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.


Pablo said...

Beautiful post. Simply beautiful. What a wonderful way to start off the week.

Brant Clements said...


I have linked to this post, and the subsequent one, in my own blog. I appreciate your honesty in recounting your own experiences and, especially, your compassion in dealing with Tom Brock.

God bless,