Sunday Sermonette: Formers

Last week, a group describing themselves as former gays, lesbians, and transgenders marched on Washington.

That always sounds so aggressively militant, doesn’t it? March on Washington? When you can all fit on a single short bus, however, it’s somewhat less so. Anyway, this group of fifteen people, members of the Changed movement, wanted everyone to know that it’s possible to change your sexual orientation with the help of Jesus. And if Jesus isn’t enough, torture, um, “conversion therapy” ought to be allowed. And LGBTQ civil rights makes them feel bad and ought not be allowed.

This particular ex-gay group was organized by Church United, a fundamentalist church whose stated mission is “To respond to the spiritual problems threatening our communities today,” whatever that means. Apparently the existence of LGBTQ people with the same civil rights as everyone else is one of those problems.

Like most fundamentalist churches, their understanding of human sexuality is abysmal. God created two sexes. Male and female created he them, and they are complementary. There are normal straight people who are attracted to the opposite sex as God intended, and then there are those who suffer from “same-sex attraction.” No nuance, no bisexuals, no Kinsey scale or Klein grid, just Good or Sinful. So naturally, there are going to be some people who, having had same-sex experiences, settle down with an opposite sex partner. Nothing miraculous about it, no conversion necessary.

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Sunday Sermonette: Creep Show

Halloween is coming. One of the changes since I was a boy is that people now decorate for Halloween, even more elaborately than they decorate for Christmas. My neighborhood is full of inflatable animatronic ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night.

We didn't have that back when I was a boy. Back then, if you wanted to be frightened out of your wits and your parents wouldn't let you watch the Creature Feature, you had to go to church.

The Catholic Church has always been creepy. As a young altar boy, I could scare myself witless with my overactive imagination. Being alone darkened church as the first to arrive to prepare for a service was the best. There were looming statues and the creaks and groans of the wood and the rattle and moans of the ancient heating system. If that wasn’t enough, there was the thought of how many dead people had spent their final moments above ground right where I was now standing.

"All altars have dead people in them," an older altar boy told me at the first Funeral Mass I served. I was just starting out, in the cassock and surplice my mother had sewn for me (did you know there are Simplicity patterns for sacerdotal vestments?). I'd never heard that before, but there were a whole lot of things I didn't know. There certainly seemed to be similarities between the big altar draped in embroidered cloth and the casket draped in an embroidered pall positioned in front of it.

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Sunday Sermonette: I Believe in Dog

Many years ago, I participated in a three-day Cursillo retreat. Cursillo is a cult-like movement that began Spain’s Roman Catholic church in the 1940s, but has spread to other mainline denominations. The word means “Short Course” - it’s intended to be an intensive refresher in Christianity. One feature was gifts called palanca, given by previous attendees (cursillistas). The word means lever, and by means of these levers, a cursillista lifts the spirit of an attendee. There’s a quasi-sacramental feeling to the whole thing. A favorite palanca was a “warm fuzzy”, a ball of brightly colored yarn representing the warm fuzzy feeling of being a member of the Cursillo family.  

Warm fuzzies. I think it’s basically why people go to church.

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Sunday Sermonette: Is It Getting Better Yet?

Childhood is tough for everybody, but for LGBTQ kids, it can be especially difficult. This month is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among kids aged 10-19 in the United States. According to the Trevor Project, LGB kids are three times more likely to seriously contemplate suicide than heterosexual kids and five times more likely to attempt it. Far too little is being done about this either at home or at school.

Last Sunday night, a 16-year-old Tennessee high school student named Channing Smith committed suicide after a female student posted screen shots of private and explicit messages to he’d exchanged with another boy outed him as bisexual. The messages were quickly shared on social media. His brother said they did it just to completely humiliate and embarrass him. “Being in a small, rural town in the middle of Tennessee, you can imagine being the laughingstock and having to go to school Monday morning. He couldn't face the humiliation that was waiting on him when he got to school on Monday, so he shot and killed himself.”

All childhoods are messed up. My own was no exception. A speech impediment set me aside for special treatment by my schoolyard peers the moment I opened my mouth. I was a high school sophomore when a doctor sent me to a competent specialist. We discovered that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with me, I had simply not learned to pronounce sibilants with my tongue and teeth. In my parents’ defense, they did the best they knew how. They were too busy having a new baby every year in keeping with the rules of their religion to worry about one kid who talked funny.

Judging by my nine younger siblings, my parents had sex. They never talked to me about it. I learned from the neighborhood experts in the playground, the Church, and the Miracle of Life exhibit in the Museum of Science. Among other things, I learned that there were two kinds of boy: normal and queer. Given my lisping speech and bookish ways, I was probably the latter. It would take me a long time to acknowledge it, but they were right. The best way to hide anything is to hide it from yourself.

My first sexual experience was a fumbling and furtive encounter with another boy in high school. Afterwards, I had an epiphany. He must be queer. It didn’t matter that I had been the one in the, um, compromising position. My stained soul was further blackened by my failure to confess this terrible sin to the priest. Nor did I confess what another boy and I did later in the theatrical storage room. He must’ve been queer, too. (He was, I ran into him years later in a gay bar.)

But I certainly wasn’t queer. I dated girls in high school. Well, a girl. We had a date. I slow-danced with her to “Hey Jude,” and was grateful when it finally ended and I could let go of her. Maybe I was just a late-bloomer?

I was 19 when the penny finally dropped. I came out to a friend. It was fraught, and not just because he was struggling with the same problem. First, we were both servicemen with high security clearances. Being queer was a court-martial offense. Second, we were both more than usually religious. We believed and took comfort in what the Church taught, that being homosexual was morally neutral, but acting upon that inclination was gravely sinful. We believed that God would forgive us our trespasses and make it possible for each of us to live chaste and celibate lives if we prayed hard enough. (I don’t know how it worked for him. Last I heard, he had become a priest.)

I must not have prayed hard enough, or maybe God was just no match for a young man’s hormones. There were many occasions of sin, and many occasions of remorse and guilt and repentance. I was often depressed and alienated. There was a fundamental part of me that was bad, perverted, sick. God said it was an abomination. What kind of life could I possibly have?

That question was answered when I saw The Boys in the Band, celebrated for being the first accurate cinematic depiction of homosexuality. Michael throws a birthday party for Harold and invites friends. The dialogue is increasingly bitchy and cutting until Harold delivers Michael the coup de grace:

“You're a sad and pathetic man. You're a homosexual and you don't want to be, but there's nothing you can do to change it. Not all the prayers to your god, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you've go left to live. You may one day be able to know a heterosexual life if you want it desperately enough. If you pursue it with the fervor with which you annihilate. But you'll always be homosexual as well. Always Michael. Always. Until the day you die.”

I ran out of the theater and spent the next hour crying in nearby church. 

Alcohol helped. Alcohol is a solvent. It temporarily removed the self-loathing internal critic and my crushing inhibitions. It also removed a chunk of my life and left oblivion. Somewhere in there was a short-lived marriage and some changes of address. I was in Texas when I had a moment of clarity and realized that I was killing myself. I stumbled through the back door of an AA meeting. 

AA’s Higher Power concept is deliberately vague. “God, as we understood him” is the usual phrase. My first AA sponsor, a middle-aged Texas good ol’ boy named George, sat me down and asked me some pointed questions about the God of my understanding. When I told him about the judgmental deity of my childhood religion, he shifted his cigar and said, “Fire the sumbitch.”

I was shocked. "Fire the sumbitch," he repeated. "That don't sound like any God you can rely on to keep you away from a drink today. That's just someone who'll wait for you to do it so he can punish you afterwards. Fire the sumbitch."

Instead, he wanted me to imagine all of the characteristics of someone who would be gentle and nurturing and supportive - "a big-titty goddess", if I wanted. It didn't matter. That was the entity I was to ask every day to keep me sober. That was my Higher Power.

I don’t whether my internal turmoil over my sexuality contributed my alcohol abuse. It seems likely, but I wasn’t encouraged to explore it. “You’re a drunk. You don’t need an excuse,” said George. 

It took some work, but things got better. I got better. 

I graduated high school in 1974. I don’t know what it would be like growing up today. I don’t know what I might have done if I had been self-aware enough to know myself as bisexual at age 16, or what it would have been like to have a small town all know my secret confidences, or lived in a time when cyberbullying is rampant, or unlucky enough to have easy access to a gun. 

I took a look at the Coffee County Central High School website, and it might as well be 1974 in Tennessee. There's a student-led Bible study, organizations for Christian athletes, future farmers, and the like, but no Gay-Straight Alliance or anything else that looked at all LGBTQ-friendly. And there's not a word of the tragedy that happened last week. 

It doesn't get better until we do better.


Sunday Sermonette: Visibility

September 23rd is the twentieth Annual Celebrate Bisexuality Day, also known as Bi Visibility Day. (waving) Can you see me now?

The best definition of bisexuality comes from Boston activist Robyn Ochs. “I call myself bisexual,” Ochs said, “because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted—romantically and/or sexually—to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.” The only thing I’m qualified to address is male bisexuality, so that will be my focus in this essay.

Bisexuals comprise the largest bloc of the LGBT community. We’re also the least acknowledged, the least understood, and the least likely to be out. We’re invisible. Or, more correctly, erased. 

Erasure comes in the forms we’ve seen in other LGBTQ classes: delegitimization, marginalization, and stigmatization. 

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Sunday Sermonette: And They Said We’d Never Last…

Marriage is the legal union of two people into a single social and legal entity.  Beyond that, the definitions vary with culture and the people involved. 

For most people in the United States, religion is involved, even if one or both of the couple are irreligious. It is the only major religious ritual most people actively perform.   We’re carried to our christenings and funerals; only to matrimony do we walk willingly.  Most marriages are officiated by a cleric, whether the ceremony takes place in a church or in a sunlit glade. Most involve some choice words from sacred literature.

Our marriage took place in the Episcopal Church. In the Book of Common Prayer, the opening address to the congregation includes this line:

The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. 

The first clause is pleasant sounding and meaningless. Humans reproduce sexually, and it seems to work pretty well, so let’s just say it was God’s idea. The second clause is unintentionally hilarious. Jesus likes marriage because he once attended a wedding feast where he made sure that everyone had too much to drink. He also attended meals with tax collectors and prostitutes to the extent that his Pharisaic detractors called him a drunkard and a glutton. Should we therefore conclude that Jesus blesses Republican fundraisers at strip clubs?

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Sunday Sermonette: Nice Work If You Can Get It

One of the biggest problems with any religion is that the subject matter is ultimately incomprehensible.

When a Catholic priest says “The Lord be with you,” the congregation replies as one, “And with your spirit.”  Do any of us know what we’re talking about? 

Catholics have the Baltimore Catechism to define such terms as God. Question 163: What is God?  is answered, “God is a spirit infinitely perfect.”  

That doesn’t make much sense, so we read on.  

Q. 164. What do we mean when we say God is “infinitely perfect”?

A. When we say God is “infinitely perfect” we mean there is no limit or bounds to His perfection; for He possesses all good qualities in the highest possible degree and He alone is “infinitely perfect. ”

Q. 165. Had God a beginning?

A. God had no beginning; He always was and He always will be.

Q. 166. Where is God?

A. God is everywhere.

Q. 167. How is God everywhere?

A. God is everywhere whole and entire as He is in any one place. This is true and we must believe it, though we cannot understand it.

The Baltimore Catechism goes on, but you get the gist.  God is perfect, eternal, infinite, and everywhere. It is impossible for the finite human mind to imagine such a being, but even though it is incomprehensible, it must be believed.

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Sunday Sermonette: Born This Way

Last Thursday, my phone lit up with breaking news from various sources, all reporting on the same story. Had Donald Trump been struck down in an apoplectic fit? 

Sadly, no. Here was the headline from USA Today: “New genetic links to same-sex sexuality found in huge study”

The story was that a massive study of the DNA of hundreds of thousands of people - technically a Genome-Wide Association Study - had established a genetic basis for homosexuality. Sort of. Kinda. Not really.

Within hours, the stories changed, apparently as journalists began actually reading the study, though the startling headlines often remained untouched. LGBTQ advocacy groups rejoiced. Anti-gay religious extremists felt vindicated. A Facebook friend posted a link to an older evolutionary psychology study exploring the hypothesis that gay uncles could confer a benefit to the tribe, hence the “gay gene” continued even though the holders of it didn’t necessarily reproduce. It struck me that we really don’t know dick about sexuality. We’re all operating with preconceived notions, even the folks who can put letters after their names in  scientific papers.

That great repository of wisdom, the Holy Catholic Church, established long ago as an article of faith that all of the important questions of life could be answered by unaided human reason. From the First Vatican Council:

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Sunday Sermonette: Intolerable Cruelty

Most of us marry using a form of the words from the English Book of Common Prayer. We swear “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.” Some write their own vows, but they’re much the same, a solemn promise to love and care for each other, no matter what, until parted by death.

It doesn’t always work out the way we promise. Life happens. People change. We grow apart. There are as many reasons for a marriage to end as there are for one to begin. The only thing they all have in common is that it’s painful.

Strictly speaking, it is the state that marries and the state that dissolves a marriage. In Massachusetts, you have to go to City Hall to apply for license to marry. Then you find a Massachusetts clergy person registered with the Secretary of the Commonwealth, a non-resident clergy person who has submitted a petition to perform a wedding ceremony, a Justice of the Peace, or a friend or family member who has applied with the Secretary of State’s office for a One Day Marriage designation. Only then you can have your marriage solemnized. Your state-issued license will be signed by the state-approved officiant and witnessed, and you may now kiss your spouse. Congratulations.

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Sunday Sermonette: Because It Feels Good

Nobody believes in God for only one reason, no matter what they may say. In faith as in physics, you need at least three points in order to have a stable platform. Think of faith as a three-legged stool.

The first leg was learned at our mother’s knee. Most people are brought up to believe and practice the tenets of a particular religion, and seldom wander far from that early indoctrination. They may not believe it anymore, but it is one of the customs of our tribe. If the poll-taker asks, they’ll say they’re members of that religion, though if you ask as their house of worship, you’ll find they haven’t been seen in a pew since the last High Holy Day.

The second is the power of apologetic argument to give at least superficial reassurance to a believer’s doubts. We can’t explain how we came to be, therefore God. Our tribe has a moral sense, a righteous Lawgiver must be at the heart of it. And so on. Apologetics seldom persuade non-believers.

The third leg of faith is just this: Because it feels good.

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