Thursday, October 9, 2008

Do All the Good You Can: Strategies to Combat Institutionalized Homophobia in Churches

Julie, I asked your permission to respond to your testimony about this year’s United Methodist General Conference because your testimony powerfully stirred me. I appreciate your providing the link to it at, and also your giving me permission to respond to the testimony in a posting. I wanted to ask your permission in case this posting would cause you any difficulty in your connection to the church.

Before I focus on some specific statements in your testimony, I want to begin by thanking you from the depths of my heart for making solidarity with those of us who are LGBT and who believe the churches can and should include us as children of God. As a straight single parent, you don’t have to reach out in this way.

The fact that you are doing so, and that you are paying a price for doing so (as your testimony about General Conference indicates), moves me—to tears, actually. I am sorry for the pain of anyone put through some of the humiliating experiences those of us who are gay and who ask for fair and humane treatment receive from the churches on a routine basis. And I am impressed and heartened that others care enough to share some of the blows alongside us.

Several comments you make in your testimony leap out at me, because they closely parallel experiences I have had as a gay believer. I just finished reading Scott Pomfret’s book Since My Last Confession. I mentioned this book in a posting a day or so ago. In reading it, I find other parallels in his experience and mine. I am beginning to see that there are patterns in experiences that I have thought of previously as uniquely humiliating and hurtful.

Seeing the patterns helps me recognize that they are part of a systemic response of a homophobic church to LGBT believers and those who stand in solidarity with us. When an institution that preaches love and justice decides to hate and to practice injustice, it has no choice except to seek to diminish and even destroy those who witness to the disparity between what is proclaimed and what is lived. Seeing that this is systemic, that the patterns are part of a response that goes beyond personal dynamics, helps me discern how to combat the institutionalized homophobia at the institutional level at which it has to be fought, if we're to eradicate it.

Your testimony states, “The people: my closed minded delegates who turned away rather than look me in the eye; the ones who refused to shake hands; the ones who would not speak.”

Yes, I know exactly what you speak of here—the deliberate, intentional slight, the intent to reduce one’s humanity to the level of a thing, a despised object. The refusal to shake the hand offered in greeting, the refusal to look you in the eye. These are attempts to denigrate, to humiliate, to deny one’s humanity, to claim that the humanity of the one engaging in such shoddy behavior is at a higher level than that of the dirty gay or a dirty straight person in solidarity with dirty gays.

We see evidence of these same dynamics in the national presidential campaign now, and there, though the originating prejudice is different, it is equally ugly. When I saw Mr. McCain ignore Mr. Obama’s proffered hand after the debates two nights ago, and when I witnessed McCain point to Obama without looking at him and call him “that one,” I had an ah-ha! moment. I’ve been there. I know what these experiences feel like. I know why McCain is doing that to Obama, what he hopes to do to his soul and personhood by trying to demean him in that way.

I have been at gatherings of my partner Steve’s family in which some of his homophobic siblings—who are staunch traditionalist Catholics—have refused to shake my hand, when I extended it to them. I know how foolish one feels when this happens, how exposed. How belittled.

When it is done by people with whom you have just prayed, and when the prayers ask for “an increase in charity,” the experience is breathtakingly painful. How does anyone pray in one breath for an increase in charity and with the next breath deny connection to another human being? The implication is that the person being demeaned does not have the status of a full person: how else to reconcile the prayer for charity and the shunning behavior that utterly belies charity?

I’ve also had that experience of being spoken of in third person, as “that one,” and I know how the words wash like acid across one’s self-esteem. At a former United Methodist workplace, I once sat in the office of my supervisor and witnessed her assistant, who was sitting right in front of me, and in my earshot, speaking to her boss on the phone. She referred to me as “him” and to Steve as “the other one.” She apparently did not care that I heard this demeaning language. She is a lesbian and is studying for the ministry, though, like every other gay and lesbian employee of that campus, she is not out at work. Her ministerial background (which surely does not teach her to treat others this way!) and her lesbianism made her objectification of us even more hurtful.

So, sadly, I understand why those experiences from General Conference—the refusal to shake your hand, the refusal to look you in the eye, the refusal to speak to you—struck you, and why you mention them in your testimony. They are outrageous experiences in any human gathering, but in one dedicated to holy conferencing?! What can Christians be thinking, when they enter holy conferencing with murder in their hearts? Do they think that refusing to acknowledge another person’s presence as a fellow human and not a thing is anything less than a kind of spiritual murder?

Your testimony and Scott Pomfret’s book remind me that these are routine experiences of gay believers and those in solidarity with us in relation to the churches today. It helps—a tiny bit—to know that when I experience them, they are not designed as unique torments for me personally.

It also helps to know they are systemic: those engaging in these practices are doing the bidding of systemic homophobia. And certainly, gay and lesbian people within church contexts can act out institutionalized homophobia with all the fervor of any gay-bashing Christian anywhere. My experience of being depersonalized by a lesbian studying for ministry is not unique: some of the worst gay bashers in the Catholic church are priests and nuns who refuse to confront their own sexual orientations honestly, and who act out the institution’s homophobia against gay brothers and sisters (or those in solidarity with us) who mirror to them more healthy possibilities of being in the world.

One of my former bosses likes to surround herself with expendable "pet" gay folks, trick dogs who do the boss's bidding and allow the boss to preen and prentend gay-friendliness. But if those gay folks assert their humanity and refuse to perform the tricks ordered, the boss quickly becomes enraged and banishes the pets. The only gay people with which the boss will permit herself/himself to be surrounded are ones who hide their "lifestyles" and live in shame.

Your testimony also says, “The people: the Bishop who yelled at me for being ‘misquoted’ (not) in our newsletter; my own Bishop who would not speak to me in any of my three attempts to do so.”

Yes, I’ve been there, too. I know how this treatment by bishops shocks. I know how it hurts. When I received an unexplained one-year terminal contract at a Catholic college outside Charlotte, and when the school then lied to me about the contract and the abbot of the monastery who owned the college refused to speak to me about it, I turned to the bishop of Charlotte for support.

For pastoral support: my letters to the bishop made very clear that this was why I sought to meet with him. The experience of being lied to by a Catholic college and a community of monks shook me at the very core. It assaulted my faith. I needed the sense that someone who represented the church in an official pastoral way was willing to listen, to acknowledge, at the very least, that such behavior is incompatible with Christian teaching.

I requested a meeting with that bishop. I did so repeatedly. I wrote him numerous letters. In response, he sent an intermediary to me. The intermediary told me that the bishop was disturbed by the treatment I had received.

This was all I ever got. Finally, in response to my numerous letters asking for a meeting, the bishop’s young priest-secretary told me that the bishop considered my requests disrespectful—the request of a hurting member of the flock for pastoral guidance from the shepherd of the flock. When push came to shove, the bishop did nothing—absolutely nothing—to aid or comfort me.

When push came to shove, his solidarity was squarely with his brother clerics at the college that violated my rights. The bishop never saw my human face, never has seen my human face, though, if his intermediary was truthful, the bishop professed to be troubled by how I had been treated within a Catholic institution.

At the two United Methodist institutions at which I worked, I had the responsibility to interact routinely with the Methodist bishops who sat on the boards of both institutions. At meeting after meeting, one of those bishops never once looked me in the eyes. She behaved as if I were simply not in the room.

At the other institution, I recall having one single conversation with the bishop on the board of that particular college. When I found he was from Mississippi and recounted a story my cousin had just told me following a business trip to Mississippi, the bishop acted as if the inoffensive story was profoundly insulting.

He used the story as a pretext to vent his own personal disdain for me as a gay believer, a disdain about which I knew from the president of this school, who had told me of the bishop’s views about my partner and me. The bishop turned an inoffensive make-conversation dialogue into a pretext to treat me as less than human, as if I had offended his dignity, and to withdraw from conversation and human relationship with me.

Scott Pomfret’s book is full of vignettes about his similar interaction as a gay believer with the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston, Sean O’Malley. I remember when Cardinal Law resigned in the wake of revelations about how he had handled the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of minors. I remember the hope with which many American Catholics greeted the appointment of O’Malley—a hope that quickly turned to ashes as O’Malley proceeded to play ugly political games with the lives of gay and lesbian citizens of Massachusetts.

As a gay Christian living in Boston, Scott Pomfret has had to track O’Malley’s behavior towards gay people in Massachusetts. From his book, I learned more than I would ever like to have known about the petty, vindictive details of O’Malley’s behavior towards gay Catholics.

What I learned as well, however, is that my experiences with that Catholic bishop in Charlotte and those Methodist bishops, or your experience with your bishop, is not unique. It was not about me. It is about homophobia in the churches—homophobia as an institutionalized force within the churches, a kind of monster that has the churches by the neck and shakes them vehemently when it needs to show its power.

Scott Pomfret’s book suggests that bishops lie without any seeming remorse both to and about gay Christians because many bishops are swept up in the wave of institutionalized homophobia. Their complicity in that institutional force, which has such deep roots in the life of the church and the surrounding culture and a powerful financial grip on the churches, blinds them to the moral implications of what they are doing when they lie, when they betray fundamental Christian principles of justice, when they dehumanize and expel.

These Christian leaders, and all who are allied with them in the structures of churches and the institutions that churches own, are, God help them, apparently convinced that they are doing the work of God in treating us as less than human. After reading Scott Pomfret’s book, I have become aware that there is a kind of systemic moral numbing in the lives of homophobic Christian leaders. Begin with demeaning gay Christians, and you can end up lying to other groups, treating other groups of believers as if they have no rights and no humanity, or even, as in the case of some Catholic bishops, engaging in criminal behavior.

Is there hope? Strangely enough, though the picture Scott Pomfret paints in his book is bleak in the extreme, his book is full of hope. As I noted in a previous posting, Scott Pomfret pins his hope on the outrageous presence of the Spirit (the outrageous Spirit) among those Christians who are identified by the institutional church and by society in general as flawed.

The outrageous presence of the outrageous Spirit among dirty gays and dirty lesbians. Among the dirty straight folks who invite us to the table and share your food with us, becoming tainted by our sin. Among the kind of misfits who attend Scott Pomfret’s inner-city parish—mentally disturbed people who disrupt liturgies by moaning and shaking, discarded elderly folks, the plethora of the halt and lame that come to such parishes for comfort and affirmation of one’s fundamental humanity.

Your testimony stresses the invitation that brought you to your church and to General Conference. Those fellow Christians who refuse to shake your hand or speak to you in holy conferencing, and bishops who shout at you and make false accusations about you, would like to have make-or-break power over that invitation. But they do not have such power. They have only the illusion of such make-or-break power.

It is God who extends the invitation. It is God who decides who will open the door and who will shut it. It is God who flings wide the door that Christians try to keep shut.

As Scott Pomfret’s book reminds us, in Massachusetts, when Sean O’Malley and the other Catholic bishops of the state sought to throw their institutional homophobic weight around to coerce Catholic legislators to vote against gay marriage, they had an unpleasant surprise: Catholic legislators would not let themselves be coerced.

They chose to do the right thing instead of the thing the bishops ordered. They listened to the outrageous Spirit, who is the one who does the inviting and the including, not the bishops and their homophobic minions.

Your testimony reminds me of another reason for our hope, even as we deal with the slurs, the ugly rituals of exclusion, the lies about who we are and what we have done, coming out of the mouths of Christian leaders, bishops, university presidents, who maliciously twist their own lies and their own dehumanizing practices around to try to paint us as deserving of the humiliation they enact against us. You say, “The one who told me hearing peoples’ stories at a listening session had given her things to consider in ways she never had before.”

Yes. There is tremendous power in the stories, the real-life stories, of those who live faithfully in the face of oppression. This is why the need to keep the door shut is so ravening. This is why there is such ugly intent to refuse to acknowledge our humanity, by refusing to speak to us, to look us in the eyes, to shake our hands. There is a profound intent, on the part of systemic homophobia in the institutional church, to keep our stories and our voices at bay.

That is why we have to keep telling them, in season and out of season. When people hear them, they know that they hear in these experiences the voice of a truth that shatters the lies of systemic, institutionalized homophobia. Not because we are better people or more faithful people, but because even flawed people who are treated as we are treated by the church do not deserve what is heaped upon us.

Above all, the young are listening. You say, “The people: our young adults – what a stellar future we have in them! They are our Future With Hope.”

Yes. And we need to cherish these young folks, who listen with new ears, ears not yet attuned to the institutionalized homophobia. We need to take their dreams seriously.

In conclusion, I am pained to hear of what happened to you at General Conference this year. At the same time, I am powerfully moved by your testimony, and your willingness to endure such ill treatment from fellow Christians on behalf of others who endure this treatment routinely.

As church members like you continue to offer your hand even when it is shunned, as you keep standing at the door to hold it open to outcasts, as you use your own invitation as the basis to invite others in and let their stories be told, as you nourish the tender faith of the young, things will change. For the better. Thank you for caring.