I'm fairly certain that the photo above was the first one ever taken of me in the U.S. I look kinda wild, don't I? Like one of Peter Pan's lost boys. I guess in some ways I was.
This photo was taken by my friend Susan at Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis in April of 1994. I had arrived in the U.S. from Australia three months earlier, on Australia Day, actually – January 26.
Twenty years later, in April of 2014, my friend Brian took the photo of me below, not far from the same spot at Minnehaha Falls where that first U.S. photo of me was taken in 1994.
Yes, I've lived in the States for 20 years – a fact that I can still find hard to believe.
I decided some time ago that before the end of my twentieth year in the U.S., I would acknowledge and honor the people, places, and experiences that have helped shape me on my journey as a gay man and, more fundamentally, as a human being who strives to be open to the Divine Presence in all aspects of my life and the lives of people and the created world around me. I realize I'm cutting it fine, but here on this last day of 2014 is the first in what will be a series of posts that I'll continue next year and which will serve as a retrospective of my 20 years in the U.S.
I think one reason why I've delayed starting this series is because I want to do justice to my journey and those who have been part of it with me. Basically, I don't want to screw it up! I'm also mindful of author Doris Lessing's insights on the tricky nature of autobiographical writing.
The reason why people feel uneasy and disturbed when their lives are put into biographies is precisely because something that is experienced as fluid, fleeting, evanescent, has become fixed, and therefore lifeless, without movement. You can’t appeal against the written word, except by more written words, and then you are committed to polemic. Memory isn’t fixed: it slips and slides about. It is hard to match one’s memories of one’s life with the solid fixed account of it that it written down. Virginia Woolf said that living was like being inside a kind of luminous envelope. I would add to that ‘inside a moving, flickering luminous envelope, like a candle flame in a draught.’ (Lessing, D. “Writing Autobiography” in Lessing, D., Time Bites: Views and Reviews. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004, pp. 91-92.)
I think Peter Ustinov's wise words are also worth keeping in mind whenever one is about to either write of one's own experiences or read of others'.
I’ve always been very much opposed to the courts of law where you are asked to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, because I think that’s impossible. If I was forced to do that, I should refuse because I’m willing to tell my truth, but I can’t guarantee that it’s the whole truth, and certainly not that it’s nothing but the truth. The truth is like a chandelier in the courtroom, which everybody sees, but from a different angle – because they’re different people and can’t occupy the same seat. (Quoted in the introduction of John Coldstream's biography of Dirk Bogarde.)
So, yes, I'm a little uneasy about sharing what I'm about to share, because, as I said, I want to be sure to honor the depth and richness of the experience, in all it's chandelier-like beauty and complexity, and all its fluid nature. But something compels me to at least do and say what I can. And so here goes.
Oh, one other thing before I get started: This first installment is going to be a work-in-progress, as in order to get it posted before year's end, I've had to keep many of my comments brief. Accordingly, I will be adding to and no doubt editing this post for days, perhaps weeks to come. So if you're interested, be sure to revisit it when you have the time and inclination.
Prologue: All I Left Behind
The photo at right was taken in December 1993, just weeks before my departure to the U.S. I look like I'm just out of high school . . . or still in high school! In fact, I'd been teaching at Sts. Peter and Paul's Primary School in Goulburn, New South Wales, Australia, for the past six years. And before that, had been in college for four years – three years in Armidale and one year in Canberra.
People often remark that I look 10-15 years younger than I actually am. Personally, and half-jokingly, I put that down to being closeted from the time as a teenager when I realized I was gay to the time I first came out to others – a period of about twelve years. For a long time it felt like I was psycho-sexually that length of time behind where I should be. This became even more obvious to me in my last two years in Australia. My sense is that this type of experience was/is a common one for a lot of gay people my age and older. Thankfully, with homosexuality becoming increasingly more accepted by society, young people of today are not closeted for such lengths of time, if at all. I was closeted, however, for most of my teens and my 20s. That can't help but delay one's psycho-sexual development. Since coming out, though, I've caught up! Indeed, I like to think I'm now quite a psycho-sexually mature person – though the journey, of course, for all of us, is ongoing.
Speaking of coming out, that was a major factor in my decision to relocate to the U.S. That and studying for my Masters in Theology at the College of St. Catherine (now the St. Catherine University) in St. Paul, Minnesota. The two really did go hand-in-hand. But more about that later.
Left: Lauren and Joanne, two of my students in 1992.
As a teacher I was somewhat renowned for my creative and colorful classroom environments and the plays I'd often write and stage with my students. Without doubt my time at Sts. Peter and Paul’s was one of the happiest and most creative of my life. Paradoxically, it also was one of my most loneliest and isolating – owing to the fact that I was living a closeted existence as a gay man.
To this day people ask me if I would ever like to go back to primary (or elementary) school teaching. To be honest, I don't think I could. I look at it this way: When I was teaching I was at the age where most young adults expend time and energy on seeking and building a relationship. Because of my closeted existence, I didn't feel empowered to do that. Instead, I channeled all that energy into my teaching career. I'm sure this type of situation isn't unique to closeted gay people. We all choose for various reasons, when and how we direct our energies, and what aspects of our life we make a priority. For me, however, I could only maintain the sublimation and redirection of my energies for so long. In my last years, things began to crack. I knew I had to move on and live more authentically in relation to my whole self – a wholeness that included my sexuality.
I also knew I wanted to make sense theologically of what I was experiencing, and I knew that that was possible, indeed was already being done, in certain centers of learning. I wanted to be part of that type of theologically exploration and use my teaching skills to facilitate and further it. Accordingly, throughout 1992 I began sending letters of enquire to various colleges and universities in the U.S., the names of which I obtained from an almanac that a teaching colleague who had grown up in the States loaned me. Remember, these were the days before the Internet. I ended up choosing to study for a Masters in Theology at the College of St. Catherine, as its course work, complete with classes on "Human Sexuality and Spirituality" and "Jung and Spiritual Direction," greatly appealed to me.
Above: With my Goulburn friends (from left) Cathy, Sandra, and Kerry – December 1993.
Left: Leaving Australia not only meant saying goodbye to my family, my teaching career, and my teaching colleagues in Goulburn, but also to my college friends from Armidale, including Mark, Mickey, Enid, Dom, Sharon, and Kurt (pictured with me in 1986) . . .
. . . my friends from my year of study in Canberra, including (from left) Andrew, Craig, and Mark (pictured with me in 1988) . . .
. . . and my Goulburn friends Garth, Luke, and Jeremiah (pictured with me in November of 1993).
Above and below: My Goulburn farewell party in December 1993 had a "beach party" theme. That's a fake tan I'm sporting, and with my friend and teaching colleague Margaret on my knee!
Above: Teaching colleagues (from left) Gerry, Mike, and Mike! Yes, with three Michaels on staff it was definitely a Catholic school! The Mike at right is Mike McGowan. He was the principal of Sts. Peter and Paul's at that time. I was and remain good friends with him and his family.
I flew to the U.S. out of Melbourne, but not before first traveling by car from my hometown of Gunnedah to Sydney with my parents, Gordon and Margaret Bayly, and my paternal grandmother, Belle Smith. My younger brother and his family met us in Sydney, where we all spent some good family time at the Ashfield apartment of my Great Aunt Phyllis (Nanna's sister) and her partner Frank.
Pictured above from left: My younger brother Tim, Mum, Dad, Nanna Smith, me (holding my niece Layne), Aunty Phyllis, and Frank.
Left: With Layne.
Above: With my sister-in-law Ros and niece Layne – Sydney, January 1994.
Above: Mum, Aunty Phyllis and Nanna Smith partaking in the great Aussie tradition of afternoon tea! – January 1994.
I didn't know it then, of course, but my time with Aunty Phyllis in January of 1994 would be the last time I would see her. She died in 1996, a few months before I returned that year for Christmas, my first visit back to Australia from the U.S.
My maternal grandmother, Olive Sparkes, was still living at the time of my relocation to the U.S. Because of her age, she didn't accompany my parents and Nanna Smith and I to Sydney from our hometown of Gunnedah. She's pictured at right (center) in May of 1993 with, from left, my nephews Ryan and Liam, Dad, my older brother Chris, my younger brother Tim (holding Layne), and Nanna Smith.
From Sydney, Mum and Dad and I drove to Melbourne, home to my older brother and his family. On the way we stopped in Goulburn where we visited the McGowan family.
above, my parents and I are pictured with (from left) Tess, Raph, Iggy, Jeremiah, Dom, and Mim. Of the seven McGowan children, only the youngest Collette is not in this picture. For more recent photos of the family, click here and here.
Left: With Jeremiah in September of 1993.
Above: In Melbourne my parents and I stayed with my older brother Chris, his wife Cathie, and their two boys Ryan and Liam.
Right: My nephews Liam and Ryan – January 1994.
Up until that time I'd never traveled beyond my homeland. I was now about to go halfway around the world to a wintry land where I knew absolutely no one. Of course, I'd already been accepted into the Masters of Theology program at St. Catherine's, and had accommodation arranged at the college's Minneapolis campus. But it was still a huge leap I was taking in many ways.
And that was okay.
. . . In fact, it was more than okay . . . it was what I longed for, had been planning for for almost two years: a new beginning; a chance to live, really live in the totality of my being. Despite all the trepidation I was ready to go.
During my last days in Australia I shared with my friend Jeremiah (pictured above at Mystery Bay) the following illustration of a winged figure by Susan Seddon Boulet and its accompanying quote by French poet Guilliame Apollinaire. Together, these two expressions symbolized for me flight, freedom, and transformation. They comprised a beautiful summation of all I longed and hoped for from my journey to the U.S.
Come to the edge, he said.
We are afraid, they said.
Come to the edge, he said.
They came. He pushed them.
And they flew.
– Guilliame Apollinaire
Part 1: 1994-1996
Above and right: Winter in Minnesota – January 1994.
Above: Attending the May 1994 graduation of my friend Susan from the College of St. Catherine. Because the school year goes from February to December in Australia, I entered my studies at St. Kate's midway through the U.S. 1993-1994 school year, which runs from September to May. Susan was one of the first friends I made in the dorms of St. Kate's Minneapolis campus, where we both lived in the first part of 1994. She went on to study at nearby Augsburg College before relocating out east to teach. I'm happy to say we're still good friends!
Left: Another friend from those early days, though one with whom I've subsequently lost contact, was Joy. She has the distinction of being the person who in February of 1994 took me to my first gay bar – the Saloon in downtown Minneapolis. She had a lot of gay male friends, and was a very bubbly, uncomplicated young woman.
Above: Because the St. Paul residential campus of St. Kate's is women only, I lived in the dorms of the Minneapolis campus, which was the old St. Mary's Hospital located on what's known as the West Bank of the Mississippi River and next to Fairview University Hospital.
I traveled by shuttle bus to my classes on the St. Paul campus. Graduate classes, like those of the Masters in Theology program, were open to both men and women. They were also held in the evenings, which meant my days were free to study and to explore the area around both the St. Paul campus (Highland Park) and the Minneapolis campus (Cedar-Riverside, close to downtown Minneapolis). I soon discovered they were two very different areas.
Above: The Cedar-Riverside area of south Minneapolis – May 1994.
Above: Across the river from the Minneapolis campus of St. Kate's is the East Bank of the University of Minnesota. That's downtown Minneapolis in the distance. At left is the silver exterior of the Weisman Art Museum.
Above and below: Views of the St Paul campus of the College of St. Catherine – March and May of 1994.
One of my first papers I wrote as a graduate theology student at St. Kate's focused on claiming the sacramentality of same-sex relationships and made creative use of metaphors and images of the ocean, the sight and experience of which I was clearly missing in the four months or so since relocating from Australia. This, after all, was in May of 1994.
Following is an excerpt from this paper's conclusion.
Once the reality of homosexuality is examined beyond the narrow confines of Roman Catholicism and in the light of contemporary psychological and theological insight, the basis for the Roman hierarchy's condemnation of same-sex relationships is exposed as erroneous. It is a basis comprised of centuries of homophobic attitudes and responses which, in turn, have been shaped by selective biblical interpretations and an insufficiently grounded teaching body.
Official Roman Catholicism's denial of the sacramentality of same-sex relationships stems from its suspicion of the sacramentality of human sexuality separated from the purpose of procreation. Like its understanding of homosexuality, the Roman tradition's understanding of the broader reality of human sexuality is founded on presuppositions which, in light of human experience and insight, are limited in their ability to recognize and embrace the diversity of human sexuality.
The reality of this sexual diversity calls for the church to redefine its theology of human sexuality and morality. Only then will it be able to truthfully extend Christ's call to wholeness to all people. In other religious traditions, such redefining is occurring at all levels. Within the Roman tradition the greatest progress is being made at the grassroots level – a level where divine truth is being most clearly discerned through the locus of human experience.
Only when the full range of life-giving and -affirming currents of human experience are acknowledged as potentially sacramental will we grow as church in our understanding of the ocean of diversity and mystery within which we are drawn together and made one. God is not only the ocean within each one of us, but we truly comprise the myriad of tidal currents within God.
This paper was written for a Sacramental Theology course taught by Joan Timmerman, who wrote in response to my work:
I am struck by your great potential to make a difference in this area of theology and Catholic practice. It is a piece of work above the "call of duty" and shows well your gifts of mind and skills of communication.
My work wasn't above critique, however, albeit a gentle one . . .
Alas, while the [ocean-themed] photos and drawings made [your paper] very attractive and carried the message of sacramentality of matter (the medium is the message), it would still be better for academic papers to submit the text without artistic additions. Here correction (I think) is right. That doesn't mean one can't make a coffee-table book out of a former thesis!
Above and left: In my dorm room on the Minneapolis campus of the College of St. Catherine – 1994.
Note the ocean colors, the many pictures of Australian landscapes . . . and the bird figurine, symbolic of flight and, in my mind, at least, of journeying. These were all very important images, metaphors and symbols for me at that time. They still are, actually.
Dignity Twin Cities in February, 1994. I soon became the group's newsletter editor. (For some examples of articles I contributed, click here and here.)
I attended my first Gay Pride event that summer with the good folks from Dignity (above).
Right: Greg, a member of Dignity Twin Cities with whom I shared a memorable Easter weekend in April, 1994.
Above: Visiting the Minnesota Zoo in the summer of 1994. My hair had grown to the point where I could almost tie it back! I'm wearing a t-shirt commemorating the Stonewall uprising of 1969. I dare say I bought this t-shirt earlier in the summer at my first gay pride event – the annual Twin Cities Gay Pride parade and festival.
Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM). Years later I would serve as the organization's executive coordinator.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1994, CPCSM was working to bring Bishop Thomas Gumbleton to the Twin Cities for a series of talks in October. I organized a speaking engagement for the bishop at St. Kate's, and gave it the title "Bridging the Gap: Reconciling the Church and Its Sexual Minority Members." I used a picture of the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the promotional material.
Above: From left: CPCSM board member Mary Burns, CPCSM co-founder David McCaffrey, me, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, CPCSM co-founder Bill Kummer, Darlene White, Dale Korogi (who at that time was at the Basilica of St. Mary, one of the venues at which Bishop Gumbleton spoke and, in this case celebrated Mass), and Joan Bednarczyk (from the Church of St. Stephen in Anoka, where Gumbleton's talk was entitled "From Fear to Faith: A Catholic Bishop's Personal Journey with His Gay Brother").
Right: In the lead-up to Bishop Gumbleton's visit to the Twin Cities, one which we billed as a "rare and unprecedented event" (after all, this was an active Roman Catholic bishop speaking out for LGBTQ people), the Minneapolis-based GLBT publication, Gaze Magazine highlighted "local GLBT Catholics' 20-year struggle with the hierarchy" as its September 30, 1994 cover story. On the magazine's cover, pictured holding a large wooden cross in front of the Basilica of St. Mary, were Dignity Twin Cities president Brian McNeill (center) and CPCSM co-founders Bill Kummer (left) and David McCaffrey.
To read this article, click here.
Above: Celebrating my 29th birthday with friends (from left) Jacob, Lisa, Joy, John, and Margaret – Minneapolis, October 1994.
September 1994 saw the start of the 1994-1995 academic year. It was at this time that I began working as a "student worker" in the St. Kate's Minneapolis campus' Student Life office.
My good friend Angie is pictured above (second from left) with other Minneapolis campus staff members. Pictured with me at right is Margaret, another good friend.
Above: My dear friend Joan, pictured center, with our friends and St. Kate's Minneapolis colleagues Mike and Morgaine – September 1994.
Left: An advertisement from the September 30, 1994 issue of Gaze Magazine. Actually, I guess it's more of a "community service announcement." A similar announcement in the same publication rated the risk factor of various sex acts. "Safe" activities included flirting, phone sex, massage, masturbation, and "giving or getting a blow job with a condom." At the other end of the spectrum were "too risky" activities: "getting screwed without a condom (bottom); screwing without a condom (top); mixing sex with poppers, alcohol, or other drugs that impair judgement; and sharing IV needles."
"Coming out," I soon realized, had opened a whole new world to me, complete with both promise and risk.
As I mentioned previously, my first experience of the "gay (male) scene" was at the Saloon in downtown Minneapolis, which in 1994 was celebrating its 18th anniversary.
Here's a little about the Saloon from the same September 1994 issue of Gaze from which the above "community announcement" was taken:
On March 10, 1977, the Saloon first opened its doors as a gay bar. But the Saloon's presence in our community really dates from 1981, when present co-owners Jim ("Andy") Anderson and John Moore purchased the bar. Moore [a former Catholic seminarian with whom I would became friends through his generous support of CPCSM] had started at the Saloon on opening day in 1977, while Anderson came aboard a few months later. Both are pioneer gay activists who belonged to FREE (Fight Repression of Erotic Expression), Minnesota's first gay organization.
. . . [I]n 1983, Anderson and Moore were named Grand Marshals of the Twin Cities Gay Pride Celebration in recognition of their and the Saloon's contributions to the community. And that tradition of community service has continued down to the present. Through scores of donations and fund-raisers year after year, the Saloon has assisted numerous organizations.
From the '70s to the '90s, the Saloon has seen many changes. In the 1980s, it became the Y'All Come Back Saloon, with a Western motif. Over the past several years, the bar has transformed into a more contemporary industrial look.
right) to Mexico. Well, to the shanty towns just over the border, actually. It was quite the experience. The best part of it was finding a stray dog at a Kansas truck stop. We named him Wiley and brought him back with us to Minneapolis. I'm pictured with him above.
For a while Dan's mother took care of Wiley, as both Dan and I were living in the dorms of the Minneapolis campus of St. Kate's. In time, though, Wiley was given to a shelter. I often think of him and hope that he ended up in a good and loving home.
Above: Dan and Wiley – Minneapolis, April 1995.
The group's Statement of Purpose was as follows:
Open Ground aims to provide a supportive and safe environment to a unique group of students on campus. These students comprise an often invisible minority – an invisibility that engenders numerous fallacies and stereotypes, the effects of which can be extremely detrimental to their development as persons. Conscious of the prejudices and discrimination produced by these many fallacies and stereotypes, many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students may not feel a part of the college community.
Accordingly, Open Ground's primary aim is to provide a supportive and safe environment for the college's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students. Yet aware that silence and invisibility foster ignorance and prejudice, Open Ground also aims to both advocate and educate. Thus as well as support and social activities, Open Ground also facilitates educational and community-building/serving ones. The focus of Open Ground's activities are therefore directed both inward and outward. The acceptance, tolerance, and empowerment that Open Ground works to foster among its members is, in turn, channeled to the wider community for the benefit of all.
Above: With Janet Dahlem, the faculty adviser to Open Ground – October 1996.
Above: Hey, now! That winged figure looks familiar! The display I created outside the campus' Office of Student Life for National Coming Out Day – October 11, 1995.
Above: My friend Joy, visiting Open Ground's National Coming Out Day Book Fair – October 11, 1995.
For this event, the first of its kind at St. Kate's Minneapolis campus, I secured a consignment of books from both A Brother's Touch bookstore and the Amazon Bookstore. Titles included What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, Coming Out: An Act of Love, Gay Soul, Prayers for Bobby, When Someone You Know is Gay, The Lesbian and Gay Parenting Book, Transgender Nation, Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out, and Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price.
PLEASE NOTE: This post is still under construction.
Further commentary will be added soon.
Thanks for your patience!
I loved reading this. I wish you peace and LOVE in 2015!
I am glad you followed your heart and journeyed to the United States. You have achieved much, and touched many lives through your work and your writing. You are loved and valued! May you have a blessed 2015, Michael.
So many cutie pix of you, great smiles too and the unexpected faux tanning pic, my my my. Full of surprises, you! Thanks for sharing your life so boldly here, and bringing your perspective on gay Catholic theology, and just being the charmer you are. Hope we get another 20 of you in America!
I found very interesting the tale of your life from Australia to US and from boyhood to adulthood as a gay man...
I quote this passage "People often remark that I look 10-15 years younger than I actually am. Personally, I put that down to being closeted from the time as a teenager when I realized I was gay to the time I first came out to others – a period of about twelve years. For a long time it felt like I was psycho-sexually that length of time behind where I should be. This became even more obvious to me in my last two years in Australia. My sense is that this type of experience was/is a common one for a lot of gay people my age and older."
My comment is that I AM older (55) and moreover Italian , and thus belonging to a less open minded country... and those are two among the reasons why my journey is still developing... Thank you and good bye!
Michael, your writing and organisational skills are so wonderful and it was really great to read of your early days in the States. I think you were incredibly brave to leave all that you had known and loved and to venture onto such unknown shores.
May there be many exciting and wonderful adventures for you in 2015.
God's rich blessings and love from the Goulburn Conroys.
Interesting comments about age. I have always been taken for looking younger than I am. A close friend always loves to tell everyone that when I took him to the hotel in Sydney for his 18th birthday (not his first visit but his first legal one) I was asked to prove my age and I was 30. He loves to call me old man but now that he is 58 with 4 kids and a number of grandchildren, I call him grandpa. He also tells people how I kept him on the straight and narrow but must now realise I was madly in love with him at the time. I was a high school teacher and "wasted' many years falling in love with students. However I can proudly meet them today, and they now know I am gay, and know I never did anything wrong. Like you, I did not begin to find gay life until my late 20's and only openly in my mid 30's. I am now 70 and often regret those lost years.
However, while I enjoy visiting the USA (spent 6 weeks there last year), I could never live there. Instead I have moved to live in and love NZ.
Wonderful first installment Michael! You have made an indelible mark on the Twin Cities, and I am so grateful for having known and worked with you. I look forward to all of the coming memories and observations. Thanks for sharing this with us!
Michael, thank you so much for this inspiring series. It takes courage and energy to share from one's personal depths in this way. It's important that you know you're heard, and what you have to say cherished. Many people admire the courageous life you've lived for a very long time now!
I finally had a chance to read the text after first enjoying all those pics of Michael through the years. Never knew about Open Ground, but not surprised it existed thanks to your efforts Michael. And now as a Dignitette, I enjoyed seeing your first encounters with Dignity Twin Cities. Your mark in the Catholic lgbt liberation scene will never be known precisely, but I do not doubt the many who count themselves as Catholic supporters of lgbt rights would not be where they are if not for your dogged, brave, creative presence on the scene. Looking forward to more of the last 20 years. Bring it on! Jim Smith
Thanks, everyone, for your generous and encouraging comments! They are greatly appreciated.
Can't believe it's been 20 years .. you were only going for four!
I remember how well I coped with the good-bye at Melbourne Airport. The plane had taken off and Cathie couldn't believe it. Unfortunately, we spotted an Italian lady who was sobbing loudly as she ran past us. Needless to say, my tears finally ran freely. We all then enjoyed a coffee, happy thoughts and laughter.
This was a journey you wanted to begin, and what a journey it has been! We're so proud of all you've achieved. Really enjoyed "20 Years Statewide"! Love you heaps!!
Mum and Dad
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