Two nephews and a niece each have birthdays this month.
I recall visiting Karen in the hospital after Blayne was born. He is the first child born to either of my sisters, and that made his birth truly special.
Anna is the niece born in November. Her birth, right at Thanksgiving, was welcomed by my parents on a brief furlough from Argentina. (That trip would be the last time any of us saw Mom, since she died not long after, in Argentina.) I visited Beth in the hospital the day after Thanksgiving, if I recall correctly.
And then Joseph came along fourteen years ago. I was in Muncie, Indiana at the time, as had to wait a few weeks to great the last of the nephews.
Earlier this week I had conversation with a younger gay man about process and growing up and knowing things now that I didn’t then. That led me to a regular reminder about process.
(And here I must confess that I think I gathered these next thoughts from a book, but that I have no recollection what that book is. Google ‘five stages of coming out’ and you will find many books, sites, theses, and articles that share similar ideas.) (I am also using the words ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ in broad contexts.)
Years ago, when I was finally comfortable in my own skin and ready to help others through the roughness of ‘coming out’ in the later 1990s, I postulated (to a college student who needed a safe place to share his story) that coming out is a process.
Self-awareness is simple: I am different. I like boys. (Whatever that latter statement actually means.) This is the stage when physical awakenings are manifest toward others of the same sex. Emotional and social awakenings and attractions are present as well.
Acting out is that place where urges are acted upon. This is often a secretive stage, at least initially. These unspoken urges are shame-inducing; acting out is often in the dark, both literally and metaphorically.
Self-acceptance means coming to terms with ones own sexual orientation. This may still be a very private place, and is not necessarily tied with telling others, or any kind of public or semi-public coming out.
The problem, at least when I was a younger man, is that society did not (and perhaps in many places still does not) allow the same teenage courtship rituals that straight people experience. Straight couples can date publicly; can double-date; can hold hands in public; can engage in PDA in public; can find a significantly larger number of willing courtship partners within normal social groups (church, school, clubs, and so on). Straight couples never have to ‘come out’ to parents and friends. They just are.
Gays and lesbians cannot engage in these same courtship rituals . . .
. . . and that often leads to furtive, secretive Acting Out long before Self-Acceptance, and sometimes even before Self-Awareness. I know people, for instance, who were ‘experimenting’ with same-sex activity long before they could ever self-acknowledge physical and emotional attraction to the same sex. I know others who were completely self-aware long before they ever found a willing partner for the Acting Out scenario.
These three stages are a jumble, and that jumble is personal . . . and it relates to place and time and upbringing and local social mores and family structures (and strictures), among many other variables. We can also double-back and repeat a stage, or live in two stages at the same time.
I myself, for instance, grew up a closeted Baptist preacher’s kid, scared to hell of being found out, unable to give a word to the feelings inside, but still finding ways to act out before burying the desires deep inside during college. It took a near-marriage to a woman in 1983 for me to finally acknowledge and own up to any sense of self-awareness. And then I led a hermetic existence in Willow Springs for a year.
Self-acceptance was a few more years in the making.
Proclamation in my hierarchy is the act of giving up the need to know who else knows. For me, the closet door started to pop open in 1985 when I had a gay roommate for a while. It then shut again because of my employment and church relationships, and finally came open in 1988. But ‘open’ is a relative term, because I was guarded and limited those to whom I said “I’m gay.” I lost friends along the way. I mourned them at first, and their reactions led me to examine whether proclamation was worth then cost.
Then I started building what I now know as a ‘family of choice.’
Back the to story. My parents learned in 1990; my sisters, several years later. I started my master’s degree in earnest in 1991, and that’s when I gave up trying to control the flow of information. I had by then left the Southern Baptist church, embraced a much less absolute world view, and moved far to the left on the political spectrum. This all happened during approximately the same period in my life.
So many gay men I know start with “I think I’m bi.” They then move at some point, usually quite soon, to “I’m gay, but don’t tell anyone else.” This is all part of the movement toward full embrace of the proclamation mindset, which ultimately culminates in “I am who I am, and I don’t care who knows, nor does this aspect of who I am define me in my total humanity.”
Nurturing is the final stage, and it is simply that place where one is now self-actualized enough that nurturing of others — helping others reach their own place of nurturing, and helping them through the fog of the first three stages — is part and parcel of life.
I was in my mid-30s when I think I finally settled in the nurturer place.
And then I finished my doctorate, and took a big step back when I went to work in 1999 for a private college in Kentucky, and found myself again in the I’m-not-quite-to-Proclamation place. During that difficult eleven months in Kentucky, I resolved never ever again to work or live in a place where I could be a Nurturer. This year marks the 20th year of fulfilling that promise to myself.
During the last 20-plus years, I have sat with so many others who needed to cry, to talk, to find answers, to understand. I have counseled and been a shoulder for unnumbered college students (and some high school kids who needed to talk) and others in my circle of influence and acquaintance. Just this week a college student said to me “You seem wise, and I think your office is safe place to talk about my life.” I am so happy to be a nurturer . . . and thankful for the insurance and finances along the way that helped me pay for the therapy sessions necessary to get to this point!
So it’s not a coming out story per se, but rather thoughts on coming out, and an oblique tale of one Baptist preacher’s kid’s journey to today.
For those on the journey: find a nurturer. Live in the muddle, and know that it gets better. If things are truly rough and dark thoughts are clouding your mind, look to The Trevor Project.
We are ALL on the journey, and we need to hold each other close. I have enriched my own circle of love and happiness over the last year as new acquaintances have come into my life. Some of these folks are fast becoming friends. As I get older, I am understanding more of how my lonely years have led to longing for more connection now.
The HRC website provides these words about National Coming Out Day:
Today we mark the 31st anniversary of National Coming Out Day!
Thirty-one years ago, on the anniversary of the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, we first observed National Coming Out Day as a reminder that one of our most basic tools is the power of coming out. One out of every two Americans has someone close to them who is gay or lesbian. For transgender people, that number is only one in 10.
Coming out – whether it is as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer – STILL MATTERS. When people know someone who is LGBTQ, they are far more likely to support equality under the law. Beyond that, our stories can be powerful to each other.
I hope that this bit of my own story can be helpful to someone this day.
This . . . after listening to Mahler 2 live from Powell Hall (I had a ticket, but my coughing was going to be ugly, so I listened instead to the broadcast, and read the score as the symphony unfolded).
This coming weekend marks the 40th anniversary reunion of the Lee’s Summit High School class of 1979.
I am not able to attend.
My four years in high school were delightful in many, many ways. From my perch 40 years later, I recall some very fine teaching from dedicated professionals who opened my eyes to history and science and literature in particular. My music education was superior, both at school and in private piano lessons.
I excelled at music, and found a home of sorts as one of the geeks who did stats for the basketball teams. And I lettered in both music and sports!
Coach Matuszak, Mrs. Simpkins, Mr. Berlin, Mr. Voss, Mr. Ballentyne, Mrs. Ford — these are names and faces I remember with fondness and affection. Several other faces flicker in my memory, but the names have now escaped me.
I was part of a group of music/drama types who generally got along well. Many of us were church people too. My tightest group were classmates with whom I had gone to elementary school, or who were church-mates at First Baptist Church.
I was picked on by some of the upper crust, but never bullied. I despised a few of the athletes, and didn’t understand the kids who smoked or drank. But I generally got along well with others.
I was pretty pure back then. Alcohol didn’t touch my lips until I was 23 years old.
My high school activities included choir, band, orchestra, drama, basketball statistician, and newspaper.
Lee’s Summit was a safe place to grow up. The memories of my days of formation in that town, and at Lee’s Summit High School, are overwhelmingly positive.
Sadly, my schedule doesn’t allow me to be gone this weekend, with alumni weekend performances at Webster, a full day of teaching on Saturday, and Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra performing Mahler on Saturday evening.
I was talking with colleagues the other night about night-time rituals as a youngster.
We were sweltering in the heat at Carondelet Park, and we were watching the children (two aged 6 years, one 4 years) run and play and overheat and not worry about it.
Then came the stories of our own childhoods.
Hannibal, Missouri. I was 7 or 8 years old. After supper, we’d go back outside to play; our house had no air-conditioning, so outdoors was at least as cool as indoors. Sometime around dusk the mosquito control truck, belching fog to kill the varmints, would be spotted down College Avenue, heading our direction. We pack up and go indoors quickly.
I would take a bath in the upstairs bathroom. My sisters shared a bath in the downstairs bathroom. We’d crawl into pajamas. And then we’d bundle into the car for a trip to Dairy Queen, almost every night.
Imagine — freshly bathed children, in pajamas, just waiting to get sticky Dairy Queen goodness all over us.
My order was a Mr. Misty, cherry flavored. Brain cramps would ensue. Karen would order a Dilly Bar. And youngest sister Beth, not yet fluent in English, would order “a ‘poon with a dish.” (Translation: a dish of ice cream with a spoon.) And we’d sit there at Dairy Queen and have our treats, or sometimes drive up the main road to the riverfront and watch the Mississippi go by.
We followed the same tradition in Lee’s Summit, as I recall. Living in a subdivision with constant construction made for ample opportunities for me to get dirty. And of course a ten-year-old on a bike can always get sweaty too, especially in summer-in-Missouri heat. The Lee’s Summit house only had one bathtub, though, so I have no idea how we all got cleaned up and ready to hop in the car, clad in pajamas, for the trip across Langsford Road and then 3rd Street to the Dairy Queen on Douglas.
I’ve not had a Mr. Misty in years. I think I shall have one this week.
For reference, this is what my sisters and I looked like in 1970, at Eastertide in Adrian, Missouri:
My heritage . . . how I got be here . . . my ancestors . . . the tree that rooted from immigrants and produced this one bow . . . this has all been on my mind the last few weeks.
I really don’t know why.
After my sister Beth decided that our family meal this last week (I spent 24 hours in Lee’s Summit) would be a re-creation of a Blocher family Sunday meal, I knew that we’d spend some time reminiscing too.
That led to an all-out few hours of genealogy conversations.
The meal? I made brisket. Karen brought green rice (broccoli/rice casserole) and a peach pie. Beth made funeral potatoes and opened a can of Le Sueur peas, just like Mom and G-ma used to do. I contributed the lime pickles.
And the genealogy. Beth had asked me some questions the other day about who people were in various photos, as she continues to sort through my father’s belongings. (We are now down to century-old photos, but of both sides of the family.) Karen has the Ancestry.com family tree, and I had much of it in mind myself.
I’m the only one of us three old enough to remember the great-grandparents. My mother’s paternal grandfather was alive when I was born, and I met him, but he died less then nine months after my birth. I do remember Gram Blocher (Edna Stolp Blocher), my maternal grandfather’s mother; and Alvin Carter and James Slade, my paternal great-grandfathers, both of whom died when I was five or six.
The Carter side great-grandparents were named Carter and Slade and Fields and Ratliff. That’s a pretty British bunch. And the Blocher side greats were Blocher and Stolp and Gutshall (anglicized from Gotschalk) and Ficklin. Only that later name is British. The rest are German. From what I can tell from the lineage, these folks tended to marry within similar countries of family origin, and within similar faith groups. One of my great-great-great-great-grandfathers was an elder in the Dutch Reformed Church in New York. Many of the ancestors were Methodist or Baptist. And of course I am the child of two Baptist missionaries whose parents were instrumental in their own faith journey.
From my journal this last week:
Visiting the cemetery yesterday, I prayed for the repose of my parents’ souls, and gave thanks for their example. Some day they will be but a memory only to us three children. Mom is warmly but hazily remembered by Blayne and Kristen [Karen’s two children, now adults and parents themselves]. All will be gone, and I for one want them to live a while longer in my own memory. Mom is not quite sainted for us, but she’s on the short list in spite of her foibles and all-too-apparent humanity. Their memories are sacred to us, though — as parents, as exemplars, as guides to how we might live and die, even as we learn from their clay feet too.
As we examined photos and unraveled genealogy, my mind filled over and over with memories. I remember visiting Gram Blocher at her small house south of G-Ma’s, and her funeral — how fascinated I was by the accordion device that held the casket. Of course, that device was at my eye level!
I remember visiting James Slade in his upstairs apartment on Jefferson, and in the nursing home. And I remember that we were farmed out to Harold/Shirley Ward on the day of his funeral.
My paternal great-grandfather visited the Clayton house in Columbia. That’s my only recollection of Alvin Carter.
Beth told me a story last evening that I never heard, of my first Christmas and a blizzard and Mom peeing into one of my cloth diapers and me drinking cold milk since we were stuck in the blizzard. She heard this from Mom or G-Ma.
Last evening, lineage tracing back to Staffordshire, England on the Ficklin side, and to Germany for Gutshall and Stolp. I’m a seventh-generation American on the Stolp side; sixth-gen on the Blocher side; and seventh-gen on the Ficklin side. I have maternal ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary (Johannes Peiters Stolp) and Civil Wars, and one who was listed on the first USA census in 1790. Jacob Blocher’s house was used at Gettysburg as a hospital.