Jenell Williams Paris: Respect the range of sexual support

  • Updated: June 25, 2010 - 6:04 PM

In the closet

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Earlier this week, Lavender magazine reporter John Townsend published an exposé about the Rev. Tom Brock, minister of Hope Lutheran Church in Minneapolis and radio host of "The Pastor's Study." Townsend posed as a person struggling with sexual-identity issues in order to participate in Faith in Action, an anonymous, confidential religious sexual support group that Brock attended.

Townsend's ethics have been debated at length ("Cries of 'hypocrite' for pastor, report," June 24). But whether he was right or wrong (in my opinion, he was wrong), it seems that Brock's cat is out of the bag.

I'm only mildly surprised to learn that Brock participated in a celibacy support group for same-sex-attracted men. I just figured that for all the judgment he was shoveling out, he must be burying something. From Jim Bakker to Ted Haggard to George Reker, the dynamic has been seen many times in conservative Christianity -- the projection of one's own repressed sins onto others.

Unlike these other Christian leaders, however, Brock may have actually been practicing the search for self-mastery he preached. For conservative Christians, celibacy is an honorable choice for unmarried people, and seeking support through a group is even more respectable, because it requires honesty.

Sexual support groups are widely misunderstood -- by conservative Christians as a silver bullet that turns gay to straight and by critics as damaging pseudo-therapies that entrench internalized homophobia. In fact, sexual support groups such as Faith in Action use a range of approaches to support Christians seeking coherence between their religious values and their sexual lives. This may or may not include successfully abandoning homosexuality.

In her book "Straight to Jesus," anthropologist Tanya Erzen describes a year spent observing participants in a residential reparative therapy program and documenting the experiences of men seeking to reduce their same-sex attractions. (Townsend could take a lesson from her ethics; neither a religious believer nor an advocate for reparative therapy, she gained admission to the program by securing consent from leaders and participants whom she subsequently treated with respect.) She found that Jesus does not seem to turn gay into straight nearly as easily as he turned water into wine. Most men reported ongoing temptations that sometimes diminished over time and sometimes did not. They also reported strengthened religious faith that empowered them to integrate same-sex attractions into their lives in a variety of ways.

In "Ex-Gay," Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse followed nearly a hundred highly motivated participants through reparative therapy programs and found that less than half either significantly reduced their same-sex attractions or increased their attraction to the opposite sex.

But dispelling another popular misconception, their research also shows that attempts to change sexual orientation do not harm the participants.

I once had a cat who stank up my house with her urinary freedom. I longed for her demise, but when it finally came, it brought me no joy. Hers was a life, after all, with its own measure of dignity that deserved my regard. Maddie came to mind as I read Townsend's exposé.

Brock's public vitriol and aggressive campaign against homosexuality was stinking up the town, but responding to his hatred with more hatred (widespread in online coverage and comments) does nothing to restore the public civility he damaged.

That Brock would berate gays while experiencing same-sex attraction himself may simply demonstrate that mercy denied is devastating, conveying Jesus' teachings far better than Brock's words. Instead of insulting him, we could accept Jesus' invitation to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

By respecting same-sex-attracted Christians who choose celibacy as well as those who embrace gay identities, people of any faith or no faith could demonstrate the kind of acceptance and love that really is at the heart of the Christian faith.

Jenell Williams Paris, a longtime resident of the Twin Cities, now lives in Grantham, Penn., where she is professor of anthropology at Messiah College. She is author of "The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Us."

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