Sunday, October 17, 2010

Talking Under Water

It’s estimated that every 72 seconds, another person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Right now, in communities all across the country, people are walking to commemorate the lives of lost loved ones, to remember them as the vibrant individuals we once knew, and to commit to understanding this horrible disease and to finding a cure.

November is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. In anticipation, the following is in honor of all the victims of this disease and the people who love them, past, present and future. As I bear witness, I learn to love this one life, this one mind I’ve been given.

May you be happy.

When the floors of the Alzheimer’s unit are buffed to a brilliant gloss,
the ceiling lights become beacons, no more reflected in the shine,
but glaring up from beneath a liquid surface, rippling, waving,
lapping at the far shores of minds so long lost they’re out of reach
without the aid of a raft, an oar, a good stiff breeze
to fill the invisible sails of a Chiron’s craft.

Beneath the surface sometimes there appears a submerged village,
complete with steepled church and gas station,
water-logged store fronts, parks with duck ponds and mighty oaks,
and on Sundays, if you watch them closely, thirty frail heads
turn to listen to church bells calling them from the depths,
joining the now with some watery past, muffled, leagues beneath their feet.

Their faces watch in disbelief as they traverse the surface
of a lake that should, by all rational measure, swallow them up,
leaving tiny wakes behind orthopedic shoes, peering into the depths,
recognizing loved ones long dead swimming down the streets,
greeting one another as they pass in aqueous slow motion.

All of us walk on the dome of the sky,
oblivious to the worlds beneath our feet,
occasionally giving a double-take to the beacon
shining up at us from below,
lighting our way home,
calling us back to the worlds we left behind,
but some of us know where we’re headed quite soon,
dreaming of the place even when we’re awake.

Our mouths move and we gesture wildly,
trying to get through, marveling in our visions,
but it’s like we’re talking under water,
and the great fluorescent sun on the surface
grows dimmer and farther each and every day.

Monday, October 11, 2010

It's National Coming Out Day!

Did you know today is National Coming Out Day? Well, it is, and I can think of no better occasion to highlight the damage done by not coming out than this illustrious, albeit largely unfamiliar, day of reflection.

Truism: When we live in the closet, we hurt ourselves.

Truism: How we treat ourselves informs how we treat others and the world around us.

Fact: With great authority comes even greater responsibility not to be an asshole.

Hypothesis: American society is a giant asshole-manufacturing machine.

What follows is a warning from history. It’s my list of the top eight perpetrators of assholiness, exemplars each and every one of the pain caused by self-delusion and by the denial of sexual identity and personal truth.

#1 George Rekers
Social conservative, Southern Baptist minister, Professor of Neuropsychiatry and Behavioral Science Emeritus at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, founding board member of the Family Research Council, and former officer and scientific advisor for the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH).

Professor Rekers has long preached, researched, and otherwise defended the need for, and scientific validity of, gay conversion therapy, intended to change homos into heteros. He has testified in court on the allegedly destructive and sinful nature of homosexuality, and the unsuitability of gays and lesbians for parenthood in a number of court cases involving organizations and state agencies working with children.

Rekers was caught with a gay male prostitute, whose services he solicited on in the spring of 2010. In his defense, Rekers claimed he paid for the young man’s services as baggage handler during an overseas trip. The doctor had ordered it because Rekers was apparently incapable of lifting his own sack. The 20-year old young man in question claims to have given 61-year old Rekers “nude sexual massages” every day while abroad. The escort also claims Rekers told him he had hired numerous other escorts in the past but didn’t feel he had gotten his money’s worth.

#2 Bishop Eddie Long
Senior Pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, self-proclaimed revolutionary spiritual leader, best-selling author, life coach and motivational speaker, holds a Master’s of Divinity degree from Atlanta’s Interdenominational Theological Center, honorary doctorates from North Carolina Central University, Beulah Heights Bible College of Atlanta and Morehouse School of Religion, and a Ph.D. in Pastoral Ministry from the International College of Excellence, an affiliate of Life Christian University in Tampa, Florida, father of four and self-named “surrogate parent” to many other children in his church and community.

Bishop Long (see my previous blog post, The Garden of Love, for tea and back story) has long spewed anti-gay rhetoric to his congregation and to listeners of his radio show. He is a staunch defender of traditional marriage and outspoken critic of gay and lesbian parenthood.

Long has been accused by a number of young men, participants in the church’s young men's ministry, of sexual abuse and impropriety.

One of Long’s alleged victims, 23-year old Jamal Parris, told ABC News that the leader of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church swept into his life and used him for sex, then moved on to younger prey.

“I cannot get the sound of his voice out of my head, and I cannot forget the smell of his cologne, and I cannot forget the way he made me cry when I drove in his car on the way home, not able to take enough showers to get the smell of that man off my body.”
#3 Richard Curtis
Former Republican State Representative (2005 – 2007) serving Washington state’s 18th legislative district, married with two daughters, socially conservative voting record, opposed a gay rights bill that banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 2006 and voted against domestic partnerships for gay and lesbian couples in 2007.

On October 30, 2007, the Spokane Spokesman-Review reported that Curtis and a twenty-six year old man met at an adult bookstore, and that they later had sex in a local hotel room. Curtis was also alleged to have been seen previously and on that occasion dressed in women's clothing, wearing them underneath his own. According to Curtis's police statement, the twenty-six-year old man attempted to extort $1,000 from him after the encounter in return for not revealing his "gay lifestyle" to his family. Curtis ended up bringing formal extortion charges against the man.

#4 Ted Haggard
Evangelical preacher, founder and former head of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, founder of the Association of Life-Giving Churches and former leader of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) from 2003 to November 2006.

As president of the NAE, Pastor Ted wielded great power in Washington as a professional homophobe and bigot, influencing legislators from every state in the denial of rights to LGBT folk and the institutionalization of hatred and fear toward the same. It's even been reported that he once counseled George W. Bush.

But on November 5, 2006, the Associated Press had this to report. “Haggard admits ‘sexual immorality’, apologizes.”

Turns out Pastor Ted enjoyed meth-fueled sex binges with a gay male prostitute in Denver on more than one occasion.

Don’t worry, though. Pastor Ted’s back again! And this time, he means monkey business! Pastor Ted is now heading up a backyard barn church, featuring bags of cement and a pulpit made of buckets.

His wife, Gayle, is happy as a clam now that Ted is free of his homosexual compulsions. For real this time! On The Today Show back in January 2010, Gayle said, "Our relationship is better than it's ever been. Going over this mountain together has given me the marriage I've always longed for." Good old conversion therapy. Always great for solidifying delusion!

What Gayle didn’t mention is that the “marriage she’s always longed for” is one where she develops a nasty habit of slowly sawing off her pinky toe with a nail file in an attempt to gird herself against the agony of acknowledging that her husband is probably out at this very moment in an alley behind a Popeye’s somewhere with a bucket of chicken and his underwear around his ankles, cupping a youth’s balls in his hands while he prays for forgiveness.

#5 Roy Ashburn
Current Republican State Representative from California’s 18th District, finishing up the second of two four-year terms.

Roy made a career out of unequivocally and unquestioningly representing his constituents’ rabid homophobia in Sacramento by forging a vehemently anti-gay voting record. As one of his final legislative projects, he cavorted with Christian fundamentalists like Randy Thomasson of to put Proposition 8 on the ballot and made it quite the successful legislative endeavor.

True, his district is socially conservative, and Roy’s voting record was a clear representation of the majority’s voice there. Unfortunately for his constituents, Roy turned out to be a big ole friend of Dorothy. He ended up having to fess up after being caught in a gay bar. Poor Roy. That made his constituents veeerrrrrry angry. After all, they had voted for someone completely different from the guy they got, so they ran him out of town on a rail for secretly being the very devil that is slowly turning their America into Sodom.

You can read more about Roy Ashburn’s woes here. I smell Pulitzer!

#6 Larry Craig
Who could forget Larry? Former Republican Senator from Idaho, served 28 years in both the House and Senate, the second-longest congressional term in Idaho history, member of the board of directors of the National Rifle Association, prominent conservative with an anti-gay voting record.

Former Senator Craig was arrested on June 11, 2007 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on suspicion of lewd conduct in a men's restroom, where he was accused of soliciting an undercover police officer for sexual activity. Read the sordid details here.

Former Senator Craig has maintained his innocence, despite an initial guilty plea. The courts ultimately denied his appeal to withdraw the guilty plea of guilty. During the motion to withdraw, Craig’s attorney claimed his plea “was not knowing and intelligent and therefore was in violation of his constitutional rights.” His guilty plea was upheld.

You see, the thing is, Larry Craig has been publicly denying accusations of being gay since 1982, when he was implicated in a House page scandal. Then in 1999 on Meet the Press with Tim Russert, in a twistedly prescient moment of projection, Larry actually called Bill Clinton a “nasty, bad, naughty boy.” You can watch the awkward portent here.

Nothing says “Family Values” like anonymous sodomy in a public toilet.

#7 Ed Schrock
Retired career Naval officer, former Republican U.S. House Representative from Virginia’s 2nd congressional district, cultivated an aggressive anti-gay voting record, including opposition to gays in the military and same-sex marriage.

Ed was caught on tape soliciting sex from a gay male prostitute in 2004. Not long after that, he admitted he was gay. Later thaty same year, he dropped out of his third term race and was hired as top staff person for one of the subcommittees of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, on which he had previously served.

#8 Mark Foley
Current real estate agent, U.S. House Representative from Florida’s 16th congressional district from 1995 to 2006, voted against a proposed Constitutional Amendment to ban legal recognition of same-sex marriages as well as another bill that would have banned gay people from adopting in Washington D.C., one of the foremost opponents of child pornography, chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.

In 2005, ABC News reported that Foley had sent email messages from his personal account to a former congressional page requesting photos of the young man. Although a relatively common practice among congressmen and women looking for qualified page candidates, thereafter, more pages came forward alleging inappropriate conduct by Foley dating back ten years. Mark was a definite fan of “sexting.”

At one point, Federal authorities said the explicit emails and text messages could result in Foley's prosecution under some of the same anti-child pornography laws he helped to enact. Mark later came out with a statement saying "I have a drinking problem," "I was molested by a priest when I was young," and, “Oh, by the way, I’m gay."

Those of us who have spent time in the closet have different reasons for doing so. Shame and self-preservation motivated me. Others stay in the closet in order to continue reaping the rewards of being members of a privileged group, namely straight (usually white and affluent), America.

The Culture Wars in this country produce untold numbers of victims. National Coming Out Day is, quite simply, a path to reconciliation. When we come out, we reconcile with ourselves, with others, with reality.

To reconcile is to get back on friendly terms after a long period of estrangement. To reconcile is to solve a dispute or end a quarrel. Reconciliation is the longed for acceptance of a reality we cannot change. It is finding compatibility and consistency in two apparently conflicting things.

As reconciliation, National Coming Out Day is an opportunity to heal the wounds inflicted by the Culture Wars. Unfortunately, these are ongoing wars with no end in sight. To get there, we are called upon to look unflinchingly at what makes each of us human. When there’s shame involved, this takes a lot of courage. It’s easy for me to incite anger and violence, to stoke the flames of fear, mistrust and hatred. What’s not easy is to look at myself under a bright spotlight and commit to understanding the world as it is, no matter how long or painful the process.

Truism: Where there is great courage, there is even greater hope.

Truism: Life is a trip.

Fact: You are not alone.

Hypothesis: Love wins out over fear.

Be strong! Come on out! The world beautiful! I can't wait for you to get here!

If you or someone you know is struggling with coming out, here are some resources that might be helpful.

May you know peace.

A Resource Guide to Coming Out

A Straight Guide to LGBT Americans

Transgender Visibility Guide

Resource Guide to Coming Out for African Americans

Guía de recursos para salir del clóset

Living Openly in Your Place of Worship

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Garden of Love

Bishop Eddie Long, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta, Georgia’s largest Baptist congregation, is in some serious legal trouble. Bishop Long is a vociferous homophobe and disparager of same-sex marriage. I’ll give you one guess as to what he’s being accused of.

Click here to see if you guessed correctly.

Like so many confused, drunk-with-power, self-loathing closet-cases before him, Bishop Long has used his bully pulpit to decry the sins of proud homosexuality and lambast gays and lesbians for demanding equal rights and access to legal marriage, all the while allegedly practicing the love that dare not speak its name himself.

Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.*

Bishop Long is no stranger to controversy. In 2005, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Bishop Long received compensation of $3 million in salary, benefits and property use from one of many nonprofit, tax-exempt charities he established for the poor, including the use of a $350,000 Bentley.

On November 6, 2007, United States senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa announced an investigation of Long's ministry by the United States Senate Committee on Finance. Grassley asked for the ministry to divulge financial information to the committee to determine if Long had profited personally from financial donations. The investigation also scrutinized five other televangelists: Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Paula White, Joyce Meyer, and Creflo Dollar.

That’s right. The man’s last name is Dollar.

In 2006, Long was invited to speak at Atlanta's Interdenominational Theological Center's graduation, stirring up all kinds of controversy. Students discussed a boycott of the graduation, and Long's invitation prompted black liberation theologian, James Cone, — who was scheduled to receive an honorary degree — to boycott the ceremony. (Read more about Liberation Theology here). Thirty-three graduating seniors wrote to the seminary's president expressing distaste for Long as their commencement speaker and questioning his theological and ethical integrity. It appears that for many ITC students the study of ethics was still fresh enough in their young minds that they openly criticized Long’s belief that that God can "deliver" homosexuals and that Jesus blesses believers with riches.

You can find out more about homosexual conversion therapy here and you can gain an understanding of Christian Prosperity Theology by starting here.

Bishop Long is accused of seducing and coercing three young men into sexual relationships by putting them on the church payroll, buying them cars and other gifts, and taking them separately on trips to destinations like New Zealand and Trinidad. Long says these trips were part of a mentoring program called Longfellows, a ministry for teen boys.

A peek at the blogosphere shows mild support for Bishop Long, mainly from his parishioners. For the most part, the shorthand version of this support reads like this: “I pray for everyone involved in this. I pray to God it’s not true.”

Of course Bishop Long (through his lawyer spokesman) vehemently denies these allegations.

The fox condemns the trap, not himself.*

It’s not pleasant to admit, but I want to blame, shame and ridicule Bishop Long. I want to ignite my righteous indignation and scream from the mountaintops about this guy’s hypocrisy. But I’m not going to.

First of all, we don’t yet know (and may never know) if the man is guilty of these accusations. But looking at the man’s public image as presented in the media, an assumption of guilt is an easy thing.

Second, for whatever it’s worth, all the young men accusing Long were above the age of sixteen, the age of legal consent in Georgia, when the alleged incidents took place.

But lastly… I’m tired, people. I’m plain old wore out beat down drag ass tired.

I’m renouncing my holy war against religious men and politicians who pander to their bases in order to stay in power. I’m retiring from the project of highlighting the hypocrisy of those guys who throw red meat to their mobs as a means of bolstering their own false images.

Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.*

Let’s assume Bishop Long is guilty of what he’s accused of. When a man is willing to advocate for the denial of equal rights, for the continued persecution of a group of marginalized citizens when he is, in fact, a member of that marginalized group himself, I can see that this man suffers beyond what I can imagine. This is particularly poignant when that man is black.

I know what it’s like to live with secrets and shame. It tears you up and eats you from the inside like a cancer.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.*

It’s interesting to realize that I’m most capable of compassion when I’m exhausted, when it’s easiest for me to let go of my own anger. To paraphrase Rumi, sometimes my heart is hammered to the point that its right, resonant ringing can be heard for a change.

I was raised as a Christian in a number of different denominations, including the Southern Baptist. I’ve spent many years of my life trying to make sense of the hypocrisy I saw in those places. Church-going people I knew, all of them upstanding, often respected members of the community, were rabid and vocal racists and homophobes. They judged poor people. They formed in-groups comprised of God’s chosen ones who harassed other non-members even within their own congregations. They took advantage of the weak and those without a voice. They engaged in activities condemned by doctrine and dogma (drinking, drugs, sex, even gay sex), then judged others for doing the same when they were with members of their unholy cliques.

I never understood how people could behave this way when I was younger, but I do today. And the only reason I understand it is because I have acknowledged my own penchant for the same kind of behavior.

In high school and college I used to gay bash when I was with my straight friends. We were civilized enough not to physically harm anyone, but we talked trash all the time and outwardly took pleasure when gay boys were physically harmed by others.

The Venerable Robina Courtin often speaks of Buddhism as a means of becoming one’s own therapist. I know what she means. It’s no exaggeration to say that, over the last twenty years, the Dharma has saved my life.

The practice of maitri toward oneself and its logical extension, Tonglen practice, have afforded me the insight to recognize deep, sometimes unspeakable pain in my own heart and mind as the roots of this kind of hurtful, hypocritical behavior.

I say Buddhism has saved my life because, until I discovered the teachings, I was headed down a path of self-destruction and protracted suicide. I had so much hatred for myself stored up in my body and mind. I engaged in many incredibly damaging patterns of behavior and I projected my self-hatred onto everyone around me while assuming everyone around me saw me as a good guy. I hurt many people and sowed my share of negative karmic seeds.

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

All these destructive patterns culminated with my unmitigated and (thankfully) unsuccessful attempt at self-destruction in the summer of 1998.

Delusion is a bitch while you’re in it. So much pain. So much sadness.

It is true, in my experience, that those least assured of their own persuasions are the first to condemn others for theirs. It’s also sad that there’s a rash of this kind of thing happening among politicians and Christians lately. More and more it appears corruption at all levels is being outed and exposed for what it is. Maybe this is the uniquely American caustic therapy for ridding our society of a cancer.

I’ve waited many years to see these changes occur. The young man in me takes great pleasure in seeing powerful figures publicly shamed and brought to their knees for their lies and hypocrisy. But the more mature man in me sees their experience through different lenses. He understands their pain, their self-delusion and the suffering it causes all around them. The mature man in me knows how it feels to be absolutely certain that he’s a good, decent person, then wake up to the reality that he has caused much suffering in the world.

That’s a nasty dream to wake up from. Afterwards, the realizations can be a nightmare.

But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.*

There’s so much shame in the world. For me, in all honesty, it came through a traditional Christian reading of the Bible. Folks meant no harm; they were just doing things as they had been taught. But harm was done.

After a lifetime steeped in that kind of hurt it’s easy to inflict it on others. After all, if I had to hurt and feel shame upon shame, then by God, so will you. That’s just the way it’s done. We all have different ideas of what it means to serve the Lord.

Bishop Long, if guilty, is at a crossroads. One way leads to a caustic therapy that will scour him clean enough that he might actually be able to lead a congregation. The other leads to hell.

The French poet Arthur Rimbaud said, “The only unbearable thing is that nothing is unbearable.” I think there’s never been a truer word said.

I went to the Garden of Love
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green
And the gates of the Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joy and desires.
- William Blake (1757-1827)

*from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake
**from Augeries of Innocence by William Blake

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Candi that Kills

In an August 29, Denver Post article, Focus on the Family educational expert, Candi Cushman claims that anti-bullying efforts in public schools push the gay agenda. From the article:

"School officials allow these outside groups (national gay advocacy groups) to introduce policies, curriculum and library books under the guise of diversity, safety or bullying-prevention initiatives, said Focus on the Family education expert Candi Cushman."

"We feel more and more that activists are being deceptive in using anti-bullying rhetoric to introduce their viewpoints, while the viewpoint of Christian students and parents are increasingly belittled," Cushman said.

"Public schools increasingly convey that homosexuality is normal and should be accepted, Cushman said, while opposing viewpoints by conservative Christians are portrayed as bigotry."

Sometimes the veil lifts for a moment and the naked emperor comes clearly into view.

Does this woman hear herself when she talks? Candi thinks teaching kids the values of respect, kindness and compassion toward their peers is “belittling” to Christians? Am I reading this correctly?

Candi Cushman has taken upon herself the thankless task of addressing national issues like the promotion of homosexuality in public schools, censorship of Christian students and the “evolution debate.”
That’s right, folks. Candi thinks there is a debate around evolution.

In a January 28, 2010 Denver Post article, Candi had this to say about the politicized and sexualized nature of anti-bullying initiatives in the schools.

"We think the best thing would be policies that prohibit bullying across the board for any reason against any child," said Candi Cushman, education analyst for Focus on the Family Action. "The emphasis should be on the wrong action of the bullies, not why they did it or what their perceived thoughts were."


According to this educational “expert,” it is perfectly possible to address a bully’s behavior while never examining the root thoughts and emotions that led to the behavior in the first place.

Keep in mind, Candi thinks evolution is up for debate.

Candi is offended that public schools are beginning to view homosexuality as normal. She is incensed, I tell you, that schools are encouraging young people to be accepting of their LGBT brothers and sisters. And ooooh does Candi get mad when Christian viewpoints are portrayed as bigotry!

You see, Candi Cushman is a bully herself. And bullies get really pissed when you call them on their bullshit.

Oh, Candi doesn’t look like a bully. With her blue eyes, warm smile and flip cut, Candi looks sweet enough to eat, gosh darnit!

Careful though! Don’t bite into her in search of a chewy center. Candi may be sweet, but she’s made entirely of saccharin.

And saccharin causes cancer in lab rats.

Also, she has bangs. And people with bangs are not to be trusted. It’s just a fact, people.

So the next time you hear Candi and others from Focus espousing their particular brand of Christian “viewpoints,” don’t be fooled. Candi and her ilk are bigots, plain and simple. They do what religious fundamentalists have done for millennia. They cloak their bigotry in religious language and then cry foul when anyone tells them to knock it off.

These really are the worst kind of people. And yes, listening to them will give you cancer.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Love Is Love Is Love

I’ve always freely drawn comparisons between the fight for marriage equality and anti-miscegenation laws from the past. Many others specifically cite Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court decision that made it legal for blacks and whites to marry for the first time, as the key decision that demonstrated the complete ignorance of and utter futility of criminalizing racial mixing.

Anti-miscegenation laws were morally indefensible, to be sure. But they were very different from the Defense of Marriage Act, which bans a group of citizens from marrying, not simply other types of people, but any other person. Period.

As The Atlantic senior editor, Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in an article on August 3rd, “the ban gays suffer under is unconditional and total and effectively offers one word for an entire sector of Americans--Die.”

There are distinctive differences between the struggle for gay rights and the Civil Rights struggles of the ‘50s and ‘60s. No one should ever compare the two in terms of the nature of their respective struggles. Nevertheless, we can make meaningful comparisons between how the two struggles unfolded.

Loving v. Virginia illustrates a very relevant fact about American Democracy and majority rule, and that fact is the majority is not always right.

When the high court decided on Loving v. Virginia, public opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining the status quo and upholding anti-miscegenation laws in many states. Thankfully for the nation, a group of nine elders decided it was not in the country’s best interest to maintain that status quo if we were to remain a functioning democracy with a Constitution that was worth more than the parchment it was written on.

In this instance, reason won out over popular opinion. There are very few Americans today who would tell you otherwise if pressed on the issue. Our nation’s founders established our particular brand of democratic governance for this very reason: to enact and uphold intelligent laws as a means of protecting the vulnerable among us from the cruel offenses of the mobs and tyrants among us. This is what our nation was founded upon, and it runs in the blood of everyone who understands what it means to be subject to the will of those who would do harm or destroy.

Defense of Marriage Act supporters nationwide claim that the family is the building block of civilization, and that to monkey with the current definition would result in the unraveling of society.

Here’s what I think. Family is a form of defense. It’s a form of defense against homelessness, against poverty, against disease, against persecution, against loneliness, against lack of love and nurturance.

No matter what a family looks like, it can also be a form of protection against Neanderthals in our society who would deny you your rights, your happiness, your liberty, even your life.

To the “Defenders of Marriage” I pose these questions.

What does your family protect you from? From the likes of me? From gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered and queer people? From gender non-conforming folks in general?

If family indeed defines our civilization, does yours guarantee or deny others their rights?

What does your family stand for?

Does it actively work to deny others their happiness, health, freedom... their lives?

Funny how you "Marriage Defenders" can read the Constitution and completely gloss over a citizen’s fundamental rights in the very first paragraph. The Constitution is as good as butt-wipe if you’re only going to use it selectively to support your notions of who’s worthy of a right and who isn’t.

I want to marry the person I love. This doesn’t harm you in any way.

I can beg if that’s what you’d like. I'm not above it. Of course, I would prefer to meet you on common ground as equal citizens of these United States who come to well-informed conclusions about what’s good for all of us through authentically adult dialogue deeply informed by open-mindedness. But I’ll do whatever’s necessary to protect myself and my family against tyranny. Even beg.

American Democracy frequently has nothing to do with majority rule. There are countless examples of this, but it’s not my duty to educate you. That’s your own responsibility. My duty as an American is to do whatever is within my power to ensure that we all have access to the same rights and privileges where life, liberty and happiness are at stake, not just certain groups. Even if they constitute a majority.

This is also your civic duty as a freedom loving American.

In its Loving v. Virginia decision, the high court wrote the following:

Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival.... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.

I’ll let you extrapolate. I suppose it’s all open to interpretation and scrutiny anyway. Isn’t everything in a democracy? What I can say that isn’t up for scrutiny is this.

With every fiber of my being I know this one thing: my love is not less than yours.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

My Big Fat 2nd Class Marriage

Jim Crow is alive and well in the USA. By that, I mean there are still 2nd class citizens in this country who are not seen as equal to everyone else in the eyes of government. I’m one of them. Yes, I’m talkin’ about fags. So I’m officially coining the phrase “Judy Crow” to describe this kind of discrimination. Use it all you want.

Now, I know I’m gonna come under fire for comparing the gay experience in America with the African American experience. So fire away, but please hear me out first.

Remember after Hurricane Katrina when Kanye West said George W. Bush hated black people on national television? I screamed out loud in delight when I saw it. While perhaps ill-informed on Kanye’s part, that statement was absolute truth hitting a bull’s eye with laser-like precision, striking at the heart of government hypocrisy with the mind-stopping thwack of a Zen master's stick. Wait, wait! Ima let you finish, but first, here's another thwack for ya.

The government hates fags.

That's the only logical conclusion I can come to with my logical brain, as a logically thinking citizen. Sometimes 1+1 does, indeed, equal 2.

I was “married” to my “husband” last July in Boulder. We just had our first anniversary on the 4th. He gave me a lovely book on C.G. Jung. I gave him a cold sore. But that’s neither here nor there. I put the words “married” and “husband” in quotes because, according to legal definitions, we are neither of those things to one another.

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) denies fags like me and my “husband” access to federal programs as a “married” couple that opposite-sex spouses/partners have enjoyed for many decades. These programs represent safety nets my “husband” and I might depend on as a married couple as we plan our lives and future together, as we deal with hard times and possibly raise children together (it could happen). Frustratingly, he and I are denied access to these federal programs even though we are footing the bill as taxpayers for many of them.

This country fought a revolution because of the affront to liberty that is taxation without representation. Remember? If anyone should be having Tea Parties, it should be homos! At least the ones who’d like to get hitched.

Here's a partial list of the federal programs I'm referring to:

1. Social Security spousal protections that ground a family’s economic security while living in old age, and upon disability and death;

2. protections for one spouse’s essential monetary resources and the ability to stay in the family home when the other spouse needs Medicaid for nursing home care;

3. the ability to be included in a family policy of health insurance, and if receiving that family health insurance, to be free of income tax on the value of that insurance;

4. the ability to use the “Married Filing Jointly” status for federal income tax purposes that can save families money;

5. family medical leave from a job to care for a seriously ill spouse;

6. disability, dependency or death benefits for the spouses of veterans and public safety officers;

7. estate/death protections that allow a spouse to leave assets to the other spouse – including the family home – without incurring any taxes; and

8. the ability of a citizen to obtain a visa for a non-citizen spouse and sponsor that spouse for purposes of citizenship.

The list goes on. And guess what, citizens... this goes for those same-sex couples who are currently legally married in states like Massachusetts and Connecticut as well.

My experience shows me that we've educated ourselves about faggotry enough in this great country to have reached a critical mass of understanding, sensitivity and compassion. We're smart enough not to deny people rights because of who they are. A critical mass of the citizenry seems to be on board with this idea, thanks in no small part to a little thing called...

The Civil Rights Movement.

So again, a logical examination of the facts leads to the unequivocal conclusion that the government hates fags. If it walks like Judy Crow and quacks like Judy Crow…

Then there’s the “Christian Right” (again, in quotes because it is neither of those things). Members of this cult would have us believe that DOMA is about defending the institution of marriage. From what, you ask? Why, fags, of course! Silly intelligent, thoughtful person!

Back in March, the Maine Family Policy Council had this to say about same-sex marriage and faggotry in general:

"Maine people twice rejected 'gay' rights in the past decade. Homosexuality is very sad, and sinful. Maine must not create a culture that winks at something so debilitating on so many levels. To present this 'orientation' as benign to impressionable children is the height of arrogance, and surely qualifies as evil."

Sad, sinful, debilitating, arrogant, evil… Are they describing faggotry or British Petroleum?

I look at my own life and I don’t see any of these things in it. Well, maybe arrogance. But fuck them! I am better than they are!

In 2005, the Illinois Family Institute, along with Peter LaBarbera’s Americans For Truth About Homosexuality declared "war" against the "pro-sodomy movement" and its "crimes against nature" by launching its Protect Marriage Illinois campaign (website apparently no longer exists). As part of this campaign, these Christian soldiers actually chastised the religious right for not being hateful enough.

“It is high time for pastors, in Iowa and across the land, to shake off their stifling, politically correct timidity and again become the prophetic voices for Truth they were called to be: by boldly warning Americans – Christian and non-Christian alike — about the perils of our growing accommodation with the sins of proud homosexuality, and sex outside marriage in general.”

I’ll ignore the ridiculousness of the idea that it’s even possible to tackle ‘sex outside marriage in general’ for now, but let’s give that phrase “pro-sodomy movement” some careful consideration. As with the so-called “Culture Wars,” if there is a “pro-sodomy movement,” I never got an invitation to join up. And trust me. I would have been a charter member of that movement, carrying the banner at every Veteran’s Day Parade.

Bitches, please. There’s no more a “pro-sodomy movement” in this country than there is a “pro-vaginal sex movement,” or a “pro-rusty trombone movement,” or a “pro-latex and PVC movement.” These things aren’t “movements” at all. They’re just things some people like and others don’t. Get over it.

But back to sodomy… Do members of the “Christian Right” really think that people haven’t been taking it up the butt since Jesus invented humans as humans and not as monkeys? As a man, I can attest to the fact that there are very few things in this world that men haven’t tried putting their dicks in. Given the sheer variety of potential vessels waiting to be filled out there, a butt just doesn’t seem to warrant this kind of outrage now, does it?

Judy Crow has always been in place in the USA. More and more, though, it appears a lot of people are willing to codify discrimination against me and my LGBT brothers and sisters in a serious way by amending state constitutions across the land, prohibiting same-sex marriages and other rights most other people enjoy. The only time an amendment that expressly denied citizens a specific right was ratified to the U.S. Constitution was during Prohibition. And we all know what a rousing success that was.

Like her twin brother, Jim, Judy Crow is the ugly bastard ass-baby of right-wing Christianity and Congress, christened by the Executive and raised to adulthood by the courts. Oh, and mainstream media gave her a full-ride scholarship to Liberty University, too.

Let’s forget the whole “taxation without representation” thing for a moment. I’ll even put aside my own woundedness around being called icky names by “Christians.” I simply do not understand why my husband and I elicit such vitriol and venom from so many people.

I love my husband more (some days) than I love myself. Prior to last July 4th, I wanted nothing more than to be married to him. I have that now, and it contributes greatly to my happiness. I want to protect him and I want to be protected in our marriage as well. Every day our love for one another deepens and matures in ways I didn’t know were possible. We’re happy and we’re sad together. We’re loving and we’re distant with one another. We take care of each other and we can be thoughtless sometimes. I bet my opposite-sex readers would say they experience the same things in their marriages.

My husband and I are not unique. We both work for a living, we both come home at the end of the day and wonder how the house got so messy, we both eat, we both sleep, and we both fart and scratch ourselves in the comfort and privacy of our own home. We’re good citizens. We contribute good things to the world. We vote regularly. We endeavor to be helpful instead of a hindrance. Our families love us and we love them.

In a way, we’re just two boring white guys who live together and have two dogs. So why does the “Christian Right” feel the need to obsess on penises in buttholes when they think of us? I don’t immediately imagine a man’s penis sliding in and out of his wife’s vagina when I come across a straight couple. Not every time anyway.

The whole thing is just silly. Seriously silly.

And I hate to break it to all the Christian soldiers out there, but there are more same-sex couples tying the knot formally or informally in the USA than they dare imagine. The same-sex marriage train has left the station. They can call it whatever they want. What my husband and I have is a marriage. I defy anyone to spend any time with us and tell me it’s not.

As Joni Mitchell famously sang, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall keepin’ us tied and true.”

Do I wish we had that piece of paper? Yes.

Do I also know people in hell would like snow cones? Yes, I do. I try to bring some with me every time I visit.

So Judy Crow and my 2nd class marriage present me with yet another opportunity to work with disappointment. I bow to them as my teachers. Christian soldiers across the land are about to get the same kind of opportunity. It’s just a matter of time.

If you are open-minded and open-hearted about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in general, and same-sex marriage in particular, I would like to thank you. I don’t think most of you realize how much your presence impacts the people, the communities and the culture around you. I count you among my family of choice.

Today we look back on Jim Crow laws in the South and wonder how Americans ever lived in such a horrible reality. Things change. We’re all connected. I am not alone. That’s the heart of the Buddha and that’s the heart of my family.

If you are looking for ways to walk this path in your life, I encourage you to question political candidates at all levels of government regarding their stance on issues like same-sex marriage and equal rights for all citizens. Hold their feet to the fire. It’s what they signed up for. My husband and I ask that you support us and all gay and lesbian couples in the United States by monitoring and backing efforts in your own states to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, granting the same rights to our LGBT brothers and sisters that our straight brothers and sisters enjoy. You can do this by calling or emailing your state representatives as well as your Congressmen and Women in Washington to demand equal rights for everyone.

I love you all. Let’s make out real soon.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Happy Father's Day

This, too, is the Dharma.

My dad grew up in an isolated, rural community on the high plains, the eldest of six. His own father was absent for the first two years of his life, off in Belgium and Germany fighting Nazis and facing horrors as a POW that he rarely spoke of while he was alive. My dad didn’t know his father at all when he came home from the war in 1945.

My grandfather severely abused my dad physically and emotionally throughout his childhood. My dad used to tell my younger sister and me stories of that abuse that seemed surreal to my young mind. Even though my grandfather loved me very much, I never grew that close to him; I always held him at arm’s length. I had heard too many of my dad’s stories of a painful childhood and adolescence. I loved my dad very much and I was always angry with my grandfather for hurting him.

Perhaps because of the abuse, my dad learned to be extremely self-sufficient growing up. He would escape the pain of home regularly by disappearing into the smoky hills and windy bluffs of southwestern Kansas. He also had many stories of adventures along the many creek beds around his hometown. Sometimes he would be gone for days at a time, especially once he was old enough to drive. He fished and hunted for food. His knives and guns were his lifelines. He knew which plants were edible and which were poisonous. He tanned hides and built fires without a match.

My dad was a scrapper and a survivor.

He sought solace with his paternal grandparents who lived in the same small town. They knew their own son’s penchant for narcissism and anger and they took pity on my dad, putting him up and feeding him for weeks at a time during my grandfather’s many extended rampages. My dad loved his grandparents more than his own parents. They were kind and supportive, nurturing in a way his own parents were not.

My dad never respected his mother. He told me so on many, many occasions. In his stories of growing up he often expressed disdain for her because of what he saw as her impotence in the face of his father’s rage. It was clear to me from a very young age that he bore much anger toward her for not stepping in, for not being the mother he desperately needed as a child. He rarely had good things to say about her.

As a child this confused me. I loved my grandmother with all my heart. I thought she was the greatest grandmother anyone could have. We always lived far away from them and only saw them once or twice a year. As a child I longed to go to grandma’s house and literally grieved when we would leave. My grandmother loved me unconditionally and doted on me whenever we were there.

Over the years, my grandparents changed a great deal. My grandfather frequently expressed regret to me over the way he had treated my dad all those years ago. My grandmother expressed sorrow and shame for not defending my dad more from my grandfather’s abuse when he was young. But for my dad, it was too little, too late.

My dad married my mom when he was nineteen, she eighteen. I came along a few years later, my sister three years after me. Both my parents were high school graduates, my dad coming close to being valedictorian of his class, just missing it, though, because of a rebellious streak that frequently landed him in the principal’s office. He played hookie an awful lot to be outdoors, raise hell and chase girls. He always seemed very proud of that.

My dad was always infinitely capable, forever indomitable. His self-sufficiency was at once a necessity for his survival and his “fuck you” to a world that was hostile and to people who were never there for him. He didn’t need anyone and he had no qualms about saying so. My dad was a man’s man of the first degree, and most of the rest of the world was weak and stupid. Growing up, it was clear to me that you didn’t have to do much to end up in the ignominious club of the soft and reviled. My dad didn’t suffer fools lightly. Common sense was always more important to him than book smarts. You might not be able to quote Chomsky, but if you had a sense of adventure, an eye for the ladies and could survive alone in the wilderness with nothing but a Buck knife, a few fish hooks and some twine for a week, you were worth your salt in his eyes.

Growing up, my dad inspired awe in me. I looked up to him and respected him above all other men. He could take the worst of situations and turn it around for his family. Despite not having much money, we never lacked anything. I had a magical childhood in my dad’s shadow. He was affectionate and never afraid to say I love you. He was supportive and protective and gave me my freedom at the same time. He was masterful at comforting us after a loss.

My dad instilled his values in me and taught me many of the skills he had learned as a boy out of necessity. To this day I can hunt and fish. I can build a lean-to in the woods. I can rappel down the face of a cliff and I know which rope knots to tie to ensure my safety. I know how to coax a channel cat out of shallow waters with just the right bait. I know how to walk silently in the woods and how to prepare cattails and dandelion greens with wild onions for a delicious, nutritious meal. I can skin a jack rabbit and a rattlesnake. Drop me into any wilderness, and I’ll find my way out. I am the best navigator I know.

Some of my fondest memories are of the days he would take me bow hunting in remote areas of Routt and Moffat counties on Colorado’s western slope. We would start the day before sun up at Daylight Donuts on the west end of Steamboat. I would always have a bear claw and a chocolate milk. He would take his coffee to go. We would drive for what seemed like an eternity, park the GMC Jimmy and hike into the wilderness. We’d spend hours on hilltops looking into ravines with binoculars for mule deer and elk. Those days with my dad were like a real-life Wild Kingdom, full of every mountain creature imaginable.

During all the hunting trips I took with him, I never once saw him take a shot at anything. Once, toward the end of one season, just before dusk when the sun shone low through fall aspens, casting a golden aura across the entire world, we came across a doe, completely unaware of our presence. We had gone the entire season without bagging a deer, and my dad asked me if I thought he should take a shot at it. I said yes.

My dad drew his bow and took aim at the doe. He was ready to release his arrow when a fawn slipped out of the underbrush behind her. I cried out for him not to shoot, and he lowered his bow to the ground. We both breathed a sigh of relief and set out for the truck to go home. That was the last hunting trip I ever took with him.

My dad wrote poetry and played the guitar. My dad taught me how to be a man. He taught me how to think. He taught me how to question what others accept at face value. My dad taught me that a forest clearing is just as good a church as any cathedral, probably better. He taught me to take risks, but not to do so haphazardly. He taught me to be conscious of the results of my actions and how to think strategically. He taught me that I’m going to get hurt sometimes, and that all wounds heal. He told me once he thought I would make a good Buddhist. My dad’s favorite saying: it’s a good life if you don’t weaken.

When I was thirteen my dad began traveling abroad for work. His job was to bring power to places in the world that had never had electricity. It was his dream job. My dad spent the rest of his life traveling to exotic lands far from civilization on every continent, learning new languages, traversing terrain a mountain goat couldn’t climb to build steel towers and string high voltage electrical cable. He earned an amazing living for his family by being an adventurer. He also took us many places with him.

Thanks to his air miles, I traveled alone around the globe when I was nineteen. At one point on that trip I met up with him in Indonesia and followed him to remote regions of Java to train crews of men to maintain electrical high lines without shutting down the power. Dangerous work, for sure. But what else would Superman choose as his career?

I met him in El Salvador on two occasions in the 80s, traveling to once war-torn areas, to ancient Mayan sites, to pristine, undeveloped Pacific coast beaches. He visited me once while I lived in Costa Rica for a year, too. We traveled to an active volcano and explored the jungle together along the Pacific coast.

During my college years my mom and dad lived in east Africa for two years. I got to live with them for a couple of months the summer before I went to grad school. My dad was working on a long-term project to electrify remote areas of Tanzania, taking advantage of hydro-electric projects financed by the IMF and the World Bank. The three of us went on safaris. I filmed a lioness killing a zebra from the rooftop of a Land Rover, not 30 feet away. I stood atop that same vehicle in the bottom of a gigantic volcanic crater surrounded by a herd of wildebeest that stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions. We traveled to Zanzibar where I explored the ruins of a sultan’s palace now claimed by towering mango trees.

During my brief stay with them I fell ill and wound up in a Nairobi hospital, subjected to tests involving blood draws, injections of dyes and x-rays. My dad was by my side the entire time, looking out for me, worrying about me, telling me how proud he was of me and that he loved me. I recovered and was able to set out again on new adventures.

I hiked to a waterfall at the base of Kilimanjaro. I witnessed a flock of flamingos take flight from a salt marsh at Lake Manyara. I followed herds of elephants and families of giraffes as they meandered in an endless search for the greenest acacia leaves at Ngorongoro.

My dad nursed my mom back from the brink through two bouts of malaria while they lived there. He built a water tower and filtration system for their expat house and three others on the same compound. They enjoyed the cleanest, safest drinking water in the entire town. He worked doggedly day in and day out to come home to his wife and a beautiful, rustic house at the foot of a mountain that supported an ANC military training camp. The two of them survived cobras, green mambas, dysentery and potholes the size of craters. They were the happiest I had ever seen them.

My dad was beyond compare. He occupied an unreachable place in my mind. He was the ultimate, my hero. He was the die I would cast myself from. His was the standard to which I would hold all other men. He was the man of steel, beyond reproach, indefatigable and larger than life. He was self-made and followed no one. I loved him with every fiber of my being. I love him more now than I will ever be able to express.

My dad hasn’t spoken to me since 1997.

That was the year I came out to my family. I had gone to Naropa to get a second master’s degree and was living in Boulder. By this time my parents were living in rural central Missouri. My dad continued to travel abroad, only now he had formed his own company and was working for himself. I came out to my mom first over the phone. My dad was in Spain at the time. I couldn’t tell him myself because I was too afraid, too ashamed. I made my mom tell him for me. She resents it to this day.

You see, my dad is his father’s son. He can be prone to anger. He doesn’t go on rampages like my grandfather. Instead, he goes inward and seethes in his rage, fleeing the scene when it becomes too much to contain. His career of foreign travel has always served as a convenient excuse for him to be alone. Sometimes he’s gone for up to a year at a time.

My dad will be 67 this September. His body has begun to betray him. Decades of hard physical labor and even harder self-imposed exercise regimes have taken their toll. He has skin cancer, kidney problems, a chronically painful and debilitating condition in his lower spine and now, according to my mother, he’s developing macular degenerative disease.

I haven’t been face-to-face with the man since 2000 when my grandmother was dying. Watching her die in their home was surreal enough. To top it off, my dad refused to interact with me the entire time I was there. I had just started a new job in Boulder and had to come back home and get back to work. She died the day after I got back. My dad was alone with her when she passed.

Since ‘97, my life has been about reconciling the ideas of the loving dad I knew as a child and the dad who has abandoned me as an adult. That contradiction informs everything about me to this day. When he dies, I’ll go to his funeral. But it will be a unique experience for me, to say the least. I’ve been grieving the loss of him for thirteen years now. The rest of my family hasn’t had as much time to get used to the idea of him being gone. I don’t know what that day will look like, but I’m sure it will change me profoundly. I feel that sea change welling up inside of me already.

Every Father’s Day brings me another opportunity to go deeper into reconciliation with the idea of my dad. He was an amazing father growing up. He has been a heartless, cruel bastard since I’ve been an adult. It’s impossible to convey completely the complexity of family dynamics in such a short piece, but you get the gist of my experience. I love my dad more than I’ll ever be able to express. I also want to pound his face into a bloody pulp for abandoning me. Those two extremes exist side by side in me. I never would have imagined they could.

This seems to me the ultimate in human contradictions; it has certainly informed everything about me for the last thirteen years. Contradiction has shaped the man I’ve become. Growing up, my love for my dad was always punctuated by not a small amount of fear. He beat me as a child (albeit infrequently), sometimes with implements. When I became a teenager he was very clear that there would be no more spankings. From that day forward, he would hit me with a closed fist when I deserved it. I tested him on that claim once. Just once.

My dad is a man of his word.

I don’t have children of my own, probably never will. I’ll be the branch that fell off my family tree. I’m okay with that. My sister has provided my parents with four beautiful granddaughters. They live very close to each other. My sister spends her weekdays working in my dad’s home office. They share a large tract of land in the country where they have horses and can hike and fish. I’ll admit I experience a pang of jealousy when my sister tells me about the latest arrowhead they’ve found along the creek. Arrowhead and fossil hunting was always one of my favorite things to do with my dad.

Things aren’t easy for my mom, my sister or my nieces in this mess. They endeavor to maintain a relationship with me while trying not to piss dad off too much by bringing up the whole gay thing in conversation. He won’t speak about it and shuts down when forced to. For the next year he’s in the Middle East. He won’t have to confront it or any of us for quite some time. That seems to make him happy.

He loves my mom, sister and nieces, and he can’t be around them for too long. He loved me more than life itself when I was younger. Now I don’t exist. That contradiction is the air we all breathe.

I’ve had my theories about his vehement reaction to my coming out over the years. I’ve invented all sorts of stories in an attempt to make some sense of the senseless. In the end, none of the stories matter, though. Just like my dad, the events of my life have forged my personality. I am where I am because of them. As a Buddhist, I have obsessed on the karma that led me to this place of contradiction. That kind of obsessing has never gotten me anywhere good. It just leads to more suffering. Over time I’ve learned to choose how I will react to my world, to act in a way that hopefully sows karmically positive seeds for the future. Meditation has taught me how to sit in the midst of contradiction and allow it to be what it is.

My dad is an awesome man, and I love him more than words can say. He’s also a cruel, abusive asshole I’d like to see groveling at my feet for mercy some day. I love you, dad. Happy Father’s Day. And fuck you, motherfucker.

It feels good to say both those things. It also hurts. I won’t pretend it doesn’t.

This, too, is the Dharma.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Blessed Be the Ties that Bind

For my three readers who aren’t acquainted with the very confused soul who answers to the name of Peter LaBarbera, allow me to introduce you.

Peter is the president of Americans For Truth About Homosexuality (sic) (AFTAH), “a national organization devoted exclusively to exposing and countering the homosexual activist agenda.” AFTAH also claims that it

“seeks to apply the same single-minded determination to opposing the radical homosexual agenda and standing for God-ordained sexuality and the natural family as countless homosexual groups do in promoting their harmful agenda. Americans For Truth is a rare single-issue national group on the other side of this critical ‘culture war’ issue. Meanwhile, there are over a dozen national American ‘gay’ groups with annual budgets ranging from just under $1 million to over $30 million working to advance this agenda — which threatens to criminalize Christian opposition to behavior that most Americans believe is wrong.”

I encourage you to have a look at the AFTAH website. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Seen enough? I certainly have. If you’ve read my posts on elephant you know that the ideas of a “gay agenda” and “culture wars” confuse me. Over the years I’ve asked many gay-haters what they mean when they use those terms, but not a single one has been able to give me a working definition we can all agree on. It’s frustrating, to say the least. Venture even a quick glance at AFTAH’s website and you’ll see both these terms thrown around like confetti at a Rip Taylor opener for Celine Dion.

I never signed up to fight in any culture war, did you? Can you, dear reader, give me a definition of the term that doesn’t make a mockery or a martyr of either side in the struggle? Is the culture war just between the gays and the straights, or are other groups involved as well? Am I going to be forced to engage in this battle forever, or will one side eventually win?

I think about these so-called culture wars a lot. I also think a lot about the war on drugs and the war on terror. All of these fabricated, asinine struggles have issued from the conservative Right. Every last one of them. The pattern stands out like a Judith Leiber clutch purse on Tony night. The semiotics here are dazzling… of the war imagery, not the clutch purse, silly.

I grew up in conservative parts of the country. Ever been to the small mountain towns of Colorado’s Western Slope? Ever been to the Show Me State? Then you have an idea of what I’m talking about. People are always at war against something in these places. They hoot ‘n’ holler when Lee Greenwood plays. They tear up easily whenever they see a yellow ribbon. If they leave these places for larger urban centers they invariably attend mega churches. They seem to have an appreciation for gingham. Growing up I heard these folks pepper their sentences in all seriousness with nigger, spic, gook and faggot. Not words “like” those… those very words! And these were proud, devout Christians! I grew up hearing things in Sunday school like ‘Hitler had the right idea with the faggots; they should all be lined up and shot.’ I crap you negatory, my friends. How did I not repress that memory?

I’ve also lived in relatively progressive parts of the country like Boulder and Chicago, so I’ve been able to make meaningful comparisons. Let’s just say there’s a reason I don’t live in small towns far from big cities anymore. There’s something to be said for an integrated urban neighborhood. It requires residents to educate themselves about the other. It puts the other in full view all the time. An integrated neighborhood promotes mutual understanding, and that leads to acceptance, and that leads to friendship, and that leads to compassion and regard for others’ wellbeing.

What’s unspoken yet implicit here is that in order to get from one point on this continuum to the next, one necessarily has to overcome something: fear of the unknown. It’s just that simple. Don’t let nobody tell ya it ain’t. Fear makes us do some pretty screwed up shit sometimes. I’d like to direct your attention once again to the AFTAH website and Peter LaBarbera.

Peter has literally built his career around his fear. He has made his life’s work about juxtaposing himself to the other. Peter LaBarbera has chosen to be of service to his nation and his world by promoting the very un-Christian notion that judging others is okay, nay, compulsory if you want to be an upstanding citizen in his God-fearing America. My friends, Peter LaBarbera is a mess!

I’m not going to psychologize Peter’s behavior by saying he’s just in denial of his own latent homosexuality or that he must have been sexually abused as a boy. Many people have already said such things about him, and much worse. Frankly, I find that kind of analysis non-nuanced, boring and plain old unhelpful. I do, however, want to point out the power of fear to motivate and inspire.

As a child, I chose to be baptized because I had heard one too many apocalypto-hellfire-piss-yer-pants-it-burns-so-bad sermons in church. I was scared shitless of hell. So I consciously decided that if not landing there meant I had to get a little wet while other people for whom I bore no respect witnessed the surreal spectacle, I’d go ahead and suffer the humiliation. You know, to cover all my bases. I was nothing if not a logical thinker. I say humiliation because at that age I was painfully shy about being exposed in public. I was mildly traumatized by the boys’ locker room Monday through Friday and I hated getting up in front of people to speak or perform. I literally remember thinking that these church-goers were going to be able to see my scrawny body through the wet baptismal gown and make fun of me. The semiotics here are also dazzling.

As an adult, I recognize that what I feared back then was being outed as a gay boy. And one wet t-shirt was all it would take for my charade to come tumbling down like the walls of Jericho. (By the way, was Joshua always portrayed as a hottie in your children’s bibles like he was in mine?) So you can you imagine, then, how great my fear of damnation was if I decided it would be better to risk being outed (the greatest fear of my life) than face an eternity in hell. Yeah, fear’s a real fuckin’ motivator sometimes.

So I did it. I got dunked in front of all those Christian soldiers and I looked like a fool to any non-religious fly on the wall and I didn’t get run out of town on a rail for being a fag and God was in her heaven and all was still right with the world. Oh, and I’m not going to hell now!

That experience also made me realize something: reality almost never resembles what it looks like in my imagination. And so began my protracted, uphill slog toward emotional, intellectual and psychic maturity. Or at least that’s how I remember it. Who the hell knows what actually happened?

I think back on that time and I’m amazed at how much fear informed the things I did, the things I said, the choices I made, the ways I behaved. I also imagine all those church-goers who saw me get dunked that day still sitting in those pews, still singing the same hymns, still clutching on to the same old notions of heaven and hell, still motivated never to look squarely at the things that scare them, using that particular iteration of Christianity as a shield, putting their heads in the sand beneath the old rugged cross.

Dear God, if there is a heaven, I hope to hell there aren’t any Christians in it.

And that’s the kind of smart remark that gets me in trouble with the Peter LaBarberas of the world. Peter doesn’t understand the events of my life that led me to the place where I can say something like that and still love Jesus. Because I still do, despite all the smack people talked about him while I was growing up. I’ve been courageous enough to take a closer look... at Jesus, at fear, at love, at myself. I use that word hesitantly because it doesn’t feel like courage at all. It feels like a matter of survival.

If I had never questioned the things I was taught growing up, if I were still sitting in that church with all the other Christian soldiers knowing what I know about my homosexuality, I guarantee you I’d be dreaming up ways to off myself in the least painful, yet most dramatic way possible. Imagine me, freshly dead in my mother’s bed, wearing a sheer white chiffon dress, a thin crimson Hermés scarf tied around my neck, a bottle of Valium lying on its side on the powder room vanity, pills strewn about in a trail from the bathroom to the bed where I lie face up staring at the Home Depot Hunter ceiling fan, stigmata forming on my hands and feet. Aaaaand fade to black.

No, Peter doesn’t understand me. I’m complicated. Of course, I don’t understand the events of Peter’s life either, the ones that have led him to this place where he can forge a career out of fear, but there’s a difference. I’ve taken Jesus’ teachings to heart to some degree. I dare say Peter has not. I endeavor not to harm others by projecting my fear onto them. I try very hard to keep my heart open to all people who cross my path, not to judge them, to get to know them, to hear their stories in the name of cultivating compassion for them. When I fall short, I try to forgive myself and move forward with more awareness of my judgmental tendencies. In doing so for myself, I learn how to make allowances for others. And Peter’s the one who calls himself a Christian.

This August 5th through the 7th, Americans For Truth is holding its first ever Truth Academy to train youth ages 14 to 25 how to fight the gay agenda. AFTAH claims Truth Academy will be a three-day intensive that will
“bring together some of the country’s leading pro-family experts on homosexuality to teach both young and old how to answer the lies and myths that so readily emanate from the ‘GLBT’ (‘gay’) camp.”

Slated to appear at Truth Academy is a veritable who’s who of gay-haters and conversion therapy fetishists. Here’s the lineup.

Robert Knight, Coral Ridge Ministries
Ryan Sorba, Young Conservatives of California
Prof. Robert Gagnon, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
Prof. Rena Lindevaldsen, Liberty University Law School
Matt Barber, Liberty Counsel
Laurie Higgins, Illinois Family Institute
Greg Quinlan, Parents and Friends of Gays and Ex-Gays

Read just a little about each of these characters and you’ll have a good sense of what the event holds in store for all the poor little bastards forced to attend by their homophobic parents. The only thing worse than having to sit through this fear-based, uninformed, bigoted, hypocritical horse shit at all is having to sit through it for three freakin’ days.

Don’t underestimate the psychic damage that will be done to many, many young people over the course of this torture fest. Peter LaBarbera bills it as a reversal of decades of “pro-gay brainwashing” in schools and popular culture. He’s very excited about the whole thing.

Peter gets so excited about de-programming gays from deviant sexual behavior, in fact, that he makes the ultimate sacrifice on occasion. He travels to BDSM and leather sex venues like the Folsom Street Fair and gay bath houses across the land to takes pictures. He then posts those pictures on the AFTAH website to show Christian soldiers everywhere what they’re up against in the culture war. Check it out.

Dirty, dirty gays.

Creeped out yet?

No? How about now?

You get the point.

Just so we’re clear, I find the spectacle of naked bodies walking down a public street scintillating and beautiful. Male and female! I find the idea of public displays of sexual behavior in an age-appropriate context exciting and fascinating. I think group sex among consenting adults in the privacy of a D.C. hotel room is a bang-up idea. Doesn’t matter if it’s all men, all women, men and women, inter-sexed, transgendered.... If it offends you, don’t go! It’s just that simple. Don’t let nobody tell ya it ain’t.

People… Peter posts this stuff on a “pro-family” Christian website. If it’s “pro-family,” it stands to reason children will be looking at it. The issues LaBarbera writes about and the photos and videos he posts have to be viewed in an age-appropriate context. Anything else is child sexual abuse, in my humble opinion.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently listed AFTAH as a hate group in response to heavy lobbying by the Chicago-based Gay Liberation Network. Personally, I wish there were such a thing as ‘fear groups’. It’s a much more apt moniker for groups like AFTAH.

I totally get that the Peter LaBarberas of the world don’t feel like they come from a place of hate when they espouse their prescriptions for a moral society. I believe them when they say they’re out to save people. The problem is, they’re wearing the emperor’s new clothes. And George Rekers is the emperor’s poster child.

Lately, every time I hear a right-wing evangelical type attack gays and lesbians in a public forum, I start my countdown clock: T-minus sixty seconds before the highway patrol discovers him in a car under an overpass with a boy’s dick in his mouth. You can set your watch by it. See also Pastor Ted Haggard. If you don’t want to Google his name, just type in “drug-fueled gay trysts.”

Who do these people think they’re fooling? Who are they trying to convince?

Listen, Peter, George, Ted, I know what it’s like to live with so much fear that it clouds your judgment. I know how that fear can kill your mind and make you believe black is white and good is bad. In a world paralyzed by fear, you can turn the most beautiful thing in the world into a corrupt, horrible, monster. But have hope, my friends, because Jesus saves! He saved my wretched ass. And he can save yours, too. Blessed be the ties that bind.

I’m not going to psychologize your behavior because I don’t care if you’re gay or straight. I have a feeling God doesn’t give a shit either. Now, I won’t pretend to speak for God, but my prayer for you is that one day you’re able to see this beautiful, mixed up, paradoxical world through lenses other than fear. My prayer for you is that you might be capable one day of ceasing projecting your fear onto others, hurting them deeply in the process. My prayer for you is my ongoing prayer for myself.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I think I love you, Steve King (R-IA)

Ah, the merry, merry month of May. Spring is in full bloom. So are fear and ignorance in Washington. This month I witnessed another unabashed display of willful, harmful ignorance and fear on the part of social conservatives. This time it was about sexual orientation and gender identity and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Two weeks ago in an interview with gay-obsessed Family Research Council president, Tony Perkins, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) expounded upon his opposition to ENDA by saying that employers only discriminate against gays and lesbians because “they wear their sexuality on their sleeve.” He went on to put glitter and day-glo streamers on the depth of his ignorance and fear by adding, “If you don’t project it, if you don’t advertise it, how would anyone know to discriminate against you?”Ugh. This again? It’s like saying you’d have more black friends if they just didn’t act so… black.

This brought up some pretty strong feelings in me. I wanted to put them in a song and serenade Steve beneath his D.C. bedroom window. But I thought I’d probably get myself shot and, at any rate, I refuse to subject anyone to my singing, even Steve King. You see, I’m a nice person who takes others’ feelings into account before I speak and act… and sing. So I sat with this for a good long while before deciding, instead, to write him a letter that I thought might actually be helpful. In the process, I discovered a soft spot in my heart for the man I didn’t know was there. Or maybe it was Stockholm Syndrome. Whatever. I’m sharing it with you here. Steve doesn’t know, though, so please don’t say anything to him. I think he’d be pretty embarrassed if he knew this was out there....

Dear Representative Steve King, Republican from the Great State of Iowa,

Hi. How are you? I’m fine. I hope you are, too. You’ve been on my radar a lot lately. I think it’s because of those pesky gay activists. They seem miffed and a little confused by your comments about us wearing our sexuality on our sleeve. You know, Steve (can I call you Steve?), I’m a lover, not a fighter. I am dead-dog tired of these “culture wars” you talk about so much. I never signed up to fight in them. Know what else? It seems like just when I’ve started to forget about them, you drag matters up again, like a dog with a bone. Well, more like a cute little puppy with a bone. Or... whatever.

Hey, what if the nation held a culture war and nobody showed up? JK! LOL! I’m crazy! But I do wonder if it wouldn’t free up a lot of your energy to do good things for your constituents. As it stands, I’m worried about them. I heard what you said to Tony Perkins about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act a couple of weeks ago. I know Tony’s your friend and all, but you’re hurting your constituents when you say stuff like that, Steve. Not to mention postponing the inevitable.

I’m a gay man who’s been pretty lucky in life. First off, I’m a man (duh! lol!). Secondly, I’m a white man. Then there’s the fact that I was raised in a middle-class household and went to college and got a Master’s degree. I’ve had it much easier than a lot of my brothers and sisters out there. I know this because, as a gay man, I’ve also been on the receiving end of discrimination. So I recognize it more readily when it affects others. I know what it feels like to be judged purely on the basis of who I am, on realities I have no control over and no ability to change. So I have a different perspective on discrimination than it appears you do, my educated, Caucasian brother. Mine is subtler and more nuanced. Yours is kinda blunt. That’s not good for a political career. Just ask George W.

The ENDA legislation would accomplish one thing and one thing only. It would make it illegal to engage in discriminatory employment practices against ANY person on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity for civilian and non-religious employers with more than 15 employees. That’s it. It’s pretty simple. This thing isn’t new, Steve. It’s been introduced in every Congress but one since 1994, minus the gender identity piece. That’s just in there this time because we’re acting more uppity than usual these days. You know the old saying… Give em an inch!

I work at a Chicago-based LGBTQ organization with 200 employees. We would be required to abide by the ENDA legislation if it ever makes it to the President’s desk. That means we wouldn’t be able to discriminate against a straight man like you, Steve, if you ever came to us asking for a job. I think that’s a good thing, don’t you? As it stands now, I could totally tell you we weren’t hiring you because you’re a breeder and you’d be powerless to do anything about it. JK! You know you’re my BFF!

I’ve been to your Congressional webpage. I’ve read your ideas there. Man, you sure are against an awful lot of stuff. It’s kind of a drag to read after a while. Can’t you please talk about something positive now and then? When I start to glaze over at all the negativity, I have to remind myself to go back to your picture at the top of the page. Okay, I’m just going to say this and get it out of the way.
Girl, you have the most gorgeous blue eyes! I could get lost in those robin’s eggs for days! Don’t be shy, now. You know you have pretty eyes. Don’t hide them. Show off what the good Lord gave you! LOL!

Anyhoo… when you do, try this little game I like to play. Imagine you’re in a different world, one where people despised you and were mean to you all the time because you had blue eyes. How nightmarish to imagine a life where you were constantly in fear of your brilliant blue eyes being discovered. What would you do to hide the fact? How would you convince the world that your eyes weren’t that awful (and by “awful” I mean “heavenly”) shade? Would you wear colored contact lenses? Would you hide away in your home, isolated from a world that didn’t affirm you, where you never saw healthy images of yourself reflected back to you on TV, on billboards, in print, on the internet? One thing’s for sure. You’d waste a lot of energy worrying about it and trying to keep it a secret, energy that could be used for much more constructive purposes, like serving Iowans.

Eventually you’d have to go outside, though. Sooner or later one of those contact lenses would pop out in public revealing your icy, azure, sublimely blue eyes. You’d be caught. The innate blue-eyed wonder of YOU would reveal itself, beyond your control, against your steeled will. The veil would drop and your true nature would claim its birthright: TO BE… openly and unashamedly in the world just as you are, beautiful with dreamy, blue eyes till Tuesday. OMG! I can’t believe I just said that! I’m such a freak!

Hey Steve, did you know that years ago I used to see a lot of personal ads by men-seeking men who would describe themselves as “straight-acting.” I sort of understood this, but it also used to confuse me. It’s not hard to understand why a guy might want to “act straight” so as not to be recognized in public as the giant homo that he is. I get it. I spent more than 20 years trying to do it, albeit not very convincingly. What confused me, though, was the description itself. I mean, please, “straight-acting?” I think any guy who sucks dicks is pretty “gay-acting.” Am I right? ROTFLMAO!

As I got a little older, I developed a relationship with my own internalized homophobia, shame and self-hatred. Once I realized I had been trained to hate myself and had even colluded in the process, I understood what describing oneself as “straight-acting” really is. It’s a survival mechanism. Don’t believe me? Ask Matt Shepard. Oh wait, you can’t. Two straight guys killed him in 1998. Maybe if he’d been a little more “straight-acting” he’d still be here and you could ask him all about survival mechanisms. What do you think, Steve? (sad trombone)

In your interview with Tony Perkins you said, “This [ENDA] is the homosexual lobby taking it out on the rest of society and they are demanding affirmation for their lifestyle, that’s at the bottom of this.”

I like you, Steve, and I want to help you think straight about this, so let’s look closely at that statement as a way of working toward mutual understanding.

For the sake of clarity, I would like very much for you to define “homosexual lobby,” mister. Because unless you’re referring to the lobby of the Chicago Palmer House Hilton during the annual International Mister Leather convention and expo, that term means nothing to me or anybody else. Referring to LGBTQ folks as the “homosexual lobby” just makes us the “other” in your culture war. It certainly has no foundation in any reasonable person’s understanding of reality. It’s just faulty thinking, Steve, and faulty thinking can be the death knell for a political career. It goes hand-in-hand with non-nuanced interpretations of the world.

Then there’s the “taking it out on the rest of society” bit. Assuming I’m part of the “homosexual lobby” you speak of, what exactly is “it” that I’m “taking out” on the “rest of” you? You need to be clear about that, Steve. Otherwise, you leave your listeners to fill in the blanks themselves. I’ll assume you mean I’m taking my anger out on you. Isn’t that what people usually “take out” on others? Perhaps it’s my frustration or my confusion or my sadness and grief. Those all work well with the definition, too. Oh, Mr. King… lord knows I’d have reason enough to take all that out on you if I considered myself a victim. But that’s a conversation for another day. JK!

Let’s move on to the last part of your sentence: “they are demanding affirmation of their lifestyle.” Heavy, heavy sigh, Steve. How many times do you have to be told this before you get it? Vegetarianism is a lifestyle. Belonging to a country club is a lifestyle. Being gay is not.

Lifestyles are predicated upon choice, either conscious or unconscious. I choose to eat meat. I choose to pay exorbitant monthly dues so I can hang out in the men’s locker room at the club. Being gay is no more a lifestyle than having blue eyes. It is not a choice, Steve. Until you can understand this fundamental truth, until you and I can start our conversations with this truth as our common logical ground, any communication between us is going to look and feel like a culture war. I don’t want to fight with you anymore, Steve.

And as for needing to have affirmation from society… Okay. I’ll give you that one. But my question for you is, “And????” We all need that. Even you, Steve. The problem is, you get it with every dollar you spend, in every personal interaction you have and with every breath you take. In your America you are so entitled to unquestioned affirmation as a straight, white man that you don’t even see it. It’s literally the air you breathe. You can’t honestly fault the rest of us for wanting the same thing, Steve. Not unless you’re a complete and total asshole. I’m trying to give you the benefit of the doubt here. I want to like you. No, let me be clear. I really want to like you.

Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered persons, queers, inter-sexed people, straights…. None of us walks around wearing our sexuality on our sleeve. Do you? Of course you don’t. You just walk around and breathe and talk and work and play and contribute and take and love and fight and grieve and dance and sleep and eat and pee and poop, same as the rest of us. And like me, you walk around with blue eyes. Nothing you can do to change that. Not that you’d ever want to. Your eyes are pretty, Steve, like the pool on the Lido Deck of a Disney cruise ship.

The country is changing, Steve. I know you know this. I also know how hard it can be to work with big changes. Trust me, I KNOW. It’s not easy waking up one day and realizing that nothing is what you thought it was, that you’ve been deceived and that you’ve been deceiving yourself all these years. That’s one hell of a kick in the nuts. It’s okay. Take a few deep breaths and find your happy place. It’ll feel much better once it stops hurting. If I were with you right now, I’d totally hold you, BFF.

Once you’ve calmed down, take a look at this recent ABC/Washington Post poll. Turns out three-quarters of the people they asked are in favor of letting gays and lesbians serve openly in the armed forces. People are much more accepting of us than they used to be. It’s obvious. In fact, even better, I hear fewer people speaking about the issue in terms of acceptance and more in terms of not really giving a shit one way or the other. I don’t see very many men-seeking men in the personals these days describing themselves as “straight-acting” either. I see a lot of (relatively) healthy images of myself reflected back at me in popular culture, too. I mean, admit it. It’s becoming harder and harder to find a hit TV show that DOESN’T have gays and lesbians in it. I consider all these things a triumph of the heart. I wish you would, too, Steve.

When I hear you talk about me “projecting” and “advertising” my sexuality, I can’t help but think you’re afraid of effeminate men, or maybe it’s masculine women, or perhaps it’s anyone who displays gender-variant behavior of any kind. How many LGBTQ folk do you actually know, Steve? Do you ever invite them over for dinner? Maybe play a round of golf with them at the country club? Sit next to them in church? Maybe you should. Familiarity leads to acceptance leads to understanding leads to the end of the culture wars, Steve. Hallelujah! Let’s catch a movie some time! Dutch treat, of course. Unless you want me to pay. Because I totally would.

I see your swagger on the House floor on CSPAN. Hell, I can hear it in your voice on the radio. Why are masculine men like you so afraid of the effeminate ones? I’ve thought about this for many years and when I drill down to the bottom of that rabbit hole, there are only two answers that make sense. You’re either gay yourself (oh please, oh please, oh please) and scared shitless of being found out, or you just have a deep-seated fear of being penetrated. Either way, you’re afraid all gay men are gonna want to have sex with you.

In your dirty place.

Uhhhh… conceited much? Just because you’re a powerful, white man doesn’t mean everybody wants to be you… or be in you, as it were. But I’m getting sidetracked now. See? That’s what happens when I start talking about man-sex, you little tease. LOL! ZOMG! Can you believe I said that?!

What I’m trying to say is, please summon up enough courage to take a mean, hard look at that fear. When you do, you’ll find it’s just like any other fear. It dries up and blows away when you stare it down. Take a deep breath. Not all gay men want to have sex with you, Steve. Okay, I do, but not all gay men want to. There, I said it. It’s out there now so let’s just move on. (OMG, I’m so embarrassed right now.)

The world is changing, Steve, and you’re not. Words like ‘mass-extinction event’, ‘dust bin’ and ‘trash heap of history’ come to mind. Your fear is hurting you, Steve. It’s also hurting your constituents. I thought you had learned after 9-11 that great leaders never lead by stoking fear in the people. They lead by reaching out and forming connections between groups who wouldn’t otherwise reach out to one another. They lead by assuring people that their fears are nothing, just the ghosts of their pasts. They lead by example, by facing their own fears and conquering them. They lead out of love and their life’s purpose to serve others.

Until you realize this, your fellow Iowans are suckling desperately at your teat and getting nothing but black, poisonous milk. Is that the kind of mother you want to be? I don’t think so. I know you have a heart as big as your eyes are blue. I love you, Steve. (OMG, I’m so nervous right now!!) I want what’s best for you. I’ll be here for you if you want to talk on the phone some night, if you need a shoulder, an ear. Your secrets are safe with me. I would never take advantage of your vulnerability, Steve. Please believe that.

I bought you a ring. I can’t wait to see if it fits!

Call me!