Someone recently asked me how my understanding of homosexuals evolved.
Before 2001, before I learned that my son was gay, homosexuality was a non-issue for me. I’d met quite a few gay men along life’s way, so many that I’m surprised I never put the experiences together until now.
I was in elementary school on a family vacation when I first met someone I learned was gay. The young man read my palm. His hands were cool as he traced my lifeline. My parents were nearby, and afterwards they told me that he was a homosexual. I didn’t sense any alarm or concern from them–it was just a matter-of-fact comment.
I was 14 when the Stonewall Uprising rocked Greenwich Village for days, and nothing of that watershed event registered with me at all. I suspect the Oakland Tribune buried it on page seven. In 1969 I was far more interested in the Apollo program, Vietnam, Star Trek, and Suzanne Edwards–the girl I’d been infatuated with since sixth grade but had never kissed, even when I had the chance. All through school I was an archetypal geek. Yeah, it really was painful.
My senior year of high school I had a drama teacher who was flaming. After rehearsals we’d go out for pizza, and he would regale us with the most hysterical stories from his days in the military, the pranks his friends pulled, and how he danced in a fountain in Rome. He was great fun. At Simpson College, the small evangelical liberal arts college where I met Diane, I’m pretty sure our fine arts professor was gay, but not at all flamboyant. Conservative and reserved, he was a slightly more portly version of Detective Hercule Poirot, and walked around the small campus as though he had a book balanced on his head. If this aging bachelor was gay, he definitely seemed Side B.
Diane and I had never attended a church where homosexuality was an issue, even the fundamentalist ones. That doesn’t mean that my pastors didn’t have homosexuality on their pulpit “sin lists,” it just means that I don’t remember hearing about it. Of course this was before homosexuality became politically superheated, before it became an issue for me.
Diane and I had a good friend at Simpson named Skip, who was obviously gay. There were at least two other young men who were gay, both of whom were closeted. Diane tells me that the more obvious of the two denied he was gay. I only learned that the other was gay until much later. We lost touch with all three after college, but reconnected with them a few years ago through the LGBT MySpace groups that I created for my fundamentalist alma mater. I learned that because of his mother’s harsh rejection, Skip became bitterly anti-Christian, and I honestly can’t blame him. But in the mid-1970′s, homosexuality was not an obvious issue at our sheltered little school, even in San Francisco. But these guys were our friends.
A long time passed before I paid any attention to gay and lesbian issues. The fall of 1978 was a crazy time. The Briggs Initiative was in full swing. Dan White assassinated George Moscone and Harvey Milk on November 27th. My congressman, Leo Ryan, had been assassinated nine days earlier on the Jonestown airstrip by People’s Temple leader Jim Jones in Guyana.
When Harvey Milk was killed in 1978 I had just celebrated my first wedding anniversary, was working with the youth group at Vista del Mar Baptist Church, was still awkward in the bedroom, and was enrolled at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary where I was researching The Walk, a pentecostal holiness cult I’d been in during college. Life was happening and I was sorting through several problems.
The first time a gay man came on to me was in the early 1980′s at work. I was photocopying some documents when a guy leaned over the rail and leered at me. I was a bit amused. ”Is that what works on other guys?” I asked myself. I thought about what women must have to go through with men.
When I think back over the years, a number of men have shown an interest in me. One was Rick, who was a good friend, actually my only friend, for many years. We met when we worked as temps at the same work site, and got together for coffee regularly for a long time. Rick was an artist, and he once asked me if I would pose for him. After some hesitation I agreed, but I never posed. I didn’t really want to, and he never mentioned the idea again. Nobody wants to risk rejection. I’ve never been offended or upset when a guy has shown an interest in me. I know it’s pretty normal–happens all the time when you’re single and unattached, which will remain the case for many until the demographic tide turns.
My Big Blunder as a Minister
I made a real blunder when I was assistant pastor in a small fundamentalist church. I knew several Christian vocalists and musicians, and I organized a Christian concert. I put up small posters along Telegraph Canyon Road leading to Chula Vista Alliance Church. I planned to emcee, and conduct a brief interview at the end of each set. I lined up a Christian band and a female singer-song writer. I knew two young women from our previous church whose duets were always a hit. Patty and Dayna harmonized exquisitely when they sang songs by The Second Chapter of Acts and from Godspell.
I knew that Patty and Dayna worked with several lesbians in their office, and when it came time to do the interview, I asked them, “Now you work with several lesbians at work.” I grimaced. ”Eeew. What’s that like? I can’t imagine.”
Patty, looking slightly stunned, said, “It’s like working with anyone else.”
I was feeling pretty stoked when the concert until Dayna approached me in the sanctuary. “Ron, you need to come with me. We have been working with the lesbians in our office, trying to show them that Christianity isn’t what they think it is. We invited them to come tonight, and two of them were in the audience.”
My little bubble burst instantly. I had really, really messed up, in so many ways. She led me to the Sunday school room where the other three were waiting. I can’t remember exactly what transpired, except that I was feeling chagrined and deeply apologetic. ”I’m so sorry. Can you help me? Please help me understand what I don’t know.”
The tallish lesbian was definitely frustrated. “You’re going to have to do that for yourself.”
That was 1985. That was the year Jerry Falwell called AIDS ”the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” That was the year when 13-year-old Ryan White was forbidden to enter his classroom because he had contracted AIDS through a hemophilia blood transfusion. That year, people I know were watching friends waste away from AIDS and die.
Homosexuality wasn’t an issue for me in 1985. That was the year Jonathan was born.
My Lesbian Colleague
The following year I enrolled in San Diego State University’s Department of English and Comparative Literature to get an M.A. in English. I taught English comp as a Teaching Assistant, and shared a communal office with about twenty other TAs. One semester a young lesbian had the desk next to mine. I don’t remember how the conversation started, but we got on the topic of religion and homosexuality and she told me about how the church was persecuting gays and lesbians.
I said, “You know, a lot of Christians are afraid of persecution, too. They’re afraid that their right to worship God as they want will be taken away and their churches will be closed.” She stood up calmly to walk away, but her words expressed her exasperation. ”I can’t talk about this with you.”
Situations like hers remind me of a verse from Ecclesiastes.
What is twisted cannot be straightened;
what is lacking cannot be counted.
What I didn’t know or understand was far too complicated for her to explain in one sitting.
ACT UP and Threats to My Tribe
Around this time members of ACT-UP were beginning to–act up. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) specialized in disruptive direct action to draw attention to the AIDS epidemic, which society at all levels was glacially slow to address. ACT-UP conducted a spectacular variety of direct actions over the years, but the one I remember hearing about at the time was, of course, their 1989 disruption of a mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Even within the ranks of ACT UP this action was controversial.
I had learned about radical action and Saul Alinsky from my dad. I had a basic understanding of the purposes and risks related to unconventional tactics. While I did imagine what it would be like for ACT-UP people disrupt my church service, my response to the ACT-UP church disruption was more to note it as a confrontational technique than to feel it as a threat to my tribe.
In 1989 people were dying of HIV/AIDS at the rate of over 1,100 per month. In six years that had nearly quadrupled to over 4,000 per month. ACT UP was the only high-profile group publicizing the AIDS epidemic. Despite the predictable push back, I can only assume that ACT UP disruptions only increased the rate of government spending on HIV/AIDS research. Institutions from the Stock Exchange to the Post Office knew they had to act, or ACT UP would be back. As Saul Alinsky wrote, “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.”
Homosexuality Finally Becomes an Issue for Me
We discovered that my sixteen-year-old was gay in 2001. He was president of the high school Bible Club, and heavily involved in the church music program. Immediately eliminated from his leadership roles within a month of coming out, Jonathan was effectively silenced. He attempted suicide three times. Homosexuality quickly became an issue for me, a family issue.
Two or three years later I decided it was time for me to look at the Bible verses used by anti-homosexual Christians. It is, after all, one of my strengths. Romans and Leviticus were relatively easy, the others took some time. My main take-away from studying the Clobber Passages was how incredibly flimsy they were. Each proof text was flawed, weak to the point of irrelevant, in no way justifying the campaign being waged against lesbians and gays.
I was voted onto the board of PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in February, 2005. This was my introduction to the wider LGBT community. Between 2007 and 2010 I visited student-run high school GSA meetings (Gay Straight Alliance) several dozen times. I told my son’s coming out story regularly, always mentioning the problem of suicidal depression, which I suffered from myself before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. One club numbered about thirty students. I asked whoever had seriously considered suicide to raise their hand. All but one or two hands went up. In 2010, a young gay man I knew personally died, apparently taking his own life. As much as I enjoy activist work for its own sake, I am reminded regularly of how serious this work is. Lives are at stake.
Star Trek Celebrity Roast
Several years after joining PFLAG I was channel surfing and came across a re-run of Comedy Central’s William Shatner Celebrity Roast. Being a big Star Trek fan, this was a must-see. I am a bit of a prude, and was shocked and troubled by how vulgar the show was. It seemed that over half the jokes dealt with gay sex in graphic detail. The guest roasters included Betty White, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Farrah Fawcett, and the show was bad–sooo bad. When it was over, I thought for a long while. I asked myself, “Do I really want to be associated with this?” I knew that as a member of PFLAG and GLSEN I was part of a movement, and that this celebrity roast was part of that movement.
It didn’t take a lot of thinking. As a Christian, I was used to being “associated” with things I didn’t like or approve of, like Crusades and Inquisitions, witch trials and monkey trials, and people like Father Coughlin and Fred Phelps. None of those associations had persuaded me to leave the church. ”I’m in PFLAG and GLSEN because of the kids, kids like my son,” I said to myself. ”Too many have taken their lives in isolation and despair. I can’t just sit by and let that happen.”
Surprise! (Many Evangelicals Don’t Get Me)
When interacting with me on the internet, many evangelicals begin their comments like this: ”I’m sorry for you and your son. I can only imagine how painful it must be for your.” And they follow it with something like, “Maybe if I had a homosexual son, I would try to twist the Bible to accept his lifestyle. I don’t know.” Or they write, “You are suffering from strong delusion my friend. I think that your son coming out of the closet did something to you. You’re grasping at straws in scripture trying to justify your son’s homosexuality.”
I never went through the long, difficult process that some Christian parents experience when they learn that one of their children is lesbian or gay. I didn’t experience any pain or grief. Maybe it’s a dad thing, but I didn’t worry about his safety. I knew he’d survive, if he didn’t take his own life.
I didn’t have a sheltered childhood, not that you’d notice, anyway. The adults never whispered about the “sodomites” in the neighborhood. I knew personally how complicated sexuality is, how difficult it is to conform to this or that set of expectations. When I learned that Jonathan was gay, I experienced no anger, turmoil, or anguish. It was no worse than dealing with the reality of your kids’ sexuality no matter what their gender or orientation is. I wasn’t always happy with the guys my daughters brought home, either!
Why am I Committed to this Cause?
The reasons why I committed to the LGBT cause are simple. Besides following the tradition of activism my parents left me, and my desire to do something important with my life, I do what I do because the Scripture commands it.
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
ensure justice for those being crushed.
Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,
and see that they get justice. (Proverbs 31:8-9)
Young lesbians and gays are vulnerable. There are LGBT centers, GSAs, and other resources available to them, including their own friends thanks to social media. But many are still isolated. For Christian adults, it’s hard enough to find a church that’s good for you. This becomes even more difficult if you’re LGBT or a straight ally. I don’t attend a “gay” church, but it’s not a fundamentalist church, either. I’m in a church where everyone in my family feels comfortable. So I do what I can, where I can.
Sometimes you were exposed to public ridicule and were beaten,
and sometimes you stood side by side with others who were so treated. (Hebrews 10:33)
The verbal abuse I occasionally get on fundamentalist websites is nothing compared to what LGBT young people around the country experience in their schools, churches, and homes. I have yet to hear of an evangelical in America being driven to suicide because of the verbal abuse they get for being a Christian. I bring it on myself when I cast my pearls on fundamentalist websites. I know that on every forum there are “lurkers,” people who only read but never post, and one of them will accept the seed God plants in their soul, seed that God has equipped me to scatter as widely as I can.
Other Misgivings? Of course.
Do I have misgivings about all this? Of course. I remember how important it was in the 1960s when white clergy marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to end segregation. And I remember the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam (“Black Muslims”) in my own neighborhood and their general disdain of whites. White sympathizers were valuable, but at a certain point a movement has to become self-reliant. I was with the San Diego Interfaith Task Force on Central America when we were in a counter-demonstration down at the border to face off against a close-the-border white supremacist group. Our little band of white faces singing “We Shall Overcome” was quickly drowned out by loud and vigorous chanting: ”Racism, No! La Raza, Yes!”
I recently posted the Proverbs 31 quote on Facebook. “Speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.” Not a lot of response, but one person commented, “Yes, and good allies know when to step aside.” Yup. Certain things are inevitable.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in prison awaiting execution for the assassination conspiracy, he wrote, “The church is the church only when it exists for others.”
An Old Friend
I had a best friend in high school whom I will call Isaiah. Isaiah and I were really in sync with one another: politically, religiously, intellectually. One summer we made plans to go on a trek in Yosemite. I’d never done anything like it before, and was quite excited about the adventure. I gathering my backpack, tent, hiking boots–everything I would need to survive days in the forest. My parents drove us to Yosemite, but when we arrived Isaiah said he was really sick to his stomach and needed to call off the camping trip.
We kept in occasional contact for a long time. Whenever we spoke, we picked up right where we left off, like no time had gone by at all. Many years later Isaiah told me he was gay.