GayWarriors’ Gay Men’s Talking Circle offers a safe place
A thickset man with heavily tattooed arms tended the delicate flame. Throughout the early evening, Rodney Olinek kept the sage burning in a vessel, its sharp yet sweet, calming aroma bathing the gay men gathered at a Davie Street office in Vancouver’s gay district.
“It’s medicine,” Olinek said of the herb in a gentle voice as he went about his task.
With a fan of feathers from an eagle—a creature that symbolizes strength and grace—Olinek wafted sage smoke over the bodies of the men, who were standing in a circle. This is part of a smudge, a traditional aboriginal ceremony to cleanse oneself and others of bad feelings and spirits. Purified, they sat down to talk.
Weekly meetings like this have been going on since the fall of 2003, when Robert Hong started the GayWarriors’ Gay Men’s Talking Circle.
“The idea is to give gay men a safe place to talk about what’s going on in their lives,” Hong told the Georgia Straight in an interview earlier.
The talking circle is an old Native ritual of hashing things out by allowing participants to speak freely. In contemporary times, it is often led by men of aboriginal ancestry like Hong. His mother is Blackfoot, Assiniboine, and Métis, while his father is a fourth-generation Chinese Canadian.
“We talk about everything from stuff like spirituality to good communication skills to healing energy,” the 52-year-old public-health worker said. As was done in the past, the eagle fan is passed from one speaker to another.
Although this talking circle is built around aboriginal practices like sweat lodges hosted by Hong at the Capilano Reserve over on the North Shore, it is open to gay men of other cultural heritages.
Michael Varma, whose South Asian roots go back to Fiji, has been attending for about six years.
When Varma came to the meeting on July 19, he was feeling quite anxious. It was less than a week before the launch of his book The Gong Show: Re-Inventing Self. The independently published work describes the intense-looking man’s struggles, including being homeless at one point.
“This talking circle has been quite instrumental in my spiritual development,” Varma told the Straight. “It’s a place where I feel comfortable. I have been able to express my thoughts, my dreams, my visions, and my fears of what’s been going on in my life, whether that’s addiction or recovery or sexuality.”
According to Hong, many participants in the circle are searching for spiritual meaning that they can’t find in religions founded on certain dogmas. “Religion has turned its back on them, or they’ve turned their back on religion in the process,” he said in the interview.
Hong also believes that a strong spiritual connection is the key to good health. “We’re spiritual beings having a human experience, not human beings having a spiritual experience,” he added.
On this particular evening, Hong shared a recent experience of being a resource person at a gay youth camp. As someone who has been working to advance and promote queer interests, he recounted with unmistakable joy the pride he felt while watching young people at the camp “feeling free” and just “being gay”.
“I’m part of the change,” Hong said in the circle about how society today is more open to youths who are coming out. It’s a new “normal” that didn’t exist when he and Olinek were young.
Nak’azdli First Nation, Hungarian, and Polish, Olinek spoke about a “lost childhood” in which he tried to be straight in order to fit in.
“I learned to act straight and get a girlfriend,” Olinek shared in the discussion. “I did that until I was an adult.”
In talking circles like this, one might discover that time flies like an eagle. Two hours passed quickly, and the men were soon on their way, looking reinvigorated.
Hong said that, through the circle, participants often discover the resolve to deal with their inner torment. “The greatest enemy is ourselves,” he said. It’s also where the biggest challenge for a gay warrior comes from: “It’s to find that strength to better yourself.”
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