Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Journey from Fear to Fearlessness

on the Saturday before Christmas, I received a call from Jeff Montgomery offering me the position of West Michigan Field Organizer for Triangle Foundation. I am sure this is one of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received! Now, almost a year later, I’m snug as a bug in my new Grand Rapids office with volunteers coming and going daily.

What a privilege it is for me to work with the other LGBT organizations in West Michigan; to be available to victims of anti-LGBT violence, harassment, and discrimination; to be a resource for local students and organizations; and to help raise awareness of the policy issues that affect this community.

A few weeks ago, I had two students from a local Bible college come to my office to interview me. They had chosen to study the LGBT community for their presentation on marginalized populations. These students came to the meeting with many questions, a desire to understand, and great kindness. One of my volunteers and I met with these students for two hours answering their questions and providing information. The students were nervous about the reception they would receive from their classmates. We talked about how the anxiety and fear they might feel during their presentation was a taste of what it’s like to be gay in West Michigan EXCEPT … they got to go back to their lives after that hour was over.

For their presentation, the students introduced an LGBT vocabulary, talked about the coming out process, shed a new light on old Bible verses, spoke of discrimination and violence, and then ended with the Anne Lamott quote “You know you’ve created God in your own image when God hates the same people you do.”

After the presentation, I received a long email from one of the students. Some of the statements from that email included:
“We were all nervous but we just prayed about it and knew that what we were saying needed to be shared because it’s the truth. So we did it … you could have heard a pin drop."
The class had so many questions that everyone stayed for 45 more minutes after class had ended. The debriefing email to me continued with this amazing statement:

“My group gathered afterwards and we all shared with each other that we knew what we had done was right … now I find myself filled with this passion for the GLBT community and in a way this assignment became personal and in a way it was my 'coming out.'”

What a gift these students gave me!

The message became more important than the feelings. They pushed right past their fear into fearlessness.

I am sure that the bravery and compassion of these students will be this year’s best Christmas present!

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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Finding Jeremy

26% of gay youth are forced to leave their home because of conflicts with family over their sexual identities. (The Journal of Pediatrics, “Male Homosexuality: The Adolescent’s Perspective”)

Two years ago today, our family grew by one member – we added Jeremy to our mix! I am celebrating this anniversary by asking Jeremy to share his story as my guest blogger.

I first learned about Jeremy in November 2005 when he contacted our (welcoming and affirming) church. Jeremy had stated in his email, “My Mom hates your church so I’m thinking it may be right for me." Jeremy and I set up a time to get together.

I walked in to that appointment and met the most adorable young man. I found Jeremy to be sincere, bright, articulate, and delightful. For the next two hours, he shared his story with me. My heart broke. When I returned home, my family wanted to know all about Jeremy. A few days later, after I had been in touch with his older sister in California who had been sending him money to help him survive, we invited him over for dinner to meet the family. Soon we invited him to live with us.

During that winter, Jeremy became a full-fledged family member: he helped with chores, hung out with us, fought with his new siblings, and made me crazy just like the other two adolescents in the family! One of my sweetest possessions is a photo the three kids had taken at the mall – all sitting on Santa’s lap! That photo anchors in our family’s history the time we shared with Jeremy. Jeremy returned to his parent’s home in the spring. Here is Jeremy’s story in his own words:

They say that everything happens for a reason. My story begins on December 30, 2004. I had just finished one of the most powerful letters of my life. It was my step toward honesty; moving forward from where I’d been to become who I knew I was. I had written my coming out letter, quietly sent it to the printer downstairs, and gently placed in on the dining room table around 2 a.m. I crept back upstairs quietly and lay down in my bed. The next six hours consisted of tears, drifting in and out of consciousness, nightmares, cold sweats, and silent prayers to a dark and quiet room.

I tiptoed downstairs in the morning and quietly sat on the living room couch. My mom finally noticed me and nonchalantly smiled saying, “Jerm! Good morning! We got your letter. Let me get dad so we can talk about this.” I don’t want to go into details, but the following conversation consisted of things like: “This is just a phase,” and “We’ll help you work through this,” and “God loves you.” I repeatedly told them it wasn’t a phase, told them this was me, but my words fell on closed ears as they babbled away with religious words to make themselves feel better.

The next few months were chaotic. The New Year began and I pursued it with incredible strength. I had a new lease on life. Things at home weren’t as positive, however. Every month had some explosion about me burning in hell and their love for me and not wanted me to go to hell. Countless nights I tore myself apart … feeling guilty for making them feel this way, despising myself, and wishing I could make myself into someone they would love. And, at the same time, knowing who I was and knowing that it was ok to be me.

September 27, 2005 was the day I was left with impossible options. The 23rd had been my 17th birthday and I was on cloud nine. I had just gotten a car for my birthday, I got to see my boyfriend, and spend time with friends and family! I came home on the 27th to hear the whir of my mother vacuuming my room. My desk was torn apart, and she didn’t look happy. She turned off the vacuum and made her confrontation. “Who is Caleb?” Caleb was my boyfriend and apparently she had found a card from my friends that said something along the lines of “I’m so glad you get to see Caleb this weekend!” This then led to my explaining Caleb and thus breaking the ice I had been tiptoeing on for months. My mother was furious. “We’ll get you counseling. You can’t live this way!” I told her I wasn’t going to get “straight” counseling or anything like that. Leaving me the option of conforming to her beliefs and staying, or living my life and leaving … I left.

I moved in with my best friend’s family. This was also when I made some of the most self-destructive decisions of my life: drugs, alcohol, self mutilation, and an attempt at suicide with sleeping pills. Eventually I had a realization around Thanksgiving. I was hurting myself. I had to get help. This is when I took the step and emailed a local supporting church. This is how I met one of the most influential and amazing people in my life, Colette Beighley.

I met Colette at a local coffee shop and unloaded my life story. Her interest and compassion meant a lot to me. I was invited to make gingerbread houses at her home. At our next meeting, I was invited to move in. Trusting my gut, I made another move and life change. The Beighley’s pursuit of excellence for their children amazed me. They helped me find a passion for life that I never knew was possible. They went out of their way to make me feel cared for. They were not just a place to live but family in the truest definition.

I lived with them from December to April. During that time, I developed a new sense of confidence as I created and refined the person I was. That spring I did something entirely out my comfort zone and joined track. My grades in school continued to be amazing and I began to form priorities that involved bettering my future. The Beighleys gave me the courage, strength, and compassion to be me and live my life.

In April, my parents and I started to talk about my being able to come back. I made stipulations. I wouldn’t have to go to church anymore. My mother said that she could not change her views. I’d basically still have to listen to her beliefs everyday. I was at a different place though. I was strong enough to deal with that. I moved back in and said goodbye to the Beighleys. It was really hard because they had given me so much. I knew it would be good to move back with my parents and try to break the stereotypes I knew they had.

Things went fairly well. There would be guilt trips and small fights but, for the most part, it was ok! I love my parents very much and would never want it to be interpreted otherwise. We are very different people and, in some ways, very much the same in that we are held strong by what we believe.

I graduated from high school in June 2007 and moved to California on July 1st. I moved in with my sister and have continued my education in the Bay Area. I continue to grow and learn so much about people and life. Without all these experiences, I don’t think I’d be where I am today. I’ve learned that everything happens for a reason. They happen because life is about growing and creating and loving who we are."

Thank you, Jeremy, for sharing your story. We love you! One of the things that drew me to working with Triangle Foundation is their commitment to helping young people like Jeremy every day. In celebration of his time with us and this important family anniversary - I hope you'll join me in supporting our work.

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