By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN
The New York Times
Published: October 8, 2010
Weeks before she had any reason to know the name Tyler Clementi, the Rev. Audrey M. Connor was planning a celebratory day of worship at her church in Lynchburg, Va. It would take place this Sunday, the eve of a gay-rights event called National Coming Out Day. There would be prayers, songs and testimonies by three congregants who had successfully emerged from the closet.
Then, late last month, Ms. Connor watched the first news alert about Mr. Clementi’s suicide scroll across her computer screen. An 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers, Mr. Clementi jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge after, the police say, his dorm-room intimacies with another man were stealthily filmed and posted online by two classmates.
Those initial reports sprung loose shards of Ms. Connor’s own memories and experiences, she recalled in a telephone interview this week. She thought back to being teased as her sixth-grade boyfriend’s “boyfriend,” fully 15 years before she broke cover as a lesbian. She thought back to a gay college classmate who once told her that if his family had kept a gun at home, he would have shot himself in high school to escape the hatred and ridicule.
So this Sunday’s interfaith service at First Christian Church, Ms. Connor said, will inevitably take on a more somber tone, with a minister from the local Unitarian church speaking about Mr. Clementi in the Christian context of martyrdom.
“It may sound extreme,” Ms. Connor said, “but Tyler Clementi is someone who died in a battle that many clergy and religious people are fighting. For inclusion. For our understanding of what God wants the world to be.”
Well beyond Lynchburg and First Christian, the suicides of Mr. Clementi and three other gay teenagers over the course of three weeks have mobilized and galvanized liberal Christian and Jewish clergy members. While many already offered pastoral support to gay congregants and endorsed gay rights, the drumbeat of young deaths, all of them following on the harassment and humiliation of the victims, has driven up clergy activism.
As a result, it has also intensified the intrareligious strife over homosexuality. While there is no indication that Mr. Clementi or the other teenagers — Seth Walsh, 13, Billy Lucas, 15, and Asher Brown, 13 — had been personally assailed by religious leaders, liberal clergy members firmly believe that the traditional condemnation of homosexuals and homosexuality in organized religion enables, indeed ratifies, the bigotry inflicted by peers.
“The first thing that went through my mind was, ‘Oh, no, not again,’ ” said the Rev. Jack McKinney, a Baptist minister who does private pastoral counseling in Raleigh, N.C.
“And because there’s an epidemic of suicide among LGBT young people, my next reaction is anger,” he said using a common acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. “I’m convinced that the root of a lot of this is religion-based discrimination and defamation. Frankly, I think there’s a lot of spiritual malpractice going on.”
The conventional Judeo-Christian view of homosexuality as a sin, an abomination, largely derives from six sections of Biblical text, some in the Old Testament and some in the New, known colloquially as the “clobber passages.” Centuries ago, some religious leaders were able to similarly quote the Bible in defense of slavery. Yet somehow, while such passages as the curse of Ham proved mutable over time, the denouncing of homosexuality has remained a staple of conservative theology.
Ms. Connor’s church, for instance, is in the town made famous, or infamous, by a different minister, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who once described AIDS as “God’s punishment for homosexuals” and “the society that tolerates homosexuals.”
This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a free-speech case involving Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., whose members used antigay rhetoric while picketing the 2006 funeral of an American soldier slain in Iraq.
And while Westboro is a small and extremist congregation, better at garnering headlines than filling pews, a major dispute about homosexuality has broken out in the country’s religious and geographical center, in Minnesota. There, the Roman Catholic archbishop, John Nienstedt, last month sent out 400,000 copies of a DVD opposing same-sex marriage as a “dangerous risk to society.” The archbishop subsequently refused to give communion to several dozen students at a Catholic college who attended a Mass wearing buttons with the rainbow insignia of the gay-rights movement.
None of these events, of course, played any direct role in the recent suicides. Official Catholic teaching on homosexuality, much like the rabbinic norm in Orthodox Judaism, tries to separate opposition to sexual behavior from acceptance of individual homosexuals. In various denominations, religious conservatives offer counseling to transform homosexuals to heterosexuals.
And yet, for liberal clergy members, the coincidental confluence of events has given them cause to mobilize. The Rev. Cody J. Sanders, a Baptist minister in Fort Worth, framed antigay bullying as a theological issue. “With dualistic conceptions of good and evil and hierarchical notions of values and worth,” Mr. Sanders wrote in an essay for the Web site Religion Dispatches, “it becomes easy to know who it is O.K. to hate or bully, or, seemingly more benignly, to ignore. And no institutions have done more to create and perpetuate the public disapproval of gay and lesbian people than churches.”
The Rev. Debra W. Haffner, a Unitarian Universalist minister who is executive director of the Religious Institute, an interfaith organization active in issues of sexual health, last week sent 2,200 clergy members in a dozen denominations an open letter asking them to devote this weekend’s sermons to Tyler Clementi’s suicide. Her appeal reached an even wider audience when it was published on The Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog.
“Clergy have a key role,” said the Rev. Pat Bumgardner, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in Manhattan. “We have a chance to shape public opinion, people’s willingness to wrestle with the diversity of God’s creation. Pastors need to step up to the plate and speak about the wrongness of bullying, the wrongness of cruelty.
“There’s no religion on the face of the earth that countenances the taunting to death of children.”
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