"I increasingly began to feel like I was living behind an invisible wall. The inner secrecy of holding that inside was divorcing me from reality–I was living in my own head. Anybody I was in a friendship with, or anything I was doing in the church, was accompanied by an internal mantra: 'What if they knew?' It felt like all of my relationships were built on this ice that would break if I stepped out on to it.
"I felt like it was ripping me in half. I knew I couldn't carry on. I was trying to align the loving God I knew and believed in with this horrendous reality of what was going on inside me. I remember kneeling down and absolutely sobbing into the carpet. I said to God, 'You have to either take my life or take this attraction away because I cannot do both.'"*
These words described Vicky Beeching's life at age 13. She carried the secret of her lesbianism for several more years before confessing it before a religious gathering of 4,000 people, Her fellow Christians gathered around her and prayed that God would cast out her "demon of homosexuality." She soon lost her career as a Christian singer and song writer, and the hate mail and death threats started rolling in. What she experienced was reminiscent of what I went through on the road to atheism. First I prayed for faith. When my prayers failed, I railed against God. When I finally expressed my doubts to my fellow Christians, they ostracized me. Religion is a system by which people feel justified in treating others hatefully in the name of a God of Love; and it is the only means by which they can legally violate the rights of others despite the fact that their institutions are taxpayer supported. Yet the Bible can be understood in various ways.
The faith tradition that Vicky Beeching and I grew up in believed the Bible to be the literal word of God as dictated to men. The Episcopal Church that I gravitated to in my upper teens, regarded it as a fallible collection of documents that contain the Word of God as understood by primitive men over a 1,500 year period, hence what the Bible held to be true changed even during its writing. I have also seen most Christians' interpretation of it change during my lifetime. For instance, the Southern Baptist denomination that dominated the Mississippi of my childhood held that drinking, gambling, gluttony, and divorce were sins, and my own prominent denomination made Southern Baptists seem almost liberal. While the hold of evangelical Christianity is no less in Mississippi now as it was then, Mississippi has long since legalized gambling and ended prohibition. Because it's the most obese state in the Union, preachers are unlikely to rail against gluttony, and because its divorce rate has increased dramatically, churches no longer deny communion to divorced people who remarry (they were formerly regarded as adulterers). Although the values of religion are everchanging, yet it's a rare day when religious people institute those changes or even admit to them.
I struggled for years with my own thoughts about homosexuality, my primary objection being that since sex is nature's way of reproduction, sex in which reproduction is a physical impossibility is unnatural and therefore aberrant. The fact that Peggy and I did our best to thwart our own reproduction or that she eventually had a hysterectomy seemed irrelevant because our desires were at least natural. I later learned that homosexual sex is found in other species, and I became increasingly struck by the irony of heterosexual teenagers being able to marry while the same right was denied to homosexuals who had lived together for decades. I concluded that it doesn't matter what causes homosexuality, because it's just how some people are and there is no way they can change it, so to deny them the right to marry is wrong, wrong, and wrong.
It is one of the few political positions about which Peggy and I differ, her argument being that since marriage has always been exclusively for heterosexuals it would be wrong to change it now (she favors "civil contracts" that would give gay people the same right as married people without calling it marriage). My response is so what if marriage has been for heterosexuals only? Instead of seeing this as reason to continue the tradition, I see it as high time that society corrects a longstanding error. I also believe that civil contracts would further institutionalize the notion that homosexuals are unworthy of the same legal protections as straight people. As with school integration, separate but equal never was and never could be anything but separate in fact and equal in fantasy.
Another difference between Peggy and me is that I am greatly interested in the experiences of homosexuals within the context of the larger society (I learned of Vicky Beeching from a radio interview), while Peggy is so averse to wanting to know that it seems to bother her than I do. She is very much of the Don't ask, Don't tell philosophy that became the Law of the Land in 1994 under Bill Clinton (it was overturned in 2011). What Don't ask, Don't tell meant was that, unlike straights, gays in the military had to hide their sexual orientation, which continued the tradition of keeping gays in the closet by telling them that their "dirty little secret" was shameful. Under Don't ask, Don't tell it was considered so shameful that it represented a threat to military cohesiveness and hence to national security.
I cried while reading the interview I quoted from, and if I hadn't been running power tools and ten feet up a ladder when I heard the radio interview, I would have cried then too, possibly because I know so well what it feels like to be hated by people who claim to guided by love for something that I deplored within myself and did everything I could to rid myself of, only to conclude that being a nonbeliever was just the way I am. I also related to Vicky Beeching in that the things we're hated for are not things that harm others.
Vicky Beeching's own childhood church at least recognized that homosexuality wasn't something that people simply pray their way out of, although it continued to regard homosexual sex as sinful. Where is the humility, the willingness to say, Our understanding of God is limited, so maybe the parts of the Bible that condone hatred for homosexuals is simply a tragic legacy from an ancient culture. Nearly all Christians finally came around to admitting that slavery was wrong, so doesn't it make sense to at least remain open to the idea that the condemnation of homosexuals might be wrong too? As the Apostle Paul wrote, "...the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life."
I am sometimes tempted to say to Peggy, "Consider Raymond Burr, this actor who you so respect and enjoy, the one who loved and shared a home with the same man from 1960 until Burr's death in 1993, how can you deny people like that the same right that another actor, Elizabeth Taylor, exercised on the eight occasions that she stood before a minister and said, "I take you to be my lawfully wedded husband...from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part'?"
As with heterosexual marriage, if homosexual marriage is to mean anything, it is about love and commitment rather than sex and frivolity, about a man being able to pull out his wallet and pass around a photo of his husband to his friends at work without the fear of being fired, ridiculed, ostracized, beaten, or even killed. It's about a teenage girl being able to introduce her female date to her parents without fearing that she will be driven from her home or shamed in church. It's about compassion, about equality, about society saying to its citizens that it only asks that they live honorably. There is no half way, no room for civil contracts, no way to hate the sin but love the sinner because homosexuality isn't what people do, it's who they are.
As with much that I write about, I very much doubt that I can reach those who disagree with me. Perhaps this is somewhat due to my inadequacy, but I'm going to share something that I think also plays a part. The numbers differ a little from year to year and from poll to poll, but for several years now the one group in America that is primarily responsible for persecuting all the others, by which I refer to theologically conservative Christians, identify themselves as America's most persecuted group. But consider this: 70% of Americans claim to be Christians along with 100% of America's presidents and nearly 100% of its Congressman, Senators, and other elected officials. Even so, America's Christians say that it's not gays, Jews, blacks, Moslems, Hispanics, atheists, refugees, or women, who constitute this country's most persecuted group; it's themselves. Does this not suggest an almost pathological absence of compassion and empathy?
I think the source for their imagined persecution rests in theologically conservative Christianity's black-versus-white worldview according to which they believe it is God's will that those who are lost in sin deserve to suffer, but that their own suffering is due to the machinations of Satan. In other words, if others are persecuted, it's because they are evil, but when Christians are persecuted, it's because they are good. But in what ways do people who control the legislative and executive branches of government regard themselves as oppressed? As a group, all it takes for theologically conservative Christians to feel oppressed is for them not to get their way.
For example, they feel oppressed because the Supreme Court upheld the legality of gay marriage. They feel oppressed every time they pass a Planned Parenthood clinic; every time their children learn about evolution in a science class; and every time a gay couple adopts a child or a gay person gets a teaching job. Christian teachers, coaches, and school administrators feel oppressed when they're sued for trying to force their religion upon public school children. Christian pastry chefs and florists feel oppressed by having to provide equal services to Muslims, atheists, and gay people; Christian government officials feel oppressed by their inability to deny the right of other religions to erect displays in public parks alongside manger scenes. Christians who are prevented from forcing the values, ceremonies, and representations of their religion onto others always conclude that it is they who are being oppressed. Small wonder, then, that they are devoid of compassion for others.