At our last meeting I discussed the Church and an array of social issues. I showed that we had exhibited two different patterns and one unique case. In one pattern early sectarian Adventism did not care how it was regarded by other groups, but was very focused on using all resources to get its message out. Consequently, urged strongly by Ellen White, it used women as well as men to pastor, evangelize, and in administrative posts, and when it evangelized African-Americans along the Mississippi River it created mixed-race congregations even though this provoked anger among other whites; and in Africa it did not follow the example of other churches by insisting that polygamous male converts send their excess wives away, but instead accepted whole polygamous families, only insisting that the men not add any additional wives afterwards. However, as we became less sectarian over time, and so more concerned with our reputation in society, and especially among the more conservative churches, we segregated our churches, stopped appointing women to the ministry, and changed our policy on polygamy to match that of the other churches in spite of the damage such changes caused.
Presentation at Asheville Adventist Forum, 25 February 2017
Click here for a PDF version: The Church and its LGBT Members
In the second pattern, Adventists accepted the judgment of most of society and the other churches of morally unacceptable behavior, as a sign that the end was near but as otherwise not their issue: they assumed that Adventists did not get pregnant out of marriage, abuse their spouses or children, or get divorced. When this assumption proved incorrect, they regarded the members concerned as a blotch on the reputation of the church that must be removed immediately, and disfellowshipped them.
Homosexuals fell into this category also: just as an unmarried pregnant member was seen as shaming the church, when a gay or lesbian was discovered among the members – and in those days discovery was usually the result of arrests following a police raid on a gay meeting place and the publication of the names of those arrested in the press – well, this was seen as very embarrassing, and so that person was purged ASAP.
Religious and Civil Context
Condemnation of homosexuality by Christian churches long fostered discrimination against homosexuals in many countries. This was reflected both in law, where criminal penalties were often harsh, extending to capital punishment in some parts, and in public opinion, where it was invoked to justify ridicule, physical violence, eviction from housing, and loss of employment. However, growing concern for justice and civil rights in the United States during the 1960s, beginning with discrimination against blacks and women, was extended at length to homosexuals. The new current fostered the emergence of the gay liberation movement in 1969. This quickly garnered support from key organizations: the American Bar Association issued a call for the decriminalization of homosexual behavior between consenting adults in 1973, and the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders the same year. The more liberal Protestant churches also responded: the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian-Universalist Churches, emphasizing that God loved all his children, voted to ordain openly gay and lesbian pastors, and other mainline churches began to debate such issues; some congregations declared that they welcomed gay members.
However, conservative religious groups quickly mounted several political crusades that tapped deep reservoirs of hatred and prejudice within society. For example, when, in 1977, Anita Bryant successfully took the lead in the campaign to reverse a civil rights ordinance that had helped protect homosexuals against discrimination in employment and housing in Dade County, Florida, her campaign spawned bumper stickers that urged people to “Kill a gay for Christ.”
In recent years the situation has changed dramatically: the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state statutes that had made homosexual sex illegal were unconstitutional; later it legalized same-sex marriage legal in all states. The previous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military was overthrown, making it OK to be openly gay, lesbian, or transgender. Gay and lesbian clergy and bishops are now common in several of the Mainline Protestant churches. However, the Religious Right, made up of fundamentalists, Mormons, and many Catholics and Evangelicals, is striving to undermine same-sex marriage, and congregations do not welcome people known to be homosexual.
Where does the Adventist Church fit into this evolving picture?
Emergence of Gay Issues
The Adventist Church largely ignored the topic of homosexuality until the early 1970s. The Adventists’ prophet, Ellen White, never referred to it directly in her vast published works or correspondence. Consequently, when I was a teen in the 1950s and at university in the 1960s, wrestling with my realization that I was different from most people in terms of the gender I was attracted to, it was never mentioned in church services or publications. But I sensed correctly that I could not go to a pastor for help, or even my parents.
Church leaders generally assumed that there were no homosexual Adventists. This assumption was wrong. However, most homosexual members were deeply closeted, living lonely lives. Their discomfort caused many to exit the Church, and those who were dis covered often faced rejection by their families and church, expulsion from church schools if they were students, loss of their jobs if they were church employed, and exposure to guilt, shame, and humiliation. For example, Vernon Hendershot, who was president of the Adventist Seminary when it was located at the General Conference complex in Washington, D.C., disappeared suddenly after being arrested during a police raid on a gay meeting place in 1952. Such experiences were repeated throughout the global Adventist Church. For example, a student at Avondale College, in Australia, in the 1970s, who confessed to being homosexual between his final examinations and graduation, was not allowed to graduate and was never awarded his degree. Our Church was concerned with protecting its purity and reputation rather than loving and supporting such members.
Although most “sins” committed by church employees could be forgiven, this was not true of sexual sin. Of these sins, homosexuality was considered the worst. In 1983, when Grady Smoot, the president of Andrews University was arrested after propositioning an undercover vice officer while in Washington for Annual Council at the GC, it was reported to me that several dispirited church leaders had exclaimed, “If only it had been with a woman!” Although the number of church members whose homosexuality was discovered so dramatically was relatively few, the proportion of gay and lesbian members who grew up in the Church was no doubt about average, and many others also joined as adults.
Many Adventist pastors, evangelists, and publications seized on the emergence of the gay liberation movement in 1969 as a sign of the end of the world. Although counsellors and pastors regularly advised homosexuals to pray for deliverance, and to date a woman and marry her in expectation that God would answer their prayers, two books on sex published during the 1970s recognized that change in orientation was unlikely and urged that divine strength be enlisted to resist temptations. Even though I was heavily involved in church during my university years as choir director, organist, and SS teacher, I spent those years in agony as I wrestled with my problem, dated women I liked but was not attracted to, and had fleeting sex with strangers that caused overwhelming guilt. I felt incredibly lonely, for I did not have a single gay friend. Fortunately I did not marry: I think it would have been a sin to have done so.
In 1973, two years after coming to New York from Australia, I took stock of my turbulent life. I had been praying that God would change my attractions for 15 years, but there had been no answer. I asked myself why so while in prayer, and suddenly realized that I was praying for something that God did not want to give me, for he was happy with the way he had made me. Wow! After that I gradually became willing to look for a gay man I wanted to date. But I so much wanted that to be an Adventist! In 1977, I was one of at least three Adventists who independently placed ads in the national gay paper that invited gay Adventists to write to us. I received about 50 replies – all from far away. But these ads helped to create networks among some gay Adventists, and this resulted in the formation of an organization ambitiously named Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International. By following networks and placing advertisements in gay and lesbian publications, Kinship expanded rapidly around North America. It became global soon after the creation of the net.
As time passed, church leaders felt pressure to respond to the needs of homosexual Adventists. In 1976 a series of articles in Insight proclaiming that victory over homosexuality through faith was possible drew a pile of letters from young people seeking help. The author was Colin Cook, a former pastor who had been fired when he was found to be gay. Distraught, he had sought spiritual healing for his unwelcome drives and had eventually married. He held himself up as proof of what he advocated, and responded to the interest by distributing 10 hours of tapes under the title Homosexuality and the Power to Change. In another contribution to Insight in 1980, he estimated that there were between ten and twenty thousand homosexuals within the Adventist Church in the United States alone, and chastised the Church for failing to foster ministries to help these members.
First Kinship Kampmeeting
The membership and leadership of SDA Kinship was initially concentrated in Southern California. However, towards the end of 1979 they were planning to hold a national “Kampmeeting” the next Summer, and invited me to a meeting in Los Angeles to help plan it. I found a group of gay men who were much like me: they were uncertain whether God accepted them, their guilt and self-hatred had made it difficult to form a relationship with another man even after marriages had failed, and this had resulted in promiscuity and loneliness. The church had no answers for us, for no Adventist biblical scholar had research our issue, and its rejection of us was based on proofreading a few isolated texts that had not been examined in historical context. Since we were closeted and anyone discovered was disfellowshipped, the Church leaders knew almost nothing about our lives, or how important our faith was often to us.
I suggested that we invite the best Adventist scholars we could find, and leading pastors also. I got the job of recruiting them, even though I knew no suitable candidates at that time. I recruited the heads of the OT, NT, and Theology Depts in the Seminary, the pastor of Sligo Church, and the only woman pastor in the Church at that time. I asked each of the Seminary profs to tell us whether God would accept gays and lesbians – all said that would be something new for them to explore, but they were eager to do it. They initially thought that they could slip away to the Kampmeeting without seeking permission, but when they discovered that three seminary profs were coming they realized that they needed permission. Jim Cox, the chair of the NT dept, contacted Neal Wilson, president of the GC, who responded sympathetically. He sent his special assistant to meet with Jim and me at La Guardia Airport in NYC. The Church had at last been forced to begin to address our issue.
During the negotiations, Duncan Eva, Wilson’s representative, said to me: “You have approached us; it is the responsibility of the church to reach out to you.” However, he insisted on two conditions: Kinship could not use the participation of clergy as an opportunity to claim in the press that the General Conference had accepted homosexuality; and Colin Cook, whose claim to be able to help homosexuals change their sexual orientations was attracting favorable attention among church leaders, should be added to the five invited. In return, the GC would pay the fares of all six. The scholars were expected to submit a written report afterwards.
About 40 gay and lesbian Adventists attended the KM in Arizona. The most emotional experience at the Kampmeeting was telling, and listening to, personal narratives, which were dubbed “the horror stories.” One person after another told of the isolation each had felt because almost all had been convinced he or she was the only gay Adventist in the world; of years of unavailing struggle and un-answered prayer for a miracle that would make them hetero sexual; of overwhelming guilt and self-rejection; of consequent difficulty in establishing relationships; of promiscuous patterns and more guilt; of rejection by their families and estrangement from their congregations. Since they had been taught that it was impossible to be both Christian and gay, but had found themselves gay, they had despaired because they assumed that they were eternally lost. Some told how deep depression had led to suicide attempts. Almost everyone had found no one within the Church to whom they could turn for help; those who had sought counseling there had met platitudes, such as, “It’s only a phase. Get married and everything will turn out all right.” But the stories of those who had married were especially poignant, with guilt and defeat within their marriage relationships and sorrow over ultimate estrangement from their children.
The biblical scholars concluded, as a result of their study in advance of the Kampmeeting, that the Bible was silent about persons with a homosexual orientation and that the little it said there was directed to heterosexuals having same-sex fun on the side. They argued that homosexuals, like heterosexuals, were called to faithfulness within a committed relationship and to chastity outside of such a relationship. The biblical proscriptions were also the same for homosexuals as for heterosexuals: sexual exploitation, promiscuity, rape, and temple prostitution. Wilson probably did not anticipate such an accepting response. The clergy were deeply moved by the personal stories they heard.
These scholars also drew up recommendations for the church leadership, which were forgotten when a letter campaign, orchestrated by an independent right-wing publication, queried whether the participation of GC-sponsored clergy in a homosexual “kampmeeting” indicated that the denomination had “accepted homosexuality.” The North American Division (NAD) Committee then voted that the Church could not condone practicing homosexuals, that it could not negotiate with organized groups who called themselves SDA gays and lesbians, or even engage in “diplomatic relations” with them, since church members would interpret this as “recognition and endorsement of a deviant philosophy and lifestyle.” Indeed, it voted to seek legal counsel “as to what appropriate action can be taken to prevent such groups from using the name of the church.”
A series of mailings that Kinship sent to college administrators, teachers, students, and pastors caused heartburn among many Adventists. The Adventist Review explained that Kinship was not associated with the Church in an editorial titled “The Church and the Homosexual.” Church administrators also set out to add a statement on homosexuality to the Church Manual. The new statement, which was voted at the 1985 General Conference Session, for the first time labeled these “practices” as unacceptable and a basis for discipline.
In a further effort to distance the Church from Kinship, the GC demanded in 1985 that we remove the name of the church from our name. We refused, for it was seeing that name when we marched in gay pride parades that brought Adventists on the sidewalks running to us for information. Our Adventist roots and identity were central to the reasons for our existence and ministry. But they interpreted our use of the denominational name as ”dragging it in the mud.” We waited nervously for the other shoe to fall, for the GC had taken out a trademark of the church’s name about 1981.
Colin Cook and the Quest Learning Center
Church leaders were much more comfortable with the approach of Colin Cook, a self-described “recovered homosexual,” who had founded the Quest Learning Center in late 1980. His program, which proclaimed “deliverance from homosexuality,” brought homosexuals together in Reading, Pennsylvania, for counseling and involvement in a support group called Homosexuals Anonymous (HA). Within a few months, the General Conference opted to fund Quest and provided more than half of its budget. The Adventist Church thus became the first de nomination to fund a “change ministry” for homosexuals.
Church periodicals provided the Quest-HA program with extensive publicity within Adventism, presenting it as the answer to homosexuality. Adventist pastors and counselors in Adventist schools began to recommend that anyone who came to them with a homosexual issue contact Quest. Ministry, the Church’s publication for ministers, featured a long interview with Cook in an issue distributed free to three hundred thousand clergy of other denominations. As Quest grew, it attracted a great deal of attention from both the press and TV and radio talk shows and drew endorsements from conservative clergy of other denominations. Adventist leaders basked in the favorable publicity.
The Adventist Church never conducted a study of the impact of the program on counselees, nor did it even require a written report before extending funding. It ignored Kinship’s informed questions and listened only to the glowing reports of Director Cook and to orchestrated testimonies from counselees who were still in the midst of their time at Quest. It failed to understand that the reported healings were claimed by faith rather than achieved in experience. Church leaders eagerly extended funding when Cook and his wife appeared hand-in-hand before the Annual Council of the church leaders: Cook became their representative “ex-gay.”
The denominational role in financing and publicizing the Quest program helped make church members more conscious of homosexual Adventists. Three articles published by Spectrum in the spring of 1982 had a similar effect. These reported in detail on the 1980 Kampmeeting, recounted ten of the personal stories shared there, and, in order to provide “balanced” cover age, provided Cook an opportunity to describe the Quest program. The arrest of the president of Andrews University in 1983 and of an associate pastor at the Takoma Park Church near the GC the following year, both on vice charges, brought further awareness. The leaders’ sense that they were under scrutiny made them more eager to proclaim the success of their program in changing sexual orientations and more careful to avoid appearing as if they were accepting of homosexuals.
When Cook conducted a weekend seminar at a NYC church in 1982 I attended it, and found his claims of healing unbelievable. I decided it was necessary to interview a sample of people who had been through his program as part of the study of global Adventism that I was then planning. I interviewed fourteen Quest participants, 1985 and 1986. I found that they were fragile, very conservative church members, with high levels of guilt and self-rejection: Quest, the church-endorsed program for “recovery,” was their only hope.
But Quest turned out to be a nightmare experience for them – one that they did not describe in their testimonies before church leaders. Suddenly, they had found that they were no longer the only homosexual Adventists in the world: isolation was re placed by community, a community under stress because its members were trying to change their orientation, and yet were often sexually attracted to one another. The immediate result was confusion, turmoil, and considerable sexual contact. Their confusion was greatly heightened when Cook, the director of the program, made re peated sexual advances to them. None of the interviewees reported that his sexual orientation had changed, nor did any of them know anyone who had changed. Indeed, eleven of the fourteen had come to accept their homosexuality.
I had thought Quest’s claims and testimonies of “healing from homosexuality” hard to believe, so I was not surprised to discover that the testimonies I had heard were not real. How ever, I was taken aback by the evidence that Cook had sexually used and abused almost every counselee. Realizing that I had a moral obligation to report such abuse, I wrote to GC president Wilson in October 1986, telling him what I had found. To try to ensure that he would not ignore my letter, I sent copies to twenty-nine other church leaders and academics. Cook admitted that my findings were correct and was re moved within a week. Church leaders decided shortly afterward to close the Quest counseling program, but to continue support for Homosexuals Anonymous chapters.
In 1989, an article by Cook appeared in the Evangelical publication Christianity Today trumpeting how he had “found freedom” from homosexuality. Cook was beginning to find new sources of support among Evangelicals and, ultimately, the Religious Right, which, because of its frequent at tacks on homosexuals, sorely needed a “solution” to showcase. In 1993, Cook moved to Denver, where he founded a new ministry, FaithQuest. This grew and became prominent thanks to close alliances with organizations such as James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. Cook also reappeared once again on national television on the Phil Donohue Show. He spoke frequently at Adventist churches in Denver and began to get invitations to speak at Adventist colleges. These opportunities in Adventist circles emerged because of the failure of the church press, which had earlier publicized Cook’s program, to inform Adventists of his fall. Consequently, young Adventists troubled by their homosexual desires continued to contact him for help.
My interest in Cook and his ministries was rekindled when two of his new counselees brought their new painful stories to my attention. They had discovered that the would-be healer was still a sexual predator, and had learned about my earlier role in unmasking him via the Adventist grapevine. Consequently, I set out to research Cook’s activities in Denver, and confirmed their stories about him. In an endeavor to prevent further abuse, I provided the results of my research to the religion re porter at the Denver Post, who then carried out a full investigation of her own, and published a front-page story. This then forced the Religious Right to back off. Faith Quest and Cook largely disappeared from view while the furor subsided. The Adventist Church announced that it was not connected to Cook’s seminars and counseling activities. Meanwhile, Cook was greatly hampered because his wife, who had separated from him earlier, then divorced him. Shortly afterward, he happened to ask a female researcher, whom he did not realize was a friend of mine, for help in finding a replacement, since he needed a wife to give his program legitimacy.
General Conference vs. SDA Kinship
In December 1987, the General Conference filed suit against Seventh-day Adventist Kin ship International, Inc., in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California for “breach of trademark.” Because the suit had to be shaped to address commercial law, it did not even mention that Kinship members are homosexual and Adventist: its case had to be shaped in terms of unfair commercial competition. Its brief consequently made the absurd claims that by using the name Seventh-day Adventist or its acronym as part of its name, competition from Kinship’s newsletter was undermining the Church’s publishing empire and that Adventists were likely to contribute heavily to Kinship, mistaking it for the Church’s official tithe/offering conduit. However, the accompanying press release, titled “Church Moves Against Homosexual Support Group,” made it clear that the General Conference was rejecting Adventist homosexuals and the ministry of Kinship. In addition to seeking to compel Kinship to change its name, the suit also demanded “exemplary, punitive, and treble” monetary damages.
This Goliath-versus-David suit was poorly timed from the Church’s point of view, for it coincided with the media’s belated discovery of the Quest scandal and the filing of a suit against the Church by abused counselees. Although the latter suit was in dependent of Kinship, the press drew all these issues together, which resulted in considerable negative publicity for the Church.
In filing this suit against an organization with fewer than one thousand members, church leaders expected an easy pushover. The General Conference hired two major law firms to present its case, at an admitted cost of more than $200,000. However, it failed to take the strength of the gay movement into account: the case was accepted by National Gay Rights Advocates, which arranged for Fullbright and Jaworski, a major legal firm, to defend Kinship on a pro bono basis. Depositions were taken in the fall of 1990, and the case was argued in the federal court in Los Angeles in February 1991. I was one of those deposed and one of two Kinship leaders called to give evidence in court. The legal proceedings traumatic for us: it was hard not to feel estranged from the church that was attacking us. The lawyer who deposed me was an Adventist, so I suggested we begin with prayer. He ignored the suggestion. However, in its verdict, which was announced in October, the court rejected the suit, thus allowing Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International Inc., to keep its full name.
In her opinion, Judge Mariana Pfaelzer pointed out that the term Seventh-day Adventist has a dual meaning, applying to the Church but also to adherents of the religion. She found that the SDA religion pre-existed the SDA Church, that the uncontested use of the name by schismatic groups such as the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement indicated that it does more than suggest membership in the mother church, and that, as used by Kinship, the name merely describes that organization in terms of what it is, an international organization of Seventh-day Adventists. Consequently, she found that “as used by SDA Kinship, the terms ‘Seventh-day Adventist,’ and its acronym ‘SDA’ are generic, and are not entitled to trademark protection.” Left with no good grounds on which to appeal the decision, and fearing a more devastating loss in the court of appeals, the General Conference chose not to appeal this result.
The fact that a group of gays and lesbians could continue to identify themselves as Seventh-day Adventists, and that nothing could be done about this, continued to irritate church leaders. The Church spurned Kinship’s overtures after the verdict, which suggested that enmities be forgotten and communication begin concerning such common problems as AIDS. The church press also persisted in referring to “Kinship International” rather than “Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International.”
Church Statements and Political Involvement
The General Conference followed up on the change to the 1985 Church Manual by issuing increasingly frequent statements that focused on gay-related issues starting in 1994. In that year President Robert Folkenberg was told that a GC staff member had been invited to speak at a Kampmeeting. Subsequently, he issued this statement:
HOMOSEXUAL GATHERINGS – SPEAKING INVITATIONS. In view of the fact that homosexual behavior is clearly contrary to biblical teachings, Church beliefs,… and in order to avoid the appearance of giving the sanction of the Church to such behavior, it was
VOTED, to request all General Conference personnel to decline invitations to speak to gatherings of homosexuals.
This showed that the administrators had not caught up with the interpretations of the so-called “hammer texts” by biblical scholars. Nevertheless, the person I had invited participated in the KM for the whole week.
In 1996, the General Conference Administrative Committee voted “An Affirmation of Marriage.” This reminded homosexual Adventists that their only acceptable option was celibacy. In 1999, as gay issues came increasingly to the fore in political debate and court cases, the Annual Council voted a new “Seventh-day Adventist Position Statement on Homosexuality” that was more sweeping and negative than the one added to the Church Manual in 1985.
As the new millennium dawned, Adventism became directly involved in the raging political debates. In February 2000, the President of the Pacific Union and his Religious Liberty specialist published articles in the union paper urging Californian members to support Proposition 22, which was designed to insure that California need not recognize gay marriages when and if they become legal in other states. Reinach, the Religious Liberty man, added, “We need not sit on the sidelines on this issue, assuring ourselves that Adventists avoid political issues.…We can assist in efforts to educate our neighbors, and to get the word out, as well as urging our own church members to vote.”
In May 2000, as Vermont was in the process of adopting legislation that recognized civil unions between same-sex couples, officials of the Atlantic Union and the North New England Conference raised their voices in opposition to it. Similarly, when courts in Canada began to move towards recognizing same-sex marriages, the Religious Liberty guy declared that “Adventists have a responsibility to make their voices heard on this issue.”
In April 2003, Reinach opposed legislation in California that would have required organizations supplying goods and services to the state to provide the same benefits to domestic partners as to married couples because it did not exempt Christian organizations. He launched a petition against the bill and requested that churches make announcements urging that members sign it. Adventists were allied with Mormons, Protestant Fundamentalists, many Pentecostals, conservative Catholics, and other elements of the Religious Right in their stance. Their opposition failed.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court had shocked such Adventist officials when, in Lawrence vs. Texas, it overturned a Texas sodomy statute on the grounds that it did not treat homosexual and heterosexual persons equally. When Canada added disparagement of “sexual orientation” to its list of hate crimes, the Adventist News Network reported that pastors there were afraid that their preaching against homosexuality could result in them falling afoul of the law.
After a decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized same-sex marriage there, Reinach attacked the ruling and suggested that Adventists support legislation designed to override that decision. Adventists committed to the long-held position of separation between church and state saw such statements as a remarkable change in the Church’s position.
Meanwhile, a number of cities had begun to perform same-sex marriages, attracting a great deal of attention from the media. These developments, together with the growing number of nations considering the legalization of same-sex unions, led the General Conference Administrative Committee in March 2004 to issue a “Seventh-day Adventist Response to Same-Sex Unions – A Reaffirmation of Christian Marriage.” This proved to be fairly mild: although it restated the Church’s narrow position on homosexuality, it said nothing about the wisdom of legalizing civil unions or domestic partnerships or aligning the Church with attempts to amend the U.S. Constitution.
The official positions announced by church leaders became narrower and more polarizing over time. Although they often declared that all people, including homosexuals, are children of God and that abuse, scorn, and derision aimed at them are unacceptable, the dominant tone was an insistence that gay and lesbian Adventists lead celibate lives.
In 2008, when the Mormon Church secretly funded Proposition 8, which temporarily ended same-sex marriage in California, Alan Reinach, the Religious Liberty person in the Pacific Union, was outspoken in his support of it. However, a web-based group was organized by Religion teachers at Loma Linda and La Sierra that put forward a petition opposing the measure. This created something of a stir, for it was something new and unexpected. Reinach scrambled to launch an opposing petition. The GC, under President Paulson, chose to stay out of the issue.
In 2010, Ted Wilson, the son of Neal Wilson, became President of the General Conference. Knowing that he would garner little support from the Developed World, he had used his travel in the Developing World during the previous year to attract support there by voicing opposition to the ordination of women and to accepting homosexual members. Once elected, it became clear that his opposition was to sexually active homosexuals, including any living in committed relationships. In its annual meeting at the end of 2015, the NAD voted that any LGBT Adventist could be a member and hold any church office including that of elder, provided that he/she was not sexually active. This thus followed Wilson’s guidelines, but apparently did not consider how intrusive the questioning could be to discover whether a couple living together was actually sexually active. The rule seems especially likely to impact Adventists living in committed relationships, while those remaining closeted and having promiscuous sex with passing strangers were much less likely to attract attention. It was likely, then, to encourage the kind of behavior foreign to biblical principles.
Adventist Ministries to Homosexuals
In 1995, Pacific Press published, My Son, Beloved Stranger, which recounted the story of a mother’s distress on realizing that her son was gay and the events that followed. The mother, Carrol Grady, was well-known in the Church, for she was married to a pastor and both had worked at the General Conference for years. Although she had published under a pseudonym, the book resulted in invitations for her to speak at Adventist meetings and to publish articles in church-related magazines. Her experience with her son had led her to realize that Adventist parents of gay or lesbian children had nowhere to turn for support. She started a newsletter, Someone to Talk To…, in 1996 and a support group by the same name for families and friends of Adventist gays and lesbians in 1999, and she launched a Web site in 2000.
A variety of “change ministries” promoting celibacy for gay Adventists emerged near the end of the millennium.
Surprisingly, it was during this period, when ministries with differing philosophies emerged to compete with it, that SDA Kinship more rapidly than previously, both in North America and internationally. That growth has expanded even more dramatically in the new century. Its total membership is now 2,944 in 61 countries; two-thirds of these are in North America. Kinship supports committed relationships among its members, and its meetings and activities provide opportunities for gay and lesbian Adventists to meet one another and pursue such relationships. It also nurtures, without judging, all gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and intersexed persons who approach it. Most members are Adventist or of Adventist background with most of its non-Advent ist members being partners of Adventists. Kinship’s spiritual message, which has often brought encouragement and healing to homosexuals who felt estranged from God and rejected by their church, is that God loves and accepts them the way they are.
The Adventist Press
The church press was largely silent about homosexuality until the 1990s, apart from the earlier articles by Colin Cook and those publicizing and then attempting to rehabilitate him, and the knee-jerk criticisms. However, it then became much more willing to publish articles that addressed homosexuality and related issues. In 1992, the youth magazine Insight published a major article, “Redeeming Our Sad Gay Situation: A Christian Response to the Question of Homosexuality,” authored by the editor, Christopher Blake. Blake admitted that the Church should have issued a public apology following the collapse of the Quest Learning Center and that it had not moved ahead with any other ap proach to help gay and lesbian church members. In many re spects, the article represented a real advance in understanding, especially in its sections titled “Nobody Chooses to Be Homosexual,” “‘Gay Bashing’ Is Never Acceptable, Espe cially for Christians,” “Many Fears about Homo-sexuality Are Irrational,” “Homosexuals Are Not by Nature Necessarily Promiscuous or Child Molesters,” “Changing One’s Homo sexual Orientation Is Difficult and Rare,” and “Homosexuals Can Be Genuine, Model Chris tians.” However, the article defined such model Christians as those who “battle against their orientation all their lives” because “homosexual activity is sinful” and cannot be condoned.
Insight has published many articles dealing with homosexuality in the years since that one. In general, these have not contravened the official church position.
In November 1996, Ministry published an issue that addressed the question “What do homosexuals need from a pastor?” All articles stayed within the officially recommended behavioral guidelines for homosexuals. The lead article stated that it was essential to recognize the difference between orientation and behavior and urged that pastors and churches “be both prophetically clear and genuinely compassionate.”
An article by a mother of a gay son writing under a pseudonym appeared in Women of Spirit in 2000. She told of traveling to meet her son’s partner for the first time and of finding herself eating with three gay guys and a lesbian, who unexpectedly asked her about her faith and church. Warming to her responses, one commented that he knew little about Christianity, but would like to learn more. He then asked, “Could I go to your church? Would they be like you?” She replied: “No, Jed, my church isn’t ready for you yet.”
As the issue of same-sex marriage became politically prominent in the United States, the tone of some articles in church publications became much more strident. In October 2003, for example, Roy Adams, published an editorial in the Adventist Review, “Marriage under Siege.” Adams referred to “the concerted push for full acceptance by a well-heeled, well-financed homosexual lobby, the media falling all over itself to push the agenda.” He listed the overturning of the Texas anti-sodomy law and the acceptance of same-sex marriage by the Netherlands and Belgium and its advance through the courts in Canada and Massachusetts, and posed the question, “What is to be our stance as a Church?”
Declaring that “the spiritual crisis of the last days” is here, that we are seeing “a brazen, deliberate, concerted attack on the three foundational pillars of the book of Genesis: Creation, Sabbath, and…marriage,” he asserted that in spite of the historic embrace of the separation of church and state by Adventists, “Silence is not an option. The stakes are too high… This is the time for faith communities to speak out.”
In 2004, an issue of Liberty set a similar tone. This was surprising, given the publication’s historic purpose to promote religious freedom and, in the United States, the separation of church and state.
In contrast, the publications of the liberal independent press concerning homosexuality are often very different from the official publications, reflecting increased polarization over this issue. The two prominent magazines serving the more liberal Adventists, Spectrum and Adventist Today, both became supportive of welcoming LGBT Adventists and treating them as brothers and sisters.
Adventist Schools and Colleges
By the mid-1990s, Adventist colleges had moved away from witch hunts focused on suspected gay students to policies of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In part, this was because they have gotten more accustomed to the presence of some openly gay students, but another ingredient is that they could no longer afford to lose tuition income. However, students found in compromising situations are still likely to face expulsion or perhaps some lesser form of discipline.
PUC was the first college to have a gay support group among students, in the late 1980s. This garnered help from the pastor of the campus church and several faculty. Walla Walla, what was then CUC, and La Sierra followed during the 1990s. All depended on the presence of students with the courage to act. The visibility and indeed the very existence of each group rose and fell as active students graduated and newcomers became involved.
During that period students who were openly gay on campus faced a lot of negative responses from other students. However, as homosexual issues became politically prominent in the new century and as courts made decisions recognizing same-sex marriage, other students became more supportive, and many saw these issues as the major human rights issues of this time. The result was the formation of gay-straight alliance organizations, which were now much larger and stable, on most Adventist campuses in the USA. These currently exist on eight campuses, though on none are they yet officially recognized. In 2012 the Intercollegiate Adventist GSA Coalition was formed, so that representatives from each campus meet annually, usually at Kinship’s Kampmeeting. The climate for LGBT students has improved greatly on most campuses, with support from faculty and often tacit support from administrators. A few administrators have tried to block the formation of groups on the remaining campuses, ostensibly to be in support of the denomination.
Loma Linda University, the site of the Adventist Medical School and other related programs, has long had a reputation of being especially inhospitable to gay and lesbian students. This was especially so during the long administration of President Lyn Behrens. In September 2000, she told a local newspaper during an interview that faculty were fired and students expelled if caught or suspected of breaking the university rules banning homosexual conduct. Student records were marked that the dismissal was because of immorality, and they were not given supporting letters or help in finding other schools. When this came to the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, it warned the LLU administration that such policies could violate a new state antidiscrimination law that went into effect in January 2001. When its letter of warning was ignored, the ACLU decided to focus attention on the university. It placed a follow-up article in the newspaper in February 2001 which caused a furor on campus because it coincided with LLU’s reaccreditation process. The administration felt vulnerable at this time because the university had earlier experienced problems with accreditation. When Ben Kemena, a former faculty member fired earlier because of his sexual orientation, showed members of the university administration a notice on the ACLU Web site that invited persons who had experienced discrimination and harassment at LLU to approach them, and informed them that more than twenty had already come forward and were willing to bring charges and testify, the university’s leadership agreed to protect homosexual faculty and students who did not practice homosexuality, and to help others, when found, to relocate to other schools.
Nevertheless, in an August 2002 article in the Adventist Review, the LLU vice president for diversity reported being asked about the university’s position on sexual orientation after making a presentation on health care and diversity at a national conference. His answer had been “Loma Linda has one standard applicable to both hetero- and homosexual persons: celibacy before marriage; monogamy within marriage.” In response to another question, he had added that Loma Linda does not knowingly hire practicing homosexuals or extend bene fits to their partners, but that there are no witch-hunts.
However, the current President, Richard Hart, has made Loma Linda University a much more welcoming environment for LGBT Adventists. He talks freely to such students, and in December 2016 the university sponsored a panel discussion on “Religion and the LGBT Community” that featured LGBT-friendly professors from the School of Religion, film-maker Daneen Akers, and an openly gay resident physician. He devoted his letter to the campus, Notes from the President, distributed on February 2, 2017, to relating to LGBT people. This passage was highlighted:
“It is critical that we understand, treat and support everyone we encounter, regardless of their hereditary, cultivated, assigned or self-assumed sexual identity. That is what we do as health professionals. It is what our code of conduct expects of us.”
“My own interactions suggest that most LGBT individuals are not trying to stand out, or fly a flag – they are longing to be accepted as part of the human race and community they find themselves in…Christ Himself spent his time on earth reaching out to individuals who were marginalized during his day… While the Bible doesn’t give us a specific story about Jesus relating to an LGBT person, individuals under this umbrella would certainly fit into His lexicon of those deserving His compassion and care. The question of causation asked of Him about the blind man – ‘Who sinned, this man or his parents?’ – seems very pertinent here. Christ’s answer – ‘Neither, but to glorify God’ – acknowledges his acceptance regardless of causation. … It seems to me that this is not a time for judgment, but rather a time for acceptance, a time for offering emotional support during a difficult journey.”
Congregations and Pastors
Given the negativity of the Adventist Church’s official statements, the diversity of voices within it, and the bitter de bates within society about civil rights for homosexuals, to what extent have Adventist congregations and pastors in the United States and Canada become caring and welcoming toward homosexuals? We saw earlier that what matters to the GC and the NAD is not whether a person’s sexual orientation is homosexual, but whether or not he/she is believed to be sexually active. Celibate homosexuals are eligible to be members and hold any office, even elder. This means that a couple in a committed relationship, who may have signified that through marriage now that that has become legal, are by definition not eligible. Just last week the SPECTRUM Blog reported an incident illustrating this. A married lesbian couple had been attending the Chico Church in Northern California: one was an Adventist, having been baptized long ago, the other was new to Adventism. Her experience in that church and with her spouse had led her to want to be baptized, and a supportive ordained retired woman professor of religion carried that out for her in the church. However, someone in the church must have reported this to a right-wing publication, which made a fuss about it, which in turn caused the church authorities to intervene. The implication of the story is that the retired pastor will be disciplined and the baptism annulled. There may well be, in that same church, a closeted gay man who satisfies his sexual needs with strangers. He may even be married heterosexually as additional cover. Since his practices are secret, he is a member and perhaps even an elder – until he is discovered. Thus, the official church policy turns Christian principles on their head!
In fact, there is considerable difference from one congregation to another. This was well illustrated by two interviews I completed back-to-back in Los Angeles. One of the questions on the interview schedule for pastors asked, “How many gay members do you have?” When I asked this of the pastor of a large Hispanic church, his first response was “none,” which he quickly changed to “maybe one.” He then told me of a member who had been disfellowshipped because of his homosexuality, and who had later been rebaptized because he claimed to have been “cured.” But because the members did not believe this claim, they shunned him when he attended church. The pastor did not speak to him either because, he said, this would have offended the lay leaders in the congregation. Following this interview, I made my way to a predominantly white church only a few miles away. When I asked the pastor there the same question, he told me that his youth leader, who was highly admired, was widely known to be gay and that he and his partner often sang duets in services.
Most Adventist churches follow an unwritten, unstable version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” This means that it is acceptable if a gay member is single and discreet, and especially if he or she has professional stature, for a commitment to celibacy is often assumed. It is frequently acceptable for a couple to attend together as “friends,” and lesbian couples have often been able to live together, and even follow one another from one city to another as they change jobs, without raising overt suspicion. However, if a gay member is open about a same-sex relationship, severe problems are likely to emerge. At this point, only a handful of congregations are known to be accepting of members known to be gay or lesbian. Other pastors at least want to see their congregation as a safe place for LGBT Adventists to worship free of harassment from the pulpit or from members. However, because these churches are so few, and the church hierarchy has adopted a rigid, antagonistic position, these pastors have to be careful. Sadly, such accepting situations are also fragile and uncertain, for a loving pastor can be replaced by a crusader, new antagonistic members may set out to “cleanse” the church, or the conference can suddenly intervene, and in each case the previously loving community may then become a poisonous environment.
One example of such a dramatic change occurred at San Francisco Central Church, where several gay members had found a spiritual home and also support in a ministry to reach out to members of the broader gay community. That ministry folded in 2004 when one leader died and his partner then moved away. This allowed two ultraconservative newcomers to the church to change the accepting dynamic, kill the outreach program, and intimidate the remaining gays and lesbians in the congregation. Another example occurred at the North Oshawa Church in Ontario, Canada, which had supported and integrated a gay couple. Later, however, the conference intervened and, in a vicious process, a new pastor was appointed and new, compliant lay leaders elected. Both the gay couple and the former leaders were made to feel so unwelcome that they started a new, independent, congregation.
A gay or lesbian Adventist can also be left without a spiritual home if he or she needs to move to another area. In the late 1980s, a Kinship member was nominated to be head elder of his church in suburban Philadelphia. Surprised by this development, he felt it necessary to inform his pastor that he was gay, and was assured that his sexual orientation would not disqualify him; when he added that his roommate was his partner, the pastor remained steadfast. Later, the gay elder bought a house on the opposite side of the metropolitan area, and began to attend a church nearby. However, when he gave the pastor there the same information, he was disfellowshipped. He was so hurt by the experience that he exited from Adventism.
Many Adventist pastors do not know how to minister to gay members. I have heard many complaints about derisive statements about homosexuals from the pulpit, and even in sensitive jokes at their expense, from pastors who are apparently oblivious to the fact that there may be closeted lesbians and gays sitting in the pews. Some pastors have also betrayed those who have confided in them.
The typical Adventist congregation creates opportunities for its heterosexual youth to bond, and there is excitement when one shows romantic interest in another. However, LGBT youth have no such opportunities, and if one brings a boy- or girlfriend he/she has met elsewhere, they are immediately suspect. So they are obliged to go to gay bars or to search on-line for a partner. This makes it much more difficult to create an “Adventist home.”
The evidence suggests that Adventist congregations and pastors usually offer their LGBTmembers conditional, rather than unconditional love. Because of this, the best way for a gay or lesbian member to survive there is to remain closeted – but this prevents strong bonds from developing because these members must try to hide who they really are. This forces them to turn instead to the gay community for genuine, caring friendships. The closet is an uncomfortable space in which to be confined. Given the negative situations that they must often endure, it is amazing how many gay Adventists remain committed to their congregations.
When the LGBT members of the San Francisco Central Church were made unwelcome, they withdrew and ultimately formed a new independent congregation. They were joined in this by some heterosexual allies. Two of these, Daneen Amers and Stephen Eyer, a married couple, were film-makers. Their experience persuaded them that they should make a film to help heterosexual Adventists understand and appreciate their LGBT brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. The result was the film Seventh-Gay Adventists, completed in 2012, which told the story of three gay and lesbian couples. This has now been viewed by many Adventists in several countries. A second film, Enough Room at the Table, was completed in 2016. They are now releasing a series of “at least ten” short films focusing on the stories of individual LGBT Adventists. There is no doubt that these films have been important to the recent advances of the LGBT community within Adventism.
Ted Wilson, the conservative President of the GC, saw the “danger” of the impact of these films on Adventist opinions. He embraced a group of four people (“Coming Out Ministries”) who claim that, with the help of God, they have achieved celibacy even while retaining same-sex attractions, and especially one of the group who claims to have changed orientation, has married and had children, and has become a lay pastor. These became the officially approved face of LGBT Adventists, and were called on to participate in a conference on homosexuality at Andrews University in 2009 and a major world conference, which Division Presidents and many GC officers and Department heads were expected to attend, in Capetown in 2015. No members of SDA Kinship were invited to participate in either conference. Meanwhile, the “changed” group were funded by wealthy Adventists to make a film named Journey Interrupted containing their own testimonies, and were encouraged and funded by church entities to show this and speak at academies and churches. For example, they did this for the Carolina Conference in January, 2017, where attendance by students of both academies at series of nightly meetings was compulsory, and students who were homosexual but still closeted were reported to have become suicidal.
The stories of the three older men reflect the experience of gay men several decades ago, which I mentioned earlier: they were closeted, promiscuous, and self-hating. I had a real problem with their presenting this as the typical gay experience in an era where many LGBT couples, especially Christian couples, now form monogamous, committed relationships and actually marry legally.
Homosexual Adventists around the World
Adventism has grown rapidly in recent years, especially in the developing world, result ing in a relative decline of the membership located in the United States and Canada, which now stands at only 6 percent of the total. The membership in most other parts of the developed world – Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and Japan – is quite small. Nevertheless, the Adventist Church is now a global church, with members in almost every country, and it is especially strong in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and parts of Asia and the South Pacific Islands.
SDA Kinship has grown rapidly since 2001. Currently one-third of its members (993 of 2,944) are in 59 countries outside North America. Europe and Australia have their own Kampmeetings. Countries with active clusters of members include Australia, New Zealand, Germany, England, the Netherlands, Brazil, Mexico, Columbia, the Philippines, South Africa, and Uganda. But many members are still isolated: twenty-six countries have only one each. The Internet, however, has greatly increased communication among members.
The situation of gay and lesbian Adventists in much of the developing world is grim. There are undoubtedly thousands who live in total isolation because they have never heard of Kinship or have no means of making contact with it. Many of those who have contacted Kinship have yet to meet another gay Adventist face-to-face. Moreover, they typically confront a church even more rejecting of homosexuals than in North America, and they often live in cultures that are hostile.
While traveling the world doing research on international Adventism, I not only asked pastors and administrators wherever I went how many homosexual members they had, I also tried to find opportunities to meet and interview gay members personally. One in Lima, Peru, explained that he had left the Church as a youth because he had realized that it had no room for homosexuals. Indeed, he was aware of many homosexuals who had been Adventists – all had exited the Church, either because it had disfellowshipped them or because they realized it had no place for them. One gay couple in Buenos Aires, Argentina, had grown up in one of the largest congregations there, but it had disfellowshipped the two after discovering their homosexuality. Still being Adventists at heart and wishing to worship God in an Adventist setting, they began to attend the headquarters church as visitors, not members. However, they were soon told explicitly that they were not welcome at services.
When I conducted interviews in Africa, I was almost always told that there were no homosexuals there. However, there is an LGBT in Uganda, led by a former pastor, which has over 100 members, 12 of whom have actually joined Kinship. About 20 of the group were Adventists and the rest have come from other communions, including about ten who were Muslims: they share the experience of being cast out by their religious groups. Several, who are of school age, were expelled from their schools and homes when their sexual orientation was discovered. When I asked a gay former pastor about the impact of growing up as Adventists on gay and lesbian Ugandans, he replied, “It is the most difficult thing you could ever think of – they tell you that you are already condemned, going to hell. No one tells you that God loves you.” All of them also face a situation where homosexuality is illegal and can result in long prison sentences. That is, they face harassment and ostracism from both church and state. The group was formed when another former Adventist pastor gathered them together into a nonsectarian worshiping community. The pastor, who was disfellowshipped after discovery of his homosexuality in about 2002, spoke to me with excitement about finding Kinship on the Internet. A young woman assists him, leading the lesbians in separate activities. The pastor believes that God has called him to minister to homosexuals, especially Adventist homosexuals, in Uganda. He says that many gay Adventists remain hidden in the Church, living miserable closeted lives. However, all discovered, or even suspected, have been disfellowshipped – often secretly. He mentioned that some gay Adventists have committed suicide after being discovered. LGBT lives there became even more difficult after legislation was enacted that established the penalty for homosexuality the death penalty. This was enacted at the instigation of the association of clergy in Kampala at a time when its leader was the president of the Adventist Union.
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was first diagnosed in 1981, and it was initially known as Gay-Related Immuno-deficiency Disorder (GRID) because it was first found among gay men in America. At the first Adventist conference that focused on the disease, sponsored in 1990 by the Adventist Review and Sligo Church in suburban Washington D.C., Fritz Guy challenged Adventists: “It would seem that responding to AIDS would be a natural for Adventism, because we claim that healing and caring are part of our mission, and because a sexually transmitted disease is immediately relevant to our understanding of the wholeness of man.”
In fact, however, church leaders were slow to recognize that AIDS impinged on Adventism. Since it was a gay disease, they saw it as God’s judgment on willful sinners and a sign that the end of the world was imminent. That is, they were repelled, and frozen in inaction, because of their own homophobia. While the disease raged and gay Adventists died, the General Conference broadened the Adventist definition of adultery to include homosexual behavior as a legitimate ground for divorce, and it sued SDA Kinship in an attempt to force it to change its name. When Message, the missionary magazine addressed to African-Americans, published a cluster of articles that dealt with AIDS, it omitted any reference to homosexuality and drug abuse, fearing that this could be interpreted as approval of such lifestyles.
Neither did the hospitals in Adventism’s large hospital system in the United States go out of their way to treat people with AIDS (PWAs). Indeed, Loma Linda University Medical Center became the object of special criticism following reports of neglect and demeaning behavior toward PWAs. The reasons given to explain this pattern included fear of infection, moral disgust with the patients, and the risk of financial problems attendant on providing care for patients who often lacked medical insurance, yet often required long stays in hospitals.
This pattern created a striking contrast with the role that Adventist hospitals played during the polio epidemic of the 1950s, when they had stood at the forefront. Indeed, their work among children who had contracted the disease so impressed the members of a prominent Ohio family that they donated a four-hundred-bed hospital, the Charles F. Kettering Memorial Hospital in suburban Dayton, to the Church. Although the Church regarded the children as innocents, it saw those infected with AIDS differently.
Adventism’s major response to the AIDS epidemic was to affirm its stance against “sexual immorality.” The epidemic never became a focus during all the hype about Adventism being “The Caring Church.” There was no systematic education of clergy or church members in North America, and little coverage of it in Adventist schools, in spite of studies showing that students there were engaging in at-risk behavior. Neither did the Church raise its voice in advocacy on behalf of PWAs. Most Adventist PWAs slipped away from their congregations without putting them to the test, and their families were shamed into silence. I interviewed several mothers of PWAs during the 1980s, and not one of them had told her pastor, her Sabbath School class members, or her church friends about the cloud that hung over her family.
A few church members became prominent AIDS activists. One was Eunice Diaz, who became active in 1981, almost as soon as the disease was identified, while working with the Los Angeles County Health Department. Later, while employed by the Adventist White Memorial Medical Center, which is located in the major barrio in Los Angeles, she tried to bring people together around AIDS. However, the hospital administration demanded that she drop the issue because the visibility she brought the hospital created a “negative image.” As a result, she resigned her position in 1988 and became a health care consultant for government and private agencies. Within months after she left the Adventist hospital, President George H. W. Bush appointed her to the National Commission on AIDS, which was commissioned to advise the president and Congress on all matters pertaining to HIV and AIDS. When church periodicals trumpeted this news, Diaz responded sadly: “With the minimal response of our church, I don’t go around waving a flag saying I’m a Seventh-day Adventist.” She explained, “The church has turned its back on the AIDS issue because it cannot come to grips with the issue of Homosexuality. The Leadership of the church is afraid of becoming identified with something it finds embarrassing.”
Another prominent Adventist activist was Harvey Elder, a physician and specialist in infectious diseases at the Veterans Hospital in Loma Linda, California. When he saw his first AIDS patient in January 1983, he realized he was strongly prejudiced against homosexuals and drug users. However, as he interacted with his patients and learned their stories, he realized that if Jesus were in his place he would reach out to such patients; Elder accepted this as his calling. By the mid-1980s, he could see that a frightful epidemic was spreading, and, after meeting with Eunice Diaz, the two set out to prod the Adventist Church to become involved. Both received appointments to the General Conference AIDS Committee when it was created in 1987, and they served on it for a decade. However, they became frustrated when its meetings did not result in actions. Elder responded by launching a lonely crusade aimed at persuading Adventism to embrace the disease and PWAs.
The AIDS Committee failed in its attempt to persuade church leaders to put AIDS on the program of the General Conference Session in 1995. However, its members were given twenty minutes to address the Annual Council of church leaders in 1996. Since many pastors interested in the disease found that speaking about it led people to suspect that either they or their children were gay, a result that created a caution that silenced others, the committee’s speakers urged the General Conference to acknowledge that AIDS was a major crisis. They also asked that the Church advise couples in areas with high rates of infection to be tested before marriage and to use condoms if one of them were found to be HIV-positive. They also urged that the Adventist seminaries teach about AIDS, if only because the students needed to be prepared to preach suitable sermons at the funerals of PWAs. In spite of considerable opposition to the use of condoms under any circumstance, the leaders voted in favor of all of the items. However, there was little attempt to implement the measures, which deeply disappointed the committee members.
It is still true that the Church in North America has never really made AIDS its concern. According to the committee, “We don’t have any idea of the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the North American Church. There is still so much shame and stigma that family members do not speak and those at risk do not attend church.” Although Adventist hospitals now treat PWAs – as those with any other disease – Elder is “not aware of any SDA hospital that has made AIDS a priority.” When the Health Department of the General Conference sponsored a conference on AIDS at Andrews University just before the General Conference Session in June 2005, only two of the one hundred attendees were from North America. A survey of the churches here, in an attempt to discover levels of interest in the topic, found that AIDS was not seen as a major problem when compared to other medical problems. Only about 20 percent of respondents expressed some interest, the majority from black congregations.
An AIDS epidemic broke out in Africa shortly after the disease was identified in the United States. It was transmitted there also by sexual contact, but this time it was primarily heterosexual. In 1990, I interviewed Bekele Heye, president of the Eastern African Division of the Adventist Church, where AIDS was rampant, and he told me that “AIDS is not an Adventist issue!”110 This was because he associated it with sexual promiscuity, and since the Church forbad that, he was not interested in the disease. The lack of interest no doubt contributed to the fact that I had found Adventist hospitals in his division cavalier about the risk of spreading the contagion through the use of untested blood supplies and through reusing needles when I visited in 1988–89. Heye also ignored the fact that thousands of new members were pouring into the Church there, and he could not speak to their sexual habits before their baptism. Indeed, I also stumbled onto considerable evidence of sexual promiscuity among church members and pastors during my three research-related visits to Africa. Heye’s attitude was therefore totally unrealistic.
As late as 1996, in an article titled “AIDS and the Church in Africa,” Saleem Farag, former long-term head of the Health Department in the East African Division, and Joel Musvosvi, ministerial secretary of the division, made no mention that Adventists had AIDS or that the disease had affected the Church. Neither was there acknowledgment that African Adventists were often highly promiscuous. Instead, the authors referred to U.S. data and recommended emphasis on morality and evangelism opportunities among PWAs.
The General Conference AIDS Committee had chosen to focus its efforts on education to prevent the spread of the disease in the developing world, and thus on promoting “moral behavior” there. This focus allowed church leaders once again to avoid dealing with homosexuals, for AIDS in these regions was found primarily among heterosexuals. However, with the evidence that an epidemic was galloping through Africa, it started to dawn on church leaders that AIDS was just another disease rather than God’s judgment on homosexuality. Nevertheless, the Church took a long time to realize that the infection rate among Adventists in Africa was high. In fact, General Conference president Robert Folkenberg did not realize that the Church was infected until Elder warned him that a significant number of pastors there were infected and Folkenberg himself saw firsthand during a subsequent visit to Africa that pastors and midlevel church administrators were dying. Alan Handysides, head of the Department of Health at the General Conference, gained the attention of administrators when he pointed out that the cost of medical care for one church employee with AIDS equalled the salaries of four or five pastors. It was not until the new century that church leaders in Africa acknowledged that multiple sex partners, incest, and rape are major problems within the church there. Independent studies show that the average number of sex partners that African Adventists have is only slightly lower than for people in the general population. Adventists discouragement of the use of condoms, primarily because of Saleen Farag’s views while health director in the East African Division and support he received from the General Conference, made the situation even more dangerous. Africans tend to see things in black-and-white terms, and ultraconservatives among them coined slogans such as “conduct not condoms.” This view started to change only recently. The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) helped, partly by introducing a new slogan, “Protection for People with an Unregenerate Heart.” Early in the new century, General Conference president Jan Paulsen endorsed the use of condoms at an AIDS Conference in Africa.
When I visited South Africa and Zimbabwe in 1999, I found churches in Swaziland that had only women and children members because their husbands were away working in the mines. Pastors there told me that the men returned once a year to see their wives and “give them AIDS,” which many had contracted as a result of active sexual lives while away. In Zimbabwe, I saw the results of a confidential survey among unmarried members of the largest Adventist congregation in Bulawayo, where more than 80 percent of the males and 75 percent of the females admitted to being sexually active. I was dismayed to learn that the promise of confidentiality had been broken for respondents who had admitted to having had a homosexual experience.
Handysides became head of the Health Department at the General Conference in 1998. By the following year, he realized that AIDS was an enormous problem for the Church because of the large number of members in Africa, where the epidemic was worst. He pushed to have an AIDS office established in Africa and headquartered in Johannesburg. Since then, the office has worked to persuade Adventist universities in Africa to teach a course on AIDS in their ministerial training programs as both a warning and a call to minister to PWAs, to make every Adventist Church an AIDS support center where PWAs can sew and bake goods for sale, and to help reduce transmission of AIDS from mother to child through testing and treating. However, the director’s shoestring budget severely hampers his efforts.
Elder’s crusade took him to Africa many times after 1989, and he has endeavored to raise the consciousness of the Church there about the epidemic. In 1991, he designed an AIDS course currently being taught in four of the African Adventist universities, because he felt that too little was being said to the Church youth. “I fervently hope that [the course] changes the attitude about the infected, and helps the students realize what are dangerous behaviors,” he told me. “When it comes to protection, being an Adventist does not work nearly as well as a condom!” Handysides concurred: he explained that HIV/AIDS challenges some beliefs that Adventists have about their purity, such as the assumption that they will not be infected by such an epidemic.
An Adventist AIDS conference in Harare in 2003 represented a turning point, at least in acknowledging that Adventism had been slow to respond to the epidemic, that many Adventists were infected, and that those who had contracted the disease frequently faced stigmatization in their churches. Pardon Mwansa, then president of the division, bravely acknowledged that a member of his family was infected with AIDS. He insisted that Adventists acknowledge the disease as their problem. Elder had demanded that the conference schedule a separate meeting for union presidents and health educators, and that these meet with Adventist PWAs. As a result of Elder’s urging, presidents who attended the meeting confessed to the PWAs that they had sinned against them by lying to them about God and about them to their members.
The Adventist Church is learning to respond to heterosexual Africans who transmit AIDS through multiple partnering as it has come to realize the extent to which Adventists are infected. However, it continues to do next to nothing about the disease in the United States because it started as a gay disease there – and it continues to reject both gay Adventists who put themselves at risk of contracting AIDS and those who live in committed relationships as equally promiscuous because the sex of both groups is not within heterosexual marriage.
To what extent does its one-time slogan, “The Caring Church,” describe Adventism? As measured here, the Adventist Church fails the test because it has proven itself more concerned with rules and image than with the needs of its people.
Despite the failure of the “change” program it supported and the sexual exploitation of young, fragile counselees by its director, church leaders helped restore him to a place where he could resume his activities, and it continued to insist that only homosexuals who struggle to change their orientation will be accepted. The prejudice of these leaders led them to sue SDA Kinship in order to distance them-selves from gay Adventists, and it prevented them from seeing the relevance of the AIDS epidemic for Adventism, especially in places that initially considered it a “gay disease.” In recent years some church entities and members have become more aware of the presence of LGBT people in the church and its families. But a profound distaste for and fear of them also exist, and these have fostered growing polarization over the issue.
It is no surprise that context strongly influences and shapes churches, like any other human collectivity. It is disappointing, however, that the Adventist Church has so largely succumbed to the example of the American Religious Right. Adventists have taken a strong position against majoritarian rule in religious matters ever since their founding mother prophesied that they would face persecution, especially in the United States, and at tempts at legislation during the 1880s that would have made Sunday sacred by law seemed to indicate that the fulfillment of that prediction was at hand. The logic of the long-held position should surely be that government may not refuse equal status and protection to any group. However, although Adventists have come to support equal civil rights in the areas of race and gender, they generally continue to withhold support for such rights in relation to sexual orientation. Indeed, they have followed the Religious Right’s attempts to take away recent gains.
There have been some positive shifts, however, at the local level, where individual cases are most often addressed. These shifts seem isolated and incremental because of diverse situations. Nevertheless, in the years since the first Kinship Kampmeeting, a remarkable change has occurred in the tone of stories that newcomers tell about growing up gay in the Adventist Church. Their early designation, “horror stories,” is rarely apt today in North America or much of the rest of the developed world, even though the stories often still reflect pain, confusion, isolation, and rejection. A number of factors have made a remarkable impact: the very existence of SDA Kinship; the fact that LGBT Adventists currently find Kinship more easily and at a younger age; the ready availability of information on the Web; and changing attitudes in society and church, especially among Adventist parents. This is not yet the case in the developing world, where both church and society still typically reject gays and lesbians and where “horror stories” still abound.
Kinship continues to make an extraordinary contribution in the name of the Church, sometimes to the latter’s chagrin. Kinship is reaching out with increasing effectiveness to young Adventists who have questions about their sexuality; no longer does it need to send mailings to Adventist campuses because most young homosexuals find it easily on the Web. It nurtures gay Adventists spiritually, encourages them to think through the ethics of being a gay Christian, and fosters stable relationships among them. Its members have proved, even during the long ordeal of the suit that the General Conference brought against Kinship, astonishingly tenacious with their Adventist heritage.
Yet the main message of Adventism to its gay and lesbian members – a slogan that appears in some form in almost all official statements that bear on homosexuality, and is repeated again and again in publications and sermons – is that Adventists “love the sinner, but hate the sin.” This attitude, in fact, judges the faith and lives of the people whose sin is “hated,” and may best be translated as “we will truly love you only when and if you meet our standards.” It thus offers conditional rather than unconditional love. This is neither welcoming nor caring.