Homosexuality and Me: the People and the Path

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.

About Ron Goetz

Author, Widower, Grandpa, Son.
This entry was posted in Christian Colleges, Clobber Passages, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Homosexuality, Homosexuality and the Bible, Simpson University. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Homosexuality and Me: the People and the Path

  1. hkameya says:

    Ron, you probably now feel blessed to have a gay child, as I do. I feel that the gay community has likewise been blessed with your life experiences, your observations and your research and writing skills!

    Like

  2. david0296 says:

    I enjoyed reading your story from the perspective of a religious person dealing first-hand with homosexuality throughout their life, and how’s it’s directly impacted your life because of your gay son. — I hope he’s doing well, now that he’s 27 years old. Society, as a whole, is a lot more tolerant than it was back then. I came out in 1980, so I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been with the same man for 18 years, legally married for 4 years.

    I’m not sure I really understand how you associated a raunchy Celebrity roast with the gay rights movement. Aside from most celebrities being liberal, I don’t see the connection. I think a big reason that there were gay jokes involved with the William Shatner’s roast was because he worked with George Takei, who is openly gay. The jokes were between friends. So as vulgar as they were, they weren’t coming from a place of animus towards gay people.

    I did find it interesting to see that someone that a very religious (such as yourself) acknowledges how futile is it to try and reason with equally religious people that have chosen to be anti-gay (because they believe the Bible gives them permission to do so). I’d actually be interested in reading an article on how you personally deal with religious people that are entrenched in their ideology. If religious people are wondering why gay people are forcing their “agenda” on them (fighting for civil equality), they only need to look in the mirror. Immovable objects cannot be reasoned with. They must be dragged kicking and screaming into a more enlightened and tolerant society. This has always been the way when it comes to civil rights issues.

    Like

  3. Tim Kelly says:

    Ron,
    Thanks for all the time you spend doing the good work that you do.

    Like

  4. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story. I, too, became involved in PFLAG (in my third year as president) because of the children, after believing for a long time that “gay” issues were not my issues. That blessedly naive bubble burst when my daughter (whom I thought at the time was my son) came out as transgender four years ago.

    I, too, felt as you did when you said, “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.” When Bree came out to me, it was an answer to many years of me praying to know why my child was in such anguish and filled with self-loathing. Now thirty, she is beautiful and happy and smiles a lot, and I and my husband are constantly reminded of what we so nearly lost so many times over her tumultuous youth. It is as if we knew that we had lost our child, only to have God give her back to us.

    Your story gives me hope, too, that fundamentalist Christians can change their views, and that my family might one day be restored. Because, in my family, it is the other three children who cannot, and will not, accept their sister. They do not speak her name and she is not welcome in their homes. They will not come to ours when Bree is present. She has never met her young nieces and nephew and we have limited access to our grandchildren (two of whom live one mile from us and do not know us). Her pain is great, yet she goes on because of the love and support of our (and her) large circle of open and embracing friends, many from the church that I and my husband attend. She no longer believes in God, which breaks my heart, but I think I understand.

    God bless you for telling your story and helping Christians to understand that God’s love is big enough for all.

    Like

    • Ron Goetz says:

      I’m glad that so much has worked out for Bree and your family, and that the mystery of her self-loathing finally ended. The change you describe must have been such a blessing for all of you.

      Even though I can explain to myself people’s fear of hell, their fear of being rejected by their churches, scapegoating family members and the like, how families can close ranks against “black sheep” still baffles me. I know that people change, and I’ve heard people testify that individual relatives have changed after years of silence.

      It seems you are experiencing God’s grace through a variety of means, including PFLAG, a kind of extended family. My hope is that none of you will lack the family love, warmth, and intimacy that your natural family is unable to give you presently. God’s best to you, Susan.

      Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.

      Like

  5. Pingback: Ron Goetz: Straight Ally in Faith, "Bible - Thumping Liberal" | Queering the Church

  6. Terence says:

    As a gay Catholic activist, father and grandfather, I thank you for your continuing good work, and for this moving post in particular. Our friends and families (in my case, my daughters) are often our most valuable allies in the continuing struggle for equality and inclusion, in church and in the world.
    I have promoted your site, and this post, at my own blog, “Queering the Church”.
    http://queeringthechurch.com/2012/09/23/ron-goetz-straight-ally-in-faith-bible-thumping-liberal/

    Like

    • Ron Goetz says:

      Thanks so much for your wonderful endorsement, Terence. I’ve gotten a number of hits from your link. I’ve put Queering the Church on my blog roll.

      Your blog is a real labor of love. God’s best to you as you minister.

      Like

  7. Craig Maynard says:

    Thank you for sharing your inspirational and challenging journey. Thank you for your candid story that uplifts me. I’m Gay and Christian and it’s people like you who shelter us from the harsh storm and give us some rays of hope. Wishing you and your family well and may you continue to be blessed.

    Like

    • Ron Goetz says:

      Thank you for your kind wishes, Craig. I’m not looking forward to the harsh storms still ahead of us. We’ve got to stick together, supporting one another as we encounter angry and bitter forces in the future. Together, though, we can make it through anything!

      Like

  8. Sarah says:

    Ron, thank you so much for your post. You are not the only one trying to “spread the seed.” And it is so enlightening to see your story… because many people wonder how I, a straight Christian, could also take the stance I do regarding gay orientation & marriage. I have a friend who is bi, two cousins who are gay… but I didn’t really know this until after I began to understand homosexuality and study the clobber passages myself… study the bible myself… I was bullied as a youth, on a daily basis, for things I never really understood. For a while I “jumped on the bandwagon” of gay-bashing… and using the bible to support it… I listened to the preachers and the church’s talk about how it was a sin to be gay and that if these people don’t change, they’ll go to hell… but as I grew more spiritually, God has shown me this is wrong. I knew what it felt like to be mistreated, bullied, harassed… I never fit in no matter how hard I tried. And the more I studied God’s word for myself, and started to rediscover myself and my faith, the more I saw that what I’d been taught all these years wasn’t right. It was hate. And your posts inspire me even further. Thank you.

    Like

    • Ron Goetz says:

      Not everyone profits from experience. Only people who are ready to change can learn. Not fitting in is actually a blessing, I think, as painful as it usually is. Only by being an outsider can we have empathy for other outsiders. And becoming an outsider, that is something I have a choice in–not outside God’s grace, but outside the systems that reward conformists and punish the rest. Jesus became sin for us, and we become outsiders for others. By standing with “sinners” and outsiders, we are “numbered with the transgressors,” just as Jesus was. Stay strong, Sarah. The flack we’re taking on behalf of our gay and lesbian friends is only the beginning of sorrows. The principalities and powers, the rulers of spiritual wickedness in high places, have more planned for us.

      Like

  9. Dan says:

    Your comment “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.” ” reminded me of a conversation I had with my Father. My wife and I were going to spend the next two days with my gay son and his boyfriend/SO. My Dad pulled me aside and looking very distraught said something like, “How can you be so calm, I cannot imagine the pain of meeting your son’s boyfriend!” Then he left before I could say much. My thought was why would I not want to meet and get to know my son’s soulmate? To this day my Dad will not discuss the topic and continues to distance himself from his grandson. It is so sad!

    He also distances himself from me and never enables the subject to come up so I have not been able to share with him how utterly weak the “clobber passages” are and how Biblical a pro-gay view point can be.

    Thanks for sharing your story and giving us a chance to share back.

    Like

    • Ron Goetz says:

      There’s a similar “no-fly zone” in my in-laws house, but that’s at least partly because in the past I have been so argumentative about so many things. They do, however, love and accept my son. My son and father-in-law bonded while discussing politics for hours upon hours in the past. And my father-in-law is a retired C&MA pastor. Go figure! 🙂

      But there’s no discussing it. No discussing my blog–and that quite pointedly. 😦

      My thanks to you, too, for sharing with us Dan.

      Remember how we are supposed to keep a clear conscience, lest we shipwreck our faith? For many of us, the Spirit tells us to love and accept gay and lesbian believers, and our consciences need to be clear regarding the Clobber Passages–that’s the cerebral, intellectual part.The spiritual and the ideological need to be in sync as much as possible.

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  10. Kimberly Hock says:

    I have been reading your post and recently I have had friends on facebook who post scripture from the old testament not only to argue why gay marriage is wrong but also to attack women on the right to abortion or even their right to be president. They also use irt to condemn anyone that use a curse word because they are taking the lords name in vain.

    To me this would all fall under the curse of picking and choosing what you would follow from the old law. I was raised to believe by my parents that the only law you follow is what Jesus, which was to love one another as you would love Jesus Christ and to think about your actions and words beforehand and to consider if they will bring harm to others, which is basically empathy. I had never been shown all of the quotes that you provided about the law by Paul which I recently shared with my mother who said that it made sense to her now, why Paul was always her father’s favorite.

    I just wanted to know though how you felt about the other issues that conservatives use the old law to condemn liberals with in regards to womens rights and language?

    Like

    • Ron Goetz says:

      Interesting comments, Kimberly. Thank you. I have two responses to your question.

      First, Jesus said that the his rule over us (the Kingdom of God) is within us, between and among us. We can discern what we need to do by looking inward. It is inside us that the Holy Spirit dwells, we are created in the Image of God. Tha image includes love, justice, mercy, kindness — all the good things of God. Also, Paul said that we were to serve God in the newness of the Spirit, not in the Old Way of Law. “The Law brings death, but the Spirit brings life.” According to Paul, God has “abolished the Written Code.”

      Second, you can say something like this:

      “Susan, I know what you believe about that. If that is working for you, and makes you a more loving person, a kinder, gentler person, then go with it. If it helps you be more edifying for people, more encouraging, then I’m glad God has blessed you that way.”

      That may not satisfy them, but that’s okay. Sometimes things are just too complicated to be easily discussed. Sometimes when there’s no argument, there is enough silence, enough peace and quiet, that God is able to whisper to them in his still, small voice. Just love them, and let God work directly on their hearts.

      Like

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