My close friend Ben killed himself when we were college kids. Like all very young adults, he was dealing with identity issues -- who he was, where he belonged, where he was going, who he could trust. He was also struggling with issues of his own sexuality, knowing his church, his parents and many of his friends might be disappointed in him if they knew the issues he was wrestling with.
In those days, being gay, or even thinking you might be, was like a death sentence. Suicide for gay and lesbian youth was commonplace. Homophobia was rampant, and slurs and jokes against gays and lesbians were the norm. Ridicule was everywhere -- in magazines, in movies, on television shows, everywhere (anyone remember Liberace or "Three's Company"?). Back then, most people believed being gay was a "choice" or an illness that could be cured.
More than 25 years later, things have changed dramatically, especially in urban areas. GLBTQ youth are much more likely to find someone they can talk to, or someone with whom they feel safe. In many suburban and rural areas, however, and in a number of religious communities, there is still rampant homophobia and bigotry. Outdated notions that suggest homosexuals have an illness, a birth defect or worse yet -- that they have made a "choice to live a sinful lifestyle" still exist. Pain, suffering and quiet desperation are still far too common.
After Ben died, I learned a great deal about homosexuality by reading materials from PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Gays And Lesbians) and reading numerous books on the subject. I would like to share some of what I've learned here, not as an academic thesis, but a chronicle of my own personal journey as a straight ally. For scientific support of any of the statements I will make below, please contact the American Psychiatric Association, The American Association of Social Workers, The American Medical Association or the American Psychological Association.
After decades of research, we now know human sexuality is a complicated mix of genetics and socialization, and that being gay has absolutely nothing to do with moral character, how a person's parents raised them, nor their spiritual education.
Being gay has nothing to do with child molestation either. Sexual molestation is about power -- a function of anti-social dominance and aggression inflicted upon those more vulnerable by people in power. Our children are just as much at risk-- maybe more so -- having a heterosexual teacher, than a homosexual teacher.
Some people think being gay is a spiritual issue. You cannot "pray away the gay" in you, any more than you can pray away your own brown hair or green eyes. Most people know from the time they are four or five years old they might be gay (or straight, incidentally). There is even some scientific evidence a person's sexual orientation may be mostly genetic.
People sometimes say being gay is not "natural." Homosexuality exists in the animal world, alongside heterosexuality and may serve evolutionarily to keep colonies of animals from over-producing, while keeping caretaking behaviors strong. In the animal kingdom, not all adults reproduce (look at bees and ants!). Nature designs eco-systems so there are not too many children, whether it is a pack, or hive, or colony, or nest, for the number of adults who must provide for them. By ensuring a community has a high enough adult-child ratio, it improves the chances all members will survive. In other words, nature reminds us every adult is a constructive part of any community, whether they reproduce sexually or not. In many species, homosexual couples bond for life
What about gay couples having children? In human history, families have always existed with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sister and infants all living together in one camp or village (read the Bible for examples!). Completely isolated nuclear family units -- with straight parents or gay parents -- are not natural in either the animal kingdom, nor throughout human history. Isolated nuclear family units did not emerge until the 1900s in most places and only in post-industrialized nations. Many social scientists have found the social isolation found in nuclear family units without adequate social support networks can be psychologically damaging. Like all mammals, we are social animals who need to give and receive love. We need lots of adults while we are growing up who love us and care for us. Those adults do not have to be only one's biological parents.
As a result of a shift in understanding of homosexuality, many suicides can now be prevented with love and compassion. When I was a suicide counselor after college, I heard stories like Ben's dozens of times, and each time, the person calling was in deep, emotional pain. Comforting people, loving them, telling them there is nothing wrong with them because they are gay, and reminding them they are worthy human beings, just like everyone else, can go a long way to keeping people alive. We saved hundreds of lives that way every year.
I personally believe God is on my side every time I affirm, love, honor, respect, and lift up someone who happens to be gay. Being a compassionate human being is not the same as endorsing, condoning, or encouraging one sexual orientation over another. It is about compassion and justice. It's about liberty and freedom and all the things we hold dear as Americans. It is about decency, and brotherhood and love for our neighbor.
What do we say to people who say the Bible tells us being gay is a sin? I believe the Bible has been interpreted and reinterpreted so many times, by so many cultures and governments, that some of what's left may not necessarily reflect the intention of its writer(s). It is probably much more of an evolving historical document than a Divine one. If you are given an interpretation of the Bible that teaches being gay is a sin, question it. Numerous respected scholars feel that is a misinterpretation of the earliest known texts.
Perhaps the Biblical injunction to "be fruitful and multiply" was intended to apply to an entire tribe, rather than to an individual. Couldn't a person's contribution to society, made through their career or through their volunteering, be toward the greater good that satisfies this commandment? Each time an individual or childless couple does something to make the world a better place for children, they are following God's plan, in my humble opinion.
The Biblical injunction to "not spill one's seed" must also be taken in historical cultural context. I suggest an alternate, more humane interpretation than we usually hear from the political far-right. In Biblical times, before there were modern government programs to protect the most vulnerable in our society, women were seen as the property of men. They did not own property -- only men did. Property was passed from father to son. A woman's only chance at a long life and survival was dependent upon being married and when her husband died, having sons. A man having sex with his wives and providing a son for each of them meant increasing the likelihood the wives would not starve to death, should he die. Sex outside of marriage, whether homosexual or heterosexual, potentially denied women a rightful heir to insure against their premature deaths. Sperm was not to be "wasted" because it was a valued commodity for these women -- it might be the difference between life and death for them. In some historian's opinions, the injunction against "spilling one's seed" was not meant to equate homosexual sex with being evil; it was an early attempt to provide a social safety net for the welfare of widows.
The Bible also contains some important ethical lessons for us all, if we choose to read it as a historical depository of generations of wisdom. It tells us that which is Divine is in our hearts, and that God is love. The Golden Rule tells us to treat others as we wish to be treated. All of the world's great faiths teach us to "love and care for each other." What more could we possibly need to know?
There are increasing numbers of churches and synagogues that welcome and affirm gay members and help them to feel lovable and valuable. These congregations make it clear all people are equal under the sheltering arms of a loving God. They put love up front, where it is supposed to be, where Jesus and Moses and Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama and so many other spiritual leaders have told us it should be. Many of these churches show rainbows on their websites and use words like "welcoming and affirming" in their descriptions. As a general rule of thumb, Unitarian-Universalist churches, United Church of Christ and many urban community churches are like this. If you are looking for a spiritual community that teaches love and acceptance for everyone, call your local chapter of PFLAG and ask for a referral to a "welcoming and affirming" congregation in the community where you live.
Losing my friend Ben changed my life, and gave me my mission -- to offer compassion and comfort to people who feel disenfranchised in some way. That mission includes speaking out against injustices perpetrated toward people who are gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual. They -- we -- are all made in the image of God.
Whether you agree with me religiously or not, please help me spread the message within our communities, that our job on this earth is to love -- not to judge, humiliate, shame, belittle, torture, shun, banish, punish or change other people. Please join me in condemning such hatred and emotional violence, every place, every situation, every time.
Life is too short for hate. Our job here is to love.