You may know the weird and sad story of my first college boyfriend.
I don’t talk about this a ton, because it was a messy and complicated and deeply personal issue, and publicly I usually only talk about it in terms of how it shaped my commitment to gun safety. But the fact is, it also cemented my commitment to GLBT inclusion within the church.
He was a leader of the College Republicans. It may shock you to know I was President of my university’s College Democrats. No doubt there was some Matalin-Carville energy there. However, the main reason we started hanging out was because his best friend had confided a secret crush on me, and he was checking me out for his “little buddy,” but we clicked, and his best friend’s crush on me wasn’t mutual, and all’s fair. Also, a little bit of competitiveness in their relationship might have had something to do with why we ended up together.
It’s been a long time, and I only have part of the story, but from what I could tell, my boyfriend and his best friend had a deep connection they didn’t know what to do with. They were both straight and had relationships with women that I believe were probably authentic and real. Certainly both men came from conservative backgrounds that steered them towards heterosexuality, but I suspect they were genuinely attracted to women as a general rule.
That’s what made what they felt for each other almost impossible to process, and it ultimately drove one of them over the edge.
Without getting into a lot of detail, and again noting that this is based on partial information and my own reading, those two young men had an intense connection with one another. After a lot of avoidance of those feelings, one drunken night they acted on those feelings. One chose to pretend it had never happened—the cost was too high, and he had a girlfriend for whom he truly cared. The other (the one I was seeing) became consumed by it, unable to confess what this meant about their feelings for each other and yet unable to ignore it, increasingly frustrated by his best friend’s seeming ability to pretend they hadn’t shared what they had shared.
In the end he was so consumed by it that, rather than let his best friend continue moving forward seemingly happy and at peace, he killed him. This all happened almost 17 years ago. One man is dead and the other is in prison.
The thing is that I’m not sure either man was a closeted gay man in the way we think of it. Both men happened to have found someone they loved who happened to be the same gender, and there was no room for that in their communities or in their world view. And their respective efforts to deny and then suppress that love destroyed two young and promising men.
It took me a long time to remove myself and my emotions and my sense of shame at not seeing the violent end approaching so I could stop it before I could see it this way, but even in the moment I was intuitively aware of the destructive power of suppression of self, and the years have taught me more and more the truth of that lesson.
My denomination is in the midst of some very intense debate right now over what, to me, seems like a fairly innocuous process. Although the resolution is not yet formally written, as far as I can tell, our denomination will be considering this summer whether to vote on the following: publicly acknowledging what has been true for decades: churches get to ordain, in partnership with regions, those whom they feel are called to serve God. If a church believes someone who is LGBTQ is called by God, they can ordain them. Our polity makes it a little more complicated than that, but by and large that’s basically what we’re saying: we acknowledge publicly that this can happen.
As individuals debate this resolution that does not yet exist and as groups put forward statements of opposition to this resolution that does not yet exist, and as people debate theology but really unsheath swords and point them at one another, I find myself reflecting on a lot of things, such as: the debate in our denomination has shown a fairly ugly side: when people of color say “people of color in this denomination will leave if we are forced to ordain gays and lesbians,” the occasional white person will say something to the effect of, “we’ll miss you.” It sits badly with me for two reasons: (1) because both white people and people of color unintentionally buy into a paradigm of people of color being of one collective mind (even while most will agree that there is diversity of thought within the white community), and (2) because the conversation is framed in terms of one community against another, leaving LGBTQ people of color forced to choose between parts of who they are.
But beyond that, I find myself thinking, “for the love of Christ, people are dying.” What drove me to really care about this position is that people are dying because of it. And similarly, I’m a little devastated by people talking about this and not talking about the racism that is literally killing boys and men of color as well as forcing them out of school and into prison and choking them and girls and women of color with the pollution that impacts poor people of color at markedly higher rates than even poor white people. “Where were you at our rallies?” is a plea of frustration I have heard from more than one LGBTQ person of color when (particularly middle class) white LGBTQ people want to know why communities of color don’t show up to the fight for inclusion.
This past year in Oakland, Brandy Martel was hanging out with some friends in her car early on a Sunday morning after the clubs had closed. Some men approached the car and flirted with her. She let them know she was transgendered, and they left. They came back over an hour later and shot her to death. She was a loving person who saved many from desperation and suicide despite the pressures that came from being a transgendered woman of color and she was killed for being honest about who she was. Her family’s church buried her as a man.
My co-pastor teaches in an after school program in east Oakland. He is not surprised by the statistics about the school to prison pipeline among boys and men of color because he watches African American boys get called out more often and punished more harshly than other kids for the same misdeeds on a daily basis, and he knows where that treatment will lead no matter how much love and encouragement he offers them as a counterbalance: it will lead to less education, potentially to dropout, to living in dangerous communities with fewer opportunities. It may lead to gangs and to prison or death. They are seven years old, made in the image of God. And their future is almost written on the wall.
We keep issues of race and orientation abstractions. We talk about the bible. I love the bible. I read and study and follow the bible. And I know that the men who aimed a gun at Brandy Martel and the teachers who disproportionately punish Black boys in class are faithful bible reading people. My college boyfriend and his best friend were active in their churches and faithful to the values of their political party. And what we are ingraining in people, even if it is not our intent, is resulting in violence.
And people are dying because our starting place isn’t Jeremiah 29:11 or any scripture that starts with God’s deepest desire for our wholeness and wellbeing, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” That scripture is meant for us, but it’s also meant for the people we don’t automatically think of as ours. As long as we won’t own the fact that our teachings are resulting in the limiting of one another’s futures and are even resulting in deaths within one another’s communities, I do not know how far we will get. And while I do have a horse in the race that is our denomination’s position on LGBTQ inclusion, what I long for is a conversation laden with interest in one another’s wellbeing, especially as we speak across oppressions.
My prayer now is that you will read this with grace and with compassion for my own flawed understanding of God’s will in the world, and that your own experiences of God and of brokenness can speak to each other as we both seek to work with God’s plan for one another to prosper and not to harm one another, plans to give one another hope and a future. Amen.