Pro-Gay and Ex-Gay – Is There Room for Dialogue?
Part two of a three-part article.
Maggie Heineman was tired of moles. As a Philadelphia member of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), she was taking part in the Marriage Mailing List, an e-mail list for people advocating the right for gay people to marry; Ms. Heineman had a gay child, so this was a matter of personal interest to her. She knew, though, that another, less sympathetic person was "lurking on the marriage list," as she put it: Robert R. Larimer, Jr., the chairman of Washington for Traditional Values. Fuming, she sent an open letter in May 1996 through the list, asking Mr. Larimer to read a speech by Mitzi Henderson of PFLAG, "Bridges of Respect." Ms. Heineman quoted Ms. Henderson as saying, "I am not recommending that we give up one iota of commitment, but I am reminding us that we must continue to share our humanity with those with whom we disagree, and invite them to do the same. Only then will we be able to enter a real dialogue."
Dialogue with the enemy, though, seemed highly unlikely. Still unsettled over this incident, Ms. Heineman turned her attention to the mailing list she oversaw, an unofficial PFLAG discussion list. In doing so, her attention was caught by a message posted by a new member of the list, an Ontario resident named Steve Calverley. He was responding to an earlier posting by someone who had said that they had never known of any gay person who "went str8." Mr. Calverley wrote:
I know too much from my own experience to let that pass without comment.
I certainly don't dispute that Deb has not previously met anyone that meets that description but it has actually been my own life experience.
For fifteen years (from about age 17) I self identified as gay and was "out" for ten of them. I was in three gay relationships, the longest of which was 3-1/2 years. I was fully "out", serving a term on the board of Gays for Equality (Mississauga), played ball on the Cabbagetown Gay Softball League (1981), and, well, what else can I say. I really was there.
Seven (plus) years ago through a process that I wasn't even looking for before it began, I found myself leaving it behind. Once I understood that I was actually headed out (of the gay lifestyle) I began to actively pursue it. As a result, I left it behind and I'm very happily married now and have (finally) found what feels to me like real freedom and peace within myself.
It really is possible.
After this confounding announcement, more correspondence followed between Mr. Calverley and the other members of the list. Then, in Ms. Heineman's eyes, Mr. Calverley dropped the ball; he mentioned that he had read Mitzi Henderson's speech. Now Ms. Heineman knew what she was dealing with: a spy sent to infiltrate the PFLAG list. She decided to test her theory by writing to Mr. Calverley:
I missed your original post, but I've read some of your correspondence with Rhea and Laura. I note that you say you saw the article of a past pflag president on the web that asked for dialogue. I gave the url for Mitzi Henderson's letter (she is the current president) in my "Open letter to Robert Larimer" a week or so ago. . . . Please don't feel that you're taking up too much bandwith on pflag-talk, this is very interesting. Say hi to Bob.
Mr. Calverley responded quickly to this friendly overture by means of a private letter:
Yes, that's the one [Mitzi Henderson's speech]. I read it somewhat quickly and formed an impression that Mitzi was a past president which is obviously wrong. Frankly, I'm glad that she is the current pres. considering her views about dialogue and so forth. . . .
Thanks, Maggie, for the email info and the open reception. . . . (it's a small world after all!) Do you know Bob?
Furious, Ms. Heineman shot back:
No, do you? How did you receive my letter that pointed you to the article by Mitzi? I don't think you've told us everything about that.
In the meantime, Ms. Heineman had been sending her private correspondence with Mr. Calverley to the mailing list leaders and to Chris Purdom of the Interfaith Working Group. Mr. Purdom sent her a sympathetic message:
Just a theory, but I think some of the RRR [radical religious right] groups are trying to cause disruption on gay-oriented lists, akin to the plans outlined on townhall for taking over gay student groups.
I'm not sure if it's a sign of desparation or unwarranted self-confidence.
I find in my email conversations with the folks who write to harass me that they start off real nice for the first few exchanges, then start to ask long lists of slanted questions, and then they get testy.
Mr. Calverley's reply arrived a few minutes later:
The phrase "Say hi to Bob." was in your email to me via pflag-talk. (Sat May 11 08:43) I took it to mean that you think I should know a person named "Bob" to say hi to. What did it mean, or who was it for?
>How did you receive my letter that pointed you
who is "us"? (I thought I was emailing you personally.)
my comment "yes, that's the one" or words to that effect, are referring to Mitzi's address. (Not email address, but the spoken address in San Francisco.) I saw it on the web recently. I don't think that I got there via your letter/pointer. . . .
I'm confused. What's all the fuss about either way?
A little while later, he wrote to Ms. Heineman again:
Thanks for the reply. You still didn't answer my questions though. (What was the "Say Hi to Bob."?Also, what was the fuss about re: what route took me to read Mitzi's speech?)
Anyhow, if you choose to ignore them I can live with that. I'm not implying that you are obligated to answer my questions I just want to put closure to them by acknowledging that they remain unanswered.
Ms. Heineman responded coldly:
I think I have answered all your questions. Bob is Robert Larimer. "Say Hi to Bob" is a playful way of suggesting that directly or indirectly you know Larimer, just as the "Hi Bob" comments on the marriage list are a playful way of saying "We know you're lurking." . . .
The question implicit in all my correspondence with you is, What connections, direct or indirect, do you have with what we call the "religious right" (I suppose Larimer might use the term "traditional values groups")? You have told us (pflag-talk) that you are an ex-gay who left "the gay lifestyle." In the context of honest dialogue I expect you to give a complete, not a partial, answer to questions about what led you to pflag-talk or to surf PFLAG-on-the-Web. The "fuss" is not about what route took you to read Mitzi's speech, it's about whether you are leveling concerning what route took you to read Mitzi's speech.
Mr. Calverley's response was quiet:
Our misunderstanding about the "Say Hi to Bob." is that I have a friend named Bob who is one of the men that I refered to as having known as a gay man and now as a heterosexual man. I identified him by a former position on the Toronto Gay Business Association. I was very surprised you knew his name! As far as Robert Larimer, I have never before so much as heard his name.
Regarding the "Religious Right". I am not aligned with their political views. I do not believe that forcing one's views on another is a Christian approach. God gives us all the freedom to live our lives as we see fit. If God does not take away an individual's freedom what right does anyone else have to do the same? (none)
Re: ex-gay. I do not care for the term. It is limiting in that it describes a person by what they were not what they are. I would prefer a more positive word. (I don't have a suggestion in mind.) You have used this word to distill how I've described my experiences into a label. It's not the label I used.
I personally found though, that a local organization, New Direction, was very helpful to me in 1989 in terms of helping me persue the path that I had already been on for eight months when I heard of them. Two years ago the director asked me if I would like to volunteer to help with a support group and I accepted. I have facilitated a support group for nearly two years for persons, like myself, who have chosen to persue a path of reorientation. I make no apology for that as I know from my own life experience that it worked for me. It is not something that should be forced on anyone but is a valid alternative for consideration.
I have no hidden agenda, I am not connected with any group in terms of my participation on pflag-talk. Only my wife and one family friend even know that I'm on it. (There is no conspiracy, there is no malintent.)
I am on pflag-talk to (1) learn what I can about human sexuality especially homosexuality, (2) to share what I know where appropriate and with respect. I am not here to advertize – look back on my past email responses to the group – there were lots of opportunities to try to advertize but I didn't feel that it would be either appropriate or respectful.
Re: how I got to Mitzi's speech. (One last time for the record.) I found it linked to a pflag home page I think it was yours. . . .
Speaking of Mitzi, I'll close with a quote from her that you posted yesterday: ". . . I am reminding us that we must continue to share our humanity with those with whom we disagree, and invite them to do the same. Only then will we be able to enter a real dialogue."
Maggie, I really hope that we can have that kind of "real dialogue".
A BETTER WAY
Real dialogue on Christian attitudes toward homosexuality has been sadly absent during the past three decades. Dialogue has generally occurred in places of confrontation: in church assemblies, with opposing speakers giving their views on the matter; in university speeches, in which the speaker on the platform often finds himself engaging in unwilling dialogue with protesters; and in press releases that lash out at each other's groups.
This was the situation facing the Diocese of Toronto in 1995. Increasingly, like many mainline churches, the Anglican Church of Canada was being pulled apart by disputes over matters of human sexuality. Seeking to find a peaceful solution to the problem, Bishop Terence Finlay of Toronto decided to start a dialogue group on homosexuality. In doing so, he brought together three members each of two groups: Fidelity and Integrity/Toronto.
Fidelity began in 1994 when some traditionalist Anglicans decided that their views were not being heard within the church. Like Courage, Fidelity does not fall within the category of ex-gay ministries; nor does it identify itself with many other traditionalist groups.
"Fidelity doesn't see itself as a harsh, right-wing group that says, 'This is what the Bible says and that's it,'" says the Rev. Canon A. Paul Feheley, vice president of Fidelity. "My concern was not just to flog my opinion. My great concern was the unity of the church. Knowing how divisive these questions had become, we were seeking to know how to keep the church unified."
News of Fidelity's formation soon reached the Toronto chapter of Integrity, a North American organization for gay Anglicans. "My initial response was, 'No good deed goes unpunished' – meaning that obviously we were making some progress if people thought they must resist us," says Chris Ambidge, co-convener of Integrity/Toronto. "I think it's good that people who feel differently from me have a locus for their feelings. . . . That's the good thing about Fidelity being there, that there is someone out there to speak that theology and that viewpoint."
Bishop Finlay's invitation for a dialogue was welcomed by both men. "I would not want to minimize the very significant difference [Integrity and Fidelity] have in approaching these questions," says Mr. Ambidge, "but I'm very firmly of the opinion that if we just shout at each other, we won't get anywhere. Ghandi said, 'The person who shouts hears only his own voice.'"
Over the years, Mr. Ambidge has encountered a variety of traditionalist speeches and literature; the lowest point, he says, came when he heard an Episcopal bishop compare homosexuals to necrophiliacs. As for his own views on dialogue, he paraphrases the 1994 speech that Philip Turner of Yale gave to Fidelity at its first conference: "Don't get into the confrontational mode; there has to be a better way."
"As we could see the extremes of the both the left and the right, that's what spurred us on to say, we've got to seek a better way to this," says Father Feheley, commenting on his reasons for joining the dialogue. "I have been surprised – pleasantly – how far we have come. Whether we can ultimately reach some way of agreeing, I don't know, but I would be less than Christian if I didn't try to achieve that."
Mr. Ambidge agrees, saying, "There's huge amounts on which we agree. The rocks on which the church is built are common to both of us. I think we need to celebrate these and affirm these common grounds first."
This the dialogue group has done; in November 1997 it released a joint statement entitled "Emerging Common Ground," in which the two sides state their theological agreements. Having begun to establish where they agree, the groups will now explore – in a civil manner – their disagreements, starting with their views on Scripture.
In the meantime, life has continued as usual for Integrity/Toronto. Like the ex-gay ministries, the pro-gay ministries spend only part of their time dealing with matters of sexuality. Much of their work is familiarly pastoral: holding retreats, speaking at parishes, celebrating Eucharist. And one portion of the pro-gay ministries' work is mundane: keeping track of business matters such as newsletter subscriptions.
In early 1997, Integrity/Toronto sent out its annual newsletter subscription forms, which always includes the line: "I am an Anglican priest and would like to celebrate the Eucharist with you" [check box]. Soon afterwards, the chapter received this portion of the form back from a priest. The priest who had checked the box was Father Feheley.
The Integrity executives reflected on the matter, then issued an invitation to Father Feheley. On September 17, Father Feheley donned Integrity's clerical stole – rainbow-colored in the tradition of the gay community – and spoke to the congregation before him: a few members of Fidelity and many more members of Integrity:
You and I both know that we are right in our thinking of what the church should do regarding all the questions about homosexuality. I wonder if we have the same conviction to admit that we could be wrong. How far are we prepared to risk our understanding of the truth? How open are we to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to us? Too few of us are prepared to risk. We think our goal is victory, when it must be the pursuit of truth.
You and I owe God and each other a commitment to be open to hearing and seeing new truth, to risk our deepest presuppositions to know, believe, and understand that our thinking can and should be altered to the mind of Christ.
Within days, Father Feheley's sermon had been posted on the Web. It appeared on a site that had begun in February 1997, a site devoted to civilized dialogue about homosexuality. The name of the site was Bridges Across the Divide, and its editors were Maggie Heineman and Steve Calverley.
TRUSTING THE ENEMY
The idea for the Web site came to Ms. Heineman about a month after she began corresponding with Mr. Calverley. She asked Chris Purdom for his opinion.
A bad idea, he told her. It will give credibility to the ex-gay movement.
Nothing daunted, Ms. Heineman continued to discuss the idea with Mr. Calverley. "The impulse for dialogue was there," she says. The trouble was finding the right approach. "Our commitment was that we were going to find common ground, not engage in debates; we both knew where we stood. Then I had this epiphany that the important thing was building personal relationships. The dialogue would consist of exchanging life stories, finding out what we had in common."
Ms. Heineman and Mr. Calverley went searching for other people to take part in the project; Ms. Heineman found a recruit after she joined the Sojourners list, an e-mail list for evangelical Christians. The Rev. Robert C. Buehler had no opinions either way on homosexuality, but he was deeply concerned with freedom of conscience and treating one's opponents with love. He agreed to join the project, as did many others holding views on both sides – including a surprise convert.
"Most of the conservative Christians taking part in Bridges Across were formerly gay," says Mr. Purdom. "It's better than talking to people who had no gay past. . . . The Bridges Across project may help to break down stereotypes that all ex-gays are actively in the religious right. It may also break down conservative stereotypes about people in the liberal church."
Since Bridges Across the Divide began, the site has encountered criticism. "There are people on the right saying that dialogue in the church is not a good thing," says Ms. Heineman. "There are people on the left who say this gives credence to something which is dangerous."
"These relationships involve a certain amount of trusting, which is an unheard of thing," says Rev. Buehler. "How can you trust the enemy? The consensus on both sides tends to be that people on the other side of the issue are deceived or bad or malicious. Bridges Across's mission is to try to break that, to make people, not so much talk to each other, as pay attention to each other."
"At first we heard from gay people who were angry about this project and thought that it was the wrong thing to do," says Mr. Calverley. "It seems that as time has progressed on, people with the same vision have said they would like to be involved in it. The relationships that are being built seem to be able to withstand talking about difficult things. I don't think this has changed people's minds on the issue of homosexual behavior. We're finding ways to love despite that."
To Mr. Calverley, "the issue of the morality of homosexual behavior is completely secondary to the issue of who is Christ and what will you do for him. This question must be answered first before you deal with the homosexual issue." He was therefore delighted when, after four decades as a "non-theist," Ms. Heineman suddenly returned from an interfaith retreat as a Christian.
Ms. Heineman sees her conversion as a complicated matter, not entirely owing to her encounters with traditionalist Christians, but she says that she recognizes the "the fruit of the Spirit" in Mr. Calverley. Indeed, the group's main success seems not to have been dialogue in the narrow sense of the word, but what Mr. Calverley calls "learning to talk to each other. . . . It has become [a place for] something more than tolerance; there is love and affection."
Mr. Calverley has had a double mission; while he has been participating in Bridges Across, he has also been running a Web site entitled Justice and Respect, aimed at changing conservative Christians' harsh attitudes toward homosexuals. He tells how he witnessed a conservative group undergo a "radical change of heart" in this area. "The change was unbelievable," he says. "To see people go from standard borderline homophobic rhetoric to big burly men being almost in tears when they realized how their words could hurt – it's like being in an operating room when a new baby is born."
Like Ms. Heineman, Mr. Calverley is kept busy by the work for Bridges Across, but he has no regrets. "It's something I find that I can't not do," he says. "I find that I get weary and I get tired, especially if I'm under heavy criticism, and I just want to give up, but it's as though there's some voice telling me that this is something I have to do."
In his 1994 address to Fidelity, Philip Turner, like Father Feheley, argued the need for "unity rather than victory":
My final plea is not for dialogue – that form of speech advantaged when tolerance rather than truth is thought to be the end of conversation. . . . No, I am arguing for a hard and honest debate – one in which all parties are forced back upon their deepest presuppositions – one in which no quarter is given – one in which all the implications of our various positions are brought out into the light of day. I believe Christians owe God and one another this sort of honesty.
Such a debate has yet to begin in most places, but the basis for it may already have started: what Mr. Ambidge calls "trust-building." By getting to know each other, traditionalists and progressives have been forced to break down the stereotypes they hold about each other, stereotypes that have prevented the honest debates that Dr. Turner desires.
In some cases, the results of this trust-building have been powerful. In September 1997, sixteen months after she sent angry e-mail to the "mole" in PFLAG-Talk, Ms. Heineman learned of the death of another ex-gay man from AIDS. She proceeded to write these words:
It is now 12:55 in Philadelphia and time to close this essay. And now I see where this is going – to a call for pro-gay people to repent of their treatment of those who have followed the ex-gay path. I am haunted by the unasked question in Steve's account of the Rochester Mass:
"The mass began, the singing was hearty and the joy was so thick you could touch it. We exchanged the peace. I knew the person to my right was lesbian from overhearing earlier conversation. I turned and we both looked at each other a little hesitant. Should we shake hands or hug? It was as if she wanted to say, 'I'm lesbian, do you accept me as a person?' I thought to myself, 'Gladly, my sister, but do you accept me? I'm what some call "ex-gay."' After a brief moment's hesitation we embraced heartily, grinning at each other like kids with a secret. Unfortunately I had to keep mine. It wasn't the time or place."
It has now been nineteen months since Steve Calverley revealed his "secret" to the PFLAG-Talk list. The final words, then, come from Mr. Calverley as he reflects on the events since that time: "I'm pessimistic about the heart of mankind; I'm extremely optimistic about the power of God. I think that there are miraculous things happening because there are people on both sides of the divide who are weeping and who are on their knees in prayer. God forbid I should be arrogant when I say that. It feels like we're watching the cracks form in the Berlin Wall."
Pro-Gay and Ex-Gay – Is There Room for Dialogue? Emerging Common Ground. By the Right Rev. Terence Finlay et al.
Related articles and links are listed in part three of this article.
© 1997 Heather Elizabeth