Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Gay Bars, Gay Bears and Christianity

Summer of 2009 has been quite a life changing experience traveling around the west coast states. I was hoping to make some contacts and find opportunities to further my music performing and art projects and work on some things for my documentary film. That really has not happened, however I have gotten to get closer to family and even some of my extended family.

One of the themes I keep seeing in my travels as I meet folks in the LGBT community are faith issues. It seems like for some crazy reason, gay issues have been really a hot topic in the church but it seems like church is a really hot topic in the gay community. Everyone has a story, and although most stories seem the same, I hear some unique situations in the lives of LGBT people that have really challenged my views.

Most of the people I have talked to on this trip are gay men, and mostly in the Portland, Oregon area. Portland is in the middle of rustic logger Oregon conservative culture with lots of religious influence. There is also this extreme polarity of this post “hippie” culture all over Oregon, mostly in the college towns and everywhere you look in many areas of the Portland metro area.

I grew up near North Portland on NE 31st near Killingsworth and close to the “hood” which was notorious for drive-by shootings, drug and gang violence. Fifteen years later I am shocked to find these hip-trendy-yuppie businesses all over my old neighborhood that I remember to be a commercial ghost town. Art and music on the street, bicycles ruling the traffic and everything “organic” has replaced the abandoned old boarded up storefronts on streets like Killingsworth and Alberta. Also, the gay community has really emerged from a few parts of town to several areas of Portland, with gay and gay-friendly establishments in parts of town I would have never expected.

With all this exploring, I still have not come up with an answer to how most gay men in this area view Christianity. I have gotten an earful (that’s for sure) of what I am calling my “crash course” in gay culture. I guess this the stuff I missed when I came out over three years ago. My “gay lifestyle” upon coming out consisted of moving into a suburban Kentucky ranch house with an older man with a big family who fed me constantly with “meat and potatoes” as well as feeling an isolation from the mainstream of gay culture. I am seeing that I really did not miss much! I would much rather be back in a private quiet family kind of life gaining another 50 pounds than cruising a downtown queer fashion show with a bunch of shallow queens telling me how to dress. Another contrast is this “bear” community that I have been so drawn to. By learning how not to dress, the bears counter the counter-culture of gay life to a new extreme, however I find so much of the empty sexually-driven naughty ways that I see in the gay mainstream.

So how does faith fit into all of this? Men love to talk about themselves and I am one of them. I find myself at gay and gay-friendly establishments hearing about people’s lives and most of the time sharing my life as well. Most gay bars/restaurants in Portland are unusually friendly to strangers, and I am defiantly strange. With my long hair and flannel shirt, I look like a hippie and one guy even said that I looked intimidating! But I still find that even though I have to assert myself, folks are pretty welcoming and willing to talk to me, even about God. The gay-bar experiences I have had in Middle-America were just plain pathetic with the exception of meeting a guy in a cowboy bar, but he turned out to be the creepy guy that I blocked online…

Before I mingled with LGBT folks, I came to a place in my isolated nice little Christian world that I felt like Church was everywhere, and everywhere there were hurting people and when people hurt they either go to church or mostly to some kind of escape (well then, some churches can be an emotional escape I suppose). The most common “church” that folks seem to go to in Western culture are bars because they are like community centers for just about every kind of community that adults can find. Because I don’t drink, cafes were always my “bar”, and they were great opportunities to talk to people about life and faith but with an intellectual thrust as opposed to bars which I find people letting their guard down quite a lot.

When I lived in Anchorage, I found that some of my church friends were reaching out to bars, clubs, taverns and pubs mostly through music. There were times, mostly in the 1990’s where I could find myself playing gospel songs and hymns in some really dumpy dives, including the Salty Dog in Homer, Alaska and in the bar on an Alaskan ferry boat on its way to Ketchikan. This would stir up some interesting demons, that’s for sure.

Now that I am more comfortably mingling with people in gay establishments, I find even more that gays love religion! I always thought this was sort-of true, but I see that religion is really gay (in my opinion) - just turn on Trinity Broadcasting and watch “Praise the Lord”, it is sooooooooo gay. Catholic stuff also is very gay in so many ways, its funny.

Another reason why I believe that lesbian and gay people are drawn to religion and spirituality is because of several similar themes that I find in the lives of LGBT folks. These traits include: creativity, intuition, awareness of self (feeling isolated and the search for the authentic because of gender-related rejection and even abuse…), and sensitivity to a deeper look into life. Most of us who are “enchanted” (I learned that one in California) are forced with facing self at some time in our life as opposed to many heterosexuals who can blend in with their surrounding culture and feel automatically accepted in it. Straight people in Ohio are some of the most non-interesting folks I have met around the globe, and living there made me realize that some people can go through life never having to discover or even challenge who they are.

We see that gay and lesbian people are “sensitive”, however sensitivity is not always a bad thing. A truly spiritual person has to be sensitive to the Spirit (sensitive to God) as well as sensitive to the needs of others.

Talking about Christianity in bars to strangers is really uncool, however I am surprised at how willing people are in gay bars. I also wonder if lesbian and gay folks realize more of their hunger and need for God than straight people? As I mentioned before, faith is a hot topic in the gay community as well, but if there is so much animosity, disappointment and outright disgust coming from LGBTs how come we are so open to matters regarding the church? Based on my experience, some of this may be because of my experiences with “ex-gay” programs and my desire to continue the social justice and advocacy work trying to raise awareness using creative efforts. I guess that looks really cool, and even a lot of straight folks are all ears when they find this piece of my life after probing a bit. “What on earth made you want to move to Kentucky?” people may ask, and not wanting to open up my straight-jail-can-of-worms, I feel like responding, “are you sure you want to know?”

I guess what I find with gay men in particular is a hardness of heart toward the church with some mixed sentiments added as well. It is the saddest when I find that so many gays still see the Bible as anti-gay. As educated and opinionated as so many are, I still wonder if most of these guys form their opinions of the Bible from the pulpits of the ignorant instead of being enlightened with the source itself. Since coming out I have tried to follow the Bible more in principal, not in practice. It is not a rule-book to me, it’s an oracle. It gives me wisdom and hope. I also have learned to see God as not the one ultimately to blame for everything negative that happens, but as the answer; to question self rather than question the Creator.

However, with those I come across as I plunge into what seems to be a deeper look into main stream gay culture (and mingling with “bears”), I am saddened by this sort of cynical-critic attitude that causes one to try to figure out things from afar and yet never seeming to dig deep enough into the subject of faith in a deep personal experience. As I have written earlier, guilt is one of the greatest hindrances to prayer for the gay and lesbian community. Some guilt needs to be forgiven and some guilt just needs to be educated (false guilt over sexual identity needs the light of truth to free someone); and not knowing the difference causes so much confusion and frustration that so many put up a mental block when if comes to their personal relationship with God through Christ. On the other hand, it is all so easy to discuss religion when it does not challenge the individual to face their self.

On a closing note, this faith “mental block” reminds me of the many dear people that I have visited on my journey so far, and how I am asked to fix computer problems. For some men and women, no matter how desperately I try to use non-technical terminology and make things simple, repeated, written whatever… Some still feel so overwhelmed by the whole experience that they can’t seem to grasp a single concept about computer maintenance. It could be mixed with all the baggage of past computer crashes, all the useless stuff they bought that was not the right hardware and software; and a deep inferiority complex toward younger generations when if comes to technology. It could be mixed with the pride they had ten even twenty years ago of how good they were at computers, and there is fear of loosing data, fear of loosing a sentimental PC that needs to be replaced and perhaps other psychological barriers. Fixing a PC is annoying enough, that’s why I bought a mac. But I find that I not only get involved with playing this computer “hero” which makes me feel so all-powerful, I have found that my greatest challenges with being a tech-support-vigilante is not the “blue screen of death”. It is breaking through all of the mental barriers that people have unconsciously erected and that takes a much bigger hero than I may ever be.

The good thing about these mental barriers and hardened hearts is that prayer is the answer to cure spiritually blinded eyes and open spiritually deafened ears. Learning how to strategically wage war against these little enemies of the truth is based on knowledge as well as your closeness to God. The bad news is that debating alone will produce little results and may even prove to be counter-productive. Right now in my life, my studies and the effectiveness of my spiritual influence (which I admit is lower that it has been) I am realizing now that I need to move from this sort of “collecting-a-big-gay-prayer-list” to moving into answered prayer. As we Christians know about the faith pioneers and saints that their actions were seeded by a burden. Luther seeing the brothels for clerics on his first trip to Rome was a seed that produced a holy restlessness. These burdens are from the Lord when you feel the guilt and pain of another as if you are Christ carrying their sins. But these spiritual emotions may be there for you to take them to the cross, to intercede in prayer, devotions, fasting… That is when the debate ends, the argument is cast down and the confusion ends: the one we have in our heart is knocked off the fence into either a Damascus road experience of submitting to the Light, or a bitter decision to truly turn away and consciously follow a path that leads away from God.

So anyway, as I finish this much larger article than I wanted to write, I am reminded how blessed I am in a nation where I can wear a cross to show my faith, and a rainbow to show my identity without having to be imprisoned, tortured or executed as a result. It is wonderful to know so many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people that so freely worship Christ. I am typing on my aunt’s laptop by their pool north of Seattle on a warm evening. Her partner and young daughter play in the family room after we had dinner together. My aunt, saying grace thanked God for my visit and things like that reminded me of how many LGBT Christian families are out there.


Steve F. said...

Fascinating post, Jason. I loved the comment about a downtown queer fashion show with a bunch of shallow queens telling me how to dress - that's why I have very little to do with most of the public gay culture. Just because they did it on "Will & Grace" doesn't mean it was right then, or now...

This part struck me:
The most common “church” that folks seem to go to in Western culture are bars because they are like community centers for just about every kind of community that adults can find.

If you're ever near a theological library (especially a Methodist one) check out White Soul:Country Music, The Church and Working Americans by my ministry mentor, Dr. Tex Sample (yes, that's Doctor Tex...). The background in this entry on Wikipedia explains a lot...

Tex would tell you that "Help Me Make It Through The Night" is a prayer, or perhaps a psalm of working-class America, and that a lot of "church" goes on at honky-tonks. He even had a ministry class for years at St. Paul School of Theology in KC called "White Soul" that met at honkey-tonks around northern KC.

It's fascinating, too - I find that an awful lot of people (str8 and gay) are proof that "the unexamined life is not worth living." It's not just middle Ohio - although it is one of the straightest areas I've ever lived in, outside of Columbus itself (which can be pretty fabulous, at times).

I've found that the spiritual hunger in gays is so fascinating - we are so "other," in so many ways, that we seek community and "something greater" in every way that we can. I think that you are right, too, in that the very things that makes for great priests and ministers also show up strongest in the GLBT world (and I don't just mean a love for flashy clothing, theatre and red Prada shoes - though the Pope has certainly cornered the market there!).

There are thousands of gay Catholic priests - wonderful, faithful, celibate men without whom the Church simply could not function. They were drawn to the ministry because that is what they are heart-called to do - period. The same deviancy that the RCC finds in her priests shows up in ministers around the globe - and it's a tiny, tiny percentage compared to the whole.

It's often been said that if every gay person left the ministry of every "str8" church in America, the result would be silence and boredom. Too many of us have chosen silence and church closets in order to live out lives of chosen faith.

I'm so thankful for an accepting and welcoming church (see my post over here for more on that topic). Now, I just wish the rest of the gay world could get the message that not all Christians are homophobes. In fact, some of my fellow bloggers were the first str8 Christians to reach out in love and acceptance to me...

Great stuff.

Jason said...

My favorite scene in the Simpsons Movie is right when the dome covered Springfield and everyone from the church ran into Moe's tavern and everyone in the tavern ran into the church. As simple as that is, golly its really true...