Tomorrow loads of people (50-100 or more–how many people make a load?) will gather to protest in front of the Emmanuel Centre in London where inside an ex-gay conference is happening.
I actually sat outside of the Emmanuel Centre for about three hours today. Two hours as I waited to meet a journalist stuck in traffic, and then I returned to eat my lunch later in the day. The Centre is directly across the street from the Home Office Building (which has these lovely multi-colored panels on its roof that at about 4:00 washed the Emmanuel Centre in rainbow light).
When I arrived four burly bouncers (I found out later hired just for the event) and a police officer stood at the entrance. I saw a few participants enter, mostly white males in their late 20s-30s. At one point a taxis pulled up with older men with what looked like boxes of literature. All in all it was a quiet scene, but organizers were clearly on high alert.
Having noticed me after I returned, one of the organizers alerted two police officers (their numbers had grown to three ) who came over to check on me. We had a cordial chat about why I was there (eating my lunch at that moment), and they asked me if I knew what was happening inside. I told them, “Oh yes, I lived it.” It was all pleasant as they told me about gay police officers who have a large presence at the annual London Pride. I talked about the ex-gay movement in the US and my two years in the Homo No Mo Halfway House. They laughed and were appalled.
They seemed prepared for the protest tomorrow (two stacks of metal barriers stood across the street from the Centre). They said they only hope it doesn’t get out of hand and that people will be respectful and act with dignity. (code for: we don’t want any trouble here.)
Throughout the day and as I spoke with them I thought about why a protest/action/witness is important. Sure this is a tiny event, and as far as I know the people who attend it are all adults who want to attend it, some of who feel profoundly unhappy with being gay. I guess folks could have just let them have their conference and not make a stink about it. Perhaps if there was not a long history of anti-gay oppression by religious leaders as well as in the mainstream society, we could let this one slide.
The reality is that young people today suffer tremendously at the hands of bullies all around them. In the US the number one cause of death among queer and questioning youth is suicide. That is not true of their heterosexual counterparts. They get the message that they are not wanted and sadly some take that bitter message to heart and take action.
Sitting there this morning one of the participants came by to say hi. I will not post his name or any other identifier other to say that he was not Bristish but had come from the continent for the conference. He read my blog recently and wanted to meet the human behind the words.
Yeah, there are humans behind the words on both sides. Although many of us feel disgusted with people like Joseph Nicolosi, who has made a career out of trying to straighten out gays and has propagated misguided and faulty theories he got from the British ex-gay counselor Elizabeth Moberly, (theories that directly affected my family in tragic ways), there are more people involved than just these practioners. Along wth the human leaders of this movement are other humans, mostly men, who feel profoundly unhappy about being gay. They have several reasons for this discontent.
One topic came up in our conversation is the desire of this one man to be less passive. He feels it will help him in his work and in his life. That took me back to NYC in the early 1980’s when I attended LIFE ministries. They taught over and over how men need to be assertive and decisive while women had to be submissive and meek. (What a riot whenever a group of us tried to all go to a restaurant together. The women would ask, “So where do you want to go?” aiding the men in our quest to be assertive, while none of us wanted to be pushy, “really wherever you want to go. I don’t have any preference.” Finally one of the women would explode, “Oh for Xxxxxx sake, let’s go to Dallas BBQ!”)
Of course none of this had to do with us being gay or lesbian. This is about gender and gender roles, gender expectations. It reinforces the heirarchy that exists in the world and the church that insists that men are superior to women. Men rule the roost. This is taught as if it were natural law (hang out with Bonobos to see a different construct in nature!).
Much of the Ex-Gay Movement is an anti-feminine/anti-woman movement. Even their core teaching states that boys become gay when they have an overbearing mother and a passive/absent dad. In other words a strong woman is SO dangerous, she can even alter her son’s sexuality by taking too strong of a role in the house. The message is loud and clear–women stay in your place!
If a man finds that he is a feminized male–because of the ways he talks and walks, his interests, his tastes, etc suddenly he finds that the world around him devalues him (we even see this in the gay world). Sadly because of these negative messages coming at many gay men and effeminate males, they get the idea that they would be more valuable and of greater worth if they were more masculine (based on whatever current model the society has set for what that looks like).
The conversation I had with this man at the conference got me thinkng about the protest tomorrow too. I remember how under siege I felt during my ex-gay years of nearly 20 years. On the one hand I felt I could not possibly be gay, in large part because of my faith in Jesus, but also because of how unacceptable being gay was in so many places in my life. On the other hand I felt that the world around me was changing and becoming and more accepting of gays. People I knew wanted me to just accept myself. They didn’t seem to recognize the desperation I felt, the terror I had that if I were gay and accepted that I was gay that I felt certain I would live a horrible, lonely existence, end up with HIV/AIDS, die and go to hell. I believed that with all my heart, and that belief compelled me to seek out ex-gay treatment in North America, the UK and South America. Ultimately I spent over $30,000 in pursuit of the cure.
Back when I was ex-gay, if I were at a conference and a large crowd gathered to protest it, I would feel under attack. “Why can’t they just leave us alone???” I would notice any outrageous behavior in order to reinforce the assumptions I had that gays were godless and perverted, rude and unreasonable. I would feel invaded and violated. The very voices I was trying to drown out found their way to the very place where I fled to for escape and salvation.
Perhaps some folks inside the conference will feel likewise when they see the protesters outside. They may mistake the reasons why many of us feel the need to stand up as witnesses to what many of us have learned are faulty and even potentially destructive practices.
To those who will gather tomorrow (I can’t be there myself because I will be presenting at a conference during the same time) I understand that you may feel anger towards the organizers of this event. They come with a message that at its heart claims that there is something wrong with us for being gay, a message that we had drummed into our ears since childhood, sometimes by our very family. It’s a cruel and hurtful message. It is a lie.
It’s tempting to take a lifetime of anger and disgust at injustice and use it to fuel a protest against this one group. Tempting but not appropriate and not helpful. This is only one cog in the machine, and many of the people running the show inside the conference are oppressed by the very system that supports their work (and will only support it as long as they continue to take an anti-gay stance). There are also humans in there desperately believing that there is something wrong with them, hoping for a cure. I am sure many of us can relate to that, even those of us who never went ex-gay.
Those people, fellow gays who have signed up for this conference looking for answers and a way out of being gay, do not deserve our pity or our rage. They deserve and need to see our hearts, our humanity, our diversity. They need to understand that “gay life” does not simply happen at some big loud club somewhere. We come in all shapes and sizes with all sorts of interests, some religious, some not, poets and hikers and gardeners and rugby players and parents and so much more.
Some folks who are attending the conference may feel unhappy with a part of themselves, unable to integrate this gay part of them with the rest of their lives. Railing against them does not serve them or us.
As the protesters gather let’s remember those harmed by violence–physical, verbal, religious violence. Let’s remember those who harmed themselves because they ingested the false message that they were less valuable than their straight neighbor. Let’s remember the misery that many ex-gay survivors and closeted men and women, in some cases for decades, suffered with a desperate need to feel normal, to feel okay, a desperation that drove them seek out a cure.
A few ex-gay leaders gathering to say that some people “changed” and can change does not threaten me or my life. Even if it were possible to alter one’s orientation, which is not the case, I now find that unnecessary for me. I am profoundly happier and healthier today then during those desperate ex-gay years. I never would have imagined it were possible. I never would have dreamed that I could still love and serve God and be gay. I never believed I would see the fruit of the Spirit in my life like I have since I came out. I was walking around in darkness. It took some time for my eyes to adjust to the light.
Have a great protest filled with hope and light, understanding and truth.