Walk Away Stranger at the gate By Mel White Word that I was gay spread quickly among my ol

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Walk Away Stranger at the gate By Mel White Word that I was gay spread quickly among my old ghostwriting clients and friends on the Religious Right. Contracts and unwritten agreements we had made to do a book or film together were canceled. My letters and faxes were ignored. My phone calls went unanswered. Because I had been honest about my sexual orientation, it was becoming painfully clear that I could no longer serve the very people who had heaped honors and awards on me for my lifetime of contributions to Christ and His church. In spite of my graduate degrees in ministry and twenty-five years of Christian service as a pastor, a seminary professor, a writer of best-selling books, and a producer of prize-winning religious films, admitting I was gay ended all chances of continued service. For the first time in my life, I began to wonder seriously how I would support my family, but even more important, I began to wonder what I should do to help turn back this growing avalanche of bigotry, discrimination, and violence the Religious Right had loosed against us. About that time, the Reverend Michael Piazza, pastor of the largest gay/lesbian church in the world, called to ask if he could drop by our cottage on the beach at Laguna for a visit. I knew Michael and his amazing congregation. A year earlier, they had invited me to preach a spiritual-emphasis weekend in Dallas while their church was still meeting on the group floor of an embarrassingly pink office building they had rented when they outgrew their four hundred seat sanctuary on Reagan Street. Michael parked his rental car near our cottage, hugged me cheerfully, and suggested immediately that we take a long walk on the beach. He didn't even take time to change his shoes before we were in the wet sand, walking through the tide pools, I pointed out a peregrine falcon that lived in a magnificent wind-twisted pine high on the cliffs above Shaw's Cove. I picked up sea slugs stranded by the high tide and showed him Nuns' Cove with its fresh assortment of shells and driftwood. We walked along Crescent Beach and passed by a series of fascinating caves en route to Seal Island. I was chatting about the wonders of Laguna. Michael was polite, but anxious to get on with business. When I paused on my typically frenetic walk just long enough to watch a large flock of pelicans flying by, Michael took advantage of the pause to ask what he had come to ask. "I want you to be the dean of our new cathedral in Dallas," he said directly. "I don't have any money to pay you, at least not yet. We've spent all our funds building the cathedral, but we want you to seriously consider coming anyway." I was genuinely surprised by Michael's offer. Quickly, he explained that his commitment as senior pastor to preaching, teaching, and administering the largest lesbian/gay church in the world required his full-time attention. He needed someone to help develop the cathedral's ministry as a spiritual center for the gay and lesbian community. He had dozens of speaking and writing opportunities he couldn't accept. Michael also wanted to establish a national television ministry and to launch nationwide Circles of Hope, small, informal study and action groups that would help gays and lesbians in towns and villages across the country where there was currently no proactive, pro-spiritual gay or lesbian presence. In 1970, just two years after the Reverend Troy Perry founded the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, one of the earliest sister congregations was founded in Dallas, Texas. Under the leadership of the Reverend Don Eastman, and now, the Reverend Michael Piazza, that congregation the Cathedral of Hope UFMCC has grown to be the largest Christian church in the world with a primary ministry to lesbians and gays, their friends and families. I was looking for a safe, supportive place to come out against my old clients on the Religious Right, to help alleviate the suffering caused by their homophobic rhetoric to my gay brothers and lesbian sisters, to write my own coming-out story, and to see where God would lead. All my life I had felt called to a Christian ministry. At this moment when my old opportunities to minister were dying, it seemed that God was using Michael and the Cathedral of Hope to bring new ones to life. No actual job description was agreed upon. "If you'll just come to Dallas and do your thing there," Michael told me, something will happen that will honor Christ and help extend the Cathedral's ministry to the nation." Little did we know how prophetic Michael's words would be. Michael didn't even spend the night. He rushed back to the airport and left me alone on the beach considering the implications of the move from California and my beloved family to Dallas, Texas, the place Michael called "the buckle of the Bible Belt." The first consideration was my family. Lyla was working sixty and more hours a week with her army of volunteers at All Saints Church, where she had become the director of stewardship and was being invited to conduct seminars in fundraising all across the country. Lyla was staffing two major campaigns a year to support the ministry of this influential parish, including model programs for the homeless, people with AIDS and their caregivers, health care for Pasadena's uninsured school children, pre-school child care, substance abuse, and low-cost housing. On those rare occasions when she could take a day off, she came to Laguna and we walked the beach together, talking about everything, but especially about our children and the ways that God had blessed them. Not only had they survived those difficult days of our struggle and stress, but they had grown into creative, responsible, loving adults who shared our values and enjoyed our presence. Everything was changing so fast. Erinn had graduated from Azusa Pacific with her teaching credentials in elementary education. When she and her classmate, Bob Harriman, were married, they had asked me to conduct the service. Bob had then gone on to earn his master's degree in student administration and had later accepted a position in a nearby Christian university. Erinn remained busy caring for our granddaughter, Katie, who was just a few months old. When Michael graduated from Wesleyan with honors, Lyla and I sat drenched and proud in a rainstorm with a plastic raincoat held over our heads watching him cross the platform to receive his diploma. Protesting that he didn't want to cost us "any more money," we finally managed to convince him to let us underwrite his first year of writing. Halfway through that year, Michael was hired to write a film script for Twentieth Century Fox. Already, he had an impressive little office on the lot at Fox Studios near Century City. In my files I had a collection of the plays my son had written, directed, and performed at Wesleyan, and his posters and other memorabilia were tacked proudly to my office walls. When I told my family about the offer to move to Dallas, Lyla looked sad for a moment, and then after a few honest words of warning and a genuine smile of support, she encouraged me to accept the Cathedral's offer. Erinn was immediately happy that I would be working in a church again, but insisted that I return for Katie's first birthday party. Michael was genuinely glad that my ghostwriting days were over. "Go for it, Dad," he said, grinning. One by one they hugged me. I didn't even try to hide my tears. I loved my family and wanted always to be near them. Besides, I had a brand-new granddaughter and I wanted to see her pass through each of those delightful stages from infancy to maturity. I wanted to carry her around on my back in the old pack that I had used to carry Erinn and Michael. I wanted to pass on to her my love for the sea as we walked hand in hand on Laguna Beach. I wanted to teach Katie to swim in the Laguna River pool. I didn't want to hear her first "I love you, Grampa" over the telephone long distance. For all those years my family and I had been together, if not in residence, only a few minutes away. Moving to Dallas would be painful in personal losses. And in all probability, the move would be a financial disaster as well. Becoming dean of the largest gay and lesbian congregation in the world would end my closet days forever. Once the word was out, there would be no turning back. In all likelihood, my network of conservative Christian friends, clients, producers, and publishers that had taken a lifetime to build would vanish. There would be no salary at the Cathedral. They couldn't even help us with our move. How would I pay the bills if I couldn't go on ghostwriting, producing films and TV specials for my old clients? And though I felt called to preach and teach, I would no longer be asked to speak in conservative Christian universities, seminaries, or churches. I even worried about the national press, especially the sensation-seeking tabloid papers and what they might do with my story, and the embarrassment it might bring my family. How Gary's life would be changed by the move was of equal concern to me. I wasn't even sure that he would go along with the idea. He had a responsible position in Los Angeles, managing commercial properties for a major corporation. He had been honored as employee of the year in 1991. He had excellent work benefits, generous health and life insurance, and, in a plunging economy, total job security. I was asking him to leave all that to begin the journey into a brand-new life for both of us. I wanted to accept Michael Piazza's offer to join him and his people at the Cathedral in Dallas, but I didn't want to go alone. My romance and friendship with Gary had evolved into a long-term, committed relationship, but could I ask him to sacrifice his career to go with me? When I finally got up my courage to ask, he didn't even pause to consider. The night I told him about Michael Piazza's offer, Gary just hugged me and said, "Let's go!" There was a war being waged by the Religious Right against homosexual people across this country. Because of my old clients' strident antigay campaign, my lesbian sisters and gay brothers were suffering bigotry, discrimination, violence, and death. It was past time for me to do something to help those who suffered and, at the same time, by taking a stand against the lies my clients were telling, to help cut off that suffering at its source. I had prayed, worried, and fussed long enough. With Gary's vote, the decision was unanimous. It would be a risk, but we would take that risk together. I remembered Naomi's famous words to Ruth: "Where you go, I will go. And what you do, I will do also. Your people shall be my people. And your God, my God." When there were difficult decisions to make, such as the move to Dallas, or when Gary could see that I was perplexed, fearful, or stressed, just before we turned out the lights on another day, he would climb into bed, prop up the pillows, and pat gently on the sheets. "Get up here," he would say quietly, and I would sit between his knees and lean back against his chest. "Talk," he whispered, and as I began to rehearse the options one more time, Gary would massage my neck and shoulders, ask important questions, and let me ruminate until the decision was made, the conflict was resolved, or I just fell asleep in his arms. Those moments with Gary were comforting to be sure, but over the years, they had proven to be far more than just a source of comfort. They had become a source of truth as well. Accepting my sexual orientation and entering into a loving, committed gay relationship had proven to me once and for all times that my homosexuality was another of God's gifts. Many of my old friends and counselors on the Religious Right had told me that homosexuality was a sin and that God would abandon me if I "gave in" to that sinfulness. Others thought I was just crazy or misled. "You're somewhere in the middle of Freud's sexual-identity scale," one of my many counselors told me. "You are clearly a bisexual," another exclaimed. "You're AC/DC," one of my friends said with a sly grin. "You flow both ways." "You're just confused," a supporter of the "ex-gay" movement once warned me with an unctuous smile. "You never had an effective male role model so you never really grew up." Then before praying for me one last time, he added, "You're suffering from a kind of retarded adolescence that God will help you overcome with time." Since childhood, I had been a victim of those conflicting voices. In their noisy cloud of misinformation and judgment, I had doubted, feared, and questioned my sexual orientation. In Gary's arms, that painful debate ended. For me, the ultimate test of sexual orientation had not been the test of passion but the test of time. In his wonderful book _Memories,_Dreams,_Reflections_, Carl Jung writes, "A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them." The real test of sexual orientation came when romantic feelings died, when those first few months or years of fiery sexual passion burned down to a warm glow (or even burned out altogether), when there was no urgent desire, as I heard a young friend say recently, "to jump on each other's bones," when we were content to lie beside each other in bed reading, watching television, talking and holding hands, or when we just slept side by side. The fires of passion were a test of sexual orientation to be sure. It had been important to ask myself whom did I cast in my sexual fantasies, a woman or a man? At the beach or swimming pool, was it a male body that excited me and demanded my attention, or was it a female body that "turned me on"? When I glanced through those full-page ads for tight-fitting jeans or underwear in newspapers and magazines, was it the male model or the female model who caught my eye? I tried to ignore these involuntary, physiological responses for too long when I should have trusted myself to heed them, but there had been other tests of sexual orientation when passions cooled that I had found equally trustworthy. Was it a man I wanted to come home to after a hard day's work, or was it a woman I needed to greet me at the door with a smile and a hug? Was it a man who brought me comfort by his very presence in the kitchen, at the fireplace, and in the bedroom; or was it a woman's company that made me feel safe, comfortable, and at home at last? Was it a man I wanted to sit beside at church, at a coffee shop, and in the movies; or was it a woman I liked to see in candlelight across the restaurant table? In the early years of our friendship, passion drew me to Gary like a bee to honey. But after almost ten years, though passion still flared between us, other equally compelling forces drew me to him. Finally, after all those years, in my relationship with Gary, I knew who I really was, a gay Christian man in a committed relationship with another gay Christian man. Was it right for my relationship with Gary to be demeaned, dishonored, and declared sinful and disgusting on Jerry Falwell's "Old Time Gospel Hour," Pat Robertson's "700 Club," or Jim Dobson's "Focus on the Family" simply because it was a homosexual rather than a heterosexual relationship? Should my human rights be threatened and my civil rights be denied by the Christian Coalition because I felt more compatible with a man than with a woman? At that moment, my old clients and friends from the Religious Right were raising tens of millions of dollars supposedly to support antigay legislation already pending in fourteen states and more than one hundred counties and cities across America. Loving, private sexual acts between consenting adult homosexuals were illegal in twenty-four states, and the Religious Right was mobilizing to put antigay volunteer workers in every one of America's fifty thousand voting precincts to pass legislation that might end our rights forever. Even worse, good people such as my parents were being confused by the avalanche of lies. They watched Pat Robertson faithfully. They heard Jim Dobson on the radio. Almost every day another antigay fundraising letter appeared in their mailbox with the disgusting and untrue charges against gay people underlined in red. My parents didn't want my civil rights curtailed. They liked and respected Gary and could see we loved each other, but like millions of other religious and political conservatives in this county, my parents were being swept away by the lies against us being told by the Religious Right. They knew me and Gary and they loved us. They knew our beliefs and lifestyles and knew they were similar to their own. But they believed that we were the exception. In their minds, everyone else who is gay must be just as Pat Robertson and all the others depicted them. If only Pat, Jerry, and the others could understand the great good they could do in helping their faithful listeners to understand the truth. My mom and dad need to know that gay and lesbian people are just like everybody else. I know I'm beginning to sound like a scratched record, caught in one groove, playing the same old track over and over again. But this truth cannot be repeated enough. Gay and lesbian people do not want or need "special rights." We are for, not against, "family values." We have no "agenda" that threatens the spiritual or moral standards of this nation. We just want to the right to love and to be loved without fear, ridicule, or discrimination. We are not the enemy. The real enemies are those who teach hate instead of love, those who use misinformation and fear tactics to raise money and mobilize volunteers, those who play on ancient superstitions to destroy lives and ruin families. All we want is our God-given right to live and to love with integrity and to take our place in the community as responsible neighbors and faithful friends. Back as far as 1980, while I still cowered in my closet, two gay teenagers in Anaheim, California, refused to be intimidated by those who hate. With the whole world watching, Andrew Exler, nineteen, and his boyfriend, Shawn Elliott, seventeen, demonstrated courage and conviction that astounded me. After dating regularly for just two months, Andrew and Shawn headed for "Date Night" at Disneyland. Hand in hand, they rode the Matterhorn. Then on Space Mountain, they placed their arms around each other as the young heterosexual couples were doing. After watching "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" and hearing Abe speak of individual liberties and rights, they headed for the outdoor disco. Eyewitnesses reported to the _Los_Angeles_Times_ that the dance floor was jammed with teenage couples when Andrew and Shawn walked to the center of the floor, directly in front of the bandstand, and began to dance. For a moment, no one noticed. Then, one by one, the teenage couples dancing near Andrew and Shawn began to whisper and point in their direction. Security personnel monitoring the dance through television cameras saw the two boys dancing proudly. Tall men in white uniforms carrying walkie-talkies with small headsets in their left ears rushed to the scene. A few couples left the floor. Others stood to stare at Andrew and Shawn. Finally, the young bandleader noticed the confusion and stopped the music, but the courageous gay men danced on, refusing to be intimidated. Looking back now, I wish Jerry Falwell had been there to see those two young gay men doing exactly what God intended them to do. I wish Pat Robertson could have been a witness to their courage as they danced their way into their place of honor in the history of our liberation movement. I wish Jim Dobson had been in the crowd to see what two of our gay kids were willing to pay to enforce the values of families who have learned to love instead of hate. In the legal battle that followed, Andrew and Shawn refused to settle until the courts declared their victory. The Religious Right suffered a terrible defeat four years later, in 1985, when the verdict was announced. Disney-land was instructed by the courts to let Andrew and Shawn dance. While the leaders from the Religious Right jumped up and down in rage, a growing number of Americans, even those who didn't understand homosexuality, were wondering to themselves, "Don't these preachers have anything better to do than pick on two young gays who just want to dance?" In a _USA_Today_ poll, more than 50 percent of this nation's people said, "Let 'em dance." As I walked the beaches of Laguna and thought, prayed, and worried about moving to Dallas, I remembered Darrel, the Boy Scout in his loincloth and feathers who forty years before had reached out his hand and led me in my first dance. This time, Michael Piazza was holding out his hand to me. To join him in the dance would be a terrible risk, but how awful it would feel to plug my ears to the music and walk away. Over those next few weeks, it became more and more clear that it was time for me to take Gary by the hand, walk out into the middle of that floor, and begin the dance. And just perhaps, if we had half the courage and the grace that Andrew and Shawn had shown, others would come dance with us. _Excerpted_with_permission_from_Stranger_at_the_Gate_by_Mel_White._ [ref001][ref002] Return to table of contents Copyright 1995 IFAS Walk Away / ifas@crocker.com [ref001] articles.html [ref002] ../uparrow.gif This file is copywritten by the Institute for First Amendment Studies. Subscribe to The Freedom Writer and Walk Away news letters by writing to or telephoneing the Institute for First Amendment Studies: Post Office Box 589 Great Barrington, Massachusetts. 01230 Telephone: (413) 528-3800 E-Mail: ifas@crocker.com Web page: http://www.crocker.com/~ifas


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