When Mary Lou Wallner learned that her daughter, Anna, was a lesbian, she did just what she thought she was supposed to do. She did just what her church expected her to do. She did just as James Dobson recommended, through his Focus on the Family radio program. She refused to accept her daughter’s homosexuality. At the time, she thought she was practicing “tough love.” Mary Lou lived to regret her decision. After more than a year of estrangement from her mother, Anna committed suicide in 1997.
The story of Mary Lou and Anna reminds me of a biblical story, the lamentable tragedy of Jephtha’s daughter (Judges, chapter 11). The story goes that Jephtha made a vow, that if he was victorious in battle he would kill the first person who came out from his home to greet him, and offer that person up as a burnt offering. And the first person to come from his house to greet him was his daughter, his only child. And so, he killed his daughter, rather than change what he believed about his god.
My faith tradition, the Congregational church, once persecuted homosexuals. We also tortured people who were accused of witchcraft. But we learned from these mistakes. We allowed evidence and experience to change our theology. The fact is some people are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (GLBT). Most people are heterosexual, but some people are homosexual — always have been, always will be. There is no credible, verifiable evidence that homosexuality can be “cured.” So-called “reparative therapy” is fraudulent and harmful to individuals and to society at large.
People can be healthy, happy, productive, loving, faithful and gay. As is the case with all people, GLBT people flourish in a supportive community. As is the case with all people, GLBT people can be hurt when constantly barraged hateful messages. Groups like Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) provide safe havens for GLBT people and their friends and allies. Some churches, including mine, also provide a safe place to be. I look forward to the day when every place is a safe place.
Mary Lou Wallner’s story didn’t end with her daughter’s death: the tragedy of Anna’s suicide is being redeemed by love. Mary Lou now works to save the lives of gay and lesbian children, by providing support and encouragement to their parents. In the documentary film “For the Bible Tells Me So,” you can hear Mary Lou pleading with James Dobson, outside the offices of Focus on the Family: “No matter what else happens in my life, I will always acknowledge the pain and tragedy of Anna’s suicide. However, her death has also brought me face-to-face with the untruth I have been taught throughout my life by the church. My transformation has occurred through a wonderful gift given to me by God: getting to know, understand, and love GLBTA (Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transgenders, and Allies). I am now proud to call myself an ally and am honored to count these children of God amongst my closest and dearest friends.”
I am reminded of another bible story, a much shorter one (you can find it in Matthew, in chapter 9 and again in chapter 12). It’s the one where the religious authorities are criticizing Jesus for keeping bad company and disregarding the rules and traditions, and Jesus says, “Go and learn what this means. ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’”
Mercy, not sacrifice. Let these words penetrate the depths of our understanding of God and the world God loves.