Ron Belgau

February 1998

Don't tell them Jesus loves them,
'till you're ready to love them too,
'till your heart breaks from the sorrow,
and the pain they're going through.

-- Steve Camp

Hmmm... Well, the February Oasis got screwed up, so I get to do this over again. I could just resubmit the column I'd written, but stuff has happened since then, so I want to do this over again. I was going to do a column about how Christians I have known have been dumb and hurtful to me in the past. I'll recap that stuff briefly, but the main thing I want to talk about is Tony Campolo, whom I met this month, and who is a very cool Christian, at least in my opinion.

Anyway, the dumb Christian thing. In the February column that got lost, I told the story of a pastor who managed to find some link to homosexuality in every chapter of Genesis. (For those of you who don't know Genesis, even the most conservative commentators only find references to homosexuality in three chapters -- out of about fifty).

Interestingly (he was black) he took a passage which has long been used to justify slavery, and used it to justify homophobia. Needless to say, he condemned very strongly those who had used the passage to justify slavery, and was a big fan of racial reconciliation. Once (I was in a group that met at his house every week) someone asked him if gays could be allowed into church leadership positions. He said, "Sure, I don't have any problem putting fags into leadership positions, as long as they turn right around and lead their faggotty-assed friends right out of the Church." He laughed, and thought it was pretty funny. I wanted to cry very badly, but held it all in, as I have held it in many times in the past. I wanted to ask if he felt the same way about black pastors, but I knew better. According to him, racism was a sin. And homophobia was a virtue.

I'm in favor of virtue. It's necessary for life, in very much the same way that a bathroom is necessary for a house. Things get pretty screwed up without it; but it isn't the sort of thing you should brag to the neighbors about. I try very hard to do the right thing. I sometimes succeed, and I sometimes fail. Because I've screwed up a lot, I try to be patient with others. But because I am in favor of virtue, I get sick of some of the stuff some people seem to think they can call virtue. Jesus said that all laws are based on "Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." If people want to preach hate, the First Amendment may protect them. But if they want to claim to follow Jesus Christ, they'd better try to live like Him.

That's what I like about Tony Campolo. He's serious about loving people. There's a web-page at http://www.bridges-across.org/campolo.htm that I really like. It's a transcript of Tony and his wife Peggy talking about Christianity and homosexuality.

Anyway, I met Tony at the Washington State Governor's Prayer Breakfast. I had helped to plan the breakfast, and Tony was invited to be the keynote speaker. In his speech, he devoted several minutes to calling for justice and compassion for gays. I cried during that part.

You should understand that I don't cry much at all. I don't even always cry at funerals. Those of you who have read my columns have probably figured out that I'm not a very emotional person. I guess part of the reason is that my family wasn't very emotional, or that I had to suppress my feelings about being gay growing up, or maybe just by nature I'm not a very emotional person. But I know I'm more emotional than I act; I've suppressed my feelings for a long time, and now I find it hard to let them show. I don't know all the causes, but I do know that crying is not my thing (though I've noticed that it's getting easier these days, something to be thankful for).

Tony's speech was about caring for the poor and the oppressed. It was a powerful and moving speech, but when he said that he'd been getting in trouble with a lot of Christians these days for standing up for homosexuals, I realized that he was actually going to include gays among those who are oppressed and whom Christians have a duty to care for.

Then came this story: "I said I was a Christian in High School," he told the audience. "I believed all the right doctrines. I didn't dance, drink, smoke or chew, and I didn't go with girls who did those things. But there was this boy, whom I'll call Roger. We found out that Roger was gay. We would taunt him with all the names that high school students have for gays: queer, faggot, you name it. After gym, he would never go into the shower with us. When we came out of the shower, we would snap him with our towels. We thought it was fun to work on him." As he told the story, Tony became more and more choked up with emotion.

"I wasn't there the day that five of the guys dragged Roger into a corner of the shower, and as he cowered there, they urinated on him. That night, Roger went home and went to bed; at 2:00 am, he got up, went down to the garage, and hung himself." At this point he became so choked up that he didn't speak for a moment. Then he said, "And I called myself a Christian. If I'd been a Christian, I wouldn't have been taunting Roger. I'd have been his friend." At this point, his voice became stronger, and he began to speak with absolute conviction. "And if anyone had started teasing me for being friends with Roger, I would have been able to go home and cry out to God, 'I am blessed, for I have been reviled and persecuted; others have said all kinds of evil things against me falsely for your sake! I rejoice and am glad, for I know how great will be my reward in heaven, for so they persecuted your prophets before me!"

It loses most of its power in the telling; you had to hear his voice, see the pain in his face as he told the story, feel the conviction he felt. Almost the only place I have seen such conviction is in the seething hatred which certain fundamentalist pastors reserve for their condemnations of gays; yet Tony's conviction was seething love, which is ten thousand times ten thousand times more powerful than seething hate. I don't know exactly how to describe it. But anyway, though I remained silent and held all my emotion in while that other pastor condemned gays a couple of years ago, I could not hold in my emotions during Tony's speech, and so there I was at the Governor's Prayer Breakfast, with tears streaming down my cheeks as I listened. It just felt so good to hear someone saying, particularly in that forum, that gays are people, too. I guess it's an indication of how screwed up our culture is that I cry tears of joy just because someone is willing to acknowledge my humanity.

The Prayer Breakfast was on Martin Luther King day. Today, the most vocal Christians in this country are the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons, men who have become very successful while building walls between people. But many forget that our greatest civil rights leader was the Rev. Martin Luther King. King's passion came from his conviction that God is a God of Love, Justice, and Mercy who wants to break down the barriers between people. I want to be a Christian like King or Tony Campolo or Mother Teresa: someone who is serious about loving other people, because I know that God created every person, and Christ died to save every person.

I think some people think that being this kind of Christian means just doing whatever the political left happens to be doing and call that Christianity. It does not. The civil rights movement has stalled since King, because without him, it lost its spiritual roots and became merely political. Without a passionate conviction that all people are important because they are important to God, much of the force behind the movement has died out. King worked for legal protection; but he also worked a great deal to heal the problems within the black community: high rates of out of wedlock births, high rates of family breakup, substance abuse, and violence. He realized that creating a healthy black community meant not only removing the external injustices such as segregation and the Jim Crow laws; it also meant dealing with the internal troubles like family instability and substance abuse.

Many gay activists do not recognize that not all of the problems facing gay people are external. Sure, some people do lose their jobs over being gay, and gay couples lack many of the protections married couples have. Yes, there is still a slight danger of being attacked for being gay, and certainly gay youth need a lot to help them their identity and find support. But let's face it: this year, hate crimes will kill a few dozen gay people. Youth suicide may kill a few thousand. But AIDS will kill tens of thousands. And the main response to the AIDS epidemic has been to distribute condoms.

I'm 23 years old, and I haven't had sex. I haven't exploded yet. I'm not an isolated, lonely, and bitter person. I don't lack good friends. And I haven't caught any nasty diseases. There's a reason VD doesn't stand for Virgin Disease: there aren't any diseases you can catch by being a virgin. But I'm not a virgin because I'm scared of AIDS. I'm a virgin because I know that there's a lot more to a meaningful life than having lots of orgasms. Love and human relationships are only as valuable as you make them. If you're willing to give your body away to someone you've only known for a few hours or a few days, your love is never going to be very valuable.

I've gotten e-mail from several Oasis readers who are pleased to hear that I'm a virgin, and wish that they heard of more gay virgins. I expect there are many more who haven't written. But the sad reality is that their experience with gay groups will probably be the same as mine: sex is assumed. Those who are virgins are encouraged to "get over it." Those who are not are encouraged to wear condoms. Nobody (including myself) speaks up to say, "maybe you should consider the possibility that sex (even "safer sex") is not the end-all and be-all of life." Some statistics say that half of gay men my age will die of AIDS by the time they're 40. That statistic really tears at my heart. It is hard to realize that, as I look around at my gay friends, half of them are already past "middle age," because they've lived more than half their life. And unfortunately, the community is encouraging those like me, who have a shot of making it to 70, to adopt a "safe" lifestyle that will run the risk of dying before 40.

I once was asked to participate in a study of gay men to help figure out how to respond to AIDS. They asked me a very extensive set of questions about my sexual history, about various types of sexual activity, none of which I had ever done, and many of which I had never even heard of. Afterward, they talked about ways for me to be safe, sort of on the assumption that I would probably go out and start having sex with strangers within a month or so. They wanted me to role-play telling someone that I wanted to wear a condom on a first date. It didn't occur to them that my sexual history made it quite unlikely that I would ever go out and pick up a stranger and have sex on the first date. These same people go out to the parks in Seattle, and try to convince the men there that they should wear condoms when having sex with strangers. I agree that condoms make having sex with strangers safer.

But I don't think having sex with strangers makes anyone happier. Love, support, and companionship are far, far more important to human beings than sex. I've seen the people cruising at the parks, and they don't look like people who've found the meaning of life. They look like very desperate people trying to find something meaningful. They would be much happier if they found real love, real community, and real companionship. Alcohol or drug addiction offers an escape from pain, but it destroys your life. The same is true of sex addiction. It offers a quick fix to fill the void in life. But it is meaningless.

It would be far more effective to help those men find their way out of sexual addiction, and turn from anonymous sex to find meaningful relationships. And when I say meaningful relationships, I don't necessarily mean long-term sexual relationships. Meaningful friendship does not need to include sex. Such relationships would be far more fulfilling. They would also happen to be much safer.

I don't want to bash on people who are in these sort of meaningless lifestyles. Part of the reason that happens is that they are treated as worthless shit while they're growing up, and they eventually come to believe they're worthless. And if they're worthless, how can they hope for someone to love them and value them? So they sell themselves short and are willing to do anything to get any attention at all. The conservatives who attack them are right to say that the promiscuity is bad. But their attacks only make the problem worse, because telling someone who feels useless that his life is worthless and destructive only makes him feel more worthless and act more destructively. What they need are people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, or Tony Campolo. People who will look at them and see a tremendously valuable person, created in the image of God, and deeply loved by Him. Then, perhaps, they'll be able to find a way out of a destructive and meaningless lifestyle.

I'm lucky. I've had a supportive family, and I've had a lot of friends who let me know that I mattered to them. I guess my sex drive is as strong as most other guys; talking to my friends, I seem to have as much interest in sex as most. But I've never gone to parks for anonymous sex or anything like that, and I think that's because I feel valued. Sexual fantasy or sexual activity can be a way to escape from feeling lonely. Certainly, I am more drawn to sexual fantasies when I'm feeling lonely and cut off from my friends than at other times. And when I feel accepted and valued, I am not at all likely to be tempted to try anonymous or destructive sexual activity.

Anyway, I'm not trying to say we should pass laws against promiscuity or anything. If someone is promiscuous, that is their choice. But I think our community is not doing anyone any favors by assuming that everyone will be having lots of sex. It is both emotionally and physically destructive. What I am trying to say is that for those of you out there who are virgins, don't feel like you're missing out. And if you do feel lonely and isolated, consider that sex is not the only or best way to fill that void. For those who are sleeping around a lot, think about whether this is really fulfilling. Do you wish people didn't care so much about your body? Do you wish there was someone who would go on loving you -- the real you -- even if you were disfigured and no longer physically attractive?

I'm not a saint. When I walk into a room, I know who's good looking and who isn't. I tend to spend more time around the good looking ones. But I have been making more of an effort to make friends with people who would otherwise be left out. It isn't always easy, but I know that whatever I see on the outside, all human beings are valuable, and there's something precious in the heart of the person who seems least interesting on the outside. Being gay, we all know what it's like to be left out, to be an outsider. Can't we learn to have a little compassion for those who can't even find acceptance from other gays?

I'm not criticizing our community because of internalized homophobia. I'm criticizing it because we're doing more damage to ourselves than the straight world is doing to us. I see some progress (though not as fast as might be hoped) in terms of fixing discrimination. But I see little progress on our internal problems.

I don't want to see people lose jobs over being gay, and so I helped to work on the job protection legislation here in Washington last fall. I don't want youth to commit suicide, and so I write here on Oasis, and I do various other things to help. But I also don't want to see many of my friends move through a series of comparatively meaningless short-term relationships, and end up dead by 40. And so I think it's important to go beyond "safer sex" campaigns. We need to show them that they're very valuable. And at least for me, the reason I think people are valuable is that I believe in the same God Mother Teresa does. I'm willing to make sacrifices to help people out. And I hope that when people see that I care enough about them to help them, they will begin to see that their life is worth something.

Ok, that's enough for this month. E-mail me, rbelgau@u.washington.edu, to let me know what you think. And a couple of you who e-mailed me didn't get responses because of a computer crash. I got your mail, but then my mail got erased before I replied. Sorry, I had no way to figure out who you were and reply.

See you next month, - Ron

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