Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mel White's Holy Terror

Some months back, I offered to review Holy Terror: Lies the Christian Right Tells Us to Deny Gay Equality by Mel White. Shortly after I received a review copy, I started reading it, set it down, and forgot all about it. This week, I received a gentle email reminder about this and I picked it up again to see why I had set it down.

Looking over the preface to the 2012 paperback edition (it was originally released in 2007 in hardcover), I remembered why I set it down. In that preface, White gives a bombardment of attacks on the LGBT rights movement and it was, well, depressing. And for someone like me, who is not so much an activist but is friends with a few. It was a bit like some days on my Facebook newsfeed, only without cat videos and someecards to break up the assault. As a gay Christian, it was all a bit too much anger at me and my subset of humanity, compressed into a small, bitter pill.

I picked it up again and sallied forth, bracing myself for more of the assault. And to read books like this (and from my days as a book reviewer for OutSmart, I've read a handful) is to open yourself up to this compressed assault, an endless (it seems) list of anecdotes about the ways some Christians would really rather I didn't exist.

For some, this is a rallying call, a motivator for activism. To some extent, it does this for me---I live as openly as I can as a gay man, I write for gay publications using my real name and everything, etc.---but in large doses without cat videos, it can also send me into a corner to hide under a blanket, convinced that nobody loves me, everybody hates me, and somewhere, someone is making fun of the shoes I just bought.

I exaggerate. A little. But not a lot.

But there are things I think you should know about Holy Terror that may actually encourage you to take a look at it.

In some ways, this nearly another memoir (after White's earlier book, Stranger at the Gate). White spends much of the book with personal stories about encounters with fundamentalist evangelicals. These anecdotes alternate between fascinating and defensive and sometimes endearingly human.

The parts that are his explanations of the fundamentalist attacks and his responses to them are, I realized, not best for an audience who is gay and accepting of themselves as God's children. Again, some may find it a narrative to rally around, but who would best be served by this book are the straight allies who are also a bit oblivious to the attacks chronicled in this book.

I say that because my own personal experience is that a good many straight allies are content to be passive allies and are not particularly aware of the barrage of ugliness that we, as LGBT folk, hear on a daily basis. It's not that they agree with the ugliness, they simply don't notice it. Or else, they don't have enough LGBT Facebook friends to see all the "shared" stories that I see. What enters their consciousness is easily disregarded as a crackpot statement made by some crazy person and who takes them seriously anyway?

Except we LGBT folk know there are plenty of people who take the "crazy people" (an alarming number of whom have popular radio programs) seriously. We hear the reverberations of those radio programs in casual comments that don't always stick to a straight person's ears the way they do to ours.

I know this because I've found a surprising number of straight people don't know what "Stonewall" is. I've found they may know the actions of Fred Phelps but not his name or the name of his church. I find that too many straight church people think simply saying "We welcome everyone" should be enough to draw in LGBT people.

In a church meeting where we were discussing some kind of outreach to a growing LGBT population in the neighborhood, I was trying to explain why they needed to make a specific statement of welcome to LGBT people and still be patient before LGBT people would start coming because we've been the victims of Christians for too long. I was met with blank stares, showing no understanding. I finally said, "You look like every other church that has ever condemned LGBT folk. If you really are offering an unconditional welcome to LGBT folk, you have to say so, otherwise you're just another church saying 'all are welcome,' which every church that has drummed out a LGBT person has said."

I'm not saying it's a sure thing, but maybe these well-meaning straight allies would be well-served by a compressed bitter pill such as a book like this.

The final section, especially the final chapter, is inspirational. I intend to go back and re-read White's remembrances of being awakened to the words and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi. His "conversion," if I may call it that, to the principles of "soul force" (which is also the name of an organization he founded), is helpful, inspiring, and encouraging.

So my recommendation with this book, if you are an LGBT Christian, is to skim the cataloging of attacks on us, pausing to read whatever catches your attention, skipping where it gets too much without a cat video in between, and then read the final chapter carefully.

And then hand the book off to a straight ally who doesn't quite get why more LGBT people aren't trying out their church.

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