Historic Homecoming for GLBT Alumni at Wheaton, an Evangelical College

Wheaton College in Illinois has been called the Harvard of the evangelicals. Longtime readers of this blog may recall my reports from their theology conferences on the Trinity and spiritual formation. Though at one time I felt nourished by immersion in a community of serious Christian intellectuals, my shifting political sensibilities eventually made me too uncomfortable to return to an environment where non-heteronormative lives were (at best) erased. 

That’s why I was particularly happy to receive the latest Soulforce e-newsletter, which featured a report on OneWheaton, “a community of LGBTQ’s and allies at Wheaton”. This month, some 600 members took the bold step of attending Wheaton’s homecoming weekend as openly queer alumni and allies. Here’s an excerpt from the newsletter:

“This is a real coming out, being here, being ourselves,” said Frances Motiwalla, a 2000 Political Science graduate. “That’s what this weekend is all about. This was a reassertion of our whole self as part of the community.”

Motiwalla joined dozens for whom this past weekend was their first time returning to their alma mater. Most gay Wheaton alumni never return to campus, associating their college years with shame, loneliness, and marginalization. But in a show of pride and courage, over 50 rainbow clad alumni spanning the classes of ’54 through 2013 ate together in the school’s cafeteria, attended the sold-out Homecoming football game, and showed their families around campus.

They kicked off the weekend with a free concert by Jennifer Knapp, a Christian musician who recently came out as lesbian, and a panel led by LGBTQ Wheaton graduates. OneWheaton explains that most LGBTQ Wheaton alumni never return to campus because of too many negative associations and hurtful memories. This homecoming weekend, however, saw over 50 rainbow clad alumni going back to 1954 and even current students eating together in the cafeteria, attending the football game and showing friends and family around campus.

The groups explains that the weekend, besides a few stares and off-hand comments, was a success in engaging students in conversation and providing some reconciliation for alumni. Said the group’s Co-Director Ruth Wardchenk, “When I drove onto the campus Friday I was there for the first time in 15 years and I burst out in tears. I was home and I was no longer afraid.”

While the school is not officially budging on the issue yet, their impact was certainly felt on campus. Wrote one student, “Thank you for coming to campus this weekend… I don’t quite know what I think yet, but you’ve got me asking questions and thinking. So, thank you so much for coming back to Wheaton.”

Click here to support Soulforce’s Equality Ride, which brings the message of inclusion to Christian colleges across America. Click here to sign OneWheaton’s statement of support, share your story, or find resources to end your isolation.

Murder Ballad Monday: Dixie Chicks, “Goodbye Earl”

Ever wonder why so many pop songs and folk ballads feature men killing their intimate partners? “Banks of the Ohio”, “Delia’s Gone”, “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” (well okay, that one IS by The Killers, what do you expect)…they’re so catchy, I hear myself singing along, and then I cringe. Score one for feminism against fun? Nope, not according to the Dixie Chicks. Getting back at an abuser has never been such a blast. Even dead Earl can’t keep from dancing.


Holidays, History, and Idols

This weekend I heard a creative and challenging sermon linking our celebration of Columbus Day to the Biblical story of the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. Our preacher acknowledged the human impulse to create a tangible symbol of connection to the God we love. With Moses up on the mountain and God seemingly silent, a people adrift in a strange land needed an anchor for their devotion. This embodied imagination is the source of great religious art, but paradoxically, it can also create hindrances to knowing God. We mistake our concepts for the real God, who actually exceeds our comprehension. God became angry with the Israelites because He was trying to move them forward from concrete and magical thinking, toward openness to His infinite mystery.

The stories that we tell about ourselves as a people, said our preacher, can become an idol as well. Like the golden calf, the celebration of Columbus’s “discovery of America” helped unify and reassure a nation of displaced immigrants seeking a new common identity. But like the calf, this story is limited and distorts reality, erasing the genocide of Native Americans and implicitly judging their nomadic occupation of the land as less than its highest and best use.

I’m not content to leave this analysis with an easy moral, as both admirers and detractors of Columbus are wont to do. Had the Europeans not arrived at (discovered, colonized, civilized, exploited) the continent we call North America, later generations might not have had a refuge to survive other genocidal situations. These include my own Jewish ancestors, who fled from pogroms and the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. Some historians include the Irish Potato Famine as an example of genocide, citing British prejudices as a cause of the government’s inadequate response. Many Irish emigrated to America because of that disaster.

Secular, commercialized holidays simply can’t capture the tragic complexity of cross-cultural encounters in a world of scarce resources. The Bible does it better. It includes stories where the Israelites are persecuted, stories where they are rewarded for their faith, stories where they become the oppressors of the poor and the alien, and stories where they just screw up. If we read any one of these stories without the others, it becomes an idol too. Just look at the Middle East today. I believe the Jews needed a homeland after the Holocaust, and I also believe they are oppressing the Palestinians today. We like stories with heroes and villains, but maybe we should ask what it would mean for God to triumph, rather than our side.

Murder Ballad Monday: Reba McEntire, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”

Last night I was thrilled to attend a concert by country diva Reba McEntire at The Big E agricultural fair in West Springfield. With her trademark Oklahoma twang, fiery-haired Reba sings about real women surviving life’s hard knocks: poverty, betrayal, falling in and out of love, making a fresh start in midlife. And, every now and then, an unsolved double murder. I spent several minutes on the drive home trying with limited success to explain the plot of this song to Adam. The official music video finally makes it clear. Whatever…I just love the chorus.

Gay Rights and the Right to Sanity

This June 2011 article from the progressive website Religion Dispatches captures the essence of why I fight so hard for GLBT equality, particularly within the church. In his piece “The Battle Beneath the Battle: Do Gay People Exist?”, Jay Michaelson says the issue is nothing less than the right to believe your own perceptions, and to be recognized as an authority about your own subjective experience. In a word: sanity.

I’ve taken the unusual step of quoting the whole article because Michaelson’s argument is so concise and well-constructed that to leave out any paragraph would undermine it. I’ve boldfaced key points. He writes:

There’s a cognitive dissonance in our religious and political debates about homosexuality: it’s the only cultural struggle I can think of where one’s very existence is routinely denied by political opponents. African Americans have long had their humanity denied—but they are still seen, and recognized. Women’s rights and freedoms are again under attack, and their full equality is still denied—but no one doubts that women exist. Yet when it comes to LGBT people, our very existence is still, somehow, subject to debate.

This makes public debates over LGBT equality seem uniquely pointless, because the real questions are not the ones being discussed. For example, several states are asking should gays be allowed (or prohibited) to marry. But the real questions they are asking are deeper: Do gay people exist? Is sexuality simply a “lifestyle choice”; and if so, should it be rewarded or burdened by the state?

For a moment, I want to bracket the question of whether sexuality and gender identity are traits or choices, and assume for a moment that many (though not all) LGBT people experience them as the former: that is, as fundamental characteristics of what might be called the soul. I recognize that not every queer person feels this way. Studies have shown, for example, that women tend to experience their sexuality as more fluid and more likely to change over time than men do. I also recognize that, in some iterations of political liberalism, none of this should matter; it’s perfectly coherent to argue that the state simply should not be involved in regulating how people organize their intimate lives.

But I also want to recognize that, in my experience at least, whether or not one is “born this way” does seem to matter to a whole lot of people. For political as well as intellectual reasons, LGBT activists are loathe to base our rights on the latest scientific or pseudo-scientific data. This strikes me as wise. But as I talk about these issues with folks in the “movable middle,” I’ve noticed that the reluctant allies, semi-supportive family members, and more-or-less-convinceable moderates come to pro-gay conclusions for the reasons Lady Gaga identified: because gay people are born that way.

So it does matter, politically at least, whether sexuality is a trait or not. And here is where it gets weird. Because if that’s true, then what’s really at issue in our public debates about equality is my own subjectivity. I am telling my political opponents that I am gay. I didn’t choose it; I didn’t even want it, at first. But it’s as much a part of how I understand myself as being 6’1”, Caucasian, and male.

My opponent responds: no you aren’t. So what am I?

Well, the answers have shifted quickly over the last few decades. At first I was just a sinner. I indulged (or was tempted to indulge) in sodomy the way others are tempted to indulge in gluttony. Later, I was a psychological “invert”; someone with incomplete sexual-psychological development, and a dozen other varieties of psychological freak. But I was not what I said I was: a perfectly normal human being with a certain sexual orientation.

Today, even our opponents recognize this. The Catholic Church recognizes that homosexuality is a part of the human condition; albeit one which must be sublimated or repressed. Even in the “reparative therapy” and ex-gay movements, the rhetoric has shifted from promises of true conversion to heterosexuality, to promises of the ability to sublimate one’s desires into heterosexual expression. Ex-gay folks realize that almost no (male) clients actually stop feeling same-sex attraction. They just promise that one can work with it, live with it, and function sexually with a woman.

In other words, the only people who still say that sexuality is purely a choice are those who know nothing whatsoever about it. When you think about it that way it’s outrageous. I’m being forced to defend my subjective self-understanding to people who not only don’t share it, but who don’t even read objective books about it! I stand on the opposite sides of picket lines with people who deny that I am right about my own mind. They insist that millions of people are so deeply deluded about themselves that their own testimony must be disregarded.

Maybe, then, gay rights really are like civil rights after all. “Am I not a man and a brother?” asked Frederick Douglass. Which is to say: I experience myself as fully human. You, if you are listening to me, must hear and see that I am a human being. Yet our society denies my humanity, insists that while I am something close to a man, I am not quite one.

I hear myself saying something similar. Is this not love? Do I not know my own heart? Is my love not that of one human being for another? Not lust or perversion or sin, but love? When straight people really see gay people, when they allow themselves to look, they see that we are people, that our love is love. Similar in some ways, different in others, not necessarily better or worse—but real. We exist.

What I feel like we are still fighting for, in the places where our freedom is still contested, is neither rights nor freedoms nor any particular bundle of privileges, but some more fundamental, and fundamentally religious, human right that has only begun to be articulated: the right to self-definition, to say that I exist—and to be believed.

This is exactly right, in my opinion, and deserves to be restated far more often in the current debate. To religious people, in particular, I would say that you cannot discount gays’ own perceptions–first, that their orientation is real, and second, that their relationships can be loving and spiritually fruitful–without undermining confidence in the same psychological faculties that produce religious convictions.

Do you use reason to read and interpret the Bible? Yet you tell gays to “lean not on your own understanding” when they defend their equality based on lessons from history, science, and moral logic. Do you feel God in your heart when you pray? Yet you tell gays that “the heart is deceitful above all things” when they try to speak about their experience of love. If their minds are so darkened and their wills are so corrupt that nothing they say about themselves can be trusted, that condition of “total depravity” applies to you and your religion at least as much. (Which, I think, is what St. Paul was actually getting at in Romans 1: you holy rollers will be judged by the same measure by which you judge “those people”.)

What distinguishes abuse from other forms of violence is the element of mind control. You’re not just being hurt, you’re being brainwashed into doubting whether your pain really happened, allowing someone else to erase your reality and replace it with one that meets their own needs. Because I’ve experienced some of this, though not in the context of sexuality, the fight for gay rights will always be my fight.