Wednesday, February 20, 2013

You Just Haven't Tried Hard Enough

"Women who can't or who choose not to breastfeed 
are treated in much the same way as gay people."

Thus commented Cynthia, my counselor after I had told her about an experience I had had in Vancouver during my recent visit to my married daughter, Hannah, and her family.

As I have described in previous posts, my daughter gave birth to a beautiful baby girl in early November (which Mark and I have dubbed "Nutella"). She anticipated nursing her little girl. Hannah's mother was and is a huge breastfeeding advocate, and Hannah had been told her entire life, both by word and example (with her younger siblings), that nursing is good and bottle-feeding is bad. Numerous were the times that she heard that women who can't breastfeed simply haven't tried hard enough or they choose not to be bothered with it.

So Hannah was pre-programmed to breastfeed. But, when it came time to nurse her little baby, Nutella would have none of it. Hannah described these early days in a post on her blog, found here.

The experience was devastating for Hannah. She told me that one of the worst days of her life was on a day that she would have liked to have been visiting with her siblings and her mother, who had come up for the funeral of my former mother-in-law; instead, she was crying her heart out in her room, desperately trying to make nursing work.

But it didn't. For the next two months, Hannah struggled with this, as she described here on her blog. She eventually gave up trying to actually nurse Nutella and instead started expressing her milk. But this took a horrible toll on Hannah and on Nutella.

What was more important? Nursing or Nutella? And Hannah? What about her? She had been so programmed and felt such a failure. But she knew that what was "supposed" to be could not be. It has been said that suffering is the result of trying to pretend reality is not really reality, that it can be changed. Hannah suffered. Nutella suffered. Hannah's husband, Cary, suffered.

Finally, they accepted reality. In a heart-rending post, Hannah described this moment. What clinched it was a visit to Nutella's doctor, who summed up the situation, and their choice, like this: "Breast-milk is ideal, but life is not ideal." They switched to formula, and both Hannah and Nutella are thriving.

Hannah was describing this experience as we were driving into Vancouver a couple of weeks ago. She had been hurt because she felt like she hadn't been supported. Breastfeeding was treated as more important than her and Nutella's happiness. The principle was more important than the person. She felt that she had been treated like a failure and told, in effect, "You just haven't tried hard enough. Any baby can nurse if the mother just tries hard enough. There's no such thing as a baby 'not getting it.' The fault is with you, the mother, and not the baby."

As Hannah told me this, I couldn't help but draw an analogy to gay boys and men, particularly within a conservative religious environment like the LDS Church. Like Hannah and other women who are treated as defective if they, for one reason or another, are unable or choose not to nurse, these boys and men are castigated and told, "If you tried harder, you could overcome your homosexuality; you just haven't tried hard enough." They go through the hell of trying to be someone and something they are not. They try to ignore reality, and the result is suffering. Not the least of this suffering is the bitter disappointment and hurt of being treated, by those who are supposed to love them, as secondary: the principle is more important than the person. Denying your sexuality to support a belief system is more important than you are.

Thankfully, Hannah is in a much better "place" right now, having accepted reality. So is her gay father.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Of Granville Island, House Plans and Secret Passageways

"I don't think I knew that."

My daughter Hannah and I were browsing through shops on Granville Island in Vancouver and were walking towards the Kids Market - a little mini-mall of shops, each one of which sold children's goods - whether toys, books, clothing, etc.

I don't remember what triggered her comment, perhaps something in a shop window, but Hannah mentioned that she loved interior design.

"I don't think I knew that," I said. She then proceeded to tell me how she liked to rearrange the furniture in her room when she was younger. I laughed and told her the story about how I re-arranged the furniture at the house of my mother's friend when I was 5 or 6 years old and joked that perhaps that was one of the earliest indicators that I am gay.

As we walked, Hannah told me about how, when she was 10 or 11 or so, she started drawing house plans, down to the detail of where the appliances should go. I stopped in my tracks and simply said, "No way!" If I ever knew this, I had forgotten it; but I'm pretty sure I never knew this.

I was literally flabbergasted. The air seemed almost electric. I told Hannah about how I had done exactly the same thing when I was 10-12 years old - the exact same age Hannah was. I am quite sure I had never told any of my children this. It was part of my past that was too "gay" to talk about - or at least that's how I had felt. So between what I deemed too "gay" to talk about and what I was too ashamed to talk about, i.e., my family's dysfunction, my mother's abuse and my father's abandonment, my children knew very little of my childhood.

I proceeded to tell Hannah how I used to go down to the news stand in the little town in southern Illinois where I grew up and buy house plan magazines to look at the plans, then use them for ideas for my own plans, which I drew one after the other on graph paper. I further related that I would then proceed to furnish and decorate each of these houses with stuff picked out of the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs, making detailed lists of catalog numbers and prices. I mean, really, how gay is that?!

Telling Hannah all of this somehow seemed to open a secret passageway between me and my childhood and my daughter. Such a simple thing, yet so magical. It made me feel alive and connected to both myself and my daughter in a new way.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Hallmark Homophobia

So ... when I was in Vancouver a week or so ago, I wandered into London Drugs with Nutella (in her stroller - chick magnet extraordinaire, except of course that I am gay, and girls and little ol' grandmothers who peek down and say, "Oh, how beautiful," don't mean anything to me, except for the fact that I soak up their goodness, and breathe in the contentment of being) - and found myself in the Hallmark aisle. Valentine's Day cards.

What's a gay man to do?

I am drawn to the "husbands" section. I look around. No one is looking. I indulge. In front of me is a card that catches my eye. In large script is written across the top of the card, "You're the Man I Love." What could be more appropriate?

Except that this card is intended for a woman to give to her husband.

Except ... that the sentiments so exactly reflect what I feel for the man I love.

What's a man to do?

This card is about my man. About my feelings for him. For HIM. The *man* I love. The card couldn't express better my sentiments if it had been specifically designed for a gay man to give his lover.

Lost in the reverie of this moment, I suddenly remember I am standing right in front of the "him" section of Valentine cards. I look up, look around. My internalized homophobia has reared its ugly head again. I shuffle down a few feet to the "her" section and quietly tuck my man's card in the folds of Nutella's stroller, making sure it is face down with the scan code visible on the back so that the register clerk doesn't see what the card says.

OMG. I'm hopeless, I think. Even here in Vancouver! It's not like I'm in the Bountiful Smith's Marketplace.

But ... I'm not hopeless. Slowly, I'm getting better. I take to heart these words by Christopher Lee Nutter from his book, The Way Out:
"You must see homophobia for what it is: it is a fear, and fear comes from the ego, which is the human's belief that he or she is alone and cut off from the All. Therefore, like fear and ego, homophobia is an illusion. That is the truth. if you believe in homophobia, you project it onto other people and then think that you must resist homophobia [i.e., in others]. But if you eradicate evil [e.g., homophobia] in yourself it will be seen for what it truly is, an illusion, and it will then disappear."

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Falling in Love ... With a Man

I walked down the stairs, at the bottom of which stood a tall blonde-haired man with his back to me. Could this be him? From the pictures he had sent me, he seemed to be. Then, he turned, looked up at me, and smiled. It was him. That moment was the beginning of the rest of my life.

A couple of months afterward, at the suggestion of my counselor, I began writing in a special journal as if I was writing letters to one of my daughters. I couldn't share what I was feeling at the time with her or with anyone else. Instead, I would write to her in this journal, parts of which I have since shared with her. What I write below is from that journal. I no longer have to or want to hide my feelings.

“It was only recently that I discovered what it felt like to be in love, what it felt like to fall in love. And it was and is truly wonderful. Every person should have the opportunity to feel those feelings … to be able to ‘get it’ when they listen to a love song on the radio … to feel the excitement that comes from hearing a beloved’s voice, of merely being in the same room together. Everyone should have the opportunity to experience what it feels like to hold one’s beloved, to experience the emotional, physical and spiritual pleasure that comes from being intimate with one’s beloved …

“Though I loved my ex-wife, I was – I came to later realize – never ‘in love’ with her … When I married her, I fully expected that to come, that feeling of being ‘in love’ with someone (which is different from 'loving' someone), that feeling of true emotional intimacy; but those feelings never came. In the end, our relationship could perhaps best be characterized as a ‘spiritual-temporal partnership.’ We were parties to a contract which we had entered into because we believed it was what God wanted, and we were doing our best – despite our emotional shortcomings (of both of us) - to fulfill the terms of the agreement, believing that we would be blessed for doing so. 

“But love cannot be reduced to the terms of an agreement. Love is really, in a sense, the essence of what it means to be human … and I have traveled over 50 years to find the exhilarating, revelatory, fulfilling, wonder-ful love that I have found with Mark …

“We met online through a gay dating site that no longer exists. He contacted me first, and when I looked at his profile, I couldn’t believe that someone like him was interested in someone like me. He had pictures on his profile of him skiing, cycling, swimming. He was/is very athletic, and I couldn’t believe that someone like him would be interested in someone like me …

“He invited me to lunch. I parked behind the building, then came in the back door and walked down the stairs. I could see a tall, lean, blonde-haired man at the base of the stairs, and as I approached, he turned around, looked at me, and a huge smile spread across his face. From that very moment, I was smitten …

“Over the next days and weeks, we saw each other almost every day … I fell deeply in love with Mark. I felt a connection with him that was unlike anything I had experienced in my life. I felt like I had known him for years – in some ways, forever. I felt like he was unlocking chambers of my soul that had been shut tight for decades, if not my entire life. I suppose it could be said that I felt that he was/is my soul mate.

“Which is why I found it curious that, despite the fact that I was so happy at discovering this love, I felt waves of melancholy and deep, painful sadness wash over me. I actually found it more than curious; I found it disturbing and, in some senses, frightening. I thought I had weathered rather well the coming out process and the separation; my blog had helped quite a bit in that regard. But I was taken completely by surprise by these feelings I was now having …

“What I thought was going on is that the unconditional love I was experiencing from Mark was so rich and powerful that it was triggering sadness for all the previous relationships in my life where I had not felt such love – my relationship with my parents and my relationship with my ex-wife being the prime examples …

“Of course, there was also the relationship with myself. I had imposed – unconsciously – so many conditions upon my love for myself that I had basically rendered myself unlovable … Then along came Mark who LOVED me. 

“Paradoxically, his love made me mourn, I think, everything that I had not experienced previously. But through this process of mourning, of sorting and sifting, I felt like I was coming to a self-knowledge and self-awareness that I had never before enjoyed. It was like there was this little person inside of me that was rushing from door to door in the prison that was my soul, unlocking them and flinging them open. I was free to be me, free to fall in love and free to finally be able to start loving myself.”

Happy Valentine's Day, Mark. I love you.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Vancouver: Of Granville Island, Dreams and Reclaiming My Family

I sat and watched my daughter Hannah feed Nutella, my little granddaughter. We were sitting in a food court area at Granville Island Market in Vancouver.

This had always been a favorite destination during our return visits to Vancouver since moving to Utah 16 years ago. Could it possibly be that long? When we lived there in the late 80's and 90's, we rarely went there; or at least I didn't. I was busy going to law school and working. It was only once we left that we came back.

So many of the visits over the years had seemed ... perfunctory. But this one was different. This one was special. I knew it would be as we were driving in from the foggy Fraser Valley into the city.

Granville Island is a special destination. It is one of those places, such as Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco or Pike Place Market in Seattle, that captures and concentrates the essence of a city. It is a place where memories are made. The location in the heart of the city, yet removed from the bustle of downtown, nestled against False Creek with views past the Burrard Street Bridge to Stanley Park and Burrard Inlet. The water taxis bustling back and forth. The seagulls. The variety of the Market, the quaintness of the various shops, studios and places of business.

This visit would mark a first: the first time I visited Granville Island with a grandchild. Similarly, it marked a first for Hannah. After we had found a place to park, unfolded the stroller, installed Nutella inside, and set off walking toward the market, she commented, "I am fulfilling a dream. I have dreamed of this day, when I would stroll around Granville Island, pushing my baby in its stroller, taking it all in, sharing it with her. Now, that day is here." I smiled, basking in the sweetness of that moment.

By the time we had walked around the market a bit, it was time to feed Nutella, which brings me back to my opening sentence. As I sat there watching my daughter feed her daughter, thoughts came into my mind about my family.

I reflected upon the family I had hoped to have before my marriage to my former wife turned south and ultimately crashed. I thought about what had happened since the separation and divorce. In so doing, I realized that I had unconsciously, or perhaps semi-consciously, clung to the idea that we all could still be part of one larger family, that my "old" family would sort of subdivide into two parts of the same whole with my partner added to the mix.

But I realized that this was wrong. What we have instead - and what I need to consciously embrace - is that two completely separate families have been created by the divorce - my ex-wife's being one and mine being the other. We - the two families - are independent, and the only connection we now have is that the two families consist in part of the same members, but with others added to the mix.

What's more, I also realized that I have allowed myself to view my family as being "alternative," which automatically denotes into "less than," "not the ideal," "different," "not the norm." As I wrote about this later in my journal, I expressed how good it felt to write "MY" family:
"I received a head rush of, like, wow, I am a person. I have a family that is mine - not in a possessive sense but in a sense that I don't have a family via or through of mediation of my ex-wife, which is how I viewed things for so long."
I could remember saying, after the birth of my first child, that my wife has a child and I'm married to her; therefore, I must have a child, too. Weird? Not. I viewed everything through my ex-wife, subrogating my role as parent to her. [Subrogate: to put one person in the place of another in respect of a right or claim; connected to the word "surrogate" which means to put in place of another, to appoint as a substitute for oneself.] Such an apt word! I allowed her to be the gateway through which my relationships with my children were channeled - just (as a matter of fact) I did the LDS Church (a subject for another time).

Thus, as I sat gazing upon Hannah and Nutella, I think that, for the first time, I realized/grasped/saw clearly that my relationship with my children is not dependent in any way, shape or form upon my ex-wife; that it is totally independent of her. I am a person and a parent independent of her.

Does this make sense?

What it boils down to, I think, is that for so long I saw myself as an appendage to someone else (in part, I think, because of low self-esteem and sense of self). Now (thanks largely to coming out and the consciousness that this has bestowed upon me), I am independent and I have a much stronger sense of self. When I saw myself as an appendage, I allowed all my relationships with my children to be filtered through my "host." Now, that is no longer the case. I am claiming my family, claiming my right to act as a parent and father in my own right, appointing no substitute for myself, devolving none of my rights to others.

Furthermore, my family is not less than. In point of fact, it is more than.

I am father, hear me roar. ;-0

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Vancouver: Internalized Homophobia in Aisle Three

"Umm ... do you have any children's books about subjects like, uh, death and dying and ... uh, gay and lesbian parents?"

I was standing in the children's section of Indigo, a large bookstore in Park Royal, a shopping mall in West Vancouver, BC, a place I have been to literally scores of times over the past 25 years, either while I lived there or when we made visits after we moved to Utah.

I thought, when I made my recent visit to see my married daughter and her family, that I might find some books in Vancouver about gay parents, different from those I already knew about (since there, like, aren't that many). After all, I reasoned, Vancouver is the San Francisco of Canada - or at least it was in the 80's and 90's.

But I had already looked the day before in a couple of bookstores which one would have thought would carry such books. What I found, however, was that the Barnes & Noble in Sugarhouse (or even Bountiful, for crying out loud) has more books about gay parents than these two stores.

Now, I was at Indigo and wasn't seeing anything - at all. I had finally asked the clerk - a young woman about my daughter's age - about death and dying books because the gay parenting books are usually located in the same section that covers all the "issues" that children might face. (Like, shouldn't this be a huge section in any children's book section, since no family these days fits the old Ozzie and Harriet ideal?) I had also thrown in "lesbian" in order to (or so I thought) allay suspicion that I was gay. 

How pathetic is that? I couldn't bring myself to simply say, "I'm looking for books about gay and lesbian parents." I felt like I had to camouflage it. She took me over to a section featuring books about death for older children, then asked me what age group I was interested in. When I said "6-10," she said, "Just a minute. Let me ask another clerk."

OMG. Now even more people were involved. In a few moments, another young female clerk came up to me, a very pert-looking girl, also adjudged to be about my daughter's age. She led me back to the little kids' section and started pulling picture books about death and dying off the shelf to show me. Finally, I said, "Actually, I'm interested in books about gay parents. I just said 'death' because those kinds of books are usually in the same section." 

"Ohhhhh," she said. "She [the other clerk] told me you were looking for death and dying books about gay parents - a subject on which I'm not sure we'd have any books." 

Another OMG moment. I am being such a fool, I silently told myself. 

"Just a minute. I'm not seeing anything here. Let me check on the computer." She didn't bat an eye, no sideways glance. Nothing.

Meanwhile, the first girl walked up with several books in her hand about helping children come out as gay. Internal groan.

"I didn't find any books about death," she said, "but here are several about coming out." I looked at the books. They were all about helping young kids to deal with sexual identity issues.  Rather than get into it further, I simply smiled, thanked the girl and said I'd take a look at these. Yet another - yes folks, another - OMG moment.

By then, the other clerk had returned, saying she couldn't find anything. I took that as my chance and thanked her for her trouble, then quickly left the children's section of the store and went looking for my daughter.

This was the second experience with internalized homophobia that I had experienced that day (the other one of which I will write about on Thursday). Here I was, a thousand miles away from home, in Canada, in a very "liberal" open-minded place, and I was *still* worried about what total strangers would think if they knew I am gay.


Monday, February 11, 2013

Vancouver: Encounters with Fear

The young man stepped forward. "Excuse me, sir," he said, a hopeful sound in his voice. "Do you have a few minutes?" He appeared to be in his early 20's, about my oldest son's age, and was accompanied by a young woman of the same age. They were Greenpeace volunteers. 

We - me, my married daughter and her baby - were on a street on the edge of Gastown, an old section of downtown Vancouver. It was a week ago today. The skies were grey and overcast and there was a pronounced moist chill in the air.  The gentrification that is pushing its way steadily through the surrounding area hadn't quite made it to this street, and the shops that we passed had an edge of seediness to them, though they probably looked considerably better on a bright sunny day. Most things do.

I was familiar with Greenpeace. They have been around a long time. Not surprisingly, my daughter hadn't heard of the group, so I briefly filled her in on its work.

The volunteer held a clip board in his hand and a bright smile on his idealistic young face.  Back in the day, I would probably wouldn't have given this guy the time of day, even though I was sympathetic to their cause. I just wasn't a stranger person. I didn't do strangers very well, in part for reasons I explain below.

As it was, we only had so much time together. This guy looked like he wanted to talk to us about signing a petition. I frankly didn't want to take some of our time and give it to him, rationalizing that, in any event, I wasn't a resident of Canada. I politely declined and we moved on.

Later, after lunch in a neat little Peruvian place, we were walking up the street toward Canada Place (where all the cruise ships dock), my granddaughter nestled in a snuggly against her mother's chest. Ahead of us, we could see a short, crow-like woman, bent over a rolling walker, moving from person to person, obviously asking for money. As we drew closer, we could hear her yelling at someone, presumably because the person had been rude to her as they declined to give her any money.

Like many people, I hadn't particularly liked encounters with panhandlers. Partly, it was because of my not liking encounters with strangers. Partly, it was for the same reasons others don't like confrontations (which is often what they are) with panhandlers.

I steeled myself. I knew she would approach us as we drew near. Sure enough, as we pulled up beside her, rounding the corner, she turned to look at us. Inside a nest of very-nicely streaked hair was a wizened face with tiny eyes.

It's amazing what sorts of communication can pass through the mind in a split second. I made up a story about this woman, where she lived, what had brought her to this point in her life, how old she was, etc. I imagined her to be in her 60's, but in reality, she was probably about my age. Hard living prematurely ages.

She looked for a moment as though she was going to ask us her standard question: "Can you spare a quarter?" But then her eyes fell upon Nutella (the nickname for my granddaughter) behind me, and I could see them widen.

"Oh!" she crooned. "What a beautiful baby! Ohhh, look at the tiny little feet. Ohhh, isn't she precious? Ohhh, she's so beautiful!"

I felt nothing but goodness flowing out of this woman, and I could, with my mind's eye, see her being fed by simply gazing upon the image of my beautiful granddaughter, drinking in Nutella's sweetness.

The spell only lasted a few moments, then she looked up at my daughter and said, "You are so lucky." Then, looking at me, still smiling, she said, "Have a nice day."

She then turned, but after a second, pivoted back toward me and said, "I don't suppose you could spare a quarter?" I reached in my pocket. All I had were four pennies (which that very day, the Canadian government had started removing from circulation).

"I'm sorry," I replied. "This is all I have." To my shame, it didn't occur to me to reach around for my wallet and pull out some American bills. She looked disappointed for an instant, then smiled and turned away, making her way to her next encounter. I watched her for a moment. Then, as I was turning to walk away with my daughter, a couple came up to us, heading across the street.

"Did she creep you out?" the man said as he approached.

"No," savoring the sweet exchange we had just experienced, "not at all."

As I turned to walk away, I saw out of the corner of my eye a look come over the man's face that I would described as "perplexed." A few steps later, my daughter turned to me and said, "I'm proud of you, Dad."

Warmth. Love.

A little further on, as we walked back to the car, we again came upon the Greenpeace volunteers. Passing them, I turned, smiled and said, "You guys do good work." A brilliant smile lit up the young man's face. "Thank you!" he replied. "Have a great day!"

I felt good.

I entitled this post "Encounters with Fear." As it turns out, both my daughter and myself were affected by these encounters in Gastown. On her own blog, my daughter has written about what this encounter with the old woman on the street meant to her and how it prompted her to examine her own fears.

For me, there was a time - before I came out - that I was afraid to approach or interact with strangers, whether they were servers in a restaurant, people I passed on the street, panhandlers, whoever. I attribute that fear to life in the closet and to life in a religious system that engenders a categorization and judgment of people, particularly strangers.

Since coming out of the closet and leaving that religious system, I have found that I am much more open to encounters with strangers. And to the wonder within and stories of each person I might meet. And for that, I am grateful.