Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Religion and Politics: A Combustible Concoction

This piece also appears on Huffington Post Religion.

In the 80s, I remember my preacher at the time warning the congregation of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her attempt to get all references to God removed from public schools. I remember the word atheist being bandied about, as in “Madalyn Murray O’Hair is an atheist, pass it on.” What that told me was she didn’t believe in God, and not believing in God was a ticket straight to Hell. I remember us as a congregation praying she wouldn’t succeed in her quest. I was a child: naive about compromise, unquestioning the reasons, simply following along. That makes sense to me even as I think about it now. The pastor of the church is the Shepard and the congregation is the flock of sheep. We listened to our leader, and did what he said. People still do it to this day.  

I’m not suggesting that I agree with what Ms. O’Hair wanted. My normal is saying, “One nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and seeing “In God We Trust” on my money. That’s because I believe in God; the Christian God. What I am suggesting is that no one should be made to pray to or believe in a deity that is different from their actual beliefs. This creates a sticky situation in our politically correct times of trying to please everyone. We’ll never be able to do that. 

America is a country founded on freedom. That includes religious freedom--freedom of religion and freedom from religion. That means we all have the right to believe or not believe if we so choose. Why then is the line separating Church and State increasingly blurred? When I read of the proposed bill to create a state religion in North Carolina I was momentarily speechless. But only momentarily. The idea of declaring a state or national religion has been churning in my brain almost every day since.

The reason for the drafting of that bill was to address a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in North Carolina’s Rowan County. The lawsuit was filed against the county commission to attempt to block the commission from starting its meetings with a Christian prayer. The key word here is Christian. Maybe it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but what if you serve on the commission and you’re Muslim, Jewish, or Atheist? You don’t believe in the Christian God? Should you be subjected to that prayer? It’s an honest question. Should a verbal prayer be removed from the beginning of the meeting, perhaps replaced with a moment of silent prayer? Should the prayer be removed altogether? What if that prayer made those non Christians on the commission uncomfortable? Does that matter to anyone?

The bill was killed in the North Carolina House of Representatives. That’s good news for a country with such a diverse religious canvas. One religion should never be chosen as superior above all others.

The Establishment Clause followed by the Free Exercise Clause that appear in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” 

Believing in God is a personal choice. One should be able to display it or not. Much the same as there are people who don’t feel comfortable with public displays of affection, there are people who don’t feel comfortable participating in public displays of religious beliefs. 

Everyone knows that religion and politics are two topics to avoid discussing at a dinner party. If you want to clear the room, ask a question involving one of them. You’ll either have a heated discussion on your hands followed by storm-outs or you’ll have a quiet exodus of those who suddenly have somewhere else to be. Either way, you’ll be left to clear the half empty wine glasses to the kitchen. 

Just because people don’t want to talk about it doesn’t mean they don’t believe in God or a higher power. It means that it is a personal choice and something they honor in private. And before you start asking how I can profess to believe in God and not stand behind a national religion I’ll tell you: I’m trying to put myself in someone else’s shoes. I’m trying to imagine how I would feel if I didn’t follow the beliefs of the proposed religion of Christianity. I’m trying to live in the gray area instead of the black and white of “my way or the highway.” Some days I feel this country is so divided that we’ve forgotten compromise is more than a word. It’s an action. I’m guilty of it myself.

As a gay man who finds many organized religions less than welcoming to my community, I question what a national religion would change in our country; how a national religion would redefine the already thinning line separating Church and State. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. I also know that those who oppose my views may criticize me as too liberal or too far left; possibly even morally bankrupt because I’m a gay man. To each his own. My relationship with God is mine and as Matthew 7:1 says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

We have the privilege of choice here in America. We don’t have to follow any one dogma or doctrine, and politics has no business in the middle of it. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Oh, the Addictive Powers of Those Pretty Little Liars

This piece originally appeared on Huffington Post Entertainment

If you’re a TV junkie like I am then you live for good television A series that entertains, challenges, and whets your appetite for more as each episode ends. I love a densely woven serial like Lost or a juicy prime time soap opera like Revenge or the revived continuation of Dallas. That said, almost every part of me feels I should hang my head in shame at this confession. I’ve got a new addiction, and I can’t seem to feed it enough. My name is Michael, and I’m addicted to Pretty Little Liars. I have fallen under its spell completely.

It’s a whodunit story that reminds me of the first season of Desperate Housewives crossed with the texting, fashion, and snark of Gossip Girl splashed with a smattering of Twin Peaks; a teen-bent soap opera filled with secrets, forbidden love, and teen angst. It brims with beautiful girls wearing beautiful clothes and hot guys who find themselves shirtless--if you're lucky. It's also a creep-fest filled with shadow lurkers and dark, stormy nights. Who you can trust is constantly changing, but betrayal is always on the agenda. The cliffhanger is alive and well and perfectly executed at the end of each episode.

On a recent trip to Boston, I found myself with a free afternoon. Flipping through the channels, I discovered a marathon of PLL airing on ABC Family. I decided to watch. That decision proved to be one that would hook me and reel me in. When I returned home from that trip I promptly bought seasons one and two. I devoured them. I’ve been eating, drinking, breathing the goings on in Rosewood, Pennsylvania. The backlog of ignored recordings on my DVR stretches back four weeks.

On the outside the fictional town of Rosewood looks exactly how you might expect a quaint Pennsylvania town to look--white painted churches, manicured lawns, pristine town square. But under the cover of darkness, the shadow of secrecy seems to be twisting its tendrils deeper into this town, entwining the residents in an endless search for a murderer. The victim, poor little mean girl, Alison DiLaurentis. It seems many had a grudge against her, but the finger-pointing to her killer is in constant flux. Aria Montgomery, Spencer Hastings, Hanna Marin, and Emily Fields are the friends Alison left behind; the girls most devastated by her death, and the ones working overtime as amateur sleuths to solve the crime.

The secrets extend farther to include more than the ones surrounding Alison’s murder. Each family has secrets--each girl has secrets--and the mysterious “A” knows them all. Does God have a rival in the omnipresent department? We all have secrets, but in Rosewood the secrets are under constant threat of exposure and always seem to get revealed.

I admit the conclusions reached by the Liars can often be predictable, but let’s face it, the girls are in high school, (albeit unlike any I went to high school with) and they’re quick to assume the wrong answer. We all know what they say about people who assume. I’ve had many an eye roll moment as I watched them get it wrong time and again. The plot twists, however, are consistently surprising. Honestly, the show is a lot of fun. As the series progresses the dialogue gets sharper, the one-liners funnier. If you give it a chance you might find yourself thoroughly entertained. And that’s what it’s all about isn’t it, entertainment? Don’t give up on it. Embrace it as a guilty pleasure. Just get ready for the withdrawals because when you have no new episodes to watch, waiting is an itch for which there’s no fix.

Stop hiding in the shadows PLL junkies. Somebody out there probably knows you’re watching anyway. As the theme song says, “Two can keep a secret if one of them is dead.” -A

Sunday, April 14, 2013

It's All About Spin

This piece appears on HuffPost Gay Voices

Here we are in the 21st Century. The year 2013. A time when gay people and those who support us--our desire for equality and human rights--get blamed for many things: birds falling from the sky in Arkansas, Hurricane Sandy, North Korea’s threats against the U.S. Imagine my surprise when I discovered this ever growing power the gays have over the universe dates back to biblical times when my gay brethren of old caused the Great Flood back in the days of Noah.

I learned this interesting bit of information from Matt Barber, conservative co-host of the radio program “Faith and Freedom,” in a video from said program on the website Right Wing Watch. Not only did Mr. Barber present me with the information that homosexuals entering into marriage caused the Great Flood. He also stated, “Tolerance, in the twisted way that the left uses it, in acceptance of all form [sic] of sexual deviant behavior as the norm--as normal, natural, good--it’s a cancer that brings down societies.”

Can I get a “Wow” and an “Oh my goodness?” Who knew we gays had so much power? I’m not sure whether to tell my monkeys to “Fly!” Or ask the mirror “Who’s the fairest of them all?”

As a child from the South, raised in the Baptist faith, I am very aware of the Biblical stories. Never once have I heard homosexuality connected to Noah’s flood. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, always! That's a given. It seems to be the go-to major event for those citing homosexuals as the reason for an epic destruction. But Noah’s flood? That was news to me. Sometimes I feel that certain modern day Christians blame anything “wicked” from Biblical times on homosexuals. As if it’s not possible there was any other wickedness in the world of that day. 

I went home and grabbed my New International Student Bible, copyright 1992. It’s quite the departure from the King James Version of my youth. I immediately found the story of Noah’s flood and started to read. I combed every word of Genesis chapters 6-9. And you know what? I didn’t find anything resembling a homosexual act causing the flood. Then I decided to read the chapters preceding the flood. Again, no homosexual acts. I was confused at this leap by Mr. Barber, to say the least. So, I did a little research.

I discovered the website Delusion Resistance. The mention of Extraterrestrials and UFOs connected to the End of Days should have been enough to turn me away, but I found something interesting. Among the site’s many articles was one by David Ben Yakov under the heading "The Days of Noah." This find led me to the New Testament version of the Great Flood story told in Luke, chapter 17, verses 26-27. After reading it it hit me: it’s all about spin. I’ll explain. Here’s the Biblical excerpt from Mr. Ben Yakov's article:

“And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.”

It was unclear to me which version of Biblical text Mr. Ben Yakov was using, but according to the article, per the custom of that day women were given in marriage to men. Therefore, according to Mr. Ben Yakov’s interpretation of the text, "they" must refer to men. The conclusion is then drawn that because "they" equals men, the words "they were given in marriage" must mean men were given to men.

In my Bible’s translation, the word "they" is replaced by "people." It's interesting how different it sounds when you change the noun. Here’s the text from my Bible: 

“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.”

What I see in the above passage is people (men and women) living their lives, doing what people do. That gays caused the flood seems to be all about interpretation and spin. Any of us can find the right translation and the right scriptural passage to make our point. What would be nice is if we stopped having to prove our point and could learn from the mistakes of old and live in the world of the present. 

I don’t practice any organized religion at this point in my life, choosing to focus on a spiritual relationship with God that is all my own. I am, however, proud of my roots, and proud of the courage I’ve discovered to question instead of merely follow. I don’t want to be a sheep who follows blindly. I want to understand why I believe something. I want my life to consist of more than who’s wrong and who’s right. 

I was put on this earth a gay man. There is no interpretation or spin needed for that. It is my truth. In this world full of naysayers who believe like Mr. Barber, I’m doing my best to live my authentic life. However, I’m smart enough to know that as long as people keep spouting their interpretations of the Bible, there are those who will believe them no questions asked.

So for now, I would like “The Power” by Snap! to be on constant loop reminding me that we gays have the power to make things happen. How’s that for spin?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Pot Calling the Kettle Intolerant

This piece originally appeared on HuffPost Gay Voices

Let’s talk about tolerance for a second. I’ll begin with a definition. According to Random House Dictionary, it’s a noun defined as: “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry.”

The verb form of tolerance is “to tolerate.” The adjective form is “tolerant.” I want to now define tolerant. One definition is: “to allow the existence, presence, practice, or act of without prohibition or hindrance; permit.” A second definition is: “to endure without repugnance; put up with.”

The reason for my English lesson of definitions above is because of the following:

Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, says that gay rights activists lack tolerance. That’s interesting. Does that mean we aren’t tolerant? In an article by Nick Wing published in The Huffington Post Mr. Perry is quoted saying, 

“This is a very unsettling time in our nation’s history. These are the days when a person is vilified when they state that they believe fundamentally that marriage is between one man and one woman.” 

We, the LGBTQ community, are fighting for equal rights and because we are very vocal about the desire to have those rights, Mr. Perry thinks we are intolerant. We are loud and proud, here and queer. We’re in your face: loud, proud, here and queer because it’s the only way to get you to see us; hear us; listen to us.

If you feel the LGBTQ community seems not to have a permissive attitude toward your opinion or religious beliefs it may simply be that you have no permissive attitude toward ours, and our push back against you is reflecting your own lack of empathy toward our desire, e.g. the right to marry whom we choose.

Is it fair that just because something has always been one way that we never change our way of thinking about it even if that change might be for the better; might benefit a lot of people?

The headline of the above mentioned article, “Rick Perry Warns Of ‘Unsettling Time In Our Nation’s History,’ Says Gay Rights Activists Lack ‘Tolerance’” caught my attention. I began to read the things Governor Perry said, and I got angry. I then began to read his words aloud to my gay coworkers. He can’t begin to fathom how much the LGBTQ community has had to tolerate; still has to tolerate.

I will not walk with my head down and my eyes averted from those who consider themselves superior beings because they love someone of the opposite sex. I will not let their ignorance of and disgust at how they visualize my sex life deter me from experiencing those feelings of joy and release. I refuse to feel shame about who I am and who I love. I don’t feel like Governor Perry has a permissive attitude toward the LGBTQ community. 

I’m tired of being tolerated. I refuse it. My life as a gay human being, is more than something to be tolerated. Just because I grew up to be a man attracted to another man does not make me any less of a person. I am worth more than something one puts up with or endures.

How many years have members of the LGBTQ community sat back and listened to the condemnation of our lives from the pulpits of churches? Now we get to add the political platform to that mix. How many times do we have to take being called “faggot,” “queer,” and “homo” at school, church, or simply walking down the street? The time for sitting back and taking it is over. We’re tired of it. We want more than toleration. We want more than you enduring your repugnance. We want acceptance. We deserve it as human beings. Don’t act as if I should be grateful that you tolerate me, but please accept my appreciation for your accepting me as a human being--living, breathing, and loving the person of my choice just like you.

In the same HuffPost article, Mr. Perry goes on to say, 

“The underling problem is that there is this very vocal, very litigious minority of Americans willing to legally attack anybody who dares utter a phrase or even a name that they don’t agree with. In a twisting of logic, they insist on silencing the religious in the cause of tolerance. Now I ask you, where is the tolerance in that?” 

I must admit that I have a problem with organized religion and those who hide behind it, and the words of the Bible to stand against something they know nothing about and are too scared to attempt to understand. That said, I have no beef with those who want to practice the religion of their choice. I just don’t agree that one’s religious beliefs should help create a law that prohibits me from marrying the man of my choice should I happen to find him one day. 

If it wasn’t for his disparaging speak against my community I wouldn’t even have Governor Perry on my radar. But the silence of the most vocal doesn’t stay silent for long. Eventually the echo of their voices beep again and you get words like those spoken above. How interesting would it be if the blip that is Governor Perry was suddenly absent because people stopped listening? If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it does it still make a sound? Yes, but does it matter? The same can be said for the blips on the radar of life that belong to people like Governor Perry. If we stopped listening, the words would still have sound, but they wouldn’t matter.

Perry continued, 

“The people of the state of Texas, myself included, believe marriage is between one man and one woman.” 

I think Governor Perry, and many others along with him, is afraid of change. Maybe even fears it. 

He is, however, allowed his opinion and I’m allowed mine. One is no better than the other, but if he wants to play the tolerance card, the LGBTQ community is having to tolerate a lot of bullshit coming out of his mouth and you know what they say about opinions. He might want to keep a handkerchief in his suit jacket for catching the brown dribble. Better yet, he could carry a roll of toilet paper.