I want to tell you a story. It’s about a boy. I don’t know his real name. That information is confidential. So we’re just going to call him Sean. He grew up in a conservative family in California. Like all kids do, he loved his family, even if they were not perfect. And for many years, he kept a secret from them. A secret fundamental to his existence and identity. Sean was a boy who was only attracted to other boys. He couldn’t help it. And he couldn’t explain it. That’s just how he was naturally.
One day he couldn’t keep this a secret from his family any longer. So he told them. Expecting only what every kid expects from his family. Their love and support.
Sean’s family didn’t understand. And they did not like what Sean had to say. They figured the problem could be solved by a good old fashioned spanking. And when that didn’t seem to negate his sexual orientation, a stronger beating seemed in order.
When Sean woke up in the hospital with 100 staples in his back, he discovered that he didn’t have a family any more. It wasn’t his decision. The government had taken him away from his family for his own protection. (And if ever there was a situation where a kid should be torn from his home for his own protection, this was it.)
Sean was relocated to live with extended family in Phoenix, but was physically abused by them, as well. So he entered the group home system, living with other “troubled” kids whose parents “couldn’t handle them.” In typical fashion, he was relocated from group home to group home. He had 6 different “families” in 18 months. He was picked on by the kids he lived with. He was even picked on by some of the house parents in the homes. Because he was different. Gay, lesbian, and transgendered kids in the foster care system are at the bottom of the pack. Sean had showed an interest in makeup at an early age, and this made him an easy target.
But Sean is a smart kid. He wanted a place to truly call home, where he wouldn’t have to worry about hiding himself from his “siblings” and house parents. He did his research…and he discovered Mulligan’s Manor…a group home of a very different sort. It was started in November of 2011 by a woman named Jenny Diaz. Jenny had a background in social work and cases of sexual abuse, and wanted to provide a safe place for some of the many children in her community who needed loving homes. (There are over 7,000 children without families in the county where Phoenix is located.) But within that unthinkable number are underdogs. The kids that the rest of the kids pick on. The kids that foster parents don’t want. Gay and lesbian kids. And kids who were born into bodies with a gender that they don’t feel belongs to them. Jenny discovered through a bit of research that these kids, more than any others, have the most difficulty adjusting in group homes. So she decided to take her own house…the house where she had raised her daughter Shannon…and turn it into a safe haven for THOSE kids.
Sean went to live at Mulligan’s Manor. He found himself surrounded by kids who were like him. Kids he could talk to without worrying about being beaten up. Kids who would HELP him put on his makeup, if he felt like wearing it. Perhaps most importantly, he was welcomed by house parents who showered love and acceptance on him. Who assured him that he could tell them ANYTHING at all, and he would always be loved. And who would give him lessons on applying makeup, if that’s what he wanted to do.
Also, Sean discovered that all his house brothers weren’t necessarily gay or transgendered. Some of them were heterosexual. Because Mulligan’s Manor is a place where kids learn from each other about acceptance. To learn to be each others’ allies, rather than perpetuating separatism and discrimination.
Sean’s story is not unusual. In the past 2 years, Mulligan’s Manor has been called “home” by 13 kids with similar stories. Kids who might not have made it otherwise. Like Evan. (That’s also not his real name.) Evan was in the foster care system as a toddler, and was eventually adopted in elementary school by a very conservative, devout family. When he became a teenager, he confided in his parents that he was gay. It did not go over well. No longer welcome in his home, feeling persecuted and rejected by the only family he ever knew, Evan was found on the verge of suicide and was placed in a behavioral health clinic until the danger of suicide passed. While he was there, a social worker told him about Mulligan’s Manor, which is now his home. He has only been there for about a month, but he’s already teaching his house brothers how to play piano and sing. And, ironically, the fact that he grew up with a steady adopted family (a rarity for kids in the system) has allowed him to share a level of stability and connection with his house brothers that they are not accustomed to.
Because many of them have never experienced long-term love before landing at Mulligan’s. Take Alex, for instance. That IS his real name, because Alex just turned 18 and is no longer a ward of the state, so he can give authorization to use his real name. Alex entered the state ward system at age 4, and before he landed at Mulligan’s at age 16, he had lived in 29 group homes. That’s a new family every 6 months. Can you imagine that lack of stability in your own childhood? Alex has now graduated from high school and is interviewing for jobs. He’s saving up to buy a car, and he’s applying to universities. Shannon (the daughter of the founder, a former house parent at Mulligan’s, and their fundraising coordinator) had a chat with him recently about his experience at Mulligan’s, and he said something remarkable. He had been in therapy continuously for much of his life. But he said that it never seemed to work, because he couldn’t understand what the therapists were telling him. Words like “love” and “trust” and “compassion” and “empathy” made no sense to him. He had no frame of reference with which to understand them. They were just words with memorized definitions. But after a year at Mulligan’s, therapy started working for him. Because, he said, for the first time in his life, he was experiencing love. Love for others. Others loving him. And, most importantly, discovering how to love himself.
I first encountered Mulligan’s Manor last summer at a fundraiser organized by my friend Donna Donahue. Donna is one of those one-of-a-kind people that you never forget. I had interacted with her, as a MasterChef fan, on Facebook and Twitter, and on one of my trips out west to LA, she said that if I was coming through Phoenix, I should stop for a drink and meet her. Phoenix isn’t directly on the way to LA, it’s about a 100 mile detour. But something told me I should meet Donna. So I did. And I became great friends with her and her husband Chuck. Donna works at a nonprofit that supports at-risk youth in Phoenix, and she invited me to come help with a bake sale her kids were doing to raise money for the “No Kid Hungry” organization. While we were setting up, a group of young gay kids came up and offered their assistance. I assumed it was a youth support group, like the kind I was involved in after moving to the big city for the first time. But I learned from their house-parent, Marcus, about Mulligan’s Manor. The boys worked very hard at the bake sale. They ran up and down the street, telling people about the delicious yummies for sale, and how 100% of the proceeds went to ending child hunger.
And at one point in the evening, I just sat down and cried. Here were all these kids, disadvantaged to a supreme extent, working up a sweat to raise money for OTHER kids. It was overwhelming. I bought them all pizza from a famous Phoenix food truck and sat down at the table to listen to their stories. And I tried to be a big boy and not cry. But when you are looking at a beautiful, creative, hopeful, talented, articulate, extraordinary 13 year old boy with his whole life ahead of him, you wonder what kind of person would toss him out onto the street. Don’t they see what I see? Someone who deserves to be loved unconditionally? Someone who can change the world if he wants to?
Donna was as surprised to see them show up at the fundraiser as I was. The youth organization she works for isn’t related to Mulligan’s Manor. But, in typical Donna fashion, she adopted the Mulligan’s boys as her pet project. This past Christmas she took donations and was able to fill virtually every gift on every boy’s Christmas list. She goes to the Manor to teach them cooking classes and just be a friend. And they love her.
Mulligan’s isn’t your typical group home. While licensed group homes can have up to 10 kids at a time, Mulligan’s tries to stay closer to 5, so the kids can build meaningful family connections with each other, have individualized attention and care, and be able to enjoy activities that kids in larger group homes don’t always get to, like personalized tutoring, field trips and weekend retreats. While they definitely target gay, lesbian, transgendered, and questioning youth, those kids can be difficult to “find” in the system…because you learn early on to hide your sexuality to avoid rejection and violence. But, at the same time, they also want to foster kids who identify as heterosexual because it’s important for these young gay kids to see supportive straight people as allies and friends. No kid leaves Mulligan’s Manor until they turn 18, unless they need a higher level of medical or psychological care than the Manor staff can give them. Mulligan’s Manor is their home. Unless their natural home becomes a welcoming place for them again.
The ultimate goal at Mulligan’s is to reunite kids with their natural families. Because people can change. If parents prove eager to have their child back, and can prove to the state that they will provide a loving, nurturing, healthy environment…and if the kids come to learn that their families have had a change of heart and want to prove their love and acceptance…a kid can be reunited back home. Unfortunately, this type of happy ending is far less likely than the kids “aging” out of the system at 18. Which is why Mulligan’s is often the last group home a child ever has to be placed in…because they are there to stay, in an environment of love and acceptance.
This does not come without cost. Mulligan’s Manor is supported primarily by donations. And, as you can imagine, raising money for a charity that the public might view as a “gay charity” can be challenging. They’ve had trouble making payroll for the already under-paid angels who devote their lives to helping these kids have a life of pride and success.
So this Saturday, July 13, they are hosting their first annual “Bowling for the Manor,” a fundraiser to bring awareness to the community and raise money so they can keep doing what they’re doing. If you live in the Phoenix area, you can join the bowl-a-rama (either as a team or an individual), or win some great prizes from local businesses in their raffle. Or place a bid at the silent auction for some really big prizes, like 2 tickets to anywhere Southwest Airlines flies, or a weekend getaway at the legendary Clarendon Hotel.
If you don’t live in Phoenix but your heart reaches out to these kids, who’ve endured so much, yet only want to be loved and to find their own special place in this big world, you can make a donation on their website. Whether it’s $5 or $20 or $100 or more, it will do far more good for the world than that caramel macchiato you were gonna get tomorrow, or that new pair of shoes you’ve been thinking about. And you’ll feel WAY better about yourself, knowing you’ve actually done something that helped change a kid’s life.
As I was finishing up this post, I texted Shannon because I realized I had completely forgotten to ask about the origins of the name “Mulligan’s Manor.” I was imagining that the founder Jenny, Shannon’s mom, must have had a very special gay uncle named Mulligan, or something of the sort. But Shannon set me straight.
It turns out I know very little about sports. In golf, a “mulligan” is a second chance…the ability to do something over again without being penalized. So many kids get penalized simply for being who they are, and absolutely nothing else. Mulligan’s Manor is giving these kids that second chance…to become the extraordinary person they truly are, rather than be penalized for who they are not.
Follow Mulligan’s Manor on Facebook to find out what their kids are up to. Even if you’re broke as a joke, like I am at the moment, send them a few bucks at the very least. Doing good for others feels WAY better than a midnight taco run. And if you know of similar organizations or programs in your town, tell us about them in the comments below. It’s heartening to hear about amazing people doing good for those who need it. And for those of you doing the good work at Mulligan’s, I thank you from the very bottom of my heart. You are truly changing the world for the better.
(I was unable to show you photos of any of the kids at Mulligan’s Manor other than Alex, because they are still minors and are considered wards of the state, and their identity is confidential. Phoenix-area folks are welcomed to volunteer at the house and meet the kids.)
ADDENDUM: After such an amazing response in the comments here and on Facebook, I’m gripped with the need to say that, as much time as I spend criticizing MasterChef for stooping to the lowest common denominator these days, none of you would have a clue who I am without MasterChef, and I’d have never inherited this AMAZING family of fans all over the world who care so deeply about the important things in life. So they must be doing SOMETHING right, and as upset as I am over the directions they’ve taken, the fact is that they are still introducing genuine people to a larger audience who can, with YOUR help, make a difference in this world. Thank you, all of you, for being amazing.
Words, Words, Words: Paula Deen, Trayvon Martin, and Gay Marriage
What do Paula Deen, the late Trayvon Martin, and the fight over gay marriage have in common? Words. Paula Deen’s use of the “n-word” 50 some-odd years ago and how it makes her unworthy of corporate sponsorship and a television career. Trayvon Martin’s use of the “c-word” (cracker…not the BAD c-word) and how it may have brought about his untimely death. And the Supreme Court deciding the federal government can’t discriminate financially against 2 people of the same gender who are “g.m.-word.”
Let’s start with Mrs. Deen, who, in the past week, was been the brunt of perhaps the most stupendous fall from glory we’ve ever seen from a celebrity chef. The media seems most interested in whether or not she has used the “n-word,” and seemed horrifically appalled when when she said, “Of course.” Honestly, there aren’t many of us in the US that can claim otherwise, and the real question should have been “Have you ever used the n-word with hate.”
I’m about fed up with our country’s obsession over words. Words have no power. PEOPLE give power to words. By focusing so much stigma on this “n-word” all we do is continue to give it supernatural evil powers. No word, in and of itself, has the power to do anything. When we make such a drastic scene out of someone using a word, all we do is perpetuate the perception of power that word has.
Similarly…racist jokes. Some people get deeply, horrifically offended by them. Personally, I’m ALL FOR racist jokes, because they rob racism of its power. Same with sexist jokes. And homophobic jokes. When we can all laugh at an issue, instead of get bound up in angst and offense over them, we’re a step closer to that issue not existing any more.
I might go so far as to say that the equality groups that work SO HARD toward equality are as guilty of perpetuating racism as pro-racist groups are. When we continue to view humans in categories…black…female….gay…Christian…Democrat, we promote continued division and inequality. These celebrations of “feminist pride” and “gay pride” and “black pride” simply keep us at arm’s length from each other. It’s only when we STOP identifying as a minority group and start identifying as part of a single human community that we will ever reach true equality for everyone.
None of us know Paula Deen, so I’m not comfortable making a judgement call on her. (I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that ANYWAY…it’s not any human’s place to judge another, unless you’re forced into that job as an actual judge.) I do know people, black people among them, that have worked with her in a production capacity who say she’s delightful. And for those of us who’ve watched her for years, it’s hard to suddenly imagine her as the worst racist tyrant in the food industry. Paula is one of the few celebrity chefs reputed to be the exact same person on camera as she is off.
(Let us also not forget that the media is sensationalizing only a part of the allegations against Mrs. Deen. There will be a trial to determine if her restaurants have actively enforced a pattern of racist and/or sexist discrimination, and none of us should pass judgement on her until a jury does. Also, I doubt Paula Deen has a clue what happens in her restaurants. She is a celebrity chef now. Virtually EVERY celebrity chef/restarateur has been accused of employee abuse…financially, verbally, etc. Do you think Gordon Ramsay has time to set foot in ANY of his restaurants more than a few days a year? Does his name over the door make him responsible for the behavior of his managers and employees?)
In a recent interview, Paula expresses horror over how the young people in her kitchens talk to each other. And if you are sensitive to racism, sexism, or homophobia, you should NEVER set foot in a restaurant kitchen. It is the least politically-correct place on planet earth. (Behind the military, of course.) Not out of hatred, mind you. But out of the playful jabbing and jesting that naturally occur when people work together under extreme stress in extreme conditions. (Sort of like reality TV.) I can’t count the number of times that my dear friends Adrien Nieto and Christian Collins have called me a “faggot” and teased me about about an unnatural obsession with sausage. Was this done out of hatred? Of course not. Would a sensitive bystander take offense and want to rush to my rescue and hustle these guys to court for a hate crime? Needlessly, yes. Neither Adrien nor Christian has a homophobic bone in their entire body. So their words are the result of the natural playful sparring that comes out of camaraderie. (It’s really no different than tickling.) Their words have no negative power, because I don’t grant them negative power, and they weren’t uttered with negative intent. But had someone happened to secretly videotape such conversations, it might horrify the wrong room full of people…enough to ruin reputations and lose sponsors. (If any existed.)
The most racist thing I’m going to say in this blog is that many white people absolutely LOVE to be offended on behalf of minorities. It’s intoxicating for them. We have YET to see any African Americans make allegations against Paula…these allegations are brought by a Caucasian woman who is offended on behalf of Paula’s black employees. Of course, regardless of whether the allegations are true or not, this lady is going to claim “I’m speaking for those who are too scared to speak for themselves.” But all these -isms only become -isms when there’s a closed circle…racism cannot exist unless there are victims on the other end of the equation to take offense or be harmed. When my partner and I are holding hands in a park and some frat boys cat-call at us and hurl the “f-word” around…we don’t need to charge them with a hate crime, because frankly we don’t care about what they say. There’s no homophobia. Because we don’t complete the equation and allow ourselves to feel hurt or threatened by it. We laugh at them and shout, “You know, it boys! Wanna come over tonight?” And it becomes a joke, no one gets hurt or offended, and the frat boys realize they have lost their power and slink away.
Another moment comes to mind from the time that all my fans were riled up about the semi-automatic weapons issue on my Facebook page during the holidays. I was crucified by one woman when I referred to her as “sweetheart.” She was supremely offended that I would be so sexist towards her. Where I come from, “sweetheart” is a term of affection that my mama taught me to use out of respect and love toward women. Yet this woman was deeply, supremely offended by it, and took the chance to forever label me a male chauvinist pig before she blocked me. The ONLY capacity in which I am sexist is my belief that women are superior to men in almost every aspect. She interpreted sexism where there was none. So there WAS none, because the equation wasn’t complete.
The way I look at it, Paula Deen grew up steeped in a culture of segregation and racism. It is inextricably intertwined in her life in a way that no one who is 30 years old and grew up in a cultural melting pot on the east or west coast could ever imagine. In my heart, I want to believe that Mrs. Deen witnessed the racial separatism that was EVERYWHERE when she was a child, and is happy at how far we’ve come since then. I want to believe that Paula is a good person with a playful personality who tosses friendly jabs at her coworkers the same way they do at her. And I personally don’t care if she ever used the “n-word,” provided it wasn’t said with malice or hatred. Because words have NO power unless that power is granted to them by humans. And the “n-word” only becomes horrible when it is delivered with hatred, and received with fear. If either end of that equation holds any different value…the word is no different from “butter” or “cloud” or “asparagus.”
Which brings me to the Trayvon Martin murder trial that’s happening right now, and how desperately I laughed at the Defense as he was questioning Trayvon’s best friend, Rachel Jeantel, who was on the phone with Trayvon until moments before he died. Trayvon had told Rachel that he was being followed in the pouring rain by a “creepy cracker.” The Defense was trying to spin this as a hate-filled racial slur that triggered George Zimmerman to defend himself in fear of his life. The Defense acted truly shocked when Rachel said that she didn’t consider the word “cracker” to be racist at all. (That’s simply what folks in her world call white people.) And as offended as the Defense may be by that, if it’s not delivered with hate, it’s not racist and it has no power…even if he receives it with fear and offense. Because the equation works both ways.
A similar principle is at work in the gay marriage debate that culminated last week in the Supreme Court’s decision that the Federal government must treat legally married gay couples the same as heterosexual married couples when dealing with issues of taxation. The reverend Pat Robertson, and many people around the country on BOTH sides of this issue, misinterpreted the ruling to mean that the government has sanctioned gay marriage, and Mr. Robertson was quick to prophesy that God will rain down fire and brimstone upon the United States of America for this decision, just like he did on Sodom and Gomorrah. (Sort of weird that he hasn’t done this with any of the other nations that actually legalized gay marriage, like France, Brazil, Canada, South Africa, etc.)
The actual debate over this issue is so silly, it makes me laugh. Because it’s about different perceptions of a word: “marriage.” The Supreme Court’s decision was about TAXES. Nothing else. And as far as state and federal governments are concerned, the word marriage is primarily about taxes and finances…a little bit about child custody…and that’s pretty much the limit of it. While, for religious folk, the term “marriage” is inextricably wound up in spirituality and faith. Any Christian objecting to gay marriage will inevitably cite Levitical verses about how much God hates homosexuality, and how he can only sanction and bless a marriage between a woman and man. Yet they don’t seem uncomfortable recognizing a marriage between atheists (who do not define their marriage from a spiritual perspective), or between Hindus or Buddhists, who (according to the Bible) are following false gods.
I, personally, am not one of those folks who desperately wants to have the word “marriage” assigned to my 11-year partnership. Because it’s just a word. It has no power and no meaning unless I personally give it that. (And I can personally give that power to ANY old term you’d like to give me that states I get the same treatment under tax law that my married neighbor does. Anyone who is desperate to have that word apply to their relationship is giving too much power to a word.)
But I DO want to have the same LAWS apply to my 11-year partnership that the newlyweds across the street are governed under. It makes no sense in my brain that a different set of laws would apply to me…than apply to any other American. How is THAT an American concept? Perhaps it’s a Biblical concept, depending on which part of the Bible you emphasize. But we don’t live in the United Church of America. This country is filled with people of all religions and no religions. To treat ANY AMERICAN differently under the law is decidedly un-American.
So, to Pat Robertson and everyone else who stringently objects to gay marriage…I’m not asking for YOUR version of the word “marriage.” The god you worship wouldn’t recognize it, anyway. Though the god many other Christians worship certainly would. (Isn’t that strange? They are, in fact, the same god, according to the Bible. Perhaps we are making god in OUR image?) I’m asking for the government to treat me under the exact same laws as you are treated. Because our government is not a church. It treats Muslims and Zoroastrians the same way it does Christians and atheists.
So next time you start to get all riled up about issues like these…stop for a moment and ask yourself if this is all really about words. And remember that words have NO power unless you grant them that power yourself. If someone makes a remark to you with hatred behind it…it’s your choice whether to give that person the power to upset you with that word. I seriously doubt that Paula Deen is spewing hatred at anyone. (If she was, I would imagine that person would seek out another job. Cooking jobs are a dime a dozen. And they don’t pay very well ANYWHERE.) My gut tells me that this “whistleblower” is yet another of those many white people who are on the edge of their chairs, waiting for that penultimate moment when they can be supremely, deeply offended to the core…on behalf of someone else…someone who witnessed playful bantering among compatriots and is so set on ending racism forever that they continue to perpetuate it by giving power to words that were never delivered with hate.
But let’s just say, to play Devil’s Advocate, that Paula Deen is the most horrid, hate-filled racist in all the American South. For that matter, let’s also blame her for ALL the diabetes and heart disease in this country. (Many people do, which is laughably ridiculous.) Have we lost the ability to forgive when someone apologizes sincerely? When someone desperately wants to change? As a culture, we love to crucify someone and watch with glee as they fall. (Why else would MasterChef be turning into Hell’s Kitchen?) We seem incapable of forgiveness. We seem to think that people remain static their whole lives and never have a change of heart. And we never give them the chance to do so.
I’ve been writing this blog for a week, I’ve deleted it and started over, I’ve rewritten big chunks of it over and over again, because I know some of you out there are going to be supremely offended by all these WORDS I’ve written down. So it’s not as cohesive as my normal writing. But the biggest points I want to get across in this rambling and disjointed diatribe are these:
-Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types of minority persecution will NEVER END as long as we continue to gather ourselves into groups to support our cause and celebrate our uniqueness. Because we are separating ourselves. When “minorities” of any sort stop pooling with their “own kind” and start integrating themselves as proud humans into neighborhoods, marriages, churches, and workplaces…revealing their humanity to their neighbors and coworkers through budding friendships…that’s when progress begins.
-We could all stand to be a little more forgiving. That goes for corporations, too, who are sometimes trigger happy to kill their relationships with people they believe will give them a bad image. Paula Deen has brought joy into the lives of millions of people for many decades. Let’s not be so quick to throw her out like last week’s leftovers, especially if she offers a heartfelt apology.
-Words have no power unless you give that power to them. If something is said with hatred, you don’t have to receive it as such. If something is said that initially triggers offense in you, it may not have been delivered with intended hatred, and you still don’t have to receive it as such. Hatred only has power when you allow it to.
Now what words do YOU have to say about all this? Please comment below.
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Tagged best friend, Bible, Christianity, comment, cracker, friend, gay, gay marriage, George Zimmerman, God, homophobia, homosexual, murder, n word, Pat Robertson, Paula Dean, Paula Deen, Prop 8, Rachel Jeantel, racism, racist, SCOTUS, semantics, sexism, Supreme Court, tax, taxation, Trayvon Martin, trial, word, words, wrath