Three faith leaders encourage readers to embrace their orientation
I was 8 years old, on my way back from a camping trip with three girlfriends. The father of one of them was driving the Winnebago, one hand on the wheel, one hand nursing a can of beer.
“You guys, if we die, there’s something I want you to know,” said my friend Layne, the most melodramatic of the bunch. “I don’t want to be a lesbian, but … I love you guys!”
I was quick to reassure her. “It doesn’t mean you’re a lesbian,” I said comfortingly, adding that I had just seen Janet and Chrissy say they loved each other on Three’s Company. (And clearly, they weren’t gay!)
Layne’s fears were far from unique. While girl-on-girl action has become standard entertainment at college parties around the country, coming out as a lesbian is a whole different matter.
A friend recently told me that growing up surrounded by white people, she hated her brown skin so much she tried to sandpaper it off. While this might sound extreme, it’s exactly this desire to be something one isn’t that drives a gay person to remain in the closet.
I am a young woman who has never experienced the “zing” of attraction with guys. But often when I’m with a woman, sparks fly. I know in my heart and body that I’m attracted to women, but I don’t want to be gay! What do I do?
Maybe it’s my past experience with a religion that taught homosexuality was a perversion right up there with bestiality, but I must confess my surprise when our three clergy members expressed unanimous support for our wanna-not-be lesbian.
“The bedrock of this conversation would be compassion,” said the Rev. Georgia Prescott, founder of the Center for Spiritual Awareness, “because this is a very painful place for a person to be. I don’t know of anyone who was a little girl or little boy and said, ‘Yippee, I’m gonna be gay!’ This young adult woman has carried a lot of shame with her since the time she became attracted to the same sex, and that usually happens at 13 or 14 years old. And if she’s been in one of the many spiritual communities, it’s real possible she’s gotten some negative feedback about herself as an abomination of the Lord.”
As a lesbian minister of an inner-city church, Prescott speaks from layers of experience. Born in Napa to an Italian-Catholic family, she spent many years “unchurched” and involved in what her father called “the lunatic fringe of the left.” Then one day, she walked into a church in Santa Rosa and heard these words for the first time: “We believe that you’re whole, perfect and complete just as you are right now.” She now passes this principle on to her own congregation in West Sacramento.
When the question turned to Les Shelton, senior pastor at Midtown’s First Church of the Nazarene, he at first resembled the proverbial sacrificial lamb.
“Who, me?” he punted.
When asked if he had encountered this situation in real life, he collected himself. “Well, yes, in a way. But I have never presumed on them to give them direction about sexual preferences. I usually revert to the areas of prayer … ”
What this situation really depends on, Shelton continued, is “whether a person thinks being gay is a choice or a fact of birth. I believe it’s a fact of birth. So this business of ‘I don’t want to be gay,’ I’m guessing that comes from her environment or someplace else, why this is so horrendous to her.”
In addition to having had an openly gay college roommate in the ’60s, Shelton also has family members who are gay. However, when it comes to integrating the doctrine of his church with his own attitudes toward homosexuality, Shelton confessed, “I gotta be honest with you: I just don’t bring it up. I don’t bring up political issues. And I certainly don’t fault anybody who does. But for me, I understand what my job is. My job is representing Jesus Christ, and that’s what I endeavor to do.”
The outspoken Rev. Dr. David Thompson, of downtown’s Westminster Presbyterian Church, addressed the more global issue of social stereotypes toward homosexuality.
“The decision to come out of the closet is a decision of incredible courage,” he said gravely. “I know people who have stood at the edge of the mailbox, debating whether they would actually mail the letter that says who they are to a dad or a mother. … They know what’s going to happen if they mail that letter. They also know what’s going to happen if they don’t. Because they’ll have to continue to live this false life. So it’s a societal problem, it is not a personal problem.”
In order for gay people to feel safe being who they are, Thompson insisted, “we need to make this society a place where everybody is accepted as a child of God, without exception.”
“A lot of times, what happens with gay folks, because they’re carrying a lot of prejudice from when they were little, they think the reaction is much worse than it actually is going to be,” said Prescott. “So I’d talk to this young woman specifically about ways that it frightens her; why she hates the idea of being gay. Is it her parents, her church—where does she find that difficulty?”
“I think education is a way forward,” said Thompson, “and also common sense. From my point of view as a pastor, I teach that Jesus is the word of God, and the Bible is what it is: 66 books, all written by different authors over different time periods. And you need the spirit of God in order to interpret them. So I don’t have any problem saying that St. Paul was flat wrong in Romans 1. Now when I say that kind of thing on the floor of the presbytery, people look at me like I’ve got six heads. I don’t really care, because I know they’re wrong, too. And I know they’re wrong because of the best psychology, the best psychiatry, the best minds in the world; I know people who cannot change, who don’t want to change, and if they do change, they’ll mess themselves up psychologically and emotionally. If they are authentic to themselves, they become free and open and able to give to other people. So I don’t have any problem with it. It does get me into trouble. But,” he added with a mischievous smile, “I kind of enjoy the trouble.”
“I do think it’s a question the American church has to take up out loud,” Prescott concluded. “They have left littering the spiritual path a number of lesbians and gay men who really have internalized a lot of self-hate that comes from church doctrine, and that’s not OK.”