Colin Israel an actor, writer, and musician based in New York City. He is currently performing in the Broadway production of “Matilda: the Musical.”
Last week, a relative reached out on his own accord to assure me that although he disagreed with the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, he still loved and respected me as a gay family member. Drawing on my own experiences growing up in the Church, our collective family history, and my eventual coming out in a conservative religious culture, I sent the following response to him.
Dear Uncle G,
Your letter expressing your love and respect for me even though you disagree with the Supreme Court marriage equality ruling speaks to the heart of our current national dialogue regarding marriage equality and civil rights, specifically within religious communities and families. Please indulge me as I respond.
Within the Church, we are taught that we can (and should) “love the sinner and hate the sin.” In doing so, people of faith disassociate themselves from any harm or accountability to those whose identity is deemed inherently “sinful,” specifically: gay people. My understanding when I attended church was as follows:
If we can accept someone and yet not accept their “sin,” we’re effectively demonstrating love while still not condoning sinful behavior. Any confusion or hard feelings from outsiders due to this practice are misplaced. We’re merely maintaining God’s will on earth and adhering to His instructions as to how we should live. If our actions translate to prohibitive politics, reformative therapy, or the repression and rejection of someone’s identity, the church bears no responsibility for simply carrying out what we’ve been instructed to do. Furthermore, as sinners ourselves, we recognize that we all have to work to achieve salvation and it’s not on us to water down what is required of us as followers of Christ. Any dissension from those on the outside is often an instance of persecution for our faith.
Here’s the truth: that’s not the case. To ascribe to as much essentially passes the buck for some severely damaging policies and attitudes. Whatever the genuine, faith-based intentions of the church have been over the last five decades, their actions through anti-gay marriage campaigning and legislation have been inarguably prohibitive, discriminatory, and scathing to the American gay community.
During the decades in which churches have claimed to uphold a “standard” by campaigning and asserting the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman (even regardless of sexual persuasion), countless gay men, women, and couples have been shut out and left federally unrecognized. They’ve paid higher taxes than married couples with comparable assets, have been denied medical benefits, willfully withheld from visiting their partners in the hospital due to the fact that they aren’t “family,” and experienced countless inequalities on a consistent and massive scale.
Furthermore, the gay community has suffered an extraordinary amount of persecution and violence towards them in a country that bears responsibility for as much by consistently denying gays rights and, therefore, basic human value. Compounding that violence, churches have passionately preached and characterized gay folk as harmful, synonymous with pedophiles, and in danger of hell no matter what their personal actions demonstrate. Lastly, churches have ruthlessly preached the fearful ideology that legalizing gay marriage will rob America of its morals and values and fundamentally compromise the American family structure.
I alternately witnessed and felt every one of these examples in my childhood. When my parents told me at the age of eight that Uncle John was gay and had AIDS, it was intensely confusing and traumatizing to try to experience John’s love, affection, gifted nature, and presence in my life, yet have the legitimacy of that called immediately into question because of what I had been negatively taught about gay people as a child in church. Thankfully, my parents chose to keep my brother and I close to John until the end, as tragic as it was. However, after John’s death, you can imagine my sheer terror when my first substantial attractions leaned towards the other boys at school. This is not okay, I told myself. What have I done wrong? I felt betrayed by my own body, worthless, that I had done something terrible to cause these feelings which had to be rectified, and, of course, that I was in danger of hell. I hadn’t yet turned thirteen.
To make matters worse, just a few months after John’s passing our church began holding intensely emotional and distraught “Town Hall” meetings during Sunday night services in response to local petitions from gay men and women seeking legal recognition as couples (not even marriage, at that point). During these meetings, our leaders vehemently warned the congregation that this petition heralded the church’s darkest hour: that the passage of such laws would bring an assault on the church, hail the end of morals and values, and that the church MUST stand in the way of such destructive legislation. This only struck further terror into me and intensified my self-loathing.
School was no better: Taunted for being artistic and effeminate (the latter I effectively beat out of myself by high school), I received consistent harassment both physically and verbally for being “gay.” Truly, from school, to church, to John’s horrific death, there was no worse thing to be called or to be. And even, John, I wondered, did he bring this on himself? Was his death God’s punishment for being gay? Did his extraordinary mind, talent, his noteworthy contributions to the computer industry, generosity, love, and struggle with his identity not count for something in the eyes of God…?
After a painful and confused adolescence with some pretty self-destructive behavior, I moved into the present. The world finally opened up to me as I came out. To say “opened up” does not mean that life became easier, but gradually became clearer as I eventually found the integrity and honesty I thought I could never possess due to my attractions. The precept that I was doomed to a life without integrity because I was gay was the most insidious lie taught to me as a teenager, relentlessly communicated over and over again through church and church-influenced culture.
Much to my relief (and theirs), my immediate family didn’t pull away when I came out. Though we’ve moved through a few issues over time, they’ve got my back. There’s not merely an understanding between us, but a joyful acceptance of my identity. Something I know they’ve been longing for since they felt their own internal struggles with Uncle John when he came out to them in the ’70s. Being gay has become a welcome and celebrated part of me and my nuclear family.
Over time, I witnessed firsthand the frustrations, inequalities, and discriminations fced by my gay friends who were partnered. Gradually, marriage equality passed into legislation state by state and granted the couples in those states with equal rights regardless of their orientation. Few of these gay couples who benefited were religious. They sought a purely legal recognition of their partnership, even refusing to accept “civil unions” which still denied gay couples in certain benefits and rights afforded to those straight couples who were married.
As conservative opposition increasingly mounted from the naysayers in California, and in every state where this swiftly came to the forefront of the political stage, the overriding sentiment among my current community was one of befuddlement and incredulity. “What is their PROBLEM?” we asked. “The majority of us don’t WANT to get married in a church and aren’t TRYING to infringe on anyone else’s rights! MY rights have been infringed upon for the last 10/30/50 years! I want equal standing!”
So finally, after a battle spanning several generations, the Supreme Court cited the Constitution to recognize gay married couples as federally legitimate in all 50 states. Every marriage, regardless of orientation, now receives equal treatment under the law, granting victory to those who have worked tirelessly for their own benefit and the benefit of others for decades. As I walked jubilantly to work that Friday morning, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders that I hadn’t realized was there: I was finally an equal citizen in this country and no longer needed to fear that equality being threatened or taken away.
I took a moment to reflect on Uncle John and his legacy. I thought about the terror and uncertainty he had experienced growing up all the way until his death and considered my own traumatic history. Taking a breath, I reached toward John to share the hope and promise that this landmark decision would eradicate from the experiences of future generations of gay men and women the fears and abuses he had suffered. Nor did those fears hold a part in my story any longer. This ruling not only guarantees us equality, it dignifies and legitimizes us in a way we have not been prior to this moment. Whether marriage is a prospect for any one gay individual or not (and though there are certainly still battles to fight) we are equal and we are free. I thanked John for his and his generation’s part in that.
I know, and have known for some time, that you have not sided with gay Americans on this issue and further, your church has actively campaigned against marriage equality. Knowing this has not affected how I’ve interacted with you or the warmth I’ve shared when seeing you over the last few years. While I’ve not wholly ignored your stance on this issue, I figured a conversation regarding it would happen at the right time. Until such time, I didn’t feel we should hold back any of the love and affection we feel toward each other in the so few times we’re able to visit. I hope none of this will change.
However, I also hope this letter gives light to my confusion when you express that you love and respect me even though you disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision. The SCOTUS ruling, as I’ve detailed it, gives my community and I legal recognition and validation in a way we have never had. It extends my rights, legitimizes me and a prospective partner should we choose to marry, and affords me equal standing with my parents, brother and sister-in-law, likely my nephew, and you.
To hear you say you love me and yet disagree with that is confusing. In fact, as frustrating as it may be to hear, to say as much is discriminatory. That’s not an accusation, it’s a clear-cut fact. You can’t say you love someone (which assumes you want the best for them) and then disagree with a positive movement for their civil rights.
I love you. Sometimes when I visit with extended family on either side, there’s a distance from one or two people that’s never articulated. I can sense they feel awkward due to my sexuality and yet, they want to be warm. As a result, much to their own bewilderment, when they share that they’re proud of me and love me they’re also keeping an emotional distance.
This annoys me. Not because I think less of them for not having it all figured out or because I think they’re stupid, but because they don’t have to feel that way. Their confusion is completely fear-based and obstructs the positive energy they’re naturally trying to express. I’m guessing they’re annoyed, too. Not to mention fearful and sad.
That’s a crime. I should never have felt sweat-inducing fear for Uncle John’s soul at the age of eight and no one should feel fear for me (and you can be sure my nephew won’t feel any such fear, even if I have to strong-arm it). These fears only cause distance, which is needless and tragic. If you hold any of these fears within you, I hope you can find a way to process and move through them because distance isn’t fun, it’s not family, and it’s not necessary. Let me know how I can help.
Thank you for reading. I hope this provides an avenue for further dialogue.
All my love,