The other amazing thing about this experience has been the opportunity to connect with numerous young, LBGT people at different stages on the same journey toward integrated lives and identities.
One such opportunity came a few weeks ago as I visited my family in the Midwest. As plans for my visit came together, a good friend and former teacher asked me if I’d be interested in speaking to a group of LGBT students and their straight allies at a high school in my hometown. Since I grew up in this very school district, I already knew these kids were not on gay-friendly turf. And I was right. In response to some anti-gay threats and bullying incidents that had taken place at the school, a group of LGBT and straight-but-concerned students had formed a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) as a way for students to find support and a safe place to belong. I accepted the invitation without hesitation.
During the hour-long circle dialogue that took place after school one day, I told my story, listened to the stories of these courageous young people, and then answered a myriad of questions about my life as a gay adult who had grown up on the same side of the tracks as the students sitting around me in that classroom. Without going into too much detail, it was both a humbling and inspiring experience for me. I am constantly amazed at the courage and strength of character that develops in young LGBT people who, like me, are forced to find a way to survive adolescence in environments that can quickly become hostile if anyone were to find out the truth, buried under carefully constructed façades.
A few days later, my teacher friend sent me a panicked e-mail. Even though the school administration had officially sanctioned the Gay-Straight Alliance at the high school, they had come under fire from an angry parent of one of the students who attended the GSA meeting. One of the students had left the meeting and come out to their parents, igniting a firestorm of backlash from an angry parent who accused the school of bringing a “gay activist” to the school to “teach their child how to be gay.” In the e-mail, my teacher friend stated, “This is just so awful. It is a first taste of your world for me.”
Fast forward just a few weeks to a conversation I had with a friend of mine who recently left a position with an evangelical, Christian organization because of the negative pressure he was receiving since coming out as gay. Without delving into the anguish this person has suffered as a result of coming out as a gay Christian within a culture that believes those two things cannot be true at the same time, I’ll tell you that this is someone who has become one of those everyday heroes to me. During our phone conversation this friend recounted to me the experience of accepting a speaking engagement at a very large, public university in the Midwest.
The event was a “bridge-building” event sponsored by both an LGBT campus group and a well-known evangelical campus ministry. The whole point was to, without delving into theological debate and blame casting, address the topic of how Jesus would respond to homosexual people in today’s cultural context. My friend told his story (one very similar to my own), including the very difficult process of reconciling his faith and sexuality with integrity. During the meeting, someone stood up in the audience, disregarding the established rules for submitting written questions, and called my friend a false prophet, a liar and then shouted, “What’s it like to be living in sin?” And this happened on the campus of one of the largest public universities in the United States!
It didn’t stop there, as this person proceeded to post one of the most theologically misinformed, vitriolic blogs I’ve ever read on the topic on a website hosted by his church and backed by a handful of extreme-right “evangelical” pastors. In addition to the accusations leveled during the event, he called my friend “wicked” and accused him of placing “stumbling blocks before the weak.”
As I mentioned earlier, the majority of readers of my blog are evangelical Christians. Since I have grown up in that world, and am Christian myself, I am familiar with the scriptures that talk about persecution of Christians in the end times. Many within the circles of my upbringing spend time thinking and talking about what it will be like in those days when we are “persecuted” for our faith. In fact, it led to a whole series of highly successful novels highlighting the trials and suffering that those who remain true to the faith might go through.
Well, folks, those are mere musings at this point. In the United States in 2011, you’d have to possess a very creative imagination to envision what it’s like to actually be treated hatefully because of your unwavering commitment to your Christian faith.
In stark contrast, right now, today, smack dab in the middle of the public institutions of our society (not to mention the private spaces of churches across America) to simply speak out loud as an unapologetic gay person, even a gay Christian person, often incites the worst kind of hate-mongering and threatening language one can imagine. For those of us who still take our faith very seriously, the religious language (“wicked,” “false teacher,” “gay activist”) has more power than one might imagine, because these are the same names and terms hurled from the pulpit during our formative years in the church. What is more frightening for us is that these hateful words are often accompanied by a very real threat of harm to our physical safety, career or reputation.
My teacher friend admitted experiencing just a glimpse of what I must deal with on a regular basis. If you’re reading this, maybe you’re surprised, too. Or maybe you’re thinking, “Is this really what it’s like?”
Yes, unfortunately, this is what it’s like for far too many of us who choose to remain a part of the communities of belonging we ourselves helped build and sustain for our entire lives. It’s not pretty, and it won’t change unless our straight allies begin to challenge the voices of hatred within their own midst.
Until then, you’ll find me and others like me continuing to raise our voices with the hope that things will be different for those who come behind us, daring to live their lives out in the open with integrity, courage and faith.