Sunday, October 29, 2006

Thanks, Andrew

After six years of exchanging emails with Andrew Sullivan through his blog, we finally got a chance to meet this past Friday night while he was in L.A. for an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher. I'm still recovering from the blur of activity, starting out with the car ride to CBS studios (apparently that's where they broadcast the show) and winding up at the pool deck of the Mondrian Hotel talking until 2 a.m. It's been a long time since I've stayed up that late actually having fun (as opposed to getting up to feed the baby).

What I've always appreciated about Andrew is that he has faith in other people. He aims to reach the few conservatives who might listen to him amidst a sea of those who might not. Reading Virtually Normal (subtitled, "An Argument About Homosexuality") back in 2000 changed my life. Part of the reason I had to take his arguments about homosexuality seriously was because I saw that he was taking me seriously, someone with a conservative Christian outlook on politics and life. Religious conservatives are not used to having their values and concerns taken seriously by those who disagree with them. After I got hooked in by the novelty of the experience, it wasn't long before I was convinced by his arguments, except that conservative Christians aren't supposed to be convinced by arguments in favor of legalizing gay civil marriage. Too late, it was already a done deal.

What followed was six years of musings, the creation of a website, and now this blog. In other words, all the trouble I've gotten myself into ever since is all Andrew's fault. Seriously, it's been a wonderful journey and a tremendous blessing, and I wouldn't change a thing about it. Thanks, Andrew!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Homosexuality and pedophilia: there are differences, you know

Years ago I was planning on writing a fictional story about a kid who got placed in foster care, which led me to research the foster care system in this country. Sadly enough, I learned the whole system is shot through with abuse. This led me to research the subject of child abuse, which led me to ordering a bunch of materials from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), produced by a division of the U.S. Dept. of Justice in collaboration with the FBI. (I’ll bet you never knew how much research goes into writing fiction.)

If you are a parent as I am, it is a good idea to be informed about the nature of pedophilia and the tactics of predators so that you can protect your children. (Sample advice: Avoid the 40 year-old single guy in the neighborhood who has the cool electric train set—i.e. bait—set up in his open garage on the weekends.) But honestly, after a few weeks of looking through the materials, I couldn’t stomach the subject any longer. One morning right in the middle of eating my breakfast cereal, I felt like I was going to be sick. I put away the materials and decided my fictional character will be taking a different course in life.

A couple of years later I started researching homosexuality because of a friendship I was trying to establish with my gay neighbors, which is why I ended up starting my website and now this blog. Looking back, I’m glad that I had done that research with the NCMEC materials earlier, because I was never confused about the difference between homosexuality and pedophilia, even though the propaganda of the religious right has tried to conflate the two.

You have to wonder why the religious right feels the need to do so. Isn’t it because they know that the issue of homosexuality, in itself, is not enough to strike the panic button for a lot of people? After you get over the initial weirdness of, “Gosh, how on earth can someone be attracted to other people of the same sex?” you start getting to know people and see that it’s not much different from the feelings that heteros go through when mutual attraction is discovered and enjoyed. Even if you don’t feel comfortable with it, or agree with it, or think it’s the moral ideal, you are capable of reaching some level of understanding, because there’s something human going on there that you can relate to. And just like in heterosexual society, you will see some people handling their sexual desires in a safe and responsible way, and others in a dysfunctional and irresponsible way. How that pans out depends on the individual, not upon the issue of sexual orientation itself.

During the six years I’ve been “researching” homosexuality (which pretty much amounts to enjoying some great friendships I’ve made over the years), I’ve never even come close to having the same freaked-out experience that I did with the NCMEC materials. I couldn’t even last a month reading about pedophiles, and I commend those FBI people whose job it is to confront that evil every day. It is an evil because to act upon it necessarily involves exploitation of the innocent and defenseless. Homosexuality may not be the norm, and it may not be what my faith regards as God’s ideal, but it isn’t a psychosis, it doesn’t involve exploitation, and it isn’t criminal. The fact that some feel the need to conflate pedophilia with homosexuality to make it sound criminal shows that maybe they understand the difference too.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The spin for this November

What's this malarkey I keep reading about how the Republicans are going to lose Congress this coming election because of the Foley scandal? Like, they weren't already fixin' to lose just by being their regular incompetent selves? The election was already going down the tubes due to the fact that this administration 1) supports torturing prisoners to the point where the moral distinction between our policy and Saddam Hussein's has become practically non-existent, 2) is fighting the war in Iraq with about the same level of competence as they provided aid to Hurricane Katrina victims, and 3) is spending money as if there is no tomorrow.

The Foley scandal will probably just be the nails on the coffin. But I already hear the whirrings of a spin machine. My fellow Republicans will probably blame any loss of congressional seats on a secret homosexual agenda to infiltrate the party and sabatoge it from the inside out. It will never occur to them that the real credibility problem is, that it has been bad enough the way Republicans have pandered to the religious right which slanderously tries to conflate homosexuality with pedophilia in the name of "protecting our children," but then when there is an actual gay congressman in their midst who does prey sexually upon teenage boys, they turn a blind eye in order to protect their own political interests.

I hope we lose big time this November.

Human suffering

I've been studying the books of Job and 1 Peter because of a women's retreat this past weekend where I had to give some Bible studies on the topic of suffering. The question of why human beings suffer in this life is something every major religion has to deal with, because if God is truly benevolent, then to allow suffering would seem to call his benevolence into question.

The remote cause, according to the Bible, is the sin of Adam. Through Adam's sin this once-utopian world became corrupted and broken, and all the laws of stable, sane existence got thrown into awry, like the delicate inner-mechanisms of an expensive watch getting flooded with sea water. For those who inhabit such a world, redemption, atonement and the coming of the heavenly kingdom are the only permanent answers to our present sorrows. Those of us who believe in the world to come are to live our present lives with a kind of patience, optimism, self-sacrifice and love for others that can only characterize those who are invested in a future hope. Another way to put it is that we follow in the example of Jesus himself, whose atoning death has paved the way for this very hope.

The thing about suffering, though, is that when you are going through it, your soul craves so much more than theological articulations about remote causes. Understanding the ancient sin of Adam is not much comfort to me when I'm in pain. And although, like Job, I understand that "the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away," and I can bow with creaturely acceptance to the mysterious workings of One who is wiser and greater than me, the greatness of God is more crushing than comforting during times of perplexity and loss. This was Job's complaint:

For He bruises me with a tempest,
And multiplies my wounds without cause.
He will not allow me to get my breath,
But saturates me with bitterness.
If is is a matter of power,
Behold, He is the strong one!
And if it is a matter of justice,
Who can summon Him? (9:17-19)

Job says that the problem with God is that, as God, he can be of no comfort to us. Since he is the Almighty, when you have a quarrel with him you have no recourse, because he will always be in the right. For all his wisdom God, being God, simply cannot understand what it is like to suffer as a human creature. He would have to become human to truly understand what it's like.

So that's exactly what he did. I think God knows that we don't really want neat theological answers to questions about suffering when we are going through it. I think he knows that the best answer he could give us is not to thunder words down from heaven, but to come down and walk upon this earth, in Job's shoes as it were. And so after he was abandoned by his closest friends, tortured all night by a band of thugs, sentenced to death like a vile criminal, and forced to spend the last feeble hours of his life hanging on public display, like some kind of captured, half-dead animal strung up as a prize, God found out what human suffering was all about. He even knew the anguish of feeling abandoned by God. "My God . . . why have you forsaken me?" God experienced what it was like to feel abandoned by God.

So many of us who have sought to walk by faith have felt abandoned in our sufferings. Yet now God can say he's been down that road too. I believe it is his answer to our questions about why we suffer, not addressing our intellect but the craving of our souls. Because in his compassion for us, he understands that words are not enough.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Dark closets

I only saw a few snippets of the IM conversations ex-Congressman Mark Foley had with the male teenagers who worked as pages. I haven't read all the material that ABC News has put out there because, frankly, it's too embarrassing. (I never read the Kenneth Starr report on the Monica Lewinsky scandal either, for the same reason.) In any case from what little I already saw, I get the idea.

With regard to pedophile Catholic priests, Andrew Sullivan has been saying for a long time that being deep in the closet can lead people down dark paths that they never meant to travel. I never understood before what connection he saw between being a closeted homosexual in a very conservative environment and the temptation to take sexual advantage of minors. But I think with this Foley case I'm starting to get what Andrew means.

Catholic priests, Republican congressmen, these are people whose conservatism is not only a personal view but a public identity. And if you're also gay there's not a lot of wiggle room for being honest with yourself. You can't afford to confront certain truths about yourself because there is simply too much at stake. Maybe that was part of the reason, subconsciously, for entering into the ministry or a political career in the first place, to lock oneself into a situation of social pressure where those unwanted feelings and impulses could be straight-jacketed.

But these individuals can't keep the lid on the pressure cooker forever. There has to be some outlet, but without the consequence of having to admit anything to themselves about what they're doing. A relationship with a mature adult carries with it too much accountability. An adult might ask them to explain themselves, or probe into their motives, and for someone in extreme self-denial that is something to be avoided at all costs. So in order to remain in the closet, even to themselves, and yet be able to act out on their impulses, they will seek out children, minors or anyone who is too naive and powerless to call them on the carpet for their actions.

Undoubtedly many conservatives will come to the opposite conclusion, that this proves all homosexuals are a danger to society and need to be shoved further into the closet. But from what I've seen, from the many gay people I've met over the years, it's apparent to me that honesty in dealing with one's own homosexuality is the healthiest approach a person can take. Where that leads a person depends upon his or her values, religious beliefs, family situation, whatever. But nothing can be dealt with morally (yep, morally) until a person first comes to grip with the truth about him or herself.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Quote for the day

In Bird by Bird, Christian writer Anne Lamott says that in order to gather inspiration as a novelist, you must learn to become more involved in the world around you.

To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass--seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one.

I thought "theology" was an apt word choice on her part, since one can't help but notice how well this advice applies to many theologians as well.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Who's saying, "HIV is a gay disease"?

According to Saturday's L.A. Times, who is currently running billboard ads in Southern California blaring out the message: "HIV is a gay disease"?

Is it . . . Door Number 1: James Dobson; Door Number 2: Jerry Falwell; Door Number 3: Pat Robertson; or Door Number 4: the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center?

Click here for the answer to see if you are the lucky winner.

Frankly, when I see stuff like this, I already have a hunch I know what's going on. I am aware that people who have long been involved in AIDS activism are disappointed at the apparent complacency of gay men toward the issue of HIV in recent years, especially since AIDS medication has been so effective in keeping new infection rates at a fairly stable number each year. So when I saw this story in Saturday's paper, I kind of guessed that someone is trying to galvanize the gay community and return to the glory days when everyone cared a lot more about fighting this disease.

That said, isn't it ridiculous to be using the same catch phrase that the religious right has used to stigmatize people who have HIV? I mean, duh. I spent a number of years of my life detoxing from the religious right mindset. It is not just about knowing the right facts about homosexuality. These issues are highly emotional, and you have to navigate your way through so much of your own bigotry and fear. "AIDS is the judgment of God on homosexuals." "Romans 1:27 says homosexuals are 'receiving within themselves the due penalty of their error.'" "God AIDS those who AID themselves." Then I see an ad campaign like this, and I wonder if these activists are even in touch with where other people are at.

What's more, the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center admits that most of the gay men who are currently infected or at risk of being infected are men of color. Yet their ads feature white men, for one thing. And for another the communities that most need to be educated and involved in fighting AIDS because their members are so much at risk, are the highly religious black and Hispanic communities. I can tell you that they are not going to rally in support of their HIV-infected members around the campaign message that "HIV is a gay disease." According to the Times article,

Activist Cynthia Davis, who has labored for years to ease the stigma of HIV in the African American community, said the Gay & Lesbian Center's campaign could erase years of progress in a community that is skittish about homosexuality but at high risk for the disease.

"This is ludicrous. It's ridiculous," Davis said. "It's going backward."

I feel for that poor woman. Fortunately there are still some people out there who are making sense.

"I applaud the desire to have more personal responsibility in the gay community, but this is not the way to achieve it," said Michael Weinstein, head of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

"AIDS is not a gay disease . . . It is a disease of the immune system."