This month is Gay Pride Month. While I know several friends who are gay, “gay pride” is particularly special to me because my dad is gay. I not only grew up during a time when discovering who you really are and being open about it wasn’t as celebrated as it is today, but it was compounded by the doctrines of conservative church cultures, something that made a profound impact on my childhood and my relationship with my dad for many years.
The story goes like this: My dad has been gay his entire life. It is a tiny part of who he is as a person, but it is also a big part of who he is, evident by the many years he tried to hide that part of himself from all those that loved him and all those he loved. My dad’s father was the international bishop of the Free Methodist Church for many years, and my dad followed his footsteps, went to seminary and became an ordained pastor in the Free Methodist Church as well (which, for the record, does not allow openly gay pastors, from the FMC pastoral response to sexual orientation that proclaims: “In this area, homosexual behavior cannot be seen as part of God’s intended role for human sexual expression, regardless of a person’s attraction”). My very young childhood memories involve many happy and nostalgic memories of church–watching my dad preach and my mom play the piano for Sunday services, church potlucks and choir programs, Sunday school lessons taught with flannelgraph figures of a kind-looking bearded Jesus and children on his lap. Overall, I felt safe and loved and protected by a greater being who loved the world like his own child. While I disagree with many things the FMC doctrine teaches, I am grateful for the foundation of God’s love it gave (and still gives) my family. I graduated from Spring Arbor University, a Free Methodist college; and by that time, I was openly challenging issues of homosexuality and the church in class with a few professors who were open and understanding in listening and discussing it.
When I was eight, my parents separated, ultimately because my dad is gay. It was a hard and awful separation for our entire family, but thank goodness I was loved through it. Understandably, my mom was devastated and hurt and turned to what she knew her entire life to bring her comfort and direction–the Bible and the church. The church that took us in and helped her rebuild her life (non-denominational, not affiliated with our former FMC foundation and clearly–as I recognize now–a straight-up cult) taught us that God hated sin, that homosexuality was a sin, and that God demanded we separate from my dad–not eat with him, not accept his gifts, not laugh with him or have fun with him. They told us to pray that he would get AIDS as God’s punishment, because maybe that would bring him back to God. I was nine by the time we had made weekend visitation with my dad such hell (I’ll spare you the memories, but it was the worst year of my entire life) that it ended. My dad ended it–called and said, if we were miserable and courts and church people were going to be involved in the battle, he wasn’t going to make us see him. Secretly, I missed him terribly.
I should add that this was initiated by the church, not my mom. There are so many things about divorce and infidelity and–especially at that time–homosexuality that cause so much pain, especially in the church (my mom’s father was also a Free Methodist pastor). My mom lost everything she loved and in a way that was full of shame–people didn’t talk about this stuff. She was heartbroken in a way I will never understand. But she always remained a quiet loving, nurturing presence in my life–exactly who she is today. She loves and mothers so well. And I love her so much for how she withstood those years by herself and for how she loved us.
My dad went on those years, discovering who he was and building a life with Gary but still keeping it from his parents and his brothers, although I assume it was a loose family secret (he’s written a little about it on the blog here). Years later, I’d reach out to him–a stranger at that point–and get to know him all over again. I never thought we’d end up where we are now–best friends–and there are many times when I watch him with my children and think, “You thought you’d be fatherless…look at what you have.”
Whether or not it’s a gay stereotype, I love that my dad loves Barbra Streisand and Eva Cassidy, and yes, can decorate and arrange flowers but so can a lot of other men who aren’t gay. When I was in college, my dad and Gary took me to my first Cher concert. In the spirit of Cher, I dressed up as her–full on long black wig (hair flip), false eyelashes and silver sparkles everywhere. When I found myself walking with my dad and Gary by my side, in an arena among thousands of other gay men who also loved Cher, I’ll admit I got stopped by many who said, “Oh honey, you’re good. You actually look like a woman.” To which I replied, “because I am a woman”–and they’d walk away, laughing, with a “yeah, right.” What I’m most proud of though, is that my dad is true to himself, despite the fact that he grew up in a culture where the life he lives today was something to be hidden and tucked away. To love somebody and share a life with them and not be able to invite your family to see that? I can’t imagine how hard that would be.
I’ve not done a good job at concealing my contempt of The Church as a whole in my writing or even in funneling that contempt to a greater understanding of people’s love and loyalty to the establishment of church. In fact, I’ve discussed a church memoir many times with my agent, but always walk away from that project, knowing I’m not in a place to write it at this point in my life. Good storytelling ends up turning in to a soapbox for me, trying to prove something and convince people to think like I do–and it doesn’t feel good to me. I’ve been working on it, and I’m definitely more understanding today than I used to be. The world is flawed; people are flawed. Churches tend to the wounded in beautiful ways, raise millions upon millions of dollars to feed the hungry and shelter the poor and remain a safe place for many to turn to when they have nowhere else to turn. I’m so thankful for the good work of good people, both inside and outside of the church; whether for the sake of the work of God or simply for the sake of human kindness. I do know one thing–my faith and my love of God and people, my understanding of myself and this world, and my ability to love the way God intended me to love is fullest, brightest and most beautiful when I practice it in the open daisy-filled fields outside the walls of church where the blue sky stretches around the entire face of this earth and is shared equally among beating hearts. Everyone on Oprah gets a new car. You get to get married, and you get to get married and YOU get to get married. You’re a part of our club, and you’re a part of our club, and YOU’RE a part of our club. You get to go to heaven for accepting who God made you to be, and you get to go to heaven for accepting who God made you to be, and YOU get to go to heaven for accepting who God made you to be.
All that to say, I’ve been wanting to interview my dad on the blog for a long time–about being gay and his stance on the church he still loves. In a polarized political and spiritual culture, I think his voice is important. He’s still a conservative man…who happens to be gay. My sister and I, the liberals of the family, have a lot of discussions with him about some of these matters, some that get a little passionate. We march in the gay parades while my dad chooses to watch us march for him. He applauds our marching even though he doesn’t like to do the parade thing himself. His gay advocacy is subtle; ours is loud. In all forms of advocacy, I’m realizing both are important.
I began this interview with several phone calls to my dad, asking him if he was comfortable writing about it, telling him the kind of things I wanted to talk about. It followed with many e-mails and, I admit, some frustration on my end as I felt he was protective and too understanding of the church and his friends deeply rooted in ultra conservative opinions (“Dad, they straight-up think you’re going to hell and vehemently make efforts to make sure you don’t have the same rights to what they cherish.”). I felt he wasn’t stepping up to the mic to advocate when given a chance, but I understand him better now. Some of the things in his answers I never knew and cried reading about. Some of my questions didn’t get answered in any straightforward way but rather buried in stories. I tried going back and editing questions a bit but have decided to keep our discussion as it happened. Some of it is disjointed, stream-of-consciousness writing, but there’s truth in all of it and the way it’s told. I’m sure there are contradictions on both of our approaches, but the world and people at large are riddled with contradictions. I’m okay with that. The bottom line is that I love my people–all of them; my family and friends in the church, my mom, my dad, people who think like me, people who don’t. I want to be better at understanding, I want to be better at loving.
So here we go. My part of the conversation is in bold, my dad’s responses in italics.
We have a lot of ground to cover here, but let’s go back to the beginning. There are so many arguments out there of nature vs. nurture, homosexuality as a choice vs. something you were born with, and biblical stances of it being a “temptation” that you must resist. You are the youngest son of four boys, the baby of a highly respected family in the church when you were growing up, the son of a pastor and bishop of the Free Methodist faith, the artsy one in a family of athletes, and later an ordained pastor in a denomination that believes homosexuality is not part of God’s intended role for human sexual expression. What is your first memory of any attraction to men and when and how did you finally identify as being gay?
It’s strange, Gary tells me he always knew. I didn’t. It wasn’t something I was even aware existed, growing up in a home quite lovingly insulated from a real world. We had no friends who smoked, drank, danced or went to movies. And you can be sure, we knew no one homosexual. We had no lack of love, no neglect in guidance–my childhood was happy and full. I was more comfortable with my mom than dad–but that’s true of most children. I was afraid of making mistakes in front of him. But I loved him and never doubted his love for me. I wasn’t athletic and hated competitive sports. My most uncomfortable moments were spent standing in a line with neighborhood friends as two captains alternated and chose their teams. I knew I’d be last to be chosen, in spite of friendship. I brought nothing to the game. But I never wanted to play with dolls or dress up like a girl–it’s not like that at all. My awakening would come many years later after I had dived into the current of everyone’s dream–go to college, find a wife, have a baby. I would never have married had I known. I would never have done that to another. It happened when I was in seminary. It came out of nowhere, in a mall, in Lexington, Kentucky when a very nice looking young man made an advance on me and in that moment, a life of not knowing suddenly knew. Very little happened in that encounter. But a string was pulled and a light was lit that showed me someone I first loathed and began to hide and deny. I actually thought about ending my life. I was almost to graduate, respected, married, a new and proud father, held in promise to do great things. It was odd–in that moment I could look back and see things I didn’t understand at the time. The college guy who drove my school bus that I would stare at in the big mirror above his handsome head. It wasn’t sexual thoughts I’d have, it was wondering what it felt like to be him. Was that a first crush? Or the good friend I had in high school–we even exchanged Christmas presents. Again, it was nothing physical–I hadn’t a clue, but did I love him? For the next years, mine was the silent, secret battle of suppression. Relationships were sabotaged by my pervading persuasion “If they knew me, they wouldn’t love me.” So I never believed they really did. I knew I wasn’t worthy. I hid. I always worried someone would know. I hated the sensitive in me, the gentleness, the artistic and expressive me. They weren’t characters that distinguished me–they were clues that might discover me. This was my life. I had made my choice.
Through those years of suppression and denial, hiding and hating myself, there would be isolated incidents–mostly accidental but sometimes arranged, where I would be with another man. Quick, anonymous, disconnected, emotionless. I allowed myself nothing more. The prelude was heart racing excitement; the postlude regret and shame. Like the transformer toys my son played with, I reconfigured myself and slipped seamlessly back into a life I truly loved with people I absolutely adored, believing the two worlds, the two people could never, ever meet. No one in the church talked about these things, except in cruel jokes or raw disdain. To reveal my struggle would be to ruin my world, with kind Christian smiles, prudent decisions by best interest boards with prayerful discernment–oh, and whispers by everyone, everywhere. Not to mention the hurt of two parents I loved and respected, entwined in the same churchy webwork.
I’m not a mystic. I’m not much for visions and voices. But I had a dream. A Dream. It was a turning point, a pivot, a moment large and lasting. I was preparing a sermon. I had chosen my scriptural text. Or maybe, it chose me. II Corinthians 4:7: “We have this treasure in vessels of clay…”. I had completed my message, but in the night, I had a profound dream. I’ve never forgotten it. I cry when I tell others about it. I truly feel it a vision. It was sketchy, but I had these clay pots. I was responsible for them. Someone was coming to inspect them. Someone large and important. And suddenly, I noticed, there were cracks and broken pieces on them. So I frantically began to turn and position each one of them so this Important One wouldn’t see the flaws and imperfections. And then, He was there. He caught me turning and hiding the cracks. And he asked, “What are you doing?” His voice extracted truth. There was no bluffing, no spinning a response. He seemed to pull the honest response from within me: “I am turning them so you can’t see the cracks.” And his voice, so loving and affirming, said “Leave them alone, for that is where I flow out of you.” And I was free. To be. To know I wasn’t to hide. I was to be broken. Beautifully broken. We all are. Turned. That was the beginning. I would have to return to this vision and remember this voice again. And again. And let Him flow. Through my brokenness. My beautiful brokenness.
Meeting Gary was sweet innocence. It was nothing lurid, clandestine, cloaked. We met at a health club. Fully clothed. We talked a bit. I could tell you what he was wearing. A white sweat shirt with a aqua and peach Detroit logo. I liked his smile. Our conversation moved to the parking lot. We somehow exchanged phone numbers. I told him I was married. We parted ways. But his smile stayed with me. He called. I didn’t have the nerve. We met for lunch and talked some more. It seemed I’d known him all my life, or maybe just wished I had. There, I was real. When I left, I put my costume on. I told him that I couldn’t do this. He said it was okay. I tried not to call him. But I called him. I really called me. It seemed I was where he was. It was effortless to be with him. It was like where I always belonged. While my heart felt finally at home in meeting Gary, it was also deeply torn in the love I felt for who was back at home–my wife and children. I truly did love my wife. Together, we had woven so many memories from the years before the children to the present. She was, even in the loneliness of my hiding, my very best friend. It may sound strange, but there’s not another woman who could have pulled my heart from hers. While I knew it couldn’t be and shouldn’t be, I just wanted a great big house where we could all live forever together.
You know the scriptures people use to proclaim homosexuality as a sin–something that will send you to hell–and the arguments in favor of fighting legalized gay marriage, holding church office, etc. I know you’re very understanding of the other side, but I’m not as understanding. I’ve seen a lot of conservative people who are out there crusading on social media against gay marriage and proclaiming homosexuality as a sin as if that’s their mountain to die on. Nevermind, there’s evil everywhere and far “worse” things happening in the world, but this is their mission–fight the good fight of blasting homosexuality on social media. And then they cloak it with “Oh, we love them, but not their sin.” And I guess, it just feels like bigotry to me. I remember when that big media thing happened with Chick-fil-A when the CEO made some statements against gay marriage and it was discovered that they donated a lot of money to organizations seen by LGTB activists as hostile to LGTB rights. There were boycotts, and a day was proclaimed for everyone who wanted to support Chic-fil-A’s stance to eat there. Naples is a conservative town, so of course when I drove by that day, it was packed–cars lined so far, they circled around the building, the parking lot. I wanted to cry, thinking of what it would feel like for you to drive by that. To see that people went out of their way to make a public gesture to make sure their support of gay people not sharing the same right they enjoy is noted. As a man of great faith who often defends the church and people fighting against gay marriage, what’s your take on all this? How does this make you feel?
I love the people of my heritage. I have such respect and reverence for the church–they are good people. If we strive for tolerance and seek acceptance, we must embrace the intolerant and seek to understand the bigoted who will not be changed by laws or litigation, they will be changed by learning and knowing those they fear and condemn. I’ve told Gary, “Sometimes I wonder if our mission and mandate isn’t to live and love visibly. To persuade, not with a protest but a presence. To be honest, answer questions, be open.” And he answers, “Don’t kiss me in public.”
We’ve never felt inclined to march in parades, make posters or circulate petitions. We’re not militant about other issues either. We’re not convinced they persuade mind changing or promote paradigm reversal. We don’t have a problem with those who choose that approach. It’s just not us. It seems to attract the wackos, enlist the angry, distort and dilute the message. Gay Pride parades that feature drag queens, leather men and the nearly naked dancing to “It’s Raining Men” do little to promote inclusion, inspire tolerance and make normal a life and love that isn’t asking to be flamboyant or fashionable, just welcomed next door. We still have friends who tell us, “We hate to admit it, but you’re the first gay couple we’ve ever really known and had in our circle of friends. The fact my husband likes you blows my mind!” Maybe our parade is very little–two of us, walking down your street.
I’m going to pipe in here and say this makes me a little bit sad. But, go on…
First, I love my church–imperfect but evolving, out of touch but reaching, simplistic but sincere. They hold my roots, both my family’s and my faith’s. You may not know it, but that church rescued our family when it called your grandpa from a reckless life and set us on a course of good. Those within that church found security in a set of beliefs, behaviors and boundaries. Through the years, that set has slid as televisions were allowed in parishioners homes and jewelry appeared on their ladies–I remember the first simple necklace your grandma wore–it was a pendant watch. She believed the function justified the bling. Youth were granted permission to dance and go to movies and some even opened the bar at weddings. But I saw the true sadness these changes stirred, the fear the founding faith was being diluted. And I loved those frightened, troubled people. These weren’t mean, resistant people. These were good and godly folks like your grandparents, who surrendered “the world” to salvage their broken lives in this new, redemptive family that had welcomed them in. Each change took time, and slowly they could realize, the church still stands, their heart still stirs. Much was rooted in the understanding of scripture. For instance, to embrace the broader truth of the verse “condemning” the wearing of gold, that is found in the first words “let your beauty be from within.” And to hold high the principles of scripture while recognizing the context of a time and culture far from today. So I still love the spirit of the church, who taught me God loved me and is committed to helping me be all I can be. They just didn’t know all I would become.
Whoa. That last line, man. Truth.
Years ago, when I was married to my wife and the pastor of a church, we were active in children’s ministries. Together, we did creative and entertaining puppet presentations complete with falsetto voices and elaborate props, teaching biblical principles through fun stories. On one occasion, we were crouched behind the thick curtain stage, arms extended with the furry puppets proclaiming the gospel somewhere above us. Suddenly, the curtain structure collapsed. We were exposed. Two adults, on hands and knees, our scripts, pinned to the curtains–gone. A kind crowd of giggling children forgave the faux pas and allowed us to resume the charade. The audience was not so forgiving when, years later, my curtain dropped, my script slipped and I was exposed. I remember thinking, “I am who I’ve always been. What you loved about me yesterday was part of all you now know of me and want me to hide again.” Oddly, I had hidden, not because I loved me but because I loved them, and didn’t think they’d love me any more. One sure love I’ve never doubted nor felt distanced from is God’s. And it seemed to grow in every step i took into honesty and intentional integrity. His voice speaks louder than those who say they speak for Him. His vision is clearer than those who claim they know the way.
A dear friend who was something of an outsider in a church I had been on staff with called me with tragic news one day. Her young son had died. In Chicago. Where he had gone to live. He was a little boy when I was at the church. I’d lost track of him. She told me more about him. She told me he was gay. She had urged him to go to the pastor and talk to him. He did. He was told to pray more. To just live closer to God. It would go away. He went away. To Chicago. Where he died. She asked me if I would have his funeral. At that church. I asked if she had cleared this with the church. She had. I told her yes, and went back to the church, and held his funeral, and told these good people of God’s large embrace, so wide He had a place for Patrick, just the way he was. He didn’t need to go to Boy’s Town in The Windy City. He could have fit right here. He should have fit right here. He had a place. He didn’t have the strength to fight for it. My heart doesn’t get mad at these things. It gets sad. It seems the church has tolerance for the repeated stumbles of the alcoholic, forgiveness for the wandering spouse, a clean slate offered to the lying thief. Their potlucks are filled with the wandering ones. Their narthexes buzz with the cruel gossips. But for the gay, they’re sent away, allowed to stay only if they hide. I know too many sons and daughters of the faithful who are never spoken of, never seen in Facebook feeds, never raised with pride in conversations. Maybe they all went to Chicago.
So let me ask you this though. You are pretty quiet, at least vocally, when it comes to advocating for gay rights and understanding, and I know that you believe strongly that your life with Gary–your kindness, the way you guys don’t “push your lifestyle on other people”, etc. is a testament in itself for advocacy, but don’t you think we still need the loud ones? The gay pride marchers, the ones who are fighting so hard–maybe even the ones who are pissing a lot of people off in the process, the people who never shut up? I guess I look back in history at people who fought for rights–take race, for example–and I think our progress today is due to all the different forms of advocacy. Martin Luther King Jr. was kind and compassionate, but he was out there preaching, marching, not taking no for an answer. I look even at Down syndrome advocacy–there’s a lot of voices out there, and while I’m not talking about Down syndrome every day or snapping every time I hear someone say something that’s not politically correct, there are advocates who do, and I need them. They’re making headway with a group of people, I’m making headway with a different group of people, and we need as many people as we can get to listen and take notice and care. So, would you agree that the gay rights advocates who aren’t as embracing and understanding of intolerant people as you are advocating in an important way? Because, I’m sorry, but the intolerant need to be pushed.
To say something “about them” is to widen the chasm between us and raise the volume on the rally of “Bigot!” “Fag” “Hater” “Queer.” They fight against what they see as a machine, pushing an agenda, forcing acceptance, demanding the perspective of gays be recognized while the principles of conservative believers be silenced. Those crusading initiatives may change laws and establish rights, but they don’t really convert attitudes or promote true understanding. I’m sure there’s a place and purpose for the zealots on both fronts, but that just isn’t us. We have been blessed to finally, always be accepted, privileged to live authentically and openly, and allowed to show our world a committed relationship of tenderness and respect. It didn’t happen earlier because of our own fears of rejection and our hesitation to hurt those we love. Do I get mad at Christians carrying banners damning gays to Hell? Yes! But I also get angry when I see folks attack a Chip and Joanna Gaines because they find fellowship in a church that considers homosexuality a sin, and I’m supposed to suddenly hate their shiplapped interiors and amazing renovations? We all need a fixer upper on that conclusion!
I have to kindly disagree with “those crusading initiatives may change laws and establish rights, but they don’t really convert attitudes or promote true understanding.” Because I think in some way, over time, they do. Maybe not all of them and maybe not directly, but indirectly, I think they create important discussion which is where progress always begins.
Truthfully, we are glad for those who press to change laws. Our concern though is that while laws are changed, resistance still remains that can be very difficult for gay people to navigate socially, especially in the church. So we’ll continue our quiet, day-to-day, person-to-person efforts to change hearts, and when my kids and grandkids dress up in rainbow colors and march in parades, I will share their pictures on Instagram, so proud of the advocates who love me and fight for me.
So tell me this, you have the mic and the last words to this interview. The volume is turned up. What do you want people to know?
A supportive friend from my fundamentalist past shared a post for Gay Pride month on her Facebook page. The message was affirming, encouraging acceptance and understanding. The comments were less inclusive, challenging her Christianity, citing scriptural evidence, like a prosecuting attorney, condemning gay people to eternal damnation and referencing some collusion with a “homosexual agenda” determined to destroy the world we know. I knew these people. They smile when they meet me and are gracious to me in public. In spite of their views, I like and respect them. If I want them to be tolerant, I must be as well. I don’t believe they know enough of the issue they are so passionately against. Their “love the sinner, hate the sin” stance keeps them feeling like God’s faithful pointer dog, showing the world the wrong from their knoll of righteousness. It is easier to excise a needed scripture verse than to be open to know and understand a person who is gay, to hear they neither had nor made a choice, that most likely they struggled with, suppressed, buried and surrendered at an altar, these desires that emerged when these righteous people were sneaking a peek at porn during puberty. I wonder if they worry their world will tumble if ever they asked, “Maybe this isn’t sin. Maybe this is being honestly human.” I will not argue scripture with them–I don’t believe God left His Word as an arsenal for battle. But one scripture I hold high, drawing me closer to God and away from the fray, is Psalm 51:6. “Truly God desires honesty in the innermost being…”. I’ve never been comfortable with “Gay Pride.” I’m sure my discomfort lies with my lifelong teaching that pride is wrong. I am proud to be a child of God. This is the gay the Lord hath made. Selah. The pride thing, I know, is an effort to right the shame that has been such a part of the life of those who are gay. The flamboyant, in-your-face approach of some is their response to the years of secrecy and hiding. Somewhere in the middle represents the whole and healthy life where it isn’t an issue at all, it is the quiet, relaxed normal of life when someone isn’t aware “I am gay,” but instead, fully human.
The bottom line is, I’m proud to be a child of God…fully loved and finally known.
I love you, Dad. And I’m so proud to have an ever present father in my life after years of not knowing you–a father who is free to be who he really is.
Celebrating fully loved and finally known this month.
And truly, I am grateful for the churches that continue to be a comforting place for the hurting. May their embrace be warm and welcoming to all.