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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Sat Nam in the City

When I lived in Kansas, I was homo on the range; literally—and as a matter of literature.

I was an out gay man running a political party at 19, and several years later a columnist for a popular local m10845912_10100546475785402_4435399975493342740_nagazine called Naked City. It was sort of like Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City. Except my life really wasn’t glamorous, the city wasn’t New York, and I spent more time politicking than I did dating men. So actually it wasn’t Sex and the City at all. Homo on the Range, both the column and the life, was its own, unique creation.

Then I left the range and moved to California. There’s really nothing special about being gay in in the Golden State. It’s actually rather commonplace here, especially in Los Angeles. If you followed my adventure on Facebook, you saw a never-ending feast of vegan food, endless sunsets on the beach, palm trees galore, and an overall happy life. That was genuine. You didn’t see the other element that was equally real, though: the depth of how alone I felt after I moved.

Even when I was at my lowest, I always knew how to be me in Wichita. I continually attracted people into my orbit. I really didn’t have to do much work, either. I assumed LA would be the same. It wasn’t. This is a town of ambition, egos, and fast-paced movers. Friends are often seen as potential competitors, and the sprawl makes meeting up for coffee an arduous affair. I found myself wandering this curious city alone most days. That bothered me at first, but then I stopped fighting that loneliness and just went into it: deep inside its chasm, to the innermost chamber of my mind.

Turns out that the journey within has a range far more vast than Kansas—and it’s open to everyone, the gays included!

You’ve probably noticed that I post often about meditating and something called Kundalini Yoga. When I moved to Los Angeles, I anticipated spending a lot of time in West Hollywood drinking mojitos at The Abby and cruising hot boys on the Santa Monica strip. I think I’ve done that exactly twice in the fourteen months I’ve lived here. Instead, I spend a lot of time doing weird hand gestures, holding uncomfortable postures, chanting phrases I can barely pronounce, and breathing in and out at odd intervals.

It all started when I stepped into a place called Golden Bridge Yoga in Hollywood. I knew exactly two people when I moved to this city, and one of them always posted about going to that spot. I enjoyed yoga for a bit in Wichita, and wanted to get back into it. I assumed this was a “normal” yoga studio—you know the kind where they do down dogs and warrior poses while sort of tiptoeing around the fact that there’s a higher purpose to all the movement? Kundalini Yoga is anything but usual, and it’s totally out of the closet when it comes to its spiritual nature.

In Kundalini, you pull energy up your spine and through the seven chakras, working to balance the power-centers in your body. You focus on your body, mind, and soul being in unison. You quiet your thinking and let the stillness of a calm mind heal you. There are literally thousands of kriya for doing this, and pretty much any problem you’re having can be dealt with on your yoga mat. Weird energy or high stress at work? Mediate to release irrationality! Difficult boss? Ego eradicator! Want to manifest something specific, like say new friends or a more money? There’s a mantra you can sing! Addicted to Internet porn? There’s even a literal butt-kicking series that will help you harness your sexual energy! There’s a reason some people call it Kundalooney—it sounds bazaar until you give it a try.

It was in the range of this odd practice and within the science of its motions that I began to find my own footing in the new city that I now call home—and on a deeper level that I began to feel truly and wholly at peace. Loneliness gave way to a divine self-examination and allowed me to go deep—really deep into issues I’d never resolved. In Kundalini Yoga, we have a mantra that’s a constant refrain: Sat Nam. Loosely translated, it means “truth is my name.” There’s no segmenting parts of yourself when it comes to stepping in to your divine truth.

As a gay man who grew up attending a fundamentalist Christian school and came of age during the heyday of right-wing Christianity dominating our politics, I had divorced my spiritual self from my sexual self. Most of us who are gay feel at some point that we have to make a choice between being who we are or being true to our religion. I choose to be honest, and in doing so had to acknowledge the truth that Christianity (and organized religion in general) wasn’t the path for me. For my entire adult life, I pretty much left it there. Yet, somehow I could never leave behind the guilt and the shame that far too often accompanies the reality of being gay.

We busted through the closet door, survived an epidemic, lived our lives out in the open and among opposition, and have now won the right to march down the aisle to marry. Yet all of those battles have left us shell-shocked as a community and in need of healing on a deep and profound level.

Within Kundalini Yoga, I found an integrated acceptance that I’ve never known. I’ve discovered a practice that I can come to as an out gay man where I can sit equally and without shame. Once I got serious about the practice, I started to find a community of like-minded people on a similar journey. And recently, I’ve found a spiritual home in Venice where I’m making new friends and collaborating my talents.

I’m not in Kansas anymore, but I am very much still on the range—a never-ending horizon of deep discovery that’s guided by something greater than me. I acknowledge my spiritual self, and because of that I am very much proud to be a homo!

I went over a year without updating this blog because I really didn’t know how I could be “homo on the range” in California. Now I understand that the range stretches far beyond the prairies, and that gay people everywhere have continual expansion to do themselves, no matter where we live! I’m going to start updating this again regularly, though instead of the whole gay boy in Kansas shtick, this will focus on the spiritual path that’s unfolding as I step out of shame and claim the divine nature of having incarnated as a gay man.

I guess I’ll never be Carrie Bradshaw. That’s ok. I can settle for Sat Nam in the City!

2014: Change Your Life

CHANGE YOUR LIFE

It started out as a wallet. It became a mantra. Then a tattoo!

It started out as a wallet. It became a mantra. Then a tattoo!

I saw those words graffitied onto a wallet at the Hollywood & Highland mall right after I finished a hike up Runyon Canyon.  It was late September 2012, and I was wrapping up my first visit to Los Angeles. I desperately wanted not to be returning to Wichita, KS the next day. Such was my fate.

That’s exactly why those three simple words painted onto a red-bricked backdrop and mass-produced for consumption on a faux-leather money-binder arrested my attention.  They were calling out to me, screaming at me really, to do the one thing I’d long been afraid of doing: changing my life!

Whatever else happened, 2013 will always be remembered in the annals of my personal history as the year when I did, indeed, change my life. I bought the wallet for my best friend that night, but somehow I knew those words were as much for me as they were for him. The next day, I returned to Runyon Canyon early in the morning.  I climbed to the pinnacle and stood on top of a rock. The sun beamed down warmly. To my right, the Hollywood Sign sank royally into the towering hills. To my left, the pacific waters of Santa Monica glistened as sunlight danced across the beach. In front of me, a sea of soaring towers and sprawling buildings lit up.

I knew that I belonged down there.  Somewhere in the midst of the congestion, someplace in the middle of the cacophony, I was certain there had to be a place for me. Where I was—and how I would get there—I did not know. But standing alone on that rock with this panoramic vision unfolding, my eyes had seen the future. There was no turning back. There was no looking elsewhere. There could be no more delay. I had to change my life.

I made a promise to myself at that spot. By the end of the next year, 2013, I would be living down there. I would make a plan. I would make it happen. I would just do it.

“I’m just going to do this,” I said out loud.

Those words set in motion a roller coaster 14 months that would test my will, challenge my values, try my patience, and see me nearly lose my sanity. Yet, I ultimately found grace, peace, and satisfaction within that did, indeed, make that intention a reality. Today, I’m sitting in a Hollywood coffee shop reflecting on that experience, with my own studio apartment a few miles away and a job I’m eager to return to after the holidays.

But getting here wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t supposed to be.

I’m not the only person who has been fundamentally unhappy about a specific, key aspect of my life.  I needed to live in a big city, and as much as I love many of the people in Kansas, Wichita just wasn’t where I belonged anymore. I know a lot of people who are in places where they don’t belong, too…and it’s not all about geography. It’s the dead-end job depleting your ambition that you won’t leave because you fear the financial unknown. It’s the failed relationship you rekindle because the thought of being alone scares you more than the idea of being continuously wounded by someone who doesn’t fit you. It’s an ideology you cling to—maybe political, perhaps religious—that doesn’t align with where your core vales are anymore. It’s facets of our life, some big and some small, that add up to setting us back more than they do moving us forward. Once you know you’re going nowhere—and don’t fool yourself, because you do know—you, too, have to change your life.

It’s one thing to have that ‘Runyon Canyon magical moment’ where you see the dream you want to claim; it’s quite another undertaking to execute a plan to make it happen. When the scenery is grand, the temperature is warm, and you are high on the possibility of life, it’s easy to say that you will do something big. Inevitably, though, we all climb down the mountain.

For me, that climb was literal and fast. A few hours after I made that bold pronouncement, I wasn’t in California anymore. I was in Kansas, where the land was flat, the views were nil, and wind-chills had temperatures somewhere in the high teens.  So I did what we all do…I started making excuses:

  • I have too much student loan dept. I can’t move until I pay that all off (that will be never).
  •  I work at a non-profit. I can’t possibly save up enough money to move in one year.
  •  My resume sucks. My career path is weird and disjointed. No one in L.A. will ever want to hire me, especially since I’m from a flyover state.
  •  I’m not pretty enough for Los Angeles. I have curves and stretch marks. And dark circles around my eyes. I’ll be laughed out of town.
  •   I barely know anyone in L.A., and I pretty much know everyone in Wichita. I’ll have no support system if I move!

Self-flagellating excuses…sound familiar? Your list will read differently than mine, but all those excuses are doing the exact same thing that mine were doing: holding you back! Everyday, every moment really, we have an opportunity to see our life through the veil of fear or the veil love. I had conditioned myself into seeing life only through frightful sepia. All along, though, I’ve had a choice. After much reflection (including 10 days of not talking and doing nothing but sitting and meditating at a retreat!), I finally chose the wiser alternative. I re-wrote my narrative (and you should re-write yours, too!):

I always made the payments on my loans, and my credit was strong. I didn’t exactly make a ton of money at my job, but I was far from having to penny pinch. We also did just institute a new flex-schedule policy that allowed me to work 4 longer days a week and have 3 days in a row off, giving me the ability to get extra income from part-time work. My resume was as strong as I sold it, and I had solid references eager to help me get where I wanted. While I couldn’t do anything about somebody else’s prejudice toward Kansas, I could resist the ridiculous impulse to indulge it myself.  I’d been single my whole time in Kansas; even if the guys in LA all thought my hideous, at least it would be warm and I’d have millions of things to do. Not that such a scenario is likely in a city with 10 times the number of people and probably 20 or more times the number of out, gay men! And not knowing anyone, well, I’d just have to make new friends and fresh connections!

With a more honest account of my life in the forefront of my mind, I was better equipped to make and execute the actual plan that was going to get me to Los Angeles. It included working four jobs and cutting back my spending drastically to save up $20,000 so that I could get here and have enough money to stay afloat until I found employment. I wasn’t going to rely on anyone else to get me out of Kansas; I couldn’t hope to be hired away. I–and I alone–would have to get myself to California. Like I said on that rock on top of the canyon, I just had to do this!

And I did. I worked the jobs. I saved up the money. I survived some intermittent drama. I even ended up getting “hired away” and got to leave Kansas a full month a head of when I intended. While I’m beyond grateful for my new job, I got myself to California. I was coming with or without it. That mindset actually made the search and interview process a lot more seamless and natural. There really WAS a place for me down there in those lights, and because I was of the right mindset, I was able to find it!

CHANGE YOUR LIFE

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Change doesn’t come easy. There were a lot of struggles to get me to where I am today. I wanted to give up…several times! But I knew I couldn’t, and I needed a consistent reminder. Mid-way through the year, I got those formative words tattooed onto my stomach…in the tongue of a giant Buddha. After doing some research, I discovered that the wallet image was actually taken from a mural painted onto a piece of the Berlin Wall. A concrete slab that divided and oppressed was repurposed to uplift and inspire.

My move to Los Angeles is about more than a geographic climate improvement, and it is much grander than an upgrade in city cachet (though those two facets are quite awesome!).  In moving, I truly am changing my life because when I drove out of Kansas, I left behind some tired, old ways of thinking that had nothing to do with where I was physically and everything to do with where I was mentally and emotionally. There are things I would have done a year ago that I won’t entertain now…and when I think about regressing, those three words are permanently affixed on the front of my person to remind me that I can’t!

Most of you aren’t going to brand yourself with a grandiose tattoo and move half way across the country to a city where you barely know anybody.  For each of us, the change we need is different. Whatever it is, though, do it. CHANGE YOUR LIFE. You don’t have to carry anything into this new year that you don’t want. Really, you don’t!

CHANGE YOUR LIFE

Aside

In Between the Kansas Prairie & the Hollywood Hills

1233609_10100229436170332_771747572_nI’m in between the flat Kansas prairie and the towering hills of Hollywood. Mentally, at least.  It’s an odd sort of purgatory, living in a certain place while planning another life in a distinctly different locale.  This is where I have been for exactly a year. This is where I will continue to be for exactly 3 more months.

I’ve lived in Wichita for 14 years. During that time, I was a political activist, an art promoter, a writer, and a special events manager for a non-profit. I didn’t know a soul when I moved here; when I ran for public office, I had a database of over 10,000 friends, acquaintances, and professional contacts. I used to muse about being the mayor; now I daydream about the day I’ll leave for Los Angeles, driving west on US-54 for the last time.

I’m not the first person to leave a small city for a bigger, bolder life. Most do this at a milestone moment. College graduates take their newly minted degree to a thriving metropolis hoping their ambition will catapult them to success. A job well done earns a promotion, and with it a relocation to an urban locale.  Marriage often leads to moves. Family obligations breed frequent migration. There’s a multitude of reasons why and when people leave cities like Wichita.

 Me?

Well, I’m leaving because nothing else is happening.  Friends have moved away or moved on to marriage and children. Activism turned into cynicism as teabag carrying curmudgeons brain-drained our state into Rush Limbaugh’s creamiest wet dream.  Political ambitions faded into the tapestry of a reality where anything that is meaningful happens far from the edges of politics. Mediocrity replaced motivation as I just sort of settled into an existence that was far from bad, though nothing near what is good for me.

In-between periods are awkward and their parameters are undefined. I should know because I’ve been living one for three years. After I left politics, I was never quite able to regain a distinct purpose to my life. I didn’t find a new passion, form a new group of friends, or shift focus to a different, higher work. I just sort of ruminated in my own head. Sure, I had a job—a great job, actually. And I wrote, lots in fact. I met intriguing people. I saw compelling stuff. But the truth is that I flipped as switch the day I left politics, and I’ve never turned on another light.

But I can see a light now, and it’s not just the distant California sun dancing amidst a glowing sea of palm trees. I see something larger, brighter, grander, and I see it right where I am. At the moment, that’s a bar in Delano. But that glow isn’t indigenous to my surroundings; it’s intrinsic to me.

By the end of the year, I will be 31 years old and unemployed. I’m moving from a city where a 2,000 square foot loft of my own near downtown rents for $400 to a place where a small bedroom in an apartment I’ll share with strangers will cost me $900. The dawn of Obamacare will mandate me to carry my own insurance. This will drain my nest egg about $250 monthly because I’m in that under-discussed group of millennials who somehow are getting financially penalized by this much needed reform. We’re carrying the greatest portion of debt in generations, yet we’ll pay more than anyone else for our own insurance. None of this sounds good!

Most people aren’t willing to upend their comfortable life so late into their youth. But I’m not most people. That light I’ve found inside myself is a laser beam that has burned away doubt and apprehension and illuminated a path forward paved with optimistic anticipation.

I read a blog post recently that advised one should know WHY they are moving to LA before they actually up and go. The truth is that the last 3 years of my life have been an odd exercise in existence devoid of any clear direction or grand meaning. I’ve spent the last year preparing for this move, but really it’s just been in the last few months that the significance of its advent has come into focus. So, here is why I am moving to LA:

1.     I want to be a writer. Most of you know only scattered details of the stories I have to tell. One could say that I already am a writer, but it’s become obvious that I’ve reached the apex of anything I could ever do with my words in Wichita. I’m going to take some classes once I get settled and steadily work my way into the business. In ten years, I want to have at least 2 novels published. I’m realistic about the challenges. I’ll do whatever it takes to get there.

2. I want to be some place bigger than me. It’s the mountains, the beaches, the start-studded boulevards, the iconic buildings, and endless parks that I long to traipse through. I’m highly stimulated by environments. I need a place where organic energy and creative rushes abound everywhere.

3. I want my own family. That will never happen in Wichita. Even if it did, we wouldn’t even be considered a legitimate entity in the state of Kansas. I look forward to putting the disappointments and rejections behind me and embracing truth in love.

4. I’m a liberal Democrat hipster vegan. And I kiss boys. The sate of California was pretty much made for me. Screw Sam Brownback and the never ending slog of brain-draining tea partiers…I’ll be voting for Gavin Newsom, Kamala Harris, and Jerry Brown next year!!

I’ll continue to be “in-between” for a few more months yet, but finally I feel certain about my focus. There’s a light inside of me and it will illuminate the path forward. I’m about to have an epic adventure—my own adventure. I don’t know who I will meet, what I will do, or where it will take me. It will be highly uncomfortable, but it will always be compelling.

This journey is now what defines me. And that is fucking exhilarating!

Courthouse Mocks, but Love Wins.

1013393_10100169247693522_310450197_nI moved to Kansas in July of 1999 with my mother and her fiancé. A few weeks later, they were to be married in an outdoor garden ceremony. I don’t recall many of the particulars that surrounded their wedding, but seared into my mind are all of the details regarding their marriage license. I went with my mom to pick it up at the historic courthouse downtown. Once inside, we climbed several stories of stairs to get to the office where it would be processed. As we trekked up those wide, marbled flights, I ruminated on a single thought: I will never be allowed to do this.

That courthouse was mocking me. Seventeen years old, I dreamed incessantly about getting married.  I wanted to share my life with someone and eventually start a family of my own. That vision was more like a fairytale, though, because I wanted to marry a man.

Gay marriage was banned in most states and the ink was still wet on the Defense of Marriage Act. Having sex with another man was a statutory offense in my new home on the range, a “crime against nature.” I knew enough about American history to understand that the scales of justice were titled to eventual equality, but at the time there was no true movement for same-sex marriage. Gay rights were a radioactive topic in most circles. I would be well into my Medicare years before I’d ever be able to legally marry. Or so I thought.

Discrimination affects everyone differently. Most teenagers aren’t as politically conscious as I was. Most gay people don’t let the limits of the law limit their ability to love. Somehow, though, I internalized the climate around me. When we left the courthouse that day, I decided I would give up on the idea of ever getting married, or ever being loved for that matter. What good is a relationship when it isn’t even real, I though to myself. There’s no use in wanting what you can’t have.  I’d go into politics and fight for the rights of others to have what I couldn’t. Somehow that would make up for what I was being denied.

That’s an extreme reaction, I know. It’s likely difficult for most people, even many who are LGBT, to understand why someone so young could get jaded so fast. Inferiority builds up over time. Discriminatory laws foster intolerant societies that ultimately bully the spirit of the people they are oppressing. Do we ever fully comprehend the aftershock of a gross wrong? Everyone who is gay has been affected in some way by the laws that limit our love.

That’s exactly why last month’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and allowing a return of same-sex nuptials to California is so epic.  The next generation of gay kids will grow up in a world where their rights are rapidly expanded and their love is openly celebrated. They’ll never have to give up on love because they’ll see it all around them. For people like me—who came of age thinking that marriage and family would be out of reach—there’s a whole new world of possibilities.

When the court handed down their ruling, I was seated at my desk live streaming the text feed of the decision on SCOTUSBlog.com.  As soon as I understood the jest of the opinion, something happened that I was not expecting. The dream I let die a decade and a half earlier at that courthouse was revivified. Optimism had returned, and at the age of 30, I knew that I was destined to be loved. I savor the hope that I will have my own husband and my own family. I look forward to one day marching up the stairs of a courthouse and getting my own true, valid marriage license.

That day hasn’t yet arrived in Kansas, Oklahoma, or Arkansas, but it’s coming! In the meantime, we must stop letting limits on justice mock us. We—and we alone—are love; freedom will only grow when we boldly and openly embrace who we are and whom we were meant to love.

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.

As Goes Maine, So Goes The Dialogue

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Mainers say “I do” to marriage equality on Nov. 6, 2012

As goes Maine, so goes the nation.

That’s the political expression dating back to the Franklin D. Roosevelt-era that prophesized a national victory for his 1936 challenger, if only he could clinch the New England state’s electoral votes. Thought to be a bellwether for how the nation was trending as a whole, this idiom turned out to be quite idiotic. Al Landon secured Maine’s coveted votes that year, only to see Vermont be the lone state to follow suit. Roosevelt went on to win the biggest Democratic Party landslide in history. As went Maine, so went next to nothing else.

But as goes Maine, so goes marriage equality? Perhaps it’s safer to say this: as goes Maine, so goes the national dialogue.

Three years ago, Mainers said “no” to marriage for same-sex couples. This year, they joined two additional states in saying “I do” when asked to ratify this right at the ballot box. That same night, voters in two Kansas towns had their own proposition. When Hutchinson and Salina were asked if gay people deserved protection from being fired from their job because of their sexual orientation or from being evicted out of their home because of who they are, they said “no”. The reasons why have little to do with red state/blue state schizophrenia. They have everything to do with a basic tenant of democracy: dialogue.

After voters rejected Maine’s gay marriage law in 2009, gay rights organizers shifted focus. Rather than talk about “rights” and “benefits” LGBT folks felt entitled to, the conversation shifted to something much relatable: “love”. It turns out that straight people get a bit confused and rather uncomfortable when we start demanding our civil rights; but when we talk about the universal need of love, we can win over their sympathy. The reason why is simple. Love is something everyone can understand. If you frame the issue as saying “yes” or “no” to someone’s own personal happiness, you sort of look like an asshole voting in the negative.

We’re a long way from joining the nine states that have enacted marriage equality here on the range. Given the current political dynamics in our states, we’re a ways off from basic civil protections, too. What we do have is something quite potent: our voices! When these two small cities in Kansas voted on gay rights this past November, it was the first time either community had ever talked about who LGBT people are. There were LOTS of misconceptions, fears, and stereotypes; but there were also a lot of minds opened up, conversations had, and attitudes changed. When we step out of our comfort zones and start talking about who we are, we let people see our lives. We demystify misconstructions, alleviate anxieties, and tear apart typecasts.

Neither city should have voted the way that they did, but the fact that the pro-equality side garnered 46% in Salina and 42% in Hutchinson is measurable progress. Ten years ago, support would likely have been mired in the low to mid-30% range. The Kansas Equality Coalition, the only statewide LGBT advocacy group, is only 7 years old. The states that legalized marriage equality all have had persistent gay rights movements that date back three of four decades. We’re really just starting the dialogue in Kansas and in many of the surrounding states.

November 6, 2012 was perhaps the best night ever in American LGBT history. Three states legalized marriage equality by popular vote, and voters in one state beat back a proposed ban. The first sitting President to support marriage equality was re-elected. Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay person to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Voters sent five openly gay men and an out bisexual woman to Congress. This was the night when “the new normal” ceased to just be a wittily crafted sitcom and started to be how Americans feel about LGBT people.

In that regard, the country is now taking Maine’s lead. We’re going to have to be a bit more patient and a lot more persistent here on the range. But, we will get there. As went Maine on November 6, 2012, so, too, will one day go the entire Midwest—but only with lots of dialogue. So open your mouth and start having those conversations!

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