Range in a Homo Change of Mind

protest 02142008 cdb 19737Homo on the Range is more than a jarringly ironic name for a column about gay life in the Midwest. It’s larger than any one individual LGBT person living in Middle America. At its core, homo on the range is a frame of mind. It’s the notion that a person can be their true, authentic self anywhere.  It’s also the realization that progress can only happen with honest conversation.

Progress is, in fact, happening on the range! In 2005, Kansas’s voters were asked if they wanted to amend the state’s constitution to limit marriage and all of its legal benefits to only heterosexual couples. 70% said yes. According to a new Public Policy Polling survey, the number of Kansans who remain opposed to allowing gay marriage is down to 51%, with only 34% saying there should be no legal recognition of same-sex relationships. A majority support either marriage or civil unions. Given the conservative political dynamics of Kansas and nearby states, marriage equality isn’t coming to the heartland anytime soon. This poll underscores something more important, though: the power of dialogue.

The first time I truly felt “out” wasn’t when I was a pimply 15 year old, awkwardly confessing to my best friend that I’m attracted to boys. It was about 3 years later when I recalled that incident to a classroom full of strangers while speaking on a “gay panel”. In the early 2000’s, myself, along with several friends I met through PFLAG (Parents, Friends, and Families of Lesbians and Gays), would speak to groups of people about being gay. We’d talk to college sociology and human sexuality classes, social workers in training, would-be teachers in diversity programs, medical professionals, employers, and even sometimes members of the clergy. We’d share with them our personal stories—how we discovered that we are gay, how having a different sexual orientation has impacted our lives, and how political debates over our rights have very personal impacts.

I lost my gay-panel virginity at Butler Community College. I felt raw, naked, and exposed. I was sharing intimate, painful stories about peer rejection, suicidal thoughts, and emotional strife to a roomful of about 30 complete strangers. It wasn’t easy. But half way through speaking, I realized it was so worth it. Glares of disgust were turning into gazes of empathy. Heads turning horizontally started to vertically nod. There was a palpable energy shift in the room; people who walked in prejudiced to a certain way of thinking about gay people were reexamining their assumptions. I realized then that these panels were the single most effective way to create change. They humanized the issue and invited in conversation with our Q&As after each talk.

Since then, I’ve spoken on close to 100 other panels. My words aren’t why Kansan’s views are shifting on gay civil rights. But they are part of why. The other part—or rather other thousands of parts—are the many more people who have had similar conversations in even more intimate settings. It’s the collective dialogue that is nearing us to a tipping point. One day, we will live in a state where we not only have the same rights as everyone else, but we will also enjoy the same dignity as our peers.

Don’t let the conservative, Republican political climate scare you into thinking such machinations are impossible, either! Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who almost became Mitt Romney’s running mate, just announced that he now supports gay marriage. The first Senate Republican to change course did so for a simple reason: his son is gay. Kitchen table issues and gay issues are really one in the same when it comes to family. The more dialogue those of us who are gay have with people like Sen. Portman, the better it’s going to get.

So don’t be afraid to come out to your conservative parents or traditionalist peers.  Family values are a big deal here on the range. Over the last decade, more and more families have discovered that they have to value all of their children. Sometimes, that means changing some beliefs. An evolution of values based on bedrocks of love: that is very homo on the range.

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Looking Good, Being Gay

Image“You actually have to look good to be gay. You don’t make the cut.”

That’s what Brock, a bisexual boy at my high school, mockingly said to me the morning after I came out of the closet. His words were my first introduction to the LGBT community. I was 15, 5’11, and overweight at 220 lbs. I knew that I didn’t look good; but I also knew that I was gay, and that there was nothing I could do to cut that fact about myself.

We can’t have a conversation about LGBT health without confronting a silent epidemic within the gay community. A 2007 study conducted at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that gay and bisexual men are 3 times more likely than their hetero-peers to develop eating disorders. An alarming 15% of gay and bisexual men have at some point had serious issues with disordered eating.  Proportionally, statistics suggest that there are actually more gay men dealing with body image issues than heterosexual women.

When we come out of the closet, we immediately yearn to be embraced by the LGBT community we come into. There’s an awkward element of body fascism among many gay and bisexual men that can make this a rocky transition. A lot of us get bullied by our heterosexual peers in school. We internalize their rejection of who we are, and we hope that the people who are like us—other gays—will be accepting. The truth is, though, we’re often harsher to each other. When the bullies go away, we often step in to take their place. Enforcing a strict code of sexual attraction is one way we perpetuate the bully narrative.

Brock was a proxy for a larger truth; bodies are a big deal in the gay community. A study came out last year from England in which close to half of respondents said they’d trade a year of their life for the perfect body. It’s a hypothetical situation that sounds hyperbolas, but it speaks to a larger insight into the pursuit of perfection.

Starvation diets and over-exercising are avoidance tactics for dealing with the issue of body image. We’ve done a great job of normalizing physical obsession, but we as gay and bisexual men need to come to terms with our corporal selves. A lot of issues that plague our community, like alcoholism, smoking, and eating disorders, have their root in early encounters with homophobia. We have to deal with our past and how we see ourselves mentally before we can truly get a handle on our bodies.  We also need to stop beating each other up and start embracing everyone. No one should ever feel like they have to starve themselves to be a good gay!

We have to stop punishing our bodies and start nourishing them, too. Instead of an hour and a half of cardio everyday, maybe we’d be better off integrating a weekly yoga routine so that we’re in tune with our body and our soul. Rather than painfully avoiding food or eating miniscule Lean Cuisines, perhaps we can embrace more sustaining eating habits like adopting a whole foods, plant based diet.

Words have a way of lingering; what was a stupid, adolescent put down haunted me through years of body shame, over exercising, and disordered eating. I eventually slimmed down and “looked good”, but ultimately I wasn’t truly at peace with my own body until I made peace with what I was putting inside it. Last January, I became vegan, meaning I don’t eat animals or animal byproducts.  It’s a way of living that mixes good food with good karma to optimize your body, sharpen your mind, and strengthen your spirit. I still don’t have a perfect physique; what I do have, though, is a healthy lifestyle I can feel good about.

That was my journey. Everyone’s path will be different. We must all make our own cut, not because you have to look good to be gay, but because being gay should feel good for you!