My Heroes Have Always Been Human


Kobe Bryant in an NBA game in Milwaukee. Photo by Callen Harty.

We live in a world in which no one can be a hero anymore. There is always something problematic about those who are admired by others. There is always a past, a mistake, a misstep of one sort or another, a major sin perhaps, or something for which forgiveness cannot be offered. The problem with putting people on pedestals is that they are human; the pedestal can break, and the bones come crashing down into dust.

It is understandable that sometimes people cannot let go of their disappointment or deep hurt. It is an incredibly difficult thing to do. As an adult survivor of childhood sex abuse I understand that the adulation of Kobe Bryant upon his death can feel jarring. He was accused of rape in 2003. Although the case against him was dismissed when the victim would not testify, he settled with that victim out of court. Are we supposed to just forget that now because he and eight others died tragically?

For me, as difficult and complicated as it is, the answer is yes. I believe in the power of forgiveness and while I understand it doesn’t work for everyone, it was essential for me to move forward in my healing from years of abuse. I also believe in redemption, in the idea that people can change and learn from their mistakes, and even their worst sins, and become valuable members of society. This doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten what happened to me or that I believe it was okay; it simply means that I believe that humans are capable of spiritual evolution as much as physical evolution. I believe that all of us are worthy of love, even those who have traveled to very dark places. Those individuals may need even more love than most of us.

None of us are without fault. How can I ask others to forgive my past offenses if I hold on to all the offenses against me, if I hold on to offenses against others whose stories I do not even really know?

This is incredibly difficult. The last day I have been torn about Kobe Bryant. I believe we give too much adulation, fame, and wealth to sports (and movie and music) stars simply for doing their jobs, and those who have a natural talent at those jobs we elevate to  superstardom. Is it deserved because they bring greater wealth to the team owners, because they bring a championship to a city in some form of tribalistic competition? It is hard to acknowledge the tragic death of a superstar while still recalling the terrible things that person may have done in his life. It is especially hard when that superstar also did a lot of great things in his life, perhaps as a form of penance for those moments when he did not live up to his elevated status. Heroes have more moments when they are human than when they are heroes.

What I keep coming back to is this: Heroes come from the same families, cities, and culture that the rest of us do. They are as human as we are, and every one of us has failed at one point or another or often–but that doesn’t mean we cannot redeem ourselves. If a person has paid for their sins, if they have turned their life around and contributed in positive ways, can they be forgiven? I cannot say that I have done no wrong in my life. I have also done many good things. When I die, is it fair to hold my humanity against me? I believe that if we are to do that to others, then all of us fail in the end.

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The Agony of Aging


Donato. Photo by Callen Harty.



While I don’t really feel all that old, I am keenly aware that I am aging. I could still live for several more decades, but maybe not. I’m in my 60s now and have had several heart issues. My sight isn’t as good as it used to be, hearing is more difficult, and it takes more energy to do things than it did when I was a younger person. But it is not health issues, the slow disintegration of one’s body, or even the realization of one’s own mortality that is the hardest thing about aging.

It’s the loss.

As you survive each year, there are others who do not. As you reach the plateau of each new year or decade, there are more people–acquaintances, friends, and family–who are no longer making the same journey with you, who have dropped off and moved on to another plane where you can still love them, but no longer hug them, see them smile, or talk to them.

Yesterday I found out that a dear friend of mine, a man I met when he was in his late teens or early 20s, died at the young of 54. I was a part of about two-thirds of Donato’s life and he was a part of more than half of mine, and now there is another hole where there was once a joyful, beautiful person. While we would go long periods without contact, we stayed in touch and he was one of those people for whom it seemed that no time had passed whenever we reconnected. We just picked up where we last left off.

In just the last couple years, several acquaintances, a couple good friends, and my mother have all died. One of those was only 29. My mother was 92. All of them went too soon. They always do. If it’s while you are still walking the earth, it is too soon. This is the hard part of aging. This is the loss that really hurts. I can deal with my own body slowly weakening as I grow into old age, but having less and less people to share my joys and sorrows with makes my heart and soul weaker also.

I will miss Donato as I miss Lars Prip, Mom, Brendan Hartmann, Joe Johnson, Jim Green, and all of those who passed even before them. I will ache over this. I will look at old photos and smile, remember laughter and good times and smile again, and then I will realize that those things are only memories and dust and that each day I live is a little lonelier without Donato and without all of those loved ones who left too early.

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Me skydiving in the summer of 2011. Photographer unknown.

As 2019 comes to an end, it seems like a good time to look back at the last decade. While mathematically, the new decade doesn’t start until next January, it is the start of the 2020s and many, if not most, people think of it as the start of a new decade.

There were some difficult things that happened over the last decade, especially including the death of my mother at the age of 92, after a number of years of decline and suffering with dementia. A number of good friends and acquaintances also passed away in the last decade. In addition, this year ended with me in the hospital due to an episode of ventricular tachycardia. I ended up getting some new stents to open up some blockage and a defibrillator/pacemaker put in my chest, allowing me to tell everyone I got a new computer for Christmas.

Sometimes it’s easy to focus on the hard things and on the failures, but I try in my life to focus on the positive, the good things that happened and the interesting new experiences. When I look at those things, I realize that despite some of the hardships, I accomplished a lot this decade and had a good number of exciting experiences. It’s also sometimes easy to think that you haven’t accomplished anything or done anything interesting, but looking at what actually happened can sometimes help you remember that you are living a decent life in many ways.

In theater, I ended my five-year stint as Artistic Director of Broom Street Theater at the beginning of the decade, served on the Board of Directors of Art & Soul Innovations the entire decade, was a mentor and director for Proud Theater the entire decade. I only acted one time (and need to do that again), but wrote four plays and directed five.

In other writing news, I published four books and had 50 articles, essays, and poems published in various print and online publications.  In addition, I created the blog “A Single Bluebird” and wrote 335 blog posts with over 65,000 views. My work was also featured in the books of several other authors/editors. Downtown Madison, Inc. invited me to be the first author to read for their “Your Wisconsin Authors” series held at the top of State Street. I did other readings at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center, OutReach, A Room of One’s Own, Milwaukee Pride, and Arcadia Books in Spring Green.

Travel has always been important. In the last decade I took dozens of day trips, but also took longer trips to Vilas County (WI), Green Bay (WI), San Antonio (TX), Chicago (IL), Benton Harbor (MI), Omaha (NE), Cable (WI), Washington (DC), St. Louis (MO), the Ozarks (AR), Menominie (WI), Eau Claire (WI), Lake Superior (WI, to the ice caves), eastern Wisconsin, Newark (NJ), Ely (MN), Two Harbors (MN), Keshena (WI), Tampa (FL), Ann Arbor (MI), Wabasha (MN), northern California, Hollywood (CA), and Lake Amnicon (WI).

Concerts have also been fun. These are the major artists seen in the last decade: R. J. Helton, Dennis DeYoung, Loretta Lynn, Matt Nathanson, Plain White T’s, Fitz & the Tantrums, Panic at the Disco, Wayne Kramer, Tom Morello, Tim McIlrath, Romantics, Holly Near, Maroon 5, Sandra Bernhard, Lisa Lampanelli, Cher, Cyndi Lauper, Jake Miller, Rodney Atkins, Dylan Doyle, Roger Waters, Donal Clancy & Rory Makem, Garrison Keillor, Los Lobos, Naked Eyes, B-52s, KC & the Sunshine Band, Naked Eyes, Night Ranger, Peter Frampton, and probably some others that aren’t being remembered at the moment.

New experiences can be an important part of living a full life. In the 2010s I volunteered at the nature center and got to assist with physical therapy on an owl, and hold and feed a baby hummingbird, among other duties. Despite a fear of singing in public, I sang in front of a thousand people at a rally at the Capitol, with Holly Near and others on stage, and as a guest with Perfect Harmony. I jumped out of an airplane (with a parachute) and briefly flew a helicopter. I hoisted sails on a tall ship in Chicago, appeared in a documentary film (Filthy Director by Dan Levin), and got arrested protesting at the Wisconsin Capitol (the charges were later dropped). A lifelong dream was fulfilled by sleeping in a lighthouse. Other new experiences include touring a submarine and attending a professional playoff game (Milwaukee Brewers),

Perhaps the most important thing I did in the last decade was to come out publicly as a survivor of child sex abuse by writing and directing the play, Invisible Boy, at Broom Street Theater. That led to interviews and articles in a number of newspapers. It also led to countless speaking engagements, including leading training sessions, a presentation at MaleSurvivor’s 14th International Conference in Newark, New Jersey, and as a keynote speaker at a couple of events. I created the Facebook page, Solidarity with Child Abuse Victims/Survivors and volunteered as one of the men featured on the Bristlecone Project, an art and Internet project to raise awareness of male sexual assault. Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault (WCASA) invited me to serve on its Underserved Populations work group and on their Board, which I did for a short time. Eight years ago, I worked with several local organizations to start Paths to Healing, an annual conference on child sex abuse survival, with a focus on male survivors. Because of all of this work, I was named a Backyard Hero by Community Shares of Wisconsin in 2013 and Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 2016 Courage Award winner, both of which I’m really proud to have received.

Other highlights of the decade including protesting the Walker regime at the State Capitol, including being known as one of the photographers to document it. I sang four verses of We Shall Overcome in the Capitol rotunda virtually every day for almost three years, and also sang with the Solidarity Sing Along when possible. Continuing a lifelong pattern, I attended countless protests, rallies, and vigils, including for gay rights, Black Lives Matter, peace, anti-Nazi, political rallies, and more, documenting all with an ever-present camera. As a response to the Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek, I organized a vigil for that which eventually led to a monthly peace vigil which lasted just over a year.

My work in many areas led to being interviewed on radio, television, and in newspapers countless times, including cable and local T. V., Wisconsin Public radio, the daily papers here in Madison, and my partner, Brian and I, were featured as the cover story of Monona Lakeside Neighbors magazine. While it’s nice to get noticed, none of what I do in my life is to draw attention. It is because it is in my nature to be busy, to act when I see action is needed, and to be involved in my community. It has also been a lifelong part of my nature to be open and pubic about all aspects of my life, which has led me to be involved in a lot of very public causes.

So, on those days when I am tired, insecure, or think that I am not doing anything with my life, I can look at a list like this and know that I have contributed in some way to this planet and that I have allowed myself to try and do new things. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that we have done more than we might remember, that it’s okay to rest a bit, let the heart recover, and realize that there will be more adventures ahead. On to 2020.

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Heart Thoughts


In the hospital in 2018 due to an irregular heartbeat. Photographer unknown.

As 2019 comes to a close I am recovering again from an incident with my heart. Eleven years ago I had a major heart attack, with 100% blockage of the left coronary. They put four stents in at that time, which opened things up nicely and that has kept me going for more than a decade.

A little over a year ago I was hospitalized due to an irregular heartbeat. I was diagnosed with ischemic cardiomyopathy, which essentially means my heart is not pumping out as much blood as it should, and my percentage was pretty low. My drug regimen was reassessed and some prescriptions changed to try to improve that.

Two wees ago tomorrow I was at work, sitting at my desk, when suddenly I felt like I couldn’t breathe, felt dizzy and nauseous, and I literally thought I was going to collapse on the floor and die right there in the office. It was scarier than the heart attack because it was different than anything I had ever felt and I didn’t know what was happening.

It turned out to be ventricular tachycardia, which means that my heart was beating at an incredibly fast pace and could have killed me if it hadn’t been stopped. When I got to the emergency room my heart was firing at 240 beats a minute. Normal is 60-100. For me, it’s often in the 50s, so going at almost five times that was leaving my body in a very dangerous place. Once the doctors figured out what was happening they gave me some drugs to stop it. That didn’t work, so they doubled the dose. When that didn’t work, they put me out and shocked my heart (cardioversion). This effectively stops  the heart from beating and resets it.

Later that day I was given a cardiac catheterization and in doing that, the doctors found new blockage and went ahead and put in three new stents to open up those passageways. Three days later I was in surgery to have an ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator) put in my chest. This is a combination defibrillator and pacemaker, with wires going from the ICD to both the top and bottom of my heart. The defibrillator will give me a shock if my heart starts racing like that again. The pacemaker will stimulate my heart if it is not beating fast enough. Together, they are designed to keep the heart functioning properly.

Unfortunately, I seem to have inherited my father’s genes when it comes to my heart. While my mother lived to be 92 years old, my father died of a massive heart attack at the young age of 41. If his heart attack were to have happened today rather than 1959, he may very well have survived. But medicine back in that era was nowhere near where it is today. So I am blessed to live in a time when medical procedures have advanced to a point where they can put miniature computers into your body that can regulate heart rhythm and that are able to communicate information to the doctors at the hospital through Wi-Fi. Still, it is unnerving to twice face the possibility of death because of my heart.

This time seemed a little scarier because it was so different, I am older, I had already had one big heart event, and because it just became a little clearer that my heart is not the strongest part of my body, even though it and the brain are the most essential. I could live as long as my mother, but it somehow seems much less likely now. If I look at the longevity of both of my parents and split the difference, I would only have five more years left, and that’s a bit chilling. So the idea of mortality, which I’ve always had an awareness and acceptance of, has a little stronger pull now.

Still, of course, one never knows. With the ICD, drugs, and the miracles of modern medicine, I could outlive my mother, which would mean that I still have about a third of my life left. Or my heart could give out tomorrow despite the advances in science. I can’t know and I can’t worry about it. What I do have control over is how I react to it all. It doesn’t do any good to live in fear. At the same time, having an awareness of mortality can keep one focused on the present, on the here and now, and what a person can do in this moment on this day. I have much work yet to do in this life. I will get that work done, moment by moment, and my heart will revel while it can.

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White HouseDonald Trump is, quite simply, not a good person. His behavior both as a citizen and as the President, has been childish, narcissistic, and bullying. He has surrounded himself with sycophants and apologists, criminals, and a group of people who hate others, particularly a number of minorities. His policies and executive orders have undermined much of what is good about this country and he has placed himself above the law. While he has a base of supporters, many others believe he is the worst holder of the office in history and that he has damaged our democracy, possibly beyond repair.

Trump’s recent pardons of murderous American soldiers is beyond comprehension and may be the most troubling act of his time in office. Our military has its own justice system and there are many ways for soldiers to be court martialed, kicked out of the service, demoted, or in other ways punished for behavior that is not acceptable in the most powerful military in the world. In pardoning these men, Trump ignored advice from military leaders and by doing so he has opened the door to even worse behavior from others who have received the signal that the Commander-in-Chief not only condones but encourages murderous behavior from his front-line soldiers.

Being a soldier entails the very real possibility and likelihood of having to kill enemy combatants. Most soldiers are not comfortable with this because they are human beings with consciences, but they will do what is required in battle as it is the job they have been trained to do and they truly believe they are protecting their country from dangerous enemies. However, it is also understood that there are lines that should not be crossed and this includes killing unarmed citizens. The two soldiers he pardoned this past week have both been the subjects of publicity and pleas for leniency from those on the right who believe they had been railroaded and were just doing their jobs. Trump’s pardons could easily have been nothing more than a gift to his base, but they also set some dangerous precedents.

Major Mathew Golsteyn was accused of killing an unarmed prisoner of war he believed had killed a couple of his fellow soldiers with a bomb. He admitted in an interview with the Washington Post that he knew the man was unarmed. He had previously admitted that he had killed the man, after first trying to pin it on someone else.

First Lieutenant Clint Lorance was convicted of 2nd degree murder for ordering his men to fire at three Afghani men on a motorcycle. One of them survived. During the trial it was asserted that the motorcycle was in no position to reach his platoon even if the men on the motorcycle had been armed, which they were not. After his conviction, one of Lorance’s attorneys wrote a book about the case and had encouraged Trump to pardon his client.

In addition to these two cases, Trump also reversed a demotion of Edward Gallagher who had been demoted and convicted of posing with a human corpse, the body of a teenager he had been acquitted of killing even though he had texted the picture with the words, “Good story behind this. Got him with my hunting knife.” (BBC News, 7/4/19). He had also been accused and acquitted of a number of other crimes, including attempted murder of two Iraqi citizens.

While these are the newest cases, they are not the first pardons of military personnel accused of or convicted of murder. This past May, Trump pardoned First Lieutenant Michael Behenna. Behenna was found guilty of killing an Iraqi man who was thought to have killed two of Behenna’s men, but whom the U. S. military intelligence had released due to lack of evidence. According to USA Today (11/15/19), this was “the first presidential pardon of a convicted murderer in modern history.” That same month, Trump also pardoned Sergeant Derrick Miller, who had been convicted of premeditated murder of an interrogation subject.

These are not white collar crimes. They are not victimless crimes such as drug possession. These men were allegedly guilty of or were convicted of murder. While those in the military may kill others in the line of duty, these are cases outside of the line of duty and Trump has referred to some of these men as heroes who were doing their jobs.

A couple hundred nations, including the United States, have signed onto the Geneva Convention, which regulates what are commonly known as the rules of war. Among them are restrictions on killing prisoners, the sick and wounded, or civilians.

Pardoning those convicted of war crimes sends a signal to the international community that the United States does not care about international conventions and will do what we want without regard for any agreements. Like Trump, it says “America First” and it lets others know that we will not be bound by past treaties or accepted norms. It also tells those who are in the military and who have violent streaks that go beyond the bounds of normal combat that the Commander-in-Chief believes that killing prisoners and innocent civilians is part of the job and will be excused.

Finally, it opens the door to supporters of Trump being given the green light to engage in a civil war if he is impeached or the next election doesn’t go his way. As long as he stays in power, those who support him through whatever means have the possibility of a legal and Constitutional pardon in their back pockets. While this may seem like a paranoid scenario, the stage has been set for the possibility and with Trump’s history of ignoring all precedent and decorum, nothing is out of the realm of possibility.

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Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and the Dismantling of Queer Rights

Rainbow flag

Rainbow flag. Photo by Callen Harty.

During the 2016 Presidential campaign a photograph of Donald Trump holding a rainbow flag went viral. Some of those in the queer community, particularly members of the Log Cabin Republicans, thought that it showed that he was supportive of LGBT equality and civil rights. It was also said that he had gay friends and Trump himself even said he was a friend of the community. Still, the selection of virulently anti-gay Mike Pence as a running mate should have been evidence enough that Trump would be no friend of the queer community. Most of the community knew better, but supportive allies also fell for it. While the national Log Cabin group declined to endorse Trump’s candidacy, several chapters found it in their hearts to throw their support behind him and after he won the national group congratulated him on his victory. Almost immediately upon taking office Trump showed that he was no friend of any part of the LGBT community, and especially the transgender part of the umbrella.

Both candidates, Trump and Pence, had shown evidence of being anathema to queer folks. After taking over the Miss Universe pageant, Trump was the one who instituted a policy disallowing transgender participants. Mike Pence was known as an enemy of LGBT people as a right-wing conservative Christian who happily signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that allows state-sanctioned discrimination against LGBT people by making it okay to refuse service based on religious beliefs. Pence was also known to support a ban on gays in the military, opposed same-sex marriage, opposed funding for AIDS research and more. He was never a friend of the community and there was fear that he would unduly influence Trump on these issues.

On the day Donald Trump was inaugurated, all LGBT mentions were removed from the White House website, as well as two other government departments. This was a sign of things to come.

Here are just some of the actions and policies that have been put in place by the administration that have set queer rights back.

  • Most of Trump’s potential Cabinet nominees in the first couple weeks were known to be homophobic (and several of them racist, Islamophobic, and misogynist as well). These include such friends of the community as Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Mike Pompeo, and Tom Cotton, among others.
  • Within a couple weeks, the administration eliminated guidance for schools on protecting transgender students.
  • Various departments eliminated demographic questions about LGBT people and, importantly, the Census Bureau withdrew questions about LGBT citizens from the upcoming census.
  • The Justice Department argued in court that the Civil Rights Act does not prohibit discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity. In various ways this theme has been presented in court and in policy updates throughout the length of Trump’s term of office.
  • HIV and AIDS funding has been cut in many departments, agencies, and programs.
  • Trump decided to ban transgender citizens from service in the military. After preparation, this went into effect earlier this year.
  • Nomination after nomination for federal judgeships, including those of the Supreme Court, have been candidates who are known homophobes (and again, racists, Islamophobes, and misogynists).
  • Trump publicly opposed the Equality Act, which would strengthen equal rights and protections for members of the LGBT community.
  • American embassies around the world were instructed this past year that they could not fly the rainbow flag in honor of Pride Month.
  • The administration has steadily changed policies in various departments so that they now allow discrimination in health facilities, schools, and elsewhere based on religious beliefs. Most recently, this excuse has been expanded to include adoption agencies.

This list could go on for many pages. If one does a search on Trump administration anti-gay policies it is easy to find lists that are many, many times longer than this. The scary thing about it is that it is a steady diet of updates, policy changes, and more that have been constantly chipping away at LGBT rights and setting the stage for outright government-sanctioned discrimination. It makes it difficult for the general public to see what is happening. They may hear about Health and Human Services no longer documenting LGBT participants in certain programs or that the federal government believes that a church has the right to refuse to hire someone who doesn’t support their beliefs, or that LGBT people are not covered under certain anti-discrimination laws because those laws are about sex, not sexuality.

The thing is, any one of these things by itself may not signal an antagonistic administration and federal government, but when one looks at the totality of it, the slow, steady erosion of rights that the community has struggled to gain–not to have more rights than others, but to have equal rights with others–then it becomes clear that this administration is not friendly to any part of the queer community. It becomes clear that this administration is, in fact, an enemy of the queer community and is working to eliminate any and all rights that may have been gained over the last fifty years or so. It becomes clear that this administration wants to put everyone back in the closets of an earlier age in which self-expression, self-identity, and love were quashed by society, gay people were openly discriminated against, arrested, and harassed, and doing so was applauded and considered the right thing to do.

Any queer person who still supports this administration in any way is obviously delusional and self-hating and an enemy of those who are out and proud. Any ally who still supports Donald Trump is not an ally, but an enemy and a supporter of discrimination. Any voter who votes for Trump is an enemy of anyone who is queer. If he wins re-election, then it can be guaranteed that more briefs against the LGBT community will be filed in a Supreme Court increasingly hostile to gay rights, more policies that protect queer people will be overturned, and more government-sanctioned discrimination will be allowed and encouraged. The queer community as we know it may not survive another four years.

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The Singing Forest


Reflection. Photo by Callen Harty.

Stumbling and lost
I happened upon a singing forest,
saw trees wet with blood,
green and red, white snow
saw twisted limbs
hanging from twisted limbs,
deformities of nature,
and heard music,
cacophony of anguish,
filling the woods until
it became a screaming forest
and the singing settled into silence.

Years have passed and now
the singing forest is gone.
All that remains is a faint
echo of a distant song
and the bones of trees.
Still my heart hears.


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Brendan Hartmann. Photo by Callen Harty.

Lately, even before this last weekend, mortality has been on my mind. My partner, Brian, has been talking about the fact that we’re getting older and how he worries about me because of already surviving a heart attack a decade ago. And I can’t imagine life without him in it, either.

In the last several weeks or so, I had seen a couple friends pass away, another go into hospice, and another go into the hospital and he is not expected to make it out. In addition, I’ve seen other friends lose mothers and fathers, grandmothers, lovers, and friends in just a few weeks. Yesterday, we woke up to news that a 29-year old friend, Brendan Hartmann, had passed away on Friday. And it reminded me that mortality isn’t reserved for the old.

It can be easy to forget that every day is a gift. Every day awakens new opportunities. And every day, most of us waste it by not living life to its fullest, by not connecting with those we love, and by taking so many things for granted.

I was surrounded by death when I was younger. I do not remember any of my grandparents, my father, and my oldest brother as they were all gone before I could form any memories. In addition, I could have died numerous times in my life, including a near-death experience when I was two years old and the 100% blockage in my left coronary just over a decade ago.

Because of this, I have always understood how precious life is. I’ve done my best to live it well. But I have also failed. I have let friendships fade away. I’ve laid in bed depressed when I could be out doing something. I’ve forgotten to appreciate.

Brian and I have been making an effort lately to try to reconnect with people, to make sure those we like and love know we like and love them, to spend quality time with each other, and to make our days count. He’s ten years younger than me, but I’m 62 now. I understand I could have another heart attack tomorrow, or get into a fatal car wreck, or move into the next realm of existence in any of the myriad ways that is possible. I also understand I could live as long as my mother, which would mean a third of my life is still ahead of me. Brian could go before me. The point is, we can’t know, so we have to treasure the days because of that and honor the gift of living.

I am thankful that at least within the last couple months I had reached out to Brendan to encourage him. He had been going through hell in St. Louis, getting and losing jobs, getting punched by someone trying to rob him and then getting harassed by the police, hitting what he called rock bottom for a year, living in a place too rough for such a sweet and gentle soul. But most of the time, despite whatever hardships he was having, his posts were about believing in the kindness of strangers and the innate goodness of people.

I don’t know how Brendan died, and I don’t need to know. What I know is that he was too young. He was a talented young man with an inquisitive and wonderful mind. He cared deeply for people, even those he didn’t know. He had potential. Despite his troubles, despite whatever it was that took him from us, he deserved to live through his rough period and come out stronger on the other side. So many people do. Some do not. I wish that he had succeeded. I wish that he had found whatever help he needed. But we can’t change what is. We can only learn from it and move forward.

Tonight, my promise is to honor the gift of life by recommitting fully to it and to those I love. This is how I can honor Brendan and the others who have recently left my circle and this plane. The greatest gift we can give to others is to take the time to listen to them, be with them, and love them. I will do my best.

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9/11 and the Enduring Sorrow


Firefighter wiping away a tear at a 9/11 memorial event. Photo by Callen Harty.

(Note: This was originally posted on 9/11/12. The post has been slightly updated with some current information)

Nine. One. One.

On an autumn morning so vivid it seems like yesterday and so foggy it seems a lifetime ago our nation was irrevocably changed. After two planes flew into the World Trade Center towers and later the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania I could not believe the burden of sorrow placed upon the shoulders of America’s people. We all wept openly at the horror unleashed that day.

Today we still remember—we will never forget—and there are those who still weep. And yet, even while memorials are held across the country for the victims who died that day, most of America blithely accepts the further losses we have endured. Few cry for the rights lost to the Patriot Act right after the 9/11 tragedy and few notice the soldiers and civilians who for nearly two decades have not come home as they should. My sorrow continues to grow.

It was not only the twin towers and their inhabitants that were lost that day.

Out of fear, along with apathy, we have willingly given up many of the rights that made us the envy of the world. Immediately after 9/11 politicians talked about how we were attacked because others in the world were jealous of our freedoms. If that were true, they are jealous no more. Our freedoms have been regularly and gladly traded for “homeland security,” like a child giving up everything they have for a flimsy blanket to protect against a monster in the closet that may not even exist. The enemies of freedom are winning. The surprise is that those enemies have come from within our own ranks and they are from both of the major political parties. This is not a partisan thing. It is the powerful seeking greater consolidation of power at the expense and with the consent of average citizens.

Likewise, out of a desire for retribution we have lost our capacity for compassion. American soldiers continue to die in Afghanistan and one would barely know we were engaged in a war at all. The news barely touches upon it. American citizens seem to care more about who wins “Dancing with the Stars” than who is winning the war, or whether we should even be in a war in the first place. We watch “reality” television shows while ignoring the reality of innocent civilians dying in Afghanistan and elsewhere day after day. This, too, is not partisan. We went into Iraq and Afghanistan under a Republican President and stayed there under a Democrat and remained there again under a Republican. There is no end in sight.

The sad thing is that when the attacks happened on 9/11 we had an opportunity to change the world. We could have sought help from the world community to track down those behind the plot. We could have brought them to justice in a court of law and shown the world that our system was fair and impartial, that we were about more than violence and war. We could have taken the goodwill from all quarters and turned that toward a better understanding of each other. We could have rejected the historical knee-jerk reaction of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We could have led the way toward a more peaceful world in which disagreements and aggression were not met with equal aggression but with hearts open to compromise, understanding, and cooperative and peaceful resolution.

Instead, the Bush administration created lies about Saddam Hussein storing biological weapons to justify an attack on Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, and it used the idea that Osama bin Laden was initially hiding in Afghanistan as a reason to attack that country. There was no discussion of attacking Saudi Arabia, the home country of the majority of the 9/11 hijackers. Iraq happened to be oil rich and have a dictator Bush’s father did not defeat in a previous war and Afghanistan happened to have a huge pipeline over which we wanted control. War hysteria was whipped up with constant misleading stories from the White House, jingoistic songs on the radio, uber-patriotic displays at sporting events and elsewhere, and a general portrayal of anyone who might oppose getting even as weak and un-American. Most of the country jumped on the war bandwagon and off we went.

In the years since that time we have lost 4,571 American soldiers in Iraq, including eight so far this year, and more than 2,370 in Afghanistan through July of last year, more than twice as many souls than were lost in the attacks from the hijacked jets. Thousands upon thousands more Iraqi and Afghani and other soldiers and civilians have also died. In the  years since the attacks Americans have been subjected to intrusive searches at airports and borders, Muslim-American citizens (and others) have been subjected to racial profiling, businesses have had records searched, common citizens’ banking, telephone, e-mail, and other transactions have been monitored without warrants, citizens who simply appear to be anti-government in some way have been subject to surveillance, warrantless wiretaps have been used, the government has been given the okay to indefinitely detain citizens, and American citizens have been killed by their own government for suspected terrorism activity without the benefit of an arrest or trial.

These things have all happened. These things have all added to the rubble left from that horrible day. The flags flying at half-staff today honor those who lost their lives in the attacks. When I see those flags or when I see memorial services being held a tear still comes to my eye. I shed tears for all the innocent lives lost in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania, but I also shed tears for all the soldiers and civilians who have been lost since, and for the loss of liberty in the land of the free. May we all find peace soon.

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On Suicide Prevention Day

Invisible Boy

Thinking of suicide in a scene from the play, Invisible Boy. Photo by Callen Harty.

Trigger Warning: This post talks about suicide/ideation, child sex abuse, and depression. Please take care of yourself.

If there is one thing in my life that I failed at that I’m happy about it’s suicide. When I was younger I went through a horrible period of self-doubt, paranoia, depression, and God-only-knows what else that was affecting me. I felt unloved and unwanted and in short, I hated myself so badly that I couldn’t imagine that anyone else would care if I were alive or dead.

The thought of suicide was my constant companion. It went everywhere with me. It slept with me. It talked to me, a lot. One night I went home and took a bottle of pills out of the medicine closet, sat on my bedroom floor, and downed them. When I woke up in the light of day I could see on the bottle they were penicillin. Years later I wrote a comedic bit into a play about that experience in which the character said the following:

“Fuck. I should kill myself. I can’t do nothin’ right. Prob’ly couldn’t kill myself right either. Well, I know I can’t. Like that one time when I was all drunk and really wanted to do it and I swallowed a whole shitload a pills. Just no one told me there was penicillin in the cabinet. Fuckin’ din’t get sick for months.”

Sometimes the only way to survive is through humor.

Several months after that first attempt I came home, drunk again, and found a razor blade embedded between the wall and wooden window frame. I took it out, looked at, pondered, and ended up passing out with the blade against my wrist. That prompted the following poem:

The contemplation of suicide


The stars cry tears of light.

Night heat beats my temples.

Distant, very distant, laughter commences.

Tonight, the stars are my only friends.

But I must abandon their sorrow.


Window-fractured starlight disperses

over the thin metal blade in my hand.

My wrist pulsates. Blue veins throb

in anticipation, like sprinters awaiting the gun.

The cold metal finger caresses my skin.


I close my eyes in fear of blood

as the metal probes my frightened wrist.

But the weapon sneaks stealthily from my hand

as my drunken body succumbs to sleep.

I awaken with a razor blade beneath my pillow.


Two attempts and two miserable failures. The third time I was on the floor of my bedroom with a large kitchen knife against my wrist when I realized I couldn’t do it. I went and knocked on the door of one of my housemates and she took me in and comforted me. That was decades ago and I have not gone back to that dark place again.

The things is, I have lived so much since that time. I have found love, I have founded organizations that have helped so many other people, I have traveled, made friends, shared so many experiences with so many wonderful people. Yes, it’s trite, but it does get better. It got better mostly when I dealt with the underlying issue–the reason I was drinking so much and the reason I no longer wanted to live. For me, it was seven and a half years of childhood sexual abuse. For others, who knows? But once those issues are faced squarely and dealt with, so many other things come into focus.

The other thing is, I have seen suicide from the other side. My best friend was lost to a drug overdose after failing at suicide a couple previous times, just as I had done. Two of the youth that we worked with in the queer youth theater group I mentored for twenty years also died at their own hands. They both had so much promise and so many people who loved and cared for them.

I have said it before and I still believe it. Suicide is not selfish as so many people say. If someone goes that far, they have thought it out, they have made a choice, and I sincerely believe that like me so many years ago, they cannot see or think clearly. It feels like the only way out of such incredible and unbearable pain. What they may not realize is how many people do love them and how many people will live the rest of their lives with a hole where their heart once resided. Perhaps if they knew that, they would understand they have so much to offer and that eventually–hopefully–this too, shall pass. I don’t ever want to lose another person in my life in this way. On this Worldwide Suicide Prevention Day (and every day), I urge anyone thinking about it to pause, reach out, and accept help wherever it may be offered. If I was able to ultimately create a meaningful life after the place where I was emotionally, then I believe anyone can. It truly can get better.


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open carry

Man with a weapon at a gun rights rally.


The sound of distant gunfire draws nearer
as bodies drop
one after another after another after another
after the sound of rapid-fire gunfire
shatters the air and airwaves again;
guns glinting in sunlight
man-made light.
Darkness has fallen upon us.

There is no light today in Texas,
tomorrow in Florida, Illinois, Colorado, Oregon,
another place as yet unnamed.
Bullets ricochet across the country,
getting closer to my heart each day.

I weep.
I weep for lost children—we are all children—
for Odessa, Harvest, Pulse, Virginia Tech,
Sandy Hook, First Baptist, Parkland, Columbine,
for the ones forgotten
because there are so many
we cannot remember them all.
Some were not tragic enough for memory.

Some were not tragic enough to be remembered.

I weep for my country,
for a nation so lost that we cannot
love each other
to even try to stop killing each other.
America, how many guns do we need?
How many times do we pray and cry
and gnash our teeth
and move on and forget?

Today we offer condolences and heartfelt sorrow.
We watch the news in disbelief.
Tomorrow we watch the latest episode
of the most popular show on television.
We go out drinking.
We try to forget. We lose ourselves
in whatever ways we can, nervously
waiting for the next bullet to fly through the window
as the sound of gunfire draws ever nearer.

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On the Child Victims Act


Wisconsin State Representative Chris Taylor. Photo by Callen Harty.



This morning, Wisconsin State Representatives Chris Taylor and Melissa Sargent and State Senator Lena Taylor introduced two bills at a press conference at the State Capitol. The first was the Child Victims Act, which eliminates the statute of limitations on civil suits by victims of child sexual assault. The second eliminates a loophole that makes it possible for clergy, who are supposed to be mandatory reporters. to not report child sex abuse when they find out about it.

Representative Taylor contacted me last week and asked if I would speak at the press conference. I was honored to be asked. The following is what I said this morning:

To summarize in a couple minutes why the Child Victims Act is important and should be passed is an impossible task. A man cannot give an elevator speech on almost eight years of childhood sex abuse and a lifetime of its after-effects.

I stand before you as an adult survivor who spent decades in denial, hiding behind drugs and alcohol, thinking that suicide was the only way to escape the horrible things that happened. I couldn’t escape. The reality was always with me.

The abuse started when I was ten and continued for almost eight years. My innocence was stolen, my trust in others was gone. I was threatened and was so frightened I knew that I could never tell anyone what had happened to me. It took me years to build the strength to share my story.

Throughout my life I have had dreams, flashbacks, and issues that relate back to my childhood. Several years ago I wrote a play about those experiences and as I was writing it a sudden terror came to me that if he found out what I was doing, I would be killed before I could finish it. I was panic-stricken. Forty years after the abuse ended the terror was still palpable. These are the kinds of things survivors live with every day.

To ask survivors of childhood sex abuse to process everything they need to process before they are 35 years old is an unfair burden. Most cannot. This arbitrary limit needs to be removed. It has only been in the last decade that I’ve been able to deal with and speak openly about what happened to me. Two-thirds of victims do not say anything until well into adulthood. For male survivors it’s an average age of 52 years old. The processing of these emotions is an unfolding that never ends. It is not done at any age. There is no statute of limitations on recovery and the legislature needs to recognize that.

Ending certain exemptions for clergy as mandatory reporters is equally important. One out of three children disclose the abuse, which is a scary and dangerous prospect for them to do. A child who tells is going to tell someone they feel they can trust. They are also seeking help. When a child isn’t heard, or doesn’t think they were heard because nothing changes, they will likely join those victims who keep their dark secret for years. Exemptions for anyone in the helping professions makes it likely the child will not try again and even more likely that the abuse will continue. We cannot do this to our children.

As a survivor I applaud Representative and Senator Taylor and Representative Sargent for introducing these bills. I thank them for their concern and compassion. I urge citizens to contact their representatives to encourage them to get behind these important bills. I ask all the legislators to set politics aside and get these bills to the Governor’s desk. If there were ever a pair of bills that deserve bipartisan support, it is these.

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