Flipping the bird to the Big Guy (a downside of being a drama kid)

I’ve always been a bit of a drama queen.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I was quite a precocious child in certain ways. I was loud, obnoxious, and emotional. I was knighted by my second grade teacher as “Sir Talks A Lot,” which I ended up finding annoying, so I threw a fit about it and got my student teacher in trouble.

At one of my friend’s sleepover birthday parties, his father was trying to get us all to quiet down and go to sleep. He warned that the next boy to talk would be forced to wear a sparkly red dress he pulled out of the closet. I, of course, being the snot that I was, screamed. His father handed me the dress, but I defiantly refused. He backed off. Then I rushed forward, grabbed it from his hands, and went to the bathroom to change.

Like I said, dramatic.

When I was a wee tot, I played baby Jesus during a church nativity play. Obviously my path forward would include acting in plays and musicals in school. I was attracted to the limelight, and I had a narcissistic joy when I was the focus of attention. I liked being in charge, and I liked being bold, which led to the crowning role of drama club president my senior year of high school.

This part of me was tempered, to a degree, by my parents’ upbringing: to be kind to others, to take responsibility for my actions, and to love God.

Church was a large part of my life up until high school. I mostly attended because of my parents’ beliefs and their rules, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. We attended a megachurch in Akron, Ohio called “The Chapel” for about the first half of my childhood. From what I remember, The Chapel was a huge building with many, many hallways and rooms that one could get lost in. My mother sang in the choir. My oldest brother and father attended many missions trips, from Greece to Mexico. I attended Camp Carl, a summer Christian camp that the church runs, and I also did vacation bible school.

Because of the longer commute and some organizational changes, my parents eventually decided to switch churches, opting for a sister branch of The Chapel called Riverwood Community Chapel in Kent, Ohio. Riverwood is much smaller than its “sister,” but my parents quickly became involved–my mom in the Sunday school classes and my dad in the youth ministry. I made many friends there, several of whom were also my schoolmates. As I moved up to junior high, I attended youth group and went on two missions trips to Memphis, Tennessee.

calvary-rescue
Me, giving testimony at Calvary Rescue Mission in Memphis, TN ca. 2008

On my first trip to Memphis, I had a “born again” experience in Christ. I talked briefly about this in my last post, but it’s hard for me to fully remember and grasp what that experience was. I can analyze it over and over, and come to quick conclusions such as it was just me “fooling myself,” “playing into it,” or “doing what my parents’ would want.” However, those would be shallow interpretations. During that moment, the “born again” moment, I felt something moving in me, and calling me to something “higher.” It was not my usual dramatic flair. It was a grounded feeling, a feeling of understanding, but also–joy.

Coupled with this elation, I was constantly battling my attraction to men. This manifested itself as a deep shame that I kept shoving further and further inside myself. I told one of my youth group counselors that I “felt sad a lot,” and that I was “falling away from Christ.” This led to my spiritual re-commitment on the second Memphis trip one year later. Perhaps I thought I could bury my desire so far down that the Holy Spirit couldn’t sense it?

My sense for grand, bombastic, life-or-death scenarios got the better of me during freshman year of high school. While on the one hand I felt this natural, strong connection to God, on the other, I felt the pulling of my equally-natural and equally-strong desire for men. I tended to see the forces as black-and-white–one was evil, one was good. I felt a decision had to be made between the two. Whether this was imposed on me or self-inflicted, I cannot say for sure (more on that in future posts), but without a doubt my Drama Queen-ness forced me to choose one over the other.

While I would like to avoid too many details, there came a day when my parents discovered a boy I was hanging out with identified as gay, and they confronted me about it. They were wary of his intentions. In the heat of the moment, my emotions got the better of me and I half-coherently blurted out “What if I was gay!?” and stormed off. My parents, stunned, went to the back porch to deliberate, and I slammed my bedroom door, looked up at the ceiling with tears streaming down my face, and said “Fuck you” to the Big Guy in the Sky.

Again: dramatic.

I haven’t attended church regularly since that time. For the past eight years most of my focus has been spent on school, work, and my relationships. While the experience I had in Memphis never left me, I have not felt fully balanced in a long time. I think that is where this desire, this yearning comes from. I am only fully myself when all parts of me are given attention to and fed, and this imposed dichotomy of sexuality-vs-belief that has separated me from my faith has hindered me in innumerable ways. Frankly, I’m quite tired of it.

I think it’s time to make another bold move and tear down the “dichotomy” all together.

Dear Matt,

This past Wednesday, October 12th marked eighteen years since your (Matthew Shepard’s) death. If you were alive today, you’d be 39 years old (nearly 40)—an eternity in “gay-years”! Just kidding, I don’t really believe in that. But, maybe you would have, and hopefully you would have had someone, say a friend or a husband/boyfriend/partner, to tell you that you’re ridiculous for believing in such silly things.

In honor of the anniversary of your tragedy, I bought and read The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project. I’m sure you know, Matt, that this company wrote a play about the Laramie community in the midst of your murder through interviews and found text related to the incident. I mean, there are a lot of books and movies about it, but I decided to learn more about you and your legacy by reading this play. I had never read it or seen it produced, but I hear it’s pretty famous. I also hear that you’ve done theater before (as any good gay boy does), and I wonder if you would have liked it, if, somehow, you could have seen a play like it when you were alive. Perhaps, maybe if what happened to you had happened to somebody else? I don’t know.

matt

I liked the play. I think it’s honest. I think without all the corny sentimental overlay music that they use in the HBO film version (which I watched), it would be quite objective, and yet personal. Yes, the creators/interviewers of the play are liberal and gay, but I think they really wanted to capture the truth of the citizens of Laramie, both the non-gay-affirming individuals and the affirming. People believe what they believe, and they are entitled to that. Prejudice exists and we need to be honest about it before we can do anything to help combat it. How religion and spirituality ties into all of it is complex and difficult to see clearly, but even within religion, prejudice exists. Hate exists in us all.

Was this a hate crime, Matt? That’s kind of the question of it all, isn’t it. The Right says that the gay community had an agenda and blew the whole incident out of proportion. They said that you were also involved in drugs, and that could have played into your murder as well. Some Laramie residents wondered if the case would have reached national headlines at all if you had not been gay. I mean, in my opinion, it probably would not have. But does that mean that the gay community sensationalized it? I don’t think that either.

It’s strange to think about: “Why was I murdered?” Taking for granted that departed souls can think, that is. Like any other incident that has ever taken place, it’s not like there’s one, sole “reason” or “purpose” or “motive” for every thing that we do. Especially if your murder wasn’t premeditated—who knows what series of events, words, and feelings led to that violence that led to the end of your life? We have testimonies from people at the bar and confessions from your murderers, but what else? Nothing really, besides the evidence: your beaten, tortured, unrecognizable body left tied to a fence.

If it wasn’t a hate crime, if your being gay didn’t play any part, would there have been such a degree of violence in this “robbery”? Violence that left you, I repeat, unrecognizable? Violence that could be compared to a car crash at 80 miles per hour? I wish you were here to tell us, Matt, to tell us for sure. To tell us if they spit on you as they left, or how many times they may or may not have called you a “faggot.”

Fear creates prejudice, prejudice breeds hate, and hate leads to violence. Human actions are not a result of a singular thought or feeling, such as “I’m going to kill this man because he’s a fag.” Human actions result from a mixture of thoughts, feelings, pressures, lessons, views, and perceptions. While it is impossible (and improbable) to say that your sexuality was the sole reason for your murder, Matt, it is also inconceivable that the fear, prejudice, and hate that underlies a homophobic society were not even a tinge responsibility for influencing the actions of the men (who were your age) who murdered you. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

I’m just trying to say, well, I don’t know. It’s strange and corny to be writing you this letter, but I am trying to connect my experience to yours. While it’s not fair to make you a martyr, since on the one hand you’re just an innocent victim, it’s also impossible to ignore you and what happened to you because—well, you could have been me and I, you. I could have been born in Wyoming, I could have gone to school in Laramie if my circumstances had been different. The same forces that contributed to your murder eighteen years ago could also kill me today. And I can’t forget that, I refuse to forget that.

You didn’t choose to be murdered. You didn’t do anything worth being celebrated other than being who you are. You may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But none of that really matters because it did happen, and it was you it happened to. So, I’m going to thank you. I guess that’s why I’m writing this.

Thank you, Matt. For representing our community and for giving us a voice. Your death created and contributed to a dialogue that continues to this day for gay dignity and visibility, and the vulnerability of gay youth. I read that you were interested in pursuing political science in undergrad and were heading towards human rights advocacy. While your destiny is not the path you envisioned or wanted, I hope you are able to still feel pride for what has been done in your name, for the many good things that have been and will continue to be accomplished. For this, you have become a martyr.

Thank you.

Love,
Josh

What accounts for the existence of gay people? (Part Three/FINALE)

What if I told you gay people, impulses, sensibilities, what have you, were not only natural, but necessary to the progression of the human race, and the evolution of the universe?

Hint: That’s what I’m telling you. Or rather, suggesting to you.

In the past two posts, I’ve mostly talked (written?) about some thoughts on gay identity (as opposed to purpose), on what links us together. I brought that up, because I think identity is linked to purpose. When I bring up Nick Benton’s core gay identifying traits “gay sensibility,” an alternate perspective, and a constructive non-conformity, the “purpose” or I guess “benefits” of such traits on a just human society becomes clearer.

I realize I just kind of rattled off the three traits in the first post without really going into them, but essentially what they suggest, (in Benton’s words) is that gay or so-called “homosexual” passion “is directed toward a different [non-heterosexual] kind of procreation, one which advances the pursuit of beauty, justice, knowledge and truth” (127). Notably, the over-sexualized notion of gay culture is absent from this identity.

In my second post, I elaborated on gay identity more in terms of what it is not (or should not be) rather than what it is, because I think that distinction is important. So much of what outsiders perceive of gay identity is its sexual nature. Social conservatives would decry it as sexual “deviancy,” and they’d have numerous examples for that from the sexual liberation in the ’70s, and even in today’s age of Grindr and hook-up culture. Now, I’m not here to shame people for their sex lives, or to suggest that they’re doing something wrong, but overwhelmingly, the focus both inside and outside of the community has, since Stonewall, been focused on the sex aspect of gay lives. It is clear from the very name used to identify us—”homosexuals.” “Sex” is literally in the name. From that perspective, what differentiates us from everybody else is how we act in the bedroom, and that’s it. I disagree.

It is not sex alone that defines us, because in that view, living as a gay person is a new invention. Yes, anal intercourse has been documented since the Greeks, but the sole pursuit of same-sex relationships openly is rather new, and due to this newness (in the sex-focused view) it is easy to write off the gay “lifestyle” as a “fad,” as something that will “pass.” If we look at being gay as solely sexual it becomes easier to see it as a “deviance,” a “sin,” an “aberration.” However, that thinking ignores the many, many queer individuals who have lived and contributed greatly to human society for as long as that society has existed.

If we base our criteria on what constitutes a gay person (throughout history) by today’s open same-sex relationships, we erase a vital part of people’s identity and undermine today’s LGBT community. This is where Benton’s gay identifiers come into play, and how they are useful. While same-sex erotic passion is difficult to document in our forefathers’ time where there may not have been an outlet to act upon their desires (or discuss it explicitly), it is easier and more appropriate to look for notions of gay “sensibility,” which includes heightened empathy for the underdog and the historically disadvantaged (i.e. women, children, and people of different races/cultures). We can also look for evidence of men and women who did not conform to social standards and lifestyles, and those who brought alternative queer perspectives to social discourse as members of our tribe. Benton is quick to point out that these are not solely gay traits, of course, but the gay social position brings out these qualities more often than not (ESPECIALLY when a queer individual’s sexual nature is stifled to such an extreme degree, as has been the case for much of history).

With this more nuanced and socially-important gay identity, one of Benton’s core arguments becomes stronger: that “homosexuality” is not an “aberration or  chance of nature, but that it is built into the very fabric of the unfolding of the universe” (127). He describes our purpose as part of the universe’s “dissymmetry,” whose role “is to shatter an inertia derived of the simple, dominant binary male-female-reproduction-survival nature of things in favor of not merely survival, but the progress and advance of the species.” How transcendent and inspiring is that for the purpose of gay existence!

While it’s kind of a crazy proposition, he looks to the work of renowned atomic physicist Maurice Goldhaber to back up his idea of the universe’s “dissymmetry.” Goldhaber died at the age of 100 back in May 2011, and in Kenneth Chang’s obituary in the Times he describes the scientist’s most famous contribution as the discovery of “the ghostly, perplexing subatomic particles known as neutrinos.”

Neutrinos, produced in the fusion of the Sun, other stars and in the radioactive decay of elements, flood the universe; trillions of them zip through every person every second.

In the late 1950s, physicists discovered that neutrinos, unlike anything else in the universe known until then, appeared to violate mirror symmetry.

That was odd and unexpected, because looking in a mirror does not usually alter the rules of physics. For example, consider an archer shooting an arrow. As the arrow flies through the air, one could imagine the tail feathers rotating clockwise. In the mirror image of the arrow’s motion, the tail feathers would rotate counterclockwise. […]

But the mirror versions of neutrinos were found to behave differently compared with those that exist in the real world… By observing neutrino-producing transmutations between two carefully chosen elements, Dr. Goldhaber and his collaborators showed that neutrinos, unlike arrows, always rotate in one direction (counterclockwise, it turned out) and never the other.

So Benton attributes this mumbo-jumbo to a “fundamental ‘left-handed’ component to the elemental, sub-atomic structure of physical reality” (139). And this “dissymmetry” moves the universe away from “static equilibrium” to “negentropic” development, which manifests itself to us, in human society, through phenomena such as left-handedness, right-brain domination and homosexuality, among other things.

As RuPaul put it, LGBT individuals are “an extension of the power that created the universe.” No more, no less. Healthy, natural differences are “essential core components of the universe, not accidents, random deviations, corruptions or perversions” (Benton 139). They are by-products of the self-development of space and time. This concept of the universe’s unfolding can be applied to any theology, whether one believes in a Creator or not. Would not a Creator see the benefit in difference and variety? Why can’t LGBT people be one of God’s intended, beautiful, perfect Creations? Would He really make a person with a destiny to fail (i.e. their gay nature is a product of sin)?

We are poets, with an affinity towards more global perspectives, with idealizations of beauty and knowledge, and those of us with an erotic passion beyond the norm “are essential to help drive the development of the individual, civilization, and therefore the universe, forward,” in Benton’s words. How wild, preposterous even, are his claims? But somehow, they strike an inherent chord in me. I look around at what LGBT people contribute now and to what they’ve contributed in the past (of which I’ll be learning eternally), and I can see the alternative perspectives we bring to philosophy, current events, politics, art, and science.

What drives LGBT people to the arts, and to liberal ideologies that forward a social vision of equality, peace, and freedom, if not an overarching purpose to defy norms and convention in the pursuit of truth and progress? I know there are a million holes in the argument, and a million ways to write me off as too abstracted and too idealistic, but there’s also a million-and-one reasons that thinking of gay existence in this way can bring positive, inspiring, and effective change. Change that benefits the lives of LGBT youth, adults, and the elderly, as well as every human being on this Earth. Our differences bring us together and are to be celebrated, not denied. We should use our perspectives to add to the conversation, rather than hide. We are here, we are Queer, and we are not going anywhere.

And on that note—thanks, y’all, for dealing with this three-post arc, that I most certainly could extend to four, five, or probably ten parts, but for all of our sake I will keep at three. This is merely an initial exploration of the titular question, and it is a surfaced one at that. I want to continue to nitpick at these ideas and elaborate upon its tributaries in future posts. If you have any opinions or questions, be sure to comment, email me, or message me on social media.

Tata for now!

[Benton, Nicholas F. Extraordinary Hearts: Reclaiming Gay Sensibility’s Central Role in the Progress of Civilization. Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe, 2013. Print.]