“But we don’t have gay people here,” or so I heard someone say once in, if I remember correctly, response to a request to form a gay student club for those gay students who don’t exist. This is the kind of statement that should be said in the same tone of voice one might say “but we don’t have termites here.” It’s sort of the same sentiment.
But you know what? I felt sorry for the person who said it. I felt sorry for what I saw as willful ignorance, which is quite possibly the most difficult kind to shore up and live inside.
There weren’t any gay people in Mississippi, as far as I knew, until after I graduated from high school. It was odd the way that worked. One day I didn’t know any gay people at all. The next day I knew ten or twenty. And somehow they were just the same people I’d always known. They were just my friends.
Eudora Welty described herself as a writer who came from a sheltered life. God bless her for that. I probably wouldn’t have the courage to try to write if she hadn’t told me you could in fact grow up in a sheltered environment in Mississippi and still be a writer.
I think it speaks to my own ignorance more than anything else that it didn’t occur to me there were gay people among my friends in high school. It also speaks to how incredibly difficult it must have been to be gay, or at least openly gay, as a teenager in Mississippi in the early 80s. I think about that now as I think about the recent teen suicides, and I just thank God that most of my class did get out of high school alive.
My school was not without suicides, though. One girl I remember washed down a bottle of pills with a bottle of vodka. A boy shot himself in his parents’ bedroom.
I don’t know why. I don’t know what they were going through or if there was anything any of us could have done. I would hate to think, though, of kids from my school or from anyone else’s either ending their own lives because of bullying or because the world around them had made it impossible for them to just say without fear who they really are.
There’s been quite a lot of talk lately about gay teenagers and suicide. October 20 was set aside as a day to remember Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Tyler Clementi, and others. The “It gets better” video campaign was launched to send the message to teenagers to hang in there. It does get better.
The suicides from my high school, whatever their cause, were absolutely devastating to the whole school. The suicides that have made national news lately have been absolutely devastating to the whole country.
I say that to say that this campaign to tell gay teenagers it gets better is about all kids. It’s about helping everyone’s children make it through adolescence. Whatever your opinions of gayness itself, you have to be aware of the very real threat of suicide, and you have to do your part to take a stand against bullying. There is no redeeming bullying. There is no justification. And bullying is a threat to you and to your kids whether they are gay or straight or pretending for the sake of appearances. When one kid is bullied, all kids suffer. When one kid is bullied, all kids are thrown into a culture of fear and anxiety. It’s everyone’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Which brings us to the more difficult part of this discussion–the religious question. Among all of the other talk of gay teen suicides recently, I have also seen adamant condemnations of homosexuality on religious grounds. I have seen people say no one can be gay and Christian at the same time, and they have said it believing in all sincerity that they were being as compassionate as they could be by simply pointing out the truth.
Here we meet the unholy and heartbreaking impasse of social debate in which each side has no choice but to see the other as evil because neither side defines the issue in the same terms and neither can, under their own terms, find respect for the other’s point of view.
I am for the side of love, and to explain what that means to me, I point you to the early 70s when I was a child sitting in a church listening to grown men argue about whether it was possible for a man to divorce and remarry and still be a Christian. I have to tell you in the interest of full disclosure that the intense contentiousness of this debate, the anger and hatefulness engaged, convinced me forever that I did not trust church leaders to make my moral choices for me or to even guide me in making them for myself. I saw hatred there, and I wanted no part of it. I still want no part of it.
It’s easy to say this. I’m against hate and for love. That doesn’t mean, however, that every religious judgment is motivated by hate. Many people are sincerely conflicted over how to reconcile their love for a person with their religious belief that the person’s behavior leads directly to Hell, no questions asked, no passing Go or collecting $200.
The debate of divorce and remarriage was my defining moment of childhood religious experience. That was my introduction to the dark side of the church. It was ugly. It was brutal. It was a fight to the death with not much regard for who got hurt along the way. It was also 35 years ago, and no one ever talks about divorce and remarriage as an unpardonable sin anymore. Shifts happen, even in religious beliefs. This shift was ugly and painful at the time, but it’s over. We aren’t going back to a time when people interpret the rule to be inflexible or to a time when they are willing to put rules ahead of relationships in this matter.
Societies at large, even strict religious societies, struggle with the idea of condemning their own families. When a religious mandate previously understood a certain way comes into question, it may mean a long and difficult road to reconsidering and recasting that understanding, but the recasting always eventually does take place because in the end human beings–despite all the horrors they are capable of visiting on one another–will, when given the chance, choose to side with love. That is the natural process of love at work in our lives and our relationships, and if you believe that God is love, you might also believe that this is the process of God at work in our lives and in our relationships.
All of this is to say that while strict religious interpretation at this moment casts homosexuality as a sin, religious interpretations have changed before, and they will again. Societies change. The world we live in changes. Reality changes. Religions, in light of great changes in the world around them, either adapt or die. That is the wholly natural order of systems. That is just the way it works.
I’m not writing this as an argument in favor of redefining how religion views homosexuality. I’m writing it as an observation that this shift is already happening. We’re in the middle of it now. It is slow and painful. It is brutal. There are many casualties. But it is happening nonetheless.
Thirty-five years from now, someone will write in an essay, “I was a child when everyone argued so hatefully over gay rights, but now no one even talks about that anymore. The fight was painful, but it is over.”
Probably, that someone will thank God for that.