Monday, August 31, 2009

Joe Highly Recommends: Bridging the Gap

Now this is cool. Very cool. New Directions, a unique evangelical Christian ministry based in Toronto, has put together an absolutely incredible DVD called Bridging the Gap: Conversations on Befriending our Gay Neighbours (that's right, neighbours; it was produced in Canada, so they can write stuff like that). Of the three resources that I reviewed this summer, this was far and above the best.

Not that I knew I would necessarily like it from the outset. New Directions is an evangelical Christian organization--its staff espouse a faith I once embraced but whose core tenets I no longer believe to be true. Some things evangelicals believe I disagree with; some I strongly disagree with. But more to the point, I've rarely had good experiences with evangelical literature addressing LGBT people. There seems to be no shortage of evangelical material designed to inform or "equip" evangelicals for "understanding" and relating to LGBT folks. But almost without exception, these resources seem to consistently misrepresent, distort, dehumanize, and (sometimes) outright lie about people like me.

Wow, is this resource ever different.

Again and again the content of this video surprised me. First of all, the video is not just about gays--it includes gays. You'll find conversations in the DVD with openly gay people. Real gay people. I'm not talking weepy, miserable, sex fiend, my-life-is-a-wreck gay people. We're talking ordinary, typically-adjusted, normal gay people talking casually about their lives and dreams and spiritual convictions.

Moreover, the gay people in this film hold a diversity of spiritual convictions. More than one side is presented; some believe God blesses relationships between two people of the same sex; some believe such relationships are immoral. Refreshingly, none deny the attractions they themselves have to people of the same sex. It's all out on the table. And these people aren't just interviewed alone. In this film, you'll find them having conversations with one another, laughing together, acknowledging where they disagree and where they agree. Incredible.

The DVD alternates between conversations between gay people and cutaway interviews with prominent evangelicals, who provide commentary on the current state of church-LGBT relations. Some of these speakers reiterate with little deviation the traditional evangelical conviction that gay relationships are immoral; a few, such as Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo, offer deeply nuanced insights into the lives and spirituality of LGBT people--perspectives that have clearly come from personal friendships with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folks.

One discussion topic tackled by these evangelical luminaries stood out to me: several of these men challenge evangelicals to consider that gay-affirming Christians might actually be right--that people who say God has led them to believe gay relationships are wonderful gifts from him might actually be telling the truth and that maybe--just maybe--it is the traditionalists who have it wrong. Wow! I can hardly imagine a more respectful message that could have been communicated.

...

You might be thinking, "so Joe. You're out, you're content, you're married to fantastic guy, you feel your life is in congruence with your faith. Why the heck are you reviewing evangelical resources about LGBT people?"

Well, it's like this. While I may no longer be evangelical, many of the core people in my life (e.g. the members of my immediate family) are. Unfortunately, for many of those dear people,I'm the only gay person they have ever known. Often I feel like my one voice is overpowered by a litany of voices in their evangelical circles that, in my estimation, are telling them twisted, inaccurate, and wrong information about LGBT people.

Ever since I came out, I've been searching for a resource--by evangelicals for evangelicals--that depicts LGBT people in an honest, respectful, accurate light. I've longed for something I can wholeheartedly recommend to my (conservative Christian) family that (1) is created from their perspective and (2) can accurately educate them about LGBT people. I've read dozens of books, and I've watched a handful of videos. Time and time again I've been disappointed. I've found the liberal stuff--including the documentary I myself appear in--overglorifies gay people or unfairly demeans conservative convictions; the conservative stuff, on the other hand, usually seems to present twisted caricatures or reductions of the lives of gay people.

I've never found a resource that respects conservative Christian convictions while simultaneously presenting an accurate portrayal of gay people.

Until now.

And so, last week, I found myself packaging up my copy of Bridging the Gap (along with my copy of Through My Eyes) and mailing it to my parents in Texas. Teaser: they called me over the weekend while in the middle of watching the videos; in a future post I'll share what we discussed.

Monday, August 24, 2009

On Understanding and Being Understood

This is cool: After a long back-and-forth in the comments of one of his blog entries, Andrew Marin and I have come to an understanding of each other on the whole "gay identity is sexual behavior" issue I had with his book. Turns out that I misunderstood Andrew's convictions and what he was trying to teach. Turns out Andrew understands why I misunderstood that based on what he wrote in his book.

Me to Andrew:
As I now understand your perspective, you do NOT believe that all in the LGBT community define their identity as sexual behavior. You believe that some do–in fact, many of the LGBT people you have spoken with over the years have verbatim told you gay identity is sexual behavior. However, my understanding is that you recognize there is diversity within the LGBT community in how we define our identity–that many LGBT folks in fact do NOT define their identities as sexual behavior. And, in fact, you yourself do not believe gay identitiy is defined as sexual behavior.
Andrew to me (and others):
this discussion has made me clearly start to understand the power of “most” “many” “some” “not all” etc as qualifying statements to bring perceived generalizations down. I also re-read chapter 2 and I can totally see where you’re coming from.
rest assured that the definitive language I have previously used will never come out of my mouth, or out of my writing again. Qualifiers are key! This discussion has brought forth a valuable lesson to me, and hopefully my readers as well.
Man, what an awesome feeling to understand and be understood. I think we just built a bridge :-)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

New Maine Marriage Equality Ad

Beautiful :-)

Joe Recommends: Through My Eyes

Now this is cool. Gay Christian Network has put together a fantastic resource that is simple and powerful. Their new DVD Through My Eyes: An Eye-Opening Experience is a collection of interviews with over two dozen college-aged Christians who happen to be gay.

I loved this video because there is no narration, just these young people telling their own stories in their own words. I also appreciated that the video did not advocate any particular conviction; some of the gay Christians interviewed believe it would be immoral to pursue relationships with people of the same gender, others believe God blesses gay relationships. I loved how the video pronounced no judgment on either view and just let these people share their lives.

Also cool: I've met three of the people in the video--we were all in the same ex-gay ministry together years ago. Wow, it's a small gay world ;-)

Check out the trailer below:



Stay tuned: I've saved the best for last! My highest recommendation goes to Bridging the Gap: Conversations on Befriending our Gay Neighbors, which I'll review next.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Joe Does Not Recommend: Love Is an Orientation

Note 1: this is a revision of my previous post, with most of the changes occurring in my first two criticisms. I think you'll find most of the rest of the post similar to the first, although I have worked to "tone down" some of the raw emotional word choices I made in the first go. Thanks to everyone who commented and spurred me to give some more thought to these criticisms and praises.

Note 2: someone else has expressed shock over Andrew's assertion that "gay identity is sexual behavior", which has kicked off a discussion with the author over at Andrew's blog.

I’m sure everyone has had the experience of being let down, of being disappointed when high hopes go unmet. Such was my experience reading Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community by Andrew Marin.

Andrew is a conservative Christian who holds the traditional evangelical conviction that gay relationships are immoral. Andrew is no ordinary evangelical, however. During college he was stunned when all three of his best friends came out to him over the course of a month. Those jarring experiences prompted Andrew to do something I’ve never heard of another evangelical doing: after college, he immersed himself in the LGBT community. Andrew and his wife presently make their home in Boystown, a gay neighborhood on Chicago’s North side.

Andrew has spent years making friends with LGBT people and learning about their lives, their spirituality, and their experiences with evangelical Christianity. For years he has taught a Bible study class that is attended almost exclusively by LGBT folks. He writes a thoughtful blog where he posts a lot of stuff you might never find on the electronic pages of most evangelical Christians, including several posts by one of my best friends, who happens to be a gay Christian.

While Andrew’s traditional evangelical conviction that LGBT relationships are immoral has not been changed by his experience, he has nevertheless developed a wide circle of LGBT friends, developed a strong rapport with people in Chicago’s LGBT community, and seems to have amassed a wealth of experiences with LGBT folks that most folks in the traditional evangelical church have no knowledge of.

For these reasons, I had high hopes when I picked up Andrew’s book. This is a book by an evangelical for evangelicals with an excellent stated aim: to “elevate the conversation” between conservative Christians and LGBT people. I opened the book expecting to find a fresh perspective on LGBT people, see widely held Christian misconception of LGBT people cleared up, and see a new way chartered for relationship between the evangelical and LGBT communities.

I was disappointed.

Mind you, there are some glimmers of fresh perspective in the book, and I will give these special treatment to these in this review. However, I found much of the book to be nothing new as far as advancing the evangelical understanding of the LGBT community. It was disillusioning to find in Andrew’s writings many of the same distorted caricatures of LGBT people that have been presented to evangelical Christian for decades.

After reading the book cover to cover (including the Introduction and the Appendix), I passed back through the book and transcribed the notes I had made in the margins and the statements/passages they pertained to. I wound up with a 9-page Word document, and that's before I got my motor-mouth going with commentary! ;-) So I worked to prioritize my comments and have decided to present for you the parts of the book that I found most offensive/incorrect and most praiseworthy. I've included some direct quotes as well. Rest assured, there is more that I could write, but yeesh, this post is going to be long enough as it is!

Conflating Identity and Behavior/Ignoring Gay Romance, Companionship, and Love

Sexual Behavior is Gay Identity

The above is not a random sentence lifted carelessly from some obscure part of the book. This is the subtitle of an entire chapter of the book.

Chapter 2: We Are Not Your Project: Sexual Behavior Is Gay Identity

With this loaded title, Andrew kicked off the chapter of the book I found the most inaccurate and offensive. The most outrageous statements in my estimation are the following:

their sexual behavior is who they are. (p 38, emphasis in the original)

if someone were to take away their [gay people’s] sexual behavior, they would be taking away all they are as people. (p 37)

I originally got very bent out of shape over these comments. I was frustrated that Andrew seemed to be doing what so many evangelicals have done before: reducing gay people’s lives to nothing more than sex. I initially railed at this unfair caricature that completely ignores gay love, romance, affection, and companionship.

But after some thought, my emotional reaction to these statements have drained away. Why? Because these statements just don’t make any sense.

If these statements were true, then I am only gay when I am having sex with my husband. That’s silly. I identify as gay all the time. I’m no less gay when I am at work, preparing dinner, watching an episode of “the Office” than when I am making love to the man I love. Gay identity is not about sexual behavior; in fact, I would say it has almost nothing to do with behavior. In my mind, gay identity is all about attraction—or to use a buzzword, it’s all about orientation. I am attracted to/oriented towards guys, therefore I identify as gay.

But there’s more here. To be sure, gay attraction includes sexual attraction, but it’s so much richer than that. I am also romantically attracted to guys. A core part of my being desires companionship with another person, to care for and receive care from another person, to share the difficult and tender moments of my life with another person—another guy. That’s what makes me gay.

My gay identity and my sexual behavior are not the same things. My identity is not a result of my behavior; rather my behavior is a result of my identity. My sex life with my husband is a natural result of the fact that we are emotionally, romantically, and sexually attracted to each other, as well as the fact that we fell in love three years ago, dated for two years, and were married last summer. My identity is point A, my behavior is point B. They aren’t the same things at all.

Oh, and you could totally remove my sex life and I would still be gay (gay and freaking pissed off that someone was preventing me from being intimate with the man I love)! The idea that eliminating sexual behavior destroys gay identity or “all I am as a person” is just ludicrous.

I would hazard to guess Andrew would never write that his heterosexual identity "is" the sex he has with his wife or that to remove his sexual behavior would remove all he is as a person. Such a statement would be a bizarre conflation of attraction and behavior as well as a horribly unfair reduction of his multifaceted relationship with the woman he loves. Yet Andrew spends an entire chapter of his book confusing and reducing of the lives and identities of LGBT people.

Criticism #2: Factually Incorrect Claims about Scientific Literature

There are hundreds of books and academic research articles that claim they have found the final, definitive answer in proving or disproving that same-sex attraction is either genetic or environmental. (p 39)

This sentence—at least insofar as it addresses books and articles claiming proof that orientation is either genetic or environmental—is simply untrue. Further, I would argue that this sentence is provably untrue.

I once held a similar opinion of the academic literature. Then, I started reading it for myself. I spend 9 months in university libraries reading some five decades worth of research on LGBT people. I’ve read the famous and controversial works of Kinsey, Hooker, Bailey & Packard, Spitzer, and many others. To the best of my knowledge, no academic book or paper published in the last 50 years makes such a claim.

although there has been a historic push over the last decade to complete a research study that infallibly shows a link from homosexuality to a specific gene(s), none have been able to be successfully duplicated to validate that claim." (p 75)

Again, this is simply untrue. Provably untrue. No peer-reviewed scientific work I am aware of has ever made such a claim, therefore there have been no vain attempts at duplication these nonexistent studies.

Perhaps Andrew is aware of references I am not, but I strongly doubt it.

My conclusion from reading the statements above is that Andrew has not read the academic literature. Why does this matter? Because his audience doesn’t know any better. Andrew presents himself as an expert on orientation and mentions multiple times in the book that he is himself conducting “a unique research project—the largest of its kind—looking into the religious convictions and experiences of the GLBT community throughout the United States." (p 22) I imagine that the evangelical audience reading Andrew’s book will accept as accurate his statements above which misreport the academic literature.

Why do I care what evangelicals think about science on LGBT people? Well, for one, I personally labored for years in academia and I know the blood, sweat, and tears that researchers go through to collect and analyze data and prepare papers and then to endure the oftentimes grueling peer-review process. I believe Andrew’s statements above unfairly misrepresent and maligns the hard work of many, many people. For a researcher, I believe this is unethical. For a Christian, this is bearing false witness.

But there’s more. The statements above do more than misreport the scientific literature. In these sentences, Andrew seems to dismiss the research on LGBT people that has been conducted to date, as if to say there is little or nothing of use that the decades of legitimate, scientific study of LGBT people can offer to the “conversation” between evangelicals and gays. This is simply not the case.

Academic research has cleared up many myths about LGBT people that some evangelicals continue to hold today. Like the ideas that LGBT people are mentally ill, that LGBT orientation is the same as pedophilia, that the children of LGBT people are worse off than children of heterosexual parents, and many others.

I see a great opportunity for “elevating the conversation” here. I would love to see Andrew dig into the scientific literature and read the source material for himself. The information he finds would be a fantastic resource to share with the evangelical church.

Furthermore, I am longing for someone to explain to the evangelical community that heterosexual orientation is every bit as complex as LGBT orientations are. Just as no study has shown that gay orientation is defined by genetics or environment, so also have no studies been able to find a source for heterosexual orientation.

Criticism #3: LGBT Portrayed Almost Exclusively as Miserable

I noticed a bizarre trend as I read the book: almost every personal story Andrew chose as illustrations for the book involves a miserable LGBT person. Seriously; I think I counted one or two stories total in the entire book that didn’t involve a gay person crying.

This feature of the book reminded me of similar literature exclusively depicting unhappy LGBT people that I read while growing up in the evangelical church and during my five years in ex-gay ministries. Illustrations such as these paint a single, monolithic portrayal of LGBT people as tortured, miserable souls. I'm not sure if this was Andrew's intent in selecting only sad stories for the book. I think his primary intention may have been to illustrate the pain that Christians and society have inflicted on gay people—and if so, he certainly accomplishes that. But I fear the effect of his stories may go further than that.

Because his stories are almost exclusively dark, sad, and miserable, I left the book wondering if Andrew actually feels deep down that LGBT people are sad, miserable people. I wonder if evangelicals reading the book will leave it with the conclusion that all LGBT people are tortured souls.

I fear the nonstop stories of loneliness, abadonment, disease, and death in this book may illicit pity, not compassion, from the audience. I'm not so sure that's a good thing.

Criticism #4: Conflating "LGBT Community" with LGBT People Reared in Conservative Christian Environments

Throughout the book, Andrew makes statements about the "LGBT community" (or, for accuracy’s sake, Andrew always writes "GLBT” not “LGBT”. For some reason I'm more accustomed to the L and the G being the other way around so I always write “LGBT”. Whatever. No biggie. I just wanted to make sure I quoted him accurately.).

As I hope I've made clear so far, I took issue with many of the things he claimed were true of the LGBT community. However, at one point in the book, he makes a statement about the community that makes me think his definition of LGBT community and mine may be different.

The GLBT community feels a constant unnamed pressure from both sides--an invisible Christian ideal that they can't see themselves living up to, and an overt push from the gay-friendly culture to just 'come out' and be OK with it. (p 48)

Originally, I made a note about this because I felt this was a myopic view of the LGBT community. I think many in the community never feel a pressure to live up to "an invisible Christian ideal." Why? Not everyone grows up in Christian families or communities. Not everyone grows up thinking the Christian ideal is, well, ideal or something to be lived up to at all.

But as I've thought about this more, perhaps this statement is a clue to understanding some of Andrew's claims about the LGBT community elsewhere in the book that I find so untrue. Perhaps Andrew is friends primarily with (only with) LGBT folks who come from conservative Christian backgrounds.

I wonder what it would be like if to re-read Andrew's book and replace "LGBT community" with "those in the LGBT community who were reared in conservative Christian environments." It’s clunky, but it might make more sense.

However, this is far from all of the LGBT community. The community is as religiously diverse as the world is. I think Andrew understands this, but the statement above left me wondering.

Missing the Point Entirely: Jerry Falwell

Now this caught me completely off guard. In the first chapter, Andrew tells the story of when he watched the cable news coverage of the death of Jerry Falwell, which included denunciations of the late evangelical pastor by many LGBT leaders.

I anticipated Andrew would immediately explain that the LGBT community was and continues to be deeply hurt not only by Falwell's vitriolic statements about LGBT people but also by the powerful political movement Falwell helped assemble that continues to oppose LGBT rights long after his death. I thought Andrew was setting up a teaching moment in which he would counter Falwell's acerbic, antagonistic relationship to gay folks with his own friendly, live-together-learn-together approach.

Instead, Andrew wrote the following bizarre sentences:

the majority of people negatively talking about Jerry Falwell that night had never met him. But there is an undercurrent of preexisting negative perceptions of Christianity's traditional belief system that utterly repulses gays and lesbians. (p 31)

Huh? "Preexisting negative perceptions of Christianity's traditional belief system" are the reasons why LGBT people don't like Jerry Falwell? Wha?

This seems to so completely misunderstand the reasons why LGBT opposed Jerry Falwell that I don't know what to say. Perhaps I'll let Wikipedia explain it using Falwell's own words:

Falwell told one crowd, "Gay folks would just as soon kill you as look at you."

When the mostly gay Metropolitcan Community Church was almost accepted into the World Council of Churches, Falwell called them "brute beasts" and stated, "this vile and satanic system will one day be utterly annihilated and there'll be a celebration in heaven."

Falwell also regularly linked the AIDS pandemic to LGBT issues and stated, “AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals, it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”

Amongst many remarks over the years he is probably most known for statements attributed to him about a Teletubby being a gay role model for homosexual recruitment and stating that gays and lesbians were amongst those in some way responsible for the September 11 attacks.

I am flabbergasted that Andrew seems to have completely missed the point on Jerry Falwell--especially given the context of a book calling the evangelical church to repent of its past sins against LGBT folks and engage in friendly, respectful dialogue.

Excellent Step in the Right Direction: Begin Conversations about Morality with a Discussion of Beliefs about the Bible

On pages 67 and 68, Andrew recounts a stunning conversation with a nasty-tempered pastor. Meeting ostensibly to discuss the morality of LGBT relationships, the pastor surprised Andrew by opening the conversation with a statement of his belief that entire sections of the Bible "are not correct, not inspired" (p 67). Andrew titles this section "The Words I Never Thought I'd Hear from a Pastor" and devotes several paragraphs to explaining his utter shock that a Christian pastor might not believe the Bible to be infallible.

This stunning revelation appears to have been helpful to Andrew, however, and eleven pages later Andrew advises his readers to begin discussions of LGBT morality in a similar manner: couch discussions of morality in the larger context of overall biblical theology:

Find a gay church with a gay pastor; ask to get together with them so you can listen and learn. The best approach to doig this is to open with something like the following: "Can you please tell me what you believe the Bible says about same-sex sexual attraction and how you arrived at your conclusions?" (p 78)

I feel Andrew is absolutely on the right track here. So much of evangelical Christian's opposition to LGBT people is wrapped up in the interpretation of a few verses of the Bible that very often the arguments about morality start and end with splicing and dicing a few sentences. However, the better place to begin is with a bigger-picture view.

I would argue that the best place to begin is perhaps one step beyond what Andrew has presented: begin with an entirely separate discussion of the nature and significance of the Bible. I actually believe the first question an evangelical Christian should ask a gay Christian should have nothing whatsoever to do with morality of gay relationships. Instead, I feel the opening question should be "what do you believe about the Bible? Is it infallible? Is it inerrant? Are the words of the Bible the words of God?"

The second person I came out to in my present job is a devout Mennonite Christian. He was stunned to learn I was a gay Quaker and asked if we could meet outside of work to discuss. We agreed to meet up for dinner one evening… but it turned out that our discussion didn’t need to go into many small details. Instead of starting with Romans 1 or Leviticus 18, we started our discussion by laying out what we believe the Bible is and its relationship to God and people. Realizing that we differed at the very high level, we avoided entirely any need for quarrelling over minutia.

Andrew has absolutely identified the right angle here; shifting the discussion from minute details to a bigger-picture is an excellent way to "elevate" a conversation. In the LGBT-Christian conversation, the big-picture to start with is beliefs about the Bible as a whole.

Right On: Claim to the Term "Christian" Is up to the Person Who Claims It

My final praise for the book references Andrew's discussion of the terms "gay" and "Christian" and whether the two make sense together.

On pages 69-72, Andrew tells the life story of Tim, one of his friends who is employed by a large evangelical church in Chicago and who happens to be attracted to men. Tim's story is related in his own words, and concludes with his expression that he would like to one day be married and raise a family (although Tim is careful to say that getting married and having kids would not indicate his gay attractions had dissipated or that he had been "healed".)

Following Tim's story, Andrew had this to say:

What if Tim didn't want to get married and instead remained celibate? Would he be a gay Christian in your eyes--because I know many people in Tim's exact situation who still call themselves gay Christians. What about men and women who are actively involved in the GLBT community and profess to be Christians? Are they gay Christians as well? If they are, are they the same gay Christian that Tim calls himself? Does he still identify with them--is that even OK? These are all question for Tim, not for those of us who do not feel same-sex attractions. Christians should not be answering these question for them, but living life with those who have them. [emphasis Andrew's]

Embedded in the paragraph above are some of the most generous words I've ever seen written by an evangelical Christian about gay Christians. Let me just repeat them again

These are all question for Tim, not for those of us who do not feel same-sex attractions.

Amen.

I'd add my own comments, but I fear I'd detract from the power of this simple thought.

(Aisde: It's kind of fun to point out that Tim happens to be one of my friends, too :-) Tim and I met when we were involved in the same ex-gay ministry in the early 2000s. Ironically, I'm writing this blog entry in the central Illinois city where Tim grew up. But I digress...)

And on these two positive notes, I'll draw my review of Andrew Marin's Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community to a close. Phew! Congratulations to all of you who made it this far without falling asleep :-) Never fear, my next two reviews will be far shorter. Until next time...