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Thursday, August 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 67.0° F  Overcast
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Patrick Farabaugh creates an extended LGBT family in Madison
'Now I have a community'
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Credit:Nick Berard

The temperatures are pushing past 90 degrees and the sun is steadily warming the afternoon air, but Patrick Farabaugh is dressed in stiff blue jeans, a dark jacket and wool cap. He pushes open the door to the Madison Ice Arena and strides toward the ice rink for the weekly practice of the Madison Gay Hockey Association.

With 120 players, MGHA has quickly grown into the largest gay hockey league in America, second only to Toronto's league as the largest in the world. Usually practice days are shoulder-to-shoulder pad, but on this July afternoon just three skaters peacefully move about the rink. Two men, fully suited up, skate backwards from the centerline and settle into an easy cadence passing a puck back and forth. The third player scrapes to a halting stop 20 feet from an empty goal and begins snapping pucks into the net.

"It's like trying to get people to go see softball in the middle of winter," says Farabaugh, the league's founder, his soft voice somewhere between a lament and a quip. He strides over the empty bleachers and takes a seat on the top level. Farabaugh turns 35 this year, but with a round face still smoothed by baby fat, he looks a decade younger and more innocent.

Farabaugh moved to Madison seven years ago after bouncing around the globe for more than a decade. He ran away at age 18 from his small, blue-collar hometown in Indiana - to New York for five years, followed by brief stints in Seattle, Alaska and a particularly heartbreaking trek to Russia, where he chased a boyfriend. Before selecting Madison as his next home in late 2005, Farabaugh had only visited here for one weekend, but he was desperately looking for a home, someplace accepting of his sexuality. Certainly New York did that, but he also wanted a place that could embrace his small-town, down-home attitude.

"There are ways you have been other'ed," Farabaugh explains, "and the self-esteem issues that come with that make you feel more vulnerable. And the more vulnerable you are, the more it matters to have a community like you."

A boy from Indiana

Farabaugh grew up in an Indiana mill town. In third grade he recognized he might be gay. "Valentine's Day," he explains, "I noticed I was more interested in giving cards to the boys."

He also recognized that if he declared his sexuality in the small town he would be ostracized - an assumption that proved painfully true. After he told his mom, she denied it for years. Farabaugh says he can count on one hand the number of times he has spoken with his dad since then.

"The first time I connected what the word gay meant, I thought that I was mentally sick," he remembers.

One of the three players suddenly breaks from his stance on the ice rink and beelines towards the edge of the rink, his skates quickly chopping at the ice's surface. Skidding to a stop at the boards, the player taps his hockey stick on the Plexiglas and shouts up to Farabaugh, "You joining today?"

"Nah," he mumbles. "I'm waiting for surgery."

He taps his shoulder, which he injured several months ago. The player nods and, without a word, skates away. Farabaugh is quiet for a moment.

"Creating the hockey league was crafting a solution to a bigger problem," he finally explains. "The bigger problem was that I couldn't find any healthy solutions that didn't have some level of drinking or stuff that was hyper-sexualized."

After running away from Indiana - a move Farabaugh calls "from the farm to the frying pan" - he grabbed an internship at Entertainment Weekly and, a year later, landed at job at Out, one of the country's first and leading LGBT magazines.

But even with his professional success in a city tolerant of LGBT culture, Farabaugh wasn't fitting in. He was painfully lonely, and he wasn't interested in bar life, or what he saw as superficial relationships.

What community he did find was in a gay hockey league, when a couple friends invited him to join. And that team provided him what he was missing - healthy interactions, a family and also a link to the well-defined ideas of masculinity that shaped his childhood in a blue-collar town.

In forming the league in Madison, Farabaugh has tried to re-create that community from New York for himself, and for others. Over the course of his first two years in Madison, Farabaugh painstakingly and single-mindedly recruited players for the hockey league. He staked out sporting-goods stores and bars. He'd talk with anyone who would listen to him talk about hockey. Of the original 50 players who started in 2007, only 10 actually knew how to skate.

What makes his effort particularly remarkable is that he did all of this from the edges of poverty. Self-identifying as a "labor-class young gay male," Farabaugh was working low-wage retail and earning his rent as a maintenance guy for an apartment complex. Even so, he signed a $10,000 contract to secure enough ice time for the league.

"I didn't have the money at the time," he admits. "My hand was shaking."

But with his hangdog charisma and a few loyal friends (including his ex-boyfriend from Russia), he raised enough money to launch the league. Logic would suggest that Farabaugh had successfully created a community to replace what he has been denied and what he was missing - and, certainly, for dozens of gay Wisconsinites it has, with some driving from as far away as Green Bay and Milwaukee to attend practices and games.

But ironically, for Farabaugh the formation of the league was the beginning of a steady decline as he stumbled into familiar pitfalls of loneliness, isolation and the wide gulf between his public image and private struggles.

Role models

"Masculinity really has wreaked hell in my life," says Farabaugh, explaining how difficult it's been to square the tough-guy images from his childhood with popular images of gay culture.

As a teenager, he struggled to find role models who could serve as pole stars to guide him through this largely uncharted territory and back to a personality he could understand. When he was 16, somehow a VCR tape of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert landed in his hands. The film's storyline follows two flamboyant drag queens and a colorful rock 'n' roll transsexual as they romp across the Australian outback.

"I mean, I was absolutely scared," Farabaugh recalls. He thought that this was what he would become.

Much has changed since then, with the Internet providing wide-reaching opportunities for isolated and confused teenagers to find role models beyond their small towns. In particular, two years ago, sex columnist and UW-Madison graduate Dan Savage launched a heartfelt social media campaign called "It Gets Better." The project posted short video testimonies from formerly closeted LGBT people, as varied as police officers in San Francisco and Lutheran priests in Minnesota, each providing sincere stories about their own struggles. More than 40,000 videos have been posted since the site's debut, with more than 40 million views.

Yet, even such projects underscore the painful, bumpy and often blind journey that many LGBT people must travel in reconciling their sexuality with mainstream conventions. When explaining the hockey league, Farabaugh uses terms like "bridge" and "safe passage."

In February 2008, the Madison Gay Hockey Association finished its first season. It had been a huge success. Numbers and enthusiasm had grown steadily throughout the months. Even Logo, the massively popular LGBT cable station, named the Madison hockey league the "sports project of the year," bumping out much larger programs like the worldwide Gay Games. The stands were filled for the final championship tournament; even Farabaugh's mom drove up from Indiana. It was proof that an LGBT lifestyle could be as traditional Wisconsin as a Friday night fish fry.

Before the first puck was dropped for the championship game, Farabaugh skated to center rink and delivered a heartfelt speech, peppered with words like "heroes" and "courage."

"A few weeks ago my grandmother was profoundly affected after she came to watch me play for the first time in her life," he announced. "It was her first time ever being around gay people. Playing in a gay league has moved our visibility into a language that many people can easily understand and relate to - the language of sports."

Farabaugh concluded his speech with awards for three young players, and he left the ice in tears. The rest of the evening was a blur. He says he played sloppily, and his team lost. "I just couldn't focus," he admits.

But for everyone else, the mood that evening was exuberant - truly something remarkable had happened.

After the game, the players and fans spilled out into the February evening, crowding into bars along Main Street - that is, all except Farabaugh.

"I was exhausted," he says, his voice dropping to a whisper. "I stepped one foot in [the bar], and turned around and left."

In fact, Farabaugh went home and collapsed. When he woke up the next day, he started crying uncontrollably.

Two days later, Farabaugh was in the emergency room for what he still calls an "accidental suicide attempt."

'Imagine a cheerleader steering the Titanic'

The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention cautions that the data are hazy, that not all LGBT teens who try to kill themselves identify their sexuality, and that not all attempts are reported. Yet it is roundly accepted that LGBT teens are the demographic with the single highest suicide rates, with general agreement that a staggering one in three attempts to kill him or herself.

Bullying and harassment are even more persistent, almost a statistical guarantee for an LGBT teen to experience. A 2009 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study points out that 90% of self-identified LGBT teens reported being harassed within the past 12 months. In 2010, an 18-year old freshman at Rutgers College jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly filmed him on a web cam kissing another man and broadcast the footage to fellow students . It was a reminder that attitudes have softened little over the past 15 years since another college student, Matthew Shepard, was roped to a fence post at the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo., and pistol-whipped to death.

"My experience is not exclusive," says Farabaugh. "There's a lot of stress from having to maintain two lives, and coming out is the act toward reuniting, and a challenge to bring yourself back into one person."

For Farabaugh, this internal struggle has played out externally as he's created forums like the hockey league and a magazine. But navigating that gulf between his private pains and stoic public persona has been more turbulent, the larger the stage.

"People were investing a lot of hope," he says about forming the hockey league, "and I felt that my due diligence was to nurture and protect that." He adds, "I had to find a way to not let people see the fear."

But that precious balance was knocked off kilter when a young man he had been dating - a member of the hockey league - suddenly left him.

"I would go home and cry, and then an hour later, I'd have to be back at the Shell [the hockey rink]." For months, he pinballed between strong and vulnerable, confident and scared. "Imagine a cheerleader steering the Titanic," he explains.

The day following the hockey league's championship game, Farabaugh swallowed a handful of painkillers and washed them down with booze. He believes he passed out instantly, but isn't sure for how long; he thinks that at least 24 hours passed before he regained consciousness. "It was dark when I passed out, and it was dark when I woke up," he says.

Farabaugh drove himself to urgent care and told the attending nurse that he had stomach pain. A few quick tests showed his liver enzymes off the chart, and the doctors started asking more direct questions.

Out of a breakup comes a magazine

When his boyfriend took off, he left a note. And it was that note on which Farabaugh fixated.

In the months after his release from the hospital, he constructed an elaborate response: "There was nothing like, 'Oh, you're an asshole.' It was more like care messages that I want to leave him with, positive messages; it was more like an exit interview.

"I couldn't write to him directly," Farabaugh adds, "so I shifted the audience."

Applying his skills as a magazine publisher, he created a professional looking zine called Our Lives, a small publication filled with a mix of emotional narratives and well-researched articles.

Farabaugh laughs: "The sad reality of life is that a lot of people just aren't that interested in hockey. The magazine looks at, 'How do you develop a whole person?'"

As with the hockey league, Farabaugh applied his energy to the magazine with singular devotion, dropping stacks at coffeeshops around Madison, handing them to individuals on the street, and even stuffing backpacks full of them and driving to Milwaukee and Chicago to hand them out.

Farabaugh still writes, edits and assembles the magazine from his basement apartment, but since that first issue (kind of an extended love letter to the former boyfriend) he's grown Our Lives into a regular and slick monthly publication with an estimated readership of 13,750. "It is steady and stable," he says.

Rising as something more powerful

In 2010, Gov. Jim Doyle issued a declaration, proclaiming Farabaugh an LGBTQ "Living Hero." The official recognition outlines his accomplishments - the hockey league, the magazine and, more recently, an executive network of gay professionals he's organized.

"I really feel like a phoenix," Farabaugh says. "The hockey league and the magazine have been a significant bridge in my life. Now the support that I need is shared across more than 100 people."

He pauses for a moment before adding, "This year is the first time I will try to reclaim some of my private life.

"There's just not as much of a void to fill now that I have a community."

Madison Gay Hockey Association
An adult ice hockey league for people of all sexualities and gender identifications. Meets weekly October-February. Schedule at madisongayhockey.org.

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