Recently advice columnist Dan Savage launched the “It Gets Better Project” on youtube in response to the recent deaths of Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas, Asher Brown, and Seth Walsh, four teens who committed suicide after being bullied for being gay. The intent of this project is to encourage LGBT youth who may be harassed to perservere into adulthood, where they can find a better life and choose to be around people who could give them the love and respect that they deserve. Over 800 videos have been submitted for this project, and among those who have submitted are Christians, Muslims and Jews who are either gay or lesbian or who want to show support for their LGBT friends. Nicole Neroulias wrote in the October 18, 2010 edition of the Huffington Post of religious figures like Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, Catholic author Gregory Gerard, Muslim student Ibad Shah, and Mormon Natalie Sperry talking about the homophobia within their places of worship and the support they have with those who don’t agree with the teachings of the more intolerant members of their religion. In looking at these youtube videos, I grew very proud of those religious people who have the courage to take a stand against homophobia in their place of worship.
I am particularly sympathetic to this because in the 1990s I attended an evangelical church for a number of years and witnessed certain members of the church express hostile feelings towards gays and lesbians. There were a number of Christians within that church who were either gay, or supported gay rights, or had gay and lesbian friends and family and didn’t like the way their loved ones were treated by their more intolerent church members. The problem was that these Christians didn’t speak up when an individual was harassed by a group or when a group said disparaging remarks against gays and lesbians. They didn’t want to go against the majority of the church. I was glad to have found a blog by evangelical Christian Kathy Baldock who found many Christians who quietly support gay rights:
Yes, I run into closeted Christians all the time. And no, they are not gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. They are straight, like me. But, they love their GLBT friends and family and are coming to a realization that what they’ve been told or thought they understood may not be the heart of God. They see honor, integrity and even Jesus and the Holy Spirit in their GLBT friends. Evidenced in the very same group they have been told cannot possible be Christian because they are queer. In some churches, it is not safe to even ask questions about homosexuality, about any thing. So, how can they dare openly dialogue about this issue, this hot button topic in most Christian congregations?
Because I am so open about my theology and cause for equality, I get lots of comments, mail, and calls about the issue of “coming out” as a straight allies. Pastors wives who are disgusted with the church’s (universal) treatment of the queer community. Friends who have left church over the bigotry against a gay relative. Other people who don’t want to follow a God who hates their Jesus-professing gay friend. I hear from gay twenty-somethings who are closeted and serving in church ministries scared to be honest because they will lose ministry positions and church home. Or a bisexual young woman who was ready to walk away from the faith because of small town anti-gay rhetoric in and out of church. “I don’t want anything to do with that kind of God,” she told me. You may not realize the number of people this affects in the church who, in utter disgust, turn because His followers display clear bigotry towards the GLBT Christian community. I do have a clue as to the number; they talk to me. They feel compassion not intolerance, love, not hate and mercy, not judgment.
Mark Osler, a Professor of Law in the University of St. Thomas, wrote a blog in the Huffington Post about his conversion from an anti-gay bigot to someone who became more tolerant due to getting gay friends in college. He wrote:
I am straight, and though everyone gets made fun of for something, I never faced the relentless teasing, bullying and violence that gay and lesbian kids did and do. In fact, I was a bigot. I didn’t take part in violence, but I probably did bully and tease other kids in school, given my attitude toward gays and lesbians when I was young. I know for certain that I did not do anything to stop others from bullying and in that way was complicit with what happened around me.
These actions and inactions were a failure of my faith, both personally and in the failure of the church to teach me anything else. In short, I thought that gays and lesbians (I doubt I knew about bisexuals or transgendered people) were deviant and to be condemned. My bigotry was consistent with what the culture, the church and my friends thought and said, and it was not countered by those who knew better. When I used the word “gay,” it was pejorative, and if I thought someone was gay, I kept my distance or worse.
But I got better. I’m not perfect, but better.
What changed? That is simple: A handful of brave men and women changed me, people who were willing to challenge my bigotry through leadership, friendship and warmth.
I’ve always had the belief that if a main source of homophobia is religion, then the people within that particular religion should speak out and fight to change things. Bishop Gene Robinson makes this point in a post for the website Center for American Progress:
It is not enough for good people—religious or otherwise—to simply be feeling more positive toward gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Tolerance and a live-and-let-live attitude beats discrimination and abuse by a mile. But it’s not enough. Tolerant people, especially tolerant religious people, need to get over their squeamishness about being vocal advocates and unapologetic supporters of LGBT people. It really is a matter of life and death, as we’ve seen.
I learned this in my dealing with racism. It’s not enough to be tolerant of other races. I benefit from a racist society just by being white. I don’t ever have to use the “n” word, treat any person of color with discourtesy, or even think ill of anyone. But as long as I am not working to dismantle the systemic racism that benefits me, a white man, at the expense of people of color, I am a racist. And my faith calls me to become an anti-racist—pro-active, vocal, and committed.
Some progressive religious groups—the United Church of Christ, Unitarians, Metropolitan Community Church—have long been advocates for LGBT people. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has recently made great strides in welcoming gay clergy. And my own Episcopal Church has put itself at great risk on behalf of full inclusion of LGBT people in electing two openly gay priests to be bishops.
Faced with the evidence of intolerence within their churches, even those Christians who may believe that homosexuality is a sin have had to face the hatred that their beliefs feed into. In an October 26, 2010 post in The Progressive Christian Alliance website, David R. Gillespie wrote:
I disagree with Mohler when it comes to a blanket statement regarding the moral standing of homosexual acts. I do agree that some homosexual acts can be sinful; but then some heterosexual acts can be sinful as well. For me, that sinful status is contextual in nature. But I do agree with Mohler when he writes:
“When gay activists accuse conservative Christians of homophobia, they are wrong. Our concern about the sinfulness of homosexuality is not rooted in fear… Yet, when gay activists accuse conservative Christians of homophobia, they are also right. Much of our response to homosexuality is rooted in ignorance and fear. We speak of homosexuals as a particular class of especially depraved sinners and we lie about homosexuals experience their own struggle….far too many find comfort in their own moralism, consigning homosexuals to a theological or moral category all their own.”
I disagree with Bishop Robinson when he wants to paint that straight line of causality from a particular understanding of the moral nature of homosexual acts to mean-spirited, violence prone and hateful bullies. But I agree with him that “religious voices denouncing LGBT people contribute to the atmosphere in which violence against LGBT people and bullying can flourish.”
I don’t think that guy who wanted to beat the crap out of me in junior high school because of my perceived sexual orientation was religiously motivated. I really don’t think he even went to church at all. He did it because he was mean, because he liked violence, because he liked picking on guys who were smaller or weaker than he was. He did it because he was, in good Christian terms, a sinful being in rebellion against God.
I would argue that contemporary bullying has roots, not in a conservative or evangelical Christianity, but rather, in a culture of violence which we Christians must speak prophetically to and preach/teach about in our churches; it has it deeper roots in the sinful heart of humankind, hearts which are called back to relationship with God in the Gospel we preach. We can do that regardless of our views of homosexuality.
I do not believe that homosexuality is any sort of sin. I’m glad though that even those who do believe so are questioning how their beliefs could contribute to hostility and hatred towards gays and lesbians. I do not know much about Judaism and Islam, but I have a feeling that a similar debate is going on between the more moderate and progressive Jews and Muslims and their more intolerant co-religionists. In the youtube, I found a few Jewish and Muslim speakers talk about against homophobia. In the 1990s, no one in my church was willing to speak out when someone was harassed. I’m glad that now there are religious people of all denominations and religions taking a stand for individuals who can’t fight back.