Monday, August 19, 2013

Read Between The Lies

In a somewhat unusual move for me, I went to a church service on Sunday 18 Aug - unusual because I am not a Christian and haven't been since I renounced the religion and all its tenets in 2010, and have affiliated with Pagan religion in the meantime. 

On the bright side, at least I didn't actually burst into flames.

I didn't go there because I had a sudden change of heart, nor because I needed to take my mother to her church. No, I went because this church, St Marks Congregational, had placed an advertisement in a public newspaper, the Weekend Post, headlined "Is Gay Okay?" 

Knowing the conservative right-wing nature of most evangelical charismatic churches in Port Elizabeth, I decided to go and see what they were about, and what they meant by their question - and the placement of something that should not even be questioned any more in my view, given the modern scientific and human rights rationale.

"Sex in the city" - the heading of the next few weeks topics in St Marks Congregational Church in Port Elizabeth. Topics such as pornography - and homosexuality of course are being linked to sex. Why is it that being gay is inexorably linked to "sex" (and even pornography) by conservative folks? Well, sure, gay people have sex, and some even promiscuously so - but as anyone should know about any relationships, there is more to it than that. Gay people have sex, but that's not what makes them gay. Heterosexual people also have sex, but that's not what makes them heterosexual. Straight people can be, and often are, also sexually promiscuous. 

It's also not just about who people have sex with - it's about who you are attracted to, and not just sexually, but in terms of personality, looks, romance, love - and it's not limited to just heterosexual folks. Gay people love too, just like anyone else does. Having gay people and our relationships reduced to just "sex" is neither fitting nor accurate - but it is insulting, and for people claiming to want to be "sensitive and objective" it is a pretty poor way to start off. Bearing this thought in mind, I set off for their church on Sunday evening.


When I arrived, I made sure to take a photo of the large sign on the trailer parked so it was easily visible on the corner. The weather had been cold, wet and miserable all day, and I wondered how many people would be there. As I got to the gate I met some other gay people there, who had come specially for the intended sermon also. Some were noticeably nervous. I only recognized one of them as I walked with them to the door. He was an elderly gentleman, who upon entering the church and being greeted by the door stewards, became somewhat confrontational. 

He wanted to know if there would be a chance for comment or questions during or after the service. The chap was directed to speak to one of the ministers. Clearly very hot under the collar, he went inside to look for the minister. Having walked up to the church door with him, I decided to hang back so as not to make my purpose for being there too obvious. Not that I disagreed with him, but that's not what I was there for. I didn't go there to fight with anyone, I went to find out what they were on about, and I was going to make sure I got it all on video. I did. 

One of the stewards, a pretty blonde girl greeted me in a very friendly way, and I responded with a smile and a polite handshake. I went in to find a good spot from where I could get a fairly good view of the stage. When the "debate" as it were started, I got a good shot with my mobile phone's video camera, albeit with a pillar running down the middle of the screen. The service began at 18:30 promptly, with the band playing and the congregation singing. I stood along with anyone else, out of a show of respect for their practice, but did not sing. Once finished, the person who opened and facilitated the debate, Dr Bruce Woolard, a greying gentleman, introduced the two panel members, Rev Warren Watermeyer and Rev Kenneth Claassen, both younger ministers at the same church. 



Interestingly enough, all three members of the panel, dressed in their snappy suits and tasteful if somewhat loud ties, were clergymen - and unsurprisingly all three in summation, espoused dismissive and conservative views of any variation from the sexual and gender norms they authoritatively upheld as "God's prototype" as if they had a copy of the blueprints (with attached patent certificate) in their back pockets.
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 Loderunner” by Christina Engela
Ever since he’d decided to quit being a P.I. and to try his hand at running cargo instead, things had just blown up in Timaset Skooch’s face one day at a time. (Florpavian Flamebirds tended to do that occasionally.) Between the labor disputes and accidental deaths among the crew, (who believed in settling disputes internally) he was beginning to get a headache worse than the ones he got from getting kicked in the head. Things had just gone pear shaped again and now he found himself in the middle of a kind of cat and mouse game with some cloaks and daggers thrown in for good measure.

Returning from an evening spent visiting relatives in Mars City he didn’t know he had, he arrived at the local space terminal to find his new acquisition stolen. A few minutes later, the crew of his slightly run down loderunner “Celeste“, returned from the nearby pub, blind drunk, puzzled and now unemployed as well.

He was sure it had something to do with the 10 000,00 credits he was offered  to transport two passengers to an asteroid in the rings of Jupiter, (as soon as possible, no questions asked), by a middle-man with no neck and a tendency to smile a lot.

And to crown everything, his girlfriend was mad at him too (just a little).  He was beginning to regret ever winning that card game…

Buy: Paperback / Ebook

Published: May 26, 2016
Pages: 268
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Dr Woolard introduced the topic in such a way as to create a generally good impression, which he did masterfully. He did mention in his opening address that their church is not affiliated to any right-wing (the term was tossed about a lot during the evening) Christian groups, and the emphasis of this point seemed encouraging at first. He also managed the discussion efficiently and politely, though as it must be pointed out, there were no interjections from the floor, nor were there any - I repeat: ANY signs of disagreement between the members of the panel. It was an entirely one-sided discussion with one patting the other on the back and nodding in agreement with what was being said. 

As for the discussion well, only one side of an argument or issue is represented in the panel. No time was given for questions, and nobody with any divergent viewpoints or opinions was included in the panel. It was civil, but I found it entirely predictable. It was like watching a mock witch trial from the middle ages in which the accused had no representation and the prosecution had all the say and all the authority in the world.

How is a one-sided panel with no diverse opinions or an opening for a Q&A session a debate? Not even a minister or some representative from the LGBT community, or someone with a more open-minded approach was included. The whole thing was entirely in-house, two-dimensional and presented in the light of alleged fact, and in an absolutist, take-it-or-leave-it sense. Given that, how can people who clearly present nothing but a prior-established negative consensus on a topic which affects other people and not themselves present any kind of objectivity on that issue? They might as well have rehearsed the entire thing before the time. It crossed my mind that they may have.

If you watch the video of the debate, you will see the civil tones in which the proceedings were undertaken. Care was taken to try to show respect to the dignity of the gay people present, and there were quite a few, mainly lesbians I think - however the word "homosexual" was a little over-used to my taste, as many gay folks see the word as being applied in a hostile sense and have abandoned it in favor of "gay". I tend to agree with them, but decided to give these folks the benefit of the doubt, since we were all welcomed so very warmly and invited for coffee and koeksisters afterwards. Overall though, I was left with a sense of "you're not born gay, you are either influenced by over-protecting parents or under-protecting parents, molested, or exposed to pornography and then 'become gay'". I tried to examine the events objectively and to be as open-minded of it as possible. After all, if they were really reaching out to gay people in acceptance and friendship, I didn't want to smack that hand away.

Frankly however, the opinions of these two reverends on the panel were somewhat grating as they cracked jokes and laid out their views in their shiny expensive suits, accompanied by slides displayed on the screen in the left of the video which referred to the same tired right-wing pseudo-scientific baloney which has been used for decades around the world to try and dismiss tried and tested scientific research which demonstrate clearly that a person's sexual orientation, gender and gender identity are set at the most basic biological level - and are immutable. I found myself biting my tongue. A lot. I kept the video recording going instead, nodding at every shocked sharp intake of breath I heard from the woman beside me as she whispered, "Did you hear that?"

One of the two panel members was described by Woolard as having been a medical student before changing the direction of his study to theology, and that apparently lent him enough credibility to dismiss studies done by scientists and medical analysts which demonstrate reason to believe that sexual orientation and gender identity are influenced by genetics! Not once did he try to present any link between his claims and dismissals to ANY verified source or opposing scientific study, if any existed. I was simply astonished as I listened to this man try to muddy the issue for the mundanes by explaining that while he admitted the human genome had been mapped by geneticists, there was simply "too much" data in the human DNA strand in every cell - which if all linked together could traverse the distance between the Earth and the Sun 70 times - to say with any accuracy that genetics influence a person's sexual orientation or gender identity! Tantalizing as that little bit of trivia may be, the sheer amount of DNA in all the cells of a human body collectively is hardly relevant to the issue of sexual orientation or any other physical characteristics since the DNA material contained in just ONE cell is all that is required to create a complete new individual in cloning, and from just two in normal reproduction. Perhaps that chap should've finished studying medicine before trying to show off. My own mother's GP couldn't even pin down whether her ailment is caused by her heart or her lungs, which is why she consults with a specialist physician, not a GP. Again, to be frank, this man is a tad under-qualified to comment on genetics as an alleged "expert", since he is an evangelical minister - not a doctor, NOT a geneticist - nor even a common or garden general practitioner, nor even a qualified lab technician! Who is he to refute, with assumed authority, any generally accepted science?

The next pseudo-scientific "evidence" they laid down was "Phallic Theory", which  basically lays the blame - literally BLAME - for homosexual orientation and other gender identity issues squarely at the foot of environmental factors such as bad parenting, the failure of the "family unit", *gasp* masturbation, exposure to pornography and pedophilia! Kids turn out gay, because parents don't raise boys as boys and girls as girls - yes, thank you, Dr Dobson, now I know what my mother did wrong while she was a struggling single parent trying to make ends meet! Kids turn out gay because they are molested or "fiddled with" even if they don't remember it - in the same vein as that laughable nonsense that came up in the 1980s' called the "Satanic Panic" scare that saw many innocent people sent to jail for alleged "ritual abuse" that never happened! All of this rubbish flies in the face of established medical research and psychiatric convention, having been rejected by mainstream medicine since the 1970's, but which fits in very snugly with the kind of pseudo-scientific claptrap used by churches and little con-artist groups that try to "pray away the gay" under the guise of "Christian counselling" and using rhetorical nonsense-phrases like "change is possible!" They conveniently completely skipped over the ONLY environmental factors which have been found to affect a person's sexual orientation, gender or gender identity development - that of hormonal influences on the foetus in the womb, which has been indicated as having a big influence in that development.

They completely omitted the FACT that homosexuality has been documented in over 400 different animal species in NATURE. Were those animals endowed with thought processes to enable them to choose to live a "sinful lifestyle"? Or are we to assume that this is the result of the collapse of the animal kingdom's "family unit" as well? Or are gay animals the result of trauma caused by pedophile penguins, philandering gender-changing fish and that gosh-darned staple of the conservatives - pornography? Even in the plant kingdom there are examples of gender-bending - where species of plant carry both male and female reproductive organs on the same individuals. (I sometimes wish some people had that feature so that I could tell them what to go do with themselves, and mean it.) Asexual reproduction in both plants and animals completes the range of diversity in the world - and is acceptable in science and medicine and even in the back garden - but not, it seems, among human kind - for human kind is somehow expected to go against their own natures in order to satisfy the people wearing disapproving frowns on their faces.

The more I listened, the more this shadowy and sinister picture of deception formed in my mind: If they were trying to be "sensitive" or "objective", if they were trying to be respectful and tolerant towards gay people, then why dismiss or omit every single piece of scientific evidence that shows being gay is not as simple as waking up one sunny day and choosing to live "that lifestyle"? Why equate being gay with "sin"? Why say "it's not okay to be gay" if they really want to make gay people welcome among them? How can they expect gay people to feel welcome when they are classified as being lesser than straight people and equated - as they did in the video - with alcoholics, murderers and pedophiles? 

Now, as a non-Christian, it should go without saying that I don't believe in "sin" - but I was amused, as I usually am, at the conservative Christian tendency to be preoccupied with how other people live their lives under the delusion that it has anything at all to do with them, and that I need their approval to live my life as I see fit.

The coining of their new catch-phrase "homophiliac" displayed in contrast to "homophobic" was rather amusing, though to think that they believe it means anything different to "homophobic" is just facetious. It's like someone trying to create a difference in definition between "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" - or to make the one look better or less reprehensible than the other. 

Justification for their conclusion was listed, as most far right Christians often do, from Leviticus - however to his credit, Dr Woolard admitted that the Christ was the "new covenant" and made the Old Testament irrelevant in the context of ritual principles having an influence in Christian life. They then turned to two passages in the New Testament, which mention the word "homosexual" and "sodomites" in a critical light. They mention in passing that these were used in cultural contexts for the time, and the different sources for translation of the various versions of their bible - which they conclude is "inerrant" and "the absolute authority which has stood the test of time". They do this WITHOUT mentioning the detail that the word "homosexual" used in the improper context refers not to gay people in the modern sense, nor that the word "sodomites" ACTUALLY refers to people in Sodom who were INHOSPITABLE to visitors to the city and NOT to gay people! 

Dr Woolard alluded to disputes among biblical scholars about the accuracy and completeness of the Christian bible, but neither he nor his panel ever went into any detail about the many errors in translation, omissions and deliberate changes made over the centuries in order to marginalize particular groups - such as women and gay and transgender people. Instead, the bible was lauded as "inerrant" and as the "one absolute authority" which forms the basis of their views on the knotty problem of who you are attracted to or form relationships with and the delusion that they have - or should have - any say about it. 

The more annoying part of the evening was the repeated allusion to the infamous "gay agenda", where the reverends made claims that the media and press are conspiring to promote homosexuality as "the new normal", and as you can hear, they go on about it quite a bit. Did they forget that they were supposed to be presenting a tolerant face this evening? They even attacked the UN and the West for adopting a stance which is defensive of human rights and preventative of human rights abuses, persecutions, and even genocide. Don't forget, Christians and Christian churches are the folks baying for the blood of gay people in Uganda, Russia, Belarus and elsewhere around the world. I'm not making that up - Google it.

Christian extremists are the people shown all over the web in videos and photos from Russia while committing violent acts in the name of their religion against others because of their nature. So... speaking out against hatred and unsound ethics and human rights abuses, denouncing countries which want to pass systematic dehumanization, detention and murder of people based on immutable characteristics like their sexual orientation, gender or gender identity into law, is just propaganda for the "gay agenda"? Seriously? 

What would they say about material and actions denouncing or opposing the Nazi's 1930's and 40's campaign to exterminate Jews (among a great many other undesirables of the time)? How is that any different? Oh wait, I remember - all those gay folks in Uganda must have CHOSEN to be gay - in the face of annihilation. How silly of them. They probably deserve it, eh? That'll learn 'em.

In the USA, conservative right wing Christian evangelicalist Scott Lively is now facing charges of crimes against humanity for his part in inciting so much hate against LGBT people in Uganda and Russia while it is also known he has done the same in his own country and in other parts of Africa and Eastern Europe. While I am extremely happy to know this - I can't help drawing parallels between Lively and other extremist evangelists. People like Lively have for years acted out their holocaust-denialist fantasies, in which he casts the entire Nazi party as run by a bunch of raging fascist homosexuals (in his book the Pink Swastika), and for years these people have drawn their "scientific facts" from neo-Nazi sympathizers like Paul Cameron who once recommended to President Reagan at the height of the AIDS pandemic to exterminate the gays and is the origin of a ton of lies that fuel the conservative ChristianIST anti-gay propaganda machine around the world even today. 

Denying the facts is what enables people to hate and to persecute marginalized and threatened minority groups. Labelling the advocacy, educational and informational initiatives of these persecuted minority groups dismissively as "propaganda for the gay agenda" undermines, belittles and trivializes the cause of those whose right to exist is under threat.

One of the reverends also commented that people rally to support people speaking out in favor of gay rights and espouse tolerance, but when a Christian speaks out against "sin" they are shown no tolerance. Perhaps in context, one should imagine what that person would be saying - there is a big difference between defending someone and someone attacking the right of others to exist unmolested.

I baulked at the use by one of the panel of the word "pandemic" to describe "the gay movement". What is the "gay movement"? Is it some kind of funky new move on the dance floor done by homosexuals and decried by "homophiliacs"? Does it fit in with that ubiquitous "gay agenda" the haters frequently refer to whenever they fear that they are losing control of the world around them and the idea that they are not at the top of the food chain any more terrifies them? I thought we were people. Are we a movement now? Why "pandemic"? Pandemic is a word used to describe a disease that occurs on multiple continents at once.  A disease? Are we a sickness to them? I spent some time pondering whether that man who presents himself as an expert and pretends to know more than he really does, even knew what he had just said. I found both possible answers to that question equally disconcerting.

The consensus of the discussion in my opinion, was not whether or not they thought it was "okay to be gay", but they were pretty clear in their message that people are gay by choice and not by nature - but that "their right to make such a choice ought to be respected" in the light of that tired old rhetoric "hate the sin but love the sinner". It was a rather mixed message in the end. It was a message saying "we welcome you, but we don't approve of who you are". How do you separate a person from who he is? Their message was not acceptance, it was that being gay is wrong and "un-Christian". It was a message that said between the lines: "You can and should change, and if you want to, we'll be here to help. Until then, you're welcome to sit quietly in the corner and to listen to us talk about how sinful and pitiful and inferior you are." It was a message of intolerance and judgement wrapped in smiles, gentle tones and warm handshakes - like a brick wrapped in bright cheerful paper draped in kitsch ribbons. It was, as Johannes Kerkorrel put it, like cyanide in the beefcake.

Why would these people think that denying my nature as being MY NATURE and trying to prove that I chose to be transgender or gay or blaming it on being molested as a toddler, or on being raised in an alleged "broken home" - would NOT be offensive to me? Why do they insist on avoiding the logical conclusion that if they believe that "God" created everybody according to some divine plan, and the same science which proves the existence of black holes, nutrinos and can clone a complete individual being from a single cell says that the sexual orientation, gender and gender identity of people is determined biologically - that their "God" made people that way? Is the notion so inconceivable or just plain offensive to them? How are we not supposed to be offended by that? 

It's no wonder that the gay people I spoke to - even Christians, arrived feeling apprehensive about the meeting, and it's no wonder so many gay Christians who can't find TRULY welcoming non-judgemental Christian churches turn away from the religion. It's no wonder that the loving churches are so empty - people avoid them for fear of being humiliated and victimized, while the pews of hateful churches swell with the ranks of the hateful and those who cannot read between the lies.

Having attended a Methodist church for a long time, where the staff and congregation had been welcoming and truly accepting of gay members, this experience was not pleasant. I never felt that the people at St Johns Methodist looked at me like a microbe under glass. I was Christina and that was that. I was not a "homosexual" or a "tranny freak" or a pervert or a suspected victim of pedophilia (or even a potential pedophile) or someone who "chose to live a sinful lifestyle in contradiction to God's (alleged) 'prototype'". My gender and my sexuality were my own business and left to be between me and "God" - it was not up to them to rub my nose in what they thought of me. I was welcomed and reinforced with a positive love of the Christ I had believed in once, and never given the impression that this was all a ruse to suck me in so that they could lay hands on me to pray away my gayness or my transgender issues just to make me in their own image rather than as the person I was born to be. 

Through my seven or eight years at St Johns I was a part of everything there. Even though I no longer am a Christian, it's still a place I remember fondly - and still a place which cares for people no matter who they are, or what they are. St Marks, Harvest and Word of Faith have a lot to learn from loving churches like St John's. Their ministers I think, could learn a lot from Bruce Lowe who wrote A Letter To Louise in 2001. 

The hatred for me and my kind that caused me to question my religion, I found coming from Christians elsewhere, from charismatic evangelical churches like Harvest and Word of Faith who make their hatred and intolerance for gay and transgender people pretty clear in their websites and in the cold welcome I received from a minister when I was called in by one of his members as an IT technician to fix a problem with their projector. Although St Marks does not obviously fall into that category, not quite, it certainly teeters on a knife-edge. There is a huge difference between welcoming people in unconditional love and acceptance, affirming them for who they are - and in merely tolerating them for the sake of political correctness and to fill the pews and collection plates. 

It is a very thin line indeed between denigrating someone's nature to the level of a "sinful and destructive lifestyle choice" while smiling at them - and persecuting them for who they are. Presently they are poised on that very dangerous line, where they welcome gay people and claim to not judge them - just as long as they silently accept their misinformed and ignorant views and standpoint on who and what they are. And yet, no matter how these people dressed up their intolerance and narrow-mindedness with pretty little bows of "expertise" and "biblical authority" and witty little jokes, I walked away from that church feeling judged, outcast and ultimately, unwelcome.

P.S.

I invite St Mark's Congregational Church, Dr Bruce Woolard, Rev Warren Watermeyer and Rev Kenneth Claassen to participate in a friendly discussion, at a time of their choosing, which will work to clarify the facts about sexual orientation and gender identity as they were presented by their church on Sunday 18 August 2013. Kindly contact me at christina.saglaad@gmail.com in order to discuss arrangements. Thank you.

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