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Raymond L. Rigoglioso
Founder and Executive Director
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Words to the Wise

A Call to Service

by Raymond Rigoglioso on 01/05/17

As we celebrated the turn of the New Year earlier this week, I had two powerful and concurrent feelings: dread in the pit of my stomach about what we are getting ready to experience in this country, and an imperative to act. 

This is no time to be a spectator.

For progressives, the 2016 election presented a wake-up call. Already, I see mobilization: new groups are forming and organizations are planning their agendas.

In the fall, I made a decision to turn Gay Men of Wisdom's signature program, Powerful U, into a community-based drop-in group and replicate it around the country. I wanted to create a national movement where gay men gather with a sense of purpose and service to humanity.

I could not foresee how timely this decision would be. In my conversations with the facilitators of the Living Out Your Gifts groups in Orlando, Seattle, and Austin, I continue to hear the same refrain: gay men want to gather for support and to formulate their response to the new political climate.

Because the LGBT movement has such a history of political activism, political action can almost seem a default response. But that's not the only way to create change.

Our movement has succeeded to such an extent because we created cultural change. We came out, told our stories, and helped others see our humanity. We may have done so to free ourselves, but in the process, we performed an invaluable service to others: We expanded limited notions of what it means to be human.

The shock our country has just experienced issues another call to service--to engage in action that will move humanity to a greater level of consciousness. Service can take many forms. Toward this end, I offer some suggestions:

Keep doing what you're doing, but with a greater sense of purpose. Recognize and value the contributions you already make, and make them with intention to serve the people around you. Never underestimate the impact that being of service has on others. Hearts and minds change when people make real connections with people who are different from them.

Choose actions that reflect your personal style, preferences, and interests. Fight for what's right in a realm that you're best suited to. Do you thrive best in politics or religious or spiritual communities? The local or national levels? What calls to you? Listen to and follow that voice.

Commit to sustainable action. Once you identify your call, commit to action that you can sustain over the long term. Don't overwhelm yourself. Take small, regular actions.

Recognize your own power. You're not helpless. Don't let the media and groupthink convince you that you have no voice or impact. That's a lie that the authoritarians want you to believe. 

Create a new conversation. Talk with someone who disagrees with you. Share your point of view, but more importantly, listen. Challenge yourself to find common ground with that person. If we can create commonality among family and friends, we can do so on a national level.

Get support. Find community. Don't go it alone. Harness the energy of this moment to join with other likeminded people.

Recognize the influence gay men wield. Because we listen, empathize, and intuit, we know how to establish relationships and build trust. This is key to re-establishing a shared sense of purpose in this country. Gay men have the power to listen, persuade, ACT UP, build bridges, and challenge orthodoxies. This shape-shifting capacity is one of the most precious gifts of being gay.

Be of service. We already play important roles in service to humanity. Honor how you benefit the people around you. Stand tall in your differences. 

Keep sex alive. Maintain the flow of your sexual-life force energy. This is personal power. Challenge yourself to deepen your sexual connections. Engage in ecstatic sex as a spiritual practice. 

Don't let anyone steal your joy. Keep loving, celebrating, and creating joy. Our gay spirit unites people in celebration and love. Everyone responds to joy. Let's spread it far and wide.

Join a Living Out Your Gifts group. Connect with the tribe. Find sustenance from other gay men who are committed to service. Inspire and be inspired.

Addressing the Root Causes of Trumpism

by Raymond Rigoglioso on 12/04/16

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.

What, and Where to Now?

by Raymond Rigoglioso on 11/12/16

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.

Feel familiar?

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.
Without us, society suffers. When you persecute us, you harm yourselves.

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. 

Join us. 

Remembering Mark Thompson: Elder, Mentor, Inspiration

by Raymond Rigoglioso on 08/23/16

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 SpiritGay 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.
 


A Second Coming Out

by Raymond Rigoglioso on 03/25/16

When I see the kinds of awakenings that happen among guys who take Gay Men of Wisdom's Powerful U, I see the seeds of a significant cultural transformation. The profound shifts that take place amount to a second coming out: an emergence of a submerged sense of self. Guys have actually used the language of "a second coming out" to describe the experience.

Men who take Powerful U come to understand how being gay has as much to do with same-sex attraction as it does being different from other men, possessing special gifts, and playing critical social roles. When the guys recognize this within themselves, they vibrate with certainty, confidence, and a rooted power. They change.

We know how powerful coming out is, but we also know it requires overcoming negative and limiting messages. For as much success as the LGBT movement has had, we have lost a sense of vision and purpose. I see three obstacles in our way to creating a new vision: fear, assimilation, and eschewing "labels."
 
Fear

Many gay men intuitively understand the idea that we are inherently different and possess special gifts. For others, it can provoke an almost knee-jerk resistance. I've noticed that the premise itself can ignite a deeply held fear: That if we distinguish ourselves, call attention to ourselves, or take up too much space, the dominant culture won't accept us. Of course, we've already called a great deal of attention to ourselves, and our movement takes up a huge portion of social and cultural space relative to our small size.

Ironically, straight people seem to understand and accept the concept of gay people having special gifts more easily than many of us do. They know us. They observe us. They raised us. They understand we're different, yet they are afraid to say so for fear of offending us. It's as if we're the last to know.
 
Assimilation

This idea also runs against the grain of current LGBT culture. It challenges the shift toward assimilation.

Gay marriage, which is not even a year old, has already exerted considerable pressure to embrace the social mores of the dominant culture. I see this as temporary, however. I predict that, ultimately, gay people will reinvent marriage, because we will quickly come to chafe under the spoken and unspoken assumptions of the heterosexual version of this institution. I already see it happening.

We will give back to heterosexuals a model that has profoundly more freedom and equality inherent to it. In other words, we will accomplish what conservatives, who had fought against gay marriage, had feared all along.

The trend toward assimilation follows years of implicit and explicit messages from high profile LGBT organizations that claim gays and lesbians are just like everyone else. As I point out in Gay Men and The New Way Forward, in past years, we could look to the gay media for ideas and vision, but most of it has long since abdicated that role. So much of gay culture now pressures gays and lesbians to conform.
 
Rejecting "Labels"

Among some young people, there seems to be a trend to eschew labels--to look upon sexual identity as limiting, to identify as "post-gay." Freedom, as the argument goes, lies in allowing oneself to be open and fluid. Labels restrict and place oneself in a box.

For people who fall along the trans spectrum, this argument makes total sense. The trans experience, as suggested in the name itself, transcends notions of fixed gender. Some trans people will choose to fully live in the gender other than how they presented at birth. Others feel more comfortable remaining somewhere in between. For bisexuals too, fluidity makes complete sense. If you find women and men sexually attractive, this gives you a broader perspective on gender than those who are completely heterosexual or homosexual.

But this trend seems to go well beyond trans and bi people. Notions of "gay" and "straight" seem to be blurring among some young people. And while this trend claims freedom as its cause, I cannot help but predict a train wreck at the end of it. 

To believe that one is similar to those who are different sends oneself a profound message of disrespect. When young people emerge from their experimentation and enter young to mid-adulthood, straight and gay men will diverge. Straight men will partner with women, and gay men will partner with men.

Straight men won't believe they are gay--there is far too much social programming to confuse them about their identity. Gay men, however, won't understand themselves--because they will have convinced themselves they were just like their counterparts who are, ultimately, different. Because they have eschewed a label, they won't meaningfully connect with other gay men. They won't have access to the cultural transfer that happens among gay people, because they will believe they are beyond it. In discarding an identity, in claiming to be "post-gay," they will lose themselves.
 
Why Come Out Again?

Specificity matters. It helps us understand ourselves. Identity, differences, and categories all help us distinguish who we are from who others are.

No doubt, humans are much more alike than we are different. But differences are real. When we convince ourselves that our differences don't exist or don't matter, we tell ourselves that we don't matter. This is what I worry most about for young gay men--that by embracing fluidity and eschewing labels, they are telling themselves they don't matter.

For all these reasons, coming out as different and having special gifts takes on even greater urgency. Gays and lesbians, queer people, will never blend into the mainstream. We may convince ourselves we're doing so, but no one else will be fooled. When we distance ourselves from our differences and special gifts, we deprive everyone of their benefit. Everyone loses.

Coming out always takes courage and self-knowledge. Only when we come out can we recognize the closet we had been living in.

To echo the words of Harvey Milk, I invite you: "Come out! Come out as different and having special gifts!"

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