Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Boy in the Bubble!

BOY IN THE BUBBLE


 All I ever wanted to be was a singer. My sister Pam is a singer as is my Aunt Chrissy and of course my Grandmother the lounge lizard. I had been preparing to be a singer all my life. The elaborate concerts and production numbers I used to put on in our family room, and sometimes back yard when my booming voice was banished from the house had prepared me well. At the time I fancied myself a pro. After all I had sung many solos at school and at church over the years. Singing was my thing. It was the one thing I was totally confident in and knew I did well. I had a lot to learn but more on that later. It was only natural to start a band with some guys I knew from the youth group at church. We had chemistry, we just worked really well together. I had never in my life thought about song writing, but it just seemed like the most natural thing in the world. We were pretty good if I don’t say so myself. We would get together three or four times a week and rehearse. The Really Big Church gave us the space. Right from the beginning it was clear that we all took it seriously, all four of us decided to postpone college, our band was going to become successful in the world of Christian music which at the time was booming, when you are eighteen you are allowed that sort of unbridled confidence. We were going to make it. Also, I just wasn’t interested in going to school at that point.
After much debate we decided to call ourselves “Sole Matter” a little play on the words sole and soul. I know, not so clever. We were building up quite a catalog of songs, and began playing around town. We even played in Tennessee, mostly at colleges or at coffee shops. I ended up writing most of the lyrics. Not all of my songs were religious; in fact most of them were not, they were spiritual or just love songs with the words God or Lord in place of a gender specific pronoun. To this day I feel like I still believe every word I wrote, in this regard I don’t feel in the least bit hypocritical. We produced an independent album that ultimately got us a little bit of attention locally. I threw my whole self into the band, things were beganning to fall apart at home, I wasn’t going to school and there was a monkey on my back so I really needed to feel security coming from someplace. After playing together for a year we seemed poised for something to happen. Then things changed in surprising ways.

One of the guys had fallen in love and decided to follow her to college two hours away. That was a blow to the band but we could work around it and did. Then I got a phone call that set the course for the next few years of my life. As a band we always had tremendous support from the youth department of The Really Big Church. They thought of us as a pet project, they gave us opportunities to play, use of equipment, and rehearsal space. So I stayed in touch with the youth ministry staff at The Really Big Church. I would like to try and establish what The Really Big Church really is in the contemporary Christian world. I don’t want to call it a corporation because that would be unfair. I would call it a Superpower in the Christian Church world. Production values were like anything you’d see at a stadium concert or Broadway show. The Youth Department had their on building, programs, staff, everything. When I was nineteen, a year out of high school I got a call from a woman named Paula who worked in the Youth Department and had always taken a shine to me asking me if I would like to be the new male singer for the Vision band. I would like to try and express to you the magnitude of this, to me Vision was this famous thing that hundreds and hundreds of kids went every week. This was an amazing opportunity that I jumped on. The High School Youth Minister at The Really Big Church was someone I idolized.. He was young, gorgeous, whip-smart and funny and he seemed to take a special interest in me. In my sense of humor which was just a tad off color and in my voice He along with Paula were the ones who turned me into a real singer, they were the ones who gave me all of the opportunities on those choir tours. They are the ones who taught me how to harmonize. Paula’s official title was Youth Worship and Programming Director It didn’t dawn on me at the time that all the men were Ministers and the women were Directors. All I knew is that I was invited into the inner circle. I didn’t yet know how immersed I would become in that circle at the time.

Right away I had a lot to learn. For the next two years I was learning four to five songs a week. Some Christian songs but a whole lot of Top 40, secular pop and rock as well since the purpose of Vision was outreach. Vision was a program consisting of music, skits, videos, and a talk geared toward non-churchgoers. None of it was religion shoved down your throat. It was a fun, inviting atmosphere. I learned all about chord charts and how to sing in two-part, three-part, and sometimes four-part harmony. It didn’t take long for me to become a youth sponsor, one of those fun adult types who were always at the events and going on the trips with us. Keep in mind that barely out of high school myself. Eventually my entire social life revolved around The Really Big Church. I completely fell out of contact with most of my friends from high school.

Some people in my family did not understand my involvement at The Really Big Church. In particular my sister Pam, who is a loud and proud liberal, had issues with it. Once she picked me up at the church after I had been away on a trip and she said, “You’re lucky I’m here picking you up instead of strapping my two babies to my back and carrying a picket sign.” She then went on to say something about gay rights, which I quickly absorbed, and the put away, way up high on my “things to deal with later” shelf. I did not want to hear about any of that stuff I just wanted to stay where I was, safe in my little bubble, where every thing was black and white, where all sex before marriage was taboo, so I did not have to worry about it.

After singing with the Vision Band for almost two years a new opportunity arose. I was offered a full time position at The Really Big Church as the Youth Worship and Programming Intern. I had just moved into my first apartment with some buddies. Slowly Sole Matter fell by the wayside. We still played every now and then but it was never the same. I became fully immersed in The Really Big Church, it became my whole life. I had just turned twenty-one and I had a very important, exciting job at this mega-church. Also my family was falling apart at the seams for the second time and I needed stability. They welcomed me with open arms (or so it seemed) and what they offered me was safety and I lunged at it, because in the back of my mind, I knew the wolves were circling. I became quite good at what I was doing. In addition to helping plan all of the programming and events I continued to front the band, and lead worship, and go on exciting trips. I got to sing in some great places. I got to travel and sing all over the country. However, I was a fraud, I just didn;t know it!

So how does I flamboyant sissy, with tourette's who was raised a liberal catholic fit in with the right wing? Surprisingly well it turns out. I was so young I had no idea of my own political ideals let alone anyone else’s and I had that uncanny ability to take what I like and leave what I didn’t. Yes sometimes something would be said about Homosexuals that would cause me to flinch, then immediately block it out. Yes it’s true that I never fully bought into the theology of the Christian Church. Yes, it’s true I believe the bible is not to be taken literally 99% of the time. I didn’t witness to people. I didn’t talk to my family or few remaining outside friend about the Lord or the church. So how did I justify what I was doing? Easy, I was a liar. I lied to myself every moment of every day. Deep down part of me knew I was living a lie but frankly I thought I could beat it. I was getting very caught up in the status I was attaining too. I got recognized sometimes, mostly by teenagers, but hey I was only twenty-one myself. I was safe there; safe from that horrible thing about myself I did not want to know. I was happy and living a very exciting life. At least I made myself believe I was happy, the fact that I treated myself to six or seven giant meals a day and getting bigger and bigger should have been a tipoff that I was repressing something.
The fact that I had become overweight didn’t seem to bother me as much as the fact that I had no girlfriend. Not that I wanted one mind you, but by the time I was twenty-two my friends were starting to pair up. I had no girlfriend, and everyone else did. I knew very well that I was sexually attracted to men and hot guys surrounded me. This may be a gross generalization but for some reason Christian guys are hot. It’s like reading the bible has some sort of impact on your deltoids or something. However I believed at the time these feelings were just a minor flaw in my character, one that I could conquer. Of course I never told anyone this, even when directly asked by my sister “Do you think you might be gay?” I would always say “no,” then add just for authenticity “If I were gay, I’d be gay” and I almost believed it. I needed a girlfriend, because that was what was supposed to happen next, also, because it would keep people from talking. Naturally I turned to Abby whose friendship I began to value more and more. I knew she had feelings for me, and I knew how much I loved her so naturally in my mind that meant that she must be the one for me. How can I put this? It was like dating my sister. In the end I just told her that I only thought of her as a friend, and after a brief awkward phase of her being heartbroken our friendship returned stronger than ever. Thank God because through it all she has been my very best friend and I cannot imagine my life with out her. She is the Grace to my Will.
The more comfortable I got at The Really Big Church and in my position there the more my true self started to emerge. I was more comfortable am the more my inhibitions lowered, it's totally sub-concious. That’s when I heard of some whisperings amongst some of the kids referring to me as “the gay guy” but by this point in my life I felt as if I knew how to handle that. After Abby I would try to make myself become interested in other girls, always friends of mine but it never worked, and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep dodging the issue. However for a while I was so busy that thoughts of a romantic life were always on the back burner anyway. I was still safe in the bubble.

THE BUBBLE BURSTS, BUT IT’S A SLOW LEAK

For four years after high school I lived happily oblivious in the bubble I had created for myself at The Really Big Church. Although at times it felt more like a fish tank than a bubble. For example once I was called into a meeting with one of the big wigs because I was seen coming out of a movie that I should not have been seeing. Let me correct that, I was seen coming out of a movie I should not have been seen having seen. It was Striptease starring Demi Moore. Now, to this day I’ve never seen Striptease starring Demi Moore and I’ve seen everything, clearly someone made a mistake, but one thing I learned working at The Really Big Church was that the appearance of impropriety was just as bad as the deed itself. I’m glad they never found out that I took a personal day the day Madonna’s Ray of Light came out. I learned some scandalous information about people that I knew. I also found out a couple of the dirty little secrets of some of the people who worked there as well and once you learn certain things about someone you cannot unlearn them. My eyes started to open a little bit to the hypocrisy that would be so obvious to me now. Sure these were just human foibles but the way they were swept under the rug bothered me, also they did not fit in with I wanted The Really Big Church to be. I needed it be the place that would keep me safe from sins of the flesh and when I heard these things I would realize that there was no such place. Most of the time I was untouched by that stuff, I just did my job and had a ball. In truth, I hardly ever went to actual church, at least the main service in the huge multi-million dollar complex even though I was supposed to. I mostly stayed at the youth building. I figured I was at church all week long and that was enough. But to be honest it was because I knew I was going to be hearing something I did not agree with.

Internships at The Really Big Church were highly sought after in the contemporary Christian world and were only supposed to last a year. All of the other interns came from colleges all over the country, most of them religious schools. I hadn’t even gone to college. However I was family, I had spent my part of my adolescence with this people and I think they felt that made an investment in me. I was asked to stay on staff for a second year. Two major turning points happened for me during my second year as an intern. The first being when in December of 1997 two boys in the youth group, both seniors in high school who I knew well were killed in a car accident. It was my first encounter with a tragedy of this magnitude. The youth department really rallied around the kids left behind. We tried to provide comfort and answers for them but I was rocked to my core. I was twenty two-years old, practically a child myself, and here I was trying to help teen-agers make sense of such a senseless tragedy. I felt totally out of my depths. I had no words of comfort that I could give, nothing that I could say that I believed with any certainty. I was looking for that myself in life. For the first time I felt like a fraud, and realize how dangerous that could be. What if I said the wrong thing? I remember thinking “I am no great man of faith. I am a little boy hiding here in this church from the things that scare me.” Something inside me turned and I began to think about mortality for the first time, how it could all be over in the blink of an eye and I realized how precious life is and that I will only get one shot at it. What was it that I wanted my life to be? It was an open-ended question, I didn’t come to an answer but the seed was defiantly planted in my mind.

During my time on staff I was put in charge of the High School Drama team, the same one I had been on in high school. This is where I first encountered a boy who popped my eyes wide open. No, I did not find myself attracted to him, I found myself in him. It was like he was holding up a mirror and I saw myself at sixteen; funny, well liked, but confused and desperate to be accepted. This young man was clearly gay. Once we were talking about are favorite music and he told me his favorite singer was Linda Eder, Linda Eder for crying out loud! Linda Eder is a Broadway star. I of course knew who she was, big shocker. He was just like me and he was looking for answers. The youth group at The Really Big Church was huge at this time so all of the core kids were broken up into small groups who met once a week after the Sunday night worship session. I led a group of about seven guys. I was twenty-two they were all sixteen or seventeen. There is a big difference between these ages in some ways but in some other aspects there is not. It was really the blind leading the blind. They shared personal things with me and I shared personal things with them. The problem was, I did not know what I was doing and these boys wanted guidance. They wanted to know how to spread their wings and fly and I was supposed to tell them how. If I knew how to do that I doubt I would have been there in the first place. I began to really take a cold hard look at myself. The young man I mentioned before was in my group and he was going through so many of the same things I had. We talked openly about how everyone thought that we were gay, and how hard that was to fight. I fed him the same old song and dance I gave everyone, including myself, that I wasn’t gay, just effeminate. But something was changing in me. I knew this boy was gay, and he was looking to me to help him. That was when I knew in my heart, in my gut it was time for me to take down that thing I had put on my “to deal with later shelf” and finally look at it. The consequences of this set me free.

Every person’s life is made up of choices. We all come to forks in the road when we are faced with decisions that seem impossible to make. Two months before my twenty-third birthday I knew I was at a crossroads. I began slowly admitting to myself that I was in fact gay. It happened in stages. At first I would admit to myself that I was gay but I chose to fight it. I just decided that even though I was gay it would not be the life I was choosing. I was still pig-headed enough to believe there was a choice involved in the fundamental nature of homosexuality. I began having nightmares. In these dreams I was at my own wedding. The bride was always faceless but every night it was the same. I was walking down the aisle and the feeling that my life was over began to overtake me and I was suffocating. I woke up in cold sweats. I never talked about this with anyone because to even open the lid of the jar slightly would cause the contents to spill all over the place. But I knew the truth. I just needed to own it. I knew that nothing anyone could say or do would change the fact that I was gay. I started saying it out loud to myself in my apartment or in my car. Just saying it out loud to myself was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever gone through. “I’m gay” I made myself say it but I was far from happy about it, it fact I was quite angry. My friends were starting to get married and starting their futures. Everything looked secure for them. Why was I different? Why has everything in my life been a struggle? Why was I cursed with this? Why did the simple things in life always seem to be denied to me? I mentioned forks in the road and when I was faced with this one I made the decision which path I would take.

The second year of my internship was drawing to a close and I knew that if I wanted to I could write my own ticket in the realm of the Christian church world. Two years on staff at The Really Big Church made me a kind of a commodity for other churches. I was offered jobs at a couple of up and coming churches as youth worship and programming director, I could have taken any one of these jobs. But I knew what I had to do. I knew when I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize the person I saw. Where was that happy boy? Who was this fat liar looking back at me? I didn’t feel safe anymore, I didn’t feel secure; the two things that caused me to seek refuge in the church in the first place. I felt trapped and I was drowning. Was I going to live a life that seemed easy, a life that looked like everyone else’s around me and no one could call an abomination? Could I do that even if I knew it meant living a lie? Or was I finally for the first time in my life, going to except the truth? Funny thing about that, when did except the truth, my life became easy for the first time.

I’ve seen the bumper sticker “Lord protect me from your followers” and I’m always a little tempted to get one. Today Christianity in America is almost impossible to separate from the gun toting, Wal-mart shopping conservative right wing. And I don’t believe that is a fair stereotype although for a while after leaving The Really Big Church I was guilty of promoting it. But I saw up close how misleading it can be. I know all too well how easy it is to have an epiphany or a truly spiritual moment when the lights are perfect and the background music is just right, and the speaker has all the right inflections and tones, it’s produced. I know this because I helped produce it! Look I was burned by organized religion, it considers me an abomination. It’s nothing new of course; from what goes on today in the Middle East and going back in history to rigid lives of the Puritans to the Holy Roman Empire and the Inquisition you’ll see that all your major league atrocities have been committed in the name of religion. So what was I doing there? Was I faking it? The answer is no, not entirely. There is beauty in Christianity as there is in all religions, I learned a great many things about grace and mercy and forgiveness that I learned how to apply to my own life. It really helped me get through a turbulent time in my life. In my little nook of the church we had open hearts and open arms, however not always open minds. Homosexuality was a sin. It said so in the Bible didn’t it? For some reason I refused to open a Bible and look for where that was written. I’m not sure if I was more afraid that if I read it I would find out that it was true or that it wasn’t. I didn’t look at Leviticus 18:22 until years later, “Thou shall not lay with mankind, as with womankind, it is an abomination.” Biblical scholars have been debating over this verse for centuries. Somehow today it has been translated to “homosexuality is the worst sin of all.” How they got from one to the other is beyond me. And why the fixation on that one verse? After all this is the same book that says a man can sell his daughters into slavery. That a person can be put to death for planting certain crops side by side, or for wearing clothing made from two different threads. If homosexuality is an abomination why aren’t those things? Well they are not, at least not to me. I hate when people use the bible as their argument anyway, because it make the assumption that everyone believes how they believe. I look at the Bible as a book that has some truths in it and some great stories about history and some good advice on how to live your life. But do I believe that it was the law, the literal word of God? No, did I ever? No I didn’t. So I ask again. What was I doing there? Simple, I was beginning my journey.

In July 1998, right after my twenty-third birthday I left The Really Big Church. The reason I gave at the time was that I wanted to go back to school. The plan was that I would stay involved and still sing with the band. The people who had become so very important in my life gave me hugs and said they'd be talking to me in a few weeks when all the programs started up again for the Fall. But I knew when I walked out those doors that day and they closed behind me that I was done. I knew that things would never be the same again, and in that moment the bubble burst and I took my first step into the world outside. Being gay is not a choice, but coming to terms with it is. I chose to be who I was. And I have never looked back.

3 comments:

  1. A lot of memories for me in this post. 12/11/97, the drama group, D-group. When we (at least me,) looked at the youth leaders, we never saw confused 21 year-olds trying to understand their sexuality. I never saw any of the youth leaders as materialistic, or merchants of "cool." We saw you guys as guides who knew what they were doing and could help us get there. That might sound kind of bad, like I'm coming down on you for NOT being that. But now, looking back, at my age now... it's comforting to know it was the blind leading the blind. Because no one really has it all figured out and to have it all figured out, you kind of have to be one of those people who can just ignore inconvenient truths. Either that or they're the most screwed up of us all, they're just hiding it all. Like you said, they've chosen never to come to terms with who they are (sexuality, or other truths.)

    Thanks for your honesty, Jason. It's a trip to look back on those years and the time I spent around you in a new lens.

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  2. This is an amazing post Jason - from an amazing person that I am privileged to call a friend.

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  3. I love you, Jason Cooper & think you are awesome. One thing I don't think Jesus ever meant for the church was for it to be a religion, to point fingers at people -- He meant for it to be about love, mercy, grace, forgiveness & relationships. Some churches just get that all screwed up. In some ways I'm sorry our journey took us through one of those screwed up churches but if it hadn't I wouldn't know you.

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