I was about twelve years old when I looked up the word "homosexuality" in the dictionary and was given a 1970s definition: Homosexuality, I learned that sad day, was a "sexual perversion" akin to "pedophilia, bestiality and necrophilia, which see."
I looked up those big words--and was horrified. After the feelings of horror and disgust washed off, I was left feeling deeply ashamed.
No child wants to be a pervert, not even a twelve year old boy in love with Barry Manilow.
What I learned that day was reinforced by the overly religious, right-wing environment I grew up in. When the adults sat around at their John Birch Society meetings and talked about "pinko commie bastards" I eventually realized they were talking about me, a revelation that only added to my shame. Just because I had weird, inexplicable crushes on other boys didn't mean I wanted to be a communist (God forbid!), or that I hated my country, or that I was the scum of the earth.
Or did it?
My response to this shame was to become extremely religious, to prove, by a life of prayer and piety, that I was a good person. I can't count the number of rosaries I said, the candles I lit, the prayers I offered, the endless hours I spent begging God to "forgive" me, to "heal" me, to "take this cross away."
It didn't work, and it didn't last.
I look back on a life lived in shame, and, ironically, I feel ashamed I spent so many years feeling ashamed when there was nothing wrong with me, when I had done nothing wrong, and had nothing to feel ashamed about.
My life is bound up with shame. The shame of being something I didn't want or ask to be. The shame of being different in a world that is merciless toward those who don't measure up. The shame of being slender, soft spoken, a sissy, effeminate, faggy, girly, limp wristed, a "lady boy," a pervert, what my church calls "intrinsically disordered."
Shame is a very damaging emotion and a deadly dynamic.
Shame leads to silence; silence leads to isolation; isolation leads to depression and, for too many LGBT folks, thoughts of suicide--or worse.
I look back on this life of shame and I wonder: what purpose did it serve?
I am well aware that my life of shame was not an accident. The shaming I experienced was put into place by other people for a reason. What was that reason? What was the point of shaming children like me? Why do we continue to do it? Whose needs are being met by this shaming? Where's the pay off? Who benefits?
The answer is obvious: by and large, it is the churches and religious folk who benefit. And it is the churches and religious people who, by and large, perpetuate this shaming of LGBT individuals.
There are two immediate benefits that come to mind:
1) It serves the needs of heterosexism, which is the attitude that heterosexuality is "normal" and that everyone should be heterosexual. Since heterosexuality is the most common form of sexuality, it is thought to be "normal," or what God intends and wants of us, and any other form of sexuality is a perversion to be discouraged if not eradicated.
2) It is a useful form of social control. The churches, indeed all religions, use shame as a form of social control, the "just ordering of society." While this "just ordering" is supposed to be Biblically based, it is not always so, and shame is used by the dominant group in society as a way to impose its values, whether those values are based on the Bible or not.
There is a great deal that could be said about these two benefits, and a great many arguments could be made for or against them, but that is not my intention. I'm trying to get at the narrative, the structure behind the shaming I experienced (and continue to experience) as an LGBT individual. I'm trying to answer questions like this: Why do people like Pat Robertson and Bryan Fischer continue, on a sometimes daily basis, to shame gay people? Why does the Catholic Church refer to its LGBT sons and daughters as "intrinsically disordered?" Why do so many evangelicals threaten that the wrath of God will fall upon us now that gay marriage has been legalized? What is the point of this? What is the purpose? Whose needs are being met by this constant "culture war"?
Yet there are other questions that are equally important. What has been the effect of this shaming on LGBT people? Has it helped them? Has it brought them closer to God? Has it helped them to live dignified, meaningful lives? Has it contributed to our understanding of the human person? Are we better off because of this relentless culture war? Are families made better and stronger by shaming their gay and lesbian sons and daughters?
Or has all of this fuss and bother, which has caused enormous hurt to so many people, been nothing more than an exercise in bigotry, the bigotry behind the idea that we should all be heterosexual, that it's not okay to be different, that God wants us all to wear our pants the same way?
Or has it been a sort of mass hysteria, a sort of heterosexual panic, that there could exist, among us, people who are profoundly different in their sexuality?
Or have LGBT people been nothing more than scapegoats, the "village idiot," the one group of people in a community that it's safe to pick on and feel superior to as a way to boost one's self-esteem? This is a very traditional role, mind you. You will see it on every play ground at every school. There is always that one child who is picked on, excluded, ridiculed, who simply cannot measure up. By picking on that one child, we feel superior. We also feel part of the "in group." It heightens our sense that we're okay, we're acceptable, we're "good enough." So ... is that the purpose gay people serve? To give society a convenient punching bag?
The shaming I've experienced has hurt me in deep, profound ways that I will never be able to explain to those who have not experienced it.
I spent many years feeling as though my soul had been murdered, that I was a dead person inside a living body, that I was not a good person and could never be a good person because there was something about me that was fundamentally wrong--if not bad, if not evil, if not perverted.
Shame led me into about a dozen serious attempts at suicide, a couple of which really ought to have been fatal.
Shame has left me unable to believe that an entity like "God" could actually love me, or care one way or the other about what happens to people like me.
Shame has made relationships difficult. It's hard to love someone else when you can't love yourself.
Shame has affected me in so many ways for so many years that I will never truly be free of it. It will always lie like a shadow on the past and the future, coloring my choices, poisoning my mind against itself.
I am working my way out of shame.
When I turned fifty a couple of years ago, I decided it was time to come out of the closet-completely and for good. It was a tentative, hesitant step, but much good has come from it.
I continue to process my own shame by trying to understand it, by talking about it, by challenging it, and taking the risk of doing new things and developing new attitudes. It's a lot of work, but it's worthwhile.
What I have come to learn from my experience with shame is that it is a structure. A man-made structure. Someone put it there because it serves their needs. It didn't just happen. It's no accident. Like racism, and all the other -isms, it's serves a purpose. Someone, somewhere, benefits.
I am left with many questions, but the most overriding question for me is this: If you're the one benefiting from the shaming of LGBT people, shouldn't you take responsibility for the harm you've caused, harm that is sometimes so extreme that victims take their own lives? Are you not responsible for your behavior? If your church participates in the shaming of gay people, are you not complicit in the harm this causes? Can you, in good conscience, look the other way and pretend this unholy hatred has nothing to do with you?
Someday churches will have to come to terms with the harm they've caused.
Someday churches will have to recognize their gay and lesbians sons and daughters do not deserve the contempt heaped upon them, that while our mating habits may be slightly different, we are good people, decent people, kind people.
Someday churches will have to understand that you cannot harm others without harming yourself. You cannot demean others without demeaning yourself. You cannot murder the souls of innocent people without murdering your own.
If there is such a thing as Judgment Day, I suspect a lot of believers are in for a hell of a surprise.
"As you have done unto the least of these, you have done unto me" - Jesus either meant these words, or he did not. And if gay people are not the "least of these," then who is?