Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"Baa, Baa, Black Sheep Have You Any Wool?" No, but I Have Some Shame

This piece also appears on HuffPost Gay Voices

You know the phrase, "Hit me like a ton of bricks?” Well, that proverbial ton of bricks fell on me recently. It happened over lunch with my best friend. I was talking to him about my latest mixed bag of thoughts on religion, family, and homosexuality when he posed this question: Do you think if your parents don't feel disappointed about you being gay then you lose your power?

I was confused. "My power?" I asked.

He explained “power” as my ability to stand out, that something they talk about, the thing that makes me special. Then he compared it to being the black sheep of the family. Ah yes, the black sheep. That family member considered wayward; a disappointment. The black sheep is the one constantly doing something that warrants those secret conversations held in gossipy, hushed voices. Disappointment in him is punctuated by deep sighs and head shakes. Said black sheep probably didn’t set out to play his role, but it’s the reason he stands out in the familial crowd. 

You know, I think I've been thinking of myself as my family’s black sheep for a long time. I’m not the alcoholic, the drug addict, the loner, the one unable to hold down a job, or the one who frightens people with his temper tantrums. I'm the gay one. At some point I decided being gay is my claim to fame in my family, and that my “fame” is cause for disappointment. I have so convinced myself that my parents are disappointed in me for being gay that I keep pushing them to confirm my suspicions. I seem unable to accept that they've told me they aren't disappointed in me or ashamed of me. You know what I think that might mean? I'm disappointed in me, and I'm trying to project that onto them. There’s that damn ton of bricks again.

So here's the kicker. All the delving into and questioning of my black sheep syndrome led me to realize I have shame about being gay. What?! Who am I? Where is the proud gay man I thought I was? The instances of low self-worth, low self-esteem and self-disappointment are products of shame. My shame. I've been so busy trying to place the blame on others for these feelings that I failed to see the person most responsible for them is me. 

In her book Daring Greatly, author BrenĂ© Brown talks in depth about shame. I’m now beginning to understand that my feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, and disappointment are products of my shame. I often think I’m not good enough. Well, that’s all on me. While reading Brown’s words I was reminded of that scary moment when I picked up the phone to call and come out to my dad, that moment when the number was dialed, but he had yet to answer. I knew I had to do it. I was ready to do it. Realizing I have to deal with my own shame is the same. It’s scary, but I have to do it. I’m ready to do it. I’ve started the process. It’s unsettling, but the outcome can only be better than the current situation.

It has become clear to me that for many years I’ve defined myself as gay. Defined myself. As if being gay is all there is to me. Believe me, I experienced the head shake and eye roll you might be experiencing right now when the disbelief at my own self-imposed limitations began to sink in. I’m more than just a gay man and being gay doesn't make me the black sheep or even a black sheep. I'm neither more odd nor disreputable than any other member of my family. I'm not wayward or a deviant. Being gay is just one facet to the multi-faceted person I am. How in the world did I allow myself to believe that being gay is the most important thing about me? Why did I ever start entertaining the idea that I’m my family’s black sheep? 

I am a man who had the courage to come out to his family and friends. I am a man who left what would have been a suffocating small town life to follow his dreams and move to New York City. I am a man who finally understands that it’s okay to ask for help and am seeking that help. I am a man who is discovering what his life can be. I am a man who now questions instead of just accepts. I am a singer, a storyteller, a red wine enthusiast, a lover of television, and sometimes I cut my own hair (don’t tell Truvy). These are just a few facets that contribute to the whole me.

I am the writer of my story, and I’ve been writing myself a shitty role. Beginning to acknowledge how shame feeds my feelings of disappointment and black sheepness has been interesting. I’ve been looking for someone to blame and using my being gay as a catalyst for my feelings of unworthiness in belonging on the branches of my family tree. I’m important to my family for many reasons the first of which is they love me. My being gay might get a few sentences from them here and there, but it’s not what makes me me. That is not my “power.” I realize I have to change the way I see myself and know that I’m more than the limitations I keep putting on me.

No parent or friend or therapist or book is going to be able to make that change. It can only be me. The aforementioned can be supportive and provide helpful tools, but ultimately I have to climb out of my shame box and face its by-products. I have to stop thinking of myself as the black sheep and find pride in the man who continues to examine his life in order to become a better person. A person who just happens to be gay. Now to secure that ton of bricks.

Friday, November 8, 2013

ENDA Is a Necessity Because Discrimination Is not an Option

It’s been nearly 20 years since I first saw the film Philadelphia. It was the winter of 1994 after returning to college from Christmas break. I saw it with my best friend. I remember it so clearly. It’s indelibly burned into my mind and my heart. We two sat in our seats as the theater began to empty, unable to move, tears flowing in steady streams from our swollen eyes. One of our classmates had been a few rows behind us. She approached and asked if we were ok. Her gesture of kindness has always stayed with me as well as that moment of sitting in the harsh lighted ugliness of that litter strewn theater with my best friend digesting what we had just witnessed.

We were newly out gay men. I had come out in the summer of 1993 so it hadn’t been quite a year since I’d been honest with myself and my friends about my sexual orientation. I was 22 and my college graduation was mere months away, my life loomed large in front of me. Anything was possible, and I wanted to take a bite out of it all. Being discriminated against wasn’t a thought in my mind. And AIDS? Well, AIDS scared the shit out of me. It still does even though I am very aware of how the disease is spread, the advances in AIDS research, and the drugs that exist due to that research. It’s no longer the death sentence it still was even in 1993 at the time of Philadelphia’s release.

That film had such a profound, emotional effect on me—the blatant discrimination, the fear of AIDS—that I couldn’t bear to watch it again. I’ve owned it on DVD for many years, a piece of cinematic history that was important and necessary. I needed to have it in my DVD library. As a gay man I had to have it in my library. But, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it again. Until now. A random afternoon, that maybe wasn’t so random, I removed that DVD from its place on the shelf. The faces of Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington stared back at me. I knew what I was getting myself into as I dusted off the top before opening the case.

Discrimination. It’s an ugly word. It’s defined by Random House Dictionary as the “treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit.”

Here we are in 2013 hoping the people who vote bills into laws in this country will vote to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). (Oddly enough, ENDA was first introduced in Congress in1994). It’s been nearly 20 years since “Andrew Beckett,” the character played by Tom Hanks in the aforementioned film, sued the law firm where he had been the “golden boy” for the discriminatory action of wrongful termination. He believed the partners learned he had AIDS then fabricated a story of his incompetence in order to fire him. Fear at its best.

It’s a head scratcher that there is even a need for ENDA today. If I’m good at my job, how does my sexual orientation affect anyone? “Charles Wheeler,” the head of the discriminating firm in the film Philadelphia is played to perfection by Jason Robards. He is the bulldog face of all the disgust and fear that is associated with homosexuality and, in this film, AIDS. I couldn’t help but see similarities between this character and current Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boenher. 

Boehner is a Republican Representative that most recently, for me, was the face of our government shut down. Now he’s the man who would block ENDA. Why are you standing in the way, Mr. Boehner? Why is it so important for you to block a law that would protect people from discrimination? I mean it is illegal to discriminate against a person due to race, color, nationality, gender, and religious beliefs—to name a few protections. And as for religious beliefs, why is it that part of the stall of this bill has to do with exemptions being given to religious organizations? If an employer can cite religious beliefs as a reason for discriminating against LGBTQ employees then doesn’t it make sense that those opposed to homosexuality will use religion to discriminate, whether they practice it or not? I’m just asking. I mean, isn’t ENDA a civil rights issue, a human rights issue? Why are we giving in to the demands of religious organizations at the expense of anyone's rights?

The partners in the law firm that wrongfully terminated Andrew Beckett are, to me, stodgy old men with antiquated ideals. They perfectly embody the stodgy old men with antiquated ideals who want to stand in the way of progress in this county. They represent, to me, many of the Congressmen who have to vote this legislation into law. That scares me. What does sexual orientation matter if an employee is a good employee? No one should live in fear of losing his job simply because of who he is attracted to. Sexual orientation should have nothing to do with a person’s employability. ENDA should be a moot point. However, it’s seems to be a necessity. Sad, but true.

In the opening credits of Philadelphia there are many striking images, but none as poignant as the Liberty Bell. That iconic symbol of American history represents freedom. Liberty means “freedom from tyrannical government.” Those who oppose ENDA are tyrants. They refuse to see the LGBTQ community as people deserving of protection. They seem willing to sacrifice those they see as weaker and less than. They’re as prejudiced, bigoted, and fearful as the partners in the fictional law firm in Philadelphia who found any way they could to get rid of their golden boy.

I’m thankful to work in an industry that accepts me and my sexual orientation. I don’t fear that I will be fired for being gay, but my heart aches and my blood pressure soars when I think of the gay men and women who do have to live in fear. Don’t we all deserve the freedom to be ourselves? No employer should have the right to fire an employee just for being gay. It’s un-American. And to all the Bible beaters against ENDA I say to you: Discrimination is not very Christian.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Being My Own Man: Discovering What I Learned From My Father

This piece also appears on HuffPost Gay Voices

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a man. I mean, I've got a penis so biologically I’m a man, but what does it mean to be a man? My dad says a man knows he's a man by how he feels within himself. I don't feel particularly manly. I feel much more in tune with my feminine side than my masculine.

I grew up in a small southern town somewhere near the intersection of stop sign and caution light. It's a place I jokingly refer to as “Podunk” or “Population 600.” It’s a beautiful place. Country roads lined by fields of corn or soy beans. Homes with big front yards. The churches are many and the restaurants few. My male role models in this Shangri-la-of-the-Country were church-going, outdoorsy types that I had nothing in common with. They’re hunters and fishermen; blue-color workmen. In my family, the men mark the seasons, not by longer days or the changing of colors, but by what animal it’s legal to hunt. They almost all enjoy the solitary peace of casting a line out into the water and waiting for a fish to bite. Most of them can fix a carburetor and many even do their own home repairs. These are the ideals of what it meant to be a man as I saw it, growing up in my small town under the tutelage of a dad who enjoys and can do all of the above.

There are some boys as young as 7- or 8-years old that you can already tell are all boy. I was not one of them. There was nothing masculine about me. I did not enjoy hunting of any kind. I didn’t like shooting a gun. I couldn’t shoot the arrow straight from the bow. As for fishing, the endless hours of sitting in a boat on the glassy waters of some lake hoping and waiting for a fish to take the bait, well let’s just say that bored me to tears. Of course none of that stopped my dad from taking me on a few of his hunting/fishing excursions. He wanted to teach me. He wanted me to enjoy what he enjoyed. I hated it. We found no common ground. I can’t begin to imagine his frustration when he began to realize he might be raising a gay son.

Moving on to sports. Well, that was a no go too. I didn’t like playing sports, and I didn’t like watching sports. I played basketball in junior high (because my dad wanted me to), which translated to me warming the bench, keeping my uniform neat and clean. I watched as my older cousins ran up and down the basketball court, scoring points. I watched as everyone cheered for them and patted their backs. I was not one of them. Full confession, I would have been happier being a cheerleader, cheering their victory, than to be sitting on the bench hoping I never had to be put into the game.

I was the boy who would much rather be inside the air conditioned house in the summer. Given the choice between playing outside or watching television I would always choose the latter, especially if it meant watching Santa Barbara or Another World. I didn’t want to mess up my hair or my clothes. I didn’t want to get my hands dirty. Even when it came to mowing the lawn (my job as the son in the family), I wore clothes that were too nice for the task.

My dad is a good man. He’s strong. He’s a provider. He’s a fixer of broken things, a disciplinarian, a caretaker. I respect him, and am thankful for him, but I have always felt like I would never be the man he is. 

Note to Self: Change way of thinking. 

I may not like to do the things my dad does or be able to repair the things he can, but that doesn’t make me any less of a man. I realized during this quest for understanding that I’ve been trying to define what being a man is, but being a man is open to interpretation. It takes all kinds of us. I’ve spent most of my adult life feeling as if I’ve failed at being a man, but that’s simply untrue. This Badge of (self-proclaimed) Failure is something I gave myself.

One of my best friends gave me his thoughts on what it means to be a man. He said, “I think being a man means having the strength to take care of yourself, the generosity to take care of others, the wisdom to ask for help when you need it, and the humility to accept help when it is offered.”

His words resonated with me. They have nothing to do with the images I’ve carried in my head since boyhood. They’re more about integrity, courage and responsibility.

I will never be a butch man, I am much more feminine than that, but I am a man. I’m a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend. I am a collector of art, a theatre goer, a lover of pop music, a drinker of red wine. I still don’t like to get my hands too dirty, I prefer to call a repairman, and I still love Santa Barbara (gone now to soap opera heaven). I take my responsibilities seriously and like seeing the tasks associated with those responsibilities accomplished. I love my family and my friends. I can be trusted and counted on. I strive to live a good life and to have the courage to change things that aren’t working even though change is difficult. I admit that my pride often gets in the way when it comes to asking for help, but ultimately I’ve realized it is a stronger man who will ask for help and a weaker who thinks he doesn’t need it.  

So what did I learn from writing this piece? Hobbies and abilities don’t make the man. It is our actions. I’m not the same as my dad and that’s okay. I’m me. I’m my own kind of man. One that’s smart enough to realize where he learned to have integrity. Maybe it is as simple as what dad said, and it's all about how I feel within.