I have been singing in one LGBTQ chorus or another since 1986. I have seen my share of what I call the ‘turn or burn’ banner people, paraphrasing the most common theme of the banners carried by those who picketed our concerts in the early days: “Repent now, turn from sin or you will burn in hell.” In recent years, I haven’t seen the banner people picketing Portland concerts; I’ve seen the banners at Portland Pride, the negativity of their presence subsumed by the effusive energy of 50,000 people celebrating the diversity of human identity.
In mid-April of 2019, I went to a small town in southern Oregon with the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. We sang a social justice concert to an enthusiastic audience of some 300 folks packed into a small church. Our chorus custom is to greet our audience after a concert, shaking hands and thanking them for coming. With that in mind, I exited the back door of the church after the concert, heading around to the front to greet our effusive audience as they left. My heart was wide open with love of life, the universe and everything, brought on by my newfound spirituality coupled with having just poured my heart out in song. I rounded the corner only to unexpectedly encounter three banner people, blocking my way up the church steps.
Not long after this concert, various chorus members reacted on social media, writing variations on: “It’s so ridiculous those people still picket our concerts; I find it laughable.” There was a time I would have said the same – but not that day. My joy-filled heart was furious; for the first time in my life, I took on the banner people head to head. I told them I was about to be baptized and that I was so glad my God wasn’t theirs. They began a stock response, asking what my so-called religion was, but I came to my senses. The only result of this conversation would be to lead my heart away from joy. I turned my back on them and went up the steps of the church, intending that our audience encounter me before the banners and trying to recapture the uncomplicated love I’d been feeling.
After greeting our audience, I changed my clothes and as I exited the church, saw one of the banner people coming my way. I had already unloaded my anger on my baptism sponsor (also a chorus member), one of the first people I saw after coming back into the church to change my clothes. As we were leaving, she saw my path converging with the banner people, and engaged with them in front of me, running interference for me. I ran to my car and drove off, leaving her alone with the banner people (sorry, Sue!).
Our hotel was some 45 minutes north from the church. I had carpooled from Portland with a fellow chorister, who may have regretted his choice of companions during that particular stretch of our drive. There’s no other word for it – I ranted, repeating what I’d already said to my baptism sponsor. I unloaded on him (sorry, Peter!) all I had not said to the banner people. When we got to our hotel and checked in, I unloaded again on my roommate (sorry, John!).
What was I so incensed about? That the banner people had the nerve to call themselves Christian. That I also now identified as a Christian. How dare they??? In case you haven’t noticed, I am highly verbal, in person as well as in writing. I wasn’t nearly done at the end of that 45-minute drive, or after ranting to my roommate for two hours. Or was it three?
I survived the anti-gay ballot measure era here in Oregon. The banner people are aligned with the same folks who tried in 1992 to amend the Oregon constitution thus:
“All governments in Oregon may not use their monies or properties to promote, encourage or facilitate homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism or masochism. All levels of government, including public education systems, must assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse and they are to be discouraged and avoided.”
They failed. Tried again in 1994. Failed again. One of my closest friends, Amy, has since become a devout Episcopalian (as I am today). Some years ago, before my own spiritual awakening, she told me, “I started going to services and it felt great but it took a long time before I would tell anyone I was going. And it was almost a year before I could bring myself to take communion.” She, too, remembered all too well that anti-gay ballot measure era, and that the impetus behind the measures was a particular brand of Christianity. For me, and for Amy before me, for countless other LGBTQ people, the process is one of reclamation – I am a Christian, my identity to claim and define. No one else has the right to define me.
There is a lot to unpack here. Throughout my life, I have claimed identities that put me within the mainstream of LGBTQ. I have received great support from various aspects of LGBTQ communities for my exploration of identity. Now, for the first time in my life, I find myself exploring and claiming an identity that is mainstream within mainstream culture – Christian – and suspect within LGBTQ space. I am a Christian. The banner people call themselves Christian. If it’s my identity to define and claim, isn’t it also theirs to define and claim? What slippery slope am I on if I say they aren’t Christian? Isn’t it the same slippery slope they’re on in saying I’m not Christian?
A few weeks after PGMC’s venture to southern Oregon, I drove south again, alone, to participate in the first-ever Pride Parade in Roseburg. Several hundred people participated, representing all of Douglas County. Several hundred exuberant, exultant people – and a dozen banner people. In June, I saw three banner people drowned out by the 50,000 attending Portland Pride. In July, I saw a dozen banner people not at all drowned out by the few hundred attending Douglas County Pride.
I had no inclination to take them on this time. My mood was wholly different, in part because I had not just opened my heart in song. I was prepared to face banner people in Roseburg. Beyond that, however, I found that my heart was moved to action not by the words of the banner people, but in support of the few who reacted as I had after the chorus concert. There were a few people apoplectic by the banner people’s presence, taking them on, arguing the Bible with them. I found my heart reaching out to those who were so upset.
I didn’t take action – I’m still unfolding and didn’t understand precisely what’s my move here? I expect next year, I’ll have a better understanding. My impulse this year was along the lines of approaching an upset person and leading them away by the hand, providing a sounding board and helping them understand that there are better uses of their energy. Confrontation merely drains positive energy from an LGBTQ person or ally. That’s not the energy that will change a banner person’s heart.
The power of loving interconnection is my key – not engaging with the banner people, and holding safe loving space for those reacting from a place I understand from personal experience. Yes, the banner people are on the wrong side of history (I believe). Yes, their message isn’t truly that of Christ (I believe). And yes, love is the answer (I know). Loving interconnection includes a connection to banner people. They are in my prayers: that they eventually understand the error of their ways, that they can repair their own relationships with those they have hurt, and that they don’t cause more damage in the meantime. I pray for a time when ‘they’ become part of the ‘us,’ and I pray that I am never part of the reason that doesn’t happen. I apply the concept of inclusion awareness to this situation: expanding the circle so it’s not ‘us and them’ in the circle, but a new ‘we.’
Prior to the anti-gay ballot measure era, I had no opinion about religion one way or another. I was raised in an agnostic household: “We see some people believe in religion; we don’t, but more power to them if it works for them.” There was no emotional content to my family’s reaction to religion. After fighting ballot measures 9 and 13 here in Oregon, I was never again neutral about religion. This is why it took 24 years and a trip to China for me to properly understand my own 1995 spiritual emergence. At that time, barely a year after Measure 13’s defeat on the ballot, how could I face the prospect of embracing Christianity myself? I had asked for help one winter night in 1995, and God responded by entering my heart. It took 24 years before I was able to face that truth. But that’s the beauty of higher powers – they act anyway, whether we say thank you or not.
So now I say it – thank you, God. The power of love is in me and around me. May it be in and around all who encounter the banner people. May it enter into the hearts of the banner people. I hold out hope. On one southern Oregon concert tour in 1993, the banner people picketed a concert. Four came into the hall and held their signs up in the back of the room. As we sang, gradually they lowered their signs and by the end of the concert, their signs were face-down on the floor, never raised again. The power of love – the power of music – this is why we sing.