Editor: In the mid-1970s, I served overseas at the Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO), isolated duty that suited my personality: a warm sun, beautiful bay and a relatively non-threatening military zone as those things go. A minefield and armed guards along the fence line separated us from Castro’s domain. I spent 30 months there.
A few months into my first year on the island, I met the base admiral’s personal chef, Smitty, a steward and former submarine sailor with whom I found a great deal in common. He drove a 1970 Mustang, my all-time favorite year for this American muscle car. Young women were sparse on our part of the island, so I especially appreciated that his car turned their heads when we cruised the 45-square-mile base.
With little else to do in our spare time, he and I spent weekends in the clear Caribbean waters, exploring the coral shoreline, snorkeling, reading, napping in the sun, cooking out. In the evenings, we hung out with other sailors at the base clubs, occasionally staring down Marine jarheads who liked to trash-talk us squids. In the ‘70s, the GTMO Naval Station was used for spec-ops training, so we also shared the beaches and night spots with our finest warriors, always happy they were on our side. On Sundays, Smitty and I would usually show up at the chapel for a service. It was just part of a routine that helped us keep our heads straight in the isolation.
I’d known Smitty about six months before he came out to me, telling me he was gay, and happy to know I was straight as an arrow. He didn’t need any complication, and it was a nonissue for me. Smitty knew he could trust me. He was a career sailor who would have been discharged if his same-sex orientation was ever known publicly. This was before the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy for active duty military. Being gay was a guaranteed out.
I grew up in a period when same-sex orientation was only beginning to become part of our national conversation. I watched the transition as being gay or lesbian was increasingly less of a stigma, at least within the more informed communities who saw it as less of a moral issue and more of a human one. Of course, in some of the smaller towns, there was less tolerance for same-sex orientation, an angst that always seemed to be directed more at boys than girls. In my growing- up era, boys didn’t touch, at least not in an affectionate way. Tackling was cool. Girls were always touching, holding hands, locking arms, curling up together on sofas, having sleepovers, but not boys.
Religious groups and churches had the biggest problem with the same-sex issue, and I have never entirely understood why. I remember specific teachings from Sunday school against murder, adultery, idolatry, judging others, but still don’t recall other than vague references to men sleeping with men. I heard zero about women with women.
Religious communities in America have been mulling over and confused by same-sex orientation for a very long time. While some churches still judge it, others embrace gays and lesbians, not just for membership but for ordination to ministry. The reasons are numerous why mainstream churches in our postmodern world are increasingly choosing to humanize sexual orientation rather than moralize it.
From the American Psychology Association, sexual orientation exists along a continuum. Individuals on either far end of the scale, solely same-sex attracted or solely opposite-sex attracted, are exceptions. The majority of people fall somewhere in between, leaning one way or the other in widely varying points along the scale. This might startle those who are in any way homophobic but appears to be the state of us based on the latest clinical research.
Humans are intensely complex creatures identified along an array of dimensions like age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and more defining characteristics such as giftedness, creativity, values, beliefs, style, education, experience and accomplishments. Assessing a person on the basis of any single dimension is impossible, and ascribing human value based solely on sexuality is quite narrow-minded.
Humans are imperfect, and all we have by way of divine direction is passed through the hands of mortal, fallible human representatives. None of us has it all right. Throughout history, church theology has evolved, divided, redirected, emerging in ways that reflect cultural shifts, divergences in interpretation and belief, discoveries, advancement in knowledge and understanding. Human knowledge is always incomplete. We don’t know everything today, and neither did our ancestors.
When churches like the United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA) moved to embrace, even ordain, individuals with same-sex orientation, I know they considered critically all of these things and more. Individuals with active same-sex attraction are complicated beings as we all are and cannot be understood on that basis alone.
Oct. 11 was National Coming Out Day for the LGBT community. The day doesn’t mean anything to me, personally, but I understand those who view the day as an important one. My friend, Smitty, wherever he is, might have celebrated. Who knows? I haven’t seen him in a very long time. But I still think of him as an old friend who trusted me enough to come out of the closet for a moment so that I could know a little more about who he is, an intelligent, creatively funny, respectful human being who happened to be same-sex oriented.