In honor of Transgender Day of Remembrance, I encourage everyone to please visit Bryant's Bridge, which is a "safe, supportive and empowering home for the local Knoxville LGBTQ+ community in need of housing." This non-profit LGBTQ+ organization is making positive changes for our communities.
Bodhi Der Parunakian is Appalachian OUTreach's local hero of the month(s). If you don't already know Bodhi, do yourself a favor and intro yourself to x/them...you'll be glad you did. Although Bodhi has a place on our Board of Directors, and we are certainly not a self-congratulatory organization, we can't help but celebrate Bodhi's life and work. Knowing Bodhi as we do, we know x/them to be full of sass, spirit, humor, kindness, compassion, and bravery. There is not one single "box" that Bodhi willingly will put x/themselves into. Bodhi challenges gender norms, societal-based roles, assumptions made about x/them and x/their work, and x/they do all of this with fierce loyalty to the cause. Bodhi is an experienced and extremely vital lifeline for our LGBTQ+ homeless community.
Bodhi's words and wisdom:
My community activism began during the 80’s AIDS Pandemic. This was a time before any type of medication or knowledge of the virus was available. The life expectancy of someone who had developed AIDS-related complexes was only a few weeks or months. Those who had contracted HIV maybe had a year at the most. The lack of adequate medical and mental health treatment was cruel and unrelenting. It was challenging to work with professionals who refused treatment of our clients. There was a fine line between education and advocating for respectful and appropriate care. People who had been abandoned had the potential to die alone. Partners had no legal rights or benefits and would not be allowed to make arrangements or be a part of the medical and end of life decisions. The inability to take care of each other to the end brought tragic and harmful consequences. Someone had to be a voice for the powerless and voiceless. Dignity needed to be restored to these lives and that someone was me, who was just a part of a greater community on the frontlines.
I watched too many people who would not be able to attend funerals of their beloved partners. I saw the agony in the eyes and faces of those who had been completely abandoned. I saw families come in during the final days, to take care of their family member who they had previously abandoned. This spurred me on to community activism. I was born with an inherent call to help the marginalized, disenfranchised, oppressed and powerless. I have been involved in safe houses, walked with people who are experiencing homelessness. And now I am on the board of Applachian OUTreach, which gives me the opportunity to serve in an even greater capacity. The ability to pay forward what has been given to me in my “coming out,” is an obligation and an honor. My own story empowers me to give hope to others.
I am a Baby Boomer, born during the Eisenhour era, the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement. In those day’s homosexuality was illegal and considered a mental illness. Procedures such as shock treatments, lobotomies, and aversion therapy were thought to “cure” what was labeled, "deviant" behaviors. A person could be jailed for wearing the opposite genders' clothing. Their names would be published in the paper, jobs and families were lost, lives were irrevocably ruined and their standing in society was damaged. Scenes on the nightly news of people being put into the back of paddy wagons after raids on gay bars, or what was known then as transvestite bars, only fueled the hate and discrimination. Gay and lesbian bars were seedy dives or clubhouses that were secluded, hidden. This was a time in America’s history where it was physically dangerous and life altering to live authentically.
It is understandable, living during this time, that my own “coming out” was filled with a different kind of temptation and uncertainty. I knew, as a very small child, that I was different from others. I knew that I was neither male or female. There was no sense of shame for who I was created to be...until I got into the church, and was then bombarded by teachings that never made sense. I intuitively knew that who I am was as inherent as my hazel, green eyes. In retrospect, what I now understand to be peace and wholeness of self, was at one time internalized homophobia/transphobia translated as shame and doubt through living within society and the church. I was naturally drawn to other kids in school who were creative and had a sense of spirituality. It became necessary for my survival to hide (be closeted) because of the society’s crass and threatening actions. The year was 1990 and I felt compelled to "come out" to my family and friends. I thought long and hard about that decision. I had already seen what happens to folks who had gone before me, in their inability to live authentically. However, my experience with loving and serving those with HIV/AIDS led me to the decision that if I were to continue to serve my community, it was disingenuous and incongruent of me to stay in the closet. The rejection, years of condemnation, judgment and loss of family and friends that followed was difficult. I hadn’t yet found my rainbow tribe who would rally around me.
I went through a period of "reparative therapy" (aka conversion therapy) during the early days of Exodus International. The belief was that I was “broken” due to an abusive home, disconnected father or dispassionate mother...were based on myths. The theory that people could “pray the gay away”, was damaging and delusional. I knew then, as I know now, that I wasn’t broken. The abuse against self by denying who I am led me into depths of depression and suicidal ideology. I knew better than to get involved with this damaging "therapy" and religious cult. However, desperation to be accepted by and feel connected to others, even people who were damaging, caused me to make decisions I knew would only cause me internal unhappiness. What I didn’t understand then as I do now, is that affirmation and celebration of myself would bring the peace and acceptance I desired from others. It takes a lot of energy to live in “the closet”. The freedom to be out and authentic has its struggles. However, the air is clean and I'm living abundantly while taking the steps to live, as I have been perfectly created. When I look back at childhood pictures, it is evident that I was different than most. A fierce determination and resilience are reflected in those hazel, green eyes of mine. The peace and sense of wholeness that I felt as a queer child has returned. Hiding myself in the closet only made it more difficult to follow my bliss. Shame and guilt are unnecessary burdens that can hinder my activism and service.
Do you have any advice or wisdom to impart with our lgbtq+ community members?
Keep up the good fight! Never would I have dared to dream that in my lifetime, I would see the victory of same sex marriage in 2015. We know that the liberties we have as queers can be overturned with a stroke of the pen. Celebrate in these accomplishments, but never become complacent that these civil rights and social justices are set in stone. Learn your queer history. Celebrate and remember those who have given their lives or had their lives taken away. Honor them and your own tribe by making a better world, as they had determined to do for us. We have come a long way, but we aren’t yet where we need to be. Embrace those who are questioning. “Coming out” is a personal journey. Remember your own story and allow it to be a beacon of guidance and hope to those struggling to live authentically.
Any advice for the younger queer community?
Those negative statements that you have been told or heard by faith traditions, culture, family members, are not true. Replace those comments with the truth that:
"The greatest joy is to walk with people where they are. To watch their eyes when love is evident. It is a divine gift to witness and be a part of self-actualization and hope."
"Fear of being 'found out' is real, however, fear only has as much power as I allow it to have. Love overcomes fear, the love for myself makes me whole."
In celebration of Bodhi, we encourage you to visit True Colors United, an organization that works to end LGBTQ+ youth homelessness.
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