I’ve enjoyed reading fellow NazToo-er Bruce Balcom’s writing since we were on the satff of Trevecca’s student newspaper many (so many) years ago, and am very happy that he has contributed this month’s blog. Bruce is a lawyer who works assisting people in affordable housing for the State of Tennessee. He has a BA in history and an MA in religious studies from Trevecca and a JD from Vanderbilt. He is married with three adult children and two wonderful old dogs. He loves poker, cigars and a good ale and he’s Nazarene too.
As I write this it is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. I had no idea what those were when they happened. I suppose being only 5 years old at the time might excuse that, though I’m guessing there were plenty of people who knew exactly what these were. Anyhow, I thought I would tell a story that could very well have as its source or inspiration those very riots. Without them, or something like them, I wonder if it could have ever been told. It is why I have always loved history, the stories that change things, that sometimes give light to who we are, and why we are the way we are.
Life is a story. Everyone has one, and in every story there are important dates or events that define that story, change it permanently. Those moments when, looking back, your story changed in irrevocable and dramatic ways. At this point this particular story is a part of mine, for good or ill, it is part of who I am. For me March 5, 1979 was a big date, when we moved from Massachusetts to Florida. Nothing in my life would be as it is today but for that move. Others include August of 1983, when I enrolled at Trevecca, and September of 2002 when I accepted my job working for my current employer. To cover all these moments, and the tale that is spun from them is simply too long to tell in this space. This particular chapter of my story will not deal with any of the significant events already mentioned, but rather the event from August of 1992. We’ll get back to that, but first some background is in order.
Foundational to this tale are those things beyond my control, the accidents of birth that form who we are at our earliest days. For me one such accident is being born into a family that was third generation Nazarene on both sides. I have never not considered myself Christian, or identified with any other family than Nazarene. My mother was a nurse, by the time I knew this she was working for a hospital in Lowell, MA. My dad was a plant manager for a company that made heat extruded tubing for electrical wiring. I was born a white protestant, cis male in a middle class suburb. The penultimate child of privilege (I mean we weren’t wealthy, but otherwise I checked all the boxes). I didn’t meet a person my age who was also a person of color until 7th grade. He was the son of a medical doctor who was a Colonel in the air force.
We were raised to follow the holy trinity: no smoking, drinking or dancing. We obeyed the commandment to never swear. So we could say “butt” or “crap,” but not “ass” or “shit.” These rules were enforced through the usual methods: a spanking, or perhaps the liberal application of soap to the mouth. We were, however, permitted to call someone “retard” or compare a boy unflatteringly to a female (though not the “swear word” terms like “bitch” or anatomically descriptive words), or to question someone’s sexual identity. The fact that young boys might engage in name calling is hardly remarkable, but what is was the complete lack of concern by any adult in our lives over the use of such terms.
As a considerably older, but still quite young, man at Trevecca I recall talking about gender identity (though we didn’t have that term), but not in the truly judgmental way that seems to have become so prevalent today in certain circles. One conversation in the dorm sticks out. A suitemate and I were talking about guys hitting on other guys, I really don’t have any recollection why, and he mentioned a guy we both knew at Trevecca who was “weirded out” at the thought. He pointed out first how this guy was a serious weightlifter, a man’s man so to speak, but the thought of another man hitting on him could make him literally physically ill. Apparently, the story goes, this guy had a guy hit on him and he went to the bathroom and vomited. This seemed a strange reaction to me, and my friend agreed. Why wouldn’t you merely say you were flattered but happened to be attracted to women? I still cannot fathom this reaction, or understand where it comes from.
By this time of course, the church had been taking a stand against “homosexuality” and it was clear by what they taught that Christians didn’t participate in that sort of “lifestyle.” I was one of the more “moderate” folks for that time, feeling that people ought not to be persecuted for being homosexual, even if they were engaging in sexual activity (how very enlightened of me, condescending prick). However, the church taught it was wrong, so I toed the party line for a time. And therein I committed grievous sin against my brothers and sisters, and I was, like the religious leaders of Israel when confronted with Jesus, blinded by my privilege and encased in a womb of self-righteousness. Who then could save me from this body of sin?
Fast forward to August of 1992, one of those important moments I spoke of earlier. We purchased our first home. We moved in right before I started law school. Our next door neighbor was a single guy about our age. He was one of those neighbors you dream of having. He was willing to help out, friendly and really great with our kids. After he installed a pool, he told us to bring the kids over any weekday afternoon we wanted. My kids learned to swim there. We had great conversations about life and politics, among other topics. We learned that he had inherited the property from his aunt, who he had cared for as she died from cancer. He knew we were Christians, and I think he became surprised that we were so friendly to him and didn’t try to constantly proselytize him (read a bit further and his surprise makes a hell of a lot of sense).
He felt comfortable enough with us to share his story with us. As a young man in high school he had done all the things you would expect, including dating girls. Somehow he couldn’t seem to feel anything about them, instead feeling attracted to boys. He had lived that life in secret, afraid of the judgment that he saw so often follow being openly true to one’s self. He wanted what anyone does, a mutual, loving relationship. He despised the “scene” he found in the “community” (his words, not mine). He trusted us with this deeply personal story. Somehow we accepted all of this, not even feeling like we needed to add anything but our continued friendship. I look back and see God’s redemption in this. Not for him, but for me. I had needed Michael for me to overcome my sin.
Living daily with him as our neighbor, and our dear friend, changed us forever. It shattered my privilege, irrupting it. I was saved by my friendship with him, not in some abstract sense, but in the literal way human beings in relationship save one another. I was the Christian, the one with a master’s degree in religion, and I was riven with the worst sort of sin, blindly judging others, setting myself up as God. Michael saved me from my privilege. That didn’t mean I was all better, far from it, but, much like salvation in the Christian sense, it did set me on a new course, one which was loving, and willing to get into the messy details of real life, particularly mine.
I can never repay Michael for his redemptive love for us as new neighbors, his willingness to not prejudge us for who we were. The wonder of this is that he didn’t want anything from us but our friendship, which he still has to this day. What he gave me in his friendship was my redemption from myself. The only thing I can do is live into that change the best I know how.
So back to the Stonewall Riots. Sometimes seminal events happen and you never even realize it. Sometimes history changes you in ways you can never see. Sometimes you need a Michael in your life to save you from yourself.