Words to the Wise
In our shared narrative, gays and lesbians celebrate self-acceptance: we embrace our sexuality as good, and we proclaim to be proud of it. We have built a movement and identity on this premise.
The trouble with this identity is that it limits what we think of ourselves. It calls us to focus on who we are—a sexual minority—but it fails to consider what we do. When we reduce our identity to sexuality alone, we cannot fully honor ourselves. It's time for our identity to expand.
There’s much more to being gay than having a different sexual orientation. A consensus about this emerges every time I gather a group of gay men to talk about what makes us different. Our differences, gay men agree, enable us to make important social contributions. We have special gifts to give to humanity.
Yet this very idea provokes resistance among some gay men. The primary criticism that the Gay Men of Wisdom work has received, in fact, is that some feel it places gay men above others. Of course, that is not what I propose or intend.
For others, it seems like it’s too good to be true—that we can’t possibly be that good or important to humanity. When we consider how our identity limits what we think about ourselves, this resistance makes sense. We have not yet integrated the idea that our differences serve an important social function. In fact, many of us still deny that we have significant differences.
If we apply the idea of having special gifts to other groups, it becomes easier to recognize this self-disregard. No one would argue, for instance, that physicians don’t have special gifts. The surgeon who recently removed my partner's brain tumor deserves accolades: he saved his life. He is most definitely gifted.
No one suggests that mothers don't make special contributions to humanity. Would any of us be here without them—and their nurturing? And how about African-Americans? What would America be without jazz, rock, and gospel music? (A book by W.E.B. DuBois, The Gift of Black Folk, written in 1924, chronicles African-Americans’ contributions to the United States in detail.)
A focus on gifts provides a lens through which to consider a group’s intrinsic human value. It is a tool we can use to truly honor ourselves. For a group as disregarded and dishonored as ours is, it should come as no surprise that some gay men resist the idea of having a special place in the human family.
No one can claim or carve out this special place for us. We must do it for ourselves. When we look into the mirror with love and discernment—recognizing our true contributions—we will gain an entirely new appreciation for ourselves. We’ll appreciate who we are and what we do. When we emerge as a strong group of men, solid in our social purpose, we will give this gift of self-honoring to all groups in the human family.
I created Powerful U, the new three-month online group, to serve as such a tool—to provide a discerning and loving mirror to help gay men truly see their contributions and honor themselves. I invite you to learn more by visiting the Powerful U page on the website.
Something interesting happened this morning. In an unguarded moment of sheer frustration about another mass shooting, I posted a two-sentence commentary on Facebook. With sarcasm, I called out the NRA for helping create an environment where mass killings are now part of American culture. This led to replies that exposed a dichotomy in prospective solutions to the problem: 1) the answer is consciousness change, and 2) the answer is political change.
Earlier this week I noticed a similar pattern. I reposted an article from the San Francisco Chronicle in which a white lesbian shares the pain of watching her wife and children, who are people of color, suffer from society’s racism. She calls on the LGBT movement to fight this injustice, which I echoed. Replies to this post followed a similar pattern, with some pointing to consciousness change, not “fighting” as the answer.
Then it occurred to me: this dichotomy seems to characterize the gay rights movement. Consider that the political side of the movement and the gay media virtually ignore gay spirituality. And the spiritual side of the movement lacks strong connections with and messages about politics.
Back in the frightening days of AIDS when I came out, gay men were dying like flies. Activism thus took on an urgent purpose—for me personally and for the men and women in the movement: we needed to act, because our lives really did depend on it. Today, that urgency is gone, mostly because of the incredible successes of the movement. With each victory, however, our political movement removes one more facet of our purpose. Like a farmer who has not replenished his field, our political movement has not replaced this dwindling asset.
The field of gay spirituality holds tremendous and largely untapped value for the political side of our movement. And here I should define what I mean by “gay spirituality”: it is, at its core, the quest to understand ourselves and our purpose on the planet.
When I began creating Gay Men of Wisdom, I discovered the treasure trove of writings that constituted this genre. Unbeknownst to me, generations of gay men had been asking the deeper questions about our purpose and the contributions we make to humanity. Their answers pointed to something much greater than mere survival.
Yet these two elements of the movement don’t speak to each other. The political side acts as if the spiritual side doesn’t exist. Our major political organizations focus on a narrow range of rights only. Consider that even the provocative Against Equality collective, which critiques mainstream gay and lesbian politics, and which bills itself as “Queer challenges to the politics of inclusion,” focuses on three themes (marriage, military, and prison), none of which includes spirituality.
It could be that many in the political realm do not even know gay spirituality exists. And for what I am sure are complex reasons, the gay spirituality movement has not strongly connected with people in the political realm. Perhaps these sides of the movement draw very different people to them.
The legalization of gay marriage places us at an inflection point in our movement. Our reasons for coming together are dwindling, because our identity has not kept pace with the times. This disconnect is hurting us. Gay spirituality offers answers that our political establishment can no longer provide. If we needed a new gay marriage initiative, it would be between gay spirituality and gay politics.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: In response to some of the comments I have received here and elsewhere, I want to emphasize my definition of gay spirituality as the search for meaning and purpose. I am not suggesting a merging of religion or any faith tradition with politics.
- Our distinct qualities enable us to make singular and necessary contributions to society.
- We are integral to our communities.
- By denying us the safety and security that all others enjoy, society denies itself the benefits that we contribute.
There is a point during every camp I attend at Easton Mountain when I fall in love with the place again. Last week that moment came when I was lazing in the pool watching the guys in John Salvato’s Sports for Faeries workshop. Dressed in various stages of drag, men were playing outrageously gay—and decidedly non-regulation—versions of sports. I couldn’t help but smile and feel like I had come home.
Later in the camp, Jay Michaelson delivered an insightful talk about Easton’s place in the LGBT movement. Citing a distinction between organizations or groups that provide sanctuary and those that create storm—bold change in the larger world—he noted Easton’s role as both sanctuary and creator of storm. John Stasio, the founder, echoed that observation—that a fundamental purpose of Easton is for men to experience transformation and bring their changed selves back into the larger world and change it for good.
Whenever I leave Easton, I experience the now-familiar and predictable Post-Easton Letdown Syndrome (PELS). It’s the experience of leaving sanctuary and re-entering a decidedly less-friendly and less-loving world. It’s mourning the loss of authentic connections with other gay men. It’s leaving an environment created by and for men-who-love-men. In this precious and rare setting, we create a culture based on who we are. We make an implicit agreement to open our hearts to each other. We see ourselves mirrored in our fellow men. And we learn who we are.
Of all the transformations that happen at places like Easton, I believe the latter is the most profound—that we come to know ourselves. We don’t get this kind of mirroring and validation in the larger world. We may get pieces of it, but rarely the whole. There is a place in our hearts that only men-who-love-men can touch.
It’s why I am such a believer in the importance of invoking the gay male tribe. Easton isn’t the only place that this happens—nor should it be. It can happen anywhere, and there’s little mystery to it. Whenever men-who-love-men gather with intention and love, when we agree to truly see each other, and when we open our hearts and suspend our judgments, we unleash magic. By seeing each other, we come to know who we are.
We can approach our activism—the storm that Jay talked about—from the level of politics alone, but the real change will take place when we augment action with self-knowledge. At Easton, I saw gay men’s gifts reflected all around me. From this mirroring I learned more about my own gifts. I may have mourned when I left, but I returned to my life with a fierce, open heart and stronger sense of self.
When men-who-love-men gather with intention, they reflect each other’s gifts and help each other learn who they are. Through this self-knowledge, we can truly become the storm that the world needs.
Last week's momentous U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage reflects a shift in Americans' consciousness about gays and lesbians. It marks this as the moment in history when most Americans came to embrace the notion that gays and lesbians deserve equal treatment under the law.