There’s been a lot of chatter on the web this week regarding the impending death of Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church. Lots of vitriol aimed at someone who perhaps deserves it, as well as a lot of talk of grace and forgiveness, particularly from the gay community. Additionally, upworthy.com posted this video, where some homophobic straight people were put in a small space with a gay person and asked to hug. (The staged, made for Hollywood gimmickyness of this I’m sure can be debated.) I’m sure it will spark a lot of conversations as well. (I saw it on George Takei’s FB page.)
A guy like Fred Phelps is easy to identify as a homophobe. I mean, “God Hates You!” is about as anti-person as you can get. Although Phelps and WBC didn’t limit their hatred to just gays, clearly gay people were at the top of their list of despised persons. Someone like Phelps is an easy guy to dismiss though, to write off as just another religious kook. The video really disturbed me though, for a couple of reasons. One, all of those people looked like regular Joes, like someone you’d meet walking down the street and maybe smile “Hello” to. They didn’t scream “I’m a straight homophobic person!!” at you just by their appearance. And yet their discomfort at being in close proximity to a gay person, at the possibility of having to touch the gay person was obvious. They initially acted like they were in a cage with a rabid animal. Something dirty. Someone diseased. Someone who could poison them with their nastiness. (Now of course in heartwarming fashion, by the end of the video their demeanors had changed to an extent. How permanent of a change that is, well, only they know.) It made me so uncomfortable.
I realized though, that that is what life must be like for a gay person on a daily basis. That nice guy at the counter at the store? That grandmotherly lady walking her dog? Your mom? Your brother? That kid in the locker next to you? If they find out you are gay, either accidentally or because you come out to them…will they act like that? Will they be grossed out by you? Treat you like a pariah? Hate you? Fear you? Every. Single. Day. Never knowing how the truth about who you are will change someone’s opinion of you, how they treat you.
Of course I knew this was true, I mean, I’m not ignorant of the reality of life as a gay person in America. Not every homophobe looks like Fred Phelps. They are disguised as people you know and love. People I know and love are like this. I’ve heard them make snide comments or disgusted noises at the tv. People I know and love who refuse to watch “Ellen”, as if watching a talk show is in some way supporting “the gay lifestyle” (whatever that means!). Or, by the same token people who claim “I don’t hate gay people! I watch “Ellen”!”
My aunt was gay. (I say was because she passed away a few years ago.) She lived with her partner for, well, all of my life anyway. I know she had been married before I was born, but as long as I remember she lived with Jaye. I was 21 before I figured out that she was gay…my mom and sister were like “DUH!” but it had never been talked about. I had always thought “Shoot, if I’m an adult and I don’t get married, well, I’d live with my best friend too!” And that’s how I saw it, growing up. They were best friends. There was nothing gross or creepy or weird. I wasn’t “turned gay” because I had a gay aunt. I didn’t even know she was “my gay aunt” until I was an adult. Now, this was mostly because back in the day (and even still some today) no one talked about that. It was kind of like some sort of secret. (although apparently everyone knew the secret but me! Ha!) But she wasn’t treated like some sort of monster (at least as far as I ever saw). I wish she were still alive today. I would love to know more about her, her life and experiences.
I don’t claim to have “figured out” gay people or that I somehow know what it must be like to be gay. I don’t. I am learning, every day, more about gay people from stories people are sharing online, from great blogs, from amazing books I have read.* I am changing my opinions, particularly about gay people of faith. I was never a Fred Phelps type, and I’d like to think I wouldn’t have been as visibly uncomfortable as the people in that video upon finding out someone was gay. But I know I have a long way to go in being someone who loves and supports gay people in my life in a real and meaningful way, not just some token, pat myself on the back, “oh look I have a gay friend!” kind of way. Watching this video made it clear to me that, even if we may disagree on some things, can’t we all just agree that people DESERVE to be treated with love, respect, and fairness NO MATTER WHAT??.
We have a long way to go and a lot to learn from one another. Everyone is just trying to get through life each and every day, the good and the bad that come along. We shouldn’t be looking at anyone with derision or hatred or disgust. We need to be human to one another. Particularly people we don’t know because we don’t know their stories.
*If you want a book recommendation, try “Does Jesus Really Love Me?” by Jeff Chu, “Torn” by Justin Lee (both regarding Christianity and homosexuality). Rachel Held Evans and Glennon Doyle Melton (Momastery) both have some great blog posts about homosexuality, and I also really like Registered Runaway, a blog by Benjamin Moberg. There are many, many more but these are just some that I particularly like.