Tuesday, December 4, 2018

"I'm So Grateful for Marriage Equality"

They weren't my words.

Yesterday, I went for my appointment, made over six weeks ago, at the Social Security office here in Salt Lake to claim survivor benefits as the widower of my late husband. 

On the day Mark was diagnosed with inoperable, terminal prostate cancer in April 2013, I couldn't have imagined what I experienced yesterday. But then, three months after that diagnosis, the United State Supreme Court ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional and that all benefits under federal law that accrued to heterosexual couples must also be made available to legally married same-sex couples.

But we lived in Utah, where there was no recognition of same-sex marriage. 

That fall of 2013, marriage equality became the law in the state of Hawaii. The following month, a lone, very courageous, district court judge in Utah ruled that our state's constitutional amendment barring recognition of same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. The governor and our state's attorney general (who used to sit in the office next to me in my law firm in Salt Lake) appealed.

Meanwhile, on a beach in Maui on April 15, 2014, Mark and I were legally married. That fact meant that, under federal law, our marriage would be treated in the same way as a marriage between a man and a woman. 

Later that year, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the ruling of Judge Robert Shelby, and marriage equality became the law in the State of Utah. The following summer, the United States Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land throughout the country, based in part on that courageous, well-reasoned ruling of Judge Shelby.

I was a little apprehensive as I arrived for my appointment yesterday. I had heard horror stories of rogue Social Security staffers refusing to process applications such as mine. I wondered how I would be treated. It didn't help when I glanced at my appointment letter and saw the words "Widow claim" or when I glanced at the wall in the waiting area and saw staring down at me the faces of our current president and vice-president, the latter of whom, particularly, has made no secret of his animus toward gay people and the advances we have made toward full equality in this country.

Soon enough, my name was called, and I went to the designated window to complete my application. A woman on the other side of the glass pleasantly greeted me and explained that she would assist me in completing my application for survivor benefits. We started going through the formalities. She asked a litany of questions, including asking whether Mark had ever served in the armed forces. I replied that he had served in the Coast Guard in the 70's.

At some point, I'm not sure where exactly, we reached a point where the obvious had to be addressed: Mark and I were a same-sex couple. I am gay. He was gay. Perhaps it was when I presented a copy of our marriage license. That's when she said it.

"I'm so grateful for marriage equality," she said. "I remember the day it became law here in Utah. My step-daughter called me and said, 'Mom! Same-sex couples can get married in Utah!'"

I was, well, moved. 

Dignity. Such a simple thing which is too often withheld. And here it was, being freely offered to me.

"Thank you," I said, my eyes meeting hers. 

The clerk smiled. "Of course," she replied, before turning back to her computer screen to complete the application.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

"If I Can Help Save Just One Young Man ..."

"If I can help save just one young man from the lies of Satan, then what I have been through will be worth it."
I wrote these words in my journal a couple of months after I joined the Mormon Church. I was 24 years old. I hadn't thought of them in a very long time, but they were brought to my mind last night as I watched an advance showing of the new movie, Boy Erased, which tells the true story of a young gay man who was put into a "Christian" conversion/reparative therapy program by his very religious, but misguided, parents.

When I wrote these words in the summer of 1983, I had been dealing with feelings of same sex attraction for over ten years. During those years, I had struggled to understand what I felt. Was I gay? Would these feelings go away when I "met the right girl?" Were they sinful? Was I condemned to a life as an "other?" How could I, who had always striven to excel at everything I did, accept this about myself, condemning myself to a life of seeming marginalization and debauchery?

I was confused. And I was at a particularly vulnerable point in my life when I was introduced to and joined the Mormon Church. I was seeking certainty. Direction. I wanted to have a family.

These are some of the reasons why I was prepared to accept what the Church taught me about myself and my sexuality: It was Satan who planted these thoughts of same-sex attraction in my mind. It was he who sowed confusion. I could change. I could rise above my feelings and thoughts. I could be happy married to a woman. But it would require an unbreakable and unswerving devotion to living the commandments and precepts of the Church, ironclad control over my thoughts and a rejection of everything I had previously wondered about myself.

In short, I would have to put myself through my own conversion/reparative therapy every day of my life.

At first, I thought it was going to be easy. The Lord would bless me, open the way as I remained faithful and diligent; and indeed, this seemed to be the case. I carefully guarded my thoughts as I prepared to go on a mission for the Church. Before I left, I met a young woman whom it seemed the Lord had placed in my path, a woman whom I could (and eventually did) marry and with whom I could (and eventually did) have a family.

In my zeal and naivete, I wrote the above-quoted sentence in my journal. Not only could I heal myself, I thought; I could perhaps help other young men who experienced the same struggle.

But it was on my mission in Paris and other cities in France that I realized that my feelings and thoughts would never go away. They were something I would have to live with and fight, most likely the rest of my life.

And fight I did, until eight years ago when I finally decided I couldn't and wouldn't bash my head against that cement wall any longer. I came out. It was then, paradoxically, that those words I wrote in my journal all those years ago took on a new meaning. I began to blog, first under the pseudonym of "Invictus Pilgrim," and then on this blog, and one of my primary motivations for doing so was the hope that I could possibly help just one young (or older) gay man to overcome the lies he had been taught about himself--not by Satan, but by misguided religious teachings--and to come to not only accept, but also love, himself for who he was/is.

This same motivation led to my involvement in the production of a soon-to-be-released documentary that also deals, in part, with the destructive effects of so-called "Christian" reparative/conversion therapy. For They Know Not What They Do, directed by independent filmmaker Daniel Karslake, tells the story of the Robertson family, an evangelical couple who put their son in conversion therapy when he came out to them as a young teenager. The film, which has been submitted to a major film festival,** also powerfully addresses issues faced by transgender individuals and their families through the stories of two individuals, one a transgender woman and the other a transgender man, both of whom were raised in conservative Christian environments. Lastly, the film tells the story of Vico, a young Puerto Rican gay man who was first rejected, then embraced, by his devoutly Catholic family before he experienced the horrors of that terrible night at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

I'm glad I was reminded last night of those words I wrote all those years ago. I'm glad I was reminded of what I went through and how I felt, both before and after I joined the Mormon Church and both before and after I came out. Though I have experienced many trials and struggles in my life, I have also been richly blessed, my children and my late husband, Mark, chief among these blessings. Those words reminded me why I am here and what I can do. I hope I will always remember that.

"Just one young man ..."

** The production of For They Know Not What They Do has been entirely funded by tax-deductible donations. We are still a bit short of our financial goals, and contributions of any amount, which can be made online through the film's website, would be welcome. Every contribution will help make a difference in the life of not just one young man or woman, but in the lives of countless individuals and families around the world who will eventually see this film.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

See You in September

September has always been a special month for me, partly because it is the month of my birthday, partly because it is also the month of the birthday of my oldest child, and partly because it marks what for most of my life was my favorite season.

During the past eight years, however, September has become even more special to me. I realized the other day that this will be the first one in eight years that I have mainly spent at home ... and as I reflected back on the past seven Septembers, I realized that, in addition to everything else, September has become a month of memories for me ...

On Alcatraz

As September 2011 dawned, I had just met Mark several weeks before. I had also been unexpectedly served with divorce papers. Mark had long planned a road trip up the northern California and Oregon coasts, and he asked me to go with him. It was a tough decision: my professional and family situations were precarious. On the other hand, I knew instinctively that this was an opportunity to follow my heart in a way that I had never done before. I chose to go, and as a result, my life was forever changed.

Wine tasting in Sonoma

Mark drawing "Mark Loves Joseph" in the sand on a California beach.

One of our all-time favorite pics together, on the Oregon Coast.

We hadn't been home long from this first trip together when Mark scheduled our second: a cycling trip in Europe the following September. I basically hadn't been on a bike since my mission days in the mid-80's, but never mind. Mark had confidence that I could do it, and after training hard the summer of 2012, we went.

One of the highlights of that trip was taking my partner back to where I had served as an LDS missionary 27 years before.

In the interior of Corsica during our bike tour there.

Cycling up to the Col du Galibier in the French Alps.

Our world was rocked the following spring of 2013 when Mark was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer and he was given 3-5 years to live. As we recovered from the shock, we decided to have a commitment ceremony in late August, followed by a honeymoon to Maui and Japan in September. It would also be a homecoming for Mark, as he had spent most of the first 11 years of his life in Japan where his father was a Lutheran missionary.

On Big Beach on Maui prior to traveling on to Japan.

One of my most memorable birthdays: Mark took me to dinner at the Four Seasons on Maui and surprised me with what had become my traditional birthday treat - a piece of pumpkin pie.

The following September of 2014, we went on another bike tour in Europe, from Geneva to Nice. Afterwards, we went to Rome and Athens and did a week-long cruise of the Greek islands -- something Mark had long wanted to do.

One of my favorite pictures of us, during the cycling tour in France.

By the following September of 2015, Mark's health had begun to seriously decline. Nevertheless, we went on a six-week tour of Europe, visiting Venice and Rome, cruising in the Adriatic up the Croatian coast, visiting London, Amsterdam and Bavaria before concluding with a river cruise from Nuremberg to Amsterdam. It was a magical time for us.

In the Dolomite Mountains on a day trip from Venice.

With new friends on our cruise.

That was to be our last trip together. Mark died the following March of 2016. The cruise company that had organized the Croatian cruise was offering one in Tahiti the following September, so I went on that, partly in connection with the film I had become involved with, partly to see friends I had made the year before. It was one of my first forays into a world without Mark in it.

Upon returning home from that trip, I celebrated my birthday with eight of my ten children. It was to be one of my most special birthdays because of that.

Eight children, a son-in-law and two grandchildren. A wonderful evening.

Moving forward with life after Mark's death was one of the most difficult transitions I have made in my life. There was much I needed to process, much I needed to learn about myself, much I needed to ponder as I felt my way forward. I took up cycling again and went on a couple of tours during the summer of 2017. In September, I went on another gay cruise, this one from Rome to Nice. Afterwards, I ventured out on my own with several day trips from Paris, followed by a visit to Berlin where I celebrated my birthday with my friends Dan and Russ. 

With my friend Dan in Rome

Mont Saint-Michel in France

In Berlin on my birthday with Dan and Russ.

Now, here I am in September 2018, getting ready to celebrate a landmark birthday. As I look back on these past eight years, I feel gratitude for all that I have lived, for all that I have seen and for all--most of all--that I have felt in my heart. I'm grateful for the love I shared with Mark and for all that we were privileged to see, do and feel together. 

But I'm also grateful for the process I went through in the two years after he died and grateful for where I am today, ready for life's next great adventure ...

Friday, September 7, 2018

What I Learned About Love on Santorini

My friend and I were sitting in an open-air restaurant with commanding views of the blue Aegean below us. Despite all the throngs of people wending their way up and down the main shopping street of Oia, a town at the northern end of the Greek island of Santorini, a sense of peace and tranquility surrounded us as we gazed at the water.

I had wanted to return to this place where, four years earlier, Mark and I had visited an art gallery and bought a beautiful reproduction of one of the frescos found at the archeological site of Akrotiri at the southern end of the island. My friend, Craig, had wanted to return to a crystal shop where he had, also four years earlier, purchased a necklace for his partner. We had therefore decided to set out together that morning from our cruise ship to visit this place that was special to both of us. I was, perhaps fittingly, unable to find the art gallery, but we did manage to find the crystal shop and had each purchased a piece of jewelry as a souvenir.

Now, we were sitting in the restaurant, enjoying a glass of wine as we awaited the arrival of my friend's partner from another part of the island. We smiled as a string of donkeys was led down a path next to the restaurant.

As my friend and I talked, the subject of my recent re-entry into the world of dating came up. Craig had met Mark six months before he died, but hadn't had a chance to get to know him. "I'm sure," Craig said at one point, "that Mark told you before he died that he'd like you to be happy, to eventually find someone who you could share your life with."

I looked at Craig and smiled. "Actually," I replied, "no, he never said that. We never had that conversation." A puzzled look crossed Craig's face. I smiled. "That was one area," I continued, "where he simply couldn't go. He never said those things to me because frankly he just couldn't handle the thought of me being with someone else. It was too much for him."

This wasn't the first time someone had made the assumption Craig had made. I think it's part of the story people make up in their minds about people who have a terminal illness. I understand it.

What I didn't say to Craig is how, during the months -- and years -- after Mark died, there were times when I had mourned this inability of Mark's to let me go and wish me well, to leave his blessing upon me to eventually find happiness with someone else. I also came, only fairly recently, to realize how this had held me back from "getting back out there" because I carried feelings of guilt and not wanting to hurt Mark's feelings, even though Mark was no longer here.

Oia: Homes and hotels cascading down toward the hillside.

As I sat there in the moments following my response to Craig's statement, gazing off toward the Aegean, I thought about yet another realization I had come to only a week or so before I had left for Greece ... 

The love that Mark and I had was profound, rich ... and rare. Many, many people expressed this to me both before and after he died. "Most people never experience what you two shared," was a not uncommon statement. What I didn't realize until 2-1/2 years after Mark's death is that those statements had contributed to a belief I carried deep within me that they were right ... and that I would never again find love, for my ability to do so had died with Mark. Furthermore, during those dark months after he died, I could only see the love that he had proffered me, not the ability within me to love freely and deeply, as I had done with him. In those lonely times, I saw not the possibility for me to attract deep love, only the absence of the love I had felt from Mark.

These realizations had only come after I had finally reached a point this past June where I decided two milestones had been reached in my personal development that told me I was ready to start dating. First, I felt I was strong enough in myself, in my sense of self following the deep enmeshment that existed between Mark and me during the three years following his diagnosis, to contemplate entering into another relationship. When Mark died, I didn't know who I was. It took a while for me to find myself. Secondly, I felt like I had grieved completely what had disappeared from my life -- Mark and my relationship with him -- in order to allow me to enter into another relationship without comparing it to what Mark and I had or to compare another man to Mark. 

Me, Rafi and Craig in Oia

All of this flashed through my mind as I sat in that restaurant in Oia. And then it came: Suddenly, I felt Mark's presence in my mind, and the realization burst open there that he had continued to progress, wherever he is, and that he was now in a place where he could joyfully and lovingly wish me well in finding someone to share my life with. There was also a note of apology that he had not been able to do this while he was still here. But the love that I felt from him during that moment, the earnestness of his desire that I find happiness with someone else, more than compensated for any regret or sadness.

A huge smile on my face, I turned back to Craig and shared with him what had just happened, and later, with his partner, Rafi. My heart was singing. Perhaps I would have come to the realization I had just received somewhere else at some other time; but I couldn't help but feel that I was meant to receive it there, among friends in a place that had been special to Mark and me. I knew that this alone had made my trip to Greece worthwhile, and I returned home a changed man.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Rest Day Reflections

Eight days of riding. 434 miles. 44,000 vertical feet. Five more days to go. Sore legs. Sore butt. I again ask myself, "Why do I do this?" 

A rest day is a good day to think about answers to that question. I've mentioned a few in social media posts this past week: being enveloped in spectacular mountain scenery that one crawls by and through, rather than whizzing by in the enclosed space of a car; feeling young at heart (if not young in body); the thrill of the descent that is immeasurably sweetened by the effort one has made to get to the top.

But there are more, and one of the main reasons is because I'm with a group of people with whom I've shared memories over the course of the past six years. A group of people who knew Mark, who shared riding experiences with me/us in Corsica and southeastern France. It's been fun to laugh and reminisce, to savor and appreciate.

Mark and me in Corsica

Patti and Ross in France. They've been on all my Erikson tours.

Me and Mark outside Gourdon, France in 2014

Tom and his niece, Heather, in Annecy, France in 2014. Tom's been on all my tours.

Playing boules in France, 2014. Mark, Tom, Michelle and Galen.

Mark in the Vercors, France, 2014.

My last post was about looking but not finding meaning in memories embedded in places and people. In contrast to my experience in Pau, being with this group of people for the past week has gladdened my heart and I have found richness and sweetness in shared memories. I'm grateful to be here. For the beauty, yes. For the thrill of the descent, yes. For feeling young at heart, yes. But more than all of that, I'm grateful for what this group of people and I have shared together and what we continue to share.

Tom (right) and me with Jeff and Sylvia. They're from Salt Lake and were on the 2014 tour with us.

Sylvia with Glenn Erickson, founder of Erickson Cycle Tours.

Tom and Heather.

So, is it worth it? Yes. The sore legs and sore butt and sore back are all worth it. Just to be here. To experience what I'm experiencing. But. I am SO grateful for a rest day.