CAN THE lesbian and gay movement find a model in Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence? Can gay people's right to love openly be won by Gandhi's tactics of fighting hate with love? These questions were raised recently in a Virginia Beach jail by Dr. Mel White, the former dean of the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, the nation's largest lesbian and gay congregation.
In February, Mr. White and a delegation of interfaith clergy went to the Virginia headquarters of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and requested a meeting with Mr. Robertson. Mr. White was the ghostwriter of Mr. Robertson's 1986 book "America's Dates with Destiny," but the two haven't ** exactly been close since Mr. White came out of the closet a
couple of years ago. Now Mr. White had come to explain to Mr. Robertson how his homophobic rhetoric incites violence against lesbians and gays.
Mr. Robertson, in a telling display of his brand of Christian charity, had Mr. White and company evicted from the premises. When Mr. White returned the next day, Mr. Robertson had him arrested for trespassing. Mr. White told me that he "never dreamed Robertson would have me arrested," and he reacted spontaneously. He announced that he would fast in jail until Mr. Robertson heard him out. As days turned to weeks and the only response from Mr. Robertson was silence, Mr. White found himself pondering what would happen if Mr. Robertson ultimately refused to meet. Should he risk death?
"For anybody as excited about living as I am, that seemed a dramatic question," Mr. White told me. But after three weeks of starvation it was a question that had to be faced. On day 22 he resolved to go all the way if need be. "And lo and behold," Mr. White says, nine hours later Mr. Robertson changed his mind, hastened to the jail, listened to Mr. White's plea and dropped all charges. Mr. White was released from jail, having won a small moral victory over one of gays' most powerful foes.
No one believes Mr. Robertson has changed his mind about gay people. But he did give in and meet with Mr. White, and that rare victory over a committed homophobe raises the question of what might happen if gays and lesbians widely adopted the tactics and philosophy of non-violent resistance that Mr. White's fast epitomized.
Not that gays are violent. Far from it. Despite Mr. Robertson's rhetoric about "gay extremists," there has never been a single queer terrorist or bomber or AIDS assassin. But neither have there been civil disobeyers languishing for years in jail. Or fasters unto the brink of death. Given the gravity of the gay struggle and the tragedy of AIDS, it seems odd that people have not voluntarily sacrificed their freedom or their lives for the cause.
True, activists sometimes get briefly arrested. Mr. White himself was trained in civil disobedience by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. But the gay movement has had a far greater flair for indignation than self-deprivation. When most people think of gay civil disobedience they probably think less of prayer vigils and fasting than of fiery slogans and clenched fists.
Activist anger is an appropriate response to oppression. But so is love, says Mr. White. And he has some of history's greatest religious and political thinkers behind him. They hold that forgiveness not only changes one's enemies, but also transforms the forgiver.
Gandhi based his belief in non-violence on the assumption that human nature "unfailingly responds to the advances of love." Love certainly worked miracles when the issue was India's independence. Mel White's quiet victory over Mr. Robertson challenges us to imagine how well it might work when the issue is love itself.
Gabriel Rotello is a columnist for Newsday.