Thursday, May 17, 2007

Feeling a Little Bit Safer

When I was a kid, the word homosexual was not uttered around my house. I asked my mother what a homosexual was once. Her response was, “Where did you learn a word like that?” Later, when I asked my father, he said, “Those are the people who hang out in the bathrooms of the Greyhound Bus Station.” I went into the closet and slammed the door.

At the same time, I picked up a desire to please, probably stemming from being the child of an alcoholic, although I don’t want to lay that kind of responsibility on my father, who was a far more decent man than the two facts I’ve just revealed about him would suggest. In any case, I got it from somewhere.

Two beliefs, one that homosexuality was unspeakable and another that it’s important for people to like you, found their way into my psyche at a young age and formed a nearly deadly cocktail. I nurtured a firm conviction I was an unloveable misformed creature.

Imagine my surprise, when for the very first time at the age of 27 I fell in love with somebody who returned the feelings. All those years of self-loathing gave way to the conviction that I might have been wrong, and life might well be turning around.

And then, as so often happens with immature love, when you are not clear on who you are and where you are going with your feelings, the love affair fell apart.

I nearly fell apart. Because I had built up such an intense self-loathing, the hope of things to come was equally intense. And so was the crash of Stage 3. I became suicidal.

Because I was in San Francisco by this time and help was available, I got through this challenge. “Are you involved with alcohol or drugs or homosexuality?” the clerk at the clinic asked me. “You don’t have to tell me which one.”

Yes, I said, and I began therapy. I had one session with a shrink. “You know what your problem is?” he said to me. “You’re like anybody else who gets depressed – and who doesn’t? – you believe that this time and this place is all there is. You haven’t learned yet that only one thing in life is certain, and that’s change. (There will always be a special place in my heart for Buddhists.) All you have to do is learn to hold on tight and let this thing pass, and you’ll be all right. Life will give you the experience to put this in perspective and you'll see that you're not a bad person.”

At the time I thought the guy was certifiable. Certainly not a serious shrink. Shrinks, I had learned from the movies, sat and let you talk. They didn’t hit you with advice at the very first meeting.

I was in the right place to take his advice in, however. I like to think he sensed that, but I’ll never know. No matter. I escaped some potentially serious consequences. He put me into a group where I soon discovered the world was full of some wretched people indeed, dangerous to themselves and others, and it motivated me to take my “problem” seriously.

I consider that a near-death experience. No different, actually, than feeling the breeze of a bus that missed you by mere inches. I was lucky and for a while there I believed in guardian angels.

There seems to be no telling who is going to ride out such challenges and who is going to succumb. I survived. My friend Merrill succumbed. Merrill never quite got the message that things can change and experience can build the confidence to shed the Falwell influences (in his case, it was the Mormon Church.)

My friend Bill has worked at a suicide prevention center. Others, too, have told me over the years of countless people in agony and their close shaves. Some people never face such challenges and know little or nothing of the darkness than can eat the soul. Others seem to be blessed with the gift of being able to let it all roll off their back. It seems almost random, which people swallow the Jerry Falwell pill of self-loathing, and which spot him as the last man on earth to take seriously.

It’s easy to say we should each take responsibility for our own decisions, that nobody, not the Falwells of the world or anybody else should be blamed for our actions. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way things work. There are lots of people sitting in despair. And no shortage of Falwells, ever ready to provide them with the tools to push them into the abyss.

Suicide is not the whole story. On a daily basis we hear of 3300 American deaths in Iraq and counting, and the death figures strike me as obscene information in the way they mask far greater misery. Just as TV news shows warehouse fires because they are photographable, TV news gives death figures because they carry the greatest shock value. The story that gets buried is of the tens of thousands of men and women with lost limbs and shattered psyches –– to say nothing of the misery of millions of Iraqis forced into refugee camps, Iraqis denied hospital care, Iraqis denied education. The gay suicide figures, similarly, mask the misery that gays still suffer who don’t come with built-in defence mechanisms.

If the religious right actually read their Bible, they might notice that Christ's chief focus was poor people. They might come across the Beatitudes. Instead, they have zeroed in for some strange reason on non-vanilla sexuality as sin. That would be nothing more than silly folly if only they kept it to themselves. Since it's not their style, I suggest we just put up a sign that Christian bigots are not welcome, and maybe scatter a little salt when they show up on your doorstep. Grow a consciousness that bad ideas can do harm. Listen to your bullshit detectors when they wail and leave the church building and never come back.

Unfortunately, it's easier said than done. The world is still filled with vulnerable kids who don’t see the power to be free lies in their hands. They sit teetering on the precipice of self-loathing. And sometimes a Falwell comes along and nudges them over.

Well, now there is one less Falwell. And today, the New York Times carried the story of a shelter in Detroit where throwaway gay kids can feel safe. Note the links to further studies, including the one in the American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 92, No. 5 (May 2002)

That’s two bits of good news, two days in a row.

Sometimes life ain’t too bad.

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