It began for me back in 1987 when I first learned that one of my favorite writers and personalities had died in France at the relatively young age of 63. James Baldwin, essayist, novelist, poet, playwright, activist, hero to many including myself, expatriated to France where he lived much of his later life. He was attracted to the cultural and political progressivism of the Left Bank, where he could escape the pressures of Jim Crow racism and the enormity of heterosexism in the United States, and where his creative energy could soar. His numerous works directly tackled issues of race, sexuality, and socioeconomic class with an unflinching and inescapable honesty, and with a clear indictment of the corrupt systems of power that dominated his native land.
Reading and listening to multiple obituaries on the day Baldwin died, I distinctly remember a particular reporter recounting an anecdote in Baldwin’s life that has stayed with me and has given me permission to feel my own similar feelings ever since. Sometime in Baldwin’s life, a white news reporter apparently asked him the question, “What do Negros want from white people?” Without hesitation, Baldwin responded, “You ask the wrong question, which should not be what we want from you, but rather, the question should be, ‘Can we forgive you?'”
I clearly understand that the ways people of color experience racism are very different from the ways queer people experience heterosexism and cissexism. Nonetheless, Baldwin’s rejoinder to the white reporter hit me like a pitcher of ice water to the face waking me and releasing the anger I had attempted to stuff inside when I was growing up during the late 1940s through the 1960s as a differently-gendered gay boy then man residing in a hostile country. Emanating from my bowels and rising to the surface gushed forth from me so many questions inspired by James Baldwin, questions in which the term “you” refers to systems of power, domination, and privilege.
So while I understand that evangelical institutions need to go through their processes and hopefully evolve to a more progressive view on LGBT civil and human rights, I continually ask myself:
Can we forgive you for defining us as “inherently disordered,” as “contrary to God’s will,” as “sinners,” as “perverts,” as “heretics,” as “Godless,” as “deceived” and “depraved,” as a “corrupting force on civilization and on the family,” as “contrary to the laws of nature,” and that our relationships “will tear down the very fabric of society”? Can we forgive you for your insulting and repugnant mantra “We love the sinner but hate the sin”? Can we forgive you in your efforts to deny me and members of my community the rights of self-definition and self-determination, and to deny us our integrity and our humanity by attempting to prevent us from maintaining our subjectivity, our agency, and our voice?
Can we forgive you as you so arrogantly tell us why and how we have come to our same-sex attractions and our gender identities and expressions, and that it is a “choice” that we can change? Can we forgive you for your abusive “religious counseling” to remove us from the so-called “gay lifestyle”? Can we forgive you for your bogus and dangerous “reparative” or “conversion therapy”? Can we forgive you for the defrocking, excommunications, purging, and banishments? Can we forgive you for turning our loved ones against us, and for making us internalize your lies?
Can we forgive you for using our bodies as stepping stones for your own ambitions and political (yes, political) advancement? Can we forgive you in your endeavors to deny me and members of my community the rights granted under the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution to equal protection under the law, and in particular the right to marry the person of our choice, to serve our country openly in the military, to equal protections in employment, housing, public accommodations, insurance, inheritance, and to pursue happiness as we see fit? Can we forgive you in your efforts to legislate us into second-class citizenship and codify your so-called “values” into law and attempt to deny us entry into the institutions of our choice? Can we forgive you in your efforts to prevent me and members of my community from gaining our rightful place in our society?