It was probably in the 5th grade that I started feeling that I was somehow out of sync especially with other boys my age. I was quite precocious in the third and fourth grades and got good enough grades to be sort of pushed up a grade. The Holy Cross nuns were all about keeping class size stable and consistent at no more than about 40 it seemed.
A handful of us third graders were tossed in with the fourth grade class. So I ended up being with a group of boys a bit more developed than I was. But again it was in the 5th grade that I realized that my precocious difference was not always kindly looked on. I never though experienced any out right bullying. But I learned almost subliminally to tone it down a bit.
The most traumatic experience from my 5th grade year was being told by the nun teaching us it that I was being failed in Palmer penmanship. I was a straight “A” student in everything else so I really think to soften the blow she actually said to me: “maybe you can be a doctor”.
At the age of 16 my family moved up to the northwest side of Chicago from rural Indiana. By that time the hormones were raging. I continued to attend Catholic Schools also taught by Holy Cross nuns. Late in my Junior year I sought out the high school guidance counselor with concerns that I might be homosexual. He wound up being my first sexual partner and a very positive relationship lasted for the next several years, long after high school graduation.
There were several short lived episodes of trying to be straight and sex with a woman a couple times that can only be described as disastrous especially for her. Counseling from a family parish priest that ended with his arm around me saying I would make a great priest was my last hurrah at trying to change!
A move to Denver in late 1972 greatly facilitated my queer maturation. Politically and socially I was always a bit on the fringe so I actually relished diving into the gay world of Denver, socially and politically.
I still wonder at times though why I had such a relatively smooth transition to being a full-blown homosexual and I am sure it is probably multi-factorial. One thing that stands out in retrospect though was the total unconditional positive regard I had from both of my parents. One instance in particular stands out and that involved my coming out letter to my parents I believe I sent in 1977 or 1978.
My mom responded quickly saying that all was OK we still love you very much (it always helped being the oldest and male in a large Irish Catholic family). My dad though took several weeks to get back to me and it was in a letter. He opened by saying he had taken his time to respond because he didn’t want to say anything he would regret. One of my great regrets is that I lost that letter in one of my frequent moves in the 1970’s. He did say that my being gay explained a lot about me especially my concern around the poor and civil right issues. He then said he hoped I would stay in the church and actually suggested I seek out a group called Dignity, for gay Catholics. How he came up with that suggestion has baffled me to this day and his death in 1980 prevented any further exploration. I have wondered though whether he sought counseling from the same local priest who put his arm around me and suggested a priestly vocation. Father S. may have known about Dignity one way or the other.
In 1978 I met Harry Hay and that relationship also greatly informed my queer personhood. Harry was all about fostering our differences from the straight world. He was fond of saying the only thing we have in common with straight people is what we do in bed.
It wasn’t until the late 1980’s with my dive into Buddhism that I began to learn that difference is a total illusion. It is all one taste.
I would close with a poem that really points out that illusion and it is by the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh called Call Me By My True Names. Written in 1989 it is a bit dated in small ways but the message remains very resilient.
Please Call Me by My True Names by Thich Nhat Hanh (1929 – )
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.