It’s pride month, an annual affair that never fails to produce a lot of awkward but entirely superficial corporate gestures, and also a conservative backlash against said gestures. To wit: The Tampa Bay Rays baseball team put rainbow patches on players’ uniforms, and some of the players subsequently removed the patches, citing their Christian faith. As with every other such example, this precipitated some collateral damage to our broader culture in the form of toxic or inane social media commentary and inarticulate ventings of grievance.
I find myself especially annoyed watching people yell at (and past) each other, because I’m closer to the middle on this issue than many of the other areas of cultural contention that generate much ado in our polarized era. I sit firmly on the left in terms of my own views about LGBTQ identities, but I understand the conservative perspective that drives some of the backlash, because I grew up in a small Christian community, and my views about LGBTQ identities were once far less tolerant and more ignorant than they are now. I’ll quickly clarify that “understand” does not mean “sympathize with” or “share.” It simply means I understand it. I also understand why people who sit where I do now don’t hesitate to label the tribe I once belonged to as “homophobic,” though I don’t think it’s a useful or constructive label in terms of driving positive change. I was a homophobe, certainly, but there’s nothing about having that label attached to me back then that would have nudged me in a good direction. So I sit here annoyed by rhetoric on both sides, and I’m also annoyed to find myself thinking “both sidesy” things. The bottom line is that it was a journey to where I am now with LGBTQ identities, and it will be a journey for anyone else who starts from a similar place.
Quick aside that the specific Christian church I was born into is unusual to say the least. Much of that is a story for another day, but for my purposes here I am thinking about how the church of my upbringing practiced a strange combination of tolerance and orthodoxy. On the tolerance side, my church was not interested in or engaged in any kind of evangelism or missionary activity. That doesn’t mean the church had doubts about itself. Like every other church on earth, this one considers itself to be the ONE TRUE CHURCH, but unlike other Christian churches, it deemphasizes faith and talks a lot about the importance of doing good deeds. In practice this means a person does not have to be a member or a believer to be “saved,” as long as they are engaged in doing good. Doing trumps believing, assuming one is ignorant of the church’s specific doctrines. In other words, our church did not hold people accountable to tenets they’ve never been taught, and since every person is capable of doing good in accordance to their own beliefs or their own sense of justice, we could live and let live. I mention all this because I very much consider it a redeeming feature of my former church, and a core idea that could help other Christians behave more lovingly.
On the orthodox side though, being in possession ourselves of the true doctrines, we were accountable to believe in them, and to do good specifically in accordance with them. And sitting atop the whole mountain of our doctrines were the tenets related to marriage. It was drilled into us that adultery, homosexuality, and even divorce were abominations of the worst kind. I experienced the effects of this first hand when my parents split up, in the early 1980s, and my family was partially cast out of church society. Some of my friends were prohibited from playing with me and my siblings, as if our parents’ divorce was a contagious disease.
Looking back, it’s clear to me now that this was a formative moment in my life, possibly the origin of my journey away from religion. I understood it as injustice at the time – being shunned for the sins of my parents. More than that, it was an injustice that was perpetrated by the so-called arbiters of justice, so I understood it as hypocrisy too. This is why I identify it as the first spark of my journey out—witnessing various hypocrisies of the church and its members was a big driver of my exodus, and I have since heard many other ex-faithful say the same. Later I came to understand my parents as full-dimensional humans, and I came to see their divorce as a kind of trauma rather than a sin. That broadening of perspective only deepened my sense of the injustice in having been shunned as a kid.
Some years later, after I moved away from my home town, I started to make openly gay friends. I can’t specifically remember judging them internally, but I am certain that I did upon first learning they were gay. I believed then what I had been programmed to believe—that homosexuality was a lifestyle choice, an appetite or preference for certain sexual acts. Not only did I understand it a sin, it was a sin of the worst kind. But even then I was aware of the effort required to rationalize my beliefs against what I was experiencing. Some years later I became acquainted with the phrase, love the sinner, hate the sin, and I think it’s a pretty good characterization of how I first tried to rationalize my friendships with openly gay people. These were obviously great individuals whom I loved and admired, but I still clung to the belief that they were choosing to engage in sinful sex.
On the other hand, there were lots of respected people from my hometown whom I knew to be bullies or abusers, who were proudly cruel or simply crass. Yet they were people we were supposed to admire, while my wonderful openly gay friends were the ones I was supposed to think of as evil. Even the wiser Christians I knew, the ones who saw through the façades of fake virtue in my hometown community and rightly judged the abuse and cruelty, thought of homosexuality as something even worse. It made no sense to me at all.
Another phrase I became acquainted with at some point is victimless crime. That’s how I think I first started to differentiate the supposed sins of my gay friends from the kinds of bullying and hypocrisy I saw church leaders engaging in. I understood both things as sinful, but I could not see how victimless crimes could be worse. I began to question the entire idea of a victimless crime, and that was a critical shift.
And so the unraveling of my prejudices against LGBTQ people was the single most powerful catalyst to losing my religion entirely. The beliefs I escaped about LGBTQ people revealed themselves to be an especially clear expression of hypocrisy, and once I was a full participant in the hypocrisy, it became impossible to rationalize. That dissonance was uncomfortable and led me directly to questions about the nature of sin and the hierarchy of sins as these were taught to me. I felt new surges of curiosity, newly energized to reflect more deeply on what it means to be good, to love, to sin, to be a fully-realized human being.
My own journey started with an injustice done to me. I was fully on my way once I physically uprooted and left my hometown for the diversity of New York City. But the real transformation began when I embraced that diversity in the form of new friends and colleagues. This is why Christians worry so much about what they refer to as “indoctrination” but is really the exact opposite—exposure to the full spectrum of ideas. (I just realized I said spectrum there, and thus evoked the image of a rainbow) Anyway yes, Christians understand that their ideology can only survive in isolation and darkness. They fear the influence of public schools, universities, and all of popular culture really.
It’s frustrating and sometimes sickening to encounter people on social media and elsewhere who are still trapped in darkness. It’s natural to label them as homophobes, because that’s what they are. They are literally afraid. And it’s unfair to expect LGBTQ people, who are the targets of hatred, to have patience and understanding, to approach their haters more compassionately. But it’s hard for me to imagine any other path that leads to the good place that I found.
photo by Ted Eytan
One of the most profound evolutions of your and my lifetimes has been that of LGBTQ acceptance, particularly by younger generations - but even by folks like my 78-year-old father. I remember arguing with him and my grandfather in the early 90s about Bill Clinton's "Don't ask, don't tell" - they were very much against it - and now my Dad couldn't care less if someone is gay, in the military or not. He even took my mom and sister to Gay Pride in the early 2000s in San Francisco - maybe partially to watch "the freakshow", but I think also out of a sense that, this is where we live, this is part of our community etc.
Now "gay rights" have moved so far into blase acceptance that I'm completely uninterested in Gay Pride, the Folsom St Fair etc. You do you - I'm fine with it, and always have been. But the strange corporate over-celebration of rainbow "Pride" - even in professional sports - is just one of those weird markers of our time where Identity trumps all, and we can't just be individuals any longer - we MUST be defined by our differences, or in the case of myself, a straight white guy, my lack thereof. If a handful of Tampa Bay Rays I've never heard of don't want to wear the rainbow, that's fine with me - whether they invoke Jesus or not to justify it. Maybe it's time we - "we" who accept gay rights and treat gays and straights as individuals and not part of some monolithic group - embrace this victory, and be done with trying to force every last marker of identity down everyone's proverbial throat.
I love this, Shawn. So great to hear your voice here and your wisdom. You rock socks:)