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.

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.

Equal Dignity in the Eyes of the Law

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What a momentous day for “equal justice under law”! Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. As Justice Kennedy writes in his majority opinion:

[The couples’ challenging state bans on same-sex marriage] hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

I can only imagine the mixed emotions of the lead plaintiff, Jim Obergefell, at hearing those words affirming his marriage to his partner of 21 years, John Arthur.

Jim and John married soon after the Supreme Court’s previous gay marriage decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, United States v. Windsor. Although they lived in Ohio, they had to fly to Maryland to be married as Ohio would not recognize their marriage. Three months and 11 days later, John died. Jim was listed on John’s Ohio death certificate as John’s spouse only because Jim had sued the state and won. Ohio appealed that ruling, leading to today’s Supreme Court case being named Obergefell v. Hodges. Richard Hodges is the Ohio official who handles death certificates. So, despite today’s victory, I imagine that Jim is feeling sad and, yes, lonely, his personal victory being allowed to be listed as John’s spouse on John’s death certificate.

I am reminded of my own feelings on June 25, 2011; the day after my current home state of New York passed its Marriage Equality Act. My partner’s mother died that evening, and I had the honor of being with Scott, his father, and his mother at her bedside for the 24 hours before she died. The next day, a friend of mine, the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, wrote a column for the Times’s Sunday Review, To Know Us Is to Let Us Love, talking about marriage equality in a very personal way. I was moved by Frank’s column and wrote him the following e-mail:

I read your column this morning with obvious interest. Unfortunately, I was not in New York this weekend to celebrate this hugely important occasion for us, and I wanted to share with you why. I was in DC with Scott, doing what families, couples—spouses—do. I was sitting at Scott’s mother’s hospital bedside with Scott and his father as she died after a year-long battle with cancer.  I have never felt so privileged and so married in my life.  And, it means so much to me that now that relationship can be honored and respected as equal to my brothers’ marriages.  As I read your column, I realized that I don’t need marriage equality to make it real, but I—and all other gay couples like us—deserve it.

With today’s ruling, I reiterate that I do not need marriage equality to make my relationship real, I deserve it, and I thank Justice Kennedy for recognizing that the Constitution of the United States—my constitution—grants me the right to equal dignity in the eyes of the law.

Live Long and Prosper

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President Obama “loved Spock”!

Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy.  Leonard was a lifelong lover of the arts and humanities, a supporter of the sciences, generous with his talent and his time.  And of course, Leonard was Spock.  Cool, logical, big-eared and level-headed, the center of Star Trek’s optimistic, inclusive vision of humanity’s future.

I loved Spock.

—from “Statement by the President on the Passing of Leonard Nimoy

Well, Mr. President, I did, too. Spock is my all-time favorite character from television, past and present. Sure, I had a crush on Captain Kirk, but I wanted to be Mr. Spock.

I was an unabashed Trekkie. I wrote fan mail to Star Trek through my local TV station and received blueprints of the USS Enterprise and photos of the cast in return. The only models I ever built as a boy were models of the Enterprise and the Klingon warship. I loved Star Trek, especially Mr. Spock, “cool, logical, big-eared and level-headed.”

I hadn’t really thought about why Mr. Spock, of all the Star Trek characters, was my favorite until Leonard Nimoy’s death this past week. The bridge of the Enterprise was an interplanetary UN, the United Federation of Planets, represented by a Russian, Mr. Chekov; an Asian, Mr. Sulu; an African-American, Lieutenant Uhura; a Scot, Scotty; but Mr. Spock was the only non-Human on the bridge, having a Human mother and a Vulcan father. He was the ‘other’—the alien—on the bridge, and, as a young gay boy, I felt like the ‘other’ in my school and hometown in North Carolina.

Even further, I felt internally conflicted, as Mr. Spock was with his Human and Vulcan natures. Knowing that I was gay—alien—at a very early age, I was constantly on guard, just as Mr. Spock carefully guarded his human emotions. In Episode 24, he tells Leila Kalomi, “I am what I am, Leila. And if there are self-made purgatories, then we all have to live in them. Mine can be no worse than someone else’s.” He gave me hope that I, too, could learn to accept myself as I was and live in my own purgatory of otherness.

With Mr. Nimoy’s death, I’ve learned that I am not alone in my identification with Mr. Spock. An NPR story, “Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock Taught Us Acceptance Is Highly Logical,” captures how I felt:

As a young black man and science-fiction fan, I strongly identified with Spock’s struggles to fit in with his human co-workers as I struggled to fit in at mostly white schools and workplaces. And I wouldn’t be surprised if other fans struggling to fit into their communities for different reasons felt the same bond.

Yes, as a young gay boy and a huge Star Trek fan, I, too, strongly identified with Spock’s struggles to fit in, and I thank you, Mr. Spock and Mr. Nimoy, for helping me in my struggle. I say a prayer of thankfulness for the life of Leonard Nimoy, and, for Mr. Spock, “Live long and prosper.”

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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!

AIDS Witness

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I don’t know how
I survived.
Present at the onset,
Before it even had a name;
I walked through minefields
and watched them fall;
boyfriends, friends, and foes:
Hogie, Steve, Chris, Chepé, Scott,
and the guy in room 312 in 1984, hidden behind a wall of isolation gowns and masks.

I don’t know why
I lived
When they all died.
Was I more deserving?
Or, like Job, did God let me survive to test my faith?
We lost.

I lost my faith,
And I ran,

Fled the scene, the death, the destruction.
A refugee, hiding,
Waiting for the plague to end.
It didn’t.

I don’t know how
I survived the hiding,
Dead to the world around me.

I don’t know how
I returned
To live—to life—in the land of the dying.

I don’t know how
I searched a quilt for his name:
Hogie
Hogie Gaskins

I don’t know how
I held the hand of the man in room 508
While life seeped out of him.
I didn’t know that he—that all of them—gave me my own life back.

I didn’t know that
God was right.
We won.
I lived—I live—to
bear witness.