Monday, June 27, 2016

June 2016, Pride Month, A Period of Tragedy and Celebration

June has been an emotional month, a difficult month, a month of celebration, and, sadly, of tragedy.  Sitting here, after having just returned to Columbus from a weekend in Cincinnati, celebrating their city’s Pride festival, my heart is filled with a  breadth and depth of emotions.  The deaths in Orlando still feel fresh and painful.  Yet, it was encouraging to see Pulse Night Club open its outdoor spaces over this past weekend to hold a Latin-themed event.  In Cincinnati, a city known to be traditionally more conservative than my current home city of Columbus, I feared that the police presence would not be what it needed to be.  To my surprise though, the police were there in heavier numbers than I have ever seen at Cincinnati Pride.  Cincinnati is such a wonderful place to visit right now.  The energies of support for the LGBTQ+ are rising there, in the home city of Jim Obergefell, and I could not help but reflect on the sacrifices made by Jim, his late husband, John, and the other plaintiffs who, thanks to their willingness to share their stories, paved the way for us to be able to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Obergefell vs. Hodges yesterday.

During my time in Cincinnati, I was also able to devote energy to the work of inclusion within our faith and political systems.  My weekend began at an interfaith service at a Cincinnati church.  I was there as a volunteer for Equality Ohio to encourage people of faith to sign onto The Ohio Faith Coalition.  Through the service, I was able to connect with folks from a variety of faith backgrounds, people faithfully serving out of the deep beliefs of their faith and believing that their faith tells them that God loves everyone, a message that is seldom heard from those most vocal in faith circles.  On Saturday, I also represented Equality Ohio, signing people up to support the political efforts to end legalized discrimination of LGBTQ+ folks here in Ohio.  Having these conversations and hearing people share personal experience of discrimination reminds me that this work is so vitally important.

Alex Shanks and I at the Equality Ohio Pride Festival Booth in Cincinnati 2016
(Photo Credit: Adrienne Michelson)
During a lunch conversation with a friend over the weekend, I commented at the irony of both my previous faith context inside a very conservative, evangelical view of Christian believing and my current, more progressive, mainline Christian perspective.  So often, we like to focus on the ways in which those two points of view are different, but, in many ways, they are the same.  Both see the text of the Bible as sacred.  They see truth in the words contained on those pages.  They may come from different understandings of the authors and the various influences that impacted the writings of those authors, but they each see those words as sacred in different ways.  Also, both are, in many ways, biblical literalists.  Now, a more conservative me may have taken a more literal view of Romans 1:27 and a more nuanced view of Matthew 25:35 (Yes, I’m going to make you look them up.), and a more progressive me would now take a more reversed perspective on both of those scriptures.  I now see that the surface understanding of the condemnation of homosexuality that is claimed by some in the first chapter of Romans really is so vague that we can’t determine much of anything from it conclusively, and, even if it were a clear-cut condemnation, we do not have the right to hold the biblical writers to a higher understanding that their cultural context gave them the ability to comprehend.  Also, I am ashamed to say this, but in my previous faith understanding, while I would have acknowledged that Jesus called us to feed the hungry, I would have felt the need to qualify that mandate by insisting that they go through proper channels and seek help through organizations that my church appropriated funds to because we did not want to take on the burden ourselves of determining who we felt had a legitimate need and who was just “using the system.”

I share these reflections for a reason.  This year, during Annual Conference, the yearly gathering of clergy and lay people from West Ohio to elect officers and set policies and legislation for our own conference, the same friend that I had lunch with in Cincinnati this past Friday commented that he could not imagine the old me, and, yet, I can assure you that I existed in that context and in that way of thinking.  This understanding and awareness of the shift that has taken place in me opens me up to the possibilities that I see in others.  When I look at the tragedy in Orlando, when I look at the emergence of support in city’s like Cincinnati, when I see the joyous faces of same-sex couples who have been married within the past year because of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges, I see hope.  I see pain as well, but there is hope.  One scripture that I see and hear both conservative and progressive voices use is John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Of course, there would be disagreement over what represents light and darkness, but those are questions that they must each wrestle with for themselves.  For me, it says one thing.  In the ultimate scheme of things, the battle between the light and the dark has been settled and, to paraphrase, “Love Wins!”  Past tense.  It is finished.

~ Culbs

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Have a Safe, Blessed, and Happy Pride!

Going into this weekend, during which much of my activities and movements will center around the Columbus Pride Festival. There is still, if I am do be honest, a very real layer of apprehension residing in my heart from the Orlando shooting. I have faith in my community though.  I sincerely do.  Every year I reflect back on my first Pride.  Just a week before that, I had walked through the doors of a gay club, Axis Nightclub here in Columbus, for the first time.  It felt liberating to be amongst people like me for the first time.  I didn’t have to be conscious of my word choices, worry if my voice sounded too gay, or constantly monitor my hand movements to make sure they were masculine enough.  I could just be me.  Now, six years later, I don’t think about those things, but community is still on my mind, and that concept has grown in depth and scope for me.

The Orlando shooting hit all of us, across the global, and especially the Latino/Latina, LGBTQ community.  The anger captured inside one man, consumed by his own internalized homophobia, ended the lives of 49 people. All of us that identify as LGBTQ persons are forced to look at that event and realize it could have been us.  I think back over my own spiritual journey and the internalized homophobia that filled me.  I was so focused on trying to drive myself and others like me to be who I was told, who I thought, God wanted me to be that it never occurred to me that I might already be exactly who God intended me to be.  Sadly, the young man who saw no other alternative than to violently take the lives of others never got the opportunity to realize that, while he and I connect to God through different faith traditions, his own attractions and desires were a valid and true part of his design as well.

Despite this almost palpable feeling of anxiousness, I am comforted by many things.  First, I have tremendous friends in this city, friends who look out for each other when we’re out.  I am also thankful for Chief Jacobs and the amazing Columbus City Police Department.  There are many places where I might be intimidated to approach a police officer because I don’t know if I am going to be confronted with a homophobic reaction from them.  I don’t worry about that when I’m here in Columbus. I am also thankful for the organizers at Stonewall and the community business leaders for stepping up to make sure that they environments that many of us will inhabit this weekend will be safe.

I’m also thankful for the community beyond Columbus.  While Orlando will be healing from this tragedy for a long time, the stories of the survivors from the club that night bring me a sense of the strength and resolve that inhabits them as well.  Hearing the owner of Pulse nightclub, who opened the club to sustain the memory of her gay brother who died of complications related to HIV, say that she will re-open gives me hope.  I am also encouraged by the fact that an openly gay Christian artist, Trey Pearson, will be a part of the opening festivities for the Columbus Pride Festival later this evening, and another LGBTQ artist known for growing her talent within the vein of contemporary Christian music, Jennifer Knapp, played a show in Columbus last night.  Also, Shane Bitney Crone, who personally shared his own loss of love and  the life of his partner, Tom, with us through his documentary 'Bridegroom', is here in Columbus this weekend with his new love, musical artist and former American Idol contestant Rayon Owen.  In another week, we will celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling to legalize same-sex weddings across the United States.
In the wake of a enormous tragedy such as Orlando, it is difficult to see the hope, but it is there.  While we continue to mourn and grieve, I know that we will heal.  There is a part of me that says that I should stay home and not be a part of the festivities this week, but it is not in me to do that.  First of all, I have responsibilities this weekend, and a lot of people would be very upset with me if I just took a personal hiatus. Also, there is the reality that it just isn’t in me to hide any more.  After my years as an ex-gay and a very closeted life prior to that, retreat is not an option. I place my faith in the people and organizations that make up the the Columbus LGBTQ community and our allies.  Please, if you are here in Columbus or celebrating elsewhere, be sage this weekend.  Hold those you care about close to you, and don’t assume that anything that causes you concern is too small to bring to someone’s attention.

May we all have a blessed and happy Pride!

~ Culbs

Monday, June 13, 2016

Truth, Loss, Pain, Healing, Community, and Sacred Spaces

Yesterday morning, when my alarm went off, I hesitated for a moment, considering whether or not to hit the snooze button, but I quickly rolled out of bed rather than give myself a chance to drift back to sleep.  A friend would be there in a short while to pick me up and head to Cedar Point for the day, and I was looking forward to it.  As I began getting ready for the day, I started to take notice of the stories about the shooting at Pulse, an LGBTQ club in Orlando.  It sickened me to think about someone doing that, and the fact that it was a LGBTQ club a week before Columbus Pride made it hit uncomfortably close to home.  I also asked the same question that we are all asking right now, “Why?”  Was it because it was an LGBTQ space?  When I read that the shooting happened during a Latin themed event at the club, I had to wonder if the rhetoric of a polarizing election year had made violence against persons of color more acceptable in the eyes of some.

After my friend picked me up, and we began to head north towards Sandusky, he asked me if I had heard about the shooting.  I told him that I had, and we began to share our questions, concerns, and theories about what may have motivated the attack.  My friend wondered what the response would be like from the mainstream media.  At that point, both of us had only seen coverage from LGBT news entities and advocacy groups.  Would the voice in our nation’s media and political engines minimize that this happened in an LGBT club in order to make the story solely about guns or religion?

After arriving at Cedar Point, we met up with two other friends, all of us gay men.  While we had the distractions of the park, there are still times of waiting and resting.  As we continued to take in media responses throughout the day and we became increasingly aware of the magnitude of this attack, our conversations continued to circle back to the shooting, the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.  A few friends reached out to me wondering what they could do or where they could go.  I am thankful to organizations like Columbus Stonewall and BRAVO for organizing times and spaces for people in Columbus to gather yesterday, and I began to see similar events being organized throughout Ohio.

As we headed towards noon yesterday, I began to feel disconnected from the community at home, but, as the day went on, I began to feel the blessing of the community that I had with me.  First, of course, I had four friends with me that I could talk to and process things with, and I am very grateful to have been able to be with them.  We also had an encounter with a young lady working in food service at the park.  She overheard us talking about the shooting and shared that she had been discussing it with her friends as well.  She also said that she was planning on coming down for Columbus Pride with her girlfriend, but this made them think about whether or not it was safe.  It’s also always been interesting to me that, in a space as large as Cedar Point, how you encounter the same people multiple times in a single day.  There was an adorable gay couple that we kept running into.  We never engaged them in conversation, but it made me smile every time I saw them.  They were both bearded and in tank tops, one of which said Columbus on it in rainbow colors.  They were not super overt in their signs of affection towards one another, but I would see them holding hands, one of them would wrap and arm around the other, or maybe a quick kiss.  It warmed my heart to know that we live in a world where that happens now in a shared, public space like Cedar Point, and it’s okay.  I could never have imagined that world growing up in Southeast Ohio as a young boy. 

The scripture that kept coming to my mind yesterday as I reflected on the shooting and the tragic loss of life was Matthew 5:11 which says, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” I struggled yesterday afternoon with whether or not that scripture was appropriate for this situation, but it brought me peace in that moment, and, at that time, I did not plan on sharing that thought with anyone else; so, I decided that it was okay to allow it to calm me.  This morning, I found myself thinking about it again.  This terrible act, this tragedy occurred in the middle of an LGBTQ club, a type of space that many, especially those who have come out later in life like myself, experienced the freedom to be themselves, to fully experience their truth, for the first time in their lives.  When we are able to be authentic and experience life fully as the person who God made us to be, I see that as being on “account” of God, and the space in which that authenticity is experienced becomes sacred.  Still, I wasn’t sure that I could fully apply that scripture to this circumstance.  It felt right to me, but, as someone who has experienced God in very different contexts, I realize and am aware of my capacity to deceive myself.

This morning, I got up and attended a prayer service at my school, The Methodist Theological School in Ohio.  As a seminary, the school is very conscious of the community’s needs to gather and express ourselves during times of loss.  One of the staff members who was present referred to LGBTQ clubs as “sacred spaces” where those who enter them expect to feel valued and safe.  Additionally, I saw another friend, who recently graduated from my school, use the term “sacred spaces” to refer to clubs of this nature.  It felt so right to me to hear and see that term applied to those spaces.  While I often wonder and man’s arrogance to claim to understand God or to categorize who is worthy of God’s love and who is not, I do firmly believe that God is truth and where truth is permitted to flourish, God is displayed through that authenticity.  

Prayer Service at MTSO
Sadly, the events in Orlando reveal, yet again, that not all are comfortable with the truth of others.  Having come out of a more exclusionary faith perspective, I can understand this type of thinking, but it now causes me to grieve both for those who are excluded but also for those who do the excluding.  I recently listened to something with Krista Tippett in which she defined a fundamentalist as someone who not only believes that have found the answers for themselves.  They believe that they have found the answers for everyone else, too.  I am so thankful that I am no longer in such a restrictive mindset.  The fact that I could open myself up to love and a more expansive understanding of who God is gives me hope that others can do the same.  Until then, I shall continue to live my truth.  I spent too many years hiding to go back into the shadows now.  If living that truth puts me in harms way, at least I will be doing so as the person God created me to be.

~ Culbs

Please feel free to leave a comment below and share how the events of these last two days have impacted you or connect with me and/or others through my Facebook page.  Community is such a vital part of healing during a time such as this.

Friday, June 10, 2016

What Happened at General Conference 2016?

This is a summary of the events of the United Methodist Church's 2016 General Conference in Portland, OR.  In addition to my duties there as part of the communications team for the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, I was also asked by Equality Ohio to be their eyes and social media presence on the ground.  This is a summary that I prepared for Equality Ohio of the events pertaining to LGBTQ persons in the denomination:


Saturday, June 4, 2016

2016, The Year of The Impossible?

            Two phrases that I don’t want to hear anymore this year are, “That’s Impossible,” and “That could never happen.”  There are a few reasons that I say this.  The first two are Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.  Some of the others are friends in the United Methodist Church who are either clergy or clergy candidates that have declared themselves to be self-avowed practicing homosexuals.  Note: For those who don’t speak Methodese, that’s how Methodists say they’re gay or lesbian.  These folks have come out of the church’s supposedly iron-clad closet of silence, and, so far, there has been no sweeping wave of retribution from the church.  Other United Methodist clergy friends have participated in same-sex wedding ceremonies or allowed them to take place within the churches to which they’ve been appointed and, again, thus far, the long arm of the church “courts” have not spun up into witch hunt mode.

I put “courts” in quotes for a couple reasons.  First, I find it ironic that while the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” ensuring that no religious practice as long as it doesn’t cause harm to others, should be criminalized and, yet, there’s the church looking to make criminals of each other right there within their own boundaries.  The other reason that I find it ironic is that whole,  “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” thing that Jesus guy was quoted as talking about in Matthew 7:1.  That’s quoted from the NRSV.  I realize that some reading this will judge me based on that; so, I thought I’d make it easier to determine which non-King James version of the Bible you needed to condemn me for reading.

Let’s put the whole Bible/Church/Self-Avowed Practicing thing aside for a moment and go back to Donald and Bernie.  If you had told me 18, 12, or even 6 months ago that this presidential race really would come down to a moderate Hillary Clinton sandwiched between a reality TV personality and an independent candidate from the radical left, I would have told you that could never happen.  In fact, multiple people continue to tell me that it’s still impossible for either of them to claim the White House, but folks, let me tell you.  They have both already crossed too many lines that very smart people told me that they shouldn’t have been able to cross, and here we are.

I do, of course, have my opinions with regards to the Presidential race.  For the record my money is still on and my support still goes to Hillary, but let me say a few things briefly about the other candidates and, at the same time, acknowledge something about myself.  Donald Trump is terrifying.  Giving a man who clear has a power fetish access to nuclear launch codes would be an act of insanity in my mind.  As for Bernie, I’m not backing him, but I gotta say that I can’t watch him, read about him, or hear people talk about him without smiling.  If there is a statesman in this race, it is Bernie Sanders, an independent who aligned himself as a Democrat just so that the coach (the establishment) would let him have some playing time on the field.  There isn’t a thing that he’s fighting for in his platform that I don’t think we could or should do as a nation if we decided that it was our priority to do so.  The problem is reality.  I don’t think he has the negotiating skills or the willingness to compromise with an opposition political party or with foreign heads of state.  Trump and Sanders both terrify me in the foreign policy arena for different reasons.  Now, for the “me” part.  While my status as an openly gay man may have, at one point, made me marginalized, as a gay white cis-gendered man, I have now become part of the establishment in society, if not in my church.  Maybe this is why I can’t see the possibilities.  Am I maybe, in fact, part of the problem?

I do see the hope in all of this.  From Sanders to Trump, from clergy and clergy candidates to their bishops and the larger world, people have reached a point that they are done being silenced by the establishment.  Sink or swim, win or lose, they are done holding their tongues.  So, with both fear and excitement inside me, I say, “Bring on the rest of 2016.”  Sadly, it may take something as brutal as a Trump presidency to make us appreciate the voices of those outside the establishment.  I pray it doesn’t, but, in both the history of our nation and our churches, we’ve proven over and over that we insist on learning the lessons we need to learn the hard way.

~ Culbs

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