The worldwide Christian church has just entered a period of repentance, self-examination and renewal commonly known as Lent. It is the perfect time to repent of the sin of homophobia.
Recently I worshipped at Reformation Lutheran Church close to the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The pastor, the Rev. Mike Wilker, wrote a powerful confession used by his congregation:
Gracious God, we confess that we have sinned against our neighbors and against you. Especially during this season, we repent that we continue the world’s abusive ideologies. Racism still holds us in bondage. Sexism weighs us down. Heterosexism infects us. In these ways we place our trust in idols and destroy your beloved creation. Have mercy on us, Holy God. Revive us with your light. Reconcile and heal us with your love. Reform and call us with your truth. Amen.
Homophobia is a dangerous sin because we are often blind to its powerful grip of our hearts and our institutions. It beguiles us and gives permission to otherwise intelligent and loving people and institutions acceptable ways to dehumanize and obliterate the identity and contribution of others.
Human beings become disposable non-persons. As an LGBT person, I too am infected with homophobia, so the call to change our attitude is not only directed to the institutional church but to everyone.
In 1987, I became the first openly gay priest at All Saint’s Church in Pasadena, Calif., which has become the largest inclusive Episcopal congregation west of the Mississippi. Five year earlier, I had arrived in Los Angeles and met with the Rector, George Regas. I asked him to support my work with LGBT runaway and throwaway youth.
Although a courageous defender of justice, George was not ready to take on gay issues. It was 1982 and he gave me a check for $300 and sent me on my way. I returned to his office in 1987, suggesting he hire me to begin the AIDS Service Center ministry. Again, George was reluctant to move into this new and controversial territory and pondered my request for three months. Then he hired me to develop a new ministry. For the next three years, I would discover that institutional homophobia was alive and well at All Saints.
It was painful to sit with other colleagues in a staff meeting where senior clergy denounced any participation by All Saints parishioners in the Los Angeles Pride celebrations. It was uncomfortable to hear how a gay couple had been counseled by another priest “to just go and take a cold shower.” When the church notice board was repainted and placed outside with all the clergy names on it without mine, I had to challenge this decision. The reason given to me was that I was not “real parish clergy” but only the director of the AIDS Service Center.
Homophobia makes us invisible, or “less than,” and I challenged the decision. If I was important enough to serve at the altar, my name should be on the church notice board with everyone else!
I found support and comfort in friendship with an experienced African-American priest on staff, Lo Wooden. He had witnessed a lynching as a young man and worked in the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He now found himself, in his own words, as a pastor in the “dining room” of affluent white America.
We were both very much “outsiders” from the typical All Saints membership and Wooden gave me enormous support during those early difficult years. For example, when I asked George if he would bless the relationship of my partner and me, he refused. It wasn’t personal -- he told many LGBT couples the same thing. I watched him wrestling with his own demons on this issue.
George was a consummate politician as well as a pastor. He had a very large heart but he was not going to move out into unchartered territory without some allies. I watched him carefully gain support from other “cardinal rectors” in places like New York before he personally moved forward on “the gay issue.”
I remember attending an all day event he had planned at St. Bartholomew’s in New York. He invited my partner and I and a lesbian couple with two children to come to New York. The All Saint’s mantra at this time was: “We want to be a family parish, (code) so God sent a lesbian couple with two kids!” They were amazing.
The four of us became the voices of faithful LGBT people to these powerful churchmen. We shared our faith stories and how the homophobia of the church had severely impacted us. Telling our stories to these strangers was “a turning point,” as George said in a personal note of thanks to us. He sensed he was on a journey and he began to listen to us and to his own heart.
Discovering my own homophobia
Several months later, I had a very frank discussion with George about homophobia. I will never forget it. I saw all the tension in him leave his face and body when I admitted to him I was homophobic too. He looked puzzled because he had been tortured with the belief that homophobia was an exclusively heterosexual problem.
“I am homophobic too, George!” I blurted out, “because I live in the same world you do that has taught me all my life that my love is not good. This message is ingrained in me as much as it is in you. I have to deal with it more urgently than you because it is about me!”
George’s jaw dropped and I could see a light bulb illuminate inside his tortured head. He desperately wanted to do the right thing but he struggled with years of heterosexual privilege. He confessed he had a hard time thinking about two guys kissing in front of him just after he married them.
It wasn’t the relationship that gave him problems, it was the symbolism a bit of straight “yuk” factor. He now had permission from a gay priest to be homophobic and not pretend he wasn’t. He was on the same journey and continuum that I was on and every other person on the planet. It was a journey of self-discovery and a way the institutional church could hold on to its cherished values and beliefs but include us, not exclude.
I worked at All Saint’s from 1987 to 1991 and it was extremely challenging, not only because of the AIDS work but also because of the work we all had to do on our collective homophobia. I made deep and lasting relationships with clergy and colleagues, parishioners and community members who are still very much in my life. It was not easy but it was real.
It was liberating to see how straight and gay folk could heal each other in the process and the AIDS Service Center was our love child. It was the first AIDS center in California that was purposefully designed as a gay/straight alliance unlike many of the LGBT models that had emerged from the crisis. I had worked in many LGBT organizations previous to working in this largely heterosexual world. The self-destruction within the LGBT community was as present then as it is with us today. I have worked in many LGBT and AIDS organizations and the internalized homophobia and “turning the guns in on one another” is the underbelly of systemic sabotage that is a direct consequence of seeing homophobia only in the “other” and not in ourselves.
Change doesn’t occur overnight
Twenty-five years later, All Saint’s has largely forgotten its difficult journey towards wholeness. By 1992, George took the courageous step to bless the first gay union, of Phil and Mark, and they asked me to lead in the prayers that historic day.
The parish did not change overnight either. George carefully and deliberately spent a year discussing the issues with the congregation who were remained bitterly divided. As a good Rector, he could read the congregation and I began to understand his caution in hiring me. The underlying fear of the institution was articulated in the mantra - “We do not want to become a gay church.” This is a normal fear of any congregation who begins a journey to wholeness through repentance of their corporate homophobia. Ironically, the congregation’s opposition and bystanders became allies by strange and instruments of God’s justice.
It was only when the Religious Right began picketing Sunday services, subjecting parishioners and even their young children to verbal abuse and sexual innuendo as they prepared for Sunday worship, that the majority of parishioners were finally converted. The same people who were afraid we would become a gay church experienced the same insult and bullying that LGBT people have struggled with all our lives. They got it. The institution moved from being part of the bully institution that is characteristic of most Christians to becoming a “neutral” bystander and finally, thanks to the behavior of the Religious Right, moved the congregation to being a place of welcome and full inclusion. We are seeing this process playing out on a national and international scale and the sheer bullying of the Religious Right will help change hearts and minds as the last stage in the journey to wholeness.
How to defeat homophobia
Research shows if we can help people to intervene within 10 seconds to a bullying incident on a playground, the bullying ends immediately. The bully is confronted and the bystanders are converted into allies. The focus shifts from the majority observing the bully and the victim to being participants in ending violence and breaking its cycle.
This is the secret to healing homophobia. It never quite leaves us fully, rooted in its larger system of gender roles and sexism, but we can transform it. There is GREAT work being done across the faith and secular community right now to help the church realize its collusion and participation in the destruction of millions of beautiful lives by either continuing to bully LGBT people (as we see in places like Uganda and 75 other countries where it is illegal to be LGBT) or to be passive bystanders and allow the bullying to take place.
LGBT people are also not immune from the sin of homophobia. For example, we can be terrified about the risk of coming out fully in support of gay teenagers, almost all of whom live in daily threat of bullying and violence and high proportions of suicide. We are afraid we may be looked upon as pedophiles and internal self-hatred continues to do its number inside our heads.
Corporately the LGBT community can institutionally “duck the issue” every time there is a marriage initiative by avoiding any reference to kids. The opposition can read us very well and it is becoming clear that closeted clergy and lay folk who lead many of these anti-gay campaigns are merely playing out their own internal Armageddon on a larger scale. We ought to have more courage to “lean into the wind” and just “bring it on.”
I have worked with hundreds of wonderful LGBT foster parents, teachers, administrators and parents, and we deny their contribution to healing the world when our internalized homophobia denies or avoids the great work they bring to our society. Organizations like GLSSEN (Gay and Lesbian Straight Education Network) is leading the way locally here in San Diego and nationally to heal our institutional homophobia in our schools. They are a relatively untapped resource we all need to support, fund, volunteer with and honor.
Exposing the “ex-gay” movement and myth
Meanwhile, in the churches, closeted clergy and lay leaders continue to be significant forces for status quo at best and negative reinforcement of stereotypes that impede the journey towards wholeness. The “ex-gay” movement is ironically full of people just like us. They are not monsters or evil people. Their internalized homophobia is SO strong they are prepared to lie and deceive millions of people rather than face their own truth. They are distracted from this important self-reflection by building a pseudo-scientific global platform upon which states create laws to send us to prison or execute us. The damage these underground cell groups, often meeting in evangelical churches like Saddleback and Skyline needs to be exposed.
We need a really important legal decision to come from the courts that finally exposes them for the damage they are causing to millions of families. They often charge outrageous fees for “counseling” that cannot yet be exposed as a form of psychological abuse because it is protected by “freedom of religion.” One day, the courts will decide “ex-gay” therapy is child abuse and the perpetrators will be brought to justice and these churches will be forced by the courts to pay multimillion-dollar settlements to families whose lives have been ruined. It will build upon the legal and constitutional evolution that the Catholic sexual abuse scandal has created. The church cannot teach and do what it likes and is not above the law.
The Vatican remains a sanctuary for closeted clergy who never blinked an eyelid when the Episcopal Church began ordaining women but had a hissy fit when Gene Robinson was consecrated bishop, because Gene came out. For our closeted gay brothers, they would rather see a witch hunt unfold within the church, join forces with Mormons and fundamentalist Christians to fight LGBT people and spend millions of dollars doing so, than face their own sexuality.
We can blame President Ronald Regan for not addressing AIDS for years until his friend Rock Hudson died, but what about his closeted speech writers who made sure the President never mentioned the dreaded “A” word? The sins of omission are as harmful as everyday sins. The consequences of the deep unconscious decisions to demean, ignore or punish gender non-conformists need to be clearly brought to the light. Closeted clergy also believe they are helping us by remaining close to the centers of power. History will judge them as much as it judges Reagan’s speech writers.
I am tired of listening to the excuses of large and well-funded LGBT organizations for not doing more for LGBT people globally, just because we are fighting for marriage equality in several U.S. states at the same time. What is stopping the Human Rights Campaign from doing much, much more for the millions of LGBT people who will die in the next decade because their governments deny them access to HIV prevention information or healthcare? Sadly, it is because the vast majority of the HRC board and donors do not see international LGBT work as having much support in the American LGBT community.
With a new HRC president about to be appointed, I pray we may see a conversion process happening in our own hearts that we usually only look for in “the other side.” I shared my concerns with my friends in HRC last week and if enough of us who donate time and money to the good work HRC is doing, there is no reason why they cannot focus on international and domestic issues. The Religious Right has been doing this for years. We cannot expect churches to change and see their responsibility and participation in human suffering without a little self-reflection and change of heart in our own.
“Racism still holds us in bondage. Sexism weighs us down. Heterosexism infects us,” as the prayer says, but I would add “Homophobia is killing us.” So dear God, “Reform and call us with your truth.”
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.