Of Course

Brian and me.  Photograph unknown.

Brian and me. Photographer unknown.

Last Friday afternoon Judge Barbara Crabb handed down a ruling that Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, opening the door for same-sex couples to start marrying in my home state of Wisconsin. Within a short time couples were gathering at the City/County Building in Madison and at the courthouse in Milwaukee to get their licenses and to get married.

I was on my way to Milwaukee for a Cher concert with Cyndi Lauper as the opening act. While the concert was great I couldn’t help but think that I should be with my life partner, Brian, and that I should be in downtown Madison celebrating with however many people had gathered at the City/County Building or the Capitol to mark the momentous occasion. It was an historic moment in Wisconsin history and instead of being in the middle of it I was at a concert. With a long history of fighting for queer rights I felt bad that I was unable to be there with my queer brothers and sisters (although being at a concert with two gay icons performing seemed somehow oddly appropriate also). I also desperately wanted to be with the one I love most.

Off an on throughout the evening tears welled up in my eyes as I thought of the significance of the court ruling and as I thought of Brian and our long and deep relationship. He and I met in the spring of 1991. Our first kiss was on my birthday on May 27 of that year. We mark June 1 as our anniversary date, which is when we figured we went from dating to being a couple. That was 23 years ago now. In the interim I have spoken about our relationship before the legislature, written about the issue of same-sex marriage, and attended protests and rallies in Madison, San Francisco, and in Washington, DC. I have done this because even if I do not want to marry I believe that I should have the same legal right to do so as my heterosexual counterparts.

This is important: We don’t need marriage to validate our love. It is its own validation. But we need the protection of the law in case one of us gets sick or dies and we need to be considered equal in our society where all are supposed to be created equal. In addition, marriage is one of those important life events that should be shared with friends and family. Weddings are for the purpose of celebrating love and making a public commitment to each other. This is something I’ve wanted to do, even though I know we are eternal partners with or without it.

Years ago, when Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriage friends asked if we were going to go there and get married. We decided to be stubborn and wait until our home state of Wisconsin allowed it. In the last couple of years, with the Tea Party control of our state, we had figured the Badger state might be among the last holdouts. In the meantime I think we both did our best to convince ourselves that it wasn’t important to get married–just in case it never became legal.

At the concert I kept imagining getting home to Brian and on the same day as the historic court decision ask him if he would marry me. I didn’t want to rush downtown to get married. In fact, I didn’t want to rush at all. I was thinking that if we waited two years until our 25th anniversary that the appeals should all be done and the U. S. Supreme Court would by then have made a decision that would allow same-sex marriage in all 50 states. I also figured it would give us time to plan it and to truly make it a celebration where our loved ones could be a part of it. So, I didn’t want to rush out and get married in what might be a small window of opportunity, but I really wanted to ask him to marry me because of the court decision. It was the right time for it.

All through the concert I played out scenarios in my mind about how the proposal might work out and what Brian might say. I imagined walking into the house and just hugging him tightly and then asking, “Will you marry me?” Or maybe, “Do you want to get married?” Or, “Should we do this?” And I kept wondering how he might respond, fearing that he might actually say, “We don’t need to do that.”

As the concert ended I realized I might not make it home before the day was done. My friend Chris and I sat in the parking ramp for about 45 minutes before getting on the road. I knew then that we wouldn’t make it by midnight, but I still wanted to get home quickly so that Brian would still be awake. A couple miles into the trek there was suddenly a traffic jam, with lines of cars in all three lanes as far as one could see, an accident on one side of the road, a man taking a sobriety test on the other. A little further along I saw a sign that said that westbound I-94 was closed and I thought, “This can’t be serious. They can’t have the Interstate closed. And who the hell planned this to coincide with a major concert letting out?” Soon the far left lane closed and the three lanes of traffic funneled slowly into two. Several miles down the road the middle lane closed and traffic funneled into the right lane. A short while later all traffic exited the Interstate, which was indeed closed, and went through parts of Milwaukee, West Allis, Waukesha County, and Pewaukee before reconnecting with the Interstate somewhere near Pewaukee and an hour and a handful of miles after we had left downtown Milwaukee.

Once we got past the construction we were able to move at a good pace and finally we were almost in Madison. To take Chris home I thought the best route would be to take I-90 toward Wisconsin Dells and then take the East Washington Avenue exit and head toward Johnson Street. And, of course, with all the construction going on in Madison the exit ramp to East Washington Avenue was closed and I had to drive several miles up the road to the Highway 51 exit, then come several miles back down Highway 51 to get back to East Washington. By the time I dropped Chris off and got home it was 2:30 in the morning.

Brian was asleep when I opened the bedroom door. He woke up briefly when I entered and as I was still thinking about how to ask him it became clear that he had fallen right back asleep. I lie there wondering how I would approach it in the morning. Should I wake him up in the middle of the night and ask? Should I wait until morning? How should I ask? Is there a better way of saying it? What if he’s thinking of asking me and I spoil that? These things rolled around in my head for an hour and I think I fell asleep somewhere around 3:30 or so.

In the morning Brian and I woke up about the same time, or at least he was awake when I woke up. I couldn’t speak right away. I kept trying out various word choices in my head and when I finally was just about ready to say something the dog came crawling up onto Brian’s stomach demanding attention and petting. A few minutes later as I was about to say something Brian interjected with a thought before I could get my words out. I began to think I would never get to it. And why was I so nervous anyway? The worst that could happen would be that he would say marriage is not important and he didn’t want to do it, but that wouldn’t mean that he loved me any less.

Finally I haltingly came out with it. “So I have to ask you,” I began, and then the dog grabbed his attention again. I waited a moment, then started again, “So I have to ask you, do you want to get married?”

His answer was quick and concise and he didn’t have to think about it all night long as I had. “Of course,” he said, and that was that. And then he added that he was thinking that we should do it on our 25th anniversary. “Of course”, I thought. Of course he would have the same thought as me about it. We are always connected that way.

That morning I posted a status on Facebook that simply said, “He said yes,” even though he didn’t say yes–he said “of course”. I changed my relationship status to engaged, something I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to do and which was somehow exhilarating. Within hours a couple hundred people had already liked it. I got an e-mail from one of my more conservative friends noting that we don’t always agree on everything but that he felt that everyone should have the right to marry the person they love.

We have come so far. What was unimaginable when I came out in 1979 is now a reality in what feels like both a short and long 35 years later. It doesn’t change how I feel about Brian or him about me. It just allows us to be a little more secure legally and a little more comfortable in a society that is more accepting than it used to be.

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Love Wins

Handholding.  From a marriage at Madison's City/County Building on the first full day of marriage equality in Wisconsin.

Handholding. From a marriage at Madison’s City/County Building on the first full day of marriage equality in Wisconsin.

On Friday a federal judge overturned Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriage and on Friday night and all day Saturday same-sex couples got married at the City/County building in Madison and at the courthouse in Milwaukee.

On Sunday morning I am still in shock from this. Two days later my joy still cannot be contained. And my vocabulary seems entirely inadequate to describe my feelings.

I understand that there are still court challenges and a stay could be handed down early this week as the Attorney General appeals the ruling. There are multiple cases wending their way through the court system and the Supreme Court could soon make a ruling that will affect all the states.

But for now it isn’t about politics. It is about love.

It is about the dozens of joy-filled couples who gathered to declare their love publicly. It is about children whose parents are now legally married. It is about the paper heart cut-outs and the real hearts filled with passion. Bubbles in the air and couples everywhere with smiles as wide as their faces. Hands held together, heads rested on shoulders. It is about the hugs of friends and embraces of lovers as that love is finally recognized. It is about the tears of joy from those in love, their friends, their families, and even strangers. It is about love, which really is the only thing that matters in the end.

Tomorrow we can discuss politics. We can argue about whether the state should be involved in marriage at all. We can plan the next moves in the political arena. Today let’s just take it in, savor the history that we are living through, and in a world where there is too much violence and hatred let’s celebrate the fact that there are those who love each other. This is a powerful moment. How often is love at the center of the news cycle? Let’s enjoy it while we can. When love wins we all win.

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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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