My Run-In With Rev. Phelps and Westboro

The following is excerpted from Chapter 19 / Teaching the Cat to Sit:

Westboro protests in front of Sacred Heart of Jesus school.

Westboro protests in front of Sacred Heart of Jesus school.

In an act of bravery and perhaps lunacy, I agree to be interviewed by the Boulder Weekly about Sacred Heart of Jesus School’s decision to expel all children who have gay parents. Our four-year old son was in the Teddy Bear pre-school class at Sacred Heart and had been baptized there. I expect that no one will see the article, and yet I’m also terrified my staunchly religious parents back in Texas will somehow get wind of it. Regardless, Reverend Phelps and the Westboro Church use the mounting publicity to descend on Boulder to try to make their point.

 

The phone starts ringing and it doesn’t stop for most of the day. I pace the house until Jill tells me I should go for a drive. I’m in my car for two minutes with the top down when my phone vibrates and I see my mom’s number.

“Your father is about to have a heart attack,” my mom says on the other end of the line. God, did she see it? There’s no way she saw it. I zip through downtown Boulder in my Mini Cooper convertible with the top down, hunting for a parking space.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” my mother says. “Your father’s email got hacked into, and it sent messages to everyone he knows saying he’s been mugged in France and needs money wired to him in order to get home. Don’t send him any when you get it. He’s not in France. He’s right here.”

“Wow, so sorry,” I say, relieved that my parents are victims of computer hackers instead of me. “I’ve seen that email before. It’s a fairly common hoax.”

“He’s about to throw his computer out the window. He’s called those Geek Squad people to see if they can restore all his contacts. It’s just mean spirited, that’s all. We’re old. We don’t need this kind of nonsense.” She pauses. “What do they even get out of it? There’s no place listed to send the money.”

“I honestly don’t know.” I round the corner and almost run over a police barricade. “God hates fags!” someone yells, and I cup my hand around the phone and start fumbling for the button to raise the top on my convertible.

“What’s that, sweetie?”

“I said, ‘I need gas.’ I’ll call you later. Love you.”

A police officer motions for me to move my car, so I back up and park along the curb. A helicopter thumps overhead like a heartbeat. When a SWAT team jumps out of an armored truck with their riot gear—shields, gas masks, and guns—I realize I have entered some kind of war zone.

A woman sings: “God bless America, the pervert home.” She is red-faced with anger and dragging a child Connor’s age behind her. His sign reads: GOD HATES FAG ENABLERS. A man approaches my window and yells, “Dyke lover! Die!” I flinch inside my car, his words flung at me like spit. I know these protesters are from Westboro Baptist Church. I’ve seen them on television, usually picketing at the funerals of American soldiers. Now they walk down our streets.

What does it say when a notorious hate group agrees with Sacred Heart’s policy? I sit and watch them for a moment, terrified because I used my name in the interview that came out today. I think about those boys in high school who used to run by my house screaming, “Michelle Theall has a dick.” They are the kind of people who would be happy Matthew Shepard was left to die tied to a fence post in Wyoming.

A stabbing sensation pricks at my fingertips and toes, making my arms and legs jump as a reflex. It feels like someone is jabbing me with sewing needles. I remind myself that even if they know my name, they do not know what I look like. An officer motions to me and removes a barricade so I can inch through, back up, and turn around to go in the other direction.

I drive to a favorite coffee shop of mine, the Laughing Goat, and order a soy mocha. The barista works on my order and I wait by the back wall next to Styrofoam cup sculptures flattened and framed and selling for $200. My cell phone rings with the number of an editor I know named Geoff, who works at a magazine in Denver called 5280. I pick up because I want to tell someone about the craziness that’s been unleashed here.

When I describe the protest I just drove through he says, “I know. I just saw coverage of it on the news. It must be absolutely nuts over there. And I saw the interview you gave to the Boulder Weekly.”

I nod and know he can’t hear it.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s been going on and I wondered if you would be willing to tell your story. Not an interview and not just about this incident. But the story of growing up gay and Catholic and the challenges associated with that.”

“I—um.” The espresso machine exhales a blast of steam.

“You could really speak to a lot of people in a very personal way. You might even save some kids from giving up.”

The barista yells, “Order up!” I pick up my drink and drop it as my hands touch the paper cup. I expect my palms to be blistered from the unbearable scalding heat of the coffee. It’s not the barista’s fault. The coffee was the right temperature, but my sensory problems have been growing. My MS is acting up like an angry child. I kneel on the ground with napkins and sop up the puddles. The man next to me in line bends to the floor and takes my empty, sticky cup to the trash.

I pick up my phone, which I have left on the counter. “Geoff ?” He’s no longer there. The barista offers me a new soy mocha, and I thank him.

On my way back to the house, I take a route that I hope will avoid Westboro. But the protest has spilled out onto the streets and I get stuck again. As the crowds build around my car, I try to make myself small. But then I notice that most of the people around me are counterprotesters. They wear tie-dyed T-shirts and hold peace signs, and they are predominantly high school and middle school students. A boy in a green hoodie and a baseball cap holds a sign saying: GOD ACCEPTS YOU. Next to him, a girl who looks like she might be this year’s homecoming queen, shouts, “Spread the love!”

The student presence grows until I cannot move my car. The kids sing and put their arms around one another. They ignore a protester yelling at them, “You are going to hell, Boulder,” and another screaming, “You hate God.” I notice that the SWAT team that I thought was assembled to protect Boulder citizens from Westboro is actually escorting Westboro through the crowds to ensure their safety in a town where they are not welcome.

Before the protest dies down, almost 1,800 kids march. They live in a post-Columbine world with an African-American president in a country where hate took down the World Trade Center. They believe in a future of inclusion and they are willing to stand up for it. They aren’t afraid, and I feel like I will be less afraid because I have them on my side. I honk in solidarity. Kids pump their fists in the air, and I give them the peace sign and a thumbs-up.

I pick up the phone, and I call Geoff at 5280 Magazine. I tell him I am considering the article, but I need to do one thing first.

Teaching the Cat to Sit, by Michelle Theall, is a memoir about growing up gay and Catholic in the Texas Bible Belt, interwoven with the author’s fight years later to have her son accepted into Sacred Heart of Jesus school and parish in Boulder, Colorado.

 

 

Shhh. Don’t tell. I’m a gay Christian.

jesus-christian-gay-wedding-easter-ecards-someecardsI’m a gay Christian. There, I said it. I’m officially out of the closet. Though I’m forty-seven years old, it’s taken me this long to come to terms with my faith and the fear of backlash against it. But I remain optimistic. I’m counting on the societal shifts on issues like gay bullying and gay marriage and hoping they translate to gay Christianity too. Is there a place for me? I’m still not sure. To many evangelical Christians, Catholics, and Protestants, I’m an oxymoron. On the flip side, many of my gay brethren scoff at my determination to be affiliated with religions that rejected, condemned, and scarred us. We don’t need Christianity, they tell me. It’s an outdated and oppressive institution. I’d be more accepted by my own kind if I decided to become a Log Cabin Republican than a church-going lesbian. I understand their confusion. Why would I want to belong to a belief system that caused me so much harm?

I grew up gay and Catholic in the Texas Bible Belt. My devout mom and dad, both educated at Catholic universities, held the Church in the highest regard, and my mother once told me that AIDS was God’s wrath against homosexuals. During my teen years, our parish brought on a charismatic priest who sported a Tom Selleck, Magnum P.I. mustache and energized our youth group. He made going to church fun, and I might have felt included—if I was a boy. I envied my male classmates who spent private time with Father Kos and got invited to sleepovers in the rectory, until a decade later, when one of them committed suicide, and Kos fled the state amid charges of sexual abuse. It’s an all too familiar tale now, but our Dallas diocese became the first to pay out a major settlement for knowing about this priest’s actions and covering them up. After these things came to light, I remained a believer in God, but a little less so in the Catholic Church, which used our parishioners offerings to fund their legal defense.

Fast forward to 2010. I am with my partner of over a decade and our adopted son who is four. I have a house in town and a mortgage and a nice life. I am happy, and I am still Catholic. My partner and I enroll our son in Sacred Heart of Jesus School in the liberal haven of Boulder, Colorado. We ask the director of the school if there will be any problem—if our son will be penalized or ostracized in any way—because of us—because he has two mommies. We are told no. Our son enjoys his teachers and classmates in the pre-school Teddy Bear room. We want our son to know God and have that foundation of faith. Months later, the priest calls me into his office and lets me know that they will be expelling children with gay parents from the school. How can a child be blamed for whom his parents are?

CNN covers the controversy. Joy Behar does an expose. Parents (mostly straight) protest outside the Church. But in the end, nothing changes. Except for me.

I left the Catholic Church in 2010. I realize now that I somehow thought that if I could win the Church’s approval and acceptance of our non-traditional family, I might win my parents’ too. When we go to church now, my partner, son, and I go to the First Congregational United Church of Christ. It’s an open and affirming church that allows us to be complete and full members without judgment. And yet, at times it hasn’t felt like “real” church to us—because at the end of the day, I still can’t shake the feeling that a church that accepts gay people into it, isn’t much of a church at all. This confession says volumes about me, my self-loathing, and the ongoing evolution of my faith.

Regardless of what others think or say, I am a gay Christian. I want to live in a world where we bring others closer to God instead of driving them farther away. And finally, I ask that the world allow me to be what I am, a gay Christian, and let God be the final judge.

The Infant We Lost: An Excerpt About the Magic in Mountains

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My book doesn’t have a whole lot to do with Alaska, so when I thought about what excerpt to post on Alaska magazine’s web site, I could have easily passed. Except, there’s this one chapter…one that saved and gutted me to write…that has everything to do with the power and promise of that wild place. Some of you know first hand the way mountains like those in the Last Frontier speak and imbed themselves into who you are. I went there because of this, but I had no idea they could also predict the future. None at all.

 

 

TEACHING THE CAT TO SIT: EXCERPT (adapted from two chapters)

I can clearly picture Jeremy’s face, with his curious algae-colored eyes and the ears that stuck out from his head in an attentive way, like he was trying to understand us. He was twenty-one days old and had been removed from his mother at the hospital because he was born drug-positive. Mom was an eighteen-year-old addict. Dad was thirty-six and had disappeared. Social services had placed the baby back in the home with his mom three times in three weeks, with no success.

The minute they told us about him, Jill called each member of her family. She held the phone between her ear and shoulder and paced the halls of our home like a new dad handing out cigars at the hospital. Less than an hour later, we drove to social services and left in the rain, instant parents, with an infant sleeping in his car seat. Jill drove while I sat next to Jeremy in the backseat, unable to take my eyes off him, smoothing the blanket he came with. We passed a Walmart and Jill ran inside to get some of the things we’d need while I waited in the car. Jeremy moved his mouth in circles, his tongue white with yeast from a thrush infection that had recently developed. I used my cell phone to dial the number the case aide had given me for the People’s Clinic, a place where foster care children on Medicaid could be treated. Jeremy slept through cracks of thunder.

Jill returned with three bags, her eyes wide, as if she’d been struck by lightning on her way across the parking lot. “I was beginning to think you’d gone out for a pack of smokes and left us,” I said. It was an old joke between us, but she didn’t laugh. Her earlier excitement seemed squashed by reality. We left that Walmart parking lot with our new baby waking in the backseat and a full-on rainbow in front of our windshield. I took it as a message from God. I was in love. Jill was in shock. And, because Jill had no idea how many diapers a baby might go through in a day or a week or a year, Walmart was now out of Pampers.

The first night, Jeremy didn’t sleep. He was inconsolable, and we had no idea how to make his world right. He cried for so many hours straight we thought he might hurt himself. We called Jill’s three sisters, then her mother, Ellen, for advice. I stayed on the phone with Ellen for an hour. She reassured me. Convinced me we couldn’t break him. Promised she’d be there by the weekend to help us with her new grandson.

Jill and I rocked him, tried different brands of formula, checked his diaper, dangled toys in front of him, and sang. We ruled out fever, rashes, and colic. We put him in bed with us and took turns laying him on our chests. I understood my mother in that moment, when she had relayed a story to me once about getting so frustrated with me when I was sick as an infant that she’d literally thrown me into my crib, and then felt so guilty about it that she cradled and kissed my clammy, crimson face for the next twenty-four hours straight. I was furious with my mother now. She should be here. And yet, I hadn’t even given her the opportunity. I blamed her for that too.

In the morning the social worker called to tell us she’d be picking up Jeremy for a supervised visit with his mom. When she asked about our night, I told her that it was miserable for all of us. Her answer was shocking and simple: “He’s going through withdrawal,” she said. “Cocaine, PCP, and meth.” She explained that on this visit with his birth mother and every one thereafter Jeremy would breast-feed, even though his mother’s milk was still testing positive for all three drugs. The baby would suffer from withdrawal every time he was away from her. No secret ingredient in the Nestlé’s formula could compete with meth. How could we bond with a baby who was literally addicted to his mother?

“It’s the law. She has the right to breast-feed her child,” the social worker said.

One week later, Jill and I were at the People’s Clinic with Jeremy when my cell phone rang. I rocked Jeremy’s carrier with the toe of my shoe and listened. The social worker explained: Our baby had an aunt. She wanted to adopt Jeremy. We were to keep Jeremy for a few more days and then take him to social services and leave him there.

In the car, Jill and I drove without speaking while Jeremy slept in his seat behind us. A deer darted in front of us and Jill swerved. She slammed on the brakes. I reached across and banged on the horn to warn oncoming traffic. Three cars in rapid succession crushed the animal like a battering ram. His bones snapped and parts of his body separated and flew into the air alongside our windshield. I don’t know if we screamed, but we pulled over to the side of the road. Traffic poured by us. Jill grabbed the wheel with both hands and put her forehead against it. I slumped against the dash. Jill gutted out words between sobs. “Why is this happening? I don’t understand.”

I moaned into my hands. “We didn’t want him enough. God did this because we didn’t want him enough. He took him away.”

We went through the motions for the next two days, loving a baby we knew was no longer ours. I memorized his smell, and read to him, and covered him with kisses. Jill’s mother, Ellen, flew in, and went with us to social services, sat with us in the office as we said our goodbyes to Jeremy, and held on to us as we left empty-handed.

For several days, Jill and I didn’t talk. We circled each other in our grief. Ellen stayed with us, counseled us. And because I knew she was a devout, born-again Christian, I asked her why God had allowed this to happen to us. We sat on the couch in the loft, side by side. She said, “Well, honey, maybe this wasn’t about you at all. Maybe it was about Jeremy.” She pulled me toward her, leaned my head against her shoulder. “God knew that the two of you would provide him with a safe and loving place when he needed it most. Maybe it’s as simple as that.”

Ellen didn’t leave until it seemed we could stand on our own again.

 

Like many people dealing with grief, we decided we needed to get lost somewhere in order to regain our bearings. So we chose a place one hundred miles from any road and that could only be reached by plane. The Ultima Thule, a lodge in the middle of Wrangell-St. Elias facing three miles of the glacier-fed Chitina River in Alaska, possessed the resilience we needed, having been destroyed and rebuilt three times by fire and flood. The name “Ultima Thule” meant a land remote beyond reckoning, beyond the borders of the known world.

One afternoon while Jill fished for sockeye salmon, I flew overhead in a bush plane the size of a confessional. Sitting in the lap of a guide named Too Tall, I asked the names of the peaks, anxious to make sense of them. “Those are orphaned peaks,” Too Tall told me. “Can’t land on them or climb them. No one’s ever set foot on them.”

We banked right and ascended higher. Three serrated peaks spread out across the horizon, cutting holes through a gauze of white clouds, obscuring their beginnings from me. I snapped away with my Nikon and leaned over Too Tall’s shoulder to ask him if those mountains had names. He nodded and pointed at each one in succession. He spoke three words and I repeated after him: “Connor. Bona. Jackson.”

Shortly after we returned from Alaska, Jill and I got the call for a thirteen-month-old little boy. We met the social workers for a presentation on the child who would be ours. They told us about the boy’s mom, Tara, and his father, Brian, the homeless kids who had given birth to him. They gave us his well-worn history. And when they were finished they showed us his photo and told us his given name: Connor Bona Jackson.

To Buy Teaching the Cat to Sit for yourself or someone else, CLICK HERE.

 

Why Hasn’t Oprah Called?

My localized anxiety.

Localized anxiety.

 

The book is out and so am I. I’ve been asked how I feel about the whole process and haven’t had a cohesive answer—likely because I’m in the middle of an anxiety attack. Teaching the Cat to Sit isn’t just a book; it’s also a large portion of my life, forty-seven years on the earth exposed in all the gory glory that entails. In general, I think writers are unstable, neurotic, and insecure, often while simultaneously managing to be brilliant and happy and prolific. Go figure. So here are my thoughts about my book and me coming out, in random order, of course.

 

 

  1. I should have waited until my parents died to write this book, but they are in such good health.
  2. My friends, old classmates, and even my boss have read this book. Are they looking at me funny? OMG. They are, aren’t they?
  3. Did I take my Prozac this morning?
  4. I feel guilty that my friends are buying my book. It costs $25. A steak and a great Cabernet might have been the better choice. You can’t eat a book.
  5. No one will show up to my book signings.
  6. Everyone will show up, and I will throw up in public on my shoes.
  7. I should get back into therapy.
  8. If this book does well, it will kill my mother.
  9. If no one reads it, I’ll kill myself.
  10. What rank is my book on Amazon?
  11.  An old friend is reading the book and I haven’t heard from her about it: a) She must be mad at me. b) She hated it and wants to spare my feelings. Or, c) She has a life.
  12.  I should take up yoga or meditate.
  13.  Will I ever look as put together and sane as my author photo?
  14.  They should serve tequila at all book signings.
  15.   And finally: Why haven’t Oprah and Ellen responded to any of my letters?