Righteous Indignation:by David A. Young
Battling Institutionalized Hate Crimes
"What About the Love?" asks the title of Marc Adams' brochure describing his work. That question sums up his challenge to families and religious institutions with beliefs and policies that discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation. When I heard him speak recently, two things jumped out at me: his refusal to let people abuse him just because they were in his family, church, or school, and the fact that he unflinchingly labeled such abuse "hate crimes."
Marc is the author of an autobiography, The Preacher's Son, which recounts his life growing up in a home in which Jerry Falwell was considered a leftist liberal. His parents cited biblical authority for all manner of physical and emotional abuse against Marc and his sisters, and since their father was a respected Baptist minister, the children's attempts to stop it were not taken seriously.
Because of his "brainwashing," as he calls it, Marc asked God to take his life when he realized that he had homosexual feelings. Over his parents' protests, he enrolled in Falwell's Liberty Baptist College (it became Liberty University in 1988); he didn't tell them that it was because he had heard that they could "cure" homosexuality. Once there, his life became a nightmare of trying to live contrary to his true nature. If one was even suspected of being gay at Liberty, one had two choices: expulsion or counseling.
Despite the heartache that Marc experienced as a result of the pressure to conform to the school's standards, despite the humiliating expulsions and suicides of his friends (and his unsuccessful attempts to take his own life), he continued to live a lie until just before graduation. His epiphany came when he was working phone lines as a recruiter for Liberty.
The caller at the other end was a priest whose lover had just died of AIDS. He had heard Jerry Falwell claim that AIDS was God's punishment for homosexuality, and Marc, even while quoting the party lines about loving the sinner but hating the sin and about homosexuality being a "choice," found himself unable, for the first time, to keep his sanctimonious distance. The priest finally got him to see the truth that sexual orientation and who we fall in love with are not decisions we make, but part of who we are.
Freed from his arrogant and hypocritical past, Marc, along with Todd Tuttle (at left and right, respectively, in the photo above), his partner of ten years (they were classmates at Liberty), now spends his time, money, and energy offering support services to youth in Christian high schools and colleges who are dealing with issues of sexuality and self-esteem in environments that support neither.
Feeling a personal investment in seeing these problems addressed, I welcomed the opportunity to discuss their efforts with them. Ten years ago, I saw T. S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral, and was struck by a line about "those giving love to God alone." That brief theatrical moment introduced me to the concept of soul murder, crystallizing my experience in a family in which the love of God superceded and ultimately prevented all other love.
Noting the scriptural injunction to "die to" oneself and Jesus' warning that "anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me," both Todd and Marc mentioned several times as we talked that "the gay issue aside," they had never felt loved in their families, churches, or schools, either.
Adams is aware that he is using strong language with the term "hate crime," and that the beliefs and policies he is fighting are protected by the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion. "A hate crime is anything that goes against the basic goodness of humanity," he told me. The fact that an act is protected by religious freedom "doesn't mean it's not a crime against humanity or against those kids. Slavery [once biblically justified] didn't used to be a crime either, until somebody started saying, 'This is wrong.'
"We let things slide by, thinking we can't do anything to change them, and so we don't call them what they really are," he continues. He laments the fact that an action legally defined as a hate crime in a public school is not prosecutable in a Christian one. "It's a shame that these kids, who are forced to go to Christian schools in many cases especially grade schools and high schools are withheld from protection."
I pointed out the damage done to kids' self-image in both the home and school (public as well as private) environments around issues beyond sexuality. "Oh, yeah," Marc agreed, "self-esteem in general. At the schools I went to, there was very little freedom to be who you are no matter who you are, and their rules about heterosexuality are almost as ridiculous as their rules about homosexuality."
"The fact that people believe something does not give them the right to mistreat others."
He is troubled by the fact that evangelical activists have positioned themselves politically to "run the public schools just like Christian schools. Now you have school boards, principals, and supervisors that...run the schools as they see fit, not in the way that's in the best interest of the country or of the children."
I asked Marc what was going through his head when he thought it was okay God's mandate to put people down because of who they were, and it all came down to evangelizing. "I was born a sinner and needed to be saved from going to hell," he explains. "Now it's my responsibility as a Christian to go out and evangelize the world.
"If anyone I came in contact with and did not witness to and try to convert to Christianity if they died without finding Christianity and they went to hell and I got to heaven, God was going to point His finger at me and say, 'This person's in hell because of you,' and their blood would be on my hands. They convinced me that 'being concerned for others' or, as I call it now, being judgmental was what I needed to do."
I asked if God's "pointing His finger" felt like God was giving him the finger, and Marc replied, "Exactly. If fundamentalist Christianity was really true, then I was screwed before I was born. Since I was gay ever since I was conceived, I never had a chance to win at this game of getting to heaven."
Todd mentioned another reason for religious persecution: "A lot of times, we use religion to make us feel superior to other people. I used to be told that I was 'holier than thou'; boy, did I resent that! I was 'just a sinner saved by grace.' The fact that people believe something does not give them the right to mistreat others.
"We're taught that we have to respect our families whether or not they show us respect, and I think that's not respecting ourselves. We're not taught to respect ourselves first, and that's why we allow ourselves to be abused. We feel guilty for caring for ourselves, and that's harmful. Family members who don't even love themselves can't begin to love others!"
Both men spoke compassionately about the fact that their parents had grown up in similar households and had not, themselves, experienced love. This brought me to the subject of forgiveness. Had Marc, now that he had experienced love, managed to forgive his family?
"There's nothing to forgive," he told me. "My parents decided to have children. When they chose to have me as a child, they also took on the responsibility of loving me, regardless of what came out of my mother's womb: whether I became a mass murderer, the next Albert Einstein, handicapped, or whatever.
"Saying that I forgive my parents for what they've done to me makes it sound like I'm the victim. In reality, they're the ones with the problem. I think they need to find help to have somebody help them understand that, as parents, they dropped the ball and shunned their responsibility.
"When I told them I was gay, I wasn't trying to change their belief system. I was being honest with them about who I was for the first time in my life. It's not my responsibility to make them accept me; that's their job as parents. I don't have to convince them that their belief system is mean and hateful; that's something they have to figure out on their own."
Todd adds, "In their brains, they think it's love, but their definition of love is so different from unconditional love. As much as we stand up and say that it's hateful, they're going to say that it's love." Both men warn about the futility of "preaching matches" in trying to change people's minds.
Adams stresses that he wrote the book and mounted his outreach program solely to help people, not to vindicate himself or to gain anyone's approval. "Who cares what they think? So many times, we do things trying to get some sort of acceptance or a nod of the head from these people, and we don't need it!"
He and Todd now work to "empower students enough so that they know how to walk away from abuse. We just want them to know what they're going to be up against, and make them feel that they have somewhere to turn if they do feel like walking away."
I asked what New Times readers could do to support their work. "Be out," was Marc's first response. He suggests writing letters to one's high school and college and saying, "I went to your school, and this is what happened," then telling your story. Kids are often too ashamed of being gay-bashed to report it, or (for good reason) afraid to, for fear that the teacher or counselor will ignore or encourage the abuse.
In raising our children and in being examples for young people in general, we all need to be proud of who we are and not let others treat us like second-hand citizens. Most importantly, we have to treat them with love they can feel (not just tell them we love them), affirming their gifts and their uniqueness (please see the features and book reviews on spiritual parenting elsewhere in this issue).
There are many ways to get involved at the grassroots level; contact Marc and Todd (see below) for ideas or if you wish to receive a list of schools in your area where problems have been reported. Finally, don't let any anti-gay joke or comment go unchallenged.
His experiences led Marc, at one time, to swear that he would never set foot in a church again. Now, though, he says, "I can't become like them. I can't be afraid of them like they're pushing us. I had to learn through experience to respect what other people believed, and that just because someone disagreed with me didn't make him any less a person. In the world I was brought up in, it did."
Marc Adams, the author of The Preacher's Son, and Todd Tuttle are the founders of HeartStrong, the first networking and support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students at religious high schools, colleges, and universities and their supporters. Write them in care of Window Books at 1011 Boren Avenue #199, Seattle, WA 98104, call (206) 215-4536, or e-mail email@example.com