While on vacation in Provincetown, Mass., during the summer of 2005, I had the opportunity to attend a film festival where I screened Camp Out for the first time. A documentary about the first-known camp of its kind - a Bible camp for youth who self-identify as both LGBT and Christian - the film spoke to me very deeply. Once a teenager growing up in the "Bible Belt" of southwest Virginia, where I struggled intensely to reconcile my sexual orientation in light of my Christian faith, I never could have dreamed that such a camp even existed.
Two years later, I was awarded a Ministry Fellowship from The Fund for Theological Education. The award allowed me to take the summer of 2007 to focus on my vocational aspirations. It was during that summer - between my first and second years of seminary - that I traveled to Minnesota to work as a staff counselor for The Naming Project. The Naming Project's summer camp was the subject of Camp Out; it was also the camp featured in last night's episode of Our America with Lisa Ling on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).
The summer I worked at The Naming Project’s camp for LGBT youth and their allies is among those I will cherish for the rest of my life. From praying together before meals to afternoons filled with "show tunes kickball," our time together was faithful and fabulous. The biggest chunk of our days looked like your typical summer camp: breakfast, Bible study, worship, lunch, craft time, recreation, dinner, roasting marshmallows over a campfire, lights out. The difference being that here is a camp that reminds all of its participants that they are children of God, loved unconditionally just as they are. Time is set aside each day for participants to share from their own journeys – the joys, the challenges, all of it.
Nearly four years later, I am still in touch with some of the youth who attended the camp back in 2007. In fact, as I write this blog post, three of them are posting comments on Facebook pictures I have of them - a sudden online 'reunion' of sorts, undoubtedly prompted by last night's show.
Out actress Meredith Baxter discusses her coming-out journey with Oprah Winfrey (episode aired March 2, 2011).
(Sidenote: To say that I'm a 'big fan' of Oprah Winfrey is putting it mildly. We met during a taping of her show in Chicago two weeks ago. This being a dream come true, I have a picture with Oprah that sits on my desk here at GLAAD. I'm also a huge fan of Lisa Ling. I've admired her since her days with Channel One, an 11-minute newscast that used to air in high schools throughout the country. If you ask me, Lisa's show, Our America, is one of, if not the best of all the new shows on OWN. Over the years, the work of both Oprah Winfrey and Lisa Ling has been a vital contribution in elevating the stories and lives of LGBT Americans.)
All of that said, I was really disappointed to see the promotions that ran on OWN in the week leading up to last night's episode of Our America. Don't get me wrong: I was elated for more Americans to learn about The Naming Project; I just wish that the context had been different than an episode titled: "Pray the Gay Away?"
It's deeply concerning to me that the question "[Can a person] pray the gay away?" is even being asked today. It's even more concerning to see it being presented as a debate by any reputable media institution. It's been nearly 40 years since the American Psychological Association (APA) concluded that being gay is not a "disorder" and is not in need of a "cure." In the years since, virtually every respected medical and psychological organization in America has forcefully stated that attempting to "pray the gay away" is capable of causing serious and long-lasting psychological damage: the American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association, American Counseling Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association of Social Workers. In a nutshell, the question posed by Tuesday night's episode of Our America is no longer a question; it's been answered repeatedly by experts and is no longer up for debate. Period. (For more information on the conclusions of these organizations, please click here for an excellent summary compiled by Wayne Besen of Truth Wins Out.)
Media outlets also have the responsibility to not use their airwaves in such a way that could potentially cause harm to someone. Many young people are sure to have been watching Our America last night and still others will do so as the episode is repeated on OWN. Young people are especially vulnerable to the messages they're exposed to in the media. As nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students report that they experience harassment in schools, imagine what it would be like for them to come home and see that a show - on the Oprah Winfrey Network - is suggesting that one just might be able to "pray the gay away."
Tuesday night's episode of Our America also should have noted that many Christian denominations (e.g., the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) ) embrace lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people just as they are, while many others are making great strides toward becoming fully inclusive of LGBT people. Theologically speaking, the episode should have underscored that a literal interpretation of scripture is but one of many kinds of interpretation. It's really important to acknowledge some of the others. For instance, most reputable biblical scholars will tell you that historical context must be considered when interpreting any sacred text.
Though all of these items also needed to be addressed in Tuesday night's episode of Our America, it would have been preferable for the episode to be reframed entirely, and certainly not as a question that's already been answered.
That said, GLAAD did consult with producers of both Our America and The Gayle King Show on both Tuesday night's episode of Our America and the post-show discussion that followed. We are very grateful to them for hearing our concerns and for the efforts that were made to underscore and elevate them in last night's post-show discussion. Among others, Gayle King & Lisa Ling welcomed Rashad Robinson, GLAAD's senior director of media programs. Other guests included Chelsea (one of the campers featured in Our America), Brad Lamm (author, educator and interventionist of "Dr. Oz" fame) and Rev. Jay Weisner (an ordained minister who also co-founded The Naming Project). It's also appreciated that both Gayle and Lisa were vocal during the post-show discussion of their support and love for the LGBT people in their lives.
GLAAD hopes that the Oprah Winfrey Network and other media outlets will continue to shine a light on the stories of others who identify as both gay and Christian; it's very important to do so as we work collectively to promote understanding, increase acceptance and advance equality.