My Autobiography Through the Lens of Friendship|
Note: This was initially written as a spiritual report to my Spiritual Guide in a mission group of Seekers Church on December 17, 2003. It was revised and updated a bit for this website in February, 2008.
I had named attending to friendships as one of my spiritual goals and this report was part of my accountability with regard to my goal. I mostly reported to my spiritual guide that I wasn't making much progress on the goal of being a better friend, or of taking more time for friendship. I'm sad to say that in my last five years I haven't done much better with regard to friendships. Other parts of my life keep claiming higher priority for me. Such friendships as I do have are primarily in my family or in Seekers Church.
I remember times when friendship was a much more significant part of my life. Part of my concern is the feeling that I have lost so much in friendships that is hard to develop energy for new friendships.
I remember having a common and okay round of friendship in my childhood in Washington, DC, Raleigh, NC, and Columbia, SC. That takes me through the fourth grade. I played with kids in the neighborhood in common ways. Moving several times broke up those friendships. My 5th grade was in Columbus, Ohio and the 6th grade in Cleveland. I didn't do so well in connecting to neighborhood networks there and took to more solitary pursuits. When I got glasses in the 5th grade, reading became fun and I suddenly was an avid reader from the 5th grade on. I remember averaging ten books a week for a long time and winning some kind of an award for reading in the Cleveland Public Schools. Nonetheless I had some mean troubles in school with teachers and I seemed outside the loop with other kids. In Cleveland a lot of my energy went into going to see Cleveland Indians baseball games and going to the neighborhood movie on Saturday mornings for 25 cents - grade B cowboy movies.
We moved to Tallahassee, Florida in the 7th grade and my relationship with other kids was disasterous. I went to Elizabeth Cobb Junior High and was very unhappy. For one thing I was bored stiff by being so far ahead of everyone else academically. I was in a growth spurt and suddenly wasn't very good at outdoor games. I was a Yankee to them despite having grown up mostly in the South. Mostly I was a "nigger lover" in a time of heightened race consciousness. I got in a lot of fights, wasn't very good at that either, and was repeatedly beaten up. I was humiliated when a group of boys knocked me down, held me down, and stole my pants.
My father got me into Florida High in the 8th grade - the demonstration school for Florida State University. I was happy in my classes again, ahead of other students but still appropriately challenged by teachers. But relationships with other students were still terrible with a few exceptions. I was still being forced into a lot of fights and almost always getting the worst of it. I was sent to office a lot and I vividly remember my principal telling me that I would have to learn to defend myself or I would get my ass whipped on a regular basis.
I didn't make the JV basketball team, despite being the tallest kid, but I did make the varsity baseball team as an 8th grader. I promptly through my arm out but never let on, though of course my throwing was not so good - and it hurt.
9th to 11th grades were better in some ways. I was in a good Boy Scout troop though there was some severe fighting in that context as well. Once, when vividly provoked and humiliated, I tried to kill another scout with a hatchet. I acquired a .45 caliber revolver, a .22 rifle, and a sawed off 12 gage shot gun (an old prison guard gun that I sawed off myself). I was dating regularly. I developed one close friendship, with Bill Love, who lived in the neighborhood. Bill was small and not into harassing me though he was no use to me in dealing with the other kids.
My father died when I was 14 and my summers after that were mostly spent in full-time employment, first as an assistant in a surveying crew for the Department of Agriculture, and then for the City of Tallahassee (at 87 cents an hour) on a maintenance and demolition crew. I got into a table-tennis network with a group of four other boys and we became good enough to travel together and play in area and state table-tennis tournaments. One of the boys, Norman Kilpatrick became ranked in the top ten in the United States. Bill Love and I went pretty far in a couple of state tournaments playing doubles. I was also playing varsity basketball and baseball. Bill and I spent a lot of time roaming the woods, swimming in sink holes, and surface diving in the St Marks river. Our group dodged motor boat propellers and brought up enough Colonial era artifacts to help stimulate the State of Florida to create a state Park on the site of St. Marks fort. I was active in the youth activities at First Presbyterian Church and followed Bill Love as president of the youth group.
But the 8th to 11th grades were also the time that I was confronting my first awareness of being a transgender person (before that language existed). An inner part of me was in deep trouble. That part was estranged and suicidal and I came very close to castrating myself. I was hiding all of this and a good thing too. If I'd attracted attention then then with a cry for help I would have been sent to the state mental hospital in Chatahootchee. I later learned that Chatahootchee was one of the hell-on-earth places created in the United States in the name of curing mental illness and that I would likely have had an ice pick jammed up through my eye socket to lobotomize me.
In the 11th grade I was still fighting all the time and went to the office 11 times for fighting. I finally got pretty good at fighting and came to appreciate the joy that can come with hitting a tormentor hard in the face. But I never learned to like fighting and never sought it out.
I got frozen out by other team mates on the varsity baseball and basketball teams and so I quit them both with never a helpful conversation with any coach. One of my sad memories is that my mother never came to see me play ball and there was a period when I was playing decent basketball. (My mother was pretty depressed during these years following Dad's death, and I was taking a fair amount of emotional responsibility to make our two-person family work.)
At the initiative of my principal I never graduated from high school and, instead became a freshman at Florida State University. After one semester I joined the Army at 17 for 6 months of active duty and 7 ½ years in the reserves. It was good to be out of high school and to get out of fighting.
I was very busy and had little money in college. I couldn't buy my text books until my second semester of my sophomore year, when the Dean of Arts and Sciences, who had known my father, arranged to get me a $50 a semester fellowship from student parking fine money. I was so thankful for that little scholarship because I could buy my books and didn't have to read my texts in the library. I lived at home and walked or biked to college, a couple of miles away. After returning from the Army, I got heavily into dating and exploitative relationships with women but then settled in with Joyce as my steady girl in my fourth semester and we got married after my sixth semester when we both graduated in January, 1961. I was still friends with Bill Love, who also attended Florida State, but our paths were diverging. I had several other light friendships but I was focused on studying, working, romance, and getting the hell out of Dodge.
Joyce and I were married when I was 20 and Daniel was born when I was 22, Dawn when I was 24. Joyce and I had relational challenges but we managed to be good parents of young children. One sad moment came when I perceived that a good college friend, not Bill Love, was making a play for Joyce that wasn't successful.
I started seminary at 21 and graduated at 24. Through college and seminary I was doing inner journey work on my transgender fantasy life and trivial transgender experiences. I tried to edge into discussion of my transgender concerns with a couple of different friends but quickly retreated before real exposure. I kept my emotional balance, in part, by playing a lot of intramural sports in college and seminary (basketball, volleyball, and softball.)
Even though I was devoting a lot of my relational energy to my family while I was At Chicago Theological Seminary, I was still pretty sociable. In seminary I was part of a powerful study group with two other married students: Jay Wentworth and David Hall. They were both smarter than I was and more bookish, but I seemed to hold up my part of the bargain. It was great learning context for me and that was pretty much all it was. I also got to know Jay Lintner, who was a year ahead of me, and our friendship grew in the context of deep involvement in The Woodlawn Organization and Essex Community Church, a time of great civil rights action and dreams of radical church renewal.
Seminary was a wonderful time for me. It was just where I needed to be. And it was good in terms of friendship. We were a small group of elite students and I felt deeply at home. I got along fine with other students and liked the social circle of the married students. Jay Lintner's first wife, Joanna, typed my Master's Thesis for me, a demanding task. We helped each other out in terms of raising young children.
Bill Love and I stayed in contact and I was pushing the idea of Christian intentional community. When I graduated from seminary at twenty-four, Bill was married and teaching in a community college in St. Petersburg, Florida. While I was still in seminary our two families, and another couple living in St. Petersburg, seriously explored buying an old hotel in central Kentucky to turn into a Christian community and retreat center. We wisely said no to it, even though it had two small oil wells and an interesting Indian cave.
Joyce and I moved to St. Petersburg after I graduated from seminary and I joined Bill in teaching at Gibbs Junior College, a school serving African-American students. We continued to explore developing a Christian Community but the effort failed when some inter-personal relationships soured. My family, now with the addition of baby Dawn, shared living space with Bill and his wife in a big old rooming house we rented together in a dilapidated area. Then Gibbs Junior College closed down in the midst of big scandal with the FBI investigating the college president for stealing student load funds. There was racism all over the place.
So Joyce and I, with Daniel and Dawn, escaped from St. Petersburg, broke, with a broken down old Chevy station wagon that carried all our possessions in the back. We went back to Chicago where I got a $400 a month job as a minister and community organizer in the Woodlawn area of the South Side ghetto. I was paid by the Chicago Metropolitan Association of the UCC. Rent was $165 a month. There were several months when we had almost no food for several days until the next check. We ate a lot of cheese grits and peanut butter.
We became friends with Bill Baird, the pastor of Essex Community Church, and his family. He was in his 60s, a dedicated saint of a guy who was totally dedicated to racial reconciliation. I got deeply involved in creating two house churches, in civil rights activities, and in community organization. It was a great time, but not much in terms of friendship. We were happy and friendly with our church members but what we were doing could, and did, last only only last a few years.
Our second time in Chicago was exciting while it lasted. Several friends from seminary days came and visited us in Chicago. It was a very dangerous living situation and I kept my .45 in a holster over the head of our bed. The mother of one of Daniel's play mates was a prostitute. While we lived there she was murdered, dismembered, and stuffed in a trash can. While we lived there our Boy Scout leader was shot between the eyes by a Blackstone Ranger and lived. My difficult years of fighting as a teen paid off in the sense that I had the emotional competence to interact in difficult to dangerous settings and find the non-violent alternatives. Fear is not a very good motive for successful non-violent activity.
Then it was time to go back to Florida State University to pursue a doctorate in sociology. I had an excellent fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Health that paid for all four years. I also picked up a part-time job as a chaplain for the United Church of Christ at FSU.
My main chaplaincy work was to build out the beginnings of a coffee house group into a great student Christian community of perhaps 45 people. We ran a coffeehouse, went on retreats, created a student living cooperative and renovated a small apartment building. Some of the friendship relations became very intense, lives transformed, etc. I was in the older and charismatic figure role.
I completed my Ph.D. at 30 and my family moved to Greensboro, North Carolina. I took the Greensboro option in jobs, in significant part, to hook up with Bill Love again. He was in his second marriage by then and we bought a large house together. We lived downstairs with Bill's family lived upstairs.
Six of the coffee house group helped us move to Greensboro and then, in various combinations, we explored creating the intentional Christian community that became Shalom Community. Bill dropped out of the discussion, primarily because he was just not that interested in Christianity. But, when we finally bought forty-five acres North of town for Shalom Community, Bill and his wife bought land across the road from us.
Shalom Community moved to the land as seven adults and seven children. Three of the adults had joined us from the Coffee Hoiuse community in Tallahassee, One of them added a spouse and child to the mix and we became eight adults and eight children. The early years of Shalom Community were friendship heaven for me.
We started out living in two poorly repaired farm houses and a decrepit house trailer. One couple with three children had a close commute. After an interesting consensus based decision process we designed and built the first phase of Pala, our group residence-to-be. When it was completed the commuting family moved in. It was a time of great friendship and deep joy for me. We were totally integrated as friends and community. Our equality was that all of us put in every penny we had to buying the land and building Pala. We ate together, raised kids together, had a big garden together, and built Pala together with the help of several volunteer architects and a lead carpenter we hired dirt cheap from Twin Oaks, a behaviorist commune in Virginia.
I lost my tenure battle at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, a story too long to tell here. I never looked for any employment that would make me leave Shalom Community which effectively ended my career as a professional sociologist, though I did take a few temporary jobs later.
Then came tragedy. Joyce and I divorced after seventeen years. I was the one who moved out of Shalom Community, totally broke again. I was ready for the end of my marriage but I was not ready for the rage of the people I left behind, people who had moved to Greensboro to be with me and to live out vision and call together. Given that anger, and my poverty, it was hard to sustain relationships with my young teenage children. What can I say. It was horrible.
I took a temporary teaching job with North Carolina A&T State University and was able to rent a limited apartment in Greensboro. At this point my mother, then living in Tallahassee had a severe stroke and spent the next twelve years wasting away in nursing homes. I did what I could from a distance and finally moved her to a nursing home near Greensboro.
As I was putting my life back together, I entered a relationship with Lois and then we got married. We had great life challenges in terms of jobs, sorting our family relationships, coping with poverty, and just getting our feet on the ground. We were both part of a group, called simply the Eleven, that thought of itself as modeled on the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC. I had been interested in the Church of the Saviour since high school days and Lois had been part of the Church of the Saviour Potters House, a coffee house.
The Eleven was not an intense experience for me but we all liked each other and there was some healing sociability. I also built out a bit of a relationship with a man and wife who were building there own version of a Christian retreat center, which was mostly about him personally building a really big house by himself. He was such a perfectionist he would take no help from me in the building and I was fresh from doing a lot of the building of Pala. There were in there 30s and I was hoping for a growing friendship. But she died suddenly of a brain hemorrage and he withdrew into an even more intense focus on his building project while somehow sustaining his job as a paid Quaker preacher and minister.
Then Lois and I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina where Lois became a Legal Aid lawyer and I was minister of the First United Church of Christ. No friendships grew for us within the congregation. But we enjoyed a circle of feminist friends which Lois initiated. My friendships were with three other progressive Christian ministers. The four of us were reform oriented ministers, sharing the visions of contemporary Christianity, small groups, etc. A great sadness for me came when one of the four of us committed suicide when he was punished by the Methodist District Superintendent for being a creative Christian. He was appointed to a Klan church near Statesville, NC.
After three years at First UCC I got voted out of being minister and we moved out of the parsonage and bought a large dilapidated house near central city Charlotte which I promptly started rehabilitating. It was marginally livable when we started on it. We got a small house church going with the other two progressive Christian ministers and their families and some visitors. We met in the huge living room of our house. Basically we were creating a progressive Christian network in Charlotte.
I devoted myself to creating Shalom Homes, and that work produced no income for a year. Once again, a lot of poverty. Any money we put together went into house repair. I remember a partciularly bad moment when we suddenly needed to find money to buy a new sump pump. I supplemented income with part-time teaching at UNC-Charlotte and at Davidson College. I also worked part-time in temp-jobs. After a year ofwork we had a good Board of Directors for Shalom Homes, good political relationship with the City Council and County Commission were in place, market analysis was completed and a business plan was in place, and relationships with several churches were established, One of the progressive Christian ministers was ready to be my full-time partner, and Shalom Homes was launched.
Things were tenuous but good. It felt like life was put together with scotch tape and safety pins. It felt like stone soup. Lois and I were in the middle of a lot of emotional stress about getting Lois pregnant. But Samantha came of it! In that context, friendship mattered a lot and we put a lot of time in it. Furthermore, I was hustling Charlotte every way I could think of, building relationships, and it was working. When the Knight of Columbus (an organization I don't much like) gave us a serviceable panel truck I said to myself, this can work. I had put together a neat Board of competent people, caring Christians all, and there was a lot of friendship in that.
There was a lot of fun and friendship when we started doing actual house rehabilitations. A friend personally loaned the money to a couple of African American child care teachers to buy the first house. I think it was $14,000, too little to get the Savings and Loans bank to mess with. (They lost money because the processing costs are just as high for a $14,000 loan as a $400,000 loan. I got the second financed with a Savings and Loan anyway as an act of charity and good image.)
Things were good when looking through the friendship lens, and then I suddenly left Charlotte. I was totally surprised when I got the job offer to come to Washington, DC and work for the Office for Church in Society of the United Church of Christ. I wanted the job. It felt like call. Lois wanted it real bad, to have me in steady secure employment again which would allow her to quit and be a full-time mother - which she really wanted. And we both looked forward to the prospect of hooking up with the Church of the Savior. By this time I had followed up my early interests by attending the two basic orientation retreats at the Wellspring Retreat Center part of the Church of the Saviour, and had visited several times in the context of being part of the North American Retreat Directors Association. I also had a little relationship with Potter's House, which had influenced my coffee house ministry in Tallahassee.
In Washington, there was little of old friendships, or of family, to hold onto. Friendship at work was initially nearly impossible for me. I picked up on an old relationship with a seminary classmate but it was difficult. Some staff deeply opposed my being hiring and active worked from the beginning to get me fired or to make my life so miserable I would quit. My bosses defended me and I did a reasonably good work given the early context of my job. Some staff were also attacking my immediate boss for a variety of reasons and we shared a certain foxhole humor. My boss, however, was intent on being boss, even if I was the only one of the staff that really responded to him as a boss. We played Go together and had a strong and vigorous conversations about justice and Christianity. But we kept close sharing to a minimum.
It was time for me to start acknowledging that I was a transgender person even though I was doing very little to express these interests. My bosses were not initially receptive to hearing about my transgender concerns and actively opposed my early efforts to claim transgender issues as justice issues. This negative reaction made me less interested in the possibility of a growing friendship. I guess I would say we were Christian friends who shared a lot of common vision and respected each others work. Work mattered to us, was ministry and call for both of us.
Over the nearly twenty years I worked in worked in Washington for the United Church of Christ things finally began to ease up for me. Two of the people most opposed to me died and another left for other employment. At the end I was on friendly terms just about everyone. And, in 2005, I wrote and then managed the campaign to get the United Church of Christ to adopt a strong resolution welcoming transgender people into full participation and ministry, and calling for advocacy for full human and civil rights for transgender people.
Which brings me to Seekers Church and friendships. I joined Seekers in 1986 and quickly felt a strong resonance with the community. But this did not translate quickly into strong friendships. Part of that I attribute to my busyness and exhaustions. Another part I attribute to coming out as a transgender person and having that not work well for me in Seekers. Older friendships didn't include my transgender reality and that was a problem in some ways, but I hadn't risked the rejection and so it didn't matter in the same way.
I've alienated people at Seekers in several other ways as well, especially because I have some strongly held opinions and goals that I bring to Seekers that I have put forward in ways that did not find favor. Seekers has changed in some ways that I deeply like. I pulled back from showing up at Seekers in a fully feminine presentation. Things got easier and I felt less discomfort. But I am still carrying a lot of scars from lost friendships over the years, from broken relationships, and two broken marriages.
I remarried to Trish within Seekers in 1994 and that provided me a great friendship, a true soulmate, and also some needed assistance in building relationships with others as couples. My friendship with Trish is particularly precious to me because she has intimate knowledge of me as a transgender person and has been a positive supporter of this part of my journey. I've gotten more comfortable with Seekers culture and have felt appreciated for positive contributions I have made to the community. As of 2008, I would say that I have several friends in Seekers, but have not invested in pursuing an intensity of friendship to match some of memories of earlier friendships.
So I love Seekers and my mission group collectively. I have a lot of friendly relationships and suppose I could have more if I was really willing to take time for them. But I haven't had a soul mate kind of personal friend since moving to Washington. Part of me still feels the hole sharply. A lot of me just wants to get from day-to-day with all the agendas I'm carrying.
So, I guess I am still in a holding pattern around personal friendship. I'm worried about losing the habits and the sense of "hole." Maybe I'm hoping someone that I would like to be friends with will seek me out rather than the other way round. I'm trusting that if and when I am ready for personal friendship again I will see the opportunities and respond appropriately.