June 20, 2018
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Lessons from Charlie Howard’s death

By Marvin M. Ellison, Special to the BDN

On the 25th anniversary of Charlie Howard’s murder, it’s important for the entire community to keep in mind that homophobia and heterosexism kill, and the victims are disproportionately our young people.

The death rate for lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender, or LBGT, youth is higher than the national average for their age cohort, including death by suicide because of the trauma these youth receive from the homo-hatred that is pandemic in schools, families and even faith communities.

The good news is that within every religious tradition there is a movement under way to re-examine traditional thinking about human sexuality, moral norms and social diversity. Among progressive Jews, Protestants Christians and the Unitarian Universalists, a “welcoming congregation” movement has developed in the last 20 years to promote the full inclusion and spiritual leadership of LBGT people and to bless same-sex unions and LBGT families.

In Maine, a statewide interfaith coalition, the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination, worked tirelessly to help pass the 2005 legislation that amended Maine’s Human Rights Act to include protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Similarly, the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry in Maine represents nearly 200 leaders from 15 different faith traditions that support civil marriage for same-sex couples.

One of the lessons in the aftermath of Charlie Howard’s murder is that the silence of well-intentioned, responsible people allows the hate and devaluing to go unchallenged. The three youth who killed Charlie Howard were not social rebels acting out against societal norms and values, but as the psychologists who interviewed the boys determined, these were social conformists who thought they would be rewarded for acting in conformity to this community’s norms. In fact, when the three boys returned to Bangor High School, they were cheered as heroes by their peers and some adults.

A second lesson is that we bear a responsibility for naming the problem rightly. The problem is misnamed as homosexuality or “those people.” Rather the social ill is homophobia (the devaluing of LBGT people and the disdain expressed toward this social group) and heterosexism, which grants unearned privileges for heterosexually identified persons and regards all others as not only different but defective in their humanity. Heterosexism is enforced ultimately by violence and threats of violence, and such violence is still a present danger in this and most other communities.

A third lesson is about shame and healing. Back in 1984, I remember the appalling absence of shame, by and large, in the Bangor community in the aftermath of Charlie Howard’s killing. Many people acted shamelessly, either giving no thought to Howard’s demise or else figuring that he was likely an “appropriate victim,” given the shame typically attached to being openly gay. The Rev. Rich Forcier and Bangor’s Unitarian congregation were the exception. They, along with a brave band of mostly women, held a public vigil, to mourn and protest this crime. Shame on Bangor, they rightly said.

Now years later, it’s a healthy sign that many more people register embarrassment, outrage and, yes, even shame that such an event happened in their city, their state and their country. For those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, we’ve learned the value of claiming the goodness of our lives and the healing power of pride. We’ve come to realize that we can honor Charlie Howard and others who have lost their lives by living our lives openly with self-respect and with determination to make the world safer for difference.

A final lesson is that the moral integrity of religious communities depends on our standing firmly on the side of justice and extending radical hospitality to LBGT and other marginalized people. Because religion has long been associated with anti-gay sentiment, people of faith in every tradition must critique and discard those religious teachings, including skewed biblical interpretations, that are oppressive and dehumanizing. We need to repent of anti-gay “preaching” not in order to be politically correct, but in order to be faithful. The Sacred Spirit whom I worship delights in a diverse creation and invites all to participate in a shared commonwealth on one, and only one, condition: that we also welcome all others, especially the “widows, orphans and strangers” in our midst, as our sisters and brothers.

Rather than toss Charlie Howard over the bridge in downtown Bangor, we should have embraced him as our own and thanked God for his flamboyant self.

Marvin M. Ellison teaches Christian ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary and co-convenes the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry in Maine.

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