The Surprise of Lynchburg

I was one of the 200 members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and allies community to meet the weekend of Oct. 23-24 with Rev. Jerry Falwell and 200 of his followers in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Having been raised a Southern Baptist, holding my undergraduate degree from a (then) Southern Baptist university, and having lived all of my life in vastly Southern Baptist communities in North Carolina and Virginia shapes my perception of the gathering. My perception is also shaped by my 20 years as a queer activist in the South…the fact that my lover of 14 years died of AIDS in 1996…the fact that I am not a member of the people-of-faith community…and the fact that many of my friends have been hurt or killed by anti-gay violence.

As I expected, Falwell and his followers were gracious and hospitable. (A typical Southern trait which has little to do with anything in the final analysis.) In their eyes, we queers are sinners, we’re going to hell, that’s it for that…could you please pass me the lemonade and take a little for yourself before you do?

Something happened that I did not expect though: Jerry Falwell said he was sorry for what he has said about us because perhaps some of what he has said may have led to anti-gay violence. Duh! WAIT! Jerry Falwell apologized!!! That’s a new one for me. In all my dealings with folks like Falwell, I know about the rarest thing one can ever expect is for someone like him to actually admit that something they have done or said is wrong. Jerry went the next critical step to say that he is going to be more careful about what he says in the future because he wants to stop the violence. I’m of a mind to think this is a remarkable, positive step.

Among the 200 of us, there were three gay/lesbian graduates of Liberty Baptist University (Jerry’s college in Lynchburg). Those folks spoke through tears and with passion directly to Jerry. There were dozens and dozens of clergy from many different religions who stood firm in their belief in love, compassion, and understanding. There was Rev. Mel White who worked for and with many leaders of the radical religious right movement in this country before coming out himself. Surrounding us were the pictures of all the human beings who were murdered in recent months…the known victims of hate crimes.

As I thought about why I felt compelled to attend this meeting in Lynchburg and I considered what might actually come of it all, I looked at the pictures. I thought of the people represented by those pictures who were savagely beaten and murdered. I decided that the reason I was there was because I know that the hate directed toward us every day is derived in large measure from the hateful rhetoric which spills out of our TV sets, our radios, from our pulpits, and from our corner taverns every day. It’s important that we tell folks when they hurt us; it’s important that they know that hateful words can translate to hateful acts.

I care deeply and passionately about violence. I hold Jerry and many others responsible for words that have led and continue to lead to violent acts. I abhor that. Jerry heard condemnation of his words this weekend from two hundred of us and we looked him in the eyes when we told him and his followers our stories. He told us he’s going to try to do better; we’ve told him that we’ll hold him to his word and we’ll go back to him if he lies to us. Jerry’s new promise isn’t necessarily much, but it is more than we’ve had before from a continuous leader of the radical religious right in this country.

Now we need to hold Jerry to his new standard. If he falls back to this hateful ways, we should remind him again and again of his promises. We should look him in the eye again and again. We should actively engage others who believe as he does and tell them of the pain and violence their words subject us to.

Also, we should renew our efforts across this country to stop violence, to stop acts of verbal violence whether those words come from a preacher, a co-worker, a politician, a parent, or a neighbor. As we at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force know, our work must take place at every level and at every venue because equality begins at home.