So, it’s the International Day against Homophobia today. It’s become a day that I can’t let pass without some reflection and usually a rave of some sort. The Salvation Army has a wonderful tradition of testimony, so I thought today I’d apply myself to the task of testifying about my journey towards the inclusion of LGBT folks in my life and the life of the church to which I belong.
I grew up in a culture that was overtly anti-gay. The word ‘poofter’ was a derogatory epithet hurled across the school playground at regular intervals to anyone who crossed the line of unpopularity. Their offence didn’t have to reflect anything at all characteristic of male homosexuality, it was just a punishment for someone that wasn’t liked at that moment. The equivalent today would be the way that young people say things like “That’s so gay”, meaning that something is stupid or ‘lame’ without pausing for a moment to consider the implications of associating a particular sexual orientation with stupidity.
I never really gave this much thought at the time, though I’m sure I was both the giver and receiver of this term as a weapon of schoolyard abuse. It also never occurred to me that people in my school could actually be gay. I was much too busy chasing girls to consider that any of my peers might have objects of desire that were of our own sex – or that some of those girls might not be interested in me because they’d prefer to be with another girl. In retrospect it seems rather blind of me not to have noticed this more but I guess you get to be a bit self-absorbed as a teenager.
I guess the first gay people I noticed were those that came out publicly – usually celebrities or notable people of some sort. Many were musicians and as a musician myself, I had long ago learned to judge people on their music and not worry about anything else. Their sexuality didn’t affect me directly and I just assumed that some people were naturally like that. On reflection, this assumption may reflect the fact that I didn’t grow up in the church, so I never had any kind of indoctrination to suggest that same-sex attraction was a choice that people might make against God’s desire for humankind.
The first time I became aware of heterosexism and homophobia within the church was an assignment that I did in my first year of theological studies. I was in my late teens and had only been a Christian for about a year myself and the discipleship processes that I’d gone through were much more oriented on curbing my own heterosexual impulses towards the young women within my social circles at the time. It was the late 1980s, the time of the Grim Reaper ads that fuelled a degree of panic and prejudice about HIV/AIDS. In my Pastoral Care and Counselling class, I took up an essay about how the church should treat people infected with HIV. In my research, I was shocked at the open discrimination against gay people that suddenly seemed so predominant in the church. Even then, I couldn’t help but wonder if homosexuality was really a choice that people made against God but the key issue for me was how people who claimed to love God could be so unloving against other humans, specifically those who were ill and suffering what was commonly understood as a death sentence at that time. The idea of HIV/AIDS as the judgement of God on the gay community didn’t just rest uneasily with me but created a distinct disturbance within. I couldn’t help but get up and walk out of church when I heard one officer preach this from the platform one Sunday.
Over time, I got to know gay and lesbian people as people long before I found out about their sexuality. Some of them were my colleagues, working alongside me doing their best to build a better world and care for those who had been marginalised by society. I can’t imagine how I could ever have constructed a worldview that saw them in any way as inferior to myself – or worse still, condemned in some way to eternal punishment for who they were and the people they loved. They were, and are, people of deep compassion, great commitment and have given sacrificially of their lives in service to others. Could God really ignore this in order to focus on what went on in their bedrooms?
I also got to know people who came to The Salvation Army for help who had been bruised and battered, physically and emotionally, because of their sexuality. All too often the perpetrators of this abuse had been people in their churches, which added a dimension of spiritual abuse to their trauma. I came across people who had been taught to hate themselves because of attraction to their own gender, who had harmed themselves, who had contemplated and even attempted suicide because they thought that they were abominations in the sight of God. I couldn’t, and can’t, believe in any kind of God that would want that to happen.
I tried to get my head inside the opposing arguments – was the Bible really as clear on this subject as people said? I studied the handful of passages that appear to reference same-sex activity in the scriptures. I looked at them in Hebrew and in Greek and scoured dozens of commentaries seeking insight. What I learned didn’t give me clarity about a singular biblical position – it revealed a multitude of positions on a variety of behaviours and relationships, none of which seemed to reflect anything like the same-sex relationships I had witnessed and most of which simply mirrored the kind of prejudices and social attitudes that one might expect from their historical contexts. I struggled to believe that God could really be the author of such hatred.
I was once asked to share my exegetical insights on this subject at a Christian conference and afterwards I was shocked that none of those present in that session really challenged my conclusions about the scriptures. The dominant questions were no longer about the Biblical messages but instead sought affirmation in the hope that people would be able to ‘pray away the gay’. I had naively thought that those who seemed to be saying that the Bible was the biggest barrier to their acceptance of same-sex relationships might be swayed by a deeper investigation of the biblical passages in question. Instead, it seemed like a nagging discomfort with homosexuality was at the root of people’s prejudice and if the Bible wasn’t the most effective tool to sustain their viewpoints, then the ground could easily be shifted sideways to a less empirical space for discussion. Since then, the evidence of the overwhelming failure of gay ‘conversion’ ministries seems to be well and truly in – though those most determined will persist I’m sure.
Much has happened to affirm my understanding of the boundless love of God that embraces people of diverse sexualities and genders. I’ve been blessed to witness and occasionally to be a part of the healing that comes into people’s lives when they are truly accepted for who they are. I’d like to think that I’ve played my part in beginning to repair some of the damage that the church has done to gay and lesbian people by affirming God’s unconditional love for them and demonstrating their value to the world, the church and myself. The relatively minor costs that I have borne along the way have only helped me to share a fraction of insight into the wounds that my gay brothers and sisters have had inflicted upon them by others for years.
I don’t expect to change the world. When it comes down to it, I don’t even think I can change one other person. Frankly, it’s hard enough to change those parts of myself that could do with a bit of improvement. But I can’t stand by and be silent while the church that I’m a part of continues to discriminate and cause pain to people because of their sexuality. This is my journey and here I stand.