“Turn the Other Cheek?”
I attended my first Gay Pride parade in 1996. I was 21, living in San Diego, attending college, and recently out. San Diego Pride is an experience, in part because the weather is usually gorgeous (you know, one of those rare San Diego days with sunshine), throngs of people (over a 100,000 lining the streets of the parade, attending the festival in Balboa Park), and a celebratory air: we’re here, we’re queer, we want to drink outdoors and cheer the Dykes on Bikes, who kick off the parade. I was a member of the UCSD LGBT student association and was looking forward to seeing my new friends march (I wouldn’t join them until the next year). My then-roommates, a group of slightly older guys, two of whom I knew from the restaurant where I worked, were showing me the ropes. As we neared the beginning of the parade, we crossed paths with the religious protesters—as in the protesters of religious affiliation (usually Christian) who use their bull horns and signs to let us all know we are going to hell.
“Ignore them, they’re here every year,” one of my roommates suggested. I felt sorry for the cops who had to protect them.
They seemed odd to me for several reasons. I couldn’t wrap my brain around people so committed to disrupting a joyous event that had zero impact on them. I also had no sense of where they were coming from—nor, to be honest, did I feel the need to. Their signs adorned with Bible chapters and verse reminded me of the signs I saw foisted in the stands of Dodger Stadium’s outfield during playoffs. Furthermore, my limited understanding (and exposure to) Christianity suggested the religion was about love, be a good person, etc., not be a jerk screaming hate in front of children. But perhaps most significant, I’d never read the Bible.
The Bible was not much of a conversation piece in my household. I wasn’t raised with a religious background. Outside of my Jewish friends, I couldn’t even think of people we knew who were particularly religious either. Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley was a cool place to grow up. (For all I know, it still is, though I haven’t lived there in over 20 years.) Outside of school and weekly chores, I played with Star Wars figures, watched movies, read comics and various books (from the Mr. and Mrs. Series, to Encyclopedia Brown to Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Detectives), rode my dirt bike to 7-11 to drink Slurpees and play Donkey Kong and Joust, listened to music and collected pins which I littered my baseball hat with, and tried to think of new and creative ways to convince dad that The Pizza Cookery would be a great place to have dinner—they had the most awesome garlic rolls you’ll ever eat.
Our weekends were reserved for Little League, not church.
I recall attending Church once (outside of a wedding or funeral) with my parents. My grandmother, who never spoke of attending church regularly in front of me, had a soft spot for Christmas Eve mass, and, like a good son, my father indulged her, which meant we were along for the ride.
During the incredibly long and boring service—in part because I lacked the context for anything discussed or performed—I felt overwhelmed, in part because the massive Church seemed so cold. Had I a watch, I would have been counting the minutes to we could return home and open our traditional Christmas Eve present—I was hoping for a Star Wars Speeder Bike. Near the end—which I could figure out, watching everyone rise—I grew excited for the first time that night, but when I noticed everyone filing towards the front, kneeling, and eating and drinking whatever the priest was handing out, I wanted no part. My mother made clear that I would walk to the front and I would like it. She did not even want to mention what would happen if I spit out the wine, which hadn’t occurred to me until she said something.
I doubt I would have been super jazzed about the services for any reason, but I was less inclined to be engaged given my parent’s general attitude towards organized religion—of which my father was most vocal.
He didn’t see the point in following something that allowed you to do whatever you wanted then attend Church on Sunday and all is forgiven. Instead of life lessons learned from the Bible, my upbringing was steeped in being open-minded, good to other people, tell the truth (which I was sometimes good at), maintain and guard your credit with your life, and never be afraid of an honest day’s work. Our home was also saturated in sarcasm, healthy skepticism, and a number of off-color jokes.
Sexuality wasn’t avoided, but it never came up, outside of Dad’s conversation with me when I was 13, wherein he mentioned that, when the time came to be intimate with women, I should also communicate, ask what they like, where they’d like my hands, etc.
My dad probably never gave much thought to this advice coming in just as handy with men.
Not long after that conversation, as I entered high school, my family’s life changed drastically. My parents divorced, and my father moved to Orange County while my older brother and I stayed with my mother. Eventually, my father met and married my step-mother. Their union changed his life in several dramatic ways. The most immediately noticeable change: she helped him discover Christianity.
Around this time, my sexuality emerged, though I did little about it. Sure, I had a crush on a friend of mine, but I didn’t see us dating, so I didn’t “feel” gay. Since sexuality wasn’t either encouraged or discouraged in my house, I didn’t have any issues either way. But as I moved through high school and became a little more aware of what was going on in my head and my heart, Dad also became more vocal about his thoughts about gay people: Bible says it’s wrong.
I couldn’t really argue this point, having never read the Bible, but having seen a Bible before, this didn’t look like a fun, interesting read. Plus, the more I heard about it, the more inclined I was to avoid it. And as far as my father was concerned, he seemed happier than I’d ever known him to be, and since religion was part of that picture, I left well enough alone.
Then when I was 21, I came out.
Coming out imbued me with a confidence I wasn’t aware I lacked. For the first time, I felt a part of something, and attending my first Pride parade instilled this. Sure, I was partying, doing what you do in your early 20s, but what coming out also did was make me more sensitive to politics in ways I never cared to be: now I read the paper and followed the news. What are people saying about Gays? What laws are restricting my freedom? Sadly, most of this concern gave way to having fun, as I settled into going out, dating, hooking up, and seeking the latest “gay” film in order to support my community.
And as my 20s wore on, I grew more and more comfortable in my own skin, which meant I folded the parts of my “straight” life back into my life, which meant I could check out a Metallica concert I had avoided in favor of the club; playing softball with my (straight) co-workers on the weekends, and doing happy hour with friends who didn’t care whether we were in Hillcrest or Pacific Beach. Basically, I allowed my life to be about me, which meant every aspect didn’t have to be somehow tied to my sexuality.
In the background of this evolution was my relationship with my father.
My father had never hid his disapproval of gay people, avoided comments about his opposition to gay marriage, or the disdain he experienced driving by Orange County Pride festivities one year. That said, he’s never expressed disapproval of me, and has even welcomed men I’ve dated into his home. Still, whether real or imagined, I also felt a wedge between us, one I did nothing to address, in part because I knew that discussing it would have two results: first, I’d just be angry, and since I didn’t see my father more than a handful of times a year, it didn’t feel worth spoiling the time we did spend together. Second, the content of that wedge had everything to do with the Bible, and since I had never read it, I wasn’t exactly in a position to debate it.
So for years, I left well enough alone. Into my 30s, however, I wondered if I was really respecting our relationship by ignoring this aspect of it. And so for many reasons I recently attempted to confront that pink elephant the only honest way I knew how: in 2013, I read the Bible.
I was dreading this task. I knew it would consume an awful lot of my time and likely offered little in the way of enjoyment. But, like most gay people, given how often it is used to justify homophobia in general or anti-gay thinking specifically, I couldn’t avoid the Bible even if I wanted to, at least not, in good conscience, any longer. Plus, I’m a college professor and a writer, so it’s one of those books I should have read. At the very least, I hoped, by project’s end, I would be in a better position to dialogue with my father about his beliefs—and, by extension, others who believe similar things
I also aimed for something else from the experience: I blogged about the experience as a gay author reading the Bible for the first time.
Having finished this daunting task, I compiled my content into a book and then created a book proposal for prospective agents. Soon, I received a rejection letter from an agent who had expressed interest in the project and had asked to see a sample (30 pages). After complimenting the writing style and voice, the letter explained why the agency was passing on the book: “Much of what is said in this excerpt has no relevance to the author’s homosexuality.”
At first I was taken aback by this comment. Upon reflection—reviewing my approach to the project, where I used a personal anecdote to put whichever part of a given chapter into some personal context—I realized how spot-on this comment happened to be.
And then I got mad.
My brewing anger had nothing to do with the useful feedback from the agency; rather, it put this project in a whole new context for me—I hadn’t written about my homosexuality for every chapter (or, as I process all I wrote in my 400+ pages, even that often) because, although I am a proud gay adult, there’s more to me as a person than my sexuality. I’ll be forty one in August. I’ve been with my partner for four and a half years. I’m a university professor. I’m a published author. I own real estate. I like to travel. I am a devout Pearl Jam fan. I’m a proud Star Wars geek. I have a cat, a dog. I play short stop on my recreation (gay) league softball. I like reading, watching movies, going to concerts. In college, I played bass guitar in a band (fulfilling a dream of mine). I have great friends, only half of whom are gay, as well as a supportive family.
I have a great, fulfilling life that I don’t think of as gay or straight.
Yet, my anger over the agent’s comment highlighted an issue I likely understood but had not engaged with directly: the way a lot of people mis-use the Bible forces me to think about my sexuality as if that’s all that matters, for that lone aspect of my identity impacts every other part of my life, in part because decisions made about my life (in the form of laws) are based on the Bible’s supposed anti-homosexual stance.
Having read the Bible, I can now say that it contains little discussion of homosexuality. Sure, as those Gay Pride protester posters announce, Leviticus condemns it directly—but these individuals overlook that Jesus, when he conducted his ministry, told people to scrap the Old Testament. The people who then use Jesus as an authority ignore the fact that he never addresses homosexuality, only sexual immorality, which can just as easily speak to rape, incest, and infidelity (all of which get far more attention in the Bible than homosexuality). Sure, Romans comes out against Gays; a close reader might enjoy what else Paul has to say in this Bible book, such as that vegetarians have weak faith and, repeatedly, that people should not judge others. Paul’s points are also, as I have discussed, are often taken out of context, which changes what he is actually referring to.
In the end, I’m better off having read the Bible, and it’s a shame that people who have not might be discouraged from doing so based on the way this ancient—and at times engaging—text is so often misused to support bigotry.
As a Philadelphia resident, I still attend the annual pride festivities and I still experience the joy of having to listen to the same message of those unfortunate protesters who seem to have missed the point of the Bible, for if they’d truly studied all of it, they wouldn’t be on those corners telling other people how to live. But what’s unique about my experience over the past few years is that I’ve walked closer and closer to those lofted signs, and through this project, I have hoisted my own form of a sign with this blog project, sharing what I have learned. A person’s sexuality does not—and should not—define who they are. As the Bible says, it should be about a person’s character.