Monday, February 18, 2008

Speaking Truth in Love

I've just posted a comment in response to Colleen, in reply to her response to the "Do This in Remembrance of Me" posting yesterday.

As that comment states, I continue to feel deep sadness as I ponder what has happened to Lawrence King. I also continue to commit myself not merely to remember, but to act: to keep memory alive by doing all I can to assure that no young person ever again endures what happened to Lawrence King.

As my comment to Colleen notes, a website has now been set up to remember Lawrence King. It allows one to leave messages for his family, as well as to make contributions to a memorial fund. The url is

As I tell Colleen, in meditating on the tragedy that has befallen this family, I am also pondering some experiences I have had in my career as a professional educator and theologian who struggles to be faithful to my calling to seek truth, to speak the truth in love, and to go beyond lip service in my commitment to social justice. In reflecting on what has happened to Larry King, I think of people I have met in my own calling as a professional educator who profess to be aware of the ravages of homophobia in our society, yet who are perfectly willing to engage in homophobic behavior when it assists them in achieving political goals that are more easily attained by bashing someone who is gay.

One of these people whose story I am now pondering is a woman whose son is gay, and who has held a position of responsibility within the leadership structures of a major Christian church.

Though this professional educator with strong church ties professes support for LGBT persons, she has a strange track record of hiring and then discarding gay employees. The gay-lesbian employees whom she has hired and then fired are far out of proportion to our numbers in the population at large, and out of proportion to the straight persons this educator has hired and fired.

I wonder how a mother of a gay son who claims to detest homophobia is capable of such behavior. This is a question my partner Steve and I have talked frequently about with his own mother, who has met this mother of a gay son. Steve's mother is a very faithful Catholic, but she finds it impossible to reject her own gay sons. In meeting the professional educator who has a gay son, she was struck by a sense of terrible conflict--terrible duplicity--in the soul of the other gay mother. She was struck by a sense that this is a mother whose conflicts about accepting her own gay son are so deep, she must lash out at the gay people with whom she surrounds herself periodically.

As I think about this story, what strikes me is how often family members of some gay persons must experience this tragic conflict in their hearts. It is easy to think of ourselves as affirming. It is much harder to affirm in reality. And the heart divided against itself is capable of inexplicable cruelty . . . .

I pray that, for those who find themselves in such a conflicted posture (and I certainly do feel compassion for them), the tragic death of Lawrence King will somehow reach into their hearts. I pray that, by remembering what has happened to some gay sons, such mothers may one day come to understand what LGBT people--and LGBT children, in particular--experience daily.

I hope this event will touch the hearts of family members of LGBT persons who have not yet found it in their hearts to accept, affirm, and, most of all, make solidarity with their gay family members (and gay co-workers and gay friends) to stand against all forms of abuse of gay people in our society.

I hope, in other words, that in remembering Lawrence King, more people whose lives have connection to gay persons will become activists--activists who work to prevent incidents like this happening ever again. I also hope that those who have gay family members, friends, and colleagues, and who have voice within the churches, will raise their voices to call on their churches to stop contributing to violence against LGBT persons.

For educators, in particular, it is keenly important to find ways to shape a new mentality among those we educate. It is urgent that we contribute to the healing of social attitudes and institutions that create violence against LGBT people.

And yes, this must also be the charge of educators in church-based schools. It baffles me that church-based schools continue to seek to silence faculty and staff who call for open dialogue about LGBT issues. If church-based schools do not have a vocation to educate students who combat social violence in all its forms, who does have such a vocation? And how can a violence that cannot even be named be combated? How can educational institutions that enforce silence about LGBT people and their lives combat homophobia?

I have experienced inexplicable roadblocks in several church-based universities where I had the charge of leading faculty, whenever I sought to address these issues. I have encountered overt homophobia from faculty who speak of transformative leadership and civic engagement, and I have sometimes found myself punished by my superiors when I spoke out against such homophobia, while those using homophobia as a weapon against gay colleagues were protected by the same superiors. I have encountered underhanded homophobic tactics on the part of faculty who are training the teachers of the future, and I have been reprimanded when I sought to expose this underhanded behavior.

This has to stop, in colleges and universities. It has to stop in church-based schools. The leaders and teachers of the future will be working in environments in which more and more people are openly gay. If educational institutions--and, above all, church-based ones--do not shape genuinely understanding, accepting, and gay-affirming leaders, who will do so? If church-based colleges and universities demand that the leaders in their educational institutions keep silence about these issues, how can they produce teachers who will heal rather than contribute to homophobia?

We must go beyond lip service in combating homophobia. It is a social cancer, and it eats at the very core of our society. Tolerance that is only on the lips is not tolerance at all. Acceptance and affirmation that is only spoken, but not acted, is not acceptance and affirmation at all. As Josh Kilmer-Purcell noted recently, “By not hiding his repugnance under a bushel, Pastor Phelps is one of America’s most effective gay activists. Middle America finally gets to see what homophobia looks like when it’s stripped of such polite, compromising words as tolerance, and states’ rights activist judges. . . .I believe that each time Fred Phelps gets a little airtime, a fallen AIDS hero gets his wings” ("Donate to the Partridge Family of Hate,” Out [Feb. 2008], 40).

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