Monday 13 June 2011

Now I know how it feels ...(a bit)

This week I was told that I wasn’t eligible to volunteer for something because I wasn’t gay!

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?


  1. Benny,

    Hoping not to sound like an advert here, but have you considered volunteering with the Samaritans. I'm sure as a compassionate and non-judgmental individual you'd fit in well with the ethos of that organisation & they are always looking for volunteers. They do not discriminate on the grounds or race, creed, colour or sexuality of their volunteers - all that is required is that you don't preach, don't judge and are a good listener.

    It seems not a problem for Sams callers that we also do not divulge anything about ourselves to our callers - it's just the listening that does the trick. I can understand perhaps that a specifically gay help line might want to have only gay volunteers, but in my experience that's not necessary. If we have a gay caller, the treatment they get will be exactly the same if the volunteer is gay or if they are straight (and they will not disclose their own sexuality).

  2. Thanks Iain - I will think about that.

    I liked you comment on Lesley's blog, by the way - I thought it was deeply profound.

  3. Hi Benny,
    I'm really sorry for this rejection, especially as you are someone who has a God given heart for gay people and huge insight and experience in both rural issues (by the sound of it!) and sexuality.
    Having said that, it is good that you recognise that the group had their reasons for this "discrimination". It is true that sometimes "nobody else understands". I think this is also true in other cases, for example someone who has been sexually abused might benefit enormously from the services of a counsellor who had not been abused, but at some point they might feel the need to talk to someone else who had been through that particular experience. I think in the case of people who have had to live with shame, isolation and secrecy,(which is often true of abused people and of LGBT people) it is particularly important to speak to those who share the same experience - it feels "safer" and a huge relief to know others are out there as well.
    Sometimes part of serving others is to recognise that we cannot meet all their needs and that can be a part of love.
    Having said that, straight allies are so important and in fact essential to LGBT people, not just to further some cause but because the central message is that this is about ALL of us. That is a very healing thing. I strongly believe that ultimately there is no gay, or straight, or male or female, or black and white - just human beings! There is more that unites us than separates us, but sometimes, when people have been made to feel very "separate" for an entire lifetime, then it is important to be with those who have "been there".
    Anyhow, I know you know this! Just telling you really that you are fantastic!

  4. I wanted to press the "Like" button and award you five stars for this post, but your blog doesn't seem to offer such ways of applauding a well-written, succinct and honest post, so I'll just say "well done". I haven't read your blog before, but am now going to add a shortcut to it

    P.S. When the Church of England collapses, will that mean we can stop having to spend so much time raising funds to keep ancient buildings running?

  5. @ Suem: Thank you for such warm encouragement! I really am cool with the helpline though - honestly! What intrigued me was my initial reaction to being turned down. The parallel example which came to my mind was a helpline for victims of domestic violence. My mother-in-law set one up some years ago, and part of its success was the fact that all the volunteers were former victims.

    @emerpod: You are very generous and I am glad you enjoyed the post. I do know what you mean about ancient buildings - not my favourite 'good cause'.

  6. I was recently refused a parish post because I am gay and have a partner. I am a priest of many years standing and I can confirm what it is like to be rejected not because you are useless but because of your orientation, and more specifically because you are honest about that. Increasingly the church looks like the carpet seller.

  7. @Anonymous: No matter how many times I hear such things, the impact such stories have on me does not diminish.

    I am so sorry that our church has treated you in this way, and wish you and your partner every belssing despite the prejudice of the carpet-seller church.

    You might also be interested in a previous post from last year - 'The Sin of Honesty' - link below:

  8. Stephen Donald20 June 2011 at 20:07

    Hi Benny - very profound (as usual!) - more need to 'walk in another's shoes' to understand the impact of prejudice and intolerance, and thereby remove the plank in their own eyes. I'm gay, white, Christian and academic, working mostly among people who are none of these. Despite this they appreciate me as a person and respect the faith I represent as an ordained priest, simply because I do not judge others for what they are or are not.

    Further, the Anglican Church (and others) need to hear the message that "if we don't change, how long we will be in business?" I have long since given up needing the institional Church to survive for its own sake -(a very 'un-catholic' notion I guess) - but rather as a functional vehicle to enable / resource effective evangelism - and many in our diocese (Waiapu, ACNZAP) at all levels are beginning to see this too and equip our mission and ministry on the basis of 'needs' rather than 'ability to pay'.

    Keep up the good work - Stephen

  9. Thank you Stephen. I thought you article in the Diocesan News was also profound and to the point.

    God Bless you in your ministry - the church ceases to be the church when it only exists for its own sake.