The Gospel According to GQ

This summer, the men’s magazine GQ published a lengthy and respectful profile of Gene Robinson, the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, whose election in 2003 brought the Anglican Communion’s disagreements over homosexuality into public view. Robinson’s patience, charity and love shine out from this well-written article by Andrew Corsello.

One might expect a magazine like GQ to hold its subject’s faith at arm’s length, playing to the cynical sophisticates in their target audience. But Corsello’s even-handed writing never invites the reader to sneer that the God whose love Gene Robinson feels, and whose will he tries to obey, is an irrational construct he would be better without. Unlike many of the bishop’s conservative Christian detractors, this secular magazine accepts the genuineness of his love for Jesus and humanity–a love borne out by Robinson’s activism on behalf of the poor, and his desire to reconcile with Christians who have abused and threatened him.

By the time Gene Robinson ended his marriage and came out of the closet, New Hampshire’s Episcopalians had known him for eleven years. They were shocked but, with a few exceptions, not up in arms. The man had brought love, transparency, and the truth as he knew it to their children and their families for more than a decade. Why would he stop now?

One of those exceptions was a fellow priest named Ron Prinn, whom Robinson had known and worked with for years. “I understand you’ve done this because you’re a…what?” Prinn demanded.

“A homosexual, Ron. I’m a homosexual.”

“I just don’t understand it,” Prinn said. “Boo. The girls. I don’t understand.”

Robinson said he wasn’t demanding or even asking Prinn to understand. “Just be in communion with me. That’s all I ask.”

“I don’t think I can,” Prinn said. “I just don’t know if it’s permissible.”

Terrible words. To the unchurched, “in communion” is the kind of term that can pass through the senses without finding purchase. But to those who have grown up in the church, not to mention those who devote their lives to it, to be told by a man of the cloth that you are not worthy of sharing Communion is to be cast out by one’s own flesh and blood; it is to be told that you are unworthy of salvation.

And then there was that word. Permissible. It was a word that implied the primacy of doctrine—canons, rules, rote adherence to the letter of the law—over the kind of questing, empathetic faith Robinson had practiced all his life. Not only was Gene Robinson being told he was unworthy of communion but also that he fundamentally misunderstood what it represented….

Not long after moving into his new home with Mark Andrew, Robinson sent Ron Prinn a letter. The two had worked for several months on a committee, after which Gene and Mark hosted a dinner for committee members and their spouses. Prinn had answered the invitation with silence, so Robinson sat down and wrote everything he’d learned about fear.

“I told him what I’d learned from my own life, and from those of everyone to whom I’d ever been a pastor—that the fear is always worse than the reality. You know how when you’re a kid lying in bed and you just know there’s something in the room with you, and how frightening that is—but how the thought of turning on the light is somehow even more frightening? So I wrote, ‘Ron, I don’t think you’re afraid of what you think you’ll see if you come to my home. You might think you are—that you’re afraid of all the pictures of naked men we must have on every wall. But I think you’re afraid of what you won’t see. I think you’re afraid that you won’t see those pictures, that what you’ll see is actually quite boring. Which it is. And I think you’re afraid of what that might mean. So let me tell you now: What you will see when you come here is a Christian home. You have a standing invitation.’ ”

Prinn never acknowledged the letter, but a year later the two men met at a clergy conference. Robinson was now Canon to the Ordinary—the New Hampshire diocese’s second in command. Prinn took Robinson’s extended hand but said nothing in response to his hello. Something was very wrong—he wouldn’t let go of Robinson’s hand. Just kept it gripped while gazing into Robinson’s face. His voice trembled when he spoke.

“I have done everything the church has asked me to, I have believed everything I have been told to believe, and I am unhappy.” He seemed to be talking at himself as much as at Robinson. “And here you are living your life the way the church says you shouldn’t. And…look at you.” Before Robinson could muster a response, Prinn withdrew his hand, turned, and left the room.

“Later in the conference, the bishop got called away, so it fell to me to celebrate the Eucharist,” Robinson recalls. “I was halfway through the prayer of consecration when I realized he was going to have to present himself to me for Communion. Sure enough, I looked down and there he was in line. When he knelt, I thought he might cross his hands over his chest, so as not to receive the host from me. But then he put out his hands. Not for the host but for me. So I knelt with him, and right there at the altar rail he took me into his arms.”

Several years later, Prinn worked on a committee tasked with deciding whether the diocese’s annual clergy and spouse retreat should be renamed, with “partner” replacing “spouse.” Prinn was torn. Though he had come back into communion with Robinson, he still didn’t approve of what he saw as the man’s poor decisions—and he still hadn’t brought himself to cross his doorstep. As Prinn saw it, a gay clergyman, an individual, was one thing; the institutionalization of “gayness” in the church, even semantically, was another. Grudgingly, he placed a call to Mark Andrew.

“Would it even mean anything to you?” he asked. “I mean, you already attend the conference. It’s just a word, right?”

“A word is never just a word,” Andrew said. “It would mean everything.”

Prinn made the change.

By the time Prinn finally accepted one of Gene’s group-lunch invitations, three years ago, Parkinson’s disease had ravaged his body. He could no longer eat—liquid nutrients had to be pumped directly into his stomach through a stent—and had neared the point where he could no longer walk or talk. Another of the guests ushered Prinn and his wife, Barbara, through the garage, where Gene and Mark had installed a handicap lift years before. When he rolled his walker into the kitchen, Prinn beheld Gene with a bewildered look. A gurgling sound emerged from his throat. Barbara put an ear to her husband’s mouth, then translated.

“Ron wants to know who in your family is handicapped.” No one, Gene said.

It clearly pained Prinn to muster the words, but he managed.

“Who did you build that lift for?”

The lift had been used only once before. Gene hadn’t thought twice about installing it. His theology of inclusion had structured not only his ministry but his idea of what a living space should be; the lift hadn’t been built with anyone particular in mind.

“We built it for you,” Gene said.

Prinn began to cry quietly, then motioned for Gene to come close. When he did, Prinn whispered that he wanted Robinson to kiss him.

Barbara Prinn says that in her husband’s final months, when he could no longer speak, Robinson would sit with him in silence for hours at a time, holding his hand and, before taking his leave, kissing the dying, smiling man on the crown of his head.

I suggest reading this article for background before moving on to Robinson’s recent book, In the Eye of the Storm, which has much to recommend it, but is somewhat too reticent for an autobiography (he is Episcopalian, after all!). Inspiring but disorganized, it reads more like a collection of sermons on the social gospel than a truly systematic defense of gays in the church. I was glad to discover, though, that Robinson holds orthodox views on the Trinity, Incarnation and Resurrection, contrary to the scare tactics of conservative Christians who argue that acceptance of homosexuality leads inexorably to theological liberalism and relativism.

Blogger Mars Girl has written a good review of Robinson’s book, in which she also explains why she’s such a passionate straight ally. She speaks for me when she says:

Too often, homosexuals are driven from a faith-based life because their home churches spurn them as sinners of the worst kind. It was really refreshing to read this book and get some insight to a great man who has found a way to challenge the people in his faith as well as unattached readers like me who just seek social justice for homosexual and transgendered people.

He had me at one of the first paragraphs in his book when he stated in better words what I’ve always thought in my heart:

Everyone knows what an “ism” is: a set of prejudices and values and judgements backed up with the power to enforce those prejudices in society. Racism isn’t just fear and loathing of non-white people; it’s the systematic network of laws, customs, and beliefs that perpetuate prejudicial treatment of people of color. I benefit every day from being white in this culture. I don’t have to hate anyone, or call anyone a hateful name, or do any harm to a person of color to benefit from a racist society. I just have to sit back and reap the rewards of a system set up to benefit me. I can be tolerant, open-minded, and multi-culturally sensitive. But as long as I’m not working to dismantle the system, I am a racist.

Similarly, sexism isn’t just the denigration and devaluation of women; it’s the myriad ways the system is set up to benefit men over women. It takes no hateful behavior on my part to reap the rewards given to men at the expense of women. But to choose not to work for the full equality of woman in this culture is to be sexist. (p. 24, bold emphasis mine)

Robinson goes on to equate this same argument with those who sit back and benefit from a hetersexually-centered society but do nothing to help change the system for equality for homosexual and transgender people. This argument is why I fight so hard for this cause when often times people ask–or want to ask–why I care so passionately about this issue when it’s not really my issue to fight. As a Unitarian Universalist, one of the seven principles to which I have agreed is the inarguable “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” This is the only principle of the seven principles I ever remember when asked, and that’s because it’s the one that resonates to my heart the strongest.

In reading the book, you have to swallow a lot of Christian dogma and faith. For someone like me, it’s hard not to roll my eyes and squirm when he discusses how every human being is saved through Jesus Christ. This man is certainly as evangelical as any Sunday morning preacher when it comes to his love for God and Jesus, and you can feel it hitting you full blast from every page. However, you also really understand the man Robinson is and you understand how deeply he believes. You can’t help but respect that. I can see why he must be such a great priest that he elevated to bishop: This man believes and he knows he’s saved and he wants to tell you all about how you can join him on this journey. I almost did want to join him on this journey. In fact, by the end of this book, I was bound and determined to visit the Episcopal church in Kent. I thought if the people of his faith thought as he did, even a questioning, sometimes-believer/sometimes-atheist person like me could join the bandwagon without much notice.

I haven’t gone to that church just yet, not even to peek for education’s sake. I’m happy where I’m at and where I’m at gave me the ability to appreciate Robinson’s words in ways I never could have even two years ago. He made me want to be Christian like no other preacher has before….

Even as a heterosexual, I can relate on some level to being forced to hide aspects of oneself from the public eye to fit in. As a child in middle and high school, I submerged aspects of my personality in order to fit into the group mind of the adolescents in my high school. Though trite compared to having to hide your own sexuality, the toll to my mentality was detrimental. I found myself doubting my own self-worth and it took a lot of years to undo the damage I did. I guess that’s part of the reason I’ve gone the complete opposite direction as an adult in highlighting the unique aspects of my personality, calling myself Mars Girl to constantly remind people that I feel I am different. I’m tired of hiding who I am so I’ve let myself out of my own closet to tell the world, “This is who I am; like it or leave it.”

It’s much harder to take on this sort of attitude as a homosexual because the backlash from the general public can be deadly. People have such a strong, irrational reaction to those whose sexual orientation or understanding of one’s gender is so radically different from their own. The religious conviction from fundamentalists that homosexuals and transgenders are damned does not make the situation any better. It’s a very sad situation and I completely empathize with anyone who has had to hide themselves in this manner. It’s a shame that people cannot accept people for who they are and show God’s love in a more positive manner. I believe that a person should have the right to walk down the street, arm in arm with the person they love, and not have to feel embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid of the public’s reaction to the sight. As a heterosexual person, I feel almost ashamed of my freedom to publicly show affection for a man I love without having to worry about reaction from those around me. I want to fight for the right for all people of any sexual orientation to have the same freedoms and lifestyle I’m automatically entitled to as a heterosexual.

“The Door Miser” and Other New Poems by Conway

My pen pal “Conway”, who is serving 25-to-life under California’s “three-strikes” law for receiving stolen goods, has sent me an abundance of exciting new poems this month, some of which I share below. He has also been writing dark-humored stories about prison life, which I have encouraged him to submit to the PEN Prison Writers contest. If my readers know of other publication opportunities for incarcerated writers, please leave me a comment below.

The Door Miser

Sleeping ice
        walked the pregnant rain
    with mud.
                Lighting barbed steeples
dragged shattered guitar strings
    while a Horn bled my breath…
                Clay eyes, blunt lips
            growling voices
                    that died
                        howling like the wind
in search of Ozone…
               Chase this dim-witted drunkenness
overcome by the ages
                locked inside an hourglass
            when a spider webs knots
                    yanked the darkness out
        from under freeform footsteps…
                    Breaking down again
                        in the voice of bruises.
                    But they never belched
like: an Orphans sin
        in the way-layed wilderness
                    or a maniac on the freeway
        speeding through stopped traffic
                at Rush hour…
        This interminable Toilet of
                a sacred food stop
                    right between you and I
inside this Homeless broken sky, or
                doomed door of denial…
    Glass days visions
                just offer an Iron failure
        while tears lonely language
                    can only desire
                        the world…
        Think hard about testing
                a terrified dictation.
    Arresting these wheels
                for too many years
                    as even the moon
                        considers my prison
                while shivering…
When the Door miser
        crawls up my spine
            again, to suck on
                        my nerves…


Poker After Dark

The Blood & Tears of life
fell, into the ashes burned
when remains of my father
were turned to mud in a day

Kabashed his world into an ashtray
then washed that mother fucker away
lost, corroding through the pain
bereft and rusting in the rain

on the wrong side of right
from six feet under this grass
left to wonderful blunders
while sucked inside a riptide

the absence of fear
in here, does not prove courage
or discourage the deer
caught in the headlights

when a deck is shuffled
those cards are dealt, but
it’s how you play the cut
or gamble on, a “Supposed” losing hand…


Gag Order 

How do I make my tongue tell it?
Choking in this bitter dungeon
now, can you smell it?

Desperately desiring to describe

a moment to share

gagging like a dog in a fight

(mouth full of hair)

Boundaries eternal, are forced inward
further in strife
constricting our death
out of breath for life

Screaming the whispers
below this cold sweat

Spilling those empty jars of regret

saving that craving, of nothing

Marilynne Robinson’s Writing Process, and Mine

Acclaimed novelist and social critic Marilynne Robinson, author of such books as Gilead and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, recently gave a fascinating interview to The Paris Review for their column “The Art of Fiction”. Topics covered include the importance of mystery to both religion and art, and how belief systems are often misused to draw lines between “good” and “bad” people rather than awakening our reverence for that mystery. An excerpt:

Ames [a character in Gilead] believes that one of the benefits of religion is “it helps you concentrate. It gives you a good basic sense of what is being asked of you and also what you might as well ignore.” Is this something that your faith and religious practice has done for you?

Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression. It’s only very recently that you couldn’t see how the high arts are intimately connected to religion.

Is this frame of religion something we’ve lost?

There was a time when people felt as if structure in most forms were a constraint and they attacked it, which in a culture is like an autoimmune problem: the organism is not allowing itself the conditions of its own existence. We’re cultural creatures and meaning doesn’t simply generate itself out of thin air; it’s sustained by a cultural framework. It’s like deciding how much more interesting it would be if you had no skeleton: you could just slide under the door.

How does science fit into this framework?

I read as much as I can of contemporary cosmology because reality itself is profoundly mysterious. Quantum theory and classical physics, for instance, are both lovely within their own limits and yet at present they cannot be reconciled with each other. If different systems don’t merge in a comprehensible way, that’s a flaw in our comprehension and not a flaw in one system or the other.

Are religion and science simply two systems that don’t merge?

The debate seems to be between a naive understanding of religion and a naive understanding of science. When people try to debunk religion, it seems to me they are referring to an eighteenth-century notion of what science is. I’m talking about Richard Dawkins here, who has a status that I can’t quite understand. He acts as if the physical world that is manifest to us describes reality exhaustively. On the other side, many of the people who articulate and form religious expression have not acted in good faith. The us-versus-them mentality is a terrible corruption of the whole culture.

You’ve written critically about Dawkins and the other New Atheists. Is it their disdain for religion and championing of pure science that troubles you?

No, I read as much pure science as I can take in. It’s a fact that their thinking does not feel scientific. The whole excitement of science is that it’s always pushing toward the discovery of something that it cannot account for or did not anticipate. The New Atheist types, like Dawkins, act as if science had revealed the world as a closed system. That simply is not what contemporary science is about. A lot of scientists are atheists, but they don’t talk about reality in the same way that Dawkins does. And they would not assume that there is a simple-as-that kind of response to everything in question. Certainly not on the grounds of anything that science has discovered in the last hundred years.

The science that I prefer tends toward cosmology, theories of quantum reality, things that are finer-textured than classical physics in terms of their powers of description. Science is amazing. On a mote of celestial dust, we have figured out how to look to the edge of our universe. I feel instructed by everything I have read. Science has a lot of the satisfactions for me that good theology has.

But doesn’t science address an objective notion of reality while religion addresses how we conceive of ourselves?

As an achievement, science is itself a spectacular argument for the singularity of human beings among all things that exist. It has a prestige that comes with unambiguous changes in people’s experience—space travel, immunizations. It has an authority that’s based on its demonstrable power. But in discussions of human beings it tends to compare downwards: we’re intelligent because hyenas are intelligent and we just took a few more leaps. The first obligation of religion is to maintain the sense of the value of human beings. If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary would be: stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to stop harming ourselves. We don’t behave consistently with our own dignity or with the dignity of other people. The Bible reiterates this endlessly.

The part of the interview that I found most reassuring, from a personal standpoint, was Robinson’s description of her intuitive, unstructured writing process. It has always been very hard for me to stop despising those aspects of my own temperament. In fact, I haven’t even tried until recently. For most of my writing life, I have been dogged by a sense of shame that my temperament was too flighty to be worthy of my gifts. What great things might I have already achieved if I wrote every day instead of whenever I felt like it–if I hammered down the plot of my novel and stuck to it–if I revised and workshopped my writing–if I didn’t become emotionally overwhelmed by my material and have to stop writing for months? Here’s what Robinson has to say about that:

Do you plot your novels?

I really don’t. There was a frame, of course, for Home, because it had to be symbiotic with Gilead. Aside from that, no. I feel strongly that action is generated out of character. And I don’t give anything a higher priority than character. The one consistent thing among my novels is that there’s a character who stays in my mind. It’s a character with complexity that I want to know better.

The focus of the novel is Jack, but it’s told from Glory’s point of view. Did you ever consider putting it in his point of view?

Jack is thinking all the time—thinking too much—but I would lose Jack if I tried to get too close to him as a narrator. He’s alienated in a complicated way. Other people don’t find him comprehensible and he doesn’t find them comprehensible.

Is it hard to write a “bad” character?

Calvin says that God takes an aesthetic pleasure in people. There’s no reason to imagine that God would choose to surround himself into infinite time with people whose only distinction is that they fail to transgress. King David, for example, was up to a lot of no good. To think that only faultless people are worthwhile seems like an incredible exclusion of almost everything of deep value in the human saga. Sometimes I can’t believe the narrowness that has been attributed to God in terms of what he would approve and disapprove….

Does your faith ever conflict with your “regular life”?

When I’m teaching, sometimes issues come up. I might read a scene in a student’s story that seems—by my standards—pornographic. I don’t believe in exploiting or treating with disrespect even an imagined person. But at the same time, I realize that I can’t universalize my standards. In instances like that, I feel I have to hold my religious reaction at bay. It is important to let people live out their experience of the world without censorious interference, except in very extreme cases.

What is the most important thing you try to teach your students?

I try to make writers actually see what they have written, where the strength is. Usually in fiction there’s something that leaps out—an image or a moment that is strong enough to center the story. If they can see it, they can exploit it, enhance it, and build a fiction that is subtle and new. I don’t try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies. I don’t see any reason in fine-tuning something that’s essentially not going anywhere anyway. What they have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they’re putting on a page. When people are fully engaged with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination.

Do you read contemporary fiction?

I’m not indifferent to contemporary literature; I just don’t have any time for it. It’s much easier for my contemporaries to keep up with me than it is for me to keep up with them. They’ve all written fifteen books.

What is your opinion of literary criticism?

I know this is less true than it has been, but the main interest of criticism seems to be criticism. It has less to do with what people actually write. In journalistic criticism, the posture is too often that writers are making a consumer product they hope to be able to clean up on. I don’t think that living writers should be treated with the awe that is sometimes reserved for dead writers, but if a well-known writer whose work tends to garner respect takes ten years to write a novel and it’s not the greatest novel in the world, dismissiveness is not an appropriate response. An unsuccessful work might not seem unsuccessful in another generation. It may be part of the writer’s pilgrimage….

Does writing come easily to you?

The difficulty of it cannot be overstated. But at its best, it involves a state of concentration that is a satisfying experience, no matter how difficult or frustrating. The sense of being focused like that is a marvelous feeling. It’s one of the reasons I’m so willing to seclude myself and am a little bit grouchy when I have to deal with the reasonable expectations of the world.

Do you keep to a schedule?

I really am incapable of discipline. I write when something makes a strong claim on me. When I don’t feel like writing, I absolutely don’t feel like writing. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times—I can’t say I exhausted its possibilities—but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to live through the time it takes for it to go up the chimney. Maybe it’s a question of discipline, maybe temperament, who knows? I wish I could have made myself do more. I wouldn’t mind having written fifteen books.

Even if many of them were mediocre?

Well, no.

Update on Proposition 8 and Other News

From the latest mailing from No on 8, the group that is coordinating the efforts to preserve equal marriage rights in California:

Yesterday, donors and supporters of Equality California began receiving threatening letters for their support of the statewide organizations efforts to protect LGBT youth and seniors from the “Yes on 8” campaign leadership.

These letters threatened to “expose” the donors listed on Equality California’s website if they don’t donate to the “Yes on 8” campaign and refrain from supporting LGBT equality in the future….

The letter, sent on their campaign letterhead, was signed by four members of the group’s executive committee and suggests our donors withdraw their support for their own good. It demands an equivalent donation or else:

“Were you to elect not to donate comparably, it would be a clear indication that you are in opposition to traditional marriage. You would leave us no other reasonable assumption. The names of any companies…that choose not to donate…to…will be published….We will contact you shortly to discuss your contribution.”

It is signed by members of the Yes on 8 campaign executive committee:

Ron Prentice, campaign chairman
Edward Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference (the Official Voice of the Catholic Community in California)
Mark Jansson, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Andrew Pugno, lawyer for

Now, if the Mormon and Catholic churches sincerely believe that gay marriage is forbidden by the Bible, they have every right to tell their members not to enter into or support such marriages. But I’m outraged at the spectacle of churches spending millions of dollars solely to take away secular, civil rights from all Californians whether or not they accept the teachings of those religions.

This proposed legislation confers no benefit on anyone. Its effect is entirely to impair the rights of one group of citizens. Not a single heterosexual marriage will be saved by it. That’s right, the church is not spending your money on marriage counseling, child care, mental health services, domestic violence prevention, criminal justice reform, or anything else that would actually help families overcome the stresses that lead to divorce (not to mention the financial barriers that prevent marriage in the first place).

So, if you’re reading this and you don’t support gay marriage, at least consider redirecting your Sunday morning collection plate dollars to an organization that provides positive services to families in crisis.

In other gay legislative news, the Human Rights Campaign reports that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is considering regulations that might allow health-care providers to discriminate against GLBT patients:

The Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) recently issued a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” (PDF) proposing new regulations that would give health care providers the right to refuse service to patients for religious or moral reasons. The proposed regulations claim to clarify three federal “religious refusal clauses” related to abortion and sterilization. One of the statutes contains a section that states that a person may refuse to participate in any part of a program or activity that “would be contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

The HHS’s proposed regulations extend this section beyond its original intent to allow a health care provider to refuse to provide any health care service or information for a religious or moral reason. Extending and broadening this “religious refusal clause” could impair LGBT patients’ access to care services if interpreted to permit providers to choose patients based upon sexual orientation, gender identity or family structure….

Under the proposed regulations, a doctor may refuse to administer an HIV test to a patient because he is gay. In fact, the doctor could not only refuse this service, but decline to tell the patient where he would be able to obtain testing. Clearly, this puts the health of the patient, and potentially that of others, at risk. The proposed regulations would also allow counselors to refuse to counsel same-sex couples or allow a pharmacist to refuse to fill a prescription for hormone replacement therapy for a transgender customer.

Again, I have to ask, how is this a Christian way to behave? I think I remember an old story about some upright fellows who considered religious purity an excuse to opt out from helping a sick man. As I recall, one of them was a priest, and one was a Levite…

Equality Riders Arrested, Harassed, at Christian University

The Soulforce Equality Riders are a team of GLBT youth and straight allies who are touring Christian and other conservative colleges in the South this month to bear nonviolent witness to their faith. In their latest e-newsletter, Equality Ride Co-director Katie Higgins reports on the group’s visit to Palm Beach Atlantic University (excerpt reprinted by permission below):

After a ten hour drive to southern Florida, the Equality Riders arrived safely in Boyton Beach, a neighboring town to West Palm Beach. We had a chance to relax and catch up on thank you notes (!) before our efforts with Palm Beach Atlantic University began on Sunday.

Nick Savelli organized this stop and scheduled a community picnic in Flamingo Park, which is a beautiful space within a short walking distance to campus. Throughout the day, about fifteen students joined us in the park, including a PBAU alumna and her girlfriend. She experienced the ‘welcoming environment’ that PBAU promises to provide for all of their students: it involved years of ex-gay ministries and when she finally graduated and decided go come back to the area for grad school, her former classmates would only continue their friendships if she continued to struggle with being a lesbian. There is no room for her as the healthy and affirming person she is.

That evening, our third time driver, Dondi Penn, noticed that someone had smashed in the glass pane on our bus door. This came the night after cars drove by and yelled homophobic slurs as he walked to the bus in the parking lot of our hotel. A report was filed with the police department and the 2008 Riders have now experienced what all have before when our bus is vandalized. It may seem like a small pane of glass, but it is our home and this was a very real indication of the region’s climate.

With our experiences in Florida in hand, along with the other interactions we have had with the PBAU community since announcing our visit, the Equality Riders decided that we would attempt to join the students during their Chapel service. We arrived to campus on Monday morning at 9:30. After talking with parents of students, ex-gay ministers, students and administration, we all walked to the doors of the Chapel. It was here that an administrator read a statement saying that as Equality Riders, we were not allowed to participate in the Chapel with the students. A statement followed this from the police department and with that, ten of us stepped back to stand vigil. Jarrett Lucas, Enzi Tanner, Lauren Parke, Danielle Cooper, Nicholas Rocco DeFinis, and Zak Rittenhouse decided to move forward with their intent to sit in Chapel with the students they had met the day before. One by one, they were placed in handcuffs and lead to the police car that awaited in the middle of the street.

The remaining Equality Riders stood alongside campus for the next eight hours, many of which were in the rain. A number of students and administrators weathered the storm with us, but by the end of the day, we were soaked to our bones. It was nothing compared to the 27 hours that the PBAU Six spent in prison, but it was empowering to hold sacred ground there. Witnessing and experiencing any kind of redemptive suffering never gets easier for the soul; it only provides more resolve. The following day, we waited for our beloveds to be released from prison and when they were, I saw on their faces the growth that occurs when you join the ranks of those who haven been jailed as a form of nonviolent communication. They are forever changed just as much as the students we spoke with.

We are now in Florence, Alabama, at Heritage Christian University. President Jones has told us that our credentials are not enough to speak about our own lives to his students. Because of your support, we have the strength to stand before the school and show them that our humanity is not something to be qualified. We will go to campus on Friday. Please visit our website, to read about what happens.

In the spirit of equal time, here is a link to PBAU’s website and their own account of Soulforce’s visit, headlined “Students Stand for Their Beliefs”.

The two groups’ opposite perceptions of the same event makes me wonder what the evidence of our lives does and does not prove. Sincerity and a willingness to suffer for one’s beliefs may be emotionally compelling in a face-to-face confrontation, but sincere martyrs can be found in many traditions with irreconcilable views.

I’m currently listening to the audio book of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which inspires me with its message of radical equality before God, yet also troubles me with its over-reliance on personal sanctity as an evangelizing tool. Little Eva, the child of a slave-owner, inspires him by her pious death to begin freeing his slaves, while the improbably holy Uncle Tom would rather stay to convert his Massa than go home to his still-enslaved wife and family. I understand that the redemptive suffering of the innocent can be one way we imitate Christ. However, what I’ve seen of abuse and codependence makes me wary of the false hope that if we just suffer long and patiently enough, our oppressors’ hearts will be warmed.

I continue to support the brave work of the Soulforce riders. Their presence on Christian campuses surely gives hope to students who have had to hide their true selves in order to be educated about their faith. Their peaceful witness in the face of harassment adds credibility to the claim that the Spirit is equally at work in the lives of GLBT Christians. However, let’s remember that God’s grace is sufficient for us all. No one can interpose a man-made test between us and our Savior, be it conformity to traditional gender roles or super-human virtue. GLBT Christians are equal because they are human. End of story.

Victory for Marriage Equality in Connecticut

The Connecticut Supreme Court has just issued a ruling, in Kerrigan & Mock v. Dept. of Public Health, that the state constitution protects same-sex couples’ right to marry. Relying on the Connecticut constitution’s equal protection clause, the court struck down the state’s civil unions law, saying that it created a separate and unequal class of citizens without sufficient justification. The case was brought by eight gay and lesbian couples who contested the Madison, CT town clerk’s denial of their applications for marriage licenses.

Thanks to Gay and Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), Love Makes a Family, and MassEquality for their activism that helped bring about this victory.

The 85-page decision is available here as a PDF. Highlights:

The issue presented by this case is whether the state statutory prohibition against same sex marriage violates the constitution of Connecticut. The plaintiffs, eight same sex couples, commenced this action, claiming that the state statutory prohibition against same sex marriage violates their rights to substantive due process and equal protection under the state constitution. The trial court rendered summary judgment in favor of the defendant state and local officials upon determining that, because this state’s statutes afford same sex couples the right to enter into a civil union, which affords them the same legal rights as marriage, the plaintiffs had not established a constitutionally cognizable harm.
We conclude that, in light of the history of pernicious discrimination faced by gay men and lesbians, and because the institution of marriage carries with it a status and significance that the newly created classification of civil unions does not embody, the segregation of heterosexual and homosexual couples into separate institutions constitutes a cognizable harm. We also conclude that (1) our state scheme discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, (2) for the same reasons that classifications predicated on gender are considered quasi-suspect for purposes of the equal protection provisions of the United States constitution, sexual orientation constitutes a quasi-suspect classification for purposes of the equal protection provisions of the state constitution, and, therefore, our statutes discriminating against gay persons are subject to heightened or intermediate judicial scrutiny, and (3) the state has failed to provide sufficient justification for excluding same sex couples from the institution of marriage.

In light of our determination that the state’s disparate treatment of same sex couples is constitutionally deficient under an intermediate level of scrutiny, we do not reach the plaintiffs’ claims implicating a stricter standard of review, namely, that sexual orientation is a suspect classification, and that the state’s bar against same sex marriage infringes on a fundamental right in violation of due process and discriminates on the basis of sex in violation of equal protection.

…Although marriage and civil unions do embody the same legal rights under our law, they are by no means ‘‘equal.’’ As we have explained, the former is an institution of transcendent historical, cultural and social significance, whereas the latter most surely is not. Even though the classifications created under our statutory scheme result in a type of differential treatment that generally may be characterized as symbolic or intangible, this court correctly has stated that such treatment nevertheless ‘‘is every bit as restrictive as naked exclusions’’; Evening Sentinel v. National Organization for Women, 168 Conn. 26, 35, 357 A.2d 498 (1975); because it is no less real than more tangible forms of discrimination, at least when, as in the present case, the statute singles out a group that historically has been the object of scorn, intolerance, ridicule or worse.

We do not doubt that the civil union law was designed to benefit same sex couples by providing them with legal rights that they previously did not have. If, however, the intended effect of a law is to treat politically unpopular or historically disfavored minorities differently from persons in the majority or favored class, that law cannot evade constitutional review under the separate but equal doctrine. See, e.g., Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 495, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954); cf. In re Marriage Cases, supra, 43 Cal. 4th 830–31; Opinions of the Justices to the Senate, supra, 440 Mass. 1209. In such circumstances, the very existence of the classification gives credence to the perception that separate treatment is warranted for the same illegitimate reasons that gave rise to the past discrimination in the first place.

Despite the truly laudable effort of the legislature in equalizing the legal rights afforded same sex and opposite sex couples, there is no doubt that civil unions enjoy a lesser status in our society than marriage. We therefore conclude that the plaintiffs have alleged a constitutionally cognizable injury, that is, the denial of the right to marry a same sex partner. We next must determine whether the state’s differential treatment of same sex and opposite sex couples nevertheless satisfies state constitutional requirements.

Although this court has indicated that a group may be entitled to heightened protection under the state constitution because of its status as a quasi-suspect class, we previously have not articulated the specific criteria to be considered in determining whether recognition as a quasi-suspect class is warranted. The United States Supreme Court, however, consistently has identified two factors that must be met, for purposes of the federal constitution, if a group is to be accorded such status. These two required factors are: (1) the group has suffered a history of invidious discrimination; see United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515, 531–32, 116 S. Ct. 2264, 135 L. Ed. 2d 735 (1996); Massachusetts Board of Retirement v. Murgia, 427 U.S. 307, 313, 96 S. Ct. 2562, 49 L. Ed. 2d 520 (1976); and (2) the characteristics that distinguish the group’s members bear ‘‘no relation to [their] ability to perform or contribute to society.’’

The United States Supreme Court also has cited two other considerations that, in a given case, may be relevant in determining whether statutory provisions pertaining to a particular group are subject to heightened scrutiny. These two additional considerations are: (1) the characteristic that defines the members of the class as a discrete group is immutable or otherwise not within their control; see, e.g., Lyng v. Castillo, 477 U.S. 635, 638, 106 S. Ct. 2727, 91 L. Ed. 2d 527 (1986) (for purposes of suspectness inquiry, relevant consideration is whether members of class ‘‘exhibit obvious, immutable, or distinguishing characteristics that define them as a discrete group’’); and (2) the group is ‘‘a minority or politically powerless.’’

To date, the United States Supreme Court has recognized two quasi-suspect classes, namely, sex; see, e.g., Frontiero v. Richardson, supra, 411 U.S. 686 (plurality opinion) (what ‘‘differentiates sex from such nonsuspect statuses as intelligence or physical disability . . . is that the sex characteristic frequently bears no relation to ability to perform or contribute to society’’); and illegitimacy. See, e.g., Mathews v. Lucas, 427 U.S. 495, 505–506, 96 S. Ct. 2755, 49 L. Ed. 2d 651 (1976) (applying heightened scrutiny because, inter alia, illegitimacy ‘‘bears no relation to the individual’s ability to participate in and contribute to society’’).

For the reasons that follow, we agree with the plaintiffs’ claim that sexual orientation meets all of the requirements of a quasi-suspect classification. Gay persons have been subjected to and stigmatized by a long history of purposeful and invidious discrimination that continues to manifest itself in society. The characteristic that defines the members of this group—attraction to persons of the same sex—bears no logical relationship to their ability to perform in society, either in familial relations or otherwise as productive citizens. Because sexual orientation is such an essential component of personhood, even if there is some possibility that a person’s sexual preference can be altered, it would be wholly unacceptable for the state to require anyone to do so. Gay persons also represent a distinct minority of the population. It is true, of course, that gay persons recently have made significant advances in obtaining equal treatment under the law. Nonetheless, we conclude that, as a minority group that continues to suffer the enduring effects of centuries of legally sanctioned discrimination, laws singling them out for disparate treatment a
re subject to heightened judicial scrutiny to ensure that those laws are not the product of such historical prejudice and stereotyping.

There is no question, therefore, that gay persons historically have been, and continue to be, the target of purposeful and pernicious discrimination due solely to their sexual orientation…The defendants also concede that sexual orientation bears no relation to a person’s ability to participate in or contribute to society, a fact that many courts have acknowledged, as well.

It is highly significant, moreover, that it is the public policy of this state that sexual orientation bears no relation to an individual’s ability to raise children; see, e.g., General Statutes § 45a-727 (permitting same sex couples to adopt children); see also General Statutes § 45a-727a (3) (finding of General Assembly that best interests of child are promoted whenever child is part of ‘‘loving, supportive and stable family’’ without reference to sexual preference of parents); to an individual’s capacity to enter into relationships analogous to marriage; see General Statutes §§ 46b-38aa through 46b- 38pp (granting same sex couples all rights and privileges afforded to opposite sex couples who enter into marriage); and to an individual’s ability otherwise to participate fully in every important economic and social institution and activity that the government regulates. See General Statutes §§ 46a-81a through 46a-81n (generally banning sexual orientation discrimination in employment, trade and professional association membership, public accommodations, housing, credit practices, state hiring practices, state licensing practices and in administration of state educational and vocational programs as well as state-administered benefits programs).

These statutory provisions constitute an acknowledgment by the state that homosexual orientation is no more relevant to a person’s ability to perform and contribute to society than is heterosexual orientation. It therefore is clear that the plaintiffs have satisfied this second and final required prong for determining whether a group is entitled to recognition as a quasisuspect or suspect class.
The remainder of the majority opinion makes a thorough case for treating sexual orientation as a protected class for purposes of equal protection rights, similar to race, religion, ethnicity and gender. The court notes that most of the federal case law to the contrary relied on the now-overruled Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, which had upheld Georgia’s anti-sodomy law.

Whether or not this argument is likely to fly outside the liberal Northeast, the paragraphs quoted above suggest that sexual orientation could be subsumed under “gender” for purposes of marriage equality–thus shutting down the common scare tactic that if we protect “sexual orientation”, pedophilia and bestiality will become constitutional rights. After all, the only difference between Adam & Eve and Adam & Steve is…well, you know.

This could be a winning strategy for transgender rights, too. Instead of a special carve-out for “gender expression and identity”, which makes some constitutional purists anxious, why not argue that discrimination based on conformity to gender stereotypes is just another form of gender discrimination? Airline stewardesses have made this argument to overturn appearance guidelines that required them to wear makeup and lose weight.

As we celebrate the Connecticut decision, let’s not forget to help our allies in California who are fighting the ballot measure that would repeal their marriage rights. Visit No on Prop 8 to learn more.

A Priest Comes Out Against California’s Proposition 8

Saturday, Oct. 11, is National Coming Out Day. Whatever your sexual orientation, take a moment to think about how you could “come out” against injustice this week.

I’m inspired by the example of Fr. Geoff Farrow, a Catholic priest in Fresno, CA, who recently put his career and personal safety at risk by speaking out against Proposition 8, the ballot question that would take away same-sex marriage rights in California. The Catholic Church and other conservative religious groups have been lobbying in favor of the measure. Farrow also personally came out as a gay man. MadPriest has a link to the ABC News video here.

An excerpt from Fr. Geoff’s Oct. 4 sermon, reprinted on his new blog:

…By asking all of the pastors of the Diocese of Fresno to promote Catholics to vote “Yes” on Proposition 8, the bishop has placed me in a moral predicament.

In his “Pastoral,” the bishop states: “Marriage is much more than simply two persons loving each other. Marriage is naturally, socially, and biologically, directed to bringing forth life.”

Actually, there are TWO ends to marriage: 1) Unitive and 2) Procreative. The unitive end of marriage is simply a union of love and life. The Procreative end is, of course, to create new life. It is important to understand that the unitive end of marriage is sufficient for a valid marriage. The Church sanctions, and considers a sacrament, the marriage of elderly heterosexual couples who are biologically incapable of reproduction. So, if two people of different genders who are incapable of reproduction can enter into a valid marriage, then why is that two people of the same gender, who are incapable of reproduction, cannot enter into a valid marriage.

The objections which are raised at this point are taken from Sacred Scripture. Scripture scholars reveal the problematic nature of attempting to use passages from the Hebrew Scriptures as an argument against same gender relationships. Essentially, these scriptures are addressing the cultic practices in which sex with temple prostitutes was part of an act of worshiping Pagan gods. With regard to the Pauline epistles, John J. McNeill, in his book: “The Church and the Homosexual,” makes the following point: “The persons referred to in Romans 1:26 are probably not homosexuals that is, those who are psychologically inclined toward their own sex—since they are portrayed as ‘abandoning their natural customs.’” The Pauline epistles do not explicitly treat the question of homosexual activity between two persons who share a homosexual orientation, and as such cannot be read as explicitly condemning such behavior. Therefore, same gender sex by two individuals with same sex orientation is not “abandoning their natural custom.”

In 1973, as a result of a greater understanding of human psychology, the American Psychological Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. In 1975, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Church’s watchdog for orthodoxy) produced a document entitled: “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics.” In this document, they made the most remarkable statement. They stated that there are “homosexuals who are such because of some kind of innate instinct.” While these statements are hardly glowing affirmations of gay and lesbian persons, they represent a watershed in human perception and understanding of gay and lesbian people.

These new insights have occurred as a result of the birth and development of the science of psychology and understanding of brain development in the 19th and 20th centuries. The California Supreme Court cited and quoted an amicus brief filed by the APA in the Court’s opinion issued on May 15, 2008 that struck down California’s ban on same sex marriage. Specifically, the court relied on the APA’s brief in concluding that the very nature of sexual orientation is related to the gender of partners to whom one is attracted, so that prohibiting same sex marriage discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, rather than just imposing disparate burdens on gay people.

In directing the faithful to vote “Yes” on Proposition 8, the California Bishops are not merely entering the political arena, they are ignoring the advances and insights of neurology, psychology and the very statements made by the Church itself that homosexuality is innate (i.e. orientation). In doing this, they are making a statement which has a direct, and damaging, effect on some of the people who may be sitting in the pews next to you today. The statement made by the bishop reaffirms the feelings of exclusion and alienation that are suffered by individuals and their loved ones who have left the Church over this very issue. Imagine what hearing such damaging words at Mass does to an adolescent who has just discovered that he/she is gay/lesbian? What is the hierarchy saying to him/her? What are they demanding from that individual? What would it have meant to you personally to hear from the pulpit at church that you could never date? Never fall in love, never kiss or hold hands with another person? Never be able to marry? How would you view yourself? How would others hearing those same words be directed to view you? How would you view your life and your future? How would you feel when you saw a car with a “Yes on 8” bumper sticker? When you overheard someone in a public place use the word “faggot?”

…In effect, the bishops are asking gay and lesbian people to live their lives alone. Why? Who does this benefit? How exactly is society helped by singling out a minority and excluding them from the union of love and life, which is marriage? How is marriage protected by intimidating gay and lesbian people into loveless and lonely lives? What is accomplished by this? Worse still, is to intimidate a gay or lesbian person into a heterosexual marriage, which is doomed from its inception, and makes two victims instead of one by this hurtful “theology.”

The Human Rights Campaign website offers more resources and ideas for National Coming Out Day, including how to come out as a straight supporter.

Celebrate GLBT History Month

The Lambda Literary Foundation newsletter has informed me that October is GLBT History Month. Every day, the GLBT History Month website will put up a new short video profiling a GLBT icon who has made an important contribution to politics, culture, the arts or religion. This year’s picks include Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Gianni Versace, and the Episcopal Church’s own Bishop Gene Robinson (of course!).

Readers of my blog are invited to nominate their favorite historical or contemporary GLBT writers in the comments section.

Who Cares for the Reader’s Soul?

Among the many reasons I have found to avoid writing, or at least to avoid writing with any conviction, is the fear that my work would lead the reader astray. All truth comes from God, it is said, and therefore if I tell the truth as I see it, the end product will lead back to Him, without my needing to impose a Christian allegorical framework or engage my characters in theological conflicts.

The killer words there are as I see it. My vision is clouded by sin, so it is possible that if I write from the heart, what I’m really offering my readers is a glimpse into how far I am from God–or worse, persuading them to adopt my own faithless worldview.

It is no wonder that so much evangelical art is banal, since the stronger one’s belief in total depravity, the greater the resistance to departing from tried-and-true Biblical imagery. Of course, Catholics are no strangers to kitsch, but it’s always seemed to me that they had more of a campy sense of humor about it, connected to their refusal to let the sentimental entirely eclipse the grotesque.

Speaking of Catholics…I would like to believe what Flannery O’Connor says in this passage from “The Church and the Fiction Writer”, in Mystery and Manners, but I’m not sure if I should let myself off the hook that easily. On the other hand, what’s the alternative? I’m sure most people would rather read a good story than another hand-wringing post about why I don’t deserve to write one.

In this essay, O’Connor is disputing the conventional wisdom that religious truth and imaginative freedom are at odds. This view is shared by secular intellectuals and, ironically, by their Christian antagonists, who demand sanitized language and subject matter in their fiction. Both parties, she says, misunderstand the writer’s responsibility. Truth is embedded in the fallen reality of this world, not floating above it. The writer’s job is to describe this world, not to direct her readers’ spiritual lives.

Interestingly, O’Connor does not base this assurance on the “all truths lead to God” concept, which she might consider too akin to liberal optimism about personal authenticity and perspective-free knowledge. She would be more likely to cite St. Paul’s “many members, one body”: God wants us to know our role and develop the excellences appropriate to it, neither lording it over others nor taking on responsibilities outside our competence.  O’Connor writes:

When fiction is made according to its nature, it should reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete, observable reality. If the writer uses his eyes in the real security of his Faith, he will be obliged to use them honestly, and his sense of mystery, and acceptance of it, will be increased. To look at the worst will be for him no more than an act of trust in God; but what is one thing for the writer may be another for the reader. What leads the writer to his salvation may lead the reader into sin, and the Catholic writer who looks at this possibility directly looks the Medusa in the face and is turned to stone.

By now, anyone who has had the problem is equipped with Mauriac’s advice: “Purify the source.” And, along with it, he has become aware that while he is attempting to do that, he has to keep on writing. He becomes aware too of sources that, relatively speaking, seem amply pure, but from which come works that scandalize. He may feel that it is as sinful to scandalize the learned as the ignorant. In the end, he will either have to stop writing or limit himself to the concerns proper to what he is creating. It is the person who can follow neither of these courses who becomes the victim, not of the Church, but of a false conception of her demands.

The business of protecting souls from dangerous literature belongs properly to the Church. All fiction, even when it satisfies the requirements of art, will not turn out to be suitable for everyone’s consumption, and if in some instance the Church sees fit to forbid the faithful to read a work without permission, the author, if he is a Catholic, will be thankful that the Church is willing to perform this service for him. It means that he can limit himself to the demands of art.

The fact would seem to be that for many writers it is easier to assume a universal responsibility for souls than it is to produce a work of art…. (pp.148-49)

Ouch. That hits me right in my codependent little tush.

The fact is, dear readers, I don’t actually care about your souls as much as we all thought I did. What I really care about is not letting you see what a bad person I am, which might happen if I wrote honestly. Not even bad so much as foolish, self-indulgent, affected, unlikeable and gloomy. Honest badness has an artistic purity to it that is lacking in your garden-variety schmuck.

What O’Connor says about the reader’s soul is even more true about the writer’s. The battle is fought elsewhere. I have the authority to offer my personal vision of the world only because I personally am saved by grace–not because it’s necessarily accurate or because it will motivate you to get baptized. I can offer it but I can’t impose it. God has given me the right to show up. You, too.