There is no Them. There are only facets of Us.
— John Green, American author
I’m standing in a room—a gymnasium, actually—posing for a picture with several GLBT- identifying humans in Moose Lake, Minnesota.
Only, this isn’t just any ordinary gymnasium; rather, it’s part of a facility that houses many of Minnesota’s sex offenders. I’ve read that these are the worst of the worst when it comes to the state’s sexual deviants.
Originally, I didn’t want to be here. When “Father Harry” (a Minneapolis-based Catholic Apostolic deacon) called last year asking me to visit his “congregation” in Moose Lake, I put him off. “I’ve got a lot going on,” I answered. “Maybe sometime down the road.”
Truthfully, I wanted nothing to do with Moose Lake. Even though my remaining life mission is working to increase inclusivity for those who society considers “other,” I believed that some people can’t be “included” because they’re just evil or beyond becoming “good.”
Or so I thought.
It turned out that Harry—he’s fine with the informality—was quite persistent. Every couple months, there he was with a call or an email: “How about visiting Moose Lake?”
Eventually, Harry wore me down. “Okay,” I said. “But only if you come with me.”
Thus, I found myself driving up I-35 on one of the few sunny days in May sitting next to a gray-haired sixty-five-year old in black priest garb (including the white collar) who sported a big fat silver cross around his neck.
For a former survivor of Catholic upbringing with all its intolerance and guilt and resulting self-hatred, this was a bit unsettling.
“I haven’t ever had the white collar/cross combination in my car before,” I said to Harry. “I’m feeling some PTSD.”
My passenger laughed. “I used to be Roman, too,” he replied. “That was before I came out as gay.”
Harry and I have much in common—both of us grew up in the ’60s and ’70s when living authentically was taboo; we had each married and had children; we each also had our own moment of truth that caused us to divert course. Now here we were each with a mission of wanting to make the world a better place.
It’s just that Harry’s mission work is with a population that most of society abhors.
I abhorred them too. That is, until I got to know them a bit.
The event in the Moose Lake gymnasium was meant to commemorate Pride Month, with me as the guest speaker. Before I took the stage, a half-dozen “clients” (some of whom identified as transgender women) put on a program that included sharing the names of past and present GLBT politicians, actors, and sports figures and educating on the meaning of the rainbow and transgender flag colors. Even more, with the ring of a way-too-small bell, they read the name of each of the 49 people murdered at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last year.
The program was touching and clearly the organizers and participants had heart—real heart for each other and for GLBT humans who have suffered.
I really didn’t know what I’d say when I got up to speak. My usual Pride Month pitch is to share a bit of my personal story as a confused and afraid human and then speak about the essential human quality of living one’s life with authenticity regardless of whether one is GLBT or straight or whatever else. Usually, I gently encourage listeners to engage in some self-reflection and then make the appropriate changes to live more authentically.
That pitch was a bit problematic for Moose Lake. It’s not as if any of the “clients” are free to make dramatic life changes in terms of career, romantic relationships, or just about anything else. These people—say what you will about why they are here—are stuck.
Stuck in a system which is presently the subject of a federal lawsuit because, frankly, it almost never releases a “client” back into society. (Note: folks are placed in Moose Lake—a civil commitment facility—only after they serve their criminal sentences.) When you consider that approximately 60 of the 700 or so “clients” were juveniles when they offended (and are now into their 20s, 30s, or older), you get a real sense of what it means to be “stuck.”
What I did tell the “clients” is that whether they knew it or not, they were survivors with real grit and resiliency. I offered that “gut tugs” of authenticity won’t leave one alone until they live as their true self, regardless of physical setting. Finally, I urged them to have compassion for others and for themselves.
As I finished, I looked around the room and saw tearful eyes—both among clients and the staff. Clearly, everyone in Moose Lake is struggling in one way or another.
My visit to Moose Lake re-taught me a lesson that I often share with others: the power of becoming familiar with “other.”
Almost inevitably, familiarity helps us understand that “other” is just another phrase for struggling human.
Important note to readers: The GLBT residents at Moose Lake feel terribly isolated. Father Harry has asked for volunteers who might be willing to occasionally write to these folks. If you have an interest, please email Harry at firstname.lastname@example.org.