Pulse, Steve Nelson and the Power of Internal Words

It’s taken me a while to write about the shootings at the Pulse club in Orlando. Some of this was a result of being in shock and some of it was that other people had better words to share. Honestly, though, it’s because it brought up so much pain.

Steve Nelson was my best friend from the ages of 13–19. He was the most flagrantly gay person I had ever met. Now, my family and I lived in the Castro District of San Francisco in 1976 before moving back to Alaska. You don’t get much more flamboyant than the Castro Street Fair. But somehow it was so different in the small town of Fairbanks. Steve would stand on chairs in the lunchroom and shout his gayness out to the high school crowd. He was loud and argumentative and provocative and joyous and obnoxious and fearless. I wanted to be just like him.

Steve encouraged me to be outrageous, brave, fabulous, naughty, and snarky. He spurred me on to embrace all of my dreams and desires, even the ones I wasn’t proud of. He gloried in our misbehaving. We lost touch with each other after I left Alaska but reconnected ten years ago, and it was like no time had passed. We were both going through major life transitions, and we immediately went back to finishing off each other’s sentences. We walked each other through some of the best and worst times of our lives.

On April 29th, 2016, he went to what he thought was a gay pick-up date near his hometown in Idaho and instead was taken from his car, stripped naked, kicked repeatedly with steel-toed boots, robbed, and left for dead. He managed to make it to a nearby house, call the police, and accurately describe his attackers. And then he died from cardiac arrest.

Steve and I shared so many stories and adventures. It’s been hard to know how to honor him, though, because I wasn’t sure how to share those adventures. Some of the stories aren’t suitable for a family memorial. They sure aren’t appropriate for his co-workers in Idaho. But mostly the stories need to be filled out. They are layered and difficult and require lots of background explanation.

For example: while talking to a friend about Steve, she asked me how he handled me being bi. “Handle it?” I said. “He set me up with his wife on his wedding night!”

That’s funny, right? It’s also just the beginning of a story. Why was Steve, this proudly gay man, getting married to a woman? This was 1986, well before marriage equality or even “don’t ask, don’t tell”, and his Air Force wife needed someone to act as a beard. (A “beard” is someone who stands in as the man of the house.) This was standard practice in the military in the 1980’s. Hell, it was standard practice long before that. Steve’s father was of the age when being gay was illegal. You NEEDED to have a “beard” or a “skirt” to stand in or you could be arrested and beaten and lose everything you had.

This is not just a story about Steve and me. It’s about being gay in small town America. It’s about the history of gay people in the military and in American history. It’s about social practice and injustice and intolerance. It’s about the squabbles between gay and bisexual people. And it’s about a tribal need to hide our true selves and find suitable public faces.

A lot of people are using the Pulse shooting as a way to put forth their own beliefs and causes. That’s okay. There are a million and one ways to deal with grief and pain and fear. The desire to find an easy answer or a group to blame is so strong. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this kind of hate. One of the things that the current political situation has made so obvious is how useless name calling and blame calling is at changing people’s minds. It’s easier to post memes or argue on social media than it is to start the hard work of encouraging real change. This hard work starts when we pay attention to the names we call ourselves.

This is not navel-gazing. When we make other people monsters, we become monsters ourselves. When we deny other people humanity, we become less than human. At heart, when we bad mouth others, we are echoing the nasty things we say about ourselves. And when we hate ourselves and need to be right at all costs, it’s easier to blame others for our problems. This sets the stage for a world of trouble.

I don’t know what motives the shooter in Orlando had. I can’t understand what the guys who beat up Steve had in mind. We can only guess, and there is no way any of us will truly know for sure. But it doesn’t take a mind reader to tell that anyone who lashes out that hard is holding on to a whole lot of self-hate and trauma.

Change does not happen when we scream and yell at people any more than it happens when we pat them on the head and say “there, there”. Change happens when we have difficult conversations in person, face to face with people who do not agree with us. And it starts when we examine our own thoughts and beliefs and assumptions.

Change happens when we work on not hating ourselves and learn to embrace being wrong.

This is not a quick fix. It is messy and layered and complex and hard work. It seems like it should be so simple, right? Oh no, it is not. I practice this regularly and it is one of the hardest things I have done. It’s exhausting and bizarre and difficult to examine your own thoughts and feelings. It’s so much easier to stay angry.

I will continue this practice even though it’s hard because it makes me more aware of how much bigotry and prejudice and self-loathing I have to work through. The more I work on it, the better I am at communicating with others, and the better I am at understanding my own crap. And that means the world to me.

I invite you to try it too. It is okay if this is not what you choose to do, but I hope you will join me. Maybe, one day, if we do this hard work, together we can build a world where my friends don’t get killed because of the horrible shit people are holding onto inside of their heads.

And in the process, maybe we can work on our own shit too.

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