Sunday, July 26, 2009

"I don't want you bringing any homosexuals into the house."

My father turned eight-three years old today. As is his custom, he probably rose at dawn, climbed on his motorcycle, fired up the engine and cruised along the lonely Kentucky back roads, before arriving back home again in time to eat Mom’s bacon and eggs breakfast.

For over a half a century, he’s been as close to a bike as paint to pavement. While in the past, the road trips were just something that he did (he rode to California at least five time), today each ride is an act of defiance against the inexorable encroachment of old age--as if you could stop the hands of time by merely unplugging your electrically powered clock.

It wasn't easy growing up the son of a man who resembled Sean Connery and behaved like John Wayne in the movies. Dad had what could only be called “screen presence: fearless; cool under pressure; man of few words; athletic and handsome. He exemplified the qualities of the All-American man’s man.

My father grew up largely dependent upon himself, one of seven kids. By tenth grade he left school and entered a government sponsored youth work camp, at seventeen, during WWII, he served with the navy in the South Pacific, at twenty he married, by twenty-five he ran his own business, at thirty he built his own house, and by thirty-seven he’d fathered five sons. How do you top that?

It must have been difficult for him to of had a son who preferred books, art, drama and church to motorcycles, airplanes, judo wrestling, and scuba diving. He excelled at everything he chose to tackle. If some one drowned, the authorities called him to retrieve their bodies from the bottom of murky lakes and rivers. I remember at age eleven or twelve, seeing his bandaged after a mad tenant who owed back rent sliced him up with a knife. I recall him going back to a gas station to demand his money back from the unscrupulous owner who had sold me gasoline that never made its way into our car’s gas tank.

I’m sure my father didn’t know what to make of me. It was like having a child who spoke a different language. While my brothers ran around outdoors, I sat in front of the television, mesmerized by Susan Hayward’s portrayal of singer, Jane Froman, the great vocalist who lost her leg in a plane crash, watching her sing "With A Song in My Heart" as she danced down a staircase under enormous hanging chandeliers. Thank God, my saint of a mother provided him with four other sons to entertain him.
Were it not for my brothers, my awkward and tense relationship with my father—five minutes alone in a room with him and I felt like a caged bird looking for an escape—would never have mended.

Although, I came out as gay man at the late age of thirty (soon thereafter, informing my brothers), my parents remained in the dark until ten years later. I didn’t want to tell them, even though it made my life miserable their not knowing. Knowing my parents, I knew that my mother would love me still but agonize over my spending eternity in Hell, whereas my Father would take some stance like John Wayne to Montgomery Cliff in Howard Hawk’s film, ‘Red River,’ and tell me what to do. And so it played out, after my next younger brother decided it necessary to out me to my mother, who in turn, felt it necessary to immediately inform my father. Needless to say, it was not pretty.

One afternoon, I found myself alone with my father in the Den, where he sat in his arm chair watching the game show, ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ The tension in the air was as thick as the humidity before a hard rain on a hot summer day. I wanted to flee but I continued to sit there staring at Vanna White spinning the wheel.

Finally, like a kettle on the stove, the whistle blew. My father informed me that my mother had spoken to him about myz being gay. It must have required all his strength to even get the words out, he not being a man to express anything much more personal than a “hello.” He then proceeded to tell me that since I was smart (my having acquired a B.A. and a graduate degree) that I could change. He told me that I was never to bring any gay person into his home (although my mother later said that she liked all friends and didn’t know who was gay and who not). He ended the speech by giving me his prognosis: my relationship with my brothers would be destroyed if I did not become straight.

It never came to pass. For months, I barely spoke a word to my father, and not many more to my mother. But it was the support of my brothers that broke the silence. My father came to see that his straight sons continued their solidarity with their gay brother. And because his sons did not share his point of view, he was left isolated and alone.

I don’t know when I realized that our relationship had improved, but I recognized that the tension between us had dissipated. It felt like the relieved exhaustion I would feel after a physical fight with my next younger brother. We would end the ruckus all sweaty and tired, but whatever ill feeling we were carrying disappeared.

Then one Sunday morning, while my mother was off to Church, my father asked me if I wanted to go on a motorcycle ride with him. I pulled a helmet over my head, climbed on behind him with my hands gripping his sides and we were off with the wind whipping our faces. Then I knew that things had changed and life henceforth would not be the same.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

"If my husband ever speaks to you again, I'll divorce him," she said.

"Hi, John! It's Greg. Been thinking of you.  Give me a call. Hope every thing's ok."  I then hung up the phone, but, I had the unsettled feeling that things were not quite alright back in ole Kentucky.

For months I had rung John from my home in New York City, leaving a string of unanswered messages on the voice mail he shared with his wife, Mary.  Seasons passed: snow melted; flowers bloomed; tomatoes ripened; leaves tumbled from tree branches; and still, no response.

We had all become friends while on a student tour of Europe.  Seventy kids and their exhausted adult supervisors on three exhaust spewing buses criss-crossing Europe .  At that time, I was a seventeen year old born-again Christian, a youth leader in my Southern Baptist Church, a High School thespian and former Art Club president.   Any observant outsider could have added it all up and come to a quick conclusion:  Gay!   But I was always bad in math. 

John and Mary were my chaperones.  Although only ten years my senior they impressed me as so much older, spiritual and mature.   They had met one another while attending a conservative Methodist school, Asbury College and their courtship blossomed into marriage shortly following their graduation.  

For six weeks, we wandered through the glittering Capitals of Europe: tripped over the ruins of the Roman Colisseum;  stared dumbfounded at the almost naked, fan-waving, leg-kicking dancers of Paris'  'Folles Bergere'; scrutinized the half smile of the Louvre's 'Mona Lisa'; and, followed the stories of the young hopefuls in London Westend muscial,  'A Chorus Line.  It was a far, far cry from my strict Baptist Church in which I grew up where the most drama came from Baptisms and the sin-to-redemption testimonies of visiting preachers.  I felt like Audrey Hepburn in 'Sabrina.'

Leap several years into the future. By then I lived in the historic Cherokee Triangle of Louisville, Kentucky, a neighborhood for drawing creative and artistic types (Do the math). I was twenty-eight years old and the Area Director of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (a conservative youth movement with chapters on university campuses across America).  By this point of my life, sexual identity issues that I had buried away inside myself were violently breaking out of their crypt.

My life was not just a mess but a lie:    I was on the verge of asking a Church Organist to marry me; I pretended before my staff and students to be someone above the temptations that every human confronts;  I answered questions that no reasonable man would attempt to answer.  I counseled young men and woman who confessed of homosexual desires to give it all to Christ and let Him change them.  

As the state team leader of IVCF, I supervised a staff of five, whose objective was to establish and equip strong groups of Christian students to witness to Jesus to the non-believers on their campuses. I lead prayer meetings, ran instructional weekend Bible conferences,  traveled on Mission Trips to Central America, and trained young Christians to evangelize vacationing students on the beaches of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida during Spring Break.   I was a Christian Poster Child whose appealing image betrayed the real turmoil within.

Although, I had always been drawn to the arts, (drawing, painting, reading, theater), I had also always been inclined to spiritual things. I had grown up as a Southern Baptist, and for me, God, Jesus, faith and Church played an important role. An avid reader of fantasy and science fiction, I believed in an after life and felt strongly that everyone would be much better off spending eternity in Heaven than in the fires of Hell.  I was a young Ted Haggard (the ejected former leader of the National Association of Evangelicals who had confessed to engaging in gay sex with a Hustler Masseur) in the making.

But by my late twenties, I found myself so tormented by my desire for love and physical contact with my own sex, that I imagined I had only two choices: become straight and marry or live sexless and loveless for the rest of my life.  The other path was too black to even consider.  And that's how John came back into the picture.   Since our European tour, he had become a Christian psychologist with a practice at Louisville's Methodist hospital.

One day, I called John under the pretext of merely saying hello and admitted to my homosexual conflict.  Uttering those words required almost more strength than I had; I dialed the number dozens of times before before letting the call go through.  John suggested in sympathetic voice that we meet for lunch and talk about it.  And so we did, and continued to do for several weeks before he finally said that our friendship precluded his help and he exhorted me to get real therapy from someone other than himself.

For the next two years, I met weekly and sometimes twice weekly, (depending on my level of anxiety), with a silver haired Christian therapist, Gertrude.  "I want to be straight," I told Gertrude.  But she just nodded her head and echoed Jesus's words upon our first meeting, "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." 

I had tried other ways to go heterosexual.  Over time, I realized that prayer alone would not remove my desires, nor would admissions to older handsome Christian mentors.  I would feel great for a few hours after my confession and then all the longing would return like a mountain avalanche.  

For a years I was persuaded that my gay feelings were a temporary aberration to be expelled by healthy relationships with my male peers and friendships with women that could become romantic.   I had even convinced myself that each time I suffered a nocturnal emission or wet dream as it is more commonly referred to, it was God's way of relieving me of my desires. Obviously,  it didn't work.

Next, I concluded that it was my a fear of the woman's sex that hindered my progression into straighthood. I needed to just get over it.  So  I entered a drug store in a part of town where no one would recognized me and quickly seized whatever straight male pornography that could legally be sold over the counter.  Later, back in the apartment that I shared with a Christian policeman, I retrieved the magazines from under my mattress and flipped through the pages of busty blondes, brunettes and redheads, posed in positions that displayed all their assets so well that you could count the pubic hairs.  But no matter how hard  I tried to summon up some heterosexual feelings, the photos and stories only left my own asset limp.

One summer evening, I bought a six pack of beer.  Driving to a private tree shrouded spot, I parked on the side of a road.  Although I wasn't even a drinker (two beers were my limit), I thought that if I were to drink enough that I would free my inner heterosexual who would come forth like Jesus from His tomb.  Then I would be resurrected to a new life as a contented and happy straight male.  Of course, I did not succeed.  My naive attempt at self-administered therapy only left me inebriated and stopped by the police on my way home.

Even acquiring a girl friend did not help.  Linda was my last attempt of going straight.   We had met through friends.  She was the Church Organist at a socially prominent, white columned Baptist Church, who, at twenty-nine, suspicioned that I might also be her last chance to marry.  I tried to do everything right, even taking her home to meet my relieved parents.  Attending church functions and going to movies was fine, but to her chagrin, I always wanted to go home immediately after kissing her Goodnight at her door.  Even conservative Christians who would urge controlling your sexual desires until after your marriage still want get as close to the edge of the cliff as they can without falling into the chasm.   But not me.  I was outta there.

Through these years and the years following my decision to come out as a Gay man, to leave the Christian ministry, to move to New York where I entered the Film School of Columbia University (an acceptance I believe prompted by my bizarre story), I remained in contact with John.  In the beginning when I had first begun therapy, John said that he believed that I was merely passing through a stage that I had skipped over during adolescence suspicioning that I carried unresolved issues with my father.  

But what I came to realize over time was that John dealt with his own homosexual longings which he believed sprang from his own relationship to his parents.  As the years passed, he talked about them more and more and inquired about my own life as a gay man, how I reconciled my Christian background with my choices. As for me, simply put, I came to realize that being Gay was how I came into the world. If there is a God, then He made me gay. I explained to John that as I saw it the Bible doesn't really talk about Gays or what it means to be Gay. The Bible talks about acts of violence, I didn't see anywhere where it spoke of love between two men or women of the same sex.

Our relationship changed. I became the confidant and John the confessor. He admitted to engaging in furtive sexual encounters with other men, mostly closeted married men, whom he met in the parks or online. The episodes excited him, but at the same time, he believed that he was working out same sex feelings that he should have processed as a teenager. When asked about his marriage and whether he would come out or consider divorce, John spoke against it. He loved his wife, feared the loss of his retirement through the Church were he to come out, and worried that his children would disown him. He would remain married.

This is where the story becomes even more complicated and unbelievable to recount. At this point, John had been married over thirty years and had fathered two children, who were now married with children. And he had become a caregiver to his wife, Mary, who had become sick to the point of death with an illness that no Doctor had diagnosed. For two years, she became weaker and weaker, until finally one Doctor suggested that she take an HIV test. The result came back positive. She had been suffering from complications stemming from AIDS.

Oddly, John had not infected her. He tested negative, and they opined that Mary probably became infected through vitamin infusions that she received intravenously back in the early eighties. Once the diagnosis was determined, Mary went on the cocktail of AIDS medications. Miraculously, her health turned around completely and she went from being bedridden to being up and about and back to work.

It was the final phone call where the story came out. I was back in Kentucky and rang John and Mary's home thinking all I would hear was the answering machine. Again their message, "Hi, you've reached John and Mary. No one's home. Leave a message and will get right back to you." As I prepared to hang up, I heard a woman's voice. It was Mary.

The conversation began quite casually, but I detected a difference in her tone. It was almost cold to the point of ice, yet all the while very polite. I asked, "How have you been?" knowing about her problems with AIDS, and knowing that she knew that I was an out gay man.

"Do you really want to know?" she answered in a way that made me not want to know. Nevertheless, I said, "Yes."

She had discovered that her husband had engaged in homosexual sex. Now the fury in her voice was unmistakable. She kept repeating, "Greg, I know you're not to blame." "Greg, I know you're not to blame." But she was persuaded that I had encouraged John to have gay sex, and she felt betrayed that I had kept this information from her. Even though nothing physical had ever transpired between her husband and myself, Mary, was jealous of the emotional intimacy we shared. Her husband had never felt free to ever share any of his fears with her or anyone in the church knowing that he'd only receive judgement, a judgement that would only exacerbate the guilt that he already carried.

"Greg, I'll tell John that you called. But, Greg, I just want you to know, that if he ever calls you, I'll divorce him."

With that, she hung up the phone. And, John, never called.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin." Marlene Dietrich

It's not so surprising in retrospect that a decision made in the past affects the course of the future.  Nevertheless, at the time a choice is made, one may have little, if any, idea of the end result.  Call me a Libra but I never excelled at decision-making, an act I liken to dropping a twig from a bridge and watching it float down stream, sometimes adhering to a rock and other times sailing out of sight.  

One day, some time ago, I spied a tattered posting on a bus shelter near the Gates of Columbia University in New York. These glass enclosures have long served the community as billboards for residents to rent apartments, sell household items, advertise services and announce events. The notice announced a six week, black/white film photography course at Barnard College.   I enrolled, and soon found myself shoulder to shoulder in a cramped darkroom with the women of Barnard.   For the next few years, I was like a rabbit down a hole, ensconced in my cubby illuminated by a red safe light, making prints of what I'd observed in the world outside. 

So too, it was with German. At fifteen, upon entering my sophomore year of High School in Kentucky, I had the opportunity to learn a language. The options were three: Spanish, French or German.   The popular students chose French, the practical and foresighted ones took Spanish while the odd kids--the intellectuals,  geeks, artists and romantics opted for German. For me, I joined the eccentrics, a club of which I still count myself a member.

Had it not been for German, I would never have spent my nineteenth summer as a Gastarbeit, Guest Worker at a Hotel on the Island of Sylt in the North Sea, where I developed my first crush on a boy called Hanti, a seventeen year old motorcyclist who died in a mishap the following summer; I would never have met Andreas, a blond haired young man I found perched on the back of a park bench, bathed in lamp light, one summer evening in the Hofgarten of Duesseldorf,  nor would I have been befriended by a Anja, a beautiful young photographer who impressed me with her impressive black/white images of lesbian friends and lovers. And I would never have gone to Berlin, a city that I have returned to time and time again, and still consider moving back to.

Berlin is like the former lover who still wanders in and out of your day dreams and surprises you upon awakening in the middle of the night. Not to be there is a sweet loss, the taste of which you never want to entirely expunge from your tongue. There's a German slang word called Geil. In English geil means horned or horny, but it also means exciting, and Berlin is a geile Stadt. It exudes history, and sex, an act which once committed compels you to commit again and again.

Often I hear Berlin compared to New York, but I do not find it like New York, unless you mean the New York that existed in the sixties or seventies. But Berlin is nothing like New York today. In America one can carry a gun but not drink a beer on the street; in Berlin it is illegal to carry a gun, but one can join friends out doors and consume as much Beer or Wine as you want without fear of penalty.

The cost of living in New York crushes the artist's impulse. The demand of one's time to earn income entire off sets the time to be spent on creating art or just joining friends to exchange ideas over a glass of wine. Who but a millionaire can afford a space in NYC large enough to accommodate large groups or make big paintings or direct performance pieces, while in Berlin such space can still be had.

Sex can also be had in Berlin. Assuredly, sex is still available in New York City, but it also comes with a price. First off, who has any privacy in New York? Who can afford privacy? Everyone lives with someone else. A big question, at least among gay men, is "Can you host?" And how few can answer that question affirmatively. It stops a relationship even before it has had the chance to begin.

There's definitely a German attitude toward sex that differs from the American. Americans are like the teenagers who talk about sex all the time but don't have it, whereas the Germans, actually, do have it. New York gay men are looking for the perfect lay, almost a "trophy lay", you might call it, that they can show off to friends. It's almost as if the Americans measure themselves by how perfect the guy is with whom they engage in sex. But, mind you, I am discussing this from a gay male perspective.

When I've been in Germany, in Berlin, I have had encounters with men that I never would have had in New York. Not to count on my fingers, but I've met men who I found attractive who were quite different from myself: albeit, taller, shorter, more muscled, tattooed, or edgy. What I'm saying is that my observation was that the German or Berliner was not looking for their twin, or their perfect idea, or their trophy, but rather looked for a genuine encounter in the present.

I want to return to Berlin, not to escape New York, but to step into a stimulating environment that encourages creativity, adventure and risk.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Memory, Loss and Longing

The powerful themes of memory, loss and longing pervade Viggo Morensen's upcoming film release in 'The Road.'  The story begins in an American suburb in the near distant future.  An unexplained cataclysm sends shock waves through the earth, visiting earthquakes upon its inhabitants, thrusting dust into the sky that obscures the sun and brings on a deep freeze.  Plant life dies and with it the animals, followed by people who survive off the detritus of groceries and supermarkets and then off the flesh of other survivors.

The story is told in a linear fashion as after the death of the mother, a father sets off south with his only son to find life and other "good people."   As they make their journey through a landscape devoid of life and greenery, the father recalls a past that is no more and the son dreams of a life that has never really begun.

These themes of memory, loss and longing are the catalysts that trigger my own photography, especially as it concerns my own family.  Returning home to Kentucky a couple of times a year is like seeing life on speed dial:  my niece and nephews leaping from childhood into adolesensce and my parents moving from their vigorous "golden years" into a gray period where life sputters like a dying engine.

I watch their story like a viewer in the cinema, who can leave his chair at will and walk through the movie screen to engage with the characters, only to return back to his cushioned seat.  Yet their portrait is my portrait.

Recently, I mentioned to my friend, Uday, that my fear of my parent's passing impeded my own moving on in life, hindering me my from pursuing my own dreams, out of concern that I'll not be near or around when they go.  I think of going abroad again, yet measure the distance.  As my parent's life shortens, I become increasingly aware that what little time that we have left is all the time we have left.  My friend responded that even if I were there in the same vicinity, I still might not be there at that moment.   He had lost his own father while he travelled in Italy and my friend was in New York.

Photography is a futile weapon against aging and death.  Everyone grows older, everyone dies.  Life changes; new life goes on.  All I can do with my camera is arrest a moment, a moment that tells a short story and will always keep close by the memory.