I was one of four people being interviewed on a radio program a few years ago.  The topic was homosexuality in our culture in general, and in the church specifically.  The panelists represented several different Protestant denominations.  Two panelists were lesbian; the other two were heterosexual who were affirming of gays and lesbians.  It was not a debate but rather an exploration of why the culture and churches had such difficulty being accepting of homosexuality.

We talked about some of the difficulties that our denominations had experienced in making policy and doctrinal decisions about homosexuality, as well as some legal and social difficulties for same-sex relationships.  I talked about the deep rift in my own denomination, Presbyterian.

Each of us had an opportunity to tell a little of how we arrived at our current stance on the topic.  I talked of growing up Southern Baptist in East Texas during a generation when homosexuality was rarely talked about.  If it was mentioned at all it was in pitying terms.  In high school and college, being called a “queer” was the consummate insult.  We never considered that anyone among us was actually gay, so making jokes about it was easy and impersonal.

The radio host then asked me, “What makes this personal for you?”

What did make this personal for me?  My views had changed considerably over the years from being someone who thought little of sexual orientation to someone who is an advocate.  How had that change come about?  I took a few seconds to formulate a careful rationale.  But then I realized there was nothing particularly rational about those changes.  It was not information, reason, or research that had changed my perspective.  The changes were more emotional and personal than rational. The change was relational.

“I got to know someone personally,” I responded to the host.  I followed with something like, “I grew to respect her as a professional and grew to love her as a person.  She is lesbian, and it would be unthinkable to consider that as anything negative about her.  In fact, that is a big part of what makes her the person I love and respect so much.”

There it was.  My change was the result of a relationship.  Of course, this realization was many years in the making.  One of my closest friends in college was gay.  I did not know it at the time, but he talked of his struggles and personal anguish later on.  Some of the people I worked with in therapy had come out as gay or lesbian during our work together, and I admired the courage and wisdom they showed in moving from scared and closeted to out, open, and at peace.  They struggled with the same life issues I struggle with, but they often had to do it in secret, without the support of friends, family, or their church.

But it was the day-to-day contact and communication with my colleague that sealed the deal for me.  The more I got to know and respect her as a colleague, the more she became my friend, and the more I realized that her sexual orientation was not a barrier; it was a vital part of what made her the person she was and what made our relationship meaningful.

As a culture, our turning point will have to be relational.  We will not cease to be a homophobic society through debates, research, rational arguments, or yelling.  Homophobia will be overcome when we, one by one, group by group, realize we know, respect, and love people who are homosexual, and that thinking of them only in terms of their sexual orientation diminishes us, not them.

Discrimination of any kind narrows the world of the one who is discriminating.  Every one of us knows someone who is gay or lesbian.  If you have more than a handful of acquaintances and coworkers, you know someone who is gay or lesbian or bisexual.  If you have much of an extended family, you know someone.  If you think you don’t know any homosexuals, that’s because those friends, coworkers, and family members that you already love and respect haven’t felt sufficiently safe to tell you.

Only when it gets personal and relational do we begin to change, to be more open.  Maybe not right away, and certainly not without some confusion, anger, and fear.  But at some point it’s important to realize that we make our own world smaller when we fail to honor the person who has a great deal to teach us by simply being who they are.