It was Valentine’s Day. But instead of “You’re a great friend,” or “I love you son,” or “To thank you for being the man I’ve been waiting for all my life I got you an extra-large pizza and a Halloween-sized bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups,” I heard:
“You have a demon inside of you that’s making you gay.”
As a 23-year-old, it had been some time since I’d heard a comment like that, but there I was, dressed up in my nicest clothes and trying to be an adult—and all at once I felt like a frightened teenager all over again.
I began to come out as gay during my freshman year at a suburban Minnesota high school—I was a tall kid with soft and scrawny arms who deigned to get his eyebrow pierced at 15 years old and loved Aaliyah (I camped out on my stoop with a Discman and a dollar-store candle the day she died), so I don’t think my revelation astonished anyone. I first started to come out not because I particularly wanted to, but because I couldn’t not. After years of failed attempts to change my sexual orientation through my Born Again fundamentalist Christian beliefs, my mother realized what was going on and helped me find support. I stopped trying to change myself. But along with relief, I felt a kind of fury. Years of self-loathing manifested in a desire to make things right—for myself, and for others, so that they wouldn’t suffer the way I had.
With no other openly gay people in my school or in my church, I tried to blaze a trail. Though I engaged in patient dialogue, there were times when I thought my self-righteousness would act as a brush-clearing fire, such as when I camped out in front of a conference on anti-gay “reparative therapy” and shouted at those going in. I thought I was actively changing people’s minds this way—or at least humiliating them—because, well, they deserved it. I found myself taking genuine pleasure in making people uncomfortable. If they didn’t accept me for who I was—immediately, totally, and unflinchingly—then they could go fuck themselves. It wasn’t my job to coddle people into being tolerant or to make them feel okay about their inability to do so. I wasn’t as brazen as I might have liked; years of doctrine-induced self-loathing and doubt had stripped me of much of the bravado that defined my childhood. Besides, I was raised with the idea that it is important to be kind to others. Those things meant that I was sensitive; but I still knew how to pack a wallop with my words when I felt I was under attack.
My anger intensified as I entered college and decided I didn’t believe in God. The years I had spent grappling with Christian theology felt like a waste of time and emotional energy. Feeling deeply conflicted about religion, I began to write religious people off as fools. College was about carving out my own path, defined by a “my way or the highway” attitude in which alternate perspectives had no place. Eventually I saw the limitations inherent in this kind of approach, but it had become so deeply embedded that I continued to struggle for some time with being charitable toward those who disagreed with me.
The gay demon comment happened during my first speaking tour in support of my efforts as a writer and activist exploring issues of religion, atheism, interfaith cooperation, and LGBT identity. I had begun writing a book about my experiences and was grateful for the opportunity to try out some material before a live audience. But, for a 23-year-old saddled with social anxiety and a voice prone to ill-timed cracks (condemning my love for rapping to a merely private hobby), eight colleges in three states over eleven days was a bit more than I should’ve committed to for my first public speaking tour.
To my surprise, most of the events were relatively painless—enjoyable, even. I met open-minded and inquisitive students, staff, and faculty who came with tough questions and an eager desire to learn and discuss. Their goodwill and genuine curiosity made for many meaningful conversations.
There was, however, one notable exception to this general Midwestern geniality.
Midway through my tour, I ended a full day of workshops and meetings at a university with a speech. I was feeling unexpectedly at ease and excited by how well the day had gone.
I finished my speech, fielded questions, and talked with some people who lingered after the program was finished. When nearly everyone else had cleared out, a young woman timidly approached me. Her hair, dark like rosewood, alternated with every motion of her head between hovering just above her thin shoulders and resting on them.
“You have a demon inside of you that is making you gay,” she stammered quietly. “I know because I used to have a demon that gave me a gluten intolerance. But then I, uh, prayed and God cast it out.”
I was shocked. I had fielded some bizarre questions and comments, but this was a new one. My instinct was to respond in one of three ways: cry, laugh in her face, or yell at her.
The first might have happened no matter what. For years I had believed as she did: that my same-sex attractions were a spiritual affliction, an ethical infection, and likely the result of demonic forces. I had become a Christian at eleven years old because I was looking for a community, for friendship, for justice in an unjust world. But after just a few years of internalizing the dehumanizing, anti-gay theology of my nondenominational church, I retreated so far within my self-loathing and isolated myself so completely that suicide seemed the only option. Since then I’ve worked to undo that damage, trying to restore the self-confidence that defined my childhood. I’ve done a pretty good job of making peace with my past, but with her words those feelings came rushing back, inflamed and raw again. It took a good amount of willpower not to flush them out through my tear ducts.
The second possible reaction—laughter—seemed the most enthralling. Mocking her would allow me both to feel confidently self-righteous and have fun at the same time. I mean, really—she compared my sexual orientation to gluten intolerance. “Oh, right, my body just can’t metabolize women. It’s frustrating when I’m out at a restaurant because I just have so few options!” “Wait, there’s a demon in there? I thought I just ate too much Chipotle.” Or, to be simple and direct: “Are you serious? That’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.” Pair it with a patronizing laugh and I’d be done.
With luck, such mockery would humiliate her, demolish her ego, and shame her into silence—preventing her from daring to say such a thing to anyone else ever again. Embarrassing another with my words was a trick I picked up as a child in order to compensate for being the scrawny, physically weak kid in a family of heavy-set athletic Midwesterners: by observing my siblings’ insecurities, I could make incisive, comedic remarks at their expense in the middle of a physical scrap that would cut to the deepest part of their gut, forcing them into tears and retreat.
While cutting laughter might work well, yelling at this stranger would probably be the most cathartic of my options. I could even toss in a “fuck” or two. And, really, this was what I wanted to do most. In a way, she was among those responsible for making me believe during my adolescence that I needed to reject who I was. Her theology was in line with the message promoted by the authorities of the nondenominational church I converted into an adolescent, which claimed that gay people are a blemish upon God’s blessed community. The misery I experienced during my pubescent years was the direct result of beliefs like hers. She needed to know that she was wrong, and that she was responsible. It would be an anger of accountability. I would be more than justified if I ridiculed her dehumanizing beliefs and lectured her about how and why she was so stupid and wrong.
No matter how I responded, I did know one thing: her comments did not deserve a respectful response. As an interfaith organizer, I regularly work alongside people who have beliefs that I do not understand or agree with—but I can still respect that some of these beliefs inform and inspire the good work that they do. That respect is generally contingent on the understanding that it is a two-way street—that even though we disagree on some very significant things, we all share the right to live our lives in the way that we choose.
However, religious beliefs that cast aside an entire group of people—that write them off as inhuman—are not worthy of respect. Whether I laughed or yelled, she deserved to be corrected and chastised.
But before I could discern how to respond, I decided to take a breath. Just a moment, to pause and collect myself. A moment to let my emotions ebb.
As I cooled off, my inclination shifted away from expressing my emotional response—making my hurt known—and toward observing her. I recalled that she had been visibly shaking as she approached me; that her voice had trembled when she spoke; that she was now breathing sharply and staring at the ground before her feet, refusing eye contact. I noticed that she actually appeared to be frightened. Despite myself, I felt sympathy.
When I first heard her words, I went red with rage. I was so fully possessed by offense that I lost my attention to detail. I stopped listening. My anger consumed me; it was almost as if a demon had indeed come to roost. When I stopped to calm down and look closer, I decided that she was no more a demon than I.
I couldn’t believe what came out of my mouth next.
“First of all, I want to thank you,” I said, returning my gaze to look her in the eyes. “I know how difficult it can be to tell someone something that you’re pretty sure they don’t want to hear. I appreciate your bravery, and I suspect that you’re telling me this from a place of care and concern for my well-being.”
Based on the look spreading across her face, I was pretty sure she couldn’t believe what she was hearing either. Her tense muscles began to relax; she started to slip out of her defensive posture. Maybe she had anticipated a confrontation; perhaps she even hoped to provoke one. Instead, I decided to ask her some questions about her experiences and share some of my own.
With this channel of dialogue open, I explained to her why I disagreed with her ideas; how I had tried exactly what she advised to no avail; how I tortured myself for years, and then found a home in progressive Christianity; how I went on to study religion and came to different conclusions about Christian truth claims than I once held; and how today I work for inclusivity and understanding across lines of religious diversity. In walking her through my story, I added color to the monochromatic ideas she had about gay people, about atheists, and about me.
She may not have deserved my respect or my love, but I could give it to her anyway—the latter, at least. Love is a transformational thing; it can change the very fiber of an encounter. Perhaps especially when it isn’t earned.
I’d like to be able to say that I changed her mind that day—it would make a nice and tidy bookend to this story. But, as far as I know, I didn’t convince her that homosexuality isn’t an aberration. Our conversation was somewhat brief, and I have no reason to believe she sees homosexuality as any more legitimate than she did before.
But I do know she walked away changed. Now, when she thinks of gay people, she has to place flesh on the bones. She has another point of reference. She can no longer only think of a word in a book or a face on a television screen; she must also consider a body that has given her a hug, a face that has winced and shown signs of human frailty, a person who has experienced hurt and humiliation and satisfaction and joy. Someone who has shared in the experience of being human. She has a story and a person instead of just words on a page or from some minister’s mouth. Though I couldn’t walk away saying either one of us had “won,” I continue to wonder about what seeds were planted that day.
In 2010, a Gallup poll demonstrated that people are significantly more inclined to oppose same-sex marriage if they do not know anyone who is LGBT. As Robert Wright wrote in The New York Times, the LGBT community has learned that engaged relationships change people’s hearts and minds, and this is a model that the interfaith movement utilizes in its aim to counter the combative relationships that often exist between people of different religious or nonreligious identities. Engaged diversity humanizes those we see as vastly different from ourselves; through positive and productive relationships across lines of identity, we learn that another has value, worth, and dignity.
Shouting matches may be fun but, surveying on our national discourse, I’m not confident they’re getting us anywhere. As sociologist Robert Putnam has observed, people tend to hunker down and defend their preexisting prejudices when confronted by diverse perspectives and identities. But if diversity is engaged positively, individuals from different backgrounds meet and learn from one another—and communities are actually stronger and more sustainable because of their diversity.
Despite what that woman claimed, I can confidently say that there is no demon inside of me. But I am plagued by something. Sometimes, my biggest obstacle to acting out of love lies not in the intolerance or ineptitude of another, but within myself—and I suspect within many of us. It lies within the people who think first of cultural prohibitions against same-sex love when they hear LGBT people describe the years of torment such prescriptions have caused many of us; in the people who use claims to religious or political authority as an excuse to steamroll other cultures; in the religious believers and atheists who ignore their common goals in favor of inflaming one culture war after another. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can challenge ourselves to be more empathetic and more open—to respond to conflict by striving to understand the unfamiliar, to buck the instincts that encourage us to draw lines between ourselves and others. It may be very difficult, but compassion in the face of diversity can open up a space for learning and growth.
Is it best to respond to bigotry with patience in every instance? Perhaps not. Should everyone have responded the way I did in that situation? I don’t know. Maybe it was easier for me to let that young Christian woman’s comments roll off my back because I don’t believe that demons are real, and because I have known the limitations that come with such a narrow view of the world. But I suspect I was able to extend compassion to her mostly because I feel comfortable enough in my own skin these days that not every moment needs to be about my desire for a personal victory. And I have found—in that moment, and in many others—that responding to hate with love can reap surprising dividends; that the counterintuitive nature of such an act can destabilize hatred and fear.
For years I was snagged by my own pain, anger, vindictiveness, and resentment. They prevented me from seeing myself honestly, and from seeing and hearing others in their complexity. My indiscriminate desire to pick fights made me look for the worst in others and ignore the nuance. My defensiveness seized any opportunity to imagine myself under siege. That negative outlook—where everyone was potentially against me, a possible enemy—became the lens through which I viewed the world.
The confidence I lost during those years I spent beating myself up for being queer has returned, but now it is tempered and protective. The toned-down nature of my confidence allows me to love in ways I couldn’t before. To let things happen on terms other than my own, to trust in the potential goodness of others, to meet people more than halfway, and to strive to build understanding whenever I can—even when it means setting aside my own desire to prove that I’m right.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.