Sunday, August 17, 2003

journey to compassion

I have a friend this week who came out of a closet she's lived in for the past few years.

Jane -- that's not her real name, which I won't use for obvious reasons -- is 18 years old. She's come to realize over the course of her high school career that she's a Little Bit Different from her friends. She's gay.

Unfortunately for Jane, her parents found out before she was ready to tell them. Her mother spent most of the next few days crying, the entire family went to see a psychiatrist, and everyone in the family forgot how to laugh. All told, it sounds like a fairly miserable experience.

I've never actually met Jane in person. I know her through an online humor forum created and maintained by a mutual friend, but when I learned what was happening, my reaction was the same as if she attended my church or lived down the street from me.

All day Monday and Tuesday, she was on my mind as I alternately prayed for her and her family, and tried to dig up resources that they could use, such as contact information for chapters of Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays in her area.

That's actually a fairly major departure from how I would have reacted a few years ago. Although my moral views on homosexuality have remained largely unchanged in the past 10-odd years, my attitude toward gays and lesbians themselves has undergone a steady migration from homophobia to tolerance.

Homophobia is a funny word to use. It's certainly not a term I would have used to apply to myself back in college. After all, as a devout Christian since a conversion experience when I was almost 18, I recognized a need to "hate the sin and love the sinner," a popular cliche in evangelical circles often used to provide a safe cover for not loving people regarded as sinners.

It's a common thing in evangelical circles to view homosexuality with hostility. You hear all sorts of comments about "the homosexual agenda," along with arguments that the growing acceptance of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle will lead to the deterioration of the family as an institution and to the destruction of society as a whole.

The basis for all this invective is found in about six or seven places in the Bible, including one verse in Leviticus that actually prescribes the death penalty for gay sex, a penalty also prescribed for adultery.

Elsewhere, in the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul mentions homosexuality in a fairly comprehensive list of human behavior that also includes sins like gluttony, rage, drunkenness, greediness, malicious speech and other offenses.

Mix these Scriptures with a pervading sense of fear that the bad guys are winning and society slowly is being subverted, and it's easy to see why many otherwise decent people latch onto the growing acceptance of the gay lifestyle as one of the root causes for all that's wrong with the world today.

I'm sorry to say that I bought into it. While I professed to care about all people, including gays and lesbians, the truth probably is that I came across as more concerned that people know how I felt about what they were doing than about how I felt about them -- which means, of course, that they really didn't mean that much to me at all, however much I protested otherwise.

Things started to change my junior year when a friend of mine lent me Tony Campolo's book "20 Hot Potatoes Christians are Afraid to Touch." A fairly well-respected voice in the evangelical community, at least among college students, Campolo made the radical claim that gays and lesbians have the same inherent worth as their heterosexual relatives.

What's more, he gave practical examples of people who behaved in a way in keeping with the uncompromising love Christians claim to uphold as their model: a minister who officiated at the funeral of a gay man who had died from AIDS complications and stayed afterward for two hours, comforting the companions of the deceased; and a church that gave several thousand dollars to help AIDS victims.

My senior year the AIDS quilt came to Lackawanna College. Other members of the campus Christian fellowship stayed away, concerned they might send the wrong message, that they approved of homosexuality.

I not only went and looked at all the quilts, I volunteered to help read the names of those who had died.

That might not seem like much, but it was a beginning. During the next five years as my faith deepened, I had to ask myself hard questions about what it means when Christ calls his followers to love friends, enemies and strangers alike; and about what St. James means when he writes that faith expressed only as words is no faith at all.

I also had to look into the darkness of my own soul and consider honestly whether my own sins were any more acceptable to God than somebody else's.

In November 1997, I took a position as a reporter for The Princeton Packet just after one of my co-workers there had told her parents that she was a lesbian. Heather was a hard-working, professional, no-nonsense type of reporter. She reported things as they happened, called them as she saw them, and wasn't afraid to ask public officials tough questions, or to stand up to them.

About six or seven months later, another co-worker told me that he was bisexual. Like Heather, Bill is about as non-threatening as people come, and his high-octane personality and sense of humor make him a lot of fun to work with.

Neither of them is an evil or malicious person, nor is any other homosexual I've had the good fortune to know in the years since, either professionally or privately. The whole of the "agenda" I ever heard any of them pursue was nothing more sinister than getting the same respect, opportunities and treatment as their straight colleagues and co-workers.

That doesn't sound very awful to me. To be honest, I'm really not sure why I ever thought it did.

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