In early August, my sister, my gay cousin and I attended the opening ceremonies of the Ninth International Gay Games in Cleveland. I watched my city open its arms. Everything -- Terminal Tower decked out in rainbow hues, the Cleveland Foundation's generous underwriting, and more -- spoke of a community that has come to terms with, and knows how to celebrate, diversity.
I haven't been as moved by anything since Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.
It was both a delight and a bit of a surprise to learn that Cleveland would host the games. While we Clevelanders are a liberal bunch, that's not saying much in conservative Ohio. Ten years ago, my state passed one of harshest anti-gay union laws in the country.
So it was somewhat surreal to watch 9,000 jubilant athletes from over 50 countries parade into Quicken Loans Arena and join the 20,000 cheering fans who filled the place to bursting. A long and loud standing ovation for the delegation from Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has declared the need to "cleanse" the country of homosexuality, brought many to tears, including me. Members of the Nigerian delegation risked 14 years in jail to attend. (In January, their president criminalized homosexual associations, societies and meetings.)
When the enormous Ohio delegation took a full 15 minutes to parade in, the longest of any group, my sister turned to us and jokingly remarked: "I didn't know everyone in Ohio was gay." We laughed heartily, if a bit wistfully. I wished everyone in my state could see what we were seeing. Beautiful, healthy, strong women and men who know who they are and are proud of their God-given orientation.
I guess I never thought I would see this. Just as, after living through decades of civil rights, assassinations, and watching Washington's 14th Street go up in flames after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, I never thought I would see a black president. But I did.
It seems just yesterday that everybody in the gay community was either in the closet, dying of AIDS, or both. My sister worked in San Francisco as a social worker and tended many terminally ill gay men. She and her husband lost half of their gay male friends. An Ohio friend's brother succumbed to AIDS without ever telling his family he was gay. His fear of their possible shaming and rejection was greater than his fear of death. This was true of many others.
I'm proud that, at the height of the AIDS crisis, my parish publicly welcomed gay women and men to join us for Sunday Mass. Even so, one closeted gay parishioner lost his struggle with despair and committed suicide over the soul-killing teaching of the Catholic church. He had a huge heart for poor kids and organized a creative after-school program the children loved. We still mourn his passing.
It's odd how sometimes, the worst catastrophes can still lead to something good. A paradoxical blessing of the AIDS crisis was that we in the straight community were forced to confront our homophobia. It wasn't possible to hide the homosexual people in our world any longer. Too many were dying in droves. Their families and friends were forced to ask hard questions. What and whom do I really care about? Does my love for my son, daughter, cousin, grandson, friend outweigh my fears, preconceptions and concerns about what others might think? Most of the time, thanks be to God, love won out. And we were greatly helped by the candor of the courageous conversations initiated by our homosexual loved ones.
A silver lining of the AIDS crisis was that homosexual people came out of the closet. Heterosexual people had to deal with the fact that we humans are fearfully and wonderfully made. Gay and straight, straight and gay, God created us. Over the years, as heterosexuals came to better understand the homosexual people in their lives, a person's orientation just didn't matter that much anymore. What mattered was the kind, competent, funny, caring person we loved and who loved us, even if we didn't always "get it" about our own cultural homophobia.
So, to all my homosexual friends and family, especially those in the Catholic church, I want to say thank you for your patience in bringing me and those like me along over these many painful years.
The leaders of our church should be down on their knees every day thanking God for your faithfulness and the faithfulness of groups like DignityUSA and New Ways Ministry. You have shown us what it means to hang tough with this church we love, even when it doesn't love us.
You are modeling for everyone how to help this church grow into the loving community God has called us to be, this church whose hierarchy still doesn't "get it" that diverse sexual orientations are gifts from a loving God.
I dream of a day when our gay priests, bishops and cardinals are at last free to come out of their closets. I long for a day when our bishops will be female and male, gay and straight, married and single, bishops who lead us in celebrating our sexuality in all of its awe-inspiring orientations and expressions.
I trust God to help us create a future church whose community has come to terms with, and is grateful for, an amazing "diversity of gifts but the same Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:4)
I can't wait to see St. Peter's dome lighting up in rainbow hues. For nothing is impossible with God.
Why, I've seen the impossible happen in my own lifetime. Twice.
[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years.]
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