How the Gang Life and LGBT Inclusion Actually Have a Lot in Common

My churchy background didn’t prepare me for this.

Like many in my demographic (30-something white male), I’ve embraced an inclusive stance toward my LGBT friends. Frankly, it was a little hard for me to do so because I come from a very churchy background, and most all my family and childhood friends were/are from rural and suburban America. Nothing particularly edgy or counter-cultural is embraced in these environs. My parents often took risks—in businesses, in friendships, in church life—and caught a lot of flack for doing so. So I guess I learned from them what to expect when you run against the crowd. And I probably also inherited some of their fears of being an outcast.

During my junior high school years, I began to take notice of my body. I was as an anxious boy, well-liked by most adults but often bullied by peers. It was easiest for me to simply avoid any peer interactions where the group’s spotlight might shine on me. I feared scrutiny. I feared judgment. I was most terrified just by the laughs and teasing common to a puny eighth grader. My mouth would dry up. A lump would begin in my throat, making it almost impossible to talk. I didn’t want to cry, but it seemed my body had different ideas. And crying wasn’t my only fear. I worried I would trip as I walked by a group of cool kids. Or that I’d shoot an air ball in front of the girls standing by the basketball courts.

The most personal and vicious verbal attacks happened in the boy’s bathroom. Any vulnerability or apparent weakness could be preyed upon with almost no consequence. I recall once deciding to use the large stall for students with disabilities instead of the open urinals, just to avoid onlookers and jokes about the size of my you-know-what. But even that resulted in a boy telling me and everyone within earshot that I must be “handicapped.”

Perhaps, then, it isn’t too surprising that in high school I started hanging out with gang youth who had themselves faced bullies and somehow still seemed strong. I wanted to be a somebody in the face of my “nobody” status. I respected their ability to overcome. They faced bullies at home (with alcoholic step-fathers), in the community (with police and other gangs), even at school (from administrators and rich white kids). As a new disciple of these “nobodies” who fought back, I learned I could threaten or intimidate a person into submission, which seemed, for a while at least, to wipe away my anxious life.

Of course, it was soon clear that I would also have to censor my loving side and anesthetize all fear. I went off the rails in many ways: used drugs, became addicted to sex, dropped out of high school, joined a gang. I hated myself along with anyone who seemed weak. Violence became almost normal. It wasn’t long before I created a huge mess, and even my best excuses ran out on me. It took me a long time to realize I was lost. It seems that for some of us, maybe most, real changes happen gradually, and circling around or doubling back is a part of the walk home[1]. Why did it take me so long to embrace the turnaround?

About a year ago I had a dream about an old friend (I’ll call him Rudy) who was a gang leader. In this dream, my large and tattooed friend came walking into one of the old apartments where we used to hang out. Typically, Native American and Asian families resided in this neighborhood due to cheap rent and extended family ties along the street’s corridor. Their apartments were neat, with wall-to-wall carpeting. You would find a dozen or so modest one-story structures close to each other, embedded alongside small parking spaces and half-planted beds of dirt and shrubbery. In my dream, I sat down alone inside a home that might have been anyone’s from back then. Rudy sat down next to me on a small couch that defined the hallway close to the front door and asked how I was doing. I noticed he seemed calm and focused on me in a compassionate way, almost like he knew my fears without me saying anything and would gladly just sit there with me. Then he told me something I didn’t expect. I heard him say, “I’m trans.” No qualifications or further explanation, she just exhaled her short-and-sweet confession without any stress.

In real life, Rudy is not actually transgender. In fact, we only recently made peace with each other after 14 years of estrangement and a difficult past. For some of that time, he had been in prison for violent crimes. But in my dream her peace became so attractive that I very much wanted to be like Rudy, to tell others the truth about my hidden life and to not be afraid. Thinking about it now, it strikes me as meaningful how strongly I admired her (in my dream) just for telling the truth.

Swiss theologian Karl Barth[2] suggested that every one of us has a “hidden side of our being” where we are in touch with God, whether we are aware of it or not. Like a muted prophet, we want to tell others of our joy and the promises of a better future, but somehow our mouth remains shut:

Yes, we certainly talk with each other, we find words all right, but never the right words; never the words that would really do justice to what actually moves us, what actually lives in us; never the words that would really lead us out of our loneliness into community.

I want to speak. Sometimes I don’t know how. Maybe in a moment of honesty, with the safety of Rudy’s grace sitting right next to me, I won’t stay quiet. Maybe I’d say that I’m not entirely comfortable with my own sexual history. That “being a man” has often meant lying to myself and others. That instead of honesty and freedom I’m too often guarded and feel inadequate.

But God’s love hovered over me in my dream about Rudy. Who would have thought a former gang member, even a violent felon, and yes (in my dream at least), a transgendered woman would be God’s chosen messenger to crack open my unrest? Biblically speaking, this wouldn’t be the first time a transformational (and transgressive) community unexpectedly came into being. This is the heart of what happens in Acts 10 as a whole new community of outcasts is invited in.

I can still see Rudy sitting there with me on the couch, expressing her love in an almost muted way—communicating the simple message that we are okay. That her story and mine are more alike than we realize. In my dream we were waiting for a proper response, some kind of inward movement toward the headwaters that created us. Even now, within everyday life expectations, I can sense a real response coming to me. I’m happy to say, while under this influence, it’s incredibly hard to keep my mouth shut.

 

[1] See Wendell Berry’s amazing novel, Jayber Crow, p. 133.

[2] Karl Barth, “To Believe,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Orbis Books, 2011).

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