Author Archives: Joe

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces.

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Melancholy

I think that most people who read this blog know that I have had a long struggle with depression and anxiety. It is something that I have struggled with since I was a teenager. As a general rule, the medicine I take helps to control it, but there are days when, for whatever reason, it doesn’t seem to work. Yesterday was one of those days. I was just down. I felt like I wanted to cry for no reason. These days aren’t something I experience on a regular basis, but they do happen.

It can be difficult for people to understand what it’s like to have anxiety and depression, especially if you are like me and try to hide it from most of the world. Generally, people who have anxiety or depression disorders display significant disruptions in their ability to work, go to school, or participate in social functions. But with my anxiety and depression, although those disruptions are not as apparent, they still can occur. There are days when I shut down almost completely. Many people don’t see signs and symptoms of my depression, because I am usually able to manage my daily activities. With the exception of a few friends, I tend to suffer in silence. To the outside world, I appear to be fine and even excel at accomplishing tasks and goals, but inwardly, it is a much different story. I have a fear of being seen as weak, and I don’t want to be pitied. 

Each January at the university where I work, we have a Staff In-Service day. It’s supposed to be an employee appreciation day that provides the staff the opportunity to get “out of the office, socialize, develop skills, and meet new people.” They claim it is a fun day that consists of a keynote lecture, workshops, lunch, and prizes. I hate it. I often teach one of the classes, so I don’t have to go to one of the other stupid activities. One year, the keynote address was by a guy named Eric Karpinski, a.k.a. The Happiness Coach. What a crock of bullshit he was! He said that when people have days like I had yesterday when I was feeling depressed that most of this depression is self-inflicted. He also claimed that through the power of positive thinking that we can do away with depression and anxiety on our own. We just needed to think positively, cheer up, and smile. This may sound friendly and supportive to someone, but it is oversimplifying the sadness associated with depression.

Someone who is depressed can’t force their depression away by just thinking positive thoughts and smiling. In my opinion, Karpinski’s claim that depression was our own fault and that positive thinking can be used to cure yourself is insulting. The people in charge of that years Staff In-Service day were flooded with emails of people who let them know just how insulting this guy was. You can’t just wish away depression. As much as you’d like to, it just isn’t possible. It’s like when our orange dictator says that COVID-19 is going to disappear like a miracle just because he says it will, or when he says, “If we didn’t test so much and so successfully, we would have very few cases.” It will still exist dumbass, just as depression will still exist. Even when medication is largely effective, there are still going to be days when the depression pops up. It’s always there.

So, what I am trying to say is that if you know someone with depression don’t say to them “Cheer Up!” Your well-meaning exhortations to “cheer up” or “smile” may feel friendly and supportive to you, but they oversimplify the feelings of sadness associated with depression. Just as someone who is depressed can’t force their brain to make more serotonin, they also can’t just “decide” to be happy. While there are certainly benefits to practicing positive thinking,  it’s not enough to cure someone of depression.


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Speaking and Living Our Truth

So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity. He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need. Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:17-32 (NASB)

Sometimes I read a passage from the Bible, and it has a special meaning to me. It is like God is speaking to me through His Word. I think this is one of the great things about the Bible. Not only is it God’s Word, but it is also one of the ways God speaks to us. When I read a passage, the first thing that comes to my mind is usually what God is telling me. The Bible is written in a way that allows interpretations to fit an individual person. It is also written as a guide to how we are supposed to live. The passage above is sometimes given different titles according to the translation you look at: “Instructions for Christian Living,” “The Christian’s Walk,” or “The New Life.” When I read it, it really resonated with me, in what some may consider and unorthodox interpretation.

Nearly all of us have experienced something in our life that is a major turning point. Something that changes us forever. For LGBTQ people, that is often coming out. When we come out, we “lay aside the old self” and “put on the new self.” We speak our truth as to who we are. Being gay is not the only thing we are; it is most certainly a defining part of our lives, but we are also much more than just LGBTQ. Every time we authentically and courageously speak our truth, we love ourselves a little bit more. For those of us rejected by our families because of our sexuality, we give ourselves the love our family could not give us, and we reclaim our right to be heard, valued, and respected. Being seen and heard is our inherent birthright. God created us as we are, and by speaking our truth and coming out, we are claiming our authentic selves. 

When someone rejects us for coming out, we are reborn in the newness of life. It’s similar to being born again after baptism. We rise up in the newness of life. We no longer walk in the old ways. Those who rejected us are “in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart.” Their rejection is a hardness of their heart. Often those who rejected us quote Biblical scripture saying that we are the sinners (we are all sinners); however, it is they who are not walking with God and have hardened their hearts to our truth. For LGBTQ Christians, when we come out, we are walking with God and living as he created us, authentically and proudly.

When we come out, we leave our “old self” behind. That former person who was hiding in the closet was “being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit,” and by coming out, we are renewed “in the spirit” of our mind, and put on the new self, “which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” Therefore, we are “laying aside falsehood,” and we are speaking truth to those around us. God allows us to be angry at those who rejected us. He says, “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.” Being rejected hurts and angers us, but we need to live our truth. The psychological damage of living in the closet can be so devastating. We have to forgive those who rejected us because God tells us to forgive. He tells us, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”

There will probably always be people who condemn the LGBTQ community, but I think it is important that we accept ourselves and put aside our old self and live authentically. It does not matter what others think of us. Their rejection of us is their problem and not ours. They are like the Gentiles who have “in the futility of their mind” become “darkened in their understanding,” and they are “excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them.” God commands us to love one another. When people put that aside because of false beliefs, they are the sinners, not us. People who are filled with hate have no place with God. They are lost in the wilderness because they have chosen hate instead of love.

So, be true to who you are. Cast away those who are toxic in your life. Get rid of those who cause you strife. Some of us can live in a kind of cold war with our families. We still love them, but we know of their disapproval. But living in the closet can do more harm to our wellbeing. It is very hard to love ourselves fully when we hide. And it’s very hard to love others when we don’t love ourselves. Therefore, the closet is a lonely place. By coming out, we  

  •        live our life honestly.
  •        build self-esteem by being honest about oneself.
  •        develop closer, more genuine relationships with friends and family.
  •        alleviate the stress of hiding one’s identity.
  •        connect with other people who are LGBTQ.
  •        are part of a community with others with whom you have something in common.
  •        help to dispel myths and stereotypes by speaking about one’s own experience and educating others.
  •        are a role model for others.

By coming out and being our true selves, we can learn to truly love God and love ourselves.


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It Started 55 Years Ago… 📚 🏳️‍🌈

On July 4, 1965—four years before Stonewall—39 activists from D.C., New York, and Philadelphia marched on the place where the Declaration of Independence had been signed roughly two centuries earlier. They wanted to remind the nation that their rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” had been denied. Dressed in formal attire—the men in coats and ties, and many of the women in skirts and dresses—they carried signs that read Equal Treatment Before the Law and Homosexual Bill of Rights.

For the next four years, the organizer of that protest, Craig Rodwell, along with his comrades, Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen, marched in Philadelphia. Their demonstrations became known as “the Annual Reminders.” But in the summer of 1967, Rodwell also decided to do something that was, in its own quiet way, more radical than marching. He wanted to open a bookstore. Rodwell was the vice president of the Mattachine Society, a gay male political group. He wanted to make the Society more accessible to people, instead of just sitting in an office. He wanted the Society to set up a combination bookstore, counseling service, fund-raising headquarters, and office. When the Mattachine Society rejected Rodwell’s plans to open a bookstore, he resigned from the group and decided to do it alone.

The Stonewall protests two years later would draw broad attention to the struggle for gay liberation, but that struggle did not start in 1969. There were protests, and thriving gay communities, before that night in New York City—and Stonewall’s success was rooted in those earlier efforts. Activists like Rodwell understood the value of visibility; he was among the architects of New York’s gay-pride parade. But some were struggling not just for rights or liberation, but for something still more revolutionary. They were fighting for what they called “gay power,” the authority to define their own identity. Their efforts produced the intellectual revolution that lent the Stonewall protests their power, and which helped ensure that long after the protests were over, the changes they wrought would endure. The victories of Stonewall, then, had the unlikeliest of birthplaces: the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop.

In 1967, there were no gay community centers, save San Francisco’s Society for Individual Rights, that offered cultural programming and recreational activities. There were no gay bookstores that included shelves of gay books. In fact, there was no such thing as serious gay nonfiction. Libraries had systematically cataloged homosexuality as a deviance or a disorder. There were the occasional novels—notably, The Well of Loneliness, published by Radclyffe Hall in the United Kingdom in 1928—but mostly there was pulp fiction and porn, and novels that had queer subtexts. In 1870, Bayard Taylor had published Joseph and His Friend: A Story in Pennsylvania, widely considered to be the first American gay novel. Joseph and His Friend was the story of a newly engaged young man who finds himself instead falling in love with another man. The book was not well received. Then there is Bertram Cope’s Year, a 1919 novel by Henry Blake Fuller, which is sometimes also called the first American gay novel, but it was never widely circulated, and the gay theme was never fully specified. Gay novels have always had a specific but not large audience. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, gay literature was very hard to find in bookstores. It was even worse in the decades before I was born.

Therefore, Rodwell wanted a bookstore that would provide LGBTQ people with intellectual engagement as well as books on homosexuality. He also wanted the store to offer psychological-counseling services because, in 1967, the American Psychiatric Association still listed homosexuality as a mental illness in its diagnostic and statistical manual. For many queer people in the 1960s, the search for books, which offered some clues about homosexuality, was how they navigated their way out of the closet. When I first wanted to find out what it meant to be gay and was trying to understand my sexuality, the internet wasn’t widely available, and books were the only place to turn. When I was in college, Books-A-Million and their mall store Bookland had few if any gay books. Luckily, Montgomery had a Barnes and Noble back then, and the store did have a small gay literature section. It was worse in the 1960s. Those who went looking for gay books typically came up empty-handed. 

Rodwell boarded a bus and headed to Fire Island, a Long Island beach town that had become a gay hub, with the hope that he could earn enough money working as a bartender to open the store. Three months later, he arrived back in New York City. He found a storefront in the Village with a rent of $115 a month. He had to come up with the first month’s rent plus two month’s security. That amount came to $345, which was one third of what he’d earned tending bar. So, he paid the rent and security deposit and opened the first-ever gay bookstore in the world at 291 Mercer Street, between Waverly Place and East Eighth Street. In 1973, Rodwell moved the store to 15 Christopher Street. He kept the Mercer Street store open for several months, for “sentimental reasons,” but finally closed it in May 1974.

He wanted a name that would tell people what the shop was about, so he tried to thin of the most prominent person whose name I could use who is most readily identifiable as a homosexual by most people. Oscar Wilde seemed the most obvious at the time, so he called it the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop.

Rodwell planned the official opening for a few months later, on November 24, 1967. His mother arrived from Chicago the day before and they stayed up all night setting up the store. His plan to offer counseling services never came to fruition, but the store itself proved unexpectedly radical. The few identifiably queer books that could then be found in libraries—by Hall or Wilde or any other queer writers—were scattered by differences in genre, nationality, and date of publication. As Rodwell and his mother placed books by queer authors on the same shelf, they redefined the meaning of homosexuality. It was no longer simply a deviance or a disorder. It was, instead, a coherent category—with shelves of books to prove it.

The bookshop was immediately popular within the gay community. The store was packed, especially on Saturday afternoons, when Rodwell served free coffee and pastries. News of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop traveled around the country, and around the world. Gay readers wrote to Rodwell, asking for book suggestions and praising him for making LGBTQ novels, newspapers, and pamphlets available. Young men wrote, asking for advice on how to come out. European tourists told their friends, who made it a point to visit the Oscar Wilde Bookshop on their trips to New York. American soldiers stationed in Vietnam ordered books and asked for magazine subscriptions to The New York Hymnal, a journal Rodwell founded and edited. A handful of Americans and Europeans wrote to Rodwell asking for help on how to establish their own stores, which led, for example, to the creation of Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia. (The store title was taken from the title of James Baldwin’s 1956 homoerotic novel, which was the first gay book I ever bought and read.) The bookshop had not only become a major touchstone for New Yorkers but also symbolized the promise of gay liberation to many others throughout the world.

On June 28, 1969, Rodwell was walking home from a bridge game with a friend when he heard noise coming from the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar that had been owned by the Mafia and frequently raided by the police. At first, he ignored it, but then he noticed that a crowd had formed around the police wagon; people were resisting being handcuffed by the police. Rodwell climbed onto the steps of the highest stoop and yelled, “Gay power!” and “Christopher Street belongs to the queens!” 

While Rodwell and others defined homosexuality on their own terms, refusing to allow those in positions of authority to be the sole authors of their identity, the revolution was not over. Discrimination continued. Decades of activism lay ahead. The Stonewall uprising amplified the work that Rodwell and others had been doing before 1969. And it was those networks of activists, and the intellectual revolution they set in motion—reclaiming and defining their own identity—that transformed Stonewall from an isolated event into a turning point in the struggle for gay liberation. The protests themselves eventually ended, but the books and articles these activists published endure, and continue to inspire new generations. The Oscar Wilde Bookshop closed on March 29, 2009 citing the Great Recession and challenges from online bookstores.

This post was adapted from an article in The Atlantic by Jim Downs, a history professor at Connecticut College.


Moment of Zen: Independence Day


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Fourth of July Traditions

When I was growing up, our family had five big holidays that we celebrated: New Year’s Day, Easter, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. New Year’s Day was always celebrated with traditional foods (pork, greens, and black-eyed peas) and with my paternal grandmama’s family. Easter was a holiday for just my parents, sister, and me. We always had ham, macaroni and cheese, and the other vegetables varied. Independence Day was always celebrated with my paternal granddaddy’s family. Thanksgiving was always celebrated with my mother’s family, and Christmas was numerous gatherings with all the different branches of my family. Each of them was a very special occasion that I always looked forward to.

The Fourth of July was always particularly special. My granddaddy had his own barbecue pit and would cook pork and beef ribs. Ive always preferred pork ribs. My grandmama would make the sauce that would go on them. Granddaddy also would grill some corn on the cob, too. Grandmama would make baked beans and potato salad. My mama would make the coleslaw. Daddy would go early in the morning to help Granddaddy barbecue the ribs, while Grandmama made iced tea and lemonade for refreshment. Everyone else who came generally brought a dish and they often varied according to who came that year. After lunch and around the middle of the afternoon, we would usually cut up a watermelon, and many of the years, Grandmama would get out the ice cream churn and make her special ice cream. There is just nothing like my grandmama’s homemade ice cream. Well, maybe Bluebell’s Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream, but only the Light Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream. The regular is too sweet.

Family would come from as far away as Arizona to be at Granddaddy’s Fourth of July barbecue. All of the nearby family members would have some out of town relative staying with them. Sadly, the largest gathering was the last. My granddaddy died of cancer in 2001 and that Independence Day every member of the clan came from far and wide. Granddaddy was bedridden at the time, so my daddy did the barbecuing. Granddaddy was so sick, he was no longer able to eat much, but he was so happy everyone came that year. He died just three weeks later. He had held on for that last barbecue, which tells you how special it was to him.

While we keep up with most of the other holidays, the Fourth of July has never been the same. It’s always been a much smaller affair after Granddaddy died. Daddy usually still cooks ribs, but they are now made with Mama’s BBQ sauce recipe instead of my grandmama’s. In the last five years, I have only been back for the Fourth once. It’s just not the same.

This year, I will be cooking some ribs, baked beans, and scalloped potatoes just like my mama taught me. Well, the ribs will be cooked in the oven, something unthinkable for the rest of my family, but I do not have a grill. This year it will also be a solitary affair. I found one small rack of ribs at the grocery store. I was surprised the supermarket had a small rack of ribs, but they did and only one of them so, I bought it.

Happy Fourth of July, Everyone!


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