Friday, December 19, 2008

Praying the Gay Away: More on Pastor Warren

A friend came by yesterday. We hadn’t seen him in some time. We knew from calls and emails that he had recently discovered his former partner of about 20 years had died. A year ago. His ex-partner’s family did not contact him.

These friends had a volatile relationship. Both had done the right thing and married—women—and had children, knowing even when they married that they were gay. In the case of the friend who has died, his family exerted tremendous pressure on his life and relationship. Both of his parents are ministers in an evangelical church.

To say that they couldn’t or wouldn’t accept a gay son is an understatement. They did all they could to wish the gay away. Not just pray it away: actively pretend that it was not there, in the form of a son who had married and had children. And had chosen the ministry for his own career.

Our friend's family was good at praying things away and pretending they weren't there. That's what faith is all about, after all, isn't it? When our friend's father once found one of his daughters in bed with a black man, he denounced her from the pulpit the following Sunday (yes, the race of her partner in fornication trumped even the fornication). He did so after having beaten her black and blue with the buckle end of a belt, so that she has scars to this day from the beating.

Because the family was large and preachers' children are supposed to be model children, before church every Sunday, our friend's mother lined up all of her children and dosed then with Valium, so that they'd behave well in church. Most of them now have serious addiction issues.

When our friend came out to his parents, his father insisted that he sit at the kitchen table with his parents and answer explicit questions about what he and his new love did in bed. His father's solution for his "problem" was simple: surgery. Gay men are "that way" because they have a clitoris embedded in their throats. Have the offending organ removed, and you will long to return to your wife. To the world of normal heterosexual Christian marriage.

I don’t know all the details of the break-up of these friends’ relationship. I do know that struggling with AIDS, and without jobs, which they could not hold as people living with AIDS, made their live together difficult. The friend who visited yesterday has had numerous health problems, including difficulty getting dental work done when local dentists won’t touch an HIV+ patient. We have helped him obtain dental services in a city three hours away.

When he visited yesterday, my friend showed me the funeral program of his former partner. He discovered the partner’s death in a round-about way, by calling the partner’s sister to ask if she had any news of her brother. When he called, she broke down and said, “I don’t know how to tell you this. He died a year ago. We decided not to let you know.”

When the former partner left, he broke ties with all of us—explicitly and cuttingly. (His final words to us: "You can reach me at We have now learned that in the several years up to his death, he remarried his former wife, though the remarriage met the same fate the marriage met on its first go-round.

He returned to church, got the demon of homosexuality expelled from his body, and had the cancer from which he was suffering due to AIDS healed. Or so he thought, until it came back with a vengeance and proved terminal. By the time he died, it had metastasized from his lungs to his brain. We now wonder if some of his aberrant behavior in the period leading up to his break with all of us was due to the encroachment of the cancer on the brain.

The funeral program is astonishing. It speaks about a man none of us ever knew. He was the devoted son of Bro. and Sis. H., the faithful husband of So and So, the proud father and grandfather of this and that child and grandchild.

He was a minister in the church. He died of cancer.

The program totally erases the last 20 years of our friend’s adult life. Gone. Never happened. Vanished. Out of sight. Out of mind.

Because this is what the churches, many of them, and the people in the churches, want for us who are gay: gone; never happened; out of sight and mind. Our presence creates confusion. It causes problems. It makes folks uncomfortable. They have to think about what they’d rather not think about—e.g., about mutable gender roles and how society and church allocate power to males and females on an arbitrary basis.

Erasing us is easier. Pretending is simpler. If we ourselves would only participate in the pretense and welcome being erased, how much happier churches would be. And how much healthier our society would be.

Devoted son of Bro. and Sis. H. Faithful husband. Proud father. Who needs more than that, really? Why isn’t it enough to play the roles that God has established for us all—the ones that have obtained since creation began? The ones that make everyone else comfortable in their God-ordained roles?

Astonishingly, churches and church people seem never to grasp that erasing people and asking them to pretend is immoral. That it violates the most basic canons of human decency. That it fosters lies, and lying is antithetical to the moral life.

Looking at my friend’s funeral program, I could not help thinking of Pastor Rick Warren. All that Rick Warren stands for is captured in this “Christian” funeral program that denies the humanity—denies the existence—of a gay son, father, citizen. This is, at its core, what churches’ assault on gay humanity is all about: many churches and many folks in churches want to act as if we do not exist. They want us not to exist. They want to pray us away, to pray away the gay.

If we did exist, and if we who are gay and lesbian, and those who love us, were in the audience to any discernible degree on inauguration day, having Rick Warren on stage praying would be obscene. His very presence at the inauguration would point to ugly unhealed divisions in a land in which a new president speaks of himself as healer. His presence at the inauguration would highlight the fact that these ugly unhealed divisions are due to injustice—yes, injustice supported by twisted reading of the bible, to which everyone who reads the bible has a right. But injustice nonetheless: injustice that goes beyond religious boundaries and drives to the heart of our pluralistic, democratic society.

A society in which twisted and hateful readings of the bible have not been allowed to determine how we treat other marginalized groups of humans—slaves, women, immigrants, the poor, people of color. A society in which we have recognized peoples’ right to read the bible any way they wish, but in which we have insisted on the necessity of fundamental canons of human decency, above and beyond that handful of carefully chosen biblical verses that opponents of justice and decency always light on.

The presence of Rev. Rick Warren on the stage at Obama’s inauguration will point to ugly unhealed divisions in our society. It will also point to our unwillingness to heal those divisions at this point in our history—to accord justice where justice is lacking—because we continue to permit haters who abuse the bible in support of homophobia to do what we do not permit haters who abuse the bible in support of oppression of women and people of color to do: not only to claim religious sanction for views that are antithetical to our democratic society, but also to claim the right to impose those views on the entire society.

Rick Warren’s presence at the Obama inauguration will “work.” It will work because gay and lesbian people will be invisible at this event—except insofar as we blend into the big picture of devoted sons and daughters, faithful husbands and wives, proud fathers and mothers of children and grandchildren.

There is simply no other picture available to us today, in this nation with the soul of a church. To the extent that we do not like what our snapshots show us, we can always doctor them—we do always doctor them—to make them “right.”

Even if that means printing funeral programs that erase the lives of our sons and daughters.