Don’t get COOKed. Own Who You Are.

Own It!

Own It! Courtesy of Dan Cook’s Instagram

Who you are matters. What you do with your life matters. The image you present to the world matters. And most of all, your identity matters. That’s because each of us occupies a distinct space on this planet that no one else can satisfy. Personalities, talents, and capabilities collide with mission, purpose, and destiny to allow the unfolding of 7 billion epic adventures—all at one time.

A recent celebrity encounter on the beach reminded me of my own responsibility. Yes, that’s the most LA sentence ever written.

It was a sunny day in Venice and I just wanted to soak up the rays. I was landlocked in Kansas for 15 years so whenever it’s above 80 degrees there’s a personal mandate that I find at least an hour to suntan. So I threw on my banana shorts, ripped off my shirt and put on my shades. A 2-minute walk later and I was lying in the sand, caring only about how beautiful the rolling ocean in front of me appeared. This dabble of luxury was actual an act of defiance.

Laying shirtless in the sand for me means bearing some of my deepest personal wounds to the world. I was overweight as a kid and well into adulthood. Ten years ago I dropped 80 lbs., going from a blobby high of 240 down to a very thin 160 in 10 months. Stretch marks envelop pretty much ever corner of my body as a result. I’ve been obese. I’ve been anorexic. I’ve been many things in between. Right now I’m at a point where I could afford to lose a good 10 lbs. and tone up my muscles a bit. So on top of the stretch marks, I’ve got a thicker gut that I’m used to carrying around. Hence the defiance—I’m keenly aware that I’m no pinup model and this, after all, is Southern California so if ever I forget, a constant parade of shirtless muscle boys with toned asses and chiseled chests will remind me.

Weight, in excess or in absence, is the physical manifestation of much deeper forces. I was obese as a kid because food was where I found comfort—an escape from the taunting and teasing I endured throughout my adolescence on account of being gay. As an adult, it’s still all too often where I find solace. Especially when I’m stressed or lonely, food becomes my comfort. If I don’t keep my insecurities in check, the beach turns into a discomfort. Which is part of why I constantly put myself in a situation sans shirt. When I bear my chest I’m baring my soul—sometimes messy, but always true.

Since July 2013, taking off my shirt has revealed more than just my stretch marks. I have a giant sized Buddha engraved squarely between my ribs that runs the entire length of my abdomen. The words CHANGE YOUR LIFE are floating inside the jolly deity’s tongue. Those words are there to remind me that forward motion is the only trajectory. They were purposely etched onto the spot where I carry the most shame so that I could be continuously reminded to keep the negative self-talk in check. It’s working—and if I ever needed proof the universe sent it to me in the form of Dane Cook. Yes, the comedian Dane Cook.

After spending a good 2 hours tanning, I took a walk along the ocean and called my dad to wish him a happy Father’s Day. In the middle of explaining the spiritual significance of plant based medicine (which I’m pretty sure one-ups the “I’m the gay son” quotient) some guy asked me if he could take my picture, specifically of my tattoo. Not having much experience with paparazzi, I obliged, a little annoyed that my conversation was interrupted. I didn’t bother to introduce myself or even take the time to get off the phone. Turns out it was a celebrity taking a picture of ME.

An hour later, I learned that I had been COOKed, DANE COOKED. Apparently, he found my banana shorts, Andy Warhol hair, and giant tattoo amusing enough to have his way with me on social media, snarky comments about self-identity and all. My phone started to blow up as I watched a steady stream of several thousand Facebook “likes”, Instagram “loves”, and Twitter “re-tweets.” Then there were the comments—all 500+ of them in total. That’s where shit gets interesting….

The initial reaction to my likeness being blasted to over 5 million people was a mix of body shaming/gay bashing/transphobia (I’m not transgender, though it would be cool if I were…)/Miley Cyrus jokes. Apparently some people think I look like a wrecking ball…

Basically ever insecurity I had ever encountered was on full display for the world to see; and the world was giving me back exactly what I had been giving myself! The first few dozen comments were harsh. I had a moment when I started to go into the story of believing them. Then I realized we write our own stories! The venom in those comments doesn’t even come close to the potency of the defeating words I’ve often found floating around in my own mind. So I decided to just OWN IT.

I’m gay. I wear colorful clothes. I have weird tattoos. I rock large crystals around my neck. I have spiritual beliefs many find bazaar. I have stretch marks and body fat. That’s me, right now in this moment. And I’m good with that.

So I posted a simple statement that read: “Happy to be comfortable in my own skin. Proud to be gay. Own who you are. Love is the only thing that’s real. Everything else is an illusion.” Then I pasted a link to this blog explaining the origin of the tattoo.

Once I flipped the dialogue in my own head a funny thing happened—the conversation online shifted. A cavalry of “be yourself” defenders came riding in. Words about being who you are, loving yourself, and accepting your physical form overtook the haters. My message box started to be flooded with people telling me their own stories about battling eating disorders, feeling out of place, and wanting to change their lives. Shift the energy within and it emanates out.

Getting good with who we are is important not so much for our own egos, but rather for understanding how the uniqueness of our being fits into a broader collective. For me, I live as boldly and authentically as possible, presenting a colorful, loud and unique avatar so that others might step out of their shell and step into the fullness of who they are. When we work to ignite the spark in others, we all grow exactly as we should.

Dane Cook had his way with me at the beach, but we’re the ones who can get the last laugh if we just drop into the uniqueness of our own identity. OWN WHO YOU ARE

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A Dartboard and a Message

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For Pocket O

“Everyone should always have hope in their heart, feel love in their life, have an even playing field, and an equal chance to be happy.”

Those were some of the last words my friend O said to me. They were the mantra of his life and the message he wanted carried forward. Sadly, they were also all of the things he was never able to embrace. In the aftermath of his suicide, I am left with the task of deconstructing the taboos that blocked him from realizing what he so eloquently desired.

O was a dartboard for everything we as a culture are afraid of: he was gay, Muslim, and mentally ill. When he came out of the closet, he found there was no place for him inside his religion. As he turned to the gay community for support, he discovered the awkward truth that a culture colored by the rainbow is still uncomfortable with some of the hues inside that prism. Though he constantly desired personal freedom and intimate connections, his personality disorder robbed him the ability to live life on his own terms. He was born into a family that loved him, but most of his relatives were ill prepared for the advent that was O.

When we decide that something is a taboo, we limit people’s abilities to navigate how to deal with it when the inevitable manifests. We can want something to not exist; but we cannot wish away reality. Sometimes, people come into this world to challenge assumptions and expand horizons. With so many taboos tattooed to him, O was one of those people.

Teenage suicide and adolescent bullying are issues that have gained national attention and caused strife in communities across the U.S. News anchors like Anderson Cooper venerably try to dissect how ill treatment from others lead to irreversible decisions. It is not just kids who are offing themselves, though; O was well into his thirties when he died. Causalities come when we refuse to allow people to fully integrate who they are with where they are. When we refuse to confront the things that scare us, we chase off some of the very people we want to love. That is exactly what happened to O.

I am no scholar of Islam, but I know most Muslims will tell you that there is no place in Allah’s kingdom for a gay man. Muslim men are supposed to be the leaders of their families. Their offspring bring honor to the bloodline and goodwill to the family name. This was one requisite O would never manifest. Instead of dealing with that fact, most of his family ignored it, hoping it would go away. Simultaneously, they overlooked his mounting cognitive deterioration. Stigmas over mental illness do not just bring dishonor to Muslim families; most Americans are uncomfortable confronting the challenges that come when a family member has an anguished mind.  When relatives cannot give you the acceptance you need, it is natural to seek that out in other people. Islamophobia and the misconceptions most people have about Muslim culture often prevented O from making those connections.

Suicide, he felt, was the only release from a life full of contradictions.  Race, religion, culture, health, and sexuality tragically collided.

These are not easy issues to talk about. You are probably uncomfortable reading this piece. If so, that is very good. Uncomfortable is compelling. Answers are often found inside the notions that scare us the most.

My relationship with O was complex. He and I never actually met in person. We were introduced via the “Gay Men Who Think Levi Johnston is Hot” Facebook group. See, even Sarah Palin is good for something! Though I never interacted with his physical presence, I got to know his mind better that probably anyone. We talked nearly every day for two years. He knows things about me that even my best friends do not. We had a relationship full of constant challenges. It required my mind to expand. It made his heart open up. It was strange, but it was real. Technology can either be the means by which we break taboos or it can allow them to exacerbate. I choose to let social media broaden the scope of my social understanding.

Every night around 9:00 p.m., I wait for my phone to ring and a picture of O to pop up. That does not happen anymore. It is not the dartboard of our collective fear that I want to hear from, though; I just miss my friend.  Suicide often happens because circumstances larger than a single person overtake an individual’s life.

In our last conversation, O told me he did not want his message to be forgotten. I write this in hopes that you will lace in your heart the words that open this article. When you encounter people whose identities and circumstances challenge or befuddle you, please pay attention. If you have been affected by suicide, examine the conditions that surrounded the event. Sometimes, people come into your life to wake you up. With open eyes, we can level the playing field and create the world of hope, love, and happiness for others O did not have for himself.

Pulp Fiction, Gay Friction

We create ourselves, in part, by plagiarizing the paradigms of our peers. If you’re reading this blog, you probably pride yourself on being an unabashed individual. The truth is, though, that we’re all shaped in part by the creative geniuses of others. Identities are formed as an amalgamation of a broad, cultural circumference mixes with beguiling, individual circumstances. The evolution of who we are as unique persons is the continuation of the story about us as a community of people.

That’s exactly why it’s important to see yourself represented. When we see people on TV who mirror our race, religion, or culture, we are reminded that we are part of something larger than ourselves. When we read books about people whose journey parallels some of our own experiences, we take solace in knowing we aren’t alone.  The more we are aware of the facets of our collective identity, the better we can hone the individual traits we bring to our unique existence.

Our lives are juicier than pulp.

Anyone curious homosexuality fifty years ago, though, would have been consigned to flipping through the ragged, untrimmed edges of pulp fiction novels to gain a glimpse into the gay world. The seedy 7”x10” booklets were one of the few sources available where gay and lesbians could read stories about others who were like them. The books were available to the masses at bus stations, newsstands, and dime stores. Sounds like an opportunity to be enlightened, huh?

Well, not so much! A bleak sadness permeated most of the works.  Titles like The Tormented, The Divided Path, and Lost on Twilight Road pretty much sum up the mood of these titillating tales. Lurid and sexually provocative, most of the stories featured under-developed characters fixated on derelict and destruction. Men were characterized as being internally tormented, homicidal, and dangerous. Women were predatory, suicidal, and insane. Publishing companies had a formula for such works that mandated no character end up happy and gay by the book’s end. They could become straight and be heterosexually partnered; otherwise they needed to commit suicide or be killed. Gay people could never find a shard of actually happiness in these fictitious emulations. How’s that for an identity-upper?

Obviously, pulp fiction didn’t give the gays much literary leverage.  Our government and business leaders at that time, though, understood the power of portrayal.  They sought to undermine any sense of a burgeoning, gay-positive identity by linking it with anything but happiness.

Today, we live in a post-Will and Grace world. Gay representation abounds us. We have our own books, movies, and plays. Hollywood actors and musical pop stars are coming out.  LGBT Politicians are being elected. It isn’t just homosexuals who are affected. Now it’s gay guys—not diamonds—that are a girl’s best friends. The straight boys are metro-sexualizing their wardrobes. Your homes are probably flanked in homo-designed styles, too.

We’ve come a long way in the fifty years since. Our lives aren’t pulp fiction novels anymore. We can be fully integrated individuals. Today, we’re really just beginning that collective community evolution. The story of American LGBTs is really just starting to be written. What unique perspective will your chapter add?

A Happy Homosexual

“Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse.”

That was the summation of the queer experience circa-1970, voiced by the character Michael in milestone movie “Boys in the Band”. Often cited as the first major film to honestly depict gay life, the realities it showcased mirrored the times. The characters were generally sad, substance addicted, and sexually compartmentalized. Though immortalized in queer cinema history, the film left the impression that being gay was rather a drag.

June is gay pride month. It’s the time of year when those famous drag queen-laden parades and rainbow-saturated marches happen. It’s when LGBT people come together in a public way to declare with our presence that we are not ashamed of who we were created to be. Anyone who wonders why we gays insist on having these events should remember the quote above. Pride is how we fight back against a dejected self-narrative. It’s our anti-drag.

As “it’s gotten better”, some are questioning why we need to continue such events. Many have suggested that pride augments the very thing we are trying to diminish—our differences. The simple fact is, people are different; and that’s not bad!  In the past year, there have been an alarming number of publicly reported suicides among LGBT teens. Flying a rainbow flag may seem frivolous, but to the 13 year old kid who happens by a march, that flag could end up being a life line. Sometimes, you just need to know you aren’t alone. Pride gives us visibility.

Variety is what fills life with intrigue and meaning. If we don’t celebrate our diversity, though, someone will end up vilifying it. Remember that “kill the gays bill” in Uganda I wrote about several posts back? It appears poised to become law after nearly two years of international wrangling. In the wake of a deteriorating economy and under the rule of a dictator, a wave of “homosexual hysteria” has swept across the East African nation. Gays and lesbians are being blamed for the downfall of their society, an idea promulgated by several prominent leaders on the American religious right. Being gay is already a statutory crime, but that apparently isn’t enough. When hateful ideologies get transferred to countries with extreme poverty and limited access to education, there can be dire consequences. If it does indeed become law, gay people in the country will be executed—and their straight allies will face severe prison sentences if they voice their support for LGBT individuals. Gay corpses and imprisoned heteros are the consequences of being invisible.

The good news for those of us on the range is that we can publicly and visibly assemble without fear of such extreme government persecution. A lot has changed for the American homosexual since Michael’s band of boys first pranced across the silver screen. In the years following, LGBT people have come out and become important forces in local communities and economies. In fact, some of the most successful U.S. cities have the most progressive laws and accepting attitudes on the issue of gay rights. No longer are we sidelined into lives of desperation, secrecy, and unhappiness. In 2011, and yes in Kansas, gay truly can be synonymous with happy.

This June, embrace pride. Gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian, or transgendered, all of us should celebrate the totality of who we are as individuals. When Wichita’s pride festival happens June 24th and 25th, exercise your right to assemble. Do it for our brother and sisters who can’t a world away.  Do it to show that being gay isn’t a drag!

Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a thriving community.

Mark Zuckerberg: Gay Rights Icon?

Zucks

Sure he's an accidental billionaire, but is he also a surreptitious same-sex savior?

Mark Zuckerberg is not just an accidental billionaire; Facebook’s founder is also a fortuitous gay rights pioneer. Though neither queer by orientation nor activist by nature, the creation of his social network has forever change the means by which homos, on and off the range, negotiate the terms of their lives. His digital quest for openness has picked the locks of closet doors for the last half-decade. In connecting the globe, he has enhanced the ability of LGBT individuals to connect to each other and reconnect with the world around them. Facebook’s impact on the gay movement is palpable on a personal and political level.

Social media has changed the terms by which gay romancing is negotiated. The chat rooms and message boards of the 1990’s gave rise to an over-sexualized hook-up culture. Those looking for mates could find their fantasy man or woman online via Gay.com or CraigsList.org. There were lots of awkward dates and one-night stands, but little lasting or meaningful encounters. That is because the mediums delivering the connections were devoid of the one essential ingredient for any kind of successful relationship—authenticity.  With Facebook, you are your imperfect, fully integrated self, and you are not hooking up with a random stranger. You are usually connecting with someone you already know. Thanks to that “Interested In” tab, you identify how well they might want to get to know you!

Ten years ago, it was fairly easy for gay people to live compartmentalized lives. Many of us were out to our friends, but perhaps not to our family or colleagues. With news feeds, relationship statuses, and photo tags, social media makes it pretty hard to hide the truth. As our aunts, fathers, and grandmothers become our Facebook friends, they are learning that a digital connection is also a holistic association.  No longer are we able to easily pick the parts of people we love. When you see a person’s whole life reflected onto a computer screen, you understand that it is the sum all their interests, likes, and activities that make them who they are.  Sure, privacy settings can safeguard you to some extent, but the genie is really out of the bottle; new media makes it very difficult to cling to old ideologies like “don’t ask, don’t tell” because it is an invitation to the world—or at least your world—to be told all about YOU. That is forcing significant progress in areas outside of our personal lives.

There is a reason that gays are now integrated into the military. Nearly eight in ten Americans believe that the ban on openly gay service members was unfair. That is a dramatic reversal from when the policy was adopted only eighteen years ago. The simple fact is that when people know someone who is gay, they begin to change their minds about gay rights. The issue becomes less political and more personal. People of all political persuasions have Facebook accounts, and they see happy pictures of their niece and her girlfriend on vacation and festive photos of their son and his husband decorating the Christmas tree. Polls begin to reflect this accepting sentiment; politicians always follow popular opinion. In twenty years when same-sex relationships are commonplace, it is Zuck we should be toasting at our weddings!

I doubt Mark Zuckerberg has ever fancied himself a gay liberation icon. Anyone who traverses so boldly across the frontier of openness, though, cannot escape the simple fact that when you open a digital window into people’s lives, you forever change the quality of life for those who had previously

Truth Wins Out

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photo by David Quick

There’s a reason this homo makes his home on the range. Kansas may have a wrap for being backwardly close-minded, but I’ve found that Kansans are actually a wholesomely accepting bunch.  Truth, it seems, is a common denominator that can allow people with divergent social and political views to exist in peace.

Growing up, I wasn’t always enveloped in harmony. When I was fifteen and living in North Carolina, I coughed up a confession to my best friend. I felt a breeze of relief when the words “I’m gay” escaped my lips. The truth, I hoped, truly would set me free. That gust soon turned into a hurricane, though! I was subjected to verbal and physical harassment just about every day thereafter at school. I didn’t have any friends, because no one wanted to be seen with “the fag”. Interpersonal contacts usually consisted of being spat upon during lunch or assaulted in the locker room during P.E. The truth, it seemed, had punched me in the gut!

I soon learned, though, that trajectory follows truth. Not long after coming out, my family relocated to Kansas. My first memory of the heartland is waking up during the car ride to Wichita and seeing The Flint Hills. There’s something about those audacious rolling plains and the serenity of the majestic prairie that inspires certainty.  At that moment I vowed to always be honest about who I am, whatever the consequences.

This time, the truth didn’t just set me free—it set me on fire…kind of like one of those famed KS prairie blazes! Once I had the audacity to speak the truth, there seemed to be no stopping my potential. I’ve ran a political party, fundraised for a successful non-profit, organized art events, written and published essays, and served on community boards, all the while being 100% honest about who I am.  Kansans are a divergent bunch when it comes to politics and religion. Many are (and always will remain) conservative in thought and traditional in lifestyle. However, honesty is a Kansas value that transcends ideology. If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and work hard, most people here will give you the dignity and respect you deserve. Home for me will always be on the range because it’s here that people have allowed me to reach my potential while being my pure, authentic self.

A crisis happens when you look yourself in the mirror and realize that you can’t lie anymore. You want to run away screaming but can’t; you’re a prisoner to your own reality. You want to lash out at someone, but there’s no one to blame. You want to bargain with God, the devil, or any other deity to trade destinies with someone else. You realize it’s all futile. There’s no escaping it. You have to embrace who you are.

If you’re hiding the truth, let it out. The reality is there’s no better place to be YOU than right here on the range.

Lesi-Desi

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Original drawing by Sarah Elizabeth

It’s a warm spring night. I’m outside, sitting on a stone wall by the Keeper of the Plains along the Arkansas River. I’m surrounded by lots of people. The torches around the statue light , revealing a picturesque scene at the base where our two rivers meet. Kids bounce around. Couples caress. Intimacy ensures.

I’m in the midst of a destination hot spot for ICT romance. Much to my surprise, I notice that it’s not just the straights holding hands.  An arm locked, older lesbian couple stands behind me as a boy-duo skips gaily along. They blend into the crowd; no one bats an eye. For all the talk of “hetero-hysteria” over public displays of homo affection, everyone seems to be peacefully coexisting.

Progress is in full view. This isn’t something you’d have seen in Wichita ten years ago.

Then my blackberry beeps. I have a new e-mail. It’s from a woman named Neepa. She’s responding to my call from a previous column to interview people from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds about their experience being gay in Wichita. She’s a self-proclaimed lesi-Desi, an Indian woman who loves other women, and has lots to say on the topic of her culture and its attitudes toward homosexuality. She would love for me to interview her and feature her in the magazine, but there’s just one problem—her husband would get very upset.

To my back, two women are being their true, free selves in the presence of all who surround; in the palm of my hand– across a digital divide–another woman’s freedom to be true to herself and those around her is eclipsed. Apparently, closets painted in “White Privilege” open a lot easier than those “Made in India”.

Neepa (not her real name) pours her heart out to me in the e-mail, giving me permission to use the material if I change enough details to protect her identity. She knew she liked girls when she was a teenager. In college, she had several girl-girl romances. That was when she was far away from her parents, though. They knew nothing of her Sapphic proclivities. After she graduated, her family began pressuring her to get married. “In my culture, you had better get married by the time you’re 23 or something is not right,” she explains. The family already had their suspicions, but they decided they could “fix” any problems by rushing a marriage.

She tried to fight off her parent’s instance that she find a guy to “settle down” with, but ultimately that proved too difficult for her. “My parents had decided that I should marry the son of my father’s business partner. It was made very clear to me that I could either do this or be cut off—not just financially, but emotionally. I had to make a choice. It was my family or myself. I choose my family,” she said.

A consequence of that choice is that she’s living a double life. Neepa admits to carrying on affairs with other women. She says her husband has no idea. “I know that lying is wrong, and I want to get out of this situation,” she confesses. “My husband is a good man who deserves a woman who truly wants to be with him. I can’t give him that.” Right now, she’s trying to fight off pressure from him and both of their families to have a baby. She secretly takes birth control. “I don’t want a child to be born into these lies,” she says.

Despite admitting that her choices are negatively effecting herself and everyone around her, she ends her sociological monologue with this chilling line: “There are some cultures that just aren’t ready for the truth. Most Indians will pretend there’s not a tornado, even as it rips their house out of the ground in front of their eyes. I don’t want to get blown away, but I just don’t know how to find shelter.”

The torches dim as I finished reading the e-mail. Under the starry Kansas sky, I’m able to be myself and live my life exactly how I want. Others around me are doing the same. As the waters of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers blend into one body, we blend into one community. Yet somewhere in Wichita, a husband falls asleep in a bed of lies, caressing a wife drained from banging a cultural tango. To the truth through difficult.

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