Wrap Around the Capitol Speech

Me speaking at the annual Wrap Around the Capitol event to draw attention to sexual assault and show support for survivors.  Photo by Brian Wild.

Me speaking at the annual Wrap Around the Capitol event to draw attention to sexual assault and show support for survivors. Photo by Brian Wild.

I was asked to give a speech at Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s annual Wrap Around the Capitol event, held as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Here is the speech I delivered.

Good afternoon.

I stand here before you today as an adult survivor of childhood sex abuse. From the time I was ten until I was midway through my seventeenth year I was repeatedly abused. But I am not here to recount the horrors of that abuse. I am here because I have survived that abuse. As a little boy I suffered but as an adult I have reconnected with my inner child and I am protecting and loving him now. He is beautiful. I am beautiful. You are beautiful and nobody deserves to be hurt or abused. Ever. My childhood was taken from me but I tell you today that I own my personhood now. My innocence was stolen but in my recovery as a survivor I have recovered my soul. I am here as a survivor and I stand proud as a survivor.

I speak because silence steals our power. I speak because silence shrouds us in shame. I speak because silence protects no one but those who would do us harm. It is in giving words to my past that I can live in the present and look forward to the future.

Today, in the here and now, I have come to be with you because I recognize that we are all in this together—men, women, adults, children, survivors of every race and class, allies of every creed and color—we are all in this together. We need each other. Many hands have lifted me up over the years and now it is my turn to offer my hand to others. Many words have touched my heart and now I offer my voice to others. All who have suffered abuse in its many unfortunate forms are brothers and sisters or others in recovery and survival. Those of us who can offer hands or voices or ears need to reach out to those who can’t yet do so.

We meet here in the shadows of Wisconsin’s Capitol, a place where legislators must be urged to continue to pass laws that protect those who have been abused and also to do their best to bring perpetrators to justice. On the other side of the Capitol is a statue named Forward, after our state motto. Forward we must go. I stand here looking forward to the day when there are no more victims. That day will come when we all march forward together to fight for a better future for all. That is a future without sexual violence. Let us join hands as we wrap ourselves around this Capitol and then push forward to work hard for the day when we no longer have to meet at events like this. Forward we must go, hand in hand, into that better future.

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Voices of Courage Closing Remarks

Me delivering the closing remarks at Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault's annual Voices of Courage awards luncheon.  Photo by Brian Wild.

Me delivering the closing remarks at Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s annual Voices of Courage awards luncheon. Photo by Brian Wild.

I was invited to give the closing remarks at the Voices of Courage luncheon, an annual event honoring those working in the sexual assault field. The event is sponsored by the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Here is what I wrote and said to the audience.

Today we celebrate survival.

Today is about the indomitable human spirit that soars.

It is not about abuse or victimhood or pain. That was yesterday.

Today is about moving past hurt to a place of peace or even profound joy. Sometimes finding that place comes after a long journey over a treacherous road; travel filled with travails. It comes from releasing pain, sometimes from forgiveness (for ourselves or others or both), sometimes from letting go, from sharing our stories, from therapy, from our own inner strength and beauty, but we know we can get there when we focus on honestly confronting our past, our hurt, and the things that happened to us that were beyond our control. It happens when we accept that we were not responsible for the sickness of others. It happens best when we are surrounded by love. This is a place of love. Today is a time of love.

Today we gather to celebrate each other, to revel in the incredible beauty and uniqueness and gifts of all of those gathered, to thank those who have lit a candle in the darkness, who have held us up when we were falling, who have guided us along the path to recovery. We celebrate the courage and the compassion of all of those who are lifting themselves up or are helping to lift up others. It is in this courage and compassion that we become more human.

Today we celebrate our humanity. We celebrate survivors and supportive allies. It is in survival that we thrive, so we celebrate thriving and living. I celebrate myself. I celebrate my survival. I celebrate you and your survival.

Today we celebrate survival.

Tomorrow, we will wake up and rise up; we will spread our wings and soar even higher.

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Silver Sobriety

Me looking in the mirror, 1986.  From a production of Play with a Tiger.  Photographer unknown.

Me looking in the mirror, 1986. From a production of Play with a Tiger. Photographer unknown.

25 years.

Today marks 25 years since my last drink.

There was a time when 25 hours without a drink was pretty much impossible for me. Now it has been 25 years.

On past anniversaries I have recounted the bad times and how lucky I was to come through them. This year, for the silver anniversary, I want to celebrate. I want to think of the good things that have happened in my life that may not have if I had not quit drinking that night two score and five years ago.

To start, I have a life partner with whom I am deeply in love. We have been together now for almost 23 years and will be together that many more if we live that long and that many afterlifes or whatever comes next.

I have a job where I am respected that I have held for more than seven years.

I have created organizations that are thriving to this day and that have helped countless other people to live more authentic and rewarding lives.

I have had dozens of articles and poems published and also fulfilled a lifelong dream of writing a book (with more to come).

I have written 23 full-length plays, as well as one-acts and monologues.

I have won several awards for various things.

I have helped others find sobriety and/or move away from lives filled with drinking and drugs. Not that I want prohibition; I’m talking about people who were like me and were killing themselves with it.

I have squarely faced childhood horrors and have become an outspoken advocate to make sure the things that happened to me don’t happen to others.

I have learned to love myself and more deeply love others.

I have lived longer by many years than I certainly would have if my behavior hadn’t changed.

Twenty-five years ago I started a journey that led to all these things and more simply by recognizing that alcohol was destroying my life and possibly–probably–killing me. I stopped one night, not knowing for sure whether I could actually do it for good, but knowing that I had to try.

25 years later I would say that it’s clear that I could actually do it.

Today, on this silver anniversary of my sobriety, I am proud of this accomplishment and all that I’ve done in the intervening years. I look forward to the next twenty-five.

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The Power of Song

Solidarity Sing Along, Madison, Wisconsin, 2014.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Solidarity Sing Along, Madison, Wisconsin, 2014. Photo by Callen Harty.

In honor of the third anniversary of the Solidarity Sing Along.

There is power in a song. Music can change the world. Art in its myriad forms can change the world. It can threaten the status quo and instill fear in those in power. It can comfort the oppressed and offer encouragement and strength to those fighting for the dignity of their fellow man. It can enlighten and offer hope.

It is because of the power of art that one of the first impulses of fascist governments is to take action against artists. Rulers will ban certain types of art or threaten to imprison those who do not produce “acceptable” art. Fascists will do their best to quash dissent in any form and artists tend to be particularly adept at fomenting discord and encouraging discourse through creative expression. When art is outlawed, then artists become outlaws—willingly–and also remain the outsiders they have always been. Artists must create art. It is in their nature. When the consequences of their work can land them in jail they have no choice other than to become outlaws by being true to themselves and their beliefs. As a result artists are often the first to be imprisoned, beaten, or killed by repressive governments.

But artists tend to be fearless. Throughout history playwrights, composers, painters, and others have undermined authority through blatant exposés and subtle irony. In more repressive and dangerous times their radical ideas have been expressed through allegory that reveals the hypocrisy of kings, governors, and others. A single artist can be more dangerous than an entire regiment of guerilla soldiers. A group of artists can be more dangerous than an entire army of trained killers. A gun can kill one man at a time, but a lone artist can affect the hearts and souls of millions, eventually leading to the collapse of a government not truly supported by the people.

A song or other work of art can also bring incredible happiness, an ecstasy almost. There is a special kind of joy that comes from sharing songs, from gathering in a group with people of diverse backgrounds and singing together as one voice. When singing is used as protest it creates a bond that is as great as any soldiers’ bonds in battle. Deep and lasting friendships are formed. When many disparate voices join together as one in song human connections are enhanced and there is a power that reverberates and echoes across the hills and valleys of the human experience. It is the power of a unified people. Every day that the artist stands against oppression is another hammer of justice pounding at the walls of the oppressor. Like trumpets bringing down the walls of Jericho, songs of protest can cut away at those walls of oppression until they finally come tumbling down, and then the songs of freedom can be sung.

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God’s Behind the Door

Mom at 89.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Mom at 89. Photo by Callen Harty.

Recently my mother turned 89. It won’t surprise me if she makes it to 90 or 95, although I have already responded to several phone calls over the last couple years that left me in tears thinking that she was at the end. It has been more than half a year since a priest was called in to give her last rites. But she is tough. She hangs on, she keeps going, and she still has a sense of humor. She has gifts yet to give, I guess, and purpose that may be beyond my understanding.

I went to see her after she turned 89 and she was more lucid than I had seen her in several visits. Often she repeats herself and often she seems in a haze and doesn’t understand who certain people are or what her relationships to them might be. She is in a place where people who have been dead for many years are still alive in her mind, though once in a while the reality strikes her that she is the last of her siblings, that her two husbands and oldest son are gone, that virtually everyone she knew and loved except for her descendants are all waiting for her in some other realm. In those moments the sense of humor disappears and one can see a resignation and emptiness about her that is haunting. I think it’s not so much an existential emptiness as a profound loneliness.

Even on her best days there are moments when her reality is not the same reality that the rest of us see. There can be moments where she sees things that others don’t see or understand. But on this visit her mind was for the most part incredibly sharp. She knew who I was and she asked, as she always does–usually three or four times–what is new, before she answers that not much new is happening with her. On this visit I was able to tell her, “I wrote a book. It’s been a life-long dream of mine. I wanted to be a writer since I was in second or third grade sitting at the feet of Aunt Leona.” Aunt Leona was my mother’s aunt and my great-aunt. She was a woman who often visited us and who stayed with us when she was sick. She was a published composer, a poet, and a stringer for the Wisconsin State Journal. I admired her and wanted to be a writer like her.

My mother looked at me and said, “I’m really proud of you,” which almost made me cry because besides being a writer I’ve wanted little else in my life than for this beautiful woman who is my mother to be proud of me. She always had her priorities right–she was generous and cared about people, believed in the goodness of others, and lived her faith in her deeds. For her to be proud of me I felt I must be doing something right.

I stepped out of the room for a moment to get a drink of water. I pushed the door open when I came back in and she was still awake and waiting for me to return. I sat back down and we both were silent for a moment when suddenly she spoke. “God’s behind the door,” she said.

I wasn’t sure I heard her right or what that might mean, so I said, “What did you just say?” My mind raced to find the meaning of such a statement. Is she telling me that her time has come, that God is watching what we are doing? What was going on in her mind?

She repeated it. “God’s behind the door. Usually Coleen leaves it part-way open so I can see him.” I looked up and behind the bedroom door which I had pushed fully open was the framed Sacred Heart of Jesus picture that had always hung in our house. I went over and closed the door halfway so that she could see it and be comforted by it and went and sat back down.

“God is behind the door,” I thought, and contemplated the many meanings of that and the symbolism of doors opening and closing and where God might be at any point in a person’s life. She looked deeply at that picture and I realized that regardless of what anyone else might believe my mother was at peace in her faith and was patiently waiting for her God to open a door to welcome her home. In the meantime, being a good Catholic woman, she would bear whatever suffering he might send her way until he was ready for that moment, and she would live out her remaining days with grace, dignity, and humor. I realized I am as proud of her as she could ever be of me.

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The Bottom Line

Black/White/Straight/Gay.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Black/White/Straight/Gay. Photo by Callen Harty.

There is an unpleasant truth about the current gay bashing laws recently passed in Russia and several countries in Africa and it is not the obvious idea that human rights are being violated by a spate of laws criminalizing homosexuality. The same unpleasant truth is swirling around the controversy with multiple American states recently trying to pass laws that allow discrimination against lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) people based on religious beliefs. The bottom line is this: The bottom line is what counts.

The Obama administration, primarily through Secretary of State John Kerry, has condemned all of these homophobic laws and has been particularly harsh about the newly-signed “jail the gays” law in Uganda. The United States is looking at possible sanctions and looking at budgets to consider cutting aid to Uganda in response. Although Kerry also condemned Nigeria’s comparable law a few months ago the reaction has not been comparable. Strong words of disappointment were expressed but there was no talk of sanctions or any action to try to convince or coerce Nigeria into honoring its own Constitution. In fact, the ambassador to Nigeria specifically assured the Nigerian people that the U. S. would not cut any aid to the country.

The laws in the two countries are eerily similar, but the reactions are not, so what is the difference? The most obvious one is that Nigeria is an oil-rich country and we are one of their largest and most dependent customers. According to the United States Energy Information Administration between 9 and 11 percent of our imported oil has come from Nigeria over the last decade. Meanwhile, Uganda is a much poorer country that is one of the world’s leaders as far as dependency on foreign aid. Simply put we can put the screws to Uganda if we want to, but we don’t have that same leverage with Nigeria. It comes down to economics rather than what may be the right thing to do.

There are also diplomatic options–such as recalling our ambassador–that we have used in the past when a country does something that is not to our liking. It simply doesn’t appear that the United States has any interest in pursuing any punishment or other avenues to try to get Nigeria to change their law. Meanwhile, gay men are being dragged out of their houses and beaten in the streets of Nigeria simply for being who they are. The same is also happening in Uganda and elsewhere on the continent. Similarly, despite our verbal protestations against Russia’s recent “gay propaganda” law the United States happily joined other countries to participate in the Sochi Olympics. Gay men and lesbians in Russia also face beatings by homophobic thugs. During the Olympics the networks didn’t touch upon that and one can presume all the sponsors were happy with how everything turned out, except perhaps the final medal count.

The disturbing truth for human rights is that those who espouse them in our country do so only when it is most convenient. When those rights advance the profitability of companies then those in government and in private enterprise support them wholeheartedly and pat themselves on the back for how much they care about equal treatment for everyone. When the bottom line is not affected the worst treatment of minorities can attract nothing but silent acquiescence at best or a complete dismissal of the idea that there even is a problem. Occasionally laws will change for the betterment of a class of people due to public opinion, but generally only when there is no economic impact, either positive or negative. Conversely, laws that allow discrimination can also pass due to public opinion, but again when there is no apparent financial advantage or disadvantage evidenced.

Take a look at the recent law passed by the Arizona legislature (and numerous other attempts around the country) that would allow for those with “sincere religious beliefs” to refuse service to lesbian and gay citizens. It is clearly discriminatory against LGBT citizens. It passed both houses in Arizona, but when word got out elsewhere in the country pressure started to bear on the governor to veto the bill. At first it was queer rights groups and there was no indication that Governor Jan Brewer would not sign the bill. That was followed by a threat of a boycott from George Takei who has so many online followers he could probably make that happen simply by snapping his fingers. Newspapers then started questioning whether the state could afford another boycott like the one that followed their passage of a hateful immigration bill several years ago. Still, there was no indication of either a signing or a veto from the governor. Finally, corporate giants like Apple, A T and T, and the NFL weighed in with strongly worded letters and opinions that the Arizona economy could suffer if the bill were signed. There were even implications that new businesses would not come to the state and that businesses already there might leave. That pretty much guaranteed that the governor would veto the bill.

The bottom line on queer rights and human rights in general is that those in power support those rights when advancing them also advances their economic interests. It is only when economic arguments are made (gay weddings will benefit the local economy by increasing business at chapels, honeymoon spots, florists, jewelers, and the like) that the big money folks who influence politics start talking about the importance of rights such as marriage equality. In a more just society (and world) the dignity of every human being’s life would be what determines whether a certain bill advances equality for all or moves us backward along the path of human progress. It would be really easy to see which bills advance rights and which do not if not for the blindness caused by money and greed.

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On My Mother’s Birthday

My mother, Kathleen.  This photo was probably taken about 20 years ago.  Photo by Callen Harty.

My mother, Kathleen. This photo was probably taken about 20 years ago. Photo by Callen Harty.


I honestly didn’t think you would make it to 89. In fact I really didn’t think you would make it to 88. In the last couple years you have lost so much weight, you have had hospice coming in a couple times a week for a year, you were given last rites a half a year ago already. And yet, here you are at 89.

You have survived things that would have killed most others your age, or even younger, through sheer strength and determination. You have lived more than twice as long as my father. You have outlived two husbands. You have suffered and struggled and survived. I know where my survivor instinct originated. God only knows how much longer you will continue to survive. I have given up trying to predict when you will give up. I know it’s coming, but at this point I’m not going to even think of predicting you won’t make 90.

None of us know why you’re hanging on to this realm so tenaciously. I thought that at some point you would want to go meet the maker you have believed in so fiercely all these years and to be reunited with the loved ones who have already gone, so it feels like there must be unfinished business here. It ultimately doesn’t matter, but I think we are all still learning lessons from you.

Yes, you are physically weak–considerably less than a 90 pound weakling now–too thin for the hospice folks to even bother trying to weigh you. And your mind comes and goes. It can be hard not to be recognized by your own mother or to have to listen to you talking about things that are real to you but make no sense to the rest of us. And yet, even then, there is light in your eyes. Faith, hope, love . . . life, all reflected in your eyes.

I hope you hold on as long as that light is there and as long as there is some kind of joy for you in you doing so. Happy Birthday, with love and light.

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