It has been a week since news broke about the Facebook posting of the new mayor of Troy, that used a gay slur. I went on record calling for her apology and raising the issue of how we deal with the question of homosexuality in our society. That a conversation has begun is an understatement. Where it will lead, I do not know. It appears that those who oppose gay rights are mounting their stand. They will take solace from an anti-gay ad by GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry. But as I wrote in a column for the Lompoc Record several years ago after a young boy was murdered because he was gay, we need to talk. The text that follows was largely written for the Lompoc Record and has been revised for my next book -- Faith in the Public Square, (Energion, 2012). So, people of Troy and beyond, let has have a conversation about how a question that will not go away. "Don't ask, Don't tell" didn't work in the military and it won't work in our broader society.
We Need to Talk
Whenever someone says “We need to talk,” we know the topic of conversation is going to be difficult. It’s natural to try to avoid conflict, especially when we fear that tempers might flair and relationships will be broken. We say: “Let sleeping dogs lie,” and “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.” From an early age we learn what’s appropriate for polite discussion and what isn’t.
It’s this sensibility that lies behind the military’s “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuals serving in the military, which was finally reversed in 2011. The policy was enacted because homosexuality is a controversial issue in our culture – and so if we don’t ask, we don’t have to deal with the question of sexual orientation. Thus, if you’re gay or lesbian and serving in the military, it’s best to stay in the closet.
What is official military policy has become unofficial policy in much of our society, including our religious communities. A Baptist pastor friend of mine lost his job because of a pictorial directory. Although his church has been welcoming gays and lesbians for years, a group in the church balked at the decision to put gay and lesbian couples together in directory pictures – acknowledging their partnership. As long as people stay in the closet, we feel comfortable with the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Our culture’s discomfort with the question of sexual orientation is wrapped up with our equal discomfort in talking about sexuality in general. This is true in spite of the fact that our culture is saturated by it. Consider the adage: “Sex sells.” If it weren’t true, ad agencies and TV producers wouldn’t bother with it. Our fears keep us from talking. When it comes to sex education in our schools, many opponents say this should be a family matter. But the truth is families often aren’t up to the challenge. If we have difficulties discussing sexuality in a frank and open way, it’s no surprise that we find the topic of sexual orientation to be problematic.
The shooting death in 2006 of Lawrence King, a 15 year old Oxnard junior high school student, at the hands of a fellow student served as a wake up call to many of us living along the Central Coast of California. The victim had revealed to his peers that he was gay, a revelation that led to taunts, teasing, and threats – does that sound surprising? It appears that Larry may have responded on occasion to these threats by flirting, which only made the problem worse. One of those students involved in this situation was Brandon McInearny, a bright young man who came from a broken and violent home. Both young men had issues they struggled with, and in the end this was a fatal combination for both of them. We wonder if this would have happened if our society was better equipped to handle differences in sexual or gender orientation. I don’t know all the details – including possible efforts by the school to mediate the problem beforehand. But, we as a society must recognize that our discomfort with the issue prevents our young people from knowing how to properly deal with differences. In a society that still considers violence to be a legitimate means of expression, when we’re unwilling to talk about deeply divisive issues in our society, violence can and will happen. In this case, one teen is dead and the other faces the possibility of life in prison. Whatever the troubles of their past lives, now neither has a future.
I understand why we find it difficult to talk about the issue. There are significant differences of understanding about homosexuality – whether it’s a choice or not, and whether or not it’s a moral issue. I understand the question well, because before my brother came out I believed homosexuality to be a choice and immoral. Since that time, I’ve wrestled with the question and have changed my mind. But, knowing how divisive the question is, I’m still hesitant to raise the issue in the church. In our church we’re welcoming but we’re still not sure what that means. I think that’s true of much of our society at this moment. But if we’re going to bring an end to the violence against the Larry Kings and Matthew Shepherds of our world, we need to start talking in earnest.