Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sojourners Again: Candace Chellew-Hodge on Sojourners Ad about Homeless Gay Youth

The discussion of the refusal of a leading group of faith-based progressive activists, Sojourners, to refuse an ad by Believe Out Loud earlier in the year won't go away.  And it shouldn't.  It shouldn't go away, because the issue of gay people and our place in the world (and in faith communities) continues to be unresolved and subject to debate, as news breaks of yet another killing in the U.S. of someone due, it appears, to his perceived sexual orientation.

This discussion shouldn't go away because two-thirds of Americans reported less than a year ago that they see communities of faith as right at the heart of the problem of bullying that leads to suicides of gay young people and young people tagged as gay even if they happen not to be gay.  Groups that profess to be about the healing of the world are perceived, in this neuralgic cultural moment in which the humanity of gay and lesbian people is being significantly renegotiated by societies around the world, as part of the problem and not part of the solution.

And because I don't think it's by any means time to stop the discussion of Sojourners' refusal to take a clear, unambiguous stand for the full humanity of those who are gay, and for our full range of human rights, I'm glad to see Candace Chellew-Hodge continuing the discussion at Religion Dispatches today.  As she notes, in what appears to be a corrective to its rejection of the Believe Out Loud ad, Sojourners will soon be printing an ad about homeless gay youth, noting that 40% of homeless youth in the U.S. are gay and have been rejected by their families due to sexual orientation.

As Chellew-Hodge notes, Joseph Ward, communications director of Believe Out Loud's parent organization Intersections International, finds Sojourners' latest step less than thrilling.  Ward notes that Sojourners is still continuing to opt for the "safe" topic of homelessness--a topic safe among its progressive Christian base--while it continues to avoid taking a "firm and unambiguous" stand about the non-safe topic (non-safe for its base) of whether faith communities should affirm and welcome those who are LGBT.  Should affirm and welcome us unambiguously . . . . 

One of the games that progressive but non-gay affirming Christian groups like Sojourners play with those of us who are gay and lesbian is this: the poor, the homeless, the hungry are real human beings who have real problems, and it goes without saying that followers of Christ must affirm the humanity of these human beings and respond to their problems.

But gay folks?  This is an area that's altogether murkier.  Doesn't the bible say . . . ?  How can the challenge to their humanity be viewed as in any way similar to the dehumanization of those who are poor, hungry, racially oppressed?  

It's not the same.  On the one hand, the bible says that we cannot turn our backs on the poor, hungry, sick, infirm, on racial minorities.  But on the other hand, when it comes to the gays, doesn't the bible say . . . ?

The upshot of this back-forth game within progressive Christian communities that still refuse to take a firm and unambiguous stand on the issue of gay rights and the full humanity of gay and lesbian persons is this: they are implicitly communicating to their base and to the world at large that gay and lesbian human beings are less human than other human beings.  And this is precisely why communities of faith remain a huge part of the problem and not part of the solution in the struggle to affirm the full humanity of gay and lesbian persons: they deliberately validate the ambiguity about the worth of gay humanity that leads to societal callousness and even violence towards those who are gay and lesbian.

As the statistics the Sojourners ad cites suggest, for many of us who are gay and lesbian the problem of being made homeless--of being treated as less than human--begins right within our family circles. It begins right at home, with signal after signal that we should accept less (except when what we're asked to accept is abuse: then, we should accept more) than members of our families who happen to be heterosexual.  Less love, less inclusion, less affirmation, less security.  But more abuse . . . .

That attitude is reinforced by the message of faith communities that those who are gay are human in a way not quite the same as, and not equal to, the humanity of their heterosexual brothers and sisters.  Indeed, the attitude often begins right within the faith communities to which families rejecting their gay members are connected.  And from these communities of faith and from such families, the attitude that those who are gay and lesbian are not fully human, and should not have human rights equal to those of everyone else, spreads out into society in manifold ways, resulting in laws that criminalize the very being of gay folks, or laws and practices that enshrine discrimination in areas like employment, housing, provision of medical services, etc.

If your own family, and your own church family, will not accept and welcome you unambiguously, why should society, for whom communities of faith set the moral standard, be expected to behave any differently?  

Sojourners emailed me last week, asking that I support initiatives to address hunger and homelessness in Somalia and the U.S.  And, of course, I care about these issues, and I do my own tiny bit to express my concern through organizations addressing these issues.

But as I keep telling Sojourners when the group emails me for support, I can no longer support a faith-based organization that challenges me to uphold the human rights of some human beings, while it ignores the human rights of one group of human beings who are subject to serious oppression and outright violence in many parts of the world.  Solely because of who they happen to have been made by God . . . . 

The email appeal from Sojourners used a "picture this" rhetorical device to engage my concern for the hungry and homeless: picture this family living on the street with nothing to eat; picture this family trekking across the ravaged landscape of Somalia.  

And here's what I told Sojourners in response:

Picture this: acts of violence done to LGBT Americans have been on the rise in recent years.  In many areas of this country, you can find yourself beaten or killed for no reason other than your sexual orientation (as the current Lawrence King-Brandon McInerney trial reminds us).

Picture this: in a sizable proportion of states in the U.S., gay and lesbian citizens have no legal protection at all from being fired or denied housing solely because they are gay and lesbian.

Picture this: despite federal prohibitions, gay and lesbian citizens in this country can still be denied visitation rights in hospitals.

Picture this: discrimination against gays and lesbians on grounds of sexual orientation often affects their families, including children they are raising.

Picture this: a Pew study a year ago found, as the epidemic suicide rates of gay of gender-questioning youths became a national concern, that most Americans think communities of faith are part of the problem and not the solution.

Picture this: churches and faith-based groups that talk about poverty and violence without ever opening their mouths about discrimination and violence towards those who are gay or lesbian completely undercut their credibility, when they talk about human rights in any area at all.

This is a discussion that will not go away.  It will not go away because it needs to continue.  A faith-based group that makes significant claims about human rights while ignoring the valid claims of anyone to human rights does not deserve a free pass.

It's time for churches and other faith communities to stop playing these evil dehumanizing games with those who are gay and lesbian.  I intend to keep doing my part to hold their feet to the fire.

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