By Cynthia Astle
Doug and Richard were the first openly gay couple I ever met. My husband John had worked with Richard, and remained friends after Richard came out as gay, got divorced, and eventually made a lasting relationship with Doug.
Richard was always a bit sardonic about his profession. “How gay could you get, being a hairdresser?” he often joked. That may have been true, but he was a good hairdresser nonetheless.
Even so, I was always a bit uncomfortable around Richard and Doug, even after I’d known them for several years and Richard was my regular stylist. Somehow, each time Richard called Doug by an endearment, I squirmed inwardly while trying hard not to show it on the outside. Decades later, I understand better why that was so.
Back then, we were members of our town’s United Methodist church, a mostly evangelical congregation in which we’d grown up. Knowing Richard and Doug, being friends with them, even approving their relationship — all these attitudes were contrary to the prevailing interpretations of scripture and the cultural atmosphere of our faith community. Our church was so conservative, in fact, that one of our pastors was active with a special-interest group that actively worked to maintain the anti-homosexual stance that had been part of United Methodist doctrine since around 1976. Had we not grown up in the midst of this community and known its members and been known so personally, we might have moved on theologically sooner than we did.
To our white, culturally conservative, biblically strict evangelical church, Richard and Doug were precisely the kind of people we should condemn, if we accepted the literal, surface meaning of the Leviticus passages highlighted in this week’s Darkwood Brew episode. This was the cognitive and emotional dissonance that most challenged my previous views of same-sex orientation and relationships. I couldn’t reconcile the faithful, loving covenant that I saw Richard and Doug living out with our church’s literal interpretations of Leviticus. Somehow, in that milieu the Levitical injunction to love your neighbor didn’t apply to Richard and Doug.
What’s more, as Princeton professor Jacqueline Lapseley pointed out this week, “love your neighbor” also didn’t get linked to “love the alien in your midst.” As a good Christian wife from a conservative Southern family, I wasn’t supposed to know “those filthy people,” as my mother termed them, let alone call them friends and patronize their business.
Yet my husband and I broke this taboo out of friendship, mainly because my husband has long had this amazing Christlike ability to accept people without judging them. It has taken me more than 40 years to learn from him. During that time, I have become much quicker to love the aliens in our midst.
As I look back over our friendship with Richard and Doug, I now lament that I wasn’t as biblically literate as I am today. By that, I mean that I didn’t understand then many of the larger contexts that Jacq Lapseley and Eric Elnes pointed out in this week’s conversation. I didn’t know then the priests wrote Leviticus meant to lay down precise boundaries with the theological intent of keeping the world’s chaos at bay. It didn’t occur to me to look at the Levitical rules as the framework for sustaining a community through procreation – i.e., having children who served as the basis of a subsistence economy. In that sense, all the Bible studies I took back then fell far short of the realities of both the ancient world and today’s community.
Richard and Doug were truly the aliens in my world 35 years ago. Now I regret that as much as I befriended them, I still did so with a frisson of uneasiness, a nagging sense that I was committing a sin by knowing them. What I didn’t realize at the time, and what I thank God for today, is that by crossing that religious barrier I took my first baby steps forward in truly following Jesus.
Cynthia B. Astle, OSL, of Dallas, TX, is a certified spiritual director and veteran religion communicator. Her websites are United Methodist Insight, a forum for discerning God’s will for the future of The United Methodist Church, and Watermarked, a blog on Christian discipleship and spiritual direction.