Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Organized Ugliness and Gay Suicide

For those interested, I have a new article in today's Religion Dispatches, "Gay Suicide and the Ethic of Love."

Let me say that this is something I care about on a very deep level, sometimes (I suspect) to the detriment of my health. The other day when I read about yet another suicide by a young gay man, this time here in Oklahoma, I paced my kitchen in a rage, hissing recriminations under my breath against those whose hateful views drive too many sexual minorities to the brink of despair--and then over the edge. After a few minutes of this I felt as if veins in my head were about to burst, and I had no doubt that if someone were to take my blood pressure at that moment they'd want to whisk me off to the emergency room.

And so I did something more productive: I sat down and started to write. Since the most recent suicide had everything to do with the substance of my recent talk, "God and Gays," I connected the dots between this tragic death and the points I made in that talk about what love for our gay and lesbian neighbors requires.

As I wrote, I kept recalling the snippets of hateful comments, delivered in self-righteous tones, that I'd heard through news reports about the Norman City Council meeting where young Zach Harrington was driven to suicide. I visualized them, one after the other, lining up at the microphone to deliver the same message that Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church deliver at Gay Pride Parades and funerals with their garish signs.

Of course, at the city council meeting these messages were sanitized a bit. Phelps, at least, is more honest in his hate. His signs say "God Hates Fags" and "Fags Die, God Laughs." While this is an appalling message, it is somehow less appalling to me than the more sanitized one, which runs something along the following lines: "God despises the perversion of homosexuality, which is a blight on His creation. But He loves homosexuals, and so wants to save them from the fiery pit of eternal anguish He intends to fling them into if they don't change their sexual orientation. And I love them, too, even though they are sick and disgusting."

This kind of message, because it is wrapped in the occasional assurance of love, has greater power than Phelps' hate speech to creep into the psyche of gays and lesbians--like a poisoned pill with a candy coating. But it wouldn't have this power were it not for the broad influence it has, the status it possesses as a legitimate social view (and, in some parts, as the dominant social view). In the absence of that, it would be easy to see through the sugar-coating. But for those gays and lesbians who grow up steeped in a message of rejection, the idea that this rejection is only conditional, that it might be rescinded if only the person would stop being who they are--this message can become internalized. That is, gays and lesbians can hear it and try to meet the condition of acceptance--and when they fail (often after a period of pretense), they blame themselves rather than the purveyors of hate. And so the condemnation of who they are becomes self-imposed, turning into a self-loathing that is a short step from self-annihilation.

At other times, even if the self-hatred does not sink in all the way, the experience of alienation from the community, the sense of being alone in the world and despised by the community, can lead to suicidal despair.

This strident rejection of gays and lesbians (cloaked in self-rightousness and scriptural appeals) is what was on display at the Norman City Council meeting. But there were also representatives of a more progressive view. About half the crowd had come to speak in support of the proclamation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender history month (which, by the way, was approved). But half the crowd had come to shout it down with all the organized vitreol they could muster. So why did Zach Harrington hear the latter and not the former?

As I was writing my article, the answer came from my friend and co-author John Kronen, who called to share with me (for reasons having nothing to do with what I was writing) the following quote from Rabindranath Tagore. I think it speak powerfully to the reality that was on display at that city council meeting, a reality that, somehow, those of good will must find ways to overcome. Here is what Tagore says (from his 1917 book Nationalism):

"But the danger lies in this, that organized ugliness storms the mind and carries the day by its mass, by its aggressive persistence, by its power of mockery directed against the deeper sentiments of the heart….Therefore its rivalry with things that are modest and profound and have the subtle delicacy of life is to be dreaded."


  1. I can't say that I agree completely with Dr. Reitan on this issue. That being said, it was insightful to watch the second part of the "God in America" series on PBS last night, and see the discussion that took place in the 19th century among Christians about slavery. Each side was FULLY convinced that God was on their side, and had biblical/theological arguments to make their case. Denominations broke apart over the issue just as they are doing today with issues surrounding Christianity and homosexuality. Clearly, despite the passion and arguments of the pro-slavery side, they lost out and no one today (that I know of) would even think of arguing in favor of slavery today. I don't want to be on the wrong side of history, so it makes me wonder.

  2. Thanks for this Eric. It's obviously been "the news" in the US recently, as various friends have commented on it (I live in New Zealand).

    I have a feeling I'm going to have to write about it myself. As a straight man who used to feel that gays were morally wrong (but never, i hope, indulged in gay bashing) I've changed my position completely.

    And, as an ex-christian agnostic I've come to a point where if it were CERTAIN that christianity cannot support gay people (debateable), it's a "show-stopper" for me.

    I'll be over here with the gay people. (And perhaps Jesus?)

    Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

  3. Hi C.P.O

    I think the comparison with slavery is a good one. We will not be here when history judges us, but perhaps it's not difficult to guess how it's going to look.

    I'm a school teacher and every day watch young and hopeful lives wither in the face of fear and prejudice. To be young and gay is to know that people who have never met you hate you on principle. It is to bear the brunt of others' insecurities, it is to hear your capacity and yearning for love referred to as a perversion, and it is to know that even amongst your most enlightened friends, this single aspect of your identity will be the thing that defines you.

    In a few terrible cases this becomes too much to bear, for the rest their lives are diminished in a thousand different ways.

    If civilisation is about anything, it is surely about extending our circle of concern and responsibility. Once it was slaves, once it was women, today it is homosexuals and the poor. And if Christianity is about anything, it is surely about standing at the edge of this circle and leading the outward march.

    Eric, I share your fury on this one, and salute your passion. You can play a part I can't, that of the liberal Christian taking to task those who would so cynically twist the heritage you hold dear. All power to you.

    (This I think is where the atheist movement goes wrong. By seeking conquest over religion, it cuts off the chance of religious traditions changing from within. The colonialist instinct dies hard I'm afraid).


  4. When I was a teenager both of my parents died; the only person who truly helped me through that experience was a slightly older friend who was struggling with his homosexuality. The people at the chapel I attended never once helped me with anything outside of the chapel building; and when they ousted my friend from fellowship I left too and from that day to this consider myself agnostic/atheist as far as Christianity is concerned.

    He never once attempted to foist his sexuality off onto me (I'm happily married these last 27 years) and he is still in a same sex relationship.

    There is a reason the hero of the tale of the man who fell among thieves is a Samaritan.

  5. There is the broader issue though of how to control one´s anger/rage/fury in the face of injustice, and indeed of evil. When one gets angry isn't it the case that evil from the outside seeps inside of one?

    The ethics of Christ lies at the heart of Christianity, and I have often wondered how the "do not return evil" precept is supposed to work in one's actual life. In the face of injustice should one react? This question is not as trivial as it sounds. What I feel quite certain about is that if one reacts then one should not be driven by anger but by charity, and try to help the sufferer as well as the evildoer.

  6. Hi Dianelos

    I agree with you on this. I think there is good evidence that acting out of anger, even what feels like righteous anger, is a poor way of improving the situation. The initial rage in the face of injustice can be harnessed, however, as a motivating force. The worse thing is to find excuses for doing nothing.

    In the time I have been teaching in New Zealand the situation for homosexuals has certainly improved, although there remains a long way to go. A lot of things have contributed to the progress, and one of them is the bravery of those in leadership roles who have been prepared to stand up in the face of bigotry and name it for what it is. This needn't be done angrily, but it must be done forcefully. When those of prejudice become reluctant to share their views, the victims are able to find the courage to become visible. And it is at this point the prejudice begins to break down. It is far easier to hate an abstract concept than a person you know and like.

    The other huge contributer to progress, at least amongst the young, has been the oft maligned entertainment industry. Film and television particular have helped normalise homosexuality, and crucially for adolescents, have turned intolerance into a socially risky option. Adolescents are the ultimate moral pragmatists, intent on avoiding getting caught on the wrong side of an issue.

    In New Zealand the ugliest opposition to homosexual law reform comes consistently from within the religious community, and I don't think this is atypical. This then is a problem for those who wish to promote the faithful life, and there is a special responsibility to get alongside one's fellow believers and call them on their brutality. Do it often, do it loudly and with all the vigour you can muster. If it takes a little anger to get you started, this need not be a bad thing, I don't think.


  7. Bernard,

    Thanks for your eloquent comments. You may be interested in a blog entry I did a bit over a year ago, The Grandfield Project, about a teacher in a small Oklahoma town who came face-to-face with the pervasive homophobia of her community when she tried to teach the play, "The Laramie Project." She was ultimately forced to resign--in my judgment for being a good teacher.

    The teacher in question contacted me afterwards and told me that, from her perspective at least, my reconstruction of the course of events in Grandfield was essentially correct. I hope she's found an alternative teaching position.

    I hope circumstances in New Zealand are better--for gay and lesbian students, and for public school teachers who invite critical reflection on dominant social norms--than in at least some parts of Oklahoma.

  8. Dianelos,

    Your comment is important. There was an ugly anger--often seeping through a veneer of smugness--in many of the comments that were made at the Norman city council meeting; and I suspect that part of the reason why I responded to the suicide initially with a seething rage of my own was as a reaction to the ugly anger that was already at work in the events.

    The question is what to do with one's anger. If I had allowed my anger to continue to be what it was at first, my response would have been entirely unproductive--the organized ugliness of the crowd would have infected me wholly, entirely destroying the more subtle and profound moral sentiments that flow (as I see it) from grace. But the anger was also, as Bernard rightly notes, a source of energy and motivation. The cognitive meaning of anger is the judgment that a wrong has been done--and while that judgment CAN be mistaken (and so it's important to reflect on it), when more sober reflection confirms the judgment, anger can provide the impetus to say NO to injustice. The challenge, of course, is to say no to the injustice without letting that negation spill over onto the perpetrators of injustice such that one loses sight of their humanity. We must strive to negate only the negative, so that our negation becomes an affirmation.

    This can happen only when the energy that anger produces is channeled and directed by compassion and grace. I always worry about how successful I am at allowing that in my own struggles against injustice, especially the ones that strike close to those I love. When I become suspicious that I'm failing, I know it's time to participate in another Alternatives to Violence Project workshop...

  9. Eric

    Thanks for the Grandfield Project link. It makes me glad, and somehow proud, to live where I do. Is anything more insidious than the silencing of the best teachers?


  10. I was at the National Cathedral sightseeing with a relative about two months or so ago, and a gay marriage happened to be going on while we were there. My relative kept making faces and stupid jokes, until I told her, you're being disrespectful, and--she stopped. We talked about it later--"how can any church that calls itself Christian think that's okay"--and we talked about it, and I didn't change her mind, but maybe I made her think the issue wasn't as clear cut as she had thought, and maybe she'll be less abrasive in the future, and--well, I guess that's something.

  11. You so eloquently get to the crux of the matter on this issue that I had to edit my post in order to quote you: "HATRED KILLS: Seth Walsh, suicide, and bullying gays to death"

    Being hated for who you are, when that is something you can't change, leaves people trapped and hopeless. What is done to gay people under the guise of religion amounts to a crime against humanity.

    As a former School Counselor, I saw just as much bullying among the adults as I did the students. The strongest voices, the most hateful, too often schools, communities, religious organizations. The fact that they are the LOUDEST doesn't mean they represent the majority, but it takes people like you going out on a limb in "Gay Suicide and the Ethic of Love" to say YOU DO NOT SPEAK FOR ME - DO NOT SPEW YOUR HATRED IN MY NAME, OR IN THE NAME OF CHRISTIANITY - to really make a difference.

    Having barely survived 3 small town school districts where the status quo was more fiercely upheld than student rights, I can easily see how that teacher was driven out. The adults know as well as the kids do that, if you put yourself out there to stand up for what is right, they will turn on YOU.

    I am not so much worried about your anger as I am the apathy of people who *should* be outraged that this is occurring, yet are complicit in their silence.

    I wish that the young people who took their lives over this past year could have heard *your* voice instead of the many who despised them. I wish your piece was in the newspaper instead of another suicide story. I wish more Christians aimed to actually BE Christ-like in their love and acceptance of others. I don't subscribe to any religion, but yours is a view I could get behind.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. I found your article on my college's database. I am very excited to see you have a blogspot blog!

    Thank you so much for your writing and leadership in understanding homosexuality from our perspective and seeing it from a well rounded biblical perspective as well.

    I am forever grateful!

  17. Jacob,

    I'm gratified that you've found my writing on this subject of value. I'll be even more gratified if my work can play some role in the project of inspiring critical reflection among those who, it seems to me, have not really attended seriously to the human toll of their doctrines.