What does it mean to have a voice? There is the voice that is sound produced in a person’s larynx and uttered through the mouth, as speech or noise. There is the voice that is an agency by which a particular point of view is expressed or represented. There is ”The Voice” otherwise known as Whitney Houston. If you look at the voice in either the physical or metaphoric form it is used to express. You are expressing the audio-physical experience of sound, or the metaphysical voice of thought. The first expression is easy to take away; you can cut out the tongue or damage any part of the larynx. You can even go full “Titus Andronicus” and cut off poor Lavinia’s hands, taking away all forms of physically expressing the voice. The latter voice is a little harder to take away. It requires years of oppression and manipulation. It requires control over someone’s body and spirit. It requires, not silence of sound, but silence of hope. It’s harder to take away, yes, but this kind of silence can go on for generations effecting more than one person, or one group of people.
This silence is tricky. Just when you think it’s stopped in lingers in the DNA passed down through ancestors. This type of silence can change the world. This silence has been used to place people on a hierarchy, a hierarchy that has been perpetuated by religion, politics, and power. This hierarchical scale has allowed a certain group of people to control who remains at the top and who is forced to grow comfortable at the bottom. We are born with our place on this scale already determined for us, and have to spend our lifetime fighting to chance where we fall. This scale places male above female, heterosexual above homosexual, cisgender above transgender, wealthy above poor, and whiteness above all other races. This list, unfortunately, could go on and on. I am just beginning to fully recognize my privileges on this scale, and am almost daily reminded of my disadvantages on this scale. I know this scale is global, but I can really only speak of my experience in the country I call home.
The Midterm elections got me thinking a lot about what it means to be American. What it means to be an active citizen participating in democracy. I haven’t always thought about myself as an active participate in democracy. I grew up in a Republican, formally Democratic, family. I trusted my family to think about things in my best interest. I took their advice because I knew they loved me and would protect me. This was all of course before fully realizing the person I am and what exactly I needed protecting from. I feel like I need to clarify what I mean when I say family, because that term covers and doesn’t cover various members of my family, both biological and chosen. When I refer to family it could mean by grandparents, my parents, my uncles and aunts, and my family friends. I am never fully naming someone specific, unless I do. If you think my reference is about you, then maybe it is.
When I turned eighteen I proudly registered as a Republican, and in my high schools mock presidential election I cast my mock vote for George W. Bush, based on my family’s advice. I didn’t even know much about his opponent, John Kerry, because I wasn’t provided with his information in an un-bias way. I don’t blame my family for that because I didn’t take the initiative to search out the information, and I was too involved in the neurotic nature that is being a hormonal teenager to even consider it. George won my high schools mock election in a landslide, not surprising based on the demographic and location. I knew I had made the right decision because it was the popular decision. I had spent my life just trying to fit in with what was popular in my surroundings. It was popular in my family to be Christian, so I tried to fit in. It was popular in my family to be heterosexual, so I tried to fit in. It was popular in my family to agree with the family and not to have your own voice, so I kept my mouth shut.
I felt like sticking up for these ideals, and the people who represented them, was a version of sticking up for my family. When I was sticking up for George W. Bush, even without any real facts or understanding, I was sticking up for my family who believed in him. When people would challenge him they were challenging my family. It wasn’t until I was in college, and the popular opinion was different, that I began to see things from another side. I was also exposed to people that weren’t like my family. In religion, race, sexual orientation, and life experience. I began to see how this thing called politics affected someone outside of my family’s lives. I began to question how politics affected my life, and what my life outside of family was.
The next presidential election to come around came in college. This was the first presidential election I was old enough to actually vote in. I sought advice from my family who were 98% behind Sen. John McCain. I was also around my college friends and professors who were 100% behind Sen. Barrack Obama. I was confused. I still felt this weird protection over my family and their political choice, John McCain. I also felt this weird awakening to my new view and new friends and their choice, Barrack Obama. I remember I went home to vote and my mother took me to the polls. The day before the election I was told by a family member that John McCain was the only choice that aligned with our family values. I was told by my mom moments before walking in that I need to vote for whoever was in my heart. She told me she was voting for John McCain but that I am my own person and had my own choice to make.
I got into the “booth” in a basement in North Wheeling and I voted for everything my family told me to vote for. I went down the line vote after vote that was never really my own. I got to the presidential choice and I paused. I looked at my choices and I thought about what I wanted for the future. I wanted change, in my personal life, and for the world. I wanted hope, for my future, and for the future of the country. I knew in that moment what I had to do. I voted for Barrack Obama for President. I lied to everyone that asked me, even the ones who voted for him as well. I knew from an early age if you want to get away with a lie, you have to lie to EVERYONE. I used this skill to hide my sexuality and my religious views. I used this skill again to hide my shame of voting against the people who raised and loved me. I lied to the random person who asked me on the street, and to my closest friend. Like all of the deep lies I told myself, and others, I internalized it to a place of near belief.
I internalized this lie like I did all of my lies. My biggest lie was of course about my sexuality. My sexuality was always a struggle for me. The first struggle came with just understanding what sexuality was. I was confused about my feelings and what they meant for me, and my place in the world. I knew I had feelings for boys, in a way that I didn’t see other boys having feelings for each other. I couldn’t comprehend that it could be in a romantic way. All of the romantic relationships I saw in my life, and in media, were heterosexual. This made me think that my feelings were wrong. This made me feel like my feelings were negative and I should push them away. So I did. My suspicion that my feelings were negative was reaffirmed by my religion, and the sermons in church. This was not just a negative feeling, but also something that could make me spend an ENTERITY in hell. That puts a lot on a young person’s psyche. Not only are you wrong, but also you are so wrong that you will suffer for eternity.
I couldn’t understand how something I didn’t choose was going to make me suffer forever. I wasn’t breaking a commandment, or sinning by choice. I was being punished for something I had no control over. My identity, and voice, was being taken away without my choice. This made me fight these feelings to the death. If I didn’t admit that they were true then they could never hold me back. Little did I know that when something isn’t a choice it would come about whether you want it to or not?
I fought my “urges” towards boys...until I couldn’t. The fist time I couldn’t fight these urges, which I’ve spoken about in a previous blog, was while playing house with a boy. The second time these urges manifested in my life was when I was thirteen and working at my first job at a zoo in Wheeling, WV. I didn’t know the effect this incident would have on my life, and they years of silence it would place on my life. I was working as a zookeeper’s assistant at the zoo in my hometown. My job was to feed and clean up after the animals. This job was delegated to the young volunteers and employees of the zoo. Among them was a boy a year above me in school. He was a year above me but two years older than me. He was an actor, like me, and someone that I looked up to years before our employment at the zoo. He was confident and funny. Talented and self-assured, he was everything I felt like I wasn’t.
It was a summer day, the actual date is a blurry memory, and we were both working at the petting zoo attraction that afternoon. We talked about theatre and our aspirations as performers. He inspired me in ways I can’t even articulate. As our shift grew to a close and we were waiting to be told it was time to go home he began to get uncharacteristically quiet. He told me that he was stressed because he had a project due for school. It never occurred to me that he shouldn’t have projects due in the middle of summer. I thought I was just a naive middle school student who didn’t understand the complicated schoolwork of high school students. He asked me if I would help with his project. I asked him what the project was. He told me he couldn’t tell me unless I blindly agreed to participate. I reluctantly said yes. I wanted this person to like me and take me under his wing. I knew, in my heart that something didn’t feel right but I so desperately wanted to be liked by him, and was hoping some of his talent and drive would rub off on me. He told me his project was for an anatomy class and that we would have to go into the bathroom to do the “experiment”. I questioned the validity of this project and was told that I was naive and didn’t understand what it was about. I felt belittled and stupid, two things I didn’t want him to associate with me. I quickly encouraged him that I was open-minded and ready to go with him into the bathroom. Partially because I wanted him to like me and partially because I was genuinely curious to what this “experiment” entailed.
I followed him to the secluded bathroom on our break. I thought it was weird he picked the bathroom that was at the far end of the zoo, but I trusted him enough to know where we should go. We got into the public restroom and he began to ask me questions about masturbation. I remember feeling so embarrassed but I didn’t want to seem uncool with his line of questioning. I had only started masturbating a year or two before that and answered his questions generally, as not to give away my sexual preference. He told me part of his project was to touch people and see how they felt being touched in certain parts of their body. I vocalized my discomfort with being touched. He replied telling me that he had done this experiment with countless people and that I was strange for feeling uncomfortable. I didn’t want to appear as strange and quickly agreed to participate in the experiment. It wasn't weird because I was doing it for a class, I thought. I was curious and scared but I had agreed to participate without saying no, in my mind I had no choice.
He started by touching my shoulders and asking how that made me feel. I responded, surprisingly honestly, by saying “weird but good.” He then moved his hands to my ribcage, which I replied, “I feel strange.” He then lowered his hands to my waist. I said, “This is weird.” He said, “but good?” I said, “I guess”, he then said for this next part I need you to take off your shirt. I paused for a moment feeling like things were moving in a direction I was uncomfortable with. His tone changed and he said, irritated and angrily, “You aren’t ready for this…just forget it!” I felt so embarrassed and ashamed. I had agreed to not say no and here I was saying no, even if it was non-verbally. I quickly took off my shirt and stared at myself in the mirror. I was always so skinny and small, and attribute I hated and thought made me less than. He continued to touch different parts of my torso, while asking me how his touch made me feel, I don’t remember my response, I only remember the lump growing in my throat as I tried not to cry. I felt so exposed and vulnerable. I don’t remember a lot of what happened next I just remember looking at myself in the mirror. I had a moment of consciousness when I saw myself in the mirror in my underwear with his hands down my pants, in both the front and the back of my underwear. I remember saying stop when I became aware of the reality of my situation. He reminded me that I couldn’t say no and pushed me against the cold wet counter of the sink. I pushed him away and started to gather my clothes and put them back on. I went towards the door where he stood in my way. I reached around him to open the door. I grabbed the handle and began to open when he slammed it shut with both of his hands. “You can’t leave!” he said. This part of my memory goes blank. The only thing I remember is him leaving the bathroom and me waiting a few minutes to leave. Its strange and scary not having those pieces of my memory. I don’t even remember physically leaving the restroom. My next vivid memory is waiting for my mom to pick me up at the end of my shift.
I got in the car as my mom drove off; I was in a mental state of numbness. She asked me how my day was and I replied vaguely. I don’t remember the conversation we had on the drive home but I do remember when she parked and got out of the car. She opened the door and got out of the car, I sat there frozen in my seat. She asked me if I was coming inside. I told her I would be in in a minute. I waited till she got inside the house and I started to cry. It was a weird cry because I wasn’t sure why it was happening. I felt numb yet tears were rolling down my face. That night I thought about what had happened as I lay in bed. My first thought was this was a punishment for my lustful feelings I was having for this boy. This was God showing me that these feelings are bad and will only cause me pain. I took note of this pain and associated it with my behavior. I wasn’t going to feel this pain again.
My voice was silenced because of someone else's actions, and because of someone else’s words. I allowed that silence to grow and fester in my soul. It became a weight that was slowly pushing me down. I was worried that this weight would kill me one day, and I know I am so lucky, and privileged, that it didn’t. I know that allowing that silence to take over my soul wasn’t really a choice, but a mentality placed into the world long before my existence. A mentality that I am trying to break everyday, and fail to overcome more than I succeed. Even with my failures I know that the journey is more important than the destination, as cheesy as that sounds. I know my small successes in reclaiming my voice are making steps to break the hierarchy for future humans. I know that may seem ridiculous but I credit the people before me, who weren’t afraid to use their voices, as giving me the strength to start to use mine. I stand on their shoulders. I may not know all of their names, or what they did, but I know I have the freedom to be myself because of the fights they fought to share their own voices.
I’m angry, and I’m not afraid to be angry. I’m scared, and I’m not afraid to be scared. I’m hopeful, and I’m not afraid to be hopeful. I was afraid for so long to share my voice as not to offend people. I didn’t want to lose the love of family, friends, and any other random person. I know now that love doesn’t against with someone who wants to silence my voice, even if their silence isn’t their actual choice. Even if that goal of silence is something that has been implanted in them through generations of hierarchy and DNA. By sharing my voice, and living in my truth, I can allow them to see the silence that has been implanted in them without their choice. This isn’t some narcissistic proclamation that I am some sort of magnificent change in their lives. I believe that anyone that is finding their voice can do this, not just me.
I found my voice in a new way living in my truth. I am now able, with age and honesty, to call out moments where I feel my voice being silenced. I still fail sometimes and allow my voice to be quieted, but now I am able to recognize those moments and grow from them. I can now see that the moments I allow my voice to be silenced are on some level not my choice because I am a product of a system of power, but at times are completely my choice. I can choose to not let that silence come over me. It’s hard as hell to fight that inner struggle but I feel so much stronger afterwards when I challenge it. I feel strength like I have never felt. One thing the people at the top, controlling you voice, never tell you is how much power you have when you own your voice. They don’t tell you this because it diminishes their power. The only way to diminish that power on a large scale is for everyone to fight for their voice to be heard, and for those with the privilege to listen to actually listen. Listening requires us to not write off someone else’s voice, even when their voice brings into question our own privilege. I have learned so much about my own voice by listening to others express theirs. It isn’t always easy or comfortable, but it’s worth so much more than my personal comfort. Discomfort is worth a change that can break hierarchy and make it harder to have anyone be silenced again.
I tell these stories not to make you feel bad for the misfortunes of my life. I know that I have had a privileged existence, because of the sacrifices of those who raised me, and because of my place on the scale. I have felt a safety in the word because of being a white cisgender male. I tell these stories not to have comfort in my disenfranchisement, although I now see those things as my super powers, not as the things that bring me down on the scale. I tell these stories to feel uncomfortable. I know my place on the scale has a lot of power. Yes, with that power comes shame, but with that power comes a lot of responsibility. My responsibility is to share my voice; both in the places it holds power, and in the places where I have to fight for power. I know, from personal experience, that hearing the voices of the people seen below me on this scale can be scary and uncomfortable. I have thought in my mind, many times, well I am not the one doing that to you. I may not be the direct person but I have benefited from the system. Everyday I don’t challenge or stand beside those being silenced I AM part of the problem, even if my daily actions aren’t silencing them. I am adding to their current, and future, silence, and so are you!
Part of finding, and using, my voice has been recognizing the silence that has been placed on me, and the silence I have placed on others. I can’t change my past, or the pasts of the people who’s blood, and experiences, run through my DNA. I can, however, keep strengthening my voice and using that newly strengthened voice to elevate others. I invite you to do the same. Listen. Speak up. Find your voice and use it, because nothing is more powerful then taking down the patriarchy!
Thank you for reading!
Remember, make good choices and be safe with your bodies.
My name "Jeremiah" is a hebrew name meaning; May Jehovah exalt. The most famous Jeremiah is the 7th Century prophet who has his own book in the Bible, and is the author of the book of Lamentations in the Old Testament. The second most famous Jeremiah was a bullfrog. This premonition is a hard one to live up to, the prophet not that the bullfrog, obvi.
As a child I was often reminded of the meaning of my name, and encouraged that God would play an important role in my life. I was told that I would one day do great things, and would be used by the lord in a special way. I remember not fully being able to wrap my little brain around what this meant. I was curious as to how God would use me, and curious about what made me so special in the first place.
I always loved going to church; We got to dress up in our best clothes, to see our friends outside of school, and to go out for lunch as a family. Both of my parents had a complicated relationship with religion and their faith, which even without words was apparent to me as a child. My father wasn't raised religious and never seemed to thrilled at the idea of going to church. My mother had a scary religious upbringing but still found a certain solace in her faith. I found comfort in her confidence, and the confidence of those surrounding me. They know what will happen to you when you died, a question that often worried my young mind. You must follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, and be a servant onto him, and you will be granted enternal salvation in his kingdom. Seems easy enough...right?
I found comfort in the teachings, but also a stress knowing those teachings were not optional.. You HAD to believe a certain way and live in a specific manner or the deal was off. The only other option was hell, the enterity of damnations and suffering. These two options were so extreme and overwhelming I often wished there was a third option. One where you were truly at peace, where your existance was simply no longer there. I knew the best option was to live in happiness forever with the poeple I loved. So, like a good little servant I followed the rules as best as I could.
The rules became a little more dramatic when I started attending a new church. After my father went to prision my mother sought deliverance from her pain in a local church aptley named PRAISE. Praise Church had a sister school called 'Praise Christian Academy.' After some time attedning the church my siblings and I were enrolled in the school. We had a community of people on our side. People who seemed to care about us and where we would spend eternity. The first step was to accept Jesus Christ into our hearts. With a few statements and helpful had I was saved. Saved from hell, and the sinful life that I was previously living. I had been "saved" before but this time I felt like I really understood the gravity of what that meant.
The second step was to live my life for Jesus. I had to rid my life of secular thoughts, objects, and people. They would only hold me back in my journey for pure obediance to my God. I held a cereomny where I, one by one, dropped my secular music into a dumpster. I cried as I said my goodbyes to Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, Emienm, Nelly, and even Uncle Cracker (It was the 90s dont judge me). I slowly removed all secular thought from my life. I was expecting a feeling of calmness and joy after my purge, but I still felt as confused as before. I prayed and prayed for God to give me a sign. A sign that I wasnt alone, that he was there for me, and how I was living was right. I'm still waiting on that one.
I dedicated my life to these Christian followings. I suppressed any feelings of doubt, because these feelings were just evil trying to creep its way onto my faith. I know what a good Christian boys life look like and I know I would do anything to achieve that life. I followed, blindly and abundantly. I did as they told me, fear God for he is a fearful God that you don't want to disappoint. Fearful God? This always scared me, yes it worked to keep me in line, but it also had a negative impact. It slowly pushed me away from the Christian God, I didn't want to be a part of something that pushed fear in order to recruit followers.
At Praise Christian Academy, like many private schools, there were rules. Rule number one: follow the teachings of the Bible and implement those teachings in your everyday life. This rule was easy for me to follow. I have had an appreciation for rules for as long as I can remember. I recall a story that my mother told me about my first day of Kindergarten. She says I came home from first day and recited all of the rules of school...and then preceded to name every kid who broke said rules including the number of rules they broke. "Amber broke rules 3 and 5. Garett broke rules 6 and 15, and Josh broke rules 7, 9, AND 14!" She was worried about my appreciation for rules and the affect it would have on my social life. Needless to say rules were not my problem.
The second, and final rule, is were I started to develop a problem. Rule number two: don't question our teachings and or interpretations of the teachings of the Bible. I was a questioner of many things, like most children my age. Why is the sky blue? How do astronauts go into space? If a spider bites me will I become spiderman? Why do I have an appendix if it's just going to be taken out? (That last one is still a question I have. I mean we all do realize the appendix is a ticking time bomb inside our bodies...right?) So like a healthy developing young mind I questioned the things I was being taught. How did Noah get two of ever animal to come with him to the ark? Where was Jesus the three days between his death and resurrection? Why did God allow polygamy on the Bible? How do dinosaurs fit into creation? How is christianity more right then other religions? Why does God let all this bad stuff happen? All reasonable questions for an eight year old to ask, but at Praise Christian Academy all questions that would get you demerits. They handed out demerits, or tickets, that once you reached a certain number would get you sent to the principal's office.
These are all questions someone comfortable in their faith would have no problems answering, however this was not a group of individuals comfortable in their faith. I remember my teacher being flabbergasted and frustrated with my constant questions, and as her frustrations increased so did the number of my demerits. I was normally a straight A student often considered the teacher's pet. In this scenario I was the the teacher's worst nightmare. After I exceeded my allotted number of demerits I was sent to the principal's office. Her name was Pastor Lynn, she was a young woman with a warm smile and a gentle touch. I wasn't afraid to talk to her, I knew she would understand the reason behind my questions and would have some answers my teacher was not wise enough to answer. I was wrong.
She brought me into her office and sat me down in her scratchy leather chair. "Do you know why you're in my office Jeremiah?" She said with an undertone of disappointment. "Because I got too many demerits." I said with naive resolution. "Do you know why you have so many demerits"
"Not really." I said honestly.
"It's because you are disobeying your teacher...and God, by questioning his word."
I sat in silence trying to fully grasp what she was saying.
"We don't allow students to disobey the teachings of god at this school. Do you know what the punishment is here for that many demerits?"
"No." I said in what was a half lie.
"I have to spank you with this board."
She pulled out a wood paddle about the size of a large purse, with evenly spaced holes, any like any welfare kid being threatened by an adult I brought up CPS.
"If you touch me I will call Child Protective Services on you!"
After my credible threat Pastor Lynn decided it was best to involve my mother in her disciplinary actions. Less than an hour later my mother arrived at Praise Christian Academy and after hearing both sides of the story she decided to disenroll me and my siblings that day.
Not long after we left the church.My mother came to the sobering realization that these individuals calling themsleves Christians were nothing more then the fanatics she was raised around. It's easy in any religion to get swept up into the fantasy. To drink the kool aid if you will. People promising you peace from your past and insurance for your future often don't have to sell their brand too hard.
Life after Praise Christian Academy was one of ease. I slowly began to listen to the music I liked and watch the films I wanted to see. It was amazing to hear and see stories I could relate to and which changed the way I viewed the world and its inhabitants. After Praise my mom gave us the option of going to church with her or not. Through all of her negative experiences her faith was unshaken. That faith is inspiring and beautiful. Even with this strong faith she has been so open minded and loving towards those who are different from her.
I still felt this gut instinct to defend my religion even though I felt very relieved not to be following the it. I remember I had one friend throughout elementary school who's parents were atheist and passed along their viewpoints, like most parents, to their child. This friend knew I was raised believing in God and tried every chance she could to crack that faith and prove how wrong those beliefs were. My first reaction was always anger, ironically much like my former teacher. I would tell her she just didn't get it, and that she hadn't heard the testimonies that I had heard! One time she asked me a question I couldn't dismiss.
"Yeah but have YOU ever felt the presence of God?!"
Shit. She got me there, but of course I wasn't going to admit that.
"Yes! Or course! I feel it all the time!"
I thought I felt this spiritual connection many times. This other worldly feeling that I am connected to something greater then myself, and that connection has a purpose far greater then I even know. I felt it when I would listen to a good song. I felt it when I would aimlessly float in my neighbors pool. I felt it when I would climb to the top of hill and look up at the sky. I couldn't have felt all of these connections for no reason.
This is when I reached the next phase in my spiritual journey. I was enetering middle school and my connection with a specific God was fading faster than my innocence. This phase was focused on a more physical and spiritual feeling. I believed there was a higher being somewhere and that that being was omnipotent. I didn't feel like I had to convince anyone about this belief, or to follow this belief. I knew on a subconscious level they could all feel it and that it was their journey to get there.
This belief system followed me through high school and the beginning of my college career. It was nice and safe it allowed me to take all the parts I liked about my previous faith and pick and choose when to believe them.
It often bothers me to see others do that now. I see people claiming to follow all of the teachings of their scriptures but instead pick and choose which parts are important and which ideas can be thrown out the window. Most religious doctrines were written thousands of years ago, which makes them hard to be as literally relatable to the modern world. I have many religious family members who follow their religion vigorously, but they still live in the modern world and choose to love and be open to others. I don't claim to be the smartest person, but if I wanted people to follow my religion, and I truly believed my religion was the truth, I wouldn't tell people how they are going to hell for simply being themselves. I would create a space where they felt loved and welcomed to be a part of my faith. After all if your God is not one of love what's the point in following them?
I went through a short phase in hating every religious person. I viewed them all as fanatics and judgemental. I didn't see how they could blindly follow a book of stories written by suppressive men. There was no in the middle for me. I either had to live in the religion, as I did as a child, or I had to completely denounce religion and religious people. I felt like I was woken up and they were all still asleep. This phase made it hard for me to have a relationship with most of my family. This phase began for my while attending church with my father and brother in Texas.
I remeber they were very excited about this pastor that had came to visit and preach at their church. He was well known in the Christian community and well respected with his teachings. I can't remeber all of his word verbatim but I do remeber the message. His sermon focused on homosexuality and just how big of a sin it is. He preached that if you are a true follower of God you will not support this homosexual sin in any way! He continued by saying even if you look at homosexuality and say "it's not my place to judge, I will love everyone", that you are just as bad as being homosexual yourself. I just sat there as he delivered his hate, with a big grin, to a cheerful audience. I felt in that moment alone and sad. I hadn't come out to my family at this point, and their excitement to hear this pastor was not going to make it easy. My family was not part of the cheering crowd. They were silent bystanders not sure what to say.
This phase didn't last as long as the others, because most of my experiences with religious people were pleasant and loving. With all my positive interactions with religious people it was difficult to have negative feelings for them. This, and the majority of my family are religious, and I love my family very much.
After moving out of West Virginia, and living in different cities and meeting people of all faiths and belief systems I have entered a another phase in my relationship with religion. To most this new phase may seem sad and pessimistic, but to me it's the exact opposite! I have finally come to a place where I don't pretend, or feel the need to, have all the answers. I don't know what's going to happen to me when I die. I don't know who, if any, religion got it all right. I DO know that I have today to live my best self, and I know that the time we have is short and special. I don't have a doctrine that I follow or rules I add into my life. I have decided to live everyday to the best of ability and to try not make the world a worse place then when I arrived.
I still don't have an answer to my family's predictions of my special spiritual use, but I no longer need an answer. You find the special in yourself, even if others never see it. The biggest thing I've learned in my search for meaning and spirituality has been acceptance. I've learned to recognize the prejudices I had and still have. I've learned that everyone follows their religion for a reason, even if the reason is hard to see. Those reasons are all valid and full of purpose. I've learned to love everyone even if their beliefs seek to suppress me, because at the end of the day we can only change people's minds, and hearts, with love. Just like me as a child, fear is not that way to persuade anyone to listen to you. Please love each other and really listen, you might just start to understand where someone else is coming from.
Thank you for reading!
Remeber make good choices, and be safe with your bodies!
As you enter the state line of West Virginia you are greeted with a sign reading, "Welcome to West Virginia, Wild and Wonderful". Seeing this sign has always brought me a sense of comfort and joy, except for those few years the slogan was changed to, "Welcome to West Virginia, Open for Business". Thankfully the powers that be noticed the desperation in that slogan and went back to the original.
Every time I see that sign the memories of my childhood flash back in all of their unnerving glory. Playing in the creek with my cousins. Running through the woods without a care in the world. Falling into the snow and feeling like I never wanted to get up. Stealing gum from the gas station by my house. Holding my breath till I turned blue in my grandparent's pool. Getting drunk on malt liquor at a bonfire in high school. Counting the clouds while I was supposed to be playing little league in the outfield. Getting the kiss on my knee from my mom when I fell down playing tag. Climbing on the roof to look at the stars and imagine what my life would be like as a movie star.
It's truly amazing how a place can hold such joyful memories while at the same time awaken so many bad ones. I felt suppressed by a culture that I sometimes miss, Stockholm syndrome at its finest.
I was born into a family rich in their West Virginia roots. Generations of Appalachia natives who made their homes within the hills. A family that was big in size and in laughs. My mother's family, who raised me, is full of personalities and problems. A lower middle class family struggling together to achieve their piece of the American dream.
I felt like I never belonged in this group. I loved them and they loved me, but I felt like a foreign exchange student or an anthropologist studying the natives. They always accepted me for my differences, but I was still acutely aware of my black sheep status. I felt a stronger connection to my father who I saw as an intellectual mind and a creative soul. Though I felt a stronger connection in likeness, my father was absent throughout my life.
I was lucky to have a family that never made me feel bad about being different, but did their best to embrace me even when they didn't fully understand. Whether it was my cousins acting in all the plays I dictated they star in, or my aunts and uncles continually buying me furniture to add to my Barbie Dream House, they made me feel like my differences weren't that bad. They were my first example of how loving and accepting some West Virginians can be...some being the key word.
The people of West Virginia are an interesting bunch, to say the literal least. I feel like they are going through an identity crisis. They aren't sure what part of the country they fit into. They live in an area where the South meets the Midwest meets the Northeast and tucked ever so gently into the Appalachian mountains. Even reading maps as a child I was confused to where we fell demographically. Every book or map had a different opinion as to the region we should identify with.
Technically categorized as the South, by the Census Bureau, West Virginia has some major map related confusion. This confusion bleeds over into the culture. Depending on what county of the state you are in you are likely to hear different accents, and feel like you are in a different world.
I grew up in the Northern panhandle of West Virginia where the confusion grows even stronger. Gently placed above the Mason-Dixon Line I never felt like I belonged to the South, or southern culture. I felt the same way about the inhabitants of my town. Wen you think of the south you think of smiling friendly faces and culture rich in pride.
In almost every poll or article covering the subject of "The Happiest and Least Happy States in America", West Virginia almost always places dead last. Most polls measure this "happiness" based on many factors; individuals below the poverty level, obesity, the minimum wage, job opportunity, community involvement, and cost of living. West Virginia is a place with some of the highest rates of poverty and obesity and with some of the lowest rates of opportunity and livable wages.
I was one of the many people to grow up in the welfare system. Raised by a single mother struggling with the decision to stay in the system for the benefit of her children. Getting a full time job, that would barely pay the bills, or keeping the security of food stamps and Heath care for her children were her only options. She is smart and hard working but was a product of her environment and the place she was told she was allowed to hold in the world.
Growing up I felt my place, or the place others told me I belonged, a poor bastard hillbilly with no chance in hell of accomplishing any real success. People didn't always tell me this with words, sometimes I heard their opinions by what they didn't say. The parties I wasn't invited to, and the lack of opportunity I was given. So often the future of a child's success comes from the opportunities they think they have. It started when I began to be an actor. I knew I couldn't afford the nice head shots other kids had. I sat in rooms with agents and casting directors who praised my talent but told me I couldn't work without getting dental work. Dental work, besides the basic check ups and fillings, was not a covered on my welfare plan. I was being forced to let go a part of my dreams. I thought to myself, "Jeremiah you will never be able to accomplish that goal. You will never be able to afford that, and without getting your teeth fixed you will never be a successful actor."
It never occurred to me that those agents and casting directors could be wrong. I was meeting with people from Los Angeles and New York. People from companies like Mark Burnett Casting and Nickelodeon. I would get called back for TV shows and commercials but always given the same reasons why I didn't get the part. I gave up on that dream as a reality but never in desire. This idea was put in my head that my dreams were not possible, add that to the fact that everyone you know tells you what a long shot, and unattainable career choice acting is and you get a combination thats strong enough to kill a dream. I still pursued my dreams but never with any real thought of making them come true.
Wanting to be an actor was certainly not a normal aspiration of the members of my community. My town was filled with service men and women, coal miners, and people of all ages trying to figure out their place in this community. Working my part-time jobs as a teenager I felt surround by adults who weren't happy with their lives, or who were unable to better their situation. I was encompassed with this trapped feeling. I knew it wasn't the feeling of the town as a whole, but this feeling seemed to find me. A dark cloud, both literal and metaphoric, hovered over the town.
Along with this looming feeling I also didn't feel connected to the West Virginia culture. A lot of the culture is embedded in the mountaineer lifestyle. Hunting, fishing, and working with your hands are some of the cultural norms. I had a hard time pretending to be interested in any of these norms. I wasn't a fan of sports, which also didn't help in WVU and Steelers nation. Sports were a way for a lot of members of my community, and family, to connect and come together. A common concern over the Steelers winning the super bowl, or the Pens taking home the Stanley Cup created a nexus for peers of all age groups. Discussions over the impending deer hunting season, or the latest updates in weaponry formed bonds. All of these opportunities to connect were not possible with my interest and dreams.
Not all of my memories are ones of exclusion and sadness. There were times I felt right at home. Playing games with my family around the kitchen table, or tasting the sweetness of my grandma's brown sugar baked beans. Driving the winding roads of Wheeling, or taking that first bite of a tray of DiCarlos Pizza. These memories flood my thoughts just a frequently, if not more.
Even with some time and miles of distance from my hometown I still find my self missing West Virginia. I feel a connection to a culture I never felt like I was fully apart of. This makes me think; am I always going to be that kid wanting to fit in? I may never want to hunt or fish, but I always get happy when I hear John Denver or meet a fellow West Virginian. It gives me a sense of belonging I never felt while living there. I guess sometimes you need to be thousands of miles away to feel like you have a home.
Thanks for reading!
Make good choices and be safe with you body.
I would like to start this post out by admitting that my complaints on this subject matter are so much of a first world problem that it's embarrassing, but embarrassing is the theme of this post so...here we go.
The first time I noticed the rapid recession of my hair line was around the age of 19. How could this be happening to me? I am way too young to be experiencing this. I was so confused and angry. My new best friend became any hat I had available. Hiding the evidence of my hair loss, evidence that I was likely the only person aware existed.
I got nervous every time wearing a hat wasn't an option; to a nice dinner, for a role in a college play, to a friend's wedding. I felt like I was exposing myself and letting go of my social security blanket. The nervousness and embarrassment never felt vain in nature but more of a protection of my self-esteem. My frustration was rooted in sadness rather than vanity.
As the years went by the hair count dropped I became more and more uncomfortable in my own skin. I felt like this young man who was facing problems way beyond his years. I felt youthful and energetic while my hair line was feeling old and decrepit. I felt so out of place in my own body. I was Benjamin Button, but I would never look like Brad Pitt.
I was always the kid, and young adult, who looked 5 years younger than I actually was. Now, I was the man who could play your dad on TV. These thoughts, though seemingly dramatic, flashed in my head every time I passed my reflection. My youthful (almost) wrinkle free face told one story, while my rapidly shrinking hair line told another. I stopped getting asked for ID at bars, and no longer got that shocked expression when I told people my age.
Somewhere in my mid-twenties I finally realized that this hair loss and it's rapidness were not slowing down anytime soon. I began to frantically research my possibilities; regrowth pills and creams, hair transplants, even wigs. My lack of money and nerves left me with the only logical option...hats. If I couldn't stop or slow down this loss I could at least hide it from the world. The cover-up began, and it gave me so much relief.
I felt like I could relax into a situation knowing my flaws weren't on display for the world to see. I felt my confidence coming back and began to really enjoy adding hats into my fashion choices. With all this added confidence came a few more worries however; worries I had never thought of before. I was worried about my hat blowing off revealing my secret. I was worried about what I would look like if I went swimming with friends. I was worried that in intimate encounters with my partner, or partners depending on the year, that they would be mortified when what was under my hat was revealed. I also began to worry that my new attire was starting to increase the speed at which my hair was falling out. Could my hats be making it worse?
I increased my biotin by double, and tried to lay off the hats. I noticed with my increase of biotin, and wearing less hats, that the loss was slowing down or even stopping. I thought, "Maybe I lost a lot of hair at a younger age but now it will stop until I am at the normal age men lose their hair!" This thought was back when I believed there was a "normal" age. Finally I had found the secret mix of biotin and minoxidil that would change my life...for a hot second anyway.
I googled more ways to help my hair naturally grow back, if I found a way to stop the loss surely I could find a way to start the regrowth. Googling male pattern baldness is an interesting experience, the first thing that appears is a statement saying, "Treatment can help, but this condition cannot be cured." Cannot be cured!? What did they mean be cured? I needed cured. Products with high doses of minoxidil, such as Rogaine, seemed to only leave me with a burning situation and a weird smelling scalp. The high amounts of protein and fatty-acids needed to maintain a healthy scal, didn't fit as easily into my vegetarian diet. The ways to manage and reduced my stress, suggested by the best online doctors WebMD has to offer, only added to my stress levels.
I once again felt defeated. I was out of resources and hope. To make matters worse the halt in my hair loss began to restart in full effect. Now, I wasn't the only person aware of my hair loss. People began to noticed, and some even began to comment. I would get unsolicited advice; what I should eat, what shampoo I should use, what doctors I should see, and reminders of what I was doing wrong.
Working the past few years in elementary schools, in Austin and Los Angeles, taught me a lot of things about children. The main lesson I learned was just how honest kids will be. One day during a field trip I received some advice from a little boy who grabbed off my hat while playing, "Wow! Mr. Jeremiah your hair is falling out...you are almost bald. You should probably just shave it off." Was that a possibility? What would I look like with a shaved head? Should I do it? Would people think I had cancer, or that I was making fun of people with cancer? I had fears of the looks I would get or the jokes that would be made. I am gay and like Jew-ish so I know I don't want to go for the white supremacist skin head look. It's not a cute look for me.
Then I thought to myself that I would never shave my head based on one little kids opinion. That would be ridiculous! After a few more loving comments from children I received a comment from someone who had even more power to make me feel insecure...an adult. A fellow staff member at a school told me with harrowing frankness, "You know, you shouldn't wear so many hats! You only have a few good years left with your hair." Her honesty was like a knife to the chest. I cried a little on the inside, but brushed off the comment with a laugh and went on my way adding another check to my low self esteem list.
Although the Internet referred to my male pattern balding as a common, I felt alone in my self diagnosis. I didn't feel comfortable sharing my stress over this with anyone. Mainly because it felt like such a narcissistic thing to be concerned about, but also because it would mean admitting out loud that this was actually happening to me. I know my physical appearance doesn't define me, but I felt this anger and sadness that I had no control over my changing looks.
I went back to biotin and Rogaine to treat the newly balding spot on the back of my head. The hair line was one thing, but this spot was an entirely new beast. It was something I didn't have to see everyday, which was nice, but it made it more difficult to get used to seeing. When I would see it in a photo I would think, "Wow that is way worse than I thought!"
Although I don't consider myself a religious man, I began to understood my Jewish ancestors desire to wear a Kippah. Yes, I'm aware that's not the technical reason they wear a Kippah (or yarmulke) but it seems like a good reason ancient Jews might have started the tradition.
As my arm hair grew as fast as Chewbacca the hair on my head still mercilessly left its host...for good. It brought up a bigger problem floating in my head, my fear of aging. For whatever reason I have always had a sensitivity to aging. The inception of that sensitivity is so deep even Christopher Nolan wouldn't be able to find it.
I remember on my 24th birthday experiencing this unique feeling of not wanting to become another year older. This was the first time I wasn't excited to add another number to my years. I knew I was too young to be having this feeling but couldn't shake it off. That feeling has gained traction with every birthday.
As I approach the final year of my 20s I feel this confidence that I've never felt. Yes, my insecurities are still present; I still do my best to hide my MPB, I'm almost always concerned about my purpose on this earth, and I daily question my ability to live as a fully functioning adult. Through these moments I still feel a sense of zen that is so welcomed. My distain for aging is still very present but I care less about how other people view my aging process. I know in the grand scheme of life I am still very young, and have a lot to learn about aging, but I feel like I have gotten a sneak peak at what is in store.
I am reminded of the quote from the amazing Bette Davis, "Old age ain't no place for sissies!"
I might be slowly going bald, but so will a lot of you one day, and I'll be ready to give you advice on how to handle it. I know I am not alone in this situation, and I now realize this affects millions of men at many different ages. Everyday I still struggle with the insecurities that accompany my male pattern baldness, but with a little sense of humor and bunch of hats I feel like I can take this "head on". I have made a deal with myself that when the embarrassment and stressfulness of this become too much that I will go full on Britney Spears and shave it off. For now, I'm going to enjoy these last few trips to the barber. For now, I'm going keep stealing the shampoos at hotels. For now, I'm going to appreciated not having to rub sunscreen all over my pale bald head. For now, I'm going to live my life. Life is way to fragile and random to spend all this time concerned about something I can never change.
Thank you for letting me publicly rant about my insecurities, and please don't stare too long at my hair line the next time you see me.
Thank you for reading. Make good choices and be safe with your bodies.
So...like...but who's the girl? And like...who's the boy in the relationship?
It is staggering how often this question comes up in my conversations with straight people, or at least straight people without any gay friends. I never fully know how to respond. I want to respond in a way that conveys both my disturbance and puzzlement over the question.
My response is usually, "Well...we're both the boy...that's kind of the point...of this whole gay thing." To which I typically get looks of embarrassment and equal confusion.
I feel it's easier for someone who doesn't understand or know anyone in a gay relationship to place these stereotypical gender roles on every relationship. He is bigger, or more masculine, or more dominant...so he must be the man in the relationship. He is more effeminate, or domestic, or submissive...so he must be the woman in the relationship. It's like please stop putting your straight gender normative stereotypes in my life...kthxbye. On a serious note, not even most heterosexual relationships I know fit into those gender normative roles.
Although I hate these gender normaties and the people who place us in them, they do often seep their way into my gay relationships. I find myself trying to fulfill these different roles depending on the role my partner is playing. I need to tone down my masculinity because he has a dominant personality and likes sports, or I need to man it up because he said he doesn't like guys that are "too gay".
"Too gay" is another term I hear thrown around, especially by other members of the gay male community. There is a hierarchy in this community that, just like it's hetero counterpart, celebrates masculinity.
We fight so hard to be accepted for who we are, then change everything to fit into a mold that wasn't even built for us, it's ironic, but like really ironic not ironic like all the shitty things that happened to Alanis Morsette.
I feel like theses roles in the gay community, especially with gay men, also come from the gender roles attached to sexual positions and power. Who's the top, and who's the bottom? Who's the catcher, and who's the pitcher? Who performs the sexual acts normally attributed to women or the acts attributed to men?
I was once asked with my former partner, at a party, "Which one of you is the top and the bottom? I can't figure it out by looking at you!" This is another, highly inappropriate and intrusive question that baffles me. Most straight people would never ask a straight couple this question, so why would you think it's ok to ask a gay couple? I understand the curiosity and the desire to learn about what you don't know, that curiosity is good...but...like Google image gay sex or something, that's how I learned. Well, that and having a "straight" high school classmate use me as his gay experimental doll. Which now I might totally be into, he just caught me at a bad time and about 12 years too early. I digress.
Even as gay men, we place these masculine and feminine identities on sexual positions. If you are a top, or a pitcher for those who prefer baseball analogies, you are considered more masculine in the gay community. There is an unspoken acknowledgment that you take on the more stereotypical masculine roles; opening the car door, paying for dinner, being the big spoon while cuddling. In this unspoken situation the reverse is true for the men who prefer the bottom position, they must be submissive or more effeminate with their partner. They are thought of as less of a man because of their sexual preference.
The stigma of the bottom also goes a little deeper, in my opinion. Yes, there is a joke in there, which I'm choosing to ignore, but now I'm not ignoring it, and babbling on in this run on sentence. There is this shame that stigmatizes men who prefer the bottom position. It's not spoken about often, except maybe in passing jokes, but the feeling runs deep.
As young men we are taught what it means to be a man. What it means to talk like a man. To stand like man. To carry ourselves like a man should. In none of the lessons in manhood are we taught to enjoy being submissive, sexually anyway, to another man. Not that being the bottom is always a submissive role, but the stereotype around it is most definitely.
I struggle with fulfilling, and not wanting to have to fulfill, these gender roles. Sometimes it's just easier to place myself and my boyfriend in these roles to better fit in, in this heterosexual world. Part of me also feels guilty and shameful for sporadically wanting to fit into these roles. Sometimes I like they way they fit, the way they feel. It brings me a comfort and a normality in a situation that I'm daily reminded is not the "normal".
It goes back to my childhood thoughts of wanting to be a girl. I wanted to be a girl, not because I felt out of place in my body or knew I was a girl inside, but because I felt more comfortable in the role I was told that gender played in the world. I was told women were quiet, submissive, and to be taken care of by their strong husbands. Not just by my family and their religious doctrines, but by the roles I saw women playing in the world. I didn't feel I could fit into the gender role I was told I was born into. I didn't fully fit into the gender role I thought I preferred either. I felt like the Goldilocks of identity and my only too options were not "just right."
I found occasional comfort stepping into the more feminine identity throughout most of my life. It was easier to fall into that role for me than it's masculine counterpart. On a rare occasion I would feel very out of place in the feminine role and feel more connected to my masculinity, or what you can consider masculinity for a prepubescent wanna be gymnast.
My first experience of this comfort came at the age of 8 or 9 while playing house with a boy in my grandparents basement, technically we weren't related, but less technically we are cousins. Yes, this took place in West Virginia, and no, my parents aren't siblings who grew up in neighboring double wides.
We were inside while the rest of the kids were outside playing. He suggested we play house. I was ecstatic another boy wanted to play house, but skeptical to how this game would be played with just the two of us. He told me we might not be able to play because we would need someone to play the mom. I eagerly volunteered to play the mother. As our game went on I felt more and more comfortable in my role. I cleaned the house while he was at work, I picked the kids up from school and had dinner ready by the time he got home. Yes, our children were a creepy doll from the 60s who had one eye and 3 strands of hair, and my Asian cabbage patch doll dressed like a male gymnast, and yes, our dinner was invisible lasagna, but we were happy. After putting the cabbage patch kid and one eyed sally to bed we went off to our room, which was a blanket laid down on the cold wet surface of my grandparents unfinished basement.
He informed me that when moms and dads go to bed they sometimes don't wear shirts. I felt a little weird about the situation, but these feelings were quickly overshadowed by butterflies filling up my stomach. We laid in bed with our shirts off. He pulled me in close to him with my head resting on his chest. He held me just like I saw on TV and in the movies. He was a few years older than me, and taller. I felt tiny and protected in his arms. It felt nice. It felt more than nice, it felt perfect. This was a role I could get used to playing.
A minute went by and he had a realization that this game was no longer what he wanted. He said, "This feels weird I would rather play with a girl, I don't like boys like that." My heart sank and all the butterflies flew from my stomach to my throat. What was once a feeling of protection and perfection now became a feeling of embarrassment and shame. How could he not feel what I felt? Why did it matter if I wasn't a girl? I put on my shirt and told myself I would never play that role again.
Still to this day, I like being held and feeling the protection of a man. Does that mean I am falling into a stereotypical gender role? Am I less of a man? The answer, no. I look back at the incredibly strong women in my life, who found comfort being the protector, holding others in their arms. They weren't confined by the role society demanded their gender make them play. They were protectors just like generations of women before them.
The idea that in every relationship, romantic or not, we have to fit into these roles mapped out for us is ridiculous. I challenge you to name any relationship where the roles are set in stone. The roles we play in ever relationship change and grow with the change and growth we experience. We come into this world being taken care of by our parents, or loved ones. The same loved ones we one day will be caretakers for. We play different roles through all the relationships we have. We aren't the same with our boss, as we are with our lover. We aren't the same with our child, as we are with friends.
Our roles in life can't be defined by masculinity or femininity. They can't be boxed into one or the other. They are open, and fluid, and ever changing...just like us.
I don't understand the rules of football, and I'm not able to change a tire on a car. I love live theatre, and know my way around a dance floor. I hate going shopping with girls, and I can't get enough pizza and beer. I love my full beard, and hate house music. I am a multidimensional and complicated gay MAN. I am comfortable with my masculinity and my femininity, and don't believe either define me. I prefer what I prefer sexually, and am comfortable saying that those preferences are really none of your business.
Thank you for reading. Make good choices and be safe with your bodies.