In October 1998, a homosexual man named Matthew Shepard was beaten to death in Wyoming. Protestors attended his funeral with signs that read "Death to fags."
In January 2001, Reverend Brent Hawkes presided over the first legitimate gay marriages in Canada.
In April 2001, a homosexual woman was named homecoming king of her high school's prom in Kansas. This time, protestors came bearing signs that read "Thank God for AIDS."
In June 2001, leader of the Political Conservative party of Canada Joe Clark was threatened with excommunication from the Catholic church for his involvement with the Calgary Gay Pride parade.
In November 2001, Aaron Web-ster was beaten to death by three heterosexual men in Vancouver's first homosexual hate crime.
This is only a short and scanty list of instances where the sexual orientation of an individual was used against them. The persecution of homosexuals, however, dates back to Biblical times when Yahweh declared to an eager prophet, "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination." (Leviticus 18:22.) The words of Leviticus have been repeated--by hate groups, a variety of religious denominations and individuals--with varying degrees of enthusiasm through the years in an effort to justify "hatewatches," "cleansings," "healings" and various other forms of anti-homosexual crusades.
The verse in Leviticus, however, comes in the same chapter as verses detailing the penalties for eating shellfish, touching dead pigs and associating with women during their time of the month, all abominations in the sight of the Lord. Yet, while homosexuals remain largely spurned and damned by certain parts of the religious community, there has yet to be a protest against Red Lobster, the CFL or any woman on the rag. The use of scripture to persecute and oppress homosexuals seems a mystery in light of other advances made by the religious community.
Changing the Church
Klaus Ohlhoff, Lutheran Chaplain at the University of Calgary, points out that with race relations, the civil rights movement was spearheaded by members of the clergy in the United States--providing the impetus for followers to change their thinking. Times, however, seem to have changed. Though secular society accepts sexual orientation as the right of an individual, some religious communities persistently reject homosexuals rather than accept them.
"I think in the area of sexuality, there is a fear of the unknown," explains Ohlhoff. "The church is just a subgroup of society with the same fears and prejudices. Why is the church so much slower to accept change? Probably because of this book. This book makes people say, 'look, it's written in the book that homosexuality is an abomination.'"
However, others point out that several attitudes the Bible specifies have changed. They cite the change in patriarchal attitudes towards women as an example.
"In the world of the Bible, men are made in the image of God and women are made in the image of men," explains U of C United Chaplain Tim Nethercott. "So women are relegated to a lower status. The Bible teaches that because that was a part of that world. The Bible also assumes that slavery is okay. Many Christians have changed their minds about the oppression of women, they've changed their minds about the oppression of people through slavery, now we need to change our minds about excluding homosexuals."
Sex and the Scripture
Along with the question of evolved societal practices comes the debate over the ethical use of scripture relating to homosexuality.
"The Bible is a really dangerous book and has to be carefully interpreted," explains Nethercott. "In the first place, to translate any term in the Bible with the word homosexuality is misleading because there was no more conception of what we call homosexuality than there was of computers at that time. People were assumed to all be straight and there was no notion of people having a homosexual orientation from birth, which is how we use the word."
Nethercott also points out two assumptions often made about language in the books of Romans and the first book of Timothy in the New Testament.
"St. Paul in the Romans describes homosexuality as unclean, but he doesn't say that it's sinful," he explains. "Something can be unclean for a Jew, but it's not sinful, especially for a Gentile. Then later on, in Timothy 1, a word that's translated as meaning homosexuality is arsenekoite but nobody knows what it means.It means some kind of social uncleanliness, but the habit of translating that word as homosexuality, to my mind, is just a homophobic guess."
Finding a Hateful God
For Ohlhoff, the issue of Biblical interpretation on the subject of homosexuality is not one of semantics, but more of common sense.
"There are some parts [of the Bible] that are really inspired, but there are some parts that aren't," he says. "You don't have to accept the Bible verse by verse as equally inspired and imperfect. You have to use your brain with the Bible and interpret it in a respectful way. You can't take a verse and judge a person's life by it."
One group of people that tend to judge homosexuals by Biblical verse is the Westboro Baptist Church, based in Kansas. The WBC makes a practice of protesting in any town and against any event or policy seen to elevate homosexuals. Their Web site, www.godhatesfags.com, provides an extensive interpretation of the Bible as a tool of hate, most especially against homosexuals and "workers of iniquity."
"God's hatred is one of His holy attributes," reads a passage from the FAQ section of their Web site. "He reveals Himself as having a fixed and immutable determination to punish the finally impenitent with eternal perdition. God's hatred is holy, pure, unchanging."
Melville Cruikshank, Baptist Chaplain at the U of C emphasizes that the WBC is a small independent church with no relationship to any Baptist denomination in Canada or the U.S.
"I believe this church has taken snippets of scripture out of context," he says. "They have refused to acknowledge the loving nature of God and built a cult around an agenda of hatred. There is a great difference between God's love for us and His hatred of sin."
Ohlhoff agrees that the Bible could certainly be interpreted to fit WBC's beliefs, but cautions against doing so.
"You could find a hateful God in the Bible," he muses. "You could find whatever kind of God you want.
I think there is a wrong interpretation of the Bible and that would be one that hurts people and forgets about love and forgiveness. Because God was involved in the writing of it, He needs to be involved in the reading and interpretation of it."
Nethercott agrees, pointing out that in the big scheme of things, sexual orientation and practices should not preclude anyone from practicing a religion.
"People have always gotten stuck on sex and the church gets stuck on sex too," he explains. "There are bigger things to worry about, like economic injustice, the destruction of cultures and the environment, not what adult sleeps with who."
The WBC denounces open-minded clergy--such as the U of C chaplains--calling them "maudlin, kissy-pooh, feel-good, touchy-feely preachers ... that are damning this world to hell.
"What you need to hear is that God hates people. What you don't need to hear is that you're okay the way you are and God accepts everyone without exception," reads another excerpt from the Web site.
Nethercott and Ohlhoff both respond resignedly to the comments, refusing to give them much merit.
"There's no direct reply to that kind of fundamentalism," says Nethercott. "The God that they're talking about is perhaps not a God that should be worshipped."
"I think I'm okay being a maudlin, kissy-pooh preacher," quips Ohlhoff. "I think it's important to remember that humans were made in God's image and there's something divine in everybody. So when a gay person comes to me and tells me their story, that has to take precedence over the little Bible verse because you're dealing with the holiness of the person's whole life."
Roughly six to 10 per cent of the North American population is homosexual. Common sense indicates that fewer than that seek counselling to reconcile their biological path with their spiritual needs due to a fear of rejection and persecution by traditional orthodoxies.
"I would use the term religious abuse to describe how the church has dealt with homosexual people," says Nethercott. "Gay and lesbian people in church hear scriptures saying they're an abomination and they are deeply wounded. It breaks my heart that people would be cut off from their faith because of intolerance. To those in the church who reject homosexuals, I urge them to consider that [such attitudes are] no different from racism. Homosexuality is queer because the rest of us make it so."
Both Nethercott and Ohlhoff suggested that, difficult as it may seem, homosexuals should stay in the church and force the debate. As with the ordination of women, explains Nethercott, it is dialogue that will challenge and reform the traditions.
"To sin implies a choice," agrees Ohlhoff. "Gay people do not choose their orientation and even if they did, it's no sin to love someone of the same sex. They are no more sinful than heterosexuals. Some people are right handed and some are left handed. We don't know why, but either can be a good person or a bad person. It's a question of what you choose to do and who you choose to hurt."