About 40 years ago, while serving as pastor of a church in Southern California, I became aware that I had members of my congregation who were gay. Further, over a period of time, I discovered that I had parents of gay sons and daughters in my congregation. Being a pastor became even more of a challenge when I discovered gay men and gay women in my congregation, who were in heterosexual marriages that were not functioning well.
I tried to talk to my clergy friends. No one even wanted to talk about it. I maintained many positive relationships among my fellow clergy, but in some ways I became the loneliest minister in the area. I committed myself to learning about the homosexual phenomenon. I read everything I could find on the subject. There wasn’t much on the library shelves. I talked with every gay person, who was willing to talk and share. I got an education that was totally ignored in college and seminary.
Full civil rights for our African-American citizens had been the hot issue of the nation. I concluded that discrimination against gay people was just as evil as racial discrimination. My frustration was found in a reality. Christian churches were (and are) the headquarters of gay discrimination.
My journey was made a bit easier because I had learned a profound lesson in seminary.
As an ordained clergyperson I was specifically forbidden by Jesus to judge and condemn. My call as a minister was to what the Apostle Paul called the ministry of reconciliation. My task has been to assist in the reconciliation of gay people to God, to family, to spouse, to neighbor, and even to enemies.
In my relationships with gay people, rejection was never a possibility. Reconciliation has always been my task. As my thinking and understanding developed, I found that the feet of the opposition were stuck in concrete. Making progress in the struggle for gay acceptance and the establishment of their rights was hard work and slow. At times the task seemed near impossible. But things are changing.
I am happy to report that 2011 has been a very good year. Many positive things have happened. I share three huge 2011 events in the struggle for the rights of gay people in America.
The repeal of 'don’t ask, don’t tell'
President Bill Clinton made promises of support to the American gay population. He proposed that gay men and lesbians would be allowed to serve in the U.S. military without discrimination. He ran into heavy opposition by top officers in the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. A flawed policy that came to be known as "don’t ask, don’t tell" was put in place by presidential order in 1993. Under the policy, gay and lesbian young people could serve in the U.S. military if they stayed in the closet. It never worked the way some had hoped. Over the 18 years of the policy, over 13,500 service persons were discharged from military service under don’t ask, don’t tell.
President Barack Obama promised the gay population that don’t ask, don’t tell would be repealed. Congress repealed don’t ask, don’t tell. President Obama signed the legislation into law. The law became effective on September 20, 2011. The day of official discrimination against gay people in the military is over.
The approval of gay marriage in the state of New York
On June 24, 2011, Governor Mario Cuomo signed into law a measure that gives same-sex couples the same right to marry that historically had been accorded only to heterosexual couples. New York is the sixth state to grant gay people full marriage rights. Either by legislation or by court action, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont have granted marriage rights to gay couples. What is so significant about New York? New York State has a huge population. The trend is firmly established. There will be no turning back.
In any movement, milestones are important. The action of the state of New York is one of those milestones.
Proposition 8 in California
California is important because it is the state with the largest population. It is also important because Prop. 8 powerfully illustrates the intertwining of religion and politics. The history of gay marriage rights in California is lengthy and has taken a variety of turns. California had passed a ballot measure banning gay marriage. The California Supreme Court overturned the measure thus establishing the legality of gay marriage. Opponents quickly put a ballot measure, known as Proposition 8, on the ballot in 2008 that said that only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid in the State of California. The measure passed. A Federal judge ruled that Proposition 8 was a violation of the U.S. Constitution. 2011 found Proposition 8 back in court. The case could well be headed for the U.S. Supreme Court. Gay rights activists have long desired a definitive ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. That ruling may be just around the corner.
A very important side issue in Proposition 8 is the involvement of two large religious bodies. In the effort to pass the measure, two national churches led. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) led the effort. Over half of the funds raised to pass Prop. 8 came from Mormon sources. Money flowed from Utah like a river. Mormons made up over 80 percent of the workers in the extensive door-to-door campaign. Their efforts were supplemented by The Knights of Columbus, related to the Catholic Church. They were the second largest source of funds.
No one is suggesting that either Catholics or Latter Day Saints did anything illegal or unethical. Catholics and LDS have a legal right to be in the public square.
The Proposition 8 struggle in California is a powerful lesson of the importance of religion in politics.
All in all, 2011 was a very good year for gay rights.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister who lives in Palmer, Alaska. He is the author of the book “Pastor, I Am Gay.”
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