Matters of life and death

By Martin L. Smith

I was walking along P Street in Washington, D. C., the other day pondering a phrase our Presiding Bishop used in a recent webcast, when she spoke of the need for the church to move on from the controversies surrounding sexuality to “refocus on matters of life and death like starvation, education, medical care.” I know she was using “life and death” to mean “of the highest priority.” But for gay people it’s hard to hear straight folks using language that, even inadvertently, seems to imply that the struggles we must undergo are not matters of life and death. In fact they are—sometimes in the most literal way. Ironically, I found myself halting outside the paint store on the corner of 15th Street NW. It was here that my partner and I experienced the second of two attempted gay-bashing assaults.

It happens so quickly, as any victim of a street crime will tell you. Thugs suddenly came pouring out of a huge SUV. They screamed for our blood using anti-gay curses that left their motive in no doubt. As we ran for our lives, with the pounding of their boots on the sidewalk drumming in our ears, we never thought we could outrun them. But we eventually shook them off when we reached an area perhaps too brightly lit for them. This nightmare repeated a similar incident several months earlier that began outside the fire station on 13th Street, as we were walking home after supper. We also managed to escape that time, ending up in an alley retching from the effort, just glad to be alive.

Perhaps you’re thinking murder is an exaggeration. Well, no. A priest friend of mine was the victim of a gay-bashing in Logan Circle so violent that he would almost certainly have died had not a horrified passerby made a 911 call that brought a police car quickly to the scene. I also think of a seminarian friend, who was so brutally smashed up by a homophobic assailant wielding a tire iron that five operations on his head and brain were required. He was too disabled to be ordained and died two years later in an accident caused by the side effects of his medications.

Life and death. I hope we will find other language that can unite us around a cause that our Presiding Bishop is perfectly right to emphasize—global claims of mission and justice. However, I hope we’ll never imply that the claims of gay and lesbian folk to equality, respect and security lie outside the realm of life and death matters. We must be careful what we say.

What will we say when we are trying to comfort two parents, friends, whose teenage son, an acolyte, has committed suicide, leaving a note about his despair in the face of bullying and his lack of faith in the possibility of happiness? They know that issues of sexual orientation are matters of life and death, not merely an irritating distraction from nobler causes. What do we say when a priest friend who has moved into a neighboring parish finds herself being trailed for by a stalker, whom she discovers to be an agent of an anti-gay organization notorious for its tactics of defamation? Not an issue of life and death?

As I paused outside the paint store, I realized I had never told the story of the two attempted assaults from which I had narrowly escaped to more than a few friends. I didn’t want to worry my family, and these are grotesque stories for a middle-aged clergyman to recount. Yet the real reason is that most gay folk are trained to take their vulnerability for granted. We suck it in. But maybe we must change that. Straight people enjoy innumerable unearned privileges denied to gays, just as white folk have unearned privileges denied to people of color. We shouldn’t add another one to the list, the privilege of being spared the pain of hearing about our wearying and incessant experiences of being attacked, condescended to, marginalized, insulted and patronized.

No one looks forward more eagerly than gay folk to the day when issues like the eligibility of partnered gay and lesbian priests for the office of bishop will sink to a lower place in our order of priorities. But in the painful meantime, while the progress of equality in the ministry is temporarily halted, the task of making sure that the life and death stories of gay and lesbian people are heard grows in urgency. And gay and lesbian Christians will have to become more outspoken, not less, even in the face of pressure from those who seem to be signaling that it is high time we fell silent again.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s in Washington, D.C.

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  1. deirdregood

    Thank you Martin for telling your own tales of terror and gay-bashing.

    Substantiating your penultimate paragraph with our own stories of verbal and psychological abuse is so that we can live lives that don’t claim privileged status as victims. We speak as those who can. For everyone of us that can speak out, there are thousands who cannot.

  2. Christopher Evans

    My thanks also. Again, as I’ve noted in the past, meaning to or not, our Presiding Bishop has a way of saying things that come across as dismissive of the real struggles gay people face, and though many have pointed this out to her, she continues doing so. It may be time for her to a bit of listening herself.

  3. A L MacArthur

    It appears that all of the efforts of our Presiding Bishop to mollify the homophobes within our midst are not working. She is having to fire off letter after letter to schismatic bishops, the latest being to the Bishop of San Joaquin Diocese (to be seen here in a December 3rd entry.)

  4. revsusan

    Bless you for your witness.

    Susan Russell

  5. Leonardo Ricardo

    The stories of blood baths, murder/suicide and emotional/physical abuse…HATE is a reality, the kind that must be kept FRESH and FORWARD (especially in these times of excluding, demonizing and demoralizing/abominating LGBT Christians/others by over-righteous zealots at Church).

    I’ve got some “stories” too…have you heard the one about my murdered beloved? He was tied up with his own neckties and shot in the head (fully clothed after he returned from working late)…it wasn’t a sexual “scene” but it was a “social standing” crime of hate directed against a homosexual.

    I think we ALL *ought* be challenged in the world to become accountable by identifing the emotional/spiritual disease of bigotry…it’s heavily inspired by fear/hate-mongering both in and outside of Church/other.

    It’s always been a horrible, and mostly unreported, epidemic of a killer disease.

    +KJS, we must stop playing pretend and face the REALITY of our desperately needed world mission…it’s a disease like maleria.

  6. Donald Schell

    Thank you for powerful, gripping truth-telling. It is a gift to all of us, a gift of life in the face of death-dealing.

    An English priest friend said the ‘offense’ of the American church was that we were beginning to tell the truth, and while some in the communion were condemning us for it, the one thing we could say confidently about Jesus’ teachings was that he condemned religious hypocrisy. He observed, as many have, that Gene Robinson isn’t the Anglican communion’s first gay bishop, just the first bishop elected who was telling the truth about himself and his committed relationship.

    What’s ordination got to do with life and death? The Presiding Bishop’s too easy use of life-death language implies that everyday arguments about ordination and honesty ignore what’s killing people or somehow distracts us from more universal human suffering. But telling the truth about human sexuality (and telling the truth about our experience) is a life and death issue at every level.

    Blessing relationships that ARE a blessing to us is a life and death issue. I write as a divorced and remarried priest, profoundly grateful for the blessing I’ve known in 32 years of a second marriage that began just as our church was finding a place for truthfulness about divorce among the clergy.

    Over and over again in the Gospel of John, Jesus asserts truth’s power to give life – and the opposite power of lies and secrecy, the ungodly power of death when Jesus in that Gospel calls Satan a liar and murderer from the beginning. Truth-telling is life-giving. Yours here certainly is. Again, thanks.

  7. garydasein

    Excellent piece!

    Equality is not a privilege but is right if this denomination is to walk the walk. Every office of the denomination as well as every sacrament should be open to all, regardless of sexual orientation and the legal sex of the partners of a couple.

    I still don’t get why the new PB seems to think that equality is unimportant.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

  8. Thank you all for telling stories. We need these stories to be told. As one on the “privileged” side of things (quotations simply to recognize the many ways that term applies, and not to deny the truth of it), I need to hear these stories.

    Every time I hear some one tell the great lie that “the homosexual agenda has (or will) overwhelm the culture,” I think of these stories. If there were any sense of truth behind that lie – any sense that the culture really accepted GLBT persons in our midst, and not just on the tube – GLBT persons would not need to feel this fear.

    Marshall Scott

  9. John B. Chilton

    Yes, thank you for sharing and giving us all so insight into real life.

    I agree gays should remain outspoken. Yet prudence, I think, remains relevant.

    Call me blaming victims if you wish but what I don’t understand is why Bishop Robinson thinks it is constructive to say things like “I always wanted to be a June bride.” Homophobes do exist and such a statement could provoke physical attacks on gays.

    I question the morality of such a statement on the basis of the parallel to casualities arising from a stampede caused by falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater. It is not necessary to say. It does not carry the case forward but it does increase the threat of violence. Is it said only to get attention or garner a laugh?

    The bishop’s June marriage, however, is different although it too will rile homophobes and could increase violence. There the parallel I see is interracial marriage in the 1950s. Barriers need to come down.

  10. Kiturgy

    John, YES! barriers need to come down. And I think that while Bp. Robinson’s statement might not be the height of politically correct prudence, it represents a sense of humor, often lacking, from any of these proceedings! Frankly, it’s the only thing that gets me out of bed some mornings!

    -Kit Wang

    (who, like my mother, never wanted to be a June bride, but ended up getting married in June in spite of myself!)

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