Saturday, June 28, 2008

Breaking Bonds of Prejudice: The Educational Challenge

There’s been interesting discussion recently on the blog of my statewide free newspaper Arkansas Times. It’s about a plan for the Family Council of Arkansas to gather signatures this past weekend for a ballot initiative to ban gay adoption.

Apparently the FCA decided to target the farmers’ market in downtown Little Rock this past Saturday. I’m fascinated by some of the responses of bloggers on the Arkansas Times website. Comments suggest that some folks find it hard to believe that farmers’ markets would be frequented by people willing to sign an anti-gay ballot proposal.

This assumption interests me. It suggests to me that there’s quite a gap between what people experience every day, living in gay skin, and what those who inhabit different skin experience. In my experience, it’s entirely possible to encounter homophobia—in the form of rude stares and rude comments—if you shop as a more-or-less identifiable gay couple at our local farmers’ market, and at other farmers’ markets I’ve gone to. In fact, our local farmers' market is one of the places I have come to expect to encounter more open prejudice than most anyplace I go in the city.

The disparity between what I experience and what many of my heterosexual fellow citizens seem to think happens around them has gotten me to thinking. About a number of things.

First of all, I’m wondering why it is that one can experience homophobic reactions, as an identifiable gay couple, in settings where many people believe that homophobia is non-existent. I suppose hovering beneath that belief is the presupposition that the gays love them some markets: the bright flowers, the luscious vegetables, the sights, the sounds, the scents, the fabulous meals to plan.

And, of course, there’s truth in that presupposition. Our local farmers’ market does have quite a few gay shoppers and gay couples shlepping around baskets of flowers, vegetables, and yes, fruits every day that it’s open.

Which is to say, it’s one of the few venues in this bible-belt city in which identifiably gay citizens routinely rub shoulders with non-gay citizens. And there’s the rub. A lot of the folks who come to the farmers’ market every Saturday are “from afar,” as my aunt said recently—to which my brother responded, “Oh, you mean from Bald Knob?” That’s a town about an hour outside Little Rock.

The farmers’ market is one of the few public spaces in which people from small towns and rural areas can count on seeing the gays in Arkansas each weekend. As can citizens from the righteous, family-values Republican suburbs from the white-flight areas ringing the northern perimeter of the city, as well.

And this is precisely what elicits the homophobia that some of the liberal bloggers on the Arkansas Times website seem completely unaware of: the certainty that, when you come into the exciting and dangerous downtown area, with its whiffs of fresh produce and sin, you’ll encounter an Americanus exoticus gayus or two. The Arkansas Times itself has carried letters in which suburban citizens profess their outrage that they have seen gay couples walking around hand in hand in the river market area of the city.

I’ve never seen anything like this. I suspect that outraged citizens who see it are seeing what they want to see—the sin they have come into the inner city specifically to see, and which they intend to go home and preach against in their glitzy mega-churches full of other happy families just like their own.

In other words, the decision of groups like the Family Council of Arkansas to target places like the farmers’ market are strategic decisions. FCA wouldn’t bother gathering signatures at the market if they didn’t know full well that they are going to meet quite a few suburban (and rural) citizens who have come to the market not only to shop, but to slum, to gawk, even to sin a little so that they can go back home to preach against the sins of the wicked city in which the gays are slowly becoming visible, with their shopping baskets and menu-planning and what not.

In my experience, it’s always entirely possible to encounter open homophobia—in the form of rude stares, taunts, even jostles or assaults—in any setting in which the boundaries between a gay world and a straight world blend and blur. In any setting in which one can predict that there will be a significant proportion of openly gay folks interacting with straight folks who are not particularly pleased to be among the gays, sparks tend to fly.

I can recall, for instance, a certain Thai restaurant we used to go to in Charlotte, which was on the boundary of an older inner-city neighborhood that was being renovated, where a high proportion of the city’s gay inhabitants were living in the 1990s. The next neighborhood over was a much more affluent, solidly Republican and heavily-churched, area. The restaurant fell on the invisible fault line between the neighborhoods.

We stopped going there when it became apparent to us that the owners didn’t welcome gay couples. They didn’t want the gays taking over their business. They didn't want visible gay customers, gay diners in such proportions that they were unmistakable as a minority group. They were afraid that we’d run off the families they imagined as the backbone of their business.

They never did or said anything that communicated this outright. But communicate it they did, by a certain flustered manner they had when anyone noticeably gay came into the restaurant —a manner distinctly different from the one they affected for their family customers. Anytime Steve or I mentioned to other gay couples the vibes the owners were giving us, we learned that they, too, were picking up those same vibes.

We weren’t imagining them. We were all reading the body language of the owners loud and clear. We were all reading the text of disparity accurately: the way we were being treated as gay couples visiting the restaurant was distinctly different from the way straight families were being treated, and it was distinctly shabbier.

We’ve had this experience multiple times. One learns to read the text almost before heading in the door of the restaurant. A restaurant that advertises itself as a family restaurant or a family-friendly one? Don’t even bother stopping. One with a sign out front that has a bible quote of the day? (Yes, they exist in places like Arkansas.) Unless it’s says, “Judge not, lest you be judged,” you can fairly well predict that you’ll receive an icy welcome, if you’re detectably gay when you walk through the door.

There’s certainly such a thing as gay paranoia of the kind Woody Allen mocks in “Annie Hall” when he overhears someone say, “D’you hear thus and so?” and then jumps to the conclusion that the question is anti-semitic. As a check against this, we try to run our impressions by other gay folks in our area, to see if anyone else is picking up what we pick up when we visit this restaurant, shop in that store, go to this part of the city. When others have had the same experiences and impressions, we begin to recognize that our radar is working accurately.

There’s a catfish restaurant in Little Rock—again, on a boundary line between the university, which is more or less gay-friendly, and the suburban neighborhoods surrounding the university—that I long ago resolved not to go to, because of the vibes it gave me when I went to it. It didn’t surprise me to hear after I made that decision that the owner had asked a table of gay men never to come back there, since he doesn’t welcome gay folks.

Interestingly enough, just a few doors up the street from that Thai restaurant in Charlotte is one of the most gay-friendly restaurants in the city. The difference? In the case of this eating establishment, the non-gay patrons know full well that they will be eating alongside openly gay couples, and they come there welcoming the oasis of diversity in a mostly buttoned-down and starched city.

This restaurant is also a little past the boundary line between the two neighborhoods—more inside the “gay” neighborhood. I suppose part of the message of the Thai restaurant to its gay patrons in the 1990s (my experiences with this restaurant ended in that decade; it may well have changed since then) is that, if you want to do gay, you can just walk up the street a few steps and do all the gay you want. Just not with us, please.

Another thought the recent postings in the Arkansas Times elicits: straight people, including (and perhaps especially) liberal and gay-tolerant people, are often simply oblivious to the levels of hostility some of their fellow citizens feel free to vent against gay folks on a routine basis. Dramas are going on all around liberals, which liberal eyes can’t see. Liberals of the I-love-everyone type, who don’t ever get their hands dirty fighting for human rights alongside those they profess to love, don’t see the ugly little dramas of prejudice taking place around them, because they don’t have anything vested in making solidarity with those they profess to love.

There’s a whole world of valuable information out there in subcultures that experience oppression. It’s valuable educational information, information that enlightened folks need to know, if their protestations about tolerance and love are to mean anything at all.

It’s information that the churches need, if they’re going to address social ills, as they claim to wish to do. But it’s also educational information for which those who welcome the information will pay a price. Learn what it’s like to live in the skin of the despised Other for a day, in a society through which you yourself walk without experiencing a single sling and arrow, and you’ll end up being far less comfortable living in that society.

And I’m not convinced, frankly, that the churches really believe that hoary old line that Jesus came to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. If they did, they’d be setting up some places for dialogue in which they could hear the real-life stories of the real-life despised Others they profess to love.

But whom they don’t even know.

Friday, June 27, 2008

On the Church's Pastoral Responsibility to Obdurate Sinners

I wrote my heart out yesterday.

So I will give readers (and myself) a breather today.

But for a bit of fun (and without sufficient modesty on my part, perhaps), I'd like to draw your attention to a posting of mine that has just appeared on the conversation cafe of the National Catholic Reporter at

The posting is entitled "On the Church's Pastoral Responsibility to Obdurate Sinners." For anyone familiar with some of the more bizarre features of current Catholic theology--especially insofar as it tries to build an anti-gay ethic on very shaky scriptural, traditional, and natural law foundations--this little tongue-in-cheek reflection on the grave moral dangers of dancing may be amusing.

Yes, there are many Catholics who do try to argue today--and apparently with a straight face--that the total silence of Jesus about homosexuality is an indicator that he considered it so obviously sinful, he didn't need to condemn it. And these "thinkers" apparently don't seem to realize that in arguing this way, they open the door to arguments that Jesus approved or condemned anything we anything we want to propose, simply by being silent about that issue.

And yes, the Catholic magisterium, to which so many of these Catholics claim to be absolutely, fanatically, forever and ever loyal, did tell American and Canadian Catholics in 1916 not to hold Catholic-sponsored dances, because modern dance is horribly immoral.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Employee Fired for Being Gay, and Then Silenced: Sordid Story

And finally today, a fascinating story from Dallas, which rips the veil away to expose some of the mechanisms by which the rich and powerful in our society try to keep gay human beings out of positions of leadership, and/or to silence those human beings when they unjustly expel them from leadership.

June 24th’s Dallas Morning News ran a story by Theodore Kim entitled “Months After Controversy, Gay Collin County Teen Court Coordinator to Leave Job” (see Kim reports that after Dallas Voice mentioned the sexual orientation of Justin Nichols, coordinator of the Teen Court of Collin County, in a March article, the County Commissioners Court began to move against Mr. Nichols.

Because he is gay.

On 10 June, the commissioners met and voted to offer a severance agreement to Mr. Nichols. The money offered to him will, of course, come from public funds. Mr. Nichols is unable to speak of the particulars of the agreement, because it includes a confidentiality clause.

The article notes that “Mr. Nichols oversees about 200 volunteers in the court, a program where teen jurors adjudicate cases involving young people accused of minor crimes. He took the position in August 2006 and made an annual salary of $35,500, not including benefits.”

There have apparently been no allegations whatsoever that Mr. Nichols did not perform the duties of this important position well—although he is, of course, gay. And, unfortunately, that appears to matter in this case.

Unfortunately as well, as Kim’s article notes, “Federal, state and county laws do not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Twenty states and some municipalities, including the city of Dallas, do forbid such discrimination.” (The Teen Court is in Plano, and not Dallas.)

I find blog commentary about this case fascinating. It suggests to me that people—“ordinary” citizens—are beginning to get it, regarding this kind of discrimination and injustice.

Blog comments about the case indicate that American citizens are recognizing the following:

1. People have a right to a job—to use their talents and participate in the social life of the community by working—regardless of their sexual orientation.

2. Sexual orientation is immaterial, when it comes to a person’s ability to do a good job.

3. People have a right to be protected from unjust termination solely because they are gay.

4. People have a right to have job evaluations and to be kept on at their workplace or terminated on the basis of such evaluations, not at the whim of an employer, simply because they are gay.

5. One can still be terminated in many areas of the nation solely because he or she is gay. In many areas of the nation, no law requires employers to give any reason for the termination—or permits employers to terminate the employee simply because he/she is gay.

6. When this happens, the gay person who is terminated has few legal options, in such areas. If there is no law giving the person protection from such discrimination, juries in right-to-work states are unlikely to sympathize with someone claiming discrimination, even when such discrimination is patent.

7. In such cases, it is understandable that some people who have few resources would accept a severance agreement, even when it calls for their silence about what has happened.

8. Such silence clauses are, in their own way, often a tacit admission of guilt on the part of the institution using them: if the institution’s behavior is defensible, noble, and moral, it should not fear having its actions reviewed in public.

9. Communities in which such severance pay-offs occur are themselves harmed by the pay-off. In this case, tax-payer funds are being used to pay and silence Mr. Justin. In other institutions in which such pay-offs and silencing tactics are used, funds that might better serve the needs of the institution itself (and its other employees) are diverted to the cover-up of unscrupulous actions.

10. We will someday move beyond such unjust behavior. But we won’t do so as long as institutions are permitted to treat gay human beings so unjustly and to try to silence them regarding the unjust treatment doled out to them. We will move forward when the communities in which such stories happen demand that leaders who behave this way be accountable and transparent, and held to best-of-practice ethical standards for their institution.

The following blog comments, which illustrate points above, are from a blog on the Dallas paper website discussing the case of Mr. Nichols (see
[F]urther evidence of why there needs to be a law prohibiting anti-gay discrimination in the workplace. Damn right he took the pay off: It is legal in Texas and in the United States to fire someone for being gay. A suit claiming to the contrary would have been quickly dismissed, despite the claimed presence of liberal activist judges.
If you are a Collin County taxpayer, you too should outraged that your elected county officials can meet in secret to make secret deals spending God only knows how much of your hard earned dollars just because they are homophobic. You can also rest assured that this had to be a substantial amount of money to keep it out of court. Who's next? Hispanic employees? Black employees? Female employees?
And this comment is on Pam’s House Blend blog at (
I think they scared him into the settlement agreement. They could have hinted around about possible allegations that he had acted inappropriately with the teens in the court (e.g. made sexual moves on one or more) and dragged the whole thing into a long trial. Even if he were found innocent, his reputation is trashed. It's one possibility, anyway. Nothing is below them.
It should be noted that the preceding story refers to a secular institution—to county government. One would certainly not expect any church institution to engage in this kind of behavior—firing employees without evaluations solely because they are gay, paying them off with non-disclosure clauses, blackening their reputation and fabricating lies about the reason for their dismissal, and then seeking to use legal power to threaten them if they sought to defend themselves against such gross injustice.

Churches profess to stand for human rights and moral behavior, after all—as do church-based institutions. They are in the business of setting higher ethical standards and higher standards of social justice for society as a whole.

Aren't they?

Barack Obama and Post-Homophobic Models of Black Leadership

Unlike many other African-American leaders, Mr. Obama has been willing to confront the ugly homophobia of many African Americans (especially African-American churchgoers) head on.

In the posting I just made on Barack Obama and the LGBT community, I chose to highlight the preceding statement for the following reason: the way in which many leaders of the African-American community have treated gay issues (and gay human beings) in recent years is a litmus test of leadership. The homophobia of many contemporary African-American leaders, both of the left and the right, has profoundly negative consequences for the black community and the nation as a whole.

It is time for a new generation of African-American leaders. One of the most significant ways in which Mr. Obama can illustrate his new paradigm of leadership is by fostering within the African-American community a new paradigm of inclusion and justice for LGBT persons—and thus by modeling a form of leadership that transcends the ugly exclusion and injustice currently practiced by not a few African-American “leaders” whose claim to leadership is totally vitiated by their willingness to practice injustice and exclusion towards gay human beings.

I realize that in saying what I have just said, I am treading close to a line carefully guarded by many African Americans—and for historically understandable reasons. I am a white male. I am, in fact, the descendant of slaveholders. I may well have no business “intruding” into the inner affairs of the African-American community.

And yet I live in a democratic society that professes to be moving towards participatory democracy. No community in a participatory democracy is or can be completely shut off from other communities. It is our willingness to interact, to share the unique gifts of our particular community, to call each other to accountability, to learn from one another and the particular experiences of other communities, that makes for vibrant and strong participatory democracy.

And no one belongs to a single community. I am a white male (and a white Southern one at that), but I am also a gay male. And that fact makes all the difference in the world to many of my fellow citizens. It automatically places me within a community from which I see the world in a different way than do many other white males—and many other white Southern males, in particular. It gives me an optic on oppression that opens my eyes to other forms of oppression.

The African-American community is also not monolithic. It comprises churched and unchurched folks, as well as gay and straight ones. All of our communities have ties binding us to other communities, ties that cross the dominant affiliative line of a single community to link us to other communities. I may not be black, but my experience intersects with (and differs sharply from) that of black men who also happen to be gay.

We become a healthy participatory democracy to the extent to which we entertain free discourse across the affiliative boundary lines of our communities of origin and communities of choice. I offer the following perspective on the promise of Mr. Obama to revive models of leadership—post-homophobic leadership—in the African-American community, as an outsider to that community.

But I offer these perspectives, as well, from the vantage point of someone who has had the opportunity to study at close range a number of significant contemporary African-American leaders, particularly in the world of higher education, in the almost two decades in which I taught and did administrative work in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). As I have noted on this blog, my life journey has been decisively shaped by my choice at the outset of my teaching career to work in an HBCU, by my interaction with African-American colleagues and the wealth of cultural riches they freely shared with me—and, unfortunately, by scarring experiences with several homophobic African-American women whose injustice to me and my partner has disrupted and burdened our lives.

I speak out of my experience in HBCUs. I speak as an outsider who was, despite my skin color and historical background, invited “inside” for some years—and then expelled not because of my skin color or gender, but because of my sexual orientation.

Now to get to the heart of the matter: as my previous posting notes, earlier this week, Rev. James Dobson, founder of the homophobic Focus on the Family organization, lambasted Barack Obama for what Rev. Dobson calls his “fruitcake interpretation” of scripture and the constitution (see AP release at Dobson accuses Obama of “dragging biblical understanding through the gutter” and “deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology.”

In the past, when leaders of the Christian right such as Rev. Dobson have pontificated about the bible and gays, African-American church leaders have frequently risen to the defense of their white evangelical colleagues.

But not this time. Soon after Rev. Dobson issued his declaration about owning the correct interpretation of the bible (which is to say, owning the bible and God), several key African-American religious leaders quickly distanced themselves from what Rev. Dobson said.

For instance, in a CNN interview with Anderson Cooper following the Dobson blast, Rev. Al Sharpton noted that though we bring our personal convictions to the public square, within the public square of a pluralistic democratic society, no one has a right to impose his/her personal convictions on others in a way that oppresses them. As Rev. Sharpton observes, he may not agree with how Mr. Cooper lives his personal life, and may believe Mr. Cooper is headed to hell. But he defends Mr. Cooper’s right to choose to go to hell, if he so desires (a clip of the interview is at

Well. This is a start. The underlying vision of democratic society reflected in Rev. Sharpton’s comments is far healthier (and far more traditionally American) than is that of Rev. Dobson.

One understanding of society is theocratic: churches led by the Dobsons of the world should dominate the public square, interpret the scriptures for all of us, and impose their particular religious and moral views on the rest of us. The other is, well, democratic and pluralistic: let each hold her or his own views, including religious views; but let us choose to live together harmoniously, respecting each other’s rights, including the right to make different choices insofar as these do not destroy the body politic.

Another noteworthy development following Dobson's fulminations, with important implications for the African-American community and its churches: a coalition of pastors led by African-American United Methodist minister Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell has just set up a website to counter Dobson’s claim to own the bible. The website is at

The theology promoted by this website is in marked contrast to that of Rev. Dobson. It stresses social justice rather than personal pelvic morality. It underscores the obligation of Christians to build a just and inclusive society, not one in which those driven by hatred police the personal lives of others when this behavior poses no threat to their own pursuit of liberty and happiness.

It is, in key respects, a black evangelical, rather than a white evangelical, statement of core evangelical values. Just as Mr. Obama’s own interpretation of scripture and theology is. In short, what we are seeing in the rise of critiques of white religious right leaders by black evangelical leaders who have previously been silent about the shortcomings of their white colleagues is the resurgence of a black evangelical theology that exposes the theology of the religious right as biblically unsound and driven by animosity towards targeted wedge groups (many of whom already suffer marginalization and exclusion), rather than by a vision of the common good that includes everyone.

This is a development that deserves encouragement. It does so because the willingness of far too many African-American political, educational, and church leaders to cave in to the religious right in the past several decades has been noxious not merely for the nation as a whole, but for the black community as well.

The homophobic injustice in which too many African-American leaders have been willing to participate in recent years deprives the African-American community of good leadership. When it comes to the lives of gay human beings, far too many leaders of the black community in the recent past have been willing to sell out the agenda of human rights that is at the very heart of the struggle for black civil rights.

And in doing so, they have brought shame to themselves and have undermined their claim to be effective transformative leaders.

I place primary blame for this sell-out not on the African-American community itself, or even on its churches and church institutions (including many church-affiliated HBCUs). I place primary blame on neo-conservative politicians and their religious right backers, who have cynically sought to exploit divisions between the black and the gay community to try to gain power within the African-American community.

I know quite a few African-American ministers, theologians, and scholars who have known perfectly well the name of the divide-and-conquer game neo-conservatives and the religious right have been playing with the black community. These African-American leaders have courageously named the game for what it is. They have often suffered marginalization within their own community as a result, particularly in communities dominated by the black church (as well as by white churches promoting homophobia).

I know a number of African-American leaders who have seen first-hand, as I have done, some of the extremely negative effects of the moral sell-out of homophobic black leaders to the “values” of the religious right. These leaders note, as I do, that the massive transfer of federal and state-level social services to faith-based institutions, which has been eagerly promoted by many black ministers, has resulted in a deprivation of services to minority communities.

Though money trickles into churches and church-based institutions through faith-based programs, it is entirely inadequate to meet the social needs these institutions are now asked to address—needs the government previously met and should continue to meet. In some churches and church-based institutions (let’s be brutally honest), the faith-based seed money that has been trickling in benefits the pastor and a select group of his supporters, or the church-based institutions' leaders, far more than it benefits those to whom it is ostensibly directed.

In far too many cases, the price that African-American churches and church-based institutions pay for their political alliance with neo-conservative political leaders is a moral price: these churches and institutions are asked and expected to discriminate against gay persons as part of the price for receiving faith-based funding.

Too many African-American leaders have been willing in recent years to play this immoral political game. Their choice to do so has harmed their community, both in a moral sense (we cannot justifiably demand rights for ourselves that we forbid to others), as well as in a material sense: the pitiful prizes the right wing has been handing out for the allegiance of the black community are inadequate to the real needs of the community. And those prizes have gone disproportionately to those playing the homophobia game, in any case, rather than to the communities themselves: the prizes have been trinkets for good behavior that have ensnared and corrupted not a few African-American leaders.

Ultimately, their choice to bloody their hands by unjust treatment of gay persons has harmed, most of all, African-American leaders who have participated in such injustice. When we turn a deaf ear to the cries of other hurting human beings for justice and fair treatment; when we actually participate in the injustice that causes those cries to become louder: we hurt ourselves. We dehumanize ourselves. We totally undercut our claim to leadership, because leadership always has a moral component.

History will look back, I am afraid, at the generation of African-American educational, political, and religious leaders who have been willing to trade the birthright of powerful African-American thinkers promoting social justice for the mess of pottage of faith-based homophobia. Historians will ask, regarding this generation of African-American leaders, how anyone seeking human rights for herself or himself could possibly justify denying human rights to other oppressed human beings. Historians will be interested in the blindness and self-deception, the willingness to collude with oppressive ideologies and oppressive and immoral politicians and church leaders, that lies beneath this sell-out.

In conclusion, I certainly do hope—and strongly so—that Mr. Obama represents a new model of leadership not merely for the nation as a whole, but for the African-American community as well. That model is sorely needed. It has everything to do with a resurgence of the black church’s commitment to justice for all and uplifting the least among us, protecting those whose rights are trampled on, defending the powerless, and speaking truth to power.

I have a vested interest in this resurgence not only as a gay man, but as someone whose life has been immeasurably enriched by African-American culture. What would I be—or who would I be, is the better question—without the witness and daunting intellectual insight of Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Mary McLeod Bethune, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, James Cone, Cornel West, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and Audre Lorde? What theologian worth her salt in the U.S. could do adequate theology today, without reading and re-reading these canonical authors?

I have a vested interest as a Christian, a theologian, and a plain old human being in seeing the African-American community repudiate leaders who have been all too willing to sell out the profoundly transformative social-justice tradition of those prophetic thinkers and of the black church at its best for the mess of homophobic pottage.

I certainly do hope that Mr. Obama will keep leading the way to a different future . . . .

Obama on the LGBT Community: Hope for Change or A New Smokescreen?

For anyone interested in the interplay of religion and public life in the U.S., this presidential election is proving fascinating. And since issues of race and gender are never distant from our public political and religious discussions, the election process is proving to be an outstanding venue for those conversations we never quite manage to have in the public square: about race and gender (and the connected topic of homophobia), the role of religion in both areas, and about the role of religion in building or hindering a more humane participatory democracy.

Now that Mr. Obama’s nomination seems certain, I’m interested to see the emergence of open discussion about how he might relate to the gay community, if elected. This is a healthy sign, in my view. For many of us in the LGBT, hope that a presidential candidate will translate his/her pre-election promises into action once he/she is elected is muted.

We’ve been used too much—our legwork, votes, and dollars freely taken when offered—and then thrown under the bus once the election is over, to be optimistic that this election will usher in a new age of inclusion and justice for our community. I was deeply disappointed in how Bill Clinton related to his LGBT friends who worked so hard to elect him, once he was elected. Though I was prepared to vote for Hilary Clinton if she had been chosen the Democratic nominee, I was highly skeptical of the sincerity of her faint promises to make things better for the gay community if elected. I was skeptical because of her husband’s behavior after he was elected.

We have long been the red-haired step-children of the Democratic party, we who are LGBT. The party needs and wants us come election time. After the election, the message is we’d best scuttle back to our closets and stop expecting to be treated as a real minority group deserving of real rights.

Obama has promised to change this—or, at least some of it. And, as a result, members of the LGBT community are now debating Obama’s track record on LGBT issues, and the sincerity of his promises.

One of the best discussions I’ve seen of this topic is Pam Spaulding’s 24 June blog posting “Obama on the LGBT Record—What Does It Really Say?” (see I’ve noted before that I find Pam (who happens to be African-American) one of the most even-handed and incisive political bloggers around.

In this posting, Pam notes Obama’s mixed record: his continued support for the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, yet his opposition to a federal constitutional amendment to enshrine that definition in the constitution; his appeal to “ex-gay” (and homophobic) constituencies through Rev. McClurkin on his South Carolina campaign tour, vs. his willingness to speak out against homophobia in settings in which no other candidate has been willing to speak out—including homophobic black religious gatherings.

My own position at this point is one of cautious optimism. I take muted hope from the following three factors of Obama’s campaign:

1. Obama has been willing to stand up and speak out against homophobia when he pays a price for doing so. As I have just noted, unlike many other African-American leaders, Mr. Obama has been willing to confront the ugly homophobia of many African Americans (especially African-American churchgoers) head on. He has also challenged homophobia in “unsafe” settings such as his meeting with citizens in Beaumont, Texas, hardly a hotbed of tolerance. Unlike Ms. Clinton, who almost never even used the words “gay” or “lesbian” in her campaign speeches, Mr. Obama has introduced discussion of the place of LGBT people in speeches about democratic society, when conventional political wisdom would have encouraged him to elide any mention of gay folks.

As Michael Crawford, another African-American gay political commentator, notes yesterday in his article "A Gay Tale of Two Presidential Candidates" on the Bilerico blog, "Obama may not be there yet on marriage, but on every other key LGBT issue he has proclaimed our right to equal treatment under the law" (see

2. Mr. Obama’s own religious background seems to comprise a strong commitment to equality, justice, and inclusion of gay human beings, on religious grounds. It is no accident that he is now being attacked by religious right spokespersons such as James Dobson. His theology represents a departure from “traditional” evangelical approaches to the question of where to place gay human beings. Dobson knows this, and has thrown down the gauntlet: this is a power struggle about how to interpret the scriptures in evangelical churches, about whose interpretation will prevail.

3. Finally, Mr. Obama’s personal style, his political penchants, do point to the new way of doing politics that has been discussed constantly during this election cycle. He appears to attempt to listen and include. He is willing to reach beyond the traditional A-list Democratic party power brokers (as well as the A-list power brokers of the gay community) and reach out to a much broader audience—particularly the young, many of whom are simply impatient of the homophobia of their churches and mainstream politicians.

Given what I’ve seen of Mr. Obama thus far, I intend to remain hopeful that his powerful statement about equality as a moral imperative is a bona fide statement of his beliefs and his political intent, if elected. At the same time, I have lived long enough to know that no politician is the messiah. Politicians are, well, politicians. They make prudential judgments that often result in sacrifice of their principles.

In that regard, everything depends on whether Mr. Obama really does represent a departure from the kind of triangulating politics, which are totally tone-deaf to considerations of justice, that have dominated the Democratic party in the Clinton era. Much depends on Mr. Obama's willingness to bite the bullet if pressed hard by constituencies that make him pay a price for supporting justice and inclusion for gay Americans. The Clintons have not been willing to do so. As a result, we have had an era of cynical triangulation among many Democratic leaders that enabled the Republican possession of the White House, as well as the legislative and judicial branches of the government.

I hope that Mr. Obama represents a new paradigm. If not, I don’t see a great deal of hope for our nation, even if he is elected.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

If Today You Hear (Again)

So, that other small epiphany about which I promised yesterday to post today.

It may seem tiny to anyone else. But it felt big to me.

My nephews Colin and Patrick came over several days ago with their friend Eric. It was right at suppertime (the arrival time was probably not happenstance). I had some cold roasted chicken left from the weekend, which I quickly deboned and mixed into chicken salad surrounded by a ring of three-bean salad and macaroni—also leftovers. Also had collard greens and macaroni and cheese from Sunday’s dinner, a slice or two of chess pie, some vanilla pudding with plum sauce, a cucumber or two, potato salad: food fit for growing young men who had been playing basketball all afternoon, after they got off from work at one of my brother’s restaurants.

I mention all the food to situate the epiphany. As I noted in a blog posting some weeks ago, I contend (following Teresa of Avila) that God speaks to us frequently entre los cucheros—among the pots and pans, right in the midst of the humdrum detritus of our daily existence.

As Colin, Eric, and Patrick tucked in, it hit me: they have a generational ease, a total lack of self-consciousness, in interacting across racial lines, that is well-nigh impossible in my generation. Have I mentioned that Eric is African-American?

The supper-table banter included jostling (from Eric’s side) about Pat and Colin’s slave-holding ancestors, ribbing from Patrick and Colin about Eric’s “Big Daddy” t-shirt. I held my breath through it all, wondering whose toes might be stepped on, what comment might be an insulting crossing of an invisible line.

Because that is how it is with my generation. We cannot get over the “fact” of black and white, even when we know perfectly well in our heads that this “fact” is not a fact at all, but a social construction of reality. Skin color is something society has taught us to notice, to use to classify each other as higher and lower, in and out. This system of classification has been with us so long, it almost appears natural and God-given, even though many of us are well aware that there is no such thing, genetically, as race: we all spring from the same genetic roots.

It is as bizarre and capricious to classify people according to the pigment of their skins as it would be to sort human beings by foot size or nose length. Classifying people by race is arbitrary, a social choice to raise to the level of consciousness a difference that, without careful tutelage, we would perhaps simply notice and then dismiss, as we interact as human beings with other human beings.

The epiphany: if each generation chooses to leave behind at least a tiny portion of the garbage of racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, etc., then perhaps the world will, eventually, work towards a more inclusive human community.

I’m not a fool, at least not entirely and not every day. I am well aware that there are almost insuperable obstacles to overcoming prejudice. I know that the process of leaving the garbage on the dump heap of history is not automatic: it requires education. It demands that we teach our youth, at home, in church, at school, to stop hating and start loving, to consider the Other as one of us.

And I know that we do a dismal job of educating the heart. I have read on the internet today that the Lexington-Richmond school district of South Carolina remains in uproar over a request by students to form a Gay-Straight Alliance club at a school in the district. The students will now be permitted to form such a club, but over the fierce opposition of many parents.

And this two years after the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) released a study showing that over a third of gay and lesbian students in American schools report physical harassment due to their sexual orientation . . . .

We have a long, long path to follow, to overcome such hatred. The path towards educating our hearts and souls to build a more humane society is a long one, and educators are not always willing to lead the way.

I know. I have worked in church-affiliated colleges and universities whose education departments are dominated by folks who mouth tolerance, but who practice homophobia—who are willing to wallow in every stereotype they can find to marginalize gay colleagues and gay students. I have worked with heads of education faculties from places like South Carolina (and Arkansas, it goes without saying) who have no commitment whatsoever to educating for tolerance and against homophobia. I have worked with university faculty in education departments who are preachers' daughters from places like Tennessee, who regard themselves as tolerant and inclusive while using homophobia to score political points with those leading the university.

I have worked in a church-affiliated institution whose leader informed me that, in even mentioning GLSEN as a resource for faculty, I was shoving my "lifestyle" into the faces of my colleagues. This leader professes to love gay people and to work for our inclusion in church and society . . . .

We have to educate ourselves before we can educate our youth.

Still, the conversation I witnessed several days ago between my nephews and their friend Eric gives me cause to hope. Just as Colin and Patrick are tone-deaf to homophobic prejudice, they simply do not think in the racial terms that dominate the imagination of my generation—of both black and white folks of my generation. Those who say that the surge of support by young voters for Obama reflects a diminishing level of racism in the United States are certainly correct, if what I see in my nephews’ lives is any indication.

And this is cause for hope. If, in my lifetime, I have seen my own part of the country move from having separate water fountains, separate restrooms, separate but “equal” (not!) schools, to integration, to the beginning of a post-racial society, then the movement from one generation to the other can provide reason for hope—when education attends that movement.

In his work to create an ethic of the land, philosopher Aldo Leopold argues that human societies extend rights to groups previously deprived of rights through a process of social evolution (attended, spurred, by education and consciousness-raising) in which a society begins to regard as persons those previously regarded as objects. The extension of human rights, the growth of participatory democracy, depends on the constantly developing awareness of social groups that previously marginalized groups of persons are not objects to use and abuse, but persons to treat with dignity.

It was such a breakthrough of awareness of the personhood of enslaved human beings that led to the abolition of slavery. The same breakthrough of awareness led to the gradual extension of human rights, including the right to vote, to women.

Societies that wish to claim the title of humane societies—societies that purport to be democratic—have no choice except to keep scanning the social horizon, seeking to identify those now regarded and treated as objects, with the intent to bring these objectified human beings to the table of participatory democracy, give them a voice, and allow that voice to count.

There is no other way to a humane future.

And our churches should be leading that way as the headlight of the process, and not following it, as the taillight, as Martin Luther King, Jr. noted.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

GAFCON: People of Color vs. Gays in Church Power Struggles

Courtesy of Waldo Decker's Journal blog (, I'm fascinated to read an article in today's Guardian (London) that reinforces a point I've made repeatedly in postings on this blog.

The point is that neo-conservative groups in worldwide Christianity are seeking to divide the churches and promote a reactionary political agenda by playing people of color against gay people. The article to which Waldo Decker's journal links is Stephen Bates's "Vicious Hot Air Currents." It's in today's Guardian, and is Bates's appraisal of the GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference) now underway in Jerusalem (see

GAFCON is a coaliation of right-wing Anglican groups who are determined to divide the church in retaliation for the Episcopal Church USA's ordination of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop. Some choice quotes from Bates's analysis:
. . . [W]hat is happening is a power struggle in which the conservatives of the US church - and, to a lesser extent, English evangelicals - have summoned up the developing world to seize the church from the forces of liberalism and relativism. If the battle over gays is lost, they say, everything is lost. The visit of many African bishops to the conference has been facilitated by US money.

. . .

Homosexuality is a useful unifier for conservative flocks. The little-noticed irony is that those meeting in Jerusalem agree on very little else: some American conservatives are more high church than the Pope, whereas the conservative archbishop of Sydney says he could never see himself attending mass.
A sorry business, this: the use of gay human beings to score political points in church power struggles (and in political power struggles in which the church is involved). As I have noted repeatedly on this blog, I have serious reservations about the commitment to racial justice of those within the U.S. church who are funding this movement.

The use of race as a wedge issue is exceptionally cynical, coming as it does from the same groups within American Christianity that bitterly resisted the end of segregation fifty years ago, and that resisted the ordination and empowerment of women after that. These are not Christians who are conspicuously concerned about human rights.

They are Christians intent on trying to maintain the domination of men over women and of white men over everybody else in the world. No matter how many pictures of happy, singing native peoples they post on their websites, no matter how many essays they post decrying humane treatment of gay human beings as the church's captivity to culture, the bottom line will remain the same: the impetus behind this movement to play "good" minorities against "bad" is politically reactionary, nasty, and goes hand in hand with racism and the attempt of men to subject women to their control.

Stephen Bates is author of God's Own Country: Power and the Religious Right in the USA. He knows whereof he speaks, in his assessment of GAFCON.

If Today You Hear: Epiphanies and the Everyday

In the pilgrimage that is life, the lessons we most need to hear at any give time are right there around us, if we but have ears to hear them. Each day, when I pray Psalm 95, remembering as I do so that the whole church (in many liturgical traditions, at least) prays that psalm with me to begin the day, I mull over the line which says, "If today you hear my voice, harden not your heart."

Sometimes the line strikes me as unnecessarily accusatory: who would refuse to listen, if You would only really speak to us? Isn't the problem with You and Your silence, not with us?

At other times, the admonition to listen makes me think of the ways in which God actually does speak to us all the time. And we fail to hear. Our ears just aren't attuned, many times. We want the voice to be a booming proclamatory one on the mountaintop, not the still, small voice of a little girl that Elijah heard in the cave.

We want God to bowl us over, not to be right there in the mundane, in the bread and wine, the water and oil, the muck and manure of daily life. In the friends who are faithful and the friends who betray us. In the flawed brother and sister who kneels beside us at the communion rail. Our ability to hear is thwarted, because we have installed screening devices in our lives that dictate how God is to speak, and who God is to be.

As I think of all this today, two recent tiny epiphanies come to mind. These didn't leap into my life from some high place. It wasn't an authority figure or a teacher who planted the epiphanic seeds in my heart, seeds that have sprouted only slowly in the last several days, as I listen for God's voice while brewing a pot of tea or trimming gardenias, hydrangeas, and chaste tree blooms to put into the vase for Sunday dinner.

As with most of the epiphanies that get under our skin subtly and shift our worldview decisively, these came from people right around me, from family. The first occurred in a conversation with my aunt several weeks ago.

My aunt is 80. When Steve's brother Joe recently said, with understated sarcasm, "She's just a sweet little old lady," we all laughed uproariously. Little she is, old she is, but she is far more pith and vinegar than honey. And even she wouldn't bat an eyelash in telling you that.

So. As we often do when we talk, she told me of her latest trials and tribulations with nature. The natural world is my aunt's sworn enemy. It's out to get her. Birds manage, somehow, to mess on her bathroom window--which is perpendicular, not a surface on which a bird can perch.

Cats leave tokens in her yard. No sooner does she have the yard raked, than the magnolia leaves of the neighbors across the street insinuate themselves into her yard.

Her latest battle with nature is a futile attempt to synchronize the date her yard is mowed (it's never set, but depends on the need for mowing after rain or the passing of time) with the mowing of the yard next door. Problem is, that yard never gets mowed--or so my aunt claims.

It did get mowed routinely when the house was in the keeping of an elderly neighbor who lived in the house about fifty years. That neighbor was fastidious about her yard and garden. Even when she was so stooped with age that she could barely stand, we'd see her out fiddling beneath her azaleas and camellias, picking up spent leaves, tidying the mulch.

When she died a year or so ago, the house went to a nephew, who moved in with someone my aunt calls "his partner." Two men. Two young men. One of these promptly went off on military duty. The other does not mow the yard to my aunt's satisfaction. She's almost convinced that he deliberately lets it grow to defy her in her futile attempt to synchronize her lawn work with his.

Consequently, she often has a neat yard (until the magnolia leaves intrude, and God help us! the odious sweet-gum ball season is just around the corner now), while the yard next door is shabby. This drives my aunt crazy.

As she told me about this, speaking of the man who owns the house and his partner, I arched my eyebrows and said, "Partner? What do you mean by that?" I had suspected that the men were more than roommates. I suspected that she suspected, but we had never discussed it.

She said, "Well, aren't they together? That's what I mean. Nothing else." To which I replied, "Well, if you mean what I think you mean by 'together,' then you could always retaliate for the non-existent yard work by reporting the soldier to the army. Isn't it your patriotic and Christian duty to turn him in for importing his lifestyle into the military?"

I was, of course, teasing. When you live with pith and vinegar, you approach most subjects elliptically, since the reaction to anything you say can be unpredictably volatile.

My aunt's response: "I have enough business to take care of in my life without trying to mind someone else's business."

This from a devout church-going woman. From a Baptist. Well, from a Baptist whose church has left the Southern Baptist Convention because of its narrow-mindedness, and has affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. A church that sponsors a food pantry, in which my aunt works every week.

Nonetheless, a heartland Christian from a church regarded by most of us as less than progressive on gay issues: my aunt could not give a flip about how other people conduct their sexual lives. And she is not about to get involved in judging.

She has enough business of her own to manage, thank you very much.

I propose that this is the authentic Christian approach to gay people and gay issues. This is what I mean in yesterday's posting, when I talk about how it is not going to be church leaders and leaders of church-affiliated institutions that break down the barriers for gay people. Those folks are hopelessly enmeshed in power and toxic systems of lies.

It's going to be "ordinary" Christians like my aunt who change things. By refusing to judge. By refusing to hate. By continuing to love the gay people they already know and love--even when we don't mow our yards to her satisfaction.

(And for the other epiphany, I will keep you waiting . . . .)

Monday, June 23, 2008

Radical Honesty: Afterthoughts

I have been thinking about my post earlier today, and wondering if some hard-won truths that seem self-evident to me are murky to many folks who may read my posts. These hard-won truths arise out of my experience as a theologian trying to be radically honest about my calling and life, who also happens to be gay.

That fact, which may seem minor-key to many people (and which is increasingly minor-key in many occupations) is still an all-determining fact in many church settings. I cannot speak for those other professions, except from an outsider's perspective.

I can, however, speak from the experience of struggling to be a radically honest (gay) theologian in the Christian churches. These are some bedrock realities of that experience, insofar as I have walked through it:

1. The more you struggle to claim a voice and to be radically honest, the more likely it is that you will be perceived as a threat.

2. And the more likely it will become that those with authority in church-affiliated institutions will do all they can to shut you down, to marginalize you, to read you out of the community, even to slander you and seek to destroy you in the process.

3. Those with authority in the church-affiliated institution have to engage in such scorched-earth treatment of gay employees they have treated unjustly, after all, since any integrity the employee retains after his/her demonization and expulsion calls into question the integrity of the one treating him/her unjustly. Expulsion is necessary because the continued presence of the unjustly stigmatized person within the community would reproach the church-affiliated leader; it would do because the employee would likely retain humanity even when the leader sought to represent him or her as inhuman. Looking at one we have beaten up while maintaining we have a right to engage in such beatings inevitably makes us uncomfortable, and causes others to look askance at us for inflicting such pain on another human being . . . .

4. When we can effectively expel and then slander someone in the process, and when we claim to have the church on our side as we do so, the very fact that we exercise power over the one we have expelled is cited as a justification for our mistreatment of the demonized one we have expelled: the church would not permit us to act this way if we did not have right on our side, after all, would it? And when we all know that gay people are capable of all forms of baseness, it is self-evident that, even if our behavior appears cruel, it must be right . . . .

5. Those seeking to walk the path of radical honesty as gay believers working in church institutions may expect to be lied about, to have stereotypes used against them, to have their work used by the institution while the institution gives credit for that work to others, to have the guardians of virtue in the institution represent themselves as the unjustly attacked holy ones even as they do all in their power to deprive the gay employee of reputation and livelihood.

6. Given the continued homophobia of many churches, it is still altogether too easy to represent a gay employee who values radical honesty as a) disgruntled and discontent, motivated by an anti-Christian agenda; b) sick and unbalanced, and in need of therapy; c) if a male, prone to emotion and unable to exercise leadership effectively because of the predisposition to be "emotional" rather than reasonable; d) promiscuous; e) predatory, etc.

I know, since I have had all of those tactics tried with me in church-affiliated institutions. The use of broad, ugly stereotypes (in my case and that of many other hard-working professional folks who happen to be gay) that would not be given the time of day in many secular institutions is still not only possible, but in fact prevalent, in church-affiliated institutions, insofar as these institutions deal with gay folks in their midst.

These tactics of marginalization and demonization are despicable. When they are coupled with post-factum rationalizations for the oppression these stereotypes inflict on gay employees--that is, when the outraged reaction of those to whom injustice is done because of their God-given sexual orientation is then cited as evidence that the one being oppressed deserves his/her oppression--they are toxic tactics.

They are toxic not merely for the one against whom they are used. They are toxic for the institution using such tactics, and for its leaders. Unfortunately, the toxin of homophobia is very difficult for church institutions to expel, as long as church leaders and leaders of church-affiliated institutions continue giving the benefit of the doubt to those who practice cruel injustice to gay persons.

When and how will all of this change? It will change, I believe, only when members of churches themselves challenge their leaders and their institutions to behave differently--to practice the mercy they preach by embodying justice. Change of the kind that is needed to expel homophobia from the churches rarely comes from the top.

Those with authority in churches and church institutions have too much to lose by seeking radical honesty about gay people and our lives. They have too much to lose by calling into question stereotypes that have been too effectively used for far too long, to marginalize and expel gay people from the churches. Calling those sterotypes into question would call into question the integrity of too many church leaders and leaders of church institutions. It would call into question the taken-for-granted behavior of too many church leaders for decades on end.

What will change all of this is the insistence of church people themselves that the gay human beings they know and love do not merit the cruel treatment we often receive from the churches and their institutions. What will change all of this is the quiet, courageous demand of church people that churches stop making life so tragically difficult for gay believers seeking to live out their faith with radical honesty.

What will finally call the cruelty and injustice into question is when church folks themselves open the doors, welcome gay human beings as human beings, and sit at the table together. The radical hospitality that every authentic celebration of the Lord's Supper is meant to comprise and demonstrate may prove transformative for the churches, when and if it ever takes place.

Get human beings to sit at the table together, to gather around a table to eat and talk together as human beings, and who knows what great things might happen--even in churches.

Radical Honesty as Spiritual Path: The Contribution of Bloggers

Dear Pilgrim Companions,

The reflections I'm posting here today link to a posting I just made on my other blog, Neverinparadise. As that blog posting suggests, it feels risky to speak from the heart, from the "real" places in our lives. And all the more so when one is blogging one's inmost thoughts to anyone in the world who happens to log in . . . . Blogging can even involve us in legal battles where we who are small folks in a world in which others have big financial resources and social-political clout can easily find ourselves squashed (more on this below).

So why risk? Life--my own life--would surely be easier if I simply turned my attention to the many frazzling and engrossing tasks of daily existence. The dog hair doesn't magically vaccum itself from the carpets.

As I ask myself lately why I keep on keeping on, the best answer I can come up with is this: simply put, I believe in radical honesty. There's far too little of that virtue in our lives, in my life. If I don't struggle for it in my own pilgrimage, then I surely can't expect it in others.

And without honesty and transparency, what social institutions really work, in a democratic society? When we cannot trust the word of a leader, everything falls apart. All social relationships that promise to build and not tear down humane society are built on the trust that people are seeking to be fundamentally responsible and honest in their interchanges with us.

By the time the aspirin reaches me in its sealed bottle, it has gone through multiple hands: from factory worker to quality-control inspector to bottler to shipper to pharmacist. If I cannot trust that, at each step in the transmission of the aspirin to me, someone did not substitute a noxious substance for the aspirin in the bottle, everything breaks down. Our whole social existence is built on a tenous, yet steel-strong web of relationships that demand trust.

And trust is built on honesty. When dishonesty becomes endemic, when it runs along every strand in the web of our social (or ecclesial) institutions, it becomes well-nigh impossible to live together and work together, since we cannot confidently perform even the most basic tasks of everyday existence: from taking the aspirin that we assume has not been tainted in its long journey to us, to turning on the light switch and expecting electricity to flow to the bulb rather than to set the house on fire.

I am not naively suggesting that things actually do work this way all the time--that we inhabit social structures that do adhere to codes of honesty. I am suggesting, though, that when dishonesty becomes systemic rather than occasional, when it becomes part of how we do business as a society, social institutions have no option except to fray. They are founded on assumptions about the fundamental honesty of each of us in our dealings with the other.

My spiritual path has come to center on radical honesty for a variety of reasons. The first and most obvious is that one does not accept herself or himself as gay, in a world in which millions of voices seek to drown out one's inner voice of self-truth, without a hard struggle for radical honesty.

It is simply easier to go along, to collude. It would be far easier for those of us who are gay and who continue to try to hold onto spirituality to follow the path the churches set before us: deny yourself, pretend, fit in, continue to let us define you as flawed and as the very epitome of sin.

This is the path many gay believers choose to follow. It is the path that those of us who try to be "cured" of our sexual orientation often follow.

It is a spiritually and psychically destructive path. I have learned that truth in my bones. I have learned that honesty--radical honesty--is, no matter how painful, vastly to be preferred to the lying to oneself (and, consequently, to others, even when one does not intend to do so) that is at the basis of the churches' "outreach" to gay believers.

I am inclined to the path of radical honesty, as well, because I believe someplace deep in my soul that there can be no authentic relationship with the divine and with another unless we seek truth in that relationship. Spirituality involves a pilgrimage of constant unmasking--of our lies to ourselves, of the half-truths we find it all too easy to live with.

Spirituality is a pilgrimage in which we try to meet God face to face every day, in the expectation of doing so definitively at the end of our lives. And that encounter burns away all dross of untruth, all self-deception. We struggle for honesty because we want to see God. Our hearts are made for this, we who are believers tell ourselves.

I believe in radical honesty, as well, because I have come to conclude, on the basis of too much life experience, that far too many of our social and ecclesial institutions live with astonishing levels of dishonesty. Of sham. Of self-deception and deception of others.

And we cannot move forward in the project of social transformation or transformation of the churches until we speak the truth in love to one another. Because I believe with all the fibers of my being that social and ecclesial institutions always stand in need of transformation, to make them more humane, to provide a place at the table for everyone, I have no option except to challenge the systemic dishonesty in our social and ecclesial institutions.

My own Catholic church is caught in lies so ugly and so deep that they are now threatening to tear the church apart. The lies go straight to the top, to the Vatican. They have everything to do with clerical power and privilege, and the misuse of these. The crisis regarding sexual abuse of minors is the tip of the iceberg: what that horrible crisis points to is the deeper truth of clerical abuse of power and privilege, and clerical abuse of the truth. Systemic abuse. Abuse that will sometimes stop at nothing to silence truth-tellers and to get its lying messages out to the public.

The Catholic church is an easy target for a variety of reasons, but I have discovered a similar fracturing of the truth in many other church communions. As E.J. Dionne's book Souled Out notes (and I have pointed out in previous postings), Christians today are making common cause across confessional lines, when it comes to making certain political decisions.

And among these decisions is the decision either to give one's trust to the churches when they profess to be leading the way in truth-telling (and therefore in dominating the political process), or to critique the churches for their failure to tell the truth. I stand with the latter option. If the churches are permitted to engage in fundamental dishonesty--about their use of money, about their intra-institutional human rights practices (how do they actually treat gay employees, for instance, even when they profess to oppose discrimination?), about the privilege they accord to white males above all other human beings, and so on--then they will end up having nothing of any significance to say to the public sector.

Because I want the churches to matter, because I believe that, checked in their game-playing and called to transparency and accountability, the churches can contribute to rather than impede the project to transform participatory democracy, I intend to keep challenging the churches to engage in truth-seeking and truth-telling.

I am blogging about the spiritual path of radical honesty in light of several occurrences in my blog life lately. Several weeks ago, I received a cease-and-desist letter from a church-related institution that I am not permitted to name.

It instructed me to take down my blog. I refused to do so. I stand on my right as an American citizen to speak freely. Unless I slander anyone or any institution in this blog, and unless I break any legal covenants that restrict my free speech, I have the right to speak freely on this blog, and it is wildly inappropriate for any group, and a church-affiliated institution in particular, to demand that I take down this blog.

Since I refused to take down my blog, I have begun to experience mystifying technical problems with the blog. I am trying to get to the bottom of those problems. One of the issues I'm confronting is that the counter that tells me if anyone is reading has suddenly begun to malfunction.

Up until the last several weeks, I have consistently had anywhere from 30 to 60 readers on this blog each day, from around the world. The figures vary, of course, but have normally stayed in that range.

Suddenly, the counter has been reporting no readers, even when friends tell me by email or phone that they have been reading the blog, or when I myself log in (the counter counts my own log-ins).

I am by no means saying that the several challenges I am now encountering with this blog have anything at all to do with the cease-and-desist letter I mention above, or with the institution that commissioned that letter. What I do want to suggest, however, is that the letter indicates to me a problem anyone blogging at the intersection of church and political life will encounter: bloggers who probe for the truth in the lives of churches and the place in which the ecclesial and political spheres intersect can expect to encounter attempts to shut down the conversation, by fair means or foul. I know of at least one other instance in which a blog similar to mine is facing some of these same challenges right now.

I choose to regard the unfortunate attempts to have me delete this blog, or to tamper with how the blog functions, as a curious tribute to the blog's ability to hit at the truth, at least sometimes. As the banner heading the blog says, one of my goals in this blog is to journey towards truth that needs to be spoken, but doesn't get told.

I appreciate those of you who are sharing this journey with me, even though I have no way of ascertaining whether anyone is walking with me each day, until some of the problems with the blog are fixed. I also appreciate those companions (literally, you who share bread/Bread with me) who help keep me focused on finding the truth in my own life. If one does not seek the truth for oneself and one's own life, one has no right to ask that others do so.

And I appreciate those of you who have encouraged me to keep telling the truth I find, even when I pay a price for doing so. My career as a theologian and an educator has been interrupted several times because I have not learned how to dissimulate--how to do so easily.

This is why, when first asked to assume a leadership role in academic administration, I repeatedly refused. I know myself too well. When asked by supervisors what I think of decisions they have made, I have been all too apt to tell the truth--assuming, naively, that leaders choose team members on the basis of their character and ability, and not because they are parrots who say yes, bow, and scrape, when told to bow, scrape, and say yes.

So, this blog will be me keeping on keeping on, continuing to search for transformative truth in my own life, and for the ability to speak the truths I find. Please know, fellow pilgrims, that if my voice suddenly goes silent, it is not because I have chosen to renege on my commitment to seek and tell the truth. It will be because someone or some group has had the ability to suppress my voice--though that will never happen without a fight.

P.S. At least part of the problem I am having with the counter that tells me how many visitors read this blog daily seems to have been introduced when I tried to resolve the problems with the blog as I first encountered them last week. Even so, the problem with the counter (and several other problems that impede my blog postings) predate my attempt to address the problem. They all began suddenly last week, and were absent from my Neverinparadise blog until I reported the Bilgrimage problems in a posting this week to Google's help group, noting that I was not encountering the problems on the Neverinparadise blog, though I continued the same process on each blog that I had always used. After I made that posting, problems began on the Neverinparadise blog . . . .

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Food for the Soul on Summer Solstice

Sometimes the spirit needs nourishment.

And today's the longest day of the year, a day when no one wants to sit inside and read through one of my blathers. Words just don't say what's needed, sometimes.

To feed my spirits today, I'm listening to music. I'd like to share.

Two of my favorite vocal groups are the Pfister Sisters and Chanticleer. So what a treat to find them singing together. Listen to this no-holds-barred, full-throated rendition of "Amazing Grace," watch the sheer joy they derive in performing together, you'll smile down to your toes (I hope):

And then there's this: the Pfister Sisters rendering "Mood Indigo" at a house party in New Orleans: The essence of that sad, deep-souled, ever-celebrating city that somehow got appended to Anglo America as a kind of Caribbean afterthought, a reminder of other possibilities for our all-too-Puritanical culture.

Listening to and watching these clips makes me wonder why we can't sing a new future into existence. Why poetry, rhythm, melody, unabashed joy seem to play such a tiny role in our religious lives. Is it any wonder that religion today seems so often extrinsic to the currents that feed our hopes, and enliven our desires to work together for a better world?

Listen, enjoy, and I hope your spirits feels as nourished by these performances as mine does today.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Commemorating Juneteenth: Yes, We Can

Today is the day on which we celebrate the announcement of Emancipation in Texas--and, by extension, everywhere in the United States. It is the day on which slaveholders were instructed to inform "their" slaves that these human beings had been unjustly held as chattel, and were henceforth free to live their lives as human beings, free to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

I am celebrating Juneteenth by reading John D'Emilio's biography of the visionary civil rights leader Bayard Rustin--Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (NY: Free Press, 2003).

D'Emilio notes that, from his combined Methodist and Quaker roots, Rustin derived a strong belief that people--the American people, people across the globe--could build a participatory democracy true to the fundamental principle of democracy: a place at the table for everyone. Rustin was not a starry-eyed optimist. He was a realist seasoned by struggle to claim his own rights as an African American (and as a gay man).

Despite his constant struggle against those who sought to relegate him to second-class citizenship, to deny him a place at the table, and to suppress his voice, Rustin continued to believe that democracy was possible. As D'Emilio notes,
He [i.e., Rustin] argued that out of the civil rights movement there could emerge a coalition of conscience capable of becoming a new progressive majority in the United States. His strategy rested on a bedrock optimism that the American political system was flexible and responsive enough to embrace change of revolutionary dimensions. He believed that peaceful democratic means were adequate to the task of remaking relations of power. Rustin also had faith that individual human beings themselves were just as flexible and that, over time, they could be moved to recognize the worth of every one of their fellows and act accordingly (p. 4).
As I read this assessment of the bedrock assumptions underlying Rustin's thought and his social activism, I'm struck by how closely it parallels the thought and activism of another prophetic 20th-century African-American leader, Mary McLeod Bethune. I've blogged about Dr. Bethune and the college she founded a number of times previously.

As did Bayard Rustin, Mary McLeod Bethune regarded democracy in America as an unfinished project. Both of these critically important black civil rights leaders maintained that, until we make a place at the table for everyone, our democracy has not fulfilled its promise. Both called on their followers to keep analyzing the needs of the social groups around them, to identify who was, at any given time, being shoved from the table, and to work to bring that excluded group to the table.

Both argued strongly that the movement for civil rights for people of color had to be connected to the movement of for civil rights of every excluded group, because it is in the very nature of democracy to demand an extension of rights to every group shoved from the table.

As Dr. Bethune noted on 12 Jan. 1939 in her opening statement to the Second National Conference on the Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth, “But we recognize that no such ‘united democracy’ can possibly exist unless this ‘common opportunity’ is available to all Americans regardless of creed, class, or color” (Bethune Papers, Bethune-Cookman University; in Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith, ed., Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World [Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999], p. 233).

In Dr. Bethune's view, the essence of democracy--its genius--is the recognition that we need everyone at the table, because everyone has something to contribute. No individual or no single group can provide all the gifts a participatory democracy needs in order to be vital, creative, humane. Hence, Bethune argued that educating youth to respect those who are different is not merely essential if democracy is to flourish: such education also opens the one being taught tolerance to a much wider range of ideas, viewpoints, and perspectives than that afforded him or her by his own culture of origin:
The essence of Democracy is the concept that no one group or individual is all-wise or has a monopoly of all the virtues. Training ourselves and our children to have both tolerance and respect for opinions diverging from our own, is one of the best possible ways to promote brotherhood—among the peoples of the world, and among our neighbors in our block! (“The Lesson of Tolerance,” June 16, 1952, Bethune Papers, Bethune-Cookman University; in McCluskey and Smith, p. 267).
This vision of the unfinished project of participatory democracy led Bethune to the conclusion--central to her mission as an educator--that we have an obligation to train the generations that will inherit the world after us to "remake the world," to struggle, within new cultural contexts and new historical settings, to identify who is being shoved from the table, and to work to remove barriers of exclusion that vitiate the democratic process:
I listened to God this morning and the thought came to me, “Any idea that keeps anybody out is too small for this age—open your heart and let everybody in—every class, every race, every nation.” We must remake the world. The task is nothing less than that “(Address to a World Assembly for Moral Re-Armament,” in McCluskey and Smith, p. 58; emphasis in original).
Mary McLeod Bethune and Bayard Rustin sound so much like soul mates in their view of the unfinished project of participatory democracy, that it is tempting to look for connections between them. And such connections are there.

They are there in that both were seminal thinkers of black (and human) liberation in the 20th century. But they are there in other respects, as well: both were strongly influenced by Methodism and its belief in the need for followers of Christ to work against social injustice wherever it was found. And Dr. Bethune knew Bayard Rustin and had close connections to his family. D'Emilio points out that Mary McLeod Bethune stayed with Rustin's family as she passed through their area of Pennsylvania on repeated occasions.

Given these connections, one must ask whether Dr. Bethune would have agreed with Bayard Rustin when he argued in 1986, a year before his death, at an interracial gathering in support of gay civil rights,
Indeed, if you want to know whether today people believe in democracy if you want to know whether they are true democrats, if you want to know whether they are human rights activists, the question to ask is, "What about gay people?" Because that is now the litmus paper by which this democracy is to be judged. The barometer for social change is measured by selecting the group that is most mistreated. To determine where society is with respect to change, one does not ask, "What do you think about the education of children?" Nor does one ask, "Do you believe the aged should have Social Security?” The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people (as cited from speech transcript; "Introduction," in Bayard Rustin, Time on Two Crosses, ed. Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise [San Francisco: Cleis, 2003], xxxix).
I'm inclined to answer my question with a resounding yes: if Mary McLeod Bethune had lived to 1986--if she were living today--she'd be working for gay civil rights as ardently as she did for the civil rights of other marginalized groups. She'd be standing with her brother Bayard Rustin.

She'd be standing against the churches and church leaders who say, "No, we can't." To these, she'd be saying, "Yes, we can." She'd be standing against church-based institutions of higher learning whose response to gay rights is "No, we can't." Mary McLeod Bethune would be saying, "Yes, we can."

Yes, we can. Because we have to. That is what being a democracy is all about.

That is what being a humane society is all about. And that is what being a follower is Jesus is about.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Gay Pride and Karmic Justice

Looking at the picture of the Deval family of Massachusetts that I posted on Monday—the picture of a proud and loving parents marching in the Boston gay pride parade beside their daughter this past weekend—brings back memories of my single experience of marching in a pride parade. Since then, I have not lived in a place that has such parades, and/or have not had any opportunity to travel elsewhere to participate in one.

This happened in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the early summer of 1992. I had just ended a disastrous two years teaching at a small Catholic college outside Charlotte. The disaster had nothing to do with my teaching performance or scholarly record, or my service to college and community. All were, by the admission of my supervisors, exemplary.

No, the disaster was something that happened as the 1991-1992 academic year ended. I received a one-year terminal contract with no explanation. Though I had just had a glowing oral evaluation from the academic vice-president of the college, that evaluation was never committed to writing, and when I asked to be given a reason for the termination, hell broke loose.

In informing me he intended to give me a terminal contract, the college’s president also told me that there was a reason for the termination that he had been advised not to give me. He also stated that he knew his behavior was unethical. But it was legal, and he intended to do what was legal, if unethical.

I appealed to the college’s grievance committee, who voted for me to be given the reason in writing. In response, the president sent me a letter stating that he had provided the reason and that the case was closed. The letter does not, of course, state any reason for the termination.

Since the treatment being dished out to me was so clearly unethical and so clearly in violation of core Catholic values, I asked to see the abbot of the monastery that owned the college. He repeatedly ignored my phone calls, and when I put my request into writing, sent me a curt note informing me that he did not meddle in college matters (that is, in the matters of the college his community owns!).

I also appealed to the local bishop, who sent an intermediary. The intermediary gave me the run-around. When I wrote the bishop a letter asking to see him, his secretary responded by telling me that I had insulted the bishop (my letter asked why he met with the rich and powerful but not with ordinary members of his flock who were in pain because of actions of the church itself).

After having been stonewalled and lied to (and about) at every turn, I simply resigned.

The pride parade fell somewhere between the terminal contract and my letter of resignation. As someone teaching in Catholic colleges, I had enough sense to know that marching in a gay pride parade was a very quick way to get fired. I had gone to this college after having done very hard spiritual and psychological work to accept myself as a gay person. I had gone there intent on never apologizing for myself again, but also aware that, as long as I taught in institutions that did not permit anyone to be openly gay, I had to continue walking that thin line of don’t ask, don’t tell.

But when one has already been hanged for a lamb, one does sometimes find it oddly consoling to be hanged for a sheep . . . . So when a friend told me he intended to march in the parade, I offered to join him. After that, I did not have the opportunity to do so again as long as I lived outside Charlotte, since my termination-resignation was quickly followed by a decision Steve and I made to provide home care for my mother, who was moving into dementia, and had to be watched 24 hours a day 7 days a week for a number of years thereafter. There were no off days.

Charlotte is perhaps not the place I would have chosen to march loud and proud. It’s a buttoned-down, family-values type of place, the kind of place where “Angels in America” can produce a big hue and cry due to its brief nude scene, whereas the same scene in little old Little Rock didn’t raise an eyebrow.

Charlotte is a churched city, a city with a church on every corner, the good Sunday School boy of Southern cities. Since I was in such a city, I decided to march in uniform: that is, in my everyday professional attire of a sportcoat and tie. I figured that it doesn’t hurt for people to see that gay human beings come in every shape and size, every color of the rainbow, from every walk of life. I marched beside my friend, who is an upright, starched and pressed accountant, a former Methodist Sunday School teacher (and one of the finest persons I’ve ever known).

What keeps flashing back through my mind as I remember that day is one scene. As we approached one street corner in the middle of the city, we could hear in the distance loud kerthunks: Whap! Whap! Whap!

It was a puzzling sound, like the sound of someone being publicly beaten.

When we got to the corner, the source of the whaps became clear: a group of burly men in black suits, white shirts, and ties, had bibles in their hands, and were pounding their fists on them while holding them up to the marchers. They were helpfully pointing to the bibles in case we hadn’t heard the whaps.

I’d never heard the bible used that way. As a malicious instrument to bully others. I’ve seen it used this way, of course, all my life. But the bible thumping, that was entirely new to me. It was effective. The sound was ominous. The men’s faces were grim. One had the impression that, when all was said and done, it was not really the bibles they wanted to beat.

Some of the protesters chose to respond by snapping photos of the bible-beaters. One of the latter group wrote an outraged letter to the newspaper about that, stating that the abnormal people had taken photos of the normal people as if they, the bible carriers, were the abnormal ones!

As I think about that day, I wonder what makes people think that they can bully others with impunity. What makes a bully think he (or she) will never meet his/her match?

I suppose that bullies remain bullies as long as no one ever challenges them. Tyranny has a kind of inbuilt-logic about it. It continues to tyrannize as long as it can get away with doing so, because the lack of a challenge convinces the tyrant that he—or she—is untouchable. The ability to tyrannize others without pushing back by the others does a disservice to the tyrant: it provides him/her with the illusion that tyranny is effective. Since it works (or appears to do so), the tyrant continues bullying.

I’m thinking of this in light of my experience at a number of academic institutions where I have learned valuable lessons about bullying. In my checkered academic career, I’ve found that colleagues are almost never willing to stick their necks out and assist a colleague being bullied, when the tyrant cracks the whip. They might end up, after all, at the business end of the same whip.

I’ve also learned that, when an institution is dominated by such tyranny, those who refuse to stand in solidarity with one who is tyrannized inevitably and eventually do have to confront the unhappy experience of having the tyrant seek to mow down their humanity and their rights.

It’s a karmic law, part of the moral way the universe works. Refuse solidarity with the oppressed, when your action and voice could have an effect on relieving the suffering of the unjustly tyrannized person, and you will be next in the tyrant’s line of fire. At one of the two academic institutions at which I have experienced this kind of behavior, I predicted such a karmic turn of events, and I have lived long enough now to see it happen. Those who stood by in silence as I was bullied—those who even participated in the bullying—are now being subjected to gross treatment remarkably similar to that I received, as they stood by in silence.

That’s how things work. It may even come to pass that at least one of those thuggish bible beaters who stood on that Charlotte street corner that hot summer day finds himself confronted with a gay child, a gay brother or sister—or discovers that he has “issues” himself.

Or he may collapse at the next gay pride march where he vigorously beats his sacred weapon, and discover that some despised gay human being is the one who lifts his head from the ground, gives him medical treatment, and assists him to the ambulance.

God has a wickedly sharp sense of humor about these things.