What We Choose to Be

Homosexuality, Choice, and Michael Sam

Is all-star college football player Michael Sam gay by choice, or by birth?

Slate writer Will Saletan makes the convincing argument that, considering all the difficult choices Sam had to make to become the athlete he is, being gay is hardly something he would've picked; and by extension, coming out is certainly something he could have elected not to do. This point has been in my arsenal since at least 1992, when my opinions about gay rights were first confronted by a well-meaning homophobe.

The impetus for this conversation was the 1992 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which was making national headlines for its quadrennial struggle over whether to relax its rules against ordaining gay pastors. In that conference, as at every time the battle has been joined, the church came down conservative, tightening rather than relaxing restrictions. Even so, the very fact that Methodists were having this debate, that it wasn't a simple given that homosexuality always has been, and always will be, a sin worthy of excommunication, led an evangelical church in Talent, Oregon, to boot the Talent United Methodist Church out of the monthly ecumenical gospel singalong. The pastor who called me to deliver the bad news was apologetic, but countered every one of my objections with a scripture verse.

In the years that followed, I acquired excellent tools for matching such prooftexting verse for verse, but I rarely used them, and eventually concluded such battles were pointless. Those who read the Bible as a collection of edicts that reinforce their own prejudices can easily ignore or deny any argument, however scholarly, that challenges such a reading, and pressing the case for more nuanced critical readings frequently causes the arguer to be considered in league with the great Deceiver. "The Bible says what it means and means what it says," one fundamentalist stalwart told me. And no, pointing out that the Bible he was referring to was actually a translation, the choice of every word subject to the personal prejudices of the translators got me nowhere. This is why Bill Nye's presence at the Creation Museum--which has already been turned by Ken Ham into a propaganda piece for his bizarre ideas--was ultimately futile. It's not about reason, and never has been.

This is not to say that evangelicals are unreachable. In fact, over the years I have encountered many persons of the evangelical persuasion who came around and found themselves open their hearts and minds to the possibility that homosexuality was not a sinful choice, but rather an innate orientation. In almost every case, their minds were changed not by logic, but by relationship: if your child, your sibling, your best friend, perhaps even your parent comes out to you, it is very hard to hold onto to the notion that this person is a pervert, a mortal sinner you must eject from your life. Mind you, many conservatives when confronted with this truth have, indeed, estranged themselves from their former loved one, at great emotional cost to all involved. But some, once they have had time to process this truth, come around for the sake of this one person; and it's not that great a leap to say if it can be true for Aunt Trudy, then why not for Ellen DeGeneres, Barney Frank, or Michael Sam?

Reading the Slate piece about Michael Sam, it seems he came out to his teammates at Missouri early in his college football career. He acknowledges that it wasn't an easy thing for all of them to accept, but I expect his openness probably made even the most homophobic of them question his prejudice. It's tempting to urge other gays and lesbians to be less closeted, to come out to more of their families, friends, coworkers. After all, the climate in the United States is becoming more gay-friendly all the time, isn't it?

The truth, though, is not so open or welcoming. Yes, there are more places now where the LGBTQ community can be open about their sexual identity without fear of persecution than has probably ever been the case in the United States; but much of the country remains stubbornly, even violently, homophobic.

I've been on the receiving end of homophobic rage a few times for taking the positions I do, and it can be terrifying: a death threat on the answering machine, a huge pickup roaring by and blasting its horn on an empty country road, graffiti on the church's front door. I can't imagine what it's like to face the prospect of this on a daily basis for simply holding hands in public--something I do without thinking with my romantic partner. So I don't hold anything against those gay people who choose to remain closeted, or if they do come out, are extremely choosy about whom they do it to.

We can't all be Michael Sam, a gifted athlete who, once he is drafted, will be playing for a team that has chosen him knowing who he is. He will have the support of his coaching staff and, almost certainly, his fellow teammates, all of them large, strong, virile men. For most of us, when we come out, whether it is a question of sexual orientation, political stance, ethnicity, or any other aspect of our identity the display of which could subject us to ridicule, rejection, or persecution, we will do so as individuals, far from the spotlight, even farther from the protections that come with it for a celebrity. The choice we will make is not about who we are, but how publicly we live that identity.

Celebrity or not, it is always a brave choice to make one's identity visible to others. Whether or not that choice puts us at risk of physical harm or discriminatory practices, it means exposing ourselves to potential rejection. I've written frequently about my disappointment with church officials paying lip service to beliefs, but never actually challenging the rules that stigmatize those beliefs if doing so would endanger their positions. The point at which doing the right thing means risking one's professional status, power, income, or privilege is hard to cross, and it's understandable that those who hold the most status in an institution are least likely to put it on the line to stand up for those who have little.

Stop for a moment, though, and think about this: oppressed people who rise up against their persecutors, who stand up and make themselves known, who out themselves in the interests of improving the world not just for themselves, but for all who are like them, put much more at risk on a daily basis than you or I (assuming you are, like me, a person enjoying some unearned privilege for racial, ethnic, gender, or orientation reasons) will ever have to face. Yes, it is essential to any civil rights struggle that the people asking for those rights be at the center of the conflict, petitioning for justice. At the same time, it is absolutely vital that they have advocates among the privileged classes.

I was privileged to study theology in seminary with Schubert Ogden, a brilliant process theologian dedicated to making the world a better place for marginalized people. One day in class he told a story about the mythologization of John F. Kennedy. Professor Ogden spent many an election day driving people to the polls. In 1968, he picked up an African-American woman who had never voted before. On their way to the polling place, he asked her why, considering how risky it still was for persons of color to vote in Dallas, she was doing this. Her reply: "If Jack Kennedy could die for this country, the least I can do is vote for it."

I hope the opportunity comes someday for me to make a choice that is even slightly as important as Michael Sam's: to be the change I would see in my world.

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