Getting Tested for HIV at Orlando Pride

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Many things happened last Saturday at Orlando Pride, but in this post, I wanted to share about how I ended up doing something I hadn’t even thought of as a possibility during the festival; getting tested for HIV. My friend Crumpy and his friend New Baldy (both nicknames obviously) mentioned the possibility of getting tested right there, right then. So, I did.

The last time I was tested was the first time I was out in the ’80’s. Back then, to get an accurate test result, you had to wait for 3 to 6 months after the risky behavior. Early on in the pandemic, it seemed like almost everything was risky behavior. Many of us lived in constant fear of AIDS. When you got tested back then, they drew vials of blood and sent them off to be tested in a lab. Then, you waited for what seemed like an eternity (at least several weeks, one time for me it was longer) for the results.

It was always scary to get tested back then because so many people and friends had passed away very quickly after they found out. The first man I ever was “with” in that most intimate of ways passed away from AIDS. He didn’t know he had AIDS until a few weeks before he passed. I can remember, with crystal clarity, the night I found out he had died. I was in a Krystal fast food place after the bar closed and literally broke down in sobbing grief when a mutual friend told me. One, because he, Ron, had died. Secondly, because of our sexual history, I thought for sure I had contracted HIV, too.

Compounding the problem, the religious and cultural stigma of gay men was horrible to begin with. That same systemic bigotry used HIV/AIDS to only make things worse as gay men. It was an incredibly difficult time.

Now, decades later, here I was walking up to a mobile clinic (a fancy truck/van), and everyone was super nonchalant about it. As I walked up a couple of stairs into the mobile clinic, I didn’t show it, but I was genuinely fascinated that this could all be done in a “mobile clinic.” I understood you could give blood in mobile blood donor buses, but had never thought you could do something like this as a mobile testing service AND get the results right there. Amazing. Even so, fascination changed to fear as the doctor introduced himself. My gut turned inside out with a flash of sorrow as long-ago memories and a moment of fear tried to resurface.

Regardless, I sat down in this itty-bitty chair in this itty-bitty mobile clinic doctor’s office, where a very nice doctor with an Indian accent and blue rubber gloves covered all his educational and legal bases. Then he took an itty-bitty pin needle punch type of mechanism and pricked my middle finger. He squeezed out about two drops of blood (instead of two vials.) Then mixed my blood with three itty-bitty solutions (looked like the mixing was done in a particular order) and then he said;

“Mr. Thomas, we got the result as you can see by the one blue dot, you are HIV negative. Did you expect this result? Are you surprised in any way?”

I said that I expected it to be negative. I didn’t go into the fact that the only sexual activity that I have had with another person in 25 years was a guy I dated last year. He and I had deeply honest conversations/preparation so by the time we did come together, we knew neither of us had STD’s and were HIV negative. No, I wasn’t surprised by the result, and yet a part of me was relieved.

Sitting there I was astonished at how simple and fast the test was. It took less than ten minutes; maybe even less than five. When I walked out, I smiled at the youngins’, New Baldy and Crumpy with his new flip fan (I let him have mine that they were giving to people who got tested.) As they chatted on and on, I didn’t say anything to them but I thought how grateful I am that they live in a world where you don’t have to live in fear of being seen to go get tested. I was happy they had mobile clinics with quick results instead of living with high anxiety for weeks or months on test results that were not anywhere near as efficient and accurate as today’s tests.

And as Crumpy and New Baldy laughed and picked on each other for various reasons, I remembered Ron and some of the friends we lost when they were that age. Today, I was glad these young men still take this health issue and process seriously. I also felt peace to know that if any of us did find out we were HIV+, there are many options, resources, and possibilities for living a long and beautiful life like many of my HIV+ friends have.

If you have not been tested, please do.

Being free is good,

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Finally Home

Initial Reflections on Orlando Pride...More to Come Throughout the Week

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14980653_10157715935080223_6763326119317170696_nLast Saturday I popped out of bed around 5:30 am. That is evidence of a miracle because I never pop out of bed at 5:30 am on a Saturday. As I was preparing my coffee, I said out loud, “I can’t WAIT to go to pride!”

Early on a friend asked, “Are you excited? Do you have high expectations for the day?” I said that yes I was excited, but I had no idea what to expect. Of course, there would be a large crowd of LGBT and affirming people. You know, and a parade and stuff, but I didn’t know what all that would look like or how I would react. Even so, it went well beyond anything I could imagine.

What Didn’t Happen

For so long, watching from afar, I had believed that “Gay Pride” was hedonism on display. The right-wing activists I used to work with and pay attention to (no longer the case) only posted incredibly racy and “licentious” photos of men dressed in almost nothing, leather gear, and Drag Queens prancing their way down the double yellow line in the middle of the streets. Pride parades were described as ungodly and a horrible influence on our communities and country. Back then, I knew they were exaggerating but expected that this description was probably accurate about a lot of what happens at these events.

Nope. Far from it.

I realize it is impossible for me to have seen all 50,000 people (estimated) at yesterday’s Orlando Pride, but I was ALL over the festival and the parade. I saw, maybe a dozen barely clothed muscle men, and they were not doing drugs and hanging from harnesses, they were very joyful, handing out water, and taking photos with all kinds of folks. In reality, the Drag Queens I did see were incredibly gracious and kind. Still a little prancy but if you looked that fierce, in those heels, you would prance too!

Honestly, I kinda’ wished for more barely clothed muscle men and Daniel Craig to parachute in and rescue me from a sneering mean Drag queens trying to forcibly redo my wig, but … you know… maybe next year.

What Did Happen

At the HRC booth, I said to the fun person signing up as a new member, “If you increase your membership donation by $5 I will give you a hug!” They said, “Well, I will increase it by $10 so I can get two hugs!” I said, “Deal!” And they got their two hugs with a bonus hug. I am sure that is not an HRC approved method of soliciting new members, but it happened.

In general, I talked to everyone about everything all day. I was in extrovert Utopia! In fact, I think I set a personal best for my HPH (Hug Per Hour) rate! I was hugging friends, strangers, strange friends, a statue of Mickey Mouse, people at booths, people in and along the parade, puppies (lots of dogs around)… more people.

In fact, I had so much fun and met so many friends and new friends, the first draft of this post was sailing effortlessly toward 3,000 words and honestly could go higher with all the quality conversation and topics encountered at the parade. That’s too long for a blog post so that I will create more blog posts for specific topics and scenes throughout this week.

walking-in-orlando-pride-2016The crowd was full of families, local businesses, people of all ages, groups of friends, entertainers, affirming church groups, and local leaders. They were yelling fun chants with the PHouse float (Parliament House) right in front of us. I was waving my HRC Marriage equality flag with about 50 other parade walkers. The sidewalks on both sides were full of people, and every one of them was cheering with great bit smiles. I looked up and waved at the people leaning over the condo balconies, and they were waving and cheering, too. My face was sore from the huge perma-grin that had developed and won’t go away.

But as I turned to look from the Balconies back down to the myriad of people on the parade route, the strangest feeling came over me. It was one of bliss but not a bright joy beams of light kind of bliss; it was a deep soul blessed contentment. I was in a crowd full of LGBT people, my community, and didn’t feel like a third wheel, or an interloper.

Right there, in the middle of the street in a Pride Parade, I was humbled and grateful. I will never forget the gentle comforting breeze, taking in that joyous smile-filled scene, and saying under my breath, “I’m finally, truly, home.”

Being free is good,

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Together, We Won’t Let Hatred Win

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It was 1991, and I was waiting for the bar, Britches and Bloomers (yes, that was the actual name), to close. The DJ and I had been flirting a lot for a few months, and that night, when his DJ duties were done, we were going to an after hours party at a club in Dallas. The Book of Love was going to be there. My date was cute, fun, and exciting.

The music went off, and the lights came up, my favorite blond bartender said, “Alright girls, get the f* out!” We walked out of this small dance bar with about 40 other people. The next thing I remember is a white pick-up truck with men crammed into the back came screeching up to the front door. They were screaming and cursing us in English and Spanish. They all seemed to have guns and shot up into the air a couple of times. I remember shoving my date down in between two cars and trying to push us as far under the car as we could get.

The gunslingers never did come over to where we were, but the hair was standing up on the back of my neck where I thought a muzzle would be placed if they did.

I heard other guys from the bar yelling in terror, and one in defiance. Saw one of the regulars take off down the street with another man from the truck chasing him.

The pursuer eventually stopped and turned around laughing. These violent men were all laughing, cursing, threatening, and terrorizing us. The police showed up very quickly, and the truckload of gun toting homophobes took off with one of the cruisers chasing after them. The police asked a few questions and interviewed a couple of our group at length. Deeply shaken, my date and I eventually got up and dusted ourselves off.

“Randy, let’s still go have fun. We cannot let these assholes ruin our evening. We won’t let them win.”

And so, we went to Dallas at 2:30 AM and listened to great music, dancing, lots of laughter, and plenty of kisses. While we numbed ourselves against the fear we always lived with, in our private way, we did not let the assholes win.

But, we also didn’t expect they would be punished for doing what they did. That type of stuff happened all the time in various ways and levels of intensity with little to no outcry from the public. We also understood that the police simply weren’t going to spend time worrying about the “homosexuals” down at the bar. When I was out in the ’80’s until I became a “born again” Christian in 1992, it was always dangerous going to and leaving gay clubs. You always went with your guard up and eyes open. There were a few local and national LGBTQ organizations, but they did not have the influence to change the systemic anti-gay bigotry in the areas I lived in. We lived our lives knowing that we weren’t safe, that we might lose our jobs, family, and family. We understood we could even lose our lives for simply being who we are and loving who we loved.

After becoming a Christian in May of 1992, I quickly adopted an ex-gay worldview and began removing myself from all things “gay.” For the next 23 years, I didn’t go to clubs or date men. I viewed the growing power of the local and national LGBTQ groups with suspicion and in some cases alarm. I didn’t listen to them and what they were saying. I was listening to the talking points my “side” came up with to get the “right and scriptural” view of what they were saying. In other words, while I have always condemned physical violence and advocated for respecting self-determination, I was far far away from knowing the truth and correctly understanding how the LGBTQ rights and equality movement grew into the major change (for good) agents they have become.

I came back out in January of 2015 not truly knowing or understanding anything about grassroots or national level LGBTQ groups. I thought I did, but I didn’t. After some time to catch my breath and get used to being “out” again, I began investigating how I could contribute to the health and welfare of our community. I first contacted the local HRC Orlando / Central Florida group in March of this year. They were incredibly kind and gracious. I began learning about how different the world had become for us since the first time I was out. I was overwhelmed with joy as the depth and complexity of our communities resources and leadership have grown since I had been out the first time.

Then on Friday, June 10, 2016, I shared my story for the first time as an out gay man at a local HRC Federal Club event here in Orlando. Then around 30+ hours later at 2 am Sunday morning June 12, 2016, 49 of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters were murdered at a gay nightclub that had just started shutting down for the night. They didn’t have a chance to pick themselves, and their loved ones up and go to an after-party like we did. My heart shatters every time I think of June 12th.

For all the good that has happened, LGBTQ people are still targeted by murderous hatred empowered by systemic cultural bigotry. This was true before the election. Now, with the election of Trump, many of us who have been around a while, see some alarming reminders of a darker time in our LGBTQ history. Our community has already been directly terrorized and threatened this year. Now we have what seems to be a new political reality that will continue to empower a systemic bigotry and strip away the safety, protections, and equality we have gained.

However, I do draw encouragement from knowing that today’s LGBTQ world is much stronger than ever before. In the aftermath of the Pulse tragedy, I was honored and completely humbled to watch local Orlando LGBTQ leaders swing into action firsthand. I saw tremendous resources surface. Incredible wisdom in action. I watched selfless service and abundant grace. I saw leaders at every level of government offer their support. I saw our brothers and sisters around the world cry out for love and justice.

That is a very different response than what would have happened in the ’80’s and early ’90’s. Our LGBTQ community is more mature, full of wisdom, full of experience and influence, and more powerful (in kind and humble ways) than ever before. Yes, our enemies are still out there, but instead of being numb and living in fear, we have found our voice. We have taken our place in society.

To quote a cute DJ I used to date, “… We won’t let them win.”

Hatred only has one path to a momentary victory; that path is to turn us into the very thing we hate. When we allow hatred into our hearts, we turn into the mirrored reflections of those we hate. That’s the only time hatred wins.

The real power to transform for the good of the individual and the common good truly comes from one source, and that source being love. Love destroys hate:

  • Loving our opponents enough to engage them as equals, not better than or worse than, disarms hate.
  • Selflessly sharing our lives openly with humility, dismantles hate.
  • Sacrificially forgiving, humanizing our enemies, and abiding in grace, destroys hate.
  • Overall, love always wins.

*You* are loved and I pray you are filled with and know you are surrounded by love. Together, we won’t let hatred win.

Being free is good,

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The Vision and Goal For Writing My Book

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Since coming back out, I have wanted to write a book. I want to share about my experience as a gay man who came out at 19, went into the church closet at 24, became a leader in the ex-gay movement, and then ended up helping to shut down Exodus International in 2013. After a personal tragedy and the blinders being ripped off, I also came back out as a gay man of faith in January of 2015. Today I am doing what I can to end conversion therapy and encourage other LGBTQ people. I have struggled with vision and direction for this book, but after the past couple of weeks and great conversations, my vision is now crystal clear. I can see the path unfolding to finish the book. It’s time to get this done.

After my run today, I was driving home, and I heard on NPR some national gay leaders sharing their grave concerns about how our political and cultural environment. The election cycle and eventual outcome are causing LGBTQ people and minorities a tremendous amount of legitimate fear and concern. Plus, with Trump surrounding himself with anti-gay leaders, like his Vice Presidential pick Mike Pence, he has promised to enshrine discrimination against LGBTQ people in the name of defending “religious freedom” policy. As I wrote in a post titled, “The South is My Home, Too” that type of action only furthers systemic bigotry and homophobia. It fosters a climate that further stigmatizes LGBTQ people and threatens our inalienable rights and fundamental freedoms other Americans enjoy. Hearing these reports, and similar ones flooding in over the Internet, this has all lit a fire under me to get this book done as soon as possible. Humbly offered, I do think I can contribute to the overall discussion in positive ways and have been encouraged by very respected friends and acquaintances along these lines. While not specifically related to the event, I would like to have the rough draft and a book proposal ready by the time President-Elect Donald Trump has his inauguration. Plus, I will be doing two interviews sharing my story for two different (and amazing) documentaries. Writing this will help me prepare for those projects as well.

My book will be about much more than politics, but one of its core themes is to further dismantle and end stigmatization of LGBTQ people by exposing religious and cultural conditioning, untruths and humanizing everyone involved with the issues. I hope to do that with personal stories, insights, and analysis gained through experience. Having had direct participation on both ends of the gay/anti-gay spectrum, in some strange and timely ways, I have plenty to share.

Sounds serious, doesn’t it? Well, if you know me, I like to joke around. So, it goes without saying that I also hope it will have a lot of encouragement and humor as well. I am not the kind of guy that wants to write a high-pitch screed full of anger and bitterness. I won’t shy away from the topics that are difficult to write about, but I want the outcome to be life-giving and hopeful to whoever reads it even as they read it.

My heart is empowered to do this because I honestly believe that most people want permission to love each other. Love comes naturally to us because God created us in His image. Meaning, He is love, and He wired us to love and be loved; to know and be known.

Through systemic stigmatization, many don’t believe that they can love LGBTQ people unless it fits a strict and harmful culturally mandated (not God mandated) view. This view denies that LGBTQ people are who we are precisely because God created us to bring our unique beauty into the world. I believe that being LGBTQ is how we bear the Image of our Creator to love and be loved, to know and be known.

Again, I honestly believe people know this in their heart. I want this book to help remove the chains that bind up their love and help draw them out of culturally imposed and unnecessary burdens. I want this book to help people find the freedom to love others or themselves as LGBTQ people and to know our joy filled Creator loves us unconditionally.

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I do need your help. Please consider becoming a Patron through my Patreon account. Your financial support of $1 or more a month will contribute to creating the financial space I need to dedicate time to finishing this book, and blog more consistently. When you click through to my Patreon profile, you will see my explanation for creating the Patreon account and the various “reward levels” I have set up. I am going to write this book regardless. It *has* to be done. But, your support will help the creativity flow by allowing the financial space needed to keep the project on a timely track. Thank you in advance for considering and for those of you who become Patrons!

I am enthusiastic. My heart’s desire is for people not to have to face the same struggles/decisions and consequences I did. That we as LGBTQ people (of faith or not) will embrace ourselves and each other for the amazing community we are!

… the words have already started pouring out! I need to wrap this up before this post turns into another book :).

Being free is good,

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The Antidote

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Now that I am back on the liberal’ish side of politics again (after a 25-year hiatus in the conservative world) I’ve noticed something. I’ve noticed how people view the “other side” from this perspective is, in some cases, shockingly similar to the “side” I recently left. Friends all across the political spectrum have asked, “How in the world can ‘they’ willfully choose ignorance, spread lies, and deny facts?” Seriously, friends from all points of view have asked that same, almost verbatim in many cases, questions over the years. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert in social dynamics but the following is based on my limited experience in observing how this type of broad spectrum alienation happens.

A Poisonous Formula

During the religious-right implosion over the 2008 and 2012 election cycles, and the Exodus International civil war and its resulting relational fallout, this is a pattern I have seen happen repeatedly. It is a recipe for disaster:

  • When it comes to responding to people who disagree or actively oppose their views, leaders assume the absolute worst about their opponents and surround themselves with individuals who have the same bias and negative assumptions to back them up.
  • The leaders then analyze their negative assumptions by fundamentally equating these assumptions as facts. in the process they convince themselves that what they are doing is right and genuine.
  • They draw conclusions based on these highly charged false facts and then teach their friends and supporters that their ongoing analysis and findings are supporting facts.
  • Real-world facts not born out of the leader’s bias that support their negative assumptions are retained, others that challenge or disprove their assumptions are ignored.
  • This consolidates power, equips the echo chamber to communicate efficiently and effectively (among their own), and then energizes their support base.
  • It creates a complex multi-layered narrative, with a penchant for hyperbole, giving the authoritative air of thoughtful contemplation.
  • Their supporters then spread these false facts exponentially in their spheres of influence. Because if so and so says so, it must be so. It gives them a false sense that they are echoing and empowering a much larger “truth.” <– Being part of a larger truth is a fundamental human need.
  • The poison of a leader’s worst assumptions masquerading as fact then seeps into the communities, religious centers, and living rooms. Turns us into “us vs.them.”
  • Supporters start using this poisonous formula to build their arguments and then we have a systemic problem.

All sides do this (there is always more than two sides to any issue.) But, all sides believe they are not nearly as bad as their opponents in this regard.

The Bitter Fruit: Stigmatizing Gossip

It is easy to boil this down, simply put, this is a cultural manifestation of gossip. Gossip can be very evil. Gossip bears false witness against each other and has the power to recontextualize “reality” to be something in our mind that is all fiction. Gossip turns friends and families into enemies. It will stigmatize/dehumanize those we disagree with and rob us of the opportunity to learn and grow with humility. It obscures facts with insult, pain, “us vs. them” irreconcilable differences that are based on limited perceptions and worst case assumptions. Gossip is a lazy imitation of analysis and “care.”

I believe the reason it is so powerful is that we were not created to be this way toward one another. As a Christ follower, He taught us to love and thoughtfully pray for our opponent, our “enemy,” not echo dehumanizing and hurtful messages. He didn’t teach us to repeat gossip and excuse leaders that manufacture the false narratives.

randy-today-blog-quote-103016The Antidote

That antidote to stigmatizing gossip is humanizing relationship. While we all have an inner-jerk seeking expression from time to time (mine can be quite loud sometimes), most people I have met genuinely believe they have found the best life-giving “answer” for whatever the subject is. They have no interest in hurting or harming anyone else. They aren’t ignoring, denying, or hating. They are taking what they have been told and doing the best they can to find a way forward that is healthy for individuals and as a community. People are yearning to escape the vicious cycle described above, and it may be that this election cycle will expose our vulnerability to it and we will not tolerate false facts and narratives to steal our energy, joy, and relationships.

I choose to hop out of the destructive cycle and see those I disagree with as people simply trying to find their way. Sure I might think they are wrong, and they may be convinced I am wrong, but that does not change my relational approach. Regardless of the soul in front of me, they deserve respect, love, selflessness and friendship from me. My job is not to consider them in the context of disagreement and opposition in the worst of terms. My job is to resist gossip and lift up what I believe and researched to be true; to do so with humility knowing that I could be wrong on some of the details if not completely. All in the spirit of direct loving and humanizing relationships.

I have not and will not be perfect with this approach and perspective. But, the more I jump back into a loving and uplifting frame of reference, stigmatizing gossip has no power to poison my reality and relationships.

Being free is good,

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patreon 75If you enjoy these posts and want to support my efforts to affirm and encourage others through writing and other creative projects, click here to check out my Patreon pageThank you!

Ask-It Basket: “Do You Feel, In Any Way, That Those Years Are, ‘Lost'”?

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Interestingly, the questions asked by Steve (below) are issues I have been privately wrestling with for a while. Steve asks:

What is it like to have spent 20 years not being able to be your true self, no matter how sincerely? What is it like to start over in the dating pool when you’re not 20?  Do you feel, in any way, that those years are, “lost?”  – Steve S.

First question, “What is it like to have spent 20 years not being able to be your true self, no matter how sincerely?”

I was in the ex-gay world for a little over 23 years and in leadership of some sort for 20. The first time I was “out” in the ’80’s, I was not a very healthy or responsible person. I didn’t have good coping or relational skills and plenty of dysfunction as a result of abuse and trauma. So when I became a Christian, I didn’t have a broad sense or definition of “true self” until I entered the ex-gay/Exodus International world. It was all new to me; there was very little healthy personal experience to counter it.

The world I had entered into disarmed my skepticism with humility, compassion, and friendship. I believe they genuinely wanted to love me and believed that the only way to do that was to encourage me to overcome my “struggle.” Alan Downs in his excellent book “The Velvet Rage” describes that type of dynamic very well. He calls it “inauthentic affirmation.” They taught, encouraged, and affirmed a false reality. They, of course, didn’t see it as “false” and genuinely believed it is their only real way to affirm me and because I was starving for attention and affirmation, I allowed it to happen. Then I internalized and echoed the systemic bias. False or not, any affirmation on a core level was like food to the starving. And, I ate it up.

In my heart of hearts, I knew I was not living out my “true self.” However, I was also afraid of the consequences of “going back.” Since I had not experienced much of life as a truly healthy gay man before that point, the fears of repeating past hurts as well as the unknown fueled by the stigmatized views I had adopted kept me where I was for a very long time.

What might be surprising to some people is that “overcoming homosexuality” wasn’t the only topic taught in these groups. I did develop healthy coping skills, overcame co-dependency and emotional dependencies, and overcame fear of other Christians. Lots of peripheral issues were addressed that did impact my life for good. I also discovered my innate gifts and strengths that I still operate in today. So, because I was experiencing some forms of healing and growth, I thought my sexuality was “changing.” It was taught that dealing with all that would help me “overcome” my “same-sex struggle.” Plenty of things changed except of course my sexuality. Now I know that the peripheral issues should have just stood on their own and not be forced into the ex-gay worldview. As a gay man, I should have found those same lessons in the broader church environment and resources, not sequestered away in the church closet with unattainable idealized goals.

Next: What is it like to start over in the dating pool when you’re not 20?

Well, it’s interesting. I tried a few of the dating apps early in 2015 and didn’t enjoy them. Might check them out again but not rushing to download. Life is SO different than when I was out in the ’80’s. I dated two guys last year, one for about six weeks and one for almost six months. I respect them both and love the man I was with for six months. I am glad we were together.

However, I spent two decades trying to convince myself that I was divinely “called” to celibacy. I dated one woman during that time for a year (2005), but other than that, I conditioned my brain to think of life stemming from a celibate frame of reference. It’s been hard to get my brain in the game of being open to dating. Not because I don’t want to, I do. But I am so used to not doing it; it’s hard to recognize when a fella might be interested. Then, when I flirt, I am such a goober goofball! Even with those two men last year, it was a surprise to end up on a date with them. 🙂

Seriously, think about it,  23 YEARS of thinking I would be single till I died. Now, even though I look forward to being with the man I can hold, enjoy, and love life with, my habits and thoughts don’t often veer into “go on a date” realm. I also recognize I am learning lessons and having experiences many people obtain when they are younger goober goofballs :). It’s weird being a 48-year-old dealing with the romantic feelings, notions, and lessons usually experienced in the early 20’s. Some of it is very humorous, and at other times I feel embarrassed.

All of that said, I am a quick learning goofball and have already edited the new application for potential Mr. Future Thomas-Husband. 🙂

And the biggie (to me), “Do you feel, in any way, that those years are, “lost?”

Earlier this year, through our mutual friend Daniel Karslake, I met Don & Craig Barton. They have been together for 25 years, married with children, and have a beautiful life together. They just sent their twin daughters off to college.  They are successful, spiritual, humble, kind, gracious, funny and I just love how much they love each other and those around them.

When I look at them I don’t think, in any way, “I could have had that life.” I don’t envy them or have any sense of jealousy. When I see their posts on Facebook or have visited with them at a couple of events since our first meeting, I am simply happy for them and enjoy their company. I find them encouraging and inspiring.

Don and Craig met one year before I went to my first ex-gay group meeting. While they built a life together, I lived within the false confines of adopting beliefs born out of stigmatized religious teachings and unnecessary cultural burdens. While I am not comparing my life to theirs, I have wondered what would have happened if I went to a gay church instead of the ex-gay group all those years ago. Could I have met the man of my dreams? Raise children? Be successful in a career path not hijacked by being “called” to be a celibate ex-gay leader for so long? Maybe, and maybe not.

The “what if my life had…?” game is not something I like to play around with regarding the past. However, for around 20 years I didn’t allow myself  to ask “what if” type of questions in the present. I lived in a world of inauthentic affirmation that in effect blinded and limited me from true romantic love, personal fulfillment and the freedom to explore life from my God-given core relational state of being as a gay man. Asking “what if…?” is a necessary and catalytic question for me in the present. It’s a question I did start asking a few years before we decided to close Exodus. I believe that God led me down that path and out of that false ideological prison and toward this life-giving new direction and journey.

The way I arrived at the observations in the above paragraph has been raw and sometimes awful. I have wept, grieved, even despaired a couple of times for the “lost” opportunities. It’s been hard to recognize, adjust and live with the consequences/limits on the possibilities I have now. I’ve struggled with bitterness and depression over the “what if’s” that could have happened over those years if I had not been involved in the ex-gay world. It’s all a little too much sometimes.

While I have flashes of that depression/anger still, I am coming to peace with all of it. The truth is, I have a good life today and a hope-filled future. Life is good, our Creator is good, and I am glad to be who I am and where I am at now.

What I have not lost

What I didn’t lose is my love for Christ and His love for me. We have an amazing relationship and our spiritual communion has always been intimate. I have not lost the steadfast friends I made during that time and survived the Exodus Civil War, it shutting down, and my coming back out of the closet.  I heard many life-giving sermons, amazing transformative teachings, and read many many great books. Over those years I did have wonderful experiences and have always sought to gain wisdom and understanding. All of this, learning from the good and bad, hopefully, has equipped me to be  a healthy/responsible gay man in a number of ways.

So, yes, I “lost” quite a bit because of being involved in that world. But, our Creator is good and being gay is one of the many gifts he has built into my life. I am at peace with being a big gay goober goofball, maybe for the first time; and that’s ok. It’s also my hope that by sharing my experience other young people will steer clear of ex-gay ideology and making some of the choices I made.

Being free is good.

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Stripped

This is with Tony Perkins, the President of the right wing Family Research council during Inauguration week of Bush's second term in 2005. I really thought I was living out my "calling."

This is with Tony Perkins, the President of the religious activist group Family Research council during Inauguration week of Bush’s second term in 2005. I really thought I was living out my “calling.”

Have you ever seen an entire world you thought you knew evaporate? I have.

Six or Seven years ago, I was in Executive Management for an international ministry (Exodus International) and thought I had achieved success in “my calling.” I believed and worked toward that “calling” for over twenty years. I was traveling all around North America, doing regular interviews for media outlets around the world, and had many friends and acquaintances. I was never at a loss for emails to answer, phone calls to return, and “ministry opportunities.” I had nice clothes, nice condo, nice stuff, and nice friends. I wouldn’t say I was “high-profile” or the “go to” guy, but I worked directly with/for the people who were.

Now, all of that has been stripped away. 

That whole world of friends (except for a steadfast few), acquaintances, opportunities, stuff … gone. It all started being stripped away when we began being honest with ourselves and others about how change in sexual orientation was not happening. We also could no longer deny that Exodus had been used as a weapon against LGBTQ people. Not only that, we began sharing our views that true life-giving Grace manifests through the finished work of Christ and is available to everyone; that Gay Christians were yes… “saved.” Because of those realizations and the civil war that occurred in our networks as a result (among other things), we shut down Exodus. We shut it down instead of handing it off to someone to continue the harm and hurt. During that process, the loud legalistic voices of a few became a tidal wave of accusations and rejection from many. I moved from the publicly contentious arguments into a personal wilderness of questioning. All of that plus losing a friend to suicide ripped my legalistic blinders off and I would finally find peace in Christ as a gay man.

All the lies, self-deception, inauthentic affirmation, distracting and encumbering “stuff”… gone.

The only things that weren’t stripped away is my love for, and being loved by, Christ as well as a handful of steadfast friends.

Lately, I have realized that some of my continuing life goals were developed during that inauthentic reality. Meaning, they were goals that were fashioned while I was living out an inauthentic sense of self; goals based on an idealized projection and not true to who I really am. These goals were recontextualized when I embraced my relational state of being as a gay man, but I have realized that even with a different set of beliefs driving them, that doesn’t make them goals I should keep or hold onto. Especially when they become unnecessary burdens that drain energy instead of invest in life.

So with those also falling to the wayside, I look to the heavens and pray, “Oh God! This mid-life reboot sucks! What’s the plan now?” <–I know… a little overly dramatic but still true ;).

And all I am hearing lately is that the plan is to engage and enjoy what the day brings, love God and others, and being mindful to live in the present. It’s ok to enjoy simplicity and my “new normal.” It’s a blessing to enjoy the new sea of friendships I have the honor of swimming around in and to watch doors open and relationships blossom.

As I typed the above, an inner voice reminded me of one life-goal that will never change; that being the decision to be content regardless  of circumstance; a contentment fueled by intentional gratitude and love. Life is vastly different today and I don’t have all the answers. I wouldn’t change a thing and am glad to be free.

Being free is good.

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