“In the struggle to emancipate gay and lesbian people from oppression, you have been what Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the struggle to emancipate people of color from oppression.” These words, spoken by Dr. Lawrence Carter, Dean of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta, marked the unveiling of my portrait in their “Hall of Honor” of civil rights leaders. I now hang just below Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. It seemed inconceivable that words like these would ever be uttered about me. I have wrestled with the demon of homophobia and I find it astonishing that I am now seen by the community of formerly oppressed people of color, as well as by gay and lesbian people, as one who helped to bring emancipation. I previously shared with you, my readers, the story of my journey out of racism. Now I ask you to indulge me as I relate my journey out of homophobia.
When I was growing up I did not know what homosexuality was or that I was homophobic in my attitude. Apparently we did not have homosexual people in the Bible Belt of the South. The word “homosexual” did not enter my vocabulary until I was in my mid- to late-teens. When I finally grasped the concept, I accepted without question the cultural definition prevalent in my region. Homosexuality was either a mental sickness that needed to be cured or a depraved choice made by deviant and evil people who needed to be changed or converted.
I was comfortable with that attitude and it prevailed in my life until I was elected the Bishop of Newark in June of 1976. Up until that moment in my ministry, I was not aware that I knew any gay or lesbian people. This was still an era of family shame and of fearful hiding within the closeted confines of secrecy while acting in the life of both church and community. When I became in 1969 the rector of St. Paul’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, a parish that I still deeply love, I met in my congregation a number of wonderful people and respected community leaders, who were known as “confirmed bachelors.” These men lived in the upper echelons of Richmond society and frequently escorted socially prominent widows and divorcees to socially prominent events. People said of these men that they were “not the marrying kind,” but it never occurred to me to think that any one of them might be gay. I am sure now that one of the reasons I did not know any homosexual persons was because they perceived in me an inability to know them. Nobody reveals himself or herself to one who cannot receive the revelation.
Homosexuality never arose in the long interview process that resulted in my being nominated for the Episcopal office in Newark. The issues before the Church in 1975-76 were the revision of the prayer book, whether women could be or should be ordained and the perennial concerns about church growth. In retrospect, that omission seems strange given the way the debate on homosexuality grew in the Church from that day to this. It certainly never occurred to me that I would ever be engaged in or identified with this issue in any significant way.
I had not, however, been in my Newark office three months before I had an appointment with one of my priests. He was highly respected in the diocese, much loved by his congregation and a clear leader. I knew nothing about him personally except that he was not married. After the usual pleasantries, I asked, since he had scheduled the appointment, what was on his mind. “Bishop,” he said, “I did not vote for you to be my bishop, but you got elected so I must deal with that. I have never been dishonest with my bishop and I do not plan to start now. I am a homosexual. I have been a gay man all my life. I perceive you are not comfortable with that. If I can help you to grow in your understanding, I want to offer you my services.”
This man was neither embarrassed nor ashamed. He was the first self-accepting homosexual I had ever met. I am sure my response was not helpful or affirming. It was some version of what would later be called “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I assured him that I had no intentions of leading a witch hunt, but that if he became an object of community debate or scandal, I could not defend him. As for his offer of assistance in growing my understanding, my experience was and is that new bishops feel little need for help from any source until the glamour of the office wears off. I suspect this man left my office in despair.
Shortly thereafter, I went to inform another priest serving a small urban congregation that the diocese had decided it could no longer support this church financially and that it would be closed in six months. I was prepared to offer him another position in the diocese and, since I was aware that he had no wife or children, this move would not cause a major disruption in his life. When I arrived at his home I became immediately aware that he shared this house with another person. We talked. I broke the news. We discussed alternative positions. I stayed about two hours. Before leaving I asked if I could use his restroom and he directed me down the hall. I entered the door and saw towels hanging that said “His” and “His.” Above the towels were pictures of nude males. Only then did it dawn on me that I was in the home of a gay couple.
When I came out I said, “Paul, you have a very interesting bathroom.” He responded, “I thought you might notice.” I asked: “Will you tell me about it?” “Yes, he said, and this story poured out. “The man I live with is my life partner. I love him as much as you love your wife. If I ever have to choose between my partner and my priesthood I will choose my partner.”
Trying to justify my prejudice, I said, “Paul, I could not allow an unmarried heterosexual couple to live in one of the church’s rectories and I certainly cannot allow an unmarried homosexual couple to do so.” I thought I sounded even handed. He responded, “The heterosexual couple can choose marriage. Neither my church nor my nation has given us that choice.”
I grimaced at his logic and retreated into my defensive clichés. “Paul, if this partnership ever became public knowledge, I do not have the power to protect you.” His response was: “Do not or will not?” He was right. I had no intention of protecting him. I left, but the conversation remained with me like a pebble in my shoe, constantly rubbing against my irrational and uninformed presuppositions. At least my homophobia had been raised to my consciousness.
Finally, unable to remove or to deny that irritant with my normal responses, I called a friend who was on the faculty of the Cornell School of Medicine in New York City and asked if he or others at Cornell would be willing to share with me their knowledge in regard to sexual orientation, for I was suddenly aware that I knew almost nothing about the subject. Perhaps the opportunity to educate a bishop was appealing to them for they took me on, shared with me their knowledge and their research papers and much conversation answering my questions.
Gradually a new understanding of sexual orientation was born in me. My conclusions were simple and straightforward. No one chooses his or her sexual orientation. It is a given like gender, eye color or left handedness. No one can cause another to become homosexual. It is not catching. I began to realize for the first time that I had not made a conscious decision to be heterosexual; I had simply awakened to the reality when I was twelve or thirteen that girls were no longer obnoxious, so I began to do things like take baths more frequently, if that was what it took to attract female attention! I also began to see clearly that sexual orientation is not about one’s behavior, but about one’s being. That is why no one can change his or her sexual orientation any more than one can change one’s gender or eye color. This meant that all so- called “therapies” touted by right wing religious organizations and designed to cure a person of his or her homosexuality are therefore absolutely bogus and should be identified as such.
I also learned at Cornell that homosexuality is the norm for a steady percentage of the population at all times in all places. That percentage, a normal fact of nature, neither rises nor falls. I learned that homosexuality exists among the higher mammals and thus cannot be called “unnatural.” I learned that homosexual persons are not born on the planet Krypton, but that they are our brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, sons and daughters and our friends. They are not abnormal. They are a minority. So is red hair!
When I became convinced of these truths, the basis on which my homophobia had been erected was destroyed. Now homophobia was no different from racism or sexism. It was and is a prejudice that needs to be banished from my church, my nation and the world. It took me months to live into these conclusions, but with my mind now convinced, my heart easily followed and I began to act out of this new understanding. In 1988 I published a book, Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality. It became a seminal book in the debate that has raged inside institutional Christianity from that day to this. In 1989 I ordained the first openly gay man who was living in a publicly acknowledged commitment with his partner. When I retired in 2000, the Diocese of Newark claimed 35 openly gay and lesbian clergy, 31 of whom had visible partners. Many of them were extraordinary clergy, indeed among the finest I have ever known.
Today, without compromise or apology, I favor full civil rights for homosexual people, including marriage for gay couples. I rejoice that my church has now chosen by a free democratic electoral process two openly gay, partnered priests to serve as bishops in New Hampshire and Los Angeles. When people complain that conflict over the full inclusion of gay people in the church has disturbed the unity of the church, I respond that a unity based on a shared homophobia ought to be destroyed. I grieve that the Christian Church is today the last major stronghold of homophobia. I am embarrassed by the fear, prejudice and sometimes actual hatred that still emanate from recognized Christian leaders. I treasure the place I have occupied in my own church’s struggle and I am both touched and honored that my portrait hangs today in the Hall of Honor in the King Chapel of Morehouse College.
– John Shelby Spong