Anita Bryant then, Rick Warren now

Watching “Milk,” the new biography of murdered San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, I was struck by the arguments made in the film by Anita Bryant against gays in the mid-1970s. She and others of her ilk at the time claimed that gays were immoral and thus should be denied their civil rights. In California, this thinking manifested itself as Proposition 6, which called for firing gay public school teachers.  The argument behind the proposition, as John Briggs, the California state senator who led the campaign stated repeatedly, was the demonstrably false argument that gays somehow “recruit” or train children to become homosexual. This claim was at the heart of Bryant’s broader anti-homosexual crusade and the beginning of the modern Christian conservative political movement.

I was struck both because the idea that sexuality is learned is so ridiculous, but also because the evil lie that homosexuality is immoral persists so strongly today. The proof of its persistence is the fact that Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback megachurch, can publicly assert views nearly identical to Bryant’s and still be invited to give the invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration Tuesday. Warren said late last year that allowing gays to marry would be equivalent to allowing “a brother and sister to be together and call that marriage,” or “an older guy marrying a child and calling that a marriage.” This is the same argument Bryant was making in the 1970s–that if we tolerate gays, the next thing you know we’ll have to tolerate bestiality, incest, and pedophilia. It is shocking to have to explain this, but just to be clear, homosexuality is merely a status, a person’s identity. There is nothing immoral about being attracted to a person of the same gender. Bestiality, pedophilia, and incest, on the other hand, are behaviors chosen by (mostly heterosexual) people. A homosexual may act in an immoral manner, just as a heterosexual may, but Warren and Bryant see immorality and criminality in the mere existence of homosexuality. And if Warren indeed is only concerned with avoiding a redefinition of marriage, why not push for civil unions to be allowed for homosexuals? After all, that’s all a civil marriage is anyway. The sanctity of a “5000-year tradition” exists in the church, not the courthouse.

The movie version of Milk’s life and politics highlighted his brilliant insistence that gays come out to the people they knew. My best friend bravely took Milk’s advice just a few years after Milk’s murder, even though I had earlier drawn upon my Psych 101 expertise to confidently tell my friend that homosexuality was “clearly abnormal.” When my friend told me, I spent the whole day trying to reconcile what I thought I knew with the reality that he was the same person he had always been. By the end of the day, I accepted that it just didn’t matter–we were friends and would remain so. He wasn’t a monster or any more or less moral than he had been when I didn’t know he was gay.

We may need another wave of gays coming out to their friends and family, but this time in our churches. We have to demand that our fellow congregants know that the gays among them are sinners, just as we all are, and thus have a place at God’s table.  Rick Warren should be ashamed to pretend to judge any person, gay or straight, for that is God’s job, not his.  And Barack Obama should be ashamed to accommodate Warren’s hate.

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