Paths to Healing Keynote Speech

At this year’s Paths to Healing conference on male survivors of child sex assault I was the keynote speaker. This is the text of the speech I delivered today.

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Delivering the keynote address at the 2018 Paths to Healing conference at the American Family Insurance Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Peter Fiala.

Good morning. I’d like to start by thanking Chris Taylor, who is among the most incredible politicians and people in the state, for her introduction to the day. I’d also like to thank the Paths to Healing committee for the hard work put into organizing this important event and for considering me as a keynote speaker this year. I am honored to be able to speak with you today.

Paths to Healing is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year and is truly a grass roots conference that is sponsored by several organizations, all working together toward one common goal. It is not all that common to see groups cooperating on an event like this and that has been one of the joys of it since the beginning. The co-sponsors over the years include Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, OutReach, Proud Theater, Canopy Center, UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence, Dane County Rape Crisis Center, Friends of the State Street Family, Family Sexual Abuse Treatment, and Solidarity with Child Abuse Victims/Survivors. All of these organizations are doing incredible work in the community and deserve your appreciation and support. I would also like to thank the Ho-Chunk Nation for making it possible for us to have Waylon Pahona here and American Family Insurance for hosting us this year. We hope to make this a lasting relationship. And finally, thank you for being here and being a part of this day.

This year’s conference is about survivors in underserved communities. Male survivors are already underserved because it can be so difficult for men to face sexual abuse and what it means. It can be difficult to trust others with that story. It can be difficult to know where to turn if a man does decide he needs to get help. There are added layers when minority statuses come into play. If I were a young black man and was raped, would my first thought be, “I should call the police; they’re always there to protect me?” I think not. As a gay man I might have the same issue. Though we have come a long way in the last few decades, I don’t know that even though I’m white I would expect the police to be fully understanding about the sexual assault of a gay man. Trans identified victims have similar issues. There are many complexities that come with being a male survivor of sexual assault. There are added layers of complexity when you are a person of color or a member of some other minority.

Obviously, a one-day conference cannot fully focus on every possible minority community, but we have secured speakers representing some of the more prevalent communities in our state. Today, you will reflect on what it means to be a male survivor who is also LGBT, African-American, Latino, Hmong, Native American, and/or disabled. I ask that you open your heart to learning not only about male survivors but survivors who may be different from you and whose experiences are different because of that. I think you will also discover some similarities, as I believe there are some things that all survivors feel, regardless of who they are or what they look or act like. If you are a survivor I hope that the stories you hear today will resonate with you and you will know more than ever that you are not alone.

Part of my reason for being here is to share my story as a gay man and an adult survivor of child sex abuse. I’d like to take a moment to tell you a little about me and my background. I was raised in a small mining town in southwestern Wisconsin, one of the oldest cities in the state and a place where my great-great grandfather settled the year it was founded, in 1827. I came from an Irish Catholic family with a strict, but loving, mother and a father who had died of a heart attack when he was just 41 and I was just two years old. As a result of his death, I was the only child in my class from a single-parent household the entire time I was growing up. It should be noted that there were only 62 classmates when I graduated—as I mentioned it was a small town—and that my childhood was back in the 1960s when most people held onto loveless and horrible marriages rather than divorcing. Many things were much different then compared to today. I was gay, but that was also back in the time when people didn’t admit it or sometimes, like me, couldn’t even acknowledge it to themselves. It took me until I was almost twenty-one to come out, but when I did I kicked the closet door down and vowed never to go back in. Along those lines, I would like to note an important lesson I’ve learned along the way. I am not gay because I was abused. And, I was not abused because I am gay. Abuse isn’t about sexuality, gender, or sex. It is about power, control, and violence.

This can be a very confusing thing for male survivors, whether gay or straight. Gay kids will question whether they were abused because the perpetrator somehow knew their secret and knew they were gay. Straight kids will question their sexuality. Figuring out one’s orientation and gender identity can be difficult enough for a young person without the added complexity of sexual abuse. When I was dealing with coming out I did question whether the abuse may have made me gay, but then recognized that I had crushes on boys that were before the abuse ever started and recognized that I had always been gay. It’s not that easy for everyone, and it’s not always easy for people to accept their own identity.

Other parts of my identity were easier. I knew by second grade that I wanted to be like my great aunt, Leona, and become a writer. Much of my childhood was spent in my bedroom quietly contemplating the world and writing bad poetry and short stories. When it came time to go away to college I decided I wanted to be a journalism major and chose UW-Eau Claire as the place to study that, partly because out of the four state colleges that I applied to and was accepted at, it was the farthest one from my home town. It took less than a semester to drop the journalism idea—once the professor in one class noted that to be a newspaperman one had to write down to a fifth-grade level (it’s probably a third-grade level or less by now). That was not the kind of writing I wanted to do.

I did become a writer. I have three books to my name and I’ve also written two dozen plays and about fifty monologues that have been produced. In addition, I’ve had numerous articles and essays published both in print and online. I’ve written more than 275 posts on my blog, A Single Bluebird. To my mind, among the most important of my works are a play detailing my own survivor story and a memoir, Empty Playground, that shares that story in more detail, as well as blog entries and articles on the topic. Sharing my story has become a major part of my life work. That is why I am here today, to share my story with you, to share some of that writing with you, and to share some hope with you.

When I came out as a child sex abuse survivor I also kicked that door down. As a result, I have done a lot of writing and speaking on the topic. My life, whether as a gay man, a recovering alcoholic, or a survivor has always been an open book. I have always believed that sharing my experiences may help others with their own issues. In particular, as a male survivor, I felt it was important for me to speak because so many men can’t, or won’t, due to our cultural brainwashing on masculinity. Historically, there have been few men willing to talk, though that has been changing, so I was willing to take up that mantle. With that said, I should note that I do not speak for any other men, gay men, recovering alcoholics, men of Irish heritage, or survivors. Everyone has their own story. What I can share is my story and my experience and hope that it resonates and helps in some way.

We are living in an interesting time at this moment in our history, with the #MeToo movement and with survivors every new day claiming their stories and their truth while men who have perpetrated unthinkable acts without consequences are starting to understand that they can no longer get away with what they have done and kept hidden for years. Because of all the celebrities who have opened up about their experiences of abuse and harassment, regular folks all over the country have felt emboldened to finally share their stories and I believe that this is a positive and beautiful thing. Not everyone can safely share what happened to them, but for every one who can that helps pave the way for others to face their stories even if they can’t share them so publicly. I can’t even imagine how many people have talked to their families, ministers, therapists, or others, but who would have stayed silent if not for the #MeToo movement.

As a gay man I understood early on the importance of coming out. I fully bought into Harvey Milk’s idea that we should all come out and that when all of us did the rest of the world would realize that there was not one of them who did not know at least one queer person in their family or circle of friends and acquaintances. He believed that once that happened the rights that we were demanding by ourselves would start to be granted because our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and others would join the fight with us. Not everyone who is gay is comfortable coming out or maybe cannot do so for their own safety or for very personal reasons. But like Harvey Milk, I believed that if most of us, or even many of us, could do so that would pave the way for a better understanding of who we were and lead to an acceptance that could not have been imagined before. It has taken decades, but it is working. Harvey Milk was right.

For me, that lesson translated to my survivor experience. It occurred to me that if people who could speak out were able to do so then more and more people would realize what an epidemic sexual assault is and perhaps new laws could be passed in an effort to protect everyone’s children, friends, and neighbors. Awareness would be raised and survivors would gain allies in the struggle to heal and to prevent these things from happening to others. Again, not every victim or survivor is able to speak publicly, or even open up to those closest to them, but the more of us who can, the more of us who claim #MeToo, the more society at large will understand the scope of the problem and realize that something must be done about it.

I have two primary goals in speaking and writing about sexual abuse. One is to help empower all victims to become survivors. The second is to help us move into a future where there is no need for the first goal because there are no longer any victims. These are lofty goals, but that is as it should be. As Henry David Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” I see my work as helping lay that foundation for the future.

One of the things I want to talk about today is hope. Being a victim of sexual abuse can lead to so much destruction and it can be painful and difficult to move through it toward a place of peace. But I believe in hope. I believe in recovery. I believe in taking the power back and moving forward in a positive way. As we all know one can’t have a rainbow without the rain. Sometimes hope rises like a phoenix out of the ashes of despair. The point is that to be a survivor of sexual assault one has to have been a victim of sexual assault first. Those experiences are never easy to relive or to share or to hear. The story of what happened to me as a young boy is not an easy one. The way I moved through the pain of that is not easy. But the fact that I am standing here before you today is evidence of the movement from victimhood to survivorship, from depression to joy, from horror to hope.

My standing here is concrete evidence of hope. It is evidence of the power of the human spirit to survive. When I was two years old I almost died after contracting meningitis, the mumps, and scarlet fever within a two-week span. My earliest memory is of the doctor carrying me to the bathroom during that time. I am a survivor. I have survived car wrecks, alcoholism, suicidal ideation and attempts, threats to my life, a major heart attack, and childhood sexual abuse. I’m like a cat, but a lot less finicky about food and with even more than nine lives.

What I intend to do is share my story of abuse and survival. Though I will not share all the horrid details of the abuse I will share some, so this is a trigger warning about that. If you find that you are triggered by anything I say I apologize in advance, but I believe that when sharing such a story it has to be honest and real or it loses truth and meaning. It is why when I speak on the topic I typically show a picture of myself as a boy, because it is too easy to look at a man of my age and not connect it with the innocence of childhood. It is too easy to separate the adult man from the wounded child. In doing so an opportunity for empathy and understanding is lost. If you are triggered or anything I talk about is uncomfortable for you, please take care of yourself. Check in with someone, step out of the room, do what you need to do to take care of yourself first and foremost. There is a Community Support Room here and you can go there to step away for a moment. There are people involved in the conference who may be able to sit with you or to provide resources. My intention is not to add pain onto an already difficult situation, but to talk about how a person can move through that darkness and come out on the other side into the light.

Also, while my story is about surviving childhood sex abuse and is unique to my lived experience, I believe that there are universal truths that all survivors experience, whether you are a survivor of child sex abuse, sexual assault as an adult, or violent domestic abuse. We may not be able to identify with the particulars of one another’s experience, but there are things that we all understand and can relate to about those experiences. After sharing my story I’m going to share some writing with you from my books, playwriting, and blog around these topics. With all of that said, this is my survivor story.

When I was nine or ten years old I was touched inappropriately for the first time. It was a very quick, brief touch, through my pants, but it felt very uncomfortable. So I did what every little child is taught to do when things like this happen. I told my mother about it. She looked at me and said, “Oh, you shouldn’t let him do that to you.” Let that sink in for a moment. “You shouldn’t let him do that to you.” Because of that response I went away both blaming myself in some way and feeling like it wouldn’t do any good to tell my mother about anything like it in the future. She passed away just over a year ago and I do not blame her for not knowing how to deal with it. It was a different time. Still, what she said impacted me in a negative way, regardless of her intent.

When I was ten years old the abuse started in full force. The first time it happened I was asked if I wanted to play a game and being ten I excitedly said yes. I was then told that I would need to be tied up to play the game and being ten that didn’t seem unusual to me. After all, we played cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians back then. So my feet were tied to a piece of furniture and my hands to another. When he went to open my pants I struggled mightily, but despite my efforts my pants were pulled down and I was molested. He sat on my chest and I couldn’t see him or what he was doing. All I could see was his back and a crucifix on the wall above him with Jesus looking down upon it all and doing nothing. I’ve often said I lost both my innocence and my faith that day.

For the next seven years or so I was abused many times, in many places, and in many ways.

As I grew up, the abuse impacted me in ways that I was not even aware of at the time. My grades, which had always been good, fell off. Shy to begin with, I withdrew further into myself. I had a lot of anger and an Irish temper that showed itself more. Oftentimes victims of sexual abuse suffer from any number of the following (and more): Alcoholism, anger issues, drug abuse, life-long fears, post-traumatic stress disorder, promiscuity, prostitution, self-abuse, self-hatred, and suicidal ideation or attempts. I pretty much fit the bill on every one of those. The alcoholism was the worst for me. Friends and partners would suggest I might be an alcoholic and I would tell them it was none of their business. I would easily down a dozen and a half or so brandy-Cokes in a night. Regularly. Or beer, whiskey, tequila, whatever was available and on special on any given night. There was no such thing as social drinking. Drinking was for the sole purpose of getting drunk. It would dull the senses, loosen up the naturally shy personality, but also deepen the darkening depression. Of course, alcohol is a depressant, so drinking all the time when already depressed led to more self-hatred and thoughts of suicide. I am lucky to be alive.

Through a lot of work, a positive attitude, and some loving people in my life I survived despite the horrors of my youth and the self-abuse of my adulthood. I haven’t had a drink since April 18, 1989 (and quit doing drugs before that), have not had casual sex in ages as I’ve been in a long-term committed relationship, and have not had suicidal thoughts in many, many years. This doesn’t mean I am fully healed. There are still occasional issues that flare up. I think you are never fully over the effects of abuse; it is a matter of controlling the effects most of the time, and learning self-care to handle the triggers when they arise.

There are many roads to recovery. This is important. There is no one way to heal. Everyone has their pet ideas about the best way to get there, but we all have to follow our own paths to healing. Some get there through therapy, others through spirituality, others through internal exploration, or sharing with friends or family. For me, recovery came primarily through loved ones and a lot of internal work, mostly through reading and research and through my own writing, as that is the way I have always learned and grown. It’s the same way I went about coming out. I could not have survived without the ability to process creatively. The arts can be incredibly healing and a great way to explore oneself and the meaning of life, suffering, and more.

I have to admit a heart attack later in life also had a lot to do with it. It happened during the opening night of a play in which I was acting. If you’re going to have a heart attack you might as well make a story out of it, right? This one made all the papers in Madison—“Actor Survives Heart Attack on Stage”. In the middle of my first of two scenes an incredible pain shot through my chest and down my arm. I thought I had pulled a muscle, which I guess I had as the heart is the largest muscle in the body. I finished the scene, got changed, somehow blocked out the pain, and went on and did my last scene. You know, the show must go on. When it was over, as the other actors were taking a curtain call, people backstage were calling for an ambulance. Somehow I even ended up getting a good review for my one night in that production. That was despite 100 percent blockage of my left coronary. I am living on 60 percent of my heart’s capacity now.

Being faced with the threat of death causes one to relook at everything in life, what you’re doing with it, and what still needs to be done. It was after my life-threatening heart attack that I decided I had to share my story in a play, which is why I wrote Invisible Boy, an autobiographical play about surviving my abuse and coming to a place of forgiveness. The other thing that my heart attack changed was that I now listen to my heart, both figuratively and literally, in ways that I never used to be able to do. If my heart tells me to write a play to share my story, I do it. If it tells me to work on a conference on child sex abuse survival, I do it. If it tells me to speak out, I do it. I trust myself and my instincts a lot more now and I believe I have done a lot of good work in the last several years because of it.

I want to share just a bit of advice for allies of those who have suffered abuse. Here are a few important words: Listen, don’t judge, believe. Allow the survivor to talk. Accept their story and their truth. Be available and let that be known. Most survivors have to come to therapy or their friends or whatever path they take at their own pace. When they are ready to talk they need to know you’ll be there and what you can do for them.

Let the person know they are not alone. Unfortunately, statistics say one in three or four girls and one in five or six boys is abused and the numbers are probably way higher because of the under-reporting and silence around it. I don’t believe in silence. The more survivors who come out and share their stories the more others may recognize that they are not alone and that their experiences are not entirely unique, though the particular circumstances might be. More and more famous survivors are coming out publicly with their stories and that can only help.

Childhood sex abuse can be a life sentence if the victim does not ever acknowledge the abuse and deal with the effects, but any man or woman who becomes a survivor instead of a victim does so because they deal honestly with their history, their emotions, and the effects of the abuse. One can live a powerful, full life and take control back by dealing openly and honestly with the abuse. I have many people to thank for helping me get to where I am today, especially some dear friends and family members whose large hearts were able to hold me when I needed it. A large part of my recovery and movement toward healing from abuse was also because of my writing. It is the way I process. It has always been the way I process. It’s the way I create order out of chaos and make sense out of a sometimes senseless world. It’s the way I look honestly at me and my world in an attempt to understand it better and maintain hope. It is my escape and also my mirror.

Much of my writing has focused on my abuse and recovery and generally on the topic of sex abuse. I would like to share some of that with you now. This first piece is a poem. A while back I was in a group setting and one of the young people there shared something that told me that he had either been sexually abused or was still suffering it. He didn’t come out and say it, but I knew it from the way he said what he said. That night I went home and wrote the following poem, hoping that he would see it when I posted it on my Facebook page so that he might know he was not alone.

I know what happened to you

even though you cannot say it,

because I hear it in the words you do not say,

and I see it in your eyes,

in the way your body hides its secrets.

I see me in your eyes

and the way your body hides it secrets.

And I know.

I know the truth that your eyes

want to hide from the world.

And I want you to know

that the man who touched you,

who hurt you, abused you,

doesn’t want you to know

that it was not your fault.

It was not your fault.

It is his burden, not yours.

But he wants you to believe

that no one will believe

you

if you say a word.

I believe you, even in your silence.

He wants you to believe that it was you

who invited his hands, his mouth, his . . .

other parts of his body

to join with yours.

Know that it was not you.

It was not your invitation.

It was not your fault.

It was not what you wanted.

He wants you to believe that because your body

reacted naturally

that you shared equally in the act.

Know that it was your body reacting naturally–

not your heart, your mind, your soul.

Not you.

I know it was not something you wanted.

You know it was not something you wanted.

Believe yourself.

I know also that you feel shame,

that you are afraid to speak,

that you are afraid,

and I understand the fear.

But know that I have heard you speak

despite your silence–because of your silence–

and I will hold it all with you.

When you are ready

I will be ready with you.

I will hold it all with you in brotherhood,

and when that time comes

his lies, your fear, the shame, guilt, horror,

all of it,

will start to slip through your fingers

and you will be able to touch

the truth that is now hidden behind your eyes.

Know that I will be there with you,

that I will hold it with you,

and that it will be the beginning of healing.

Your eyes will open, tears will fall,

and you will know then with certainty

it was not what you wanted.

This next piece is a short monologue from my play, Invisible Boy, which I think accurately describes what abuse and recovery can feel like, especially early in the process of healing. This is the main character speaking.

“Sometimes this process is like taking a broken piece of glass—a window maybe, shattered—and trying to piece it back together. There are so many fragments scattered in my mind, so many broken moments strewn about that I find it difficult to pick them all up, to find them, let alone figuring out where they fit. And maybe I have to be okay with that, maybe I have to accept that I may never find everything that was lost. But if I find enough, if I remember enough and connect enough pieces together I can at least peer into the window of my own soul and see me hiding in a corner there. I need to find that frightened, cowering child. I need to connect with him and let him know that it’s all right, that no harm can befall him now. I need to put these pieces together to be whole again.”

The next piece I’d like to share is also from Invisible Boy. It is at a moment when the main character has been contemplating suicide, and it’s a good example of the importance of being there for others. The character had seen a light under a housemate’s door and was reminded of it while holding a knife to his wrist, so he went down the hall, knocked on the door, and told her he didn’t think he could be alone. She invited him in and just sat with him while he cried. As mentioned, this was an autobiographical play and this is a pretty accurate retelling of an evening in my life.

“I was dying. In many ways. Sometimes, taking a breath hurts because you know that every breath you take is that much longer in the world. I wanted to stop breathing. Jon did it. Why couldn’t I? He was abused as a child, too, turned to prostitution, alcohol, sex addiction. But he got to a point where his pain was unbearable, so he gave it away. To me, to some others. I still hold that pain for him. That’s the unfairness of suicide. I wanted to give mine away, too, but always there were angels in my world. Always there were people who took care of me at just the right moment. Lauren never did ask what had happened that night. She never intruded. She just let me be with my emotions. If there hadn’t been a light there, if she hadn’t answered, if she hadn’t been so understanding . . . well, I think that knife may have cut deeply. But that was a turning point. The other times I tried to kill myself I simply failed. This time I made a choice. Something inside me, some little part of me, perhaps that wounded child who survived everything back then, something made me stop. Some voice made me put that knife down and try to make a human connection. In the middle of a period when I trusted no one, when I was at the lowest and darkest moments of my self-abuse, when there seemed to be nothing left but despair, something made me stop. There was a little voice of hope that carried me down the hall where I saw a light beckoning and that little sliver of light saved my life. But a little light can build; it can grow to illuminate things unseen. Oh, it has taken me years, but there is so much light in my life now that I can see and feel in ways that I have not known in a long, long time. I have love now, I have a partner who cares deeply and who sits in silence when I need it, who holds me when I need holding, who doesn’t touch me when I am remembering unwanted touches, who loves all of me. I am healing. I have work to do yet, but I am putting the pieces back together. I am becoming a whole person. Now I am working on loving myself and loving that child inside me who needs protection. I promised him, way back after the last time I was molested, I promised him never again and I have the strength now to assure that promise. I think maybe I have reached the last step that I need to reach, and one of the most difficult things in my life. And so I welcome him back for a moment, just to let him go again. [To the perpetrator] You have no power over me any more. I forgive you. I forgive you because it is not my place to judge you, condemn you, explain you, or anything else. It’s not about you now, for the first time ever. It’s about me—because as long as I live without offering you that forgiveness you still have power over me. So, I forgive you. I let you go. I stopped hating you years ago and now pity you at best. You’re the one who has to live with what you did, not me. I am letting you go.”

It’s important to note that forgiveness was important for me. It didn’t mean that what he did was okay, just that I was letting it go. Maybe it’s the Catholic altar boy in me, but I needed to forgive in order to move on. That doesn’t work for everyone. Some people cannot forgive, and that is okay if that’s the way they want and need to move through it. Forgiveness can be one of the most challenging things a person can do in life. For me, it was essential because I felt that holding onto hatred only hurt me. Hating someone who cared so little for you that they hurt you so badly cannot hurt them because they clearly don’t care enough to be hurt by it. So who does it hurt? I found that hatred eats you from the inside, consuming and destroying the love that is there, and for me that love was essential for survival. I had to forgive and to let go of those negative feelings. When I was dwelling in hatred I was still a victim. It was only when I let it go, that I could move to being a survivor.

I want to talk a little more about being a survivor and about hope. As a survivor I’ve spoken to a lot of groups around Wisconsin and elsewhere. I’ve been invited to speak at the State Capitol a couple times for Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s Denim Day during Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The following is what I said to the crowd the first time I was invited.

“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 siblings 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.”

Of course, not everything I write is about my survivor story. Especially on my blog I write about a lot of subjects. This is a post that shows that for me life really is about surviving in many ways and about staying positive. It describes several near-death experiences, including my sickness as a two-year old and my heart attack, and then continues.

“And yet, I still breathe. I breathe deeply. I breathe fully. I revel in the breaths I have and the life I live because it is filled with wonder. Right now there is a duck nesting in our front yard, with chicks about to hatch. There are people standing up for their rights in a way that I have not seen for many, many years. There is Brian, a beautiful, gentle soul, who loves me fully for who I am. There are family members who mean everything to me. There are the youth of Proud Theater—incredible brave and giving souls, each of them, who teach me every day. There is sunshine (yes, even behind the clouds!). There is rain, refresher of life and all that lives. There is light and dark and each has its place in the circles of the universe.

“With this second (or more) chance at life I have dedicated myself to living and giving as fully as I can. There is so much joy for me in this world—I have been blessed with good friends, good health, much love. And there is so much sorrow in this world—others have not been as blessed. From my joy I can offer comfort. I can be there for others, because I believe the sorrow of one is the burden of all.

“I don’t know how much time I have left. I could have another heart attack tomorrow. I could live to be over 100 as my great-great grandmother did. I’m not going to worry about it. It doesn’t matter. The moment we are born we begin to die, and none of us can know how long the journey will last. All I know is that I must make the most out of each second I have because it is a truly precious gift. When you face the end of it and come back to this life, even with its sadness, even with grey skies, it has a sublime beauty and value. I revel in it all, and when I finally go nobody will be able to say that I did not live.”

I would like to close with a couple pieces that emphasize the kind of hope that conferences like this perpetuate. Organizations like the ones that sponsor this event and the people who work at them are striving to make this a better world for all of us. Their work is about hope. My life is about hope, and so it seems fitting to close with some words of hope. The first piece is a short speech I gave to close out the Voices of Courage luncheon several years ago, and I think it is fitting for today’s event also.

“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.”

My last piece today is another blog post and I hope it rings as true for you as it still does for me. It is called Changing the World. I invite all of you to be a part of that effort—it is needed now more than ever—and I thank you again for being here today.

“This is something I have always known, but which just struck me in a new and profound way. And it is not really about me, but about the collective spirit of all. I realized that I have changed the world for the better. And I understand that as a profound utterance. I realized again that everyone who enters this world has an impact on it and changes it in some way and that the vast majority of the people who enter life on this planet are good and decent people whose very lives change the world for the better. And all those beings, living good lives and impacting those around them, are moving this world ever more toward a world of justice for all.

“This is not to say that I am perfect, or that everyone’s lives are solely good, or that there is no evil in the world trying to move it in the opposite direction. It is to say that if each of us creates a ripple in the pool of life and that the majority of us are good people trying to make ourselves and the world better, then we are creating waves of love and positive energy that cannot fail to propel the world toward healing and toward a better becoming.

“This is a realization of hope. Because sometimes it feels like the forces of evil, the messages of despair, the hopelessness of hope is what is winning. But when you think about it, when you consider all the people you have met in your life and all the goodness that has come from them, and how very little real evil or bad energy you have witnessed compared to that, then you have to believe that the positive, beautiful beings in this world are moving it toward Paradise.

“I have seen bad things. I have opened my door to a man who had been stabbed in the gut. I have met a man who killed someone else. I have listened to people spew hateful rhetoric. I have looked my own childhood abuser in the eye while he lied about it and put it back on me. I have lived through assassinations and 9/11. But when I look at the totality of my life, when I really look at it, I see that the good that I have witnessed so outweighs the bad that the math is astronomical. I have seen neighbors band together after disasters. I have seen people give of their belongings when they really had nothing to give. I have seen people stick up for others over and over again. I cannot even really think about listing all of the good I have witnessed. I have seen so much love that my heart cannot hold the memory of it.

“All of these things change the world by their very existence. I am reminded that the world is changing for the better. I am reminded again that I have changed the world for the better, that you have changed the world for the better, and that the long march toward equality and justice and some crazy Utopia only dreamed of in centuries past is getting closer and closer. It may not happen today; it may not happen this decade; it may not happen in my lifetime, but we are moving toward it. It is simply up to me, up to you, up to all the good people in this world, to stay positive and to keep moving toward that place.

“Peace.”

And thanks again. Much love and peace to all of you.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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