Some Tender Moments with the Gay Community

By Charlene Potterbaum

I recently co-authored a book with Jim Pauley, Jr. The title of our book is Granny and the Gay Guy. When I first mentioned this “working title” to Jim, I did so somewhat in fear and trembling, as I knew his taking a stance as a “gay guy” might be more than he was willing to risk, publicly. He thought about the title for a moment, and smiled as he said, “Terrific! Which one do YOU want to be?” That pretty much sets the tone of our book, and quickly, we were off and running as people seemed to like our message—well, excepting those few who preferred believing in the “letter of the law” instead of hearing the whole verse that says “the letter kills, but it is the Spirit that gives life.” I quietly observed that many of these same people who were so vicious toward the gay community had had multiple marriages, affairs, were divorced, had addictions, gossiped, cheated on income taxes, were controlling, but were all very religious. Wanting to follow my heart, I desired to reach out to the homosexual community as I deeply loved another member of our family who is a lesbian. I watched her down through the years as I sensed her rich spirituality and was always warmed by the way I could touch the depths of her soul, as her eyes never wavered from mine when we talked. We dedicated our book to her, because of her sweet spirit and refusal to hate, even when she was ostracized from so many family activities she would have enjoyed, if the barriers hadn’t been put up. By barriers, I mean comments like “Of course you can come! Just don’t bring—that—that —other woman with you. We can’t have the children thinking that this is an acceptable life-style.” (Like genuine love is harmful?) I learned so much about my own being, as we had this adventure together. I found out that homophobia can’t be eradicated quickly. It has to be eased out gently, one day at a time, and, as it diminishes, love and mercy fills the place it occupied. I am talking about a solid, godly love—not only for the homosexuals and the lesbians, but for myself, as well. While signing books in Saugatuck, Michigan, a delightful resort area that has been made quaint and beautiful by the great number of homosexuals who reside there, I made the acquaintance of some wonderful people. Three, especially, made a great impact on me. I want to share their stories, because, as Philip Gulley said in his wonderful book, If Grace is True—

“I was raised to believe homosexuals were sexual perverts and child molesters. They were the worst of sinners and doomed for hell. I accepted this belief uncritically and, since I knew no homosexuals, found that belief easy to sustain...until I realized I’d known one and didn’t even know it. Kevin was one of my close friends...we went to college together, shared a deep passion for God, and both ultimately entered the ministry....Kevin dated girls, talked about girls, and dreamed of marriage. “You can imagine my shock when he came to me one day and confessed his fear that he was gay...I watched him struggle for fifteen years...he went from “fighting the thorn in his flesh” to “not acting on his sinful desires” to “accepting how God had made him” to “seeking another man to share his life with.” “He was not the only one struggling and changing...Kevin wasn’t a sexual pervert, or a child molester. He wasn’t the worst of sinners. I knew he deeply loved God and others...I couldn’t imagine Kevin being damned to hell for loving someone, even if that someone was another man. “One day we had lunch together. Kevin nervously announced he’d met someone. I responded, ‘I’m so glad.’...As he talked, I realized two things: he was in love, and he was happier than I had ever seen him. In that moment, God made it clear to me that my beliefs would have to change. “I wish I could tell you that words appeared on the wall of that restaurant saying ‘Thus saith the Lord—I accept my homosexual children.’” Instead, God spent fifteen years chiseling away at my stone beliefs and softening the hardened clay of my heart.” I am so grateful to Philip Gulley for sharing those words. It aptly describes what I have been going through for all those years as I observed the family’s reacting to my dear relative. Why some people seem to touch that special place in your heart more quickly than others is a mystery I will never understand; but a gay man named Bill did that for me. I would have claimed him as a son, and been proud to do so. He seemed warmed that a “straight” would care to relate to one of his kind, and he felt safe in telling me his “story.” Bill said, “I knew in the second grade that there was something ‘different’ about me, but I also knew it was not something I could ask about. I found out what it was called when we had an assignment to look up words in the dictionary—along about the third grade, I think. Well, you know how, once you get your nose in the dictionary, you kind of read all the words in

scanning distance? Well, I saw it. And then I knew...that that was what I was.” You will never be able to convince me that a second or third grader makes this “choice” to be a homosexual. It is something inborn, genetic and mysterious beyond measure, and to quote Peggy Campolo, wife of the wellknown evangelical, Tony Campolo—“The truth is, while we may be getting closer to understanding why some people are straight and others are gay, at this point in time there is no definitive answer. I am tired of hearing the guesses of various people and groups set forth as fact. Christians should simply say, as does Dr James Forbes of New York City’s great Riverside Church, ‘God has many children, and some of them are straight.’” I also met a “pair” of homosexuals, who had been together for over thirty years. They said, “We used to have to be so careful...our jobs were on the line, and we had to keep our partnership such a secret. Things are a bit easier for us now, but there is still a long way to go....” And one of this “pair” asked me, “Char, how does your husband feel about you running around the country with a gay guy?” I giggled, as I said, “Well, in as much as he scolded me for not sharing a room with Jim, to save a few bucks—I’d say he is okay with it!” And we both had a good laugh over that, but I said, “Besides, I sure wouldn’t want Jim to see me when I first wake up...with this new hair-do, I look just like a chrysanthemum!” My new friend leaned over close to me and touched my arm as he giggled, “Char, I know just what you mean—why, every morning when I wake up—I peek in the mirror and I look—just like a pansy!” How I love their forthrightness and humor! While we were signing books in Dallas, they invited us to also come to a bowling event they were having on that Sunday afternoon—which they affectionately referred to as “The Fruit Bowl”—(and the subtitle read: “We can’t even bowl straight!”) However, I’d like to insert a comment made by my son several years ago. This was long before I’d even thought of writing a book with a gay guy. My son was telling me about a recent Trade Show and having made some acquaintances with a couple of gay guys. He said, “Mom, they are wonderful people and such awesome decorators, and you know what, Mom? I used to think they had a choice, but now I am not so sure. I don’t think anyone would take the abuse they have to take, if they had a choice.” I wanted that comment to come prior to my next story, so that you can think about it while this drama seeps into your heart. Just before we folded up from a full day of book signing we met a nice young man—the partner of the owner of the Shoppe where we were signing. Before he came to meet

us, his partner had purchased our book (plus the book I’d written previous to meeting Jim) for him. Shyly, he approached us and chatted for awhile, then just as he was leaving, he quietly thanked me and said, “Thanks, Char. Now I have all of your books.” “All of them?” I asked, in amazement. (Some were out of print.) “Well, I mean—you’d have been quite young, and—well, they seem kind of ‘preachy-teachy’ for such a young person...how did it come about?” He smiled that broad smile again, and said, “Well, I may be older than you realize, but you might also not know that I was a Baptist minister, formerly.” Later that day, his partner invited us in for some refreshment. The former Baptist minister happened to land beside me, and it didn’t take long for me to pop the expected question. “Charlie, surely you can understand my curiosity—tell me how you came to be here instead of in a manse somewhere.” He rubbed his hands together as he looked thoughtful for a moment, before he proceeded. “It seems so long ago—it seems more like a bad dream that has no hope of ever fading, yet I am fulfilled with what I am doing now. I am a faux painter, and I really enjoy my work. “You see, while in college, I was an excellent student. I aced every test that came across my desk. This got the attention of the faculty, and even the president of the Eastern College I attended. Out of curiosity, he asked to see my notes, and if we could spend some time together, for I think he saw something in me that perked his interest. He was amazed when he saw my preparations, for I kept meticulous notes—he was so impressed, he even exclaimed, ‘Charlie, these notes are so perfect, I could preach from them myself, without making even one change. Let’s make it a point to spend Tuesday nights together...I want to know more about your system you have here...would you like to do that?’ “Well, I somehow felt honored to be afforded that privilege, so of course I agreed to meeting with him. We did this for many weeks, and he had a daughter—a very nice daughter, and we went for walks, shared stories, shared sodas, sometimes—and lots of laughs. I always just thought of her as a very nice person and a great friend, but it seemed he had other plans for us. After a few months, he took me aside one Tuesday night, and said, ‘Now, Charlie—surely you know that people are beginning to think of you and Sarah as a ‘couple.’ Did you know that?’ “I became very nervous and somewhat embarrassed, as I hadn’t known this, at all! Then, it further unsettled me when he also added that if I’d ‘marry his daughter’ he would see to it that within a short time, I’d be the

vice-president of his institution! Char, I am ashamed to admit this, but it felt like an offer I couldn’t turn down. His daughter was delightful, and even though I knew deep inside I was a homosexual, I hadn’t come out of the closet to anyone, so I thought I could keep the stigma of being gay under wraps for the rest of my life. Or so I thought. “So, we were married. And actually, we had a pretty good marriage, I’d say; we had been married for nine years, and had two children—a boy and a girl. On the Eve of our ninth wedding anniversary, my wife began to pester me about something that had been troubling her for so long. She said, ‘Charlie, I need to know something. Why is it, when you spend time with the Lord—you cry so hard? It just seems to me that you cry so much, well—it seems a little unusual, and I feel as your wife, I have the right to know...what troubles you so?’ “I sighed and took a deep breath, then remarked that, ‘I carry a burden. That’s all.’ She wasn’t satisfied with this answer, so she continued to pester me for the whole day. ‘Charlie, it has to be something more than just carrying a burden. I am your wife, Charlie! Surely you can share with me...that’s what marriages are for—for sharing things with one another!’ “Somehow, she just couldn’t seem to get off this kick. And so, that night, under cover of darkness and of finally being convinced that perhaps I could trust her with this pain, I blurted it all out to her. I ‘outted’ myself, thinking I’d found a safe haven to share this ‘thing’ that I had struggled with for all of my life. And, it felt wonderful. She seemed to be supportive, understanding, and said good positive things, like ‘Charlie, surely there is help we can get—counseling, whatever it takes.” And I slept very soundly that night. “The next evening, after work—I was pleased to see that her parents’ car was in front of the house. I thought ‘Oh, she has invited them here for our anniversary dinner—that’s nice.’ But the closer I got, I saw that all the deacon’s cars were there, as well. Thinking that was a bit unusual, I turned into our drive—and was horrified to see a rubble of stuff on our front lawn —on closer scrutiny, I realized it was all of my clothes, notes, books— anything that would have my imprint on it—strewn all over the yard for the entire world to see! “Feeling dazed, I made my way to the door. My father-in-law stood there, arms across his chest, as he defiantly said, ‘Don’t ever darken this threshold again!’ It felt like a poison seeping throughout my body as I heard these horrible words. Because I had the keys to my car, and I knew that was in my name, I took off, and it is a wonder that I didn’t crash or kill someone,

I was so ‘out of it.’ Nothing felt real—a gradual paralysis began to take over...nature’s way of helping us to endure the unendurable, I think. “After a few days of wandering around, I finally called the only person in the church I could trust—a therapist. I was dismayed with the news he gave me...he said, ‘Charlie—Run! Go as far as you can and stay away...they are talking about putting you either in a mental institution, or doing a lobotomy! And they have the power to do this...go as far away as you can!’ “Well, that was well over twenty years ago. My children are grown. I was never permitted to be a part of their life, yet I think of them daily. The saddest thing about it is that I think we had a good marriage. Yet, talking to other gay men, I am not sure I could have held that secret in forever, even though I thought at that time, that I could.” Because of pain like this, Tony Campolo, an evangelical, wrote this note to me, in response for my asking to have access to his tapes: “We share a common commitment in lifting the burdens from our dear gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I want to do all I can to encourage you to carry on with the good fight against bigotry and ignorance...my prayers go with you, dear friend...Yours in Christ, Tony Campolo.” Also, from a Baptist minister, I received this word: “My first experiences of having my former attitudes concerning homosexuality dislodged came when I was a pastoral counselor in a University. Over a period of seven years I had as clients a number of homosexuals, both male and female. In getting to know them I discovered deep, sensitive, and caring souls, many of whom felt called into Christian ministry and one of whom was already an ordained Baptist minister. I came to the conclusion that the origins of homosexuality are far more complex than either polarized side in the current popular screamfest is willing to admit, and that whatever the origins and ultimate moral nature of homosexuality, part of dealing with it is NOT to toss gays out of the church.” This same Baptist minister encouraged me to read Mel White’s book, Stranger at the Gate. So I did, and how I wish it could be “recommended reading” in every High School across the country! There would be less suicides, I’m sure.

And before I close this chapter, I want to quote one more thing from some material sent to me by Peggy Campolo. She said, “A friend of mine asked her son, when he was twelve years old, if he were gay. This boy happened to be straight. Startled by his mother’s question, he shouted, ‘No! Why the heck would you ask me that?’ ‘Because,’ she told him, ‘if you were gay you would need somebody who really loved you to talk to about it with. I wanted to tell you that I would want to be that person, and that it would be fine with me if you were gay.’ “What a message that mother sent to her child! Not only that it would have been acceptable to her for him to be gay, but also about what his attitude should be towards gay people. Doing what my friend did is one way of letting a child who might be gay know that you are a safe place where he or she can be real.”......Peggy Campolo Now, I’d like to mess with your heart, a bit. Let’s pretend here, just for a moment, that a decree just went out over the land, and it went something like this: “Due to the overpopulation that has been plaguing us now for a number of years, your government has come up with a doable solution to said problem. It is decreed that all heterosexuals shall now switch and become homosexuals, thus cutting back considerably on the baby boom that has had pre-eminence for such a long time. Seeing as how this is a choice, it should not be difficult to choose differently, thus aiding your country in great measure.” Stop and think for a moment, as to what your reactions would be! Now, do you STILL think it is a choice? I don’t begin to understand my love for these people. Nor do I feel I need to explain it. It just “is.” It seems to be so much more understandable if people are called to darkest Africa, or to some far away missionary post...but express genuine love for a segment of people who live closer to home and suffer from “bigotry and ignorance,” and you are in for some big-g-g—trouble. Interestingly enough, our first interview was on a TV station in Nashville, called “The Talk of the Town.” I assured the hosts, that, if you have written a book with a gay guy, you are, indeed— the “talk of the town.”