My Journey Through Discomfort

by Mark Norelius

My Dear Fellow UU’s at East Shore,

I would like to invite you to join me on my journey through discomfort. I caution you though, because I don’t think it will be a quick one. I do hope and expect it will be enriching.

My name is Mark Norelius. About 27 years ago my then wife,Peggy, and I had 3 wonderful young boys ages roughly 2, 4 and 6 years old. I was coaching soccer for my oldest son. We were pretty well established in our church at East Shore and I was even a volunteer teacher in the religious education program. I was living my dream life in many ways.

But I soon found myself thinking I was going to have to choose between my church and my values at the time. …What?? How did that happen?

First, a little background…

I was raised in the Issaquah area in what I thought was a pretty normal community of friends and family, and graduated from Issaquah High in 1970. I was aware of the social changes and progress happening in America in the late 60s and early 70s, but my world in suburbia wasn’t much affected by those changes, or so I thought. In my high school of about 1,000 students we had two or three black kids, a few Asian students but we were definitely a “white“ demographic cross-section. The values I learned at home did include treating all people kindly. As I look back, I see that there were some significant influences on my thinking that I wasn’t fully aware of at the time. For example I remember my father saying I could not go to see the movie “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.” His reason was that he didn’t want me to consider an interracial marriage, as it would make life “more difficult” for both me and my kids. Mixed race dating was strongly discouraged though I was aware of it happening.

I was pretty much a “get along” kid and didn’t challenge him much. I didn’t really agree, but I think I got the message that a parent’s job is to protect their kids from the influences we disagree with.

This story tells you at least how liberal he wasn’t. He told many stories of growing up in Oroville, a small eastern Washington town. One story he told was of how “hobos” would come through town during picking season and how proud he was of the fact that his mother would always offer them food. He also said they were never allowed in the house.

I remember hearing the term homosexual in those days and not really understanding it. I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow I came to believe that homosexuality was wrong. I remember thinking that it didn’t make sense, so it must be wrong. I never really had a reason to have my opinion challenged because I wasn’t around any of “them.” I of course didn’t consider the possibility that I probably had been.

My group of friends were not particularly aggressive, but what we now call “othering” was part of who we were. Our attitudes toward gays and the African American community showed through, I’m sure, by targeting those “other” groups with what we thought was humor.

I’ll admit I’m not proud now of who I was back then. We were a pretty self-centered, egotistical, and sheltered group. We didn’t interact much with those different from us, so there never was any real conflict. That sheltered existence led me to be pretty oblivious about who I was, because it was all I knew.

After high school I went to college at the University of Washington. I was active in the athletic program, I was a member of the ROTC and was commissioned as an officer, and then was off to my first assignment in the Air Force. My memory of my role models during my college years was that they taught me that it’s important to be strong, smart, levelheaded, and work hard. In relationships with the other sex it’s important to “wear the pants.” It’s important to be a “man’s man.”

After I left the Air Force, I joined the airline world as a pilot and became aware there was a very active community of gay men among the flight attendants. In those early years of that career I observed that gay men were not “man’s men,” and I kept my distance.

As we then began our family of three young boys we chose to find a church nearby and ended up at East Shore.

One of my early memories of the liberal nature of our church was the calling of a new Associate Minister named David Pilger. David was a very positive, engaging guy, served as Associate Minister from 1991-1992 and was living publicly as a gay man. In the months leading up to East Shore hiring David, there was a period of him being introduced to the East Shore community. One of his primary roles, if hired, was to focus on children’s religious education.

I looked back on my youth and reflected on the people who I admired and influenced me the most. One person who stuck out in my mind was Al, a teacher who was very active in a local church and led the Young Life group while I was in high school. He had a beautiful wife, was very active in the youth groups, and was very athletic. He was a great role model in my eyes, and represented who I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted my boys to have that same kind of role model in their lives… and David Pilger would’ve been great for that… EXCEPT he was gay.

That made me very uncomfortable. I did not want to have that kind of “influence“ for my boys. I thought to myself, “This is my church community. David is not what we want or need for our children as a role model.” I thought other parents must see this the same way I do. We must do something about this! So I went home and composed a letter to mail to all the members of the church. I spent the night composing a letter. Prior to me sending it, my wife Peggy saw that I had stayed up long hours through the night and asked what I was doing. When I told her she asked, “What are you afraid of?”

I guess I didn’t have a very good answer so I thought about it for a while and decided to postpone the mailing.

At that point I had to ask myself what do I do now? Who do I ask about the validity of my concerns? Somehow I had heard about the Kinsey Institute and their studies of the frequency of homosexual and heterosexual relationships in the general population. I learned that there was a continuum of sexual orientation. I learned there was a lot that I did not know. Though I didn’t get all of my questions answered, I came to understand that I could not be confident of my previous opinions.

I somehow was eventually referred to a Johns Hopkins psychiatrist who specialized in the field of sexual orientation. I described to him what had been my concerns and asked for his opinion. He told me that if he was a concerned parent, the first thing he would do was make sure there had been a background check done on David. I told him that had been done and that report was clean. He then said there had been quite a lot of research done, and there was no indication that someone could be influenced into being gay. He said that even children of gay parents were no more likely to be gay than children of heterosexual parents. I finally came to realize that I had somehow created a false narrative for myself. I am not sure I ever thanked Peggy for questioning my assumptions, but I should have. I threw the letters to the congregation away.

Looking back, the amazing thing is that I had somehow found enough support for my childhood theory that homosexuality was wrong, that I came to truly believe it. My theory seemed logical to me. And there was the added sense of parental protectiveness I had for my children that led me further down the wrong path.

I have a deep appreciation for the incredible value of that experience 25 years ago. I made a big step, at that time, toward personal growth. And as a result today I believe I am much more willing to question my own judgements.

I learned then that fear can be an incredibly powerful force in forming attitudes. I learned there was nothing to fear about sexual orientation. I also learned that the people and activities at East Shore were providing me with a vehicle for broadening myself and my understanding of the world around me. East Shore stretched me and I did not break. I survived my discomfort. And in fact, it made me stronger.

To help round out this chapter of my journey I will ad some answers to questions you may be thinking of….

  • I never did really get to know David nor did the boys. I did feel a tremendous loss when learning of his suicide. I felt like we as a community had let him down in some way.
  • My attitude toward gays has changed tremendously. It continues to change. In a way, I am still living the changes. My high school age step-son has a friend group that has a rainbow of orientations. They come and go from the house regularly. I am finding myself very much enjoying the conversations with most of his friends (at least the ones that will talk to an “old white guy”).
  • Manliness: I have changed there too. I am feeling like I no longer need to be the authority. The value there of course is that more views and perspectives get brought
    into the picture. It feels more rounded.

Stay tuned for the next chapter in my journey: learning what it really means to be racist.