The Gift of the Gay Rights Debate
We grow as religious people through an unlikely combination of courage and humility. It takes courage to question one’s opinions, and humility to recognize that we may not be as right as we thought. It is for this reason that spiritual progressives have rightly embraced the movement for equality for LGBT people not as a condundrum, but as an opportunity for precisely the kind of spiritual maturation we seek. As St. Paul says in I Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”
I want to go a step further. I want to suggest that our present moment’s wrestling with religion and LGBT people may present a valuable opportunity for many religious communities to “grow up” in precisely these Pauline terms. As more religious communities, even conservative ones, recognize the existence and humanity of LGBT people, they are forced to engage in the sort of critical thought and introspection to which progressive communities are accustomed. I don’t mean to be pollyannish here; this process is one of great suffering for many, many people. But its end result may not just be “good for the gays” but crucial for all of us seeking to bend religious fervor into a force for progress and justice.
* * *
All of us who make religion or spirituality part of our lives are accustomed to the process of introspection. Whether we attend confession, or review our lives as part of the annual cycle of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or have heart-to-heart conversations with Christ, or enter periods of contemplation and discernment when we try to understand what course of action is the right one, or engage in any number of other procedures of self-examination and review, those of us involved in religious communities and spiritual practice are invited, time and again, to look inward.
But there is something uniquely valuable about those opportunities for reflection on beliefs we have adopted through acculturation. After all, introspection is not entirely interior in nature. Our hearts and minds are informed, saturated even, by the values we learn from our sacred traditions and the world around us. We all know this to be true, which is one reason so many believers choose to separate themselves from a world they perceive to be culturally degenerate. But do we acknowledge the depth to which it is true? Even on a gut, instinctual level, our very hearts and minds are shaped by assumptions and judgments that may be so familiar that they pass unnoticed. And these assumptions are culturally determined: show a picture of a dog to someone born into a Western society, and they may think “pet,” and possibly feel affection. Show the same picture to someone born into some traditional Asian societies, and they think “food,” and feel hungry.
Notwithstanding all the common-sense advice to “trust your gut,” really our guts are not trustworthy at all, and must instead be tempered by love and reason. All animals have gut reactions, after all. But only humans (and perhaps a few others, in more limited ways) are able to reason beyond them. The “gut” may contain intuition and wisdom, but it’s not the sum total of humanity. We are blessed with the ability to rise beyond our gut reactions — as some religious traditions put it, we have sparks of God within us. (Or, as some neuroscientists put it, we have pre-frontal cortexes that can mediate the impulses of the amygdala.) And we all know from experience that we can feel something in our gut and still be wrong. The process of educating the moral conscience, of growing up religiously and ethically, is, in large part, the process of applying love and reason to what we think we already knew. Love teaches us how to think justly.
Let me share a bit of my personal story for a moment. I was raised to believe that being gay was about the worst thing in the world. Before I even knew what a faggot was, I knew I didn’t want to be one, because it was what you called kids you wanted to degrade — “Gay Jay” was the one name that I’d try to beat someone up over. Eventually, I learned what these words meant, and—years later—that they did in fact apply to me. My first response? Horror, terror, hatred, denial. I postponed coming out, for fear that it would end my religious life and alienate everyone I knew. I tried desperately to evade the truth myself. And why? Because I felt in my deepest guts that this way of intimate relation was wrong, disgusting, depraved.
Thanks to years of love, activism, therapy, and, above all, meeting hundreds of people who have shown the stereotypes I learned as a child to be wrong, I no longer feel this way. And yet I meet people in my work who are right back at square one, still repulsed by their own sexuality. And I meet devoutly religious people who, indeed, feel that revulsion deep inside… in their kischkes, their guts. It’s easy to condemn right-wing loons as ignorant bigots — but really, how different is what they feel from what I myself felt? I understand their hatred, because I once felt it myself.
But what is this “gut,” anyway? Does it really exist? Of course not — it’s just a word we use to describe a certain feeling. In my case, self-hatred sometimes feels “deep down” not because it’s more right, but because it’s older. It’s just been there longer, that’s all. In fact, this whole mythology we have, that some feelings are “deep down” and others are “on the surface,” is made up. Some feelings feel deeper, others shallower. But there’s no connection between those feelings and reality. So I’ve learned not to dignify “gut reactions” with any kind of value, and I try to counsel others to be similarly skeptical. Not to deny intuition, of course — but to question whether what seems “deep down” is really all that trustworthy.
This is how moral progress takes place, I think. We learn to stop trusting the gut reactions based on falsehoods we’ve been taught. And it is one of the gifts that our national wrestling with the question of equality for LGBT people gives to each of us. It is an invitation to be uncomfortable, because discomfort is a sign of growth; it’s a sign that you’ve reached your learning edge, where assumptions may be challenged and difficult lessons may be learned.
And the journey has a way of continuing. One may be comfortable with some gay men, but not with “effeminate” gay men. With lesbians, but not butch lesbians. Or not with transgender people. Or not with people who reject the gender binary and locate themselves somewhere in the middle of a gender continuum. And so on. Rather than see this as an unending litany of PC requirements, I want to invite an attitude of joy that there are always assumptions in need of being defeated. Yom Kippur may come but once a year, and confession once a week — but every encounter with an “other” is an occasion for growth and renewal.
* * *
In past decades, our country kept racist laws on the books because privileged white people like me felt the rightness of them in our guts. But guts should never be the end of a moral conversation. If religion has taught us anything, it is that there is a moral value in transcending our baser instincts — and that includes the snap judgments all of us make all the time. At first, and maybe for a while, these corrections along the course of moral conscience may not “feel right.” But they are the defining marks of our humanity. Love demands them. Discomfort can be a good sign, not just for the individual, but also for entire communities and societies.
I have seen this process unfold hundreds of times regarding LGBT issues. The organization PFLAG, for example — Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays — is largely made up of folks who have traveled this journey, from rejection to acceptance to embrace. These are ordinary people, not gay activists and not gay themselves, who once had strongly anti-gay views, for whatever reason, but who were forced to reexamine those views when people they loved came out as gay or lesbian. This journey is a painful one, but it is also blessed. It is the unfolding of the moral conscience, and it is, in my opinion, religious consciousness at its very best.
Sometimes, it comes too late. I urge you to read the book Prayers for Bobby by Leroy Aarons. This book (and TV movie) is the story of Mary Griffith, a devout, conservative Christian (Presbyterian), who urged her son to “change” his sexual orientation. Bobby prayed and prayed, but could not change his sexuality. He eventually moved out of the house but was still tormented by his inability to by accepted by his mother, or by God. Eventually, Bobby killed himself by jumping in front of a truck.
The story does not end there, however. Mary Griffith eventually begins to question her church’s teachings about homosexuality, going over some of the same verses we read so closely in part two. Her views about the nature of sexuality change, and she realizes that she had been asking her son to do the impossible: to change a trait that God gave him. Eventually, Griffith becomes an unlikely gay advocate, PFLAG member, and activist in her home community.
Griffith’s story is tragic; her redemption comes too late to save her son. But it is a redemption nonetheless. Now imagine a nation of Mary Griffiths, but this time, imagine they — we — come to spiritual maturity in time to avert catastrophe. Imagine the effects this might have not only on LGBT rights but on immigration, economic justice, environmentalism, reproductive choice, and a host of other issues on which religion has tended to obstruct as well as promote growth. Imagine that the façades of fundamentalism crack under the pressure of humanity, and in their place are more open, kinder, more reflective forms of religiosity. This wouldn’t be the end of religion, as some fundamentalists fear — it would be a new beginning for it. I have written elsewhere that religion can become a force for LGBT equality. But imagine what a force equality can be for religion!