Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A Note From The Past

April 10, 2006.
An Invitation from the Past.

I am going to talk about religion in this entry. So, I'm warning my parents right now to stop reading. You're probably not going to like this entry.

The event that precipitated this was an email sent to me by the leader of the Christian band I used to be in in the mid-70s. I'm going to intentionally vague about names and things because it's not my goal here to shame him or hold him up for ridicule, but the note was extremely offensive on so many levels, and indicates such an utter indifference to the truth about gay people and Christianity in general, and about anything that doesn't fall into the little bubble of fundamentalist literalism that is east Texas, that I can't just let it go. I have to talk about it. Let's call him T.

First, a little background: I left the band initially for a variety of reasons, but the main one was the fact that I was sick of trying turn straight. Back then, there was no information for gay people at all. No Internet. No contact with the outside world. All I knew is that I had spent years trying to "pray away" my homosexuality in order to fit into the band. They didn't know I was going through this, of course. None of guys, as nice as they all were, would have known what to do anyway. And the whole subject scared me.

So, I just gathered them all in the living room of T's house one day and told them I was out, that I didn't believe anything I was singing, and that I couldn't stay because I wasn't a hypocrite. Say what you will about our group, we were not phonies. We sang what we believed, and if I didn't believe it anymore, then I had to go. So I left.

The other thing about growing up in a fundamentalist religious bubble is that you are taught "all in" or "all out." I had no idea that there were alternative interpretations of Christianity out there. So, it's like feast or famine. Either you're a True Believer or you're an atheist who's going to hell. Jesus is either what they say He is or Jesus was a phony, a fraud and a fake.

Well, given that choice, and given the fact that I didn't believe any of it anymore, my only option was atheist. Non-believer. I basically cut off all my ties to them, to my family, to everything. It was like leaving a cult. But because I still bought into the either/or paradigm, I was, parodoxically, still a fundamentalist.

That led to many years of feeling adrift spiritually and emotionally. I was literally like a babe in the woods as I drifted off to Dallas. I went looking for people like myself, other gay people. I partied. I found a job working in a theatre. I joined a show band playing casinos. I partied more. I moved to New York. I played on a ship. During this time, I held my family and former friends at arm's length. How could they, I reasoned, possibly understand anything about me? The less said, the better. In my mind, I was protecting my parents and family from the reprobate that I had become. The less they knew, the better, I believed.

And somewhere in all that, back before we knew how the virus was transmitted, I contracted HIV.

And I met Jim. Jim was the first person in all that time with whom I could create a home. And when the HIV turned into AIDS, it was Jim who sat by me in the hospital, who learned how to run IVs, who kept me alive. And then, most miraculously of all, he took my songs, the ones I wrote about my struggle with my disease, which existed as nothing more than a simple piano/vocal demo cassette and, like an alchemist, turned them into an off-Broadway show.

Two years later, I was being presented the award as Best Composer by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. Then, last year, it all happened again. LA Drama Critics Circle. LA Ovation Awards. GLAAD Awards. The combination of the two of us. The love we have for each other, and the miracle of our partnership has not only reaped physical rewards, but has centered us spiritually, emotionally, professionally and in every other possible way.

I might have gone through a lot of growing pains to get to this point, but never have I ever been happier, more creative, more enthused about waking up in the morning. We may not have much in the way of money or "things," but we have each other. And, frankly, that's all I need. It's all I'll ever need. This is who I am.

A number of years ago, before my diagnosis, I planned on a trip back home just to see everyone and say hello. After all, we had played together for five years, full time. I wrote my first songs with this band. We were a tight unit. I really was missing my friends and was hoping to just say howdy and renew old acquaintances. In fact, I had been invited to an informal dinner they were planning.

But T told me, at the time, that because I was now "fallen away from God" he was withdrawing his invitation to have me to dinner. When I finally did visit town, he was so obsessed with my being gay that he pushed me into going to see some minister who would "fix" my sexuality. I decided to get along by going along. Besides, I was curious to see what kind of person he thought could get me "cured."

It was kind of bizarre because when I went over to his house, it was like a scene from a monster movie. He, his wife, and his kids were huddled in the corner cringing, as if I was some kind of alien about to pounce on them them.

Seriously. It was that weird.

I tried being respectful, but this minister, some traveling evangelist, realized during our session that I wasn't buying what he was selling. So, we shook hands and I left. I met with T's brother and his wife, two people with whom I have an abiding, long-standing friendship -- and who I love dearly. I saw my old college, visited some old friends. And then on the last day, I went to visit T again.

T and I had a respectful, if uncomfortably uncommunicative last meeting, all of it nerve-wracking as he continued to view me as if I were a specimen. Finally, it was time for goodbye and he said he wanted to pray with me. I said okay. And we actually came together in a warm embrace. It was the first time during that whole trip that I felt some genuine affection from the guy.

And though I felt I had endured what I consider to be one humiliation after another with him, it was in our final goodbye, during that prayer that I decided to just let it all go. Stop being angry at him. Stop being resentful over what he had put me through. Stop feeling like the victim. I actually began to feel some compassion and love for him, remembering the years we spent together on stage, in the rehearsal rooms, building our band, making music.

And that's when I, gently, as he was in my arms, pulled his head over to me and tenderly kissed him on the top of his head.

Suddenly jerked back from me and said, "Are you queering off on me?"

Queering off?

I was so startled, I couldn't catch my breath. "What?"

"Are you queering off on me?"

Frankly, I was so hurt by this accusation, I don't even remember what I said in response. I guess rejection. Something. All I know is it was like a knife going through my heart. And I realized at that moment that there was no way I would ever be able to get through to this guy.

Now, flash forward a few years. I'm sick. The HIV has finally taken hold of me and we don't know if I'm going to live or die. Word gets back to T. I get a phone call in the middle of the day.




It was not the most pleasant phone conversation I've ever had with a human being. In fact, he told me he had a guy on the line, another old band member who he had recently visited in the hospital and had raised him from the dead.

Raised from the dead. He said those words.

Now, this other band member was a late arrival to our group. He was a guitarist, S, who I liked a lot, but who I knew mostly as a guy who couldn't tell the truth if his life depended on it. Not a bad person, mind you. Just not all connected up top in the wiring department. So, now I have the two of them on the phone trying to convince me that I needed to stop being gay and turn my life back over to the Lord because S has finally seen the light and gotten saved, and why don't we all pray together.

I wrote a song about this, by the way. If you've ever heard The Last Session, then you've heard the song, "At Least I Know What's Killing Me." That song came from this phone call.

The guy who accused me of queering off on him is now on the phone telling me how he's raised people from the dead and is now prepared to heal me of AIDS by dipping me seven times in a muddy east Texas lake.

But, of course, there's no way he's going to sit down to a table and share a meal with me.

And this guy is trying to heal me?

So, flash forward to last week. Out of the blue comes this email from T.

It seems that in our little hometown of east Texas, they are having a big festival celebrating the gospel music acts that have come from that town, a not insubstantial number. T writes me and basically says that I can join them if I'm willing to repent and "see the Truth." To come "home to God's Way."

In other words, if I denounce my "homosexual lifestyle," leave Jim, my partner of 21 years, and everything I love behind, I get to join the band for one concert in east Texas.

I was tempted to ask him to divorce his wife in order to play a concert with me in Omaha, but I resisted it. Instead, I wrote him a nice note, thanked him for the invitation, told him that if he wanted me, he'd have to take me "as is" and that, given the fact that he can't even share a meal with me, I doubted he would be able to stand on a stage and sing with me. And anyway, chances are Jim and I would be in New York by that time doing our show about how God put us together in our gay marriage.

How God put us together in our gay marriage.

I haven't heard back from T.


baze said...

My God Steve, this is like The Last Session come to life! I can't believe how blind some people are, especially those who profess love for a loving God.

You did the right thing, although I might have been a bit more snarky and made the suggestion about him leaving his wife :-)

Keep on--your faith is stronger than those who would slectively interpret scripture, and your love is a WHOLE lot stronger!

Best to you and Jim,


Anonymous said...

What a putz. I always wonder why the people who scream "God" the loudest are the ones who seem farthest away from Him.

Christine Bakke said...

Steve, thanks for sharing this. You inspire me, and have for many years (even when I was ex-gay)...

Valorie said...

I think they scream "god" loudly because they are terrified. They think they SHOULD have a relationship with hir, but they know, in their heart of hearts, that they don't. Neither did the Pharisees and Sadducees.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Queering off on me? Makes me wonder if he thought you might be trying to spread your "gayness" to him, probably why the family was so afraid. . .

I have dealt with people who think that if they give you the choice of leaving your lifestyle (mine just being a garden variety sinner - not terribly gay as it were) so you can take part again in some ministry you might have been involved in. They sem to think that the possiblity of leading worship or playing a reunion concert will cause you to drop your life on a dime for something you might enjoy but don't find remotely important any more.

What I find amusing, and not a little sad, about this attitude is that the Jesus I'm involved with takes me as I am. If soemthing I am doing in my life isn't quite right, the holy spirit lets me know and I change. The key is - I'm still me and God loves me that way, so do my friends.

Steve Schalchlin said...

I am really enjoying all these comments. What's amazing to me is that people from both liberal and conservative sides of the religious issues agree with me that T has gone way over the line.

Anonymous said...

Hello, Steve.

A friend of mine suggested I read your blog. I'm glad she did. Oh, how I identify with what you've written here!

16 years ago, I met my life partner at a conservative (VERY) four-year seminary in St. Louis. It surprised the hell out of both of us, believe me.

As I read your story of "T," I cried and I even laughed a couple of times. How familiar…

When Mark and I left the seminary, we also left behind SO MANY PEOPLE that we both truly cared about - but, as you know - people that could no longer abide "us." This included large segments of our families in addition to our seminary and church "friends."

Our pasts, essentially, seemed suddenly missing. And just "who" are we, minus our pasts?

We're still trying to discover the full answer to that question.

Thank you again for your words. Reading them meant a great deal to me.


Steve Schalchlin said...

Brett, it's really sad when people don't realize how much pain they cause when they turn their backs on their friends. And it's even sadder when you realized that the only reason they're doing it because they don't know any better. They really think they're doing you a favor -- and yet when they read stories about Amish people turning their backs on their own children, they are horrified. Funny how people never see themselves in their own mirrors.

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