In our series, “Taking the Long View,” we interview senior leaders in the Reformed and Presbyterian community, asking them to reflect on their experiences and careers, noting the achievements, changes and challenges affecting the Reformed tradition today. All of these women and men have made distinguished contributions to the church, the academy, or the professions, and are approaching or enjoying retirement. However, we think you will find them anything but “retiring.” It is our hope that the accumulated wisdom and perspective that they offer–their “long view” of Christian faith and practice–will inspire those who follow the paths on which they have ventured.
Karin Granberg-Michaelson, a member of the Perspectives Board of Editors, interviewed Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, professor emeritus of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey. Dr. Mollenkott is the author of twelve books including Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response (Harper and Row, 1978), and most recently Omnigender: A Transreligious Approach (Pilgrim Press, 2001). Raised Plymouth Brethren, and a graduate of Bob Jones University, Mollenkott was shaped by a community that largely condemned her sexual orientation. Karin notes, “Virginia’s biblical scholarship and life experience have shaped her active pursuit of a Christian worldview that is characterized by God’s gracious embrace of those who find themselves on the margins of church and society.”
Karin Granberg-Michaelson: I would like to begin this conversation by talking about how the church can become a welcoming place for gay Christians.
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott: Well, I think it would be very important for church members and gay Christians to have the opportunity to talk together about their fears and hopes. What is the perceived threat of gay Christians to the churches and what is the threat that churches represent to the gay community? I think we need to begin this conversation by sharing our hopes and fears because the whole debate has been so intellectual. Sharing fears and hopes takes you to a different level. Sharing our hopes with one another helps to defuse a situation, because the hopes are usually so “ordinary,” so non-threatening. People also need an opportunity to air their fears no matter how irrational they may be. In my travels, I’ve learned that some people are actually afraid the human race might die out if the church ever says it is okay to be gay. Until you have aired all your fears about the loss of the family unit, affirmative action, or whatever, you will never realize how irrational they may be. When enough people truly have let go of their irrational fears about homosexuality, then the church needs to give off signals that it is a safe place to be. It needs to be said from the pulpit, it needs to be said in church bulletins, it needs to be said in every way possible. Signs reading, “Everybody Welcome” are not sufficient, because gay people know that ‘everybody’ does not include them. It’s just not going to do to say ‘everybody’ if you don’t really mean everybody.
KGM: Your own faith development was shaped in a very theologically conservative context (Plymouth Brethren). You have had a life-long dialogue with biblical theology. How have you reconciled your sexual orientation with your faith?
VRM: Well, actually it came in a very personal way. When my husband was asleep in bed, I was praying to God to take away my homosexuality, as many of us have, and it came over me toward morning– “What do you want for your son, up there, sleeping in his little bed?” I want him to be happy, I just want him to be happy. I want him to be fulfilled. “That’s what I want from you–just be happy, be fulfilled. Stop trying to change yourself–I made you the way I want you“. Now, it didn’t happen overnight. I would sit and look at myself in the mirror and say, “You know, Virginia, God knew you before the foundation of the world. God knew you would be a lesbian and God loves you as you are.” I got this reassurance out of Psalm 139. And I would say it to myself over and over again. And then I began saying it in public to other people, and of course, the more you tell other people that God loves them the way they are–the more you begin to believe that about yourself. It’s one of those great gifts that you give somebody else and you give it to yourself at the same time. When lesbian women or gay men have asked me “Are you really sure that God loves us the way we are? I just want to hear you say it,” I reply, “Tell yourself that the scriptures assure you that God knew you and loved you from the foundation of the world. Your sexual orientation was no surprise to the Almighty!”
KGM: Did anyone in the Christian community reach out to you or did you have to find your own way to reconcile your sexual orientation with your faith?
VRM: I was very much alone in my struggle. Carter Heywood’s books were some of the earliest hopeful messages that I read. Before that, I looked at books and they all said that I was terribly sinful or terribly sick. I kept asking myself what had “truncated my growth”, since that was a current theory about the cause of homosexual orientation. But, something didn’t feel right to me. This portrait of condemnation didn’t fit with what I knew about myself, especially [the idea] that my sexual orientation was sinful when I knew that I loved God. But because of the constant messages I received in high school, I did try to kill myself. There I was told that God had no time for people like me. And if God had no time for me then I didn’t want to live. You can’t tell a religious child or young person that she is unwanted by God without realizing that you are implying that her life is worthless.
KGM: At what point in your life did your sexual orientation become clear to you?
VRM: I was already interested in same sex relationships when I was four years old. My girl friends mattered terribly to me. There was always one special girl from very early on. And then there was an older woman in my church with whom I had a relationship. After that, my mother sent me away to a Christian academy. She told them that I was a lesbian so all the kids were watching me. They told my roommates and the other girls never to be alone with me. Gradually some warmed up, but they were so standoffish at the beginning. Good grief, was I a leper? Then finally some girls told me, “The administration said you might jump us, but now we can see that you’re not like that.” Mom certainly gave me the worst possible send-off. Even worse, I was told that it didn’t matter how hard I tried or what good grades I made or anything–the fact was that God had no time for people like me.
KGM: What do you think has given you the courage to keep looking for grace for yourself and speaking out on behalf of all the people in the gay community who are out there hurting?
VRM: Ironically, these attacks never swayed my faith in the least. I think it’s simply that I was born with the ability to distinguish between theory and practice. Somehow I knew that Jesus was not to blame for what some people projected on to Jesus. I think that I came through the route of fundamentalism precisely to prepare me to do this liberating work that I do. I believe that ministering within the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community in the broadest sense is my calling.
KGM: You were a founding member of the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, an offshoot of Evangelicals for Social Action, which came about in 1974 in Chicago. You’ve seen that group move from being very fearful about addressing the whole area of gay people of faith to finding a way to move forward together–gay and straight Christians side by side.
VRM: After 11 years in the organization, I came to feel that sooner or later these sisters had to demonstrate that they were concerned about my civil and human rights or they were not my sisters. The issue was not that you had to approve of homosexuality. Theological approval is not the issue. And I think that church people need to understand that. We Americans do not have to approve of one another in order to say that nobody should be bombed. Nobody should be afraid to walk down the streets. Nobody should be unable to hold a job. Nobody should be unable to pursue happiness in their own way. That’s written into our constitution. For the church, that should also be the bottom line, to stand up for one another as fellow Christians and as fellow human beings. What the EEWC did was to simply approve a resolution supporting the civil rights of our lesbian sisters and gay brothers. This was not the same as theological approval, and it allowed us to move forward together. We stayed in solidarity with these our sisters and brothers. Now if you can’t stand in solidarity with other human beings how is that Christian? Why did Jesus appeal to slaves and prostitutes? What was his appeal to all the have-nots? It was precisely because He ate with sinners. He didn’t preach at sinners, He broke bread with them. He preached and railed at the religious people who had power and who misused it. So, we’ve gotten way off track.
KGM: As you continue to wrestle with these questions, where has that led you on the whole matter of sexual orientation and grace?
VRM: You see, I would say that we are who we are by the grace of God. I’ve been told that gay people must remain celibate. But, celibacy is a gift. If you have to spend 90% of your energy not having sex, you don’t have that gift. There are other things to do in this world besides resist sexual impulses. I really do believe that God-with-us, Emmanuel, wants us to be in the world in precisely the way we were put into the world. And if we don’t accept the essence of our being and express it as beautifully as we know how, then God has been denied that. The Native Americans understood it this way. If a boy manifested girls’ tendencies, they simply recognized this as a very special gift. They did not interfere with it because you don’t interfere with what the Great Spirit has decided. So I think that in anything that is not a matter of choice, but is an essential part of ourselves like our sexual or gender orientation, if we deny it we are denying God.
I look back at the days of trying to change myself and see that effort as a lot of wasted energy. That struggle took a lot of my energy for decades. It’s a shame because there are many people in the gay community still struggling like that. Until we can learn to accept all the variety that there is in sexual and gender orientation, the churches will remain stuck on this issue. So, if what we’re really concerned about is for people to be all God meant them to be, then we need to get our judgments out of the way and focus on God’s grace to us all.