Jonathan Odell January 11, 2010 - 11:22am
Last year I got a call from an administrator at a Midwestern seminary with a reputation for its “take no prisoners” conservative theology. He had permission to conduct a series of seminars on hot-button issues like abortion, stem-cell research, and gay marriage. His plan was to bring in a succession of speakers, one to take the pro side of an issue, followed by a second to present the opposing view.
I took a deep breath. I knew what was coming next. “We want you to take the pro side on homosexuality,” he said.
“Yippee,” I thought. “I get to argue for Satan.” So I asked him, “Why me?” Why me indeed.... Several years earlier I had given a reading on the same campus. It was from my novel. But I hadn’t come out as gay then, only as a Baptist. Years before, I made the decision that the only time I should feel obligated to reveal my sexual orientation was when there was something positive in it for me—like a quick way to get rid of a Jehovah’s Witness. I don’t owe anyone that information, especially someone with the scriptural dexterity to bless me in one breath and to condemn me to hell in the next.
“Actually,” the caller said, “I had heard you were gay before you showed up.” He told me that when the dean found out I was coming, he had done his best to cancel my reading. I had not known at the time that my gay presence was sufficient to cause a scandal. What would happen if I were to actually talk about it?
The administrator pleaded his case. “I want you to come here not only because you’re gay, but because you’re religious. You’ve obviously held on to your spiritual beliefs.”
I didn’t tell him I’d been able to retain my faith by steering clear of the hateful fundamentalists that universities like his turned out. Instead, I lied and told him I’d think about it.
“Well, I can’t blame you if you say ‘no,’” he added. “In fact, I might lose my job over asking you. But I think it’s worth it.”
“Great,” I thought. “He’ll get fired and I’ll get crucified. Who could refuse an offer like that?” I saw absolutely nothing redemptive in it for me. I’ve been involved in public debates about gay rights and gay marriage in which I actually got the better of my opponent. But once the exchange was over, I came to realize few minds had been changed, and that some hearts had actually hardened. Besides, the people at this particular school were the same religious fanatics I had fled in Mississippi as a young man. I knew already how sessions like these could turn out: each side using every trick in its holy book to destroy the spiritual legitimacy of the other side. And this guy was asking me to step once again into that lion’s den?
Still, the administrator’s request tugged at me. Maybe if I tried one more time, things would turn out differently. Thomas Wolfe famously wrote, “You can’t go home again.” Well, perhaps Wolfe was only half right. You can never go home again, but you can never leave completely, either. I suspect the unfinished stories of home will haunt us all until the day we die, creating a never-ending succession of possibilities to get it right. To say “to hell with you!” and slam the door isn’t healthy closure, but that’s how I had exited my Christian community in Mississippi.
I decided I would say no to the request, but I couldn’t tell my contact that I was really declining his invitation because I was terrified of being rejected. After all, I was apparently the only homosexual he had come across who actually believed in God, so I had to keep up the image for what to him must be a very select group of gays. So I did what I usually do when I need to make a purely emotional decision appear rational: I turned to Google. I entered the name of the school and the word “homosexuality” into the search engine. My aim was to find a way to blame these fundamentalist Christians for being so hopeless that I wasn’t going to waste my time on them.
The first hit was an anonymous letter, written by one of the seminary’s own students to a gay support group, pleading for help. He wrote about being a Christian, a closeted gay, and suicidal. “From the outside, I appear much like any other student on campus,” he wrote. “I am a Christian, dedicated to my family, my friends, and my academic career. I am also gay. I came close to committing suicide several times, but God had been looking out for me. He had given me one friend on this campus with whom I could be totally honest. I believe that were it not for him, I would not be here today. One day, I hope that we can be seen for who we truly are, as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.”
This student’s poignant testimony of desperation and isolation, his love for a church that rejects him, these brought me back to my own youth. As a boy, I too was desperate for some adult to say, “I know just how you feel. I was afraid, too. But look at me. I survived. So will you.”
Now I couldn’t refuse the invitation without rejecting this young man, and by the same token, rejecting that kid inside me who is still waiting for some adult to stand up for him. I guessed this terrified adult was going to have to do the job for both young men.
I’ve been speaking to groups for much of my life, but what scared me about this invitation was that, for the first time, I would be showing up as a “professional homosexual.” I would no longer be in charge of how, when, or whether I came out. No, the only thing people would know about me beforehand is that I am gay. And to them I would represent all their feelings and judgments about gay folks, a cumulative response over which I had no control. I was stumped about how to even begin.
A participant in a workshop I lead called “Daring to Tell Your Story” helped me clarify my thinking. “Don’t debate them,” Betsy advised. “Just tell your story and let them tell you theirs, like we do in class.”
But as we say in a sobriety program I attend, “Simple, but not easy.” As a gay man, I have several versions of my story, depending on what the occasion might call for. There is the political “I pay taxes, too,” version, and the religiously challenging “Jesus never mentioned it” version. I have an aggrieved “Look how you’ve oppressed me” presentation, and a militant “I’m queer and get over it” one. But Betsy was suggesting something different: that I get beyond the urge to use my story as a strategy. Instead, as writer John Cournos advises, I should relate my personal truth to a more universal one, what theologian Miroslav Volf calls “a moral obligation to remember truthfully.” That means telling my story without embellishing it, tidying it up, or turning it into a morality play with clear-cut villains, victims, and saints. It meant including unresolved tensions and all, even if my doubts and mistakes would give others ammunition to use against me. And so I accepted the invitation.
When I walked to the podium that night and scanned a room of budding fundamentalist preachers, I discovered the place was only partially filled. Most in the audience were faculty and female students. Hanging in the back was a crowd of young guys who eyed me suspiciously, still deciding whether this talk was for them, and what exactly their attendance might say about their own testosterone levels. I nervously blurted out the first thing that came to my mind: “Hello, I’m the gay guy!” It was meant to be humorous, but the silence was so thorough that I could hear them breathing.
“OK,” I told myself, “don’t be clever. Just tell the truth. If they walk out, they walk out.” I began again. “When I got the invitation to come speak today, it was a no-brainer.” I looked directly at the young men massed in the back of the room: “Not in a million years!” I noticed a few smirks, but at least we shared some common ground. We all would rather be somewhere else.
“I’d like to say I’m happy to be here today,” I continued, “but I’d be starting our relationship with a lie. Right now, you are the folks I grew up with. The folks I fled over thirty years ago and have kept running from: my family, my community, my church. You were my first family, and families know how to wound you the deepest. So today I just need to say I’m not here because I want to convert you, or change you, or sway you, or make you like me. I’m here because whether I like it or not, you are in my life and I need to somehow make peace with that part of my life.”
Then I told them that “peace” is the last word I would use to describe such forums. All we seem to learn from such exchanges is how to fight one another better the next time. Yes, I told the audience, I did want gay marriage. I told them how much I love my partner, Jim, but that I was just about through with public controversy. I explained that it was a Google search on this seminary and homosexuality that had changed my mind about speaking, specifically the anonymous letter from a student at their university.
I noticed that people began looking furtively at one another, as if the author might be in the room. I told the audience about this student’s fear and depression, his thoughts of suicide. I described his desire to walk with his brothers and sisters in Christ, but also his terror at what might happen if they ever found out who he really was. I told them what he wrote rang true to my own experience growing up in a Christian community. The last thing on his mind was the gay-marriage debate. He was operating in survival mode. That’s why I accepted their invitation to speak.
We were all breathing differently now. Even the guys in the back had nonchalantly drifted into the room. Others, who had been listening from the hallway, began to file inside, until finally all the chairs were filled and people stood lining the walls.
I told them of my own journey into adulthood as a gay man, as a professional, a Christian “with all the answers.” I told them how my life collapsed when I came to the realization that my answers were right, but I had spent all those years asking the wrong questions. Then I told them my story of being a Southern gay Christian alcoholic, or as a friend puts it, a queer, Bible-banging, redneck drunk. It was the first time I had let all these carefully segregated, contradictory parts of my history loose in a single place at the same time.
I ended by sharing a story about my conservative, fundamentalist father. It was the day I finally asked him if he thought I was going to hell. “Johnny,” he had said, “I believe every word in the Bible is God’s literal truth, and the way I read it, it says homosexuality is wrong.” But then he continued, “And I know my son. I know for a fact that he is not evil.” He nodded once, and then said decisively, “I guess both are going to have to be true.”
A sign of genius, someone said, is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in your mind at the same time. I told the students that my father had died the year before. “I’m not sure I ever lived up to his expectations,” I said. “I know I haven’t lived up to mine. But it has been a comfort to know that there could be a God who doesn’t hold that against me—who can say, ‘You have failed and you are perfect.’ I guess both will have to be true.” As I said this, I found myself fighting back tears. How strange, I thought, that I have never felt closer to my late father than standing before this group of fundamentalist Christians.
The talk took about fifty minutes. When it was over, a pall of silence hung over the room. Then a few people started to clap, then a few more. Someone stood, and whether it was contagious enthusiasm or peer pressure, I received a standing ovation. “Oh, great,” I couldn’t help thinking, “now they feel sorry for me.”
But something interesting happened next, during the Q and A. The questions were not the ones I had expected. Instead, students asked thoughtfully about my life and my struggle with religion. “How do you as a gay man experience the presence of Christ in your life?” “How do you handle Christians who reject you without knowing your story?” “If your parents had not accepted you, what do you think you would have done?”
The questions were not accusatory, but intimate and inviting. I was able to talk of my struggles, of my own ambivalence about a topic that is usually presented only in black and white, pro and con. It was their obvious concern for me as a person and a Christian that allowed me to go deep within myself to respond to them.
And then, there were no more questions—only a flood of stories. Some told tearfully of brothers and sisters who are gay, and whom they had been taught to reject. Others told how friends had come out to them, and how poorly equipped they felt when it came to offering support. About how the admonition to “hate the sin but love the sinner” proved woefully inadequate when the sinner happened to be a person they cared for deeply.
I understood the dynamic—how story elicits story—but I had not anticipated the commonality of the stories told that evening. They were sharing with me how they had also been wounded by their religion’s intolerance toward homosexuals. Caring and idealistic, these young people still believed that love has the power to remake the world. It hurt them to be asked to mistrust their deepest instincts, the ones that had led them to ministry.
I would like to say everybody involved went on to live happily ever after, but life doesn’t work that way. A few professors whose students were at the session complained to the dean about my being allowed to speak. Some of the seminarians attending the session decided to push for a campus support group for friends of the GLBT community. The dean, alarmed, charged a committee to create a list of faculty and students who challenged the institution’s policy on homosexuality.
Was it worth it? For the institution, I hope so. I don’t know whether the courageous man who invited me will keep his job, or what he might have to do to retain it. I’m fairly certain I will not be asked to speak again anytime soon. As I feared, the student body may have become even more polarized over the issue than before. But it was worth it for me as a Christian. In the most unlikely of places, I had experienced a coming home. Such a coming home is not a matter of conquest or retribution, of finally getting the love, respect, or apologies that are your due. Rather, simply by telling your story, your truth, without the expectation of gain or the dread of loss, a person is set free. I came away with a new understanding of the very old saying that while facts can help explain us, only stories can save us—and, I hope, others.