I took a stand against religion-based anti-gay bigotry while sitting in the front pew for my aunt’s funeral in North Carolina over the weekend. She had lived in Raleigh, but she was laid to rest at a Baptist church in her birthplace of Severn, N.C. Her minister and fellow church members drove up for the solemn occasion. While her pastor delivered kind words about her work and dependability at the church bookstore, his guest eulogy gave way to a harsh sermon about who can and cannot get into the kingdom of Heaven. Now, I can’t speak for the whores, drunkards, adulterers and thieves who might have been present, but this openly gay man was enraged.

The preacher used 1 Corinthians chapter 6 verses 9 and 10 to call on those befitting one of those “behaviors” to “transform” their “mess” of a life by washing themselves in the blood of Christ. He talked about how the word of God “turned a pimp into a preacher” and “turned a prostitute into a prophet.” He said that he came to give hope that “if you are stuck in some stuff there is a God who will bring you out.” Using his own life as an example, the minister told the congregation, “If God can approach me and clean me up and give me goals, then he can change you.” He implored “anyone who needs a dramatic transformation in his life” to stand up. And then he said, “I believe there is someone here who wants to drastically change his life.”

The foundation of the preacher’s inappropriate-for-the-occasion sermon rests on the belief that homosexuality is a sin and a choice — that one day we decided to defy God’s will and be gay, rather than it being a God-given trait as immutable as my skin color. Jimmy Creech, a former pastor in the United Methodist Church and a co-founder of Faith in America, tackles this head-on in an essay he contributed to “Crisis: 40 stories revealing the personal, social, and religious pain and trauma of growing up gay in America.”

Being gay is not about behavior; it’s about relationships. It’s about whom an adult loves, marries, and creates a family with. Behavior is something one does on occasion; sexual orientation is someone’s inescapable identity. A gay person who is not sexually active is still gay. Sexual orientation is as fundamental and constant as one’s DNA. Unlike behavior, which one can choose to stop, no one can stop being gay or lesbian — any more than someone could choose to stop being straight.

Gene Robinson, a former Episcopal bishop, in his book, “God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage,” writes extensively about 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and six other passages used to condemn homosexuality. And he issues a caution I wish more preachers would heed.

Whatever one makes of these seven passages in scripture, it seems clear that they must not be used in the service of condemning homosexuality as we know it today.  Simply stated, the Bible does not speak to the questions we are asking today about men and women who are affectionately oriented toward people of the same gender.  Taken in their own contexts, these texts speak to situations and from understandings different from our own.
Let me be clear.  I am not asserting that the Bible speaks affirmatively of same gender, intimate, sexual relationships.  All seven of these passages are negative.  They simply are not addressing the questions we are asking in light of modern understandings of psycho-sexual relationships.

I am always leery of those who cloak their fear or bias in Bible verses. After all, the Good Book was used to justify slavery, deem African Americans inferior and subjugate women. Thanks to changing times and interpretations of scripture, we no longer put up with that nonsense today, and we shouldn’t put up with it when it is employed to strip the humanity of gay men and lesbians. So, the pastor’s every word was an affront to who I am. The question was what was I going to do about it.

After the visiting preacher was thanked for his rousing sermon by the congregation and the home pastor, the two made their way to us in the  front pew. During his oration, I vowed I would not shake his hand. But I did, given the immediate circumstances. So I used that as opportunity to make my displeasure known.

As he shook my hand and leaned down for a sympathetic hug, I told the preacher, “Your sermon was offensive!” He leaned back, looked at me and replied, “What?” I repeated, “Your sermon was offensive to me. I need you to know that. That’s all I have to say.”

As he moved his way down the pew, the anger I felt was replaced by relief and pride. Never before had I faced down religion-based bigotry. And it felt great. A family member later said that I should stop being so sensitive, which earned a biting response. It’s not being sensitive. It’s called sticking up for myself when no one else would. I’m not an especially religious person, but no one was going to say that I and other gays were less-than in the eyes of God and not hear from me.