In the wake of several suicides of gay teenagers, one response has been through the "It Gets Better" project, which tells the story of gay and lesbians who have a story of hope -- one in which things, over time, got better for them.
That is not my story. I am straight, and though everyone gets made fun of for something, I never faced the relentless teasing, bullying and violence that gay and lesbian kids did and do. In fact, I was a bigot. I didn't take part in violence, but I probably did bully and tease other kids in school, given my attitude toward gays and lesbians when I was young. I know for certain that I did not do anything to stop others from bullying and in that way was complicit with what happened around me.
These actions and inactions were a failure of my faith, both personally and in the failure of the church to teach me anything else. In short, I thought that gays and lesbians (I doubt I knew about bisexuals or transgendered people) were deviant and to be condemned. My bigotry was consistent with what the culture, the church and my friends thought and said, and it was not countered by those who knew better. When I used the word "gay," it was pejorative, and if I thought someone was gay, I kept my distance or worse.
But I got better. I'm not perfect, but better.
What changed? That is simple: A handful of brave men and women changed me, people who were willing to challenge my bigotry through leadership, friendship and warmth.
I went to college at William and Mary, and while I was there I received my first challenge from a brave man that I still have never met. His name is George Greenia, and he is a professor of Hispanic Studies. At that time (1981-1985), William and Mary was a very different place. Despite a significant gay population and underground, it was generally a homophobic culture, which was maintained largely through a lack of public discussion of anything remotely related to the topic of homosexuality. Bigotry, including my own, loves dark places.
This changed because of Prof. Greenia. He, very publicly, began a support group for gays and lesbians despite vicious personal attacks. It was a brave, bold and risky thing to do in Williamsburg, which was essentially a small conservative southern town. I never went to Prof. Greenia's group, but his bold move began to change the way I thought. It was the first time I had ever been part of a community that in any way whatsoever reflected a positive view of gays and lesbians. I began to reexamine my beliefs, and to realize that perhaps they might be wrong.
That process continued when I was in law school at Yale. There, I had a small number of friends who were gay and out. I didn't become friends with them because they were gay. I probably did not even realize that they were gay until after that friendship had been formed. The shape of their kindness was subtle and powerful. At the time, they must have realized that I was a bigot, but they befriended me anyways. This was undeserved grace. Though some of them were not Christian, it was one of the more Christ-like acts I have experienced.
It was these friendships that shook my religious beliefs not only about homosexuality, but my own relationship with God. I had been taught to judge, reject and condemn these friends, but found myself unable to do so. In time, I replaced those teachings with beliefs that reflect the gospels I came to embrace. In those gospels, Christ directs us to harshly judge our own sins, but does not command us to go out into the world and judge those we think are sinners, to change people or to push people away. His command was to love. Are gays and lesbians sinners? It doesn't seem that way to me (other than the way in which we are all sinners), but at some level I really don't care. If it is a sin, it is not my sin. The sin that I need to discern, root out and identify is my own. One of those sins has been bigotry and senseless cruelty. I atone for and seek forgiveness for that now and here.