Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mitt's Promise Made - And Broken

Tonight Mitt Romney delivered his acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention.  It was well delivered.  Although I hate the content of his speech, he executed it well and my guess is that he’s likely to get a bump in the polls for it.
Mitt: “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. MY to help you and your family.”
Let’s reflect on what a Romney-Ryan administration would mean for my family.
Although we are not legally married in Indiana, we are legally married in New York.  Mit Romney supports a federal marriage amendment which would nullify our legal marriage and enshrine discrimination against LGBT people in the United States Constitution. 
The Defense of Marriage Act, which is the federal law that prohibits Indiana from recognizing our legal New York marriage, is something that Mitt has committed to defend vigorously in court.  He would do so through an attorney general that he has sworn will not defend the rights of LGBT Americans.
In regards to civil unions that could bestow all of the legal rights of marriage except for the name itself, Mitt Romney said in May that he wouldn’t support them.
As one of two soon-to-be fathers in my household, I’m concerned that Mitt believes that the “ideal setting to raise a child is with the mom and the dad.”
As the primary income earner for our family, Mitt Romney’s position against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act means that my employer will maintain their right to fire me for being gay (thankfully they adopted an internal Non-discrimination policy in 2012 that includes sexual orientation).  Specifically, Romney thinks that it’s a “burden” that businesses would not be able to fire LGBT employees for their sexual orientation.
In regards to our judiciary branch of government – often the only real hope for a check-and-balance system - Romney has taken a vow to the National Organization of Marriage that he will only appoint anti-LGBT judges.  I don’t hold out hope that the courts will defend my family if Romney has his influence.
Mitt also committed to establishing a commission on religious liberty that would investigate organizations supporting marriage equality. 
Paul Ryan has many of these same positions, but he also supports reinstatement of the anti-gay “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, he opposes gay people adopting (something that Jacob will have to do in order to be the legal second parent of our upcoming child),  and he continues to be opposed to hate crimes legislation of any kind. 
So really, Mitt, I don’t think you can keep your promise to help me and my family.
America must re-elect President Obama in 2012, not for hope and change, but for consistency.  He's already advanced the rights of LGBT citizens significantly during his time in office, but we need more.  With Mitt Romney, we'd likely have less.
This year, think about all families when you step into the ballot box.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Don't Be Bullied, Support Local Youth

On Wednesday, October 5th, there is a film screening of Bullied: A Student, A School, and a Case that Made History followed by a community dialogue on the same topic.  This event is an opportunity for you to support local youth.  The Bullied event is being coordinated by Spencer Pride, Inc. and White River Valley PFLAG in partnership with Middle Way House and Spencer Presbyterian Church.  It is part of a series of local events in October associated with LGBT History Month.  October is also Bullying Awareness Month making this subject all the more relevant.

This event is intended to start a constructive community conversation about bullying and the negative effects that it has on our youth.  Although the film focuses on a self-identified gay teenager in Minnesota, it could just as easily have been about anything for which people are isolated and harassed.  Other reasons that people are bullied include the victim’s weight, socio-economic status, and religious affiliation (or lack thereof), and many more.

Starting a healthy conversation about bullying is as important in our local community as it is in any other community throughout the nation, contrary to what some local church leaders have suggested in Spencer over the past week.  A couple of these leaders have been on a quest to pressure the Spencer Presbyterian Church and its members from supporting this worthwhile event.  Thankfully, the leaders of the Spencer Presbyterian Church have taken a stand to not be 'bullied' and to maintain their support. 

Bullying is not something that should be tolerated in our community.  Our children have the right to an education free of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse.  Adolescence is a challenging time for our youth, as it has always been.  It marks the time when our youth "comes of age" and there is increasing pressure to establish one's identity.  Often, this identity is tied to various social groups and other similar social networks. Traits and characteristics that fall outside of the common ones found within these groups often lead to teasing or more serious behaviors.  For example, teenage girls are often under a tremendous amount of pressure to fit the 'Barbie' body shape idealized by modern popular culture.

One of the most common reasons for being bullied is for being perceived as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT).  It doesn't matter whether the victim has actually self-identified as LGBT or not - the perception is what results in the bullying.  Unfortunately, bullying that occurs toward youth who are perceived as LGBT can also be some of the most violent forms.  It is quite common to hear about the brutal beatings of these teenagers.  It is also not uncommon to hear about violence that results in the death of a LGBT-perceived teen.

The most significant effect of bullying on a child or teen is often an emotional one.  The physical and psychological abuse directed at victims of bullying has a very negative impact on self-esteem and overall happiness.  This can lead to a desire to "end the suffering of bullying" by attempting to commit suicide.  Suicide is the third leading causing of death among 15-20 year olds (National Adolescent Health Information 2006) in the United States. 

LGBT youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.  Although these suicides can be attributed to the impact of physical and psychological abuse by family member or peers within faith communities, it can also be attributed to the tremendous amount of bullying that occurs within our schools.  According to the GLSEN National School Climate Survey in 2009, nine out of ten LGBT students have experienced harassment at school, three-fifths felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and about one-third had skipped a day of school in the last month because of feeling unsafe.  According to the Journal of Youth and Adolescence (2009), LGBT youth in rural communities face particularly hostile school climates. 

Is this what we want for our children?

Last year, bullying towards LGBT teenagers received a significant amount of national press due to a wave of teenage suicides throughout the United States in September. These suicides were a painful reminder of the effects of bullying.  The nine known cases of gay teen suicides last September were geographically diverse – from California to Texas, Colorado to Rhode Island. 

Indiana was not spared from these September casualties of LGBT-associated bullying.  Billy Lucas (15 years old) and Caleb Nolt (14 years old) both killed themselves that month to put an end to the abuse they were suffering from their Hoosier bullies. 

Although there have been attempts over the past year to provide further education about the harmful effects of bullying, the violence continues today.

Last week, we became aware of another sad event - the suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14 year old New Jersey student who self-identified as gay.  Jeremy underwent a significant amount of bullying in school.  In May, Jamey had recorded a video for the much-lauded “It Gets Better” project where he said, "People would just keep sending me hate, telling me that gay people go to hell...Just love yourself and you're set. And I promise you, it'll get better."

Unfortunately, it didn’t get better for Jamey.  On a popular social networking site that Jamey used, people posted abusive comments to Jamey such as, “I wouldn't care if you died. No one would. So just do it :) It would make everyone WAY more happier!"

Earlier this month, Jamey posted the following online: “"I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. What do I have to do so people will listen to me?"

Jamey chose to end his life rather than to continue dealing with the threats and abuse from his tormentors. This is absolutely heartbreaking.

Jamey's "It Gets Better" video.  Click the link in the blog to watch it online.
If Jamey had been your son, grandson, or neighbor, would you have had the courage to listen to him and take action?

I applaud the Presbyterian Church for its commitment to this event.  It's an act of courage that is a testament to their commitment to the health and well-being of our youth.  It is sad that not all faith-based organizations seem to be pursuing this same commitment. 

The fact that there are community leaders aggressively attempting to thwart our educational event, to 'bully' individuals and leaders in the Presbyterian Church into not participating, illustrates that content about bullying is sorely needed in Owen County.  To inhibit organizations from speaking about bullying or LGBT-related issues only results in the support of bullying and intolerance among our youth. 

We need to stand together, united in support of our youth and their rights to an education free from physical and psychological abuse.  One way to do that which provides visible support to the victims of bullying is to attend our upcoming film screening and community dialogue.  It's an opportunity to learn about this issue, share your thoughts and ideas, and brainstorm methods for discouraging bullying in our schools. 

Now is the right time for you to take action in support of local youth.  Help us to stand against those who want to promote intolerance in our schools.  Community inaction only gives a green light to continued bullying within our schools.   

Don’t pass up this opportunity to prevent further violence.  Don't let your child or your teenage neighbor be the next Jamey Rodemeyer or Billy Lucas.  That would be a tragic way to react to a serious - but preventable - issue in our community.

Join us on October 5th from 6:30 – 8:00 PM at the Spencer Presbyterian Church Cornerstone Hall to support the health and well-being of our local youth.  Please, bring your friends.

For more information about the upcoming film screening and other local LGBT History Month events, please visit  

Monday, December 6, 2010

Prevention is the New Black

I’ve decided that I am not nearly as pro-active as I should be.  Prevention might as well be a four-letter word to me (if it only had four letters).  It’s not that I don’t want to be prepared for the future.  I think it stems from the thrill of resolving crises. 

In one of my previous positions at work, I spent a considerable amount of time early on engaging in firefighting.  If you aren’t familiar with the term, defines firefighting as: “the practice of reacting to urgent problems as they arise, as opposed to planning for the future.”  It was exciting to be the new guy rushing in to put out the fires (thereby coming to the ‘rescue’ of someone).  Over time, of course, the expectation changed to one of issue prevention and process stability.  With ease I transitioned into these roles, mainly because I love participating in strategic planning. 

At work, strategic planning entails all sorts of fun tools – Excel charts and tables, PowerPoint presentations, diagrams, etc.  Yes, I’m a geek (or a nerd, I’m not cool enough to know the difference yet).  I love visually organizing information and brainstorming process improvements. 

At home, on the other hand, I’ve lacked the necessary discipline to focus on the right behaviors.  I’m using singular terms not to distance myself from Jacob, but to ensure that I’m not pulling him with me in my admission of these flaws.  I don’t want to be sleeping on the couch. Tools haven’t always been put away, equipment hasn’t always (or ever) been winterized properly, and money hasn’t been spent in an effective or transparent fashion.  I’ve gotten my oil changed only when the car behaves funny and I think that might be the cause.  Rather than exercise or eat better, I wait until special occasions like Pride and work out and starve myself for the month before. 

No more.  To quote Gandalf the Grey from The Lord of the Rings [speaking to the Balrog while lifting his staff in the air to bring it down upon the narrow bridge on which they both stand]: “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. Go back to the shadow. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun! You shall not pass!”

I am trying to focus more on prevention in 2011.  Although I am not Gandalf, nor am I a servant of any Secret Fire (unless that’s a sexy code name for Jacob), I am using this moment as an opportunity to draw a line between my previous lazy behaviors and my future ones.  (yes, you can read that to say my future lazy behaviors, and I wrote it to be intentionally ambiguous).  Together, Jacob and I have already begun the process to integrate better planning into our lives.  A budget has been made (and it’s charted and graphed in Excel, of course).  We are three weeks in to our new workout routine.  We have gotten our oil changes and tire rotations and have budgeted for them throughout 2011. 

Although our days will lack the excitement of the firefighting to which we have become accustomed, we will no longer risk burning the house down in flames, either.  I’m sure we’ll fill in the new voids with excitement from more interesting activities.  It’s not hard to beat vehicular preventive maintenance.  

Thursday, November 25, 2010

In Appreciation

It’s that time of year to reflect on the things that we are thankful for.  This year, I’d like to focus on the people in my life who I appreciate the most.  

It would be negligent of me (and possibly life threatening, lol) to not start with my fantastic husband Jacob.  As he often tells me in a his rarely used but effective sarcastic tone: I could hate a man for knowing me so well.  It’s probably a quote from a famous movie, but for me it’s just a Jacob-ism.  Although I would never imply anger towards him simply for knowing me so well, the quote certainly serves as a reminder after 9 years that we do know each other more than we know anyone else – and as our relationship ripens with age I continuously reflect on what an amazing man that he is.  Although he’s been sick with pneumonia for the past few weeks, he still serves as a representation to me of a youthful spirit who can enchant nearly anyone with his magical personality (most often he’s enchanting me).  I am so thankful that I was smart enough to marry him and wise enough to keep him.  

Next, I’d like to express my appreciation for the group of people in my life whom I didn’t ever choose to be a part of it – my family.  Although no one gets to choose their blood relatives, I’m thankful that I have some pretty great ones.  Most notably in that bunch are my mom and dad, with whom we spend a lot of time and have made a lot of memories.  Tomorrow will be another one of those wonderful experiences when we venture out for our traditional Black Friday shopping excursion.  Best Buy at 5:00 AM never sounded so good (no really, 5:00 AM never does sound good unless it’s a great sale waking you up in the morning).  It will give us a much needed opportunity to burn off some of our Thanksgiving Day weight-gain before we return to our P90X workout Monday.

Third, I am so tremendously thankful for the awesome friends that we have in our life.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that such a fantastic group of people would be in my life.  It’s a diverse bunch who serve as role-models, confidants, and cohorts, as well as simply fun to be around!  We never get to spend as much time with them as we’d like, but the times we spend together are always memorable.

Finally, I’d like to thank all of those individuals out there who make ‘big government’ so great: our servicemen and women, who will hopefully be able to openly express their sexual orientation in the near future; our firefighters and policemen/women, who quietly ensure peace and security in our lives; our school teachers, who are under-paid and yet expected to be overachievers (making up for all of the mentoring and educating that so many parents fail to do at home); and our civil servants, who make sure that traffic signals work, mail is delivered, streets are paved, drivers are educated, senior citizens receive social security checks, food and toys are safe, criminals are held accountable, and thousands of other things that most of us take for granted every single day of our lives.  

As this Thanksgiving night wanes, it’s my honor to take these moments to reflect upon the wonderful people that are in my life.  I encourage you to do the same.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Milestones and Gravestones

This year, my grandmother passed away.  Mary Jane Balash was a day from her 89th birthday when she died.  Her death – something that had been expected for some time and feared for much longer – brought me into adulthood at warp speed.  Sure, I have officially been an adult for some time now.  I’ve been driving for 13 years, voting for 11, and drinking (officially) for 8.  But until this year, I wasn’t the exclusive holder of some of the most precious moments in my life.  Until then, my grandma carried those memories with me.  When she was gone, the knowledge of all that we shared was bestowed upon me.  It’s amazing how impactful it is to realize that you are the single shareholder to so many years of happy times.

In my youth, my grandmother was the person with whom I spent the most time.  She was my babysitter during the week and my weekend companion from Friday night until Sunday mornings.  I always looked forward to seeing her and I never took for granted all the time we spent together.  Her home – a small white house on a hill overlooking a major road in my hometown – was an exciting world of jigsaw puzzles and Johnny Carson (later Jay Leno), where ramen soup and acorn squash was always on the menu and the agenda almost always entailed visits to the lake to read books, the library (to do the same), and to garage sales in the warm months (often looking for more books).  We spent time on her davenport looking at photos from her youth.  We tag teamed crossword puzzles and word searches.  We went to church bingo together (I brought the lucky trolls and she brought the cash).  Saturday mornings were spent touring local grocery stores seeking out the free samples they offered in the aisles.  Grandma Balash went to my elementary school talent shows, my middle school science fairs, and my high school swim meets.  She wasn’t just a grandmother – she was a close friend and a role-model.  We had our fun together, but I also learned how to behave (or how not to behave).  I remember lessons that she taught me and the examples that she set for me. 

Later, when I moved away to college and fell in love with Jacob, I was reluctant to spend time with her anymore.  I wasn’t out to my whole family and I feared her disappointment if she knew that I was gay.  As Jacob and I’s wedding day neared, I decided to tell her about the wedding.  I didn’t want to leave her out on such an important moment.  Jacob and I nervously sat down with her over my mom’s kitchen table one evening and I came out to her.  Without batting an eye she muttered in a matter-of-fact tone “I wondered when you were going to finally tell me.”  Before the evening was over she had asked (almost insisted) to be one of the readers during our ceremony.  Later that year, she proved to be the best reader at our Holy Union.  They say that a mother always knows that her son is gay – I think the same goes for grandmothers.

As I look back, it saddens me to know that there will be no more fresh memories with her, and that eventually when I get into my senior years, I too will begin to forget all of the important moments we shared.  When I die, the memories will be gone and no one will remember (or care) about the bird watching we did while sitting in her cheap plastic lawn chairs beneath the magnolia tree in her front yard.  I also realize that while the specific memories will be long forgotten, her values and attitude won’t have been lost if I can keep them going.  They’ve impacted me and influenced my life and I hope that I can in turn help and support others who are in need of it.  I now carry the memories of my grandmother and the responsibility to continue on her tradition of love and support.     

My grandmother was cheap, stubborn-headed, and cantankerous.  I hope to be just like her someday. 
Me, grandma, and Jacob during Christmas (2005)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Film Screening, Dinner, Dessert, Dialogue – and drab carpeting?

Sunday night I found myself staring at a patch of bland carpeting in the middle of a crowded room. Around me, people discussed important issues affecting the LGBTQI community – a community to which I and my husband Jacob are proud members.  And yet I stared at the floor. 
Let me step back for a moment and set the stage for you. 

We were at the Presbyterian Church Cornerstone Hall in our small Midwestern town of Spencer, Indiana.   Spencer is a rural community with a population of approximately 2500.  It is situated in Owen Valley along the west fork of the White River, and sandwiched between miles of soybeans, corn, and fields of livestock.  The crowd that filled the large open room had come out to attend White River Valley PFLAG’s Out in the Silence Film Screening and Community Dialogue. 
I am the secretary of our PFLAG chapter and the president of Spencer Pride, Inc.  Alongside our chapter president Judi Epp and a few core PFLAG members, I had spent a significant amount of time over the past two months planning for the event.  We kicked off the evening with a member of the Presbyterian Church who said a short welcome and prayer.  Then, Judi and I introduced ourselves, PFLAG, and finally the film itself. After I pressed play and adjusted the volume accordingly, I stood back with other PFLAG members to take in the impressive crowd.  We had planned on 25 people attending the event, but we all secretly had hoped for 50 people.  I counted more than 50 in attendance and shared a few excited glances with Judi. 
But that wasn’t it.  The door opened and members of the church’s youth group filed in.  Now we were at 55.  Wait – again the door opened.  59.  60.  63. And so on, the door kept opening until our crowd reached 77 people! I was beside myself that our community could fill a large room for an event focused on gay and lesbian issues!  Young and old, church-goers and secularists, students and teachers, the room filled with diversity.  Our members quietly scrambled to add more chairs as each new couple or group entered the lowly lit room where the film was playing. 
Quickly we doubled our food order from the local Pizza Hut.
Mary L. Gray speaks to the crowd Sunday evening.

As you may already be aware, Out in the Silence is a critically-acclaimed documentary that focuses on the issues of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals who live, work, and love in a small rural community in Pennsylvania.  Ever since we had been introduced to the film several months ago through an e-mail from our field coordinator, Brooke Smith, our chapter had wanted to hold the film screening and community dialogue.  There are so many parallels between the film and our own local community.
The film stirred up a lot of emotion among the attendees.  At moments there were tears, while at other times the sound of laughter filled the room.   Most of the audience kept their eyes focused on the screen as the various storylines unfolded.  I kept pinching myself that we had such a great turnout! Our PFLAG members scrambled to cut ice cream cakes that had been donated by our local Dairy Queen.   
The movie ended and after a brief break where we served food and refreshments, the crowd returned to their seats as I introduced Mary L. Gray, a distinguished Indiana University Professor of Communication and Culture and author of the recently published book Out in the Country.  Mary’s research about rural LGBTQI youth is well-known to us and we had met her at a previous event.  She was also recommended by the filmmakers of Out in the Silence, so we were excited and honored to have her participate in our event.  First, Mary laid the ground rules – use “I” statements, respect one another, etc. – then she had us all move our chairs in to a large circle.  She then began to facilitate the dialogue. 
Dialogue topics ranged from the film itself to teen suicide to religious perspectives on homosexuality. The crowd represented both sides of nearly every topic, with the passions of one person often leading to the unease of another.
Hence the carpeting.  And my shoes.  I realized how I should have given them a fresh coat of polish before I came to the church. 
I am an out – and very outspoken – man.  Yet something as simple as talking about an issue so close to my heart can be difficult to do.  Quotes from the Bible were read and it was made quite clear by several attendees that surely no good would ever come from my identity as a homosexual man.  I know better than to believe these things, of course, but it doesn’t make them any easier to hear. 
I was playing a good host, smiling and looking attentively around the room during the conversations that were comfortable to me.  Yet the moment that the Bible was quoted, my eyes trailed back to the floor.  Was this to hide weakness?  Insecurity?   
As the dialogue continued, I realized how difficult it must have been for the conservative Christians to attend this event, surrounded by mostly LGBTQI affirming individuals as well as a whole assortment of LGBTQI-identifying people.  I admired their bravery at coming to our event.  I doubt I would have been willing to do the same had the situation been reversed.
I began to be more conscious of my view, and I started to keep my head up regardless of the topic.  It was wonderful to hear so many people who were willing to stand up for their gay sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, and friends. 
Judi spoke from her heart near the end of the discussion.  “Some people – like myself – choose to live the truth.  Some people choose to live a lie.  And some people can’t choose either.  So they can’t live at all.  That’s just unacceptable.”
Her words sent a message deep inside of me.  As she said them, I looked around the room and saw the nodding heads of a few people who still clenched bibles in their hands.  Although all we could agree on was that discrimination and violence toward youth was unacceptable in our community, I knew that would be a great place to start. 
It was important for us all to have taken part in the event.  For those individuals who were already affirming, it was important for them to see what challenges still exist in our community.  For those individuals who were “against the very premise of the event” (direct quote), it was important for them to see that we aren’t just hiding in the shadows.  We have supporters.  And for those of us who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, it was important to see and understand both of those things.
The discussion ended after 45 minutes when Mary brought it to a close and thanked everyone for coming out to participate. “I was struck by the level of commitment from everyone in the room to continue the conversation, even when it was clear that there was disagreement,” Gray explained to me after the event.  “I believe conversations like the one we had tonight bring us one step closer to better supporting LGBT and questioning youth because these discussions help us see the genuine concern we have for each other and our community members. It's inspiring.”
Judi, our chapter president, had the following to say about the dialogue: "Our intention was to start a conversation about being gay or lesbian in the rural Midwest and we certainly did that!  The attendees represented a wonderful cross section of the local community and thanks to our facilitator everyone who wanted to speak was given an opportunity to do so.”
Once the dialogue finished the hall began clearing out.  Approximately 20 people remained and continued the discussion in smaller groups.  My husband Jacob was in one of these groups, being questioned by several conservative Christians that he had known in years past.  I had checked on him to make sure that he was ok (which he was) and then I went back to standing near our PFLAG/Spencer Pride informational table answering questions that were posed to us by the departing crowd.  Within half an hour the crowd had dwindled to only our members who cleaned up, debriefed, and then went home for a long night’s rest after a fruitful evening that had taken us months to organize.
I reflected on the experience out loud with Jacob on the way home, and then again silently to myself in the time since then. 
“We hope this is the beginning of a continuing conversation with this community,” Judi told me today, with determination in her voice.  “Our November meeting of the White River Valley PFLAG will be the next opportunity to continue the important conversation that began Sunday night.”  The November meeting’s theme will be “Continuing the Conversation: Reflections of Being Lesbian or Gay in A Small Midwestern Town.” 
I hope that we have a nice turnout at our meeting now that we’ve gotten good publicity from the film screening.  I even hope that a few people show up who were among those bible-quoters from Sunday night’s event.  I think we can all learn from one another.  At least we have a place to start. 
And I promise that I won’t be looking down next month.  I’ll be looking forward to the next steps in bridging the gaps within our small community.  Spencer doesn’t have a GLBT center or any cute bookstores with gay pride flags flying out front, but it does have people who are willing to communicate with one another about challenging issues.  
What more could I ask for?