I remember meeting John Rechy when I was working among Los Angeles’s LGBT survivor prostitutes over 30 years ago at the LGBT Center . They were runaway and throw-away teenagers from Midwestern Christian homes. The question loomed as to what was more immoral -- to be engaged in same-gender prostitution or making your own child homeless just because they were gay?
Rechy was the grandfather of this dark, rejected underworld and somewhat of a legend in Los Angeles. He had defined his sexuality and identity as the sexual outlaw and gay rebel described in the raunchy characters of his successful novel “City of Night” (1963). James Baldwin described Rechy’s vocation thus:
"Rechy is the most arresting young writer I've read in a very long time. His tone rings absolutely true, is absolutely his own; and he has the kind of discipline which allows him a rare and beautiful reckless."
As the book just turned 50 years old, we have a remarkable reference point to reflect on an emerging morality within LGBT culture, politics, traditions and even religion. Our collective response to the HIV epidemic and contemporary support of organizations like the Trevor Project for LGBT youth is truly inspirational. We now have excellent moral role models from Tammy Baldwin to Gene Robinson.
This year, we lived to see same-gender marriage approved for even more Americans and, even more shocking, the Vatican inviting bishops all over the world to comment on how that could take more pastoral care of same-gender unions in their jurisdictions, so there has been a remarkable shift in moral consciousness. My head is spinning.
However, like the shock of 21st century globalization and instant everything, our brains and attitudes may not be fully prepared for an emerging LGBT morality, if such a thing actually exists. Rechy represents the roaming sexual outlaw predator, freed from the chains of acceptability and conformity to do whatever he wants knowing the price of this rebellious freedom is his utter criminality, immorality and rejection by the majority of people in his society. Oscar Wilde notes the vital role these characters play in the advancement of human moral consciousness:
“What is termed Sin is an essential element of progress. Without it the world would stagnate, or grow old, or become colourless. By its curiosity Sin increases the experience of the race. Through its intensified assertion of individualism it saves us from monotony of type. In its rejection of the current notions about morality, it is one with the higher ethics.”
The Moral Majority is neither
Morality is more than sexual rules and traditions, but when these two mysteries copulate, we have human attention in a very different level. The sins of the bedroom are much more delicious than the sins of the boardroom, even though the latter may often cause the most harm to the more people. Whether you are an rich African dictator or a suburban stockbroker who travels from respectable suburbia to the forsaken Godless city to rape and pillage as much loot as possible before returning to the pristine villas of Orange County, Nantucket or Upstate New York, it is always vital to keep the public’s attention on personal morality than corporate.
Even philanthropy can become another tool in the smoke and mirror game of appearing to be a moral person, organization or company. This kind of public philanthropy is described by Jesus in the contract between the rich business leader who gave his charitable donations with great prayers and gestures while a poor humble widow who apologizes to God for giving so little when she gives her last mite. It was clear to the listener who was the truly moral person and who was simply a good actor.
Ancient collective wisdom found in holy Scriptures often answer the difficult question of defining morality for us (doing work which only each one of us can do) by offering two characters or two narratives while the inquisitive listener is invited to decide which one is right?
For example, there are two accounts of creation in Genesis, one creation story is good, while the second version describes creation as so bad, it is destroyed by an angry God in a great flood. People who genuinely believe that people are basically good (even though they may make bad decisions and mistakes) are often more open and generous in their attitude to others and come from a place of abundance in creation that humans share in. People who fear creation as inherently flawed, evil and cursed by God, often come from a place of scarcity and extreme judgment.
Both are moral people and they have equally valid moral frameworks and myths to build their personality traits upon. These personality traits create religions, cultures, economies and ways of relating. LGBT people, like the general population, fit into this binary moral model. I know LGBT people who are truly afraid to leave the arks of West Hollywood or the Metropolitan Community Church where they have protection from the chaos and violence of heterosexdom.
As much as both communities do offer care, fulfillment and protection, the exterior reality remains hostile and unenlightened to gay sensibilities and realities. We prefer going to gay bars and living in gay neighborhoods and I share in some of this identity bias myself given my experience, age and the kind of difficult work I do in places where it really is hell for LGBT people. Arks of safety are not bad; they are important places where the soul is not quite destroyed. Arks are about transition, not permanence.
We need to find places where we are thriving and can find our potential. Arks become dangerous only when we have the opportunity to walk on dry land and encounter the other who does not destroy us and may actually love us as we are, but we are too damaged or programmed to step out.
The church as the ark of certainty
We can also see this symbolic archetype in different Christian churches (and also in movements within Islam) which sees themselves as the divinely protected ark tossed to and fro by the chaos of the sinful world. Their only salvation is to protect God’s revealed morality by following certain rules and regulations. There is an equally powerful symbolic moral archetype within the great religious traditions that offers an entirely different model where members of the chosen community have a particular responsibility to repair creation which is the domain and joy of the Creator. God is not separate from these activities.
We are in this together, believer, non-believer, moral and immoral, man and women, LGBT and straight, even though the institutions this community creates will share in the brokenness and limitations of that which it seeks to repair. For example, recent comments and actions from Pope Francis, especially in his personal attitude to people the church had historically described as outside the ark of the church, i.e. immoral (gays, divorced people and non-believers) is an example of the profound shift both in attitude and a new morality that Pope Francis is engaging the church to explore. He is dangerously redefining the dominant moral ground upon which the billion-member Catholic Church now pivots. He inherited a moral framework where the church’s Curia in Vatican saw their purpose as the captain of this small ark containing the faithful while everyone else (outside the Catholic church) perished in their ignorance and unbelief.
Francis does not believe this moral framework. He is much more a “creation is basically good” kinda guy. He is deeply concerned that the preoccupation with certain types of personal morality has allowed corporate sin to ignore the cries of the poor, marginalized and unemployed. This is the first global south Pope and he comes to the table of northern European religious and political privilege with an opportunity to redefine the moral compass of one of the World’s largest institutions. It is a huge gamble and the stakes could not be higher. Although many of us focus solely on the LGBT piece of this major global repair job, we are certainly not the worst-affected population the Pope is trying to include.
What is next?
However, when the persecution stops and the sexual non-conformist outlaw (as we have been collectively perceived) is also invited to the table, the altar or the African health clinic, what moral changes might actually take place in both the victim (LGBT community) and the perpetrator (Church)?
Forgiveness is always one of the most difficult moral dilemmas for humans because it invites us to redefine our identities and that we are bound to each other (either as good creation or bad creation). Forgiveness and reconciliation are frightening to many of us because it forces us to given up notions and frameworks of ourselves and others that may no longer work or be applicable. A friend once described passion as “something that is difficult to find or to possess fully.” His example noted the church’s negative attitude to sex and LGBT sex in particular, created an enormous energy or a kind of rebellious passion that has basically fueled the modern LGBT movement for over half a century.
What might change in the LGBT movement if that exterior moral oppression of us was radically altered? The recent statements by the Pope may be the beginnings of that shift and not all people are welcoming it. Catholic bishops in the US, who have spent a large part of their careers fighting LGBT people, our organizations and marriage equality are now having to fill out a questionnaire on how they might provide pastoral care for gay Catholic couples? Do you think they are fully welcoming this new morality? In a similar vein, the LGBT movement has found its unity and drive in fighting these larger institutional moral forces, belief and political systems and what are we going to do when we finally become acceptable? Like Rechy, this shift will be too much for a lot of LGBT people who have been so defined as “other” that we are too old and hardwired to change. The battle will certainly continue in the global south for the next 20 years, but again, for those of us involved with global south morality issues for LGBT people, the shift is not a welcome one.
For example, after many years of engaging in conversations with leaders in the Human Rights Campaign about international LGBT issues and how to stop the exportation of homophobia to the Global South, I was surprised to read an extremely negative response this week from a colleague who sees HRC’s engagement as a new moral dilemma for global issues. Is this neo-imperialism? Is the HRC agenda including marriage equality going to make it more difficult for Global South activists and their straight allies to do the transformative work needed so millions of LGBT people will no longer be sexual outlaws? Scott Long established Human Rights Watch’s LGBT program and is one of the most informed international experts on LGBT issues I know. His blog is worth reading and it illustrates the new dilemma and moral challenges and decisions people are going to be making – now we are globalized.
The power of globalization and the Internet -- simply to have more access to information or to engage more fully than ever before in any situation, also gives us the double-edged sword of harming more and creating new forms of discrimination and exclusion, even within the LGBT community. For example, as we are seeing an emerging sense of African LGBT identity that is highly critical and suspicious of any international organization or person who is somehow not an authentic African, they are sometimes silenced or marginalized in ways that may not help build a new global LGBT morality, if that is achievable at all. If God is consistent with us, as She was with other marginalized and persecuted communities in the past, the most help we can expect is to have two LGBT dominant moralities with the open invitation to exercise one!
Is creation good or evil? As usual, one will be about power, imperialism and economic exploitation while the other will be about the quest for human abundance, the common good and true equality. Both will be claiming an LGBT identity and morality but intentions, values and outcomes will be entirely different. Religion will simply bless both and use holy texts to defend their God given moral position that now makes us somewhat “respectable.” Just because some of us are sitting a the table does not mean to say the issues facing others in line going out of the dining room and down the road are being addressed. The ultimate moral vision is everyone is invited to the party and there is plenty of room, plenty to eat and drink and God is the host.
In time, LGBT people can define the moral compass for the general society
Ironically, in his own way, the symbolic character of John Rechy stuck his metaphorical immoral pole in the sand before Stonewall and helped to define the morality of his age and maybe even the new Promised Land some of us are sweetly entering. In the late 1950s, Rechy, the sexual outlaw, was accused of being TOO promiscuous, TOO flaky, TOO unstable for anyone to take him seriously and by having the moral courage to take his place, he actually helped mainstream society develop its norm. The norm he wrote about was actually quite ugly, violent and so a different kind of morality had to emerge. And here we are.
This process of moral redefinition is happening all over the world where LGBT and ally organizations, the modern manifestations of the sexual outlaws of the 21st century, are forcing their families and institutions to take their morality from their “sticks in the sand.” Institutions that are supposed to protect the morals of their country, including the right to free speech, association, care in prisons, religious health clinics and basic human decency, are becoming immoral in their inhumanity and while the documentation is there of all to see, it will be difficult for these institutions to keep up this level of hypocrisy for long. President Musevene once told the Ugandan LGBT community that they would be shot like dogs in the streets if there was ever a gay pride celebration and he is a perfect example of how LGBT people are reshaping the morality of the world and what this may mean for our own changing LGBT identities. Musevene publically denied the existence of LGBT Africans for years but he now openly talks about us. He has seen lots of little sticks in the sand and his country has been so negatively portrayed in the international community as oppressive to LGBT people that even his morality towards us must eventually change. There have been two gay pride parades in Uganda and the sun still rises.
I close with a thought to reflect upon this week from another sexual outlaw -- Oscar Wilde who has become one of our most respectable LGBT icons: “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike.”
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE RGOD2 appears on SDGLN and GLBTNN.