Eugene Carson Blake, Where Are You Now?

eugene carson blake arrested 7-4-63 baltimore

This photo depicts one of my favorite moments in Presbyterian history. I’ve shared it before; the events of recent days have made me think about it again.

This is the Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, who was the Stated Clerk – the top church executive –  of the Presbyterian Church from 1951 until 1966. This is a photo of Blake being arrested while protesting a segregated amusement park in Baltimore in 1963.

During his time as Stated Clerk, Blake was a strong advocate for Christian unity, being a major voice of the ecumenical movement and calling for a merger of ten mainline denominations into one body. His focus on church unity led him to also serve as the President of the National Council of Churches while serving as Stated Clerk, and later, as the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches.

But his focus wasn’t exclusively on Christian unity, and it certainly wasn’t on unity at any cost. Blake was head of the denomination during the civil rights movement, a time of intense division in the church.  He knew all too well the differing, and often heatedly debated, opinions within the denomination’s membership over matters of racial equality and justice. These were explosive issues, and any statements about them coming out of the head office – regardless of content – had the potential for further division, and possibly even denominational schism.

And yet, fully aware of that reality, Blake took a strong, uncompromising stand in favor of social justice. He wrote and spoke powerfully against racial discrimination and segregation, and calling for civil rights and equal justice under the law for all people. He stood up for racial equality and non-discrimination in the church as well, against many who appealed to wrong-headed interpretations of scripture to defend their impassioned arguments supporting the racist status quo.

It’s funny; I remember being a young boy in the 1960s and hearing my own Presbyterian relatives bemoaning the “radicals,” who were probably even closet Communists, who had gotten control of the church and who were turning it away from God and toward the very gates of hell itself. Only years later would I do the math and realize they were actually complaining about Eugene Carson Blake and his unabashedly progressive anti-racist theology.

It was precisely that theology that led him to protest racial discrimination, and yes, to even be arrested for his beliefs. It was that strength of character that led him to help organize, and to participate in, Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. It was that clarity of prophetic witness that caused him to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day, just a short while before Dr. King gave his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. He participated in that march, and gave that speech, all the while worried in the pit of his stomach that his participation would lead to further strife and division in the church – and yet, he was convinced that this was where God had called him, and what God was calling him, and the church, to do. There he stood; he could do no other.

For the most part, Presbyterians today are on the forefront of matters of battling racism and white privilege. In fact, our current Stated Clerk and our two Co-Moderators – the top three officers in the denomination – are all direct beneficiaries of Blake’s forward-thinking and uncompromising stance against discrimination based on race or gender.

However, the denomination still has internal divisions, these days largely over the matter of the place of LGBTQ individuals in the church. I don’t have polling data from Blake’s time regarding civil rights to use as a comparison, but with the church membership currently supporting LGBTQ equality in church and society by an approximate 2 to 1 margin (and trending upward), I suspect the division is significantly less than Blake had to navigate. We have, thanks be to God, amended our constitutional documents to permit the ordination of LGBTQ Deacons, Elders, and Ministers of Word and Sacrament, and to permit our ministers to officiate – and be part of – same-sex marriages.

As wonderful as all this is, it’s still only a partial victory. While our constitution allows LGBTQ equality in pulpit and pew, that same constitution permits presbyteries (regions) and congregations to decide for themselves whether to accept it. That means that there are many places within the denomination where LGBTQ people remain unwelcome. This compromise, made in the name of denominational unity, has resulted in a situation within the church where LGBTQ Christians are something akin to the 3/5 of a person that the U.S. Constitution originally considered slaves. Our memberships and ordinations all come with an asterisk – our acceptability for membership or ordination changes not by virtue of our profession of faith, or our preparation and qualifications, but simply by virtue of having crossed a geographical boundary. We are the only group that the denomination allows to be discriminated against by reason of a biological characteristic. To use another historical parallel, we’re living a supposedly separate-but-equal Plessy versus Ferguson existence in a Brown versus Board of Education world. In trying to save the denomination from splitting in two, this compromise has merely established two under one roof.

Would Eugene Carson Blake have supported acceptance of LGTBQ Christians openly participating in the full life and leadership of the church? I’m pretty certain that, in his own historical context, he most assuredly wouldn’t have – in fact, I’d be surprised to learn otherwise. But as firmly as I believe that, I’m just as convinced that if he were alive today, and knew what we now know, that he would be working, and writing, and speaking as courageously for us as he did for others in his own time.

A few days ago, Rev. Dr. Blake’s denomination – my denomination – issued a response to the “Nashville Statement,” the vehemently anti-female and anti-LGBTQ document issued by a number of conservative Evangelical Christian personalities. I’ve addressed the Statement in an earlier post.

Since its release, non-Evangelical Christians, as well as people outside the church, have been issuing an unending flood of denunciations of its backward, hateful content. Really, opposing the content of this theological train wreck is as close to a slam-dunk, no-brainer as things get in the church world – or at least, you would think so. After a couple of days of thoughtful deliberation (we Presbyterians don’t rush into anything), the denomination released a response. Unfortunately, it was an intensely disappointing, dull thud of a response.

There were a number of positive elements in the statement, which can be read here. And it does refer and link to the “Denver Statement,” an excellent and sometimes witty response to the Nashville Statement. But overall, it ended up being just a timid document that shied away from a bold stand for social justice in order to not offend the denomination’s most conservative members, while apparently being less concerned with offending and hurting a large number of others who found themselves once again somewhat under the bus. This was not, you might say, a Eugene Carson Blake moment.

Yes, I hope that someday, we have a courageous, denomination-wide affirmation of LGBTQ people in the full life and leadership of the church in the same manner the we’ve done with women and persons of color. But at very least, the statement could have strongly defended our position that one can be a faithful Christian while holding LGBTQ-affirming views – a position that the Nashville Statement pointedly denies in its Article 10. The Presbyterian response makes ambiguous mention of the Nashville Statement staking out positions “that go beyond anything the PC(USA) has officially taken a stand on.” But this is not one of those things. By our decision to consider both positions equally faithful, we have indeed taken a stand on this particular matter and consider the claim made in Article 10 of the Nashville Statement to be sinful nonsense. The fact that the denomination couldn’t even make a strong denunciation of this point – that it opted for a unity-over-justice position – was hurtful and insulting, and shows that despite the progress we’ve made in the denomination, we’ve still got a long way to go.

I would willingly be arrested defending the civil rights of the current leadership of my church. Given this less than enthusiastic response to the Nashville Statement, I have to wonder if they would they do the same for me.

I have tremendous respect for our denominational leadership. I’m proud of them. I love them. They hold exceedingly difficult jobs, and I’m convinced that they try to do their best to lead wisely, to find the right balance between Christian unity and prophetic witness. And on a personal level, J. Herbert Nelson, our Stated Clerk, rocks an awesome bow tie; not everyone can pull that off. Beyond that, I am genuinely, personally grateful for the strides made in recent years, even if I’d wish for more, which allow me to serve as an out gay ordained minister. But in this case, by way of an overly timid response to this ugly scar on the faith called the Nashville Statement, our denomination has blinked. We’ve missed a major opportunity to do the right thing – to decisively, boldly defend social and ecclesiastical justice for LGBTQ Christians both within the denomination and beyond, against forces within Christianity that would reject and harm us. I grieve over this lost opportunity. Somewhere, I believe Eugene Carson Blake does, too.

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Nashville Noise

Jesus-facepalm

You may have seen that a few days ago, something called The Nashville Statement (click the link, if you must) was issued by some group that calls itself “The Council for Biblical Manliness and Womanliness.” Really, I’m not making this up; that’s what they’re calling themselves. It sounds like a secret club started by the Little Rascals after they grew up and the He-Man Woman-Haters Club fell apart, not for lack of woman-hating, but because, well, sex.

gimme the high sign

As silly as the group’s name is, it’s clear that it’s supposed to sound like some respected, august body of religious leaders dripping with gravitas, who, one might assume, somberly gathered together in Nashville to contribute some profound insight into a grave and urgent crisis of our time. In reality, I suspect its list of original 150 signers – which included only a scant few more women than the H-MWHC – was far less such a gathering, and much more something like Tony Perkins having simply texted out the statement to everyone in his phone’s contact list one day, and them texting him back a thumbs-up emoji.

The statement itself is remarkable – but only for its unremarkableness.

It’s really nothing more than a bunch of the usual suspects and self-appointed mouthpieces of so-called Evangelical American Christianity repeating their harmful anti-LGBTQ understanding of the faith, as if people hadn’t already heard those views ad nauseum. The group must have been thinking that they hadn’t gotten enough media coverage lately, so they repackaged their hate and ignorance in the confession format used by many religious groups who were speaking to past historic crises.

In the days since its release, there have been countless responses and counter-statements issued – I’ve read at least half a dozen, and actually signed two. I haven’t had time to offer any thoughts about it until now, because a.) I have a day job, and blogging isn’t it; and b.) I wondered, and frankly still do, if responding to these dead-theologians-walking only served to give them more attention than they deserve. Watching the massive human tragedy unfolding in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey makes me additionally ambivalent about the appropriateness responding to these theological and moral pygmies .

One of the responses that I read was John Pavlovitz’s, titled The Nashville Statement (A Plain Language Translation). I like John’s writing, and this was a good piece, but I have to admit I was thinking based on its title, the article would be more of a point-by-point translation of the Statement’s various Articles out of religious jargon and into plain language that people other than theology nerds could clearly understand. Since he didn’t go in that direction, I thought I’d try to do that now. So here goes. The original Nashville Statement text is in lavender, the definitive gay color, just to tick off its homophobic authors; the translation follows in black.

Article 1

[NS] WE AFFIRM that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church.

WE DENY that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship. We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.

[Translation] God designed marriage for the purpose of conceiving and giving birth to children – so you gays can’t have a legitimate marriage because you can’t have kids.

Don’t remind us that many heterosexual couples choose not to have children, and we consider their marriages valid. Same with heterosexual couples who can’t have children due to age or other biological reasons.

Don’t tell us that every day, we accept as valid the marriages of heterosexual couples who got married in entirely secular settings, or in religious traditions other than our own, and we consider them perfectly acceptable. We’ll plug our ears and say “LALALALALALALA!”

Don’t point out to us that the concept of an unchanging, universal definition of marriage in the Bible is a complete myth, or that Biblical characters’ marriages were completely at odds with modern American cultural norms, or that there are many Christians even today whose understanding of marriage is very different from our own. Plugging our ears again. Just stop it.

And don’t talk to us about gay couples who adopt, providing homes for the unwanted children of heterosexual procreation. Really, just don’t go there, because it’s better for those kids to grow up without loving parents than to be exposed to gay couples living in ways that will make the kids think we’re crazy when we claim that their parents’ lives are immoral and ungodly. Don’t show us the mountain of research that shows that kids raised by gay parents are just as psychologically well-adjusted as those raised by straight couples. Besides, we really know all those homos just want to have sex with those children, and recruit them into their immoral lifestyle.

Article 2

[NS] WE AFFIRM that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage.

WE DENY that any affections, desires, or commitments ever justify sexual intercourse before or outside marriage; nor do they justify any form of sexual immorality.

[Translation] Sex bad, except within straight marriage, and as we define it. Any other expression of our sexual selves – man, we hate to even say the word “sex” – is absolutely unacceptable. If we have to live our entire lives saddled with guilt because we went all the way with Tammy with the big boobs in the back seat of our car after our Young Life meeting when we were teenagers; or because we’ve been secretly engaging in sex in department store men’s rooms and out-of-town gay bathhouses in order to maintain our straight conservative religious public image, then we’re going to drag you right down into the guilt-pit with us. And while those of us who are straight at least have marriage as an acceptable avenue to enjoy sex, you gays get no such option. You are, by definition, immoral, so you shouldn’t have any moral or legal way to express your chosen lifestyle. We’re going to keep trying to get you to feel that guilt, whether you interpret the Bible the way we do or not, because we make our livings by setting ourselves up as the authority figures who must be revered and obeyed in order for us to use our special mojo with God to absolve you of all that guilt that we’ve instilled.

Article 3

[NS] WE AFFIRM that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, in his own image, equal before God as persons, and distinct as male and female.

WE DENY that the divinely ordained differences between male and female render them unequal in dignity or worth.

[Translation] Despite the overwhelming, incontrovertible scientific evidence to the contrary, we still stick our heads in the sand and believe that the allegorical biblical creation accounts first composed by pre-scientific nomadic tribesman is historical, scientific fact that tells us everything we need to know about human origins, biology, and anthropology, and God’s attitude about that in complete detail.

We refuse to accept the fact that every year, in one out of every 2,000 births worldwide, the child is born intersex, with genitals that aren’t clearly either male or female. Beyond so-called intersex cases, we refuse to accept the overwhelming positions of medical, psychiatric, and other professional organizations that affirm that gender identity is not decisively determined by physical plumbing; and that it isn’t an exclusively binary reality.

We believe that the Bible mandates a God-designed system where men are at the top of the pyramid (men must be created most in the image of God, since the Bible calls God “he”), and that women must defer and be subservient to men, and that we can treat women as unequal subordinates in countless ways; while simultaneously claiming that aren’t treating them unequally at all, just differently, and we can claim that this is treating them with dignity. We’re tempted here to use the term “separate but equal,” but that language didn’t work out well for us in a previous attempt to treat another group of people “differently.”

Article 4

WE AFFIRM that divinely ordained differences between male and female reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing.

WE DENY that such differences are a result of the Fall or are a tragedy to be overcome.

[Translation] Even though we believe God is omnipotent and that God’s being and image transcends actual sex and gender, we believe that when setting out to create human beings in the divine image, he (see?) is restricted to only two options, despite the scientific evidence previously referred to regarding actual human sexual orientation and gender. It’s just a black and white issue, because of the whole Adam-and-Eve-is-science thing, so don’t confuse us with your so-called facts, by so-called experts who all graduated from godless, secular institutions rather than the good, conservative, Bible-based institutions we prefer.

Also, we have to say that we disagree with the belief that transgenderism is a now a biological reality different from God’s original plan in creation as a result of “the Fall”/the entry of sin in the world; and that we now need to establish new rules to lovingly accommodate this new reality.

We have to say that we disagree with this idea because we know that some of our Evangelical brothers and sisters have carved out this “Plan B/new reality” way to still cling to the idea of biblical inerrancy, while finding a way to justify being more welcoming to LGBTQ people.

In reality, though, we know that most (alleged) Christians who are “welcoming and affirming” to LGBTQ people have long since moved past that position. They’ve come to the shameful conclusion that there is nothing sinful whatsoever about people being, and living authentically, as LGBTQ; that this is simply part of the normal variation seen in the full spectrum of humanity – all of whom have been created in God’s own image. That is unacceptable heresy to us; you cannot believe this and be considered by us to be a real Christian. Refer to Article 10.

Article 5

[NS] WE AFFIRM that the differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female.

WE DENY that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.

[Translation] As we said, gender is a black and white thing – and God doesn’t make mistakes. Don’t confuse us with medical reality. And don’t raise the question that if God doesn’t make mistakes, how do we explain any number of birth anomalies, and why do we routinely engage in surgery and other interventions in order to fix these things without denouncing them as second-guessing God’s will. Stop now, or we’ll plug our ears again.

Article 6

[NS] WE AFFIRM that those born with a physical disorder of sex development are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers. They are acknowledged by our Lord Jesus in his words about “eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb.” With all others they are welcome as faithful followers of Jesus Christ and should embrace their biological sex insofar as it may be known.

WE DENY that ambiguities related to a person’s biological sex render one incapable of living a fruitful life in joyful obedience to Christ.

[Translation] If we have to grudgingly admit to the reality of people being born intersex, then our advice is to just do your best to be a man or a woman – until we disagree with the way you’re doing it. And if surgeons opt to give you the genitals of one gender but you end up feeling like the other, we don’t want to hear about it. Just suck it up and act as we tell you, since it’s all just a choice anyway.

We have to say that a person’s gender identity doesn’t preclude them from living a “fruitful life in joyful obedience to Christ” because a.) we don’t understand that our opponents don’t even remotely believe this; and b.) part of “joyful obedience to Christ” in our eyes is you not living as LGBTQ, since we think that’s a choice that’s contrary to Christ’s teaching. As we said, it’s a choice, and a sinful one that you need to get rid of if you want to be obedient to and accepted by Christ and God, but if you just pray hard enough and live right, God will take away from you. We refuse to recognize the appalling number of suicides of religious youth and adults who, wracked with guilt over being LGBTQ, had tried to “pray the gay away” for years – and when that didn’t work, came to believe that God had rejected them, so they killed themselves.

None of that matters, because upholding our concepts of religious orthodoxy and never admitting that we might be in error trump any evidence to the contrary gleaned from human existence that contradicts our interpretation of scripture. You just have to get right with God, the way we tell you, and God will fix you – and if he doesn’t, it’s your fault.

Article 7

[NS] WE AFFIRM that self-conception as male or female should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture.

WE DENY that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.

[Translation] Yes, we know we’ve already been making these exact same points in previous Articles. But we had one stubborn person who threw a tantrum and refused to sign the statement unless we used his language, so we threw it in here just to placate him. Plus, if we have more Articles, it makes us look like our argument is more complex and thoughtful than just saying we’re homophobic and want to be able to discriminate against LGBTQ people once and being done with it.

Article 8

[NS] WE AFFIRM that people who experience sexual attraction for the same sex may live a rich and fruitful life pleasing to God through faith in Jesus Christ, as they, like all Christians, walk in purity of life.

WE DENY that sexual attraction for the same sex is part of the natural goodness of God’s original creation, or that it puts a person outside the hope of the gospel.

[Translation] If you feel attraction for someone of the same sex, it’s inherently evil and you must never physically express that attraction. You can live a “rich and fruitful life pleasing to God” just like us, as long as you deny and push down those feelings and never act on them, no matter how miserable, psychologically and physically unhealthy, or even suicidal, it may make you feel.

We uphold this belief, which is at the core of all “Reparative Therapy” programs, which have been denounced by all responsible medical, psychiatric, psychological, and other professional organizations as dangerously abusive and unnecessary; and which have been banned in multiple states as health threats. We still hold this belief because we don’t really trust in any findings based on higher learning or professional expertise when they contradict our own narrow believes about the nature, authority, and interpretation of the Bible.

Article 9

[NS] WE AFFIRM that sin distorts sexual desires by directing them away from the marriage covenant and toward sexual immorality — a distortion that includes both heterosexual and homosexual immorality.

WE DENY that an enduring pattern of desire for sexual immorality justifies sexually immoral behavior.

[Translation] We know that people have what we would call sinful – and others might simply call unhealthy or inappropriate – sexual urges and attractions. We choose to consider homosexuality and transgenderism as merely other forms of unhealthy, inappropriate, sinful sexual expression, because they aren’t part of what we’ve been raised and taught to understand. We refuse to consider that our ways of understanding and interpreting the Bible might be wrong, because that would create uncertainty and anxiety in our lives that would cause us to question other matters of faith that we consider essential. Without that certainty, we aren’t sure what our own lives even are, so we will force you to repress and feel guilt over your reality in order to preserve feeling good about our own.

Article 10

WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.

[Translation] Not only is being LGBTQ sinful, being welcoming and inclusive and approving of LGBTQ people is, too. It puts a person outside the pale of being a Christian – you simply cannot approve of LGBTQ people living full, honest, authentic lives and consider yourself a Christian, period, let alone a good Christian.

Article 11

[NS] WE AFFIRM our duty to speak the truth in love at all times, including when we speak to or about one another as male or female.

WE DENY any obligation to speak in such ways that dishonor God’s design of his image-bearers as male and female.

[Translation] Don’t talk to us about “preferred pronouns.” We demand the right to speak to you and about you in whatever way we want, regardless of whether it offends you or isn’t the way you wish to be referred to. We will call you a he or a she, a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, based on what we believe, not what you or health care professionals say. We’ll do it while telling you we love you, and that we’re just administering “tough love.” We’ll do it, with all the smug self-righteousness of saying that we’re carrying out God’s will, and upholding God’s standards in a sinful world, because we know best. And if you don’t like it, too bad.

Article 12

[NS] WE AFFIRM that the grace of God in Christ gives both merciful pardon and transforming power, and that this pardon and power enable a follower of Jesus to put to death sinful desires and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.

WE DENY that the grace of God in Christ is insufficient to forgive all sexual sins and to give power for holiness to every believer who feels drawn into sexual sin.

[Translation] This is another one of those places where we’re repeating ourselves in order to placate a cranky signatory. We’ve covered this territory already, but yes, to repeat, what LGBTQ people are doing is wrong, and they need to stop it, and God will change them if they just pray long enough, hard enough, and in the right way.

Article 13

[NS] WE AFFIRM that the grace of God in Christ enables sinners to forsake transgender self-conceptions and by divine forbearance to accept the God-ordained link between one’s biological sex and one’s self-conception as male or female.

WE DENY that the grace of God in Christ sanctions self-conceptions that are at odds with God’s revealed will.

[Translation] Really, just rehashing the same point here again. This whole thing masquerading as a confession is really just a sermon filled with red meat for our followers, and we think that the main point of a sermon needs to be repeated several times in order to drive it home, so here it is again.

Article 14

[NS] WE AFFIRM that Christ Jesus has come into the world to save sinners and that through Christ’s death and resurrection, forgiveness of sins and eternal life are available to every person who repents of sin and trusts in Christ alone as Savior, Lord, and supreme treasure.

WE DENY that the Lord’s arm is too short to save or that any sinner is beyond his reach.

[Translation] And to us, every good sermon has to end with an altar call, so here’s ours. Cue Just As I Am, without One Plea. Or in this case, maybe not that particular hymn.

***

Religious people seem to love putting out these kinds of confessions and statements. Some of them are good. Some of them have been milestones in history. Others, like this one, are just mind-numbingly tired, boring, hateful, and counter-Christian statements made by self-righteous blowhards who want to pose as the defenders and arbiters of the True Faith.

For some reason, we religious folk seem inclined to name these pronouncements after the city that gave birth to them. This time, it was Nashville, a fact not at all appreciated by the city itself. In 1924, a group of Presbyterian church leaders issued the Auburn Affirmation, having been drafted at the Presbyterian seminary that existed in Auburn, New York at the time. The Auburn Affirmation was a scathing denouncement of the beliefs that Fundamentalists and Evangelicals considered mandatory to orthodox, true, Christian belief. The first of those teachings – the inerrancy of scripture – is at the root of modern-day Evangelicals’ harmful attitudes toward LGBTQ people and their refusal to consider what’s become obvious to so many others: that LGBTQ people, in the totality of their being, including their sexual orientation, are created just as much in the image of God as anyone else; that God blesses them in their sexual expression and their committed covenantal relationships equally with heterosexuals; that God blesses and encourages transgender people trying to become the people they were intended to be regardless of the vagaries of merely physical characteristics – and finally, that the beliefs expressed in the Nashville Statement are just reheated nonsense, served up by people desperately trying to shore up their relevance in a world that has left them and their beliefs behind.

Robert, Meet Robert.

robert-gagnon

I saw a news story this evening that, after years of controversy, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Dr. Robert Gagnon have parted ways.

Gagnon, who had been an Associate Professor of New Testament at the seminary, is best known as being perhaps the most strident anti-LGBTQ voice within the Presbyterian Church (USA) and well beyond. He has written – voluminously and passionately – in support of his scriptural interpretations that homosexuality is sinful choice, and sexual perversion. His views are clearly out of line with the overwhelming majority of the denomination he’s part of, whether considering the beliefs of ordained ministers, ruling elders, seminary faculty, or the general membership. What’s surprising isn’t that he and the seminary have split, but rather, that it didn’t happen sooner.

While a student at PTS, Dr. Gagnon was one of my professors, teaching me Pauline and General Epistles. I can say that it was a strange experience.

One of the things that I remember most from the class was that Dr. Gagnon seemed extremely pleasant, kind, generally soft-spoken, and genuinely concerned with the well-being of his students – he was, in short, about the last kind of person that anyone familiar with his writings would imagine him to be. At no time during the class, which included covering epistles containing several of the go-to anti-gay “clobber verses,” did Gagnon seem to push his own interpretations of those verses.

That was important to me, since by that time (it must have been 2009 or 2010), my own study and understanding of the scriptures had already led me to believe that the traditional anti-LGBTQ interpretations of scripture were wrong. From the moment I learned that I’d be in Gagnon’s class, I was concerned that I’d be punished for not agreeing with his well-known anti-gay stance. I worried that either my grades would suffer because of being honest about my beliefs, or that I’d have to hypocritically hew to Gagnon’s hermeneutic in order to pass.

What actually happened was quite different. Dr. Gagnon conducted that class in a way that was entirely appropriate, and taught the material – covering the origins of, and underlying issues being addressed in, the epistles – in a way that did not particularly sell his interpretations regarding sexuality over opposing views. Only once or twice did I sense even a trace of bias, and it was never something that came up in exams.

The only real complaint I had with Gagnon’s teaching was with the nature of the exams themselves. They were designed to be impossible to authentically pass, or frankly, even to effectively study for. They were completely inappropriate for the nature of the course, and as far as I could tell, they only served to reinforce to the students that Gagnon was the smartest guy in the room. Raw exam scores were abysmal, and were then simply curved to bring them up to something actually usable. I specifically remember one exam when I scored a 22%. It was the second-best grade in the class (the best was a 24), and this was not an uncommon grade range for the exams. On that particular exam, Gagnon had jotted a note on its front, complimenting me for my “rigorous scholarship.”

There’s no way anywhere other than Bizarroland that a 22% on any appropriately-prepared exam could possibly illustrate “rigorous scholarship.” I could never understand why he didn’t just design exams that were realistic gauges of the students’ understanding of the actual depth of material that the course was intended to convey.

Other than that, I had no significant complaint with him or his classroom activity.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the whole story with Robert Gagnon. Whatever positive qualities he may have exhibited face to face in the classroom, his other, almost schizophrenic, side was never more than a mouse-click or two away. Everyone sitting in his classroom knew about his writings, which are not merely anti-affirming, they’re vehemently, almost rabidly, anti-gay.

I shudder to think about the scores of LGBTQ students over the years who sat in his classes, being treated civilly in person by someone they knew actually considered them sinful deviates who had no business in his class preparing for the ministry. I think the unfiltered bigot or homophobe who openly expresses his feelings is preferable to the one who smiles to your face while actually loathing you.

Professors are more to their students than just their classroom presence. Their entire public persona is providing instruction and sending messages to them, and Gagnon’s sent a terrible and personally harmful message to a significant minority of his students. It was comparable to having a professor on staff who was able to speak kindly and graciously to his black students in the classroom, while openly maintaining a white supremacist website in his free time.

In this country, we’re currently in the midst of a national debate about statues and monuments honoring the Confederacy and its leaders. A lot of that debate has involved discussion of another Robert – General Robert E. Lee. Lee most assuredly had a number of admirable personal qualities, but the evil that he chose to uphold by force overwhelmed those attributes and ruined the positive legacy he might have otherwise had – something that we’re only now, far too belatedly, coming to terms with. In the same way, the terrible harm that Robert Gagnon’s obsessive anti-LGBTQ polemic has caused overwhelms the professional goodness in him that I personally experienced. That’s a shame – but just as with that other Robert, it’s a shame that he’s caused himself. Unlike my sexual orientation, Gagnon’s anti-gay stance is entirely his choice.

 

Shape the Future by knowing the Past

I have some advice, from a “later middle-aged” gay man to younger LGBTQ people.

eastwood gran torino

Yes, I know that opening makes me sound like a crotchety, “get off my lawn” old geezer – but really, hear me out.
My advice to you: know your history. Not just world history or American history, I’m talking about your history – our history. Know how we in the overall LGBTQ community  got to the place we are now – by no means having full legal equality, but being far ahead of where this country was just a decade ago, and unimaginable light years ahead of where we were even when I was growing up.
If possible, seek out your LGBTQ elders, in person, face-to-face, and hear their stories. You’ll very likely learn that many of those very ordinary, boring-looking people were actually radicals on the front lines of the gay equality movement, and have stories that will make you laugh and cry, and get excited, and outraged, and energized – and very proud to have gotten to know them.
Just as importantly, learn about the legal and political battles in cultural, civilian governmental, religious, and military strands of our society, that incrementally got us to where we are today. Just as you know the names of court cases such as Roe v. Wade, Brown v the Board of Education, Plessy v Ferguson and others – for God’s sake, I at least hope you know those – that shaped our society, also learn the names and details of the cases that have made particular advances in your own LGBTQ history.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s tweetstorm supposedly banning transgender people from military service, and since it appears that the White House is actually going to try to implement this policy, it’s especially to know our history as it pertains to members of the LGBTQ community serving in the military. Of course, like so many straight allies, you were undoubtedly appalled and angered by this further descent into madness on the part of the President, and you’d be fully justified to feel those emotions. But as you do, don’t just wallow in vague thoughts that this just isn’t right, or fair. Of course it isn’t. But also know based on already-established legal precedent, the justification that Donald Trump has used to justify his decision has already been determined to be illegal and unconstitutional; and when you hear people spouting off transphobic, homophobic nonsense about LGBTQ people in the service, be ready and able to point to court precedent that establishes that they’re wrong.
Here are some people and events you should know about. Much of what I offer here is taken from The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman. I read through this book at least once a year as a reminder of where we’ve been, and I highly recommend it to you, too.
***
Know who sergeant Leonard Matlovich was. He was the very first member of the armed forces who had the courage to legally challenge the military ban on homosexuals – and not only to challenge them, but to win.
Matlovich was the model member of the Air Force, and a decorated veteran of Vietnam with an impeccable and honorable military record.
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Sergeant Leonard Matlovich
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Matlovich recovering from his wounds in Vietnam, holding his Purple Heart
In 1975, Matlovitch officially declared to his superior officer that he was a homosexual, which by government regulations made him, by definition, ineligible to serve in the military. In an attempt to challenge that ban, he requested that he not be discharged from the service, but rather, granted an exception to the rule based on his exemplary record – and the fact that the ban was, in his opinion, unconstitutional.
The Air Force discharged him, and Matlovich, with the assistance and guidance of the extremely important gay-rights pioneer Frank Kameny, sued. In Matlovich v. The United States Air Force, Judge Gerhard Gesell ruled on July 16, 1976 – my sixteenth birthday – that the Air Force policy was wrong-headed and needed to change. Matlovich was an outstanding, exemplary member of the armed forces, and absolute proof that being homosexual did not, by definition, make a person unable to serve. Despite that, however, Gesell found that the Air Force policy, while wrong-headed, was not unconstitutional.
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Sergeant Matlovich on the cover of TIME
Matlovich appealed the decision, and the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with him. They found that there were sufficient grounds for the Air Force to reinstate him, using their “exceptions” clause, and sent the case back to Gesell for reevaluation. However, before the case came to trial, the Air Force tried to do an end run around what they saw was likely a losing battle, by removing the “exception” clause from the regulations. Judge Gesell, outraged by the Air Force’s double-dealing, ordered that Matlovich be immediately reinstated.
Instead of accepting the ruling, the Air Force offered Matlovich a large financial settlement, including back pay, reinstatement of his pension, and additional compensation. In financial straits after the protracted legal battle, Matlovich accepted the settlement. Also factoring into his decision was his suspicion that if he was reinstated to active duty, the Air Force would just find another technicality on which they could discharge him, and then he’d have gained nothing.
This was a major moment in LGBTQ history. This was the first time a military service person stood up for their rights, and the courts recognized that there was no legal nexus between being gay and not being able to serve, even to serve with distinction. This was the first time that the courts ruled in favor of an openly gay service person remaining in the armed forces.
This was 1978.
Know about Leonard Matlovich.
See also: The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman, pp. 471-479.
leonard matlovich - tombstone
Leonard Matlovich’s tombstone. He died in 1988, a victim of the AIDS epidemic, and was buried with full military honors
***
Know who Vernon “Copy” Berg III was.
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Ensign Vernon E. Berg III
Following shortly after the Matlovich case, Copy Berg (the nickname came from people saying that in appearance, he was a xerox copy of his father, navy Commander Vernon Berg II) was discharged from the Navy in 1976 after an investigators uncovered evidence of his homosexuality. Berg challenged the discharge in civil court. Also heard by Judge Gerhard Gesell, the ruling in his case upheld his discharge, but warned the Navy that they were going to have to update their policies to be consistent with the latest scientific and sociological knowledge. It was strong enough language that Berg was encouraged to appeal the decision. In the appeal, the judges stated that “Broad allegations such as ‘Homosexuality is incompatible with military service’ or ‘a person with homosexual tendencies seriously impairs order, good discipline and morale,’ would no longer suffice.”
But rather than try to sharpen their rationale of why homosexuality was incompatible with military service – sensing that any new rationale would be quickly thrown out anyway – the Navy offered Berg another cash settlement. Berg took the settlement and an honorable discharge, and went on to become an artist and gay rights activist.
The Berg case was another nail in the coffin of the old, misguided, homophobic attitudes in the military. It put the Navy on notice that the old arguments were not going to be accepted any longer, and that they were going to have to get their house in order. LGBTQ individuals could indeed serve in the military without any adverse effect on morale or unit cohesion, and would not have any other negative effect on the military’s execution of its duties. It was also after this case that the military generally stopped giving LGBTQ individuals dishonorable discharges.
vernon e berg - artist
Copy Berg became a well-regarded artist. He died in 1999,
another victim of the AIDS epidemic
Know about Vernon “Copy” Berg.
See also The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle by Lillian Faderman, pp. 479-484.
***
Know who Miriam Ben-Shalom is.
miriam ben-shalom

Miriam Ben-Shalom is the first openly lesbian service member to be reinstated by the U.S. Army after she was discharged in 1976 for being gay.

Ben-Shalom took the Army to court over the matter. In 1980 a judge with the U.S. District Court in Chicago ruled that her dismissal violated the First, Fifth and Ninth Amendments of the Constitution.

The judge in her trial particularly criticized the military for the fact that it had shown no nexus between being homosexual and being unfit for military service – a crucial point of law that has reverberations to this day.

The Army refused to honor the ruling. Instead of complying, they offered Ben-Shalom a cash settlement, similar to their actions with Matlovich and Berg – but this time, Ben-Shalom refused, demanding to be reinstated. A subsequent seven-year court battle ultimately forced her reinstatement. The former staff sergeant—one of only two female drill sergeants in the 84th Division of the U.S. Army Reserve—then returned to service until 1990.

After Ben-Shalom completed the time remaining on her enlistment that she’d been discharged from, she tried to reenlist, but the Army refused. In fact, before Ben-Shalom’s attempted reinlistment,  in order to prevent them having to accept people who had openly professed to be LGBTQ, the Army had reworded its regulations to prohibit not only those who were engaging in same-sex activity, but also those who had only stated that they were gay or lesbian. This set off a completely new set of lawsuits. Ben-Shalom won the first trial and the subsequent appeal, which ordered the Army to accept her reenlistment. But she eventually lost another appeal, and the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of that case. Even though she lost the reenlistment battle, she won the reinstatement battle, and actually served out that reinstatement.

Like Matlovich and Berg, Ben-Shalom went on to become a gay-rights activist. She was arrested after chaining herself to the fence in front of the White House, protesting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Sadly, in recent times she has been involved in a controversy involving transgender individuals. Ben-Shalom self-identifies as a PERF (Penis Exclusionary Radical Feminist), who opposes transgender women being able to participate in gatherings intended exclusively for what she and other PERFs call “women born of women.” (if this sounds somewhat familiar, the television show “Transparent,” season 2 episode 9, “Man on the Land” dealt with this issue). This position resulted in her being stripped of the honor of Grand Marshal of the Milwaukee Pride Parade in 2016. Regardless of this controversy, Ben-Shalom remains an important person to know in LGBTQ history.

Know about Miriam Ben-Shalom:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miriam_Ben-Shalom

See also The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman, pp. 484-488.

 

***

Know who Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer is. Cammermeyer was an outstanding army nurse and officer, a veteran of Vietnam.

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Col. Margarethe “Grethe” Cammermeyer

In 1989 while being interviewed for top secret clearance, Cammermeyer had admitted that she was a lesbian – she didn’t want to lie, and wasn’t aware that in 1981, the Army had issued a new directive that called for the total exclusion of homosexuals in the military, without exception. In a subsequent hearing, her long and illustrious military career was acknowledged, but ultimately, rules were rules, and Cammermeyer was discharged.

She appealed in civil court, and in 1994, the court ruled in Cammermeyer’s favor – declaring the Army’s exclusionary regulation to be unconstitutional and stating that her record showed beyond any doubt that she was a model officer; that sexual orientation has absolutely nothing to do with whether a person could serve capably in the military – that the Army’s exclusionary regulation was based “solely on prejudice.” There was, judge Thomas Zilly wrote, no rational relationship or legal nexus between being homosexual and being able to serve; neither, her case illustrated, did one’s sexual orientation interfere with unit cohesion or a unit’s “ability to maintain readiness and combat effectiveness.” Zilly continued that there wasn’t and must never be a “military exemption” to the Constitution.” Simply put, members of all groups within society had the right to enjoy the same rights, and the military could not simply rule out an entire class of citizens from serving based on false claims and prejudice. The court ruled that Cammermeyer must be reinstated.

As had always been the case before, the Army appealed the ruling. But in 1995, the Ninth District Court of Appeals found in favor of Cammermeyer, upholding the lower court decision. Colonel Cammermeyer was reinstated, and served honorably until her retirement in 1997. Her story was told in the 1995 made-for-television movie “Serving in Silence,” in which Glen Close portrayed the Colonel.

Know about Col. Grethe Cammermeyer:

https://www.cammermeyer.com/

See also The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman, pp. 488-494

***

 

Why is this history important? Because out of a combination of blind transphobia and ignorance, people are trying to ignore or erase this hard-fought history. These historical legal precedents have absolute parallel with the current attempts to throw transgender people out of the service. If and when the President’s tweets actually become official policy, they will be challenged in the courts immediately. And when they are, these precedents are going to be at the center of the arguments.

To summarize, the key legal principles that these earlier cases established are:

  • The military does not have a right to simply exclude any group of the American public from service by claiming that by virtue of being in that group, individuals are automatically incapable of performing their duties, without any actual evidence to support that claim. There must be a provable nexus between being part of said group and an inability to perform.
  • The military has never shown any credible nexus between being a member of the LGBTQ community and fitness, or lack thereof, for military service. in fact, members of the full spectrum of the LGBTQ community are proving, every day, that there is no such nexus at all. In fact, the military’s own research has decisively shown that there are no significant difficulties or expenses related to transgender individuals serving.

The courts will look at these rulings and others. They will also consider the situation where, with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” members of the armed forces were told it was OK, even encouraged, to come out – and now, the current President is trying to pull the rug out from under them. That’s a breach of trust that I doubt any reasonable court would permit.

Still, these are strange times. It’s impossible to predict what the Supreme Court – and it will ultimately end up there – will decide. But if sanity and reason prevail, these precedents should assure that despite the fact that the current tenant of the White House wants to remove them, transgender members of the armed forces will likely remain right where they are – just as they should.

So know your history. And when this subject comes up in conversation, make sure others know about it, too. Now get off my lawn. 🙂

 

 

Hell Has Indeed, Apparently, Frozen Over

Eugene Peterson.  Screenshot from Youtube

Eugene Peterson, perhaps wistfully wishing he’d never granted that recent interview.

At least, I suspect it must have, because I find myself in the extremely rare position of agreeing with Albert Mohler.

Well, kind of.

Mohler is the current president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Louisville, and a high-powered bullhorn for conservative Evangelical Christian theology. Without giving a list of particulars – it would be long – let’s just say that it would be hard to find someone whose understanding of Christianity differs more from my own.

Still, I will give Mohler credit for at least one statement that he made that I think is absolutely spot-on, even while I disagree strongly with his ultimate conclusion.

In recent days, the best-selling Evangelical author/retired pastor Eugene Peterson created a stir in religious and some broader social circles when he gave an interview to Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service. Peterson has recently announced that he’s leaving the lecture circuit, slowing down, and taking life easy from this point on. And at 84 years old, why not? The man has clearly earned it.

Given that, and his long string of best-selling books, this interview should have been a fluff ball – a victory lap of sorts for Peterson; a nice, feel-good piece that offered no big news or controversy. What actually transpired, though, was something else entirely.

Merritt asked Peterson about his views on homosexuality in general, and same-sex marriage in particular from the context of the Christian faith, and whether his views on these issues had changed at all over time. Even though Peterson’s popularity has largely been within conservative Evangelical circles, he was actually a long-time pastor and is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the most progressive of mainline denominations and one that, thanks be to God, has affirmed LGBTQ individuals’ place in the full life of the church – including ordained positions, and the appropriateness of church-blessed same-sex marriages.

Merritt’s question arose out of comments that Peterson had made in recent years that he’d changed his mind and had become affirming of LGBTQ people – including in this appearance at Western Seminary in 2014.

To be honest, I thought Peterson’s answers to Merrit’s questions in the interview were a bit lukewarm in their support. His comments were couched in phrases like “I didn’t have much experience with that,” or referring to a lesbian couple in his congregation that “didn’t make a big deal out if it,” and so on. I could almost imagine him saying that he could accept LGBTQ parishioners as long as they “didn’t shove it down my throat;” that great cliche that seems to mean “It’s OK if you’re gay; just don’t do anything that might publicly show that you are. Don’t say or do anything, either as an individual or as a couple, that straight people do with regard to their lives and relationships without any problem. Don’t talk about your significant other, don’t hold their hand, and certainly don’t kiss them where anyone else could see you.” That was the sort of tepid support I heard in most of Peterson’s answers. Still, they were several steps ahead of the typical conservative Evangelical party line. And he did, simply but clearly, say that he’d officiate a same-sex wedding if asked.

Of course, to have someone as influential as Peterson come out (sorry) and say these things was big news for conservative and progressive Christians alike, for obvious and opposing reasons.

Within 24 hours, though, Peterson felt forced to release a clarification and retraction of what he’d said in the interview. People across the full spectrum of American Christianity were confused by this bizarre flip-flop, what had led to it, and whether it was a good or bad development. Had an 84-year old man simply gotten confused in the moment and said some things that he didn’t really believe? Had conservative backlash – he was blowtorched by conservative Evangelical mouthpieces within hours –  and threats to book sales (LifeWay, the largest U.S. retailer of Christian publications, and an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, threatened to stop sales of all of Peterson’s books) led to his overnight reversal?

In the wake of this bit of theological whiplash, many people have offered their thoughts about the issue. And here’s where Albert Mohler enters the picture.

As would be expected, Mohler firmly occupies the conservative, traditional, exclusivist, non-LGBTQ-affirming understanding of the Christian faith. Mohler himself would define his views as the “biblical” position. I refuse to grant him that semantic bit of theological high ground, since it incorrectly assumes that the Bible “quite clearly” calls for anti-LGBTQ theology; and that those who have reached LGBTQ-affirming understandings of the faith have done so without, or in spite of, the scriptures, a position that is categorically false.

But I digress.

In an article he wrote about the Peterson kerfuffle, Mohler criticizes Peterson for what he sees as indecisiveness – not offering clear-cut, definitive, conservative Evangelical answers to LGBTQ questions, and sticking to them. Perhaps Mohler sees Peterson’s initial answers as having been an attempt to curry public favor by adopting more socially acceptable positions; a situation of society inappropriately influencing one’s understanding of the faith. Maybe he sees it as a legitimate theological struggle within Peterson’s heart and mind. Or maybe he sees it as something else. Whatever the explanation, Mohler says that indecision is a problem, and not only for Peterson. He writes:

“First, there is nowhere to hide. Every pastor, every Christian leader, every author  — even every believer — will have to answer the question. The question cannot simply be about same-sex marriage,” he says; at its core, the real issue is having a decisive understanding of what one believes to be the will and purpose of God with regard to human sexuality and gender, based on sound scriptural interpretation.

“Second, you had better have your answer ready. Evasive, wandering, and inconclusive answers will be seen for what they are. Those who have fled for security to the house of evasion must know that the structure has crumbled. It always does.”

And on this score, he’s absolutely right.

Mohler and I would clearly disagree on what “sound scriptural interpretation” would be. In fact, I couldn’t even agree with some of his wording in the quote above; hence my partial paraphrasing. But we both agree that we need to have studied and prayed about the question of LGBTQ individuals in the life of the church, and we need to reach a solid, scripturally consistent answer to the question, and then be willing to stick with it. Of course, Mohler and I diverge radically from that point on, but on this, we agree.

This isn’t a question about which a person can be ambivalent, ambiguous, both/and. You can’t be a little bit pregnant, and you can’t be a little bit affirming (or non-affirming). Affirming theology hinges on a person’s core beliefs about God, creation, human anthropology, and the nature of the divine-human relationship. In order to work out where you are regarding LGBTQ people, you need to have first determined in your heart and mind whether homosexuality is a sin. If it is sin, is it a sin of choice, or a part of so-called “original sin” and therefore, impossible to eliminate from human existence? If it is a type of unavoidable “original sin” as a result of “the fall,” what is the proper response of God and humanity to that? Or, is homosexuality merely a normal variation within the full spectrum of what it means to be human, and therefore of having been created in God’s image? And if this is the case, is refusing to be accepting and affirming toward LGBTQ people refusing to accept and affirm the One in whose image they were created? If you believe that homosexuality is a sinful choice, is it possible to affirm same-sex marriage? How about if it is part of “original sin;” can same-sex marriage be accepted and affirmed as the best possible “option B” for people who don’t have opposite-sex marriage as an option to still have loving, committed, sacrificial unions that are blessed by God? And if you believe that homosexuality is just another variation in human creation, can you somehow not accept and affirm same-sex marriage?

There is no meaningful way that individuals or faith communities can accept these divergent theologies as equally valid options for believers. Each one inherently negates the possible validity of the others. Just as it is impossible for a person, or a faith community, to claim that it’s equally valid and acceptable to both accept and reject slavery, or segregation, or the subjugation of women, so it is also with this issue. It goes to the fundamental way that we understand God and human creation, and whichever way you believe, logically, it’s a package deal – you’re either all in, across the board, or you aren’t in at all.

There really is no middle ground with regard to affirming LGBTQ people, except as a transitional place while moving to a final position. For virtually everyone who has adopted affirming theology, myself included, the process has been a journey with several interim stages.  That’s understandable. But to be partly affirming of LGBTQ people, accepting this part of them – whether in the life of the church or society in general – but not some other part, just isn’t viable long-term theology. On this score, Mohler is absolutely correct.

He’s also correct in saying that a person needs to be ready, when asked, to give a decisive, consistent , cohesive explanation of what they believe about LGBTQ people – because if you try to voice some waffling middle-of-the-road theological stance in order to try to please everyone, it will be immediately obvious to everyone, and you will end up being rejected by those on both sides of the issue.

The price that Eugene Peterson has paid in the last week shows how fraught with risk the transitional, middle places of such a journey toward LGBTQ affirmation can be, and how important it is to  move toward the final destination as quickly as possible. Ironically, I don’t think Peterson himself is still in the process of making that journey at all – I think that in his own way, he’s already completed the journey to full affirmation, despite his written retraction. If Eugene Peterson has indeed retired from the public eye, and if this was his last interview, the final lesson he seems to have inadvertently offered the faithful is just how important it is to have the courage of  one’s convictions, and of standing up and voicing them clearly, boldly, and publicly even in the face of opposition.  It’s an important lesson for all of us. I hope we don’t have to wait for hell to freeze over again before Peterson learns it for himself.

Men, Women, and (Hopefully) Culture in Transition

trans bathroom infographic

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how quickly U.S. culture has grown with respect to LGBTQ equality. A movement that for all practical purposes started only in the early 1950s, and with relatively limited original goals, has accomplished strides for full equality that those original activists would have never even dreamt was possible. I was born in 1960. When I was born, being LGBTQ was almost universally considered a mental illness, sin, perversion. It was equated with being a pedophile. It was illegal, grounds for arrest and public villification, being fired, being thrown out of one’s home, being institutionalized, lobotomized, given electroshock “therapy.”

Today, there are still very real problems with homophobia within our society. Reactionary voices in a number of states continue to try to carve out ways to legally discriminate against this segment – my segment – of our population. These attempts are often based  on religious grounds, through legislation that claims to protect the supposed religious freedom to discriminate and obstruct others’ civil rights. Sadly, the church itself is still the single most stubborn holdout and obstacle for equal civil rights for that portion of American citizens who identify as LGBTQ. The pain and injustice endured by LGBTQ people – certainly in the past and in lesser measure, even to this day – has been immense.

Without attempting to diminish the reality of the lives destroyed or at least severely injured during these years, though, it still seems truly amazing that this immense cultural shift has occurred within the single lifespan of many people still living today. Imagine the cognitive whiplash of a person who was taught as an adolescent in, say, 1955, about the supposed evil and perversion of homosexuality by way of Sunday sermons and grainy black-and-white “educational” films in school health classes, navigating a world today in their seventies where encountering out gays and lesbians, including married couples, is quite commonplace at work, around town, at church, and on television. Many who find themselves in this demographic will never accept this social upheaval, but many others have, mostly due to knowing and loving a family member or good friend who has come out as LGBTQ and made the idea less scary to them.

As members of the LGBTQ community, we really need to recognize the incredible leap that we’ve asked these people to make in their lives, and that many of them, at least, have successfully made. We need to honor their stretch, and express our gratitude to them all for having done so. In my case, that includes expressing thanks to my own two parents.

I was thinking about this phenomenon in recent days because, of course, we’re in the midst of another part of this major social shift – that of focusing more closely on the “T” component of the LGBTQ community, transgender individuals. The most visible issue in that regard is the would-be “bathroom wars” we seem to be embroiled in at the moment.

I recently read The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman. It’s an excellent, incredibly well-researched, and extremely readable book that taught me much I didn’t know, and reminded me of much I’d already known, or experienced for myself. One of the things that stood out for me as I read it was how much of the current situation is just a replay, sometimes identically so, of past battles fought and won in the overall struggle for LGBTQ equality. State legislators are attempting to legalize discrimination in ways that have been tried in the past and found to be unconstitutional in countless court decisions – perhaps most significantly with regard to North Carolina’s infamous HB2, in the Supreme Court case Romer v. Evans. Transgender people are being cast as pedophiles or other sexual predators, as mentally disturbed, as perverts, people dying for a chance to pounce on some unsuspecting child in a public restroom when all they really want is a safe place to pee.

Those who oppose moves to permit transgender people to use the restrooms and locker rooms of their own gender identity fall into several categories. Of course, there are those who are simply hateful, ignorant, transphobic individulas, and no amount of reason will ever steer them from their hatred.

But I suspect that many opponents are just trying to make sense out of a situation that they don’t fully understand. They aren’t inherently hateful. They really want to be fair, but like those people who have had to make that large leap of acceptance for LGB, now they’re faced with a call to make another, similar stretch for the T folk. They hear a lot of accusations, and they obviously don’t want to increase the risks of people being assaulted in public restrooms (although requiring transgender people to use the restroom of their birth sex will actually increase, not decrease potential violence, against the transgender person). But they’re stuck. This whole idea of being transgender seems odd, and maybe even a bit “icky”to them, and they don’t quite know how to make sense of it all.

I get that. To be honest, even as a gay man I had to go through a learning curve about transgender people, and I try to keep fairly up to speed with news within the LGBTQ community. It’s perfectly understandable to me if someone who isn’t swimming in that particular lake as part of their daily or weekly routine isn’t fully up to speed with regard to transgender issues. It’s to those of you in that second group of well-intentioned but confused or frustrated folk just trying to do the right thing that I offer the following thoughts.

Maybe we start by defining what transgender means – and what it doesn’t mean, as well. Two helpful references here are the GLAAD Media Reference Guide to Transgender Issues and the Transgender FAQ of the Human Rights Campaign.

There are some men who occasionally wear clothing and makeup traditionally associated with women. These are individuals who identify as heterosexual men and who do not wish to permanently change their sex or live full-time as women. These men are crossdressers (formerly known by the now-obsolete term “transvestite“). They are not transgender.

There are other men who will dress as women, often in a highly campy or caricateurish manner, for entertainment purposes. These are individuals who typically identify as gay men who, like crossdressers, do not wish to permanently change their sex or live full-time as women. These men are typically referred to as drag queens. Like the crossdressers, they are not transgender.

Transgender people are people with a gender identity different from the one that they were physically assigned, by way of physical sexual organs, at birth. These are men or women whose innermost sense of being, and of self, is and always has been opposite to the physical body they were born with. A transgender person looks in a mirror and feels like an alien within their own body – they know there’s a different person inside than what the physical manifestations indicate.

Transgender men and women will often undergo a transition process, in order to live authentically as the person they feel themselves to be. This can include hormone therapy and a battery of sex reassignment surgeries and other medical procedures, but even if it doesn’t, a transitioned transgender person is living life day to day as a person of their particular gender identity, in all aspects of their lives.

So now, back to restrooms and locker rooms.

Regarding the restrooms, many people have worried that allowing transgender people to use the facilities corresponding to their gender identity will increase the likelihood of sex offenders posing as transgender people, in order to gain access to the restrooms where they’ll prey on others. This argument really doesn’t make any sense for several reasons, but most importantly, because police departments in the locales that have permitted transgender access to their preferred restroom for some time are universal in their affirmation that there have been no cases of this happening. So the “increased risk” restroom argument is a non-issue. Despite the frothy-mouthed rantings of some, there’s simply no “there” there.

The other restroom claim is that while in the restroom, a person will actually see another person’s genitals, and that they won’t match their own, and that the person will somehow be traumatized by the incident. Consider that for a moment. All restroom usage in women’s rooms are designed to take place in enclosed stalls. Half of all restroom usage in men’s rooms are designed to take place in stalls. Virtually all transgender people, men and women alike, always use an enclosed stall. This means that if you’re scoping out another person’s genitals in a public restroom – trans or otherwise – you’re not only working really hard to do it, you’re also committing a voyeuristic crime. In other words, at that point you’re the creepy criminal in the restroom, not the transgender person.

That leaves locker rooms and shared shower facilities.

According to the best available information, transgender people make up approximately 0.3% of the population, or about 700,000 people in the United States. That number includes transgender people of every age, and those who have surgically transitioned and those who haven’t. So the number of non-surgically reassigned transgender people of the appropriate age and gender to potentially be in your child’s locker room gets smaller and smaller. Still, it’s true that in some situation, a child or youth might actually encounter an undressed, non-surgically reassigned trans person. Maybe it would be in a changing room at a swimming pool, or the locker and shower facilities at a school or health club. But if this happened, I have to ask – is this really such a big deal? Is this really something so terrible and to be avoided that it’s worth depriving the civil rights of an estimated 700,000 people?

No reasonable people shield their children from paintings, sculpture, or other works of art that portray nudity. For that matter, in many, if not most, other cultures around the world – and frankly, in parts of our own – children and youth are routinely in the presence of disrobed members of the opposite sex, whether family members or otherwise, without anyone giving it a second thought, and often for lengths of time far exceeding the fleeting moments of taking a quick gym shower or changing clothes. In these cultures, children and youth in the age range we seem so worried about are routinely exposed to unclothed people of both sexes, on regular broadcast television, sunbathing in public parks (the natives of Finland, for example, value every bit of warm sunny days and think nothing of sunbathing nude on those occasions – and of course, they also have the whole sauna culture, too), and in other settings, and they grow up to be normal, healthy, quite well-adjusted adults in the same proportion as anyone else. They’re not any more exposed to sexual molestation. They aren’t any less religious or spiritual because of it. They aren’t flooding psychologist’s offices trying to sort out lives that have been psychosexually scarred by the experience. If anything, they’re more emotionally healthy and well-balanced.

Modesty is certainly a virtue – but taken to an extreme, it can become an irrational and even harmful obsession.

There seem to be two equally significant things contributing to the irrational hysteria that so many people have with regard to transgender people, and specifically, this restroom/locker room issue. The first is simply that, compared with the rest of the world, our culture has a warped and unhealthy attitude toward the human body in general. In an odd mix,  the rigid and prudish repression of our past, combined with the current hypersexualization of our culture (itself just a reaction to that repressive past), have made the unclothed human body something inherently “dirty” in the minds of many, and certainly something to protect our young people from – as if they were some delicate creatures who have never encountered the naked humanity of themselves, their parents and siblings, their friends, in art, or elsewhere, and who would be traumatized for life if they did.

The second contributor to the problem is the phenomenon that we humans seem to need to identify ourselves as an “us”- as an identifiable culture or group – by way of the negative; by establishing some kind of boundaries specifically designed to create a  “them.” In so doing,  we not only give ourselves justification to see ourselves as superior in the equation, but we also create justification for treating “them” as something less worthy of equal treatment, something even less human. Having a “them” creates justification for violence in the name of self-protection, and gives us a convenient recipient for moral or religious disapproval and indignation, thereby taking the moral heat off of ourselves. Overlapping aspects of this phenomenon have been researched and addressed by numerous people.

R.I. Moore writes about the origins of a “persecuting society” in medieval Europe, in which both church and state set particular groups of people as undesirable – as “dangerous pollutants”. This was done for all of the previously mentioned reasons, and especially to solidify the power of the particular ruling structure. As student Hope Greenberg summarized: In each case the group is defined not by what it is or by what it does but what those in power, either sacred or secular, perceive and define it to be. That definition is refined and polished until an easily identifiable, albeit patently false, picture emerges of what then becomes the stereotypic object of persecution.” 

The anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote of the theory of “purity and danger,”and the establishment of what fit into each of those categories by both religious and secular authorities. In A Queer History of the United States, Michael Bronski writes of Douglas’ work, “[T]he founding of modern society was predicated on the creation of minority groups whose only purpose was to be vilified as unclean and persecuted for the illusion of a comprehensive sense of society safety…The idea of purifying religious and secular thought and society was at the heart of Puritan identity. (p.17)”

Students of philosophy, theology, anthropology, and a host of other disciplines are undoubtedly familiar with Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory and the necessity for an individual or communal scapegoat, a victim singled out for persecution for the supposed good of the larger social structure.

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson once summarized all of those academic writings, and succinctly identified the self-interest of the ruling class in all of it, in his now-famous quote: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” The same concept, made more from the vantage point of the ruled than the ruling class, was illustrated in the “My Daddy Killed that Mule” scene from the film Mississippi Burning (click image to play):

mississippi burning my daddy killed that mule

The take-home of all of this is that trans people in our society are being vilified, persecuted, assaulted, even killed, not because of any actual threat they pose to the well-being of society, or because of anything inherently wrong or ill or evil about them. Trans people are being victimized because we’ve been taught that we need a scapegoat to feel good about ourselves. [Click to tweet] Given that, then, who  is the truly “sick” and perverted group – the trans people, or the people who feel a need to vilify them?

But back to locker rooms.

I’m imagining a scenario where a a mother and daughter are changing into their swimsuits at the local public swimming pool, and in that rarest of occasions, the daughter notices a non-surgically reassigned trans woman changing nearby, and the ensuing conversation:

“Mommy, that person over there isn’t like us – they have body parts like a boy.”

“Oh, yes, that’s true.”

“Well then why are they in here with us, instead of the boy’s changing room?”

“Well, because there are some people who are girls on the inside, but they’re born with the body parts of a boy. And sometimes, there are people who are boys on the inside, but they’re born with the body parts of a girl.”

“Wow, that’s weird!”

“Well, it’s different from the way we were born, but it happens sometimes – that’s just the way things are; we don’t really know why. Sometimes, people treat them very badly, and even try to hurt them because of that, just because of the way they’re born. And that’s not really nice; in fact, it’s very wrong. Really, besides the different body parts, they’re just like you or me, and they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity just like everyone else – just like we want to be respected for who we are inside, and not on what we might look like on the outside.”

“Oh. OK. So when we get out to the pool, can we go down the slide first?”

And that’s it. No drama. No trauma.

I know, call me an unrealistic dreamer. But why, why, can’t it be so simple?

I’d write more, but now I have to go to the bathroom. Thankfully, the North Carolina state legislature won’t need to get involved.

Jim Crow in Lavender

I just saw this news story coming out of Atlanta, about a man who was arrested for having poured boiling water on two gay men as they lay in bed:

Atlanta boiling water snip

This, on the same day that the Georgia legislative branch passed a bill and sent it to the governor for signature, designed to protect people who want to discriminate against others – most notably, but not exclusively, LGBTQ people, and primarily aimed at protecting those who oppose marriage equality – based on their “sincerely held religious beliefs” opposing marriage equality.This is one of a series of copycat bills moving forward in a number of state legislatures across the country.

I assume that the man who gave second- and third-degree burns to his victims did so based on his own “sincerely held religious beliefs” against their so-called “lifestyle choice.” For the record, the assailant has been arrested on two counts of aggravated battery; additional federal hate crime charges are being considered. While they aren’t hard to find online, I’ll forego sharing the gruesome images of the men’s scalded flesh and subsequent skin grafts required due to those sincerely held beliefs.

I simply don’t understand how our country has gotten its head stuck up its hindquarters to this degree. How could people ever think it’s acceptable to violate someone’s civil rights simply because someone’s religious beliefs supposedly condone it? It’s like the country has fallen victim to a collective Constitutional insanity. We don’t allow this kind of legalized religious-based discrimination against any other segment of our population. Every time people have tried to assert such a right in the past – notably, against women and blacks and other minorities – the arguments have been ruled unconstitutional. Just think about it: where else in our legal system do people successfully assert a constitutional right to deny the rights of others simply on the basis of how sincerely they believe in the correctness of that denial? Where else in our society to we allow legalized persecution of a group of people at one magnitude based simply on “sincerely held religious beliefs;” while merely implementing those exact same beliefs to the next order of magnitude constitutes a federally-recognized hate crime?

These legislative attempts to legally discriminate, wrapped in the gossamer-thin camouflage of supposed religious liberty, disgust me. I’m an ordained Presbyterian minister. I also happen to be gay. But I’d be just as disgusted with these attempts to impose a new Jim Crow, only now dressed in a lavender suit, regardless of my sexual orientation – and people across the board, especially those who are truly serious about following the teachings of Jesus Christ, should be equally disgusted. Religious liberty does not grant civil license.

Religious freedom does not confer blanket supremacy over the civil law of the land. It isn’t a “get out of jail free” card that trumps the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. There simply is no right in this country for one person to discriminate against any other person on the basis of the former’s religious views, no matter how “sincerely” or “deeply” held they may be – as if the depth to which someone believes a hideous falsehood somehow makes it a legally protected truth. I don’t have a constitutional right to rob a bank and give the money away, simply because I have a “sincerely held religious belief” that the rich aren’t sufficiently following Jesus’ admonitions to them to care for the poor.

The depth to which a person holds beliefs that would condone injuring another is no valid justification for that injury. Rather, it’s an illustration of just how strenuously our society has to work to put an end to that kind of ignorance, and bigotry, and injury to begin with. People who would argue for a supposed religious right to discriminate against others should be ashamed of themselves, and as people of faith, we need to stand up strongly and loudly against those claims and the attempts to codify them into state law. Our courts should rule that the basic legal argument behind all of these copycat laws is absurd – and they should do it sooner rather than later.