Friday, May 23, 2008

Good Gays, Bad Gays Continued: The Smack-Hug Violence of Churches

I’m trying something different today.

Yesterday, my friend Colleen (check out her “Enlightened Catholicism” blog, linked to mine) left a great comment on my posting about good gays, bad gays, and the churches of the radical middle.

In what follows, I want to engage Colleen’s comments. They are so thought-provoking that I can’t really do justice to them by replying in the comment slot. And maybe if this dialogue is in the main thread of the blog, it will bring some light for other readers who are struggling with the churches’ stances towards their LGBT brothers and sisters.

So here goes:


You address some key points in my perambulations yesterday. I value the incisive comments, which help me focus my own thinking.

You say,

I'm not so sure the hate isn't a product of jealousy, of an unstated sense of inadequacy. A number of the things gays seem to do very well are create artistically, love with no strings attached, and have definite spiritual gifts . . . . I think gayness is defined by much more than sexual attraction. It's defined best by the concept of balance between creation and chaos and male and female. That tension of that balance is very often expressed in creative or spiritual works.

These are significant points. They touch right on the heart of the dynamics I was trying to describe yesterday—better than I was able to do.

First, the hate issue. Yesterday, after posting, I asked myself, “Are you sure that hate is the word you really want?” Is what the churches do to us really hate, or is that word too strong to describe the antipathy, exclusion, and malicious dissemination of misinformation about us?

Asking these questions draws attention to the word “homophobia” itself, with its “phobia” root. That root can mean both fear and hate, or hate driven by fear.

Some people object to the term “homophobia” precisely on this ground: that hate is a word too strong to describe what is often going on when folks resist or despise gay folks.

I tend to think it’s accurate, though, in exposing the roots of homophobia. Like the various forms of violence, which I analyzed in a previous posting on this blog, hate can manifest itself in both hot and cold ways.

The hot form of violence or hate is not too hard to detect. It’s the kind that happened recently in Sacramento right after the gay marriage ruling in California, when three young men out to beat up a fag to protest the court decision asked a man sitting in a car at a gas station if he were gay.

When he said he was, they dragged him out of his car and beat him up ( And yet the social network webpage of one of the alleged gay bashers, Micah Jontomo Tasaki, at ( has this young man saying, “CHILVARY DOES STILL EXIST. Im honest, open, and caring.... very compassionate, and a great listener.”

Jarring, isn’t it? Chivalry exists. I’m honest, opening, caring, very compassionate. And, oh, by the way, if I run across a fag sitting in a car minding his own business, I’m liable to kick the stuffing out of him while I’m going about my chivalry-compassion business.

What this story underscores for me is that the hot form of hate goes hand in hand with cold forms of hate, which are less easy to detect—and of which we may even be unconscious. I would submit that it’s the cold form of hate that inhabits so much of the thinking (and behavior) of church folks in Main Street USA.

This cold form of homophobia is what’s at work in so much that goes on with the churches. This is the behavior analyzed in Harry Knox’s article “Methodist Schizophrenia on Gays” at the Casting Stones blog on Beliefnet (

Knox is a former United Methodist pastor from a family with deep Methodist roots. He now heads the Religion and Faith Program for Human Rights Campaign. His article is commenting on the recent UMC General Conference.

Knox characterizes the Methodist approach to LGBT persons as schizophrenic “smack-hug behavior”: we love you; we don’t want you; we welcome all sinners; we don’t welcome you; our doors are open; no gays need apply; we promote and defend your civil rights; don’t expect us to respect your rights if you work in our institutions.

Some folks have objected to the use of the term “schizophrenic” in this article. I think it’s a precise description of how the churches of Main Street USA actually behave towards us. Their behavior is insane. And they don’t even seem aware of it.

It’s unrecognized insanity because it’s masked in religious rhetoric about love that doesn’t permit those engaging in this abusive behavior (Knox calls it “spiritual violence” as well) even to admit or know that they are assaulting the very souls, the personhood, of a particular group of human beings. Hate masquerades as love in the way the churches of the radical middle think about and act towards LGBT persons, and it’s very difficult to tease out or address the hate for this reason. It’s disguised. It’s cold hate.

But I know your point here is not to challenge the use of the word "hate." You’re making a point that goes way beyond the analysis of this word, and it’s an excellent point. You say that hate—the cold form of homophobic violence in which the churches engage—may well be a form of jealousy or a sense of inadequacy.

And you go on to identify the psychological nexus from which the jealousy and sense of inadequacy often springs. You say, “Main stream churches understand they have a proportional misrepresentation of gays in their structures. They just can't deal with the underlying talent issues this represents so gays must be vilified.”

These are extremely insightful comments, it seems to me, ones that reflect your background as a therapist. If, as you say, gay people bring the churches talents that have everything to do with our accepting that we are gay—specifically, if our struggles to accept ourselves create a creative tension or balance inside us of male-female principles—then our very being there, with those talents, seems to threaten some folks, or make some folks feel inadequate.

The puzzle to me is your right-on-target conclusion that, because the churches can’t deal with the “underlying talent issues” that gay contributions to churches represent, “gays must be vilified.”

I think this is exactly right. It also seems insane to me—insane, that is, that churches would recognize an abundance of talent for spiritual insight and creativity in a particular group of people, whom they then expel! Precisely for offering talent, spiritual insight, and creativity to the churches . . . .

I know in my bones that you are right. I just find it hard to understand that human beings behave in such self-defeating ways.

I know you’re right, because what you say fits my own experience, my own spiritual journey. I’ve spoken of my brother’s death in 1991 as a kind of catalyst for my self-acceptance as a gay man.

But what happened in my journey in that part of my life is actually more complex. Prior to my brother’s death, I had a sabbatical semester to do research while I was on fellowship. I spent that semester writing a book and several articles, teaching a seminar, but, perhaps most significant of all, doing therapeutic work with a spiritual counselor.

The counselor was a Jungian analyst. Since I have always dreamed profusely and kept track of my dreams, his approach made sense to me.

From the start of my semester’s work with him, I told him I was gay, and needing to figure out what to do with that, given my vocational path to teaching theology in church-affiliated universities. I was some six years into my teaching career.

The tension of being someone inside that I had to disguise outside was eating me up. It was not the creative tension of holding something in balance. It was the deadly tension of living a public persona that doesn’t match the private self, so that you begin to fear you’ll simply lose your private self and become the walking, talking parody of the persona you’ve adopted.

I worked hard with the counselor in that semester. I can remember, towards the end of my time with him, he put his finger on something that helped me reframe the personal identity-vocational struggle in a creative new way. He noted that, again and again, in describing my dreams, I had used words like “upwelling,” “springing forth,” “streams,” “energy,” “light.”

He told me that, in his view, the hard work I was doing to try to bring together the gay self and my public life as a theologian in a church-affiliated school had much to do with releasing springs of creative energy. The more I was able to hold these two together, to claim my identity as a gay man while continuing on my vocational path as a theologian, the more the creativity was springing forth.

And he was right.

Within months after my return home, my brother died. It was the combination of my own Spirit-led journey to self acceptance as a gay man and my brother’s death, a life-changing event for me, that brought me to that decision I described yesterday: that I would never again do my work as a theologian while denying my personhood (and gifts) as a gay man.

This bringing together the pieces I hadn’t been able to bring together as long as I played the game of don’t ask, don’t tell released tremendous energy in me. Not only had I just written one book, but out of the blue, I suddenly got requests to publish another, as well as articles based on my research. I wrote an essay that got selected for publication in a national essay contest. I got several job offers totally unsolicited, because of my publications.

But here’s the kicker: when I turned down tenure at my home university and took another job following my brother’s death, with the intent of expressing my new-found creativity in a new setting where I was told I was wanted and needed, the experience proved to be disastrous.

My experience has been that the resistance we encounter as self-accepting gay persons with much to offer in church institutions is in direct proportion to our self-acceptance, and to the talents we bring to the table. We’re welcome as long as we are self-hating, silent, dismissable: good gays.

The minute we claim our identities as God-given, and acknowledge that the love inside ourselves and in our relationships also springs from God, we become personae non gratae in the churches: bad gays The hard struggle (in a homophobic society) to accept ourselves as God’s good gifts to ourselves and others, a struggle that releases in us creative energies the churches sorely need, disqualifies us from a place at the table in the churches.

In fact, in my last disastrous experience, where Steve and I were told that we were welcome as an openly gay couple in a United Methodist institution that sorely needed our talents (hug), and then were constantly upbraided for coming to work together and "putting our lifestyle into the face of colleagues," the experience was even grimmer (smack).

You’re painting a totally accurate picture. And yet something is so wrong with this picture. I need your further reflections, Colleen, to help me figure out precisely what is at work in such smack-hug behavior on the part of the churches of the radical middle.

1 comment:

colkoch said...

I'm going to go out on a limb here Bill, and use some transpersonal psychology. I'm going to do this because I firmly believe that gays experience the day to day world differently from straights, and I'm not talking about the homophobia here. I'm talking about a kind of freedom from gender typing, and because of that, a freedom to explore and accept other realms of thought, creativity, and spirituality.
For women the trail blazers in professional athletics have been lesbian women. This is especially true in team sports, but also in tennis and golf. The first really big money athletes in women's sport were disproportionately gay. I'd be willing to bet this was also true of the first women professionals in academia, law, and medicine. Lesbian women are almost driven to take on traditional male roles because the gender typing that says we can't doesn't seem to matter. Tomboys don't always grow up to be wives and mothers. The same is true for gay men in professional figure skating, diving, and probably gymnastics, but we don't know that with any accuracy because gay male athletes won't come out of the closet. Greg Louganis, and a few male figure skaters are the exceptions. I suspect they're closer to the rule. In any event, gay males are clearly over represented in the creative arts, and traditional service professions. This is not a simple matter of wanting to falsely mimic alternative gender roles. This is a case of knowing you have what it takes to be competent and successful in non traditional gender roles. In this sense gays exhibit a kind of both/and rather than either/or. This is very different from the straight world, where gender roles are much more tightly defined. This tight definition manifests sexually as well.
There's a school of thought currently being developed which explains spiritual, creative, and relational abilities as products of sexual energy. Sexual energy can be really polluted when a person fails to deal with dominance and submission issues. This is why sexual and physical abuse in early childhood become critical determinants in sexual expression.--not orientation.
Theoretically, because gays aren't nearly as strictly self defined in gender roles vis a vis heterosexuals, they have a head start in reconciling and balancing issues of dominance and submission. Effiminate gay men are a real threat to insecure straight men because they threaten the straight male's definition of self as the dominant individual in male/female relationships, and their attendant need to compete like hell in order to dominate other men. The whole straight male culture is essentially based on dominance. Competent gays threaten the crap out of this culture, as do competent women of either orientation. The concept of equality, especially as Paul taught it concerning male/female, jew/gentile, slave/freeman is not actively sought. There's never any balance or equality. There's almost always only a hierarchy. The problem with this is that if you can't get out of that system you can't experience transcendance in creative expression, spirituality, or sexual relationships. As you say, maintaining takes precedence over mission.
It's no surprise to me that self accepting gays are reflexively punished and defined as bad gays. Given the above analysis, they are bad gays. They aren't properly submissive and completely threaten the ususal modus operandi of the straight male culture. Cultureswould be so much better off if straight men could somehow get out of the bondage of continually playing the dominance game.
I sometimes wonder if Paul didn't have his great conversion experience because Jesus knew His original eleven had some real issues with hierarchical pecking orders and dominance issues. Nothing like a wild card to change a poker hand. Gays are God's wild cards and we should be doing our best to change everyone's odds of winning. It's not a bad thing to be the jokers in God's deck of cards, and in a very real sense, gays actually do have the freedom to take on the role of any card in God's deck--even queens. PS, thanks for the plug.