Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Dangers of the Closet

A post has been brewing in my head since I read this morning that disgraced former pastor Ted Haggard had other gay relationships. One relationship in particular involved a volunteer at the church he pastored. As the story goes, the relationship lasted "a long time" but when it came to light after Haggard's sordid prostitution story broke, the church paid the man's counseling bills and COLLEGE TUITION (what's up with that?!) to keep things quiet. Also, the church seems confident that the young man was over 18 when the relationship with Haggard occurred (but they not entirely certain).

The thoughts in my head isn't over Haggard, per say, but over the power of the closet and what happens when a person allows themselves to justify the need for it.

When I attended a prominent Southern Baptist seminary (before I eventually left and transfered to a prominent liberal seminary in the East), I was both closeted and out, but in a variety of ways. My family knew I was gay and I was part of the unofficial 'gay underground' at the school; however, the school and church I served did not know. I was terrified at the thought of the school finding out because I knew I would be immediately expelled. When I was outed by another student (in a way that I should have expected), I consulted a close friend (who I had dated previously) who used to serve as the secretary to the Vice President of Student Affairs about how to handle the situation. He gave me incredible advice that caused some strain but ultimately didn't get me expelled (as the result of a lesser known stipulation in the disciplinary rules). My friend told me my situation wasn't unique and that nearly 100 students per year were kicked out of the school for being gay. That's a lot of students, even for one of the the largest seminaries in the world.

Anyways, my rant is somewhat directed at myself and what would have happened if I was not seen cavorting in a known gay neighborhood in a nearby city by a student spy sent there to discover students of the seminary? What would have happened to me if I made it past the radar, having graduated and served a growing congregation somewhere in the South to Midwest? What if I married and had children? Would the gay experiences and feeling have gone away upon marrying and serving a church? Haggard's story illustrates that marriage and servitude doesn't make the 'homo go away'. Haggard's story also illustrates that 'praying away the gay' won't make it go away either.

Next week, Haggard will be starring in an upcoming documentary called, The Trials of Ted Haggard, which begins airing on HBO. Interestingly Haggard will be promoting this documentary with guest appearance on Larry King Live and the Oprah Winfrey show. I am guessing those appearances will garner dynmite ratings (admittedly I plan to watch them too). What interests me about the documentary is the presumed acknowledgement that inspite of counseling after his affair was exposed, he still maintains that his same-sex feelings are still there and need to be managed accordingly. He also lamblasts his former church for treating him so badly after his fall and, a bit unexpectedly, endoreses same-sex legal and unions while also explaining that "marriage" belongs to a man and woman (which, in my opinion, changes the tune of the documentary from self-promotion to self-revelation, which can be a good thing).

Now, I am not the kind of minister who could ever found a mega-church or interest large numbers of Christians to come here me preach. But in some ways, when I look at Haggard, I wonder to myself what would have happened if I wasn't outed and left the Southern Baptist church. Would I have been eventually discovered? Outed? Shamed? Would the situation have been my fault for deceiving myself and others? Would I have publically condemned homosexuality but privately engaged in it? My questions are surely rheortical.

And yet I know that I wasn't alone. I know of many, many seminary students who are going into a situation just like Haggard's. While I was so angry over being outed, today I am somewhat grateful for the experience--although I do wish it had gone a bit smoother. For all the conservative forces to expunge its gay folks from its institutions, it may seem cruel and harsh. The fact is, while those institutions are primarily covering their tails, the experience actually benefits the students more. It gets them out of there and from the situation that justifies their closetedness.

Today I am pastoring a congregation in New Jersey as an openly gay and partnered man. The seminary I ultimately transfered to, away from my Baptist one, accepted me as an openly gay man and allowed me to write my Master's thesis on developing a new gay theology. I say all this to say that what Haggard and others need to know, once they come to terms with their sexual orientation, is that if you feel called to ministry, there are options outside of your current faith traditions that will honor and affirm your place in ministry. And for gawd sakes, get out while you still can before you cause yourself, a future family, and a church a world of abuse, hurt, and shame.

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