Friday, July 30, 2010

"It Makes Me Hate the Church Even More"

Those were the words that came across the lips of our 18-year-old foster son after we watched 8: The Mormon Proposition together on DVD last night.  There were parts of that documentary that made both of us cry.  Sometimes Glen got so angry, we had to stop the video and discuss it together.  During and after the film, he would look at me with a kind of desperation and ask, "How can you want to have anything to do with a church like that?"

The film did not, oddly, make me angry.  I expected to be indignant after watching it, but I wasn't.  Not even a little bit.  It did bring me back to a moment in time, in the immediate aftermath of Prop 8's passage on November 4, 2008, when I was feeling not only angry but very much in pain.  I found my own personal resolution to those feelings in prayer.  And the peace that I found and the affirmations I received through the Spirit have sustained me from then until the present.  I think I have lots of things to contribute to discussions about Proposition 8, but fortunately anger isn't one of them.

I also remembered a conversation I had with my dad about Proposition 8.  It was so very simple.  My dad asked me how I was holding up.  I told him I wasn't afraid and I wasn't angry, and I knew that everything would eventually work out.  And Dad said simply, "They just don't understand."  No tears, no anger, no fretting.  Just trust in God and in the right.  That is what carries us forward.

I woke up this morning thinking more about the film, and about my response to it.  Among other things:

The LDS Church is not a monolith.  Mormons do stress obedience, faith and sacrifice, and that does make them effective at organizing collective action.  Those are virtues we appreciate when the LDS Church is working for us -- like when it helped clean up the aftermath of the flooding in North Dakota and Minnesota a couple years back.  But Mormons don't all think alike.  They are not all unthinking or unfeeling.  They are not incapable of reason or kindness or generosity.  Quite the opposite.

The documentary's goal was not to reach or persuade faithful LDS.  It was to mobilize political opposition, to solidify commitment among those who are already persuaded that Prop 8 (and the Church) are wrong.  And the documentary's primary tactic was fanning the flames of self-righteous anger.

But faithful Mormons didn't liquidate their kids' college funds or their own retirement accounts because of what they're against.  They did it because of what they're for.  Because they really believe that faith and family are against the wall here.

Getting angry at the Church doesn't make me hopeful.  It doesn't inspire me to action.  And it doesn't help me talk to my loved ones and friends in the Church in a way that will help them to do the one thing they actually need to do: see me and my family in a different light.  It does the opposite of all those things.

What does make me hopeful, and inspire me, and help me talk to my friends is waking up each morning to a good-morning kiss in my husband's arms (coming up on 18 years this August!).  It is my memory of the ways he was there for me when I struggled with depression after grad school.  It is the thrill I felt when we finally found his birth certificate, and when I saw him hugging his father for the first time, and when we set off on our great adventure last summer.  It is the excitement (and nervousness! and joy! and longing!) I feel for our son as we contemplate his coming years in college, and all the hard (and good!) lessons he will learn.  It is the hugs he gives me as he tells me he's afraid for how things will work out, and I can assure him we'll be there.

It is the belief that we can win this without having to vanquish our foes; that the best way to win is to work toward the creation of a community where we understand and care for one another across our differences, where we stand united in the belief that our differences actually make us stronger and richer and better, where we learn from and teach one another the best ways forward.

Last night, I shared some these convictions with my son.  I gave him a hug, and I told him, "Your dad is working on this."  And he told me he knew, and he was proud.  That will help keep me going as well.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

When He Ariseth to Shake Terribly the Earth

Has anybody else noticed the slight correction 2 Nephi 12 makes to verse 9 of Isaiah 2?  The 2 Nephi text reads:

And the mean man boweth not down, and the great man humbleth himself not, therefore, forgive him not.
The "not's" are missing in Isaiah.

This is significant, because of the picture Isaiah paints here of universal haughtiness.  Here, the rich man is not humble, but neither is the poor man.  Everyone -- everyone -- is lifted up in strife, one against the other.  "O house of Jacob... ye have all gone astray, every one to his wicked ways" (v. 5).

Isaiah is speaking here, of course, to his own time.  But in typical fashion, the prophecies aimed at his own time and his own people blend into future time and a universal judgment, into the "last days," the days when the Lord will come to "judge among the nations" (v. 4).

There's something else here that has struck me for the first time in these verses, and it has to do with the nature of God's judgment upon the nations, described in verse 4:

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plow-shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks—nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
The immediate, direct consequence of the Lord's judgments and rebukes is that "they shall beat their swords into plow-shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks—nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."  Is it that the wickedness that the Lord finds it necessary to correct here is our hatred of one another?  Our incessant warring against our own brothers and sisters?

This makes all the more sense when we read this verse against the larger context of the chapter as a whole.  Isaiah 2 / 2 Nephi 12 is a jeremiad against pride.  Look at the imagery in this chapter, "the cedars of Lebanon" and "the oaks of Bashan," "the high mountains" and "the hills," "the high towers," even the masts of "all the ships of the sea"!  Every one and everything that is "high" shall be brought "low"!

Pride is, after all, a root cause of war.  But so is idolatry, the other great evil Isaiah promises here that the Lord will "utterly abolish" (v. 18).  You don't have to -- it should be obvious -- own any actual graven images to be an idolater.  There seems to me to be a parallel in this chapter between the "silver and gold" which the "land is full of" (v. 7) and the "idols of silver" and the "idols of gold" (v. 20).  Idolatry and the pride of wealth are twin sins that both prosper together and fall together.  They're the twin evils of our own civilization.

Isaiah doesn't seem to offer much hope that we will save ourselves from these twin evils.  Verse 4 does say that the Lord shall rebuke many, implying that not all will be in need of rebuking.  It does say "every one who is lifted up... shall be brought low" (v. 12) implying that those who are not lifted up need not be.  Still, Isaiah also says "ye have all gone astray, every one to his wicked ways."

That is why, I think, the judgment described here is universal.  The text says, "the fear of the Lord shall come upon them and the majesty of his glory shall smite them, when he ariseth to shake terribly the earth."  You shake someone when you want to wake them up.  And the Lord is going to shake the entire earth.

So there is a sense in which, I believe, that none of us knows the truth, none of us fully understands the Gospel.  We understand it in our own way.  We have our own appreciations of it, through a glass, darkly.  But we cannot understand it in its fullness until the Lord completes this work himself, until he rises up to shake the entire earth.

This shouldn't surprise us.  This is the way the Lord works.  None of Jesus' disciples, not even the beloved one who lay nestled in his breast at the last supper, fully understood Jesus' work until after the resurrection.  At his last supper, he announced to them, "All ye shall be offended because of me this night."  Judas betrayed him.  Peter denied him.  Everyone fled.  No one fully understood until after Christ had died and appeared to them again.

So it may be, that none of us will fully understand until we "shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matthew 24: 30).

And I believe that for that time, the only adequate preparation we can make is to humble ourselves, soften our hearts, and be kind to one another (for kindness is the practice of humility).  And to pray for that day, when the Lord will make this great work complete, when God will reign on earth as he rules in Heaven.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Experience or Inference?

Bravone recently completed a 5-part series on "God, Spirituality, Religion and the LDS Church, and Where I Fit in as One of Father's Gay Sons."  I've engaged him there in a conversation about whether or not homosexuality is a mere mortal condition, or whether there are aspects of it that are eternal.  My response to his thinking about this exceeded the blogger maximum length of 4,096 characters!  So it's posted here...

If I understand what you're saying, you essentially affirm that homosexuality must be a mortal condition because of inferences you draw from the temple ceremony and from Latter-day scripture, because of explicit statements by modern day prophets and apostles. Also, you're drawing inferences from nature.

However, your sense that there must be aspects of homosexuality that are eternal seem to be – correct me if I'm wrong – drawn from direct personal observation. Both from your personal experience, as well as direct experience of the world around you. You observe that homosexuals have certain “very desirable” “qualities, talents and characteristics, either inherent or acquired.” You suggest that “living as a gay man or woman in a predominately heterosexual world” is responsible for some of these traits (such as “humility” or “compassion” maybe?). But you list other traits that don't seem logically “acquired” and are good candidates for “inherent” (such as “sensitivity,” “color” and “arts,” for example?).

To me, it is first of all very interesting that your conclusions from observation and experience seem to pull you in the opposite direction from your conclusions based on “official teaching” or inference. That is my experience as well.

My experience also includes personal spiritual experience. My suicidal despair over my condition came largely from the fact that I was relying solely on official teaching, which at some very deep level left me feeling utterly hopeless and worthless. But when I did as James directs, and, lacking wisdom, asked of God, I got a very different kind of answer, i.e., “Your homosexuality is an inherent, created part of you that I know and understand, and that is good.” And so I was being asked by my Heavenly Father, in some very profound sense, to simply trust what he was telling me about my own created goodness – even though the world around me, particularly the world of official church teaching, radically disconfirmed that. That was in 1986, right after my near suicide and right before I left the Church.

My second experience was in early 2006, after I had started attending Church again in response to prompting from the Holy Spirit. And there was this very desperate moment where – again, aware of the profound disconnect between official teaching and my own personal experience – I prayed to God trying to understand. How could I have this witness from the Spirit that the Church is true and that I need to be there, when I also have had these profound spiritual experiences affirming that there is nothing wrong with me in my created nature and that my relationship with my husband is very good? I specifically raised the whole question of exaltation and eternal happiness, and how that relates to my relationship with my husband. I put that on the table, and essentially said, If I need to leave this relationship, if that is your will, I'll find a way to do it. It won't be easy, but I trust that you can lead me in the path I need to go. And again, the answer I got was very, exceedingly clear. Under no conditions was I to make any attempt to end my relationship with my husband, that to do so would be a sin. AND, I need have no fear for my eternal welfare or happiness. My Heavenly Father made it known to me that he was extremely pleased with me, and I need simply to trust.

I understand the extreme skepticism with which most good LDS in the pews (and on the stand in General Conference) will regard those kinds of spiritual experiences.

I also understand that, for most LDS, it is out of compassion and the “pure love of Christ” that they would urge me to quit my relationship with my husband (and that they go to the polls and try to legally take rights away from me and my husband). From the perspective of official LDS teaching, homosexuality is a mere mortal condition, and to try to build an eternal life based on it is just setting me up for stagnation and unhappiness in the life to come. I understand that.

You, however, have here and elsewhere stated that you have no problem with homosexual relationships; that it is not your desire to discriminate or take anything away from them. That seems out of harmony with official teaching. But it seems less out of harmony with your personal experience.

I'm not trying to embarrass you here... If anyone has reason to be embarrassed, under these circumstances, it is me. After all, you're the one being faithful. You're in good standing in the Church, and I'm excommunicated with no chance in sight of being restored to Church membership. And I've had to wrestle with all the doubts that come with being “out of harmony with the brethren” on a point that they seem to consider fundamental. But I don't find myself out of harmony with God. Which, given my testimony, is confusing and damned inconvenient. But there you have it...

But I am aware of a dynamic here. I've seen it in other churches besides the LDS Church. People who know and love homosexuals tend to be more open to the value and goodness of same-sex relationships. People who have no personal experience tend to be more judgmental, and less willing to tolerate same-sex relationships. Why does personal experience with this seem to complicate this question rather than clarify it? I don't think you can just write it off as being corrupted by the world... To hew the line, you almost have to blind and deafen yourself to real world experience, and that, to me, seems an unhealthy perspective for people of faith...


Sunday, July 25, 2010

You're Gonna Make It After All

I went through my first "atheist" phase while I was still active in the LDS Church, just before I almost committed suicide.  I put the word atheist in scare quotes, because I'm not sure I disbelieved the existence of God so much as I felt seriously pissed off at God.  But I liked to call myself an atheist because I was in so much pain and so angry.  My anger, of course, was about the dawning realization that I was gay.  And the basic underlying sentiment was, How could God do this to me?  And of course the other basic underlying sentiment was despair.  I felt no hope for my future.  I felt trapped.  And I may or may not have been an atheist.  But I had a definite plan to kill myself.

At some point -- through a series of events I've described in detail in the memoir I've written but am still working on publishing! -- I overcame my anger and was able to turn to God in prayer.  And God answered my prayers, giving me peace and reassurance and enough understanding of my situation to get past the suicidal despair and start living with a sense of faith and hope and love again.  God made it clear to me that he knew me from my inward most self, because he had created me.  And I was good, as God had created me.  I've described elsewhere in this blog how one of the things God told me to do at that point was to leave the LDS Church for a time.  What I'm not sure I've been as clear about in my public writing was exactly the way I was instructed to leave the Church.  I think it's worth telling that story.

The Spirit made it very clear to me that I was not under any circumstances to return to Utah.  Keep in mind, at the time that this occurred, I was on an internship in Finland between my junior and senior years at BYU.  So basically, all of my worldly possessions at that point in my life were in my student apartment in Provo.  I was not even permitted by the Spirit to so much as go back and retrieve my possessions.  It was really a kind of Lot-fleeing-Sodom-and-Gomorrah moment.  I was to leave as quickly as possible and not turn back.  So I literally made arrangements to get into Northern Michigan University, in Marquette, MI -- about as far away from any form of organized Mormonism as I could get -- with little more than the clothes on my back.

The Lord provided.  My parents had more or less cut me off at that time.  They agreed to pay for my plane ticket to Marquette, but that was the last financial support I ever received from them.  NMU, within two weeks of my arrival in Marquette, had arranged to give me a full-tuition scholarship with a stipend for books; the equivalent of what I had had at BYU as a Kimball Scholar.  A wonderful, kind-hearted professor in the NMU History Department took me under her wing, and helped me get a couple part-time, on-campus jobs to help pay for rent and food.  She even slipped some money into my history textbook one day when she found out that I had no money, was about a week away from a paycheck, and had no food in my apartment except a can of green beans and half a bag of rice.  Money came to me in other miraculous ways.  People donated clothes and furniture.  I went to church with some friends, and a woman, hearing about my situation, felt inspired by the Holy Spirit to put a check for $300 into my Bible.

Later, I was reminded of how abruptly I had left Utah when a letter was forwarded to me from my bank in Utah.  I had forgotten about some $2000 I had saved in this bank account.  After I made arrangements to have that money transferred to my bank in northern Michigan, my money difficulties were at an end.

I can only offer sincere apologies to my roommates at BYU who were left to figure out what to do with all my stuff.  Eventually, my sister (who was going to the University of Utah at the time) apparently came and gathered my belongings for me, and got some of them back to me.

It was literally 18 years until I set foot on Utah soil again.

The recent suicide of Todd Ransom has reminded me why the Lord's commandment to me about staying away from Utah was so strict.  At some very deep level, I understood my life would be in danger if I returned.  I knew that what the Spirit was constraining me to do was in my best interests.  My plan had been to return to BYU and finish out my last year, and then leave Utah.  That seemed the most financially prudent plan.  Why throw away a full scholarship at BYU?  Why transfer to a school that didn't have close to the academic credentials of the school I was already in?

Answer: because in the spiritually and emotionally vulnerable state I was in Utah would have been a very dangerous place to be.

Our psyches and our self-image, especially in our late teens and early twenties, are heavily dependent on the approval of others.  I had received a revelation from God reminding me of my self-worth, promising me that I was loved by him and would be cared for by him.  That what I had been taught about homosexuality was wrong.  I was OK.  And from that time in my life, I gradually did heal from the psychic and spiritual wounds I had sustained as a young adult gay Mormon.  (I still have a few light scars left!  I can show them to anyone who wants to see them!)

Gradually I healed to the point that I could return to Utah again, not just with the Lord's approval but with the Lord's prodding and encouragement.  Utah has become a very important place to me, very dear to my heart.  It's where I was born.  It's where my parents and other dear members of my family live.  In a way, it will always be my homeland.  But I understand why it was wisdom in God for me to get as far away from there as I could, as quickly as I could.

The path to healing can be precarious though.  Those of you who are gay, and Mormon, and living in "Zion"...  Take care of yourselves!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sunstone, August 4-8, 2010

This year at the Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium, there will be an unusually large number of sessions dealing with the issue of homosexuality.  I'll be participating in four sessions, either as a presenter or as a chair:

#173 (Thursday, August 5, 4:45 - 6:15 p.m.), "Some SAHD Stories."  This isn't a gay-themed panel!  But I'll be one of a number of presenters, in my capacity as a "Stay At Home Dad"!

#313 (Saturday, August 7, 8:45 - 9:45 a.m.), "Church, Priesthood, and the Gay/Lesbian Journey Toward Spiritual Maturity."  This is the one session where I'll be the primary presenter.

#352 (Saturday, August 7, 2:15 - 3:15 p.m.), "The Epistle of Paul: Homosexual Spirituality and the Redemption of Pleasure."  Paul Toscano is the main presenter at this session; I'll be chairing.

#363 (Saturday, August 7, 3:30 - 4:30 p.m.), "Two Loves: Documenting Gay Mormons' Stories."  Two Loves is a 25-minute documentary film exploring the stories of gay Mormons.  Michelle Ripplinger will be presenting and discussing the film; I'll be chairing the session.

Other sessions addressing the issue of homosexuality and the Church include #225, "Same-Gender Marriage & Religious Freedom: A Call to Quiet Conversations and Public Debates"; #251, "Responses to the Documentary 8: The Mormon Proposition"; #275, "Developments from the Community of Christ 2010 World Conference" (in this session a paper will be presented on the Community of Christ's Section 164, which provides for the full participation of gay and lesbian individuals in the life of the second largest Mormon denomination); #332, "The Gay Mormon Literature Project"; #351, "Mobilizing the Saints: Behind the Scenes Strategies on SSM"; and #371, "Gay and Mormon on the Stage and Screen".

Of course, there will be lots of sessions having nothing to do with same-sex attraction.  I'm particularly interested, as a teacher of American religious history, in some of the history-themed panels, and plan to make as many of those as I can.

If you're planning to attend Sunstone and/or be in the Salt Lake and/or Provo/Springville areas during that time, let me know!  I'll be staying with my brother Joe and his wife in Provo, and commuting to Salt Lake for the Symposium.  I'd love to see if we could plan some kind of Sunstone Mohos and Friends get-together.  (Maybe Scott and Sarah are already organizing/planning to organize one of their meet-ups to coincide with this weekend, which I'm usually never able to attend living here in the Great White Northern antipodes of Mormonism?)

If we can't organize a formal get-together, I hope to see some of you at least informally in the sessions and/or in the hallways of the Salt Lake Sheraton!

Westward ho!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Around the time I was coming out, I went to see a therapist.  This therapist was an Episcopal priest.  My purpose in seeing him was to work through some of the issues I was struggling with in the process of coming out.

One of the spiritual principles we discussed was the impact that secrecy has on our psyches.  He reminded me of scriptures that warn about the fate of those whose "works are in the dark" (Isaiah 29:15).  This was around the time that a number of scandals involving Catholic priests molesting children were coming to public light.  He suggested that the closet fosters abuse.  When individuals have this huge area of their lives involving intense sexual feelings shrouded by guilt, and when they keep those feelings a huge secret, when there's no public accountability, the groundwork is laid for terrible, abusive acts.

We see something of this every time a sex scandal, like that recently involving an anti-gay Lutheran pastor in the Twin Cities, comes to light.  This pastor, who publicly condemned same-sex relationships in the harshest terms imaginable, was himself having gay sex.  He was engaging in acts in presumably anonymous settings.  And -- by his own confession -- was projecting demonic influences on those with whom he was having sex.  So one must assume that these were acts performed with a sense of hatred -- hating himself and also despising the one with whom he was performing these acts.

When my husband and I make love, we do it in a context of trust and commitment that we have sealed publicly.  We gathered our closest family, our friends, and members of our spiritual communities, and we covenanted in a public place -- in a church -- in a spirit of prayer.  We came before God and before all who cared to witness, and we covenanted to be true to each other and to take care of each other.  So when we make love we are able to do so in that context of care, nurture and commitment.  These acts, instead of being a performance of self-hate and hatred of another, can become sacraments.  They can help us help each other to become better, to love more fully as we come to believe ourselves worthy of love.

My purpose in this reflection is not to add further shame or humiliation to that undoubtedly already experienced by Tom Brock, or others in his situation.  In a sense, even if his actions had never been publicly exposed, I would say that what he has done is already its own punishment, far worse than whatever condemnation or shame I could try to add.  It's tragic actually.  Who has been the worst victim of the anti-gay hatred and intolerance he has spewed over the pulpit and over the radio waves?  This moment of revelation -- this proclamation from the housetops what was "spoken in the ear, in closets" (Luke 12:3) -- it only makes me realize that he was his own worst enemy.  His fear, his hate only kept him from finding the kind of love that could lift him up, give his life greater meaning and happiness, while making someone else happy, lifting someone else up, and making someone else feel loved.  Instead, he's relegated himself to works of darkness and self-loathing.

I should be the last one to condemn or to publicly shame, because I know from first-hand experience what it means to be trapped in that place of darkness and fear and self-loathing.

What is striking to me is how context and intention -- matters of the heart -- so utterly determine whether an act is sinful or saintly, whether from that act can flow good or evil.  Physical acts, in themselves (or, I should add, the genders of the partners engaging in them), reveal nothing about whether that act is good or evil.  The context and the context alone can reveal whether an act is a demonic performance of hate or a sacrament of love.

This is a reminder to me as well to keep faith.  Be patient in trial.  Don't let hateful words thundered from pulpits or over radio waves or on the television; don't let political campaigns and pamphleteering conspiracies to take away our rights and our dignity; don't let those kinds of lies persuade us that we are less than anyone else, that we are not deserving of love or happiness or commitment or faith.  Don't buy the lie.  Be true to what we know and to those around us.  Take care of ourselves.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Forgive Us Our Trespasses...

In the winter of 1988, I was contemplating what to do about my sexuality.  I realized I had a choice.  I could attempt marriage with a woman, hoping that this same-sex attraction thing would fix itself.  I could remain celibate, perhaps for the rest of my life.  Or I could seek a relationship with someone I was more likely to be compatible with -- another gay man like myself.  At the time, all of these choices seemed scary to me.  I seriously investigated all of them.  I investigated choice one by dating women I envisioned relationships to be possible with.  I investigated choice number two by spending a summer in a monastery, and by attending a meeting of Eagle's Wings ministry, a Lutheran "Ex-Gay" ministry based in the Twin Cities and communicating with its coordinators.  I investigated choice number three by cultivating friendships with openly gay men, attending on- and off-campus support groups like the University Gay Community, Lutherans Concerned, Integrity and Dignity.  I also explored the gay bar scene.

No path forward seemed easy or ideal.  The women I dated were nice, but ultimately I literally could not imagine marriage with them as a possibility.  The two women in particular that I was closest to were (are!) beautiful women in every sense of the word: physically attractive, compassionate, intelligent, thoughtful, capable and hard-working.  Yet, I recognized at some very fundamental level that it would be wrong to proceed with marriage...  Even after I came out to each of them, and each of them in turn gave signals that they would be willing to try and see if it could be possible to work things out with me!  I realized at some very fundamental level that to proceed on this basis would be very wrong.  They were attracted to me.  I regarded them as friends, I recognized them to be attractive but I was not attracted to them.  And I recognized that in order for a marriage to work, it would ultimately need more than just a desire to be married to someone of the opposite sex.  It would require the kind of mutuality that could not exist between me and either of them.  Maybe that was hubris on my part.  But it was the truth as I recognized it at that time.

I've written elsewhere in greater depth about my experience at the monastery.  I recognized that this would be a viable path for me.  Certainly, it had the advantage of not yoking myself unequally to another human being whose happiness and welfare would depend in large part on my ability to function in a way I knew I was incapable of functioning.  There, it was more a question of my relationship with God and my own sense of calling.  When, however, at the end of a prayerful and careful discernment process, I realized that I had a different kind of calling from God, I left the monastery.

Eagle's Wings ministry also left me cold for a different reason.  At that time in the late 1980s, people were still talking about "change."  I remember talking to participants in the ministry who frankly confessed that nothing about the ministry had "changed" them.  It's taken me years to understand the nature of the political dynamics that shaped what was going on in the so-called ex-gay ministries.  The heterosexual couple running the ministry were decent, kind, compassionate people who sincerely wanted to help.  They were concerned about homophobia in the Church, which they saw as an obstacle to their ministry.  They recognized, at some level, that change was impossible for most of those who would come to them for help.

But most heterosexuals would never accept a requirement of life-long celibacy for themselves.  So for the majority of heterosexuals, the possibility of change of sexual orientation has to exist.  The level of reflection never went much further than, "Oh, we have ministries to help homosexuals change."  That was the easy, thoughtless answer to a very difficult problem, that excused the average resident of the pews from thinking much more deeply about exactly what they were demanding of gay people.  Whether or not those involved in the so-called "ex-gay" ministries could or would claim to change people was beside the point.  But they had to deal with the unrealistic expectations.  To newcomers like me, it seemed like fraud and hypocrisy.  Now I recognize that was probably unfair.  Though the gap between expectations of ordinary church people and what the situation was on the ground certainly pointed to a larger problem, something the ex-gay ministries were either unwilling or unable to cope with.

I also faced obstacles in the potential quest for a same-sex relationship.  At organizations like Dignity and Lutherans Concerned, I met men mostly 10-20 years older than myself; not anybody I felt compatible with or interested in a relationship with.  At the University Gay Community, on the other hand, I met mostly flighty undergrads who didn't seem too interested in me.  The bars were frightening to me.  Eventually I dated a few other grad students, but dating was difficult when still dealing with internalized homophobia, and the kind of emotional immaturity that comes with only dating for the very first time in your mid-twenties (I had never had a chance to be a teenager!).  I was both fascinated and frightened by the whole same-sex dating thing.

Ultimately, however, my decision to go forward in search of a same-sex relationship regardless of my difficulties and fears had to do with a recognition that this was the only course I could pursue with integrity.

I was brought back to this time in my life by the recent outing of a prominent anti-gay Lutheran minister, the Rev. Tom Brock.  I remember seeing Tom Brock at ELCA Minneapolis Area Synod conventions.  Even then, more than twenty years ago or so, I remember getting what I could only call a "gay vibe" from him.  Maybe it was that he had a tendency to wear trousers that were extremely tight and that accentuated certain parts of his anatomy.  I apologize if this sounds gross and trivial, but I wasn't the only one to notice.  Others, including the Lutheran Campus Minister, noticed and commented on it as well.  Pastor Brock would engage in these anti-gay diatribes over the microphone at Synod convention, but then dress in this immodest way.  It sent mixed messages to say the least.

When the ELCA decided last year to allow openly gay or lesbian individuals in committed relationships to be ordained ministers, Rev. Brock took his congregation out of the ELCA, continuing his anti-gay diatribes over the radio.

His recent outing has sparked the same kind of controversy such actions always spark.  The person doing the outing went undercover to the Catholic-Church-sponsored 12-step group "Courage," apparently following up on a lead that the notorious anti-gay Lutheran minister was himself a closeted homosexual.  Brock was indeed attending the meetings.  The reporter publicized a confidential confession made by Brock at a May 28 meeting of having yielded to homosexual temptation while on a church-sponsored trip to Slovakia.  He also publicized Brock's blaming of his failure on a demonic presence in Slovakia that was supposedly caused by the presence of large numbers of gypsies in that country.

Since the expose this reporter has come under scathing public criticism for violating the confidentiality that all those attending Courage implicitly promise as a condition for attending.  This reporter has publicly justified his actions as appropriate in light of Brock's hypocrisy, in light of his public, anti-gay political agenda pursued while engaging in private, same-sex sexual behavior.

Local gay Lutherans -- including prominent leaders of Lutheran gay-affirming ministries in the Twin Cities -- signed a letter protesting what they regarded as unethical behavior on the part of the reporter who exposed or "outed" Rev. Brock.  The letter called for a compassionate response, expressing condolences and stating that Rev. Brock deserves sympathy and help, not condemnation.

This whole affair hit the local gay media while I was on vacation in Scandinavia.  I learned about it only upon reading the torrent of letters to the editor that were published in the latest issue of Lavendar, the magazine in which the original expose was published.

I felt literally sick to my stomach as I read the letters.  I did feel a terrible kind of empathy for Rev. Tom Brock.  I imagined myself in his shoes.  I imagined the kind of fear that might have driven me to make the kinds of choices he has made in his life that have led to this terrible point.  I remembered that when I first came to know this man, I was still at a point in my life where those choices were very vivid to me.  I might have made a set of choices that could have led to a similar place but did not.  I think my sense of nausea came from my awareness of a man literally in the grasp of demons: blaming demons for his predicament, feeling powerless to resist demonic influence, seeing demons in the faces and bodies of fellow (gypsy) human beings.  Building a life around a series of public lies.  Building a life around hatred and fear, and publicly fanning the flames of both.  The demons were haunting him not just in Slovakia.

Things are often not the way they look on the surface.  But sometimes they are.  Twenty years ago, my perception of the Rev. Tom Brock was that he was a closeted gay man, wrestling with his own demons.  I'd forgotten those perceptions till last night when I read that avalanche of letters to the editor, and then felt a deep sadness.  I realize now, my perception those twenty years ago was spot on.  I was right.  And perhaps I ought to feel satisfaction that the truth has finally found its way out.  But I actually, really, truly don't.  I feel terrible for this man.

I remember back to the choice that I made; the choice that he and I faced at roughly the same moment in history.  Because he surely had a choice back then, didn't he?  I love that scene in the first Lord of the Rings movie where the members of the Fellowship of the Ring are lost in the mines of Moria.  They are at a branch in the tunnel, and the sage Gandalf can't remember which path is the right one.  He finally makes his choice, admitting to Merry that he's still not sure of the way, but explaining that "the air doesn't smell so foul here.  If in doubt... always follow your nose."

 In a way, that's what my choices felt like.  I didn't know the way.  I couldn't possibly know.  But I followed that path that seemed a bit lighter, a bit cleaner, a bit more hopeful, a bit more forgiving, a bit more loving.  And they've led me to this incredible place of blessedness, love, family, hope.

I think I saw clearly twenty years ago, I perceived what was going on.  But I confess that I wasn't sure enough to say that I was going on anything more certain than a smell, than an intuition.  So I don't claim to know a lot more now either.  I don't claim to know what more there may or may not be to understand behind the lurid details of this expose.

But as regards Rev. Brock, I'm aware of a warning from the Spirit, reminding me that my forgiveness, my happiness and blessedness are conditioned upon my willingness to forgive others, to love and hope and pray for others, to regard others' misfortune as my own.  To regard, in some sense, my own salvation as dependent on the salvation of others.  So I pray for Rev. Brock's salvation, as for that of us all.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

My Forever Family

Sometimes it is in the moments of our greatest happiness that we must also confront our greatest fears and our greatest pain.

This has been a big summer for my family, full of triumphs.  Our foster son graduated from high school.  More importantly, he was accepted into one of the  most prestigious Universities in our state, and was able to secure sufficient financial aid to guarantee that -- so long as he works hard -- he will be able to complete all four years there, preparing him for the career of his choice.  He's transitioning out of foster care and into independent living, which is a goal all of us have worried about and worked hard for.  In doing so, he's beginning to accomplish all the highest hopes and dreams that every parent has for a child.  We are so proud of him.  We are so excited about what he's accomplished so far, and what he will accomplish going forward.

As a family, we achieved another extremely important goal.  As the culmination of a nine-year-long process of finding Göran's birth certificate, establishing his identity and connecting with his birth family, we were finally able to go on a trip abroad that we have been longing to make almost as long as we have been a couple (over seventeen years)!  Thanks to that little piece of paper -- a birth certificate! -- we are able to defend Göran from arbitrary denial of health care, employment, and travel.  It grants us civil and legal rights that we both need in order to take care of each other.  By traveling abroad, Göran and Glen were able to experience the mind- and soul-expanding possibilities that can only come from experiencing the world from an entirely different cultural perspective.  Also, I was finally able to introduce them to a branch of my family that has been an integral and important part of my life.

This was what was most significant to me about our trip.  I can't even begin to say how important it was to me to connect with my uncles, aunts and cousins, and to revisit places where I learned some of the most important things about myself, and people who helped me learn those things.  I wanted my family over there to meet my husband and our son, to see and know who and what I have become with Göran and Glen.  I wanted to meet the new members of my family over there -- children and spouses of cousins -- and see who and what they have become.  That is why I desperately wanted the language to be able to communicate with them more freely and fully, why one of the most important aspects of our trip was to be able to speak Finnish, to be able to tell about my husband and his struggles, and our son and his progress, and to hear and understand the changes and journeys of my family members over there.  I had to (wanted to!) struggle with a sense of loss too...  The fact that these people who are so important to me have been so distant for twenty-three years!  I never again want them to be so distant for so long.

For me, this was all only the latest chapter in my own journey of personal integration -- bringing all the different, disparate strands of my life, all the things that have remained separate and unreconciled, back together into a harmonious whole.  Body and soul, mind and spirit.  Family is about that, about integration.  Every member of the family is unique, with individual experiences, perspectives, and history.  This is true, regardless of the nature of our relationships.  A father and son share so much in common, and yet can be so different from one another as to be mutually incomprehensible -- to sometimes make war on each other!  A brother and sister can have the same mother and father, and yet look and think and act and feel so differently from one another that they might as well have come from different planets.  So let's not even begin to get into the differences that separate an African-American, Memphis-born man whose family have been in the U.S. for as long as there has been a U.S., and a Finnish-American Utah-born Mormon whose roots in this nation are no longer than five generations and as short as one generation.  And yet, despite that we are each -- all of us, brother, sister, mother, father, lover, spouse, child -- so different as to sometimes seem virtually alien to one another, there is no joy in remaining apart, remaining alien to one another.  Our only joy is in finding unity that binds us through our differences, so that our differences become incorporated into our sense of who we are.  So that our difference makes us stronger, more compassionate, more powerful.

There are times when I feel Göran and I have achieved a unique kind of unity, a bond so intense that when he is pricked, I bleed.  And yet, a couple, no matter how close, is constantly in movement, constantly experiencing growth and change.  Each part of the couple is experiencing his or her own growth and change, separate and unique from his or her partner!  So closeness in a relationship is never something you take for granted.  It is something you always work on, something you always build.  Something that requires constant course-correction, constant listening, constant communication!

So those seemingly innocuous things that we do...  Going for a walk.  Playing a game of monopoly.  Sitting next to each other in church.  Crossing the Atlantic and visiting a different country!  It sounds like fun!  And we have in our culture -- especially in our puritanical American religious cultures -- a tendency to denigrate "fun" as not serious, as unimportant.  But it is in the simplest of moments -- often the times when we are being the least serious -- that we are doing the most important work.  We are creating bonds, connections and a love that forges us together, that turns the chaos of difference into the harmony of family.  So a family summer full of momentous and important and innocuous and seeming unimportant things -- graduations! parties! family reunions! summer vacations! -- it's joyful and fun and Oh So Important.

But there was a moment a few days ago, when all of that seemed to come crashing down.  Why?  Because everything that matters in life is a product of faith.   And faith is invisible.  Faith is like Peter walking on the Sea of Galilee.  What keeps him from sinking into the waves and drowning, even within reach of his Savior?

Family is real, because we believe in it.  Because we proceed in trust that it exists, that it has value, that we can count on it.  And there are a million things out there in the world -- in that big bad world full of grandeur and wonder and excitement and truth and love, but also full of hate and falsehood and ennui and blindness and degradation -- there are so many things out there that will tear us down and undermine us and make us believe that we are unworthy and less than.  There are things out there that might cause us to doubt that the things that really count in life, that really matter are even really real.  The world is hard that way, which is one reason we need families to help take care of us and to take care of.  But even our greatest resource, our families, can support us only through that act of faith which enables us to believe in them, to trust that family is real.

So my son, who has been our son for three years, is facing not one but two or three enormous transitions.  He's starting this whole new chapter of his life where he starts college.  But he's also moving out of the house (into a college dorm).  And those transitions are extremely difficult.  Anyone who's seen a kid go off to college knows how painful that transition is, how you wonder if anything will ever be the same again.  How you wonder if you're actually losing someone.  When of course you are not!  But it can feel like it!  And it feels like it because in those transitions we are reminded that the ties that bind us are built of simple things!  Summer vacations!  Bike rides!  Sharing a meal!  And relationships -- like all the most important, best things in life -- are invisible!  So transitions are scary.

And my son is making, not just this college transition that is made by so many other kids in so many other "normal" families.  He is making a transition that not very many kids make -- out of foster care.  So he wonders.  Once the state-sponsored obligation is over, once there's no longer a file full of documents in some bureaucrat's office saying that we have some kind of formal relationship with each other, does that mean we are no longer family?  Our son was beginning to be afraid.  He was beginning to mourn the potential loss of everything that has come to mean so much to him.  And at our -- at his! -- moment of greatest triumph!

So a few days ago, we had another one of these conversations where he was disconsolate.  Terrified.  He doesn't know if what we have is real or not.

Now I can only think back to that very first moment, when he walked into our house for the very first time, and our hearts melted.  We felt bonded to him almost from the very first time we met.  We knew, by some invisible, interior, but nevertheless incredibly powerful means, that he was part of our family.  And I came to know that we would be a family literally forever.

And so my reassurances to my son become a sort of testimony-bearing.  My telling him what I know and how I know it.  And an admonition to him to have faith, to be faithful, to act in accordance in the world with what you know to be true deep inside, with that invisible place known as the heart.

To be a family and to love is an act of faith.  It is to face the chaos of reality, it is to face difference and very real conflict, and it is to face doubt.  It is to stand up and face everything that tells you you are not a family, you cannot possibly be a family and it is to say, No you are wrong.  Our love is invisible, but it is real.  You may not see us as a family, you may not see a family in us.  But we are.  And you can't prove it to anyone but yourself, ultimately.  It is not real to those who don't share faith with you, who don't keep faith with you.  But that does not ultimately matter, because it only is to those for whom it matters most.

Now, see, this is why in my humble opinion all the fussing and fretting and whining and campaigning by all those good, decent, respectable religious folks against gay marriage and against gay family is indicative of one thing.  And it is not indicative of their faith.  No, this kind of campaign does not come from a place of faith.  Because if my love for my spouse and our love for our son could possibly touch them or take anything away from them, to me that suggests that they never had anything to take away in the first place.  If, after all they have done to deny me my sense of family, they have failed to deprive me of the love and faith and hope that it takes to make a family, how on earth could our mere existence take an iota away from them?  To me this says that they are overcome by the world, that they have already lost faith in the very institution that they claim to value most.  And in their desperate attempt to shore up something they don't actually in their heart of hearts really believe in any more, they are attacking me and my family.  And they are doing so in the worldly realm that they apparently think matters most.  They're trying to make us unreal as a family by legislating us out of existence.

From the moment I came to realize that family is an act of faith, I became free of the anguish such a campaign ought to cause me.  Because I began to realize that precisely because the things that matter most are invisible, precisely because they are a matter of faith, a political, legislative campaign cannot touch me at the innermost, most vital place where I am and move and have being.  Sure, they can make things difficult for us.  They could take things away from us.  But we can only lose that which is most important to us if we let them implant doubt in us.  If we stop believing.  If we let their lack of faith become our own.

It's not that outward things aren't important.  I support and will continue to support legal, same-sex marriage for the same reason I long for harmony within my family.  I will support it for the same reason I learned Finnish and hungered to communicate with relatives living on the other side of the globe.  I will support it for the same reason I support political campaigns to deal with hunger, to educate the disadvantaged, to protect the environment and to promote peace and safety.  I support same-sex marriage because I long for reconciliation of all the differences that make us unique so that we can in some sense be a unity, so that we can in some sense be one.  Not just as individuals in individual families, but as individuals in a single great human family.

I have faith in that too.

Monday, July 12, 2010


I promised to post a few pictures from our vacation in Scandinavia, so here they are...

This is me with my parents at the Helsinki Cathedral, explaining to them my theory about the church's iconography.

Göran and me on the train.  We resorted to train travel in southern Finland, but rented a car the last half of our vacation while visiting family in North Karelia and driving to Lapland.

One of my favorite drinks is piimä, a kind of Finnish buttermilk.

In Stockholm, I found this interesting steeple on the Engelska Kyrkan (English Church).  No, not the Angel Moroni.

The reason we went to Skansen, a big open-air museum in southern Stockholm, was so I could see the summer house of Swedish scientist and visionary Emmanuel Swedenborg.  It was in this simple, one-room cottage he had many of his visions and held many of his interviews with angels.

This is how I attended the royal wedding celebration of Princess Victoria of Sweden.  If you know anything about what it means to be a Finn, you will understand what a magnanimous gesture this was.

I waited for four hours to get this picture of Prince Daniel's hand in front of Princess Victoria's face.

There was a lot of schlocky romantic stuff all over Stockholm, as part of the general wedding festivities.
This photo was taken at midnight, behind the cabin where we were staying in Varislahti, Finland (where some of my mother's family are living).  This is what it looked like from about 11 p.m. until 2 a.m.  Then the sun would rise again.

Here are the menfolk, all watching football.  (This match was England vs. Slovenia.)  In Finland, the men were all watching the World Cup, and the women were all talking about the Swedish royal wedding.  Göran and I were comfortable in both worlds.

Göran and our nephew Christian, who specialized in making goofy faces for the camera.  We called it "the face."

We timed our visits with my cousins, uncles and aunts in eastern Finland with the big midsummer's celebration known in Finland as "Juhannus."  The religious significance of "St. John's Day" has to do with the fact that midsummer comes exactly six months before Christmas, and John the Baptist, the prophet who prepared the way for Christ, was born six months before Christ.  The pancake-like "lettuja" are a special Juhannus food.  On Juhannusaatto or St. John's Eve, Finns light a big bonfire and celebrate late into the night.

It's been twenty-three years since I've had a chance to visit my family in Finland.  Growing up, we would go every two or three years and I would spend the whole summer.  It was very emotional for me to see beloved aunts and uncles and cousins again, and to meet cousins' kids for the first time.  See that big smile on my face?  I'm very happy in this picture.

My cousin Mika is one or two years older than I am.  He was the cousin I probably spent the most time with on those long summer visits.  It was so good to see him again!  (And meet his wife and kids!)

On our drive through Lapland, we had to be careful to watch for reindeer.  They don't seem to pay much attention to cars, and routinely meandered down the middle the road, stopping traffic and attracting photos!

This photo was taken at midnight in Kilpisjärvi, Finland.

I had this brilliant idea that I was going to go for a swim in the Arctic Ocean.  I changed my mind after wading into it and realizing how freezing cold it was.  (I would have done it if there had been a sauna...)

On our way back from Lapland, we stopped in North Karelia again to spend more time with family.  Here I'm holding music for two of my cousins, Pekka and Kari.  They were playing from the top of the old mine tower in Outokumpu, as part of the city's summer music program.

Our last night in Finland, Göran and I went for a walk in a part of Helsinki we hadn't explored yet, and we ran across this advertisement.  I'm not sure how I feel about Helsinki promoting itself as a destination for gay tourists.  Maybe I would feel better about it if Finland would grant equal marriage rights to same-sex couples, like its neighbors Sweden and Norway.

We loved the restaurant Zetor.  The desert we had there -- fried cheese melted in cream and topped with cloudberry jam -- was worth the price of the plane ticket to Helsinki.

So this was the gay bar we checked out.  It seemed to me like there were a lot more lesbians than I usually see in American gay bars.  When Göran and I were dancing, we (or I should say he) had a lesbian cheering section.  This woman who had really had about six too many was kind of hitting on Göran.  She seemed really offended when I interposed myself between them, and took him by the hand and introduced myself as his husband.  (Göran, on the other hand, was really relieved.)

OK, so here's a perfect example of what left me feeling kind of ambivalent about gay pride in Finland.  Why is it advertised in English?  Why call it "Pride" instead of something more logical and native, like "Homo Sisu"?  Maybe it's just me, but it almost makes it seem as if gay pride is put on for the benefit of English-speaking tourists.

This stained glass window in the Tromsø Cathedral (in Northern Norway) sort of perfectly captures some of my theological ruminations during our trip.  Finland was converted to Christianity by Swedish ristiretkeläisiä, by "crusaders" whose main method of persuasion was the sword, and who used Christianity as an arm of the state, to undergird the authority of the Swedish monarchy.  I found it fascinating that this Norwegian Church, instead of portraying a crucified Christ like most other European churches portrays a triumphant Christ at his Second Coming.  At the top of the window, the hand of God is portrayed, with light streaming down to represent God's interventions in human history.  Below the Christ (not visible in this photograph) lies the carnage of human war and genocide, and Adam and Eve, as representatives of humanity, reach upwards to receive Christ again as the restorer of peace and love.  I'm not a fan of the way Christ is physically portrayed here.  He seems too abstract and ghost-like to me in this portrait; I want a Christ who is concrete and physical; I want the reality of the eternal realm breaking into the ephemeral mortal...  But I still like the basic idea behind this image.  If I were an artist designing a church window, it is almost certainly the theme I would choose.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Claiming the Words to Describe Ourselves

On our last night in Finland, my husband Göran and I went on a romantic date. Glen stayed with my mom and dad at their hotel, while Göran and I roamed the streets of Helsinki looking for a nice restaurant. We finally decided on Zetor, with its hearty portions of traditional Finnish fare and over-the-top rural Finnish themed decor. (They use tractors for furniture, stuffed cows and reindeer for decorations, they play tacky Finnicized versions of American and Eastern European pop music, and serve the food in sauna buckets with wooden utensils. Even the restrooms are designed to look like outhouses. Whether you appreciate the off-kilter humor or not, the food is fantastic!)

After dinner we set off in an unfamiliar direction, exploring a section of the city we hadn't seen yet. We found a particularly quaint side street with a variety of small shops and cafes. Young people were still out on the streets, or sitting at tables drinking beer. As we reached the end of the street, we heard the thump and grind rhythm of a popular Madonna hit. The music emanated from a club sporting an over-sized rainbow flag. A buff, shirtless Finn wearing tight khakis was taking down the outdoor chairs and tables, while a beefy-looking bouncer collected a 5-Euro cover charge and stamped the hands of entering patrons. We realized we had found a Finnish gay bar.

We hesitated for a moment. I was trying to decide if I really wanted to go into a bar, and Göran was trying to decide if he was ready to interact socially in a language definitely not his own. Ultimately, our curiosity overruled our caution and we forked over the ten Euros, got each of our hands stamped with a purple flower, and meandered in.

The experience of walking into a Finnish gay bar -- or at least this Finnish gay bar -- seemed culturally analogous to walking into a Finnish Mormon Church. (My parents and I did attend the local LDS ward in Joensuu, Finland together!) The language and the inhabitants were Finnish, but you felt like you had discovered an outpost of American civilization, with all the norms and points of orientation identical to what you find in the American counterpart.

Perhaps a more Zetor-like Finnish gay bar would have folks sitting on wooden benches, trading fishing stories and slugging back vodka, and would be equipped with a sauna. And maybe it would feel less... superficial? Here, the same designer drinks were served to the same cast of characters occupying the same decor. Here, you found the same cliques and the same social politics. There were the plaid and leather and lipstick lesbians. There were the gesticulating gay boys in tight blue jeans and ethereal, fay shirts. There was the tight-lipped muscle shirt crowd, wearing an expression that said Don't Even Think of Talking to Me Unless You're as Attractive as I Am. There were the bears. (In this bar, four burly looking guys were actually wearing little teddy-bear hats with ears. It was adorable.) There was the usual peppering of drag queens and overweight, straight women friends of gay men (popularly referred to in the American parlance as "fag hags"). And then there were the misfits and outcasts. The solitary, young, slightly homely, slightly awkward guy who danced with no rhythm and who hadn't figured out yet that no one hot was going to approach him. There were the old, flabby desperate-looking men on the prowl for someone less old, less flabby, and less desperate-looking than them.

Almost everybody (except me and Göran) was getting inebriated to varying degrees. A sign at the entrance announced that tonight was the "Madonna Juhla" (Madonna Party). We had missed the "Foam Party" earlier in the week. (Darn.) Around the dance floor, you could observe the odd, familiar dance/mating rituals whose end goal was to get laid tonight. But that obviously wasn't the only form of social interaction. In the antipodes of the bar, you found other, more sensible folks gathered in groups of four to six, chatting, joking, having fun. And then there were the folks like me and Göran -- the handful of same-sex couples who had arrived so they could enjoy each other's company on a date surrounded by an explicitly gay ambiance.

There was a bold sign in the window of the bar that posed the question: "Sinäkin olet homo?" ("You're gay?") followed by the declaration, "No, me olemme myöskin" ("Well, we are too.") I found that sign comforting. That, I thought, was exactly why places like this needed to exist -- whatever their flaws and foibles. But as I read the smaller print further down in the poster, I discovered that it was nothing more than an advertisement for a cell-phone plan. Using "gay pride" to sell stuff. Sigh.

I had hoped it might be fun to see what a Finnish gay bar was like, but we both left feeling irritated and sullen. Göran had wanted to dance, but I had pooped out early, largely because I couldn't seem to get past my anxieties about once being that solitary, awkward, slightly homely guy with no rhythm. I had so wanted a Finnish gay bar to be different. I wanted to find out that in a foreign country it was possible to be gay in a different way than being gay in America. Instead I left with the disquieting feeling that Stonewall's legacy had been co-opted by American capitalism, packaged, mass-produced, and mass-marketed to the world literally as a kind of booze-infused tonic. And so even on the edges of Siberia and Lapland, was that really the only mode of gayness you could find? Was the only authentically Finnish alternative The Closet?

I particularly despised that word in the window: "Homo." How could I use that word to describe myself with pride? It wasn't even a Finnish word. I wanted Finnish gay men and lesbians to have a word that resonated with their unique language and culture, that told their Finnish family and friends what it meant to be different, to love differently and yet the same, in an idiom that could facilitate openness and understanding. But all they had was this bastardized foreign, Greco-Latin medical term, coined by some Hungarian doctor in the nineteenth century.

Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the problem of words, of language, is at the heart of the gay dilemma everywhere, not just in Finland but in America too. And finding -- or creating -- the right words a key to our salvation -- both figuratively and literally.

I considered how even in America, that supposed bastion of gay pride, we wrestle with words. The "gay" community perhaps more than any other community. Are we gay? Are we queer? Are we homosexual? Are we same-sex attracted? Are we lesbian? How do we fit bi and transgender into the mix? I realized that one of the first things any person who is "same-sex attracted" must wrestle with is finding the right word to describe themselves to family and friends. How many coming out stories have we heard where one of the first observations was "I had heard the word 'gay' or 'homosexual,' but I just couldn't apply it to myself."

A central problem has always been to wrest words from a culture that despises and denigrates us, and stake our own claims to those words, attach new meanings to those words. That's what gay pride is all about. Standing up and saying, "OK, this is who I am. I am gay. I am queer. I am a fag. I am a homo. That's what you call me. And you think that is a bad thing, but I am not bad. I am good, and my love is good. So call me what you want. I am what I am, and I have a right to love and a right to happiness. And I will fight for them." It takes courage to claim our own space, stand on our own ground, to make words our own and in the process transform the meanings of words into something that is workable for us and that connects to the people we are trying to connect with: our family, our friends, our co-workers, our churches.

I think in some sense I had come to this Finnish gay bar wanting an easy way forward. I had hoped that in Finland I wouldn't have to work as hard as I've had to work in America to create safe spaces and meaningful language. But I should have known from studying the Finnish language that language is always difficult. We always wrestle to transform rules of grammar and vocabularies into something that works for us. So I just have to give up on the idea that this will ever be easy. But I may hold on to the hope that it will be rewarding.

I still want Finns to find their own way to be gay. Maybe they will. Maybe they already have, and I just haven't found it yet. But even if the only way to be gay in Finland right now is to buy rainbow-colored cellphone plans and get drunk at Madonna Parties, I have to trust that eventually they will find their own way forward. Maybe they'll do what I did one day: wake up from the previous night's hangover and realize that there's more to life than this. But if we want to find it, we have to get out there and work for it.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Back in the Land of Midnight Dark (and Showers)

The most palpable reminder that we are not in Finland any more is that it was dark out when we left the airport in Minneapolis last night, around 9:30 p.m. For the last month, we simply haven't experienced night-time darkness. Even when we were in central Sweden and southern and eastern Finland, it simply never stopped being light out. The closest we ever got was a dark blue sky with sunset colors splashed all over the southern horizon. Even the few cloudy days we experienced never got darker than a steely gray. We spent a week north of Arctic Circle, driving through Lapland and up to Tromsø, "the Paris of the North." Two nights there I took the opportunity to stay up with my family until two or three A.M., just so we could watch the sun reach its lowest point a few degrees above the horizon before starting its ascent again. The quality of light then is strange and magical. Something you just don't experience anywhere else. I took some really cool pictures.

I thought about posting a couple of times while we were on vacation. I might have succumbed to the temptation, had it not been for the fact that during the last two weeks of our trip visiting my relatives in North Karelia and driving to and from the Arctic Ocean we had virtually no Internet access. Somehow we survived.

But in the end, I realized it was a good thing to have our time away be an intensely personal time. I had a lot of time to think and reflect and even write. The high point of our time there was the time spent in Varislahti visiting my uncles, aunts and cousins. As a kid and youth I spent six summers (and one winter) in Finland, hanging out with them. They've all known me well since I was about 4 years old, so I have many close relationships there, and it was painful to be away from them for over 23 years -- for much of that time because of my husband's goofy passport problem. From the moment we stepped off the plane in Helsinki I wanted to be there, with them. I just wanted to scrap all our travel plans, and get on the next train to Joensuu.

But I didn't. We stuck with our original plan of first spending a few days in southern Finland, and then Stockholm, Sweden, where Göran has always wanted to go. I put that time to good use by writing -- first in English and then in Finnish -- an account of my life from the last time I saw my relatives until this visit. I had to wrestle with the problem of how to tell my relatives what it has meant to come to terms with being gay, and how to describe the spiritual aspects of it as well, knowing that they might have no context at all for understanding it. There isn't even a word in the Finnish language that I like -- not one that can be used in polite company anyway -- to say "gay." The closest word is homo or homoseksuaalinen, which I despise and makes no sense to me. I struggled a lot to put my thoughts and feelings to words. I finally put the finishing touches on it as the Helsinki-Joensuu train was pulling into the station.

Of course I never actually told that story to any of my relatives -- not all in one piece any way. There were stitches of it that came out in various different conversations. It was a good exercise because it gave me vocabulary to tell my relatives about all the significant events in my life -- including finishing grad school, buying a house, and our recent experience as foster parents -- the same kinds of life events everyone tells long lost loved ones about. Mostly my family came to appreciate what I've gone through in the last twenty years or so non-verbally, by seeing me with my family and by interacting with Göran and Glen -- sometimes with the assistance of my linguistic and interpretive skills and sometimes without.

Mostly it was a good exercise because I needed to reflect anew on my life and its meanings, from the perspective of Finnish relatives who love me very much, but who never fully understood a lot about America, or about the life choices my mother made to convert to Mormonism and move to America -- choices that brought me into being.

I'm glad to be back in the US of A, even though I will very much miss the Finnish food (and chocolate!); and the smell of lakes and forest, and of wood burning in the sauna stove; and of bathing with steam and lake water instead of under a shower. The next time we go back it won't take nearly 23 years again. Likely only one or two.