Labyrinths, Lipstick, and Angels
Dear Friends and Family (same thing):
Please forgive this long letter, but this has been such an amazing week for me, beginning with the Day of the Dead spent last Saturday alone on the beach and ending yesterday afternoon outside the gate of the Oakland Temple. I wanted to share with you all the wonderful experiences I have had this week in the wake of the passage of Prop 8.
I began my 24 hours of fasting and prayer a week ago Saturday afternoon (November 1) by driving to my favorite beach north of Santa Cruz. I was relieved to find it unusually deserted. In honor of the Day of the Dead, I carried in my heart the names of the five Gay Mormons who committed suicide just after Prop 22 passed in 2000 (Stuart Matis, Clay Whitmer, Steven Wheeler, Clifford Martell, and DJ Thompson), the name of Gordon Ray Church (the Gay Mormon who was brutally tortured to death by a Mormon Eagle Scout and a Catholic boy in 1988 - see his horror story at connellodonovan.com/gordon.html), my best friend Brian Bachmann (who died from AIDS two years ago), and the names of all my ancestors, to whom I am grateful for my existence here and now, just the way I am. Using a long stick washed up on the beach, I quickly drew a large labyrinth about 60 feet square and then slowly, mournfully walked the labyrinth, chanting over and over, "Love, Beauty, Balance, and Delight". These are the four basic precepts of my own spiritual path (which I call the Good Rainbow Road); I try to measure every single thought, desire, action, and outcome against this four-fold canon. If I can't solidly hit at least three of the four, then I refrain and move on.
As I walked, chanted, prayed, and held "my dead" in my heart on my journey into and out of the labyrinth, a feeling of utter calm and tranquility settled over me. And at the same time, it hit me that Prop 8 was going to pass. The Divine Spirit whispered to me that it just wasn't time yet. There were lessons to learn, growth to happen first. I finished my memorial to the dead right at sunset, quietly went home, slept soundly, finished up my fasting and prayer on Sunday afternoon by again returning to the same beach, and let my prayers flow out into the vastness of the cold Pacific.
On Tuesday, my elation at the election of Sen. Obama was only slightly lessened by the news that Prop 8 passed. I still am in a state of wonderment and joy that I have lived to see an African American be elected as President of the United States of America. I personally feel that the beacon of freedom and equality we like to think we are as a country had nearly extinguished. But today it burns much more brightly, and hopefully, will get even brighter the next few years.
When news of mass protests at LDS Temples in California hit, it concerned me that Mormons were reporting "hate crimes", vandalism, unruly crowds climbing on temple walls, etc. That just didn't sound like the LGBT people I know - we tend to be rather fastidious and well-mannered. Acting like drunken soccer hooligans is...well...in poor taste. I was relieved to hear that Peter Danzig had contacted the LA Temple President, and offered to pay for clean up of the vandalism on behalf of Mormons who were opposed to Prop 8. As Peter reported, the vandalism amounted to someone writing "Bigots" on the temple walls in lipstick. The Temple President reported that otherwise the protesters were "very well behaved and there had only been a very few people who were problems." He also declined any financial assistance, since clean up cost about $100; thanked Peter "profusely" and wished him God's blessing. If calling Mormons on their bigotry with lipstick vandalism is the worst we've done, I felt that was fairly forgivable, all things considered.
Yesterday (Sunday, November 9), I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop, working on my biography of William Smith, when I got an e-news bulletin that there was another protest gathering at the Oakland Temple. I immediately got a bee in my bonnet and decided that I wanted to go, not only to join in the demonstration, but also to help clean up afterwards. Since it's an hour and a half drive from Santa Cruz, I got there at the tail end of the demonstration. The several thousand people that had shut down the nearby freeway had dwindled to several hundred. I found the leaders of the demonstration and with about a dozen others volunteered to stay to the bitter end and clean up. I found the few hundred people left to be really well-mannered. There were no epithets being yelled, no "hate speech," no wall climbing, etc. I was also very happy to note that on this very busy street that the temple lies on, easily three-quarters of the vehicles that passed by honked, waved, and thumbs-upped in support! From where I was, I could easily see four LDS security officers in the temple parking lot watching us, oddly all dressed exactly like Mr. Smith of "The Matrix" fame, right down to stylish sunglasses. They were visibly disturbed by the amount of supportive honking from passing traffic. I had made a sign to hold that proclaimed myself an "Adult Survivor of Mormon Homophobia". I held it up so that the security officers could easily see it. They shook their heads in disapproval. It makes me laugh that I used to be a security guard on Temple Square. One of my duties was to let the Tabernacle Choir into the Tabernacle on Thursday nights for rehearsal. Oh the webs we weave!!
When the crowd dwindled to less than about 60, the 40 or so police officers that were there decided they could leave as well. I asked who was the officer in charge and I then asked that him how it had gone. He said he had no complaints whatsoever - that we had all been completely law-abiding, peaceful, compliant, etc. I did stay until the end - about 3:30. And our clean up crew looked around and there was not a single bit of trash for any of us to clean up. The only act of "vandalism" was that someone had stuck a small red valentine heart sticker on the temple sign at the gate. I left it there. I left really happy that at least here, this day, we had done ourselves proud in maintaining a peaceable kingdom...
On Saturday night, Santa Cruz had our own little vigil and march. I'm overjoyed to report that 85% of the city of Santa Cruz voted against Prop 8 - and 75% of our county. Over one thousand people showed up at the Clock Tower for a half-hour long vigil. Throughout, I stood in silence right on the curb with my No on 8 sign, quietly crying in both sadness but also out of joy for the supportive community I live in. I really feel that here people love me BECAUSE I'm Gay, rather than despite it. This community really sees the gifts that we have and celebrates them, and I can't tell you how healing that has been for me.
As a drizzle started, the vigil left the Town Clock and headed about 10 blocks away to the First Congregational Church/United Church of Christ. I had never been in their Sanctuary before and I was stunned by how beautiful it is. The focal point inside the sanctuary is a 30 foot-tall, rough-hewn wooden cross sprouting from a large chunk of white granite (see photo below). There to greet all the vigilants were over a dozen clergy from various religions in the area, including several Rabbis, one of whom is my dear Gay friend, Reb Eli Cohen. The clergy and several Congregationalists were lined up at the entrance to the Sanctuary and clapped and cheered for us as we entered.
The inter-faith service was incredible. Methodist, Greek Orthodox, Episcopal, Jewish, Congregationalist, Unitarian, and Quaker elements were all included as we prayed and sang together. Mormons were invoked at several points by various ministers. The music was absolutely over the top. They had a woman vocalist named Lori that rocked the house with her huge voice and even larger spirit. The Episcopal Bishop then introduced an open-mic portion, and invited the public to step up to the mic and share our stories, our witness. I was third or fourth in line.
With a broken and open heart I told everyone that I was a refugee from Utah, which drew loud chuckles and whispers of sympathy. I told them that after I came out at the age of 16 to my Sunday School teacher (it was actually my Seminary teacher but I didn't want to explain what that meant) I was put into "programs" to change my sexual orientation. I told about the exorcisms I had to cast the "gay demons" out of me (including one where I was literally bashed over the head with a quadruple combination); the priesthood blessings that I was given to "cure" my homosexuality; the years-long program of daily prayer and weekly fasting to make me straight; of being sent to BYU for vomiting aversion therapy but refusing to go through with it because of my phobia around vomiting; of being made to go into the Army to learn to be "more manly" and of being told by Paul H. Dunn that I had to get married and "experience normal sex" in order to make me heterosexual (which I did, to disastrous results for both of us); and worst of all, of the hypnotherapy that LDS therapist Dr. Randall Hyde did on me, in which under hypnosis he had me visualize that I was split into Gay Connell and Straight Connell, and then he had Jesus come down and trample Gay Connell to death. (That drew shudders of horror from the crowd, as well it should.) With little choice left but to either kill myself or learn to love and accept myself just as God made me, I left Utah and moved here to this beautiful, loving, supportive community where I have found so much healing from the woundings of the LDS Church.
By this time, I was sobbing, as was most everyone in the Sanctuary. I then explained that in Mormon doctrine, Mormons believe in both a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother and this concept of a Divine Heterosexual Couple permeates all of LDS culture and their world view. Gay people cannot inhabit that world; there is no room for us and they can't even believe that we exist. I explained that most Mormons really do fear that same-sex civil marriage will negate this doctrine, and so they have no choice at all but oppose it with all their might. I pointed out that the very first song we sang at the beginning of our service was the simple refrain "I love you, I need you, I cannot survive without you." I told the people that as we sang, my heart broke open as I tried to sing that song to all the Mormons in the world - tried to wrap my heart around all of them and sing to every Latter-Day Saint, "I love you, I need you, I cannot survive without you," and just how damn hard that had been for me. I ended by reminding all that we are called as people of faith to have hearts large enough to love and forgive the Mormons - and if I can do it, then we all can. The congregation erupted into cheers, Amens, and lengthy applause.
A young teen-age Lesbian then stood and tearfully prayed for the day when she will find a life-partner to whom she can get legally married here in this state.
And lastly, my friend Rabbi Eli stood up and introduced his boyfriend, Akindele, who is a black Jewish native of Nigeria. Eli asked Akindele to join him at the microphone and then he got down on one knee and tearfully, joyfully asked Akindele to marry him. With more tears, Akindele joyfully accepted, they passionately kissed, and the whole congregation shot to our feet to cheer and cry tears of joy and celebrate along with them!!! What an exciting thing to have happen there!
Dave, the hosting pastor of the First Congregational Church called for everyone to come together and encircle the altar at the center of the Sanctuary in a giant puppy-pile huddle. An Episcopalian woman whom I worked with on the “No on 8” campaign, offered up a prayer of thanksgiving to all the Mormons who dissented and voted against Prop 8. Pastor Dave then offered up the most amazing prayer for love and forgiveness to "all the Christians who really fucked up" (and that is a direct quote!) We stood there in silence for a few moments, basking in our union together. Quietly someone began singing "We Shall Overcome." And we all joined in. I soon lost it and just loudly sobbed through the second verse. As I finally was able to regain my voice, I remained silent, jubilant in that moment. For I could hear something quite unexpected happening. I heard Angels singing along with us! I will swear with all my heart before any court that on that night I heard several hundred more voices singing than just the several hundred people present. And it was in the most beautiful and perfect harmony; not a single voice was off-key. I have never heard anything so beautiful in all my life. That experience still resonates through my body in delicious revelry. For that one perfect moment in time, a diverse group of people of various faiths, colors, genders, classes, ages, sexual orientations ALL united in song, prayer, and conviction, and we were all renewed in our common path of justice, equality, forgiveness, mercy, compassion, and of course, ultimately, LOVE. REGARDLESS.