- Let's give James Franco a hand for making a ton of movies about us!
“Let me tell you something. You should never define yourself by your choices or your desires. Gay doesn’t exist. It’s a false identity…You always have a choice. You wanna go to heaven, right?…If you’re a moral person, then you’ll choose heterosexuality in order to be with God.” -James Franco as former gay rights activist Michael Glatze in the opening scene of the feature film I Am Michael
Here’s my first question to you – Have you ever had an existential crisis?
I sure have and let me tell you, there is a reason why the word “crisis” is at the end of “existential” because that is one motherfucker of a crisis to go through. I’m just coming out of one myself that lasted about 6 years and it is awful and frightening and everything seems hopeless and useless (especially your own self) and there is a lot of tears and sweat and, yes, even blood that you must toil and fight your way through in order to get to the other side of questioning the purpose and meaning and value of your life. I still have a couple of physical scars left over from some rather horribly trying weeks towards the end of my existential crisis earlier this year when it got so awful that I came to the point of contemplating suicide (unfortunately once again in my life), but I chose wounds that I would survive instead of wounds that I wouldn’t, because I have a wife that I just couldn’t leave, but I had to do something because at that point the crisis was reaching its pinnacle, so self-injury became a last choice necessity simply to get my brain to please for the love of God to just SHUT THE FUCK UP FOR FIVE MINUTES!
So, in other words, an existential crisis is not for the faint of heart. You spend all of your time inside of your head going through every moment, every nuance, every detail of your life and your own self, trying to figure out where it all went wrong and what was the whole meaning and purpose to all of that suffering you survived, only to feel like a worthless piece of shit that deserves nothing and nobody. Every little mistake, every little missed opportunity, every hurt, every pain, every heartbreak comes pouring out of you and all you can ask is – Why? Why? WHY??!!! But no matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to escape living in your head all the time, because you are trying too hard to solve the unbearable pain that never takes a break in your head, and that is beyond frightening not being able to escape your own terrifying head, because you know if you don’t eventually find a way to escape and get to the other side of the crisis, you probably won’t survive it.
Now here is my second question to you – Have you ever had a spiritual awakening?
I sure have, and like an existential crisis, a spiritual awakening is one motherfucker to survive, because with a spiritual awakening (or at least the one I had) you find yourself questioning everything that has happened in your life, looking at all those coincidences that you suddenly realize weren’t coincidences at all. Your body, heart and mind go through such drastic changes that you swear it feels like you are experiencing puberty all over again, and it’s no fun the second time around either, in fact, it is much, much worse. You suddenly see all the connections to all of the people in your life and why they came into your life and why they left and why those who stayed are still here and why those who came back are worth keeping. You can finally see clearly the path your life has taken and the path it still has to journey on. You find yourself experiencing momentary clarity that is so pure, it opens your eyes to the whole world and I imagine this is what Buddha was talking about when he found enlightenment, because it brings you as close to God (or being a Buddhist, I like to refer to God as the Beyond) that you ever thought possible. Not only do you realize that all of this crazy shit is true, that there is a spiritual world out there that we are all foolishly ignoring, but all you have to do is simply open your eyes to see it and your heart to feel it.
And here is my third question to you – Have you ever watched a movie that came into your life at the exact right time (see, there are no coincidences) that it felt like you were watching a kind of parallel/opposite universe of your very own life?
Well, that is what happened to me when I sat down on my futon a few weeks ago to watch I Am Michael and I was so disturbed by what I saw, because Michael Glatze’s life was eerily running a parallel opposite to my life, that it took me several weeks to finish the film.
I Am Michael is based on the true story of Michael Glatze (played absolutely brilliantly by James Franco), a gay activist who fought for our right to be free and happy and equal to everyone else, but while he was having his existential crisis, which led to his spiritual awakening of finding God and becoming a devoted Christian, he came to the conclusion that not only was he not gay after all, but the whole concept was basically a marketing tool that we have all been fed…
“To my friends who are trapped in homosexuality: I wanna thank you for your kind comments and keen observations,” Michael records on his video blog one day after coming out as straight, “regarding my story and my revelation that I am no longer homosexual and am now heterosexual. The gay identity has been packaged and fed to you, and if you identify as gay, then you have eaten it, preventing you from further growth and understanding of your true self. But it’s not too late to save yourself if you follow my lead. I am confident. I am blessed. I am strong. I am ready to give up my life for Christ in order to find my true self.”
Michael Glatze was born in 1975 and grew up in Olympia, Washington, and as Franco playing him describes in the feature film, it was not a place to be gay, so much so the one gay kid at his high school had to leave because it was too much bullying to bear. Michael’s parents both died tragically. First when Michael was 13, his father dropped dead from an unexpected heart condition right in front of Michael while they were walking on the beach together. His mother died when Michael was just 19 from breast cancer. He never came out to his parents. He was never able to be gay in Washington because it wasn’t safe. So not only could Michael not be gay for most of his early years, but he also lost his parents tragically at such a young age, so I imagine he walked around for a long time with a lot of trauma that he probably wasn’t really dealing with that all came to a head after experiencing terrifying panic attacks that caused him to begin to question what happens when you die.
The existential crisis that led to Michael’s spiritual awakening seemed to start in 1998, according to the feature film, with Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was tortured and left for hours tied to a fence in freezing temperatures and then later died. Michael began to question what being gay was really all about. He took the quite forward-thinking position that is thriving today, maybe even thanks to him; the no labels theory when it comes to sexuality and gender…
“We need to move away from labels, because they segment, and they lead to persecution. People don’t want to be perceived as gay because they’re afraid they’ll end up like Matthew…[Kids] should be proud to be themselves. Gay and straight are just social constructs.”
I went into the opposite direction when it came to Matthew Shepard’s death because I was just on the verge of figuring out I was gay when Matthew Shepard died. And being on the verge meant I was trying really, really, really hard to not be gay by finally sleeping with a guy and everything, so when I heard about Matthew Shepard, I found myself having an out of character reaction. I became a backward thinker, instead of being a forward thinker like Michael. I just didn’t want to hear about Matthew Shepard’s death, because I decided I didn’t care because they were making too big of a deal out of him being gay. The problem was, I did care. A lot. I just somehow knew deep down that if I was being my normal way too empathetic-self and wondered about Matthew’s death and worried about why he died, then it wouldn’t have taken me long to figure out that I was gay too and maybe that would be my fate as well. I had already grown-up during the AIDS crisis and had survived the trauma from that, so I guess I just didn’t want to add another new trauma of a gay man’s death into my life at the exact same time that I was trying desperately hard not to be like them…you know, gay. But Matthew got in my head anyway and as much as I tried not to think about him, all that trying not to think about him and trying to not see the gay thing as a big deal did was to help lead me to the realization, finally, that I was gay too.
But while I was still hiding from Matthew Shepard and his death, Michael was writing for a gay magazine (at the same time I was doing my damnedest to deny that I was even a writer) and helping the scared gay kids who were writing to the magazine. At one point telling his partner, Bennett (played by Zachary Quinto, although the name was changed for the feature film, his real name is Benjie) that, “Fucking Christian fundamentalists should burn in hell.” And then even saying later to a group of kids at a speaking engagement, “I know a lot of you are balancing religion with sexuality, but, I mean, come on, what God would punish you for finding love?” So there I was being a booty head about Matthew Shepard so I could stay in denial about being gay, and even denying that I was a writer, despite several professors in college who tried to get me to see that writing was my career path and even getting a scholarship thanks to one of those professors because of my writing that so impressed him in his journalism class. And then there was Michael, knowing that he was a writer and gay, and writing for a gay magazine and writing about being gay on his blog, and going on speaking engagements to help out gay kids who were scared to death. He was even cursing the very thing he eventually became.
Michael was in a relationship with Benjie (Bennett in the feature film) for ten years and many describe their relationship as quite happy and healthy. In the documentary, Michael Lost and Found, Benjie says of the relationship, “…most people were envious of the relationship we had, of the strength it had or the things that we could do together.” And one of those things they were able to do in their relationship was add a third member to it. And every single time all three of them appeared on my TV while I was watching I Am Michael, my wife (who wasn’t even watching the film, she was just in the living room while it was on) would say, “Awwwwww…they are all so cute together.” So apparently, my wife approves of throuples, so I took the opportunity to once again ask her if I could marry Judi Dench, but she is still saying no. So while Michael was getting to have his throuple, I am forever without my Judi. Which is actually fine in this case that my life and Michael’s stayed on opposite/parallel universes because after watching that sex scene with all three men, I’m now afraid of getting squished to death if I was ever in a three-way (maybe three women in bed together are more careful about not getting squished?). Plus, I know if I was ever in an actual three-way, I would be spending all of my time making sure I was paying equal attention to both parties in my bed and then I wouldn’t have any fun at all from worrying too much that I was paying more attention to one person versus the other. I’m sure Judi is relieved too. I just want to talk about acting with her anyway and look in her beautiful blue eyes and giggle with her. I mean if she wanted to make out, I certainly wouldn’t turn her down, but still, I mostly just want to giggle with her. Judi Dench has got the best giggle.
There’s that three-way. Sure, it looks really hot here, but just you wait until all three of them end up in that tiny bed behind them. You might then be like me and wonder how no one got totally squished too.
While on the road shooting a documentary about gay youth and religion with Bennett and their third partner, Tyler (played by Charlie Carver), Michael witnesses a girl who has just found out her mother has died and so the fellow students at the Christian college all gather around her and start to pray and something happens to Michael in that moment. He begins to see how religion and God can be a savior. But during this time, which was only a few years ago, it was very difficult to be religious (especially Christian in America) if you were gay. The Religious Right hated us openly and often, and even Christian liberals were not that great to us, so basically a lot of us were just not religious. It seemed like basically you had a choice, be gay or be religious. Being both just wasn’t really an option. I walked around for a while just being agnostic, myself. I knew there was something out there, but so much hate was thrown at us from the very resources that could have helped me find out what that something was, so I chose to keep my searchings for the answers to my questions at a minimum because it was too hard to shift through all that hate to get to the love.
And discovering that religion can indeed help save you is when the existential crisis really kicked in for Michael. And these scenes are just horrifying, yet fascinating for me to watch because James Franco must have gone through one of these crisis as well because he plays this so true to real life that I kept having to turn the movie off and wait a day or two before I could turn it on again, only to repeat the process because a good chunk of the film is about how Michael had a complete and utter breakdown. He got panic attacks so horrifically violent that he thought for sure he was dying of a heart attack, which led him to believe that he was going to die just like his father. So Michael fell even further down that rabbit hole into the oblivion of nothing but pain and loneliness and searching for the meaning and purpose of life. Michael is like me, always in his head, always thinking, always contemplating, always wondering. Basically, he is a modern day philosopher. But when you are a person who spends all of your time in your head, having your brain then turn on you and then present you with the cold, hard facts of life that we will all die one day, it’s hard to escape enough to find the answer to your question that won’t stop haunting you, even in the middle of the night. There is one scene in the feature film when Michael wakes up Bennett in the middle of the night that was so true to my life that I walked away from the movie for a week. Michael crawls into bed to get comfort from a sleeping Bennett and begins to sob and sob after spending so much time alone and confused and only in his head, he is finally able to reveal to his partner the question that has been haunting him since he saw the mourning girl, “Do you think when we die we just disappear like we never existed?” Bennett holds him and tries to tell him that he knows that they will always be together; basically saying that Michael won’t just be nothing and all alone when he dies. I don’t even want to know how many times this has happened in my own life too. Waking my wife up in the middle of yet another sleepless night and sobbing and sobbing as she held onto me for dear life because the dark, deep questions about life and what ultimately happens to us won’t stop haunting my severely depressed, but still always questioning brain.
Michael keeps falling further and further into his crisis, into his mental breakdown. The panic attacks keep coming and Bennett keeps having to take Michael to emergency rooms and doctor’s offices, because Michael can’t stop worrying if he is going to die just like his dad. God, how many times has my wife taken me to the emergency room because of a mental breakdown? I don’t know, because I still can’t really think about those awful, horrific times. With Michael’s breakdowns, he begins to secretly pray to God, so when he gets the answer to one of the questions that is haunting him, that he doesn’t have his dad’s heart condition after all, so he won’t just drop dead suddenly one day just like his dad, who he watched die; the crisis appears to be broken and he runs outside full of joy and promise, free for once of the awful nightmare in his head and he openly thanks God for saving him. His spiritual awakening has begun…
“The test confirmed that I did not inherit my father’s heart condition,” Michael writes on his blog, “Although it’s a massive sigh of relief, I keep thinking to myself, if I was really just having panic attacks, then what’s wrong with me?”
Michael begins to secretly read the Bible while he starts his own magazine for gay youth, even dedicating an entire edition to being gay and religious. He keeps his ever increasing closeness to God mostly a secret from his partners, using the magazine as an excuse for why he is suddenly doing so much reading and research about God and Jesus.
“People think that gays and Christians are enemies,” Michael tells Bennett one day, “We’ve met so many people who’ve managed to balance their faith and sexuality…The whole, ‘You’re gay, you’re going to hell’ myth was started by mistranslations and misinterpretations of the Bible. God doesn’t care what your sexual orientation is. And the one thing that the gay movement doesn’t understand that I think Christianity does is that not everyone wants to be a part of the sub culture.”
He finally starts to come out of the closet when it comes to his new religious thinking and beliefs, telling his partners after finally reading the Bible how surprised he is that it is full of a lot of love. And remembering that he had Christian roots as well, and maybe by going back to those roots, he can have his family again. But even though Bennett tells him that he had family disown him after he came out as gay because of their religious beliefs, Michael only replies that something saved him, and that something was God. When I finally sat down to read the Bible, I had the opposite reaction. I was completely and utterly surprised at how it was so full of hate and violence (this was the Old Testament), but even more shocking, how much sex was in the Bible. I had been looking for religion too for years, especially when my depression got so bad, but for me, I found too much hate in the Bible to go beyond the Old Testament, but here was Michael finding love from it. Just goes to show you, it’s all about how you interpret something, or as my dad would say when I was little and we would go to the dump together to drop off our crap, only to sometimes bring home free furniture, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Michael falls further and further into religion, secretly becoming obsessed with it until finally he comes to a head with his spiritual awakening and decides to leave his partners, telling Bennett, “I just want to be with my parents in heaven. Is that so hard to understand?” He then briefly joins a Mormon Church, which he leaves rather quickly and I could have just told him that always happens with Mormons since I have a family FULL of former Mormons. He then goes off to a Buddhist retreat, something I still haven’t done myself, although it is a goal one day, because through my spiritual awakening, I finally admitted after studying Buddhism for over 20 years and thinking I wasn’t worthy enough to be one, that I am Buddhist, dammit, because it is my calling. But Buddhism definitely wasn’t Michael’s calling because he actually got kicked out of the retreat (and you know you are really pissing off people if you are getting yourself kicked out of a Buddhist retreat) because by then, Michael had begun to preach hate about being gay, writing on his blog one day,
“I have come to a decision that will be shocking to anyone I used to relate to. The presence of God has grown strong in my life. He told me that my panic attacks were caused by my shallow, sinful lifestyle. I’ve come to the realization that identifying as gay prevents you from finding your true self within. And we must be our true selves in order to join God in His kingdom. Therefore, I, Michael Glatze, no longer identify as gay.”
And I found this realization Michael came to, after all of the toil and heartache, both sad and fascinating because one thing that I discovered during my spiritual awakening is good God almighty, I am SO GAY! So here he was having a spiritual awakening that closed a door on a part of himself that had been wide open and accepting for years, while the door to my sexuality had only been slightly ajar forever, because I was too afraid to really delve much further into my sexuality for years and years after I figured out I was gay, because I was still so afraid it was wrong. Somehow I came out the other side of my awakening fully embracing myself and my sexuality, while Michael…poor thing…shut that part of himself completely off.
Michael eventually went to a religious school and met a girl and got married and became a pastor. In the documentary, Michael Lost and Found, we find out that he is now living in the state where Matthew Shepard died, Wyoming. His life, when it came to Matthew, had come full circle and he is now living in the same state that killed one of his own, but now he is married to a woman and no longer acknowledging his gay self. In the documentary, Benjie (Bennett in the feature film) visits Michael for the first time in years and I found watching the documentary even harder than the feature film. The documentary is only 18 minutes long, but it took me an entire day to watch it. I found it just so sad and, quite frankly, just so awful to see Michael so closed off still, so isolated; trying so hard to be something he is just not. I do believe he is sincere in his faith, but during the documentary, he seems so distant and cut off when he is talking about God, which is basically all he talks about. Every question Benjie asks Michael, Michael always talks about God whether it relates to the question or not. The only time he comes alive and lights up is when he is talking to Benjie about their days together with their gay friends. It’s a conversation about Michael taking too much acid, but still, he is never happy in the documentary except for that one conversation, which is about his old life.
I don’t know why Michael came through his existential crisis and spiritual awakening disowning his sexuality and first hating gays, but then deciding we aren’t so bad, but he’s just not one of us, while I came out of mine embracing more aspects of myself, and especially my sexuality, than I ever thought was possible. I don’t know why our lives when it came to this looked so similar, but yet somehow we ended up having polar opposite results. I am finding now that I am experiencing a happiness that I never thought possible, while I don’t really think Michael is happy, no matter how hard he tries to convince us and most importantly, himself. He ended up fighting the religious system that he embraced, basically to the point where they kind of kicked him out as well, so now he is a pastor at very small, non-denominational church. I guess people can have similar experiences with different results. We both walked the same path, but he took one fork in the road, while I took another. His spiritual awakening ended his relationship with Benjie, while mine has made my relationship with my wife even stronger. I have spent days and days trying to understand why he went one way and I went another. At the end, all I could figure was that’s just life.
I do hope Michael is okay. I do hope he finds happiness one day, because after seeing him in the documentary, I just can’t lie and say he is happy. He is a good person though, despite all the hate he spewed at us. I think that hate was really his hatred of himself, but like most people when they can’t handle something about their life they don’t like, he pushed his hate of himself onto others instead. But for years he did a lot of good by helping all of those gay kids, before he left us. And that good is still there because his church is dedicated to compassionate service to anyone in need…
“We can talk about our opinions on things all we want,” Michael, himself, says in the documentary to Benjie, while in his church, “but when it really comes down to it, you know, you’re a person, I’m a person, and you know, if you’re, facing, you know, the fear of you about to die, you know, what do you need? My whole personal goal too in ministry is that I would somehow be able to help others find their way personally back to God, between them and God. And that this would be a place that would nurture and create that…that this would be a safe space. For anybody, you know. Unconditionally safe. That it would be a place for any individual to feel, you know, welcomed and come in the front door. Not that you have to solve your problems before you get here, you know. But because that’s kind of an impossible proposition for any person is that, you know, you got to clean up your entire life before you can enter God’s house. That’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it. It’s quite the opposite.”
Somehow I think what Michael has created is a safe space for himself and anybody out there like him. And bless him for trying.