"GAY CHRISTIAN" is not an oxymoron, says the Very Reverend Robert Taylor, the first openly gay dean chosen to lead an American Episcopal church. Then why do so many people, gay and straight, seem to think otherwise? "It takes a great deal of courage, and a great deal of faith, and a great deal of perseverance to be not gay and Christian, but gay Christian within the institution of the church," he says.
Of course, Taylor recognizes the irony of making this statement as the head of St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, a rather large institution housed inside a regal structure perched atop Capitol Hill. (With approximately 1,900 members, St. Mark's serves as the mother church of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia.) After an 18-month process, a selection committee elected the South African Taylor last July and officially "installed" him into the position of dean with a celebratory ceremony in February.
Despite his current occupation, Taylor hasn't always meshed so well with institutions. Born in 1958, he attended Capetown's Anglican Cathedral School, located next to the South African Houses of Parliament, where he was exposed to Christianity on one hand and oppression on the other. With his soothing voice and subtle accent, it's slightly jarring to hear Taylor utter the word "apartheid"; it emerges from his mouth undigested and in its original pronunciation, like a bitter pill. Its evils aside, apartheid enabled the young Taylor to see the Christian church as the sanctuary it was meant to be: As a boy, he would watch protesters swarm the school cathedral when fleeing tanks and rubber bullets.
While Christianity represented refuge for Taylor, the institution of the church, particularly the Dutch Reform Church, did not. Taylor recalls both church and government interpreting apartheid as "God's will," even providing scriptural passages to support such proclamations. But as Taylor watched the atrocities unfold around him, from children getting shot in the streets to an activist's suicide in order to evade capture, he recognized apartheid as the "demonic" system of segregation that it was. Although the Archbishop of Capetown at the time urged against it, and the secret police tapped his phone and intercepted his mail, Taylor's involvement in the fight against apartheid continued until 1980, when, encouraged by close friend Desmond Tutu, he fled South Africa to avoid impending life imprisonment.
In some respects, Taylor's exodus from civil war-torn South Africa to the democratic United States parallels the interior journey he's taken from a closeted teenager, terrified of expulsion from the church if he revealed his sexuality, to an openly gay dean with a partner of 15 years. In other respects, present-day America varies little from South Africa in the '70s. Taylor remembers trying to maintain a heterosexual front by dating as many girls as possible during his adolescence, one of whom happened to be black. "We couldn't go anywhere together," he reflects. Because of the segregated beaches, movie theaters, buses, and restaurants, the affair assumed a "very clandestine" nature, just as gay romantic relations in America are often shrouded in secrecy. In this country that prides itself on equal opportunity and frowns upon discrimination, it's still rare to find two men or two women holding hands or kissing outside the "gay ghettos" found in most major cities.
Many Christian churches are trying their hardest to keep the gay community in the closet. With Unitarians and Quakers being the only two irrefutably gay-tolerant Christian churches in America, the rest of the spectrum ranges from waveringly supportive to vehemently condemnatory. A Southern Baptist church runs the Web site www.godhatesfags.com, Exodus International claims to convert gays to heterosexuality through the invocation of Jesus, and the Mormon and Catholic churches are backing California's Proposition 22, which refuses to recognize same-sex marriage before it's even been legalized. Consequently, many who fall under the gay "umbrella" have retreated into their own hard shells of intolerance, narrow-mindedly associating Christianity with exclusion and Christians with bigots. "Christians vs. Queers" would be too general a title, but there are enough participants on either side to label the conflict a minor war.
WHEN I ASK TAYLOR how to end such a war, he emphasizes the inherent problem in using such "macho" language "that's about obliterating and destructing and destroying." Taylor prefers to think of such disputes "not in terms of war, but in terms of the journey and the struggle of what it means to be human, what it means to live in community with and relationship to other people who have different points of view."
Indeed, during our discussion, Taylor rarely loses sight of other possible perspectives. When I, a white male, tend to inquire on behalf of "gay men" too frequently, he tactfully reminds me to keep in mind lesbians and gay people of color. More often using the pronoun "we" instead of "I," Taylor seems to think in terms of humanity rather than categories of gay and straight or black and white. That's not to say he's willing to accept injustice. Citing discourse as the panacea to disagreement, Taylor remarks on the necessity for a society to maintain constant communication with its elected officials, political or religious, when it comes to battling prejudice: "Whether it's against people of color or women or gay and lesbian folk or foreigners or immigrants . . . we need to say any of those hatreds are wrong."
And what of those six notorious passages in the Bible, I ask Taylor, that have been manipulated to abort any communication between gays and Christians? What of the Exodus passage about inhospitality that has been misconstrued and institutionalized, so that sodomites are homosexuals and sodomy gay sex? What of the Leviticus passage referred to on picketers' signs at Matthew Shepard's funeral, in which sex between men is called an abomination, along with shellfish consumption, beard-trimming, and tattoos? Indeed, how are persecuted minorities supposed to read and interpret those verses that have occasionally planted the bad seeds of homophobia, sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism in the good book?
Taylor calmly points out the importance of context: "We approach scripture with the lessons of tradition and history and within the context of culture, knowing that we know things today—scientifically and biologically and psychologically—that people who wrote the scriptures in a very different kind of culture just didn't know about." He reads the Bible as "the story of us," having faith that "God deals with us as we are in our context." Taylor's also "very suspicious of anybody who wants to take a few verses of scripture and use it to justify an existing prejudice or hatred."
With all the disenfranchisements gays have experienced, isn't spiritual disenfranchisement the worst of all? It would seem that for those growing up in a church that vilifies their sexuality, God would come to resemble an estranged relative. But Taylor sees the situation differently. Rather than becoming stunted in their spiritual growth, he believes that oppressed or rejected people often become more "generous or gracious or understanding . . . because you realize that others are going through or have been through some of that." Taylor wouldn't profess that gay people are more spiritual, but he says that "dealing with those issues opens us up to relationship and connection to God, because sometimes we're forced to." One of the more important lessons Christianity has taught him is that "Everyone is made in the image of God, which means that there are no reject people, there are only holy and sacred people. Whether you know that you're holy or sacred is a journey that each of us is on."
As a sermonizer and administrator for the largest Episcopalian institution in Western Washington, has Taylor, after all his battling for the oppressed individual, "sold out" to the system? Not necessarily. Ironically, this soft-spoken man of God bears the same message as ACT UP, the controversial gay activist group who adopted "Silence = Death" as their slogan and even stormed a Sunday mass on one occasion. In a less hostile manner, and for less self-serving reasons, Taylor's making himself heard at the table to which everyone is invited and everyone has a place, including gays. Because, as he says, "If our voices aren't at the table the rest of the community is impoverished."