Standing by for a video shoot for the Faust Film, "The Weimar House"
The news this week has been dotted with nostalgic moments of the night when the Beatles made their first appearance on American television on the Ed Sullivan Show. One of the songs they played was their classic early signature tune, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."
That would have made a good theme song for me at the end of January as my partner and I were attempting, in the face of unfriendly skies and constant flight cancellations, to get me home to New Hampshire. All I wanted to do was hold the hand of my mother as she lay in Elliot Hospital with a ventilator in her throat. I was lucky. I got there in time. I held her hand. I stroked her arm. I hummed the Episcopal hymnal to her. I said good-bye.
My mother, known on her official documents as Margaret Bailey Clark Gage, but best known as "Hurricane Peg," passed away peacefully Friday morning at the Hyder Family Hospice House in Dover, NH. She was 86, and more than ready to make her way home to God. Heaven needs some organizing, and they've got the supreme force there to straighten them out.
My mom was definitely a force of nature, and that's been coming through as I receive messages from all the many people who were touched by her. Jean-Marie Navetta, the Director of Diversity and Equality Partnerships with PFLAG National, recalled the impact "Hurricane Peg" had on the Republicans on Capitol Hill:
Nothing was like going to Lobby Day with (or without) Peg. On my first-ever PFLAG lobby day, she was not able to attend. There was not a single GOP office that I visited where at least one legislative aide or congressperson themselves looked around and said, "Well you're PFLAG. But where's Peg?" As a vet of more lobby days than I can count, I can say I'd never seen anything like that before.
A Republican, and a lobbyist for equal rights for the LGBT community. Especially the "T" community. When my mom got involved in PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), she found many friends in the transgender community. Every time anyone wanted to jettison including "transgender" in an effort to get "something" passed in the way of equal rights for the rest of us, my mom would bristle. PFLAG moms and dads are not inflexible people, unless you want them to bend away from justice for their LGBT children. Then, you better hope the branch does not come back to smack you in the face, or split your head in two!
Mom's journey into PFLAG began when I finally got tired of fielding her questions. She had many because, well, she had had no reason to pay attention to anything related to the LGBT community until I came out. Luckily, I remembered seeing an article in our hometown newspaper, The Exeter News-Letter, advertising that Nora Tuthill, the wife of the doctor who delivered me, had started a PFLAG chapter. They met in the Stratham Community Church. I told mom about it and suggested that maybe these folks could answer her questions.
"You know Nora, mom, so these folks won't be strangers."
She went. She saw all the most liberal women and men from our area in the room. She listened to their stories. And she got angry.
What do you mean my daughter could be fired or denied housing for loving women?
What do you mean she can't adopt children because she's gay?
Are you telling me that my daughter is worth less to this society than my sons?
As I've told people, directing my mom to that meeting was the beginning of the creation I call "The PFLAG Momster." She would call her state and federal representatives, write to them, knock on their doors, point her finger at them, and give them what-for if they didn't start righting these egregious wrongs in the name of justice and equality. Her stated belief about politicians is that "they put their pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us," and so she was never afraid to tell them what she thought.
One time, when Sen. Bob Dole was running for President, she and my dad were visiting us in Tallahassee. Dole was having a campaign event at the Moon, an entertainment venue only a mile from our house.
"I want to go talk to him. He wasn't in Washington when I was there, and I want to know where he stands on equal rights for LGBT people."
I was not that thrilled with this idea because I really didn't want to have to go spend time around the Florida Republican Party. So I agreed I would drop her off and pick her up. She apparently stayed in the area close to the entry way. When Sen. Dole came in, he saw her and looked pleased and surprised. Mom had worked on the Ford/Dole campaign in 1976 and was an alternate to the Republican National Convention in Kansas City. Sen. Dole and his wife Libby had spent time on our front porch, in our living room, and mom used to joke that Bob Dole was once in her bedroom... making a phone call. So, the Kansas Republican knew very well who my mom was.
"Well, look at that!" he exclaimed, amazed to see my mother in Florida. "It's Peggy Gage! One of my long-time supporters!"
Mom wasted no time. She smiled warmly and then went straight to her point.
"Hi Bob! I was in Washington, D.C. lobbying on behalf of my lesbian daughter. You weren't in your office and I want to know where you stand on equal rights for gays and lesbians."
The way mom told this story, and I have no doubt about her reporting of it, it was as if all the blood was draining out of Bob Dole's face as he stammered to answer her direct question.
"Well, um, y'know, Peggy, I, um, I don't have anything personally against gays and lesbians..."
"Well, that's reassuring!" she says.
He fumbled his way toward saying something about not being against the LGBT people of the country, recognizing that this was becoming an issue.
"And I hope you'll vote in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act," she said, no doubt smiling the whole time.
For her, that felt like a fun and successful evening. For me, it felt like my mom was my shield.
When my mom and dad moved to Florida to get my dad into an assisted living facility here, my mother's biggest concern was where was she going to go to church. She was a cradle Episcopalian, and she raised her family in the Episcopal Church. But sadly, 2006 was a time of great bitterness and wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Episcopal churches around here because of the bishop of New Hampshire, Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson being an openly-gay man. I had to tell mom that there was no way she could attend the Episcopal church in Tallahassee. I drove her past St. John's and showed her how their signage didn't include the trademark Episcopal phrase about welcome, and the shield was obscured by an enormous Third Reich-looking eagle. She was crushed. I told her to go to one of the Lutheran churches. She did. It bored her.
"OK, I'll see if I can find you an Episcopal Church."
I called Holy Comforter and asked, I think three times, for the woman to tell me if they were part of ECUSA. "Seriously, are you an Episcopal Church affiliated with the headquarters in New York?"
The woman repeated again, "Yes." So, I took mom by there to see the church. She was OK with that one, but it still wasn't her cup of tea. And she scared the rector when she met with him and started her conversation with, "I'm a Republican. I'm from New Hampshire. Gene Robinson is my bishop and I love him!" The poor man didn't know what had hit him. Let's start with the fact that this is the South. And in the South, you don't speak in such direct ways, especially if you're a lady with gray hair who uses a cane. But my mom is a Yankee. And Yankees don't drink sweet tea, and they don't sugar coat their opinions.
On Rosh Hashanah, I had taken my mother with me to my partner's temple. After the almost-three hour service, we went to Lucy Ho's Chinese Restaurant to have lunch. That's when we saw the newspaper above-the-fold headline that the rector of St. John's, in a moment of high drama in the church service, announced he was leaving and taking most of the monied people and vestry with him to start a "No Gays and No Girls" Anglican church down the street. He'd been sowing the seeds of hatred and homophobia for years in the place, but when he realized he wasn't going to be able to steal the building, he just stole about 2/3rds of the congregation, labeling the left-behinds "unorthodox."
I let out a shriek of joy. "Mom!! Look!!! He's gone!! You can go back to that church!!"
She was so thrilled and excited. I had told her it was the closest to what she'd know as an Episcopal Church in Tallahassee. I got her settled in to attending services, and she found many new friends that she loved, including my eventual mentor, Mtr. Lee Shafer, and others including Fr. Lee Graham, and Fr. Harry and Lianne Douglas. And while she was there, she continued her advocacy for LGBT rights in the Christian setting. Given the amount of homophobia that had been infused into that church, curing them of this cancer took persistence on my mom's part. But this wasn't anything new to her. It just made her shake her head that she was having to go back over much of the same ground she had already tilled to make her own church in New Hampshire more gay-friendly. But she did it while she lived here. And I know she was very happy when I had my awakening and returned to the church to sit with her in the pew at services.
My mom was the first person I told that I had started this blog. I was very cautious and shy about it because I really was wondering, "Why the heck am I going to start writing about being a queer Christian? Am I mad?" But she encouraged me with her comments. She started out identifying herself as "MCG." Then, for some reason, she found the comment section frustrating and insisted that she was going to post using the anonymous setting.
"OK, but please sign your name," was my compromise.
And so, she'd post under "Anonymous," and then sign with her childhood nickname, Peggins. This is how I came to identify her as "The Anonymous Peggins." I gave her a gift one year of my blog as a book. She loved it. She told me that she kept it on her bedside table and read it over and over for a couple of weeks. She encouraged me to take what I've posted here and turn it into a book of spiritual writings especially for those who have felt betrayed and abandoned by the church because of their sexual orientation. I have known that pain, and I have come to realize that the many misdeeds done in the name of Christ over the decades do not negate the true message of Christ: that I am loved, I always have been loved, and I always will be loved.
I found it quite fitting that the day my mother died was Friday, February 7th, the day the Episcopal Church commemorates Cornelius the Centurion, one of the many early Gentiles that the original apostles encounter and discover--much to their surprise--that even these supposedly "unclean" people are destined to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. The reading from the Book of Acts is of the time when Peter, starving, dreams he sees a sheet come down with all kinds of "unclean" livestock. He's instructed to kill and eat. Peter protests, noting that these are not clean. And God rebukes him, reminding him that "What God has made clean, you must not call 'profane.'" He's then led to find Cornelius and baptize him. That's when the eyes of Peter's heart open and he realizes that there is no distinction to be made between Jew and Gentile. And we all say, "Thanks be to God," that he figured that one out!
These are the stories that also speak to us queer Christians about how deep, broad, wide, and unceasing God's love is for all of us; hence there is no real justification to leave us standing at the gate. Mom enjoyed how I would articulate these messages, and she'd occasionally send them off to her clergy in New Hampshire with a "Look what my daughter wrote!" I simply articulated the message of Christ, which is the message of PFLAG, which is the message of my mom: Love. Period.
May she rest in peace and rise in glory and may light perpetual shine upon her.
Margaret C. Gage, June 19, 1927-February 7, 2014
A Celebration of Life is scheduled for Saturday, February 15, 2014 at Christ Church, Exeter, NH, at 11am...followed by a luncheon reception in Harris House (the church parish hall) Visiting hours will be the afternoon before at Brewitt Funeral Home. Donations in the memory of Margaret "Peg" Gage may be made to PFLAG National (www.pflag.org) or NHSPCA (nhspca.org).