Shape the Future by knowing the Past

I have some advice, from a “later middle-aged” gay man to younger LGBTQ people.

eastwood gran torino

Yes, I know that opening makes me sound like a crotchety, “get off my lawn” old geezer – but really, hear me out.
My advice to you: know your history. Not just world history or American history, I’m talking about your history – our history. Know how we in the overall LGBTQ community  got to the place we are now – by no means having full legal equality, but being far ahead of where this country was just a decade ago, and unimaginable light years ahead of where we were even when I was growing up.
If possible, seek out your LGBTQ elders, in person, face-to-face, and hear their stories. You’ll very likely learn that many of those very ordinary, boring-looking people were actually radicals on the front lines of the gay equality movement, and have stories that will make you laugh and cry, and get excited, and outraged, and energized – and very proud to have gotten to know them.
Just as importantly, learn about the legal and political battles in cultural, civilian governmental, religious, and military strands of our society, that incrementally got us to where we are today. Just as you know the names of court cases such as Roe v. Wade, Brown v the Board of Education, Plessy v Ferguson and others – for God’s sake, I at least hope you know those – that shaped our society, also learn the names and details of the cases that have made particular advances in your own LGBTQ history.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s tweetstorm supposedly banning transgender people from military service, and since it appears that the White House is actually going to try to implement this policy, it’s especially to know our history as it pertains to members of the LGBTQ community serving in the military. Of course, like so many straight allies, you were undoubtedly appalled and angered by this further descent into madness on the part of the President, and you’d be fully justified to feel those emotions. But as you do, don’t just wallow in vague thoughts that this just isn’t right, or fair. Of course it isn’t. But also know based on already-established legal precedent, the justification that Donald Trump has used to justify his decision has already been determined to be illegal and unconstitutional; and when you hear people spouting off transphobic, homophobic nonsense about LGBTQ people in the service, be ready and able to point to court precedent that establishes that they’re wrong.
Here are some people and events you should know about. Much of what I offer here is taken from The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman. I read through this book at least once a year as a reminder of where we’ve been, and I highly recommend it to you, too.
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Know who sergeant Leonard Matlovich was. He was the very first member of the armed forces who had the courage to legally challenge the military ban on homosexuals – and not only to challenge them, but to win.
Matlovich was the model member of the Air Force, and a decorated veteran of Vietnam with an impeccable and honorable military record.
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Sergeant Leonard Matlovich
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Matlovich recovering from his wounds in Vietnam, holding his Purple Heart
In 1975, Matlovitch officially declared to his superior officer that he was a homosexual, which by government regulations made him, by definition, ineligible to serve in the military. In an attempt to challenge that ban, he requested that he not be discharged from the service, but rather, granted an exception to the rule based on his exemplary record – and the fact that the ban was, in his opinion, unconstitutional.
The Air Force discharged him, and Matlovich, with the assistance and guidance of the extremely important gay-rights pioneer Frank Kameny, sued. In Matlovich v. The United States Air Force, Judge Gerhard Gesell ruled on July 16, 1976 – my sixteenth birthday – that the Air Force policy was wrong-headed and needed to change. Matlovich was an outstanding, exemplary member of the armed forces, and absolute proof that being homosexual did not, by definition, make a person unable to serve. Despite that, however, Gesell found that the Air Force policy, while wrong-headed, was not unconstitutional.
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Sergeant Matlovich on the cover of TIME
Matlovich appealed the decision, and the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with him. They found that there were sufficient grounds for the Air Force to reinstate him, using their “exceptions” clause, and sent the case back to Gesell for reevaluation. However, before the case came to trial, the Air Force tried to do an end run around what they saw was likely a losing battle, by removing the “exception” clause from the regulations. Judge Gesell, outraged by the Air Force’s double-dealing, ordered that Matlovich be immediately reinstated.
Instead of accepting the ruling, the Air Force offered Matlovich a large financial settlement, including back pay, reinstatement of his pension, and additional compensation. In financial straits after the protracted legal battle, Matlovich accepted the settlement. Also factoring into his decision was his suspicion that if he was reinstated to active duty, the Air Force would just find another technicality on which they could discharge him, and then he’d have gained nothing.
This was a major moment in LGBTQ history. This was the first time a military service person stood up for their rights, and the courts recognized that there was no legal nexus between being gay and not being able to serve, even to serve with distinction. This was the first time that the courts ruled in favor of an openly gay service person remaining in the armed forces.
This was 1978.
Know about Leonard Matlovich.
See also: The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman, pp. 471-479.
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Leonard Matlovich’s tombstone. He died in 1988, a victim of the AIDS epidemic, and was buried with full military honors
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Know who Vernon “Copy” Berg III was.
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Ensign Vernon E. Berg III
Following shortly after the Matlovich case, Copy Berg (the nickname came from people saying that in appearance, he was a xerox copy of his father, navy Commander Vernon Berg II) was discharged from the Navy in 1976 after an investigators uncovered evidence of his homosexuality. Berg challenged the discharge in civil court. Also heard by Judge Gerhard Gesell, the ruling in his case upheld his discharge, but warned the Navy that they were going to have to update their policies to be consistent with the latest scientific and sociological knowledge. It was strong enough language that Berg was encouraged to appeal the decision. In the appeal, the judges stated that “Broad allegations such as ‘Homosexuality is incompatible with military service’ or ‘a person with homosexual tendencies seriously impairs order, good discipline and morale,’ would no longer suffice.”
But rather than try to sharpen their rationale of why homosexuality was incompatible with military service – sensing that any new rationale would be quickly thrown out anyway – the Navy offered Berg another cash settlement. Berg took the settlement and an honorable discharge, and went on to become an artist and gay rights activist.
The Berg case was another nail in the coffin of the old, misguided, homophobic attitudes in the military. It put the Navy on notice that the old arguments were not going to be accepted any longer, and that they were going to have to get their house in order. LGBTQ individuals could indeed serve in the military without any adverse effect on morale or unit cohesion, and would not have any other negative effect on the military’s execution of its duties. It was also after this case that the military generally stopped giving LGBTQ individuals dishonorable discharges.
vernon e berg - artist
Copy Berg became a well-regarded artist. He died in 1999,
another victim of the AIDS epidemic
Know about Vernon “Copy” Berg.
See also The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle by Lillian Faderman, pp. 479-484.
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Know who Miriam Ben-Shalom is.
miriam ben-shalom

Miriam Ben-Shalom is the first openly lesbian service member to be reinstated by the U.S. Army after she was discharged in 1976 for being gay.

Ben-Shalom took the Army to court over the matter. In 1980 a judge with the U.S. District Court in Chicago ruled that her dismissal violated the First, Fifth and Ninth Amendments of the Constitution.

The judge in her trial particularly criticized the military for the fact that it had shown no nexus between being homosexual and being unfit for military service – a crucial point of law that has reverberations to this day.

The Army refused to honor the ruling. Instead of complying, they offered Ben-Shalom a cash settlement, similar to their actions with Matlovich and Berg – but this time, Ben-Shalom refused, demanding to be reinstated. A subsequent seven-year court battle ultimately forced her reinstatement. The former staff sergeant—one of only two female drill sergeants in the 84th Division of the U.S. Army Reserve—then returned to service until 1990.

After Ben-Shalom completed the time remaining on her enlistment that she’d been discharged from, she tried to reenlist, but the Army refused. In fact, before Ben-Shalom’s attempted reinlistment,  in order to prevent them having to accept people who had openly professed to be LGBTQ, the Army had reworded its regulations to prohibit not only those who were engaging in same-sex activity, but also those who had only stated that they were gay or lesbian. This set off a completely new set of lawsuits. Ben-Shalom won the first trial and the subsequent appeal, which ordered the Army to accept her reenlistment. But she eventually lost another appeal, and the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of that case. Even though she lost the reenlistment battle, she won the reinstatement battle, and actually served out that reinstatement.

Like Matlovich and Berg, Ben-Shalom went on to become a gay-rights activist. She was arrested after chaining herself to the fence in front of the White House, protesting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Sadly, in recent times she has been involved in a controversy involving transgender individuals. Ben-Shalom self-identifies as a PERF (Penis Exclusionary Radical Feminist), who opposes transgender women being able to participate in gatherings intended exclusively for what she and other PERFs call “women born of women.” (if this sounds somewhat familiar, the television show “Transparent,” season 2 episode 9, “Man on the Land” dealt with this issue). This position resulted in her being stripped of the honor of Grand Marshal of the Milwaukee Pride Parade in 2016. Regardless of this controversy, Ben-Shalom remains an important person to know in LGBTQ history.

Know about Miriam Ben-Shalom:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miriam_Ben-Shalom

See also The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman, pp. 484-488.

 

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Know who Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer is. Cammermeyer was an outstanding army nurse and officer, a veteran of Vietnam.

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Col. Margarethe “Grethe” Cammermeyer

In 1989 while being interviewed for top secret clearance, Cammermeyer had admitted that she was a lesbian – she didn’t want to lie, and wasn’t aware that in 1981, the Army had issued a new directive that called for the total exclusion of homosexuals in the military, without exception. In a subsequent hearing, her long and illustrious military career was acknowledged, but ultimately, rules were rules, and Cammermeyer was discharged.

She appealed in civil court, and in 1994, the court ruled in Cammermeyer’s favor – declaring the Army’s exclusionary regulation to be unconstitutional and stating that her record showed beyond any doubt that she was a model officer; that sexual orientation has absolutely nothing to do with whether a person could serve capably in the military – that the Army’s exclusionary regulation was based “solely on prejudice.” There was, judge Thomas Zilly wrote, no rational relationship or legal nexus between being homosexual and being able to serve; neither, her case illustrated, did one’s sexual orientation interfere with unit cohesion or a unit’s “ability to maintain readiness and combat effectiveness.” Zilly continued that there wasn’t and must never be a “military exemption” to the Constitution.” Simply put, members of all groups within society had the right to enjoy the same rights, and the military could not simply rule out an entire class of citizens from serving based on false claims and prejudice. The court ruled that Cammermeyer must be reinstated.

As had always been the case before, the Army appealed the ruling. But in 1995, the Ninth District Court of Appeals found in favor of Cammermeyer, upholding the lower court decision. Colonel Cammermeyer was reinstated, and served honorably until her retirement in 1997. Her story was told in the 1995 made-for-television movie “Serving in Silence,” in which Glen Close portrayed the Colonel.

Know about Col. Grethe Cammermeyer:

https://www.cammermeyer.com/

See also The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman, pp. 488-494

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Why is this history important? Because out of a combination of blind transphobia and ignorance, people are trying to ignore or erase this hard-fought history. These historical legal precedents have absolute parallel with the current attempts to throw transgender people out of the service. If and when the President’s tweets actually become official policy, they will be challenged in the courts immediately. And when they are, these precedents are going to be at the center of the arguments.

To summarize, the key legal principles that these earlier cases established are:

  • The military does not have a right to simply exclude any group of the American public from service by claiming that by virtue of being in that group, individuals are automatically incapable of performing their duties, without any actual evidence to support that claim. There must be a provable nexus between being part of said group and an inability to perform.
  • The military has never shown any credible nexus between being a member of the LGBTQ community and fitness, or lack thereof, for military service. in fact, members of the full spectrum of the LGBTQ community are proving, every day, that there is no such nexus at all. In fact, the military’s own research has decisively shown that there are no significant difficulties or expenses related to transgender individuals serving.

The courts will look at these rulings and others. They will also consider the situation where, with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” members of the armed forces were told it was OK, even encouraged, to come out – and now, the current President is trying to pull the rug out from under them. That’s a breach of trust that I doubt any reasonable court would permit.

Still, these are strange times. It’s impossible to predict what the Supreme Court – and it will ultimately end up there – will decide. But if sanity and reason prevail, these precedents should assure that despite the fact that the current tenant of the White House wants to remove them, transgender members of the armed forces will likely remain right where they are – just as they should.

So know your history. And when this subject comes up in conversation, make sure others know about it, too. Now get off my lawn. 🙂

 

 

Hell Has Indeed, Apparently, Frozen Over

Eugene Peterson.  Screenshot from Youtube

Eugene Peterson, perhaps wistfully wishing he’d never granted that recent interview.

At least, I suspect it must have, because I find myself in the extremely rare position of agreeing with Albert Mohler.

Well, kind of.

Mohler is the current president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Louisville, and a high-powered bullhorn for conservative Evangelical Christian theology. Without giving a list of particulars – it would be long – let’s just say that it would be hard to find someone whose understanding of Christianity differs more from my own.

Still, I will give Mohler credit for at least one statement that he made that I think is absolutely spot-on, even while I disagree strongly with his ultimate conclusion.

In recent days, the best-selling Evangelical author/retired pastor Eugene Peterson created a stir in religious and some broader social circles when he gave an interview to Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service. Peterson has recently announced that he’s leaving the lecture circuit, slowing down, and taking life easy from this point on. And at 84 years old, why not? The man has clearly earned it.

Given that, and his long string of best-selling books, this interview should have been a fluff ball – a victory lap of sorts for Peterson; a nice, feel-good piece that offered no big news or controversy. What actually transpired, though, was something else entirely.

Merritt asked Peterson about his views on homosexuality in general, and same-sex marriage in particular from the context of the Christian faith, and whether his views on these issues had changed at all over time. Even though Peterson’s popularity has largely been within conservative Evangelical circles, he was actually a long-time pastor and is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the most progressive of mainline denominations and one that, thanks be to God, has affirmed LGBTQ individuals’ place in the full life of the church – including ordained positions, and the appropriateness of church-blessed same-sex marriages.

Merritt’s question arose out of comments that Peterson had made in recent years that he’d changed his mind and had become affirming of LGBTQ people – including in this appearance at Western Seminary in 2014.

To be honest, I thought Peterson’s answers to Merrit’s questions in the interview were a bit lukewarm in their support. His comments were couched in phrases like “I didn’t have much experience with that,” or referring to a lesbian couple in his congregation that “didn’t make a big deal out if it,” and so on. I could almost imagine him saying that he could accept LGBTQ parishioners as long as they “didn’t shove it down my throat;” that great cliche that seems to mean “It’s OK if you’re gay; just don’t do anything that might publicly show that you are. Don’t say or do anything, either as an individual or as a couple, that straight people do with regard to their lives and relationships without any problem. Don’t talk about your significant other, don’t hold their hand, and certainly don’t kiss them where anyone else could see you.” That was the sort of tepid support I heard in most of Peterson’s answers. Still, they were several steps ahead of the typical conservative Evangelical party line. And he did, simply but clearly, say that he’d officiate a same-sex wedding if asked.

Of course, to have someone as influential as Peterson come out (sorry) and say these things was big news for conservative and progressive Christians alike, for obvious and opposing reasons.

Within 24 hours, though, Peterson felt forced to release a clarification and retraction of what he’d said in the interview. People across the full spectrum of American Christianity were confused by this bizarre flip-flop, what had led to it, and whether it was a good or bad development. Had an 84-year old man simply gotten confused in the moment and said some things that he didn’t really believe? Had conservative backlash – he was blowtorched by conservative Evangelical mouthpieces within hours –  and threats to book sales (LifeWay, the largest U.S. retailer of Christian publications, and an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, threatened to stop sales of all of Peterson’s books) led to his overnight reversal?

In the wake of this bit of theological whiplash, many people have offered their thoughts about the issue. And here’s where Albert Mohler enters the picture.

As would be expected, Mohler firmly occupies the conservative, traditional, exclusivist, non-LGBTQ-affirming understanding of the Christian faith. Mohler himself would define his views as the “biblical” position. I refuse to grant him that semantic bit of theological high ground, since it incorrectly assumes that the Bible “quite clearly” calls for anti-LGBTQ theology; and that those who have reached LGBTQ-affirming understandings of the faith have done so without, or in spite of, the scriptures, a position that is categorically false.

But I digress.

In an article he wrote about the Peterson kerfuffle, Mohler criticizes Peterson for what he sees as indecisiveness – not offering clear-cut, definitive, conservative Evangelical answers to LGBTQ questions, and sticking to them. Perhaps Mohler sees Peterson’s initial answers as having been an attempt to curry public favor by adopting more socially acceptable positions; a situation of society inappropriately influencing one’s understanding of the faith. Maybe he sees it as a legitimate theological struggle within Peterson’s heart and mind. Or maybe he sees it as something else. Whatever the explanation, Mohler says that indecision is a problem, and not only for Peterson. He writes:

“First, there is nowhere to hide. Every pastor, every Christian leader, every author  — even every believer — will have to answer the question. The question cannot simply be about same-sex marriage,” he says; at its core, the real issue is having a decisive understanding of what one believes to be the will and purpose of God with regard to human sexuality and gender, based on sound scriptural interpretation.

“Second, you had better have your answer ready. Evasive, wandering, and inconclusive answers will be seen for what they are. Those who have fled for security to the house of evasion must know that the structure has crumbled. It always does.”

And on this score, he’s absolutely right.

Mohler and I would clearly disagree on what “sound scriptural interpretation” would be. In fact, I couldn’t even agree with some of his wording in the quote above; hence my partial paraphrasing. But we both agree that we need to have studied and prayed about the question of LGBTQ individuals in the life of the church, and we need to reach a solid, scripturally consistent answer to the question, and then be willing to stick with it. Of course, Mohler and I diverge radically from that point on, but on this, we agree.

This isn’t a question about which a person can be ambivalent, ambiguous, both/and. You can’t be a little bit pregnant, and you can’t be a little bit affirming (or non-affirming). Affirming theology hinges on a person’s core beliefs about God, creation, human anthropology, and the nature of the divine-human relationship. In order to work out where you are regarding LGBTQ people, you need to have first determined in your heart and mind whether homosexuality is a sin. If it is sin, is it a sin of choice, or a part of so-called “original sin” and therefore, impossible to eliminate from human existence? If it is a type of unavoidable “original sin” as a result of “the fall,” what is the proper response of God and humanity to that? Or, is homosexuality merely a normal variation within the full spectrum of what it means to be human, and therefore of having been created in God’s image? And if this is the case, is refusing to be accepting and affirming toward LGBTQ people refusing to accept and affirm the One in whose image they were created? If you believe that homosexuality is a sinful choice, is it possible to affirm same-sex marriage? How about if it is part of “original sin;” can same-sex marriage be accepted and affirmed as the best possible “option B” for people who don’t have opposite-sex marriage as an option to still have loving, committed, sacrificial unions that are blessed by God? And if you believe that homosexuality is just another variation in human creation, can you somehow not accept and affirm same-sex marriage?

There is no meaningful way that individuals or faith communities can accept these divergent theologies as equally valid options for believers. Each one inherently negates the possible validity of the others. Just as it is impossible for a person, or a faith community, to claim that it’s equally valid and acceptable to both accept and reject slavery, or segregation, or the subjugation of women, so it is also with this issue. It goes to the fundamental way that we understand God and human creation, and whichever way you believe, logically, it’s a package deal – you’re either all in, across the board, or you aren’t in at all.

There really is no middle ground with regard to affirming LGBTQ people, except as a transitional place while moving to a final position. For virtually everyone who has adopted affirming theology, myself included, the process has been a journey with several interim stages.  That’s understandable. But to be partly affirming of LGBTQ people, accepting this part of them – whether in the life of the church or society in general – but not some other part, just isn’t viable long-term theology. On this score, Mohler is absolutely correct.

He’s also correct in saying that a person needs to be ready, when asked, to give a decisive, consistent , cohesive explanation of what they believe about LGBTQ people – because if you try to voice some waffling middle-of-the-road theological stance in order to try to please everyone, it will be immediately obvious to everyone, and you will end up being rejected by those on both sides of the issue.

The price that Eugene Peterson has paid in the last week shows how fraught with risk the transitional, middle places of such a journey toward LGBTQ affirmation can be, and how important it is to  move toward the final destination as quickly as possible. Ironically, I don’t think Peterson himself is still in the process of making that journey at all – I think that in his own way, he’s already completed the journey to full affirmation, despite his written retraction. If Eugene Peterson has indeed retired from the public eye, and if this was his last interview, the final lesson he seems to have inadvertently offered the faithful is just how important it is to have the courage of  one’s convictions, and of standing up and voicing them clearly, boldly, and publicly even in the face of opposition.  It’s an important lesson for all of us. I hope we don’t have to wait for hell to freeze over again before Peterson learns it for himself.

Men, Women, and (Hopefully) Culture in Transition

trans bathroom infographic

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how quickly U.S. culture has grown with respect to LGBTQ equality. A movement that for all practical purposes started only in the early 1950s, and with relatively limited original goals, has accomplished strides for full equality that those original activists would have never even dreamt was possible. I was born in 1960. When I was born, being LGBTQ was almost universally considered a mental illness, sin, perversion. It was equated with being a pedophile. It was illegal, grounds for arrest and public villification, being fired, being thrown out of one’s home, being institutionalized, lobotomized, given electroshock “therapy.”

Today, there are still very real problems with homophobia within our society. Reactionary voices in a number of states continue to try to carve out ways to legally discriminate against this segment – my segment – of our population. These attempts are often based  on religious grounds, through legislation that claims to protect the supposed religious freedom to discriminate and obstruct others’ civil rights. Sadly, the church itself is still the single most stubborn holdout and obstacle for equal civil rights for that portion of American citizens who identify as LGBTQ. The pain and injustice endured by LGBTQ people – certainly in the past and in lesser measure, even to this day – has been immense.

Without attempting to diminish the reality of the lives destroyed or at least severely injured during these years, though, it still seems truly amazing that this immense cultural shift has occurred within the single lifespan of many people still living today. Imagine the cognitive whiplash of a person who was taught as an adolescent in, say, 1955, about the supposed evil and perversion of homosexuality by way of Sunday sermons and grainy black-and-white “educational” films in school health classes, navigating a world today in their seventies where encountering out gays and lesbians, including married couples, is quite commonplace at work, around town, at church, and on television. Many who find themselves in this demographic will never accept this social upheaval, but many others have, mostly due to knowing and loving a family member or good friend who has come out as LGBTQ and made the idea less scary to them.

As members of the LGBTQ community, we really need to recognize the incredible leap that we’ve asked these people to make in their lives, and that many of them, at least, have successfully made. We need to honor their stretch, and express our gratitude to them all for having done so. In my case, that includes expressing thanks to my own two parents.

I was thinking about this phenomenon in recent days because, of course, we’re in the midst of another part of this major social shift – that of focusing more closely on the “T” component of the LGBTQ community, transgender individuals. The most visible issue in that regard is the would-be “bathroom wars” we seem to be embroiled in at the moment.

I recently read The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman. It’s an excellent, incredibly well-researched, and extremely readable book that taught me much I didn’t know, and reminded me of much I’d already known, or experienced for myself. One of the things that stood out for me as I read it was how much of the current situation is just a replay, sometimes identically so, of past battles fought and won in the overall struggle for LGBTQ equality. State legislators are attempting to legalize discrimination in ways that have been tried in the past and found to be unconstitutional in countless court decisions – perhaps most significantly with regard to North Carolina’s infamous HB2, in the Supreme Court case Romer v. Evans. Transgender people are being cast as pedophiles or other sexual predators, as mentally disturbed, as perverts, people dying for a chance to pounce on some unsuspecting child in a public restroom when all they really want is a safe place to pee.

Those who oppose moves to permit transgender people to use the restrooms and locker rooms of their own gender identity fall into several categories. Of course, there are those who are simply hateful, ignorant, transphobic individulas, and no amount of reason will ever steer them from their hatred.

But I suspect that many opponents are just trying to make sense out of a situation that they don’t fully understand. They aren’t inherently hateful. They really want to be fair, but like those people who have had to make that large leap of acceptance for LGB, now they’re faced with a call to make another, similar stretch for the T folk. They hear a lot of accusations, and they obviously don’t want to increase the risks of people being assaulted in public restrooms (although requiring transgender people to use the restroom of their birth sex will actually increase, not decrease potential violence, against the transgender person). But they’re stuck. This whole idea of being transgender seems odd, and maybe even a bit “icky”to them, and they don’t quite know how to make sense of it all.

I get that. To be honest, even as a gay man I had to go through a learning curve about transgender people, and I try to keep fairly up to speed with news within the LGBTQ community. It’s perfectly understandable to me if someone who isn’t swimming in that particular lake as part of their daily or weekly routine isn’t fully up to speed with regard to transgender issues. It’s to those of you in that second group of well-intentioned but confused or frustrated folk just trying to do the right thing that I offer the following thoughts.

Maybe we start by defining what transgender means – and what it doesn’t mean, as well. Two helpful references here are the GLAAD Media Reference Guide to Transgender Issues and the Transgender FAQ of the Human Rights Campaign.

There are some men who occasionally wear clothing and makeup traditionally associated with women. These are individuals who identify as heterosexual men and who do not wish to permanently change their sex or live full-time as women. These men are crossdressers (formerly known by the now-obsolete term “transvestite“). They are not transgender.

There are other men who will dress as women, often in a highly campy or caricateurish manner, for entertainment purposes. These are individuals who typically identify as gay men who, like crossdressers, do not wish to permanently change their sex or live full-time as women. These men are typically referred to as drag queens. Like the crossdressers, they are not transgender.

Transgender people are people with a gender identity different from the one that they were physically assigned, by way of physical sexual organs, at birth. These are men or women whose innermost sense of being, and of self, is and always has been opposite to the physical body they were born with. A transgender person looks in a mirror and feels like an alien within their own body – they know there’s a different person inside than what the physical manifestations indicate.

Transgender men and women will often undergo a transition process, in order to live authentically as the person they feel themselves to be. This can include hormone therapy and a battery of sex reassignment surgeries and other medical procedures, but even if it doesn’t, a transitioned transgender person is living life day to day as a person of their particular gender identity, in all aspects of their lives.

So now, back to restrooms and locker rooms.

Regarding the restrooms, many people have worried that allowing transgender people to use the facilities corresponding to their gender identity will increase the likelihood of sex offenders posing as transgender people, in order to gain access to the restrooms where they’ll prey on others. This argument really doesn’t make any sense for several reasons, but most importantly, because police departments in the locales that have permitted transgender access to their preferred restroom for some time are universal in their affirmation that there have been no cases of this happening. So the “increased risk” restroom argument is a non-issue. Despite the frothy-mouthed rantings of some, there’s simply no “there” there.

The other restroom claim is that while in the restroom, a person will actually see another person’s genitals, and that they won’t match their own, and that the person will somehow be traumatized by the incident. Consider that for a moment. All restroom usage in women’s rooms are designed to take place in enclosed stalls. Half of all restroom usage in men’s rooms are designed to take place in stalls. Virtually all transgender people, men and women alike, always use an enclosed stall. This means that if you’re scoping out another person’s genitals in a public restroom – trans or otherwise – you’re not only working really hard to do it, you’re also committing a voyeuristic crime. In other words, at that point you’re the creepy criminal in the restroom, not the transgender person.

That leaves locker rooms and shared shower facilities.

According to the best available information, transgender people make up approximately 0.3% of the population, or about 700,000 people in the United States. That number includes transgender people of every age, and those who have surgically transitioned and those who haven’t. So the number of non-surgically reassigned transgender people of the appropriate age and gender to potentially be in your child’s locker room gets smaller and smaller. Still, it’s true that in some situation, a child or youth might actually encounter an undressed, non-surgically reassigned trans person. Maybe it would be in a changing room at a swimming pool, or the locker and shower facilities at a school or health club. But if this happened, I have to ask – is this really such a big deal? Is this really something so terrible and to be avoided that it’s worth depriving the civil rights of an estimated 700,000 people?

No reasonable people shield their children from paintings, sculpture, or other works of art that portray nudity. For that matter, in many, if not most, other cultures around the world – and frankly, in parts of our own – children and youth are routinely in the presence of disrobed members of the opposite sex, whether family members or otherwise, without anyone giving it a second thought, and often for lengths of time far exceeding the fleeting moments of taking a quick gym shower or changing clothes. In these cultures, children and youth in the age range we seem so worried about are routinely exposed to unclothed people of both sexes, on regular broadcast television, sunbathing in public parks (the natives of Finland, for example, value every bit of warm sunny days and think nothing of sunbathing nude on those occasions – and of course, they also have the whole sauna culture, too), and in other settings, and they grow up to be normal, healthy, quite well-adjusted adults in the same proportion as anyone else. They’re not any more exposed to sexual molestation. They aren’t any less religious or spiritual because of it. They aren’t flooding psychologist’s offices trying to sort out lives that have been psychosexually scarred by the experience. If anything, they’re more emotionally healthy and well-balanced.

Modesty is certainly a virtue – but taken to an extreme, it can become an irrational and even harmful obsession.

There seem to be two equally significant things contributing to the irrational hysteria that so many people have with regard to transgender people, and specifically, this restroom/locker room issue. The first is simply that, compared with the rest of the world, our culture has a warped and unhealthy attitude toward the human body in general. In an odd mix,  the rigid and prudish repression of our past, combined with the current hypersexualization of our culture (itself just a reaction to that repressive past), have made the unclothed human body something inherently “dirty” in the minds of many, and certainly something to protect our young people from – as if they were some delicate creatures who have never encountered the naked humanity of themselves, their parents and siblings, their friends, in art, or elsewhere, and who would be traumatized for life if they did.

The second contributor to the problem is the phenomenon that we humans seem to need to identify ourselves as an “us”- as an identifiable culture or group – by way of the negative; by establishing some kind of boundaries specifically designed to create a  “them.” In so doing,  we not only give ourselves justification to see ourselves as superior in the equation, but we also create justification for treating “them” as something less worthy of equal treatment, something even less human. Having a “them” creates justification for violence in the name of self-protection, and gives us a convenient recipient for moral or religious disapproval and indignation, thereby taking the moral heat off of ourselves. Overlapping aspects of this phenomenon have been researched and addressed by numerous people.

R.I. Moore writes about the origins of a “persecuting society” in medieval Europe, in which both church and state set particular groups of people as undesirable – as “dangerous pollutants”. This was done for all of the previously mentioned reasons, and especially to solidify the power of the particular ruling structure. As student Hope Greenberg summarized: In each case the group is defined not by what it is or by what it does but what those in power, either sacred or secular, perceive and define it to be. That definition is refined and polished until an easily identifiable, albeit patently false, picture emerges of what then becomes the stereotypic object of persecution.” 

The anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote of the theory of “purity and danger,”and the establishment of what fit into each of those categories by both religious and secular authorities. In A Queer History of the United States, Michael Bronski writes of Douglas’ work, “[T]he founding of modern society was predicated on the creation of minority groups whose only purpose was to be vilified as unclean and persecuted for the illusion of a comprehensive sense of society safety…The idea of purifying religious and secular thought and society was at the heart of Puritan identity. (p.17)”

Students of philosophy, theology, anthropology, and a host of other disciplines are undoubtedly familiar with Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory and the necessity for an individual or communal scapegoat, a victim singled out for persecution for the supposed good of the larger social structure.

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson once summarized all of those academic writings, and succinctly identified the self-interest of the ruling class in all of it, in his now-famous quote: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” The same concept, made more from the vantage point of the ruled than the ruling class, was illustrated in the “My Daddy Killed that Mule” scene from the film Mississippi Burning (click image to play):

mississippi burning my daddy killed that mule

The take-home of all of this is that trans people in our society are being vilified, persecuted, assaulted, even killed, not because of any actual threat they pose to the well-being of society, or because of anything inherently wrong or ill or evil about them. Trans people are being victimized because we’ve been taught that we need a scapegoat to feel good about ourselves. [Click to tweet] Given that, then, who  is the truly “sick” and perverted group – the trans people, or the people who feel a need to vilify them?

But back to locker rooms.

I’m imagining a scenario where a a mother and daughter are changing into their swimsuits at the local public swimming pool, and in that rarest of occasions, the daughter notices a non-surgically reassigned trans woman changing nearby, and the ensuing conversation:

“Mommy, that person over there isn’t like us – they have body parts like a boy.”

“Oh, yes, that’s true.”

“Well then why are they in here with us, instead of the boy’s changing room?”

“Well, because there are some people who are girls on the inside, but they’re born with the body parts of a boy. And sometimes, there are people who are boys on the inside, but they’re born with the body parts of a girl.”

“Wow, that’s weird!”

“Well, it’s different from the way we were born, but it happens sometimes – that’s just the way things are; we don’t really know why. Sometimes, people treat them very badly, and even try to hurt them because of that, just because of the way they’re born. And that’s not really nice; in fact, it’s very wrong. Really, besides the different body parts, they’re just like you or me, and they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity just like everyone else – just like we want to be respected for who we are inside, and not on what we might look like on the outside.”

“Oh. OK. So when we get out to the pool, can we go down the slide first?”

And that’s it. No drama. No trauma.

I know, call me an unrealistic dreamer. But why, why, can’t it be so simple?

I’d write more, but now I have to go to the bathroom. Thankfully, the North Carolina state legislature won’t need to get involved.

Jim Crow in Lavender

I just saw this news story coming out of Atlanta, about a man who was arrested for having poured boiling water on two gay men as they lay in bed:

Atlanta boiling water snip

This, on the same day that the Georgia legislative branch passed a bill and sent it to the governor for signature, designed to protect people who want to discriminate against others – most notably, but not exclusively, LGBTQ people, and primarily aimed at protecting those who oppose marriage equality – based on their “sincerely held religious beliefs” opposing marriage equality.This is one of a series of copycat bills moving forward in a number of state legislatures across the country.

I assume that the man who gave second- and third-degree burns to his victims did so based on his own “sincerely held religious beliefs” against their so-called “lifestyle choice.” For the record, the assailant has been arrested on two counts of aggravated battery; additional federal hate crime charges are being considered. While they aren’t hard to find online, I’ll forego sharing the gruesome images of the men’s scalded flesh and subsequent skin grafts required due to those sincerely held beliefs.

I simply don’t understand how our country has gotten its head stuck up its hindquarters to this degree. How could people ever think it’s acceptable to violate someone’s civil rights simply because someone’s religious beliefs supposedly condone it? It’s like the country has fallen victim to a collective Constitutional insanity. We don’t allow this kind of legalized religious-based discrimination against any other segment of our population. Every time people have tried to assert such a right in the past – notably, against women and blacks and other minorities – the arguments have been ruled unconstitutional. Just think about it: where else in our legal system do people successfully assert a constitutional right to deny the rights of others simply on the basis of how sincerely they believe in the correctness of that denial? Where else in our society to we allow legalized persecution of a group of people at one magnitude based simply on “sincerely held religious beliefs;” while merely implementing those exact same beliefs to the next order of magnitude constitutes a federally-recognized hate crime?

These legislative attempts to legally discriminate, wrapped in the gossamer-thin camouflage of supposed religious liberty, disgust me. I’m an ordained Presbyterian minister. I also happen to be gay. But I’d be just as disgusted with these attempts to impose a new Jim Crow, only now dressed in a lavender suit, regardless of my sexual orientation – and people across the board, especially those who are truly serious about following the teachings of Jesus Christ, should be equally disgusted. Religious liberty does not grant civil license.

Religious freedom does not confer blanket supremacy over the civil law of the land. It isn’t a “get out of jail free” card that trumps the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. There simply is no right in this country for one person to discriminate against any other person on the basis of the former’s religious views, no matter how “sincerely” or “deeply” held they may be – as if the depth to which someone believes a hideous falsehood somehow makes it a legally protected truth. I don’t have a constitutional right to rob a bank and give the money away, simply because I have a “sincerely held religious belief” that the rich aren’t sufficiently following Jesus’ admonitions to them to care for the poor.

The depth to which a person holds beliefs that would condone injuring another is no valid justification for that injury. Rather, it’s an illustration of just how strenuously our society has to work to put an end to that kind of ignorance, and bigotry, and injury to begin with. People who would argue for a supposed religious right to discriminate against others should be ashamed of themselves, and as people of faith, we need to stand up strongly and loudly against those claims and the attempts to codify them into state law. Our courts should rule that the basic legal argument behind all of these copycat laws is absurd – and they should do it sooner rather than later.

Go There

go there

The First Baptist Church in Greenville SC has adopted a non-discrimination policy which will accept LGBTQ Christians into full membership of the church, and permits performing same-sex marriages upon request. That’s big news, because this particular congregation played a major role in the origins of the notoriously anti-gay Southern Baptist Convention, and was itself a member of that organization until 1999, when it realigned its affiliation to be part of the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

There’s a lot of really good stuff that the pastor, Jim Dant, says in the article, which you can read here, and also here. I empathize with his trying to find a path of unity in any church matter where people are of different beliefs, regardless of the specifics of the disagreement. My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) continues to seek a similar path of unity even after we’ve amended our constitution to allow ordination of LGBTQ church leaders like myself, and allowing same-sex marriage. In this case, it’s especially hard to find that unity when the church has held anti-LGBTQ doctrines for centuries. But a comment in one of the articles caught my attention: Speaking about Dant, the reporter writes, “He told Greenville Online a crucial step of the process was assuring church members no one would tell them their personal convictions were wrong.”

I understand the desire for unity that gave birth to this idea, but is it really appropriate to remove from the table any possibility for Pastor Dant to preach an inclusive gospel to members of his congregation? Is it appropriate to agree to not talk about the terrible harm that traditional church doctrines have caused to literally millions of people? Imagine a segregated southern church in the 1960s agreeing to allow blacks as members and leaders, as long as those in the pews holding harmful racist and bigoted views could never be told their beliefs were wrong.

I’m truly pulling for Pastor Dant and his congregation; they’ve made a positive step forward. But it’s an incomplete and transitional step at best, and at worst, it’s one that permits outdated and dangerous biblical interpretations and bigotry to remain unchallenged. Pastor Dant is quoted as saying that when the discussions began last fall, “what I heard was, ‘We need to do the right thing, regardless of what anybody thinks or says about us.’” That’s an excellent and Christlike attitude. But the approach of not being able to call parishioners’ anti-gay stances wrong is a Faustian bargain that runs contrary to this ideal – and frankly, it won’t result in the hoped-for unity that spawned it; if anything it will only make the divisions worse by pushing it under the surface.

I know that people can typically only stretch themselves so far before they need some mental downtime, in order to prepare them to push and stretch themselves even further. But there are some issues that really can’t be made in half-steps, and I believe that full equality of LGBTQ people in both church and society is one of them – a person can be neither almost pregnant, nor partially equal. In adopting a policy of acceptance and inclusion within the church, it’s necessary that we call out people’s continuing to hold outdated understandings of LGBTQ issues in the church as harmful, and yes, wrong. It needs to be said with genuine love and compassion, but it still needs to be said.

Sometimes, the Church has to suck it up and speak a potentially unpopular message – even if it means some people will become upset, or even leave the congregation. Trying to decide when it’s best to do that, and when it’s best to be comforting, postponing the unsettling message for another day, is one of the most difficult parts of a pastor’s calling. I’ve been there myself, and I’d be lying if I said that I’d never shied away from what I believed needed to be said, opting instead for a message that I knew would be safer for me. I admit my own imperfect record in this matter, so I won’t come down too hard or self-righteously on Pastor Dant. But I firmly believe that this is one of those critical times in the history of the Church when it must be that upsetting, unsettling prophetic voice – leading people into right paths even when they hadn’t really asked, and don’t even want, to go there. Pastor Dant, as a pastoral colleague who’s your friend and not your enemy, I’d ask you to seriously and prayerfully consider going there.

Pool Party

come on in

In countless news stories, we’re seeing that Evangelical Christians are slowly but increasingly accepting inclusive theology with regard to LGBTQ issues in the church and society. This is obviously a good thing, but as it’s been happening, I’ve noticed something troubling. Many of these conservative Evangelicals who are now calling for greater acceptance of LGBTQ people, and even allowing gay ordained leaders like myself, have been berating us progressive Christians for years – claiming that we don’t really value the Christian scriptures, and that we’ve simply thrown the Bible out in rush to conform to social whims. They’ve accused us of seeing the Bible as just a quaint storybook that holds little relevance to people today. This charge is nonsense, of course, but it still continues to be made. But now, ironically enough, we’re seeing more and more Evangelicals turning to and adopting the exact same rigorous, scholarly arguments supporting inclusive theology that were first made by those supposedly misguided, faux-Christian progressives.

Don’t misunderstand me – I’m glad that my fellow Christians are coming to accept an inclusive gospel But I have to admit that every time I see a story about yet another big-name Evangelical leader having this supposed epiphany, I have a slight sense of how a Native American must feel when hearing stories about Columbus “discovering” America. After dealing with years of Evangelical attacks on my progressive, inclusive theology, I grow weary now whenever I see yet another book, podcast, or DVD boxed-set Bible study for sale, presenting those exact same arguments – but which are now apparently more acceptable, and marketable, because they’ve been wrapped in an Evangelical dust jacket.

I want my Evangelical brothers and sisters to accept an inclusive theology. But after they do, you know what I want to hear from them? Just this:

“LGBTQ folks, you were right. We were wrong. We’re sorry for all the damage our erroneous beliefs have caused, and we want to work now to put an end to the harm. We love you and accept you, just as you are – no ‘love the sinner, hate the sin;” because there’s no sin here to hate. We apologize. We repent. And we ask your forgiveness.”

That’s what I want to hear.

And then I want them to sit down, be quiet, and humbly get on with the work of reconciliation, keeping the focus more on those who have been hurt, and less on the self-serving prime time interviews and book deals.

My Evangelical brothers and sisters, I’m glad you’re gradually showing up at the party of inclusive Christianity. I might wonder what took you so long to get here, but ultimately, we’re all on our own personal journey and timeline. So I sincerely welcome you with love and open arms, and say “Come on in, the water’s fine!” Just don’t act like you built the pool.

Ich bin Oberliner

I just returned from a week-long vacation, much of which was spent in Oberlin, Ohio of all places.

Oberlin is a small town in northern Ohio a bit southwest of Cleveland, that would appear to be a perfect example of typical, picturesque All-American small town. The reality, however, is that there’s very little that’s typical about it. It was founded in the 1830s at the same time as Oberlin College, which was founded by two Presbyterian ministers who were strongly committed to a progressive understanding of the Christian faith. Women and blacks were admitted as students at Oberlin from the get-go, which would make the place atypical enough, but the town carried that understanding of the faith further, making it a hotbed of abolitionism and an important node on the Underground Railroad. Commitment to issues of social justice is just in the DNA of Oberlin.

Despite its very small size, the college is a very highly regarded school and a world-class conservatory of music. The campus is a veritable walking museum of architecture, with many examples of works by some of America’s most noteworthy architects. The town also boasts its own Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house, which is now owned by the college and is open to the public.

Another atypical aspect of the place is that in June of every year, some of the finest violin makers from around the world converge on Oberlin for a gathering sponsored by the Violin Society of America. This event is an intensive two-weeks of hands-on time in the workshop, attending seminars, learning new techniques, and sharing of ideas among some the uppermost tier of the art and craft. This year, the 60 attendees came from 14 different countries, coming as far away as Australia – which is not quite, but almost as far away as a person can possibly be from Oberlin, Ohio. Of course, the gathering isn’t all work and no play – it’s also a time of friendship, camaraderie, and with just the right amount of silliness thrown in, too.

Because George is one of those attendees, I’ve been to Oberlin for at least a part of the last two gatherings. But more about that in a bit, since my vacation actually started in Columbus.

***

I drove to Columbus on Monday afternoon and evening, arriving there around 9:30 or so. I had discussed spending most of Tuesday with my older daughter, and I really wanted to spend time with my younger daughter, too. She’s a full-time student at the Franklin University in Switzerland, but she’d been home for several weeks of summer break. Our relationship at the moment has been strained at best, and until this time I’d been told that she didn’t want to see me. Still, via text messages, I’d told her that if she changed her mind, I’d be there in town and would like to spend some time with her. As of Monday night, I still didn’t know if I’d be spending time with one or both of them.

I was supposed to meet elder daughter around noon, so in the morning I popped my head in at the Worthington Presbyterian Church just down the road from the hotel, where I’d previously served as a pastor and where I’d been a member for more than 25 years. It was good to see some of the old gang and hear about what was happening there. After a short, but nice, visit, I headed out to meet up with Erica.

I picked her up, and we ended up at Stauf’s Coffee Roasters in Grandview. Stauf’s was one of my favorite hangouts back in the day, so it made me happy to know that now, she’d discovered it and enjoyed it, too.

We sat and talked about life in general, and politics in particular. She was shocked but very pleased to learn that we both wished the same person could become the next President – something that would never have happened before my politics slid from one side of the spectrum to the other.It was so nice to just have a nice, enjoyable conversation with her after some of the tensions of the past year.

staufs-grandview

Stauf’s – many a business lead, and many a sermon, developed here

 dirty franks

 After Stauf’s, we trekked downtown to have lunch at Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace on South Fourth Street. Dirty Frank’s has just about every variation on a hot dog that you could imagine, as well as brats and other things, too. The most hilarious thing I saw on the menu was The Glenn Beck – “Just a plain old weiner.” In the end, I decided to get a West Virginia Slaw Dog, something I hadn’t had since I was a teenager slipping down across the border into Morgantown for high school-era shenanigans.

 Here again, it was just nice to be able to spend time with Erica. But now, it was time to find out whether Andrea was willing to spend some time together.

erica at dirty franks

Daughter #1 at Dirty Frank’s

After finally reaching her, she decided that yes, she’d spend some time with me. She’d just gotten home from work, and said she’d need an hour and a half or so to relax and clean up. In the meantime, though, she didn’t want me at the apartment. So Erica and I decided to go to a nearby park and let Lexi the Wonder Dog stretch her legs a bit.

erica and lexi-1

erica and lexi-2

After about an hour in the park, we picked Andrea up and went out to eat – again – this time at the Cheesecake Factory, since Andrea was starved. Erica cringed at the idea of turning around and going to another restaurant, but I explained that if I had to stuff more food down my throat just to be able to spend some time together with her sister, then that’s exactly what I’d do.

The meal was uneventful. Conversation started out strained but polite, and since there was no screaming or throwing of cutlery, I put this meeting in the Win column. I actually got a smile or two out of her when she momentarily forgot that she was still upset with me. A little bit of progress. I’ll take it. Of course, as I type this a week later, I just got a hostile response to a text message I sent her, so what are you going to do?

After eating, Erica needed to get some new shoes, so the three of us went to a nearby shoe store. For some reason, I decided to buy a new pair of casual summer shoes, too, thinking that it’s been years since I bought a pair of shoes anywhere other than a thrift shop, and I thought it would be a nice time to treat myself. Andrea helped me pick out which of three different pairs I’d honed in on. We were having a nice moment.

As I was trying them on, Andrea said, “Why are you wearing a ring? Are you married?”  Oh boy, here we go. At this point, I figured any good vibes were going to disappear. Recently, George and I have started wearing matching rings – maybe a kind of pre-engagement commitment ring of sorts; nothing fancy, just an inexpensive stainless steel band that we wear on our right ring fingers.

“No, I’m not married.”

“Well, that’s an interesting choice of fingers you’re wearing it on. Are you engaged?”

“No, I’m not engaged, Andrea. It just means I have a boyfriend; nothing more, nothing less.”

She walked away. I braced myself for the shitstorm that I assumed was imminent, but to my surprise, it never came, and the mood remained moderately pleasant in the car.

All too soon, I had to go, moving on from Columbus to Oberlin. During my time in Columbus, I learned that Andrea was flying back to Europe on that Friday. It was bad enough that I was barely able to see her at all during her stay, I wanted to at least be able to see her off at the airport. But I knew that even asking that on this day would be pushing it, so I decided to wait and follow up with her later. I’d just have to keep my fingers crossed for now. On to the next stop.

***

Oberlin has accidentally become an important place for me in the unfolding story of LGBTQ issues over the past year and a half. I was out here, among the violin makers, before I was completely, officially out everywhere. It was while I was at Oberlin last year that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow ministers to officiate same-sex marriages if it were legal in their state and if their conscience directed them to do so. They also passed an amendment to their constitution to change the definition of marriage from being between “a man and a woman” to being between “two people.” I was sitting in the dormitory room in Asia House on campus, watching live streaming of the floor debate and vote when those measures passed. And this year, I would be here awaiting the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, potentially bringing marriage equality to all states. So even beyond the company I keep while I’m there, Oberlin is a special place to me.

I got there just after 9:00. Just outside of town, I discovered that the charger for my phone had failed somewhere along the line, and it had gone completely dead, leaving me unable to call George to let him know when I’d be getting there, or to find out where on campus he was, or to get him to let me into the locked dormitory. I stopped and bought a new charger, but the phone was so dead it wouldn’t even let me turn it back on, let alone make a quick call. I guess I lucked out a bit; when I pulled into the parking lot I could access the WiFi with my laptop and I emailed him to let him know I’d gotten there and my phone situation. We finally got together, and with just enough time to run over to the Cowhaus, an excellent ice cream shop in town, which just happened to be featuring Two Scoop Tuesday, a great two-for-one deal.

Wednesday morning, George and I stopped in at the Slow Train Cafe for a danish and coffee breakfast, before he had to get to his morning workshop. Besides continuing work on a violin he has in progress, George’s big thing this year is to learn a new antiquing method for his instruments. He currently uses a method that had been taught over the past few years at Oberlin by Antoine Nedelec and Jeff Phillips, violin makers from Dallas and Salt Lake City, respectively. This year, the workshop is featuring a different technique, being taught by Stephan von Baehr, who operates a shop in Paris. Nedelec has given von Baehr the nickname “The Animal” based on the relatively intense methods he uses in his antiquing process.

Stephan von Baehr leading a workshop on his method of antiquing an instrument

Stephan von Baehr leading a workshop on his method of antiquing an instrument

While we were in the Slow Train, Emilio, one of von Baehr’s assistants, also stopped in. He had forgotten his wallet and didn’t have any cash, so I gave him a few dollars so he could get a coffee and a muffin. Afterward, I briefly stopped into the workshop with George to reacquaint myself with some of the people I remembered from last year, and to meet some new people as well. Before heading to Oberlin, George had been in contact with Bill Sloan, one of the other attendees – of whom I’ll say more later. George would be arriving before Bill, so Bill asked George to save him a workbench near the presentation space in the workshop, so he could get a good view of the antiquing sessions.

After the brief socializing, I said goodbye to George and decided to go sightseeing. As I mentioned before, Oberlin has a number of works by noted architects – many by Cass Gilbert, a theater by Wallace Harrison, two buildings by Minoru Yamasaki, a museum addition by Postmodernist guru Robert Venturi, and a number of lesser-known but still very accomplished architects. I’m not sure where the Frank Lloyd Wright house is – no doubt out in the countryside outside of town – but I’ll have to hunt it down the next time I’m there. So, George fiddled – or at least, made a fiddle – while I got to know the town a little better.

Someon bearing an uncanny resemblance to Donald Sutherland peering down from a column capital in the colonade of Asia House

Someone bearing an uncanny resemblance to Donald Sutherland peering down from a column capital in the colonnade of Asia House

One of the neat things about the workshop is that the group works in teams to prepare their own dinners each day. Some of the teams can get really into their menus, and there’s special recognition for the best culinary effort of the gathering.

Kitchen duty. George's team provided dinner during the first week, before I arrived in town

Kitchen duty. George’s team provided dinner during the first week, before I arrived in town

The violin makers cook and eat at Baldwin Cottage, and on Wednesday, they had invited the bow makers – a separate group who were meeting at Oberlin during the same period – to share dinner with them.

Baldwin Cottage on Wednesday afternoon. Only the cooler on the front steps gives a clue to the good times about to play out on the lawn in a little while.

The weather was sunny and dry, and they had decided to set up tables on the front lawn.  Pete Goodfellow, one of the attendees from Australia, had prepared several water-cooler jugs’ worth of Mojitos to get things started, accompanied by some delicious appetizers of small servings of gazpacho and some kind of baked potato thing that was very good. Before dinner, the group got into some fun and games, trying to see who could cut through a log with a two-person saw the fastest and thinnest; who could carry the log around a predetermined course the quickest,  and a kind of tug-of-war while perched atop some precarious little stools:

vsa tug of war

Stepstool Tug-of-War. I did mention Mojitos were involved, didn’t I?

Dinner this evening was, as usual, incredible – a Thai curry dish, beet salad, orange and pomegranate salad, couscous with lamb, and panna cotta with blueberry sauce for dessert.

Wednesday's dinner - thanks to Chris Ulbricht for the picture

Wednesday’s dinner – thanks to Chris Ulbricht for the picture

It was a great end to a great day. After dinner, I think George and I went to a shop downtown and I bought an Oberlin T shirt. We also stopped back at Cowhaus, wondering if, since they had a Two-Scoop Tuesday, they also had Wonderful Wednesday or something like that. Unfortunately, it was just Regular Old Wednesday, but we still got some ice cream, and then George got back to the workshop while I just hung out a bit.

George in the midst of some antiquing on his instrument, in the

George in the midst of some antiquing on his instrument, in the “Scratchatorium” – the workshop where the makers distressed the finishes on their instruments to artificially age them, using an assortment of wire brushes, stones, and even a meat cleaver, to achieve a realistic appearance of a hundred years or more of age on the instrument

On Thursday, while George continued his activities, I checked out the Allen Memorial Art Museum, which had a relatively small but extremely impressive collection of paintings, sculpture, and other works from many different ancient cultures through modern and postmodern works.

alan art museum oberlin

The Allen Memorial Art Museum – the Cass Gilbert original building to the left, the Robert Venturi addition to the right

The violin makers’ workshops were actually in the lower level of the Venturi addition to the Allen, in what’s usually the sculpture studio, a woodworking shop, and other ancillary spaces.

I also tried to get through to Andrea via text, to ask her if I could be at the airport to see her off the next morning. I was shocked that she not only agreed, but she also invited me to go to breakfast with her and Erica before she had to check in at Port Columbus at 10:00. This was a very good thing.

At some point during the day, we also went back to  the shop where I’d bought the T shirt. I had inadvertently picked up the wrong size and needed to replace it. They were out of my size in the style I’d bought, but they had a similar design in the right size and we got the exchange taken care of.

I don’t actually see much of George during the days at Oberlin. That isn’t a complaint; it’s just an observation. The violin makers often work until late at night, and even sometimes into the wee hours of the morning, just enjoying the unique example of collaboration and collegiality that the event is. George kept trying to explain what the schedule was like, almost apologetically, and I had to keep reminding him that I completely understood the nature of the gathering – in fact, it reminded me very much of the magic, the energy, and the creativity of my experiences in my architecture design studios back in my days at Penn State. I love checking in on what George and the others are doing in the workshop periodically, but I’m very much aware that I’m an outsider – a welcomed outsider, as far as I’ve ever experienced, but an outsider nonetheless – so when I stop in for a visit, I try hard to stay out of people’s way, to largely be a fly on the wall and to be as relatively invisible as possible. I remember how nice it was to have someone stop by to visit in the architecture studios and to see what you were up to, but there was always more work to do, and the next deadline always looming, so after a visitor had been there for a while, they brought as much pleasure in their departure as they had in their arrival. Despite my interest in what they’re doing, and my fascination with their talent and the beauty of their craft, I try really hard to not be “that guy” when I’m there.

Thursday’s dinner was just as delicious as Wednesday’s. But while some of the makers also have great culinary skills – at least one of them was a former chef – not all of them shine in the kitchen, so on this day dinner came from a restaurant in town – an excellent little Korean restaurant that George and I had actually had lunch at the day before. At this point, I can’t even remember everything on the menu, but suffice it to say it was all fantastic, and there was more than we could possibly eat. On Thursday of the second week, the group also typically gives out various awards – the best meal, the winners in some of the fun activities, etc. George was tapped to make the presentation to Chris Germain, the head of the VSA, for having organized the event once again. A good time was had by all.

I think it was about this time that George and I had to make a run into Amherst, the next town to the north of Oberlin, to a hardware store for something he needed. In the process, we also found a Giant Eagle grocery store. I took the opportunity to stop in and buy another gallon of Lemon Blennd concentrate. Lemon Blennd is a Pittsburgh-area tradition, at least for people of my age. It’s a sweet, lemon-orange-flavored concoction that is absolutely, incredibly thirst-quenching over ice in the summer. I learned in adulthood that it’s also a pretty good mixer with whiskey or bourbon. In any case, I’d just finished my last gallon of concentrate, and I knew that Giant Eagle, being a Pittsburgh-based operation, sold it, so I took the opportunity to pick some up since it isn’t available anywhere in Auburn.

Nectar of yunz gods

Nectar of yunz gods

Later, George went back to the workshop. I knew he was going to be there late; in fact, he hadn’t gotten back in by the time I had to leave the next morning for Columbus.

***

I got into town just a little after 8:00. As things developed, the breakfast got nixed because Andrea had gotten very little sleep the night before, and she still hadn’t quite finished packing. It also ended up being helpful if I drove her to the airport, which I was more than happy to do. I helped her finish packing, and weighing her bag to make sure it would be under the airline maximum. During all this, she actually seemed very much at ease and pleasant.  Just before leaving, she remembered she was supposed to bring some basic gardening gloves with her to the archaeological dig she was headed for, so we stopped at a convenience store along the way and picked some up for her. She also thought it would be helpful to have a pair of sunglasses, and all of a sudden the inexpensive pair I had in the car – which she’d teased me about the other day – seemed to be pretty nice, and she asked if she could take them along with her. I told her of course she could. “Thanks, Pops.” That was the first time I’d gotten called that in a long time. It was nice.

It was just about ten when she was checking in, and that was also the time the Supreme Court was supposed to release its ruling in Obergefell, the same-sex marriage case. As we stood in line, I quickly checked my phone and saw that the ruling had just been released, and in favor of marriage equality. I quickly flashed the phone to Erica, but didn’t say anything to Andrea about what would be a touchy topic for her. So technically, I wasn’t in Oberlin when I got word about the decision, but this was all part of the same trip.

After that, things went smoothly. I at least got a hug before Andrea disappeared through the TSA security. I dropped Erica back off, we said our goodbyes, and I was northbound again.

When I got back to Oberlin, the violin makers were in the midst of their end-of-the-event discussion of what went well, what didn’t, how things might improve for next year, etc. After that, George and I did one last special Oberlin thing. I’d mentioned an attendee named Bill Sloan earlier. Bill is a doctor from Los Angeles, who just happens to own two wonderful violins – the 1714 “Jackson” Stradivarius, and a Guarneri del Gesu dating from 1742, if I recall correctly. You can catch a short video of these two beautiful instruments being played together here. Bill had brought both of the instruments with him to Oberlin, and he and George had made arrangements to play the Bach Double Concerto for Violin on the two violins. So Friday evening, the two of them sat down in the front parlor of Baldwin Cottage and played – a little tenuously at first, since they hadn’t practiced at all together, but by the second movement, they’d found their groove. It was really a magical experience – George on the Strad and Bill on the del Gesu. Sitting there, listening to them playing on two of the finest violins in the world, I was grateful for just how lucky and blessed I was to be there.

George and Bill Bach Double

I got a chance to examine the instruments up close, to compare them and ask questions about some of the details of each of them. Of course, I was very nervous just holding these instruments. In getting a picture of me with the Strad, I was holding it out away from me, almost as if it were radioactive. Bill laughed and stepped in, saying “Oh come on, hold it up close to you like it’s yours and you love it!” I still felt a little nervous, but the second picture was much better:

me and jackson strad

The Jackson Strad

When they finished, Bill took off for Cleveland to attend a concert. George and I went down to The Feve, a nice restaurant/bar in town, to get a bit to eat and hang out with some of the crew on the last night there. After dinner, we headed upstairs where a large group of the makers were gathered around two long tabletops enjoying several pitchers of beer. When we walked in, someone called for a toast for George and me. That was heartwarming, but I don’t want to get a swelled head – by that point of the evening and with the beer flowing, I suspect they’d have drunk a toast to the paint on the wall. Still, it felt good, and almost before we could sit down, there were glasses of beer sitting in front of us, which was nice. It was a great way to celebrate both the end of another two-week VSA workshop, as well as the terrific news coming out of the Supreme Court earlier that same day.

***

Saturday morning, it was time to leave Oberlin and head to Toronto, to wrap up the week at George’s and to also celebrate the end of Pride Week, and to catch the Pride Parade while in town. This would actually be the first Pride parade I’d gone to, and since it was still part of my Big Gay Year, I figured I’d do it large in Toronto, versus a smaller local one. George was insistent that he get on the road first, so he could get to the condo first and clean up a bit. Apparently, things had gotten out of hand as he rushed to get things ready to leave, so he wanted a bit of time to make the place presentable. It was pouring rain when we left – as it had been several times while we were there. We’d both gotten on the road relatively early in the morning, and the drive up was just nasty, with hard, driving rain, and very high winds while crossing the Peace Bridge, really pushing the car around as I was making the crossing.  Also, just as I hit the Buffalo area, I discovered that the phone charger I’d just bought a few days earlier had crapped out on me, and my phone was almost about to completely die again. Of course, as I’m battling the wind, the rain, and a phone just about ready to become a paperweight, I get a call from Erica. I quickly ascertained that she wasn’t calling for any emergency, and I told her my predicament and that I’d call her back as soon as I could.

Once across the border, the rain let up a slight bit, and I pulled into the first place I could to get yet another charger. Then, while sitting in the parking lot, I called Erica back.

“Hey, I just wanted to say that it didn’t really sink in what you were showing me on your phone when we were at the airport yesterday. I didn’t see anything about the SCOTUS decision until today. I just wanted to say congratulations.”

After making some joke about it really not being anything I had a hand in, I agreed that yes, it was a pretty big deal, and that while there’s still a long way to go for full equality, I was really happy about it.

“So, I couldn’t help but notice that you’re wearing a ring. Are you engaged?” Here we go again.

“No, we’re not engaged.”

To be honest, I was trying to avoid getting into the subject. But she kept discussing it, and I finally blurted out what I was originally trying not to.

“Well honey, the truth is that George and I have discussed what the future may hold for us. We are moving in that direction, but we both have some things to take care of before we take that step. George would have some business-related things to take care of, and of course, there would be legal implications about being citizens of two different countries that we’d have to research. For my part, I have to find a permanent, installed call; an interim pastor’s position is unstable enough for one person; it isn’t anything to invite a second person to pull up stakes and join into the insanity. Most importantly though, I need to try to work on my relationship with you and your sister, to try to strengthen those first.”

“Well you don’t have to worry about me; I’m OK with it. As far as Andrea, she’ll eventually come around, but honestly, you shouldn’t tie your happiness and getting on with your life to whether or not she approves.”

Hm. I wish it really were that simple.

The truth is, as I finally admitted to her, I’d almost actually proposed to George at Oberlin the day before. Yes, we know we have these issues to work out first, and we know that because of it an engagement might be a little longer than most. But with the great news of the day, and with all of George’s international friends there in town to be able to be a part of it, I came within a hair’s breadth of officially proposing to him at Oberlin. Looking down the road, I even considered a potential wedding date just the day after some future workshop ended, so his international associates could just tack an extra day onto their trip and be part of the wedding, too.

“Oh no, you don’t want to propose like that! That’s lame; you can come up with a better way to do it than that!”

“Um, OK, so by this, I’m assuming that you’re OK being around George now?”

“Yeah, I’m OK with it; just for a while make sure there’s someone else around, too, because it’s still just a little awkward since I don’t know him well enough yet, but over time that will work out.”

I really don’t have words to convey how good this conversation made me feel. We talked a bit more, but I really did have to get back on the road, so I finally had to say goodbye.

“OK, I’ll talk to you later, I love you to death, and when the time’s right to propose, you talk to me and I’ll give you some ideas for how to do it right!”

I really, really love this young woman.

But now, on to Toronto.

***

It had been snowing in Santa Barbara since the top of the page (extra points, not to mention birthday candles, to you if you understand that reference) – well actually, it had been raining in Toronto since I got into town. Of course, my new phone was somehow not configured to work across the border, so I couldn’t call George and let him know I was downstairs, outside his extremely security-conscious building. I did finally get into the lobby, where someone called up to let him know I’d arrived. After I got my car parked in guest parking and my stuff upstairs, we called Customer Support and got the phone to work.

Toronto had been celebrating Gay Pride all the past week with a number of events, all culminating with the parade scheduled for Sunday. Saturday evening, George and I went to a little Izakaya-style Japanese restaurant just behind his building. It was excellent food, but we were still hungry afterward, so we walked a block over into the Church & Wellesley  Village and loaded up on some onion rings from a Hero Burger. Also, in my rush when packing, I’d forgotten a jacket, so we looked around for a place where I could pick up just a basic, inexpensive one, but we never found one.

An even more significant disappointment was that as we were walking down Church Street, we discovered that the Timothy’s Coffee shop had closed. I’m no coffee snob, but I really do like Timothy’s coffee, and I try to keep a bag of it at home pretty much at all times. It’s very good coffee, but what was always more important to me was what it represented. Timothy’s – and this particular store – was a favorite hangout. Any time I’d get into Toronto, you could be sure that George and I would end up there before the night was out. Oberlin has some significance to me in my gay journey, and this coffee shop in the heart of the Gay Village did, too. This was the very first place that I felt completely comfortable holding George’s hand in public, or giving him a kiss, without having to scan my surroundings for fear of becoming the next gay-bashing statistic. Timothy’s was our first “safe place,” where I could feel like part of a perfectly normal couple just like anyone else. And while there are other places where I feel that same level of comfort now, this was the first place. And now it’s gone. Crap.

At the same time, I learned via Facebook that a somewhat distant cousin, whom I’d never actually met in person, was also in Toronto for Pride, so we tried to make arrangements to meet for lunch or something while we were both in town. Meanwhile, George and I went back to his place and watched a movie or two and just stayed inside, out of the wind and near-horizontal rain, hoping the weather would improve the next day.

Sunday wasn’t nearly as bad as Saturday. The wind had calmed to almost nothing, and the rain wasn’t heavy, but most of the day came with a near-constant misty rain – never really enough to make you think you’re getting very wet, until you realize after a couple hours you’re soaked completely through, and it really isn’t as warm as you thought earlier on. At least that was my experience throughout the day.

We did manage to meet up with my cousin and his partner for lunch, to talk a bit and watch some of the parade together. The actual relationship between us is that his father and mine are cousins, making the two of us second cousins once removed, or in more common terminology, total strangers. He’s part of my paternal grandmother’s family. She died shortly before I was even born, and because so many in that family had spread pretty wide geographically, I never got to know many of them, which I wish wasn’t the case. So it was nice to meet him and his partner – who, coincidentally, are both named Matt, which I imagine must get confusing at times.

After watching a bit of the parade together, the Matts went their own way and we went ours. They had other friends in town that they were trying to meet up with, and frankly, I couldn’t imagine a couple of male-modelish twenty- and thirty-something guys having a worse time at Pride than spending it talking with two fifty-somethings they didn’t even know. They seemed to be having trouble contacting their friends; I hope they eventually found one another.

George and I were able to work our way right up to the guard railing and actually had a pretty good place to watch the rest of the parade. It was fun. There were lots of floats and marchers, including different student groups, unions, churches; there were representatives from just about any group you could imagine.

One of the things that’s changed with Pride parades over time, as public acceptance of the LGBTQ community has increased, is that they’ve gotten a lot more “family-friendly” and less, well, in-your-face. This is both good and bad: good due to where the change is coming from, and that it can be a much more welcoming event to include more of the family in; but also bad, because there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done – more here in the U.S. than in Toronto, unfortunately – with regard to full equality, and whether one likes it or not, ultimately the in-your-face efforts are sometimes necessary to jolt people into awareness and action. As Joan Baez said, “It isn’t nice to stand in the door/ It isn’t nice to go to jail/ There are nicer ways to do things/ But the nice ways always fail.” I don’t know about “always,” but she had a valid point. So, given the amount of work yet to be done, I make at least a case for what I’d call “purposeful” in-your-facedness – but despite that, I’m not a big fan of gratuitous shock that doesn’t make an ideological or political point any deeper than “because I can;” in my opinion, those kinds of things only serve to hurt greater LGBTQ acceptance. We didn’t see the entire parade, but we did catch most of it, and in all that we saw, most of the participants were completely PG rated, not even PG-13. I think there were only two groups that would have risen to R-level. One was a pickup truck filled with foam and a bunch of nearly naked but apparently very clean people; and the other was a local group of naturists insanely marching together through the cold and rain in their official non-uniform. If you remember the TV show “Friends,” they occasionally made reference to Ugly Naked Guy, who lived in an apartment across the street from them. Apparently, UNG retired and moved to Toronto, where this day he was pushing himself around on a razor scooter through the entire parade. No pictures of this. You’re welcome.

But there are a few other pictures:

Proud farmers

Proud farmers

Foam rubber hair

Foam rubber hair

Asphalt-shaking bass. Thump, thump, thump, thump...

Asphalt-shaking bass. Thump, thump, thump, thump…

Proud librarians, carrying signs with literary themes

Proud librarians, carrying signs with literary themes

Not really accurate, but he couldn't help himself

Not really accurate, but he couldn’t help himself

Beads, beads, beads for everybody!

Beads, beads, beads for everybody!

Proud drummers of some kind or another

Proud drummers of some kind or another

Proud engineers. This was actually George's old student engineering association from the University of Waterloo.

Proud engineers. This was actually George’s old student engineering association from the University of Waterloo.

And more engineers.

And more engineers.

Proud Anglicans. Blimy!

Proud Anglicans. Blimey!

And finally, a truckload of proud attorneys, as it turns out.

And finally, a truckload of proud attorneys, as it turns out.

Finally, the parade wrapped up. It was a great time, but by this point I was completely waterlogged, and we tried – unsuccessfully – to find a jacket again. Ah, well, time to just go home and dry off.

After all of this, it was time to turn south and get back to Auburn. I came back into the States via – appropriately enough – the Rainbow Bridge. After declaring that I had nothing to declare to the Customs agent, she was apparently skeptical and had me pop the trunk. The shoes that I’d bought in Columbus, and the jug of Lemon Blennd were in the trunk. Coming back around to the kiosk, the raised her eyebrows and asked, “Are you sure you didn’t buy anything in Canada?” “No, not on this trip.” Momentary pause… “OK, go on through.” Passing through Niagara Falls, the falls themselves and a number of other things in town were lit with rainbow colors, maybe in honor of the SCOTUS decision, maybe just because they thought it was pretty. Either way, it was nice. But now it was time to get home.

And more bonus points for you if you got this reference.

And more bonus points for you if you got this reference.

I didn’t roll into Auburn until about 1:00am, and I needed to be at work by noon, so I immediately crawled into bed. End of the vacation.

So now I’m sitting here, more than a week later writing this recap of the vacation. My suitcase is still sitting on the bedroom floor, not quite fully unloaded. Other than that, I’m back into the normal routine of things. There had been enough going on during the week that when I did get back into the office, I actually had to think for a split second what my office email password was. That’s probably a sign that the vacation was just the right length of time. It was a really eventful week, one that I won’t soon forget. But now, it’s time to get back to what one person dubbed “the relentless return of Sunday.” Goodbye, Columbus. Goodbye, Oberlin. Goodbye, Toronto. Hello, Auburn.