Why I Am a Straight Ally in the Struggle for LGBT Equality: A Testimony for Family & Friends
I’m behind on this blog. Among other things, I’ve promised a personal tribute to New Testament theologian Walter Wink, who died a few days ago. I’ll have to publish that on Sunday, I guess. A Facebook conversation with one of my nephews last night prompted this blog post–more than the heartbreaking passage of Amendment 1 in North Carolina (defining marriage as one man and one woman–thereby not only banning same-sex marriage, but also same-sex civil unions, domestic partner benefits and protections even for unmarried heterosexual couples, etc.) on Tuesday. It was also a greater prompt than Wednesday’s surprise announcement by President Obama that he has finished “evolving” and now fully supports marriage equality–both heart-stopping events for different reasons.
Last night, one of my nephews, a college student active in the LGBT rights group on the campus of Virginia Tech, and who came out last year while at university (although he started coming out at the end of high school), thanked me for my efforts as a straight ally. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve done all that much. Yes, I wrote a blog series on “LGBT Persons in the Church: The Case for Full Inclusion.” I’ve preached some sermons along this line in places where they’ve seldom heard a Christian support LGBT equality. I spoke against and voted “no” in 2000 when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship voted to include a rule against hiring any personnel or endorsing any missionaries who were out, non-celibate lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgendered persons. (I think the CBF actually said, “practicing homosexuals,” but that language is misleading and I won’t use it.) When I returned home from that meeting, I recommended to our congregation (and they followed through) that we cease to be members of CBF and not contribute to their missions. I voted “yes,” in 2004 when the Alliance of Baptists, the small denomination to which I and my congregation belong, endorsed marriage equality. (The Alliance was already strongly on record for LGBT rights, including ordaining out LGBT persons for ministry and endorsing out LGBT missionaries. Several Alliance congregations had already performed same-sex weddings by 2004–some in states where these marriages would have legal recognition and some, like mine, where the state would not recognize what God’s people did in blessing covenantal unions.) After the 2004 elections resulted in 11 states, including KY where I live, writing discriminatory bans against same-sex marriage into their state constitutions, I urged my congregation (already a leader in LGBT equality fights–with many persons in our congregation well ahead of me in actions taken and leadership shown) to lift our flag higher by joining The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB), a network of gay-affirming Baptist congregations–mostly, but not entirely, in American Baptist circles. Since 2000, I have spoken and marched more on these kind of issues than before–but it is minor compared to other justice causes and very minor compared to what others have done. So, I’m not sure I deserve my nephew’s praise.
I take that praise as a goad to do more–to be more worthy of the title “straight ally” in the struggle for LGBT Equality. But whether I am a strong ally or a weak one, I didn’t really start out trying to be an ally in this movement whatsoever–and this is a good chance to state why I’ve become a straight ally (however weakly or poorly) and what led me, precisely as a Christian, to take such a stance.
First, I should say, that, although I never sought to be an ally in this struggle, nor did I seek to be an adversary or opponent, much less an LGBT enemy. I’m not saying that I didn’t grow up with homophobic and heterosexist prejudices–that would be nearly impossible in this culture. I don’t think there are any non-racist American whites–just recovering racists who struggle for racial justice while also seeking constantly to root out hidden racial prejudices and keep repenting and struggling toward greater sanctification in this area. I don’t believe there are any men in this or other patriarchal cultures who are completely non-sexist–just those of us who keep repenting of our sexism and keep struggling for sex and gender justice in home, church (synagogue, mosque, etc.), and society and seeking greater sanctification in our own lives. I must say the same thing regarding homophobia and heterosexism–I seek to be a recovering homophobe and recovering heterosexist. One of my hopes is that there can be generational progress as well as individual progress.
But even from childhood, I did try somewhat to swim upstream on these issues when I first became aware of them in the 1970s. The issue of marriage equality was nowhere on my radar, but I join my parents in opposing former Mouseketeer and orange juice saleswoman, Anita Bryant, in her hate-filled witch-hunt against gays in public schools who were supposedly “recruiting” because they couldn’t reproduce. My mother was furious that Bryant was using her fear-mongering as an excuse to get FL to vote against the Equal Rights Amendment (and this bait-and-switch was successful)–and, from this, we both learned that there is a profound connection between patriarchy and homophobia. I had one gay teacher (that I know) and he was amazing–the man who first made history important for me. I knew him to be a person of integrity who had no designs on anyone’s children–except to get them to fall in love with learning. By contrast, in those far off days, I knew several male teachers sleeping with high school girls and two female teachers sleeping with high school boys. The former were at risk of prison for statutory rape, but the same abuse of boys by adult women was only considered “contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” and there was little risk of prosecution in those days. Fathers of boys seduced by a female teacher would probably have patted the kid on the back and thanked the teacher for “making a man out of my boy.” (These attitudes seem archaic–but maybe not. We seem to be going backward in so many areas lately.) So, I early on opposed laws which singled out “homosexuals” for discrimination–the more so after an elderly Jewish couple whose lawn I mowed (Holocaust death camp survivors with numbers tattooed on their arms) told me about the “men of the pink triangle,” the gay men and suspected gay men whom Hitler rouned up and sent to death camps right along with the Jews.
But I didn’t have any openly gay friends in high school. In the 1970s, in Florida, few teens “came out.” I knew a few of those who did, but we were only aquaintances and, as they embodied many stereotypes, they made me uncomfortable. I squirmed around them even though I stopped those who tried bullying. My attitudes were mixed. In my late teens I became a born again evangelical Christian and so adopted the common evangelical view that “homosexual practice” is sinful. (It was a long time before I believed differently.) But I rejected as clearly unbiblical the view that such actions were worse than other sins and needed to be singled out for special condemnation. As a young, liberal, social justice activist (even then), it bothered me that more Christians were angry about the supposed growth of the “gay agenda” than were angry about poverty, war, capital punishment, racism, damage to the environment. Also, I had to sympathize at least a little bit with gays who were bullied. As a born again Christian, I was trying to be celibate until marriage–and in many circles this led people to suspect I was gay. I was also involved in theatre and chess, and was socially awkward around girls (even with 3–and later 4–sisters!). So, I know what it’s like to be called “faggot,” and “queer,” and even though I am heterosexual, I didn’t want others called such names, either. And I was sometimes the victim of violent bullying–and I knew that gays had it worse. So, my teen years were marked by very, very mixed feelings. I thought “homosexuals” were sinning, but I thought those harming them were guilty of greater sins.
When I briefly joined the U.S. Army at 17 (leaving as a conscientious objector), I discovered a small piece of what closeted gays have to endure in the military–and this was before even the “compromise” of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” much less the recent ability for gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces. Even straight men in the military would act “hyper-masculine,” because anyone suspected of being gay would be beaten by gangs of their peers. Some even died and the military did little to investigate their deaths.
By the early 1980s, when finishing college and heading to seminary, I mostly wanted this “issue” to leave me alone. I wanted to help revive the older 19th C. evangelical tradition in which evangelism and mission went hand-in-hand with campaigns for social justice. I was and am an opponent of the Religious Right. But I knew that “evangelical” did not used to mean “political conservative.” In the 19th C., evangelicals–born again, on-fire, holy-rolling, revive-us-again, Jesus-loving, hard-preaching, GOSPEL living Protestant Christians–were often the leaders in such social struggles as: the abolition of slavery, women’s education and women’s right to vote, the end of child labor, prison reform, workers’ rights, including the rights of organized labor to organize and engage in collective bargaining, the rights of immigrants, racial justice, peacemaking and the abolition of war. Today, I would say that the struggle for LGBT equality fits seamlessly in that tradition, but as I headed off to seminary I couldn’t see how it fit. I read a few revisionist biblical interpretations but didn’t find them exegetically or hermeneutically credible and I was (and remain) committed to biblical authority in the church. I don’t mean “inerrancy,” which is a heresy from the late 19th and early 20th C., but the authority of the Word of God speaking in and through the human words of Holy Scripture in power and authority. I hold to that to this very day. I agreed that Christians should defend the civil rights of gays and lesbians versus those who wanted to deny employment and housing, etc., but I thought that those who wanted to ordain out and non-celibate gays and lesbians were simply jumping on a bandwagon. I wanted Christian social activism to flow seamlessly from the gospel and not be driven by whatever fad of political correctness came along–and that’s what I thought the “gay Christian” movement was. But I did not rest easy in this view. My conscience was guilty. I suspected that I was guilty of special pleading.
The AIDS epidemic complicated matters, to say the least. On the one hand, the attitude of the Religious Right that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosecual sins absolutely horrified me. How could anyone worship a God they believed was capable of such things??? And the illogic floored me, too. I knew that lesbians were the group least at risk of catching the HIV virus. Yet no conservative argued that this was a sign of God’s special approval of lesbianism. Yes, risky lifestyles, gay or straight, increased the risk of infection–which in the ’80s meant death, horrifying and 100%. There is a degree of self-punishment in passing one’s body around like pieces of baloney, regardless of whether one catches any diseases or not. Sexual addiction is self-degradating and sex outside of covenant love almost inevitably involves exploitation and abuse (things which are not easily avoided even with covenantal structures in place). And I could see that, socially, AIDS had much in common with leprosy in Scripture and that Jesus would expect the church to minister to AIDS victims in exactly the same way as He healed lepers. But AIDS linked sex and death very closely and this made it difficult for most people to think clearly–it made them, including me, to some extent, victims of fear.
I compartmentalized those feelings and concentrated on other areas–although I began meet gay and lesbian Christians who lived lives of discipleship and holiness that put mine to shame–and this was a chink in my armor. To my shame, I refused to seriously investigate the issues (biblical, psychological, theological, etc.) until after I was married. I remember–and am deeply embarrassed by this memory–that when I first went to the seminary library to check out every book I could on the many related LGBT subjects that I kept flashing my wedding ring in the air–subconsciously afraid that someone would think I might be gay. Why the fear? Why was I so insecure in my sexuality? It is not easy to confront such images in my past.
By the 1990s, I had “evolved,” sort of. I had joined a gay-affirming congregation. I had come to embrace one sexual ethic for everyone. I had come to endorse the ordination of out gays and lesbians, to advocate for full equality of LGBT persons in church and society. (It did take me longer to understand what “transgendered” meant and that Transgendered persons are not “homosexual” at all.) But I wasn’t very loud about it. I wanted to be hired to teach theology and ethics in evangelical contexts and I knew that being an out-front advocate of LGBT equality would make this difficult–and I knew that my degrees from evangelical institutions would make it unlikely that I would be hired by mainline Protestants who were more gay-friendly. I thought that if I simply had academic freedom to “teach all sides of the issues,” I could keep my integrity. I was very afraid that if my views on LGBT equality were known, I would lose influence on issues that were vitally important to me: peace and nonviolence, racial and gender justice, economic justice for the poor, etc. Others could take up the cause of justice for LGBT persons–none of us can do it all. I tread this path for most of the 1990s. But as more LGBT persons “came out” to me, I knew my silence was harming them–especially as American society seemed to become more homophobic and heterosexist than ever. By 2000, I decided that by virtue of being a married heterosexual white male with a Ph.D. in theological ethics, I had, ipso facto some social power–even if not very much because I was always at the bottom of the academic heirarchy. It finally dawned on me that I needed to take some risks on behalf of LGBT persons with less power, whose very lives could be at risk if they spoke out. Coming out as an ally might cost me some jobs (it has), but it likely would not lead to humiliation, eviction from home, family, or congregation, and not to legal charges or loss of life. All of that could be true for LGBT persons, whom I now knew included friends and at least one family member (one of my wife’s brothers).
The elections of 2004 pushed me, too. The Republican Party put bans against same-sex marriage as amendments into 11 state constitutions–and it was done simply to turn out more rightwing voters in order to “re”-elect George W. Bush president. What horrified me the most about this was that I knew that George W. Bush didn’t really care about this issue. Laura Bush is in favor of same-sex marriage. Dick Cheney’s daughter is an out lesbian. Thousands of lives of LGBT persons were harmed and they weren’t really the target–just an excuse to advance OTHER (equally bad, in my view) political agendas. That brought the men of the pink triangle back to my mind. And I couldn’t pretend that LGBT equality was a “lesser cause,” however worthy, than economic justice, racial or gender justice, or peace and nonviolence–all causes that were originally closer to my heart.
So, stumblingly, and fearfully, I became a straight ally. Since that time, the “issue” (and no person likes to be thought of as “an issue”) has become more personal for me. We Baptists don’t really have godparents, but my daughters’ unofficial godmother is lesbian. I have participated in the ordination of several out gay friends, now. And my daughters were flower girls at a lesbian wedding–in a state where this has no legal standing at all. Two brothers-in-law are out gays and one is a Presbyterian minister. And, about a year ago, as I said at the beginning, one of my nephews came out in his first year at university–and his mother, my sister, is a much more conservative evangelical Protestant than I am–a devotee of the Religious Right I have spent my adult life opposing. She’s been as supportive of her son as she knows how, but I have felt compelled to give more open support. My nephew’s “coming out,” (and becoming an activist) has subtly (without his asking at all) pushed me to do more–just as the thanks he gave me, which I don’t really deserve, pushes me to go further and risk more.
Even with setbacks like NC’s Amendment 1 (and NH, MD, MN, and Washington State may see similar rollbacks on election day in November), I’ve been thoroughly amazed at the rapid pace of progress since 2004. And my daughters’ generation cannot see what the fuss is about. I don’t mean to downplay the bullying in school, not at all, but their generation has known many more out gays and lesbians personally, adults and people of their own age, as well as far more celebrities than in my generation. (My mother’s generation didn’t realize Liberace was gay and my generation didn’t know Elton John was gay! We seriously had no gaydar at all.) I cannot explain to my daughters why Ellen deGeneris lost her 1990s sit-com by coming out of the closet. They grew up on Will and Grace and their favorite news anchor is openly lesbian Rachel Maddow. Polling shows that from Gen X onward even evangelicals are far more accepting of gays and lesbians than their elders. (Younger evangelicals are even MORE anti-abortion-for-any-reason than were those of my generation, so this change is NOT a result of simply going along with the wider culture.) And, although young people are leading the way, polling shows that ALL age groups, including the 65 and older (which is the most anti-gay) and all demographics, are becoming more accepting of LGBT equality–though at different rates. Frankly, I have more hope for social progress here than on other pressing concerns which seem to be moving the other direction. But it is no time for resting. As progress is made, those who are most homophobic and heterosexist, most fearful of change, are getting desperate. They are enacting laws they themselves predict will be overturned within 20 years–just to set back the changes as long as possible.
So this Christian straight ally, along with everyone else who cares about justice, has more work to do.