I noticed with interest and, quite frankly, surprise an article headline on the front page of The New York Times dated Tuesday, June 8, 2015, which stated: “Evangelicals Open Door to Debate on Gay Rights.” Laurie Goodstein, the author, covers an apparent emerging trend, which she summarizes in paragraph 5:
“As acceptance of same-sex marriage has swept the country and as the Supreme Court prepares to release a landmark decision on the issue, a wide variety of evangelical churches, colleges and ministries are having the kinds of frank discussions about homosexuality that many of them say they had never had before.”
The article goes on to state that evangelical institutions are attempting to navigate a middle terrain between staying “true” to their previously stated positions on issues around homosexuality while simultaneously attempting not to alienate especially younger congregants who increasingly support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. This latter point cuts right (no pun intended) to the core of the questions of “Why this?” and “Why now?”. We can look for the answer in the work of Dr. Derrick Bell and his pioneering work in critical race theory.
The late Dr. Bell of New York University Law School forwarded the theory of “interest convergence,” meaning that white people will support racial justice only when they understand and see that there is something in it for them, when there is a “convergence” between the “interests” of white people and racial justice. Bell asserted that the Supreme Court ended the longstanding policy in 1954 of “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education because it presented to the world, and in particular, to the Soviet Union during the height of the cold war, a United States that supported civil and human rights.
In like fashion, I posit that evangelicals and other conservative Christians, as they see more and more people supporting and more states passing civil and human rights protections based on sexual and gender identity and expression, and more and more people are leaving those religious institutions that have not caught up as welcoming congregations, evangelicals seemed to have “evolved” somewhat from dictating policies to at least debating varying perspectives. Whether they will eventually soften their stands is another matter.
As I read the article, something arose in me that I have contemplated writing for many years, though I have continually put it off because it represents thoughts and feelings I never really wanted to make visible. I believed that if I relegated them to the recesses of my consciousness, over time, they would simply evaporate sparing me the task of putting pen to paper (or more appropriately, key strokes to computer screen). But no matter how hard I tried to let go of the pain and hurt, nonetheless, these thoughts and feelings keep resurfacing. Possibly now if I write them down, I can let them go.
It began for me back in 1987 when I first learned that one of my favorite writers and personalities had died in France at the relatively young age of 63. James Baldwin, essayist, novelist, poet, playwright, activist, hero to many including myself, expatriated to France where he lived much of his later life. He was attracted to the cultural and political progressivism of the Left Bank, where he could escape the pressures of Jim Crow racism and the enormity of heterosexism in the United States, and where his creative energy could soar. His numerous works directly tackled issues of race, sexuality, and socioeconomic class with an unflinching and inescapable honesty, and with a clear indictment of the corrupt systems of power that dominated his native land.
Reading and listening to multiple obituaries on the day Baldwin died, I distinctly remember a particular reporter recounting an anecdote in Baldwin’s life that has stayed with me and has given me permission to feel my own similar feelings ever since. Sometime in Baldwin’s life, a white news reporter apparently asked him the question, “What do Negros want from white people?” Without hesitation, Baldwin responded, “You ask the wrong question, which should not be what we want from you, but rather, the question should be, ‘Can we forgive you?'”
I clearly understand that the ways people of color experience racism are very different from the ways queer people experience heterosexism and cissexism. Nonetheless, Baldwin’s rejoinder to the white reporter hit me like a pitcher of ice water to the face waking me and releasing the anger I had attempted to stuff inside when I was growing up during the late 1940s through the 1960s as a differently-gendered gay boy then man residing in a hostile country. Emanating from my bowels and rising to the surface gushed forth from me so many questions inspired by James Baldwin, questions in which the term “you” refers to systems of power, domination, and privilege.
So while I understand that evangelical institutions need to go through their processes and hopefully evolve to a more progressive view on LGBT civil and human rights, I continually ask myself:
Can we forgive you for defining us as “inherently disordered,” as “contrary to God’s will,” as “sinners,” as “perverts,” as “heretics,” as “Godless,” as “deceived” and “depraved,” as a “corrupting force on civilization and on the family,” as “contrary to the laws of nature,” and that our relationships “will tear down the very fabric of society”? Can we forgive you for your insulting and repugnant mantra “We love the sinner but hate the sin”? Can we forgive you in your efforts to deny me and members of my community the rights of self-definition and self-determination, and to deny us our integrity and our humanity by attempting to prevent us from maintaining our subjectivity, our agency, and our voice?
Can we forgive you as you so arrogantly tell us why and how we have come to our same-sex attractions and our gender identities and expressions, and that it is a “choice” that we can change? Can we forgive you for your abusive “religious counseling” to remove us from the so-called “gay lifestyle”? Can we forgive you for your bogus and dangerous “reparative” or “conversion therapy”? Can we forgive you for the defrocking, excommunications, purging, and banishments? Can we forgive you for turning our loved ones against us, and for making us internalize your lies?
Can we forgive you for using our bodies as stepping stones for your own ambitions and political (yes, political) advancement? Can we forgive you in your endeavors to deny me and members of my community the rights granted under the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution to equal protection under the law, and in particular the right to marry the person of our choice, to serve our country openly in the military, to equal protections in employment, housing, public accommodations, insurance, inheritance, and to pursue happiness as we see fit? Can we forgive you in your efforts to legislate us into second-class citizenship and codify your so-called “values” into law and attempt to deny us entry into the institutions of our choice? Can we forgive you in your efforts to prevent me and members of my community from gaining our rightful place in our society?
When religious leaders preach their damaging interpretations of their sacred texts on issues of same-sex relationships or identities and gender non-conformity within and outside their respective houses of worship, they must be held accountable and responsible for aiding and abetting those who target and harass, bully, physically assault, and murder people perceived as LGBT. In addition, they must be held accountable as accomplices in the suicides of those who are the targets of these abusive actions.
We are seeing individuals and entire denominations framing themselves as the true victims whenever we challenge their religious justifications in their attempts to perpetuate their already pervasive Christian hegemony and social privileges, and their characterizations of others. Some proponents of the newest wave of so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” characterize those who protest against these unnecessary and sham statutes as “religiously intolerant” and as “religious bigots.”
In the final analysis, our challenge remains in no way “religious intolerance” or “religious bigotry,” but rather, it amounts to our standing up to correct a devastating social injustice. It is not “religious prejudice” to challenge offensive, demeaning, degrading, marginalizing, persecution-resulting, violence-provoking, suicide-inducing characterizations of us.
So, to all of you who wish to debate the issues, go ahead. I personally, however, refuse to debate my existence on religious grounds ever again with anyone, since there is no “debate,” for to quote Rene Descartes, “I think therefore I am,” period, the end.
Possibly in the future we may see some real change in some of the more conservative religious institutions around the country. For me, though, I would like to see genuine support, nurturance, celebration of difference, and not mere “tolerance” or “acceptance,” which implies there is something to accept, as if a superior being deigned to regard an inferior being. This feels extremely condescending and patronizing. It seems very nobless oblige.
I understand that we as a society have come a long way even from the time I was a young person, and we still have far to travel. What can never be forgotten, however, is that as racism is white peoples’ (my) problem and obligation to eliminate, heterosexism is a heterosexual problem, and cissexism is a cisgender problem. The dominant group has the responsibility to dismantle the forms of oppression that bestow upon itself the multiple array of unearned privileges not accorded to those outside, who are often viewed as the “other.”
One day, maybe, we can truly and fully forgive you, but I can never forget.
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-author with Diane Raymond of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).