Our national conversation about equality for LGBT people can often be, well, nasty. Opponents of "gay rights" routinely compare us to perverts, accuse us of horrible things, and deny our very existence. Meanwhile, to many religious people, gay folks really do threaten their understanding of the proper relationship of religion and society, morality and social order. It can be painful on both sides.
Yet I want to suggest that this debate is good for us as a society, and good for religion, specifically. As more religious communities, especially conservative ones, recognize the existence and humanity of LGBT people, they are forced to engage in the sort of critical thought and introspection that makes religion worthwhile in the first place. This is a good thing.
We grow as religious people through an unlikely combination of courage and humility. It takes courage to question one's opinions, and humility to recognize that we may not be as right as we thought. As St. Paul says in I Corinthians 13:11, "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me." We're not meant, religiously speaking, to remain as ethical babies. We're called to something more than that.
All of us who make religion or spirituality part of our lives are accustomed to the process of introspection. Whether we attend confession, or review our lives as part of the annual cycle of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or have heart-to-heart conversations with Christ, or enter periods of contemplation and discernment when we try to understand what course of action is the right one, or engage in any number of other procedures of self-examination and review, those of us involved in religious communities or spiritual practice are invited, time and again, to look inward.
We are even asked to reflect on our reflection. After all, introspection is not entirely interior in nature. Our hearts and minds are informed, saturated, even, by the values we learn from our sacred traditions and the world around us. We all know this to be true, which is one reason so many believers choose to separate themselves from the world at large. But do we acknowledge the depth to which it is true? Even on a gut, instinctual level, our very hearts and minds are shaped by assumptions and judgments that may be so familiar that they pass unnoticed. And these assumptions are culturally determined: show a picture of a dog to someone born into a Western society, and they may think "pet," and possibly feel affection. Show the same picture to someone born into some traditional Asian societies, and they think "food," and feel hungry.
Notwithstanding all the common-sense advice to "trust your gut," really, our guts are not trustworthy at all and must instead be tempered by love and reason. All animals have gut reactions, after all. But only humans (and perhaps a few others, in more limited ways) are able to reason beyond them. The "gut" may contain intuition and wisdom, but it's not the sum total of humanity. We are blessed with the ability to rise beyond our gut reactions -- as some religious traditions put it, we have sparks of God within us. (Or, as some neuroscientists put it, we have pre-frontal cortexes that can mediate the impulses of the amygdala.) And we all know from experience that we can feel something in our gut and still be wrong. The process of educating the moral conscience, of growing up religiously and ethically, is, in large part, the process of applying love and reason to what we think we already knew. Love teaches us how to think justly.
This is how moral progress takes place, I think. We learn to stop trusting the gut reactions based on falsehoods we've been taught. And it is one of the gifts that our national wrestling with the question of equality for LGBT people gives to each of us. It is an invitation to be uncomfortable, because discomfort is a sign of growth; it's a sign that you've reached your learning edge, where assumptions may be challenged and difficult lessons may be learned.
Let me share a bit of my personal story for a moment. I was raised to believe that being gay was about the worst thing in the world. Before I even knew what a "faggot" was, I knew I didn't want to be one, because it was what you called kids you wanted to degrade -- "Gay Jay" was the one name that I'd try to beat someone up over. Eventually, I learned what these words meant, and, years later, that they did in fact apply to me. My first response? Horror, terror, hatred, denial. I postponed coming out, for fear that it would end my religious life and alienate everyone I knew. I tried desperately to evade the truth myself. And why? Because I felt in my deepest guts that this way of intimate relation was wrong, disgusting, depraved.
Thanks to years of love, activism, therapy, and, above all, meeting hundreds of people who have shown the stereotypes I learned as a child to be wrong, I no longer feel this way. And yet I meet people in my work who are right back at square one, still repulsed by their own sexuality. And I meet devoutly religious people who, indeed, feel that revulsion deep inside... in their kishkes, their guts. It's easy to condemn right-wing loons as ignorant bigots -- but really, how different is what they feel from what I myself felt? I understand their hatred, because I once felt it myself.
And the journey has a way of continuing. One may be comfortable with some gay men, but not with "effeminate" gay men. With lesbians, but not "butch" lesbians. Or not with transgender people. Or not with people who reject the gender binary and locate themselves somewhere in the middle of a gender continuum. And so on. Rather than see this as an unending litany of PC requirements, I want to invite an attitude of joy that there are always assumptions in need of being defeated. Yom Kippur may come but once a year, and confession once a week -- but every encounter with an "other" is an occasion for growth and renewal.
In other words, feeling uncomfortable is a sign that you're where you need to be: working through your "stuff."
Imagine if you didn't do that. In past decades, our country kept racist laws on the books because privileged white people like me felt the rightness of them in our guts. But guts should never be the end of a moral conversation. If religion has taught us anything, it is that there is a moral value in transcending our baser instincts -- and that includes the snap judgments all of us make all the time. At first, and maybe for a while, these corrections along the course of moral conscience may not "feel right." But they are the defining marks of our humanity. Discomfort can be a good sign not just for the individual, but also for entire communities and societies.
I have seen this process unfold hundreds of times regarding LGBT issues. The organization PFLAG, for example -- Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays -- is largely made up of folks who have traveled this journey, from rejection to acceptance to embrace. These are ordinary people, not gay activists and not gay themselves, who once had strongly anti-gay views, for whatever reason, but who were forced to reexamine those views when people they loved came out as gay or lesbian.
This journey is a painful one, but it is also crucial. It is the unfolding of the moral conscience, and it is, in my opinion, humanity at its very best. We should be grateful for it.