Religion, the Closet, and Being Yourself:
Musings of a TABaG Man

 

I am a TABaG (Temporarily Able-Bodied and Gay) man. Although I am currently physically able-bodied, I suspect that because I am gay I am less than fully-abled psychologically. I am convinced that society's effort to keep gay people in the closet is a disablement as crippling to our emotional lives as any physical disability may be to our bodies.

My own experience suggests that many of us actively collude with our oppressors to maintain the closet's darkness even after we have found our way out of it. As we work through all the issues of becoming whole with ourselves as homosexual human beings, I wonder—do we ever completely lose the invisible scars that bear testimony to our disability?

But then, as I have become aware, many physically disabled people are stuck in a closet too, even when their disabilities are physically obvious. Like gay people, they all too often collude with their oppressorstemporarily able-bodied peopleto hide their disabilities, or even themselves, from the judging eyes of their fellow human beings.

Not only do disabled people endure physical limitations, they face the emotional disablement of the handicapped closet as well. And disabled gay people have not only their physical disabilities to deal with; they get a double whammy emotionally, compounded further by being disabled in a gay world fixated on perfect bodies.

A few years ago when I was in the early stages of coming out as a gay man my local newspaper published an op-ed piece I'd submitted on being "gay and gray" (yet another set of issues). Steve Gascoyne, a radical left-wing writer who had worked for UPI and several local papers wrote me a note about his own experience with a friend who had come out to him only because he was dying from AIDS.

"I was very upset that he didn't share that essential part of his being with me," Steve said. He went on to tell me that the experience had taught him a lesson that he began to put into practice when he first started evidencing epilepsy in his late 40s. He shared that practice on our first meeting. "I want you to know that I have epilepsy," he said shortly after shaking my hand. "I may have a seizure at any time. Here's what they look like; here's what you should to do if it happens."

"That's how you come out," he said. You can't care a damn about other peoples' feelings about who you are and what you are. You have to make yourself visible and demand equal treatment. People who see me don't see an epileptic unless I have a seizure in front of them or I tell them. When I see you I don't see a gay man unless you tell me or I see you entering a gay establishment. You've got to get people to accept you on your terms, not theirs. Those who aren't disabled or who aren't gay can't make valid judgments about those of us who are."

Steve and I talked a lot about the judgments made by unknowing people. We agreed that understanding how those judgments are formed is important for us as we deal with our physically and sexually "straight" fellows. Difficult as it might be for us to comprehend, for example, many of our families, friends and neighbors (and even we ourselves) have a christianist worldview that sees homosexuality as a deviant sexual behavior engaged in by heterosexuals acting out some sort of perversion. By "christianism" I mean the unconscious acquisition of a false sense of "Christian" values by everyone born wherever the United States has cultural and economic influencewherever Coca Cola is sold.

Many of these same christianists perceive physical disabilities as "punishment" from the being they refer to as god. They may not say so in front of the physically disabled, but they will no doubt unconsciously recall scriptural passage wherein their god-being says he will punish generations of descendants of sinners. A common colloquialism suggests how deeply ingrained in our thinking this belief has become. How often do we hear, or have we said, "My god! What did I do to deserve this?"as if there is a cause-and-effect relationship between human actions and physical and psychological disabilities.

I am certain that my parents felt that having a gay son was a visitation of their god's wrath for something one of them had done in the past. They never said so directly, but they made their feelings clear with offhand stories about other families that were "cursed" by having gay children.

The fact that my younger brother was born with Down Syndrome might have sent my parents over the edge, but instead my mother decided that he was a "gift" from her god-being and that her salvation would be assured if she raised him to adulthood. I guess she'll go to her religion's heaven when she dies. My brother is forty-eight now.

Religious people can twist their beliefs to accommodate their immediate needs, something I discovered when a woman I know took fertility pills in order to conceiveeven though she believed that her god played the operative role in the eventuation of children. She refused to consider that it was her god that had made her infertile and thus intended her to be childless. Isn't artificially induced conception the opposite side of the abortion coin? If you believe that babies are your god's will, don't both practices fly equally in the face of your deity's intent?

At the same time that people are unconsciously judging those of us who are not "straight"—whether of sexual inclination or body or boththey also "feel bad" for us, they pity us. A woman I met at a rally for the Million Mom March told me that she felt bad for homosexuals because it was so hard for them to get into (her religion's) heaven. She said it sincerely and I'm sure she meant it. Since I suffer from internalized christianism just as I suffer from internalized homophobia my immediate reaction was to engage her on her own christianist terms. Instead I caught myself in time and replied, "Your concern is very kind. Thank you." It stopped her in her christianist tracks (or perhaps I should say "tracts").

Since christianism pervades American life, it seems likely that many disabled gay men suffer from an internalized expression of it. Whether consciously or not, they buy into the belief that a connection exists between being physically disabled, being gay, and being punished by some god. As a TABaG man it took me years to rend from my gut the damaging christianist judgments that family and society had implanted there, even after I had consciously dismissed them as absurd.

Steve Gascoyne died in the spring of 2003. He had a grand mal seizure as he was climbing the back steps to his house. His fall to the brick stoop resulted in a massive brain hemorrhage and his loving wife followed his instructions, "do not revive."

Some five hundred people from all walks of life gathered to remember him. Liberal straight people, GLBT neighbors and friends; people in wheelchairs, on crutches, with walking sticks, or service animals crammed a hall where they celebrated the life of the man who said "I'm Steve Gascoyne. I have epilepsy. This is what it looks like. This is what you should do…"

I have never been as brave as my friend Steve Gascoyne. I have never met someone outside of a safe environment and said, "Hi, I'm Donald, I'm gay." I am working on it, though. I hope that anyone reading this who is in any kind of closet will join me in the struggle.

© 2004 Donald Cavanaugh
Illustration © 2004 Mark McBeth, IDEA | MONGER

.

 

Donald Cavanaugh is a gay activist working very hard to overcome his internalized christianism. He will become an atheist when he finds a god worthy of disbelief.

 

 

.

 

Don't wait.
Let us know what you think of this BENT feature.

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/July 2004