THE GAY RIGHTS movement has made enormous strides in the last three decades.
Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, leaders such as Rep. Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and the challenge of the AIDS epidemic have unified the gay community, leading to international breakthroughs in the fight for equality.
The strongest link in this ongoing struggle, however, is the courage of solitary men and women who continue to step out of the closet and let themselves be known. This army of individuals has educated their fellow citizens by being good neighbors, hard workers and by being unapologetic about their sexual identity.
Liberal, free-thinking Christians must now follow in the footsteps of their gay brothers and sisters. Just as gay men once fought stereotypes of limp-wristed effeminacy by revealing themselves as athletes, lawyers, construction workers and teachers, citizens who embrace the teachings of Jesus must fight equally debilitating stereotypes constructed on the activities of hard-line fundamentalists and religious conservatives.
During South Carolina's recent Democratic primary debate, the Rev. Al Sharpton nailed the issue. In describing President Bush's conservative Christian supporters, he said, "I don't think they represent Christianity any more than some of these murderers, and mass murderers, represent Islam. So let's not blame the religion."
Christianity's extreme right cannot reasonably be compared to Muslim extremists or to acts of terrorism. It can, however, be held responsible for minimizing the potential benefits of a religion far greater in scope than the vocal minority that currently represents it.
Indeed, the public perception of contemporary Christianity is most effectively and unfortunately incarnated in the person of George W. Bush. The president attends church regularly. He describes his life as being "rededicated to Christ." He is hailed as the answer to the prayers of the religious right.
His actions, though, are in direct conflict with the teachings of the New Testament. A rich man from a rich family, the president's policies most often benefit his wealthy peers in contradiction to Gospel tenets on responsibility for the less fortunate. As governor of Texas, he took pride in the state's record for capital punishment. In Iraq, he chose violence over diplomacy, all in contradiction to Christ's teachings on compassion, forgiveness and the sanctity of life.
Jesus set a standard for behavior that is almost impossible to attain but nonetheless inspiring. The authority figures of his time, both fellow Jews and conquering Romans, were threatened not just by his message but by the fact that he brought that message to the outer margins of society, embracing the men and women whom others ignored.
We have to go back to Bill Clinton to find a president who attempted a similar feat. A man who stumbled in his personal life, he was the first president to speak forcibly about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, literally embracing its victims. He fought to protect the poor from mercenary public health policies. He struggled toward peace, finding diplomatic success even in the volatile Middle East. Yet he, the most Christian-acting of recent presidents, continues to be vilified by the Christian right.
Gay men and women continue to transform our society by proudly sharing their identity with friends, family and colleagues, proving that homosexuality is not a weakness, is not evil and is not contagious. Students of Christ's teachings must now do the same.
It is not necessary to proselytize; the goal is not conversion. It is possible, however, to speak of the New Testament as a living document, full of rich metaphors that transform themselves and resonate anew as our culture and society progress. It is possible to speak of Jesus as a great teacher who challenges us to step away from the ego and see the world from a broader perspective, not a narrower one.
Many Christians worship with quiet dignity, unwilling to join battle with strident evangelists who preach a single path to salvation. These silent faithful recognize that there are innumerable paths to God and that God might be called by many names. By definition, this gentle army goes largely unnoticed. Thomas Jefferson, when asked if he was a Christian, responded, "It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read." St. Francis of Assisi told his brothers, "Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words."
But the time has come to break silence and give Jesus back his good name, to free the master-philosopher from the strictures of literal and limiting Bible readings and apply his life-altering view to the unique challenges of the 21st century.
Just as the words, "I'm gay," spoken by tens of thousands of men and women over several decades, have led to deeper understanding, the simple words, "I'm a Christian," spoken by respected neighbors, friends and colleagues, might finally renew the public's trust in a man who once seemed poised to change the world.
Norman Allen, a playwright, is the author of In the Garden, an examination of spiritual and sexual mores that won the Charles MacArthur Award in 2001. He lives in Arlington, Va.