By Jeff Walsh
A newsgroup for gay and lesbian youth seeking help is constantly flooded with questions of how to balance sexuality and spirituality. The struggle to balance the two proves fatal for many teens, and it almost killed Mel White.
White, 55, is now the Minister of Justice for the Metropolitan Community Churches nationwide. As late as 1991, Dr. White's resume read like an entry out of Who's Who in the Religious Right. He wrote speeches for Ollie North, was a ghostwriter on a book for Jerry Falwell, worked with Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson and walked along the beach with Billy Graham.
At the time, they didn't know White -- an evangelical minister, committed Christian, family man -- was gay. White is the author of "Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America," which chronicles his 30-year battle with his sexuality.
On Feb. 15, 1995, White was arrested for trespassing at Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) Center. The story of his arrest and his 22-day prison fast made headlines across the nation. White is now a full-time gay activist, keeps an active speaking schedule and is making up for lost time.
"I spent 30 years rejecting my sexual orientation, thinking it was evil," he says. "They say it's either a sin or a sickness, or both. And I bought into that, and I was wrong. It really was destructive.
"In that process I went through electro-shock treatment, exorcisms -- both Protestant and Catholic, aversive therapies and counseling and fasting and prayer. Oh my God, it was horrible," White says, in a soft voice. "Finally, I slit my wrists with a hanger and wanted to die after I've been working for 24 years with my wife to overcome my sexual orientation. I tried to kill myself in the hospital, and my wife said, 'Why don't you choose life?' And we separated amicably and from that time I'm a totally different person."
White says sexuality and spirituality aren't opposites at all. In fact, they complement one another.
"We've been sold a bill of goods that sexuality and spirituality compete," he says. "It took me so long to celebrate my sexuality and once you can accept that as a gift from God, then you can really celebrate your spirituality.
"But as long as you're in conflict over your sexual orientation, it's very difficult. You're thinking of God as the enemy. For me, I see sex as something to be equally celebrated," White says. "Like masturbation, for example, which is giving yourself pleasure by stroking the physical ... it should be the same with the spiritual. There should be a kind of spiritual masturbation that should be as pleasurable and exciting as physical sex.
"It's very difficult for people to understand that, because we're so ashamed of everything. And spirituality sounds like something we need to do, we ought to do, we should do," White says. "I love Walt Whitman's quote. Whitman said: 'Re-examine everything you've been taught, discard anything that's an insult to your soul, and begin again.' And I just feel like so much of us, we need to dump all that stuff we've been taught."
"To understand and accept was just the beginning of life for me. I wish I had done it as a kid," he says. "Both sex and spirit are so secretive when you're a younger person. And I just wish someone could tell them, your body is wonderful, your spirit is wonderful, let them compliment one another."
Bible Studies 101
White says the church should be faulted for allowing misinformation to spread as the unchecked word of God.
"The church, like so much of society, is so terribly misinformed about things. Homosexuality is never mentioned in the Bible, in the Old Testament or the New. The word never appears," he says. "Sexual orientation was discovered in the last century, so everyone in the ancient worlds thought that these were just straight people doing ugly, deviant things.
"When sexual orientation came along, it informed the text. Just like we've learned a lot about slavery," White says. "The Bible is to be trusted in things of the spirit, but it is not to be trusted in things of cosmology, sociology or when science proves it wrong. The world is not flat, the Bible says it is.
"So, I really love and trust the Bible, for what it's meant to speak on, but not the rest of it. And these six passages that people use to condemn us, they're taken out of context. They're not seen in their historical setting at all," White says. "These people are just backing up and supporting ancient bigotry with these lines. Once you see, like John Boswell, our gay historian at Yale, that these texts don't have anything to ... Sodom, it doesn't have anything to do with sexuality. Nothing. Five Old Testament prophets and Jesus himself said what Sodom was about, and it doesn't have anything to do with sexuality.
"But even the Supreme Court of this land continues to slip to believe in sodomy," he says. "So, if kids can't quite get to understand, it's no wonder with so many adults misunderstanding it, too."
White's "Soul Force"
In the past year, White has adopted a Gandhi concept called "soul force" as his way to deal with Robertson and company.
"At the heart of soul force is the notion that your adversary is really just another victim of misinformation," White says. "And that the only way you have of changing a person who has been misinformed is to bring truth, in a loving way -- relentlessly. I just figured these guys are the primary polluters right now, and I need to go back with the truth."
On Feb. 5, White will head back to Virginia to 700 Club Central with a new objective -- challenging Robertson with his own words. [View the letter from White to Robertson.]
"We've monitored his broadcast every day since I got out of jail, because after he visited me in jail on the 25th day, I said, 'I just want you to do two things, Pat. I want you to admit to the rising hate crimes against gay and lesbian people, and I want you condemn anyone who incites or commits those crimes,'" White says. "And he did. He went on his show and did that. But from then, he just continued to bash us and continued to create that hostile climate.
"So, we have hundreds and hundreds of anti-gay quotes, but we've boiled it down to about 67, so the tape is just over an hour with tiny little segments between them. It's just intolerance after intolerance after intolerance," White says. "We've asked him to see it privately. He won't respond. So, we're going to take it to a hotel right across from his CBN Center and show it to the media and to the public. We want to stir him up, and stir the media about what he's doing. Intolerance is a very dangerous thing in this country.
"It's trying to set an example that we cannot let it go on without saying it's wrong," he says. "Because, even though we think Pat is crazy, remember, he has 1.8 million volunteers in the Christian Coalition working to enforce that craziness."
White says last year's successful bout with Robertson, and the subsequent letters he received inspired him to challenge Robertson again.
"I got so many letters after going to jail last year when I did this, from young people. Two teenagers, whose parents work for Robertson -- two different letters -- said when you finally stood up to my parent's boss, you gave me the courage to stand up to my parents. And I think that's why I do it, more than to think Pat will ever change," White says. "And to say to people who are young and struggling with this kind of misinformation, 'Hey, we're standing up to him because he's wrong.' It's because those who take his theories, from their priests and their pastors and their rabbis, they're wrong. You can be young and still be right."
White admits that going back to meet Robertson is somewhat "theatrical."
"People criticize me for my obsession with it. But when you have a big voice like that who just keeps saying this crazy stuff ... I just get such a kick out of standing on my tiptoes and saying 'You're wrong, God loves us,'" White says. "People hear it, and they love it, and I think I do it more for the people who hear it than I'm doing it for Pat."
But White admits he is nervous about what Robertson might do this time around. "I have butterflies, because when you make very powerful people angry, you don't know how they're going to respond," he says. "I do not want to go back to jail. It was very unpleasant. I couldn't believe he arrested me the first time."
White also says he isn't concerned with Robertson's possible motives behind using gays and lesbians as fear-induced fundraising tactics.
"Soul force says when we try to talk about their motives, we go astray, because we don't know. We can guess the worst about Pat, and I have as many reasons as anybody to think he's really in it for the money. But what have we gained?" White asks. "Because then he can turn around and just say 'Jeff, what's your motive?' and 'Mel, what's your motive?' The fact is, I have to believe that he's sincere, only he's sincerely wrong, because when we attack on a motive basis we don't help anything.
"What we have to do is deal directly with what he's saying, and what he's saying is that gay and lesbian people aren't loved by God, and he's dead wrong," White says, his emotion and conviction evident even over the phone.
White says downplaying Robertson's power makes him stronger.
"We minimize our enemy when we see him as simply Machiavellian," he says. "When you do that, he becomes a much stronger enemy, because then people tend to write him off as being a phony. But, if they're a true believer, they're a lot more deadly an enemy. And I think most of them are true believers, even if they're using it in ways that I don't think are legitimate."
Come out for Christ
White says that being open about sexuality is the best way to defeat the Christian Coalition.
"The Christian Coalition can put out all the propaganda they want, but once a person who hears the propaganda knows a gay or lesbian person, they can't quite believe it," he says. "So, our coming out is the main way to take them on."
White also cautions young people about trying to change people's minds about religion by arguing with their parents or pastors. "It puts them into a terrible and unviable position. Young people don't need to attack or take on these people," White says. "They need to do everything they can to enforce their own self worth. Look in the mirror a thousand times a day, and say 'I am a child of the Creator. I'm lesbian/gay, and I'm proud.' And the more strength they build up, the more people will see the truth in their own life.
"But I hate it when I see young gay and lesbian people arguing. It's like arguing with a cult victim. They don't come around," he says. "But when they see in your life, something that confuses them, then you're off and running. Now, if young people want to be activists, just like old people -- and I'm an o-l-d one these days, I commend them for it. I march with a lot of teenagers. We've had teenagers march with us to face Pat, to face (James) Dobson, to face the President, so I've seen a lot of teenage activists right in the front line.
How can I be sure?
White says no matter how active teens are politically, their fractured spirituality is many times lingering in the background.
"The question when I speak on college campuses to gay and lesbian groups, is always 'How can you be sure that God loves you?' I find that the saddest question on Earth, because it shows how this misinformation has trickled down," White says. "So, I take them through several steps. I say, 'Look at science, and we have no evidence that we're not genetically shaped. And a lot that we are.' Then, I go through history and I show them Sappho the poet and Alexander the Great and his loves, and I say, 'Look through history, gay and lesbian people are incredible, wonderful, spiritual, aesthetic people, and that helps, but it doesn't help enough.
"So, I take them through the (Bible) texts, one by one. I show them the Hebrew and Greek. These have nothing to do with gay people. Get over it," White says. "But what really does help them understand is telling my own story, and telling stories about the people who just had to work through it. And then say, 'God, I'm so good and God loves me, and one day you'll be convinced, too.
"Many young people, say 'The hell with God. If he don't love me, I don't need it.' And I don't blame them. And they get off their spirit journey. But I tell you, gay and lesbian people are spiritually endowed," he says. "You look throughout history, I agree with (lesbian activist) Urvashi Vaid: We don't want to be seen as equal. We are, in our own way, special. They are, too. But, in our own way, we are special.
"So, we don't want simply to be accepted and dissolve into the wilderness," he says. "We want to find those spiritual roots that lead to great dance, to great music, to great art and to great religion. And explore them, because our sexuality is a part of that spiritual gift. I really believe a lot of us are coming back at spirituality in ways that are very different from traditional religion. It's okay. Find your way back, and let's do it hand in hand. Wherever you are in your journey, let's come together."
Sleeping Bag Blues
Despite coming out late in life, White's sexual feelings began when he was 12 and in a Boy Scout camp.
"I had a crush on the kid in the sleeping bag next to me, and I just about went nuts thinking how evil I must be. So, at 12 and 13, I was in love with Daryl and the Boy Scout camp, and it was a nightmare," he says. "And I spent a year just trying to get over that first crush, because a heterosexual can have infatuations -- two or three a week -- and everybody celebrates it, whereas we go into our closets."
In high school, White had his first kiss while a member of the track team. "I lived on that kiss through college," he says, regretfully. "They said just find a good woman and I'd get over it, so I married a good woman, but all the time I was thinking about the good men around me.
"When I think back on the youth, and all the wasted opportunity ... Those guys who dance through Disneyland are my heroes, the teenagers going to their proms, and who are going arm-in-arm on campus and showing their relationship and showing their love. They're heroes," White says. "And for all us adults and older folks who are too chicken to walk down the street and show off their love, these high school kids are just so noble and God is celebrating their existence."
White doesn't even entertain giving any advice to the younger generation.
"My advice to young people is worthless. I am so far away from your generation," he says. "You guys are so far away from us in so many ways, you're so experienced."
A new experience for White is being active on America Online, where he receives hundreds of e-mail messages a week. His book prompted over 36,000 letters since its release.
One thing White would like to clear up is the misconception in the gay community that he is some "defector" from the radical right. "Because I had a doctor of theology, I worked for these guys on their biographies," he says. "I was never on the inner circles and I've always been a Democrat, so it's hard to be considered one of them."
White's book will also be made into a Showtime Movie of the Week in the near future, and it is still selling steadily in bookstores world-wide.
White says his book also has the dubious honor of being the most-stolen book in school libraries. "Kids don't want to buy a book that says 'Gay and Christian in America' on its cover, so they steal it and leave money," he says. "Or parents steal it and send a money order to cover it, because they want it, but they're embarrassed to buy it. That's the kind of fear they live in."
But White, no stranger to fear, understands perfectly.
"I spent 20 years in silence. I mean, people don't even want to talk to me about masturbation now. Some stigma is attached to masturbation and it's a wonderful gift from God," White says. "We've got to start there and just honor and love our bodies, and the thrills and the pleasures it gives us. If you jack off and thank God for it, your spiritual and sexual identities are coming together. But if you see them as separate or dirty, then it all gets skewed."