That is a popular phrase taught to kids intended to sum up the danger associated with adults they do not know. Parents, teachers, counselors, pastors, will train kids to react immediately on high alert at the presence of a stranger. They train them to be suspicious, defensive, and to run away as soon as possible when they see someone they don’t know who is trying to approach them. It is a powerful tool to protect them.
Reality is that this lesson delves into an evolutionary instinct—‘fear the unknown.’ Why are many of us afraid of the dark, of death, of deep places? Because they are strange, they are unknown—we don’t know what it’s in there. Something dangerous may be deep in the woods, inside the cave, down in the ocean—something hairy, multi-legged, odd-colored—I should stay away. A strange creature, that looks weird, that I don’t understand, may try to bite me, to eat me. I should run away, or try to step on it, kill it, to protect my offspring, my pack.
Instincts so deep rooted are hard to overcome. We react often without thinking.
When I began to come out as an atheist to my Christian community, I saw a particular pattern in their faces. They were seeing something unknown, something weird. Many of them based their instinctual desire to cast me away on scriptures well known to them, “Stay away from people who are not followers of the Lord! Can someone who is good get along with someone who is evil? Are light and darkness the same?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). According to scripture, I was not only to be set aside, but was labeled “evil,” “darkness,” because why else would I turn away from The Lord, if not because I wanted to live a life of filthy sin and commit crimes? Stranger Danger kicked in, and they kicked me out of their lives.
When some members of the Mormon (LDS) faith disapproved of my lifestyle as an atheist, and as gay, their instinct cried deep from within. LDS teachings talk about the ‘Son of Perdition’ as someone who will not partake in the glory of God in the afterlife. A quick look at their website (www.lds.org) gives them a how-to manual on treating such creatures like me: impossible to renew again, have no mercy, no redemption, no forgiveness, shall be brought to an open shame, since we are followers of Satan. Utah law (as for other 7 states) prohibits “the advocacy of homosexuality,” meaning you are not even allowed to speak positively of being gay. Combine this with LDS doctrine, and you have a church and state wide sponsored Stranger Danger program against the non-religious and members of the LGBT community. They must be stepped on. They must be destroyed. And they tried really hard. I am lucky to still be here.
Just a few days ago, a young man whom I adored from the days we served together in the mission field in Mexico told me “…now you want to be openly gay. As if turning your back on God wasn’t enough…?” Just days before that we had exchanged loving messages of support. As soon as he heard of my coming out, Stranger Danger kicked in, and now I am to be feared, hated, stepped on.
The Houston Equal Right Ordinance (HERO) was just struck down on November 3rd. The measure was meant to ban discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. But opponents reacted with Stranger Danger and saw the weirdest, most perverted possibility for something they didn’t understand, for something strange to them—all they could think of was eerie feminine men, red in the eyes, creeping in the shadows out to hunt their offspring.
So most of the early feedback I’ve had since coming out would say that in fact, no, a Christian cannot be friends with a gaytheist. The evolutionary instinct, validated by particular scriptures, to fear and destroy the weird, different creatures that could harm our pack and eat our offspring, must be set aside and stepped on.
But as I dig deeper, I see that some are willing to see beyond the “weirdness,” beyond the differences.
When I was struggling with questions of faith and reason, my friend Tammy entertained my thoughts, if anything to allow for apologetic conversation. When I was holding on to the rail of the balcony in the seventh floor of a Hawaii hotel, troubled by my doubts, she is the one I called, and the one who eventually helped me walk away from it as I brought balance back to my troubled heart. When I finally told her that I no longer considered myself a “Christian,” she had tears in her eyes because she wholeheartedly believed I was in danger of missing out on the greatest promise of all—a place in heaven. But she affirmed again she loved me, and that she would remain part of my community. When I moved to Utah, she was the first one to come visit me and share in my new life in Mormon-country. When I came out to her as gay, she jumped in her seat in shock, and half a second later she reaffirmed her love and heard my story. When my birthday came, she spent the entire time with me on the dance floor of West Hollywood’s best gay club and got a kick out of watching some of the boys hit on me. So when her birthday came around and found her with a broken heart, I dropped everything and drove to San Diego to meet her, to love her, and spoil her as best as I could. Why? Girl, you must be kidding for asking that question. Humanity took a front seat, and did what it does best. And I will love that girl for as long as I live. I have a feeling she will do the same.
Religion has trained many to believe that homosexuals are perverts and child predators; that atheists are corrupt and members of the anti-christ’s army. They are different. They are weird. They validate innate instincts of apprehension with selective scriptures that corroborate their preexisting bias. They degrade them, us, to below-human status. How low? Low enough to be stepped on like cockroaches. How nasty? Nasty enough to pain us like a tarantula creeping in the shadows out to find the most innocent victim and poison them with our very existence. And many times they succeed.
But there are many who believe that the cure to a paranoid Stranger Danger is simply to reach across the aisle and introduce ourselves. If we are not strangers, maybe there is no danger. Maybe there is something beautiful behind the forest wall, inside the mysterious cave, below the ocean surface. Humanity can do what it does best—and the answer could be to love, or to hate—to create or to destroy. We got the option in our hands, religion or not, what’s it gonna be, can we be friends, or will we continue this unholy war?