Thursday, January 21, 2016

My first suicide

Like too many other gay kids, I too once thought suicide was the only way out. 

I came of age during the late 1970s and early 1980s when we had a president (Reagan) who couldn't bring himself to say the word AIDS despite the alarming number of gay men dying from it. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority were gaining steam and a tiny group from the Westboro Baptist Church began to protest at funerals for victims of AIDS by carrying signs that read GOD HATES FAGS and FAGS DIE/GOD LAUGHS.

I had learned what every child learns: It's okay to be yourself just as long as you're like everybody else.

The child of a broken home, I faced the terrors of being gay alone with no support from family or church. It was a confusing, frightening time, and one evening, when I could stand it no longer, I decided it was time to end it.

I was a cutter. That was another word one didn't hear at the time. It was a strange, mysterious thing to cut yourself with razor blades, to watch yourself bleed. Surely no sane person would do such a thing and the idea that one engaged in cutting as a way to take control of one's own body was quite unheard of. 

I dabbled in suicide too. Half-hearted attempts. 

But that night ... 

I had purchased three boxes of sleeping pills. I popped them two and three at a time until I could swallow no more. I managed about 40 pills in all. Then I lay down on my back on the bed and waited. 

After ten or fifteen minutes, I realized that if I was going to save myself, I was going to have to get up, call someone, go the emergency room, do something.

But I did not. I had made my decision and was sticking with it. So I lay there, thinking I would simply fall asleep and that would be it. I was not afraid of going to hell. My life was already hell. What difference would it make?

Why did I want to die?

It wasn't just being gay, although that was part of it, especially the intense shaming I received at the hands of the Catholics. I felt ashamed of myself, humiliated and certainly not loved by God. I felt like a moral failure. 

But it wasn't just the whole problem of being gay. It was the broken home, being let down by parents, the childhood abuse, the violence, the neglect, the agony of trying to parent yourself and survive when you have no idea what's going on inside you and all around you.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my doom. I had apparently watched too many television movies. I didn't realize that over the counter sleeping pills could not kill you. You needed prescription-strength stuff for that. Barbiturates, they were called. 

Not only did I not fall asleep, I could not sleep at all. I was completely wide awake. I felt a weird sensation in my chest. Later, I would discover that by lying there for so long on my back, the pills had gotten stuck and burned a hole in my esophagus. I still have trouble eating spicy foods.

At some point, I got up and played records. The next morning I went to work and never told a soul about it. 

In fact, I've never told anyone about that little escapade ever. 

Until now.

I'm glad I failed at both that attempt and several subsequent attempts. My life would have much different if I hadn't. 

Which brings me to the point of this post, which is tell you a little bit about Bilal Abu, the young Muslim boy in BILAL'S BREAD. Bilal's story of intense homophobia at the hands of fundamentalist brother isn't my story. But then again, it is. Bilal is a cutter. The victim of sexual abuse, he somehow cottoned on to the fact that by punishing his body, he could exert control over it, control that was denied by his abuser. By hurting himself, he could make the decision about when the pain would end. 

Bilal also faces the problem of coming to terms with his sexuality. A quiet boy, he finds it hard to speak up for himself, to make himself heard. And how can he? The voices in his household are so loud and so strong, he is easily overpowered. (And what was a young gay man like myself to do when confronted with Rev. Fred Phelps and his protesters screaming that GOD HATES FAGS?  What do you do when your church thinks you're a pervert who's not much different from someone who likes to have sex with dead bodies? How do you make yourself heard when no one is listening?)

Eventually Bilal finds his voice. It happens when his school participates in a poetry hoe-down sponsored by the school district. He decides to get up and read a poem. 

I want to share that poem with you. It was written a long time ago, but it still rings true. 

If you've ever thought suicide was the way out, I want to assure you it's not. What needs to die is "homophobia" and bigotry and the lies we tell ourselves about who we are and what God thinks of us.

The truth will set you free, but sometimes you will pay dearly. But it's worth it. 


my first suicide
was on an evening in July
and pills were the plan
they were sticky in my hand
as I, in twos and threes
gulped them down with Lipton tea
but death was not to be
not yet
not for me

then came razor blades
as further murder plans were made
to end my misery
to bleed my way to peace
and I, despite my best
created only one more mess
and death was not to be
not yet
not for me

these empty places, empty spaces
all these holes that must be filled
how much better, how much faster
if this body I had killed
instead it’s endless hours
endless days and endless haze
as bit by bit and piece by piece
I make my way to my release
and I, despite my best
long to die and take my rest
but death is not to be

not yet
no, not for me

you see:
you got the ball, I got the chain
you got the sun, I got the rain
you live in light, I live in pain
for me to die would be to gain
I know such words ought not be spoken
just as true things rarely are
and what’s the use of too much hoping
when each day brings yet more scars?
yet hope I do, I can’t resist
I long to know much more than this
I long to know some happiness

a chance is all I’m asking
a chance to do my best
a chance to love somebody
to put my heart to rest

you tell me I’m not normal
you tell me that I’m queer
you tell me that the folks like me
aren’t really wanted here
you tell me it’s a crime
if I should feel the way I feel
you say my love is shameful
there’s no way it could be real
but then, how would you know
when these shoes, you’ve never worn
but still that doesn’t stop you
oh how easy falls the scorn
the hatred and rejection
how they wound and how I bleed
cause love is not to be
it’s not allowed for folks like me

well, where then should I go
back to pills and razor blades?
and what then should I do
to take this pain away?

and would it make you happy
if you put me in the ground
if you silenced me forever
with that silence so profound?

Still I, despite despair
offer up this fervent prayer
that death is not to be
not yet
not for me
the kind that comes from trying
to be what I can’t be

you see:
my first suicide
was on an evening in July
and pills were the plan
they were sticky in my hand
and only now when I look back
do I understand
why life was meant to be
why the truth can set you free
so let truth be spoken here and now for all to hear
let the truth be said
I am queer
Yes, I am queer

And let this be a suicide
a death to lies and my deceit
a death to furtive hiding
a death to dishonesty
cause life is meant to be
both for you ...
but also for me

Friday, January 15, 2016

So you don't like gay marriage?

So you don't like gay marriage.You have religious objections. You think marriage should only be between a man and a woman. You're not alone. The Anglicans recently got mad at the Episcopalians over this.

My question to you is this: If not gay marriage, then what?

Please consider this question. Please go deeply into it. Consider the ramifications. Consider what it is you say you want. If it's important enough to you to disown a family member who might be gay, or to vote for legislation to take away rights from millions of people, then please spend a few minutes considering what it is you are asking for - what it means, how it will affect real lives, the impact it will have on the society you live in.

If gay people are not to get married, then what are they to do?

Older gays and lesbians can tell you exactly what they will do because we've already done it.

Most will escape to the "gay ghetto," which revolves around gay bars, drugs, alcohol, casual sex, bath houses, addictions, pornography, prostitution. They will run off to larger cities where these gay ghettos exist. They will abandon your churches and communities. They will become distant, withdrawn, isolated.

On the other hand, gay marriage provides an alternative. It allows a young man or a young woman to find a partner of their own choosing, with whom they can be happy. They can be open about their commitment to their partner. They can make their wedding promises in full view of family, friends, the community (who will then help them to keep those promises). They can buy a house, settle down, live normal lives.

If my child was gay, I know which option I would prefer. Religion doesn't enter it. Whether I agreed with his choice or not, I would want him close at hand. I would want to meet his partner. I would want to be involved in their lives. I would want them to feel welcomed in my church. I would want society to give them the same chances and opportunities that all couples enjoy.

I would not want my child running off to the big city, slinking around in the shadows in the dead of night, wasting his life on drugs and alcohol. I would not want him marginalized. I would not want him to have relationship troubles and not feel he could ask me for advice.

Opponents of gay marriage need to consider the realities on the ground and the effect their religious beliefs have on others. If gay marriage is not an option, they need to provide an alternative because, like it or not, gay people are going to get together and have relationships.

The tide is turning. Even the First Baptist Church in Memphis has gotten on board. Gay marriage has become the law of the land, religious objections notwithstanding, precisely because it allow gays and lesbians to come out of the shadows and live more normal, fuller lives. In the grand scheme of things, this can only lead to stronger families and communities. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

It's a dad thing

My latest novel is called GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAINS from Dreamspinner Press and will be hitting the shelves later this month or early February. It's the third book in the Sugar Tree series, which follows the antics of Wiley Cantrell, a mouthy gay single dad just trying to make his way in the world best he can.

I've been asked if the books are autobiographical and whether the character of Wiley is based on me. The short answer to both questions is no. I'm not a Southerner though I do live in Tupelo, Mississippi now. I've never been mistaken for someone who was sexy, or opinionated, or who had a sarcastic remark for any occasion. While I'm a father, I'm not the father of a special needs child.

But the long answer? Perhaps.

As I worked on the edits for GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAINS, I realized I was writing about myself.

MOUNTAINS is about Wiley and his partner Jackson adopting two children. This happens six years down the road after they lose Wiley's son Noah, who was never expected to live but held on for thirteen years. His loss, while not completely unexpected, was a painful chapter in their lives. Wiley eventually decides he wants to adopt. This is a way to move on, to start living again, to jump back into the business of living and loving and keeping the faith. But it's not easy.

I'll let readers decide whether Wiley and Jackson are making the right decision or biting off more than they can chew.

When I began the Sugar Tree series a few years ago, adopting a child was very much on my mind. In fact, I've flirted with the idea of adoption for many years but there never seemed to be a right time. Last year, however, I began to attend the necessary parenting classes and begin the application process, which I'm currently in the middle of.

As an openly gay single man living in Tupelo, Mississippi, the most religious state in the Union, my chances are not good. Still, the heart wants what it wants. And irony of sitting around and writing about an imaginary gay single dad raising a child has not escaped me. I've been writing about what I wanted to do myself.

At one point during GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAINS, Jackson says, "When you said you wanted a dozen children, I thought you were exaggerating." Wiley, in typical fashion, replies, "I was. I'll settle for six or seven." Wiley then reminds Jackson that he's the sort of guy who "just needs to love my babies," a fact of life he made perfectly clear when they first met.

Wiley is a family man. He loves kids. He loves his family. He's not much for drinking or carousing or hanging out at gay bars (which is good, since there aren't any in Tupelo). He'd much rather play Frisbee in the park with his son than hit up the latest drag show. When loneliness and horniness get the better of him, he will jump in the sack with the first thing that comes along (something for which he has been roundly chastised by many readers). At the end of the day, though, Wiley is not about casual sex or a promiscuous lifestyle. He wants family. Commitment. Permanency. He wants kids and a husband to dote over. He wants to build a future and live a normal, happy life. What he needs are other people to get out of the way and let him do it.

He finds himself deeply in love with a flawed man, but it's okay because Wiley is flawed too, and he knows it.

While I am nothing like Wiley in appearance or manner or station in life, I am very much like him in many other ways.  In what he values, what he wants, what he copes with, what he tries to overcome, even the mistakes he makes.

Like Wiley, there has been trauma in my past that I needed to deal with ... and almost couldn't. Wiley learned to forgive and move on. I have too. Wiley's latest trauma, the loss of his son, has him desperately trying to find the meaning behind it. He wonders why God would take his only child. He's mad. He's angry. He's hurting. He's a little self-destructive.

He eventually concludes that God sent Noah into his life to teach him how to deal with messed up kids. Let's face it: Adorable as he was, Noah was a hot mess, a child born addicted to meth, a child haunted by demons and disabilities and birth defects, a child who was never expected to live.

But Wiley found a way to deal with it, a way to reach him, a way to give him at least a few years of happiness.

Wiley believes adopting a messed up child that no one else wants will somehow give meaning to Noah's life. These is a purely arbitrary decision Wiley has made, based on his own internal beliefs and ideas. We could argue whether it makes sense or whether he's just fooling himself, but that's not the point. Wiley looks at the situation and assigns his own meaning to it, and that's all that matters. Wiley says, "I need to know Noah's life wasn't just some cosmic joke." He needs to know there was some point to it, some higher purpose, some deeper meaning.

We all do the same. We look at terrible things that happen and try to find the reason, try to assign some meaning that will let us sleep at night.

Myself, I look at my childhood, at what people did to me, at what my parents did, and sometimes I am gripped by the feeling that it was all pointless and stupid and cruel. "A cosmic joke." I ask myself: Why do we allow children to grow up in such homes, with such people? Why doesn't someone do something? If God really does love us so much, why does he allow our most vulnerable to endure such agony? Why is he silent? Why doesn't he intervene when children are being hurt?

This business of assigning meaning is something I've struggled with my whole life.

Which takes us back to adoption.

When I first began attending parenting classes and filling out all the endless forms, I was asked over and over: Why do you want to adopt? I thought I had to have some compelling and fantastically altruistic reason. So I gave long answers on how I had an unhappy childhood, how I could help these kids, how I understood what it was like to know you were not wanted by your own parents, how I knew the pain of having parents who let you down and let you fall through the cracks because they were too busy with their own drama to notice. I talked about how being a dad was the best thing I ever did in my colorful life, how I loved being a dad and wanted to do it again. I repeated the story about the man who complained to God about all the horrible things that go on in the world. The man asked, "God, why don't you do something?" And God replied, "Why don't you do something?"

Those are all perfectly good reasons, of course.

The real reason is much simpler: I want to love and be loved. Part of it is altruistic. Another part is perfectly selfish. I don't want to be eighty years old and dripping into my adult diapers and not have at least one person visit me in the nursing home. I'm sorry if that's selfish, but it's the truth. I want to love and be loved. Like everyone else, I want family, people I can count on, people who can count on me. I want to go home and cook dinner and help with homework and kiss the boos boos and attend the football games and help a child grow up.

It's not complicated.

Wiley has a similar thing going on. He struggles to assign meaning, but at the end of the day, it's plain to see: He just wants to love and be loved. He wants to fuss over and love on his babies. That's just how he is. It satisfies some need he has deep down inside. To be useful. To be included. To be part of life. To live and love, to give and receive, to find joy and bliss in others. To be part of the human family.

The child I'm hoping to adopt is a special needs boy who is now ten years old and who has been with his current foster family for two years. They don't have enough money to adopt him. I may never have a chance to be his father. I've resigned myself to that. Still. I needed to be able to look at myself in the mirror and say I tried.

I hope readers enjoy GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAINS. I put a lot of heart and soul into that book and I hope it shows. And while some are going to be mad at me over the loss of Noah, I think, when you reach the end of the book, you'll see that life does indeed go on. And it goes on because it has to.

As always, thanks for reading.