This semester, one of my classes at Hartford Seminary is looking at the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning movement and how it changed societal attitudes so rapidly. My goal is to get my students to explore what we might learn from that movement that will empower us as spiritual leaders to change our culture’s attitude to be more just, equitable, charitable, merciful, kind, loving, and understanding.
In my lifetime, we have seen homosexuality go from being illegal, to electing LGBT people as senators and bishops. I’m convinced that, if that change can take place, we also might find a way to persuade Millennials that following the Way of Jesus is not the path of bigotry and exclusion, but a way to build community and heal our world. Of course, redeeming the reputation of the church may be one miracle too many.
As I have studied in preparation for teaching this class, I have been reminded of people and events in LGBT history that I had all but forgotten. Once upon a time, I was the director of education, and later the executive director, of the Atlanta Gay Center. In that capacity, early in the 1980s, I taught many classes and spoke almost daily about “gay rights.” I knew this history well, but, fortunately, the work we were doing had such a great impact that it was a subject I talked about less and less often. I soon went from being a subject expert in LGBT culture and history to being regarded as an “expert” in growing mainline churches, and that is what I spend my time writing and talking about today.
Teaching this class at Hartford has been a retro-experience for me. I’m digging out old, yellowed notes and dim, dusty memories. I also am having flashbacks of the terror I knew as a young gay man speaking to hostile audiences of police recruits, a North Georgia military school class, and a rally surrounded by Texas Republicans and fundamentalists.
Today I am a respected pastor, author, church leader, and seminary professor. Still, I remember well having to repress feelings of shame in the old days when I spoke with greater confidence than I felt. I can’t help but wonder if old feelings like that are what hinders so many of us. We still are trying to prove our dignity, so we are terrified to engage the struggle for justice because we might be made to confront our fears. My only advice is to do it anyway. Those feelings haven’t gone away; I just made them shut up long enough to let me do what I thought was right.
Rev. Michael Piazza