Words to the Wise
We can point to economic stagnation of the working and middle class as a major factor in Trump's stunning rise to power. But we cannot underestimate the emotional appeal of his campaign's explicit xenophobia, misogyny, and anti-LGBT sentiment.
A wave of anger fueled Trump's campaign. People may have voted for Trump for a variety of reasons, but the fact is they chose a man whose style and policies bully, threaten, and devalue anyone who is not a white, Christian, heterosexual man.
As startling as this is, Trump's election has, as a friend of mine who is an Episcopal priest in Provincetown described it, held up a mirror to us as a country. In a moving Facebook post, he wrote, "Mirrors don't lie. The election of 2016 exposed an inner ugliness that for decades was cloaked by pretense and hypocrisy."
It didn't take much to coax that ugliness out of its closet. An op-ed in the New York Times from a former white nationalist describes how politicians can easily exploit the "fear of the other"--and not just among avowed racists, but even moderates--to win elections.
This year has given Americans a clear picture of who we are. The hierarchy of human value--with straight, white, wealthy, Christian men at the top, and everyone else underneath in descending order of social import--remains firmly in place.
We have much work to do--politically, and on the level of consciousness.
Advancing Consciousness Change
This election has challenged me deeply--personally, and in my role as founder and executive director of Gay Men of Wisdom. With someone as dangerous as Trump in the White House, I have asked, where should I put my energies?
I believe an effective response requires working on two fronts simultaneously: politically, and on the level of consciousness. I have made a personal commitment to do both. I cannot sit idly by while the new president prepares an agenda that will, among many other things I strongly oppose, make xenophobia a norm.
But political action without a clear vision leads nowhere. We need to offer an alternative. To do this, we must answer the question: What world do we want to live in? And then we must model that vision for others.
Consciousness change does not happen overnight. Trump did not happen overnight. Conservative think tanks, right-leaning media outlets, and regressive political policies have seeded the bed for years.
Truly Valuing Human Differences
If we truly valued human differences, Trump never would have won the election. We would not fear the "other," subjugate women, or threaten violence against an "outsider." Instead, we would recognize the contributions that each group makes to the whole of humanity.
We need a new way of seeing each other--one that replaces hierarchy with a circle. That is what Gay Men of Wisdom offers.
Gay Men of Wisdom provides a model for HOW to value human differences. It's premised on the notion that differences exist for a reason, and that by honestly exploring them, we can discover how differences strengthen the whole.
It offers an alternative to our current arguments for equal rights, in which minority groups deny and attempt to suppress their differences in order fit into and become acceptable to the dominant group. Rather than trying to fit in, this approach says, "We stick out for a reason."
Building a National Movement
This fall, Gay Men of Wisdom has formed as a nonprofit organization, recruited a board of directors, and is planning the rollout of national programs.
In the next four months, we will launch the monthly Living Out Your Gifts groups in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Orlando, Florida, Austin, Texas, Seattle, Washington, and online. We've chosen to design these groups to foster community--to invite gay men to gather with a sense of purpose, and to explore their distinct gay male gifts.
Each session of the groups will provide an exploration of one of the 14 Distinct Gay Male Gifts. The groups require no registration, no advance preparation, and request only modest donations. No one will be turned away for inability to pay.
Imagine a time when:
- All gay men recognize their social purpose and contributions.
- We understand that our primary difference from others is in the social roles we play, not our sexuality.
- Other groups of people begin asking themselves, "How do we contribute to the welfare and vitality of the human family?"
That is the world Gay Men of Wisdom is working to create. Let the valuing of human differences begin with us.
In the few days since the presidential election, stories have begun poring in:
- A Facebook friend of mine in California posted that a man at a gas station approached him after the election and said, "You sad, faggot?"
- Yesterday, a friend of a friend--a gay man--in Fort Lauderdale was lured out of his apartment and beaten with a baseball bat.
- I've read articles about Muslim women who are afraid to wear their hijabs.
- Women across the country report feeling personally assaulted by the election of someone who brags about sexually assaulting women.
- A friend of mine posted on Facebook yesterday, in tears, how he had blissfully forgotten what it was like to live in fear for his safety as a gay man.
It's too early to discern whether there has been an actual spike in hate crimes, or whether we are focusing on them more because so many people are afraid.
But so many people are afraid for very good reasons: The President-Elect's campaign has unleashed a wave of bigotry, xenophobia, misogyny, and anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT sentiment. Since just Tuesday, a sense of safety and civility has vanished.
We've been here before. And we have prevailed:
- We lived through the nightmare of AIDS, when our neighbors, friends, and government turned their backs on us and let us die.
- We persisted through times when coming out meant risking our physical safety, livelihoods, and family ties.
- We confronted the biases of our family members and co-workers.
- We persuaded those with closed hearts and minds to embrace us with love and compassion.
- We ministered. We nurtured and healed. We channeled beauty. We survived.
- We danced. We celebrated. We taught the larger world how to feel joy. And we never lost our gay spirit.
We can do this again.
A Social Movement
One of the primary reasons the LGBT rights movement has prevailed is because we did not just focus on politics. We created a social movement.
We came out. We made it personal. We won over hearts and minds. And even under duress, we did so with finesse and without violence.
We are strong--much stronger than many of us feel right now.
Our Achilles Heel
One of the primary reasons we continue to face backlash is that we have created our identity around sex. As we continue to learn, in these United States, religious and social conservatives will always demonize and try to control those who have freed themselves sexually.
We are not telling the full story of who we are--to ourselves or society. And so we continue to be reduced to deviance.
Let me be clear: I fully claim pride in my sexuality and make no apologies for it. And I am not suggesting LGBT people hide that part of themselves at all.
I am suggesting that we tell the full story of who we are--that society needs the distinct contributions we make. That when society persecutes its gay men, it removes the caregiving, the nurturing, the healing, and the ministering that we provide.
When society suppresses us, it suppresses creativity, innovation, culture, and critical perspectives.
When society persecutes LGBT people, it harms society at large.
We need new messages:
- We are your priests.
- We are your nurses, physicians, and therapists.
- We are the ones who create the beauty and culture that enrich your life.
- We go first, blazing paths that create what's new.
- We persuade religion to choose love over exclusion.
- We reinvent manhood.
- We free and enrich the human spirit.
- We are straight women's best friends.
- We model balanced manhood.
- We entertain, subvert, and inject humor into a stiffening society.
This is the message we must send. By teaching those who see us only as a sexuality that their religion deems flawed, we will give each person a window into how they contribute to the health and welfare of the human race.
The LGBT movement needs a new vision and message. And that is what Gay Men of Wisdom aims to create.
I became acquainted with Mark Thompson at an inopportune time: Not long before his beloved husband, the episcopal priest and LGBT rights pioneer Malcolm Boyd, died. Mark's seminal books on gay spirituality--the Gay Spirit, Gay Soul, and Gay Body trilogy--had a huge impact on me and the Gay Men of Wisdom work.
His influence as senior editor at The Advocate for two decades, as author of multiple books, as a photographer and a therapist, has been well documented elsewhere, so I will not try to replicate it. Rather, I wish to share what Mark gave to me.
Toby Johnson, one of my book's editors, introduced me to Mark at my request. Mark graciously agreed to read a draft of Gay Men and The New Way Forward and provide a testimonial. Not long after I mailed him the book, Malcolm was rushed to the hospital. Mark remained in touch with me, and even at that difficult time, gave my book a glowing endorsement.
For a while, it seemed Malcolm was improving. One day in February 2015, while I was on a retreat creating the curriculum for Powerful U, I got a sudden sense that something had gone wrong. I wrote Mark asking how Malcolm was doing. He wrote back shortly afterward saying my hunch was right: Malcolm was dying, and they were preparing to disconnect his life support.
I didn't know Mark well enough to offer him much meaningful support after Malcolm died. I had not met him nor Malcolm in person. I gave what condolences I could. And yet, even in Mark's grief, he maintained a correspondence with me, going so far as to apologize for not being able to help me promote my book more.
When I planned my book tour to Los Angeles, he contacted the bookstore in Silver Lake, where he lived and gave readings for several of his books. Even with the pull of a luminary such as Mark, the bookstore turned down the request, stating how their readers would have limited interest in books such as mine.
On the one hand, this response helped me not take the rejections I had faced so personally. On the other, it was a sobering commentary about the current media environment and the state of LGBT culture.
I finally had the chance to meet Mark last October, when he came to my book reading and workshop in Palm Springs. After my workshop, he took me out to dinner. That evening changed the trajectory of my life.
"Who are you, and why are you doing this?" he quizzed me, with a curiosity that conveyed his admiration, yet contained caution. "I drove out here from Los Angeles to support you, and to understand who you are."
I fumbled to answer him. (How does one answer questions such as those?). "I just have to do it," I said. "I was curious to understand gay men's gifts. I feel absolutely compelled." It seemed I spent the next four hours trying to explain myself further.
Over our dinner Mark regaled me with stories of Malcolm, who had been a successful Hollywood actor before leaving that world to become a priest. He shared his own journey--the joys and pitfalls of advancing a set of ideas that were not always appreciated.
"Your book is excellent," he told me. "You have respected the elders and ancestors. You have incorporated our ideas generously. You are the one in your generation who is now doing this work."
His words stunned me.
Then he warned me of the challenges I will face. "Don't feel you have to do this forever," he cautioned. "When you decide it is time to stop," he said, "don't think you have failed."
We ended that evening with him pointing out the moon and the pink glow over Palm Springs. He would be moving to Palm Springs, he told me, to start over. I expected I would see him on my next trip there. I didn't know it would be the first and last time I saw him.
When I planned my trip to southern California, I thought I would be promoting my book. I had no idea I would receive a blessing from an elder--and that Mark would pass me the torch.
On the plane ride home I reflected on the gravity of that moment. Until that point I hadn't known what I would do after my book tour, but now I did: I would devote my full efforts to bringing about this vision. I would go forth with conviction and courage, knowing--really knowing this time--that I was on the right track.
My time with Mark Thompson may have been brief, but he gave me one of the most profound gifts I have ever received.
Rest in peace, Mark. May you and Malcolm be holding hands and smiling.