Category Archives: religion

Why I had to un-friend my favorite aunt on Facebook today

“I don’t understand it, but I accept it.”

Those words would have to rank near the top of my list of the most annoying things straight people say about gay people. What they’re really saying: “You’re sinners, but you’re here and you’re queer, so what choice do we have but to put up with you?”

Despite serious misgivings, I decided to let it go when my Aunt Juliet did the whole song and dance at my brother Jeff’s wedding 11 years ago. I had just introduced her to my then-boyfriend Khleber, and I was so determined not to ruin Jeff’s big day that I let it pass when she started talking about how sad she was that I would miss out on a spouse and kids, all the things that heterosexuality would have supposedly granted me that she herself was living without.

Come to think of it, Jeff’s wedding day wasn’t the best moment to be gay. The stench of homophobia was in the air, and my Uncle Achille, who was performing the ceremony, made an even bigger stink than Juliet.

I was best man, and I was so nervous about getting it right that I totally missed the thing Achille said about two men in the Garden of Eden. Being the fire-and-brimstone Bible thumper I’d always known him to be, he couldn’t just leave a tender moment alone. He had to drop in some judgment, which, in hindsight, I realize was totally for my benefit and for that of my brother Alexi, who is also gay.

He made some crack about how God created Adam and Eve, not “Hemp and Shemp” …or something to that effect. The names are not as relevant as the intended message: God hates you, faggots. Fortunately, both the words and the message went over my head because my head was elsewhere.

Wait, where’s the ring?…Oh, there it is.

When my mother repeated her former brother-in-law’s comment later at the reception, her voice dripping with disgust, she was furious. It was actually my first time hearing it, and I wasn’t sure if her reaction was about what Achille had said or the forum in which he’d chosen to say it. I decided she was angry for me and for Alexi, and I loved her for it.

As for my uncle, I had only one personal encounter with him at the wedding. It was when he walked into the men’s room and caught Khleber and me in a warm embrace. He glared at us but didn’t say a word, not even when I directly addressed him and asked how he was doing. I bit my tongue and let his silent treatment go. He’d always been my least favorite uncle, and I knew I’d probably never see or speak to him again after Jeff’s wedding day.

Now I can say the same thing about Juliet, who today became the first family member ever to be un-friended by me on Facebook. The deal breaker arrived on the morning shortly after I learned that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared gay marriage legal. It was wrapped in big box of hate and re-posted on Facebook:

The post itself isn’t even worth debating. It’s passive-aggressive drivel, hate dressed up in Sunday church clothes. If you think I’m a sinner who is going to hell, if you don’t support me or marriage between my kind, I have absolutely no use for your “love” or “friendship.” As for the alleged name-calling and stereotyping, if you’re going to walk the homophobic walk and talk the talk, be prepared to be taken down for it.

But on a more personal level, why would a woman who has at least three gay nephews spread this message in a place where she knows they’ll likely read it? Was she trying to douse a celebratory occasion with some good old-fashioned negativity, just as my uncle did on my brother’s wedding day?

Here’s the thing about homophobia. Like racism, it doesn’t always carry a pitchfork and twirl its moustache. My Aunt Juliet would probably never openly criticize me or my life. The last time I spoke to her, we had a perfectly pleasant conversation. But at the end of the day, she thinks I’m defective. She can hide behind “love” and the Bible all she wants, but she’s homophobic. I have as much use for homophobes as I do for racists. As the kids say (or at least used to), deuces.

Alexi, who tends to take this sort of thing better than I do, may or may not agree with my reaction to the latest incident of homophobia within our family ranks. But I’m pretty sure he understands and accepts it. That’s a lot more than I ever got from others who have called me family.

I can do better…and I already have.

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Filed under gay, homophobia, racism, religion

O Little Town of Bethlehem: A Place That Revolves Around the Two Things You Should Never Discuss

I crossed the Israeli-Palestinian border into Bethlehem expecting a religious experience, and what I ended up having was a surprisingly political one. When my driver — a 41-year-old Kuwait native who now considers the State of Palestine, what’s left of it, to be his home and homeland — asked me if I knew about the significance of Bethlehem, I couldn’t believe the question. Who doesn’t know about the significance of Bethlehem?!

“Of course, I do,” I answered, as we arrived at Bethlehem’s reason for being for most tourists: the Church of the Nativity. To be frank, the Church’s entire set-up seemed so arbitrary. How would anyone know that is the exact spot where Mary gave birth to baby Jesus, or that was where Mary and Joseph placed the manger, a few meters away?

I’m assuming that birth certificates weren’t filed at the dawn of the first millennium, so no details about the birth of Jesus (from the date to the baby’s weight) are indisputable. Unless someone at the birth scene was aware of baby Jesus’s future significance, no X would have marked the spot where this and that happened. But I got it: It’s more about what it represents than what may or may not have transpired there, hence the woman bawling right outside the birth area and the tourists caressing the overlay on the ground where Jesus supposedly entered the world.

As the church employee who had helped me avoid the long line of tour groups led me from the birth area to the exit, he was unconcerned with my impression of what I’d just seen. He was in a U.S. state of mind, expressing his appreciation of the American way as it encompasses two things: President Barack Obama and black people.

“Can I tell you something?” he asked, moving closer, as if he was about to tell me a deep, dark secret or commit the ultimate act of blasphemy and was afraid that God might hear.

“Of course,” I answered, bracing myself for anything.

“I love people with skin like yours, but I hate white people. F**k the white people!” He continued on his up-with-blacks/down-with-whites tangent, throwing in words of praise for Barack Obama, as if I should consider his accomplishments to be my own, until we were outside, surrounded by the very people he was disparaging. I was too stunned to say anything, but I was as horrified by his pronouncements as I was by the fact that he had made them while we were in the holiest of places.

Alas, Barack Obama and black people would end up being the recurring theme of the day. Apparently, black is the new black, as both the color and the most prominent political representation of it since Nelson Mandela are high on the Palestinian “In” list. One of the first things my driver said to me after I revealed my nationality was that I reminded him of someone he knew.

“You have the face of this guy from New York who is my friend on Facebook.” I cringed in my shotgun seat, where I’d parked myself after he insisted that I sit in front of his taxi instead of in the back. I knew what he meant. His Facebook friend wasn’t my doppelganger, just another black guy. My driver seemed disappointed when I told him that I am not an athlete nor do I have any interest in sports, but he was nonetheless pleased to be in the company of an African-American. Let the politics begin!

“I hate George Bush, but I love Barack Obama,” he said, before launching into a tirade about the sins of the father (George Bush Sr.), which, in his eyes, went back to when what he perceives as the former U.S. President’s oil interests led him to launch the 1990 Gulf War to save the driver’s native country from the clutches of Iraq. So much for gratitude, I thought to myself, though I agreed with pretty much everything he said.

So, apparently, did the man who stopped me as I exited the Bethlehem University campus.

“Are you from the U.S.?”

“Yes.”

“George Bush. [He made a thumbs-up gesture with one hand and a blow job one with the other.] Barack Obama [Two thumbs up].”

Got it. Clearly today was going to be all about politics. I knew it from the moment my driver and I arrived at the tourist information center across from the Church of Nativity, and he launched into a monologue about Israel vs. Palestine while using a map that showed how much the State of Palestine dwindled between 1948 and 1967 as exhibits A through D (for the four periods represented on it).

He left me alone for a couple of hours to ponder everything he’d said so far while I walked around Bethlehem’s city center. By the time we got to the wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, I knew exactly what he’d meant when he had asked if I knew the significance of Bethlehem. Because of the Israeli-constructed barrier separating Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which keeps Palestinians out of the capital city unless they procure special permission from the Israeli government to enter it, the birthplace of Jesus Christ is also a symbol of the ongoing political tension between Israel and Palestine.

I listened intently as he spent nearly one hour explaining to me why he is a man without a country (referring to his adopted homeland), how he can’t freely enter his own capital city (Jerusalem, considered to be the capital of Israel or the State of Palestine, depending on which country you’re from) and other key Palestinian cities like Hebron and Jericho, and how he hopes to live to see the dawning of a separate-but-equal peace, one in which the two countries can co-exist harmoniously. He’s waiting for the day when Palestinians can travel freely between the State of Palestine’s cities without having to deal with checkpoints going in and out of the Israeli territory that separates the plots of remaining Palestinian land. He name-dropped Nelson Mandela, comparing the plight of Palestinians to that of African blacks during South Africa’s Apartheid era, and called the Israeli-built barrier their own Berlin Wall.

It was a lot to process, and I wanted to be sympathetic without completely letting Palestine off the hook because I’d been conditioned by the media and by Palestine’s own actions over the years to think of the country as one that approved of terrorism. The truth, though, is that, like most Americans, I don’t know enough about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I was happy to be learning more about it, but before drawing any conclusions, I wanted to hear the Israeli point of view, which, I imagined, likely would have described the wall as security insurance against Palestinian attacks. (Naturally, I kept this idea to myself, not wanting to offend my driver.) Not one person I’d met in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem had ever spoken of it, but for obvious reasons (I watched a man I presumed to be Palestinian being escorted off the bus on the way back into Jerusalem when the woman checking passports took issue with his), it seemed to be the hottest topic in Palestine.

Thankfully, my day in Bethlehem wasn’t all about politics. Walking through the old city solo was a highlight of the time I’ve spent in the Holy Land, if only for the fact that it all seemed so real. Outsiders generally visit Bethlehem in tour groups to cross the Church of the Nativity off of their to-see list. So once you move away from the birthplace of Christ and enter the actual city, what you get is the flip-side of a place like Venice, 95 percent real life.

I felt like the only foreigner in a sea of local authenticity, walking through the marketplace, watching middle-aged Muslim women checking out hoodies with pictures of cats on them as well as the FOX logo (as in the American TV network). In an environment completely dominated by Arab life — from the music coming out of speakers everywhere, to the CDs and DVDs on sale, to the language used in the menus in the eateries, to the holy prayers I heard coming from some unseen place — it was the sole evidence of any awareness of U.S. pop culture beyond Obama.

I felt guilty taking photos, like an auspicious interloper, a tourism paparazzo. After snapping a few shots, I put the camera away. I wanted to enjoy the magic moment, experience it, appreciate it, and, most of all, live it.

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Filed under Politics, religion

Israel’s Bible Belt: Random Thoughts on My Trip to Galilee

1. I’m still not sure what to make of the fact that the heart of the Holy Land (at least from a Christian-tourist perspective), in the heart of Israel, has very little to do with the Jewish faith. As I told an Israeli guy back in Tel Aviv afterwards while recounting my non-religious experience there, imagine Mount Olympus overlooking the Empire State Building in New York City, and Fifth Avenue being best known not as an international shopping mecca but as the spot where the Olympian Gods defeated the Titans.

But getting back to Galilee (and it took about two hours to get there by van), Nazareth was the first place that our 13-person tour group (myself and the guide included) visited on Gray Line‘s $85 Full Day Biblical Highlight of Galilee from Tel Aviv package. I’d previously known Nazareth mainly as the town where Jesus spent his childhood, so I had no idea that today it’s a proper city, a sizable metropolis that, unlike the rest of the country it’s in, is predominantly Muslim and Christian, hence the bustling old town streets on the morning of Shabbat.

We only stayed for a couple of hours, long enough to visit a souk and two Catholic Churches, but that was plenty of time for Nazareth to charm me and win me over. I’d love to return and spend an entire day roaming the streets, following the signs (which are all in Hebrew, Arabic, English and, curiously, Italian) on the roads leading up and down its maze of hills. Jesus must have had amazing calf muscles!

The next stops along the tour — the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River — are best known as the sites of key moments in the life and times of Jesus Christ, making them, on that level, more or less equally irrelevant to Judaism. That said, one needn’t be aligned with any particular faith, or have any at all, to appreciate the breathtaking view of the world’s lowest saltwater lake (which is what this “sea” is, technically) as one drives down to it from the hills of Tiberias, 200 meters below sea level, to the very spot where Jesus allegedly walked on water, or, for non-believers, the perfect place to spend an hour gazing out at the water, contemplating the world and our minuscule place in it.

2. The thing that struck me most about the Church of the Annunciation in the the old town of Nazareth was how unlike any of the Catholic churches I’ve visited in Europe and South America it is, from the stark, minimalist interior design, to the main chapel being one level above the ground floor, to the painting of a Japanese mother and child on the wall by the exit.

For another thing, after months of entering one antique house of the holy after another, including the adjacent Church of St. Joseph, I thought it was by far the most modern-looking Catholic church I’d ever been to. As places of worship go, it’s like the equivalent of 20th-century art, or electronica.

“What a great space for a nightclub!” I said to myself as I looked it up and down, from the polished beams overhead to the smooth marble floor under foot. It’s been years since I’ve stepped either foot into Limelight in New York City. I’m not even sure if it still exists. But suddenly, I had the urge to spend a Friday night and Saturday morning dancing by an altar underneath a giant disco ball with Alison Limerick wailing in my ear. “Where love lives. Where love lives…”

3. Rusty took me completely by surprise when he stopped me as I was exiting the synagogue at Capernaum along the Sea of Galilee. A Southern-charming sixtysomething gentleman, he had the gregarious I-shake-hands-and-hold-babies-all-the-time manner of a successful politician, and I have absolutely no idea why he singled me out, but it seems that on this particular day, he wasn’t interested in selling himself but rather his place of origin: Charleston, South Carolina.

“Did you know that the travel and leisure magazine named it the No. 1 place in the world to visit?” he asked, obviously proud of his heritage and his hometown’s crowning achievement. I’m not sure if that is 100 percent accurate, but I did know that Charleston is recognized as a tourism hot spot, and a friend of mine from college who lives there speaks very highly of it. By the time I walked away from Rusty to find my tour group, I was sold on both the man and the city. If he were running for something, he’d have my vote, and I’m putting Charleston right under the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas on my list of places I must visit upon my return to the United States.

4. I could spend all day watching the baptism scenery on the part of the Jordan River where John the Baptist was supposed to have baptized Jesus. For me, though, it’s not so much about the religious experience — or history. I’ve always been more interested in John the Baptist as a character in my favorite play, Oscar Wilde’s Salome(“Suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan” remains among my favorite lines in all of literature), than I am in John the Baptist as a Biblical icon.

The most rewarding part of my time spent along the Jordan River (or as I prefer to call it, the River Jordan, not because I have British aspirations but because, well, I prefer the flow of that name) was watching so many people of various nationalities, ethnicities and faiths come together in one spot for a single, singular purpose. Watching them get dunked, for one brief shining moment, I could have sworn that I actually believed, too.

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Filed under God, Jesus, New York City, religion, Travel

10 Random Thoughts I Had After Watching Boy Vs. Ocean, the Elements and Tiger in “Life of Pi”

1. Despite Life of Pi‘s mid-level Oscar buzz, decent reviews and healthy box office, I completely ignored it for nearly the first month of its release. Only in the last week or so did I even realize that it wasn’t a biopic about some little-known mathematician. I’m glad I finally got myself informed: I’m a sucker for a film about a boy and an animal — Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows were two of my favorite movies as a kid — and even if I ended up being bored by the adventures of Pi and the Bengal tiger while they’re lost at sea after escaping from a sinking ship, there would be the 3D aspect to entertain me.

2. Going to the cinema in Bangkok is a far cheaper experience than it is in the United States and Australia (160 baht, or roughly $5, for the equivalent of a business-class seat, plus 100 baht — or about $3 — for the 3D glasses). You can get cheaper snacks at 7-11, but not in the food courts at Suvarnabhumi International Airport or Don Mueang International Airport. And as added insurance for boring movies, “business” seat C1 was comfortable enough to fall asleep in.

3. The only downsides to the movie-going experience at SP Cinema City in Bangkok’s Terminal 21 mall (which, true to its name, is designed like an airport): The credits in the trailers were all in Thai script, so I couldn’t tell which actors got top billing in any of the movies, and I wasn’t thrilled about having to stand for several minutes during what I assumed was the Thai national anthem being played while footage of Thailand’s king and his family was shown onscreen. National pride is one thing, but after all my months in Thailand, I’m still at a loss to explain the blind reverence Thai people have for their monarch. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, blind reverence — disguised as faith — would be a major theme of the movie.)

4. I love that Hollywood is embracing Indian actors and Indian culture more these days. It’s only been a few years since Slumdog Millionaire won the Best Picture Oscar, and 2012 already has already given us The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In recent years, we’ve had key characters/actors/personalities of Indian descent on 90210, Revenge, Smash, HawthoRNe, One Life to Live and Top Chef. If only Outsourced had been a little funnier.

5. The book is usually better than the movie, and it’s safer to be faithful to the source material than sorry for straying too far from it. No arguments here. But I wish Pi director Ang Lee had taken more liberties when adapting Yann Martel’s 2001 novel. The first thing he should have done was dump the framing device in which a grown-up Pi tells a writer his story. Not only did these scenes get the movie off to a wobbly start and detract from the flow of the main story, but the actors weren’t particularly good in them. Clint Eastwood used the same tactic to better effect in last year’s dreadful J Edgar. In Pi, the actors came across like amateurs in a religious infomercial.

6. Speaking of religion, Pi could have used less of it. The narrative was strong enough — Cast Away entirely at sea, a buddy road movie in which one buddy is also the villain — to stand on its own without forcing Deep Meaning onto it. The dinner table scenes in which the Patel family discussed religion and philosophy were my favorite ones on dry land, and I appreciated the movie’s shades of Noah’s Ark. But during the framing sequences, the film’s religious overtones were too heavy handed, with grown-up Pi — and Lee — practically clobbering us over the head with his faith.

It’s one thing to show Pi begging the Lord to save him from the stormy seas. It gave the film dramatic heft. But even if God was responsible for Pi’s survival, isn’t sparing a boy’s life after taking his entire family’s and leaving him lost at sea for more than 200 days, a lot like stuffing a lump of coal into his Christmas stocking? I file that one under “Covering His Own Tracks,” right next to sending His only begotten son to save us from a law of nature — human sacrifice as atonement for our sins — that He enacted and enforced. Regardless of how I feel about Him — and for the record, I don’t believe He’s as actively involved in our everyday lives as Christianity would have us believe — I think full credit should go to Pi’s survival instincts and to the guy who found him washed up on that Mexican shore. Were both the work of God? Moviegoers should get to figure that one out for themselves. We don’t need grown-up Pi trying to guide us to the “right” answer.

7. The scenes on the boat were almost perfect. The realistic qualities of the CG animals was boosted by the 3D effect. Several times I literally jumped out of my cushy seat because I thought those fish were flying right at me!

8. I so enjoyed Pi’s interaction with his family that I found myself missing them nearly as much as he did and wishing that they, miraculously, got off the sinking ship and made it safely from India to Canada. I especially loved Tabu, the beautiful actress who played his mother. I hope I see more of her in the future.

9. In fact, aside from the the actors in the present-day scenes, Ang Lee did a fine job with the casting. Suraj Sharma, the 19-year-old actor who plays 16-year-old Pi lost at sea, is a real find. He offered the right balance of charm, humor, innocence and dread, making us pray as hard for his survival as he does. According to Wikipedia, Lee didn’t want big stars to detract from the story, so plans to cast Tobey Maguire as the writer were scrapped (big mistake). What then was Gerard Depardieu doing in the movie as the ship’s nasty cook who refused to make vegetarian meals for Pi, his mother and brother? I understand that the scene was meant to underscore Pi’s vegetarianism so to later further separate him from the carnivore tiger, but I kept asking myself, Why is Gerard Depardieu being such a prick again (after those nasty comments he made a few years ago about Juliette Binoche!)?

10. The movie was finished by 7.15pm, and The Impossible was playing at 8.20. For a moment, I considered making it a double-bill night, but I may have had my fill of man vs. nature for one day. Maybe I’ll save the tsunami for after Santa has come and gone — but definitely not on Boxing Day.

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Filed under Bangkok, Entertainment, God, Movies, religion, Television

The Thing That Really Bothers Me About Religion

Actually, there are several things. This beautiful morning in Bangkok, however, one thing in particular is working me, and like so much that has been bugging me lately, it involves Chick-fil-A‘s No. 1 fan.

In her August 16 exit tweet explaining her reason for closing her Twitter account, the actress formerly best known as Days of Our Lives costar Melissa Reeves, said a lot (by Twitter standards), yet she didn’t really say anything at all. But as usual when it comes to the written (or tweeted) word, the juiciest stuff was between the lines: What isn’t said is often as telling as what is said?

Reeves tried to rationalize her reason for leaving the Twitter party — death threats and nasty comments against her and her family, the inability to express opinions in any meaningful way on the Internet — but the one thing she didn’t do, the one thing she never did in the weeks since this controversy began, is actually explain the meaning and motivation behind her original tweet.

What exactly was she trying to say? Why tweet a message in support of an organization on a day specially created to acknowledge said organization’s right to push an anti-gay agenda? How does she feel about gay civil rights, gay marriage, gay people? Doesn’t she owe some kind of explanation, some acknowledgement of her many (now-former) gay fans, the ones who have supported her and followed her (not just on Twitter) since she was a teen actress on Days in the mid-’80s?

Since she’s the one who broached the subject with her Chick-fil-A-supporting tweet, opened the proverbial can of worms, this is what we want to know, and she does not have to explain herself on Twitter in 140 characters or less. Look at me now: I’m expressing yet another of my many opinions in far more than 140 characters. Twitter is not the only forum of online communication.

I suppose that in the bubble Melissa Reeves calls home, freedom of speech applies only to the one-way exchange of cryptic ideas. Apparently, the way Reeves and many of her supporters interpret the First Amendment, it does not extend to those who choose to disagree with those ideas or question them. I’m not talking about the idiots who issued death threats, but the people who respectfully challenged Reeves’ initial post (like The Young and the Restless star Greg Rikaart, who personally responded to Reeves on Twitter and also wrote an excellent counter-argument for The Huffington Post) and were blocked by her for their efforts. And if she’s so gung ho about First Amendment rights, why not exercise them to stand her ground rather than crawling under a rock?

As a journalist, I’ve spent my career dodging insults hurled at me by people who disagree with what I’m saying. Back when I reviewed albums for People magazine, I used to receive threatening letters from readers who couldn’t believe I would dare criticize their favorite artists. This was back in the day before readers could communicate with writers in online comment sections. I couldn’t fight back, but I didn’t crawl under the covers and hide from criticism either. I continued writing. I continue writing.

Melissa Reeves, though, will not. And I suspect it is because she has no excuse, no defense for what she wrote. Rather than simply saying, “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand the full implications of my actions,” she’s chosen to bury her head in the sand, and she’s going to keep it there. But not until she got in one final word, with which she closed her exit tweet.

“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Mark 12:30”

What does that even mean, and how is it relevant to the Twitter shitstorm? Look, I’m not big on religion, but I support people’s right to believe in whatever god they want to believe in (freedom of religion) as much as I support freedom of speech. That said, I’m always suspicious of people who end monologues, tirades or outgoing answering-machine messages with religious sloganeering or by quoting a scripture from the Holy Bible. To me, it comes across as patronizing and self-righteous, especially in the case of a woman whose “God-honoring” words ramble on about love while failing to actually exhibit any.

What about loving others with all your heart, soul, mind and strength? Do the powers that be at the organization that Reeves holds in such high esteem (that would be Chick-fil-A)? Perhaps if the folks who use God as an excuse to damn gay people harbored even a fraction of the love they’re always preaching about, their arguments would be more effective. But all I hear is fear and judgement and hate. According to one Twitterer, Reeves conveniently left out the crucial following Biblical verse, Mark 12:31 — “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” As I said at the beginning of this post, what isn’t said is often as telling as what is said.

Coming from such sources, this particular brand of religion becomes harder for me to buy, and the God they speak of as real as any of the 12 who reside on Mount Olympus in Greek mythology. I never believed Zues, Hera or any of their immortal kin existed, but I’ve always gotten a lot more enjoyment out of reading about their antics than I ever did out of listening to any church sermon. That’s probably because no one has ever tried to use them as a tool to arouse my fear and denigrate my life, as a weapon of mass destruction to prove me — me, not just my beliefs, me — wrong.

Where exactly is the love in that?

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Filed under Bangkok, Entertainment, gay, religion, Television

"I Don’t Want to Be Gay": What Do You Say to a Friend Who Wishes He Were Someone Else?

“Can I talk to you about something important?”

While I always welcome questions outside of the normal range — “Where are you from?” What do you do?” “Top or bottom?” — and I’d do anything to help a friend, I can’t think of eight worse words in the English language: “Can I talk to you about something important?” They’re right up there with “We have to talk.” They’re never followed by anything good.

At least I knew my friend wasn’t about to break up with me. But what he revealed after a dramatic brace-yourself-for-a-whopper build-up that had him apologizing in advance for what he was about to say actually may have been as difficult to hear as “I want to see other people” or “Let’s take a break.” Not because of what he said but because of how tortured he looked while he was saying it. If I felt that way, I can’t begin to imagine how incredibly tough this revelation must have been for him.

“Jeremy, I don’t want to be gay.”

There he said it. To see the look on his face, you would think he couldn’t possibly have said anything worse. It was like he thought that I might interpret his words as a personal insult. It’s not that he has anything against gay people, my friend explained. It’s just that he doesn’t want to be one of them. It’s not even that he wants the wife and kids and white-picket fence. It would just be so much easier if he did. Compounding his personal dilemma was a moral one: What would his ultra-religious family think?

With or without the religious angle, it’s a question that plagues every gay person in one way or another before coming out. For some, it’s a matter of disappointing your parents, or being completely ostracized by them. For my 23-year-old friend, it’s a matter of disappointing not only his parents, but his entire religious culture, which has strict, unyielding rules regarding sexuality, ones that he is not sure he has the strength or desire to break.

I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t want to tell him that it gets better. It does, but what use is that to a young person in the throes of confusion and fear over his sexuality? Yes, it gets better, but how do you get to the place where it’s better? It’s not just a matter of time. It’s what you do with that time that counts.

Patience is a virtue that doesn’t overcome this particular hurdle on its own. Yes, there would be some waiting involved, but there would have to be action on his part, too. I told my friend that he has two choices: He can submit to the will of others, and live the life that has been laid out before him by tradition. I’m not sure how his religion stands on deceit, and whether that is as great a sin as homosexuality, but the greatest sin in this scenario would be the one he’d be committing against himself.

In saying that he doesn’t want to be gay, my friend never mentioned any aspect of gay life that he finds unappealing, other than that his community would not accept it. That’s a good start. Unlike so many young men who are struggling with their sexuality, he isn’t dealing with internalized homophobia. Any self-hatred he’s feeling is being reflected off of other people. He doesn’t think life wouldn’t be easier — better, even — as a straight man because he’d compared gay people to straight people, and he’d found the latter to be somehow superior. Life would be be easier, better, only because he wouldn’t have to challenge centuries of tradition. Nobody would be disappointed.

His other choice, I told him, would involve determining how important it is to him to become his own person. He’d have to figure out the role he wants his culture and religion to play in his life, and if they are more important than his personal happiness. If he decides to live a life of truth, he must find a way to make his identity be about more than his culture and religion, or his sexuality. Easier said than done, I know, especially since one can adjust his or her culture and religion but not his or her sexuality. That is what it is, and there is no escaping it.

In the end, he’d have to learn to accept that. Being gay is just one more thing that he can’t change, like his height and his shoe size. So rather than focusing on what he wishes to be, or what he doesn’t wish to be, it’s important to decide how he’s going to live with what he is. Does he keep it to himself or shout it from the rooftop? That’s for him to decide. The road to self-acceptance will be long one, filled with bumps and potholes. The speed with which he covers it is up to him.

I didn’t know if I was helping him. He said I was, but he didn’t look any less torn. I couldn’t tell him which road to travel, but I could promise him that if he had the courage to take the more daunting of the two, he would end up in a far better place.

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Losing My Religion and Gaining Another One

“But if one carefully considers all the facts, one must be convinced that at the basis of all suffering lies the principle of craving desire. If avarice can be removed, human suffering will come to an end.” — The Teaching of Buddha

“In Japan, it’s a religion to be Japanese.”

That’s what the Japanese man told me at a cocktail party the other night. We spent about an hour discussing U.S. politics and religion, and of all the things he said, his comments on Japan and religion were the ones that stuck with me. While acknowledging that the dominant religion in his country is Buddhism, he made the interesting point that Japan’s true religion is embracing elements of all religions. That, he said, is what it means to be Japanese.

And that, I thought to myself (or maybe I actually said it out loud — I did, after all, have three glasses of white wine), is unorganized religion that I can get behind.

I grew up in a household where organized religion played a huge role in everyday life. My family attended church services every Sunday morning and sometimes on Sunday evenings and occasionally at night during the week as well. I would have preferred to spend that time pursuing other interests (like reading about U.S. history and Norse and Greek mythology, whose gods I found far more interesting than the star of those church services), but the only thing that frightened me more than the wrath of God was the wrath of my mother. She’s the loveliest woman I’ve ever known, but she can also be the most intimidating. I did as I was told.

It wasn’t all torture. I always enjoyed the musical part of the church service most and wished that would have been the end of it. It wasn’t so much what the preacher said during his sermons that didn’t sit well with me but the fire-and-brimstone delivery. I found it difficult to buy into the Church of God religion to which my family adhered when it seemed to be largely based on fear and blind faith. I was already a cowardly kid who didn’t need to be constantly threatened with the burning flames of hell, and I was always too headstrong for blind faith.

I think the moment I truly lost my religion was when I was 23 years old, and I was reading The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky nailed my sentiments exactly in the chapter in which Ivan had his nightmare tete-a-tete with the devil and wondered why God would bother giving us free will if His endgame was to get us to follow Him blindly.

Ah ha! If He was the one who bestowed upon us the gift of rational thinking which might lead us to reject Him, could he really blame us if we did? Why stop at creating man in His own image? Why not also fill man (and woman) with the unwavering desire to follow Him? Wouldn’t that have made everything so much easier?

I, for one, have never been able to bring myself to totally reject Him or believe in Him. So what does that make me? I’m not sure. Atheism has always seemed too cold and austere. Agnosticism falls more within the borders of my philosophical scope, but it’s still a bit too vague for someone like me who likes to define things.

I feel that there has to be something, or someone, bigger than us. When I look at the world, and I see all of the beauty and organized chaos in nature, I feel that it’s not merely a product of science. Yes, science had its place, but maybe someone set science into motion. The Big Bang theory and creationism are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but that’s a topic for another post. Or not.

Despite my tendency toward theistic evolution, what I haven’t been able to fully embrace in organized religion (besides all of the judgement and intolerance) is the traditional Western concept of God. I have a difficult time believing that there is someone watching over me, a God pulling the strings whom I can thank for all of the good I have in my life, and one who only demands that I worship Him in return.

Besides the obvious arrogance of a character who would create an entire race to worship Him or else, there is the “Why me?”/”Why them?” factor: Why do some people get to be rich and famous, or beautiful, or finders of true love? Is God really responsible when someone wins a Grammy? Why do some people have to live with the burden of blindness or deafness or limited mobility? They say 1 out of 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Is He pulling the strings to determine who will be the lucky/unlucky ones? Why them?

These questions have never been answered to my satisfaction and as long as they aren’t, I will continue to doubt Him. I respect those who don’t feel as I do. If devoutness gets you through the night, then by all means, hang on to it. And if it’s just too fantastical for you to accept it, then don’t. God knows (if He exists), that if I had been raised on Greek mythology, and not just reading books about it, I wouldn’t be so quick to bow to Zeus, who was basically a gigolo in a toga.

Aside from The Brothers Karamazov, the thing that influenced me most when it comes to my religious views was a class on Eastern religion that I took in college. The ones we studied seemed to be based more on psychological concepts than the Western ones with which I was most familiar.

I found a book called The Teaching of Buddha in the drawer by the bed in my hotel suite in Bangkok. I guess I should have known better than to expect The Holy Bible in Thailand, a country where Buddhism is the primary religion. I opened the book, and the first words I read spoke to me more powerfully than anything I’d read in years.

“Where is the source of human grief, lamentation, pain and agony? Is it not to be found in the fact that people are generally desirous.

They cling obstinately to lives of wealth and honor, comfort and pleasure, excitement and self indulgence ignorant of the fact that the desire for these very things is the source of human suffering.”

It’s easier for me to embrace a philosophically sound idea that I can apply to my everyday life than it is for me to accept being told that heaven awaits only if I follow some arbitrary life plan. Religion is supposed to make us better people, yet historically, it’s spawned so much physical and psychological turmoil. Major wars (including the ongoing one on terrorism) have been fought in its name, and too many people use it to justify their intolerance (the Bible often being cited as a reason by many, including Sherri Shepherd on The View, to deny gays the right to marry). I’m too skeptical and suspicious to buy into all of that.

I like the idea of picking and choosing bits from different religions and applying them to your life in a way that works for you. And while you are selecting what to use and what not to use, remember to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s called the golden rule for a reason. Follow it, and so much that is good will fall right into place.

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Filed under agnosticism, atheism, Bangkok, breast cancer, Buddha, Buddhism, Church of God, Dostoevsky, gay rights, God, intolerance, Japan, religion, Thailand, The Brothers Karamazov, The Holy Bible