I was enjoying the wedding reception for a couple I had just married who happened to both be the same gender. It was just like any other wedding I do, with one exception. I didn’t sign a marriage license. I don’t particularly enjoy performing that duty for the State of North Carolina, so I can’t say that I miss it all that much. Except when it’s not allowed. And then it’s like throwing my heart in a meat grinder.
Anyway, I was at the reception for this wedding and I found myself in a setting that has become so familiar to me these days that I hardly gave it a second thought. I was sitting at a large table with members of my church. Nearly every adult at this table was gay, and in a long-term committed relationship. Some were pushing 30 years together. And I learned something new about my gay friends. They got into a conversation about how they struggle internally with their own personal homophobia. It shows up when they are in a public setting with their partner and they refrain from any interaction that might be perceived even the slightest bit sexual. They don’t dare hold hands. They don’t put their arms around each other, even for a moment. They certainly don’t kiss. They don’t even stand close to each other. Why? Well, basically it’s because they don’t want to upset anyone. They have been taught that while they may love one another, it’s still a very private thing and they don’t want to put it out there in public because other people may be offended by it. At least, that’s how I understand it. (Perhaps some of it is a sense of self-preservation, too, as they know of people who have been beaten and killed in the past for such things.)
I had never been aware of this before. I didn’t realize that even on their wedding day, a gay couple would have to fight their own personal homophobia in order to kiss their spouse in the presence of their friends and family. It breaks my heart to think of it. And yet, I also understand that this is a problem for people who are, what a younger member of the group referred to as, “old gay.” Young gay people don’t worry about such things. The world is different for them. For the most part, they don’t have to pretend to be someone other than who they are just to please the rest of the world. It seems like half of the “old gay” people I know were at one time in straight marriages. I hope that in the next generation such a scenario will rarely occur.
When you’ve been taught all your life that who you are is wrong, or less than, or a disappointment, you learn to cope the only way you can. You hide who you are and pretend to be who you’re not, just to please other people. Certainly, this is something that transgender people deal with. Society has taught them that they cannot be the person everything within them tells them they are. Many will hide who they are until they can’t stand it anymore. And then comes the turmoil of transitioning from living as a man or woman to the gender they have identified with for so long. All the while, they have to deal with those internal messages that keep telling them the person they are is wrong, wrong, wrong.
I also think about the way it has been, and in many ways continues to be, for African Americans in our country. Here in the South, every once in a while I can still hear a black person deferring to a white person with language that resembles slave-speech. It may sound like they’re just being polite, but it’s overly polite. I don’t hear white people talking to black people like that. It’s something that has been so ingrained in them that they probably don’t know they’re doing it. To get past it, they have to work through the racism within, which may be even harder than dealing with the racism of others.
I’ve noticed this same thing going on with myself. Despite my best efforts to overcome it, there remains a sexism within me that is always there. I grew up in a world where being female meant being less than male, and a lady knew her place. Obviously, as a pastor, I’ve gotten over a lot of that. But I still find myself in situations where I’m deferring to a man, or holding back because I don’t want to appear too pushy. It’s hard for me to assert my authority. For the first 10 years of ordained ministry, I had such difficulty asking my secretary to do anything for me that I would do everything myself. I didn’t want to appear “bossy.” Fortunately, I learned to get over it because I was working myself ragged!
Female preachers tend to use a lot of qualifiers in their sermons. Words like: I guess, maybe, I think. Instead of saying, “We need to be like Jesus”, they will say something like, “I think maybe Jesus wants us to be like him.” Men don’t do this. It’s a woman thing. When I first learned of our tendency to diminish our authority by using qualifiers, I went back over some of my old sermons and I was shocked to see how often I did it. Now, when I edit my sermons, that’s one of the things I look for. I have to be intentional about asserting my authority. I have to fight against my own personal sexism. There is something within me that is always pulling me down, telling me that I have to be gentler in my approach, softer with my words, or people won’t like me.
Is there anything more tragic than denying the person God created you to be in order to please other people? Lives are wasted in the process. And the Creator is insulted.
In our Lutheran confession we say that “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.” I suspect this is the sort of thing those words are talking about. (Notice the qualifiers in the previous sentence. Oy! Rewrite.) This is the sort thing those words are talking about. Homophobia, racism, sexism – some of the many faces of sin. All are harmful, particularly when they become a part of who we are, even to the point of turning us against ourselves. The sinful world does a number on us and it’s pert near impossible to shake ourselves free from it. May God deliver us!