What does my gayness call me to be or do in the world?
Interesting question. I’ve been thinking about how being gay has, in many ways, derailed the life I once thought I would have. Or kept me from discovering a life I might have had.
I’ll concentrate on two touchstones in my life that has shaped me.
As a kid, I knew I liked moving to music but in my rural context, there were no music classes to be had, and I probably wouldn’t have had them if there were. I experienced my first dance class as a freshman in college, a Modern Dance class for theater majors that wasn’t required but strongly encouraged. It would count toward one of the required P.E. credits. Long story short, all my P.E. credits would be fulfilled by dance classes---two semesters of Modern, on semester of Jazz, one semester of Ballet. I loved these classes and did well enough in them that at least one teacher asked if I would consider declaring a dance minor (I didn’t). No one was really there to tell me that it was a possible path for me. Everything I ever knew about dance growing up was that you had to start when you were six years old, ten at the oldest---but that’s mostly ballet. I’ve since learned that many people go on to dance careers after first taking class in college. Bill T. Jones comes to mind as a more famous example. I was content enough with my theater studies.
There is a long list of difference between me and Bill T. Jones, but one in particular was that while he fell in love with Arnie Zane in college, I was only beginning to realize I might be gay (or have “homosexual tendencies,” as I thought of it then) and resisting like crazy. It didn’t help that one semester of dance class took place as the football team was gathering for practice in the hallway to the dance studio. Walking by them in my university issued tights, hearing their snickers and occasional audible comments reinforced for me that I didn’t want to be gay, and that maybe dance was a gay thing to do.
How has this shaped me into my present self, 30-something years later? In my late 30s, after coming out and not caring if someone thought I was gay for taking dance, I found a modern class in Austin, Texas, where I lived at the time. It fed me in ways I didn’t know I was hungry. A couple of people put me in “extra” roles in large dance pieces and it propelled me into an Interdisciplinary Arts graduate program, where I started making performance art pieces with lots of movement. I also began writing about dance and dancers for publication. I became a regular audience member for dance performances. I recognize all these things as, potentially, substitution activities for dancing itself.
The second touchstone would be when I was in seminary. I went to seminary to study theology, full stop. I let myself get talked into doing a Master of Divinity degree because no one seemed capable of understanding that I had a call to study theology, but not a call to ordained ministry. Just before my senior year, I decided I would finish the degree but not pursue ordination. I started thinking about the lay professional categories that my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which at the time were “Associate in Ministry” and “Diaconal Ministry.” These categories were on an official roster of church professionals, but not ordained. I could see myself doing religious work, just not pastoring.
Then, in my last semester, I started coming out. Not in my college years suspicion of “homosexual tendencies” way, but more in an acceptance of my sexuality, a reconciliation between my faith and my desires way of coming out. This derailed everything. Although the ELCA now ordains uncloseted LGBT folk, this was more than a decade before that. I wasn’t sure I was willing to remain closeted to pursue church work.
Then I started meeting LGBT clergy. It was really kind of surreal. I told a handful of people I was gay and suddenly, I was introduced to a sort of underground network of LGBT clergy and rostered church workers. I got glimpses of their closeted lives in the fishbowl of public ministry. I can be very private, but I don’t have the personality for that sort of secrecy. All the years I bottled up my sexuality was one thing---I was ashamed of it. To feel no shame and continue having to hide? No, thank you. It wasn’t for me.
After the ELCA started ordaining and rostering LGBT folk, I made another inquiry into a professional life in the church, but that was met with a brick wall or three.
Meanwhile, I also do the occasional article about religion or a religious figure. Almost all my creative work, whether as a fiction writer or performance artist, has some theological thread running through it. I feel a less sense of loss about not having a church career than I do about not having a dance career, but given all the circumstances of my life, it’s really clear that neither was ever going to happen.
People of every time and place can tell you about disappointments and dreams unfulfilled. I write none of this with any illusion that I’m in anyway different from billions of people across the millennia of human history. Being gay derailed some potential career paths, but no worse than the way prejudices and biases derail other lives. It can be reasonably argued that I’m doing fairly well anyway.
But where does that leave me today?
At this moment, I work in a university registrar’s office. I write and do theater and make performance art around a full time day job that has nothing to do with any of my education, but allows me to do all the other things I do. As I write this, I’m in rehearsal for a play I’m directing, about two heterosexual couples who lead very heteronormative lives but are going through personal tragedies. I bring my gayness and my theological education to all of these. I do not hide who I am. I am fortunate to have circumstances that do not require me to hide.
This brings me to my real vocation of the moment, what my gayness (I hesitate to use queer for myself, as that has dimensions I’m really much too mainstream to fit into) calls me to do: Be out. I do my level best to not hide. Anyone who is around me for very long will soon enough learn I’m gay. I drop it into conversations casually but purposefully. I suppose that in this way, I queer a lot of my situations, even my most mainstream ones. Being out may even continue to derail some dreams. It’s likely.
I also believe that being out is the best way to create future lives with fewer derailments. If I can continue to be visible in as many of my situations as possible, perhaps there will be fewer dancers in the future who are intimidated by the football time---or, more importantly that the football teams won’t see a need to intimidate the dancers. With more people out, perhaps there will be an easier path for the next generation of seminarians, whether they want to be ordained or not.
Beyond that, what I’m called to isn’t particularly unique. There are any number of people called to study theology and dance and performance art and theater. Maybe not all together, but still. Perhaps my little bit of queerness gives all those things their own particular flavor, but so does the fact I grew up on a farm. But because being queer in any fashion is easy to hide for many people, what I really believe my gayness calls me to is to be out.
Let the derailments continue apace.