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Gotta Have Faith

GeorgeMichaelFaithAlbumcover

Practice was over and everyone was in the locker room getting undressed in order to shower.  Most awkward when you are in eighth grade.  Moreso if you are a nascent gay boy around lots of unruly jocks.  Suddenly organ music was playing, and I was confused.

One of my classmates had a giant jam box on the bench where he was changing clothes.  The jam box was the source of the organ music.  Had organ music suddenly become popular, I wondered?  I was a dorky, religious and intellectual kid who had no sense of popular trends.  Then, suddenly, the organ gave way to the beats of one of the most popular songs of the moment.

This was the first time I ever heard the album Faith by George Michael (as opposed to the hit single, and ultimately singles, on the radio).

I was raised a Southern Baptist.  We were always on guard for religious faith to be mocked in popular culture.  We were particularly alarmed whenever spirituality and sexuality were intertwined (Madonna freaked Evangelicals out).  So all these impulses and passions were at war when I listened to such popular music.  

The decades bring further reflection  upon the enjoyable ironies of moment.  Here in the most homoerotic of heterosexual spaces--the junior high locker room--I always felt manifestly uncomfortable and most different from my classmates.  Playing this sexually charged popular music made me feel even more different.  Yet, the cool, popular straight guys were listening to George Michael sing erotic songs.  George Michael who later came out as gay.


The Angel of History

The Angel of HistoryThe Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I heard an interview with the author on All Things Considered and ordered the book immediately. Our church's Advent theme is remember and dream and the interview was about the roles of remembering and forgetting (represented in the novel by the characters of Satan and Death). The book is an imaginative exploration of the AIDS era with Satan, Death, and 14 Christian Saints appearing as characters helping the main character Jacob cope with his grief.

I found the story compelling. Some of the writing is beautiful while some of the sentence and paragraph structures must have survived only by long arguments with editors, as many don't follow anything like the standard rules. The closing pages are quite lovely.

I wasn't sure that all the anecdotes are necessary. I also felt that some plots and characters needed more story than they received.

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I Know What To Do

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I know what to do.  For all the people sharing what we need to do in the wake of the election, I know what to do, that was never in doubt.  I know it, because I've done it before.  

I lived as a very public gay man in the State of Oklahoma during a time when a state legislator said we were worse than terrorists and the Aryan Brotherhood murdered a gay man in a horrific hate crime.  I lived in a climate intended to terrorize me into silence and submission and I refused to be cowed.  And I had to interact with that legislator more than once, and always did so with kindness and grace.  In my public roles I encouraged people to not speak about her and others like her in the ways that they spoke about us. I encouraged the building of the beloved community, as Dr. King spoke about it.  

In that climate of intended terror I rarely was afraid.  I scoffed at the death threats I received, holding them as badges of honor.  When I was mistreated on the floor of the state House of Representatives, I thought it was silly.  When Westboro Baptist Church came to town to protest me, I felt I'd arrived as an activist and chose to celebrate that day.  When Michael and I were denounced in the state Republican Party platform (and I don't mean in some general sense, I mean specifically the two of us), we laughed and shared the news with our friends.  

And we got married in a public park so all the world could see.

Every day I lived with hope, courage, and integrity, refusing to let others define me or rob me of my power and my voice.  I insisted upon my right to be equal and free and worked tirelessly on behalf of my community, in the face of overwhelming opposition and a climate of terror and violence.  

And we won.  Not every battle, there was still work to be done, but the most difficult task of winning the hearts and minds of the American public, the mainstream culture, we won.  And we were winning more in the political arena and the courts.  In 2012 in Omaha, after a lot of really hard work, we passed an equal rights ordinance, and, then, fought multiple times, often behind the scenes, in the years since to secure that victory from attempts to overturn it.  We won handily every time.  

Along the way things changed.  I hadn't quite realized it till this week, but when I held Michael's hand I had quit looking around first to see if it was safe.  I don't know when I quit doing that.  I'd never thought about it.  But gone was the need every day to be courageous.  I felt most of the difficult work was in the past and that I could begin to focus my energy on other justice concerns.  Finally I was living as a free person.

In fact, I was living as a triumphant person.  I had achieved the goals I set for myself at 29.  I had come out and remained in both ministry and the conservative heartland.  I fell in love and got married.  God had blessed us with a son.  And I had played my part in securing my civil rights and equal treatment under the law.  I was living a victorious life.

So, I know what to do, because I've done it already.  I'm angry that I have to do it again.


Pride Parade

This morning Sebastian participated in his first Pride Parade (last year he was so little and it was so very hot).  Our family walked with First Central.  Here are some photos.

Our toddlers from church. Sebastian wishing everyone a Happy Pride.  And Michael and Sebastian in front of our decorated church bus.

2016 Pride Church Toddlers
2016 Pride Church Toddlers
2016 Pride Church Toddlers


A Letter to Rep. Sally Kern

Rep. Kern,

Many years ago when we debated on Flashpoint and in our few interactions afterwards, I was always very polite with you, believing that kindness and rational discourse are essential for democracy and because of my Christian faith.  In my sermons, public speeches, and private conversations with others I always encouraged them to speak kindly of you because you too are a beloved child of God and deserving of our grace and mercy not hatred or cruel speech.  Sometimes encouraging folks in this way was more difficult than other times.
 
Your words all those many years ago that gay people engaged in the democratic process were a bigger threat to the country than Islamic terrorists were reprehensible.  I never have understood your failure to comprehend that.  I was puzzled by what seemed like a form of irrational relativism in your insistence that the words didn't mean what everyone told you they meant, as if meaning is private instead of objectively created by a language community.  I was puzzled by your failure of Christian character--the lack of grace, mercy, and compassion in your stance, as if you had never experienced forgiveness or redemption.  For someone who had experienced God's grace and forgiveness would surely comprehend the need to ask for forgiveness for words that hurt and damaged others as your words had done.  And I was puzzled that an educator would seem to be so uninterested in learning about others and their perspectives and truly listening.
 
The truth is that I have pitied you.  You seemed so bitter and angry and confused, so closed off from the liberation and joy and hopefulness of God.  I have prayed for you so often over these years.
 
But always to no avail.  Watching from afar after my move to Omaha in 2010, your political stances seemed only to worsen, your attempts to harm others became ever more severe.  
 
And today, the world your words and actions helped to create has come into fruition with the largest mass murder in our nation's history committed by a terrorist against LGBT people enjoying and loving life.
 
We never were the bigger threat.  You were always wrong.  Your words and actions were always sinful.  And this is the evil wind that they have inherited.
 
May God have mercy on your soul, for I am too much of a sinner to be able to offer you mercy anymore.
 
Rev. Dr. Scott Jones

In response to the terrorist attack upon a gay club

The emotions are quite complex today after the mass murder at the gay club in Orlando, Florida.  As I pondered what words to share, I thought of a section of my memoir (not yet published, but hopefully soon) in which I contemplate the risks of being an advocate and spokesperson in the LGBT community.  This moment occurred in 2005 shortly after I became the pastor of the Cathedral of Hope in Oklahoma City.  I am with my boyfriend at the time; he was on staff at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas.

 

Hanging out at John’s condo in Dallas, we would often curl up on his couch together to watch the final episodes of Queer as Folk as they aired that summer.  In one the gay nightclub Babylon is bombed.  Our mood was sober when we finished watching the episode.  Holding me close he said, “You know, we have high security at the church because of this very fear.”

“I know about the high security.  They have educated me about it.”

The main offices of the church were at the backside of the building, away from the parking lot.  They could only be accessed with a card that was electronically coded.  Many members of the church had never been in the church offices.  At the front of the church building was a reception area that was separated from the rest of the building.  The reception area contained a waiting room where you sat and waited for someone to escort you into the building to the main offices.  Cameras monitored the building and during worship services and big events uniformed security guards patrolled the grounds.  The ushers were also trained in how to respond to a disturbance.

“Does the church really fear an attack?” I asked.

“We have received many threats through the years and the rare person who attends worship and starts making anti-gay statements.  Nothing serious has ever transpired, but we, of course, take precautions.”

“Sure.”

He turned to look at me.  “I worry about you and your congregation, however.  You have none of the safeguards we do, and Oklahoma is even scarier than Dallas.”

“I don’t think our congregation has ever had an incident.  We are so much smaller that most people don’t even know about us.  You all are big and in the news a lot.”

“But,” he said, “if you do your job well, that will change.  People will know about you and that could draw unwanted attention.”

“I guess it’s something we should prepare for.”

John then held me close and said, “I fear for you personally.  What if you are attacked?  What if someone tries to kill you?  You are already pretty public, and there are lots of crazy people.”

I touched his cheek.  “I’m not sure why, but I’m not worried about that.  I’m not afraid.  I really don’t think that anything is going to happen, but if something does happen and I’m harmed, then it’s not like my worrying about it will help.”

“But you should be cautious.”

“I know.  And I am.  I will be.  I am still getting used to all of this, of course.”

We sat there silently for a while, holding each other.

“You know,” I added, “I’m not afraid because if something were to happen to me, it could probably be used for good.  I’m willing to be a martyr for my faith and for something I believe in if that’s what happens.  I’m not going to seek it out, but it doesn’t frighten me.”

“It frightens me,” he said, kissing me.


Seize the Freedom

"I came to Atlanta to out you," Yvette Flunder preached.  "There ain't no closet prophets."

Her sermon was focused on "What is the purpose of the Pentecost story?" She found three purposes.  First, the coming of the Spirit was to get them together.  Unity remains the biggest miracle in the story.  To find unity we must overcome the sin of absolutism and the sin of authoritarianism.

Second, the coming of the Spirit was to get everybody's attention.  Something public had to be added to the private spiritual experience.

Third, to give public witness they had to learn how to exegete the hearers.  The message must be hearable by the people.

Flunder's goal was to empower us to speak the Gospel and not be confined to preaching the text.  To let the Spirit speak through us, an idea she supported from her growing up in the African-American Pentecostal tradition.  "Once the Gospel was the mouths and lives of living people, not a Book.  The Gospel is in the book; it is not the Book.  We made a mistake when we put the back cover on the Bible."

"But how do we control it? someone will ask.  We don't."

Lauren Winner spoke next.  Here's was a lecture with practical advice on how to preach prophetically.  "We want our prophetic words to be healing words."  I imagine many attendees were like me.  After days of rousing prophetic calls, we needed some more craft talk, some more advice on how to do it well.

Winner taught "Our goal is to help people see the powers that hold them captive, imagine alternatives, and engage in practices that liberate."  We should ask, "What holds my congregation in bondage?"  Help people seize the freedom they already have because Jesus has already defeated what binds them.  "Faithful prophetic preaching can be received by the congregation."

Her advice, which she admitted was in a Hegelian tension with Flunder's was to stay close to the text.  That problems arise when a preacher preaches an issue and not a text.  

 

While listening today I've been pondering one concrete thing and one broader issue.

The broader issue is how difficult it is becoming not to sound partisan anymore when preaching.  If you believe that the Gospel means to welcome the stranger and immigrant, to care for the creation in the midst of climate change, to stand with African-Americans against the racism and violence of our nation, to oppose war, to believe that our gun violence is out of control and must be addressed NOW, to advocate for the poor, and to work for full equality of people who are LGBT . . . then at this point and time, even if it wasn't true 15 years ago, one political party advocates for those things and one (at least as a party, not as every individual member of the party) opposes every one of those things.

The concrete issue I've been pondering is what I must do when I return to Omaha to defend trans students from the abuses of our state government and the opposition of the archdiocese.  How will I call the government and church out publicly?  What language will I use?  What actions will I take?


The Revenant

The-revenant-trailer

Maybe the greatest cinematography since Lawrence of Arabia.  

That's the only good thing I can say about this movie, though even it has a problem I will get to.  ***Beware of spoilers--though a reasonably aware person should know what to expect from this film plotwise just watching the trailers.***

Artists tell stories.  And great stories are told and retold many times and can and should be adapted in the telling.  Yet, any change should serve some purpose to the story or to a larger theme the story is drawing our attention to. 

Hugh Glass and his story are an authentic part of the American West, though quickly turned into folk tale and legend.  Jim Bridger became one of the great mountain men, explorers, and entrepreneurs in his own right.  I encountered Hugh Glass' story in the masterful A Cycle of the West by Nebraska poet laureate John G. Neihardt, a volume that should be in the canon of American literature read by every well-educated person.

The real Hugh Glass story is one of forgiveness overcoming violence and revenge.  The genuine story is both an unconventional Western and true, which is one reason the story is so subversive of our romanticized notions of the West.  

Inarritu has chosen to tell a different story--a very conventional revenge narrative.  In fact, so conventional, that I quickly became bored by the film and wondered why I needed to wait hours more for a bloody death scene (I actually was checking the time to see how much longer I had to endure).  This film ratchets up our romanticized notions of the West and employs every stereotype and trope.  Whereas the real story reminds us that our romanticized notions are inauthentic.  This strange choice of a conventional plot also led to thematic decision I greatly disliked.

I was, in fact, disgusted by the film.  Not its violence, but the filmmakers' decision to create a hypermasculine story.  

First, they manufactured a half-Pawnee son.  Why?  They seem to have chosen to do so in order to make the revenge all that more potent and guarantee a violent conclusion.  

They've also chosen to set the film in mountainous winter landscapes instead of on the Great Plains where the events occurred (Glass encountered Fitzgerald north of Omaha at Fort Atkinson).  This choice, which leads to the stunningly beautiful cinematography, also seems to be about ratcheting up the hyper-masculinity.  Crawling across the rolling hills and grassy meadows of the Plains would seem to be not effort enough for these filmmakers.  They need to manufacture sturm und drang.

Then they add repeated and unnecessary sequences of sadistic tortures of Hugh Glass.  Was the story of bear mauling, betrayal, and survival by crawling not powerful enough?

As told by John Neihardt, the story is rooted in the friendship between Glass and Bridger, a friendship completely lacking in the film (because of the manufactured son?).  Glass feels betrayed by a friend and the anger and bitterness motivates his crawl, but evaporates when he finally meets up with Bridger again.

Also, the Neihardt version reveals a homoerotic possibility to the relationship between Glass and Bridger.  We know from the historical record that the men who blazed trails in the West often engaged in same-sex relations, though the films and television shows often unqueer these stories.  

Which they've done again.  This time in service to a hypermasculinity that can't tell a story of friendship, same-sex love, or forgiveness.  That would be a good story.  An unconventional Western film with unexpected plot developments.  And, very likely, also a true story.

So, if this film wins the Academy Award for Best Picture, then I will be even more angry for Brokeback Mountain lost.  Clearly the lesson for filmmakers is that they should purge the queer elements of the great stories.

Read more about the Neihardt story here.

And an article that also disliked the film for its refusal to tell the genuine story.


Oklahomo: Lessons in Unqueering America

Oklahomo: Lessons in Unqueering AmericaOklahomo: Lessons in Unqueering America by Carol A. Mason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I met Carol when she was teaching at OSU and I was living in Oklahoma City. She was presenting on the connections between anti-Semitic discourse and the anti-abortion movement, which figured into her previous book. Later she invited me to participate as a presenter at a conference at OSU on reproductive justice along with a number of significant figures in the movement. It was an honor to participate, especially the after hours discussions over cocktails in her home.

This book is about the attempt by religious and economic conservatives to "unqueer" America, focusing specifically upon Oklahoma. She begins in the present and works backwards, with state representative Sally Kern up first. Of course, I dealt with Kern in my years in Oklahoma City, including our appearance together on Flashpoint, a televised debate show. Plus, I have a published academic article on her famous "gays are a bigger threat to America than Islamic terrorists" speech. So, the chapter on Kern was very personal for me.

The entire book resonated with my own personal story, and I think contributes some of the historical background and academic analysis for understanding my still unpublished memoir.

After Kern comes Anita Bryant, a chapter which also includes the ways Green Grows the Lilacs was unqueered in the making of the musical Oklahoma! This is also a chapter about the rise of the New Right.

Next is a discussion of Billy James Hargis and his evangelical empire built first on anti-communism and later on opposition to the sexual revolution and how Hargis himself was exposed as a sexual hypocrite. The white supremacist connections of the anti-gay movement are revealed in this chapter.

That's followed by a discussion of Bruce Goff, the great architect who was ousted from his position at OU as part of the anti-gay red-baiting of the McCarthy era. But Goff himself stands for a level of acceptance of the queer in the rural heartland before McCarthyism. Though Mason doesn't draw on it, I once heard a historian speak to how Oklahoma had been far more gay tolerant from the 1890's to the 1940's largely because of its frontier status, oil boomtowns, and military encampments.

The final chapter is about how Wal-Mart (founded by Oklahoma native Sam Walton) created a global retail version of homogenized rural family values which unqueers the real stories of the heartland. Particularly in Oklahoma where Native American narratives were also erased.

A cursory reading of Oklahoma history introduces you to a wild and eccentric group of characters. And much of the early twentieth century is filled with progressives. My own essay, "Capitol Ironies", develops that theme.

Sadly the current image of my home state is a very homogeneous, white, Republican, evangelical fundamentalism that betrays our heritage.


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