Thursday, September 19, 2013

Education: Our Best Defense Against Ignorance

A version of this piece also appears on Huffington Post Gay voices

Please put your hands together and give a warm welcome to the founder of conservative group Mission America and all around good Christian, Linda Harvey.

Why are we in such a place, friends, where children learn homosexual behavior is noble? That amputating healthy body parts is admirable but the mention of Jesus Christ during a graduation ceremony is controversial? I'll tell you how. It's because not enough of us are calling this lunacy what it is. We need to have a clear idea about what is evil and speak up about it in order to preserve the good. And these actions are pure evil and should be declared child abuse.

The above words, used to speak out again the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), stunned me into silence that quickly turned into an angry outburst. No applause for you, Linda Harvey.

Why shouldn't schools include gay-inclusive education, e.g. the Stonewall riots, Harvey Milk? In History class children are educated about war, slavery, the civil rights movement, Nazis, the Holocaust. I'm purposefully pointing out darker moments in history because I feel people like Linda Harvey, who are so against homosexuality, equate us gay people on par with these moments. Why shouldn't a child learn of gay-related issues in school? If knowledge is power, doesn't it take some of the stigma away from homosexuality if children are taught of its existence instead of it being a dirty little secret that is only spoken about in hushed voices like cancer being discussed around the dinner table?

I would have benefited from such a learning environment. Instead I was taught about homosexuality and its "sinful" place in our society by preachers who condemned me to Hell before I even fully understood what I was feeling. Imagine growing up without that fear. Imagine learning in an environment where questions can be asked and a dialogue can be started. I had no one to speak to about what I was feeling.

For those who are convinced that homosexuals are out to recruit children or that children who learn about homosexuality might want to become one of us I say this. I was not recruited. Homosexuality was not promoted to me. On the flip side I'll add, I did not want to become a straight man no matter how much I was taught about human sexuality and reproduction in health class. I grew up around only heterosexual relationships, and I didn't decide one day to be straight. We are who we are and understanding who we are is only going to benefit us not harm us. I so often hear that gay people have an agenda. I think those against gay people have more of an agenda than anyone. Gay people want to be heard and accepted. Those against us want to persecute us and would be happiest if we went back into the closet and left them to live in ignorant bliss in their rose-colored glasses world.

Don't try to convince me that children need protecting from the knowledge that LGBTQ people exist. Some children are scared and trying to understand what they're feeling. I would know. Others are cruel and laugh in the face of those they see as different. I would know that, too. I myself was bullied by a school mate who later in life reached out to me to tell me that he too was gay and so afraid of his feelings that he joined others in name-calling me as a defensive tactic. Interesting. Maybe with the help of forward thinking teachers, like those involved with GLSEN, other children and teens can avoid such situations because they will learn what they're feeling is nothing to be ashamed of. Those not in the position to struggle with the fear of their own feelings have no right to condemn an education practice that will help explain them. All of us want to be understood and accepted.

Below is the mission statement of GLSEN:

The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network strives to assure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. 
We believe that such an atmosphere engenders a positive sense of self, which is the basis of educational achievement and personal growth. Since homophobia and heterosexism undermine a healthy school climate, we work to educate teachers, students and the public at large about the damaging effects these forces have on youth and adults alike. We recognize that forces such as racism and sexism have similarly adverse impacts on communities and we support schools in seeking to redress all such inequities. 
GLSEN seeks to develop school climates where difference is valued for the positive contribution it makes in creating a more vibrant and diverse community. We welcome any and all individuals as members, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity/expression or occupation, who are committed to seeing this philosophy realized in K-12 schools.

Where's the evil? How is the above mission statement anything but a wonderful commitment to safety, education, and respect for all students?

Often times I believe we are against something because we don't understand it. It doesn't make sense to us. Let me take a moment and say that I recognize how I react when I don't understand something. I lash out and get angry. I feel foolish and embarrassed. I don't want to admit that I don't know the answer, how to solve the problem. Now go with me here, but I'm wondering if people who don't understand homosexuality, people who think it's just dirty sex and perversion, are afraid to admit they don't understand and are lashing out as a way to cover their lack of knowledge.

Maybe some of these people truly feel that they're right and that homosexuality is wrong, but maybe some are just digging in their heels, fighting every step of the way, at learning something new. I don't have the answer, but I know that when I accept that I don't understand something and acknowledge that my reaction is because of that lack of understanding, I feel a lot better about the situation and become much more open to learning. It's much easier to learn something new than to pretend you know everything.

I'm so proud to live in America where we have the freedom to even debate this topic. I'm proud to be a gay American and to witness all the progress gay people have made even in the 20 years since I came out of the closet. There's still a long way to go, but educating people is a step in the right direction. The time for hiding is over. Now is the time to teach. Now is the time to listen. Now is the time to learn. Now is the time for understanding. Now is the time to change your point of view. Now is the time to once again integrate and accept.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Fear-of-Living Asylum

Photo Credit: Pam Hawkins
September 1, 2013. Sunday afternoon.

It's been a very long time since my spirit has been this low. I have no drive, no motivation. My home hasn't quite become a prison, but it's no longer a sanctuary used for recharging life’s batteries. It's become more of a hideout--the only place I feel completely safe and free. Freedom while hiding out? What kind of freedom is that? Freedom is living without confinement. I’m living in self-imposed confinement as if I’ve checked myself into the Fear-of-Living Asylum. There is no human contact. There's loneliness. That kind of “freedom” is more paralyzing than freeing.  

Do you ever find yourself excited at the prospect of hanging out with friends? Then as the rendezvous time approaches you wish only to be at home--alone? So you make an excuse and go home. Then an hour later (if you even make it an hour) you're filled with regret for not hanging out? You wanted to, but something inside of you just couldn’t? Desire and Reluctance battle it out inside of me, the Big Money prize almost always given to Reluctance. I hide. I need to be around people; I need human contact; I need to nourish my soul, but I feel that my mood and energy is so negative that subjecting another person to it would be worse than sitting home alone. Okay, I can hear the thoughts going through your head right now. You're thinking that my mood might actually lift if I was hanging out with my friends and to that I respond, “You're probably right.” I just can't seem to see that through the murk because I'm living too deeply in my head. Is slight depression at play here?

I'm reminded of a time in my adolescence. I used to love to play in the closet (insert gay joke here). My bedroom was the first door on the right as you walked down the hallway in the house where I grew up. It had wall-to-wall rust-colored carpet that extended into the closet. Not that you could see it for all the bags of clothes and junk. I can picture it clearly in my mind even now. That shallow closet was a good hiding place--for things and for me. It was a place to be alone. I used to part the hanging clothes down the center and push them to either end of the rod so that the string from the overhead light was exposed, hanging down, easily accessible should I want to pull it and plunge myself into darkness. I would sit inside that confined space on a black garbage bag filled with outgrown clothes. It was like it was a beanbag. I was separate and alone, while the goings on inside the rest of the house continued without me. Concealed, hidden, shut away from view behind that door I felt safe. I paid no attention to the idea that someone might be just outside the door listening--a trait that didn't carry into my adulthood. Now I’m constantly concerned about who can hear what.

My apartment is like a larger version of that closet. I’m surrounded; enclosed. I feel safe from the world behind its closed doors. I feel untouchable. I feel like anything is possible for me. I’m on my turf. I reign supreme. It's a place where I dream of what I want, but I never fully set those dreams into motion. Once I cross the threshold into the outside world, the concrete walls that house my home are replaced by imaginary walls that I allow to quench the flames of my desires. Inside my false-sense-of-happy self-confinement, I use my keyboard to write about my life, but I’m not breathing in the life that I want to be living, should be living.

Later that evening I was watching the film Les Misérables. I hadn’t seen it since opening day at the Ziegfeld Theatre here in New York. Sitting in the back of that movie theatre alone my tears were hidden by the darkness as I began to cry like I knew I would. The score, at times, sweeps me away. There are moments when I do get bored with the story, but its themes of redemption, love, and forgiveness always suck me back in. I admit that sometimes all I need to hear is a chord or musical motif and I start to cry. 

On this night, alone in my living room, my spirit particularly low, there was more behind the tears that flowed from my eyes than the storyline or musical themes evoked. I needed to cry. We’ve all been in that place where a good cry is all we need in order to feel better. We open those flood gates and let the tears pour out and then the weight in our chest begins to lift and life doesn’t seem so bad. With this particular cry, I was heaving. I was crying aloud; moaning. I remember pulling the dishtowel that was in my lap to my mouth to muffle the sounds. The tears were dripping from my cheeks and chin. My body shook. I turned to look at a recently purchased photograph hanging on my wall and its words “Help me” connected with my eyes, filtered through my brain, and came out of my mouth. I sat in my chair, heaving and moaning, crying out “Help me” to no one in particular and to the Universe as a whole. 

I did feel better after releasing that deluge of tears, but I was still heavyhearted. Part of my self-confinement stems from the dredging up of feelings and stories that I’ve been experiencing for almost a year in therapy. Most recently said dredging seems to have me constantly aware of how I’m feeling and trying to figure out what’s causing the feelings. I am living in an awareness that for most of my life I’ve tried to ignore. Well, I can’t ignore it anymore. 

I’m living in fear of being me. I admit it. I’m afraid to make mistakes. I’m afraid to not be perfect. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m always looking for the punishment. I’m a pessimist. It’s never “I’ve got four days of vacation left,” it’s, “I’ve only got four days of vacation left.” I desire to change this. I am getting help to achieve this desire. I don’t want my life to be hidden behind walls. I want my life to be lived in the open.

I realize that I’m isolating myself. I’m searching for answers. I’m trying to find courage instead of just having courage. When people used to say to me, “I’ll try.” I used to always respond with, “Don’t try. Do it or don’t.” I need to start practicing what I used to preach. I need to face my fears. I need to face myself. I need to accept that I’m not perfect, and that I make mistakes. I need to admit those mistakes and learn from them. That scares the shit out of me. I never dreamed I would become a person so scared of success, failure, living. I need to sign myself out of the Fear-of-Living Asylum and step into the world where the word “hide” is merely a word followed by the words “and seek” and nothing more. 

“Seek and you will find.” Hide and you will wither away. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Potato Salad at the Memorial Service

If ever there was a day that I believed angels watch over me, and the universe is full of tiny moments--gifts--that I don’t always see, today was that day.

As many of you know I have been tweeting, status updating, and all around bemoaning the fact that CBS and Time Warner Cable have been in a financial dispute over rebroadcasting fees. That dispute led to the blackout of CBS and Showtime in the New York City area on August 2, 2013. As of Monday, September 2nd at 6pm that blackout ended, returning to me my much missed Dexter, but also returning to me The Young and the Restless.

Many of you know from reading my previous blog post "My Grandmother and Katherine Chancellor: Restless No More" that my grandmother watched Y&R from its beginning scene until her final day, November 15, 2004. Well, she didn’t actually watch it that day as she passed early in the morning, and if I’m honest she was in so much pain that the drugs administered to numb that pain kept her in and out of consciousness for the days leading up to the end. I don’t know what her final scene was, but you get the idea. She was more than a fan, she was a life long viewer. Since her death I have felt a connection to her through the presence of Katherine Chancellor, the Grande Dame of Genoa City, played for nearly 40 years by the enjoyably watchable Jeanne Cooper. When Jeanne passed away on May 8, 2013 Katherine too passed away. Not on that date of course, but when the same actor embodies a character for so long--bringing with her a nuanced sense of timing and style, wisdom and inspiration, strength and loyalty--even the thought of recasting the role is sacrilege. Thankfully the powers that be at The Young and the Restless knew this to be true. Their only option was to write the death of the beloved character.

That brings me back to the CBS blackout. As it happened, CBS and Time Warner Cable reached a deal just in time for Katherine Chancellor’s memorial service. It aired over the two day period of September 3-4. I watched both episodes on September 4th. To say that I cried is completely unnecessary. Of course I did. This fictional character that was a link to my grandmother was being memorialized. I thought of my grandmother, nine years in the ground, and how her grace and beauty, her voice and her style are now just memories--moments I recall in my mind, photographs where I can see her smile, video from Christmas morning where I can see her move and hear her voice.

I paused the episode and went to my kitchen for a glass of water. I was hungry so I decided to see if there was anything to eat in my refrigerator. Finding something edible inside was a surprise. Normally, it’s empty, but today there was a container of leftovers from my dinner on Sunday night--a container of potato salad. I grabbed it and went back to my sofa and the memorial service.

I was watching classic scenes of Y&R’s longest running super couple, those of Katherine and her frenemy, Jill, when I looked down, almost absentmindedly, ready to fork another piece of potato into my mouth, and realized I was eating potato salad. POTATO SALAD of all things!! I hadn't even recognized what I was doing when I got that small container out of the refrigerator. I mean I knew it was potato salad. I even said out loud (with some excitement because I’d forgotten it was there), “I can eat the potato salad,” but it hadn’t really sunk in what I was eating. You see, my grandmother made the best potato salad I’ve ever eaten. Everyone in the family ate it up...literally. It was the one thing we knew she would make for every family gathering. It was expected. You might say it was her signature dish. No one can really replicate it, try as we might. I was mid bite when I grasped I was eating potato salad while watching the memorial service for the character that linked me to my grandmother. It was in that moment I noticed her senior year picture was smiling at me from its shelf just to the right of the television. I lost all composure. I became a wet, sloppy mess. 

I had ordered that potato salad by accident on Sunday night. The unconscious moment in which I had chosen to eat it was so fitting. I don’t know if it was a bite with a particular taste or texture, but when it dawned on me, I sat the container down and wept. She was here with me. Her picture was smiling at me. You might say that I had one more moment of watching The Young and the Restless with my grandmother. 

I miss her. I don’t dwell on it, but there are random moments where I wish I could talk to her. Today, I called my mom and told her what had happened. I’m a sentimental fool and this moment was so poignant to me that many of the tears I shed along with those onscreen crying over Katherine were tears I was again shedding for my grandmother. 

Many things in this world remind me of her, but good potato salad and The Young and the Restless take me back to her house like nothing else. I love you, Gran. Thank you for the small moment we shared today. I’m so thankful my eyes were open.