As 2011 draws to a close, the year has seen clear progress for gay rights, with the repeal of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and New York State’s acceptance of same-sex marriages, changes that Rev. Howard Bess regrets some organized religions have opposed.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
About 40 years ago, while serving as pastor of a church in Southern California, I became aware that I had members of my congregation who were gay. Further, over a period of time, I discovered that I had parents of gay sons and daughters in my congregation.
Being a pastor became even more of a challenge when I discovered gay men and gay women in my congregation who were in heterosexual marriages that were not functioning well.
I tried to talk to my clergy friends, but no one even wanted to talk about it. I maintained many positive relationships with my fellow clergy, but in some ways I became the loneliest minister in the area. I committed myself to learning about the homosexual phenomenon.
I read everything I could find on the subject, though there wasn’t much on the library shelves. I talked with every gay person, who was willing to share his or her experiences. I got an education that had been totally ignored in college and the seminary.
Full civil rights for our African-American citizens was the hot issue of the nation then, yet I concluded that discrimination against gay people was just as evil as racial discrimination. My frustration also was founded in the reality that Christian churches were (and are) the headquarters of anti-gay discrimination.
My journey was made a bit easier because I had learned a profound lesson in seminary. As an ordained clergyperson, I was specifically forbidden by Jesus to judge and condemn. My call as a minister was to what the Apostle Paul called the ministry of reconciliation. My task was to assist in the reconciliation of gay people to God, to family, to spouse, to neighbor, and even to enemies.
In my relationships with gay people, my rejection of them was never a possibility. Reconciliation was always my task. Yet, as my thinking and understanding developed, I found that the feet of the opposition to gay rights were stuck in concrete. Making progress in the struggle for gay acceptance and the establishment of their rights was hard work and slow. At times the task seemed nearly impossible. But, finally, things are changing.
I am happy to report that 2011 has been a very good year for gay rights. Many positive things have happened, including:
–The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
President Bill Clinton made promises of support to the American gay population, including allowing gay men and Lesbians to serve in the U.S. military without discrimination. However, he ran into heavy opposition by top officers in the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. So, a flawed compromise emerged, known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” as a presidential order in 1993.
Under the policy, gay and Lesbian young people could serve in the U.S. military if they stayed in the closet. In return, the military was not supposed to investigate their sexual orientation. But DADT never worked the way some had hoped. Over the 18 years of the policy, more than 13,500 service persons were discharged from military service under “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
President Barak Obama promised the gay population that “don’t ask, don’t tell” would be repealed, and finally Congress repealed the policy and President Obama signed the legislation into law. It became effective on Sept. 20, meaning that official discrimination against gay people in the military is over.
–The approval of gay marriage in the State of New York.
On June 24, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a measure that gives same-sex couples the same right to marry that historically had been accorded only to heterosexual couples, making New York the sixth state to grant gay people full marriage rights.
Either by legislation or by court action, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont have granted marriage rights to gay couples. Yet, what is so significant about New York is its huge population, meaning that the trend is firmly established and there will be no turning back.
In any movement, milestones are important. The action of the State of New York is one of those milestones.
–Proposition 8 in California.
California is important because it is the state with the largest population. It is also important because Proposition 8 powerfully illustrates the intertwining of religion and politics.
The history of gay marriage rights in California is lengthy and has taken many turns. California passed a ballot measure banning gay marriage, but the California Supreme Court overturned the measure thus establishing the legality of gay marriage.
Opponents quickly put a referendum measure, Prop. 8, on the ballot in 2008. It said that only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid in the State of California. The measure passed, but a federal judge ruled that Prop. 8 was a violation of the U.S. Constitution. And in 2011, Prop. 8 was back in court possibly headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where gay rights activists may finally get a definitive ruling.
An important side issue in Prop. 8 is the involvement of two large religious bodies in the effort to pass the measure. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) led the effort, with Mormon sources raising more than half of the funds to support Prop. 8 and Mormons staffing over 80 percent of the workers going door to door on the measure’s behalf.
The Mormon efforts were supplemented by the Knights of Columbus, a service organization related to the Catholic Church, providing the second largest source of funds. Of course, the Catholics and Mormons have every right to participate in a public debate and no one is suggesting that they did anything illegal or unethical. But the Prop. 8 struggle underscored what for me is a troubling role of religion in denying gays and Lesbians their basic civil rights.
Yet, all in all, 2011 was a very good year for gay rights.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is [email protected]. He is the author of the book, Pastor, I Am Gay.