The Summer I Bought New Pencils

The experience of putting hand to paper stimulates an entirely different writing experience for me. Back in 2016, I found this to be true as I started writing long hand at times to break through the long, dreadful periods of staring at the glow of my expectant laptop. I’m not sure why, but it took me until mid-2017 to go out and buy a pack of brand new pencils for the first time in… more years than I care to admit.

Suffice it to say, the selection these days is pretty limited. But the pack of black, No. 2 Triconderogas has served me well. I should’ve done this years ago: as a lefty, I’ve spent almost my entire life accumulating enough ink blots on my writing hand to make an entire book of Rorschach tests. But, in the maelstrom of our WiFi-enabled way of life, I still forget to just sit, think, and write what comes to mind. Going right to the keyboard just makes more sense, in terms of efficiency, but it never feels as second nature as pencil to paper.

My handwritten notes indicate that I bought the pencils right before Memorial Day, at the beginning of a summer that I’ll remember for two unforgettable events. For different reasons, I’m still trying to comprehend them both.

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From the Wayback Machine, Part I

To get myself back in the habit of posting regular content, I’m adding some occasional work that comes from the past. The first of these is a spoken word piece from 2006.

Performed in August, 2006, as a guest artist for “Two Queers and a Chubby,” a spoken word entry in the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

This sounds funny to say out loud, and forgive me if I seem a bit embarrassed to admit it… but I think my “best friend” when I was a child was actually Doctor Who. Do you remember him? The British guy with the curly hair and the scarf! I am starting to think I wasn’t alone in this fascination, that for other young males who were lonely, awkward, and outcast, he was someone we could relate to and embrace. He was enigmatic, clever, outspoken, intelligent, and abhorred violence if he could avoid it. He traveled on his own, outside of society’s structures, a loner even to his own people. The companions who traveled with him were fond of him, but still even to them he was a bit of a mystery.

That was how childhood felt to me—the boy who was singled out for “using big words,” the smart fat kid whose most athletic extra-curricular activity was marching band. I was a child with many, many emotions, and few role models for how to really—authentically—express them. Did you see BrokeBack Mountain? Those men were about the age of my father, and they exemplified his generation of men—especially rural white men—to near perfection. So how, when you’re an imaginative, over-sensitive kid with a big vocabulary and few friends, do you learn to be who you really are, when all the men and boys around look at you like you’re speaking a different language completely from the English you think is pouring out of your throat?  Continue reading

Back to San Francisco (Revisiting Shilts)

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City brought my first real attraction to San Francisco. Although still a couple years away from coming out, as a rural Midwestern teen in the early 1990s I sensed something about that miniseries—aside from curiosity about gay culture of the 70s— which drew me to a city that I had never visited. Its vibrancy, its colors, its characters, brought to life so vividly by Maupin, told me that there was a place for people who were different, who were not satisfied with settling into comfortable patterns and routines, who asked questions to which mainstream America offered few easy answers, and who found friendship and kinship with fellow travelers that wondered and wandered in their own spirited ways. When I finally came out, my 17 year-old mind devoured those six novels. I shared them with my new gay friends, and we chattered like only gay teens can about which character we each were—Mary Ann? Michael Tolliver? Mona? As fans of the Tales series know well, Armistead’s stories (always complicated, filled with compelling characters and delicious plot twists) grew more world-weary as the 1980s dragged on, as needless death and grief filled the Castro and a movement began to act up, screaming in outrage at a country (and its government) that didn’t seem to notice or care. In my half-dozen visits to San Francisco since 1996, I’d say I’ve become less fascinated and more familiar, but nothing has diminished my affection for the city. Touching ground in San Francisco means touching history for me, and again I am struck by how much of that story (which emanates out to touch so many people in the world) remains to be considered and shared.

Tonight, I will take a redeye flight back to Minneapolis after nearly two productive weeks. In the year since I last came and studied Randy Shilts’ papers, I wasn’t able to do much on the project except briefly meet his brothers and correspond with his closest associates. But, it’s an understatement to say that I’ve gone cold on the research. I allowed myself this extended time around Spring Break with the promise that I would make sufficient progress on the dissertation over the winter. When I get back, the dissertation goes on the front burner. In the meantime, I spent several productive days in two wonderful archives, the James C. Hormel Collection at the San Francisco Public Library, and the GLBT Historical Society. At one point during my stay at SFPL, I looked behind me to see the busts of Harvey Milk and George Moscone smiling across the room (which I will take as tacit approval for my ambitions). Right now, it’s safe to estimate that I’ve examined several hundred, if not thousands of pages of Randy’s papers, from diaries to personal correspondences, college papers, poetry, clippings, drafts, reviews, criticisms, and even his last will and testament.  Continue reading

Pondering Privilege, Fear, and Futures

About three times a week we meet, usually under a bridge, although sometimes at school. It was a hard habit for me to pick up, but once we started, I haven’t been able to shake it. My friend helps me, sticks with me, keeps me motivated so that even on the days I am winded and sore, we still finish a run/walk that spans anywhere from 3.5 to 5 miles. There are several positive aspects to my friendship with Shawyn, but key to so much of it is that we talk. There are numerous topics that flow through our brains—our dissertations, problems at our jobs, teaching experiences, hopes, dreams, fears… Any number of things that might occur to a pair of queer social work academics, both months away from advancing from ABD to Ph.D.

A few weeks ago, Shawyn said Shawyn was thinking of creating a new blog, and I encouraged it, saying, great! We could both write, maybe respond to each other’s posts, and use that interaction as motivation to keep the creative energy flowing. Since then, Shawyn’s gotten it moving. Me, not so much. Call it bad timing, work pressures, holiday malaise, end of year fatigue, whatever. I’m giving it a try now.

As I mentioned, any number of topics fly between us as we run, walk, and gasp for air (that’s more me). In truth, I enjoy the listening part more than talking, even though I’m a talkative guy and I do try (as someone slightly further ahead in our program) to share advice from what I’ve learned along the way. The morning we discussed blogging, Shawyn told me about recent conversations Shawyn had had with another individual of color, of the frustrations with recent news stories of unarmed African Americans killed by police, of the wariness and fear of simply walking around in a militarized, white-dominated society that seems hellbent on projecting every violent tendency of its own onto anyone who is perceived as different.

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Disappointment and Rededication

Fifteen years ago, I was a senior English major, on the verge of graduating with honors from Michigan State University. I had co-founded Q-News, MSU’s first literary magazine for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and allied students, led its staff to a well-received presentation at the national “Creating Change” Conference, and was close to finishing a novel that would serve as my creative senior honor’s thesis. What was my topic? It’s hard to narrow it down to a brief, polite blurb, but in a nutshell, here it is:

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The Gen X Conversation

I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to understand the social systems we create. After an adolescence spent trying badly to fit into the peer groups around me (and failing), I found a particularly meaningful role for myself by embracing my “outsiderness,” even as I became part of the burgeoning queer activist circles at Michigan State University, and later in Minneapolis. My abilities as a writer, thinker, and charismatic leader have served me well at times within existing paradigms, but really I have been at my best when creating new pathways, bringing together people who have felt marginalized in their own experiences and developing interesting ways to depict and respond to the world around us.

I start with that brief intro because I’ve been sitting for about a week on writing a response to this recent article by Sara Scribner on Salon.com. There are parts that resonate with me, and parts where, as a younger but fiercely proud member of Generation X, I can’t help but push back. I don’t disagree that we collectively may appear more distrustful of authority figures and reluctant to “step up” and lead as the Baby Boomers edge closer to senior citizenship. But, I also think there are important counters to consider. I’m not in a position to generalize, but let me offer some of my own experiences as examples.

Systems Include, Systems Exclude

My first counter is this: I agree with the author that there are good reasons to think we may be distrustful of authority figures because of how Gen Xers experienced divorce, scandals, media, etc. in our formative years. I find, however, that I am more distrustful of the systems that authority figures are expected to maintain, usually because it doesn’t take long to discover those who have been excluded versus those who are accepted within these social environments. My childhood, for example, was filled with moments where success in school undoubtedly brought me praise and acceptance by authority figures (my parents were teachers, so my teachers were their friends), but also led to some painful ostracism from kids my own age. Throw into it the fact that I was a heavier kid, a farm kid, and an exuberant sci-fi fan (Doctor Who and Star Trek!), and it’s safe to say I didn’t have many friends my own age.

I offer this not as a way to pity my socially awkward years, but to illustrate that for a kid like me, the existing social systems didn’t offer much in the way of understanding or empathy. Life was in many ways a struggle to “fit in,” which often involved enormous self-scrutiny in order to not attract any more negative attention than I already received from kids my own age. My mistrust of authority figures came less from my witnessing their own personal failures, and more from the fact that I viewed them as maintaining and often safeguarding social systems that had been created with a certain set of people in mind, but did not well serve those who didn’t fit in.

Systems Are Meant to Address Gaps

This leads in part to my second counter. By the time I arrived at Michigan State in the mid-1990s, I had come out and found my first small group of gay friends. My social circumstances had flipped from rural isolated white kid, to urban gay teen whose friends were mainly young, gay, and black. It had been, in a word, tremendous, and the acceptance I experienced at MSU came in part, I think, from the incredible amount of enthusiasm and confidence I was now sharing with those around me. The existing queer activist community had a lot to offer in terms of discussion groups and social events, but it was the lack of a shared creative outlet—a common medium for discourse around our identity. The magazine I co-founded was a success in part, I think, from our ability to offer safe space for people to write, draw, and think about their “otherness.” We touched a nerve that encouraged those who resonated to contribute in kind. Although for me personally, the experience paved the way for other future endeavors, for the community at MSU I believe the magazine played a key role in helping queer students connect to each other in that campus’ vast residence hall system, which supported the development of new channels of activism (neighborhood caucuses) that continue to the present day. Let me say that again—a new endeavor, based on the observation of what was missing in the current system of supports, contributed to the creation of new and different supports for queer students on the MSU campus.

Maintaining Openness = Not Achieving Adulthood??

My third counter comes from my experiences in community-level social work. I have never held a social work license, and I have never practiced therapy. But, my skill has always been the ability to look at the systems we create to help each other—and specifically for me, in queer-focused community building—and scrutinize the extent to which these approaches succeed, as well as how they inevitably function to keep certain people out.  Being able to connect with folks in organizing HIV prevention activities and later managing a large volunteer program taught me that to connect with a range of people—not just those who fit the exact description of what we’re seeking—I  had to maintain an open and affirming stance that helped me to relate to each person on his or her own terms. Not surprisingly, I found that this approach has helped me as a college instructor because I have to remember that each of my students is applying the coursework differently according to the work they are doing in their own lives. Without a doubt I still have to maintain a rigorous standard but as a student told me last year, “Wow, you are really tough but you are so laid back! You are right there with us the whole time.”

Now, true to my own Gen X leanings, I have no idea what I want my life to be like after I finish my Ph.D. The idea of focusing on one narrow but potentially lucrative career path and abandoning the many varied interests that have made me a well-rounded person feels like cutting off my fingers in order to showcase my nose. Where Scribner quotes Neil Howe as saying, “In order to mature and become an adult, you have to shut off options,” my rejoinder is that to be a fully actualized, wholly developed human, we must each take into account the aggregation of all our attributes and bring them to bear in our home, work, and social lives.

My experiences so far as an activist, organizer, writer, scholar, and thinker tell me that despite my lack of credentials as a leader in any one field, I have brought about change that others notice when they consider their own choices in life moving forward. How these contributions are recognized is fairly muted, but as I have often said, I’d rather be well known than famous. Too often, I have witnessed people who were mentors to me—the majority of them Baby Boomers—who accepted the notion that success in life comes from narrowing options and becoming increasingly single-minded. In very few instances have I seen these mentors sustain either individual happiness or professional effectiveness for the long haul. Rather, I have found people coasting on their previous accomplishments as others tried sympathetically not to upset them, and I have seen people hit their “red Ferrari” years and lash out pointedly at the families and jobs that have expected them to carry significant burdens for long periods. Scribner’s article seems to suggest that for Generation X, the midlife crisis represents a mere continuation of the myriad crises we have experienced since childhood. Perhaps it’s not such a stretch to imagine, then, that we may also possess an incredible capacity for coping that renders midlife more manageable and less visibly disruptive than what came to characterize (or even caricature) the generations before us.

Reading Between the Lines 

I offer these counters not to disprove what Scribner wrote about Generation X, but to challenge her and those she cited to read between the lines. If the popular question is to ask, “When will Gen Xers grow up?” I suggest that a number of us already did so, at a younger age and in a way that escaped notice in the popular culture because it involved seeking out and recognizing commonalities with people who had similarly experienced “otherness.” Some of us faced adversity early in life, learned from these struggles, and adopted a perspective that values this “otherness” as a way of changing our culture, less by engaging with existing political and social systems that we’ve experienced as exclusionary and self-perpetuating, and more by engaging with the people we find where genuine, mutually beneficial work can occur.

Maintaining the stance of the empathetic outsider has helped me to help others, both as individuals and as creators and maintainers of their own social systems. Scribner makes a point in her summation that, “If we’re going to make the country a better place, more suited to our values, we need to do it ourselves.” To the extent that I agree, I also think it is fair to ask, do we now “become” leaders by inheriting the roles left to us by Baby Boomers, who continue to linger in the systems they built (and which we may have experienced as exclusionary and reductionist)? My perception is that instead of following this more obvious approach, a number of us have shifted the focus of our leadership in scale and scope—forming our own self-selected families, affinity-based collectives, and/or urban tribes– so that, as we grow and change throughout the next phase of our lives, we continue to learn and draw strength from the crises that defined our formative years.

Beyond the Formal Work

I haven’t written a posting for a while because I spent most of January writing my next pre-dissertation special topic paper. Also, I’m taking a course in the use of storytelling to support research. We have a number of interesting assignments, so to keep the good times rolling on here I am going to publish the stories I come across, as long as I have my interviewees’ permission. The first one today is from an assignment where we were asked to collect three stories from family or a group of friends. I chose to get together with a small group of close friends who started off as volunteers with me in my former job.

Prior to starting my Ph.D., I spent several years employed with a community-based HIV/AIDS organization. I stayed with the organization for almost eight years because much of my work involved organizing volunteers from the community, who annually donated several thousand hours of their time to support the organization’s efforts. For five years, I was responsible for recruiting, training, and supervising volunteers for our largest fundraiser, a 10k walk in Minneapolis that required the help of up to 500 people on the day of the event. Because of the high stress and long hours of planning involved, I grew close to a small number of “Captains,” the volunteer leaders who guided our production timeline in the months leading up to each annual AIDS Walk. Upon leaving the organization, I found that my friendships with these individuals grew quite close, and we often see each other for holidays, parties, and other meaningful occasions. Because we all share a common experience from different vantage points, and because we continue to stay close with each other, I wanted to use this opportunity to learn more about how we remembered our work together, along with what made us specifically feel the desire to continuing onward as friends. How did we come to prioritize friendship with each other, compared to others who may have been similarly involved in running the AIDS Walk?

To explore this topic more fully, three people– Sara, Elizabeth, and Coco—joined my partner Jaxon and myself at the Longfellow Grill, where we talked over food and drinks.

How did you come to be involved with the AIDS Walk?

Elizabeth. The AIDS Walk volunteer experience for Elizabeth began quite suddenly when she received a phone call one year from her friend Nathan (unable to attend), saying, “I need your help tomorrow!” The next day she arrived at 5:30 in the morning, where she was thrown into the mix because Nathan trusted her to get work done in a fast-paced, somewhat chaotic environment. The next year, Elizabeth was made a Captain, although does not recall being asked. Most likely, we thought, Nathan volunteered her for the role, and because the particular area she would oversee involved a great deal of precise planning, staging, and execution, she felt a strong connection to the task. Although she felt like there was little to do in her first year, Elizabeth considered the experience to be friendly; becoming the lead organizer for event signage also appealed because, as she said, “I am a control freak and I like to own things.” Describing her approach as “ideation,” she notes, “I can’t solve a problem until I know everything that came before it. Stop talking about it—let’s go.”

Coco. Although currently retired, Coco became involved with the AIDS Walk through her former company, a large corporate sponsor that hosted a rest area along the 10k course. The rest area activities did not appeal to her however, and she realized that other opportunities—specifically heavy lifting and hauling—fit her interests more closely. She quickly became a standout “muscle crew” member despite her small, wiry frame. Coco felt that the experience of moving around, working with teams, and building the event from the ground up (before tearing it all down) was more appealing than “standing around, handing out bananas.” She described doing some of the most thankless work of the event—hauling tables, putting up signs and banners, hauling garbage, raising tents—but found the crews to be so friendly that she wanted to come back.  After five years of volunteering, she continues in her role as well as helping in the organization’s office on weekdays.

Sara. Although the youngest of the group, Sara was involved the longest, going back 14 years to when she was a young teenager. Beginning first as a walker and then volunteering, she became a Captain at age 18, a role she kept until age 28. She identified a prior volunteer coordinator as her major influence for getting so involved, saying, “She was just awesome, and we got along so well. It was a very personal connection. I was 14 years old telling my mom, ‘Drive me to the city so I can make safer sex kits!’” Having a number of gay friends and attending her school’s gay-straight alliance in the late 1990s, she felt that HIV/AIDS was a meaningful cause to her and her close associates, which combined with the personal contact she felt with staff, kept her committed throughout her young adulthood. Through this work, Sara felt that she built relationships with people outside the “normal” circles of her suburban upbringing, who came together regularly to volunteer and have fun. Responding to Sara’s recollections, Elizabeth found it amazing in their 12 years of age difference, so much had changed with respect to LGBT visibility and support. She was especially struck by the notion that a 14 year old could find community in an urban social environment that used to be considered taboo in many circles.  For Sara however, it was noteworthy that 15 years ago, HIV/AIDS fundraisers like this one had a much closer identification with LGBT communities, which she and the others felt was not as true in recent years.

What kept you involved?

Both Sara and Elizabeth have transitioned out of their volunteer roles, while Coco continues to stay involved. Although each friend described different reasons for staying involved with the Walk during our years together, there were slight variations in their responses as well. Elizabeth described her strong orientation to the task she was given and her need to fully visualize and solve the problems it presented. Sara and Coco, meanwhile both started by recalling their relationships to the people around them, and feeling a sense of community. Aside from just the general atmosphere of friendliness however, I noted that specific friendships seemed to occur that transcended the shared work and continued outside of the volunteer setting. At this point, Jaxon shared that although he came to the Walk and helped out as my partner, his stance over time shifted from reluctant (but obligatory) involvement to looking forward to seeing people that he knew I trusted with major responsibilities. His sentiment caused me to remember how during one of my first Walk seasons, Sara asked me how she could surprise Jaxon with a nice “thank you” for coming to help in the early morning. I suggested a mocha drink from Caribou Coffee, which she presented to him so suddenly that his face “melted” with gratitude, and they have been close friends ever since.

Elizabeth observed, “Let’s be honest—the day of the event is never fun. But it’s the people that make the difference.” She looked forward to doing the prep work every year, seeing everyone, and coming to the large planning meetings where people could form and/or rekindle connections to each other. She noted that during one year when smaller, more task-centered “satellite” meetings were attempted, the work was simply “less fun.” In response I shared my own observation from early in my involvement, when I found that many of these volunteer Captains got together in their own time over food or long walks, simply to hang out and share ideas for future Walks. I was frustrated at the time because it seemed that a great deal of energy around this event occurred when staff was not involved, in part because staff only met with the volunteers during official meetings. I described my response as, “Take me for a walk. Invite me out for coffee or happy hour. Let me be a part of the process when you come up with these inspired ideas, so we can actually connect your thoughts to the technical operations of the event. I don’t want the separation.” Building on this thought, Sara shared that at times, this perceived distance between staff and the volunteers led her to consider leaving. “I still remember telling them to consider different incentive prizes for the walkers, like iPods. Every other event out there was giving away nicer prizes for their top fundraisers, but we were giving away hats or a fleece. Three years later, they finally adopted it.”

Coco’s current volunteer role includes overseeing Walk signage, which means the responsibility has passed from Nathan, to Elizabeth, to her (“keeping it in the family”). She sees a lot of changes coming to the event, which may be positive or may create confusion. While we all agreed that change is necessary for large operations such as this event, she did share concern that newer staff may not understand the necessity of certain assignments or ways of carrying out the work. 

Beyond the volunteer work, what makes us stick together?

At this point, I raised my key question. We spent time with a number of people who worked hard on the AIDS Walk, who brought ideas, passion, and kindness to the experience. But, what led us to specifically stay in close contact with each other? Jaxon related it to another friendship he has nurtured with someone who studied overseas with him, using the term “translation” to characterize how a relationship that is meaningful in one setting continues to be meaningful beyond that specific context. Everyone emphasized the strength of emotional connections, the ability to trust each other, and the feeling of looking forward to seeing certain people that endures despite changes in everyone’s involvement.

Elizabeth raised other noteworthy quirks that we as friends seem to share “in a cool, serendipitous way,” such as an affinity for the British television show Doctor Who and an appreciation for Scotch whiskey. She and I both recalled an experience where she had been very dissatisfied not with me, but with a pre-AIDS Walk process that was changed without her consideration. Where she had felt bad about delivering negative feedback to me, I had felt grateful for her forthrightness and willingness to share exactly what she felt. I said, “You told me what you needed, and that is so refreshing.” For me, I remember that exchange as a striking encounter where two people found a way to navigate a complicated technical issue while affirming each other’s personhood throughout the encounter. What became apparent, then, was that the significance of our work together included the fact that we did more than just simply work. We took the time and space to engage with other aspects of each other’s life experiences and personalities, finding that beyond the regard we shared for the task at hand, each of us were connected in other meaningful ways.

Every person in our group shares a common set of experiences with the AIDS Walk, yet we all came to the event from different perspectives and responsibilities. Looking back  on my own role as staff during those years, I reflected that common knowledge may view the formal role of volunteer management as facilitating a positive environment in which volunteers feel a meaningful connection to their work. Beyond these characteristics, I found that the informal experience of building relationships, making space for interpersonal dynamics, and building trust can transcend the technical aspects of our shared work, thus enabling each of us to recreate meaningful and reciprocal friendships beyond the endpoint of our formal relationships.

Returning to Stories

It’s that time of year when scholarship applications come due, which has given me an opportunity to revisit parts of my own story as it has evolved over the course of my adulthood. In some ways, my work has been closely tied to storytelling ever since my early years at Michigan State, where I co-founded a queer student magazine that emphasized first-person writing and thought-provoking conversations about people’s true lives and experiences. That experience came in handy over my career as I moved from publishing (not what I thought it would be) to social work and community organizing. At different points in my work I’ve had opportunities to use storytelling as a strategy for building programs and/or participation. For a while I was able to re-create the magazine format for an HIV prevention publication, which brought to light rich stories about participants’ lives, their struggles, and their self-conceptions of being queer, sexually active adults in a complicated, sometimes contrarian society. Eventually, though, the emphasis shifted as I was asked to do more formal work like grant writing, often using formulaic templates that the agency had copied and resubmitted as rote for several years.

Recently I was looking back on a scholarship application I submitted a couple years ago, while I was still working for that particular nonprofit. I didn’t receive any funding from this program, and in retrospect I see why. My responses to the essay question, while not bad, were also not terribly compelling. I’d written a laundry list of my achievements similar to the formula I saw my agency use for those fairly rote, mundane grant proposals. Reading through that essay again, I saw that it lacked a story, a meaningful narrative that traced my growth and development over time. There was no sense of past struggles, transformation, or self-revelations, only “I have accomplished this, and your money will help me do this…”

In my experience, the power of a story comes from the key moment when we find ourselves in someone’s narrative—being able to relate to the challenges presented, locate our feelings and do a self-appraisal, and then weigh the plausibility of the resolution (if it’s even achieved). When it comes to grants and scholarships, I think the key question for review committees would be whether the story presented is compelling enough for them to commit their funder’s resources, i.e. seeing a fit for themselves in the story. In research, I think it’s similar in that we are again trying to convey the investigation’s story in a way that demonstrates transparency and plausibility—the leaps we make in drawing conclusions have to be grounded in the best evidence available. Interestingly, as I barrel toward starting my dissertation I find myself returning to the essence of storytelling as the core focus of my work. While I’m not sure I really strayed too far from this endeavor, I know that for a while I felt too caught up in following the technical conventions of work and school to really see how essential these elements have always been to my work.

What I Meant to Write Last Week, Only Surlier

Before the tragedy in Connecticut last week, my intention was to write about our short mid-week trip to Iowa. I was also going to get a wee bit political. Let’s see if I still can.

Toward the end of November, I had a pleasantly surprising phone call from a very dear friend. I’ve known Tony for about 10-plus years, going back to when we both interned/worked on contract for a small AIDS organization in Michigan. Although about 25 years my senior, he and I easily bonded and in some ways over time our relationship evolved from mentorship to something more fraternal as we both moved, changed jobs, and had various ups and downs with our relationships.

He and his partner Joe now live in upper Michigan, not far from Lake Superior and not too removed from Minnesota. With my school commitments, we haven’t seen much of each other in the last few years, but Tony called to tell us that they were traveling to Iowa to officially get married. With the latest election results, he concluded, federal recognition of same-sex marriage is an inevitability and, the sooner they have official paperwork, the more likely that in the future, social security survivor benefits will have to recognize that official marriage date. Additionally—and this was the most touching piece—Tony and Joe asked if Jaxon and I would come down to Iowa and serve as their official witnesses. It seemed fitting, both for our relative proximity and the way our personal and professional lives have been woven together over the past decade. To say the least, Jaxon and I were humbled and moved. We said yes.

The ceremony was pretty straightforward. The judge was extremely kind and cordial, and the recitation of vows went smoothly. To summarize: Tony and Joe promised to enter into a publicly-affirmed, legally binding (in Iowa) declaration of their commitment to one another. They promised to care for each other through hardship. They affirmed their intentions to remain committed to each other for the rest of their lives. They put their love for each other on paper, in a court of public law. To witness our friends make this commitment was a privilege.

Of course, a few days prior to this, one Supreme Court Justice, who will soon cast a vote determining whether or not the United States should recognize same-sex marriage, used the opportunity of a public confrontation (by a very brave gay college freshman) to re-affirm his view that the public has a right to label same-sex intimacy as morally reprehensible as murder. Now, I am not a Constitutional scholar, and without a doubt Antonin Scalia can argue me under the table when it comes to the Founders’ true intentions. Given the horrible nightmare Newtown, Connecticut, just endured, perhaps Justice Scalia simply needs a refresher in a couple key qualitative differences between same-sex coupling, and murder. Now I am aware that Scalia directed his comments toward “homosexual behavior,” but given how the arguments around homosexuality before the Court have coalesced around marriage equality, I am going to stick to that framework for my points below.

Difference #1: One involves consenting adults, agreeing to mutually support each other through life’s difficulties and highlights. The other involves taking human life, presumably without their consent.

Difference #2: Over time as people have gotten to know and grow familiar with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in their own families and communities, support for same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination measures have generally increased. Support for murdering other human beings (with the exception of our confounded tolerance of post-colonial warfare and the death penalty) has generally remained low over time, even when people have gotten to know the murderers in their communities.

Difference #3: There doesn’t need to be a Difference #3. But, apparently the distinction isn’t clear enough for others who share this man’s views. In the wake of Netwon, both James Dobson and Mike Huckabee boldly declared that society’s growing tolerance of gay people bore some of the blame for a twenty year-old, mentally ill loner taking several automatic weapons into an elementary school and hunting down its children, faculty, and staff. In their estimation, America (and we gay people specifically) have turned our backs on God.

I’m going to offer a slightly different interpretation: people who seek the right to marry a partner of the same gender (and frankly, people whose gender identities have changed since birth as well), and people who support these efforts may or may not recognize the God of Messrs. Scalia, Huckabee, and Dobson. But, increasingly I would say that Americans are turning away from huckster capitalists who use their increasingly outmoded platforms to try to bully and intimidate people into believing something that is contradicted by the evidence we collect in our own lives and experiences. Believe what you will about the Bible or any other sacred text. People have the ability to determine with their own eyes, ears, and feelings whether or not same-sex intimacy is morally reprehensible, and increasingly that evidence is making lay people question the unyielding authoritarian (yet increasingly desperate) huffing from evangelical radio and TV (or Rome for that matter). Where previously people could be bullied into believing warped depictions of individual misbehaviors or social outcasts, more and more they recognized their loved ones. Where people had previously viewed those who were different as somehow diseased and depraved, more now recognize and empathize with very human struggles and triumphs. Ultimately, in my opinion the depravity these men now rail against is in fact the continued withering irrelevance of their own overinflated control over a society that, while certainly flawed, is growing more keen to recognizing authentic struggles and basic unfairness. Those who are most threatened, I believe are those who have gained the most from systematically maintaining these inequalities.

I have no doubt how Antonin Scalia will vote in the arguments pertaining to same-sex marriage. His “originalist” perspective certainly affords him the opportunity to sit comfortably behind an orthodoxy that emphatically views the Founders’ words as final (even though they quite nakedly punted the moral issue of slavery down the field for future generations to resolve). But, the next time I see someone equate queer people to murder, I’ll remember last week. I’ll remember Tony and Joe, embracing before the judge and their two admiring friends, promising to love and honor each other for every day of their lives. I’ll remember the horror of Newtown that came too soon after. And, morally speaking. I am pretty confident that an increasingly abundant number of citizens will be able to recognize that the two events are not remotely equivalent.

Diminished But Not Lost

A consistent theme in my adult life has been my fascination with the history of 20th century queer movements. In case you haven’t noticed, in just more than half a century we’ve gone from completely hidden and isolated (visible only in police raids, pantomimes, paddy wagons, and lurid news briefs) to developing politically powerful urban strongholds as well as greater visibility in rural and suburban communities. People have made homes for themselves, both in places where support previously hadn’t existed and in neighborhoods where visibility brought strength in numbers, long-term stability, and eventually generational dispersion as well. My generation (proud Gen Xers) have been inheritors of a rich past and legacy—one that we are just seeing younger queer kids embrace as they blow past college activism and gay-straight alliances to make themselves heard in social media and beyond. That’s a lot of change – dramatic change– in a comparatively short span of our history.

For me, coming out as a teen in the early to mid-90s brought this fascinating mixture of exhilaration and fear, not only because of the homophobia still running through society (DOMA, Matthew Shepard, Jessie Helms ring any bells?) but because I consistently remember feeling like my friends and I—these noisy youth at the gay coffee shop and men’s groups and anywhere else that let us in—were just a nuisance to the older men we encountered. Sometimes a sexual interest, but mainly a nuisance. Gay men over 30 looked tired, worn down, world-weary, and not all that patient with our flighty drama. In those years I came to understand why as I learned about how so many had lost their friends and lovers, and few in the larger world seemed to care. For the most part, our generational social spheres diverged even though I was fascinated by what they must have experienced—not just the horrors of the early AIDS epidemic, but what many of that cohort had tried to build prior to those years in big cities, namely a community with spaces where the dimensions of human sexuality could be more fully explored with other curious, consenting men. My first “coming out” novels were the Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin, still a favorite and still just as alluring to re-read or re-watch as mini-series. The images of San Francisco in the mid-1970s that period captivated me, both for the major historical events that occurred and also the depictions of how gay people were living their everyday lives, exploring their queerness out in the open and laying claim to neighborhoods that are still recognized as “home” today. I know I romanticize it a bit. But, at the same time I’ve felt over the years that only select parts of that history have been written, much of which pertains to epic circumstances rather than asking simpler questions such as, “Who lived here?” “What kind of neighbors were they to each other?” “How did they take care of new guys who showed up from other parts of the country?”

When I started this blog, I gave it the subtitle, “Where the conversation continues.” A big reason I went with that theme was, in many cases I feel like when friends and I reconnect, we seem to be continuing the same dialogues, building on the same themes we started talking about many years ago. This was true yesterday when I had lunch with an old friend/colleague I had met when I first moved here nine years ago to work in HIV/AIDS services. My friend is someone who looks like a high school biology teacher, yet can talk about queer radicalism like a seasoned pro, which ranks high on my list of people to get to know. Across years of lost contact it felt like we picked up the same chats we had when I was still a new kid on the block in the local service provider circles. When I mentioned some of my writing interests, particularly exploring the history of these earlier times and circumstances, he cut through some of my romanticism in a blunt but helpful way: “Next time you’re in San Francisco, go to this bar and ask if anyone knew Randy.” “Get in touch with this author—I hear he’s actually accessible and probably knew everyone you’re interested in.” It may be a slight conceit for me to think that so much of queer men’s history is lost, when in fact it’s sitting right there, still alive and kicking. It’s maybe slightly more humbling, but also inspiring to realize that what I view as “history” (because I was born while it was taking place) is actually still the collective life story of a living generation, diminished but not wiped out, doing one of the most radical things that LGBT people can do in the face of a history that has mainly recorded our isolation and insignificance: survive.