I was asked by someone I like and respect, someone I consider a friend, to speak with a group of her pastoral ed students about LGBTQ issues in chaplaincy. It was a small group and I knew that at least one of them is a lesbian. I knew the other two in the group also, but not as well. I wanted to say yes to my friend because I like her and wanted to help out, but truthfully, I wasn’t sure I actually had anything poignant to say on the topic. I mean, I can’t seem to figure out my own LGBTQ shit never mind clarifying other people’s struggles for a third party. My knee-jerk response was to say thank you for thinking of me but no thank you. Then I found out that my beloved supervisor and friend was going to be there to speak also. I wouldn’t be alone, I’d be there with her. I didn’t want to leave her hanging and well, if she was going to be there, it would definitely be more fun for me. And maybe I could learn something from her. So I went, figuring I’d participate in more of a discussion than a lecture. And perhaps we could learn with and from one another.
We took turns sharing some of our experiences. Of being gay and coming out (when we did, how we did and what it was like), of being gay parents of being gay chaplains and even a bit about our experiences of ministering to gay elders. Though, in the 17 years I have been working as a geriatric chaplain, I can count the number of gay seniors I have ministered to on one hand. It isn’t that there were fewer gays in the roaring twenties. It was that being gay was quite literally life threatening. It was a secret that they protected at all costs, sometimes even from themselves. It was because being gay wasn’t an option, wasn’t acceptable, wasn’t safe. The few gay elders I have talked with blew my mind with stories of discrimination, harassment and downright abuse I couldn’t even fathom. I thought coming out in the 80s was hard. Pah! It was a walk in the park compared with what these folks faced. These brave souls who told me their stories of fear and shame and adversity, of pain and anguish also shared their deep wells of sadness. When it has been right to tell them I was gay too I have found them looking back at me with shadowed eyes brimming with imagining, longing, wonder and no small amount of envy .
It is not unlike the way I sometimes look at young people coming out today, through my own covetous gaze and wondering heart. I find myself asking the same question that those older asked me, “Do you have any idea how easy you have it, how hard we fought for what you now take for granted?” Oh what I would have done if I could do it all over now. A fucking hard way to pay it all forward. ~ cue Sinatra singing, “Regrets, I’ve had a few”…. ~
Anyway, I don’t always let myself stroll down what-if-lane. Though sometimes it is strangely comforting, in the end it isn’t all that productive. My life has been lived the way it has been lived so far and no amount of longing or imagining can change that.
So, after our personal stories and some discussion in the class my friends left and I stayed with the students to watch some of Gen Silent (didn’t see that one coming… no one told me the cheese stands alone and I would be on my own). The movie was still and ever powerful (not the first time I’ve seen it) and there was contemplative silence for a while after it ended. Slowly conversation opened up. About secrets and about shame. I shared my favorite Longfellow quote: If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility. You never know what experiences another person is carrying or what narratives they tell themselves about those experiences. You never know what anyone else holds in their heart. Even those who appear to have it all don’t have nearly as much as you think they do. What’s remarkable to me is that very often the things I am ashamed of are the things others find interesting, heartening, inspiring, a jumping off place from where they may begin to meet their own deeper selves.
As we packed up to leave, one of the students (straight married woman of middle years) asked if my new look had anything to do with anything I’d been learning about myself. It made sense that she’d ask. I’d made a few off-hand comments about and references to figuring stuff out late in life, being the last to know things about myself, etc in the course of the 2 hour class. That and how I was dressed was enough to illicit more than an a bit of curiosity. I was wearing a pair of Wrangler jeans, a striped blue and white button-down shirt and a pullover blue sweater-vest. A vast change from my usual work attire of black pants and an extra-large wildly colored dashiki-type muumuu over a black turtleneck. I’ve known this woman for 10 years or so. We’ve been in classes together and she is a gifted chaplain. But we don’t know one another well. She took a risk in asking directly as she did, and I understood from her energy that she was aware of the tender territory she was approaching and genuinely cared about the answer. I hesitated. A moment too long I guess, because she sucked in her breath and added (talking quickly), “Because I really love it. You look great! You look so… so…” And in her pause I said something about dressing like the man I’ve always known I was or something equally un-eloquent and self-debasing. She looked at me with genuine sincerity and said in a very literal and thoughtful tone of voice, “No. (pause) No. Not a man. No. I’m just realizing it, but… I guess… now that I think of it… I have always seen you… experienced you… as.. a.. boy. Not a man, no. (pause) A boy. Yes, that’s right. (pause) Is that bad? I don’t mean to be patronizing or paternalistic, but I have always just seen you as an adorable boy.” It was my turn to pause. “Yes”, I said. “Yes. That is how I think I understand myself. Not as a man necessarily, but as a boy.”
I’ve been contemplating her words since. Yes, I guess I do envision myself as a boy. The adorable part aside and irrelevant. Part of me felt so confirmed, so validated. Yes, others can and do see me as I see me. The two are not so very far apart. I’m not completely crazy. And the other part of me felt, well, come on dear readers. The question is me and a feeling. How many answers can there be?! Yes, shame. Thank you young man in the back. Shame. But at what? Well, it feels sort of caricature-ish. To be forever a boy. Perpetually, unendingly, unceasingly, interminably not a grownup. That part (to be analyzed and processed ad-nauseam in future blog posts no doubt) doesn’t feel all that great.
The bigger part though, felt like a huge breakthrough, a major coup for me. A more integrated validated me. And I’m not the only one who sees me! ~ cue halleluyah chorus ~
*I bumped into her at work a week or so later. She asked again if what she said was ok. I assured her it was and told her how good and how important it was for me and how much I’d been thinking about what she said and how validated I felt. She smiled a very mischievous smile and said, “I’ve been thinking about it too. And I realized that having given it words, that I do see you as a boy….(pause)… and experiencing you as a boy… well, I could sort of have a crush on you. Talk about learning something new about yourself. And I’m in my 60s!!” Extraordinary. She’s not gay. In fact, I couldn’t even write about her and use the word lesbian without literally laughing out loud. But that she could wrap her mind around something so unbelievable, almost inconceivable and not only get it, but take it in on such a deep personal level. Just incredible. Stunning. And humbling. Adorable indeed.