Friday, July 1, 2011

NY Times: "My Ex-Gay Friend" - a response

A number of friends, both straight and gay, have posted or commented on this June 16, 2011 NY Times article titled My Ex-Gay Friend. In it, Benoit Denizet-Lewis, a gay man, goes to visit former friend Michael Glatze (pictured) who had once been an active, supposedly-happy gay man, yet a man who has since professed himself to be straight and "ex-gay."

My first reaction was to be profoundly sad; I wanted to see the article as yet another tragic success of the movement to make "gay" out to be (a) a choice and (b) something evil, to be denied. I was all set to say, "Oh, well - that's him, and that's life." But the more I have talked about it, the more thoughts have been rolling around in my head - and a gentle nudge from one of my brothers from seminary pushed this to the top of the list.

Unlike a lot of people, I am not able to dictate what someone should or should not feel - so I'm not going to do that about this. I can only share my experience, strength and hope, and trust that God can do something good with it. For my straight Christian friends, my own answer to Mr. Glatze's question of "why are you doing this?" is simple: my experience is vastly different from that of Michael Glatze, and I think it's important to realize that his experience is not the only one worthy of sharing.

Michael Glatze wrote in his own article, "Homosexuality came easy to me, because I was already weak" - a line which absolutely infuriated me. As anyone who has been "different" knows, the display of weakness when one is different is to try to conform, to fit in, to do absolutely anything to be "a part of," instead of "apart from."

Unlike like Mr. Glatze, I was neither handsome nor sure of my sexuality as a high-school or college student. I was afraid of my sexuality, and fearful of being discovered as different. In the intervening years, I have found that it takes a great deal of personal strength to show up as "one of them," and for decades-on-end I simply couldn't do it. Instead, I tried to fit in - even though I didn't do so hot at it.  I failed at team sports; I failed at my fling at the military as a Civil Air Patrol cadet; I failed in almost every other category of "manly-men" endeavor. But no matter what, the one thing I would not and could not admit was that I was, in fact, "one of them" - a fairy, a queer, a poof, a sissy-boy. You know the names.

So I deny that one surrenders to being homosexual because one is weak.  It was comparatively easy to be "a weak man," as opposed to being "queer." But even when I came out (at forty-eight) it still took a lot of courage, and being surrounded by accepting family and friends, to take those first few steps out of the closet.

Take a look at the author's description of Mr. Glatze's "conversion moment:"
Michael didn’t begin to question his life path, he told me, until a health scare in 2004 that led to what he calls his “spiritual awakening.” That year, when Michael was 29, he experienced a series of heart palpitations and became convinced that he suffered from the same congenital heart defect that killed his father when Michael was 13. (Michael lost both his parents young; his mother died of breast cancer when he was 19.) After tests eventually ruled out his father’s illness, Michael felt that he had escaped death and found himself staring “into the face of God.”...Michael said that he became “born again” in that moment and that “every concept that my mind had ever entertained — my whole existence — was completely re-evaluated.”
I found this fascinating, because it seems to show the success of typical inculcated homophobic teaching - "you gotta get right with God, and that means this queer stuff has to go."  In direct contrast, it was precisely because of my own life crises (physical and spiritual) that I was pushed toward accepting myself as gay - or more honestly, ceasing to deny my own true self as gay.

My life - and my six-year marriage - ended in late 1990 as a result of my alcoholism.  As a result of rebuilding my life, I had to re-evaluate everything about my life, and make some definite positive changes. During that process, one of the men who walked through that abyss with me (a straight man named Bruce) made a point of saying (way back, back in 1992) that at some point I would have to address my homosexuality (something which I'd heretofore thought I had done a good job of hiding). As a clear-seeing straight man, he nevertheless saw in me what I was absolutely unwilling to see in myself.
Forgive a bit of a detour, here...

Facing my sexuality at that stage of my life would have been absolutely impossible - because I had found comfort and community within the structure of the Lutheran Church (the ELCA, for those who know how to slice-and-dice Lutheranism). The people in that church knew I had been a drunk; they knew I'd been a ne'er-do-well (if they didn't know all the details); and they knew I still was a loud and often vulgar critter. But somehow, they accepted me, and included me as "one of the family." I valued that inclusion, and would do anything to protect it.

I also knew - from the small-groups in which I participated at that church - that this "homosexuality thing" was just not something that was gonna fly with this group. In ways that were even unseen and unheard, I knew that homosexual was way beyond the pale - that while they professed that "sin is sin, no matter what," it was clear that homosexuality was SIN, some sort of super-sin that was way out there. 

So I hid it away. A friend of mine from that church kept fixing me up with ladies from the congregation - because "what you really need is a good relationship." (Fortunately, the ladies involved all seemed to endure the fix-ups. Several of them became great companions, and remain good friends to this day.)  I went to prayer vigils and Promise Keepers conferences; sang in choir and led Sunday-school classes and served on church council,  and died a little on the inside each time the H-word was brought up.  I was afraid of what I was, and I was unwilling to risk the friendship (and, to be honest, the approval) of these people by being open and honest about this one little corner of my life. So being "out and proud" was simply not an option.

But back to Mr. Glatze - I'd had those close-encounters with death, well before I had even thought about coming out.  I'd nearly died before I got sober; I'd had even hit some serious physical trouble at one of the Promise Keepers conferences; and had been hospitalized later for chest pains. I knew what it was to be faced with "the end of the road" - and it was precisely my faith in God that carried me through those times, even as I questioned Him about my sexuality.  My real fear, unlike Mr. Glatze, was that I would die, and none of the people I loved and cared about would ever have really known me. The real me.  The "gay" me.  Near-death encounters didn't scare me straight - they just brought closer the time when I hoped I could face God and ask, "What the hell was all that about, anyway? It would have been so much easier if You'd have just let me be honest...."

Here's another vast difference between Mr. Glatze and my own experience: he was a handsome young lad. (Still seems to be, according to his picture.)

I, on the other hand, have always been pear-shaped.  I have never had an athletic bone in my body, and I have always been the physical antithesis of the stereotypical gay guy. In 2004, while talking with my friend Tom about "the whole gay thing," I said, "Why should I bother to 'come out'? I'm 48, overweight, graying, thinning-hair, and not particularly well-endowed. It doesn't matter who I want to sex with! Why should I go through all the hassle?  Because the truth is, whether I'm closeted-and-faking-straight or out-and-being-harassed-by-The-Religious-Right, the bottom line is I'm still gonna be going home alone."

As I remember it, both Tom and his partner Michael laughed at that point...and then Tom kindly pointed out that "homosexual" was not "a lifestyle," a "choice" or an issue of "who I was having sex with". It was simply a word describing my orientation - those to whom I was attracted.  If I was attracted to men, I was gay, period - whether I became some elderly club-boy having sex every night or if I remained celibate (which I had already done for 12 long years, at that point).

That's when the lights finally started to come on, for me. Sitting in Tom and Michael's living room in a Hyde Park apartment, I finally started to see the truth that I'd been hiding from. I was six hundred miles from all the deep relationships that had kept me from seeing truth; and the ministry career for which I'd remained celibate for years was officially over. What was keeping me chained in the church closets?

So when I read Mr. Glatze's assertion that “Homosexuality is a cage in which you are trapped in an endless cycle of constantly wanting more - sexually - that you can never actually receive, constantly full of emptiness, trying to justify your twisted actions by politics and ‘feel good’ language,” I wanted to both laugh and cry at the mixture of pathetic messages Mr. Glatze has seemingly bought into.

My counter-assertion would be that sexuality - regardless of orientation - can definitely be a cage in which I can be trapped in an endless cycle of constantly wanting more - sexually - that I can ever actually receive. (It certainly doesn't have to be that way, of course; endless happy marriages and loads of partnered GLBT folks are proof of that.)

My experience is that sex for the sake of having sex is inherently "constantly full of emptiness, trying to justify twisted actions." In my experience and observation, it does so by first invoking the sense of sexual consumerism that constantly tells the listener that "you are able to do this, you need this, you deserve this, you've got to have this. Screw the reasons for not doing it." That nonsense, and a dose of  ‘feel good’ language,” makes it easy to pervert what should be a very special and (for me) spiritual experience into what it so often becomes, these days.  (Counter to Mr. Glatze, I would assert politics has nothing to do with the identification of sexuality or sexual orientation - otherwise, how would one explain Log Cabin Republicans?....)

I have said it time and again - if you want to see where this nation gets its sexual expectations and its standards for relationships, don't bother looking at the gay community!  Switch on MTV!  Or BET! Or maybe Trading Spouses (if you can stomach it), or the infinitely-insanely-titled Real Housewives of (insert insane city here).  Regardless whether it's boys-n-boys or boys-n-girls, the emptiness in so many casual "hookups" sexual relationships can still be infinitely addictive. And let's face it - casual-sex-as-fulfillment is a lie that sells - regardless if it's Sex In The City, Desperate Housewives or Queer As Folk.  If it didn't, trust me - we'd still be watching Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore...

(I hate to think I'm the first to let you know this - but here it is:  "The Gay Days" didn't get us here.)

I have a news flash for Mr. Glatze.  As he wrote, God loves me more than any man will love me, for sure. No disagreement there at all.

But God will also love me more than any woman will ever love me, too. It's exactly the same.  That's the lie so many ex-gays have bought into - that same-sex love, is somehow, a cheaper and hollower imitation of what heterosexual love is, and so one is encouraged to flee back to "the one True Love." That if having wanton sex with dozens of gay partners leaves me feeling empty and unfulfilled, just go back to women, and it will be all better! 

It's all a lie.

Straight or gay, celibate or Hugh-Hefner-act-alike, anything that I put in front of a relationship with God will seem empty, broken and ultimately useless. That includes sex, alcohol, drugs, food, shopping, working - you name it. It becomes like eating those orange-marshmallow "circus peanuts" - empty and ultimately unsatisfying. But that truth applies to man/woman as much as it does to any other permutation. Just going hetero won't cut it.

And here's the rest of that news flash:  sexuality, as delivered to young minds by most of the media and the Internet, is definitely pornographic - regardless whether it's hetero or homo. Sex sells, regardless of the polarity - and so we get to see a lot of it. Even if you found the ultimate homo-fix-it pill, the porn would remain. It would just switch to whatever the customers wanted.

There's lots more that I would like to address - but there is one sentence in this article that scared me the most Mr. Glatze is quoted as saying, “I don’t think the gay movement understands the extent to which the next generation just wants to be normal kids. The people who are getting that are the Christian right.”

This is what sells ex-gay treatment: just do this, and you'll be normal. NORMAL. Your parents won't hate you, your church won't hate you, you'll be just like the rest of us - and the Westboro Baptist people will hate you, no matter what you do. Come with us....don't be afraid...

The problem is three-fold. First, in this statement the definition of "normal" seems to become "homogeneous," like milk - every glass like the one before.  Unfortunately, unless one is a fan of The Stepford Wives, I believe that this idea of "normal" would quickly become a horrific place to live. I am a fan of Star Trek, especially the Vulcan IDIC concept - "infinite diversity in infinite combination." I'm also a fan of the old "Stone Soup" story - where "every little bit makes the big pot better, every little big makes the big bowl good! So bring what you've got, and put it in the pot." When "normal" becomes "where everyone is just like us," I believe we get closer to the road most extremists start down....

The second part is that (again, in my experience) ex-gay or reparative-therapy groups seem to believe that "ignoring residual same-gender attraction, or SGA" is the same as "a cure." For the vast percentage of people who participate in these programs, no one can "pray away the gay." (And yes, that's a whole 'nuther topic....)

The third part, of course, is that contemporary Christendom seems to have a vested interest in keeping "gay" and "normal" in two separate worlds. The concept of  a normal gay Christian is unthinkable to an awful lot of folks, evangelicals and mainstream Christians alike. Homosexuality has become not only the litmus test, but the ultimate definition of "them" and "us" in much of the Christian community. Listen to these sadly-familiar assertions:
  • Gays are destroying marriage! (No...sorry...I'm pretty sure that straight people, including straight Christians, and their 50% divorce rate did that, first); 
  • Gays are corrupting morals! (Really?....from Britney Spears to Bristol Palin, I think that's already what is known as "a done deal"); 
  • Gays are the enemy! (Because it's nice to have a ready-made "them" for "us" to fight against).
My experience - and my message to Mr. Glatze, and to so many others, is this: for many of us, gay is normal. It's different from heterosexual, to be sure - but it's also pretty damn normal. About as abnormal as chocolate is from vanilla....

I now live in one of the "buckles of the Bible Belt" - the worldwide headquarters of both the Evangel Temple and the Assemblies of God are here in Springfield, MO. In their public proclamations, both of these groups seem to have no use for gay folk like me. But I think our neighbors would be quite astonished to find how terribly un-stereotypically-gay our lives are. Take a look with me...

We live in a clean but very un-trendy duplex - no naked sculpture, no glassed-in bathrooms, no granite counter-tops and no rainbow flags flying here, other than the rainbow fridge-magnet (right next to the Serenity Prayer fridge-magnet). The garage holds two well-kept but boring vehicles (a '98 Camry and a '96 Dakota pickup), a trio of bicycles (a mountain-bike and a hybrid-bike for Chris, a neighborhood-cruiser for me), and Chris' Kawasaki dirt-bike. (Admittedly, the garage is a bit too orderly for a typical man-cave; Chris is a neat freak.)  The back deck has only two planters, one with flowers grown from seeds and one with my cooking herbs. Two cats, two bird-feeders. No floral wall-paper, no tassels or frou-frou decorations. Pretty simple, pretty basic.

We go to church. We attend the National Avenue Christian Church, the only church listed as "welcoming and affirming" in the area. And no, in case you're wondering - it's not one of those "watered-down no-such-thing-as-sin and we don't wanna hear none o' that Jesus crap" churches. It is a welcome balance between my Lutheran tradition and the small house-churches in which Chris participated. Along with being welcoming-and-inclusive for a decade or more, they also take the Matthew 25 sheep-and-goats thing seriously - more seriously than a lot of churches I know (they vote with their pocketbooks, not just their mouths). We take communion weekly; we contribute; we will be members soon.

No clubs, no drugs (other than my collection for diabetes and hypertension). Chris bikes a lot, and I am active in the communities of recovery. We watch SyFy and SpeedTV and FuelTV (you know, the really gay cable channels). Our musical tastes run to 80's (Chris) and jazz (both of us); club music not allowed. Unless you carefully paged through our iTunes library, you would miss the collection of musicals and Barbra Streisand.

(I should confess here:  a year or more before I overtly came out, my seminary roommate Tim Maness once commented that I was the only straight man he'd ever known that owned three Barbra Streisand CDs. I don't know whether he meant "straight man" to be in quotes, or not....)

Unless you peeked into iTunes, you'd also have missed the collection of contemporary Christian music: everything from Acapella to Michael Card to Michael W. Smith to Steven Curtis Chapman to Big Daddy Weave and Chris Tomlin, and dozens in between. Music that still matters deeply, to both of us.

But all of that is external baloney, in the end. The bottom line is this: we love each other. Not just sex, Mr. Glatze; not just tab-A-and-slot-B hookups, but love, agape and filios and eros. When Chris went for a bike ride 18 months ago and still wasn't home well after dark, I was the frantic loved-one calling the police, searching wildly, and bursting into tears with relief when he returned safely. Like Mr. Glatze, we both own Bibles, and we read them. Unlike him, however, that passage from the book of Ruth, which used to be so popular at Christian weddings, is still true for us:
Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me. (Ruth 1:16-1, NIV)
Would we want to be married? Fact is, we already are, in so many ways. Our families and friends accept us, by and large (the exceptions are pretty few).  Our communities and our church welcome us as a couple. And we both believe that God brought us together, and we're not going to mess with that. What more would we want, other than a good party?  Would we want the ceremony? Only if it brought us the rights we are now denied:  recognition as "family" in the eyes of the law,  survivorship, and tax benefits. (But no, we're not moving to New York, or back to Illinois, or any further north than we are right now, no matter what. Not even for that.)

I sure wish Michael Glatze and his ilk would tell me what's so wrong with all that.

(There's more where that came from, but that's way more than enough for now.)


  1. This is very powerful, Steve man. Explosively eloquent.

    What, no Judy Garland in the cds?

    Of course, if you two ever decide to move farther north than you are (like across the border...?) well, I think you'd like it here!

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I appreciete hearing your opinion.


  3. I find your blog interesting. Although I may not agree with some of the opinions, I do however know that the notion in our churches of "acceptable" and "unacceptable" sins needs to be corrected. As we read the bible and know the Lord and His ways, we understand that sin is sin. Sin can be forgiven should we admit our sinfulness, repent and turn our lives over to Christ. It is funny but what many of us in the body fail to see is that the Lord hates a lying tongue most of all. I am a recovered alcoholic who battled with alcohol and depression for over 17 years. People know that, accept it, then move on. However, I have found only one person that still to this day who loves me for me, despite recently confiding in her a deep dark secret I have been carrying around since childhood. (What a weight and a burden for one man to carry!) It was a tough thing to do but my wife of 22 years and I have drawn closer through our dark times over the years. Although I am no longer ashamed of my past after coming to Christ, I know that some folks would not understand nor do I care to tell them.

    Stay close to God my friend. And keep blogging your thoughts. For me, blogging (and running) is good recovery.
    God bless,