Let's Stop Blaming the Bible for Our Homophobia

Shanelle Moffett (left) and Tenisha Watkins at their Chicago civil union ceremony. (Getty)
Shanelle Moffett (left) and Tenisha Watkins at their Chicago civil union ceremony. (Getty)

I stopped even peeking at "comments" sections a long time ago, like many writers. However, in the wake of a piece I did on the controversy over homophobia among black comedians, rappers and others, I have been pointed to some comments sections by other people writing on the subject, and have made an exception and taken a look.


What I have been struck by is how often perfectly sensible commenters approach this rich and delicate subject by simply stating that the Bible forbids homosexuality. It's clear that a lot of people out there honestly suppose that this just settles it. But I can't help thinking that there are times when we need to be more creative in deciding how the Bible fits into our lives — black, white or other. And I mean something more than hating the sin but loving the sinner.

If the Bible has been used to justify racism and slavery and we've learned to value the Bible while letting those things pass, then can't we get a little more creative when it comes to the new phase in the civil rights revolution, the liberation of gay people? The new Book of Mormon musical is telling us to take exactly this approach to religious teachings — channeling the spirit rather than getting caught up in the more fantastical details — and audiences are cheering the roof off every night. They couldn't all be wrong.

I'm not sure the people who think of citing the Bible as a sufficient response to this issue realize what they are calling for in real life as real people live it. We have all become quite familiar with the "down low" phenomenon, but this seems to attract interest more for the infidelity aspect, as well as the health aspects, than for the specific human tragedy of having to spend your life living a lie.

I'll never forget a guy I knew in passing about 20 years ago, whom I will call Greg. He was friends with a guy he had met in the cast of a play he was in. Good friends. The other guy, "Allan," was about to move away. This was a big deal for them — they both talked about it with anyone they met. It was such a big deal for them that a couple of days before Allan's departure, they spent the day at a faraway beach, to have "quality time" before Allan left for good.

But Greg was a member of a conservative Christian church that rejects homosexuality outright. He was in the grisly situation discussed in last weekend's New York Times Magazine: To be true to himself would have meant leaving an entire community and belief system, the only one that had ever given his life meaning. For some people in this position, it is so unthinkable to leave their church that some therapists are counseling men in this situation to stay with the church, marry a woman and otherwise, well, improvise.

So Greg could be in love with Allan, but only in the abstract.

Later Greg popped up with a nice, conservative Christian fiancée. You couldn't help noticing that he did not have the glow he had always had around Allan. He introduced his fiancée with a certain restraint, a forced smile. He knew that we knew it was a sham. The fiancée was a buttoned-up sort with an antique name (I'll substitute Myrtle). The two of them looked odd together. She did not match Greg in terms of charisma, wit, temperament or even appearance.


Now, one way of approaching this is to hope that Greg could "pray the gay away." But one therapist in the Times Magazine article notes that this almost never works. Fast-forward 20 years and people like Greg are either living double lives or are no longer married. Take Greg himself: I haven't seen him since early in Clinton's first administration, but I just looked him up on Facebook, and I am not at all surprised to see that he's not married anymore.

I know that some hear a story like Greg's and, as far as they're concerned, a sympathetic shrug of the shoulders is all there is to offer him. He's supposed to have either knuckled down and stayed with Myrtle because it's what the Bible says, or spend his life alone and celibate.


But I know there are others who, confronted with stories like Greg's and realizing that they are common, find themselves wondering whether our problem with homosexuality and gay marriage is really about the Bible, as opposed to a matter of using the Bible to shore up what is simply an old-fashioned, bone-deep bias.

Because if it's really about bias — something thoroughly human that we all harbor and suffer from — then it would seem that the conversation should be about getting past the bias.


If we consider the civil rights revolution to be when America became true to itself, then it's time for America to become even more true to itself. This is about all of America, but black Americans — not so long ago termed "Sons of Ham," mind you — are the last Americans who should even consider not joining in.

John McWhorter writes regularly for The Root.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.