KEEPING THE FAITH IN THE FACE OF REJECTION RELIGIOUS GAYS CRUSADE FOR ACCEPTANCE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On a steamy day last June, in the hangarlike main hall of the Baltimore Convention Center, some 5,000 members of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. spent five hours talking about sex.

Specifically, they gnashed their teeth over a controversial report that would have liberalized the Protestant denomination's stance on human sexuality.

When the gnashing was done, a few hundred men and women, most of them gays and lesbians, walked to the front of the hushed hall in an officially approved demonstration. They carried a large wooden cross and banners. They placed the cross at the foot of the dais where church leaders sat, hammered nails into the cross, picked it up again and marched slowly from the room.

As they walked out, they chanted, "We are gay and angry people and we are singing, singing for our lives."

What had angered them was the Presbyterian leaders' expected and overwhelming rejection of the sexuality report. The denomination had, in effect, maintained its view that sex is to be practiced only by married heterosexuals. And, most significantly the eyes of many delegates and observers, the church had upheld its 13-year-old prohibition against homosexual ministers, elders and deacons.

Jim Larson, a 40-year-old Presbyterian living in Columbia, attended last summer's convention. As a man who has recently begun coming to grips with his own homosexuality, he took more than a casual interest in the controversy over the report, though he did not participate in the symbolic crucifixion on the Convention Center floor.

All that religious gays and lesbians want is "a sense of at-homeness, to be able to use our gifts within the church," says Mr. Larson, the chairman of the Baltimore chapter of Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns, a group not officially tied to the denomination.

"A lot of gays and lesbians become discouraged and leave their churches because it's hard to be faithful in a place that questions your validity as a person," Mr. Larson says. "The church sends this double message: 'We like you here, but we can't accept you as you are.' "

Many gays and lesbians give an A for effort to the Presbyterians, for even considering the ordination of open and active homosexuals, and to other denominations that recently have studied sexuality, such as the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

But gays and lesbians also anguish over the paradox of watching churches and synagogues preach love and community while they slam their doors on religious homosexuals.

Clearly the denominations are torn over the issue, too. They want to acknowledge changing social mores and the people who embody them, including sexually active heterosexual singles and teens, as well as homosexuals. At the same time, they don't want to alienate the bedrock majority of clergy and laypeople who, in poll after poll, advocate traditional morality.

So, when churches consider giving their blessing to openly gay people, they almost always end up voting to keep the status quo. (Only the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Reform and Reconstructionist movements of Judaism sanction openly homosexual clergy.)

These nay votes preserve the old taboos against openly gay and lesbian clergy. By extension, homosexual laypeople get the message that they also are not welcome. They say they're used to the feeling.

Rebecca Richards, who surrendered her credentials as a United Methodist minister when she "came out" as a lesbian in 1990, says, "I know so many gay and lesbian people who won't go near a church because of the religious institutions' policies against them. People won't go to a place for social, spiritual and psychological support if that place tells them they're bad."

Yet, many gays and lesbians keep the faith, asserting that the beauties of religion are as important to them as to anyone else.

Ms. Richards, who is 43 and a local activist for racial justice, says, "The churches have to look at what their policies are costing in human terms. They say, 'If we change our policy against homosexuality, we'll lose members.' In my statement when I gave up my credentials, I told the church officials, 'You already are losing members. And you're losing clergy, most of them good, talented people with a lot to offer.' "

Chuck, a 30-year-old gay man who is co-president of Dignity Baltimore, a group for gay and lesbian Roman Catholics, points out that gay-bashing often is based on the Scriptures. Routine citations include the story of Sodom, supposedly destroyed because of sins including homosexuality, and St. Paul's injunctions presumably against homosexual practices.

But, "the logic of those arguments can't be supported," says Chuck, who asks that his last name not be used because he hasn't yet informed his family that he is gay. ("My father was just in the hospital. I don't want to put him right back in again," he explains.)

"Let's look at the basic message of the Gospel -- which is love," Chuck says. "It blows all those other arguments away. You can't say, 'I'm a Christian and I hate you.' Or, 'I'm a Christian and God hates you.' That really bugs the hell out of me. You simply can't be a Christian and hate me for being what I am, for being what God made me."

Leviticus 18:22, a verse often cited by gay-detractors, calls a man's lying "with a male as with a woman" an "abomination." The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, book of Leviticus is essentially a litany of similar guidelines offered as a "holiness code" for the community of Israel.

"Oh, c'mon! Show me any Orthodox Jew who follows every code in Leviticus," says Stephen Glassman, a 41-year-old Baltimore native who is an architect and a member of Beth Am Congregation downtown. As Baltimore's commissioner of civic design, he is the first openly gay man to be named to a city commission.

"It's all so trumped up, the way people choose specific verses to discriminate against gays," Mr. Glassman adds. "It's very convenient: Just apply a certain verse to some group in order to discriminate against them."

"I call it 'scissors theology' -- using snippets to make a point, while ignoring the overall message of the Scriptures," says 35-year-old John Glorioso, an official of the Baltimore Metropolitan Community Church, a congregation of a national denomination founded for gay and lesbian Christians more than 20 years ago in California.

"You just can't pick and choose what you're going to enforce or not enforce," says Mr. Glorioso, who was raised Catholic. "If you're going to be so particular about a certain prohibition, then how can you ignore Jesus' admonition that he without sin should cast the first stone?"

The Rev. Joseph Hughes, the coordinator of the local Archdiocesan Gay/Lesbian Outreach , explains that the Catholic Church increasingly has offered sympathetic counseling to homosexuals and their families, even while the church maintains its strict stance against the homosexual lifestyle.

"It's just too controversial. The official line is that homosexuality is just plain immoral," says Father Hughes, the pastor of Most Precious Blood Church in Baltimore and one of the early organizers of the local Dignity chapter.

AGLO recently prepared a series of articles debunking certain ,, myths about homosexuality. The Catholic Review, the archdiocese's weekly newspaper, ran a few installments but then was ordered by archdiocesan officials to stop the series after readers complained about the articles' tolerant view of homosexuality.

"In the last 10 years, I think we're seeing that more people are tolerant, but those who were never tolerant are as entrenched as ever," Father Hughes says. "I don't think religious officialdom will ever change its views, but at the level of individual churches and people, we're seeing more outreach, more ministry, more acceptance of people who are gay and lesbian. But you're probably always going to have those people who grab a line out of Scripture and base a negative view of homosexuality on that."

Using the Bible and church teachings to denounce homosexuality may be a common practice, but it may not be a historically valid one, John Boswell, a Yale University professor, has argued.

In his award-winning book, "Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality," Mr. Boswell writes that, in the Christian church, opposition to homosexuality was not prevalent until the end of the 12th century. And even then, the church followed the lead of the nascent corporate states that used their power to enforce strict moral standards.

During the first centuries after Christ's death, Mr. Boswell says, Roman society tolerated homosexuality, and, he adds, "The early Christian church does not appear to have opposed homosexual behavior per se."

But, as the Roman empire collapsed and urban subcultures vanished, hostility to homosexuals increased. Gay culture subsided until the 11th century, when European cities flourished and gays became "prominent, influential and respected at many levels of society in most of Europe," Mr. Boswell writes in his study, which won the 1981 American Book Award for History.

The homosexuals of that period would not enjoy their prominence for long. According to Mr. Boswell, the late 1100s saw the beginnings of a "general increase in intolerance of minority groups," as later evidenced by the Crusades, the expulsion of Jews from parts of Europe, the Inquisition and campaigns against sorcery and witchcraft. Homosexuals also would be among the victims.

This general intolerance worked its way into theological writings and ultimately into church teachings, Mr. Boswell writes. Thus, he claims, the church was more follower than leader in spreading the anti-homosexual ideas that exist to this day.

Other religion experts have written that the original biblical languages have no word for "homosexual," that Sodom's sin actually was inhospitality, and that Jesus never spoke against homosexual practice and was, in fact, someone who sided with the rejected and despised.

These writers acknowledge the "abomination" verse from Leviticus, but they add that the book also states that the disabled can't approach an altar and that fortunetellers and people who curse their parents should be killed.

"We routinely violate the Levitical code when we eat ham sandwiches and shellfish," says the Rev. William Lowry, a gay man who has been the vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Nativity in Northwest Baltimore since 1983. He also is an official with the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Rev. Lowry, who is 49, is that rare pastor who doesn't conceal his homosexuality. He says that at least half of his mostly black congregation know that he's gay.

"When I was interviewed for the post, I was told by parish officials that things like race, marital status, age and sexual orientation weren't important to them. I don't think they really care about my being gay. They have a lot more things to worry about than what their pastor does [with his sex life]," says Rev. Lowry, who sometimes wears his silver hair in a ponytail and sports a Grateful Dead pin on his jacket lapel.

The pastor says he refuses to hide his sexual orientation because he feels it's important for religious gays and lesbians to have role models among church leaders. It saddens him, he adds, that there is "a substantial number of closeted" gay and lesbian clergy in all denominations.

Still, Rev. Lowry says, he understands why those ministers choose to lead a double life:

"You have to look at a person's reasons for being secretive. They may lose their job if they came out. But if you're always afraid of having your true identity discovered, then you're deprived of the full ability to be a role model and a minister who can operate with honesty."

According to the people interviewed for this story, about 10 percent of local Christian and Jewish clergy men and women are homosexual, mirroring the percentage of the general population who are gay or lesbian. But everyone interviewed states that most homosexual clergy feel uncomfortable about coming out. They know it probably would destroy their careers.

Rebecca Richards tells of a female acquaintance, a United Methodist minister in Maine, who informed her bishop that she was in a committed lesbian relationship and therefore wanted to have her orders transferred to the Unitarian Church, which allows openly homosexual clergy. Instead, the local Methodist conference stripped the woman of her orders, taking away her ability to be a minister in any denomination.

Is it any wonder, Ms. Richards asks, that most gay and lesbian clergy want to stay in the closet? However, observing the torment of her closeted clergy friends helped convince her that she had to quit being a pastor if she was to maintain her sanity and integrity.

One unhappy upshot of her coming out is that she has been shunned by her fundamentalist family in Virginia.

"To make a strong moral statement to her children about homosexuality, [one of her sisters] felt she had to cut off our relationship," says Ms. Richards. "My family and other church people see that kind of behavior as a way of showing they're faithful to their religion. But that's not what Christianity is about. That's directly contradictory to Jesus' command that we all love one another. To sit in judgment of people and refuse to relate to them is a perversion of the Gospel."

On the other hand, there was the man from the Carroll County church in which Ms. Richards served as pastor before surrendering her credentials.

"When I left, I had a long talk with this man. He was much more conservative than I am on a lot of issues, but we were still very close," she recalls. "He said, 'Rebecca, we've disagreed on things before, and [homosexual clergy] is one of them. But you were one of the best pastors we've ever had. And I love and support you.' To me, that was a Christian response."

While many clergy feel that they must remain closeted, homosexual laypeople can be open about their sexual identity at a few individual churches that welcome gays and lesbians. These churches tend to be in the downtown area, where many homosexuals live and socialize.

Most denominations have such churches, including Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Bolton Hill, Grace and St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon, St. John's United Methodist Church in Charles Village and First and Franklin Street Presbyterian Church downtown.

First and Franklin carries the "more light" term associated with Presbyterian churches friendly to homosexuals. Jim Larson, a church member, says the parish has gay and lesbian members, deacons and elders, and provides "a very healing environment" for homosexuals.

As John Glorioso explains, these churches act independently of their denominations' official stands against gay and lesbian officials and the gay lifestyle. The denominations generally leave the churches alone, so long as they don't promote homosexuality or hire a minister who is excessively open about his or her homosexual practices.

"By welcoming gays, these individual churches aren't so much making a statement for their denominations as they are to the denominations. They're saying that the gay-lesbian lifestyle is not incompatible with the teachings of the Scriptures," Mr. Glorioso says.

His denomination, the Metropolitan Community Church, often is credited with showing the mainstream faith groups that religious homosexuals feel rejected by institutional religion and are searching for a church to embrace them.

"The MCC has told the other churches, '[Religious gays and lesbians] are out here and we're not going away,' " says Mr. Glorioso. "It has forced other denominations to consider how they can better tend to the gays and lesbians in their own congregations."

Homosexuals who stay within their denominations also can turn to various support groups. For Episcopalians, there is Integrity; for Methodists, Affirmation; for Southern Baptists, Honesty; for Lutherans, Lutherans Concerned; and for Evangelicals, Evangelicals Concerned.

Chuck, the co-president of the local Dignity chapter, says the group's members "view it as a parish. We do everything a parish does. We hold services. We offer the Eucharist. We just buried someone. We have social events. We feel that we are the church. I've found more spirituality at Dignity services than at any other church services I've attended. We're a small group with a commonality, forming a community. Isn't that a parish?"

But, as a rule, Dignity and other support groups aren't officially sanctioned by their denominations. The United Methodist Church, in fact, forbids spending national church funds on activities that promote homosexuality, though the prohibition doesn't apply to individual parishes and their funds. And Catholic priests who work with Dignity tend not to publicize the fact, for fear of stirring the wrath of the archdiocese, Chuck says.

Stephen Glassman and other local gay and lesbian Jews belong to a religious support group called Adat Rayoot, which he describes as "very secretive." He says the Jewish community has no formal outreach program for religious homosexuals, but he has been meeting with community leaders to discuss setting up such a program.

"The problem is that the Jewish community operates by consensus," he says. "And that proves a major stumbling block for gays and lesbians because of opposition from the heavy percentage of Orthodox Jews in the area."

Mr. Glassman becomes agitated as he continues on the subject:

"It's shameful that we have this situation when Jews have been victimized by the same kind of bigotry for 5,700 years. Jews, of all people, should be the first ones to stand up for the rights of discriminated groups, including homosexuals."

Rabbi Joel Zaiman of Chizuk Amuno, a Conservative Jewish congregation in Pikesville, says Jews generally support civil rights for homosexuals, but they feel bound by religious tradition to condemn the gay lifestyle.

"I don't see it as at all inconsistent to embrace homosexuals while not embracing their way of life," says Rabbi Zaiman, a past president of the Synagogue Council of America. "Some of the indignities [gays and lesbians] have suffered are unconscionable. In terms of civil rights, they're entitled to everything that anyone else in our society is entitled to. But civil rights do not extend to religious tradition, and the traditional morality of most Jews precludes the idea of openly homosexual people as clergy."

Faced with such attitudes, why then do religious gays keep the faith? They have dealt with all manner of obstacles, and nearly all the people interviewed for this story say they don't expect those obstacles to be removed in their lifetime.

L So why do they remain loyal to institutions that spurn them?

Their answers are as basic as they are moving.

To a person, they speak of the sense of communion with God that their religious upbringing gave them. They also cite the sense of identity with a distinct religious culture, be it Catholic, Jewish or Protestant.

For 39-year-old Marla Seymour, an official of Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns and the local Gay and Lesbian

Community Center, the "more light" church of First and Franklin reminds her of the loving grandmother who nurtured her as a little girl in Ohio and played the organ at the local church.

"When my grandmother died recently, I started to realize how important the church was to her," says Ms. Seymour, a sanitation manager with Ms Desserts. "I saw First and Franklin as her kind of church -- helpful to the poor, supportive to all, a place that speaks her good sense and dignity and her musicality."

Ms. Seymour joined the church a year ago.

For Chuck, the Catholic Church resonates with memories that date to his early childhood. Despite his anger at the church, he feels an attachment to it and gratitude for the solid Catholic education he received through high school.

"They can't take the church away from me, even if they won't let me inside their buildings," he says. "I consider myself still of the church. And if we're ever going to change it, we just can't stand on the outside and tell them, 'You're wrong.' We have to stick close so we can work for change."

For Rebecca Richards, her spiritual relationship to God is inseparable from her relationship to the idea of parish.

"Being in a faith community nourishes that relationship with God and challenges me to grow in it," she says. "It's hard to go it alone."

As it turns out, Ms. Richards no longer will be going it alone. She recently was approved by the congregation of St. John's United Methodist Church to become a lay minister there. She will preach on occasion, counsel congregation members and help plan parish programs.

"It feels real good to be working as a minister again," she says. "And it's important for the people of St. John's to see that, although the larger church doesn't recognize the ministerial call of gays and lesbians, that call can be met by an individual parish."

For Jim Larson, as for Rebecca Richards, community is all. "Faith isolation," he says, "can become very stagnant."

"For a long time, until I came out not long ago, I tried to tell myself that maybe I wasn't gay," he explains. "I lived in perpetual limbo. But the Scriptures say you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. That means knowledge of ourselves, and I can tell you, once you embrace that truth, it's very liberating. The truth can also be scary. It's like being a bird soaring in the air. It can be exhilarating and frightening. And lonely."

SG He adds, smiling, "But there are a lot of other soarers out there."

PATRICK ERCOLANO was The Evening Sun's religion writer for

three years.

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