If You’re Happy and You Know It: A Journey from Evangelical Homophobia to Equal Sign

One of the hallmarks of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity is a reduction of the remarkably complex human cosmos into theo-gibberish apothegms that would make any fortune cookie throw up.

Growing up, sexual education and western philosophical tradition were summed up neatly by my father with the following dictum: “The Greek philosophers were just a bunch of fags.”

In theory, those nine words were supposed to be a sufficient guide into the respective pathways of human sexuality and higher education. If I needed annotated consideration on human sexuality, I could refer to biblical passages about Sodom and Gomorrah. As to education beyond my private Christian high school, that same man forbade me to attend college by paraphrasing the above saying: a postsecondary education experience could only lead to the temptation of simultaneous thinking and buggering.

Thankfully, I bucked his mandate and entered a community of higher learning, where years of deprogramming unbeknownst could begin. That said, I entered college a raving, anti-environmental, pro-war, homophobic Dittohead so right-wing and literalist in my Christian convictions that I believed even Baptists were in danger of brimstone. I was so drunk on charismatic Christian Kool-Aid that I remember suggesting in a religion class that Henry Kissinger was the Antichrist.

Years later in graduate school and by then a former fundamentalist, I stumbled upon a passage about the burning of the famed Library at Alexandria in the seventh century. The Caliph Omar had justified his bibliothecal holocaust with the following proclamation: “The books will either contradict the Quran, in which case they are heresy. Or they will agree with the Quran, in which case they are superfluous.” No matter the century, religious fundamentalists always seek to quash learning. I’m simply shocked the Caliph omitted a line about how the study of Aristotle’s Poetics would have led to same-sex love.

With the Supreme Court expected to rule on same-sex marriage very shortly, I have been earnestly praying that likely swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy has not been hanging out at evangelical potlucks this summer. I suppose we could FOIA the National Security Agency and ask whether he has been placing calls to the likes of Rick Warren or Franklin Graham. Hopefully His Honor has been squirreled up in a DC pad rereading Hobbes, Hume, Kant and the whole Enlightenment Gang.

Even if the Supreme Court sets a national legal precedent permitting same-sex marriage, there will remain a national cultural issue. In a New York Times/CBS News poll released this week, while the majority of U.S. adults now agree that same-sex marriage should be legal, 44% of adults opined the opposite. Of the two-fifths who remain opposed to the legalization of same-sex marriage, there is, not terribly surprisingly, a marked progression based on education levels. Those without college education were the group most opposed at 49%; some college at 45%; college degree at 35%; postgraduate degree at 31%. I guess Pops was onto something: if you want to perpetuate a closed culture and environment, avoid studying Plato and Socrates.

Let me return to my personal odyssey away from homophobia. In 1989, when I entered my first semester at a reputable Christian liberal arts college in the Twin Cities, I knew with great confidence that all gays were bound for eternal damnation. If you had asked me to define “a homosexual,” I likely would have responded: “Someone who engages in all of those filthy homosexual acts.” Never would it have occurred to me that gays my age might have had just as much trouble finding a date as anyone else. Life as a gay person was of course a constant Caligula-like marathon. Almost embarrassingly, but so that the reader understands what life in certain evangelical communities is like, I will also confess that I didn’t even know what the term “bisexual” meant at the time.

My distorted worldview of all things gay would have made Caliph Omar and the great cloud of fundamentalist misinterpreters of sacred writ and enlightenment proud. And, of course, at the age of 17, I knew precisely this many self-identified homosexuals: Zero.

Then the college experience happened—albeit a rather restricted Christian liberal arts college experience. (Even then, those sneaky ancient Greeks still held sway.) My college had a secluded prayer chapel which I attended regularly; only one student was allowed inside at a time—probably so that the place would not become a prime make-out spot. There was a journal in the prayer chapel, in which individual students wrote anonymous special requests for other chapel supplicants to consider. One young man wrote long entries pouring his life onto the page. His father was a convicted criminal serving a long sentence, his mother a deceased cancer victim. And he found himself attending a Christian college that forbade him to be honest about his sexual orientation: he was gay.

Before my very eyes was the enemy. But there was a problem. The enemy was human. Hurting. Alone. Friendless. Confused. In need. Where were the descriptions of all-night sexual congress and satanic rituals that one might expect to read in a transcript of a Spanish Inquisition auto-da-fé?

By happenstance, I ended up meeting my coeval. He revealed enough of himself to me in line at the campus bookstore for me to identify him. I asked him flat out whether he was the prayer chapel diarist. He prepared to flee, then admitted he was. And we became friends: a friendship that served his needs of Christian love as much as mine of unlearning evangelical hate. Eventually we became roommates.

There remained much more to learn. That “first friendship” excised only a portion of the homophobic cancer inside my soul. I transferred to another Christian liberal arts college in Chicago, where again homosexuality along with a number of lifestyle choices (drinking, smoking, gambling, dancing and good old-fashioned straight sex) were verboten to the tune of expulsion. Given that I somewhat openly defied the lifestyle “Pledge,” as it was known, much to the puzzled consternation of college administrators, several other homosexual students confided their “dirty secret” to me. We became friends too. And with each new gay friend I gained, the scales of fundamentalist stereotyping gradually fell away.

While my new-found worldview was welcoming and open-minded in the years after college, the subject of same-sex marriage left me baffled. I refuse to kick myself today for struggling with the subject then. The rite of marriage is a bulwark of any society; sweeping changes to that rite take time for individuals to process. But as before, the number of same-sex life-long couples I knew was limited to the number of fingers on an elephant foot. Eventually I met a life-committed lesbian couple from Washington State who had several beautiful children. And my blank experiential canvas finally had a subject.

Shortly thereafter, I was approached by two gay friends who asked me to officiate their life commitment ceremony in Alabama. The ceremony would have no legal recognition, but they called it a wedding anyway. I said yes. So did they! They remain together these many years later. Hopefully soon the Supreme Court will make it possible for their lifetime commitment to be legally recognized.

At its heart, the ceremony was a spiritual and cultural rite for the two men in question, before God and others, binding their intents—and equally confirming a lifetime spiritual journey for me.

The question before the Supreme Court, of course and thankfully, is not one of biblical exegesis, as we do not live in a theocracy. However, there remains a very real cultural battle which greatly impacts the legislative and legal processes, even if we pretend culture and policy/law are buffered from one another. A majority of those who oppose same-sex marriage do so on religious grounds. So even if the Supreme Court comes through with a civil rights victory, there remains work to accomplish.

Each of us has an opportunity to chip away at the 44% on the other side of the fence. The millions of individuals comprised in that figure might seem like an immovable political and cultural object. But they aren’t: in 2004, a Princeton Survey Research Associates/Pew Research Center poll showed that more than 60% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. Culture is shifting quickly.

What is the best way, then, to continue advancing progressive change?

Let’s be frank. The Bible matters to evangelical Christians. (It still matters to me as well.) Yet the millions of individuals who believe what I once believed and think the way I once thought are not going to be converted to open-mindedness and the legality of same-sex marriage by Facebook memes.

Also, unless you know the evangelical worldview intimately, I wouldn’t recommend getting into a scriptural tug-of-war. Adherents of most faiths do not know how to engage their sacred writ with scholarly hermeneutics. And Christians are the worst at pulling out passages of the Bible and treating them like recipes from The Joy of Cooking. (“Tonight we are cooking an Anti-Gay Soufflé courtesy of Romans 1:26-27.” Never mind the fact that Deuteronomy 5 calls for an oxtail soup of levirate marriage!)

Something anyone can do, however, is bravely engage your neighbor with your authentic humanity. Encourage a teenager from a close-minded home or environment to take the plunge into higher education. Share your life story with someone who believes the opposite of what you believe. Present a need to someone you consider an enemy; fulfill the need of someone you consider an enemy.

But, really, they are not “the enemy.” Odds are, they are just like I once was: people in a closed community who do not know how to escape, who do not have any idea that there is a better way to understand the world. People who judge external communities and individuals because of lies and misinterpretations they have been fed.

For me, all it took was one scared teenager to dare to journal anonymously in a prayer chapel. His courage and friendship—his humanity and his honesty—changed my life. And the courage and friendship of others like him—patient and gracious with me given my background—delivered me to the place where I am today.

Because of thousands upon thousands of others like the Diarist, who, despite their fear acted bravely, the world has become a better place.

I cannot resist but conclude with my favorite quotation, which as a teenager I cut out of an issue of Campus Life—an evangelical magazine!—and which was one of the major statements that convinced me to go to college:

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

And, yes, that would be Aristotle. Those sneaky Greeks.

Arik Bjorn

Arik Bjorn lives in Columbia, South Carolina. He was the Democratic Party / Green Party fusion candidate for U.S. Congress in the 2nd Congressional District of South Carolina. Visit the archive for Arik’s campaign website, and check out his latest book, So I Ran for Congress. You can also follow his political activities on Twitter @Bjorn2RunSC and on Facebook. And be sure to check out more from Arik in his archives!


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