Rev. Mel White is an accidental activist. He came from deep inside his closet, ghost writing biographies for leaders of the religious right, to fasting in jail because his old employers would no longer recognize him once his true identity was revealed. He was thrust into this new role by his 1992 book Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America.
“The book was so much more widely read than I thought,” White said in a recent phone interview. “We have become much more recognized than we ever thought or even wanted to be. That kind of recognition leads to good things and really high stress things.”
It also led to activism. He has fasted on the steps of the Senate to protest the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act, he has been jailed for trying to contact Pat Robertson, one of his past employers, and he has traveled the country speaking to college groups trying to get the good news to gays, lesbians and straight people alike.
It’s been an education. “I went into activism without any kind of preparation. I didn’t know the rules. I just thought you went out there and stood for truth and let the chips fall,” he said. “I got a letter from Lynn Cothren from Coretta Scott King’s office at the King Center. He told me I broke a rule by saying I would not try to get through to Pat Robertson anymore. I said ‘what are the rules?’ and he introduced me to King’s writings, which led me to Ghandi’s writings, so between the two of them I have been transformed by the soul force principal.”
It’s that soul force principal that is now the focus of White’s work. It’s the subject of his upcoming book. White explains it this way: “Ghandi and King advocate non-violent change. Principals range from ‘at the heart of the universe the soul force calls us to do justice.’ The people on the religious right are not our enemies they are simply victims of misinformation as we have been. We bring them truth and love relentlessly, and we cannot stoop to any kind of violence, even spiritual violence.”
White takes his message on the road to college campuses across the nation. “There is a sweet spirit on university campuses in terms of tolerance and understanding but at the same time Campus Crusades for Christ and other conservative religious organizations often gather in huge numbers to protest my appearance,” White observed. “They’ve tried to close down the events by taking over the mics. So you have this wonderful mixed bag of people who want me to be rejected and I’m so glad I can come onto campus and tell gays and lesbians that God loves them and God created them and they should celebrate it.”
It has taken Rev. White a long time to realize he can celebrate his sexual orientation. For years he tried to change his orientation, going through ex-gay ministries, counseling and retreats all designed to make him heterosexual. He now has an iron-clad answer for those who say gays and lesbians can change. “I say, everything in scientific inquiry says you’re wrong, everything in historic says you’re wrong, everything in my personal experience says you’re wrong, do you have any evidence, scientific, historical or personal that proves you’re right? Invariably they will quote the person who is the current poster child for ex-gay ministries then move on to say what happened to last year’s poster child nobody knows.”
He hopes sharing his experience with ex-gay ministries will help save other gays and lesbians from such an experience. “They mean well, they are sincere and they are sincerely wrong,” White asserted. “Most gays and lesbians do not choose it .. most gays and lesbians I know spend years of their lives trying to reject it and the ex-gay movement with it’s false hope is the worst kind of promise because it is one that can’t be fulfilled. In that false hope we are ten times worse off after we have tried it than if we had just been told from the beginning, ‘hey, God has a wonderful sense of humor, She made you gay, She made you lesbian, now embrace it, celebrate it and live it with integrity. Don’t even try to change it because it cannot and should not be changed.'”
But, White is adamant that gays and lesbians should be responsible in their sexual orientation. “Like I say to the university students, celebrate your homosexuality but remember you’re only homosexual occasionally when you get lucky, the fact is we are homospiritual all the time. We need to rediscover our homospirituality that gets us through all of these times and when they do get dark we know our way through them. And whatever spiritual journey you’re on renew your energy. Walt Whitman said, ‘Re-examine everything that you have been taught. Discard anything that is an insult to your soul and begin again.’ Right now we must ignore the ex-gay argument and say I’ve settled that, don’t even bring it up to me. If I’m wrong God’s grace covers me, but I’m not going to spend anymore time worrying about it. Now I’m going to live my life with joy and courage and integrity. I’m not going to pay attention to these arguments from the ex-gay people who don’t know what they are talking about and hold out false hopes that lead to death.”
With that issue settled for White, he has now moved on to fight the battle against the religious right. As the Minister of Justice for the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, White finds himself called on to keep the struggle of gays and lesbians in the forefront. Despite the triumph for gay and lesbian marriages in Hawaii, many battles remain for gays and lesbians, and White is ready to do his part. It’s a daunting battle, but White says it’s not a hopeless battle. “They told Ghandi and King the battle was hopeless. Their response was to bring the truth in love relentlessly,” White responds. “The idea of surrounding their outposts of intolerance and to constantly keep them under siege. It’s not passive, but active resistance. When there is an untruth out there that leads to discrimination and intolerance and death, we must keep going back to the truth. Violence is not effective. That makes them martyrs.”
To White, the basic rights of gays and lesbians are worth the fight. But we must be patient. “We have to mobilize ourselves during these next 4 years to keep truth before Clinton and Congress, to keep truth before our state legislators, to keep pushing it and doing justice for us and doing justice for all of the sufferers,” White emphasized. “We have to show that intolerance levels in this country are very high, and that we show by our tolerance and our understanding and our presentation of truth that we’re not going to go along with it. I think we’re winning. It’s just very slow.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.