Thursday, August 10, 2017

Going Back

            In February of this year, I became aware of a transgender person here in my home state of Ohio whose parents had forced (or at least heavily pressured) them into submitting to conversion therapy. The therapy was conducted over the phone, their parents were charged thousands, and surprise, surprise the therapy effort was fraudulently ineffective and altering this individual’s gender identity to be in alignment with what their parents thought it should be. It turns out that the licensed clinician engaging in the “therapy” effort was licensed in and calling from a different state. He was not licensed in Ohio. That fact alone made what he was doing unethical. Upon learning this, I connected the individual with someone who could help them file a complaint with the American Psychological Association. I don’t believe they ever followed through with it though, probably because it could potentially mean revisiting a traumatic experience in their life. As much as I would like to see the perpetrator of this ineffective and harmful practice punished and prevented from doing further harm, I can only respect the individual’s decision to do what is best for them and to protect themselves in whatever way they ultimately determined was best for them.

            For me, the experience should have ended there, but I felt the need to keep investigating. I quickly learned that the psychologist involved in this situation is involved in a larger network of providers who specialize in conversion therapy under the umbrella name of Hope for Wholeness. I wondered if they had any licensed professionals operating under this network here in Ohio. A quick check revealed that there were a couple of counselors willing to counsel by phone or Skype. Depending on the requirements of your particular state, the person that is the licensed clinician may be breaking ethics rules, regulatory guidelines, or the law if they engage in counseling with you while being physically located in another state. There were also a handful of “lay” counselors.

The part that jumped out at me though was seeing the name of the very ministry that I had attended in Columbus years ago in order to be able observe the work that they were doing in hopes of being able to duplicate it in my hometown of Zanesville. I had assumed that, when Exodus International shut their doors a few years ago, they had stopped operating. I’m not sure why I thought that would happen. Maybe that’s what I wanted to happen and so I just blocked out any other possibilities. On the Hope for Wholeness website, the only address listed for the ministry was a post office box. I remembered that from before. When I first inquired about the ministry, they had to verify that they could trust me. It took a number of e-mails before they would give me an address, and then I had to come to the church for a one-on-one meeting with the group leader before they would let me come to an actual group. It’s all very secretive.

I wasn’t conscious initially that this is what I was doing, but I realize now looking back that, becoming aware that they were still operating, reconnected me to some of the anxiety that I had experienced in my final days of coming to that church and in the months that followed. I started on my own journey to explore and confront that anxiety. I started my going through old e-mails to find the address of the church. Then, weeks later, I pulled the address up on Google Maps and just looked at it. Finally, just a few days ago, I took a friend with me and went back to that church so that I could be in that place and feel the weight of being there. I wanted to have someone with me because I wasn’t sure how I would react in that moment. I decided to record a video while I was there to document the experience and to, in some small way, give voice to the feeling of strength that can come from confronting those things which make us anxious.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Reflections on Pulse & The Work That Lies Ahead

            Today has been weighty for me for a couple of reasons. First, after 13 months of being severely under-employed while I finished up the final year of my Master’s, I stepped back into the realm of full-time employment today. I was actually supposed to start this new position last week, but I requested that the start-date be moved back a week in order to allow for me to attend the West Ohio Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. I was not conscious when I made that request that I would be moving my first day at my new job to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the devastating shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, a shooting which took the lives of 50 persons if we include the shooter, Omar Mateen. I knew of course that the anniversary was coming. I just wasn’t cognizant until early this morning of the additional emotional impact that it would carry for me today as a take my first steps into this new career, this career of counseling.

            My journey to being a counselor, as many of you know, was birthed out of my own journey to understand my own identity as someone who is both a gay man and a person of faith. My passion is to help create safe spaces where it is safe for others to ask and to work through their own questions of identity regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious or philosophical perspective. I see my calling as that of a companion walking alongside those seeking to better understand themselves, their communities, the world, and the larger universe that contains us all. Of course, I know that many of those questions can never be definitively answered, but there is value in our journey to seek understanding.

            For those who lost their lives a year ago today in that nightclub during an event aimed at celebrating the Latin community, that journey was cut short. That morning, I remember seeing the headlines as I glanced at my Facebook newsfeed as I got ready for the day. That day I went to Cedar Point with a small group of friends. I knew that I would have plenty of time to read into the details either on the car ride up to the park or while standing in line for a ride. Sadly, acts of gun violence come so frequently in the United States that I didn’t feel the kind of urgency that I once did to know what was going on right away. Then, I met my friends, we headed towards Cedar Point, and I… Well, to be honest, I forgot about it.

            When we arrived at the park, we set about riding rides. At some point, while waiting in lines or walking through the park, I began reading more. The details made the impact of what had happened simultaneously grow and shrink. It grew in magnitude as I became aware of how many people had been shot, and it also became smaller, more intimate, as I realized that this could have been me. My mind filled with memories and the emotions of dancing with friends on the floor of Axis Nightclub in the Short North here in Columbus, Ohio. Axis was the first place that I, as a timid adult gay man in my early thirties felt what it was to be truly in community with other people like me. It was the first place that I became conscious of the fact that I, for the first time in my life, wasn’t worried about whether what I was wearing made me look too gay. I wasn’t worried about what my hands were doing, what my voice might sound like, or what words might be carried by it. I felt utterly free to be me. That experience is what gave me that courage to attend my first Pride festival in Columbus the following weekend in 2010.

            With my mind in that space, I wondered how many of the people at Pulse that night were experiencing that feeling of freedom, of utter transparency and authenticity. At that moment, with my friends in the midst of a theme park, it fully coalesced for me how the argument can be made for LGBTQ+ clubs as sacred spaces. In those moments, when we feel free to be the purest representations of ourselves, there is a transcendence to the experience. And that night, that transcendence, that sacredness was shattered, not only for those who were shot but also for those who will never again be able to enter a nightclub or lose themselves in the masses on a dance floor without an awareness that it can all be broken in moments.

            As the day went on, my group of friends, all gay men themselves, began to discuss what we had read. Speaking about it aloud made it even more real. I was thankful to be with them that day. It also made me more aware of other LGBTQ+ persons in the park. As someone who lived for so many years afraid of embracing the fullness of my identity, seeing same-sex couples in the park always brings a smile to my face, but that day it was even more meaningful, a reminder that, no matter what people do to try to push LGBTQ+ persons to the margins, there will always be some among us who will rise to defend our right to be who we are and to love who we love. I was also thankful for supportive comments from Cedar Point employees that day. There was part of me that felt the urge to rush back to Columbus to be with my local community that day, but it felt good to know that I was in community where I was.

            So, today, as I took my first steps into this work of partnering with people, other human beings, to walk with them on their own journeys, I am thankful for those spaces and voices that have helped, and continue to help, me in wrestling with what it is to reconcile aspects of my own identity. I am hopeful and enormously humbled as I earnestly seek to be a presence that walks with others towards a place of better understanding, both of ourselves and of the world that surrounds us. Maybe, someday, we will reach a place where difference is not seen as something to fear or to inspire violence. May we walk together and speak together towards that end. 

~ Culbs

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Wounded Heart

One week ago today, I was sitting in the John Glenn International Airport in Columbus, OH waiting to board a flight to Chicago where I would catch a connecting flight to Newark, NJ. It was my birthday. I’d already spent the day up until that point working, and I knew that I would be spending the rest of the day in the air or in airports, getting into Newark just before midnight, but I knew that I was flying to join friends, comrades and colleagues in the struggle for full inclusion within the United Methodist Church. Full inclusion, such a nice sterile way of saying that I wish my church would stop wounding those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, non-binary, and anyone else who doesn’t fit within the crosshairs of cisgender hetero-normativity that the church holds as the only acceptable way of being in the world, as if they have the right to look at Creation and say that what the Creator has made is not good.

A few days after my arrival, the United Methodist Church’s equivalent of the Supreme Court, the Judicial Council, would be ruling on the constitutionality (according to church law, not real law) of the election, consecration, and appointment of Bishop Karen Oliveto as well as the rights of the Boards of Ordained Ministry in Upstate New York and Northern Illinois to choose to not include sexual orientation as criteria for a person’s a relevant criteria for candidates for ordination. Right now, the United Methodist Book of Discipline doesn’t contain any language directly aimed at persons who are transgender or gender non-conforming. I’m sure that the denomination, which laughably boasts as its motto, “open hearts, open doors, open minds,” will remedy that oversight at some point.

I’m really trying to pull my thoughts together in some way that is hopeful, or even helpful. It is a struggle at this point.

I was flying into New Jersey a few days ahead of the public portion of the Judicial Council meeting, which was held on Tuesday, April 25th.  On Sunday and Monday, I would be in meetings with other members of the Affirmation Council. Affirmation is the oldest LGBTQ+ supportive organization in the United Methodist world. They are the organization that created the Reconciling Ministries Network, and they maintain a sibling relationship with other progressive organizations that have organized together under the umbrella of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition. I connected with their current understanding of their mission, which is essentially that of chaplaincy for those who have been hurt or wounded by the actions and discriminatory policies of the United Methodist denomination. It was great being able to spend two full days with this small group of people, engaged in discussions about how we can best devote our time and resources to caring for those who are hurting.

Very early on Tuesday morning, I arose, got ready, and packed my luggage as I would be heading to the airport to return home as soon as the public oral arguments were concluded. When we arrived at the Hilton near Newark Penn Station to get in line for tickets in hopes of being able to be in the room where Judicial Council was meeting, I saw many faces that I recognized from the past two General Conferences and from Reconciling Ministries Network convocation events. I was among friends, which was comforting, but I couldn’t help but wonder. Where were those who thought differently? It is clear that there are those who oppose full inclusion. Otherwise, this fight would have been over a long time ago. Didn’t they care enough to show up to show support for their beliefs? Apparently, that was not a priority for them. It makes sense that many of them were probably preparing for ‘We Believe in the Church,’ a conference held by the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a group of conservative, evangelical United Methodists who have banded together to resist any efforts aimed at the inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the denomination. Of course, as their new president and counsel for the South Central Jurisdiction in their complaint against Bishop Oliveto Keith Boyette will tell you, they support LGBTQ persons being included in “all aspects of the church.” I about fell over when he said this in the hearing room as his definition of “all aspects” clearly does not include marriage, the pulpit, or the episcopacy.

As I am currently in my final semester of grad school, I am currently working a part-time retail job in order to put some cash in my pocket as I finish up an internship. I was at that job last night. I had read from multiple sources throughout the day that the Judicial Council probably would not deliver its ruling until Saturday, today. As I took my 15-minute break last night, I pulled out my cell phone. As soon as I began scrolling through my newsfeed on Facebook, I felt as if the wind had been knocked out of me. The ruling from the court had been announced. The election of Bishop Oliveto was declared to be illegal, and people across the denomination were hurting. I read as much as I could before returning to work, but a feeling of numb emptiness would be with me the rest of the evening. I forced on a plastic smile and resumed interacting with customers, masking the hurt that I was feeling on the inside. At the end of my shift, I sat in front of a computer in the store’s storage room and clocked out. I sat there for a few minutes more, scrolling through more and more expressions of hurt from so many people. I finally managed to get up and walk to my car where I, again, sat reading even more before I finally put the phone down and started the engine.

With Bishop Oliveto in Newark, NJ
Today, I am still feeling the hurt and wounding. As someone who has experienced deep hurt at the hands of religious institutions, this is not going to be an easy one for me to get over. I keep reminding myself that I attend a progressive church in a progressive city with many other progressive churches. For me, my life will not change much. I do feel called to ministry, but my calling does not require ordination as my calling can be walked out with a state licensure in a counseling office. I won’t lie. It has crossed my mind that maybe this is where I cross my red line. Maybe this is where I call it quits with the church. That thought is met by a sarcastic rebuttal from within myself though, a voice that says, “Oh. What a privilege it must be to be you?  Go ahead. Protect yourself. Just walk away while others are hurting.”

I am not leaving the church…yet. I have no immediate plans to do so either. Part of me is excited to possibly be witness to the formation of something new, a new inclusive denomination or other progressive religious structure, some new wine skins for our new wine. I am also hopeful for the work of the Commission on the Way Forward. I am also encouraged by the fact that, as of today, Karen Oliveto is still a bishop in the United Methodist Church, and, regardless of where events take us from here, she will always bear the honorific in my heart.

If you actually made it to the end of this, thank you for listening to the outpourings of my wounded heart.

~ Culbs

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Few Thoughts on Palm Sunday Morning

Sometimes I sit down with the conscious idea of writing a blog post. That was not the intent this morning when I sat down to begin working through some thoughts of what Palm Sunday means in general and what it means to me specifically. So, I apologize if this doesn’t seem as coherent as it might have been had I planned it out. This is one of those times that I just started typing a few thoughts for my own benefit, and my fingers just kept going.

As I reflect on what that first actual Palm Sunday must have felt like all those years ago in Jerusalem and knowing how the events of the following week would unfold, I try to place myself in the context of one of those in the crowd, welcoming him into the city placing my cloak or a branch upon the ground to prepare a path for him. As I think on this, trying to conjure up within me the emotions that must have been felt, imagining a crowd filled with an overwhelming sense of joy, celebration, and certain victory that must have been felt in anticipation of this King, this Savior, I cannot help but draw parallels to our modern political context.

I find myself back in the early evening hours of November 8, 2016, as I gathered with a group of progressive friends at Union CafĂ© in the Short North in Columbus, OH. I share the location as part of the context because it emphasizes the progressive bubble that I had placed myself in that evening. As we ordered food and drinks, the atmosphere was celebratory. We didn’t know exactly what the outcome of the vote would be in each state, but we did feel confident that we were about to witness history as the first woman was about to be elected as President of the United States of America.

As with most things, events in 2017 unfold much faster than they did in ancient Jerusalem. As we sat together at that table, we experienced all of the layers of Holy Week within just a few hours rather than days. We very quickly moved from welcoming a savior to seeing the unfolding of a long building crucifixion, and, before I went to bed that night, the darkness and hopelessness of Black Friday had descended with no apparent hope of a resurrection.

This was my second time experiencing this feeling of hopelessness as I had felt it 8 years prior when John McCain failed to win in the general election over then Senator Barack Obama. Again, insulated with a political bubble of conservative friends and campaign volunteers in the campaign headquarters of the Republican Party in Muskingum County in Zanesville, Ohio. Of course, at that time, my political beliefs were very different. I was still in a state of denying the truth of my identity as a gay man, and the denial of my own marginalization blinded me to how others were even more marginalized than I was. On that night, the night of Tuesday, November 4, 2008, I felt that fully eclipsing darkness and absence of hope for the first time. In the interest of full honesty, I believe that it was these feelings of hopelessness that had been the culmination of weeks and months of phone banking and advocating for “my candidate” in 2008 that kept me from fully engaging in the campaign of Secretary Clinton in 2016. On some level, I know that I fearing that, if I invested so much of myself only to lose again, I could not bear it.

So, when I realized that I had, yet again, found myself in the same place for a second time, I began to wrestle with two questions. The first was, “What did I learn from the last time I was in that place that can help me now?” And the second was, “What have I learned from both of these experiences that can carry me forward into the future?” The first obvious lesson to me was that not engaging in the process had not protected me from getting hurt. The second lesson is one that many of us have wrestled with in the months since the election. It is the recognition that we need to find ways to connect with others who are outside our insular bubbles. These few months have also made me become even more aware of my privilege in culture and society. Despite being gay, I get to inhabit the world every day as a white able-bodied cisgender man. When Donald Trump became President of the United States, I began to once again, as I had felt for decades in my small hometown, to feel the ever-present pressure that stems from the one aspect of me that makes me other, that makes me marginalized. When I became aware of this within me, I had to check myself and remind that inner me that I am far more secure than so many others in the U.S. and the world. I don’t wake each morning with the fear of deportation or of military attacks or bombings outside my home. I struggle at times in terms of my finances, as many do, but I have never gone hungry, without shelter, or without medical care.

The final, and most important lesson in terms of relevance to Palm Sunday that I take from these events is that resurrections do happen, even if they take time. It would take over a year for me to move from seeing Barack Obama as a figure to be feared to being a figure to be revered. I doubt that I will ever make that inner journey in terms of my beliefs with Donald Trump, but I also believe that this experience has shown me that resurrection seldom happens in the ways that we expect. I am seeing signs of resurrection even within my own state of Ohio right now as people of all political beliefs are becoming more politically engaged and aware. I am also seeing non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ persons pass in small towns and cities within Ohio with far less debate and controversy. I have journeyed a great deal in the eight years that passed between my Black Friday moments. I pray that I will never have to endure another, but I know that it is likely that I will. So, as the followers of Christ saw the need to maintain hope in the world through sharing their stories of a Risen Savior, I ,too, put my hands back to the plough and commit to doing my part to bringing about a resurrection world.