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.


kenyon said...

i like this and many others

Tema Stauffer said...

Great writing, Greg. I think your blog is fantastic.

ernest said...

I think I recognize the two babes in the middle of the post. Vicki confirms that this is her at a much earlier stage in her existence.

Like the blog - much to read.