Social change often comes as a result of suffering

Soon after I became a Quaker, I read Gene Sharp’s three-volume The Politics of Nonviolent Action (the connection being the traditional Quaker testimony against violence—see footnote). It deeply affected my thinking about social change, most notably that activism needs to have specific goals and that specific actions within it need to be strategic towards a goal as well as consistent with ethical and moral standards of the particular activist movement (i.e., the ends are not more important than the means).

One of the things that surprised me and that has stuck with me is that Gandhi’s systematic theory of resistance, satyagraha (“truth-force” or “love-force”), included nonviolence not only as a moral choice but as strategy. Ahimsa (“not to injure”) is a Hindu religious virtue. And within the context of Gandhian civil resistance, accepting violence upon oneself without retaliation is intended to awaken compassion in the opponent and bystanders.

In both Gandhi’s movements in South Africa and India and in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, nonviolent resistance was not passive. Participants actively broke unjust laws and courted punishment. The accusation that pacifists are passive is wrong. Some pacifists (some religious sects notably among them) are in fact passive, but most pacifists are active in a range of efforts from resisting war to creating the conditions of peace. Pacifists regularly connect peace and justice. True peace is not an absence of war or conflict, it is a positive condition that includes justice.

So that’s very brief notes on a theoretical and historical view of suffering bringing social change.

But I have a subjective perspective as well, and sadly it does not involve voluntary suffering, but involuntary. From my own viewpoint, I conclude that many of the advances in LGBTQ+ rights, and the speed at which cultural changes are happening, are a direct result of the very public suffering and deaths of young gay men from AIDS. Being homosexual had moved from a shameful secret to an actively claimed personal and political statement (“You must come out,” said Harvey Milk), but the HIV epidemic forced thousands of young men out of the closet in a way that, in my opinion, awakened compassion in many of their friends and families. And the additional suffering of those who were rejected by those friends and families also served to awaken compassion in others. I feel very deeply this connection between that awful time and political and cultural changes. It was a terrible price to pay.

It’s also terrible that hundreds of thousands of people continue to die of AIDS, many of them heterosexual women in Africa. HIV is now largely preventable as well as treatable and deaths from AIDS are a failure of political and economic decisions, much like deaths from starvation. Not all suffering results in positive social change.


A number of things associated with Friends took a while to take shape in the early years of the Friends movement, the Peace Testimony included. But by 1660, an influential group of men Friends, responding to political forces, made a statement to King Charles II, often summarized as “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever; and this is our testimony to the whole world. The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.” As early as 1651, George Fox had said that he “lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars and I knew from whence all wars did rise, from the lust, according to James’s doctrine. . . . I told them I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strifes were.”

I have a boyfriend

I have a boyfriend who has a husband, and everything about that feels great except for the distance away he lives ( ❤️❤️❤️ ).

For quite a few years now, I’ve had a personal policy of not getting involved with anyone local who already has a boyfriend or husband. It’s not that I disapprove of open relationships or polyamory, it’s that as a single person, the risks of falling in love with someone for whom I’m just a fling or entertainment on the side are too high. Guys who live at a distance seemed not to present that risk.

But then I met G, here in Provincetown during Bear Week 2017, and his husband D. Both lovely guys. I really enjoyed their company (G’s in particular, wink wink nudge nudge). Then in 2018 we were all eagerly anticipating seeing one another again in Ptown, and my experience that week confirmed that I had deep feelings for G, and they were mutual. D invited me to their home for Christmas last year, and the three of us spent New Years in Paris. I met them in Spain with other friends of theirs for vacation this September, and I’m spending Christmas and New Years with them again next month.

I miss not being able to see G more often (and D too!), but the relationship makes me happy, and I’m learning things about myself, and I look forward to it continuing. It seems to work well for all three of us.

And of course, it’s not really anything new. I’ve dated couples before, and also once dated someone with my then-partner. It’s nothing new in a broader gay context, either. Gay men have long practiced non-monogamy in variously healthy and unhealthy ways. And it certainly isn’t confined to gay men; just consider the pre-Raphaelites and the Bloomsbury Set.

More gay

I wonder if I should present as “more gay” at work. I’m not even sure what that would look like, but the question has been provoking me ever since the Unitarian Universalist Association began a concerted effort to change the culture (of the workplace as well as the whole movement). Much of the focus is on race, but not only is whiteness privileged, so is heteronormativity (whether one is straight or not; i.e., gay people also make choices that are heteronormative), cis gender expression, higher education, and upper-middle to upper economic class.

I have some colleagues who appear to be totally free of “work casual” expectations of how to dress. I’ve been subject to dress codes at previous jobs, and didn’t like it, and while I reject the idea of a dress code, I still tend to reach for unremarkable. As a fat, older gay man, I’ve often fallen into the “wear dark baggy clothes” trap, and I’m trying to get out of that. I used to have quite a collection of earrings, but I no longer change them since I switched to surgical stainless hoops. And I used to wear rings on occasion, but most of them don’t currently fit on my fingers.

What I have been doing is wearing bracelets and choosing some brighter colors in clothing, as well as paying more attention to fit. The most obvious way in which I don’t conform to the work casual vibe is that my clothing reflects my working-class background. (My father owned his own business and owned property, but he did agricultural work and manual labor his entire life.)

Conforming to majority culture

I struggle with the conflict between conforming to majority culture and being myself. I’m a product of a specific time and place, with my own peculiarities, and those add up to a certain amount of comfort in conformity. In some ways, I’ve blissfully ignored majority culture, and yet inwardly I don’t feel the boldness—or anger—of Zaza.

I went down a rabbit hole on YouTube yesterday and was reminded of how profoundly moving La Cage Aux Folles is, and how extraordinarily groundbreaking it was when it premiered. I also remember how many members of the cast died of AIDS.

The world has changed

I marvel at how the world has changed in 40 years and sometimes struggle to keep up.

Remember the context for these prompts is a coming-out day post, hence the 40-year frame. I marvel even more at the way the world has changed in 60 years, though I don’t remember much about the first few. But blogging about the increasing difficulty in keeping abreast of new technology would just make me sound like an old man.

When I was young, I didn’t grasp how much what we see around us limits our imaginations of what is possible for ourselves, or at least limits what we think is possible, even if we imagine it. This is made clear by how young people are when they realize they are not straight or not one of the genders routinely assigned at birth. I absolutely marvel that people so young have such self-awareness. When I was that age I had no idea. I have to conclude that having examples of alternatives visible in media and in the people around them allows them to reflect on the implications for themselves.

There’s also the routine social norms that have changed in ways I might have imagined but never thought would happen so soon. While advances for LGBTQ+ people remain tenuous, the speed with which some changes happened amazes me. I attribute some of that speed to the spectre of thousands of young men dying before the very eyes of their families and loved ones. Just as there’s nothing like a war to create anti-war activists, there’s nothing like a plague to reveal how widespread (and close to home) gay lives are.

I don’t consider myself bi or queer

I’ve had sex with women, but do not consider myself bi or queer. As I said at the beginning of the month, I believe being gay is about identity and self-awareness as much as (or perhaps more than) behavior. The times I had sex with women it was driven by emotional attraction rather than physical attraction. I suppose you could say I’m functionally bisexual, but my sexual interests are pretty entirely focused on male bodies.

Queer is becoming a default giant tent term, but it conveys very little information. A category that can include both asexual heterosexuals and sexually active (and exclusive) gay men won’t tell you much about any specific person. So when I want to publicly self-identify on the basis of sexuality, I say I’m a gay man.

A corollary to this bit of terminology is that it does bother me (a bit, not an enormous amount) when straight people very casually use the word queer. In spite of its use in academic contexts, it has not entirely shed its pejorative connotations for me. I’d rather people, unless they are including themselves in the group “queer”, use LGBTQ+ or a similar acronym. Both usages, of course, have their benefits and weaknesses.

Holding hands in public

In spite of all the changes both personally and in American culture, I’m still often uncomfortable holding hands with another man in public. There are places I see younger couples holding hands that I really just wouldn’t, and even when I’m someplace I feel safe, there remains this little thrill at holding hands. “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past.”

I survived living in San Francisco

I survived living in San Francisco during the beginning years of the AIDS epidemic. Many of my friends did not. And also, many of my friends did. Some of my friends even manage to still live in San Francisco (which is a miracle of another kind, considering what is happening with housing).

It’s sort of bizarre thinking about that time. Hindsight makes it seem like a dangerous place and time that I was lucky to escape. But of course it was a beautiful, rich, creative time in my life, filled with wonderful people and interesting things in a gorgeous physical setting.

When I left, I had every intention of returning in a couple of years. Now San Francisco is so far removed from the City I knew that I have little interest in anything but visiting.

My father wouldn’t speak to me

I spent a year or so when my father wouldn’t speak to me.

I realized I was gay in the late fall of 1978. I told my mother I was gay in the winter of 1979, and she told me not to tell my father (who was paying my way through college).

In 1985 I moved to Philadelphia. I didn’t much like it at first, which I told my mother, but I met someone I decided to move in with (my first live-in partner). When I told my mother I was staying in Philadelphia in order to live with Joseph, that was what finally broke her years-long silence. (She had told no one in all those years.) She told my father, and he was unwilling to speak to me. (Unlike my mother, however, he immediately talked to his cousin Milo about it.) If I called and he answered the phone, he would pass it to my mother. My mother stopped calling because she didn’t want him to see my number on the bill.

In 1987, my father was working on a cotton-picker, which was up on blocks, and it fell on him. It fractured his skull, broke his pelvis and at least one of his legs, and caused some internal damage. He was very lucky not to die. There was a massive blood drive in my hometown for him.

Very early in his recovery, he said that as the cotton-picker fell on him he realized (had a revelation?) that being a family was more important than my sexuality. It was the phone call when my mother told me that he had said this which prompted me to sit down suddenly at work and start crying, and my coworker Ruth to seemingly jump over her desk to come stand by me.

Attacked on the street

I’ve been attacked on the street on my way home from a bar with my lover. It was in Philadelphia in the late eighties or early nineties, and we were crossing Broad Street (in the crosswalk, with the light). When a car full of guys pulled into the crosswalk, Paul turned and pointed at the lines on the street. They reacted by jumping out of the car and beating us.

It happened so fast I don’t really remember what went down (besides me, to the pavement, with some kicking involved). My glasses were broken. We took a cab (I remember saying that I was bleeding but that I was not going to bleed on his car) to an emergency room, where I got some stitches in my eyebrow and an x‑ray revealed a hairline fracture in my nose. (I remember flirting with the nurse.) I had rather spectacular bruises for a while. (I’ve had pierced ears for ever, and had a pierced nipple for a while, and have pierced my nose twice, but the idea of piercing my eyebrow still gives me the heebie-jeebies.)

A bystander got the license of the car, and a police officer took a report while we were still at the hospital. The police eventually said the registered owner wasn’t driving the car, so there wasn’t anything they could do. (The police in Philadelphia were notoriously corrupt and insular, so I suspected homophobia and/or ethnic or extended family solidarity.) One of my coworkers, however, had a son in the police and offered to have someone make inquiries and rough someone up. I declined with a good bit of embarrassed affection.