The End of the Othering

Karl Giberson

Nazarene refusal to affirm the LGBTQ+ community is unscientific, based on eccentric biblical interpretation, motivated by homophobic instincts, and destructive of families. It’s immoral.

New Year’s weekend in 2018 was bitterly cold—the kind of winter that motivates song lyrics about “ground as hard as iron, water like a stone.” My wife and I were enjoying the weekend at our lake house in central Massachusetts. Some friends who had planned to join us got sick and canceled at the last minute, so we were alone.

My daughter called on Saturday. The car driven by some friends of hers, traveling to New Jersey with their new baby, had broken down not far from us and could we possibly help out? The seasonal symbolism of the request was not lost on me, and I was soon in my car, going to pick them up. Both were former students of mine at Eastern Nazarene College, varsity athletes, and friends of my daughter.

They spent the weekend with us, enjoying our woodstove, hot meals, warm beds, and the quietude of a snow-covered lake in winter; they were attentive to their new baby boy who, oblivious to his circumstances as loved babies always are, slept and ate; smiled and cried; and, as babies are wont to do, messed his diaper a few times.

A few days later, their car repaired, our holiday visitors headed home to New Jersey.

It was a memorable New Year’s weekend in several ways. Certainly it felt wonderful to have provided comfort for a family in troubled circumstances. But my winter visitors did far more for me than I did for them. They showed me, up close and personal, with all the profound emotional depth needed, just how ­wonderful—and completely normal—a same-sex couple raising a little boy could be. Bethany and Brittany brought to life—embodied would be a better word—an abstraction that I had only embraced intellectually.

It was, for me, the terminus of a long journey I call the “End of the Othering.”

I grew up in a small rural village in New Brunswick, Canada. My father was a pastor in a “Bible Belt” demographic. There were, of course, no gay people in our village, or the next village, or any other village, to the best of my knowledge. Gay people existed only as the “other”—debauched, sinful reprobates who had no business mingling in polite society. We spoke of gays only as slurred abstractions—“you homo” was an epithet of last resort after milder insults had been exhausted.

I was convinced that homosexuality was both a terrible sin and a profound sickness, condemned by the Bible, unnatural, a perverted and indecent choice, made only by wicked people

I enrolled at Eastern Nazarene College in 1975, never having encountered (to my knowledge) a member of the gay community. Gays remained “the other.” I graduated four years later, having made many wonderful friends at college—none of them gay of course. Or so I thought…

All this changed in 1980 when I received a brief message from Kevin, the first and one of the best friends I made in college. The message, printed in tiny letters on the flap of a birthday card, was “I am gay and living in San Diego with a lover. Any questions, call me.” The short humorously tiny message hit me with an outsized force that I can still recall, decades later. Kevin was gay. But Kevin was not “the other.” He was my friend. I had stayed at his house and he had made the long journey to Canada to stay at mine. While at ENC we had studied together, shared a hundred pizzas and even sneaked off to a seedy theater to watch our first porn movie. He was “us,” not “them.”

Kevin gave me the first face of the LGBTQ community. It was that of a friend.

The fiction that gays are perverted outsiders crumbles when you discover that someone you respect, love and value and think of as “us” is gay. The tiny message on the flap of that envelope pried open my tightly closed mind and started me on a life-long quest to accept, to understand, and to embrace the LGBTQ community.

My journey parallels that of the American scientific and liberal culture but, alas, not that of the evangelical community that has lagged far behind, having decided that this is a hill to die on. I watched as a veritable mountain of evidence from the natural and social sciences destroyed dangerous misconceptions about the nature of same-sex attraction. Unfortunately, evangelicals—especially Nazarenes—rejected the science and instead nurtured a culture of fear and hatred that has driven millions of young people away from the church, splitting families, and pushing many to suicide.

These changes have all happened in my lifetime. In the years before I went to college, the American Psychological Association considered homosexuality to be a mental disorder—something to be “cured” or “controlled.” Evangelicals agreed but enlarged it to be a morally perverted lifestyle choice, condemned in the Bible, personally destructive, socially corrosive—and only addressed through spiritual transformation. The Nazarene manual reflected such views by labeling homosexuality an “abomination,” the strongest language used to describe any of the many things condemned in the Nazarene guide to faith and practice.

Such attitudes had for centuries amplified prejudices so that the LGBTQ community had been effectively—and often legally—“othered.” As people began to “come out,” they found themselves ostracized into a small subculture with its own bars, magazines, movie theaters, neighborhoods, and so on.

Kevin forced me to confront my own prejudices as I began to engage the LGBTQ question. It was a fascinating journey and to this day I remain astonished at how clueless we all were just a few decades ago.

In the past half century, scientific studies have demolished the notion that homosexuality is a choice that can be reversed with determined lifestyle changes. The evidence clearly indicates that adolescents discover they are gay; they do not choose to be gay. Tragically, evangelicals rejected this science and offered psychologically destructive “pray away the gay’’ conversion therapies. Young people, alarmed to discover they were gay, were told they had a spiritual problem and getting right with God was the only way to fix things. My friend Kevin had transferred from ENC to another college seeking such a cure. The damage done by these “conversion therapies” was so great that many of the programs—Exodus, Love in Action, Evergreen International, Living Waters, Love Won Out—voluntarily closed up. Many of their leaders apologized for the damage they did to the people in their programs—damage that included a significant increase in consideration of suicide. Progressive states made such therapies illegal.

The “pray away the gay” programs—and the vacuous science and theology on which they are based—are so abusive and harmful that I am ashamed that I was ever a part of a religious tradition that endorsed them.

Evangelicals have long been inclined to defend the Bible against perceived threats from science, as we have seen on questions related to evolution, the age of the earth, and the Big Bang Theory—the cultural battles I engaged professionally. Many evangelicals, including biblically trained scholars that I respect and know as friends, are convinced the Bible condemns the LGBTQ lifestyle. But there is far less here than most people think. The description of same-sex activity as an “abomination,” for example, comes from Leviticus and is simply one of countless obscure rules that nobody takes seriously any longer—like not eating shellfish, making clothes from different materials, getting tattoos, or “cutting the hair at the sides of your head.” One has to wonder why the same-sex taboo is so important, in contrast to the peculiar—and ignored—injunctions in adjacent verses. A careful reading of all the biblical texts, in fact, provides no basis to reject same-sex relationships between two free adults that love each other—unless the Levitical code is read with an eccentric selectivity and the other passages are distorted. The biblical injunctions are against rape, temple prostitution, and pederasty, but never once against same-sex marriage. Jesus, of course, said nothing on the subject.

I won’t labor this point, as there are other essays in this volume that will engage these issues. Suffice to say, in the absence of a deep ingrained prejudice, there is only a weak case that the Bible condemns same-sex activity. Unfortunately, many of us do have such a deeply ingrained prejudice. It’s called homophobia and manifests itself as a visceral objection to same-sex attraction; it’s so powerful that many people are quick to compare same-sex activity to having sex with animals—an incredibly offensive and absurd analogy. (A student who made this comparison in my class at Eastern Nazarene College was almost assaulted by his more tolerant classmates.) Homophobia is a poorly understood but widespread instinctual human prejudice, like fear of snakes, or a deference to tall people. Billions of people, in fact, live under political regimes—many of them completely outside the Christian Tradition—with aggressive anti-LGBTQ laws that are not based in any way on the Bible.

After decades of exploration, I am convinced that evangelicals have been misled by their homophobic impulses. Deeply rooted prejudices, often invisible to us, create a confirmation bias that shapes what we see and don’t see in the world. We end up concluding that things must be so because we want them to be so, not because the evidence points in that direction. This is how we read the Bible, glossing over the teachings on shellfish and sideburns while exclaiming “See! Homosexuality is an abomination! The Bible says so!”

The true abomination in this discussion is the way that evangelicals have treated the LGBTQ community. I was powerfully reminded of this—and my shameful role in it—when I received a message from a former ENC student, who had struggled in college with his sexual orientation. In his message he gave me the time and the day of when he had scheduled his suicide. As a last effort to “cure” himself of his homosexuality—as my friend Kevin had tried to do—he was attending yet another “pray away the gay” conversion weekend. If the conversion failed this time—as it had so many others—he planned to end his life on the Monday evening after he returned to his dorm room at ENC.

As I read his chilling words a wave of shame rolled over me, for I knew I had been complicit as a part of the culture of misunderstanding, prejudice, and hatred that had brought him to this decision. ENC professors were expected to stand clearly in condemnation of the LGBTQ community. Failing to do so could result in getting fired—as happened to one of my closest faculty friends and a very popular professor. To protect my job, which I loved, I was silent. My students—alone, afraid, and in need of compassion—were wrestling with terrible choices. I let them down. I was timid, self-serving. And I’m sorry.

Both of the young women who came to my house on that cold New Year’s weekend were lifelong Nazarenes. Both were estranged from their parents when they “came out.” One remains so, her faithful Nazarene parents unable to accept their daughter as a happily married lesbian who has given birth via IVF to two wonderful grandchildren. As I watch this family develop, I am struck by how wholesome and thoroughly normal it is. Two parents in love with and faithful to each other, raising two healthy happy children. And research shows that children raised in such families grow up to be kinder, less aggressive, and more tolerant than their peers raised in “traditional” families. Why can we not embrace this? How can we continue to pass such hostile judgments on those of us who find themselves with non-traditional attractions?

It is time to end the othering.

Karl Giberson has held faculty positions at Eastern Nazarene College, Gordon College, and Stonehill College. He is a leading scholar of science and religion, having published 11 books (several translated into other languages) and hundreds of articles. He has spoken widely at the Vatican, Oxford University, London’s Thomas More Center, and at venues in Brazil, Spain, the Canary Islands, and all over the United States.

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