If you think I’m writing about the Gay thing, that hasn’t been news since 1974. This is about something else: the halting and hesitant transformation of an underachiever into the person he was meant to be.
I’ve never called myself an underachiever before, because I’ve got a list of achievements longer than my arm. I’m tremendously proud of the things I’ve done, but… I’ve always been a bit of a failure too, in two ways: I don’t get the respect from the world that I ought to get, and I don’t give myself the respect that I ought to either.
The second is more troubling than the first. I mean, who’d want to be famous in this cheap and rotten celebrity culture?
But on the first point, I’ve moved around so much that nobody in my new city knew what I did in the last one. Sometimes a person succeeds simply by outlasting all the competition; Dorothy Height was president of the National Council of Negro Women for forty long years. She died the other day, her funeral is tomorrow at the National Cathedral, and she’s now being lionized in death like she never was in life. President Obama has ordered flags flown at half-staff at every American installation in the world, and all the ships at sea. (She did receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom; it’s not like nobody ever knew when Dorothy was around. She had it all; a fine mind, a clear vision of civil rights for all people, persistence, determination—and a way of asserting herself. Honey, those hats were weapons, and don’t you forget it.)
I once knew a young politician and mayor in Cincinnati, young, cute, smart, male, rich, Jewish, a fella named Arn Bortz. He wore a bow tie for the express purpose of guaranteeing that you’d never mistake him for anyone else. The late Sen. Paul Simon did the same thing. It’s hard in a lineup of white guys to pick one of them out, but the bow tie said “Look at me, I’m different.” And both of them were; a bow tie won’t get you anywhere if you don’t have the chops.
I made my choices based on being Gay, poor and Christian; or should that be Christian, poor and Gay? I remember deciding as a teenager that I wouldn’t pursue wealth, that it’s immoral to do that; I didn’t find out I was Gay for another couple of years. First Jesus, then voluntary poverty, then ohmygod look at that guy over there!
I will never complain about these choices. I’ve lived a far richer life than I could have imagined back then when I was 16. Money is a useful and necessary thing, and I may die of a lack of it someday, but for now, I feel like I did good.
I grew up in the civil rights era, when Dorothy Height was not allowed to speak, and the example I got from Dr. King and others was the Pearl of Great Price. I learned how to follow Jesus, just by paying attention.
Of course it then became logical that I’d do everything I could to protect the rights and dignity of homosexual persons in my own era. Most of my “long list of accomplishments” come out of that decision. It’s a kind of “never again” thing some people come to, I think; Rosa Parks should never again have to move to the back of the bus, and a boy who’s queer and lousy at sports should never be tortured in a public school. NEVER.
So you do the things you can do, and have the successes you can have; and then life changes, people come and go, and at some point you start to get old.
Last night I watched a little program on the Food Network; a promoter in Baltimore owns a bakery that turns out wildly detailed and fanciful cakes. He’s got interesting and appealing employees who really believe in what they’re doing, and apply a lot of skill to the work. The idea behind all this is so grandiose it’s the basis of the entire business, but they’re young and enthusiastic and they make these incredible cakes you can’t really eat. You want the Colossus of Rhodes? They can do that. The owner’s a hustler from way back. So what caught my eye? A wedding cake they were doing for two guys, who completely loved the results.
The show didn’t spend one second commenting about “Ooh, a Gay wedding.” The designers and bakers just made those guys a cake.
I sat there and thought, “That’s it, we win, game over.” The Food Network!
When a cooking show takes a Gay wedding as the most natural bake-job in the world, the Orioles just won the pennant, wrap it up, you’re done.
I’ll soon turn 59 and baby, my work is changing too.
Except it isn’t, of course, the work is never done; but I’m thinking that in this phase of my life, when young and energetic people are carrying on the kind of work I used to do, it’s time I moved into a new phase. And that’s what I’m coming out about.
I think I shall become the Joshua version of Dorothy Height.
Don’t need the hat; hats were old-fashioned back when she was a kid, and she knew it. But they became her trademark.
Don’t need the pearls; I may be Gay but I really don’t care for jewelry. It’s mostly designed for the parading of wealth and I don’t believe in it. Gold chains are for baseball players with more money than sense. The gaudier it is, the more they like it.
And I do not identify with Ms. Height’s womanhood, though I sure am glad she did. She was a feminist hero, and I am the child of a woman.
But I was raised a boy, grew into a man, and during my era in Gay America, we sought to find and become what was sexy and butch in Gay men. So no hat, Hopalong.
Instead I want to create a new conception of myself that is empowered, mature, accomplished, and even a little entitled.
It doesn’t immediately matter to me if other people see me that way or not. I don’t need their respect or deference; I know what I’ve done, and I don’t blame them for not knowing.
I eat my hot dog the same way you do—although mine’s juicier.
The biggest change this represents is my attitude toward myself. I grew up in the bad old days and it was really awful. But that was then and now is now and some hustler in Balto’s selling Gay wedding cakes.
I still have work to do—work I’m uniquely qualified for.
My prayer website, called dailyoffice.org, is closing in on a million hits. I thought of a book title the other day, “One Million Votes for the Book of Common Prayer.”
It’s a tremendous accomplishment if I do say so (one of the largest Episcopal churches in the world), and yet what makes the site work isn’t my faithfulness, but our congregation’s. They write me the most beautiful e-mails and I sit here thanking God for another day’s opportunity.
It wouldn’t have happened without three civil rights leaders: Robert Ervin Faulkenberry, Brooke Bushong and Howard Galley, Jr. Ervin used to be a target of the Klan. They taught me how to conduct the Daily Office, a church service that laypeople are best in charge of. I can imagine each of them, one Straight, one Lesbian, one Gay, in later years, like Dorothy Height in a hat.
They were absolutely accomplished persons like she was. None of them were famous; they didn’t die rich; they lived lives of quiet service, which is how it mostly happens among the people of faith. That shunting-aside happened to Dorothy Height for decades, till finally, she stood alone.
My other big job is a work in progress, a novel about two young men who love each other, go about solving crimes and learning to make a Christian marriage.
The younger, smaller guy is kind of turning into a superhero lately; his powers are spiritual, based in his belief in Jesus. His bigger, stronger pal uses prowess, intellect and wealth to vanquish the evil.
But Robin turns out more impressive than Batman; which is really hard when you’re Batman.
One or the other of these projects could do something to raise my profile in fame or influence or money; it wouldn’t take much of an improvement to do so. Today you could say I’m a washed-up has-been, out of a job and anxious about the future. But I live in a beautiful home in gorgeous Indiana with a fantastic dog who thinks I’m it, and just outside my door the lilacs are in full bloom.
I do not know all the struggles Dorothy Height had to endure. I’m sure her life was never easy; in later years her health turned for the worse. But she so established her credentials that on her death, President Obama ordered her honored by all the ships at sea.
I think I shall act as if he might, one day, order that for me.
From here on out, whether the world comes to me or not, I shall act as if I made a difference in this life, beat back all the bad guys and got a wedding cake from Baltimore.
Because while all those “facts” are quite debatable, they’re also very true. I made the right decision when I was 16 to be Christian and poor and obscure; I’ve never questioned it, anymore than Dorothy did, or Marty King, or Tammy Baldwin, or Harvey Milk, or Catherine of Siena. She used to levitate, and ended up with stigmata on her hands.
My character Jamie does some flying, but his main purpose in life is to show the world that men who love each other are sometimes holy, and achieve greatness because they love so well.
It’s fiction, y’know? But it’s true.++
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