I didn’t meet a gay person growing up. “Homosexuals” were talked about in tones of disgust and sorrow, and we children knew that it was wrong for “men to kiss men” and “women to kiss women,” and that the Bible condemned homosexuality, but it was all in the abstract. It was about those depraved people who were out there trying to ruin marriage and subvert youth, not about any actual people we knew.
I met my first gay person in college. I didn’t know he was gay when I met him. Bobby was just the clean-cut, fun-loving guy who hung out in the dorm lounge and cheered everyone up with his words of encouragement. Bobby was smart, compassionate, and encouraging, he was there for everyone and everyone loved him. He came from a good family and was extremely successful in school, headed toward a career in computers. Halfway through freshman year Bobby came out as gay. This was completely unexpected.
Growing up, the most important things my parents and church had emphasized about homosexuality was that it was a choice, and that it was a horrible, ruinous, depraved lifestyle. Bobby challenged the later of these two teachings, for I could not understand how this wonderful, loving, compassionate young man could be holding such depravity inside. I had expected every gay person I met to be sporting piercings, tattoos, outlandish clothing, foul language, hedonism, depression, and likely several incurable diseases leading him to his grave. Bobby challenged this expectation because he did not fit it, not in the least.
Later in college I met a biology graduate student, Eric, who was openly gay. Like Bobby, Eric was clean-cut and respectable. I enjoyed talking to him about evolution, global warming, and other science-related issues. Because I knew him only ephemerally, I felt comfortable enough to ask him how he first figured out that he was gay. He explained to me that when he was nine or ten a friend of his showed him a playboy magazine he had found, and that was when he first realized he was different, because that magazine was doing something for his friend that it didn’t do for him. As he went through adolescence, he was never sexually attracted to females. Instead, he was sexually attracted to other males. This was not, he explained, something he had chosen, and it was not something he could change. After all, being gay had cost him his entire family, which had rejected him when he came out.
Eric thus challenged the second thing I had been taught about homosexuality, that it was a choice. Eric explained most emphatically that being gay was not something he had chosen and not something he could change, not anymore than I could change being sexually attracted to males.
In graduate school, I had a gay coworker, Doug. His background was similar to mine, growing up in a conservative religious family very involved in the church. Doug explained that being gay was never something he asked for, and that as a teen he prayed that it would disappear. He heard the teachings of his church about the evils of homosexuality, and he came to despise himself, to wish that he were dead, to feel that he and his family would be better off if he were dead. Finally, halfway through high school, he attempted suicide by swallowing a bottle full of pills. This left him violently ill, vomiting blood, but did not kill him. In college, after years of hiding it, he finally came out as gay, and for the first time the depression lifted and he felt that he could truly be himself. For the first time, he was truly at peace, truly happy, truly fulfilled.
Meeting gay people thus threw into question the things I had been taught about homosexuality as a child: that it was a choice and that it was a depraved, hideous lifestyle. Yet even with this, I had been taught that the Bible condemned homosexuality. I knew that if this was the case then whether or not homosexuality was a choice and regardless of how nice or loving or normal-seeming gay people might be, it was wrong. Yet it was during these same years that I realized that I could not take the Bible literally, and and that I must understand it in its proper cultural and historical context. I soon learned that the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality is not at all as clear cut as I had been raised to believe it, and I did not see how a God of love could create people with homosexual attractions and then condemn them for it. As I began to see God’s love as more important than his judgement, and his ways as less black and white than our narrow understandings, I reevaluated my theological position on this issue. A few years later I became an atheist, which made what the Bible says or does not say about homosexuality irrelevant.
Today, I feel completely comfortable around the gay people I meet and befriend. They are people just like me, with their own hopes, dreams, and interests. They are not defined by their homosexuality any more than I was by my heterosexuality. Today at long last I can accept gay people without any remnant of my earlier inside squeamishness or disgust.
Furthermore, stories like Doug’s have turned me into a big of a gay rights activist. Something like 30-40% of gay youth attempt suicide just like he did, not because being gay gives them depression but because the homophobic messages they receive from their families, churches, and communities make death seem more attractive than life. Last week on NPR I heard the story of a gay young man whose mother suspected he was gay when he was only ten, and took him out into the woods, pointed a loaded gun at him, and told him that this was the place she would shoot him through the head if he ever became a “faggot.” There is also the story of my bisexual friend who was rejected from her religious community when she came out as bisexual, even though she had been raised in that community from infancy.
There is also the fact that if Bobby, or Eric, or Doug wanted to marry their partners (two of the three are in long-term relationships), in the states where they currently live they could not. They would not be allowed to visit each other in the hospital or make medical decisions, they could not file joint tax refunds or have any of the other benefits that go to married couples. I hear people like twice-divorced Newt Gingrich condemning gay marriage as a threat to the institution of marriage, and I become angry inside. Bobby, Eric, Doug, and the other gay people I have befriended are not bad people. In fact, they are some of the most loving, accepting people I know. They deserve to have the right to marry the person they love just as much as I, or Newt Gingrich, or any heterosexual person can.
I understand where people like Newt Gingrich are coming from. I understand that they believe God has condemned homosexuality and that they harbor a veritable library of destructive myths and stereotypes about gay people. They are my parents. They are the church I grew up in. I get it. It’s just that I no longer agree with them. Today, I believe in equality.