This year, Father’s Day comes just a week after the Orlando tragedy—seven days of mourning, of national self-searching, and of urgent effort to understand how the Orlando shooter became who he was. I believe I have seen that same toxic mix of homophobia, militant right-wing religion, and self-hatred before. And I’ve seen it transformed by unflinching truth and wise love.
While I was working on a doctorate in theology I volunteered in a high school human relations program run by the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) in Los Angeles.
Every summer in NCCJ’s Brotherhood/Sisterhood program, two hundred idealistic teens attended a week of camp in the nearby mountains, taught by volunteer professional adults who trained together over weekends to create programs that explored the emotional and experiential roots of racism, sexism, and hate.
The director of the program was a white gay man named Glen Poling who had to leave his Salvation Army community when he came out. As the summer program evolved under his leadership, we worked more carefully with more issues: sexuality and identity, rape, family dysfunction and violence, school and gang violence—and more complex analyses of structural and internalized, intersecting oppressions.
One week in the mid 1980s, we had three young Black young men from a foster home with a father who was a white evangelical minister. Always in dark glasses and baseball caps, the youths were seemingly hostile to the program, and inseparable except when they were in assigned to small group discussions. The leader—I’ll call him “D.”— did all the talking, using the Bible to condemn gays as evil and insisting they should be in prison or shot.
Halfway through the week, during an intense afternoon plenary conversation about sexism, a young woman told a harrowing and moving account of being raped. The room listened in silence to her account, until D. raised the only hand to speak. He stood and said, “I know how you feel!” The entire room jeered while he insisted, “No! No! I know how you feel. I was raped myself.”
At that moment, I suspect many of us were feeling some contrition for having disliked D. so much and labeling him as a problem.
Then one of D.’s trio, sitting about 20 feet away, rose and faced him. “Don’t lie,” he said quietly, “not now, not here. Don’t lie.”
D. shouted, “I’m not lying. I was raped!”
As he repeated this, his friend shouted over him. “You lyin’. I know the truth. I saw you in that bathroom with that man. I saw you beg him to let you suck his cock. I saw you do it! Stop lyin’!”
D. lunged at his friend, and staff around them held them back as they continued to shout at each other.
Into the yelling, the tallest staff volunteer in the room shouted in his deep bass voice, “D., shut up and listen—we know the truth. You can’t hide anymore!”
Over and over, he shouted over the other two to “shut up and listen”—until they abruptly stopped.
The silence lasted a long time. Across the room, Glen stood and spoke, “D., do you remember when you said gays were sick and should be locked up?”
D. interrupted, “I don’t believe that anymore. I don’t think you should be locked up.”
Glen responded, “OK. So what I hear you saying is that gays are not sick, that we should not be locked up, that we are human beings—and that we are loved by God.”
D. whispered, “Yes.”
Glen continued, “What I want you to know is that you are also a human being, beloved by God. You are OK.”
Abruptly, D. turned and walked toward the back of the room near the exit. But he pivoted at the door and headed back toward Glen, threw off his cap and sunglasses, and sobbed in Glen’s arms.
The entire room began sobbing. Groups of men held each other, groups of women, and groups of men and women held each other and wept. Finally, we went to our small groups to process.
At dinner later, D. sat with his trio, but none of them wore sunglasses or caps. They were smiling and talking to others at their table. Throughout the meal, campers came to their table, thanked them for their courage, and gave them hugs. The rest of the week Glen and others talked to them about not labeling themselves and about how to support each other through the difficult and uncertain process of returning home. D. and his friends were no longer inseparable. They became part of the larger community, and their departure at the end of the week was full of sad goodbyes to new friends.
The staff team experienced our own changes. The men admitted their own unspoken homophobias. They admitted that, in seeing women as the only source of intimacy, they sought to control us either by force, manipulation, or obsequious accommodation. They became aware of profound loneliness: loneliness for fathers who failed to be emotionally present to them and loneliness for deep, emotionally open friendships with other men—even their own brothers—because they were afraid they might be seen as gay.
The loneliness of men in patriarchal societies is ancient. The fifth-century Christian Bishop Augustine speaks in his Confessions of his intense and close friendship with a man while he has sex with his female partner of seventeen years who bore his son but was not his intellectual equal. He longed for a holistic intimacy of profound friendship that united body and soul. Since men in male-dominant societies are taught to think of women as lesser and other men as competitors for dominance, such love and friendship can be close to impossible.
The women in our summer program were also changed. We admitted our fears of male violence and control, our frustrations with being patronized and of never being seen as fully human, and our subtle contempt for men who were accommodating and supportive—we did not trust them to address sexism with other men. It was a profound turning point in staff relationships in our program. I came to be close to men I had disliked and considered clueless jerks, and through our honest relationships with each other we did great work as a better team in the years after.
Heteronormativity makes emotional intimacy difficult in straight men’s relationships to women and homophobia denies them emotional intimacy with other men.
So in honor of Father’s Day—and in months to come—I hope we can resist the patriarchal gender wars and homophobias that can drive some desperate and lonely men to hate and violence. It’s too late for many of us, so I hope fathers with young children today can make themselves emotionally available to their sons, hold them close, hug them often, and love who they are, not what they want them to be. And if they have young daughters, love them the same way.