One line from the recently-viral Kony 2012 video has really stuck with me in the last few days, “Where you live should not determine whether you live.” It’s a beautiful awareness project and a humble reminder that some of the things that are completely outside of our control can have a profound impact on our quality of life.
Of course, one parallel I make in my mind is around sexual orientation. I was born into privilege in many ways. I’m White. I’m a man. My physical body matches my gender identity. My religion was Christianity. I had no major learning deficits or physical disabilities. And, of course, because the very nature of privilege means we don’t have to think about those things that are to our benefit, I also would have always told you growing up that I was more marginalized than privileged. Because we were poor. My parents always worked multiple jobs and never had enough to make ends meet. I was bullied. I was gay. I was dyslexic. I came from a family where each member had been victimized by domestic or sexual violence, and in many ways that cycle perpetuated itself. And what I’m reflecting on today is how much of all that was set into motion before I even took my first breath. I was born into privilege and I was born into struggle. I joined a game already in play. With no contribution or consent, I started off with advantages and disadvantages. I was born a gay White male in America in 1986 to a conservative, religious Oklahoma family. Those things — that were completely outside of my control — always have and forever will affect the way I experience the world around me. Perhaps that realization can also be a lesson in empathy for me in relation to a hate group that I have really been struggling with lately. And perhaps in relation to another version of that sort of thing that I bet we are all much more familiar with in our daily lives.
The feature image on this post is of two children from Westboro Baptist Church. At first glance, they may appear to be participating in the NoH8 campaign, but their messages are actually “GOD H8s FAGS” and “GOD H8s ENABLERS.” This picture breaks my heart. I don’t believe their statements represent the dominant opinion of Christianity, and as far as I’m aware all the Christians who I know personally believe such statements are contradictory to the teachings of Christ. But those smiling kids have memorized some key phrases and have internalized some hugely consequential ideas. It sounds horrible, but if you think about it, you may be able to relate to them more than you realize. I do.
Just as these kids have been born into a world of prejudice and hate, I was born into a different version of a similar thing. A thing that many of my “Christian” friends still buy into: Hate the sin, love the sinner. Yes, that is a very common phrase in many Christian circles. I can appreciate that folks with this perspective believe they are still showing love to people when they separate them from their “lifestyle”. However, I think it is — quite frankly — bullshit. The message is still clear: being gay is a sin, and sin = Hell. It claims to love a person, but in reality loves them only in part. It’s an “I love you, but.” I love you, but I think something is wrong with you. I love you, but I think who you are is a sin. I love you, but I refuse to accept you. Many friends and family of mine still feel this way toward me and don’t seem to see the hurt it causes. What might be intended to be love is still quite simply another version of rejection. It’s still othering. It’s still a scarlet letter. It’s still conditional. My truth is simple: An unconditional love cannot be a compartmentalized love.
If someone is born into a world in which they are attracted to people of the same sex and is simultaneously born into a world in which same-sex attraction is a sin, how does that person ever reconcile these two ideas? How do they ever find peace? My anecdotal experience has been that most LGBT folks I know do not consider themselves religious or spiritual. I don’t think that’s because we are any less inclined to seek out life’s mysteries or make meaning of the world around us. I think it’s because we weren’t given permission to believe. Because we were rejected and we were hurt. We were told from the start that we were a sin. So, the only choice was to accept that (and attempt to “pray away they gay” while battling our own internalized homophobia) or reject it (and, for many, reject all spirituality or religion in the process).
I found myself in that dangerous decision point throughout most of my life. Any time I had an “impure” thought about another guy (or God-forbid, acted on that thought) I would soon after be tormented by guilt and shame. I would beg God for forgiveness so that I wouldn’t go to Hell. I remember thinking at times that if I was to die right after I had prayed for forgiveness and before I had the chance to mess up again, then I would make it to Heaven and everything would be alright. In the darkest of times, I even considered taking my own life at that “optimal” moment after prayer, but I was too afraid that everyone who commits suicide also goes to Hell. I wanted to go to Heaven so badly, but every way I could think of it, I was going to go to Hell. And as a result, my entire belief system was based on fear. It wasn’t until many years later, after accepting my full identity, that I was able to truly appreciate the power of love and a belief system that is not based in retribution.
Why was this all so difficult for me? Because I was born into a world that taught me I was going to Hell because of something I never chose and could never change. A world that still teaches its children to believe the same things now. At a younger age than the children in the above photo, I already understood those beliefs well. As I child I remember hearing my grandma (a truly loving, Christian woman) tell me that if I sat on a toilet seat after a gay man did that I might get AIDS and die. I remember hearing my dad say the word “faggot” with disgust on at least one very vivid occasion when talking about gay men. I remember my mom saying that no one even actually was gay, but that “teenagers get confused by pornography.” I remember crying to my sister and her boyfriend one night when I was in the sixth grade because someone called me gay at school, and my sister’s response was “You’re a good Christian, how could anyone think you were gay?” The implication, of course, being that you can’t be both. I remember reading the scriptures that Christians use to make their case against homosexuality and studying them so well that I even used them against people for years. All the while, wondering on the inside what that meant for me.
I know so many people who look at Westboro Baptist Church with horror and say they could never understand how they could brainwash their children from such a young age. But they don’t seem to see that the danger is not just in the explicit hate, but in the extremist foundational views that are behind that hate. I would argue that the underlying beliefs aren’t that different — although expressed in drastically different ways. I think it’s the underlying belief itself that needs to be challenged. Even for the compassionate Christians who denounce WBC, but still preach against homosexuality and use their own power and influence to block protections and rights for LGBT folks. The people in my life who have had that perspective truly believe they love me, and I don’t think they would do anything intentionally to hurt me. But we all lived in world where “homosexuality = sin” and “sin = hell.” And I knew that clearly from a young age, just like the kids in this photo. Those kids will continue believing that “God hates fags” just as their community has taught them. Unless they are able to get out of that world or truly experience God’s love. I don’t live in the “homosexuality = hell” world anymore. I think that is a very dangerous place to raise our future generations. Personally, I want to believe in a world where people know that you can be a person of faith and love someone of the same sex at the same time. At the very least, though, I want to believe in a world where we all teach the message of compassion, love, and kindness. Without conditions. Without compartmentalizing.
Thanks for listening.
P.S. I’ll conclude with two more thoughts. (1) At the end of this post is a video by Randy Roberts Potts, grandson of televangelist Oral Roberts. We grew up in the same kind of world, and his story resonates with me in so many ways. I think it’s worth watching. (2) My final thought will be the Facebook status I posted shortly after the debates, hurt, and hate that took place in response to my “Getting Better” video when I first came out (or as I called it, “let others in”). That’s my two cents for now.
You can’t change someone else’s worldview. They have to experience something within themselves for that to happen. All you can do is respond in love and continue to work toward building a world in which love prevails. I don’t want anyone else to feel attacked any more than I want to feel attacked, whether they believe the same as I do or not. But please remember this: I ask that no matter where you stand on this issue, that we all move forward using (not just “love”), but grace, kindness, and gentleness when sharing our messages — there is too much pain and suicide related to these issues, and I think we would all agree that life is fragile and precious. It’s important that we all try to see beyond our own frame of reference. Nothing else is ever within our control. I love and appreciate what you all have brought to this conversation. And although there have been some very hurtful comments – some public, some private – I am completely overwhelmed and in awe of the incredible outpouring of love and support from friends, family, and strangers. It’s truly impossible for me to express what it means to me. Thank you for being in my life and for being all of who you are. Don’t stop either one 🙂