LGBTQ

LGBT Activists Fighting the Last Battles of the Culture Wars

A group of gay rights activists are visiting Evangelical churches around the country in an effort to change hearts and minds.
As wedding halls in New York and California frantically stock up on rainbow-colored confetti and gender-neutral programs, it's easy for coastal liberals to assume the culture wars are over. Not quite -- and if religious conservatives have anything to do with it, expect the last battles to be messy.

A majority of Americans still oppose same-sex marriage. Conservative churches, which in many communities operate as arbiters of the traditional family structure, are strong and raging, even as they start to lose some battles -- or perhaps especially as they start to lose some battles. But some gay and lesbian activists are going on the front lines of the culture wars: They're showing up at evangelical churches and confronting homophobia at its source.


About six months ago a coalition of religious LGBT groups contacted megachurches asking for small meetings over shared meals to discuss gay rights. They hoped to speak believer-to-believer, and the participants came in spirit of worship and respect. They picked six of the most influential megachurches to visit and share worship, starting on Mothers' Day and going through Fathers' Day. They dubbed their efforts "The American Family Outing."

On a balmy evening in May, a group of LGBT families in their Sunday best made their third visit to an evangelical church to attend a dinner led by a fervently anti-gay religious leader in Maryland.

Bishop Harry Jackson opened the meeting by asking if these lifelong Christians really knew God. From the pulpit, the former football player claimed that "gay activists have threatened my life." In the discussion that followed, the two sides shared stories and hashed out the tough questions of who was permitted to be a true Christian as what it means to be a gay person.

With his partner Jose Ortiz at his side, Steve Parelli talked about his experience growing up in the evangelical church, attending seminary school and becoming a minister -- only to be shunned by his family when he came out as gay. Many of the other participants in the Family Outing had similar stories of lives dedicated to their families and their churches, only to see it all fall apart when they were open about their sexuality.

As the dinner ended, a debate began. Bishop Harry Jackson mused aloud about peppering his statements with references to biblical passages interpreted to cast gays and lesbians as aberrant sinners. But in case anyone misunderstood the bishop's intent, a tall man in a crew cut from the group Exodus International -- an organization that advertises "freedom from homosexuality through Jesus Christ -- stood watch over the events from the corner.

Parelli said he went through a similar ex-gay program hoping to subvert his same sex desires,

"I remember waking up one morning with a revelation almost in tears," he said, detailing a period in which he was trying to reconcile his faith and sexuality. "I thought, 'What if they are wrong? What if that isn't what the Bible says?' It seems like such a simple statement, but it was so incredible to me at the time. That's how ingrained this is for the evangelical."

The meeting with Bishop Harry Jackson closed with statements from Troy Sanders, an out gay pastor of preach2me.com. Sanders said his life had been also been threatened because of his sexual orientation and reminded Bishop Jackson and the predominately African-American congregation that white people questioned if blacks could be "true believers" and "really Christian" during and after slavery -- and back then, biblical verses were cited to exclude them from the church, too.

Not much reconciliation was made, or expected, in a conversation book-ended by tales of death threats. But in returning to address the churches that had shunned them, the LGBT families made it clear that they are no longer going to take discrimination in the law or in their houses of worship.

The ground has shifted underneath the evangelical movement. Bishop Jackson's statements about the role of gays and lesbians in the church reflect a new defensive position; popular preachers Jon Hagee and Rod Parsley are demonized as extremists; and Jerry Falwell's death changed the church's old guard.

Bill Carpenter of Soulforce, one of the groups organizing the Family Outing, said that evangelicals see the culture around them changing, but instead of evolving with it, they dig in deeper.

Digging deeper into fundamentalist roots doesn't exactly endear conservative religious communities to gays and lesbians. So if the reaction to a few dozen religious LGBT families traveling to six megachurches wasn't open-armed acceptance or love in the mold of Christ, it was panic.

Bishop Harry Jackson wrote in his weekly publication, "[T]he combination of this [Family Outing] initiative and the Supreme Court ruling may once again … push the cultural alarm." He argued that Republican presidential nominee John McCain will not win the national election unless he bows to the evangelical vote on gay issues. "We are in a cultural war," Jackson wrote, and "millions will gather to support a leader who champions our cause."

When news of the Family Outing spread up the religious chain, the conservative Family Research Council asked its funders for tens of thousands of dollars to create crisis teams to stop these "insidious" meetings; Christian websites and publications were aflame with condemnation as they tracked the LGBT families' every move.

But Bishop Jackson's church was only one stop of six, and the views Jackson expressed are hardly universal among evangelicals. The next weekend the group attended New Birth Missionary Baptist in Georgia and received something of a different reception -- giving small hope to the idea that some churches might be splintering from an unrelenting anti-gay stance.

At New Birth, the group sat with thousands of parishioners in the 10,000-seat sanctuary and listened to the service. Afterward, the group met with Bishop Long, the church's lead preacher. Long had participated in defense of marriage marches and had a reputation as a vocal anti-gay activist. But as the group discovered, presenting an image of an unwaivering warrior is a lot easier to do when you aren't face to face with the people you imagine yourself in battle against -- Long, many of the participants said, was respectful and genuine (and according to three of them who recounted this story to me, a man with formidable biceps). While Long didn't make any outright promises of acceptance, the gay and lesbian families walked away hopeful that dialog could continue.

The evangelical church is powerful. Its condemnation of gays and lesbians has tangible personal, familial and political consequences that cannot easily be dismissed.

For the past ten years evangelical churches have had more political dominance than popular backing. But with courts in California and Massachusetts vindicating same-sex marriage and the governor of New York directing all state agencies to recognize same-sex unions, there seems to be a rebalancing of power.

Yet there is still a real public ambivalence about extending marriage rights to LGBT people. According to an ABC/Washington Post poll, 55 percent of Americans oppose legalizing same-sex marriage. A full 42 percent of Americans identified themselves as evangelical or born-again in a Gallup poll a few years ago.

The evangelical position has weakened, but it has not disappeared. While they don't have a political candidate for president, they still have political and personal influence over parishioners. It remains to be seen if the half of Americans against gay rights will continue to abide by the words of their preachers.

But for the LGBT activists journeying from parish to parsh, this isn't just a political struggle, it's a very personal one. For many non-heterosexual religious people, coming out means alienation not only from their flesh-and-blood relatives, but from their lifeblood: the church.

"At the end of the day, whether you disagree or not, you can't change biological connection," said Sanders. "If I am your child before, then I am your child afterward. That's why we did the Family Outing, to show people our families are created of human beings that are connected to their families in one way or another."

And at the end of it all, family -- whether built by blood or by love -- seems to be winning out.

After the meeting with Bishop Long, an older woman in a prim pink dress suit stood up next to Sanders. She hadn't expected to see him here, nor he her - she was his godmother, from whom he had been estranged since his coming out. She told the silent room that when Troy told her he was gay, she didn't know what to say or how to talk to him -- so for years, she said nothing. But with her godson standing in front of her, she finally had a chance to speak. Through light tears, she apologized for the years of silence. And with a room full of evangelical Christians as her witness, she said that her love for him had never changed.
Anja Tranovich is a freelance journalist and the associate editor of Passport Magazine and InTheFray.org. Her work has appeared in Clamor magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Nation and other newspapers, magazines and newswires.
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