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'God vs. Gay' writer Jay Michaelson on religious equality
by Sarah Toce

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Jay Michaelson is the author of God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. The message encompassed in the 212-page exploratory multidimensional treatise is distinctively precise: Faith exists, regardless of gender or same-sex status and God thinks it's … quite okay to be gay, actually.

Windy City Times: As the author of God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, you articulate the case for religion, faith, sexuality and acceptance throughout historic biblical reference points and into the present mind frame of society in regards to separation of church and state and familial obligations. Why is this book so needed at this given moment in our world's history?

Jay Michaelson: I think we're at a unique moment of opportunity right now. Because of the increased visibility of LGBT people in the media, the changes in law in some places and the continued effort by some on the political right to use gay rights as a scare tactic, this is a defining civil-rights struggle of our time.

It's clear to most people that the stereotypes about gay people are no more true than racist stereotypes or sexist stereotypes. At the same time, we have to have a deeper conversation about these issues than the ones often going on in our public sphere. A lot of people, myself included, were raised to believe that religion and sexual minorities were incompatible—that it really is God versus gay. Many of these folks are just starting to realize that isn't true, and [are taking] a closer look at their own religious or ethical traditions. This is how progress happens.

WCT: You write, "At this moment, there are people who are contemplating ending their lives because they believe their sexuality to be a sin, a flaw in the fabric of their soul, or perhaps a curse from God."

So many of us in the LGBT community battle with separating our religious freedoms from the love we feel toward another human being—regardless of how evolved we may be to modern-day scriptural thinking. Why did you feel so strongly that it was the right time to draw the demons out of the closet, so to speak, and confront this issue head-on?

Jay Michaelson: Because if all we have is a secular conversation, we're not going to really reach many people's hearts. Separation of church and state is a principle we need to uphold and fight for—especially if we're religious ourselves, because political power corrupts religious institutions. But that doesn't get to the root of the problem.

Contrast two other civil-rights struggles: that of African-American civil rights and that for reproductive freedom. In the first case, Dr. King and others made civil rights a religious imperative—not just a constitutional argument. His message resounded with people because it called up their deeply-held values and called them to conscience. In contrast, reproductive rights have never been more imperiled than they are right now—in part, I believe, because activists have refused to engage in the underlying moral and ethical debates. There are other reasons too, of course, but in general, when we leave these deep concerns unaddressed, our "victories" will be shallow.

WCT: For someone reading God vs. Gay? who is new to the religious banter between political party lines, can you expand on the top three misconceptions dealing with homosexuality and the Bible?

Jay Michaelson: 1. That the Bible prohibits homosexuality. It doesn't. Three verses (out of 30,000) limit a few sexual acts, mostly between men, in the context of idolatry or lewdness. 2. That whatever the prohibition is, it's central to religion. It isn't. The "sin" in Leviticus is the same as eating a shrimp cocktail. Jesus never mentions homosexuality at all. 3. That the "sin of Sodom" is homosexuality. It isn't; it's greed, cruelty and inhospitality. (Ezekiel 16:49-50, Jeremiah 23:14, Amos 4:1-2).

WCT: There is a new generation coming to age that appears to be more open-minded than the past few. Is this a misconception in your mind, or do you believe we will see a new way of thinking going into 2012 and beyond?

Jay Michaelson: It's true in some places, not true in others. It's easy to think that because of a character on a TV show, that everything is fine. It isn't fine. Kids are still being sent to cult-like "reparative therapy" (neither reparative nor therapy); I can still be kicked out of a hotel in many states just for being gay; and gay people are still being disowned and shunned by their families. I know many of these people myself.

WCT: What would a non-religious/non-spiritual person gain from reading God vs. Gay?

Jay Michaelson: Most of us have religious people in our extended families or communities, and religion still sets the terms for much of our public debate on issues of sexuality and reproductive choice. So, at the very least, we should know how to "fight back" when religion is used as a weapon. But I hope we can have a more productive dialogue with those with whom we disagree. The book is not about apologizing for being gay, or somehow trying to make everything fit together in the way that I want. It's about knowing the truth, and holding religious people (myself included) accountable to their own traditions, which emphasize the centrality of love and intimacy, justice, compassion and so on.

WCT: You tackle some pretty heady topics in God vs. Gay?, including the osmosis of traditional values, same-sex relationships throughout time, self-acceptance in present time and the meanings behind very specific popular verses. Was there a moment or moments in the writing of this book where you second-guessed its release for fear of your safety?

Jay Michaelson: Maybe I'm being naïve, but no. I get hate mail like everyone else who works in this area, but there are way more visible targets than me.

WCT: The release of this controversial title has you embarking everywhere from Washington, D.C., to New York, Miami, Detroit and Chicago. As you travel the United States, what has the response been on the book tour so far?

Jay Michaelson: It's been very warm. I've met dozens of parents of gay kids who are sincerely trying to understand their religious traditions on this issue. I've met lots of non-religious people who have never been exposed to this material except through the lens of the bigots. And I've met a few hecklers. Overall, it's been really gratifying to me to see how this work is already having an impact.

The irony of "God versus Gay" is how the dichotomy is just 180 degrees wrong. I thought that coming out would be end of my religious life—but in fact it was the beginning of it.

Author Jay Michaelson will be appearing at Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St., on Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. as well as the Limmud Chicago 2012 conference at the University of Illinois at Chicago, 750 S. Halsted St., Feb. 19.

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