It rather took me by surprise. I was indignant. I felt devalued, disqualified, and stunned! Without needing to know anything else about me, I was told that because I was straight, it ruled me out from being a volunteer!
More than that, I was being ruled out because of a survey of opinion amongst the users of the group I wanted to offer my services to. Can they do that, I wondered? Isn’t that what equalities legislation was meant to stop? Putting an end to considering someone’s sexuality as a criteria for deciding if they were suitable?Now I must stop there, because I have to say that having thought about it, I quite understand why this particular group has decided to only have gay volunteers. It is a confidential help line for gay farmers who were looking for volunteers, and thought ‘I could do that!’ As I live in deepest rural Dorset, and have several years’ experience of being a vicar to 4 local villages and their farmers, I felt that I might have some appropriate knowledge and skills to offer.
When I heard that all volunteers had to be ‘gay and out’, I asked why. The answer came back that people who had already benefited from the helpline felt that it was important that each volunteer should be able to truly identify with the issues the callers were facing. As a straight person, try as I might, I could not.So actually, I'm cool with that – but the experience of being turned down (in this tiny way) because of my sexuality was a very sobering experience, and made me reflect on the way in which the church does this time and time again to LGBT people. Lesley's recent blog 'What does it feel like to be bisexual and a Christian?' revealed in graphic honesty what it feels like to suffer such discrimination.
It is only when we experience discrimination at first hand that we truly begin to understand what it is like to be on the receiving end of it.I remember spending time with a black youth worker called Trevor in the West Midlands. He was (and is) a deeply impressive person – a former professional American Footballer and Rugby League Player, he was disciplined and committed, physically strong and athletic, and yet gentle and compassionate, always ready to listen.
On the way back from work one day we called at a carpet shop to get a quote for his flat, but the white shop manager clearly didn’t want to serve him. First he ignored him. Then he answered all of Trevor’s questions with one word answers, and when Trevor persevered, he finally gave an estimate that was 10 times more expensive than it should have been.I was incensed with the blatant racism of it all. I felt like steam was ready to blow from my ears. I wanted to challenge the shop keeper - and in a less than constructive way!
But Trevor took it all in his stride.When we left the shop, I asked him why he put up with it. He could have picked the guy up with one hand if he had chosen to – he could have intimidated him with one look – but he chose not to. The answer he gave has stuck with me.
He said that, “When you have grown up with that kind of thing, you learn how to deal with it. It becomes part of life - you can let it destroy you, or you can learn not to let it get to you.” But he also said, “With an attitude like that though, he won’t be in business for long.”Sure enough, before the year was up, the carpet shop had closed down.
I wonder if there is a parable and a warning for the Church in that?Time and time again we act with prejudice and discrimination towards gay people simply because they are gay. We make them feel like I did when I was told that I was disqualified because of my sexuality (but 1,000 times worse). All too often, we act like the shop manager, putting every barrier in the way to send the message "We don't want your sort here!"
So I wonder - if we don't change, how long we will be in business?