Chapter 4- Rocky Tops- The Closet Begins to Open

This is the most poignant/personal chapter in the book up to now. Thank you for reading this. I hope these words help those who are struggling with anything, including your sexuality and religious experiences. For those not struggling or have not struggled with these things- I hope this brings some clarity and understanding. There is healing for all whether it’s in the church or not.

The wind blows a certain way in Tennessee. It’s mountain wind. It is wind that is free and clear. Today is Texas, and I feel that special breeze swirling around. Spring is slowly awakening and unfurling its leaves. I was a kid away at college when I began my unfurling. There is something about the people I met at Lee University. Never anywhere else have I met the amount of amazing and incredible people in one place. In a small mountain town in Tennessee, I had some of the best days of my life.

There’s a kind of plant. It only grows in the rockiest places. I thought I was in the craggy places because of judgment and worthlessness. I was too precious to be planted in a garden but my heart would not be content alone in the alpines. Hearts have a way of wandering around until they find each other. Brave hearts are not made for fences.

I was a late-bloomer. I remember my hand soaring outside of the window of a car winding its way down the Ocoee River Highway. A girl and I listening to Copeland’s “Beneath Medicine Tree,” finding myself wanting to be so in love with this beautiful woman. I am coming round to realize that love is love. The love I had for Amber* with Amber was real. She made me want to be a better man. She saw the man I was and who I would later become.

My time in Tennessee was eternal spring. I remember the moment I saw Amber*. It was my first week at Lee and my roommate had brought me to a student government meeting he was involved with. I showed up in a thrift store suit jacket and blue Dickies (see- Taking Back Sunday.)

I transferred to Lee University in the spring of 2005. I had just turned 20 and had recently left the church. The rumblings of malcontent with Christianity began when I was a youth leader at my church. I was devoted to God and felt embraced and favored by my fellowship. I had never experienced that type of love and bonding before. I know I talk negatively about the Church as a whole, but there are good churches with loving people out there- (to a certain extent.) My church was one of those places.

The bright future of youth ministry that I know I had been called to began to dim as I realized that no matter my religious zeal, no matter how genuine my relationship to the lord was, no matter how much I prayed, no matter how much I counseled with preachers and counsellors, no matter how much I abstained from anything of the flesh, I was still attracted to men and I felt utterly worthless and disgusted with myself.

My faith began to waver and then my friends started drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes and through my despondency and bitterness, at that time, I picked up these vices because nothing else seemed to work or matter. (I still drink alcohol now but only for enjoyment and merriment- there is a big difference between that and the self-medicating apathetic usage of my past.) I was asked to step down from leadership at my church for which I totally understood and still understand why.

My mom caught my friend and I stoned at home. She asked me, “you’re high, your drunk, aren’t you?” I was found out, but didn’t know how to lie about it. I muttered “yes,” and sheepishly walked upstairs to my room. I tried to read my Bible but my mind was so foggy I closed it, prayed to God, and fell asleep.

My mother had seen a program on TBN about a cool Christian liberal arts college in Tennessee. I had received a scholarship and was taking honors classes at a community college. We had discussed about where I would be transferring to. The college my mom found sounded cool, but I wanted to go to a large state school. It was after my mom caught me stoned that my mother, father, and I all decided that I needed to go to a Christian college. I wanted to go to a school with a good Christian moral base- where you could get expelled for drinking, using drugs, and being gay. That’s how I ended up going to Lee University. That’s how a lot of us ended up there.

The day I met Amber, I had been sober for 2 weeks and hadn’t smoked a cigarette in 7 days. The student government was standing in a large foyer in a hallway about to open the meeting with a prayer. We gathered around in a circle, joined hands, and the first time I heard Amber say anything was in prayer. “Hey God, I just want to thank you for bringing all of us together…” I opened my eyes and saw this beautiful girl with long strawberry blonde hair, beautiful smile, and heartfelt love for God. I knew this was the girl I was going to marry. I still remember that night so vividly and was so bummed finding out she had a boyfriend. There was an immediate connection. We went to coffee and our chemistry was dynamic and unmistakable. But again, the boyfriend. We decided to become friends. We started falling in love any way.

Amber broke up with her boyfriend soon after and she and I dated off and on for a few years. I felt ecstatic with her. She was funny and beautiful. She had a big heart and smile. She was easy to love and I loved her a lot. I was happy and felt like God was healing me from being gay. I was in a fraternity where I met some of my best friends to this day. Life was good.

I think it was my junior year in college when the “Equality Ride” bus had planned to roll through our campus. There was a firestorm of controversy because these were gay Christians who were trying to promote their “gay Christian lifestyle.” They were not permitted to come to our school.

Instead, Equality Ride held their rally at a nearby park. Amber, myself, and the more liberal minded students went to go see them speak. Looking back I remember seeing quite a few faces there who came out years after our graduation.

Several of the members spoke about being homosexual and also being a Christian. I think this was the first time I had ever really heard of these two disparate ideas being synthesized. I was 22 years old.

Amber and I went to the local college coffee shop and talked about a lot of things after that rally. It was there, after 2 years of knowing each other/dating, I told her that I had been dealing with homosexual desires but felt God was healing me. Amber listened to me and when I was finished she told me, “it’s okay, Josh. I already knew.” That totally caught me off guard. I have some feminine mannerisms but I also come off kind of straight. I’ve had friends tell me they were shocked I was gay. That’s before I dressed in drag a couple of times for themed events lol.

We dated for maybe a year after that? She was the first woman I ever slept with and I was the second guy she had slept with. And we had good passionate sex. We had a couple baby scares too. She had to go get Plan B and I was out of town that weekend. I’ve thought about that many times. What if I had stayed with her that night? What if we decided to get married and have a family? That possible child would be 11 or 12 now. The age I was when I found out I was attracted to boys more than girls.

Amber graduated a year before me and moved back to Alabama. I had just gotten a brand new car and drove down to see her several times. She came up to visit me too. It was on our next to last trip we were trying to have sex, but I couldn’t get erect. That had happened a couple of times. I still don’t know why I couldn’t stay hard for her when I had been able to in the past. I wanted to have sex with her. I was attracted to her. I even began thinking about men while we were having sex just to stay hard. I know there’s quite a few Christian men who secretly do the same thing.

She and I had a couple of long conversations about it. The last time I saw her face to face was at a Ryan Adams concert. We stayed after the show and talked about everything. We broke up not because we weren’t in love. We broke up because she was living in another city and because God hadn’t “fully healed” my attraction to men. It still took 6 years and several girlfriends or female partners later for me to come out as gay. She and I took a picture together. Both of us with tears in our eyes.

We follow the love that we have been given. Or think we deserve. There is great love for all of us all we have to do is allow it in. Gay relationships sometimes appear so volatile because we have often had to love in the shadows and in dark seedy bars. I finally am able to allow in unconditional love.

The Portland Moon, June 2017

I have grieved that I will not have a binary family and children in the past. Not because there is any set of family that is correct or not. But its something I’ve talked to with a couple of my friends and they share similar sentiments. A dream deferred does not always completely heal. My ideal family looks different for me now and I love it. I love who I am and who my fam is. But there was a boy who loved this girl and could have seen our lives go in a different direction. If it was real, love never really goes away. That is until you have an alimony payment.

There’s so many moments from my college experience I want to reflect on, but for the sake of this story I’m offering another moment. I’m sitting in Texas, feeling the Tennessee wind, and a memory comes to my mind. My best friend Rob and I were smoking Marlboro Smooths on the back porch of my college house/unofficial unofficially fraternity house I lived in. It was a beautiful blue two-story New England style home 3 houses down from campus. There were 4 bedrooms and 5 roommates at a time. There was a rotating roster of guys who I lived there with, and it was the best time of our lives- not just because our rent was $180 each. Man, what I would kill to pay that again.

Our fraternities were called Greek Clubs and which were more Full House than Animal House sometimes 😆. The frat’s name was Theta and it was called “Gayta” as a joke sometimes. We had a melting pot of different types of guys- jocks, musicians, artist-types, rebels, nerds, partiers, closeted homosexuals- waiting for God to “heal them.”

My fraternity was the best thing that had ever happened to me and I am still friends with most of the guys in the club. Oh and by the way, out of us who were believing and praying to be turned straight? Not one of us did, even the ones who married women.

There are certain rituals we do in our fraternity during induction that are supposed to be symbolic of our Christian journey. I was always conflicted about induction. Some of it was hazing and it could get verbally and physically abusive. That mellowed our overtime. I was the last tap to go through a physical induction- which made me legit, but of course, I had to go through the hard shit the tap before physical induction was banned at our school.

I was the lowman of our tap. The lowman has to carry extra cinder blocks, and experiences an even harder induction. It’s to break you down. They broke me down physically but not mentally. After being physically worked out for two days, I told them I quit in the middle of running up and down a hill with water jugs. They backed off a bit after that. It was after the weekend was over that they told me the lowman was selected by former lowmen and that the lowman is the leader of the tap. I couldn’t believe it. I’m not justifying induction but there are some really amazing and beautiful things that happen there. (Though nothing of a pornographic nature, I’m sad to say😆😠.)

Being sweared in as Historian, Tennessee- 2008

There’s something called burden toss. The cinder blocks I was carrying represented the struggles we all carry with us. It was during Rob’s induction, he told the whole club that his burden was homosexuality. The entire club was shocked that he had opened up like that. Rob, eventually became the high man of his tap. The high man is selected as the leader of the tap by previous high men after induction.

We started doing burden toss differently during that induction. Each of the brothers got a chance to speak to all of the new inductees and tell them their burdens. When it was my turn I told the new guys my burdens- alcohol, cigarettes, my doubts with Christianity. But I did something that I never did any other time before or after this induction. I walked up to Rob, and whispered in his ear, “homosexuality is my burden, too.” I remember Rob’s face tinted by the orange flames reflecting from the bonfire. It was a mixture of shock and appreciation. In that moment we immediately became best friends.

So, the Tennessee wind is still blowing today and I’m back to that memory. Rob and I were listening to music on the back porch. Discussing our homosexual desires, and how much it hurt to be burdened with them. That this was our sin. This was our weight to carry in life. Being gay was just a test and temptation that Satan had laid and we didn’t want to vacate God’s Army to join the Devil’s.

I turned on “Pretty Girls Make Graves” by the Smiths. Rob and I listened to it on repeat for two hours. Listening to the words. Letting them wrap around our heads. “I’m not the man you think I am. Sorrow is Nature’s son and he will not smile for anyone. “I could have been wild and I could have been free. But Nature played a trick on me.” “I lost my faith in womanhood.”

No words have been able to more aptly express exactly how we were feeling.

Morrissey never comes out and says what Nature had up its sleeve but Rob and I knew for ourselves. It’s not that it’s a disappointment or like being gay married is somehow a silver medal. Baby, being gay is platinum blonde beyond amazing. But it is something I think a lot of non-heterosexually normative folk have to come to terms with. Or two parents who can’t conceive in a traditional sense. It’s not self-loathing or regretting who we are.

It’s just one of those things where you see your life turning out a certain way and have spent your whole life creating and building and then you find out you will never be that life. Like building a beautiful house and there’s nothing inside of it and no one will ever live there. No one will ever see it. You build again and it’s more beautiful and ornate and specifically what you wanted more that you could have ever possibly concocted if you had made it with your own two hands.

It’s like a reflection of birds

Flying past windows

It’s a comet speeding

In your periphery for a second in the night.

A dream becomes a different sort of real the moment it was dreamt. And honestly, it just plain would’ve been a hell of a lot easier to be straight.

I think one reason why gay people often enter into the arts is because we have had to do a lot of personal thinking and experimenting on our own. We had to delve into the recesses of ourselves to find out who we truly are. Introspection on some level gives purpose to every project ever made. An inner dialogue that may last the breadth of a second. Careers have hinged on less than those. The same is true for all people we are each here to chime in on a certain part of life. Art is the medium of transcendence becoming visceral and real. of the Introspection-

Life is not something that will finally happen one day. It’s happening now and here. It’s messy and uncensored and coming atcha a million miles an hour.

A dream becomes a different sort of real the moment it was dreamt. They sort of take on a life of their own. There are imaginary friends and ideas people have probably kept quiet about their entire lives that are more real to that person than most other things in the world.

It seems the whole world is always running out of good fathers, mothers, leaders, and mentor figures. Most are afraid they will be bled dry and many are right to think that way. It is a rare one of us who can offer love unconditionally and extend it to so many. My grandfather, my hero, was one of those people. It is weird when your grandparents start dying and you realize that this rich resourceful generation is leaving you. The bony derelicts with worldviews-past can go to their dinosaur graves unassailed and with blessing. When the good ones go there is a different kind of mourning.

All of the wisdom, the insight, the companionship is done away. No more birthday cards in the mail. No more tough fruitcakes sent for the Jewish high holidays I know nothing about. No more long awkward phone calls. In high school my father had phoned my grandfather and during the conversation the topic of dating was brought up. My sister was dating a Jewish guy named Ben at the time, which led grandfather to joyfully inquire, “is Joshua dating any Sophie’s or Rachel’s?” No grandpa, I’m more into Abrams and Malachis. I smile when I think of that conversation and rhetorical response. I wish I could have told him who I was. I think of my grandfather every day since he’s been gone.

My grandfather, Dr. Joseph Khatena- 2016; the year before he passed away

It’s weird how certain deaths affect you. Like even if they’re not that close to you or if they’re not a person you see every day or perhaps ever seen in real life it just felt safer knowing that they were out there. That there was this celebrity, or hero, or grandfather, or friend who will never be here again and they’re just gone. Where is the going place? And why are there so many long lines of leavers aching to find it out?

My mother’s father is passing soon and I have little sorrow for him. It’s like, “oh hey, grandpa thanks for passing on your genes and that one phone call back in 5th grade.” It is weird to not have a close relationship with your grandparents. It’s like a revered stranger is dying and I am supposed to feel like this unfillable intractable void has been left in their stead. It is difficult to mourn a void that had been present for my entire life.

Why did I cry so fiercely when grandma died or when I watched grandpa draw his last breath? Maybe it was partially out of remorse or some type of guilt. I had always promised to keep in touch and figured it would all work out “some-day.”? Families just come together eventually, right? Maybe their deaths make me contemplate my eventual one. Maybe it’s mourning the loss of a relationship that never panned out. I’m burying all aspects and hopes of our relationship as I bury you. Maybe it’s closure. Finally I can grieve that I didn’t know you and now there is no pressure to force a relationship. An absolution of guilt and propriety tossed along with the dirt I shoveled onto your coffin. An apology for being the last to carry on the family line. A gnashing of teeth for failing this task the moment I first drew breath into the world.

*     *     *     *     *     *

A Kaddish for My Ancestry-

The Hebrew words were foreign

And wrapped around my tongue

Like the starched and stiff black linen

Around your coffin hung

Upon us, 6 men’s shoulders,

Two of them your sons,

A burden oddly heavy,

Borne by the heir of one.

Blood of your begotten blood

Flows through my faggot veins

The Jewish mourner’s prayer

Says that God forever reigns

And in the wincing moment

When flesh returns to ground

The last of a familial line,

Must also abdicate his crown.

Pyramid of the Moon, Mexico City, Mexico-May 2018
Texas Winter, San Marcos, December 2017
Lonely Highway, West Texas, August 2017

2 Comments Add yours

  1. John Bence says:

    Heart wrenching the possibility but peaceful. Very well written, I don’t know if I want to cry or have a drink and that the good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. John, thank you so much for reading this post and for your comment. Either way you choose, I wish you well! 😄

      Like

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