By Thomas Ehnert
There are three things in my life I am more ashamed of than anything else. The first is that I, a gay twenty-year-old man, shunned my cousin when she came out, along with the rest of my religious family. The second is that in 2004, I, a gay man, voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to a man and a woman. The third is that in 2007, I, a gay man, married a really wonderful, sweet woman. How could all this have happened?
I was a gay religious bigot. I directed bigotry against myself so furiously that it led me to shun a lesbian cousin for twelve years, to vote against my own rights, and to get married. I did all of this despite every natural instinct in my gut and head and heart literally screaming at me not to do that. Eventually that bigotry led me into suicidal thoughts, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and a completely fake, double life. I did not choose all of this dis-functionality. I was raised into it. I was indoctrinated into it. I was taught it by people who loved me and did not know what they were doing to me.
They also did not choose to be religious bigots. They based their bigotry, as I did, in their belief that a 2000-year-old book and a 2000-year-old institution trumped their human instincts, some might say God-given instincts, to let a child know that nothing—not even his sexual orientation—could make them stop loving him. And on my part, that same book and that same institution made me, contrary to all natural human instincts, be afraid that my dad, mom, sister, and the rest of my family would never speak to me again if they knew the truth about me. It led me not speak up for one of my own GLBT family members or speak to her, even though she is my cousin. It led me to alienate my own unalienable right to pursue marital happiness as a GLBT person. It led me to suppress my natural desire for love with someone of my own gender. That kind of unnatural self-hate is not a choice.
My bigotry didn’t disappear when I came out a few years later. No, when I came out is when I really started hating myself, because then self-bigotry was coupled with depression that I had let down all these religious bigots, whom I truly and dearly loved, even though they were now shunning me too! So I fell even deeper into depression, substance abuse, and thought more and more about killing myself.
Lately I have seen the slogan going around, “Being gay is not a choice; religious bigotry is.” No, religious bigotry is not a choice. It is so completely unhuman. It goes against every natural instinct, whether you believe that instinct comes from God or evolution. “Religious bigots” are human beings just as we are. They were indoctrinated to do what a sacred text has often through the centuries been interpreted to do. The design for living laid down in some portions of sacred texts actually differentiate between people. Some people are considered different from others: Jews from Gentiles, Christians from Jews, men from women, masters from slaves, clergy from laity, and, yes, straights from gays. For most of its history, the Christian Church and the civilizations it dominated interpreted “different from” to mean “better than.”
Being gay is not a choice. None of us can recall the day we chose to be gay. Being a religious bigot is not a choice. As a former religious bigot, I can assure you I never made a choice to become a religious bigot. It was a learned way of seeing the world, and seeing myself. It took me years to take off my bigotry goggles to see myself and my life and my world as they truly are. I am a human being with a life worth living fully and happily. Once I grasped that fact, then I could see that every human has the same life worth living fully and happily.
That’s why it makes me cringe when people in the GLBT community start to think in terms of “them” and “us.” “They” may be religious bigots, but they, too, are human beings. “They” are our parents, our grandparents, our children, our relatives, our friends. In fact, “they” are, in all likelihood, just as emotionally and psychologically damaged by religious bigotry as we are when it comes to sexuality. The guilt, shame, and fear that GLBT human beings are made to feel by some over their sexuality is the exact same shame, guilt, and fear that straight human beings are made to feel over their own sexuality. And just as many GLBT people sought relief in religion from that shame and guilt, so straight human beings look for relief in religion as well. Sometimes “they” hate themselves so much, “they” hate “us” too.
What the gay rights movement has to be about is not just gay sex and gay love and gay marriage. Maybe what we can contribute to society is a new understanding of human sexuality, human love, human marriage—an understanding free of guilt, shame, and fear. It’s going to take a long time to undo thousands of years of psychological damage done by a culture that embraced a low view of human sexuality (read: only for procreation). But this will never happen if “we” think of ourselves as “we,” and religious bigots, as “them.”
Recently I told my six-year-old son about a friend who married his boyfriend. My son said, “Oh! That’s really nice!” He hasn’t been taught that there’s an “us” and a “them.” He just knows that it’s nice when people love each other. Is that too simple? Or is that too profound? Let’s love religious bigots into love, engage them, talk with them. Maybe then they’ll see and we’ll see that there really is no “they” and there really is no “us.” We’ll just all see ourselves as human beings.