wondered what happened to that ebullient, laid-back kid who built snow forts, played the drums, and did card tricks.
I wondered, too. So, one day I walked into the library looking for answers, trying to remain inconspicuous as I strolled over to the section on human sexuality.
I grabbed a stack of books at random, sat cross-legged on the floor and opened the first one. The top paragraph was an echo from my past: Homosexuality is a disease. It is a perversion of nature. Hell awaits those who choose to be gay. I lowered my head and set it aside. Unable to bring myself to open another book, I left.
The ash became too thick to breathe. I wrote multiple notes, different drafts. The first sentence always read: I am gay. The rest of the letter outlined what to do with my corpse.
My volunteer work for HRC stems from a very personal, very visceral sense of obligation to those who occupy those same billowing clouds of ash I wandered in for too many years.
As is evident from this blog, I never taped those notes to my apartment door. My family, my older brother in particular, became my lifeline.
When I finally came out, I was surprised to discover organizations, such as the Human Rights Campaign, declaring with a loud voice that homosexuality was not a perversion of nature—that I was someone who deserved love and respect, no different from anyone else.
I still struggle with depression, and not everyone from my past accepts me for me. But I am now surrounded by a network of friends, family and colleagues who love me for who I am.
There are many who are not so fortunate. There are many who have no lifeline.
The iconic rainbow flag is a reminder to me of where I came from—a world consisting of shades of gray. I volunteer with HRC to help wipe away that thick blanket of ash so that others can breathe. So that others can see those vibrant colors for themselves.
Things Most Gay Men Don’t Like: Metal
Mastodon finishes shredding the frenzied crowd. The drummer tosses his sticks into the throng. The lights go up.
It’s between sets, so I sit with my back against a metal barrier that separates me from the larger crowd below. I shove in a pair of earbuds, turning up “Black Rose Immortal.” A twenty-minute Opeth piece of metal magnificence and mayhem that chokes out the white noise of conversations around me.
There’s something about heavy metal that’s primal. Cathartic. A juxtaposition of raw, exposed animosity eviscerated and dismembered by beauty herself, left on the dusty ground in a pool of blood to die—with a smile.
The lights drop, and I jump to my feet. I yank out the earbuds. The crowd stirs. The only illumination comes from the Fillmore Theater chandeliers hanging from the ceiling—glowing purple. Movement on the stage. The crowd starts yelling in anticipation. I join in. Blue lights grow bright to illuminate that signature O. Mikael Akerfeldt walks onto the stage. Metal ensues.
Opeth starts with their progressive rock from Heritage, Akerfeldt singing God is Dead!—the chorus from “The Devil’s Orchard.” Between songs, Akerfeldt comments that he loves Denver because the thin air makes him feel drunk without having a single beer. Someone from the crowd yells, play some fucking metal! “Patience,” Akerfeldt replies. “Or I’ll play the song ‘Patience.’”
Soon we are all rewarded for our patience, and the intro to “Demon of the Fall” begins. Angry growling death metal ensues.
Slamming my head forward with everyone else, punching the air above me with the traditional devil horns, I realize there’s another important characteristic to metal—solidarity.
Metal is about getting lost in the futile anger, disappointment and frustration of life, drowning out your problems for three hours. Finding absolution, and knowing it’s only temporary. Then slamming your head even harder, growling with everyone around you to each line of the song as your throat blisters and you start to gargle on your own blood.
Young or old. Bald or hair hanging below your ass. Straight or gay. During a metal concert, these trite distinctions just don’t matter.
Outside of a concert, when people find out I’m gay, they usually respond with, “you don’t act like it.”
Which is true: I don’t watch musicals. I loathe the music of Lady Gaga. I was dragged into a Banana Republic once. I wanted to light the entire building on fire.
I do own about a hundred band t-shirts—from Dead Can Dance to Agalloch to Velvet Acid Christ to Opeth. I drive a Dodge Ram (the lesbo-mobile, it’s been fondly called). I’m not offended (nor do I care) when someone around me uses the word gay to describe something stupid. And I fucking love metal.
Most of the music I hear in gay bars and on the radio lacks depth. Feels synthesized and forced. The songs have shitty lyrics. In a word—kitsch.
Nietzsche wrote that art made for the masses is valueless. Conversely, he added, music made for the sake of making music “at every moment make[s] life worth living at all, and prompt[s] the desire to live in order to experience the next moment.”
The concert ends with “The Grand Conjuration.” Opeth takes a few bows before leaving the stage. My shirt is plastered to my back with sweat. A woman I’ve never met before smiles, “that was fucking awesome!” Adrenaline still saturating my veins, I can barely stand still as I wait in line to buy (yet another) t-shirt. A guy in his fifties with a big, gray bushy beard and a tie-dye t-shirt stands next to me. Words like concert, kick-ass, epic, intense, and fucking are being thrown around—though not in that order.
And this moment is about sharing the experience of being pummeled by head-stomping riffs, double bass fills, and Akerfeldt’s demon-like growls. It’s about no one giving a shit I’m gay.
The sidewalk carries me away. Denver’s Fillmore Theater is swallowed up behind me. The traffic on Colfax Avenue saturates my senses.
I stick the earbuds back in. Take my time as I walk back to my truck, finishing “Black Rose Immortal.” Those pesky problems I forgot about are still lurking at the periphery, waiting patiently to rise blindingly with the sun.
But the rest of the night belongs to the fans. This moment belongs to metal.
A few weeks ago someone came into my workplace and called me a fag. Now, I’ve been called a fag (or the longer, more sophisticated variation: faggot) on a number of occasions. I’ve usually been able to laugh it off or just walk away. This time was different. I was tired. I was stressed. I hadn’t had my caffeine-saturated Mountain Dew yet.
I could feel my face getting red, and those veins in my forehead sticking out. I yelled back. He yelled louder. So, I yelled louder. It turned into a pointless shouting match. No one really won. He left when I called the cops, and I couldn’t help but think he got the best of me—with a word. A single word. Fag. Three letters. One syllable. It means cigarette in England.
Dan Savage once had his readers address him as “Dear Faggot” in his advice column. The idea is that the word gets its power not from the speaker, but from the receiver. Reclaim the hate speech! I agree. But easier said than done. Try turning the other cheek when you are in a bad mood, or before your daily caffeine fix. And try telling that to the kid who’s called fag or faggot everyday at school. He can’t just call the cops. We should banish the word, like we did that other notorious f-word: French! (Remember Freedom Fries?)
But censorship solves nothing. It’s just shouting at hate speech with silence. That night, after I downed a few Mountain Dews, I reflected on how I use f-words (fag, faggot, and fuck) extensively throughout my novel. There is such a thing as being too PC, after all. There is also such a thing as overreacting to haters, homophobes, or to people who write letters to Dan Savage. Fag is like any other word—in that it is nuanced depending on intent and context. Consider that the next time you hear the word fag—or any hate speech. More importantly, before you react, ask yourself if you’ve had your caffeine yet.
Business As Usual
6,482: Number of days DADT was in effect. 14,000: Approximate number of service members discharged under DADT. 363,000,000: The price tag in dollars of DADT.
0: The number of service members from now on who must perpetuate a lie to keep from being discharged from the military.
I’ve often wondered how different my experience in the Air Force would have been without Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I wouldn’t have needed to lie about who I am. I would have been able to confide in my friends—the people my life depended on in a combat situation. Some people would have treated me differently, I’m sure. But one thing that would not have changed was my work. Being gay had nothing to do with how well I did my job. Which, of course, is the point of all this. Someone coming out as a homosexual should have the same impact as someone stating their religious preference. These characteristics are simply part of who we are, but they play no part in our ability to carry out a mission.
Of course, there is still much work to be done: The ban on transgenders from serving, military benefits for non-married domestic partners (gay or straight) of service members, legal recourse against discrimination and harassment, and discharge upgrades. But the first step has been taken. The numbers above will no longer increase. Servicemembers can now get back to work.
Hill Air Force Base, Utah. 1999.
It was my first duty station and a small group of us were sitting in a break room situated behind the squadron’s radio maintenance workshop. The room was actually the back of a large vehicle bay where we parked and loaded our 5-ton cargo trucks and deuces (2.5-ton cargo trucks). Surrounded by radio equipment, rolls of coaxial cables, and boxes of supplies, one of the airmen sat in his chair and complained about the way people treated him. He was a Mormon, and he was tired of being told he was part of a cult. The airman leaned back in his chair and lamented about how certain people stereotype his particular faith. He said he was weary of the ignorance of individuals who called him crazy or associated him with strange rituals that had nothing to do with the Mormon religion.
I quietly agreed. I had been taught by teachers at my private Christian high school that Mormonism (along with any other religion that deviated from the Baptist church) was a cult. Even as a self-proclaimed Christian at the time, that kind of polarized thinking didn’t sit well with me. So that day, in an effort not to be one of those ignorant individuals, I started a dialogue with Mormon service members in our radio workshop (there were several others).
A few weeks later, the same airman complained about homosexuals (a subject that didn’t come up very often in the workshop). He said he didn’t want anything to do with gays. He added that if he ever met one, he’d want to stay as far away as possible.
When I heard this, I was still in the closet. Buried deep in the closet. I’m talking about sealed-beneath-the-floor-boards-of-the-closet deep. It was more my religious background than anything else that kept me in there. But it was statements from my Mormon friend, along with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” that kept that closet door locked at all times.
So, I said nothing. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who saw the blatant irony in his statements. Other airman criticized him for being so dismissive. A few even mentioned they had gay friends and that they deserved the same respect you would give any individual. Encouragingly, this perspective hasn’t changed. According to the DoD report on the repeal of DADT, 29.6 percent of military personnel believe service members coming out will have a negative, or more than negative, effect on unit cohesion.
But that’s still 29.6 percent. There are still individuals in the military who are ignorant or outright hateful to homosexuals. Coming out will be difficult or next to impossible for some service members. But on September 20th, the closet door will be kicked down. And had DADT not existed when I was in the Air Force, I would have politely replied to my Mormon friend that I’m not to be generalized either. No one is – gay or straight, Mormon or agnostic. In the end, the only thing that really matters in the military is the mission – and watching your buddy’s back while he or she watches yours.