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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Into the Light


I hated gym class. Skinny, uncoordinated and myopic, I knew that whatever activity they dreamed up, I wasn't going to be good at it. Some things, like crab soccer and pillow polo, were okay, because they really didn't require much skill. But I dreaded anything where some kids, invariably the jocks, got to pick teams, because I was certain to be damn near last, and with good reason.

None of us kids was particularly athletic, although at least one of my sisters played softball on a real team and was apparently popular to acquire a non-derogatory nickname from the P.E. teacher. I was afforded no such cool moniker; instead, one of the other kid's dads who was brought in as a guest teacher said I "wrestled like a girl". I find that interesting because I don't think mud wrestling was popular yet, so I don't know upon what experience he based his assessment.

But I guess I was lucky; I didn't go to the school in Decatur, Ala., where the teacher invented a game called "smear the queer" in which a single student is singled out to be slogged by volleyballs by the entire rest of the class.

Seems kind of shocking that only happened about twelve years ago. Would we tolerate such a thing now? Apparently, we would. In the past few weeks, no fewer than three high school boys committed suicide after enduring sustained torment at the hands of their peers.

Seth Walsh, 13, of Tehachapie, California, hanged himself from a tree on September 19th. He was found alive and placed on life support, but died a few days later. Despite a program to prevent such abuse and a principal whose principal boasts of her degree in child counseling, investigators were told by Seth's peers that he had been the victim of sustained bullying. They determined, however, that no crime had been committed and no charges were filed.

Asher Brown, an eighth-grader from Houston, shot himself in the head last week. His parents say they have complained repeatedly to the school, by phone and in person, about the four classmates made hassling Asher a full-time job for the past eighteen months, simulating gay sex acts on him in gym class and making fun of his inexpensive clothes. Administrators say they were never told about the bullying.

Billy Lucas, from Indiana, never told anybody he was gay, but his classmates apparently decided that for him. Administrators claim he was "happy and well-adjusted", but yet classmates tell a different story which should be getting sadly familiar by now. His family found him in their barn where he had hanged himself.

One could ask what the hell is going on in these schools that there could be so much opportunity for kids to lash out at one another unchecked by a teacher or other adult. Maybe all the budget cuts have made it impossible to know who's doing what to who. I would like to hear from those who work in schools: Do you see kids like Billy, Asher and Seth? What is done about it?

I have to wonder, however, how many teachers and coaches and parents think such behavior is normal (et tu, Darwin?) and thus allow it continue or even encourage it. You know, it'll make a man out of you. And if this was limited to a few embarrassing moments in gym class, it might be survivable. But I shared with you in a former post the case of Roy Jones, a seventeen-month-old boy who died from a beating he got from his mother's boyfriend, because he "acted like a girl". I liked that ABC called him a baby, even though technically he isn't, because it emphasizes the mania in our culture around gender roles and the lengths to which people will go to make sure the traditional ones are enforced, even at an age where a kid doesn't even know what they mean or whether he or she is exhibiting them or not.

Today's story was the proverbial straw. News is spreading tonight about the case of Tyler Clementi, a first-year Rutgers student from Ridgewood, N.J. and classical violinist. Tyler had either told his roommate he was gay or at least it was suspected, because when he asked for a few hours of privacy, a webcam was left running to record his romantic time with a male visitor while the roommate provided a running commentary on Twitter as well as a video feed on the Internet. Confronted with this invasion, the shy student was so distraught that he lept from the George Washington Bridge to his death.

I do not know all the facts of all these cases. I don't know these boys' mental health histories or to what degree either parents or administrators were forthcoming in what they told the media and the police. What I do know is that our kids learn what they know about what it means to be male, female, gay, straight or somewhere in between from us. From what we say, how we act, and how we treat people.

34,000 Americans commit suicide every year, and -- among young people -- every suicide is shadowed by 100-200 unsuccesful attempts. LGBT youth are four times more likely to commit or attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. I don't believe that is due to some genetic trait: I think it's because growing up is hard enough without being told repeatedly by peers, trusted adults and the media that there's something abnormal about you.

If it outrages or saddens you that so many young lives have been diminished or snuffed out, than know this: These are just a handful of extreme cases... this goes on all the time, in varying degrees, in every school in this country because some kids don't live up to other people's expectations of how they should dress, talk or throw a ball.

Teachers, look out for the Trevors and the Billys. Think about the words you use and understand the difference between good-natured teasing and outright terror. Maybe you could be the one adult that they can count on if things rough. Parents, you can't expect the school to teach your kids that it's not okay to treat people this way; they need to hear it from you. And maybe you should let them read the stories about these boys: Seth, Asher, Billy, Tyler, and poor little Roy, so that they see what it does to them inside.

I was lucky to have enough of a support system to reach adulthood and understand that people who act this way are saying more about themselves and their own insecurities than they are about you. In college I started lifting weights, finally finding an athletic activity that I didn't need great hand-eye coordination to accomplish. Current deadlift, 300 lb, thankyouverymuch, and I no longer feel like a victim. Most of the time.

On October 17th, friends and I are participating in Out of the Darkness, a Community Walk to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. If you are in a position to contribute anything to help this worthy cause, please visit this link. It would be much appreciated. If you would like to know more about anti-bullying, LGBT youth and suicide prevention, please visit the links below:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On the Shoulders of Giants

Richard Rolle (1349), Walter Hilton (1396) and Margery Kempe (%1440) - Mystics

It's hard for me to know where to go with this blog sometimes, especially when I surround myself with people who can say the things I believe so much more compellingly than I can.

Telling Secrets: The path to hope

Friday, September 24, 2010

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know

This was started a while ago and got lost in the shuffle

Charles Chapman Grafton - Bishop & Ecumenist (1912)


For the past ten years, gay and lesbian organizations in and around Jersey City have staged their own Pride festival on the last weekend in August. This nicely brackets the summer and allows them to avoid competing with the statewide celebration in Asbury Park and the original commemoration of the Stonewall riots in New York, both of which take place in June.

A seventeen-month-old Long Island boy was beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend because he "acted like a girl". Tinky-Winky aside, do we really expect a toddler to be aware of rigid gender roles, much less adhere to them??
This event centers around three blocks or so of Exchange Place, a street that ends at the Hudson River in the heart of the city's financial district. As the surrounding office towers are mostly abandoned on weekends, the streets can be closed with a minimum of disruption, and there's plenty of parking to be had. For the first time, this year's celebration also included a short parade from City Hall a little bit further inland.

Several organizations of the Episcopal Church have taken part in these events at various times. The OASIS, the LGBT ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, has sponsored a table where area parishes are invited to give out information and meet community members. This year the OASIS, as well as the NYC-area chapter of the its national equivalent (Integrity) and the Episcopal Response to AIDS all shared the time and expense for this outreach. It also gave us the opportunity to discuss plans for some future collaboration.

What none of us had really given much thought to was the possibility of any conflict. Surely we were past this; our immediate area has become pretty comfortable with LGBT issues, with the majority of the population even supporting marriage equality even if the governor and legislature do not agree.

So I was somewhat surprised when -- dispatched to the pharmacy for twine and duct tape to keep our rented canopy grounded against the fresh breeze coming off the river -- I saw a handful of people with placards and a bullhorn organizing themselves on a street corner a block or so from the festivities.

Truth be told, they've been there before. They showed up several years ago and walked up and down the sidewalks on the perimeter of the event using a bullhorn to bray their various threats of hellfire and damnation at the passing crowd. After a quick ecumenical "Situation Room" discussion, the various church groups responded in a way that we knew would probably infuriate them, but could not be labeled as combative or even really acknowledging their hateful rhetoric: We followed the same path up and down the street, just INSIDE the event, and sang hymns, loudly. Hymns such as "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know", "God Loves All the Little Children" and so forth, in an effort to counter their efforts.

Don't leave home without it!
The only problem is, we quickly discovered that we didn't collectively know much beyond the first verse of anything, and in some cases the Methodists knew one version that might be different than what the Episcopalians or Lutherans remembered. Thus was born one of my bright ideas, that -- as is typical -- gets immediately forgotten until the next time it would come in pretty darn handy. I had made up my mind that I would put together a handful of common, public-domain hymns that suited the occasion and have copies of the lyrics ready to facilitate the singing.

Then, for the next few years, the protesters didn't come, and I forgot about it. But I can see that -- maybe as a hallmark of the progress we've made with the general public mindset -- this event is back on their radar. And apparently, once they figured out where the church tables were, they parked on the nearest corner and kept the commentary up all afternoon. Interestingly, there were two "groups" of them this year... the hellfire gang were joined by one or two people from a more "compassionate" crowd: they represented an "ex-gay ministry" ... something the American Psychological Association and most other credible witnesses describe as pointless and more likely harmful. When it was that guy's turn with the bullhorn he kept telling us how we didn't have to be this way, we could change like him, etc. I recently met a young man who endured eight years of this "therapy" only to realize that sexual orientation is not something that can be "cured", and luckily today he is learning to celebrate and live into the identity he is meant to have.

One event-goer was apparently either prepared or resourceful, because he appeared with a sign that said "I'm with stupid" and an arrow and followed the protesters up and down the street.

Truth be told, with a few exceptions nobody was really paying very much attention to them, and everyone -- even the cops -- were getting annoyed with the bullhorn after a while. We were too busy networking and trying to keep our tent from blowing away to "gracefully engage" them, let alone regale them with ecumenical hymnody.

As the afternoon wore on, the commentary got more random and dejected, wandering between taxes, the speaker's kids and Lady Gaga. I'm not really sure what they were trying to accomplish, but I don't think they won over any supporters, and the tone was in stark contrast to the merriment going on all around them. Nobody present seemed to be experiencing the shame and misery they kept insisting are part and parcel to same-sex attraction.

Would that everybody would be so lucky. In the weeks since, news (and by news I mean blogs and the independent press, since these stories never seem to make the papers) broke of yet another teenager who committed suicide after enduring years of bullying. This follows on the heels of another case, this one in Minnesota, in which the mother reports she had been asking the school to intervene for years. They are hardly alone, as a recent survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network shows that nearly nine out of ten LGBT teens endure harassment at school.

Does anybody else find it ironic that supposed Christians, trying to portray themselves as "compassionate", would come to a LGBT event and preach conversion to a crowd that is apparently pretty much okay with its sexual identity? The underlying message is, of course, that to be LGBT is to be somehow broken or "less-than", and unfortunately, despite logic, experience and the advice of medical experts, this message continues to imbrue our young people's collective consciousness, courtesy of trusted role-models including preachers, teachers and coaches, and apparently with the tacit approval of parents and other community leaders who refused to stick out their necks when this was pointed out as a problem.

And this abuse does not always wait until a child reaches the age where (s)he even knows what sexual identity is, let alone aware that his or her mannerisms, speech or clothing might be advertising it. In a heartbreaking story this summer that didn't seem to make it past the Huffington Post, a seventeen-month-old Long Island boy was beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend because he "acted like a girl". Seventeen months old. Tinky-Winky aside, do we really expect a toddler to be aware of rigid gender roles, much less adhere to them??

These are sobering reminders of how much work remains to be done, and they stand in sharp contrast to the joyous community gathering I witnessed. I can only hope that -- whatever it was they were trying to accomplish -- the protesters couldn't help but notice that what they were witnessing was not a depraved orgy, nor a gathering of unhappy deviants crying out for help. It was ordinary folks of all persuasions, enjoying the freedom to be who they were and love whom they love. Even if they didn't get to hear us sing.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

An Embarassment of Riches

Philander Chase - Bishop (1852)

Our house is a mess. I don't mean it's dirty; people who know us don't have to wonder who is Oscar and who is Felix, but neither of us has the time or patience to go around doing the white glove test. We manage to keep it sanitary and -- especially after an alarming episode of Hoarders -- we guiltily nudge ourselves into action to disperse recyclables, junk mail and obsolescent electronics to prevent it from devolving into a complete Collyer Brothers situation.

I'm referring more to all the little things about it that I want to fix. The kitchen floor is worn to the point where it never looks clean, the dining room did not come out the color I wanted and the curtains remain on a Certain Party's ironing pile despite a number of hints, subtle and otherwise. The shutters out front were not the right wood for outside and are now coming apart at the seams, literally. Nobody's sure exactly how it is that the furnace continues to function when I think it enjoyed a former life as a boiler on the Mauretania before coming into our employ.

Everywhere I look, I see mismatched, unraveling or scuffed beyond repair. There's never enough time, and there's never enough money, to make it look the way it does in my head. I looked back at old blog posts to see when we got the giant captain's bed (I immediately nicknamed it "the tree fort") thinking we'd get the mattress to fit it the next month. It was Lent, and we're still on the old, too-small mattress.

As I am sure is the case with just about anybody, no matter how much money comes in, there always seems to be someone, or something, that is clamoring for a piece of the pie. We are both lucky to have full-time jobs, me for long enough to have some of the benefits that new entrants to the job market may never see. But that does not make me any less worried about there being enough to get by on during those golden years, which suddenly don't seem so far away.

But by nature of the fact that I'm sitting in a room that doesn't leak, using a computer, had a healthy dinner, and don't have to share either of those items with anybody, I've already got more than 99% of the world's population beat. And if you're reading this, in all likelihood, so do you.

In the midst of my frustration that my little patch of the American dream is not blooming as rapidly as I might like, I was humbled by a beautifully written reminder by my friend, the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton, that my priorities are just a shade off when I fuss about such things. Not that I should need to be told: the headlines and statistics are a daily grim reminder of the suffering that people endure every day. What touched me was the way she articulated her appreciation for something as simple as twilight, which is free for the taking, but yet goes unnoticed by me and every fool who is too busy finding fault with our charmed lives to appreciate all the gifts that surround us.

Telling Secrets: The Universe of the Anawim