A few weeks ago, I finished reading this really great book–In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God by Gene Robinson. You may have heard of this man from the news. He’s the Episcopalian priest who was elected to bishop in 2003 in Concord, Massachusetts, which resulted in a major schism in the church because he’s gay. Since his appointment, there have been many other stories of lesbian priests holding posts with the Episcopalian church, causing much division; however, this is a beginning to a great movement that sorely needed to happen. Too often, homosexuals are driven from a faith-based life because their home churches spurn them as sinners of the worst kind. It was really refreshing to read this book and get some insight to a great man who has found a way to challenge the people in his faith as well as unattached readers like me who just seek social justice for homosexual and transgendered people.
He had me at one of the first paragraphs in his book when he stated in better words what I’ve always thought in my heart:
Everyone knows what an “ism” is: a set of prejudices and values and judgements backed up with the power to enforce those prejudices in society. Racism isn’t just fear and loathing of non-white people; it’s the systematic network of laws, customs, and beliefs that perpetuate prejudicial treatment of people of color. I benefit every day from being white in this culture. I don’t have to hate anyone, or call anyone a hateful name, or do any harm to a person of color to benefit from a racist society. I just have to sit back and reap the rewards of a system set up to benefit me. I can be tolerant, open-minded, and multi-culturally sensitive. But as long as I’m not working to dismantle the system, I am a racist.
Similarly, sexism isn’t just the denigration and devaluation of women; it’s the myriad ways the system is set up to benefit men over women. It takes no hateful behavior on my part to reap the rewards given to men at the expense of women. But to choose not to work for the full equality of woman in this culture is to be sexist. (p. 24, bold emphasis mine)
Robinson goes on to equate this same argument with those who sit back and benefit from a hetersexually-centered society but do nothing to help change the system for equality for homosexual and transgender people. This argument is why I fight so hard for this cause when often times people ask–or want to ask–why I care so passionately about this issue when it’s not really my issue to fight. As a Unitarian Universalist, one of the seven principles to which I have agreed is the inarguable “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” This is the only principle of the seven principles I ever remember when asked, and that’s because it’s the one that resonates to my heart the strongest.
In reading the book, you have to swallow a lot of Christian dogma and faith. For someone like me, it’s hard not to roll my eyes and squirm when he discusses how every human being is saved through Jesus Christ. This man is certainly as evangelical as any Sunday morning preacher when it comes to his love for God and Jesus, and you can feel it hitting you full blast from every page. However, you also really understand the man Robinson is and you understand how deeply he believes. You can’t help but respect that. I can see why he must be such a great priest that he elevated to bishop: This man believes and he knows he’s saved and he wants to tell you all about how you can join him on this journey. I almost did want to join him on this journey. In fact, by the end of this book, I was bound and determined to visit the Episcopal church in Kent. I thought if the people of his faith thought as he did, even a questioning, sometimes-believer/sometimes-atheist person like me could join the bandwagon without much notice.
I haven’t gone to that church just yet, not even to peek for education’s sake. I’m happy where I’m at and where I’m at gave me the ability to appreciate Robinson’s words in ways I never could have even two years ago. He made me want to be Christian like no other preacher has before. And that’s because he’s just so open-minded and level-headed. He’s willing to concede that parts of the Bible must be read in the historical context in which they take place in order to be correctly understood. In a few swift words, he explains away the condemnations of Leviticus as taking place in a world in which a very small tribe of people (the Jews) were striving to propagate their genetic line. Of course homosexuality was seen as sinful behavior because it was antithetical to this tribe’s innate need to increase their population. He points out that masturbation and coitus interuptus were also considered grave sins–almost akin to murder–because of the waste of male sperm that should have been used to produce more children. (In fact, he points out that in the unscientific understanding of these ancient people, all human life was produced in male sperm. They didn’t have the scientific knowledge to comprehend a woman’s role in the process other than the one who carries the child to term.)
Whatever your religious convictions, Robinson provides a persuasive argument about the misuse of words and inaccurate translations that have assumed certain meanings in our modern mindset. He spends a great deal of time in the beginning of book arguing his convictions that he too is a child of God deserving of the same love and grace offered to everyone else. Strongly believing that he was elected to bishop for God’s purpose (as they believe the elected are brought to this position through the working of the Holy Spirit), he has become an advocate for gay rights which he feels is God’s purpose for him.
His book is largely a call to action. He respectfully avoids any details about his past, but where necessary, adds details about his life as a gay man that are quite touching. He has a life partner, to whom he was officially betrothed in his diocese, and you can really get a sense of the overwhelming love the couple feels even within the very few words. It was very touching. The book jacket also features Robinson, dressed in his priest regalia, with a friendly, warm smile on his lips. He could be any of the priests who taught me CCD in the Catholic church as a child. In fact, he looks rather grandfatherly and, after reading his wonderful book, I found myself overwhelmed by the urge to hug this man. His words were brilliant and touched me deeply.
I admit that I have been spending a lot of energy reading memoirs written by gay men to acquire a better understanding of the homosexual experience. A few years ago, I read a memoir by James McGreevey (the New Jersey governor who was outed several years ago). There are several similarities between these stories, particularly the great deal of effort and energy these souls have had to expend in hiding who they really were from the public eye so extensively. Even as a heterosexual, I can relate on some level to being forced to hide aspects of oneself from the public eye to fit in. As a child in middle and high school, I submerged aspects of my personality in order to fit into the group mind of the adolescents in my high school. Though trite compared to having to hide your own sexuality, the toll to my mentality was detrimental. I found myself doubting my own self-worth and it took a lot of years to undo the damage I did. I guess that’s part of the reason I’ve gone the complete opposite direction as an adult in highlighting the unique aspects of my personality, calling myself Mars Girl to constantly remind people that I feel I am different. I’m tired of hiding who I am so I’ve let myself out of my own closet to tell the world, “This is who I am; like it or leave it.”
It’s much harder to take on this sort of attitude as a homosexual because the backlash from the general public can be deadly. People have such a strong, irrational reaction to those whose sexual orientation or understanding of one’s gender is so radically different from their own. The religious conviction from fundamentalists that homosexuals and transgenders are damned does not make the situation any better. It’s a very sad situation and I completely empathize with anyone who has had to hide themselves in this manner. It’s a shame that people cannot accept people for who they are and show God’s love in a more positive manner. I believe that a person should have the right to walk down the street, arm in arm with the person they love, and not have to feel embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid of the public’s reaction to the sight. As a heterosexual person, I feel almost ashamed of my freedom to publicly show affection for a man I love without having to worry about reaction from those around me. I want to fight for the right for all people of any sexual orientation to have the same freedoms and lifestyle I’m automatically entitled to as a heterosexual.
Robinson’s words describing the plight of the injustice against homosexuals and transgender people jerks my heart strings, reminding me of some of the fundamental reasons for why I fight so hard to help this community gain the rights society grants me innately as a heterosexual:
Imagine for a moment that you’ve been in a same-sex relationship. When you and your partner return from overseas on a plane and the flight attendants distribute customs and immigrations forms–“one per family”–you and your partner will need two forms because your family is not a family, though you’ve been together for many years. When you seek coverage under your partner’s medical insurance plan, your partner will have to pay income taxes on this benefit, unlike your heterosexual colleague in the next cubicle. When your partner is unconscious after an auto accident, you will have to contact her next-of-kin to make medical decisions, because you are nobody. In the eyes of the state, you have no relationship. When your partner dies, you have to hope for good relations with your partner’s parents, because they have legal charge over her body and its burial while you, in contrast, have no rights at all. (p. 48, bold emphasis mine)
I emphasize the last line because that is one of the items listed from which I benefited as a widow the most. I was in a heterosexual marriage in which the relations with the in-laws devolved upon my husband’s death. In a fit of fury, Mike’s mother once threatened to sue me for his insurance money. Of course, she had no basis, you may point out. You know why? Because I was married! The state of Ohio and the entire US recognized my marriage legally. Therefore, no one could take any of the funds or items we owned together nor could the benefits bestowed upon me at my husband’s death be taken from me. The legality of my marriage secured my finances and my ownership of things that became ours upon our marriage.
Can you imagine what it would be like, to share a life with someone as any couple does–pool expenses, buy joint property, build a life together out of joint incomes–and to not be allowed to legally have these things you built together? I would imagine in a relationship as controversial as a same-sex one, the family on at least one side of the relationship is less than thrilled with the situation. I can only imagine what kind of cruel ways the family could make use of their perceived entitlement. You think I’m exaggerating, but I will tell you that otherwise civil and intelligent people do not act normal in the death of someone they love. My own experiences with my in-laws tell me all too well how something like this could go down and it scares me.
In my own experience with my husband’s death, I had a lot of decisions to make about his body alone: funeral arrangements, whether I’d have his body cremated or preserved, if I’d donate salvageable organs, where his remains would be placed. Believe me when I say that these decisions were questioned by various family members on both sides; however, I had final authority on all these decisions by the mere fact that I was his wife. And could it be any other way? I love my family–next to my husband, they are the people who would know my wishes the best and respect them. But I didn’t live with my family 24/7; I didn’t build my life with my family. Ultimately, no one knew me better than Mike. Had I died first, I would want no one but him to make such important decisions about me.
Yes, it’s true that one can write a Will and a Power of Attorney for these types of decisions. However, these documents, pieces of law, can always be overturned. It’s been in my experience that the relationship of husband/wife is almost unarguable as the Final Word in the eyes of the law. The only way to bestow the same legal rights to same-sex couples is to make their union legal by law.
I object to the use of two different terms to delineate between a same-sex union and heterosexual union (for example the terms “civil union” and “marriage”). Any separation of terminology can be used legally to continue to discriminate full rights. I have firmly felt that the only way to rightfully end this debate is to make one term legal for both heterosexual and homosexual union–call it “civil union” by law or state. If it must be, reserve the term “marriage” for the churches who hold the word as sacred and holy and granted specifically by God as defined in the Bible. Then, if a particular church decides it does not want to recognize same-sex marriages or perform the ceremony, they are free to hold their beliefs as they like. In implementing this idea, I believe, the state should recognize same-sex “civil union” as it does heterosexual marriage now (with, of course, the term “marriage” being, again, reserved for the use in churches who seek to keep the term sacred with their own definitions).
I’ve always thought that this solution was logical and great practice. I can never understand why some intolerant religious types are so hell-bent on denying any legal rights to same-sex couples, even if they could elect in their own churches to not perform such ceremonies. Some people seem overly preoccupied by what goes on in other people’s bedrooms. I sure wish religious people of this ilk could just keep their convictions restricted to their communities instead of trying to impose their will and their morals on everyone. If you truly believe that God has condemned same-sex unions, then by not participating in one and keeping your community under the rule of its own codes, you would then be of your elect mindset. Why would you be so concerned about what the rest of the “heathens” are doing? Why are you so concerned about their welfare that you have to impede their efforts to happiness? When people behave in this manner, I cannot help but wonder if on the inside, they are really so unhappy with themselves that they can’t even bear to see other people living happily and by less restrictive rules. Control freaks, all of them.
Anyway, I digressed a little to stand on my soap box. I have to say that Robinson’s book really put a lot of questions in perspective for me. Particularly, how a man could remain faithful to a religion that spurns what is very core to his being. I smiled, though, when I read his words because I was uplifted by the hope that if one man has found a way to work within his religion to bring about social justice and change, then perhaps there is hope in the future for all those who are different than the majority but very faithful Christians who worship and love their God. The picture of God Robinson paints is a far more loving one than I ever interpreted while growing up as a Catholic and is definitely a more agreeable vision. I want to worship his God because he believes his God has made him perfect the way he is–as a gay man. He points out very clearly that being homosexual is not a lifestyle choice (and, seriously, who besides an angry teenager trying to rebel against his parents, would consciously choose a lifestyle so aberrant to society that it puts you always in a position of an outcast?). I already knew this, of course, but it always confirms my understanding when I hear it directly from a knowledgeable source.
I found Robinson’s book very persuasive in its argument; however, he was preaching to the choir with me as his audience. I was already on his side and ready to stick up for him before I even read the first page. I would hope his book would find a way to persuade those within his own faith–and other Christian faiths–to understand his position and see things in a completely new, more open way. I think he was writing the book for audiences who weren’t already on his side and I hope he managed to sway a few more people into his liberal faith circle. At the very least, I hope he at least manages to make a few others empathize with his position. It is only through an understanding of each other’s hardships that we can iron the wrinkles of discrimination that separate us from each other and prevent humanity from advancing into a higher state of selflessness.
I encountered another book I’d like to read about a girl who was raised by gay parents. I really enjoy reading accounts by people who have walked along paths in life I’ve only seen from a distance. It gives me an empathy and an intimate understanding of other people which I believe is the rock on which my social liberalism stands proud and tall. I believe that we should seek to improve ourselves every day and one of my biggest goals is to rid myself of as much prejudice as I am capable in order to make myself a better person. There’s always room for improvement. I believe in the equal opportunity for everyone in this life to gain access to the freedoms I myself enjoy. Humanity has so much potential to be better than it is. My aim is to spend this life helping to improve the conditions of life for living people. Heaven can wait.