Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I was Gay and Closeted in Martinique in 1970; Now, in 2011 on a Caribbean cruise, I'm openly gay in St Lucia and I'm meeting "my counterpart."

by Rev. Steve Parelli, published from the Bronx, NY, May 4, 2011
Photos by Steve Parelli

Part I - Some of the highlights of our nine-day vacation to the Caribbean

Steve Parelli (left) and Jose Ortiz on Carnival Victory,
 in port at San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sunday, April 17, 2011
 Last week, Jose and I returned from a nine day vacation in the Caribbean. For six days and seven nights we sailed the Caribbean Sea, visiting islands, on board Carnival Victory. We had a stateroom with a balcony. Our trip originated and ended in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Jose and I tagged on two extra days of sightseeing Old San Juan before returning to our home in the Bronx.

Jose Ortiz, Brighton Beach,
Barbados, Wednesday,
April 20, 2011
While in ports on the Carnival Victory, we snorkeled (St. Thomas), did beaches (two: Barbados and St. Maarten), boated (to the World Heritage site of the Pitons) and did general sightseeing (like the home where George Washington lived when he was in Barbados at age 19). We purchased only two excursions on board Carnival (the snorkeling and the Pitons). Otherwise, while in port, we made it on our own - the world travelers we are - haggling transportation costs (with taxi drivers who doubled their fees); chance-finding a native (a police officer off duty) who drove us around Bridgetown, Barbados, for the cost of a beer together (we did tip/pay him, too! freely - there wasn't the slightest suggestion to do so on his part); visiting a good-Friday Wesleyan Methodist church service (St. Kitts); and just generally being our own guide at times. It was classic Steve-Jose abroad.

Part II - Remembering my first time in Paradise: As a Baptist youth of 17 years of age, I lived in Martinique in 1970 with American Baptist missionaries

Steve Parelli, on the Carnival Victory lobby deck, with Martinique
in the distant background, Tuesday, April 19, 2011

For me, the most memorable event of the cruise was viewing the island of Martinique from the quiet, little-visited lobby deck of the ship. For about three hours in the afternoon of our second day, Jose and I lounged on the lobby deck and watched the far distant purple outline of the west side of Martinique - from its Mount Pelée in the north to its mammoth Diamond Rock in the south, a diamond-shaped island off the south coast of Martinique.

Jose and Steve looking towards the central mountains
of Martinique from Carnival Victory, lobby deck,
Tuesday afternoon, April 19, 2011
 The ship moved southward, gently over the waters. Martinique is only about 35 miles long -- if I remember correctly, but, happily, it took hours to pass its length at our lazy, sleepy speed; and then into the evening as we rounded its southern coast, St. Lucia was seen at our starboard side.

In 1970, when I was 17, I lived on the island of Martinique from August to December. I was a senior in high school. I was living with Baptist missionaries from America (with Evangelical Baptist Missions - EBM) who had opened their home to me for this cultural-missionary experience. I was this New York up-state boy in paradise – for a brief, memorable time I was in paradise. The American family I was living with did everything in their power to give me an exceptional yet realistic experience of life as American missionaries in Martinique. After all, I was in the process of enrolling in Bible college for the fall of 1971.

Jose and Steve on Carnival Victory
with Martinique in the far distance,
lobby deck, Tuesday, April 19, 2011
The missionaries had two lovely daughters - one a teenager who was very active and popular with the sizable Baptist youth group of the church of Robert (on the east coast, due east of Fort-de-France the capital). I've never forgotten this missionary family and the positive impression they left upon me. And now I was setting my eyes on Martinique for the first time since 1970. More than 40 years later. I was transfixed watching the island from the cruise ship. I recounted to Jose my memories and young impressions of Martinique, pointing out to him different localities on the island.

Part III - Meeting my gay self and my Baptist Martiniquan past, as it were, on the St. Lucia boating to the Pitons

Jose Ortiz (left) meeting Jonathan Chavez on our excursion
to the Pitons of St. Lucia, Thursday, April 21, 2011.
 On our second day after seeing Martinique, we arrived in Castries, St. Lucia, from Barbados, approaching Castries from the south-western end of St. Lucia. In the early morning sunlight, we could observe the Pitons of St. Lucia from our balcony.

Once in port, we boarded the Catamaran Cruise with others from our ship for a four hour (round trip) excursion along the west cost of St. Lucia to the Pitons to the south. During this cruise, mingling with our shipmates from Carnival, Jose became engaged in a conversation with a young man, age 17, named Jonathan Chavez. As for me, I was trying out my non-existent one-sentence Martiniquean Creole (Mwe car parle Creole ti toc) with a mid-teen girl of St. Lucia who was helping behind the bar. Her father was captain of the boat. Jonathan, who is Puerto Rican, became very interested in what Jose had to say about Other Sheep (our worldwide work with LGBT people of faith). Jonathan is openly gay.

Steve Parelli (left) and Jose Ortiz, returning from
viewing the Pitons of  St. Lucia.  Thursday, April 21, 2011
 In my corner, the St. Lucian girl with whom I was speaking found it very interesting that Jose was my husband for real (legally married in California in 2008) and that a life-time ago I had lived in Martinique when I was 17. After telling her I had lived in Martinique with Baptist missionaries, she told me about her Baptist youth group in St. Lucia (the very next island to the south of Martinique). I shared with her briefly my evangelical Christian journey in order to find common ground. I believe I also asked her if she knew anyone who was Christian and gay. As I often do, I was putting a face on the LGBT Christian community for this young Baptist Christian by telling her my story.

Jonathan Chavez (left), Steve Parelli
back), and not shown (but at right - see
shoulder), the St. Lucian Baptist teenage
girl who posed for this three-some picture,
Thursday, April 21, 2011.
Well, of course, I looked at gay 17-year-old Jonathan (the age I was when I was in Martinique in 1970) and the St. Lucian Baptist teenage girl with whom I was telling my religious-gay story - and I found these two young people a kind of type or representation from my past (I was already feeling nostalgic and sentimental). And when I asked if I could photograph them together (in this moment of sentimentalism, as I explained it to them) they were more than happy to oblige this older, gay-Christian gentleman. I remember Jonathan saying I could publish his photo and name on my blog. As for my new St. Lucian Baptist teenage friend - I don't remember if I received permission from her or not to publish her, but even if I did, my estimation is it would be best not to publish her here. She is only 14 or 15 at the most. But I am happy to tell you about her anonymously.

Part IV - Then and Now: I never thought in 1970, while living with missionaries in Martinique, that I would someday live in a world where Christians would be open and affirming about same-sex attractions

Steve Parelli in the early morning
sunlight, taken on our balcony;
Pitons in the background. 
Thursday, April 21, 2011
So then, my present-day re-encounter with my long ago past was obviously very contrasting – a then-vs.-now real contrast. Then, in Martinique in 1970 I was closeted, although every bit keenly aware of my same-sex sexual orientation as I am now. I could never have shared that secret then with anyone within my religious circles – no missionary, no pastor, no Sunday School teacher or youth worker, no individual (in or out of the church) – I knew the consequences then (and I’m living with those consequences now, even in 2011: total ostracism from some). Now, however, I was openly discussing my sexual orientation with a Baptist youth of St. Lucia on a boat in the Caribbean Sea along the coast line of St. Lucia (the island to the south of Martinique) while at the same time an openly gay 17 year old Puerto Rican stood in the mix of people, speaking with Jose my legal husband.

Left to right:  Jose Ortiz, Jonathan Chavez, and Steve Parelli
West coast of St. Lucia, Thursday, April 21, 2011.
Then – in 1970 in Martinique – I thought my sanctification was a process of growing in Christ which would, among other evidences of the Spirit being operative in me, manifest a day-by-day victory over my same-sex attractions. Now I rejoice, like others both straight and gay, both Christian and non-religious, in the sexual orientation which God has given me (or permitted me - nature or nurture, whichever the case). I celebrate the gift of sexuality and human touch and warmth with the life-partner I’ve been blessed to receive.

Jonathan Chavez, back
in port, Castries,
St. Lucia
Who would have thought then (1970), that I would be enjoying now (2011) the same wonderful aspects of love that heterosexual couples enjoy: intimacy, warmth, social and civil validity, emotional and physical connectedness, intellectual engagement, security, personal development and fulfillment within marriage, mutual support and respect -- all with one other single human being in a life-long committed relationship. 

That's the difference between then and nowThen - Martinique 1970:  a young closeted gay evangelical Baptist youth living with American missionaries.  Now - St. Lucia 2011:  an older, wiser gentleman graciously and openly embracing his sexual orientation since 1997, celebrating life in all its diversity, with the soul-mate God has gifted me with – my same-sex partner. 

More than ever, the island of Martinique (symbolically) holds an inviting allure.  How?  By a life lived in the context of love instead of fear; by a life lived in union with another who is physically fitted to one’s self; by a life lived authentically – being true to one’s self; and by living, when at all possible, in peace with others.

End of day, leaving St. Lucia andthe Pitons (the twin peaks
at the far right).  Not shown here, but Martinique, the island to the
 north of St. Lucia, is in view from Carnival Victory 
Thursday, April 21, 2011.

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