Have you ever had an experience that sort of turned you on your head? Well, Sweet- Darlin-Honey-Child, I’ve had two in the last week and a half! Twice I have found myself in a mental handstand, wig snatched, preparing to death drop. And, isn’t it just a gag that life never waits for a moment of convenience? Lord, Jesus. She wasn’t ready!
The first head-turning moment was caused by an unstoppable force of nature. The Professor and I had moved our mattress into the living room of our third-floor apartment because the air conditioner is only strong enough to cool one room at a time. Indiana has longer cold seasons, thus we just make-do through the summers. So, there we were, nestled beneath the lukewarm attempts of the devoted window unit when, all of a sudden, what should appear? A giant tree crashing through the window, throwing glass everywhere.
The tree didn’t stay long. It quickly clawed its way down the side of our early 1900’s brick apartment building; creating deep gashes along the wall that the historical society is going to love. It burst through the second-floor window below us with even more gusto than it had ours, creating a car-sized crater where her window used to be. The tree shared its final resting place with a newly rented SUV that was parked beside the building. The tree was sawed into firewood, the windows boarded up, and the SUV looked like it had been converted into a Miata. Did I mention this was at 6 AM? Well, it was. And I was not particularly impressed by its entrance. But, it could have been a lot worse! Everyone was fine, and all was made right by the apartment folks.
Here’s where more of the unexpected took hold. In 2016, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress (Disorder). Abuse from my childhood, time spent deployed overseas, and the usual trauma that comes with growing up gay in the south, all compound upon one another and can cause me to have severe panic attacks and anxiety. It took hours for me to calm down and stop pacing my apartment. It can feel hopeless to feel helpless against one’s emotions. Anyone who has dealt with depression, anxiety, PTS(D), sexual abuse, the list goes on, can relate to this experience… the moments when we can’t reason with our emotions. The moments when you suddenly just feel, everything. The moments that you know you are acting irrational but you cannot stop it. All it took was a tree exploding above my head to send me back to the place in my mind and heart that I actively avoid. I’ve made a lot of progress in how I address or respond to triggers. Through therapy, medication, and of course the good old-fashioned “picking myself up by my bootstraps” method, I have wrestled with my heart and memories to find some peace of mind.
I describe dealing with these types of emotional trauma like this:
Imagine you’re a centaur. Yes, a centaur, like in Harry Potter. I implore you to google/read/watch the entire Harry Potter series to adequately appreciate this choice in metaphor. So, you’re a centaur. Top half a human, and bottom half a horse. You’re trotting along, loving life, feeling good, and BAM. The bottom half of your body, your horse legs, start racing at a breakneck speed. You don’t want to run. You want to trot! Your legs do not care about your preferences, unfortunately. They are blinded by instinct the same way a puppy gets those crazy eyes and will climb over the couch, up your leg, and stand on its head for a treat. Your legs are out of your control. Now, imagine that, as you trot along in life, you could lose control of your legs in this way without provocation. You’re heading to the concession stand to get your beau a snack and all of the sudden you’re racing around the stadium with no control. You learn how to avoid the more obvious triggers and try to have an exit strategy in case something happens, but for the most part, you are powerless over this painful, recurring experience. You can rationalize that you're running, or having a panic attack, but you can't stop it. Time is the only thing that can help. It’s like waiting for your horse legs to get tired of running. You have to wait for the horses racing in your mind and heart to slow down. I’m lucky I found someone like The Professor, who is willing to wait with me.
Traditional therapies for PTSD have often used Prolonged Exposure or Narrative Exposure Therapy. I found that I move on from my moments of panic and can reframe my experience by writing things down. Some people call this Written Narrative Exposure. I just call it exercising my demons! From a very young age, I’ve loved to keep a journal. It was the only way I could keep everything in my head from overwhelming me. It only seems natural that I should continue that discipline in my drag life as well, after all, it is a large part of who I am. I keep all my journals and draw from them for inspiration. After having a tree almost crush us, I have a lot of writing to do, and a lot of inspiration.
After we took some time to address how freaked out we were, we turned our attention forward to the week ahead. When the living room was cleaned, and the mattress returned to its home, I began working on a new project. I wrote a song ten years ago after coming out to my family. I have always kept it safe, knowing that I would find a moment when the lyrics would find symmetry with the state of the world, and I believe that time has come. Thus, I reached out to a musician friend to reserve studio time. I booked dancers and The Professor started working on choreography. Then, I sent an email to my ideal venue in Indy about reserving their space for the music video shoot.
That’s when I found myself standing on my head, again. You see, after two rounds of emails, discussing dates and rates, the venue emailed me back to let me know that:
Due to the fact that [our business] employs minors we seek to maintain a family environment. Thank you for your inquiry.
In His Love,
Now, if you’re like me, you probably see like three, or more, reasons why this response was not adequate or appropriate. In the midst of my rejection, I took to Facebook to warn other local queens not to attempt the same thing, lest they receive the same kind of email. It was dehumanizing. Me- a school teacher, proud uncle, and future father shouldn’t be around minors? That’s quite the assumption. And yet, I was also making assumptions. I call this story “The Curious Case of One Moment, Two Stories.”
In a time where the Masterpiece Cake supreme court case didn’t rule in the LGBTQ+ community’s favor, and minorities are facing an emboldened trump fan-base, I was on my side of the story feeling indignant. How, in 2018, can people remain so prejudice? How do I just walk away and ignore this? How could I ensure that no one else has to feel reduced to the labels of their sexuality or art form? Well, Facebook answered that for me. The response to my post grew and the venue’s Facebook wall and inbox filled with complaints. Suddenly, I was in the middle of a whirlwind.
I was approached by the ACLU, local government officials, news stations, and magazines. I realized very quickly that I wasn’t just a person shouting into the social media abyss. People had listened and were continuing to listen. I needed to decide on an appropriate way to respond. So, I spent time praying about it and two quotes kept coming back to my mind. First, was Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high.” Now, I’m what you call a “PK,” as in a preacher’s kid. My parents raised me in a very conservative and sheltered home. I could totally imagine them sending such a response without realizing any of the implications that such a message would include. I can see them in the kitchen pacing back and forth debating on an appropriate response, not wanting to be disrespectful but feeling obligated to stick to what they believe is right... Because here is the crux of our problem. Christianity has yet to find a loving way to reconcile their differences with the non-heterosexual community. Some simply don’t know how to reconcile the demands of their religion in order to have healthy relationships with the rest of us. Thus, they start with a line in the sand and end up digging an entire moat. None of this is new for Christians. Finding the balance between scripture and culture has always been a struggle. Hello, Footloose!
But is there room for compromise in scripture that is believed to be absolute truth? If we paid better attention, we’d see that Christ already answered this confusing problem by demonstrating through his own example. [Indulge me in this brief discussion of theology, it all serves a greater point] Christ didn’t choose the Pharisees (aka the super-religious, legalistic, church leaders of the times) to spread his gospel. No, he chose fisherman (foul-mouthed ragamuffins), and tax collectors (who were synonymous with villains), and prostitutes, and poor people. He loved immigrants and people of all colors. He gave love freely and unconditionally. That’s why Christians are taught to be “in the world but not of.” That’s why the church should be the most INclusive place in the world. Yet, somehow that has gotten lost in cultural translation over the years. Somehow, we’ve abandoned imitating Christ and have settled for impersonating our Christian and right-wing celebrities.
Some churches are affirming, and certainly, not all Christians believe the same things. But, as a whole, it is a very difficult position to find yourself in when you’re a Christian who wholeheartedly believes in Jesus Christ, has devoted your entire life to Him thus far, and now, suddenly, you’re thrust into a paradox where your moral conscience tells you one thing, and your Christian culture’s rules tell you another. And it is a very difficult position to be in when you are gay and a Christian as well. Gay culture is often just as closed off and defensive of Christianity as the church is towards them. Where does a gay Christian belong? Where does a gay-loving Christian belong? (A minister named Karla Swanigan has an amazing answer to this question, but that’s another blog.)
There is no easy answer, especially for those who make religion the foundation of their morality and identity. But, if you’re looking at this from an airplane’s perspective, it makes sense that people are continuing to fumble this around the country. This is truly an identity issue. LGBTQ+ folks want to be known, loved, and respected as equals; not discounted or made to feel less-than because of their sexual or gender identities. We aren’t seeking to be tolerated. We want to be accepted. And Christians find their identity in Christ because his unconditional love is “the way, the truth, and the life and no one goes to the father except through Him.” So, how can they possibly condone sin and still be obeying Jesus? And how can a savior claim to love without condition, and still exclude the rest of the human sexuality spectrum? See, hard questions! Especially if the root of the problem, that non-hetero-sexuality is a sin, isn’t even true! I’ve done my homework and do NOT believe this is the case, but that is also for another blog post.
The second quote that kept popping into my mind was partly because I’m presently obsessed with this song and partly because the lyric is beautiful. It was Ariana Grande’s “The light is coming to get back everything the darkness stole.” I saw this quote play out on Facebook. Because, intertwined throughout every show of support and every cry of disappointment, was an acrimonious deficit of patience. So many people messaged me to share that they’d experienced similar rejection. They saw themselves in my story. And I think people are fed up with being treated like second-class citizens. We’ve been made to feel less-than and morally inferior because of who we are (i.e. how we identify) and that is absolutely the definition of discrimination. The reaction online wasn’t a bunch of liberals jumping on a bandwagon. No, it was a community of people resisting. It was a community of people taking a stand. It was democracy. It was love in its’ rawest form: passion.
And yet, as I said before, this story has two perspectives. Have you ever seen a political or religious post online, read a few ignorant comments, and felt compelled to write back… only to realize that your lack of information caused your response to come across in the completely wrong way? Or, have you ever seen a juicy news article and hastily reposted it, only to learn that it was just propaganda and not a real article? Backtracking can be an uncomfortable bed-fellow. Especially when everyone stands in your window and points out the mistake you made. You know that old saying, “You made your bed, now lay in it!”... well, laying down your pride to snuggle with humility is like laying in a bathtub full of scissors.
I have a big mouth, and it has gotten me into trouble before! I know that I would not want my entire reputation, or my business and life’s work ruined, because of one inflammatory email. And I’m sure that people from my past could find things to share that would make me look bad in the public forum. I’m a rather imperfect human specimen. And I’m sure that most of you reading this can relate to my fallible nature. I say this to frame our perspective. You see, the venue’s owner is a young, soft-spoken, creative individual who very clearly takes pride in what he has built. He’s got a young wife and SIX beautiful young children. He’s a brave soul to take on a family that size and run his own business! And yet, his life tends to have a peace and synergy about it that speaks to his large capacity for love. When his family opened their venue, they knew it would be popular for weddings and photos. But, they also wanted to maintain a degree of modesty and virtue that would be an appropriate environment for his kids to be raised within.
When I sent my email, detailed with who I am, what I’m about, and what my intentions were, I assumed that it made perfect sense. I assumed that there would be no issue. I also assumed that the reader would at least be familiar with drag. Unfortunately, I assumed wrong. He wasn’t familiar with drag. He had no idea what I meant by drag queen. He thought it meant burlesque or boudoir. He read my email and immediately imagined his kids in the coffee shop playing games while next door folks were getting sexy for the camera. And you know what? I totally get it. We understand that when it comes to sex, consent is the number one rule. And before reaching the legal age of consent, it is the parents’ responsibility to filter things for their home. Exposing young kids to those type of hyper-sexualized art forms might not be in their best interest, nor would it make many parents comfortable. Now, I know that there will always be debates in the town square about America’s prudish nature towards nudity. I have personally attended burlesque shows and find the art form to be bold and exciting. I do think, however, there is a time and a place for everything and I can respect a parent’s desire to choose when and how their children learn about sexuality. As a teacher I set boundaries and as a parent, I will, too.
While I was online telling my story and feeling frustrated, the family at the venue was left feeling misrepresented. They hadn’t meant to dehumanize me. They hadn’t meant to imply that I was unfit to be around children. They were simply upholding the boundaries of their business. They weren’t judging me based on their religion. They were responding with a lack of information and they framed it in the safest, kindest way they could think of, “In His Love.” What I first thought was an attempt to be petty, religious-style, I realized was actually their first attempt at an olive branch. An “olive branch” symbolizes an offering of unity, wherein two olive branches graft together to form one. Some folks will still resist empathy at this explanation. It was poorly executed, sure, but didn’t we just discuss this? Haven’t we all poorly executed a comment or message online? I realized that this was not a reflection of their character, religion, or heart when I finally got their response. I realized that we were in two different stories about the same situation.
This is where Michelle Obama’s quote really sank in. How do we go high in moments like this? How do we receive an olive branch from someone we instinctively don’t trust? We do it over coffee. Truthfully, I was too nervous to drink coffee. But, we found a group of empty tables in the back corner of the coffee shop and sat down to face one another. We danced through the obligatory small talk until it was time to acknowledge the elephant in the room. It was time to talk, but more importantly, to listen.
By the end of our conversation, I realized that they were not the people I had imagined them to be. They were not looking down on me or judging me from an ivory tower. They fully regretted their message. They had genuine hearts of humility. And I left there believing that they were much sooner an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community than they were foe. All it took to arrive at this place was a conversation that wasn’t from behind a keyboard. All it took was an extra dose of love for the two stories to become one. It took genuine apologies and decisions of forgiveness to end the hurt. Reconciliation will always be of more value than division. Indianapolis didn’t need another place where the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t feel welcome. And there didn’t need to be another broken relationship between a Christian family and their LGBTQ+ neighbors.
It is far more important that we build bridges instead of walls. In fact, the only way that our country’s sins against minorities will truly be healed will be through reconciliation. Both sides listening, both sides sharing, and both sides reconciling their differences. I know that if I can find reconciliation with my family after a decade of struggle, I can build that same bridge with others. And that is how we create a loving community. We have to change our knee-jerk reaction from defense and walls, to open ears and assertive education. We must greet ignorance and discrimination with patient love. We must take the higher road because the light is coming to get back everything the darkness stole. And the responsibility that everyone must take is, who will you be when the light shines on your dark places? Are you harboring anger, hurt, jealousy, insecurity, self-hate, a conflicting faith? Or are you sowing seeds into love, relationships, forgiveness, service, and your own health? The reaction to my post on Facebook was one of righteous anger. People are tired of worrying whether a business will reject them. It’s 2018 people! But, if this situation has taught me anything, it’s that I must lean into reconciliation, and not my pain. We often prefer to keep the flame of indignation burning because we are afraid of letting go of our hurt. We spend so much of our lives with our identities being centered around our traumas, that we have no idea who we are without our anger or hurt. Reconciliation is uncomfortable for everyone, regardless of which side of the story you support.
If we shifted our focus to looking out for our fellow man, instead of looking out for ourselves, wouldn’t that be the most radical stand of all? What if we continued to move our friendships and communication from behind a keyboard and we faced people one-on-one? Could we change the world, or our city at least, over coffee? Perhaps we could start loving people so well, so unconditionally, that we end up turning the entire world on its’ head? Wig snatched, Antarctica to the North, ON ITS’ HEAD. That’s a world I can hope for. That’s the world I believe we were meant to create. That’s the world that’s got me practicing my handstands and singing Ariana Grande! Let’s not stop. Let’s keep educating. Let’s keep loving. Let’s keep admitting when we are wrong. Let’s be the love in this world that we hope to receive one day.
Our culture will change when our hearts change, mine included.