When I was an undergraduate there was a guy, 'John', on my corridor in college who made an extraordinary claim. He said that, as a schoolboy, he’d been obsessed with the Nazis and not only their attempted genocide against Jewish people, but their persecution of gay people. He’d had maps which showed their extermination centres and his biggest regret at the time had been that the Nazis had failed in their vile plans. This confession was all the more startling because, by the time I’d met him, he was an out gay man clearly confident in his identity and sexuality. Unsurprisingly he was repelled by his former views. As a teenager he acknowledged he’d really struggled to accept himself for who he was and had been drawn to precisely the kind of regime which gave focus for his personal fear and loathing.
I’ve been thinking about John today because of a couple of striking stories that have been in the news. Firstly, the news that Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International, has both made an apology to gay people for hurt and damage caused by Exodus' ‘ex-gay’ ministry and also has immediately closed the organization down (though we should be *very* cautious about how deep this apology reaches). He has acknowledged that he has never resolved his own attraction to and feelings for men. Secondly, I’ve also been chewing over the story in The Church Times which suggests that, even if clergy in civil partnerships publicly state they’re celibate, they still might not be accepted as eligible for the role of bishop.
When I met John at university he was, unless my memory is faulty, the first confident, out, gay man I’d ever met. I’d grown up in a village and gone to school in a small town so perhaps that’s unsurprising. However, it was still an age (the late ‘80s) when ‘being out’ was – even in university contexts – relatively rare. As anyone who knows me or has read Dazzling Darkness will know, I was – at 18 – utterly unable to acknowledge how messed up I was and far from ready to come out as trans.
The reason John’s story has stayed so powerfully with me was that, though it remains difficult for me to acknowledge, I too saw the appeal of the Nazi totalitarian mind. I was, unlike John, not exactly obsessed with them, but as an utterly screwed up teen I'd been secretly attracted to the idea that ‘unacceptables’ were wiped out by Hitler and his gangsters. One doesn’t need to be a hugely nuanced psychologist to appreciate that my fascination with the Nazis’ gigantic crimes was a ‘public’ way of dealing with my internal desire to wipe out what I perceived to be 'the unacceptable’ within.
The ‘queer but so filled with self-loathing they want to persecute themselves’ trope is so pervasive it’s a cliché. From Cardinal Keith O’Brien through to Alan Chambers, queer folk have often so internalized cultural fear of difference that they become the most vocal agents of their own exclusion. Indeed, protesting too loudly about gay folk, or wanting them excluded from church or society and so on, has often been taken as definitive evidence of being in the closet. Fair or unfair, I’ve never quite been able to get beyond the feeling that anyone who gets overexcited about the acceptability of LGBTQ people in society or before God or in church may have some unresolved personal issues. That may be a little crude but it’s difficult to resist.
In some respects society has moved significantly since I went to university twenty five years ago. I may live in a metropolitan south Manchester bubble, but UK attitudes to LGBTQ folk have moved far in recent years. Nonetheless, let’s not pretend that queer folk, especially gay men, don’t get beaten up; let’s not pretend that trans* people get a fair deal in our media; let’s not pretend that prejudice isn’t real.
I’d like to think that young people are far more confident about their sexuality and gender than I or John or many LGBTQ people were twenty five years ago, but in my bleaker moments I fear not. Outside of the big cities, two women or two men holding hands and kissing in public is probably not especially common. I suspect that in many schools it is still really tough to dare be out about being gay or trans*. I guess many wait till university or later to begin to be and express themselves.
And here’s the rub: my fear is that one of the environments which acts most strongly against sexual self-acceptance is a religious one. Even when the message ‘gay is bad’ is not explicit, the implication is ‘gay is not quite as good’. Indeed, that it’s a kind of impaired way of being a human being. I’m privileged to know a number of happy, confident Christian LGBTQ people who’ve had parents, families and congregations who’ve worked very hard to deflect and challenge the dominant religious narrative about being gay. Yet, ironically, an environment which focuses powerfully on the call to love and grow into the likeness of Christ so often invites people to be furtive and fearful. It rewards subterfuge and secrecy and invites self-loathing. It’s not always easy to come out the other side.