“God did not make me [or anyone else] gay; nature did. There is nothing supernatural about being or not being gay. Being gay is like the color of your skin or your eyes. You are simply born that way. Being gay is neither a cause for celebration or for being ashamed,” Victor Stanley concluded.
I was visiting with Rev. Stanley in the parish house, adjoining the town’s picture-perfect church built in 1876. It was a brisk, sunny fall day, a preamble to Maine’s long winter. Stanley has been leading the small United Church of Christ’s congregation of Somesville, Maine for thirteen years. His office was overflowing with old pictures, a poster of Martin Luther King Jr, and groceries destined for the food bank. Young children were cavorting in the common room, the site of a Montessori preschool.
When appointed in 2001, Victor Stanley had the distinction of serving as Maine’s first openly gay minister. Both personally and professionally it had taken him a long time to get there. Before this, his latest ministry, he had spent almost two-thirds of his life “in the closet.”
Occasionally, when parishioners ask Rev. Stanley about their identity and the conflict of being gay and of being a practicing Christian he answers: “We are all equal in the eyes of God.” Then he asks them “to forgive themselves for having thought that they were sinful. Get on with life,” he chides. I feel the pain of this soft-spoken man who suffered during the forty years that he tried to escape being gay. More than that, I wish that his parents, his teachers, and his employers had been able to answer his questions, understand his sexual orientation and had not forced him to live a lie.
In his article in the 2014 issue of Chebacco: The Magazine of the Mount Desert Historical Society, Rev. Stanley recalls that he asked his parents what homosexual meant when he was twelve years old. His mother quickly answered that he did not need to know. It may have taken awhile for Rev. Stanley to understand the meaning of the word, but he and his family knew that he was different from his eight brothers. Though this is not a universal hallmark, Victor hated sports and hunting and whereas his brothers helped dig up clams, he helped his mother around the house. Once, when his son being not manly enough disturbed his father, Victor was subjected to a crash course in chainsawing and hunting.
Victor, a Maine native, always knew that he wanted to be a minister. After high school he entered a very conservative seminary. Troubled about his attraction to boys, he asked for guidance, and once more was rebuffed. Instead of an honest answer the counselor told him that “if he studied, worked hard and got married,” his unwelcome feelings would vanish.
After twenty years of marriage and two children, Rev. Stanley and his wife discussed his growing understanding of himself as gay. His wife insisted on a separation, followed by a divorce. One thing led to another and he came out to his parents. His father never spoke to him again and his beloved mother just ignored the revelation. Shortly before her own death, however, she wrote him a postcard telling Victor that he always was “her best friend.” He considers this missive as her badge of acceptance. Stanley’s more “with it” children took their father’s “coming out” in their stride and are close to him.
Some years ago sociologists discovered that children who succeed in spite of deprived, traumatic, abusive childhoods often attached themselves to one or more mentors. At age sixteen Stanley met Paul and Dagmar, who took him under their wing and provided him with love and support. After Stanley married, instead of going home to his birth parents in South Goldsborough, he and his family spend holidays with childless Paul and Dagmar. When Victor came out to Paul, to whom he refers to as his “other father,” the latter said: “It is about time.”
Today 60-year-old Victor and his partner live happily on Mount Desert Island. My son, David who died of AIDS in 1993, was two years Victor’s junior. It is difficult for me to fathom how their worlds could have been that different. Listening to Victor’s story makes me realize how insular some communities can be. Even today in America there are certain groups that ignore, suppress or squash a child’s sexual orientation. Though it can happen in any family, denial is often associated with people holding rigid religious or cultural beliefs in which homophobia is still prevalent. Avoiding issues is a poor option. As a mother who at one time questioned what to do about her cross-dressing three-year-old son, I can understand anyone’s bewilderment. The road to accepting any child that may seem different may be hard, but it is incomparably easier than rejecting those who are closest to our hearts.