Saturday, June 28, 2014

Act One, Scene Six "Housesitting"

This is Part 6 in a multi-part blog post.  If you've stumbled across the page without reading Part 1, click the link below to go to Part 1.
Act One, Scene One 

Despite the fact that Amber had been encouraging Max to stop drinking and get more involved at church, the idea of having a house all to ourselves for a week was too much not to do something with, and there was that fully stocked bar.  Max and I decided that we should have a party.  We decided to do it as soon as the family left.  That made more sense and gave us more time to clean before they came back.  It was Friday, July 19th.  I’m making a deal about the date because the events in this post will have significant impact on the event that I relate to you in my next post.  I was bummed because I had to work that night, but I knew that things would still be going on when I got off work at 10:00.  

About 8:30, Max called me at work.  Things were getting out of control at the house.  One of the guys there, Bryce, one of Max’s best friends from childhood, had been drinking a lot, and Max was afraid something was going to get broken.  He wanted to know what he should do.  I told him to cut everyone off.  No more drinking.  He said that he’d try and hung up.  

Max called back a few minutes later.  He was even more concerned.  Things were getting even crazier at the house.  I still, to this day, don’t know exactly what went on.  I told him to tell them that the people we were housesitting for we on their way home.  I told him to tell them that they had just called me at work to tell me that they’d be home in about an hour.  Max didn’t seem to get it at first.  He reminded me that the family wouldn’t be home for days.  I told him that, while he and I know that, his friends did not know when they were coming home.  At that point he said he had it under control and told me that he’d call me when he got them somewhere else.  

When he called me back, they were all at Amber’s house.  He had gotten everyone down into their family room in the basement so that her parents wouldn’t realize what was going on.  I wasn’t sure that was the best idea either, but I liked it a whole lot better than having them in a house I was responsible for.  Apparently Bryce had drank more, too.  The only way they could get him to leave was to let him take a bottle with him.

By the time I got there, Bryce was pretty subdued with the occasional outburst that had to be subdued.  I’d been a part of this group long enough to know that, if he got caught being drunk in Amber’s parents’ house, this would not go over well.  Amber’s older sister, Angela was there as well.  She’ll play a significant role in the next few posts.  Her older brother, Andrew, was there as well.  About this time, it was beginning to become obvious that something was going on between Andrew and Max’s older sister, Michele.  They weren’t admitting it yet, but something of a romantic chemistry was brewing.

There were some others in the room as well.  At this point, it’s difficult to discern between who I recollect being there that night and who I just remember being there on other occasions.  That night would not be my first, nor my last, gathering of friends in that basement.  

I felt a weird mix of relief and anxiety that night.  Plus, I was wrestling with my own internal questions.  The stress over having people possibly doing damage to a house that I was responsible for brought back the worries that I used to feel in high school over getting caught when I would be out with high school friends and there would be alcohol in the car.  I hadn't experienced that kind of stress for a while, and I hadn't missed it.  I also spent time thinking back over my conversations at work with Mark in my head, and I also began thinking about the fact that I knew Max had given thought to quitting drinking, too.  Maybe it was time for me to give it up.  If I did, that would be an act of encouragement for him.  

I began thinking more and more about whether or not I wanted to go further into my commitment with this church thing.  Earlier that week, I had purchased my first Bible.  I had agonized over which translation to buy.  A few people had suggested a more contemporary version, but I opted for King James because people said that was what Pastor Rob always used when he preached.  He would relax on that as time went on.  At the time, knowing little about church and nothing about Bibles, I wanted something that I could at least follow along with when I was at church.  I reverenced that book.  I never laid it on the floor, and I wouldn’t place anything on top of it.
I spent a lot of time on Saturday mulling these things over.  Max didn’t stay at the house with me Saturday night.  I stayed there alone.  Someone needed to be there because they had a dog.  Having the place to myself gave me a lot of time to think.  That weekend I was going to be able to attend the service Sunday morning.  This would be my first Sunday morning service.  It would also mark my first time hearing Max’s father preach.  I would take all of these thoughts and questions with me that Sunday morning.


© Joshua Culbertson 2014

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Pride 2014

Sorry.  I realize that I’m a few days behind in getting to this, but I want to share some of my thoughts from this years Pride before returning to my story.  This year’s Pride was amazing.  The temperature was in the mid to high 70’s.  There was no rain.  The protestors seem a little more pathetic each year.  Oh yeah, and George Takei was there.

I was supposed to march with my school, The Methodist Theological School in Ohio, this year, but we couldn’t get a group together.  Still, proud of the fact that they were an official sponsor of the event this year.  So many in the LGBTQ community have been harmed by faith communities, and I think it makes a tremendous statement when an institution of higher theological learning voices its support in the fight for the full inclusion of all people in the life of the church.

MTSO Logo in Pride Program (Photo Credit, David Allen)

Since I was unable to march with MTSO, I opted to march with my own congregation from Broad Street United Methodist.  It was good to be amongst familiar faces, especially in that tense moment when we all turn off of Front Street and onto Broad Street as we make our way up to High Street.  That single block of Broad Street between Front and High is where the designated space for the protestors.  They hold their signs and speak into their bull horns.  There is a part of me that feels sorry for them.  

The Pride Contingent from Broad Street UMC
While I never actually protested at a pride parade, despite invites to do so, it still wasn’t so very long ago that I saw the world a lens very similar to theirs.  So badly, I just wish that they could set themselves free from the confines of the box that they have placed themselves into, to allow themselves to conceive of an understanding of God that is far grander and more loving than they have ever given themselves permission to perceive.  I know that they can’t see things that way though, at least not yet.  They have to be open to hearing that message and seeing the world in that way before anyone can ever guide them there.  

Photo Credit, Brittany Stigler
Photo Credit, Brittany Stigler

Every year, I just want to walk up to them and ask, “Does this really work?”  Even assuming that they are correct, and all practicing LGBTQ people are on the fast-track to eternal damnation, is their method of communicating their message really effective.  Does anyone ever walk up to an angry person with a bullhorn, fall to their knees on a sidewalk, and say, “I need Jesus.”  Even if they are on the right side of things, I think they could all use a few courses in marketing.  Their delivery leaves a little to be desired.

George Takei, Grand Marshal of the 2014 Columbus Pride Parade (Photo Credit, David Allen)

After having left the protestors behind, the march down High Street was exhilarating.  As I would hear George Takei remark at the Stonewall Pride Brunch on Sunday, it was an “Oh my! moment.”  Lining both sides of the street, as far as the eye could see, was just a mass of people.  The spectators seemed to press out into the streets further than I ever remember them doing so in the past.  Police officers along the parade route pressed the spectators back onto the sidewalks.  Conservative estimates place the crowd at over 450,000 people.  Columbus is such an amazingly supportive community anyway, but, on Pride weekend, the city’s love of the gay community is felt especially strong.  

One complaint that I have heard over the past few years is that the parade has become too churchy and too commercial.  This year, I was blessed to receive feedback from a few people who were watching the parade for the first time.  All of them commented on how much it meant to them to see churches, politicians, and businesses in the parade.  I remember being very appreciative of those same things after my first Pride.  In my small hometown coming out in support of gay rights would be political suicide.  Prior to that first parade, I couldn’t conceive that any politician would publicly support people like me.  Hearing those voices this year reaffirmed to me how important the presence of churches is in the parade.  Maybe it doesn’t mean anything to those watching the parade who has been to every Pride parade in the last decade and knows that there are churches that will support them, but, to the one who doesn’t know that, the one who can’t conceive of a God or a faith community that will accept them for who they are, it can mean everything to them.  If even one person that needs it sees hope in the eyes or actions of a person of faith marching in that parade, it’s worth it.

Once we reached Goodale Park, I made my way to the Equality Ohio and Why Marriage Matters Ohio booths.  Once there, I spent the rest of the day with a camera crew from Chaos in Rhythm, a video production company that agreed to film people’s stories for use in the Why Marriage Matters campaign.  It was a fun day of lining up interviewees, running camera batteries back and forth to a nearby house to be recharged, and taking care of any other needs the videographers had.  Hearing people’s real stories, from both same-sex and opposite-sex couples, was tremendous.  I am always touched when straight allies care enough about this issue, an issue that they could just blithely ignore, to lend their voice in support of this cause.

On the Sunday following the parade, I was blessed to be able to attend the Stonewall Pride Brunch, and, while I wasn’t able to get a photo with guests of honor George Takei and his husband Brad, it was an honor just to be near them and to hear George’s amazing speech in support of people like me and like him and so many others, infinite diversity in infinite combinations.  For a kid who grew up watching re-runs of the original series and experienced the influence of Star Trek: The Next Generation throughout his formative teenage years, I was experiencing admiration and respect on a multitude of levels.  This man, having experienced the harsh confinement of Japanese internment camps as a child and later the personal confinement of the closet for fear of losing his career, demonstrated through his speech that we are currently living in a world where a young George Takei would have never thought we, as a society, would “boldly go.”  

I’ll conclude with a quote from the late Gene Roddenberry:

“A man either lives life as it happens to him, meets it head-on and licks it, or he turns is back on it and starts to wither away.”

At 77 years of age, George Takei is showing no signs of withering.


© Joshua Culbertson 2014

Friday, June 20, 2014

On the Eve of Pride

It is the eve before the Columbus Pride parade.  So many things going through my head.  I’m excited about George Takei being in town.  Hopeful that I’ll be able to meet him and have a few words at the Stonewall Pride Brunch on Sunday.  I’m also looking over my day tomorrow, and it seems extremely long and exhausting.  I’ll start with being downtown for breakfast with some co-workers at 9:00, then march in the parade.  After that, I’m going to be at the Equality Ohio booth at the Pride festival all day to work with a video production company to capture the thoughts and stories of real people around the subject of marriage equality for the Why Marriage Matters Ohio campaign.  Then, I’ll run home to shower and, hopefully, rest a bit before going out to enjoy some of the chaos of Pride tomorrow night.  I know that I could just call it a day and stay home after the festival, but I know I can’t resist the energy of Pride and being out amongst so many other people all united in ways that are sometimes, and sometimes not, able to be put into words.  Then, of course, Sunday brings church and the Pride Brunch.  

In many ways, it truly is all exhausting, but I think back a few short years ago to 2010, and I see myself standing on a sidewalk on High Street, in front of Martini.  I stood there, scared.  Excited but scared, hoping that no one I knew would see me there.  I wasn’t out to many people at that point, and I certainly wasn’t ready to have to explain my presence there at the parade to anyone.  I hadn’t even agreed to go to the parade until about a week before.  A friend of mine, Brandyn, had been asking me to go to the parade.  He was only 18.  He wanted to go badly, but his dad wasn’t crazy about the idea of him going alone.  I just knew I wasn’t ready to be out and proud.  I was still struggling to accept me.  

A week before Pride, I finally relented on one of the other things that Brandyn had been asking me to do.  I wasn’t living in Columbus yet at this time, and Brandyn lived in the same small town that I did.  He’d gone a few times to the club called Axis.  He liked going there because it was the only gay club he could get into because of his age.  I decided that I needed to go on my own first.  I was afraid to let Brandyn drag me into it.  I felt like I needed to have control of what happened.  Plus, I wanted to be free to leave if I wasn’t comfortable.  I called my friend, Brittany, who was also from the same town, but she had recently moved to German Village.  I asked her if she would go with me.  She and I had connected because we had both found ourselves recently exiled from the same church, me for being gay and her for having the audacity to divorce her abusive husband.  Brittany immediately agreed to go with me.

We looked up the address for Axis, 775 N High St.  Their website said that they didn’t open until 10:00.  We spent the early part of the evening walking around in the Short North.  We got dinner and did some hookah.  When it got close to 10:00, we started looking for Axis.  We saw the numbers on the businesses in that area, and we identified where Axis had to be, but there was nothing there.  We crossed over and walked up and down the other side of the street, thinking that we might see something from over there that we were too close to see on the side where Axis should be.  We even joked that maybe it was like something out of Harry Potter, like platform nine and three quarters.  Finally, I gave up and called Brandyn.  He told me to look for a sign that said Da Levee.  He asked me if I saw it.  I told him that I did.  Then, he told me to look to the right.  I did.  He asked me if I saw a tunnel.  I did.  I told me to walk up the tunnel, and I would see Axis.  I had seen the passage way he was talking about.  I was wide enough to drive a car up.  It had just never occurred to me that a business would be hiding back there.  Brandyn told me that he was just getting off work, and he would drive up to join us.  Well, I guess I wasn’t going to get to have full control over where my evening went.  At least, I had my car.  I could leave whenever I wanted to if I had enough.

Brittany and I made our way back to Axis.  It was just a few minutes after 10:00.  Of course, now, I know that no one goes to Axis at 10:00.  I didn’t know that then.  We walked in, and all the lights were on in the building.  We found our way to the bar and ordered drinks.  Then, we went further in and found another room with a stage.  We sat in a booth off to the side of the room.  The booth looked as though it had seen better days.  There was some sort of show going on, and there was a man on the stage speaking.  He introduced and welcomed the next performer to the stage.  As Brittany and I sat there in the booth, I kept switching my eyes back and forth between the stage and the rest of the room, taking in every detail that I could.  Then, there was music playing, and the next performer, which I quickly realized was a man dressed as a woman emerged onto the stage.  The reality sunk in that I was sitting in the audience of an actual drag show.  I was in shock and feeling intrigued at the same time.  I was just coming to terms with my own sexuality.  I hadn’t wrestled with any kind of questions regarding gender identity or gender expression yet.  The me, at that time, wouldn’t have even been aware of a difference between identity and expression.  As I sat there and watched and listened, I found myself smiling and laughing.  I was at a drag show, and I was loving it.  I wasn’t sure what to do with that, but I was enjoying this.  

As the night drew on, more people arrived, and the lights were brought down.  Brittany and I headed to the patio so that she could smoke, and we could get another drink at the bar out there.  We chatted with the bartender out there.  He introduced himself as Paul.  Brittany was by far the more talkative that night.  At one point, he asked her what brought her out that night.  She told him that she was there to support her friend and nodded towards me.  I really appreciated her in that moment.  I’m so glad that she was there for me in that moment.  I explained to him that I had recently come out after years of living as an ex-gay.  He seemed to take that in and then moved on to other customers.

As we stood out there on the patio, I looked at the other people around us, and I realized how safe I felt there.  For the first time in my life, I wasn’t worrying about what I was wearing, what my hands were doing, or what my voice sounded like.  I was surrounded by people like me, and I felt safe.

Brandyn would eventually make his way up to meet us, and we found our way out onto the dance floor.  I was still afraid to completely let go, but I remember feeling a sense of community that night that I had never experienced before.  It was addicting, and I wanted more.  I told Brandyn that I would go to Pride with him the next weekend.  Brittany was going to be out of town, but she said that we could stay at her apartment.  Just like that, and the plan was set.  I was going to my first Pride.

Fast forward to a week later, and I was that timid soul standing on the sidewalk that I described above.  I was scared, but I also remembered that sense of connection that I felt that night at Axis.

Brandyn and I at Columbus Pride 2010

As the parade started, I didn’t know what to expect.  I imagined it to be an overly sexualized experience.  There was some of that.  I expected scantily clad people, drag queens, and people wearing leather.  I saw all of those things.  I did see the church people that I expected to see with their signs and bull horns protesting the parade.  I avoided that group because I feared that I would recognize them from ex-gay circles.  The church people that I did not expect to see where the ones marching in the parade, churches with banners bearing messages of welcome.  I admit that I didn’t initially trust those banners.  Telling me that I am welcome does not tell me that I am safe.  I was skeptical, but I was intrigued.  I was also surprised by the number of mainstream businesses that had groups marching in the parade, and I was surprised by the politicians that I saw marching.  In my limited experience, living in a small town, supporting the gay community was political suicide.  I didn’t understand why anyone would do that.

As I reflect on that person that I was a mere four years ago, that timid soul who, 12 months later, would boldly walk down the middle of High Street holding one of those church banners, no longer trying to be invisible, I am so incredibly thankful that my weekend is so full.  It is exhausting.  It truly is, but it is worth every drop of sweat and every aching muscle.  Nothing compares to the exhilaration of walking down High Street and seeing those masses of people and not carting who sees me.  I know that I am surrounded by an amazing community of people, and I can say, without a shred of doubt in my voice, that it truly does get better.

Me marching with my church at 2011 Columbus Pride

Brittany and I at 2011 Columbus Pride


© Joshua Culbertson 2014

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Act One, Scene Five "Mark"

This is Part 5 in a multi-part blog post.  If you've stumbled across the page without reading Part 1, click the link below to go to Part 1.

Act One, Scene One 

Well, after having had my initial experience at Max’s dad’s church, New Promise Full Gospel Church, I was skeptical, but I was also intrigued.  I worked things out with my manager so that I could keep the same work schedule until Max left.  This allowed me to keep going on Sunday nights.  I was still not consciously buying into any of it, but I very much enjoyed becoming a part of the group on another level.

Around this time, another character would step onto the stage.  His name was Mark.  He was the nephew of the assistance manager at the gas station where I worked, and he also had ties to Max’s family, having been friends with them during his childhood.  He had recently moved back to Ohio from the Nashville area, and he began working at the station.

Despite having moved away and having gone through his own “rebellious phase,” Mark was very much familiar with the beliefs and practices of New Promise.    Max had stopped working at the station altogether; so, Mark became the target for all of my questions, and I had a lot.

Looking back, I realize that my questions are pretty typical of the ones that people have when they begin to question their faith either on their way in or their way out of believing.  Questions like, “What about dinosaurs?”; “How can God allow such pain and evil in the world?”; “How do you know that Christianity is right and all other religions are wrong?”.  For every question, I asked, Mark would respond with scripture.  I would push back asking him, “How do know that the Bible is really the word of God?”  Each time we would reach that point in the conversation, Mark would close his Bible and tell me that if we couldn’t accept the Bible as the basis of truth, then there was no point in continuing the conversation.  With that, he would walk away to the back room to stock the coolers or something.  If I tried to bring up anything later in the night, he would remind me that we were done talking because I couldn’t accept the Bible as truth.  Eventually, I relented, and agreed that we could use the Bible as the basis for our discussions.  That was it.  I had begun to buy in.

Over the next week or so, I would spend my evenings asking Mark question after question.  I wouldn’t always agree with his answers immediately, but I never questioned the Bible as truth after that.  I was frustrated by his ability to just shut down the conversation when I wanted to press on.  I didn’t want that to happen again.  Little by little, things were beginning to make sense to me.  All my life I would have labeled myself a Christian.  I knew that Jesus was born on Christmas and died on Easter, but I had never cared enough to wonder why he died or what the significance of that event was.  That may sound silly to some, but I really was that indifferent to all of it.  Now, I was soaking it up.  I wanted to know and understand more.  I liked this feeling of knowing rather than just guessing or hoping.

A few more pieces would need to fall into place before I was willing to go all in.  First, I was intrigued, and I wanted to learn more.  I approached the manager of the station and told her that I wanted to be able to go to both services every Sunday or at least Sunday mornings.  I figured that way I could see everyone in the morning for that service and still hang out with them on Sunday nights after the evening service.  Another thing that would happen is that, in July of that year, one of the girls who worked at the gas station told me that she and her family would be going to Atlanta for the Summer Olympics.  She asked me if I would want to housesit.  I asked her if it was okay if Max did it with me.  She said that was fine.  She told me that we could have people over but no real parties and that we could have whatever we wanted from the families bar.  This would turn out to be a bad idea.

© Joshua Culbertson 2014

Monday, June 9, 2014

20 Years, Part 2

This is Part 2 in a two-part blog post.  If you've stumbled across the page without reading Part 1, click the link below to go to Part 1.
20 Years, Part 1

About five years ago, shortly after I had left my old church and life as an ex-gay behind, I was invited to the home of a former high school classmate.  She had invited me and a few other members of our graduating class over for drinks and to catch up.  It ended up being just me and four of my female former classmates.  I remember sitting in her kitchen, and we were chatting about what we had been doing over the past 15 years.  Then, we shared a little about the lives of other people from out class and what they were doing.  I didn’t say much through a lot of this discussion.  I was still getting comfortable with myself, and I think, being back with people from high school, made it easier to fell back into that self-suppressing shell.  Eventually, the subject turned to those in our class who have come out as gay or lesbian and the journeys they have gone through to get where they are.  Eventually, one of the women turned to me and, jokingly, said, “Josh, I suppose you’re going to tell us that you’re gay now.”  I froze.  This was it.  I could deny it, as I had for years, or I could just say it and wait to see what their reaction was.  I just kind of smirked at them, shrugged my shoulders, and said, “Well…”  My being gay dominated our conversation for a bit after that, but then we just moved on to other things.  As I went home that night, it felt incredibly good to know that I had the support of people who had known me for almost all of my life, and they have been nothing but supportive ever sense.  We have traveled together.  They have joined me for evenings on multiple occasions, even joining me at a gay club once.

Even with these very positive experiences, I was nervous to walk back into the larger population of my high school class.  I am from a small town.  The high school that I attended is in an even smaller town.  I had no idea what I could expect.  Knowing that I have some supportive friends in the room did help, but it didn’t remove all of the anxiety.  At first, I began looking at all of the other things that were going on that weekend, and I began thinking either about not going or about limiting the timeframe that I could be there.  I eventually decided that I needed to open myself up to this experience, good or bad.  I needed to face this.  I needed to face this group of people who represented such an intimidating part of my past.

Tri-Valley High School
When I went to the reunion, whether it was survival instinct or just conversational etiquette, I decided that I wasn’t going to discuss my being gay or the journey that has led me to be able to say those words with confidence and self-acceptance.  At this point, anyone who wants to know my sexual orientation can find out with a quick Google search.  I don’t have many secrets left.  There were different events planned throughout the day: a tour of our old high school, a picnic for families, and a dinner that night.  Throughout much of the day, the subject of my sexuality didn’t come up.  This was, to me, a relief.  I have no need or desire to be labeled “the gay guy.”  Towards the end of the night, I found myself in several conversations with people who made it a point to bring it up to me so that they could share their support and love with me and to let me know how proud they were of me for finding the courage to be honest with myself about who I am.  I was very touched by these conversations, and I left feeling very much affirmed and connected to these people, some of whom have been a part of my life since Kindergarten.

My name tag from my class reunion
I reflected on this more last night as I stood gathered in an auditorium full of progressive United Methodist clergy and lay persons, all gathered for the purposes of promoting the cause of full inclusion of all people and in all aspects of church life, including ordination.  As I surveyed the room, the recognized the faces of some who I knew to be LGBTQ themselves, but the majority of the people in the room were straight.  We heard two speakers last night, one was a gay African-American student from Ohio State University who shared his story of not being accepted by the church he grew up and his struggle to overcome his lack of trust when invited to attend a campus area United Methodist Church when he arrived in Columbus.   The other speaker was a white straight retired United Methodist Bishop who shared his story of how he, from his position of privilege, came to understand and become an advocate for the cause of those in the LGBTQ community who have been hurt and pushed aside by the church.  With so many people in the room whose lives are not directly impacted by these issues in the room, I was, as I have been many times, struck by their willingness to commit to this important fight.
All of this to say, it truly does get better!  If, by sharing my experiences, I can make life easier or provide a point of connection for just one young person who, like I did all those years ago, is thinking about doing harm to themselves or, if one person who is conflicted  over their sexuality and their spiritual beliefs finds hope in my story, then it was worth putting myself out here.  If you find yourself in either of these circumstances, please reach out to someone.  You are always welcome to shoot me an e-mail.  I will work to help you find support and resources in your area.  Also, I have created a Resources page.  There are a few things on there now, and I will be adding more as time goes on.  This blog is about more than my life.  It’s about your life as well.  Whether you are someone who identifies as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, a straight ally, or if you are someone who is wrestling with questions of sexual orientation or gender identity, you are not alone.  Hang in there!  It truly does get better!

- Culbs

© Joshua Culbertson 2014

20 Years, Part 1

This past Saturday, I was blessed to be able to reconnect with a number of my former class mates from high school for our 20-year high school reunion.  As I have alluded to previously, my experience throughout elementary school, middle school, and a significant portion of high school had some moments of pretty high anxiety for me.  I know what it is to be shoved around in a locker room, to be pushed into a locker, and to be called a faggot while walking down a hall way.  Whether a person is gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, or even if they are just perceived to be so by their tormentors, these experiences can be quite damaging, and life can feel devoid of hope while going through them.  For me, knowing that I was gay, and, knowing that the thing that some of these people resented about me was true, caused me to resent that part of me as well.

I don’t generally dwell on the darker days of my past.  I find it more helpful to focus on the good things that are in my life now and my journey forward, but I remember being that isolated middle schooler who wanted so badly to feel accepted by anyone.  I remember all too well the feeling that the world would be better off without me.  This self-resentment, driven by internalized homophobia, put me in a place that I found myself a few times staring at a bottle of pills or gripping a razor blade between my fingers.  I remember thinking that my parents’ lives would be so much better if they never had to experience the agony and embarrassment of having a gay son.  I doubted life at school would even miss a beat if I wasn’t there.  Sadly, one of the things that kept me alive was a very bad piece of theology, that I had heard at some point growing up, that told me that someone who commits suicide would go to hell.  If I knew that I could have ended my own life and that would be it, there would just be darkness, I would have done it.  Fear kept me in a life of isolation, and fear kept me from ending that life.

Things would eventually get a little better.  Towards the end of my time in high school, I began to come out of my shell a little bit, and I made some friends.  I went to parties, and I felt like I began to make some real connections.  Of course, those connections were only partially genuine because I would have never allowed any of those people to know the full extent of who I was.  I knew there was no way for me to accepted as someone who was openly gay.  Still, I am glad that I let myself step out of the shadows and have those experiences.  Even then, it allowed me to see that there was some acceptance available if I opened myself up to it.  I still struggled at times, wondering why people would like me or what me around, but, at the time, I was just glad that they did.

For the first 10 years following high school, I didn’t have much contact with anyone from that part of my life.  I was glad to be able to have those days behind me, and I was one of those people who say that they would never go back for anything.  I would eventually begin to make contact with a person here and a person there.  Those interactions went well, but they still didn’t know the real me.  At that point, I was still fighting the real me.  Even though I had said the words, “I am gay,” I was living a life centered around trying to change that.  I wanted more than anything to be “normal.”  I wanted to be someone that my parents could be proud of.  I wanted to be able to live accepted by society and not have to be ashamed.  In many ways, the life I was living provided me with pieces of that.  I would receive receive a great deal of praise and support whenever I would share with someone that I “used to be gay.”  I would tell them about how God was working in my life, and I had no desire to go back to being who I was.  I said it so much that I began to believe it was true, and it brought hope to so many who wanted to believe that God was sufficient to help them overcome obstacles that they faced in their own lives.  It also gave them hope and ammunition to use whenever they encountered someone who told them that they were gay, and that’s just who they are.  Those who knew my story could point to me and say that it wasn’t true.  I was their proof that homosexuality could be overcome, that God could change a person’s sexual orientation.

Bringing together my spiritual side and my geeky side, there is a quote from Star Trek VI (1991)   that I love.  It’s from a conversation between Capt. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Lt. Valeris (Kim Cattrall) in which Valeris is concerned about a turning point in the relationship between the Federation and the Klingon Empire.

Spock: “History is replete with turning points, Lieutenant.  You must have faith.”

Valeris: “Faith?”

Spock:  “That the universe will unfold as it should.”

Leonard Nimoy and Kim Cattrall in Star Trek VI
In one sense, I regret not having been more out going in high school.  I wonder what my life would have been like if I had allowed myself to experience going to the prom or even if I had chosen to come out of the closet during high school, but I firmly believe that things happen when they are supposed to.  I needed to go through the things that I have gone through to become the person I am now, and the people that I graduated with needed to do the same.

© Joshua Culbertson 2014

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Act One, Scene Four "New Promise"

This is Part 4 in a multi-part blog post.  If you've stumbled across the page without reading Part 1, click the link below to go to Part 1.
Act One, Scene One 

I was finally able to work things out so that I could attend a church service.  I did it by working morning shift at the gas station though; so, I would have to attend the evening service.  This would have been mid-May of 1996, and Max was still working at the station.  He would be working second shift that night, freeing me up to go check out his dad’s church.  

While I had been working all of this out, another set of maneuverings were going on.  My brother’s girlfriend had a friend named Prudence, and they thought that she and I would be great for each other.  She and I had chatted on the phone a couple of times.  This was well before the widespread use of cell phones, and this required awkward communications back and forth on landline home phones.  We’d had some difficulty finding a time that worked for both of us to get together, but that Sunday night worked out for both of us; so, I suggested that she accompany me on my first visit to this new church.  

Prudence lived in another town in a neighboring county.  I made the 45 minute drive from my parents’ house to where she lived with her parents.  Then, we drove over a little over an hour to get to the church.  Conversation was pleasant on the way.  I remember that we laughed a lot.  She had a great personality.  If I could go back and be my true self, I’m sure we would have been great friends.

Now, before we get to events inside the church, I need to give you some more background on what my church experience had been up until that.  The only place that I had attended services was that tiny little Baptist church that my grandparents attended.  It was a quiet church.  Most of the attenders were older.  There wasn’t much excitement.  They played a small organ and sang from hymnals.  The pastor gave a nice sermon, and everyone went home.  That was it.  My  eyes were about to be opened to a whole other world.

I like to joke that I wasn’t yet a Christian; so, I still arrived for things on time, and, in this instance, we were actually about 15 minutes early.  When we first stepped through the door of the church, we were standing in a hallway.  I knew generally where I was.  I’d been here with Max when he needed to ask his dad something or get money from him.  There was a door to our right.  I knew that led to Max’s dad’s office.  There were two doors on the left of the hall that led to the sanctuary.  The lights in the hallway were turned off, and there was no one around.  The parking lot was filled with cars.  People had to be there somewhere.

Prudence and I opened one of the doors of the sanctuary, and slowly stepped inside.  The lights were all out in here as well.  There was music playing, and I could hear people praying out loud.  Some were at the altar.  Some were up walking around.  Occasionally, I would hear someone cry out in what sounded like complete gibberish to me.  

I had known Max and his family for about a year at that point.  I knew them.  I’d spent countless hours at their house.  They were nice people, normal people.  I began to ask myself if I had just walked into a cult.  I couldn’t believe I’d been dumb enough to bring a date.  This felt incredibly awkward.  I turned to Prudence and asked her if she wanted to go.  She told me that we should just sit down.

Prudence and I found a seat near the back of the sanctuary and began talking about what we were seeing and hearing.  She had experienced things like this before.  This allowed her to calm me down and begin explaining things to me.  She didn’t get very far though because Max’s dad, who was up praying on the stage that formed the altar saw us come in.  He tapped Michele, Max’s sister, and told her that I was there and that she should go to me.  

Michele came and talked to us.  I introduced the two girls to each other, and Michele led us over to some pews at the back of the sanctuary off to one side where most of the younger people sat during the services.  As I talked to Michele and Prudence, I paid less and less attention to what was going on around me.  Soon, it was 7:00.  The lights came up, and the service began.

Max’s dad didn’t preach that evening.  He was giving some of the other men in the church opportunity to preach on Sunday evenings that summer.  I paid attention during the service, but               I maintained my resolve not to take any of it in.  That night, I kept thinking about Lt. Commander Data, the android second officer from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  I kept imagining how he would process an event like this, taking it in for its cultural significance, yet viewing it with a cool sense of objectivity.  This helped to suppress some of the uncomfortableness I was feeling.

After giving the message, the man who preached gave an altar call.  That was uncomfortable, but it was encouraging too because I knew it meant that the service was coming to an end.  When the service was over, the pastor and his wife came over to us.  They asked how we liked the service and wanted to meet Prudence.  They commented on the unusual nature and the beauty of her name.  I had just taken in a lot in the last two hours.  I needed processing time.  I told them that I needed to get Prudence home. 

During the drive home, the events of the service dominated our conversation.  I apologized for such an awkward night.  She it was all right.  The night didn’t seem to have unnerved her nearly as much as it had me.  Since she had been to services like this before, I had a thousand questions.  Why had all the lights been out when we got there?  Why did people raise their hands in the air while singing?  And what was with that weird language they were praying in?  While Prudence had been to things like this, she had very little information to give me to help me understand that “why’s” behind things.  I was very weirded out by the whole experience, but, at the same time, I was very intrigued by it as well.

© Joshua Culbertson 2014

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Act One, Scene Three "New Friends"

This is Part 3 in a multi-part blog post.  If you've stumbled across the page without reading Part 1, click the link below to go to Part 1.

As summer drew to a close, Max prepared to head to school at Ohio University in Athens with his older sister, Michele.  I felt apprehensive.  Ironically, I, now, didn’t want this preacher’s kid that I had sworn I was not going to like, or be friends with, to go.  I would be staying in my hometown at the local tech school that I had been attending.  I began to look for ways that I could stay connected to Jason and, through him, the other people that I had met.

As circumstances would have it, things would sort of take care of themselves.  It ended up that Max was still going to be working at the gas station on weekends.  It put a little bit of money in his pocket, and I think his parents liked the idea of him not being in the “party” atmosphere of O.U. every weekend. In order to stay more connected, I also figured that I could plan a few trips down to visit him and Michele.  They would be renting a house; so, I could crash with them while I was down there.

Since my classes ended on Thursdays, and weekends on most college campuses started on Thursdays, that seemed like the most logical night to come down, given that Max would be right back up on Saturday to work.  If I didn’t have to work that night, I would head down after my last class on Thursday.  As soon as I would arrive, we would head to the liquor store with Michele or their other roommate, Steve, who was also old enough to buy alcohol.

Given that Max and I were both 19, it just made more sense and less complicated for us to do all or most of our drinking at the house.  We would load up on beer or liquor there and then head uptown to see what was going on at the bars.  Max loved to shoot pool.  He would sometimes shoot a game or two.  Occasionally, Michele would be able to get us a couple of drinks or shots from the bar to fuel our buzz.  We generally went for shots so that they wouldn’t be in our hands long enough for anyone to realize we were drinking underage.

This would continue throughout the school year.  Occasionally, Max would request a weekend off from work so that he could focus on a test or a project for school.  When this happened, I would make plans to get some alcohol and hang out with some of my high school friends.  I was trying to make sure that I balanced myself between the two sets of friends.  For the guy who felt like a social outcast for most of his life, making sure that he split himself between two sets of friends was a nice situation to be in, but it made it difficult at times if I felt I was neglecting one group or the other.

Sometimes, one or both of Max’s brothers would accompany me down.  They were very divergent in personality.  Maurio was more of a “take action” type that was always up for whatever was going on and always wanted to be at the center of the action.  Marco was more reserved and analytical, sometimes even a bit critical.  He was the brake to Maurio’s gas.

I would sometimes still hang out with the whole group of Max’s friends on Sunday nights.  I was often at his parents’ house for various things such as holiday picnics and other things.  I was becoming more and more a part of the group.  Still, other than an occasional comment, not much was said about me going to church.  All in all, they were just really nice people, and I enjoyed being around them.  

Towards the end of the school year, Max began dating one of the girls that attended the church.  She was a few years younger than he was, and her name was Amber.  Amber’s dad did construction, and Max decided that he was going to go to work for him doing general labor.  It would pay him a lot more money.  He could save what he earned during the summer to carry him through the school year.  He put in his notice at the gas station, and he said that he would be leaving at the end of the school year.

Well, I saw that as another layer of separation in our friendship, and I didn’t want that.  Again, I began thinking through ways that we could stay connected.  Of course, I could still go visit him in Athens once he went back to school.  We could still go out to the bars and stuff, but Max was talking more and more about stopping drinking.  Amber didn’t like that he drank, and she was becoming more and more of a voice in his life.  Besides, even if I could still go visit him in the fall, what was I going to do right then.  He wasn’t going to be working with me all summer.  Where was I supposed to hang out with him?

Then, it hit me.  There was the church.  I still wasn’t sold on the whole religion thing, but, I’d gone to church as a child.  That hadn’t killed me.  I could go once a week or so.  It didn’t mean that I had to believe what they believed.  I didn’t have to believe anything at all.  I was just going to sit in a building once a week, and then, I’d go hang out with my friends.  What could possibly happen?

© Joshua Culbertson 2014