Tag: Diversity

I’m Coming Out … Again

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Like butterflies ready to spread our wings, yesterday Tom and I emerged from our protective cocoon and took flight. Actually, we drove, but for the first time in three months left the confines of the Phoenix metropolitan area.

North two hours climbing the switchbacks on I-17 out of the valley into the mountains. Past stately saguaros and wild-west warning signs … Deadman Wash, Horsethief Basin, Big Bug Creek, Bloody Basin, Trump 2020, Emergency Curfew 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., Fire Danger High … before landing safely on Carolyn and John’s driveway in the shade of their pines. Twenty degrees cooler in the mile-high bliss of Prescott, Arizona.

I didn’t make this psychological connection until this morning. But cocooning in a condo for three months to dodge a global pandemic … albeit a cozy two-bedroom desert unit that’s about to get a fresh coat of paint to brighten our internal space … is rather like living in a closet for one quarter of the year.

Sure, since March we’ve ventured out on numerous occasions. Daily walks and weekly trips to the grocery store behind masks. More recent outings to our community gym to stay fit and Super Cuts for haircuts that didn’t occur over our bathroom sink. But nothing on the order of an actual day trip away from our immediate community.

Ask any previously or currently closeted gay man. He’ll tell you. There is misery in physical and metaphorical confinement.

I’m not suggesting that the stay-at-home order in states across this country and around the world has been a breeze for straight people. But I have a number of friends in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus and Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago, who don’t have partners. They live alone. They’ve been missing the camaraderie of the gay community. People who would normally be available to sing, hug and laugh in person are unavailable except on Zoom. Gay people are missing their lifeline and the reassurance that comes with an open life in a freer society.

This wasn’t going to be a story about coming out. When Tom and I returned home late yesterday afternoon from an idyllic day with Carolyn and John to see their lovely new home in Prescott, I had grand plans to write a quieter piece about breathing the pine-scented mountain air two hours northwest of Phoenix.

It really was grand. Spending several hours with our adventurous and compassionate friends, previous residents of Anchorage, Alaska, whom we would see sporadically at their Scottsdale condo. In 2019, they uprooted and transplanted their lives to become full-time Arizonans … fortuitously landing in a home filled with loads of charm, unlimited possibilities, carved wood character, and window seats that reach into the tall pines.

Tom and I had intended to drive up to see them in their new home before now. Of course, that nasty COVID-19 disrupted those plans. Fortunately, we endured. It was worth the wait. Our much-anticipated celebration–clinking glasses outdoors under a blazing red patio umbrella–finally happened on June 4, 2020. It was a day in a year none of us will forget.

Today, Tom and I resumed our life in Scottsdale. I boarded a treadmill around 9:30 at our community gym. A pleasant older woman, smiling from a safe distance (eight feet to my right on her own treadmill), said good morning. I returned the favor. We had exchanged hellos before.

She asked me if Tom and I were relatives. I said no. She told me we look a lot alike. Then, came the moment. The one every gay person knows. Should I out myself and speak my truth or just let this pass?

You probably know what happened next. I came out … again. The first time was with my ex-wife, then my sister, sons and mother … all in the 1990s. There have been dozens of times since. With neighbors, colleagues, clients, acquaintances, store clerks who asked “Are you guys brothers?” as they scanned our groceries … the list goes on. The coming out process is lifelong. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a one-time episodic event.

At any rate, you guessed it. On June 5, 2020, I told a friendly lady on the adjacent treadmill at Club SAR that Tom is my husband. That we’ve been a couple for nearly twenty-five years (actually, it will be twenty-four in August). That I didn’t see the resemblance, though couples do often take on similar characteristics and gestures.

She kept smiling. Told me she was a retired nurse. Asked if I was retired. I told her I had left behind my corporate job years ago and now write. The conversation ended rather quietly. It was cordial.

I know there will be countless times in my life, when this will happen again. When I will out myself in an innocuous place. It doesn’t have to be Pride month in a year when our current president is hell bent on rolling back the rights of all Americans.

Living my life as an openly gay man is a commitment I’ve made to myself and other gay people. We need to remind ourselves we aren’t alone in this frightening world. We need to remember that happiness comes with visibility.

Whether I’m breathing the pine-filled Arizona mountain air with dear friends and allies like Carolyn and John or down in the valley with people I’ve yet to meet, there’s no turning back. The truth will set us free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A View from the Bleachers

As a suburban white kid of the sixties, growing up in the segregated St. Louis area, I had no black classmates, teachers, acquaintances or neighbors. Until I went to college (and more so as I built adult relationships with black colleagues and friends), my only first-hand experiences with black people occurred while riding a city bus, tuning into the latest episode of Room 222, swimming in a public pool or watching Bob Gibson and Lou Brock play ball from the bleachers of Busch Memorial Stadium.

I’ll admit it, as I wrote that previous sentence, it felt very odd and constricting … even shameful. But this was the world I came from. Occasionally, at family gatherings, one of my uncles would take a puff from his nasty cigar and proceed to talk about “blacks moving into the neighborhood.”

As a boy, that kind of hateful rhetoric and the smoke hovering in my parents’ living room brought tears to my eyes. As an adult, it still makes me sick to my stomach. Unfortunately, at the time none of the other adults spoke up. I felt like I wanted to run out of the room, but I didn’t.  I knew what he said was wrong. It was racism. It was painful.

Moving a few years ahead, maybe on some level I also thought “if people are saying bad things about black people just because they have a different skin color, what will they say about me if I tell them I’m gay?”

At times, it was a claustrophobic life of placating those who were the most vocal. Denying your true feelings. Walking on egg shells to keep the peace. Sadly, it was only a more distant chapter of simmering anxiety and poor race relations than the one we know well today.

On a personal level, I was able to learn and grow from it by honoring my own internal compass, broadening my experiences, meeting new and different people, traveling to new places, keeping an open mind … even for a time co-facilitating diversity training as a consultant and challenging managers and employees to draw from the strength of their differences rather than rejecting them.

Fortunately, both of my parents were decent people. They instilled in me a value of simple living. Caring for the disadvantaged. Saving for a rainy day. As a result, on some level, I’ve always identified more with the “have-nots” than the “haves”. It pains me to see people flaunt their advantage … their white privilege, their economic status, their lofty and meaningless titles.

Despite my limited experience with diverse people in the 60’s and 70’s, I was always comfortable sitting in the bleachers with Dad and the masses–mostly poorer black and white blue-collar workers–rooting for our hometown St. Louis Cardinals. Besides, it was all Dad could afford.

I recall one night. The Los Angeles Dodgers were in town. It was a close game. I don’t remember the score or the outcome, but the bleachers were full and Dad and I were in the middle of a buzzing crowd. Between pitches, I asked him why some of the black patrons, ordinarily faithful to the Cardinals, were cheering for the Dodgers.

“It’s because of Jackie Robinson,” he said. “Back when the Dodgers played in Brooklyn, he was the first black ballplayer in the Major Leagues. Ever since then, some black people are loyal to the Dodgers. They opened the door for others to follow.”

Now in 2020, with the recent murder of George Floyd and the ensuing nationwide protests and general mayhem and destruction, I’ve been thinking of this Jackie Robinson moment with Dad. How little I knew of the plight of black people back then. How much more I know now about loving other people no matter their skin color, speaking up for your rights, voicing your views, and demanding justice.

I’m not condoning the opportunistic looting in cities around the country, some of which we’ve seen here in Scottsdale, Arizona. But, in honor of George Floyd’s life and of many other black men and women who have died needlessly before him, we must find a way to heal as a nation.

We must acknowledge that racism in our society exists just as it has for a long time. We must listen to the “have nots” of our world. We must read more and follow the teachings of history and science.

We must elect leaders, nationally and locally, who will advocate for the rights of all Americans … no matter their skin color, cultural heritage, sexual orientation or religious beliefs.

Our future as a nation depends upon it.

Earthing

Here in Scottsdale, Arizona, I’ve been fortunate to practice gentle yoga outdoors with five dear friends for the past eight Fridays. This poem is dedicated to our shared experience and sincere hope for citizens around the world, who breathe the same air and search for the same peace.

***

We close our eyes. The sensory memory takes us there. Six souls spread apart for one hour on eight consecutive Fridays. Inhale … exhale.

We practice gentle yoga together under a shade-producing pine. Far away from viruses, ventilators and varnished walls. Inhale … exhale.

We press against imperfections. Blades of grass pump tranquility through lungs and limbs. We absorb the Earth’s energy and stability. Inhale … exhale.

We find our edge for the next tree pose. A westward breeze whispers past needles and branches. A desert wren answers in affirmation. Inhale … exhale.

We conjure six souls beyond arid Arizona. Earthing elsewhere. China or India or Italy perhaps. Dodging a virulent virus. Inhale … exhale.

We search for the same peace. We press against the same ground. We cling to the same planet. We breathe the same air.

 

Oh Very Young and Less Fortunate Men

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At this stage of life, I have more time and space to reflect on the fragility and inequities of life. When I hit the trail for a hike or catch a glimpse of the jagged edges of Camelback Mountain, I sometimes ponder the plights of less fortunate men and less developed versions of the man I’ve become.

Recently, without notice, a Sonoran time machine swooped down and transported me from the desert. Back to south suburban St. Louis and my blue-denim-bell-bottom memories. Jerry and Joey (not their real names) lived near me on the same cul-de-sac street and the Oh Very Young prognostications of Cat Stevens looped through my brain.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?

You’re only dancin’ on this earth for a short while …

It was a weekend morning in the spring of 1974. I sat at the kitchen table, finishing up my last few bites of scrambled eggs and toast. My over-worked and under-appreciated mother washed the breakfast dishes. Over one shoulder, she blurted a provocative and unexpected question in my direction: “Mark, did you know Jerry is a practicing homosexual?”

Like most teens, I was bound up with insecurity. If I’d been less repressed, more freewheeling—or at sixteen had an ounce of awareness or comfort with my budding gayness—the idea of “practice” sex with an older boy down the street would have intrigued me. But at that moment I had no clue how to respond to my mother’s audacious question. I just shrugged my shoulders and muttered something like “Yeah, I think I’ve heard he might be.”

It didn’t occur to me that she might be fishing to learn about my sexuality. I just knew Jerry’s mother had died when he was young and his father, brothers and sisters had been left to make sense of her early exit. Whenever I walked by the front of their home, I saw the heaviness of their hearts had caused the foundation and the trees around it to sag.

I’ve written a lot about my mother. She was smart, resilient and courageous. Many years later, she left me with her legacy of wise letters. But back in the 1970s, we weren’t approaching that. We were nearly three decades away from the profound sense of respect and understanding we would construct during her eighties and I would witness  the love and deep regard she felt for my future husband and me.

Anyway, in the 1970s I was a withdrawn teen and she hadn’t yet sharpened her sensitivity. More specifically, like most parents then (and sadly many now), the implications of homosexuality and the image of two men engaged in mutually satisfying love frightened her. The word homosexual cast a shadow of shame, discomfort, darkness and isolation. Of course, without knowing it, I was absorbing the uninformed views about gay people coming through all sorts of channels–parents and neighbors, aunts and uncles, classmates and coaches, media and popular culture, etc. 

I will never forget that trauma. Pushed and bullied down middle school hallways. Labeled a faggot for wearing my favorite purple sweater vest, a gift from my mother. As you might surmise, I learned it was best not to wear purple or pink or challenge society’s narrow mold of masculinity in the 1970s. It would take decades for me to love myself and create an unapologetic life as a gay man comfortable in pastels.

This is a prelude to tell you that, in addition to my personal sexual identity struggles, I felt sad and angry hearing and seeing Jerry and other young gay men ostracized for their nature, mannerisms and social awkwardness.

I don’t know where Jerry lives or anything about his adult life in 2019. But I now realize Jerry was a trailblazer. I owe a lot to the Jerrys of that time. Despite neighborhood chatter and suspicions, they were courageous enough to risk ridicule. To be true to themselves in the 1970s.

***

The story of Joey has nothing to do with societal pressures, sexuality or suburban mores. It’s a cataclysmic tragedy.

Joey was the blonde boy who lived next door. We were the same age. As youngsters, from kindergarten through fifth grade we waited for the same bus at the end of our street. He loved to roughhouse with his golden retriever when he came home from school. In sixth grade—lunch boxes in hand—we walked together to a new elementary school, built to handle the overflow of Baby Boomers.

Throughout the 1960s, once school ended in June, Joey and I raced to the top of the street with our  neighborhood crew to play baseball in a vacant cemetery lot. We stayed there until our mothers or fathers stood on their front porches, cupped their hands to their mouths, and called our names for dinner.

In high school, Joey and I went our separate ways. I didn’t feel our connection any more. He was a mechanical guy. I wasn’t. I had a knack for stringing words together. He didn’t. He loved tinkering under cars. I loved singing on stage. While he developed a passion for playing the drums, my interest in the clarinet waned. In August of 1975, we continued down divergent paths. We left home for college at different Missouri schools.

Through it all, I felt no physical attraction for Joey, but I envied his apparently idyllic Please-Don’t-Eat-the-Daisies family life. Complete with the faux-wood-paneled Country Squire station wagon parked in their driveway, which I watched them load annually for summer vacations. Joey’s family seemed to embody the ideal of suburban happiness:  two friendly and well-liked parents, two popular daughters who went on to become cheerleaders, two masculine and mechanically-inclined sons.

On a horrific Saturday in May 1976, everything changed. I came home from my seasonal job as a roller coaster operator at Six Flags and found my mother sobbing on the living room couch. She told me Joey had been killed in an accident. He was riding shotgun without a seat belt on the way home from his first year at college when the car he was in collided with another vehicle.

Spring flowers were blooming outside that day, but inside I was numb and devastated like everyone on our block. One cruel moment had ended Joey’s life and transformed his family’s home from the center of happiness into the epicenter of grief.

A few days later my mother, father, sister and I attended Joey’s wake. I didn’t know what to say to his bereaved father and mother. But I summoned a few inadequate words and gripped their brittle arms as we passed a pair of drum mallets stretched across Joey’s closed casket. It was frightening evidence of teenage mortality.

In 1980, I moved to the Chicago area. Whenever I returned to St. Louis to visit my parents and boyhood home, I thought of Joey and his family. Scampering in their yard with their dog as they prepared to load up their station wagon for the next trip. When Joey died, that era ended. Soon after, the rest of the family moved away.

Forty years have come and gone. Joey is on my mind again.  Perhaps because he didn’t live long enough to pursue the next path at the base of rugged buttes. His Oh Very Young life ended back in the rolling Missouri hills without any chance to explore the west or have a spouse to share it.

Somehow, through good fortune, I’ve lapped his lifespan more than three times. After surviving a heart attack on my sixtieth birthday, I’m rounding the bend on the fourth lap here in Arizona.

For all the Jerrys and Joeys who have come and gone, I must keep telling my stories. I must make the most of the extra time I’ve been granted.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?

Palm and Pine and Sycamore

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Three gather to whisper, one natural grace.

Sure shiny October, rare shady space.

Beckoning branches, bowing before.

Triumphant triad, truth to adore.

Forever delight, never ignore.

Palm and pine and sycamore.

 

By Mark Johnson, October 20, 2019