Today in my gay and lesbian history class, we briefly got on to the topic of the terrible stereotype about gays, lesbians, and pedophilia. Most of my students are familiar with the unfounded cultural fear that associates homosexuality with the sexual abuse of children. But talking about it today brought back flashbacks to an old experience I had when I was first working as a youth leader at All Saints Pasadena a number of years ago.
One of the first time I went on retreat with the kids, I was one of four adult leaders headed off to Big Bear for the weekend. There were two male and two female leaders, and about a dozen kids of each sex. The other male youth leader, "Oscar", was an openly gay man and a loved and trusted member of the All Saints community. (He's no longer with All Saints). The two female youth leaders were straight. As is common on such retreats, the boys shared a communal shower area, and dressed and undressed in front of each other. Boys and girls were not allowed in the other sex's cabin without adults present. Before I went into the girls' cabin, I would knock and wait for the all-clear. (Replete with the usual "Everybody decent?" query, followed by mildly profane and silly responses!)
When we got back from the trip, I had a conversation with a parent. (Yes, I know All Saints people read this blog -- no, you can't possibly guess who I'm talking about. This was five or six years ago; don't try.) This man (I'll call him "Jim"), the father of one of the boys in my cabin, was irate that Oscar had been on the trip. His angry challenge rocked me. Jim said:
"Hugo, I have a daughter who will be old enough for a retreat in a couple of years. Now, I know you, Hugo, and I like you. But I would not be okay with you sleeping in the girls' cabin with her and using the girls' bathroom with her. I'm sure you wouldn't want to, either! But Hugo, how come I'm supposed to be okay with a gay man sharing space with my son? Why is it okay for Oscar to be in the boys cabin, but not okay for you to be in the girls cabin?
I'll confess, I was totally unprepared for the question. Jim didn't want to approach All Saints staff; he was not interested in filing a formal complaint. But he knew me well enough as a friend to express his concern, and he wanted an answer. I told him that I couldn't think of a good response off the top of my head, and I told him I'd get back to him. He made me promise not to raise the issue with All Saints staff (or with Oscar), and I agreed.
I spent a week running the scenario by everyone I knew who wasn't associated with the church. Some of my more liberal friends were indignant that the question was even asked: "Screw the father! It doesn't deserve a response, it's pure bigotry!" Some of my conservative friends were delighted that I was in this quandary, convinced that I couldn't come up with a justification for why Oscar belonged with us in the boys cabin. (Several of them pointed out that I had run into one of the reasons why the Scouts still ban openly gay leaders from working with their boys). Most people weren't much help, frankly.
But I wanted to get back to Jim, and I called him the following week. Here's more or less what I said:
"Jim, you've given me a lot to think about. I thought coming up with a good answer would be easier than it has been. And I want you to know that I believe you're coming from a place of love and concern, not from bigotry. But I've thought about this for a while, and I believe that we can make the case that gay men and lesbian women can be superb youth leaders, and be in the same close proximity to youth of their same gender as straight leaders.
The reason we put the male youth leaders with the boys and female youth leaders with the girls isn't because of sexuality, at least not mainly. A gay male youth leader is still a man; a lesbian youth leader is still a woman. We divide up the sexes for the comfort and safety of the kids, because when it comes to teenagers, we believe it's important to have separate space for things like showering and sleeping. Sexual desire isn't the issue, Jim; it's really just a matter of biology. Gay men use the men's restroom, and no one has a problem with that!"
Jim came right back:
You're dodging, Hugo. When I was in youth group, we changed in front of each other. Do you ever see the boys in their underwear or naked?
"I suppose sometimes, yes."
Do you think, Hugo, if you saw the girls naked or in their underwear, you might be aroused or uncomfortable?
"Jim! No! Totally inappropriate question, and I would never put myself in that situation! EVER!"
Exactly, Hugo! You may not want to go there, buddy, but bear with me: why would you never, ever be in that situation, but you expect Oscar to be? We're all human beings. Are you so confident that your devotion to ministry would conquer your sexual desires? Do you think it's possible a gay man might get turned on by being around undressed teenage boys? Yes or no?
I conceded it was possible. "But even so, I know Oscar. He's got terrific boundaries and a heart for youth ministry. He would never, ever, ever, cross that line."
That's great, Hugo; I'm glad you stand up for your friends. But not all parents know Oscar the way you do. Should we just take your word for it? Do you know what Oscar really thinks when he sees my son in the shower?
At this point, I began to get flustered and I lost my cool. My eagerness to defend Oscar overtook me, and I said some things in anger. I'm sorry to say that the conversation ended badly. And frankly, I've revisited this debate many times. I know from experience that gay men and lesbians can be wonderful and safe youth leaders. But I've never found the words to effectively convince concerned parents and others who ask the same sort of questions Jim asked.
In my heart, I'm convinced that the biological sex of the youth leader should be the sole determinant of which cabin he or she sleeps in. I don't believe that the potential for sexual arousal is the primary reason why straight male youth leaders aren't put in the girl's bunkhouses -- though I acknowledge that not everyone agrees with me. But I'm not yet doing as good a job as I could be of addressing the concerns of those folks, like Jim, who see a serious problem.
So, readers, open question time:
If you were in my position, and belonged to an affirming church, what would you say to a parent like Jim?
While it's not necessary for you to support an inclusive and welcoming position on homosexuality in order to comment, please avoid using hurtful or stereotypical language to refer to gays and lesbians. Civility in tone and content is mandatory. Let's also remember that in youth ministry, trust and accountabilty are everything -- so the answers we give to people like Jim need to be couched in loving and respectful language.