In the days following the Orlando shooting, many mourners observed that clubs like Pulse have been among the precious few places for the LGBTQ community throughout its history to find respite from ridicule (and worse). Craig Rodwell, founder of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York, spoke for many when he said years ago, “Bars have always been our only place, our haven in a sense.” Or as Jes Kast put it on Twitter in the aftermath of Orlando, “A night club is like a sanctuary when a sanctuary hasn’t welcomed you.” Some of the clubs have even borne that name—“Sanctuary”—in neon, like a lighthouse pointing the way to safety.
Clubs like Pulse have never been my scene, but I have an inkling of what they mean to my tribe. As a gay man myself, albeit a celibate one owing to my Christian ethical convictions, I know my own feeling of relief and calm when I’m with my gay friends. I can breathe more evenly and let go of some of my self-consciousness. In their company, I can assume so much shared history, and I can count on empathy. A couple of years ago, some of my gay and lesbian friends, whom I rarely get to see in one place, gathered in the dining room of my house for a dinner that stretched into the night. I recall the sheer joy of that evening. I hadn’t relaxed so fully or laughed so freely in a long time. I imagine the feeling was not dissimilar to what drew those dancers to Pulse in Orlando on that horrific Saturday night before the bullets started flying.
I don’t want to sound naïve. Whatever else was happening just before last call was announced and Omar Mateen checked the magazines on his 9mm Glock for the final time, I don’t imagine it was intimate, unselfish conversation. Nor, as I also know from experience, is the gay community exempt from the backstabbing, shallowness, and hedonism that bedevil every other human group, bar none, brought together by mutual affinity. Still, when I think back to the consolations of that dinner around my table, tainted as it was too with my friends’ and my own insecurities and petty sins, I want to cry for what was lost that night at Pulse. Solidarity among friends and a safe place to belong, even an imperfect one marred by self-indulgence, was shattered.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marry. In its own way, as I’ve remarked here before, Obergefell too was about that same solidarity, that same elusive ideal of sanctuary. Many gay and lesbian Americans interpreted the Court’s decision as one in which the United States “found, at last, a name for [the gay] soul,” as Jonathan Rauch has memorably put it. That name was “not monster or eunuch. Nor indeed homosexual. It is: husband [or wife].” Future generations will perhaps telescope these two events in poignant juxtaposition: Both Pulse and the SCOTUS ruling are symbols of what gay and lesbian people have long had to seek without finding, the havens they have come to rely on.
But the question that haunts me in Orlando’s wake is this: What if Pulse—what if even Obergefell—hadn’t needed to be a haven in quite that way? What if gay and lesbian people, despite always being a minority population, had never needed to face bullying, discrimination, and hatred? What if their loves had not been scorned or overlooked for not being marriage, so that not having marriage wasn’t the liability it so often is in our contemporary culture? (Thinking counterfactually like this gets complicated, I realize: If there had been no discrimination or indifference from the majority who proudly positioned themselves as “straight,” would there even be a “gay community” as such?) Not that Pulse wouldn’t still exist, but what if it hadn’t needed to exist in the same way? What if, in other words, any club could have been a haven and a sanctuary? What if sanctuaries themselves—the Christian churches—had been the havens?
Every year around this time—June is of course Pride month in LGBT communities—I go back and reread an older essay by Eve Tushnet called “Romoeroticism.” Tushnet points out that in the nineteenth century, as same-sex love was being newly described as a pathology, a psychological disorder, it was the Catholic Church, of all places, where many same-sex attracted men and women found a home—because it was the Church that, rather than medicalizing same-sex love, celebrated “the possibility of shockingly chaste same-sex love.” When I first read that, several years ago now, it reconfigured my whole way of thinking about being gay and Christian: Yes, Scripture was telling me that gay sex wasn’t the true fulfillment of my longings for same-sex intimacy, but no, it wasn’t telling me to deny the goodness of that longing itself. On the contrary, traditional Christianity, it turned out, was radically pro-same-sex love.
The actual on-the-ground history is messy, of course. Many Catholic parishes aren’t exactly safe places to be out as LGBT, and the rich history of celebrated same-sex love is largely unknown—or suppressed—in many churches. But Tushnet’s point is that the resources are there in Catholicism (and, I would argue, in my own Anglican Communion and other churches too) to dignify and nurture same-sex love. We wouldn’t have to compromise one iota of historic Scriptural, Christian teaching in order to open our doors to gay and lesbian people, to offer them a place free from disdain and rejection and humiliation, and even to affirm their (our!) desire to lay down their lives for a friend.
I think, for instance, of C. Everett Koop, a conservative Christian with unimpeachable evangelical credentials—he often shared a stage with the likes of Francis Schaeffer and Jerry Falwell and always referred to gay sex as “sodomy”—who in his role as Surgeon General campaigned for better research and funding for AIDS treatment. He would go from advocating sexual abstinence before marriage, in his capacity as a government official, to making statements such as: “I am the Surgeon General of the heterosexuals and the homosexuals, the young and the old, the moral and the immoral. . . . I’m the Surgeon General of all the people and I’ll meet them where they are.” On at least one occasion, Koop was hailed with cheers by gay and lesbian Americans. What if more Christians had spent the last few decades at the forefront of advocacy movements for gay and lesbian health, as Koop did? What if that were the image that came immediately to mind whenever the word “evangelical” cropped up?
Or I think of a story I’ve heard Shane Claiborne recount, in which a frustrated young lesbian woman confided her discomfort with traditional Catholic sexual ethics to Mother Teresa. Afterwards, the young woman came to Claiborne beaming. What had Mother Teresa said to cause such joy? Claiborne wondered. It turned out, instead of rebuffing the woman’s questions or offering an easy solution to her uncertainty about whether or not to embrace celibacy, Mother Teresa had mostly listened—and then asked the young woman to take part in the public reading of Scripture at morning prayer the next day. What if, following examples like this, Christians were known more for nurturing the gifts of gay and lesbian believers in their churches, known more for seeking any and every place in the church where gay congregants’ participation might be encouraged, rather than (as has been the case in my experience) pointing over and over again to the line at which that participation must end?
Whatever the actual record of our churches—and, as I know from my decades as a gay churchgoer, it is often abysmal—we have a gospel that categorically condemns bigotry and violence and that celebrates loves other than marriage and parenthood in the strongest possible terms. It was our single Savior, after all, who said, “No one has greater love than this, that a man would lay down his life for his friend.” We Christians have our theology of self-giving love, our saints’ examples, and even recent Christian heroes’ memories to point the way forward in a post-Orlando world. Would that we would seize on our own best treasures and offer them afresh to a grieving population.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.