In this nation, on the year of my birth, Freedom Riders embarked on a mission to test what progress had been made after the 1960 Supreme Court decision mandating racial integration of public schools and businesses. The place for that test was the seat of racial segregation: The South. These Freedom Riders were a diverse group of whites and blacks, college students and laborers, Catholics and Protestants, all convinced the need for equality among all Americans was so great, it was worth sacrificing one’s life for.
My father was a teacher. He recalled how a group of college students, including a few kids from the high school where he taught, stopped by our home to show where their car had been hit by buckshot. They were fired upon while traveling through rural Georgia. They became targets as outside “agitators” who became a voice for cultural change.
One of my earliest memories was sitting next to my father in a fundraiser for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I remember holding hands with someone of much darker complexion as we all sang, “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be…” The chorus went on to proclaim, “For my friends are your friends and your friends are my friends…the more we get together, the happier we’ll be.”
Those became the words I lived by as I grew into a young man.
God deposited within me a deep passion for people society esteemed the least. Those whose lifestyle and culture were so very different than my own. Those who were targets of hatred, judgment, derision and ridicule. I consistently found myself attracted to people much different than the world I came from. So much so, I married my wife of nearly 25 years. She is a woman of color who grew up in Tennessee as the grip of Jim Crow began to loosen.
Together we have forged lives intent on demonstrating the power of diversity and the cause of social justice. This cause seeks equality among all of God’s children: Black, White, Hispanic, Christian, Muslim and the many other social, religious and ethnic communities that comprise this great nation. The right to live where you wish, enjoy equal employment opportunities, and choose with whom you affiliate – even if that affiliation means a committed loving relationship with someone of the same sex.
I fear it is at this point I have crossed the line drawn by so many friends and family sympathetic to the cause of civil rights. For many, this is where the boundary should be drawn: The boundary between “gay” and “straight;” the boundary between civil rights and immorality.
I do not speak as one unfamiliar with the opposing viewpoint. I speak as one who shared this viewpoint. Someone who was convinced my opposition to homosexuality both was righteous cause and a scriptural mandate. I now feel embarrassed to have strayed so far from how I was raised. I certainly was not raised to limit the freedom of others, especially because of who they identify themselves to be.
I choose to take this stand – as others who have sacrificed far more than I – simply because it’s the right thing to do. I do so with a firmness of conviction that only comes from the truth contained in the song I learned from my childhood, “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.” Put another way, “the more we spend time together, the more we will understand the others point of view.”
I call to mind the words of my former pastor, Francis Frangipane, who told me “we talk of reconciliation – you have lived it.” An ambassador of reconciliation is what God made me, and as such an ambassador, I share my convictions with you.
I have spent the last few years “getting together” with the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. A shared lunch here, an exchange of emails there, quietly, one by one, I have made “their” friends “my” friends.
What I have learned is that this is a community ravaged by the hatred and bigotry of others. They have endured violence and attacks both obvious and hidden under the thin veil of religious doctrine. 9 out of every 10 gay teens report having been either physically or verbally abused because of their sexuality while in high school. As a result, they are a community that endures suicide rates much higher than the national average. Members of this community who perish by their own hand do so because they unable to reconcile their inner identity with the disgust others manifest towards them outwardly, and perhaps because of the disgust they harbor towards themselves. Their progenitors were forced to wear pink triangles as the Nazis pushed them into the ovens of Auschwitz. In most of these United States, they are still denied the right to what our nation’s Declaration of Independence describes as “the pursuit of happiness.”
As it was for my Father’s generation, so this too is the seminal cause of our generation. History will record who stood for the cause of individual liberty and who opposed it. You may be convinced God’s Holy Word justifies your position. I am equally convinced that same word justifies my view. History shows the best remedy for such division is, as it has always been, the right for individuals to choose for themselves. To make this choice protected by a government that esteems individual liberty over religious dogma.
Unless one is a civil rights scholar, few recall the names of those who bitterly opposed the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. As I re-read their speech transcripts, their sermons, watch their interviews with news reporters – I don’t find mere parallels – I discover the EXACT same rhetoric one hears today in defense of maintaining the status quo. Dare I say, what I’ve heard from many of you, my dear friends and former associates.
I ask you, do we have a day celebrating the life of George Wallace, Bull Conner, or Lester Maddox? We do not. They are not worthy of such a memorial. Why? Because they used social, religious, and traditional themes to justify their steadfast opposition to racial integration. When those failed, their misguided adherents, emboldened by their rhetoric, used violence.
We memorialize those who took a bold stand when the risk was high. We celebrate the lives of those who dared highlight the hypocrisy between our nation’s declaration of “freedom and justice for all” and those who we judged worthy of our prejudice.
Let me conclude by playing the part of a prophet and let my prophecy be this: That history will repeat itself. The shrill rhetoric opposing same sex unions today will be replaced by muted displeasure tomorrow – then gradually overwhelmed by the tide of decent Americans who recognize bigotry for what it is. In the end, those who formerly opposed the civil rights movement of this generation will fade away, as the benefits of individual liberty are once again made manifest.
This is my fervent hope and prayer.