Remembering the Closeted: Cowboys Who Secretly Frequently Are Fond of Each Other
Yesterday I shared some about closeted queer southerners who were related to some of the rural communities in which I pastored, and lessons that experience continues to teach me about the current climate we face here in the south.
I want to continue to share about some closeted queer people who truly transformed my life. Closets truly touch a special place in my heart, for the first queer people I knew in my adult life were closeted.
I remember a young man I will call Jack. He befriended me based on our similar interest in country music, hiking, camping, and spirituality. Like I did at a later point in life, he had a hat kind of like the cowboy hat I used to wear he would wear wherever he went, and walked with the swagger of a would-be cowboy. I remember the first spring break I was at college, he asked me to ride with him up the North Carolina mountains.
Jack tried to be a good friend to everyone around him. In fact, it was his advocating for me that allowed me to get a job at the college radio station, where for three years I was a DJ. There I cultivated my radio voice which taught me how to speak clearly, passionately, and from the heart, a key skill for me later as a preacher.
Yet also there was something different about Jack. He would get close to men he was friends with and things would get complicated. Years later, when I was pastoring in this queer-friendly church in Robeson County, I heard from Jack and he admitted all those years we worked together, hiked together, had coffee together he was queer. He was fighting hard to hide it, knowing the rejection he would get from the school. He was even trying through counseling to change it. Ultimately, he realize it was simply who he was – who God made him to be. I don’t know where he is relationship wise now, but at that time of speaking with him, he now not only wore his cowboy hat, but had roped himself a cowboy and was quite happy with his life.
To me, Jack’s life reminds me of the humorous song a southern queer preacher friend of mine shared with me at the Queer Easter Brunch she and her wife host most years:
Though a little irreverent, the point of this song is that being gay does not mean not being masculine or manly. In fact it is only funny to us because of our cultural stereotype that men who are truly men cannot love other men. Yet many strong men, deeply in touch with all the characteristics our culture would call masculine — physical and emotional strength, ability to show up and take the leadership in solving problems in tough situations, being the traditional southern gentleman who is there for his community, his family, his nation – also deeply love other men. For me, Jack is one of the first people in my life who broke open my stereotype as a straight man and showed me this.
Later on in life, I found other men whom I came to know as a pastor who furthered this lesson. I remember a soldier I will call John who fought for his country boldly, courageously, and confidently. He went to war, believing in his heart his fighting in the name of our country would keep safe young people like his nephews and like the young people he mentored in our church in Fayetteville. He showed a strength of character very few people I know would demonstrate. I saw him show strength and courage to as he returned from war, deeply emotionally injured. My good friend Chuck Fager, who for years worked with the Quaker House of Fayetteville working to call our country to peacemaking rather than violence, introduced me during these years to the idea of “moral injury” – that good people, with conscience, cannot engage in war or violence of any kind without walking away deeply broken. So John came back broken emotionally, turning to the bottle. I witnessed him show the strength of character as a good Christian man to face his pain and through therapy, pastoral counseling with one of the pastors of our church in Fayetteville, and also through Alcoholics Anonymous to find sobriety from alcohol and inner healing from the costs of war.
To me, his example shows what my own father taught me years before. True strength is found not just in doing what is right but also being willing to admit your mistakes and work to change. It comes, as some of my mentors in chaplaincy later would teach me, in being man enough to admit your heartache, and pain. It takes courage to admit your brokenness and seek the help to become whole.
I remember, too, two men I will call Dylan and Gary. These two men were active members of two churches where I pastored in Eastern North Carolina. One was a very deeply southern man who was no nonsense, close to his family, and about as lily white as I am. He could point in his neighborhood to all different places different of his aunts, uncles, grandparents, and ancestors had worked the land, built homes, and worked with their hands. His partner Gary was Native American, an Ojibua Two Spirit, from Michigan who grew up most of his childhood in the mountains of West Virginia. Though just as southern in his own way, down to a deep West Virginia drawl, Gary was also deeply in touch with his First Nations or Native American culture. He would often talk to me as pastor in the same conversation both about what the Holy Spirit (whom he called “Mother”) spoke in his heart as he prayed and also what he felt the earth was saying to him in the signs of bird feathers, the light of the sun through his trees, and the animals along his path.
In how both, in very different ways, expressed a deep faith in Christ – Dylan, in his hands-on, let me serve you by fixing things and being present, not ashamed to be a traditional southern gentleman; and Gary in his strong commitment to never compartmentalizing any of whom he was: both Native American and southern US citizen, both Christian and First Nations in spirituality, both Two Spirit and gay, both embraced by earth mother and ancestors as well as the Holy Spirit present in all people and Christ’s saints. And both chose to embrace these various sides of themselves fully.
To me, this reflects the lesson such strong southern men who are gay teach me. For, though I can talk about our traditional pictures of manhood, these strong southern men who happen to be gay also teach us that ultimately these stereotypes and ultimately unsustainable.
Southern writer bell hooks, a feminist philosopher born in and shaped by the hills of Kentucky, artfully describes how our traditional approach to manhood not just in the southland but throughout western culture, damages men of all sexualities and gender identities in her book The Will to Change:
“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”
“Learning to wear a mask (that word already embedded in the term “masculinity”) is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity that a boy learns. He learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviors sexism defines as male. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self-betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.”
“To create loving men, we must love males. Loving maleness is different from praising and rewarding males for living up to sexist-defined notions of male identity. Caring about men because of what they do for us is not the same as loving males for simply being. When we love maleness, we extend our love whether males are performing or not. Performance is different from simply being. In patriarchal culture males are not allowed simply to be who they are and to glory in their unique identity. Their value is always determined by what they do. In an anti-patriarchal culture males do not have to prove their value and worth. They know from birth that simply being gives them value, the right to be cherished and loved.”
These strong men of faith who were queer, even though closeted, taught me a great deal as a straight cisgender man, how to live into being a strong, Christian man in ways that are not the patriarchal mold I grew up with. Though there were strong male role models to me as a young man growing up, most of them lived out their masculinity and their faith in highly patriarchal ways which treated children and women as if they were not full of the intelligence, strength, and wisdom which I have seen women of strength and faith exemplify. Growing up I saw in the church of my childhood, in my family, and in the community in which I was raised the ways in which that patriarchal approach to life truly harmed others and came not out of true strength but a fear and insecurity, like a deep wound in the heart of those who prop up that system of control and abuse known as patriarchy.
The model the community and church of my childhood taught me to bring into relationships – of the strong male who was the head of the household – simply didn’t work in my relationships. Looking back I can see how even used in as loving a way as possible, that model ended up deeply hurting women and children in the church and community in which I grew up. I can even see pain it caused my own mother when I was coming up, and my sisters.
In my first (and as of yet only) marriage to my late wife Katharine, I never intended to be the bossy, closed off patriarchal male that was modeled to me by so many men in my childhood but it is amazing how these early models shape us. I found myself falling into those patterns again and again, much to Katharine’s pain and my own shock. That model, exactly as hooks suggests, taught me to close off from my own emotions, to act in ways that alienated me from someone I loved rather than built a bridge. And also it drew me to act unintentionally in ways that had a sense of power over rather than collaboration with my then life partner.
It took a lot of work to get to the loving, mutual, collaborative relationship we both shared by the last several years of her life. But it is in part the example of just such loving queer men I described so far. I think, for instance, of the couple I am calling Dylan and Gary above.
Dylan and Gary had been together far longer than Katharine and I. Both were so different and accepted each other just as they were. They at times picked about these differences, but always with a playfulness that showed that beneath the laughing was a true and faithful love.
I can also remember the oft-repeated scene of being near one of them when they called each other at the end of or beginning of Dylan’s workday. Almost without fail you could see Gary’s face get a big smile and his eyes dance like a little boy on seeing his first county fair. And then you would hear it: “I love you more”. “No, I love you more.” “No, I love you more”. And that would continue until one of them had to get off the phone.
And love they had. Love they still have.
What was striking to me was the ways in which they loved each other selflessly. Gary had multiple sclerosis and in the time I knew them had multiple health problems shake his independence, breaking his heart. Years of this had preceded my meeting of them. Dylan was always a loving, dutiful, caring partner. He always made sure to make sure his partner’s needs were met sensitively and caringly, although not without at times good natured ribbing. I never saw him ever act as if the love and care he sometimes had to give Gary to help him through his health crises was ever a sacrifice or in ways that seemed like pity. It never shook his respect for them, and clearly he didn’t think of the time, energy, and heartache involved. He simply loved his partner as he loved himself. As the writer of Ephesians says, Dylan loved Gary as his own body, as the Living Christ loves all of us without thought of cost or sacrifice.
I cannot begin to even explain what examples like theirs did to teach me about how to be a man in a relationship with a woman. There was not “head” of the household in their lives, for both were equal and both loved with all they had. I learned how to love with respect, admiration, and a heart to learn from my partner as an equal through the examples of queer folks like these two. I learned also how to be there when, some years later, my late wife’s health began to turn. Their example prepared me to be by her side without thought of cast or sacrifice when sometimes I had to care for her needs in ways neither of us would have ever imagined. To make space to embrace her in all of who she was when her life changed bit by bit every day as he health worsened.
After Katharine passed, I was shocked to find myself discovering time and energy to spend with friends, pursue passions, try new things, care for my health, I simply could not find the last few years of her life. I realized at one point what happened – I had spent so much worrying about being there and caring for her that, taken together with the emotional toil my chaplain work produced, there was nothing left at the end of the day after caring for her. But while she was with me, I never noticed. Why? I had learned the lesson these egalitarian couples like Dylan and Gary taught me. I learned to never view it as a sacrifice to give the best I had for one I loved.
It is funny, as I begin to explore relationships again, I find their example and how it helped free me in my relationship with a woman as a straight man to be fully present in that relationship, fully myself, and the best partner I could be, I find myself thinking more like these men’s example taught me to about relationships than how my southern upbringing taught me.
I look for relationships of mutuality. I look for a partner who I feel is a true equal, who needs no one to be their “head” but instead look for someone who can, together with them, build something defined by no other rules than the love and commitment they will share with me. I find myself looking for a relationship which, though straight, has been queered by these examples.
And I am so thankful. For as hooks notes, the power of patriarchy is not only crushing for women and children, it also crushed my own soul and robbed me of my authenticity.
And so I am ever so thankful for this strong queer men who taught me new ways to be a man in our world, ways that respect and value the voices of the women in my life, ways that are not bound by the crushing structures of patriarchy but open to creating new ways for relationships, for friendship, and for building a life.
Your progressive redneck preacher,