Rick Perry
Patrick Michels

Rick Perry and the Sin of Bigotry


Above: Rick Perry.

Here we are in 2013, and public opinion is rapidly shifting in favor of gay rights. More states and more Americans, especially young people, are endorsing marriage equality. Unvarnished homophobia is becoming taboo. But Rick Perry is still at it.

In early May, the Texas governor participated in a webcast to promote his opposition to lifting the Boy Scouts’ ban on gays. In the video, Perry said lifting the ban would allow “pop culture” to “tear up” tradition for “the flavor of the month.” He compared (his own?) opposition to gay rights to Sam Houston’s resistance to Texas joining the Confederacy. This isn’t the first time Perry has engaged in a round of gay-bashing.

In 2005, Perry signed a state constitutional amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman. He chose as the bill-signing venue a conservative church school in Fort Worth. Rod Parsley, a pastor from Ohio, spoke at the signing, calling gay sex “a veritable breeding ground of disease.” Later, when asked about gay Iraq War veterans, Perry suggested they move to “some other state that has a more lenient view than Texas.” In his bizarre 2008 book on the Boy Scouts, Perry compared homosexuality to alcoholism and begged for tolerance … for those who are “proponents of traditional values.” And during the presidential campaign, he complained in a widely mocked TV ad that “gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas.”

Perry, like a lot of politically conservative Christians, would like us to believe that his views are all about loving the sinner and hating the sin. But being gay is no sin, and hating the way someone is can be destructive, as I saw growing up.

When I was in high school in a small Texas town, a close friend of mine—one of the most intelligent and charismatic people I’ve ever known, a person I’ll call “John”—came out. To his friends, it was like discovering that the sky was blue. We knew. But for his family and many in the evangelical church he and I attended, it was a scandal. Gay men, our church taught, are weak, mentally diseased, feminized, hedonistic and materialistic—the very opposite of the masculine Jesus that we had all had a “personal relationship” with.

Homosexuality was a special sin, a mental disorder that required more than just repentance; it necessitated conversion. To this day, the church offers gay-to-straight counseling, a thoroughly discredited and destructive practice that has been condemned by the American Psychiatric Association. The church leadership teaches that same-sex attraction for men—lesbians are conspicuously absent—arises from the lack of a strong male father figure and the overbearing presence of mothers during childhood.

“We were disconnected from other boys and were often called upon to provide emotional support to our mothers,” reads a pamphlet advertising group same-sex therapy sessions.  “Many of us lived in shame and secrecy always fearful that others would discover our pain. We were trapped in a seemingly hopeless state.”

These are the poisonous waters in which John and his parents—all of us in the church—swam. The “counseling” the church offered, you’ll be shocked to learn, didn’t scare John straight, but it did poison his faith, poison his relationship with his dad and drive him to the destructive habits that “conversion” was supposed to fix. I can’t imagine what it was like for John. Even at a comfortable emotional distance, I found the church’s efforts revolting.

When we were in college, John’s dad—let’s call him Mike—was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was dead within a year, still struggling to make peace with his son. At Mike’s funeral service, one of the pastors of the church gave the eulogy. First, the pastor praised at length the relationship Mike had with John’s younger (straight) brother: sports, fishing, Christian missionary work—the model (straight) son. “And then there was [John],” he said chuckling and smiling along with the audience. “[John] and [Mike] didn’t see eye to eye. [John] was a little different.”

Here was this crisply dressed, well-respected worship leader—someone I’d once admired—smearing a grieving son at his father’s funeral. The pastor’s hurtful words, the knowing chuckles in the church that day, are seared into my memory. I think about them often. I think about them every time the governor of Texas says that non-straight Texans are undeserving of equal treatment.