When I first picked up Dr. Robert Minor’s book, Scared Straight, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my teen years when we were made to watch the TV program of the same name. In it, hardened prisoners verbally abused teens who were headed for a life of crime. The inmates were conditioning the children – teaching them how to behave by society’s rules or face a life like theirs.
In much the same way, Minor’s book takes a close look at how society conditions us to think and act in “straight” ways through intimidation of what might happen to us if we don’t. We won’t be locked in a literal prison, but the feeling of being trapped and sentenced to a life of hard labor can certainly be the result if we fail to follow the norms set forth by “straight” society.
“‘Straight’ is a good term for the tightrope our society wants every person to walk – rigid, up-tight, narrow, self-protectively alert, highly strung. The word is used in anti-drug support groups to describe someone who is not ‘using.’ It’s used in anti-crime programs which hope to scare youth into a law-abiding lifestyle. It’s been used as the equivalent of honesty in, “Are you being straight with me?” And it’s part of the Boy Scout’s pledge to describe their standard of “morality” for real men, and now redefined to exclude gay men. It’s a broad designation for everyone who fits into the conditioning at all levels. Ideally, we are to look, act, think, speak and feel ‘straight.'” (p. 124-4)
Whosoever recently had a chance to speak with Minor, a Professor of Religious Studies and the University of Kansas and founder of the Fairness Project that serves as his vehicle as a lecturer, writer and workshop leader on issues of gender, sexual orientation and active change.
Whosoever: When I read “Scared Straight” it reminded me of an essay I read in seminary that equated homophobia with misogyny. It posited that the hatred of gays and lesbians in our world is directly linked to a hatred of the feminine in society. Your book really delves into these issues and how we can break out of the “straight” mold society stuffs us into. But, the task seems so overwhelming. How can we even begin to learn how to be anything but “straight”?
Bob Minor: The first question we have to answer is, “Why are we still stuck?” We think we need to provide better information to people or just say “the Bible doesn’t say that” and then wonder why we’re still stuck. Now I know that I have a longer term project than I ever thought. Then the next question do I go into hopelessness about it or realize we’ll never be out of work? I love the Talmudic saying: “If you have a dream that can be fulfilled in one lifetime it’s too small.”
Instead, we need to revision the problem so we don’t think, “Oh, no, I’ll never get it done in my lifetime.” Instead, realize the greatness of it, the calling of what we’re doing is that it is so huge. Instead of thinking we’re fighting a losing battle and it will never happen, no instead think that we’ve got a great thing going on here and I’m going to pass it to the next generation and I want to pass it on better and they’re going to pick it up. That’s far more empowering.
Whosoever: How do we know we’re making progress?
Minor: In Scared Straight I talk about seeing to it that I’m on an internal journey and an external journey. What I have to see in the process of any kind of activism is that I am growing in this process. If I don’t see that I am growing and learning and finding who I really am in this process then I am using activism as an addiction and it’s going to burn me out. I have to have an internal journey that says my life is a life of healing.
Then, I have to examine how this has affected me as not just a gay man, but a man who has been conditioned to be sexist. How does that hurt me and prevent me from being a full human being? That’s the internal journey, recognizing the hurt. What happens for some people who get into activism is that activism becomes a way not to deal with the internal journey, and then there is burnout and struggle.
The goal isn’t just to make this world a better place for gay people, but it also means making life better for ourselves and understanding ourselves. You’re fighting this internal message that we don’t have the right to make the world better for ourselves. The second thing is that external journey and I can do that better if I can get over things like my liberal guilt. We’ve seen the Democratic party stuck on liberal guilt, not feeling that they had the right to stand up for anything or say this is right or wrong, where the right wing party is happy to offend anyone in its path.
Whosoever: How important is activism for gays and lesbians?
Minor: Part of the internal journey is the external journey which is stopping what is hurting you and that’s what activism is and it is grounded in the belief that I have the right to say something is wrong. We liberal, progressive people have a hard time with that. We’re so hurt by people who say we’re wrong, we have a hard time saying no. We need to be able to say, “Many people disagree with me but I think it’s always wrong to discriminate against GLBT people, I believe it’s always wrong to discriminate against women. I will not justify it by tradition, I will not justify it by the Bible. I believe it’s always wrong.” When we do that we empower ourselves and take a stand against religion as an addiction, being used as an excuse not to change one’s prejudices. Once we take that stand we’re going to be the agents of change because we are saying to people who are not going to be convinced by reading books no matter how good they that we won’t act like a victim and we understand God’s will differently.
One of the questions we have to ask is: “what keeps you from sitting your parents down and saying ‘mom, dad, if you want to be around me this is how you have to act and you have to love the people I love and if you can’t do that you can’t be around me.'” If you’re 14-years-old and your parents are supporting you and would kick you out of the house then maybe you should wait. But, if you’re 40- or 50-years-old and that’s a problem you need to ask whose life you’re living? What we’re doing is keeping them from dealing with their homophobia. We’re the enabler – you don’t have to deal with your drinking around me because I’ll make excuses for you or cover up for you or not confront you about it. That is activism but it is built on the idea that I have a right to do this.
Those who say, “I am not coming out because I would lose my job if I did,” that’s being clear. But the question becomes which is more valuable to me, my job or coming out, and what can I do about it? I might change jobs or come out and see what really happens. But we need to confront people who will say these abusive things. We need to come out not just as gays but as progressives and put a face to the progressive notion.
George Bush said, “You may not agree with me but you know where I stand,” but John Kerry couldn’t say that. Democrats need to get to the place where we can say that. The key to believing you value something is you have to lose for your values to prove you really value them. The Republicans are willing to lose and keep their values, but the Democrats want to win and we’ll change our values. That tells people you don’t have any values you just want to win. We don’t want to offend people or be like the right wing so we look like we don’t stand for anything.
Whosoever: What’s your advice for dealing with people who come at us with the Bible? Some don’t know how to argue, if they should argue and walking away makes them feel like the other side wins.
Minor: The first thing is we have to give up the idea that we have to win. Our goal is not to win, our goal is to change the world. When I get into the mode of thinking I have to win an argument then I’m on a whole different plane than being with another human being who is bringing their problems at me. I never speak in terms of winning because that automatically sets you up for a loss. Even if you win it doesn’t set you up well.
The question is how do we affirm our values? How do we call people to responsibility for their prejudices? They’re using religion, the Bible and God so they don’t have to face their prejudices. They say “I wouldn’t hate gay people but God hates gay people so I have hate gay people. I’m really a nice guy, God is the rat. God’s in charge so I have to go along with him.” Blaming the Bible, blaming God or tradition instead of saying I’m prejudice against gay people and if the Bible didn’t say it I’d still be prejudiced against gay people.”
If people are really interested in knowing how to understand the Bible you could suggest they read a certain book and then talk with them about it. But, that’s usually not the reaction. Instead they want to know if it’s written by some gay person or some liberal. Then you know you’re dealing with a religious addict who is using religion to not deal with their issues. Then what you must do is model that you’re responsible for your position. You come out of the closet for your position and you repeat it by saying things like, “I know that a lot of people believe that, I don’t” or “I think that’s wrong.” Then if they say, “Well, Leviticus, or Romans says …” you repeat, “I know a lot of people interpret it that way, I don’t.”
What you are doing is saying I am a human being who does not go along with it all and hold myself total responsible to my position. That’s hard to do because we’ve been taught as children that we have no right to stand up for what we believe. So we’re fighting that internal message, but we’re calling them to responsibility. The message is you don’t know the Bible or science enough or the Greek or Hebrew enough. It has to start with the confidence that all of the arguments we’re hearing are nothing new and they were answered generations ago. There is nothing new. With that confidence I don’t have to know the answer because I can refer to great books like Daniel Helminiak or go to Whosoever and see all the good material there. But, I have to be confident in where I stand and that calls other people to be responsible for their position. We don’t blame God.
I get emails from people after I’ve written something and they’ll go into what Leviticus says and everything we’ve heard before and has been answered before. I send back a clear email saying, “I’ve received your email and I want you to understand that I disagree with every point in it. Good luck on your journey.” All the answers have been made. There’s also something interesting that they believe someone with a PhD. in religion has never heard this before.
Whosoever: Tell me about your new book.
Minor: Gay and Healthy in a Sick Society is a collection of columns I’ve been doing since 1978 and it’s written on the premise that gay people are just fine, they’re good, they’re whole, they’re complete. They have something to say to society because they are the prophets to society. They are the people who have taken the step and said that they will not be homophobic and that you can get close to their own gender – and flaunt it. When gay people have problems it’s not based on their sexual orientation, it’s problems based on the fact that they are conforming to the teachings of society that’s very sick.
The culture tells us we have problems with our relationships because there is a problem with our sexual orientation. But, there is nothing wrong with anybody that has to do with our sexual orientation. I wish straight people would believe that sexual orientation is a good gift from God. Unless they believe that they’ll fear that it can be taken away from them and they can get converted very quickly. They tell us that we can be converted so they are scared and it’s hard for them to embrace their own sexuality. They think they can lose it if they come under the wrong influence since they believe we did.
No matter what issue we deal with be it politics, religion, relationships, sex or society we must start with the assumption that we’re just fine. Our problem is when we buy into what society tells us about ourselves. For example, society tells women that they’re not worthy unless a man likes them. That makes it even more difficult for a lesbian to be convinced that it’s good enough for a woman to like. It’s the culture that’s sick, not the lesbian.
Whosoever: You said that gays and lesbians are “prophets to society.” Tell me what you mean by that.
Minor: Because we’ve been through what we’ve been through, we are a parable to the church. It’s the most subversive thing – a parable about what love really is. Because gay people know what it means to love someone and die for it, to love someone and be kicked out of their family for it, to love someone and be told they’re going to hell forever and that they deserve it.
People who have been through that and embrace that – that’s being a prophet to the church. If there is any message that Christianity has it’s that message – this love is worth whatever it takes, and love is sometimes worth dying for and we’ve done it. That’s not just being a prophet, but a model, a Christ, a parable to this society. Until the church is willing to say “that’s what love is worth,” it’s not going to live the message of Jesus at all.
We have the right to love whomever we choose. [Writer] George Lakoff has said that the government has no right to tell any adult who they can and cannot love. The right wing wants to get us off track by talking about whether it’s a choice or what about the Bible the real answer is, “No, we believe people as human beings have a fundamental right to love.”
Whosoever: What’s your opinion about gay marriage? Should our community be pursuing it?
Minor: Gays and lesbians have the right to every sick institution that gay people have. Marriage is a very sick institution right now. I hope that as we begin to look at this institution we see where we can bring healing to it. We’ve already made the big decision that we don’t have to be homophobic and that two men and two women can be close to one another. Once you’ve made that decision you’ve already countered much of the culture already.
Whosoever: What’s your vision of healing for sick institutions like marriage, the church, the military, etc.?
Minor: It means going into it as a whole person without the negative messages we’ve been taught by society. It means rejecting so many things that our society uses to set up a consumer society. It means rejecting objectifying human beings. It means looking back to what Jesus was looking for – valuing ourselves as whole and complete and finding out what that means. It means rejecting messages that you have to be in a couple to be valuable in society. It means having the courage to fight those messages. It means taking all of these messages of homophobia, racism, sexism and questioning them. It means fighting my fears about how I have to redefine myself if I don’t use those old definitions that haven’t worked for generations.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.