How Homophobia Hurts Us All
November 11 2012
Picture a young man, eighteen years old, staring at himself in the mirror. He has just bleached his hair blond, and stares admiringly at the way it drapes over one eye. He is a student at an exclusive all-boys boarding and day school, where most of the seniors are preppy rich kids…but he is different. He has been the butt of teasing and insults; he is suspected of and ridiculed about being a homosexual.
The next day, he’s at school minding his own business when another senior sees him and says to his friends, “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” A few days later, that same senior comes marching out of his own dorm room ahead of a posse of those friends, shouting about their plan to cut the young man’s hair.” “They come up to him, tackle him and pin him to the ground. The young man’s eyes fill with tears, he is frightened and screaming for help, but the senior repeatedly clips his hair with a pair of scissors.”
No one did anything to stop the attack that day. None of the posse, and not even its leader, got into trouble for attacking the young man. And soon, he was expelled from the prep school for being caught smoking.
Thirty years later, at a bar in O’Hare Airport, one of the witnesses to the attack that day recognizes the now much older victim, and in a brief conversation, gets off his chest what he’d carried around for three decades:
“I’m sorry that I didn’t do more to help in the situation,” he said.
The other man paused, then responded, “It was horrible.” He went on to explain how frightened he was during the incident, and added, “It’s something I have thought about a lot since then.”
In 2004 the victim of the attack died from lung cancer; one of his surviving sisters remarked, “He kept his hair blond until he died. He never stopped bleaching it.” Let’s hope that, despite that vicious prep school attack in 1965, every time he looked in the mirror he liked the man who looked back at him, the man who had been shaped by that - and who knows how many other - punishing experiences.
The senior who left him lying on the ground that day, crying with fear and shame, walked away without consequence and into his future…and in the early hours of this past Wednesday morning, he made a concession speech after losing the presidential election to Barack Obama.
In looking at the attack that day in 1965 at Cranbrook Prep School, there are three vantage points: there is that of John Lauber, the young victim, who in expressing his identity endured a horrifying physical attack; there is a second vantage point of the young leader, Mitt Romney, and his posse; and the third vantage point of the silent witnesses, the bystanders who did nothing to help Lauber. We know through his own words that the victim was shaped by that experience, as it also shaped at least one bystander who, thirty years later, had the opportunity to apologize for not acting to help him. By contrast, the incident seems to have slipped Mitt Romney’s mind, and when the story came out in the Washington Post this past May, he said:
Back in high school, you know, I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously, I apologize for that… You know, I don’t, I don’t remember that particular incident [laughs]… I participated in a lot of high jinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far, and for that I apologize. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/mitt-romneys-prep-school-classmates-recall-pranks-but-also-troubling-incidents/2012/05/10/gIQA3WOKFU_story.html
This morning I would like to ask which vantage point do you take? Have you been in the position of the victim of verbal abuse - teasing, accusations, ridicule, or even physical abuse – attacks on you or your personal property – because of your sex, age, race, gender, class? Have you ever inflicted verbal or physical abuse, on a person less powerful than yourself, because he or she was different? Or can you identify with this story from the vantage point of the bystander? Have you been passive in the face of abuse? Have you kept quiet when someone is being bullied or attacked in any way? Have you failed to intervene when someone’s rights have been threatened or taken away, or when their dignity as a human being has been under attack?
Homophobia hurts us all. What can we do about it? What should we do about it?
Can we actually do anything to get rid of the “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals”, which is the definition of homophobia (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/homophobia)? Do we think it’s worth tackling this prejudice that still affects our society?
“Farther along we’ll know all about it, farther along we’ll understand why”…this is the sentiment of the gospel song Sam and I sang this morning. I hope the lyrics made you think. We may see things happening and not know why they happen, but one day we feel sure we’ll find out that they were meant to happen. They were just a part of God’s plan.
Well, I can’t go along with that sentiment…but there are many people who believe that God has a plan, and we just need to let go and let God, and that somehow it will all work out. We’ll find out when we reach our heavenly home, after this life is over, that everything happens for a reason. Nothing we can do about it, it’s God’s will. Victims just have to believe that the oppression they suffer is part of God’s plan.
For centuries our Unitarian and Universalist sisters and brothers have rejected the idea that life is preordained for us, as well as rejecting the Calvinist ideas of predestination and the total depravity of human beings. Liberal theology is based in part upon the Anabaptist radical notion that human beings are free spirits...;
in part upon the New England Congregationalist beliefs of Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, and Ebenezer Gay, that humans have moral capacities, free will in redemption, and the ability to reason;
in part upon the New England Arminians who preached about reasonable religion...;
upon Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalist belief that the “simplest person, who in his integrity worships God, becomes God”...;
upon the 19th century ‘social gospel’ that sparked movements in this country to free slaves and give women equal rights, all in aid of completing humanity...;
and upon the humanist cooperative effort to promote social well-being and responsibility.
But we UUs can use our liberal theology not just to reject sloppy religious thinking in old gospel hymns; we can also use it to affirm, through the first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We can use it to stand firmly on the side of love.
And that means rejecting not just hurtful and sometimes deadly homophobic attacks, but also rejecting ‘casual homophobia’, which is the use of derogatory language that we hear in much of our everyday communication. It might be unintended, but the use of terms like ‘faggot’ and ‘that’s so gay’ in everyday language can continue to promote the alienation and injury that so many of our LGBT sisters and brothers have endured. These are terms that are used freely in our high schools, and so bringing our children into the conversation about homophobia and opening their eyes to the power of language is something we all should commit to doing.
Just have a look at the website NoHomophobes.com, set up by the University of Alberta to actually track, in real time, the use each day of these terms on Twitter. I went to the site this past week when preparing my sermon: by the time I sat down to look at it that day after lunch, the term ‘faggot’ had already been used in tweets 14,643 times, and so gay 4497; 2 hours later faggot was at 16,994, over 2000 more times – so gay 5089, about 150 times more. As one observer to the site commented, “In isolation, one instance of ‘faggot’ might simply offend. In aggregate, the numbers are dizzying.”
We can also see homophobia in the language of the Laurens County Republican Party’s pledge for potential candidates. If you want to run for office in that county as a Republican, you have to agree to support lots of policy positions, but also you have to agree to this:
“Your spouse cannot be a person of the same gender, and you are not allowed to favor any government action that would allow for civil unions of people of the same sex.” http://www.hrc.org/blog/entry/a-new-extreme-in-the-palmetto-state
Maybe we aren’t too surprised, and maybe we can look back to see that the acceptance of gay life in the USA, especially in the political arena, is a very recent thing. Just 40 years ago, homosexual acts were illegal in every state but Illinois, lesbians and gays were banned form serving in the federal government, and there were no openly gay politicians. According to an article by Alex Ross in the New Yorker this week (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/11/12/121112fa_fact_ross), if in 1969 you looked in the best-selling book “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask” you would find the assurance from author David Reuben that “if a homosexual who wants to renounce homosexuality finds a psychiatrist who knows how to cure homosexuality, he has every chance of becoming a happy, well-adjusted heterosexual.”
Thirty years ago, as the AIDS panic was spreading across the world and thousands of gay men were dying, Larry Speakes, the Reagan administration spokesman at a press conference, was asked what the president’s response was to the announcement by the Center for Disease Control that AIDS was now an epidemic. His reply was, “What’s AIDS?”
When told it was known as the ‘gay plague’ and that one in three people contracting the disease was dying from it, Speakes joked, “I don’t have it, do you?”
Because of the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, the idea of gay marriage gained traction. The exclusion of gay partners from hospital visits, healthcare decisions and funeral arrangements, as seen in the movie Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks, added to the trend toward monogamous relationships led to a movement for marriage equality. The religious right has fought this idea every step of the way, and it still has a lot of influence on political issues, and we also remember the controversy over Chick Fil-A funding of anti-gay groups just earlier this year. But as we saw in this past week’s election, the times they are a-changin’ and it’s all down to the political will of the American electorate.
Going into Election Day, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington State had votes scheduled for LGBT issues. Now that the results are in, according to the Marriage Equality website, “48% of Americans live in 21 states (or counties or cities) that recognize various forms of legal relationship” (http://www.marriageequality.org/current-status-map ). Not only that, but seven more states have been identified by thinkproress.org as set to expand rights for same-sex couples, including Rhode Island, which after this past Tuesday is the only New England state without marriage equality. We also saw the first openly lesbian senator elected and more gay members of Congress elected.
Halfway across the world, the substantial gain in marriage equality on Tuesday also included Spain – eight out of 11 judges in the country’a highest constitutional court voted in favor of a law that legalized gay marriage in 2005, but which had been the subject of an appeal by the country’s ruling party.
If we want to work for equal rights, then all this is good news. And since 2003, Unitarian Universalists have been working to live their faith through involvement in a global coalition that seeks to make AIDS and HIV a thing of the past.
A thing of the past just like repressive, homophobic discrimination that is slowly but surely yielding to a respect for diversity; a thing of the past due to an upsurge in a commitment to equal rights in many parts of the world. The UU Global AIDS Coalition had its beginning when Stephen Lewis, the UN Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa, spoke at the UUA General Assembly in 2002. He urged the West to do something about the sub-Saharan pandemic that was claiming the lives of millions. The Coalition was formed as a result, and was able to respond with an Action of Immediate Witness which passed at the next year’s GA, resulting ultimately in the placement of a half-time intern dealing with global AIDS issues in the UUA advocacy office in Washington DC.
And as you know, this congregation has a real connection with this issue because of our contact with, and support for, the Reverend Mark Kiyimba, who came to visit us just after receiving the 2012 Virginia Uribe Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights from the National Education Association. That award is presented annually to an individual whose activities in human rights significantly impact education and the achievement of equal opportunity for those facing discrimination. Rev Kiyimba is the minister of the UU church in Kampala, Uganda, and the church runs an orphanage and a school for children infected with HIV/AIDS and who have lost parents to the disease.
One good piece of news coming from Africa this past week is that Malawi's government is moving to suspend laws against homosexuality and has ordered police not to arrest people for same-sex acts until the anti-gay laws are reviewed by parliament (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/09/malawi-anti-gay-law-homosexuality-_n_2100473.html).
We have no idea if this should make the situation any easier for the LGBT population in Uganda, but we can hope that this step forward will inspire other African countries like Uganda to reconsider their discriminatory laws and the imprisonment of members of the LGBT community.
As you’ve heard, there are many ways in which homophobia can hurt us all, and we simply cannot be passive and expect that things will change if we just have hope, and that one day we will understand why. We’ll be reminded of the need to act on November 20th: the 12th annual transgender day of remembrance raises public awareness of the hatred and violence directed towards people who self-identify as transgender.
The Day of Remembrance began as a response in 1998 to the murder in Boston of a transgendered African American named Rita Hester.
The UUA president Rev Peter Morales has prepared a message for the Day of Remembrance, which says in part: “As long as anyone is harassed or ridiculed, we must demand an end to the bullying. As long as anyone is judged by their gender identification or presentation, we must insist on a higher moral standard…we must put our faith into action, not just on this day of remembrance but every day.”
He also says, “I hold fiercely to the belief that our society is becoming more passionate and aware. Unitarian Universalists are joined by like-minded people every day who value the inherent dignity and worth of all…”
Our prayer for today, for tomorrow, and for every day must be that we will stand together to speak out against homophobia and to seek justice for those who cannot speak for themselves. We must pray to have the courage to meet hatred and indifference with love and respect.
May we be the ones to make it so, blessed be, Amen.