Churches, Community, and Family

On Saturday night I entered a church for the first time in years. I did so to attend a service of the Congregation Bet Haverim, a reconstructionist jewish congregation which Chris’s friend Rabbi Josh Lesser presides over.1 The service was a bit different than usual, as it was concert as well as a mini-service. The occasion was the celebration of the Jew’s escape from Egypt.2

I stopped attending church two or so years ago back in Denver during the passing of Proposition 8 in California. The trifecta of the Catholic, Evangelical, and Mormon organizations banding together to fund the pro-Prop 8, along with the lies they were propagating to do so, made it clear to me that I wanted no part of anything remotely associated with them. Being back in a church service (primarily in a building that resembled the churches of my youth) really hit me hard.

We arrived an hour before the concert started and Chris was visiting with old friends while we were sitting in the pews. I sat there deep in thought, no doubt looking like I went into full introvert wall-flower mode to Chris, processing the flood of emotions about being in a place so familiar and yet so frustratingly repulsive to me. The net of the experience was the evaluation and comparison between community and family.

In-large, white people have no natural community. Unlike latinos, whose primary community consists of tightly-knit families (I had the joy of being part of one while I was with Benjamin), white people often seek community in their churches. Far from being a place where they are just spoonfed what to believe, churches provide a place where larger families are forged. People to lean on and call when life gets hard, like when someone is sick, in the hospital, or dies. Churches are surrogate families and a place to meet people when moving to new towns.

Churches are also professionals when it comes to running gays out of that community.3 But gays have something to fall back on for community: each other. In fact, we even have a name for other gays: family.4 Much like a church community or biological family, gays form their own families, colloquially known as family-by-choice, as so many of us have been hurt by other communities, like churches or families-by-birth. When moving to a new town, getting a foot in the door of the gay community is the best way to go to meet new people and get plugged in. Like a family we support and help each other. Like a family (and most churches) we are dysfunctional to some degree too. But for the most part we band together. Unlike churches, the gay family is highly inclusive: gays, bisexuals, straight allies — anyone who supports us is implicitly, if not explicitly, included.

Despite being a white guy, I have a strong community of people without the trappings of church. I’m extremely thankful for my family-by-choice, ironically I’m a member because of something I had no choice over. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

1 Interestingly, the congregation meets in a Presbyterian church.

2 Being forced to attend Sunday School in both the Methodist and Baptist churches all throughout my youth, I am well versed in the bible stories of both the old and new testament — including the escape from Egypt, Joseph’s coat of many colors, and the search for the promised land which were both mentioned in the service. It didn’t occur to me until that night that old testament is the bulk of the Jewish beliefs (very roughly speaking), and my cursory familiarity with it is a great basis for understanding what was going on in the service.

3 Not all churches. Some, like Congregation Bet Haverim or Metropolitan Community Church in Denver are very welcoming. I’ve my own share of experiences in other churches, however.

4 It’s not at all unusual for gays to refer to one another as ‘family’ out in public, eg: Oh, that’s John, he’s family.

Grandmothers get it

While talking with a friend tonight I remembered, and referenced, the letter my grandmother sent me after I came out to her. I distinctly remember posting it in a blog entry but a search for it tonight turned out to be a slog because the entry was locked and thus not indexed.

Turns out that, not surprisingly, I locked several entries between April and July in 2009 — that one included. Tonight I unlocked most, but not all, of them. In particular I unlocked the August 4th entry containing the letter from my grandmother – which I’m reproducing here because it’s just that good:

Dearest Casey,

It was so good to hear from you. The news you told me was no surprise to me – I had suspected the situation for a long time. I know you didn’t wake up one day and decide to be gay – it is an inborn thing and is natural to you but the average person views it as unnatural, because it doesn’t follow the norm. They need to stop and evaluate all the couples who co-habitate. In my opinion there is not much difference.

Of course I had looked forward to your children to love, but my love for you has never changed and never will. You are a part of me and Papa and we have always been proud of you. Just be happy and people will learn to accept the situation. I wish you every happiness.

I love you –
Granny

Two years later and I still tear up reading it.

An authentic vacation

Last night I got back from a week-long trip out to the DC area to visit my sister Renee, her husband Robert, and my niece RG. Aside: in the past I’ve referred to Renee as my “virtual sister” or “sister by choice” but really, family is family – she’s my sister.

I had a great time visiting the R^3 crew and it was a very much needed break. We went on hikes, hung out, spent several lazy afternoons by the pool (I have a sunburn/tan!), and in general just spent time hanging out together. This morning it dawned on me that aside from spending time with people I love, the best part about the vacation was that I felt free to be Just Me. I’ve known Renee since we were 3 (or so she claims, I thought it was closer to 5 but there’s no arguing with Renee!). She’s one of a very few people who knows almost everything about me and with whom I feel I can share anything. And Robert, despite only knowing me 10 years instead of 30, accepts me as family without question. As for RG, I’m “silly” Uncle Casey end of story!

Since moving to Seattle I’ve not spent enough time with people around which I can be Just Me. I’m not the type of person who puts on a full personality costume when I go out, but it still takes me a while to open up to new friends. That process is happening but it’s slow. The situation is compounded by the worry about “what other people will think” that’s been ingrained in me by my parents which I strive to overcome on a daily basis. And while it isn’t up to the Will & Ned-level of effort, it’s still tiring.

I’m resolved to try and model ‘s MO of daily living life more authentically and spending more time in the company of the people here in Seattle I feel most authentic around already (Jeff, Jonobie, and Kevin – I’m lookin’ at you).

Hospital visitation for gays

Mid-February I posted about about my concerns regarding hospital visitation rights for Benjamin and I should something occur. Obama must have read my blog post, because yesterday, only 2 months later, he instructed his health secretary to make it happen. The new rules will only apply to hospitals that participate in Medicare or Medicaid which is most of them according to the NY Times. I suppose any hospital who decides they don’t want to comply can just stop participating in those programs (and good riddance if they close because of it).

My family sincerely thanks you Mr. President.

Milk & cookies, throwing balls, and chocolate bitches

Benjamin and I are uncles to some cute, very funny, and scarily bright nieces and nephews. We aren’t related to most of them genetically but that hasn’t stopped us from adopting them as our own anyway. The more I hear about their antics the more I think my friends’ children are rapidly outsmarting their parents and that the world needs to watch out! Two small examples follow.

Three-year-old RG (the name used by her mother Renee when posting about her online) is a crafty one. She eats her cookies with a milk chaser, just like her Uncle Casey, and used that fact to outsmart her mom. From Renee’s blog:

As I was making lunch one day, she opened the refrigerator and looked around. Then, she asked me for some milk. Since she never asks for milk, I said sure. I got down a coffee mug and put a little milk in it. Then I handed it to her. She waited only a brief second to then ask “Now may I have a cookie, please?” Hmmmmm….I got taken….royally outsmarted by a 3 year old. Should have seen that one coming. Since she was so clever, I gave her the cookie and then made lunch.

Caleb, Jan’s 1.5-year-old angel, is equally crafty. From Jan’s blog:

He knows the word ball and he also knows that balls are meant to be thrown. He likes to throw. He also knows that non-balls cannot be thrown or else you get sent to time out. He doesn’t like time out.

The solution?

Everything is a ball. He’ll pick up a shoe, block, car etc and proclaim “ball! ball!” and then throw the sucker halfway across the room. Nice. See, is it’s a ball then it’s a legal throw and you can’t fuss mom. Yeah, no. Time out here you come buddy.

Tonight I asked Juan if perhaps Caleb might be a little confused and not know the word “throw” and thus he was saying “ball! ball!” because he wanted to throw and didn’t know how else to express himself. I said this in front of Caleb. Who promptly looked at me and said “throw! throw!”

That covers the milk & cookies and throwing balls — but trust me, don’t miss the story about the chocolate bitches. Just wait until she starts school and asks her kindergarden teacher for some!

A Grandmother’s love

One of the results of my decision to not attend my brother’s wedding was needing to call my Granny Dot and let her know that I wouldn’t be going and why. Up until this point I’d never told Granny Dot that I was gay, but she’s one smart cookie and I figured she already knew. The conversation went well (no awkwardness) and we continued to talk about the usual stuff for the next hour — she’s a talker so this is about par.

I received this letter in the mail a few days after the wedding:

Dearest Casey,

It was so good to hear from you. The news you told me was no surprise to me – I had suspected the situation for a long time. I know you didn’t wake up one day and decide to be gay – it is an inborn thing and is natural to you but the average person views it as unnatural, because it doesn’t follow the norm. They need to stop and evaluate all the couples who co-habitate. In my opinion there is not much difference.

Of course I had looked forward to your children to love, but my love for you has never changed and never will. You are a part of me and Papa and we have always been proud of you. Just be happy and people will learn to accept the situation. I wish you every happiness.

I love you –
Granny

While some of my other family members are very supportive and encouraging (specifically Kelly and Nicole) – this is by far the most affirming letter I’ve ever received from my family. And yes, I did cry when I got it.

There are bright spots to the otherwise gloomy situation.

Casey gets a new label

Yet again an event has occurred in life that grants me another label. Two days ago (Wednesday, March 1, 2006 at roughly 7:15pm CST) I was bestowed the title of “Uncle Casey”.

Allow me to introduce Kooper William Peel. He is officially a “big boy” at 9lbs 4oz and measuring 21.5 inches.

Labels
I began thinking about labels over the past couple of days. It is interesting how we’re given some and some are given to us. Regardless of their origins some are objective and some subjective. Some labels change over time, from subjective to objective or from involuntary to voluntary. I was involuntarily given the subjective label ‘Casey’ roughly 27 years ago although after a few years I have internalized it and accepted it as objective (one could argue that after the label was put on my birth certificate that it then became objective, but I digress). Likewise just 1.5 years later I was involuntarily given the objective label ‘brother’ when Kelly was born. Since then I have taken actions that have caused me to give myself labels such as graduate, employee, Software Engineer, Performance Lead, fiancee. I’m more proud of some of these labels than others. Not sure how I feel about Uncle yet. I played no part in receiving the label although I have a feeling that a great deal of work will be required for me to live up to the title, much in the same sense that a ‘father’ (one who fathers a child) is not necessarily a ‘dad’ (a father who is deeply involved in his child’s life).