Monday, June 12, 2017

John's "coming out" letter --- eleven years on

One thing I do here is make note of milestones, often as marked in reports and narratives published in Chariton and other newspapers. 

Back in 2011 --- not that long ago --- our late friend John R. Chamberlain was the author of one of those --- an intensely personal letter to the editor published in The Herald-Patriot of June 22 in response to efforts by Republicans in the state Legislature to overturn via constitutional amendment the Iowa Supreme Court's 2009 ruling in Varnum v. Brien that made Iowa the fourth state in the nation to offer marriage equality.

So far as I know, this was the first time an LGBTQ+ person had told such a personal story in such a public way in Lucas County. In fact, these may have been the first positive words published in our hometown newspapers about those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, etc. And that took guts, even in 2011, in a rural and --- in some social and cultural senses --- isolated place like this.

It was not exactly a "coming out" letter --- anyone who knew John knew also that he was gay. It was not something he made a secret of. On the other hand, he had lived and worked for many years in major cities across the United States and this was directed at an audience of a few thousand in the place where he had grown up and had many family members and old friends, some of whom still thought of him when they thought of him at all as a popular, handsome high school kid.

It remains a strong piece of writing, as relevant in many cases now as it was then even though the marriage equality issue has been settled and Paul McKinley, also our friend, has long since retired from the frustrations of the Iowa Senate chamber. Here it is --- during Pride Month 2017:

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To the editor:

Hello, my name is John Chamberlain. I was born in Chariton and grew up there and in Russell.

I have wonderful memories of barefoot summers in Russell, fishing ponds around Williamson and playing little league in Chariton. I attended Chariton High School. I played football with some of you, pole vaulted in track and was a pretty fair wrestler. I acted in plays, wrote articles for the Chariton papers and was student body president for the class of 1980. Some of you may remember me. (Fondly I hope!)

I am proud to be from Chariton. Although I have lived all over the United States, I have always carried the seeds of kindness and caring that were planted in my heart all those many years ago. Iowa is a special place. There I learned to respect others and lend a helping hand if a neighbor were in need. Rural Iowa taught me to care about my fellow human beings.

I recently had occasion to return home for the funeral of a dear friend, Mrs. Helen Krutsinger, whose last words to me were to be proud of who I am. It is because of her support and encouragement that I have the strength to write this letter.

Around age 12, I realized I was different from all the other boys. I slowly began to realize that there was something wrong deep inside of me. I knew the words before I knew what they meant. I was a faggot. And all the world told me that faggots were sick, disgusting perverts.

In my early teens I wanted what all teenagers want, to fit in. The last thing I wanted was to discover I liked boys. I began then to hate myself for this sickness inside of me that I couldn't understand. I could not tell my parents, my teachers or my pastor. I was alone and there was nothing I could do about it, except --- kill myself before anyone found out how sick I was. Sadly, many of our sons and daughters come to this conclusion in their isolation.

Ironically, it was my belief in God that saved me. I knew two things. One, I was born this way. I did not choose to be gay (who would choose to be hated and vilified and discriminated against?). And two --- God made me. He doesn't make mistakes. I would not sacrifice what the Lord had made. Luckily, I made it to college where I met others like me and I began to learn how to love myself again.

Now I am 43 and my voice is strong. I must speak for those children of Lucas County who now live the childhood I lived.

State Sen. Paul McKinley, who represents the people of Lucas County, is vociferous in his opposition to gay marriage. The issue is not marriage rights. The issue is whether or not gay people are just like everyone else. Chariton has always been an accepting place that rewards one for their abilities and hard work and does not reject them for their differences. In the 1960s we welcomed black folks, the 1990s brought the Amish and now many families from eastern Europe call Chariton home. We continue to be a community that pulls together to help each other.

It is an odd feeling to have a man from my hometown trying to pass a law that basically says I do not have the same rights as other human beings. Doesn't this all seem vaguely familiar? the same arguments were raised before blacks could marry and then again with interracial marriages. Perhaps gay people are not human beings? I seem to have all the same body parts. Again, it is odd that whether or not I am a human being lies in Senator McKinley's view on homosexuality.

My point is this. Right now in Chariton, in Russell, in Williamson and every other community in Iowa there are children struggling to deal with who they are. This legislation is not just about gay people getting married. It is telling our gay children they are sick and deviant.

Mr. McKinley, you are hurting the children of Lucas County.

All the children of Lucas County need our love and support as they try to find their place in the world. It would be a horrible shame for any young person to take their life because of your actions.

To those suffering now I would tell you that you are here for a reason. Be proud of who you are and love yourself. You not only have the right to exist but also to find your happiness. You are special. God put you here for a reason.

John R. Chamblerlain
St. Louis, Mo.

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As might be expected, there was pushback after this was published. The Chariton Newspapers publisher, who didn't care much for gay folks then and still doesn't, published his rebuttal the next week. 

And there were a couple of follow-up letters to the editor informing John that his sexual orientation was a choice, that their God didn't approve and, yes, that it was supposed to be "Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve."

But I like to think that just maybe some gay kids growing up in Chariton or Russell, Williamson, Lucas or Derby, saw John's letter --- and it made a difference in their lives. And perhaps it still has the power to do that.

After the letter was written, John moved to Des Moines where he worked as an HIV/AIDS educator and advocate for others living with HIV/AIDS. He died at 51 on Jan. 4, 2014. He did not live to see the U.S. Supreme Court decision on June 26, 2015, in Obergefell v. Hodges that made marriage equality the law of the land.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I didn't know John personally but I grew up with his older brothers and sisters. All I can say is they were and are a wonderful family and I know they were all so proud of him. What a courageous young man!