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Powerful Statements by Religious Figures

Religion is one of those subjects you’re not supposed to discuss in polite company. But over the last week or so, two of the most powerful statements I’ve heard in a long time in support of LGBT people have come from religious figures.

The Rev. Ed Bacon, of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, ignited a firestorm when he recently appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. The minister, who attended Vanderbilt for a brief time, shocked everyone in the audience, including Oprah, by declaring that “being gay is a gift from God.”

Oprah being an epicenter of mainstream culture, the reaction to the statement was swift and overwhelming. Internet message boards were flooded, and it generated intense discussion in many communities. Predictably, many people were outraged, to the point where Oprah invited Bacon to “clarify” (i.e., back away from) his remarks. To his credit, Bacon reiterated his belief that “It is so important for every human being to understand that he or she is a gift from God.”

Not to be outdone, Al Sharpton gave a classic example of his oratorical gifts while delivering the keynote speech at the Human Rights Ecumenical Service in Atlanta’s Tabernacle Baptist Church. Although Sharpton was one of two candidates to support gay marriage during his presidential campaign of 2004, I doubt people were prepared to hear him say “I am tired of seeing ministers who will preach homophobia by day, and then after they’re preaching, when they lights are off they go cruising for trade.”

Although I wonder who told Sharpton about trade, his speech went on to criticize church support for antigay initiatives while ignoring issues like war, poverty, and police brutality.

While the ministers have very different presentation styles, both Bacon and Sharpton raised some fundamental points with their comments. In Bacon’s case, he issued a direct challenge to people who use the Bible to justify their homophobia. It is no secret that some of the most ardent homophobes have been affiliated with the religious community, and as a result of experiences with these people, a lot of LGBT people are atheists, agnostic, or struggle balancing their sexuality and spirituality. So Bacon’s statements put an unexpected twist on what many consider conventional wisdom.

More importantly, I think of the ways we internalize those feelings of shame and inadequacy that are at the heart of what Bacon was talking about. While some of us will not admit it, behaviors such as random, unsafe sex, drug and alcohol abuse, and even obsessive focus on appearance are partially rooted in a sense that we are unworthy of being loved as we are so we compensate with activities that may not be in our best interest.

This line of thinking coincides with a new study by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University shows how LGBT teenagers who receive positive encouragement from their families are less likely to be involved with self-destructive behavior. This research seems to confirm what many LGBT people and allies view as common sense: people who aren’t made to feel ashamed or punished for their sexuality tend to be happier, more stable individuals.

The challenge is being able to transmit this knowledge beyond the LGBT community, where it’s already accepted, to the larger society of straight families, employers, schools, and, yes, religious institutions. All these groups are adversely impacted by homophobia in different ways, whether it be the family that doesn’t understand why someone seems to be so distant to the company that loses a competitive edge because talented LGBT employees either “hold back” so as not to draw attenetion to themselves or don’t apply for employment there in the first place.

With Al Sharpton, it is refreshing to hear such a bold statement of equality from him because African-Americans have long been portrayed as more opposed to gay rights than the rest of society. In previous columns I have discussed the historical inaccuracy of this belief, yet it continues to be widely accepted. Sharpton is not the only black preacher who supports LGBT people. Kenneth Samuel and Michael Eric Dyson have also been outspoken in affirming LGBT people, yet they do not seem to receive much media attention. Perhaps that is because their stories do not fit the stereotypical image of the homophobic black preacher (who may be cruising for trade on Saturday night).

From “Blackout” for 1/18/09 by Anthony Rucker


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