Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Sad Conclusion and a Beginning of Healing

            Tonight, I attended a candlelight vigil for a young Columbus man who went missing on March 5th.  He was a young gay man.  He had been out with friends at a bar that I sometimes go to.  I don’t remember ever meeting him, but I’m sure that we occupied the same space at some point.  I’ve heard that Columbus is a big city that feels like a small town, and it’s a true statement.  It’s still the kind of city where running into random friends and acquaintances happens.  If the overall city feels that way, you can imagine what it is to be within the even smaller LGBTQ community.  Even if you don’t know someone personally, you’ve been in a room with them, you’ve seen their face.  There aren’t that many degrees of separation between any of us. 

            The young man’s name was Joseph “Joey” LaBute, Jr.  Shortly after he went missing, people started sharing things about the disappearance via social media.  On Saturday, March 12th, over 200 people participated in a search of the surrounding neighborhood where Joey was last seen.  Nothing was found.  This past Tuesday afternoon, it was a announced that the body of a young man in his 20’s had been pulled from the Scioto River.  No identification was released.  There was an autopsy conducted to determine the cause of death, but it was inconclusive.  The whole community waited anxiously while dental records were obtained to match them to the body that was found.  Today, it was announced that the body was indeed Joey LaBute.

            All through this the reaction and response from the LGBTQ community and our allies here in Columbus has been comforting.  In so many ways, this case touches all of us.  So many of us have left a bar with someone we met or accepted a drink bought for us by someone else.  Of course, no one knows, yet, the exact circumstances of Joey’s disappearance, but the unsettling part is that this could happen to any of us.  I try to be so careful.  I normally only go out in groups.  I always make sure that there are one or two people in the circle whom I trust implicitly, Joey was with a group of friends that night, people he trusted, and whatever happened, it still happened to him.

            Earlier today, the aforementioned vigil was put together.  Like everything else involving this situation, it spread like wild fire across social media, being shared over 700 times.  It was a simple gathering and brief due to the threatening storm overhead, but it was something.  It wasn’t enough, of course.  Nothing ever is in these circumstances, but it was good.  It was healing.  It felt good to be surrounded by so many familiar and unfamiliar faces all gathered for the same purpose.  Collectively, we have been wounded, and even though we still crave answers that may never come, we can be there for each other as we start to move forward from this tragedy and reminder of our own vulnerability.

~ Culbs

Monday, March 28, 2016

Thank God!

Act Two, Scene Seven - "The Cord"

This post is part of my on-going story that I have been telling through this blog.  If you are just coming here for the first time or if you need to catch up, you can catch the earlier parts of the story in Setting the Stage or Act One.  See the navigation panel to the right labeled My Story.  I hope that my sharing of my story is helpful, encouraging, informative, or at least entertaining for you.  Please feel free to comment or contact me at the e-mail address below.  Thanks!

            I continued to spend time with Anthony and Brent and continued to buy more and more into the idea of a supernatural world that exists parallel and unseen to our own.  To this day, I do believe that there are things about our own spiritual nature and the nature of the world we live in that we will never understand.  The difference is that they and several of the people around them claimed to understand how these forces worked.  For someone who was looking for answers, I was eager, if sometimes terrified, to speak to anyone who claimed to have them. 

            One day, Anthony shared that he was feeling led to begin a ministry for young men in the churches in the community, and he wanted me to be a part of it.  I was honored to be asked.  It also meant a great deal that he trusted me to work with and minister to young men, an area that I imagined some would see as parading the fax through the hen house so to speak.  I took it very seriously though.  One of the things that I believed opened the door for homosexuality to take root was for young men to fail to learn how to establish healthy relationships with other men.  I saw being given the opportunity to help cultivate healthy relationships among young men as the best line of protection against homosexuality in their lives.  While I think, feel, and believe differently now, at the time, it seemed completely logical to me and in congruence with my understanding of spirituality at the time.

            The group was formed independent of any particular church, and it was called The Cord.  It was a reference to Ecclesiastes 4:11-12: “Again, if two lie down together, then they have heat, but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threestrand cord is not quickly broken.”  First, let’s completely ignore the homoerotic overtones implied in verse 11.  The emphasis was placed on verse 12 and the strength of the three-strand cord, which also carried an implied reference to the Trinity. 

            We began holding meetings and sending out a monthly newsletter.  Brent, Anthony and I would come up with the content, print an original of the newsletter in my parents’ basement.  Then we would make copies at a local office supply store and mail them to the guys at their homes.  We did overnight events with them in hotels, set up obstacle courses, and held other events and build strong relationships within the group.  There were some youth from New Promise involved.  There were also youth from other churches.  To a great extent, I think we were successful in our goals.  I still have relationships with many of the guys who were involved in the group today.  The nature of those friendships have changed, but many of them still exist. 

            The existence of the group and my participation in it caused additional problems for me at New Promise.  Some of the objections that the leadership had were valid.  Looking back now as someone who is nearing his 40th birthday and a former insurance agent, we were very fortunate that nothing ever happened in terms of injuries or other negative outcomes.  As it was pointed out to us, if anything happened to any of these kids, we had no umbrella of protection that would come from having it being an officially sanctioned church ministry.  Another valid point was that we were operating under no real spiritual authority at all other than our own.  In theory, Anthony, Brent, and I held each other accountable.  In reality, that didn’t play out so well.  I was a very different person at the time.  Feeling that I was broken and always falling short of the expectations of God, I didn’t really believe that my opinion or spiritual understanding held much weight; so, things often devolved into a tug-of-war between Brent and Anthony.  At the end, we would go the direction of whoever’s voice was strongest.  I don’t say this to excuse myself of responsibility.  If anything, I say it to re-emphasize to myself my responsibility in never being that passive voice, or lack of voice, again.  There are times that one direction or another doesn’t matter all that much, and there are other times that it matters very much. 

            I am thankful for my time as a part of this group.  While it may not have been the best conceived of ideas, it gave me the opportunity to do what was and is truly in my heart.  I want to make the world better for those who come after me.  I recently read an anonymous quote: “Be the person you needed when you were younger.”  Even though my view of the world and how I walk out that quote has changed, it is still at the heart of who I am.  As with most things, The Cord produced a mixture of positive and negative outcomes, and, as will all things, it did not last forever.  I’ll talk more about the fall of the group next.

~ Culbs

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Oh, North Carolina, What Have You Done?

            I am blessed to live in Columbus, Ohio.  I love the city that I call home.  It is a city that is thriving with economic opportunity, and it’s just a fun city to live in.  The underlying reason that I live here though is a reason that I, fortunately, don’t have to think about that much anymore.  It’s safe.  I can go to work here everyday for an employer that respects me for who I am as a gay man in a city that offers municipal level protections for LGBTQ people as well.  I can leave work and go home to my apartment without fear of finding an eviction notice taped to the door because one of my neighbors noticed me coming or going with another man that I’m romantically interested in.  I love my state.  Ohio is an absolutely beautiful place to live, but I always breathe a little sigh of relief every time my car crosses the line that is I-270, the outer belt that surrounds Columbus.

            Despite feeling safe inside Columbus, I lived most of my in Zanesville, Ohio, about an hour east of Columbus.  While Zanesville isn’t that far away geographically, it is worlds away in terms of diversity and culture.  If I still lived and worked in Zanesville, I would have to go my job everyday knowing that my employer could legally walk up to me at anytime and tell me that I was fired for being gay.  They could do so, and I wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on.  I remember that tension and fear all too well, and I never want to have to go back to that.  I don’t want to also face the fear that I could find myself homeless at anytime because my Zanesville doesn’t provide housing protections on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

            We live in an interesting time, but it is not always interesting in a good way.  Ten months ago, the Supreme Court declared that it was unconstitutional to deny the right to marriage to any two consenting adults regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.  Yesterday, the North Carolina legislature passed House Bill 2, codifying the right to discriminate against LGBTQ persons into the state’s laws and overturning any municipal protections that previously existed within the state.  Legislators in Georgia continue to wrestle with whether or not to pass similar legislation in the name of protecting religious freedom.  For those of us who live in the realm of rationality and reason, we realize that, when rights are granted to others, the constitution ensures that the religious freedoms of those who disagree with the law are protected already.  Legalizing hate in the name of religious liberty is absurd.

            But the key word that brought us to the current situation in North Carolina isn’t religion, a sacred text, or any system of belief.  The word that brought about this hateful legislation in North Carolina is fear.  They were afraid.  It is as pure and simple as that.  People are so terrified of transgender men and women using the restroom that is in congruence with their inner selves, even if it might not be in congruence with how someone perceives their outer self, that the elected officials in North Carolina have decided that the fear of what they think could happen, no matter how little it resembles the reality of what does happen in places where these protections already exist, is sufficient to legalize the persecution of all persons who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or any other variance of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Now, as anyone who reads this blog knows, I have undergone my own evolution to get to where I am now.  I didn’t used to understand what it is to be transgender.  I wouldn’t even claim to understand it now.  It isn’t for me to understand or explain.  That isn’t my journey.  I know far more than I did six years ago when I was emerging from the closet myself.  I didn’t even used to condone being gay…and I am gay.  I thought it was wrong.  You know what broke me free form that?  You know what helped me to come to a place of better understanding of myself and of other gay people?  I met gay people.  You know what helped me to begin to understand transgender people?  I met one.  That first encounter and conversation shattered walls inside my head that I didn’t even know where standing, and, with each new transgender person I meet, the walls continue to come down.  I still don’t fully understand though.  You know why?  Because each and every one of their journeys is unique and beautiful.  If you think that you have anxiety about using the same restroom as a transgender person, you know who has more anxiety than you?  That same transgender person who is the object of your fear or scorn.  While your anxiety stems from outcomes you’ve imagined though, their anxiety is born out of real life events of embarrassment, objectification, and abuse, both verbal and physical.  They know that every time they enter a restroom that isn’t the one someone else thinks they should be walking into, they put their physical and emotional safety at risk.

            Here, in this wonderful city, we take the protections that we have for granted.  Too often, when I try to convince someone here in Columbus that there is still urgent work that needs to be done in the fight for equality, I am met with indifference.  Same-sex marriage is the law of the land, and we have job and housing protections.  What more do we need?  I saw the need before to make sure that all Ohioans are someday able to enjoy the same protections that we take for granted here in Columbus, but what just transpired in North Carolina brings a whole new fear and sense of urgency.  Don’t think for an instant that what happened in North Carolina couldn’t happen in Ohio or any other state across the country.  We must be vigilant.  We must work to make sure that we not only work to protect the non-discrimination laws that are in place.  We must also continue to fight to take those protections to those who do not yet have them.  Let’s get to work!

~ Culbs