Not Losing My Religion

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I just received my current issue of RFD Magazine, with my story, “Not Losing My Religion” in it:

Born in the South at the end of the Baby Boom, I have a long and complicated relationship with the church. ‘The church’ for me being Christian, and, more specifically, the conservative Missouri Synod branch of the Lutheran Church.

As a child, I loved my religion. I remember sitting in Christ Lutheran’s sanctuary of blond wood and stained glass windows, a larger-than-life statue of Christ resurrected hanging over the altar, feeling transported by the setting, the music, and the rhythms of the liturgy. Some of my earliest memories are of liturgy—the Te Deum laudamus and Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God.  As a gay child, I found great comfort in the teachings of love and meekness and the reverence of a savior who taught us to “turn the other cheek.” Fights at school and the bus stop were common occurrences growing up, and I was a ‘sensitive’ child in my mother’s words; a ‘mama’s boy’ in my older brothers’ eyes; a ‘sissy’ in the words of at least one teacher; and all that or much worse in the taunts of my classmates. Church was truly a refuge for the pre-adolescent me.

All that changed with my sexual awakening, which was so different than that of my straight brothers and peers. I came to hear more clearly the message of the church that I was wrong—an abomination. Like so many other gay and lesbian men and women, I slowly turned away from religion, dismissing my previous feelings of comfort and belief as being primitive and naïve. I stopped going to church when I left home for college, and it was a long time before I found my way back there again.

Two pivotal things worked to bring me back into the church’s orbit and, finally, into a pew. The first incident happened soon after I graduated from college. I found myself in the Southern gay mecca of Atlanta, and I found myself with a boyfriend. As Christmas approached, I realized that I was going to have to choose between spending the holiday with my family or with my new boyfriend—an untenable choice in my mind. Hoping to be able to spend Christmas with my family and my boyfriend, I came out to my mother. Not surprisingly, my mother, a good Missouri Synod Christian woman, struggled with my revelation. “Are you sure?” she asked, hoping that I had somehow made a mistake. My boyfriend did not come home for Christmas. I, however, continued coming home every weekend after coming out in hopes of showing my mother, recently widowed, that I was the same person she had always known.

One evening, as I was standing at the kitchen sink doing the dishes, my mother returned home from a Lutheran Women’s Missionary League meeting. She walked up behind me as I continued washing the dishes, wrapped her arms around me, and said, “I talked to Pastor about you after everyone else left the meeting. He said that God still loves and accepts you. I hope you know that I do, too.” My hands immersed in the hot soapy water, I stared forward, out the kitchen window, unable to wipe the tears that ran down my face. We had a good talk that night, and I called ‘Pastor’ the next morning to set up a meeting to talk with him. He admitted that he didn’t know anyone who was gay, but he was sure that God loved me. He and I became pen pals for several years after, corresponding regularly while I was away in the Peace Corps in Guatemala.

While his loving—his Christian—response was enough to keep me interested in God, it was not enough to overcome my fears of condemnation by God’s church, and I continued to keep my distance through my years in the Peace Corps and my return to the United States. I did, however, read and study on my own, finding much comfort, to my surprise, in the Bible. I also read historian John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality and Scanzoni and Mollenkott’s Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? and began to realize that ‘God’ and ‘church’ might not be synonymous. Nonetheless, I avoided the institution and the risks associated with it. Then, something happened in 1987 that brought me back through its doors and into a pew.

I had returned from the Peace Corps and was a nurse at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC, working with AIDS patients. One afternoon, as I was walking into a patient’s room to hang an IV, I heard a conversation taking place and, for some reason, I stopped and waited—and listened. A minister was visiting the patient, a gay man with AIDS, and they were having a beautiful talk, full of kindness and acceptance—no condemnation or guilt. I even heard the minister talk about the patient’s partner, who was also apparently a parishioner, in loving words. I was surprised—genuinely and pleasantly surprised. When the minister walked out, I asked him about his church. He was also a Lutheran, of the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and he invited me to come to a service. After thinking it over for a few weeks, I did, and I felt as if I’d returned home, easily falling into the rhythms of the liturgy. I ended up joining, and God seemed to bless my return by introducing me to the man who has been my partner for over 25 years at that church.

I still go to church, although I moved to the Episcopal Church in 2002 because I found them more theologically welcoming to LGBTQ persons. The Evangelical Lutheran Church has since opened its doors wide as well, but I’m a committed Episcopalian now, often serving on the altar with the priest. I remember the first time I gave communion to my partner—I had to choke back the tears as I offered the cup of wine, “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” Another time, a parishioner called me after church to tell me that he had watched as the priest and I walked out into the congregation to commune an elderly member who couldn’t come forward. He said he had watched as I offered her the cup, and my face was changed. In truth, I do feel changed into a better version of me when participating in the service this way.

While I, too, have wandered down alternative paths on my spiritual journey, they have always brought me back home to ‘church’ through the blessings of clergy and others who have truly shown me the loving image of Christ that is at the heart of all true Christianity. At the same time, I understand that is not the case for so many of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and I pray that all of us find that love and acceptance somewhere, whether it be a church, a synagogue, a mosque, or in community or nature. We are all children of a loving God.

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Letter to Kim Davis, Rowan County, Kentucky, Clerk

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Dear Ms. Davis,

I’m writing to you because, when I listened to this past Sunday’s Gospel reading, I couldn’t help but think of you. And, not for the reasons that you might think. I hope that you will hear me out.

Sunday’s Gospel reading was from Mark:

Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:2-12)

Now, I know where you must think I’m going to go with this, but you would be wrong. As I thought about this passage, I began to realize how alike you and I and our spiritual journeys must be. This may come as a surprise to you when you learn that I am a gay man—a gay man and a Christian.

As a gay man, I have had to come to terms with certain passages in the Bible that seem to be pointing their fingers directly at me, just as you, as a divorced woman, have had to come to terms with what Jesus says regarding divorce in that passage. At first, I took those passages pointing directly at me as meaning that I was not welcomed in Jesus’ church, and I left the church for some time. Luckily, I have had many people who have shown me, in their words and actions, what it truly means to be a Christian, starting with my mother and her pastor.

When I came out to my mother, she struggled, as any good Christian would—as I did, too, when I realized that I am gay. Her struggle led her to talk with her pastor at the time, back in 1984. Like your church, her church—the church I grew up in—teaches that homosexuality is sinful. Nonetheless, my mother’s pastor understood Jesus’ message clearly:

“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

He saw me as a child of God and as his neighbor, and he loved me and told my mother that God loves me, too.

I have been fortunate to have had other such loving—Christian—responses, which led me to wonder, “How can I reconcile what I know to be my created truth with what the Bible seems to teach?” As I studied, I found that Christians throughout the centuries have struggled with this question on a variety of issues—the Bible and slavery; the Bible and divorce; the Bible and women’s authority over men. How do we reconcile those teachings with life as we know and live it today?

In the end, I go back to those two commandments—“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I believe that the second one, about loving your neighbor as yourself, is the path we must follow to love God. It’s all about love. “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” (John 14:2) Even a mansion for me. And for you. It would be a step toward ushering in God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” if we were to live as neighbors here and now and love one another as Christ loved us—unconditionally.

Your neighbor,

Alan Yount

“Coming Out for Owen” . . . Coming Out on August 25th!

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I am very excited to announce that my story “Coming Out for Owen” has been published in Kevin Jennings’s book One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium. The book will be released on August 25th. (You can pre-order it now on Amazon!)

“Coming Out for Owen” is my story about coming out to my sixth graders in my eighth year of teaching. Up to that point, “I never saw the need to tell [my fifth- and sixth-grade students] about my sexual orientation. The word sexual in that descriptor gave me pause in coming out to them: “Fifth or sixth graders don’t need to know who I sleep with,” I thought.” But, when the parents of one of my students complain that he’s being picked on because “he was perceived to be gay,” I have a change of heart.

Recalling the humiliation I felt when my fifth-grade teacher sent me to the guidance counselor to be evaluated with a note that read, “Alan is a sissy and seems to enjoy being that way,” I realize that I can’t remain silent any longer. My students’ reactions were nothing short of amazing, making us a real community, and “it made me a better teacher–and a better person.”

This third edition of One Teacher in Ten includes “voices largely absent from the first two editions–including transgender people, people of color, teachers working in rural districts, and educators from outside the United States– . . . providing a fuller and deeper understanding of the triumphs and challenges of being an LGBT teacher today.”

While “Coming Out for Owen” is my story, it also reflects the story of gay and straight allies, from the teachers and administrators at School of the Future, the public school I taught at in Manhattan, to the group of teachers with whom I workshopped the story at the Hudson Valley Writing Project. No teacher, straight or gay, should feel alone in her or his classroom.

If you are in New York City on Thursday, September 10th, come to the book launch for One Teacher In Ten and hear our stories as we read from the book! The event is from 6:00 to 8:00pm at the Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School at 40 Charlton Street between Sixth Avenue and Varick (the high school’s location). Please RSVP by clicking this link by Tuesday, September 8.

The Red Shoes … Published in The Sun!

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In June of last year, I posted a story I had written, The Red Shoes. I submitted that story to “Readers Write,” a column in The Sun magazine, and … they published it, albeit a much-edited version! Here is their edited and published version:

Although no one else was home, I took care to open my parents’ closet door quietly, as if they might hear. If either one of them caught me, I’d be in trouble. My father’s clothes, pushed to one side, were all brown, gray, or black. He was a contractor who worked with his hands and smelled like sawdust and sweat. My mother’s clothes, which took up most of the closet, had bright colors and patterns. She was vivacious and quick to laugh, but she could also be short-tempered.

I ran my hands over Mama’s dresses, noticing the abundance of green, her favorite color. The beads on her emerald gown seemed to pulse under my fingertips. What would it be like to wear such a dress, to look and feel exotic? It’s not that I wanted to be a girl; I just didn’t want to be me. At the age of ten, I already knew that I was different, that I didn’t seem to belong in rural North Carolina. My brothers and the other kids at school — and even some of the teachers — had made sure I was aware of that.

I didn’t know when my parents would be home or whether my brothers might come crashing in, so I couldn’t be sure I’d have the time to slip on the dress and then return it to the closet unnoticed. No, the dress would have to wait. But what about the boxes of shoes that lined the closet floor? I pulled out a pair of blood-red high heels and turned them over in my hands. Then I took off my grass-stained tennis shoes and put on the heels. My feet fit perfectly. Those red shoes transported me to a place where I belonged.

The Sun warns that they “edit pieces, often quite heavily,” which they did! I’d be interested in knowing what you think of their edits. The original story is here. I, of course, was just happy to get it published!

My Peace Corps Service

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Like some Peace Corps Volunteers of an earlier era, my decision to join the Peace Corps was shaped by the events on the ground when I volunteered.  In the 1960s, it was the Vietnam War and the draft; the Peace Corps was one way to defer draft eligibility.  For me, in the 1980s, it was AIDS; the Peace Corps was my way of avoiding that “war” of my generation, my way of deferring being drafted into the AIDS epidemic.  In both cases, volunteers were hoping to avoid death while managing to do some good in a world turned upside-down.  I had no idea at the time that I volunteered how profoundly my Peace Corps experience would change me, just as I am sure that those volunteers of the Sixties seeking draft-deferment found their service similarly life-changing.

I volunteered in 1985, beginning the process in 1984.  AIDS had only just earned that ominous title, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, in 1983.  When it was first identified in 1981 it was known as the “gay cancer” and then GRID, Gay Related Immune Deficiency.  There was no test for AIDS in 1984; the cause, a virus, had just been identified that year.  A diagnosis was made based on the occurrence of “opportunistic infections” – unusual infections that occurred because the patient’s immune system was compromised.  These infections had their own ominous-sounding names:  Kaposi’s sarcoma, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, cytomegalovirus.

Another such opportunistic infection that might indicate the development of AIDS was the reactivation of a childhood illness that a patient had already had and should, therefore, have immunity to.  I had a terrible case of the chickenpox in 1984 and, as a recently graduated nurse, I feared that I had already developed AIDS.  My recovery, however, seemed to indicate that my immune system was, in fact, intact, and I did not have AIDS.  I made the decision to “get the hell out of Dodge,” avoiding further exposure to the virus that caused the disease, and Peace Corps was to be my method of escape.

My decision to volunteer didn’t come out of nowhere; nursing school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had begun the process of educating me on the value of service.  As a country boy from the foothills of North Carolina, I had grown up in a very conservative environment of Jesse Helms Republicans and flag-waving patriotism.  UNC’s nursing school challenged those beliefs, but, as a recently-out gay man, I held onto as many of my childhood beliefs as I could.  There was just too much change in my life to jettison everything at once.  Peace Corps service seemed like a good way to mix flag-waving and service, not to mention allowing me to escape AIDS.

My Peace Corps service in Guatemala continued my education in ways that would have been impossible had I stayed in the United States.  I saw first-hand how policies – foreign and domestic – made in the States affected countries far away and peoples with no say in those policies.  I learned how American consumerism hurt and, occasionally, helped the economies and lives of others.  As I’ve told many people, I got so much more out of my Peace Corps service than Guatemala got out of me.

My time in Peace Corps did not, of course, truly allow me to “escape” the AIDS epidemic.  Newsweek, which was given to all volunteers, and letters from home kept me posted on the spread – the front lines – of the disease.  Rock Hudson died from it and a cousin developed it while I was in Guatemala.  Peace Corps did, however, give me the strength to return to the States and face the enemy.

Upon my return, I found a job as a nurse working with AIDS patients at a hospital in Washington, DC.  While there, I met another Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, a doctor, working with AIDS patients.  He asked me to join his infectious disease practice as his nurse and office manager.  My Peace Corps experience had turned me around and allowed me to join the battles of my day.  I only wish that those battles were won today.

Lost Innocence

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This is another story of mine that was published in this summer’s RFD Magazine

I came of age in the “Age of AIDS,” coming out at 17 in the idyllic, innocent, pre-AIDS year of 1978. AIDS took all that innocence away. I lost all faith and ran away, joining the Peace Corps in 1985, hoping to escape the plague—the war being waged on my people. But . . . no matter where you go, there you are.

Like so many other gay men of that time, I first learned of the disease that would later be named AIDS from the New York Times article, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.”  The year was 1981, and I was a nursing student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I came across the article while researching a paper for my Health of Populations class. I had chosen gay men as my population to study. I was, after all, one of seven men in a nursing program with over 300 students. I felt it would be easier to choose a population I actually cared about; a population I knew a little about from my own experience. After all, I had my own experiences as a gay man to draw upon. I, myself, had been called by the county health department after being reported as a “contact” from someone with syphilis. I had dutifully reported to the Student Health Center, to the knowledgeable and sympathetic physician—a physician who worked with gay men. While it turned out that I did not have syphilis, I did now have a knowledgeable and sympathetic physician who knew that I was gay and would attend to the unique health needs of a gay man. For example, a sore throat would require swabbing for gonorrhea, not simply looking for strep or some other run-of-the-mill cause. It only seemed fitting that I should honor this relationship by looking at the specific health needs of gay men for my HOPs research paper. I was pleasantly surprised to find out how much research had been done on my own health needs—journal articles and studies, all about gay men and their needs.  It was while looking through the latest updates and abstracts for health journals, I found the Times article. I noted it in my paper, in a short paragraph without much concern, concluded the paper, and handed it in.

I didn’t realize how close I would come to this new “gay disease.” None of us did.  By the time I graduated in 1984, several of my friends—and boyfriends—would be sick or dead of the disease. The first man I slept with at Carolina would get sick, be hospitalized, and die while I was rotating through the wards at North Carolina Memorial Hospital. I would visit him while he was in the hospital, although he would not recognize me.

Later that year, while I was working as a cardiology nurse in Atlanta, I came down with the chicken pox. I would miss 3 weeks of work, lose some thirty pounds, and be scarred from head to toe, but especially on my face.

More than scarred, I was scared. There was no test for AIDS in 1984; the cause, a virus, had just been identified that year. A diagnosis was made based on the occurrence of “opportunistic infections”—unusual infections that occurred because the patient’s immune system was compromised. These infections had their own ominous-sounding names—a Kaposi’s sarcoma, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, cytomegalovirus—that came with their own shorthand—KS, PCP, CMV.

Another so-called opportunistic infection that might indicate the development of AIDS was the reactivation of a childhood illness that a patient had already had and should, therefore, have immunity to. I didn’t remember if I had had chicken pox as a child, and I feared that I had already developed AIDS.

My first night back at work, I was confronted with the fate that awaited me, if I did indeed have the virus. The Emergency Room called in the middle of the shift with an admission—an AIDS patient with cardiology complications. I volunteered to take him. He was brought upstairs by a team of orderlies in biohazard suits.  He was placed on “strict isolation”—we all had to don biohazard suits and masks to enter his room, discarding them in a biohazard container at the door to his room. All reusable materials used in his care—sheets, towels, washcloths, blood pressure cuffs—had to remain in the room or be placed into bright red bags marked “BIOHAZARD” and be sterilized before being put back into use. All disposable materials—dressings, gloves, masks, gowns—had to be placed into bags also marked “BIOHAZARD” to be disposed of separately from all other trash on the unit.

He looked like hell, emaciated with the open weeping sores of KS, and severe PCP.  I don’t recall what his cardiology complications were, but that he would have some cardiology problems was no surprise.

Is this what is going to happen to me? I worried. At some point during that night shift I decided that I had to leave—I either already had AIDS and would die a very ugly death, or, somehow, I didn’t have it, and I needed to get out of town—out of the country—to avoid that fate. 

My plan took shape over the next several weeks, as I continued to work the night shift, watching our AIDS patient die that very ugly death that I feared. I would join the Peace Corps.  The Peace Corps would send me overseas. If I didn’t have a healthy immune system, I would die quickly. If I had a healthy immune system, I would be safely out of harm’s way for two years. A little less than a year later, I was accepted and given my assignment—Guatemala. I left in June of 1985.

Of course, I couldn’t escape AIDS. It followed me there. It seemed to taunt me. In my work as a volunteer, I collaborated with the United States Agency for International Development—US AID—and the Canadian International Development Organization—CIDA, pronounced sida, the same as AIDS in Spanish.

It haunted me. The nights were dark. Darker than any I had experienced back home. The electricity went out around 8:00pm in my village, and I would be plunged into complete darkness. Something lived between the ceiling of my room and the tin roof overhead; it’s pacing a monotonous track, like my thought. We were given the international edition of Newsweek, with newsprint paper instead of the slick paper of the U.S. edition. I would read about AIDS by lantern light at night, learning that Rock Hudson had died. From AIDS. I would turn the lantern off, close my eyes, and try to go to sleep.

The Peace Corps did, at least, teach me to face my fears. I returned to the United States in 1987. I went to Washington, DC, and got a job at George Washington University Hospital, working with AIDS patients.

The AIDS Quilt came to DC while I was there, in 1987 and 1988. I visited the quilt in 1988—8,288 panels. Eight thousand two hundred eighty-eight lives. It was six years after last seeing the first man I dated at Chapel Hill, dying in his hospital room. I wondered if anyone had made a panel for him. I had to search my memory for his name—Hogie Gaskins. Then, I searched the Quilt. He was there.

It’s been 32 years now, and I still put flowers in church at Easter for Hogie. I only lost my innocence. He lost his life.

The Red Shoes

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Although I knew that no one was home, I took great care to open my parents’ closet door as silently as I could, as if they could hear me—sense my trespass—miles away. My mother’s clothes took up the majority of the closet. Daddy’s clothes were pushed off to the far right, boring in their ordinariness, dull in comparison to the bright colors and profusion of fabrics and patterns and styles of Mama’s clothes.

Do the clothes fit the man, or does the man fit the clothes? Like his work pants and shirts and his one suit for church, all in shades of brown, gray, and black, Daddy seemed solid. Earthy. He worked with his hands as a contractor, and he smelled like sawdust and sweat. Earthy smells, earthy clothes.

But Mama. She was exotic; bright and colorful. Quick to laugh, but she could be short-tempered, too. If either of them found me in here, there would be trouble.

I ran my hands over Mama’s dresses, feeling the satins run through my fingers like water, noticing the abundance of colors, especially shades of green, her favorite, setting off the dullness of Daddy’s earth tones.  The beads on her one long gown—emerald green—that she had bought to accompany Mrs. Lemmon, her boss’s mother, to Venezuela, pulsed with a life of their own under my fingertips, speaking to me in a language I didn’t yet understand.

What would it be like to wear such a gown? To sweep down the stairs of a grand hotel and see all eyes turn in awe and adoration? To feel—to be—exotic? It’s not so much that I wanted to be a girl; I just didn’t want to be me. I already feared—I already knew—that I was different, that I didn’t seem to belong in rural North Carolina. My brothers made sure that I was aware of that. The kids at Startown Elementary—and some of the teachers, too—made sure of it. I wanted to escape and be someone—anyone—else.

The dress was too much of a commitment. It was too complicated to figure out. It would take too long to get it out of the closet, off the hanger, onto my ten-year-old body, and back into the closet looking just as it did now. I didn’t know when my parents would be home, or worse, when my brothers would come crashing in. No, the dress would have to wait.

My eyes drifted to the floor of the closet. Boxes and boxes of shoes—Mama loved shoes—lined the floor, three or four boxes high and two deep.

The red ones. The blood red high heels. Where were they? In which Pandora’s Box did they rest, waiting to come out and change my world?

I found them on the third try. They were Mama’s favorites, so they were close at hand.

I turned them over in my hands. There was no time for a dress, but shoes . . . shoes were easy.

I slipped out of my own grass-stained tennis shoes. I left my socks on, as if fearing that if the red high heels touched my skin they might become a part of me and, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, never come off. I slipped the heels onto my feet. Mama had big feet for a woman, and my ten-year-old socked feet fit perfectly.

I was transformed. My curiosity had overcome my fear. I felt different, special and brave, even as I trembled with fear—and excitement.

Like Dorothy’s slippers, the red shoes took me home to a place where I had always belonged. I knew that the dress would follow soon, when there was time.

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