In 1988, I was fresh out of college and working as a full-time volunteer for Catholic Charities in Nashville, Tennessee.
I was also a quietly celibate gay man who was living with fellow Christian volunteers.
By day, I helped illegal aliens apply for legal residency through Catholic Charities while my housemates worked with prisoners and the homeless.
When we weren’t working, my unpaid housemates and I spent evenings at home in low-income East Nashville, sitting in front of our portable black-and-white television watching “Facts of Life” and a new show called “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” We shared meals of low-budget jambalaya, chatted on weekends with acquaintances (on their dime, if possible) at the Vanderbilt University Fuddrucker’s, and explored various churches and neighborhoods around Nashville. As my one-year volunteer placement wound down in mid-1988, I sought religious sponsors who might help me work for Nashville CARES or for similar AIDS treatment and support organizations in other cities.
This was my gay lifestyle.
Across town, Exodus executive vice president Randy Thomas was, by his own new account, living a very different lifestyle: bar-hopping, using drugs, seemingly oblivious (then and now) to liberal Christian outreach to society’s outcasts.
In a heartbreaking moment of vulnerability, Randy remembers the day when he learned his former partner had died from AIDS:
In the middle of a grease pit fast food place at 3:15 a.m. on a Sunday morning, Gary was weeping as I literally melted down into tears and anguish. Ron, the only partner I thought I had truly loved up to that point, had died of AIDS.
Memories of him as a healthy vibrant man juxtaposed with what I had seen of the men that AIDS had taken before … I just couldn’t make any sense of it.
I literally don’t remember what happened next except in brief flashes of still pictures among the sounds of grieving. I remember Gary crying and helping me find a seat. I remember my friends looking in my eyes asking me if I was OK. I remember that the whole place got silent with shared mourning and empathy. The “party” crowd might not have all known Ron but they all knew what AIDS was and this usually boisterous crowd was eerily humbled.
Then, I remember the moment I realized that I was at high risk to have gotten the virus from Ron. The dawning horror of this revelation is especially traumatizing. It’s traumatizing to realize your death sentence might have been handed to you without you knowing. This realization mixed with the loss of Ron profoundly impacted my life; it still affects my heart deeply today.
At the time, Randy was an uncloseted drug addict living among supportive gay friends; I was a Mountain Dew addict living among Christian friends with whom I was closeted — even though these friends had made abundantly clear that they were gay-affirming.
Concerned about his sexual activity and drug use, gay acquaintances tried to straighten Randy out:
I’ll never forget one brave man living with the virus getting in my face and saying, “If you want to live you better quit acting like a slut! If some redneck doesn’t kill you AIDS will!” This man was HIV+ and dating one of my best friends at the time, who had also recently been diagnosed as HIV+.
Between Ron and this man’s exhortation, I know the value of the gay identified community holding itself accountable. Because of the self-imposed accountability within my gay community, I was not a “slut” for very long.
The love of friends gave them the ability to get in my face where the rantings of TV preachers fell on deaf ears. And the love of friends gave me the ability to hear them and take their counsel to heart.
Randy acknowledges that to this day, gay activists like Matt Foreman are holding gay people accountable for health issues.
Knowing Randy’s backstory can help critics of the ex-gay activist movement to better understand the self-perceptions of a leading ex-gay activist, to identify with his struggles, and to distinguish between his genuine past connections to gay life and the dubious claims of activists such as Stephen Bennett. (Bennett has no documented history of gay friends or activities — no confirmed experience from which to claim understanding of gay issues.)
Given the religious right’s contempt for sexual honesty and its rigid political correctness, Thomas should be applauded for his courage in sharing his early journey as a gay man.
As courageous as Randy has been, his backstory thus far only begins to explain that journey.
It does not explain Randy’s ideological journey: Why does Randy now project his present-day preoccupation with artificial ex-gay “identity” backward onto his past gay friends, who really were (and are) same-sex-attracted and not just artificially “gay identified.”
It does not yet explain Randy’s political journey: Why has Randy, since the late 1990s, joined in common cause with the very same political organizations that have — from the 1980s up to the present — used HIV/AIDS and stereotypes of gay life to seek criminalization of same-sex attraction, to deprive millions of same-sex-attracted people of their freedoms, and to force those millions back into closets where they would be unable to live long and healthy lives.
And it does not yet explain Randy’s social journey: Why has Randy squarely blamed parenting and a relative’s abuse for his own homosexuality; why Randy claims to have forgiven his parents and relatives while indicating ongoing alienation from some of them; why Randy transfers blame for his own condition to the parents and relatives of gay people whose orientation is predominantly biological, not environmental; why Randy experiences pronounced resentment toward most gay and gay-supportive people today; why Randy falsely accuses sexually honest people of holding a “gay centered worldview”; why Randy has for decades rejected the spiritual and moral redemption offered by liberal (freedom-loving) people of faith; and why Randy practices a web of doubletalk to avoid discussing his predominant present-day sexual attractions.
More than 20 years ago, I learned — first as a liberal pro-lifer, then as a study-abroad student in Latin America, then as a Jesuit Volunteer, and eventually at Sojourners magazine — that the religious right, consumed as it is by pride and power, cannot be trusted to demonstrate grace, charity, self-sacrifice, or inclusion toward women, social outcasts, and minority faiths. My own coming-out, which began in 1989, was driven in part by outrage at religious rightists’ false accusations about my modest lifestyle and by a refusal to be silenced any longer by conservative Christian peers who practiced false piety and sadistic false virtue.
Coming out was both an act of self-preservation and an emphatic rejection of religious elitism, conformism, and judgmentalism which, I had personally observed, fueled unhealthy behavior and obstructed spiritual and moral growth.
Randy Thomas followed a different — and, in my opinion, darker — path: He bought the lie that spiritual immortality through Jesus is achieved through religious elitism (the belief that one is among the few who are saved) and through discriminatory power politics which demand that others lose their freedoms so that one can conveniently enjoy freedom from temptation, freedom from unwanted religious and cultural influences… freedom from freedom itself.
Why Thomas chose that path remains to be explained.