Like many who follow this blog, I was excited to read about the success of folks in the Tennessee Conference, where an anti-bullying resolution was adopted that specifically included references to sexual orientation and gender identity. I suspect other conferences have done likewise this year (and maybe last year, too), and I applaud that good, important work.
I confess, though, that when I hear about bullying, I’m often confused to hear about it in such limited contexts. Bullying, especially as we hear about it in circles of LGBT activism, seems to be a phenomenon assumed to exist only in schools: hallways, playgrounds, locker rooms, classrooms. I don’t doubt the prevalence of such bullying, even though I was fortunate for most of my education to avoid it. I’m not sure if I just attended an especially friendly school, but I never noticed or experienced much bullying. I didn’t come out until college, but I’ve never been the epicenter of conventional masculinity. Even so, no one in middle or high school seemed to mind.
But I have experienced bullying, to be sure. Paradoxically, the cruelest things ever said or written about me have been uttered at General Conference and appear on the pages of the Book of Discipline. No one at my middle school ever suggested I should be stoned, but such a statement was reportedly made about LGBT people in conversations at General Conference. No high school classmate ever called me incompatible with Christian teaching, but the Discipline says I am. Thankfully, no one ever attacked me on a playground or in a locker room, but reading about General Conference was an act of violence on my body, mind, and spirit, and it left me in tears.
The bullying at General Conference that shamefully manages to be codified and sacralized in the pages of the Discipline enables and empowers bullies in local settings. In a conversation I had with an inexplicably popular lay speaker in Georgia, I shared my belief that anti-gay language in churches contributes to the suicides of LGBT people. He responded, “That’s sad and all, but we have to follow the Discipline.” Notice that he didn’t disagree with me, but instead flippantly subordinated human life to his unwavering allegiance to bigotry. A friend of mine recently told me that one United Methodist clergyperson in Georgia has preached against me by name, decrying me as a “radical blogger,” evidently for my occasional (and arguably prosaic) entries here. All of this is much more hurtful than even the worst experience I can call to mind from my primary and secondary education.
Let’s continue to be diligent about our response to bullying. It is central to the church’s call to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. But let us not forget that the church itself is often a site of violence and an active participant in the shadows of every schoolyard taunt. As we call for an end to bullying, let us begin internally.
Leland G. Spencer IV is a PhD student in the department of communication studies at the University of Georgia, where he researches religious rhetoric as it intersects with gender and sexuality. A 2007 graduate of Mount Union College, he served as a part-time local pastor at Mapleton United Methodist Church in the East Ohio Conference for two years, when he withdrew from the candidacy process because of The United Methodist Church's exclusive position about the ordination of LGBT persons.