'Don't say gay' takes on a new meaning

'Don't say gay' takes on a new meaning

April 7th, 2013 by Joan Garrett McClane in Local Regional News
Photo by Laura McNutt/Times Free Press.

POLL: Is the move toward gay marriage going too fast?

John Craft is nervous about preaching from the Bible next week.

Really nervous, actually.

In the past few weeks his sermons to the campus ministry have centered on dating and marriage, which leads him to this inevitable discussion of his own view on homosexuality.

Now he finds himself caught between two commitments.

Every year he signs a pledge with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to lead a student ministry that doesn't discriminate against anyone based on race, sex or sexual orientation. He also made promises to his church.

Five years ago, when a church pastor called homosexuality a sin from the pulpit or when a politician said marriage should remain between a man and a woman, there wasn't much of a backlash, especially not in the South.

Things were changing in New York and New England but not in the Bible Belt.

Until now.

But many Christians and Christian leaders now say they feel pressured to keep their views in the closet.

Those who speak out know they must choose their words carefully and risk, at least, being accused of bigotry, and, at worst, losing their jobs or friendships.

"The fear is that I will be called homophobic," Craft said.

Spurred by Hollywood depictions, flip-flopping among national politicians and a persistent homosexual-rights offensive, popular sentiment about gay marriage has shifted dramatically and swiftly. In 2001, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a 57 percent to 35 percent margin. This year, polling shows a reversal. Forty-nine percent of the country say they are for legalizing gay marriage and 44 percent remain opposed, according to the Pew Research Center.

The rise in favor is sharpest among the millennial generation, those born since 1981. In 2003, only 51 percent of young Americans were in favor of legalizing gay marriage, now 70 percent are. Those unaffiliated with a religious group show support at similar levels. Only 38 percent of baby boomers are in favor, and only 24 percent of white evangelicals, an increase from 13 percent white evangelicals in 2001, Pew reports.

Last week, the cover of Time magazine showed two women kissing and a headline that read: "Gay Marriage Already Won." With the Supreme Court case on gay marriage at hand in Washington -- a final decision isn't expected until summer -- many feel that the legalization of marriage for gays is inevitable.

Only the Deep South states, including Tennessee, remain opposed. In 2012, 59.4 percent of Georgia residents said they wouldn't be in favor of legalizing gay marriage, according to a Landmark Communications/Rosetta Stone poll.

Yet even in Tennessee, where more people are opposed to gay marriage than any other state in the South -- 62 percent -- according to Middle Tennessee State University polling, many are reluctant to express their qualms with others.

"If you say you are not for it, [people] say you hate gays or it's a hate crime," said Meghann Parry, 20, a sophomore at UTC.

And, while some might say these people are abandoning their values, others are relieved that change is finally taking place.

Keeli Monroe, president of Spectrum, the gay/straight student alliance at UTC, said several years ago it was common to see Spectrum's signs vandalized and hear slurs whispered in class. Not anymore.

"If we are having an event on campus, we might have people that walk by with dirty looks, but it's quiet," said Monroe. "It's not in your face."

•••

In 1991, the first gay student group at UTC was rejected by the Student Government Association. It was later approved, but students who voted against it were proud.

"I said last week I would not change my mind. I've got to live with myself when I look back on this. I am not going to feel guilty about how I voted. I don't care what the Supreme Court says or what Tennessee law says," Gary Keylon, a student senator, said at the time.

Today, the school advertises safe zones for gay students. Professors, college staff and students are told to be tolerant. They are taught that homosexuality is not a choice. The same SGA that opposed the LGBT student group gave the safe zone project $5,000 in 2011, records show.

Parry and her friend Elizabeth Goodman, 21, talked about the shifting views on homosexuality on a drive to their hometown, Maryville, Tenn., last week. They are both Christians trying to decide what they believe on the issue. News was coming out about the Supreme Court's discussion, and Goodman's father had upset her with some things he said about homosexuality.

It's complicated for them, Parry and Goodman say. Their parents, back in Maryville, are firmly against gay marriage. Always have been. Always will be.

But at college things are different. Only 3.5 percent of Americans identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, according to a 2011 UCLA study. Still, openly gay students seem to be everywhere.

The message of acceptance is everywhere, too. Netflix has a section for gay movies. Many television shows have gay characters, gay plot lines.

"I feel like it's a common thing," said Parry.

So she feels strange saying that she still thinks it's wrong. Once it was popular to stand against it. Now, the opposite is cool.

"Christians my age are afraid of talking about it," she said. "Homosexuality is bad, but it's like half and half. The Christian part of me knows it's wrong, but another half of me wants them to have the right to be happy."

Goodman tells her she agrees, but she won't force that opinion on others.

Years ago, her uncle died of AIDS. She also has had several friends come out as gay.

"I don't feel like it's right, but I am going to support them," she says.

And fear of the issue or diving into the debate is changing discussions among others, too.

•••

In the South, many Christians are used to hearing this: Homosexuality is unnatural. Homosexuality is a sin. Homosexuals are not born that way.

"Homosexuals are people who are sick in body, mind and spirit. Their life is a dead end," said Charles Wysong, an evangelical who protested Chattanooga's gay pride parade in 1992.

And he wasn't the only Christian who spoke out.

Today, the rhetoric isn't nearly as strong. Many pastors say they would rather not be quoted on the issue. This year, the gay pride parade downtown had no protesters, not a single one. The city just voted in its first openly gay city councilman.

Donald E. Smith, director of Hearts Set Free in Cleveland, Tenn., who runs a Christian ministry that helps men and women who want to fight their homosexuality, said he is surprised by how many Christians don't want to be involved with combating homosexuality anymore.

Lee University officials told him he couldn't put fliers around the Church of God-affiliated campus for a support group because the issue was too controversial.

"Some Christians will go in the closet with their views," said Smith. "They are afraid to say anything. They know someone who is gay, and they don't know how to deal with it."

Plus, there is the influence of the Republican Party and the loss of the last presidential election. As demographics change and opinions are swayed on the issue of gay marriage, many say conservatives are going to have to neutralize their stance on the issue if they want to win at the ballot box.

And that has been happening at the state and national level.

David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, said he is also finding this in the Tennessee Legislature.

"They support a view of sexual intimacy within the confines of marriage, but just like the general public from which they come, they are often intimidated and uncomfortable expressing that for fear that they will be disliked or voted out of office or called pejorative names," Fowler said.

Too many legislators and pastors are chickening out, he said, avoiding controversy.

"I think that the church would be reminded that one of the most oft-repeated statements in scripture is do not fear," Fowler said. "And I am not convinced that we fear being disliked more than we fear standing up for what we believe scripture teaches."

Still, others within the Christian community say churches and politicians need to be quiet and rethink their approach to the issue.

•••

The church has turned off way too many people with harsh words about homosexuality. A Christian should be morally opposed to homosexual acts without condemning a person, many pastors say.

"We have to be compassionate," said Gary Jared, senior pastor at Stuart Heights Baptist Church. "The misunderstanding is that if you don't agree with someone's lifestyle that you hate them or are scared of them."

At Reformed University Fellowship, which is a part of the Presbyterian Church of America, Craft said he plans to spend the first few minutes of his talk on homosexuality apologizing for the way many churches have tended to treat gays.

For a long time, those who viewed homosexuality viewed it as the worst of all sins. But even if you do view it as a sin, it's no worse than any other sin, he said.

So many young gay men and women who come to his group have shared with him deep hurt from the church, he said, and he and other pastors don't want to be a part of furthering their pain.

"Pastors have been preaching out against gay marriage and not preached against greed, gluttony and sexual immorality in general," Craft said.

He'll also say that he doesn't think Christians should be as concerned with the laws and politics involving gay marriage. Changing minds is about growing relationships, he'll tell students.

At the same time, there will be that uncomfortable part of the talk where he has to say this knowing that there are gay men and women in the audience: You may have been born attracted to the same sex, but that just means, if you want to be a Christian, that you won't be able to act on your sexuality.

Some people try to live with that, he said. Others can't.

"There are Christians who believe homosexuality is OK. I don't want to declare them unbelievers," Craft said "I am afraid that students who hear what I have to say will say, 'Well, I can't be a Christian.'"

"It's becoming such an issue that a line has been drawn, and I don't want to draw it."

Contact staff writer Joan Garrett at jgarrett@times freepress.com or 423-757-6601. Follow her on Twitter at @JoanGarrettCTFP.