Last weekend, my husband and I attended the Soulforce Anti-Heterosexism Conference in West Palm Beach. I think the experience is best summed up by the words of the old hymn: “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, And I know that it’s the spirit of the Lord.” Many of the participants had survived terrible abuse at the hands of straight Christian leaders and family members, yet the mood they created was one of kindness and openness to the perspectives of everyone in the group, gay or straight, religious or secular. I was even more inspired by the fact that many of them had not given up on their faith. Despite the efforts of those who would split their bodies from their souls, they were determined to claim their place as God’s children, through nonviolent resistance, truth-telling and love.
So what is heterosexism? In brief, it’s the presumption that straight is better than gay. It manifests itself not only in our personal feelings about gay people, but in structural inequalities in our society that disadvantage gay relationships or make them culturally invisible.
Just as white privilege is different from racism, heterosexism is different from homophobia. You need not have personal animus against a group to participate in its oppression, simply by assuming that your flavor is the only one in the shop. For instance, the butt-plug and rape-anxiety jokes employed to code male bonding as “not gay” in the new film “Planet 51” are an example of homophobia; the complete absence of same-sex couples in this and all other mainstream children’s cartoons is heterosexism.
To use a more serious example, homophobia is Fred Phelps; heterosexism is the presumption that straights are naturally the correct interpreters of the Bible, and gays have to “justify” their inclusion according to the standards of the straight majority. Open and affirming–that’s nice, but why do you own the church doors?
We were one of two straight couples among the 50+ attendees, the other being a twentysomething woman and her partner who were doing research for an academic project. I was excited to meet some of my favorite bloggers:
Carol Boltz, who stood by her husband, contemporary Christian music star Ray Boltz, when he came out of the closet and instantly became persona non grata among his former fans. Instead of joining the chorus of blame, she decided to speak out against the real culprits, the homophobic religious leaders who had forced their family into living a lie. Carol blogs at My Heart Goes Out.
Anthony Venn-Brown, who came to us all the way from Australia. This Pentecostal mega-church preacher struggled against his sexual orientation for 22 years before risking it all to be true to himself. His book and blog are titled A Life of Unlearning. Anthony’s upbeat, extroverted personality added a good feeling to our discussions. He was hopeful about the progress of gay rights in Australia.
Jim Burroway of Box Turtle Bulletin, one of the leading websites that monitors the “ex-gay movement” and other organized forms of homophobia. Jim was always ready to ask the tough questions that moved our discussions forward.
Darlene Bogle, a former director of an ex-gay ministry affiliated with Exodus International, who issued a groundbreaking apology at the 2007 Beyond Ex-Gay conference. Darlene’s book A Christian Lesbian Journey talks about how she began her current work of promoting reconciliation between faith and sexual orientation.
You can read a summary of the weekend’s events on the Soulforce website. In the next installments, I’ll share my notes on the presentations that particularly made an impression on me.