Modern Family with Mark and Bryan Keene
Bryan and I went to the same Christian high school, just north of Los Angeles. Even though we were a few years apart, we still found ourselves running in the same circles through theatre and the arts. When I was in college, and still struggling to reconcile my faith and sexuality, I saw Bryan and Mark come out on Facebook together. It was a surprise, as we had never talked about him being gay. They looked so incredibly happy, and I remember being curious how Bryan was able to reconcile his faith and keep his relationship with his family. How was it possible ?
You see, we were both kids who grew up in the ministry. His dad was a pastor and my dad ran a missionary organization. I would see posts of Bryan with his family after he came out. They didn’t cut him out; furthermore, his dad even performed his wedding a few years later.
At 30, when I was finally ready to be honest with myself and live in truth, Bryan was the first person I came out to, and has been incredibly supportive and inspirational since then.
Bryan and Mark live in Santa Clarita, and both hold doctorates in their areas of expertise. Bryan is the curator for illuminated manuscripts at the Getty Museum, and Mark is a sommelier, beer specialist (Cicerone), and spirits specialist, and he just completed his doctorate at Purdue University. They have been together for 13 years, married 6 years, and are dads to Alexander (4) and Éowyn (2).
Bryan, your dad is a pastor and you grew up A PK (Pastor’s kid). How does your dad reconcile the fact that you are gay scripturally?
B: I don’t think that he sees that there’s a conflict scripturally with our sexual identity or our relationship. I don’t think my parents had a conflict about us being together or being gay. I think what they initially had a hang-up about was, are we going to have a safe and healthy lifestyle? Are we going to get AIDS? And if you think about it, anyone having unprotected sex can get AIDS. But the stigma around AIDS is one that we as a society have to combat, continually. Would we be safe living as an openly gay couple, especially in our travels? They were concerned above all for our safety.
I think because my grandfather and grandmother have been in ministry for over 65 years now, and they’ve always been affirming, even in the 1960s, it’s made a difference in our family.
My grandfather was in the documentary, For the Bible Tells Me So, and the follow-up documentary is coming out soon (For They Know Not What They Do). He talks about his journey being affirming in the church, and he talks about being in seminary, about teaching at Pepperdine, and so forth. One of the early classes he taught was about sex, society, and Scripture. It was all about sexual identity, orientation, they had transgender people in the class and transgender people coming to talk to the class. So for him it was never an issue.
I saw that movie. He is a pretty amazing man. he was actually marc’s first professor at pepperdine. in it, he says, “I have a soft spot in my hearT for literalists because I used to be one. However, when someone says to me, ‘this is what the bible says’, My response to them is, ‘THAT is NOT WHAT the Bible SAYS, that’s what the Bible reads!’ It is the struggle of context, and language, and culture, and custom that helps us to understand the meaning and what it the Bible is saying.”
WHAT DID YOU THINK WHEN YOU SAW THAT MOVIE FOR THE FIRST TIME?
B: When I first saw the movie, I remember being filled with a range of emotions: I felt proud of my grandfather— especially for his opening line that “Most people have a fifth grade understanding of the Bible, which is fine, when you’re in the fifth grade” – and I also had tears in my eyes hearing about the suicides of gay youth, discussed from the perspective of their parents. Thanks to social media, I immediately reached out to Jacob Reitan, one of the young men in the film, and we dialogued a bit on Facebook. I also felt empowered at the good work that is being done by LGBTQ+ people of faith, including Bishop Gene Robinson and preacher/theologian Peter Gomes. I’m always moved when my students, colleagues, or friends tell me how helpful that film has been for them.
SO HOW DOES Your Grandfather MOVE THROUGH THE CLOBBER PASSAGES?
B: The challenge to the ministry is that we have seminary training, and linguistics, and 1st century history, so the job is to instruct the congregation where they are at how to move to a greater understanding of what these passages mean.
DO YOU THINK THAT IMPACTED YOUR DAD?
B: In time, and over time, I think that was a real click moment for my dad.
HOW CRAZY WAS IT THAT YOU HAD A GRANDFATHER THAT WAY AHEAD OF HIS TIME, RIGHT?
B: He was able to help me come to terms with my sexuality and my relationship with Mark, and also help my parents on the side.
In the 13 years Mark and I have been together, it’s been amazing to see my dad reading heavily about any number of things in relation to the Scriptures. He’s always been a serious reader, but I’m now much more aware of it, as we’re in constant dialogue and he’s a continual guide for me personally, relationally, and spiritually.
AT WHAT AGE DID YOU REALIZE YOU WERE GAY? DID YOU SEE YOUR GRANDPARENTS AS YOUR ONLY ADVOCATEs?
B: Gosh, I often think about this question. Was it when I was in third grade and felt a crush on a boy in class? (Was that actually a crush, or was it simply a longing for a close friendship? It certainly wasn’t sexual at that age.) Was it when I was in eighth grade and a group of male friends pressured me to look at images of naked women in a Playboy magazine and I felt utterly repulsed (not by the women’s bodies, but by the enterprise of hetero-/cis-male objectification of women’s bodies, ideas that my eighth-grade mind would not have been able to process)? Or what about in high school gym class, cross country and track practice, and overnights with friends? Each of those environments promised a certain amount of flesh – shirtless guys, sometimes wearing short shorts, with beautiful arms, legs, backs, abs, and so on. I remember several key crushes during those years. The first proper crush for whom I felt real feelings was an older guy (four years older) in our church youth group. I was 13 and he was 17. He was the first guy my age that seemed to enjoy hearing me play the piano, that didn’t pick on me for being a nerdy “smart kid,” and hugged me (and others) freely and openly. And of course, I’d be lying if I didn’t confess to the moment when I came out to myself: at a youth group swimming event, this same wonderful guy and I were a team for a chicken fight – I was on his shoulders and got a full hard on, so I quickly fell off his shoulders, but in my awkwardness, my foot caught his bathing suit, revealing his perfect glutes. Just briefly, while underwater, I caught a glimpse of something beautiful. That must have been when I first “knew” I was gay, but I tried to suppress those feelings until I was 21, living in the closet for eight difficult years – dating women, masturbating to pictures of men (non-sexual images mostly), lurking near gay bars just to try to glimpse what gay people do and how they dress, trying to befriend openly gay people and acting as a “straight ally,” and eventually having my first kiss with another guy (and then guys).
I officially came out in a series of waves after I turned 21: first to my aunt and grandparents, because I was afraid of bringing shame to my parents (never doubting their love for me, but wanting to protect them), and then to my parents. A few key college friends were also early advocates. I came out to my brother and sister slightly later, and in hindsight, I should have just come out to my whole family all at once.
M: : I was probably twelve and it was in church. There was a really handsome man and he noticed that I often stared at him. It was a few years later that I began to contend with the feelings of attraction to men, but I didn’t act on anything until I was 30. Throughout my college years, I worked in the full spectrum of the hospitality industry, and was always surrounded by LGBTQ+ people, but my sexuality wasn’t a point of conversation. I did often go to West Hollywood gay bars and clubs with friends, but only one or two colleagues asked me about my sexuality (one even told me, in a loving, snarky way, she knew I was gay).
B: And a few guys (a few that I know of anyway) had major crushes on Mark! And I can’t even count the number of women that have had crushes on him. He embodies the line in the song from RENT, “Ever since puberty, everybody stares at me – boys, girls, I can’t help it baby.”
Mark, what’s your background?
M: I grew up in San Diego in a Russian Orthodox Church. It was very strict. We had uniforms that we had to wear to church and in public. We weren’t allowed to speak to anyone outside of the church.
So when did things change for you?
M: When I turned 30 and wasn’t married.
Did you know you were gay by then?
M: I didn’t know what gay was! I just knew the girl I was paired with was a good friend, but nothing more. I had been assigned to a particular girl since age 14 and she was to be my wife, and we were connected again at age 18. But once I knew I was gay, I approached my parents, my aunt, and this girl. She had a hard time with it.
SO DID YOU DECIDE YOU’D “TRY” BEING GAY? HOW DID YOU go about it?
M: I didn’t really “try” to be gay, but I decided I would openly try dating guys. I joined a few dating websites – long before the apps – and that’s how I quickly met Bryan. It wasn’t a long period between my coming out and my first meeting with Bryan.
did your family attend your wedding?
B: Only his mom, step father, and brother.
M: All the rest cut me off. None of them speak to me.
Mark, have you gone back to the community since coming out?
M: I’ve gone back for funerals.
B: This is something we had a huge fight about with his family, because his aunts wanted to have a relationship with our kids, but did not want to accept us, so I put my foot down and said absolutely not. As infants, our children wouldn’t understand the implications of his family’s prejudice, but as they grow up, I don’t want them to live with a kind of closeting of our relationship, of our marriage, just because some of Mark’s family want to accept our children but not accept our relationship.
Have you seen any change in your family ?
M: One thing that happened was when my grandfather died, he was the patriarch of our family, and then one of my uncles took over. He and my aunt eventually started sending us Christmas gifts.
B: And then the other day we went down to see his mom and his uncle brought over a casserole they had made for us. So that was a huge step.
M: Also at my grandfather’s funeral, my uncle was in charge. I was in the back, and it’s tradition for all the grandchildren to shovel dirt into the grave and my uncle looked at me and said, “Come here and help.” He included me in that moment.
I do miss the family. I grew up with all of them and they’re all gone.
It’s so crazy, you’re married to this really good guy. Your family should be thrilled, right?
M: They should. But they’re so stuck in the religion and culture.
B: It’s amazing what happens with families though. In my family, so many are accepting. I have a cousin who is a lesbian (and who is often questioned about her gender identity – she’s such an amazing person), another cousin who just came out as bisexual (she is also incredible, one of the smartest and most loving people I know, and who has said she may not actually be bi, which is an awesome sign of discovery). But I have another cousin that just came out as lesbian and she’s part of a branch of our family that hasn’t always accepted us (nor our children). They seemed to not want to have anything to do with us for a while and attended a church that was not accepting of LGBTQ+ Christians. There’s a heart-breaking irony to the coming-out stories of Christians who attend these types of (conservative) churches: You have a good human being, an intelligent individual, a positive change-agent in the world, and the only thing that is different is that they have come out and are living honestly, openly, and authentically. But in some situations, everything in family/friend/professional/religious relationships change. The (church) family doesn’t want to have the same relationship. But we are the same people before and after we come out! We’re better people after we’ve come out, I would argue, because we’re being our truest and fullest selves. It still troubles me when I hear of churches that allow people into leadership positions that are abusive towards their spouse, racist, adulterous, and so forth, but LGBTQ+ individuals are not allowed to be in leadership positions and are often openly rejected from the church. That definition of “church” doesn’t match the example set by Jesus.
YOUR CHILDREN ARE SO SWEET . DID YOU BOTH ALWAYS KNOW YOU WANTED CHILDREN ? DID YOU BOTH THINK IT WAS POSSIBLE BEING GAY ?
M: Thank you!! They are the joy of our lives. Yes, having children was one of the first things we spoke about when we began dating. But we never imagined it was possible to have kids, or rather, if it were possible, if would be too expensive or difficult.
How has it been in faith circles being gay dads?
B: We get quite a bit of funny looks now more than anything. I’ve been teaching at Pepperdine (a Christian University) for nine years now, and they are better now than when I started there as a student. One of my students (and now a dear friend) wrote an article about Mark and me in the Pepperdine Graphic after we adopted Alexander and that sent total shock waves through the school, because at the point I think I was only the second “out” professor still on the campus. And by shockwaves, I mean that students and faculty confronted me about the article – some were hostile, others were “concerned” for me and our students, but the majority were wonderful!
A few weeks ago, the Westboro Baptist Church protested outside the campus, rallying against Pepperdine’s liberalism, and the irony is that Pepperdine is still not that liberal, but when you compare it to other churches I guess it is.
DO YOU GUYS ATTEND CHURCH REGULARY ?
B: We would like to. But when we’ve checked out the churches by us, we can just feel the eyes burning into us, even when we’re just in the parking lot as a couple. Some of our neighbors go to these churches and they’re super accepting of us, but I just don’t know. I’m more concerned about our kids and what people would say to them. When we do attend church, it’s with our family: we go to the First Christian Church of North Hollywood with my grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It’s an incredible place: women serve at all levels of leadership, including as one of the ministers; songs and prayers are offered in English and in Spanish; people of color and queer individuals and families were visible and vibrant (some also serve on staff, and provide the most moving music); multi-generational families filled the room (I was there with my grandparents and children); choristers and congregants sang in unison and in harmony; and most importantly, the homily provided a powerful eulogy for Nipsey Hussle (honoring his role as an ambassador for peace and for healing communities, while also speaking out about violence toward black communities). This definition of “church” is one I grew up with and saw modeled from the pulpits and congregations of my father and grandfather and great-grandfather...parochial schooling — from elementary to college — held to a very different definition. Some of that is changing.
I KNOW YOU BOTH LOVE TO TRAVEL. WHERE’S THE NEXT ADVENTURE ?
M: East and Southeast Asia? India? We’d love to spend a month traveling to those parts of the world. But in the meantime, we’ll be taking lots of short weekend trips. Lots of camping as we head into summer.