I know a thing or two about denial. I am gay, very happily gay, but I spent seventeen years denying this reality. At age 17 I confessed to Pastor McAndrews, “I am struggling with homosexuality.” He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “In Christ you are a new creation!” I felt relieved. He then added, “Besides there is no such thing as a homosexual. All homosexuals are actually heterosexuals who are misbehaving.” I clung to his words. I was not gay. Sure I indulged in gay sex and my sexual fantasies were exclusively about men, but in my truest self, I wasn’t what I desired.
Over the next five years, in spite of the vast and ever growing evidence that I was indeed gay, I doubled-down on my denial, yet I repeatedly ran right back to gay sex and all male sexual fantasies. In an Uptown Manhattan store-front church, cluttered with books and gospel tracts, another minister, Pastor Willy, offered his theory as to why my spirit was willing but my flesh was super gay. “You are possessed by evil spirits of homosexuality.” He explained the demons must have entered me through a variety of possible doorways. “It might be a generational curse,” he suggested “An ancestor behaved badly, perhaps a great-great uncle who was a sailor. He may have had sex with men then picked up a demon. This demon got passed down through the bloodline.”
In my early 20s I began attending a weekly support group for men and women who wanted to “leave the homosexual lifestyle.” We gathered each Saturday night in Midtown Manhattan, first for a spaghetti dinner, then for an evening of Gospel singing, testimonies, and sermons. I left jazzed up for Jesus and heterosexuality, but the rest of the week I walked around the city feeling lusty for other men. I asked Joanne, the leader of the ex-gay group, for a private consultation, so she invited me up to her apartment.
Joanne believed the demons entered me directly. “You probably picked up these demons when you had sex with another man.” In other words, an STD—a sexually transmitted demon. This was in the mid-1980’s at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS Crisis when researchers and public health experts began warning the public that the virus spread through body fluids exchanged during sexual activity. As I sat on her bed in a New York high rise with the city laid out before me erect with skyscrapers, she explained the dangers of spiritual transmissions. “If you had oral sex, demons crawled down your throat. If you engaged in anal activity, well, then, that’s how they got in. They quickly take over.”
Jim Butcher in Turn Coat, a novel from his wizard fantasy series, The Dresden Files, writes, “The human mind isn't a terribly logical or consistent place. Most people, given the choice to face a hideous or terrifying truth or to conveniently avoid it, choose the convenience and peace of normality. That doesn't make them strong or weak people, or good or bad people. It just makes them people.”
After all those years of denial and self-destruction, accepting and embracing the reality of my sexuality was nothing short of heroic. I hauled myself out of a seething well of lies, sluiced myself off, and came out so gay some friends mistake it for a superpower. Having been duped for so long, my senses are sharpened and sensitive to other forms of deception that lead to denial. I have developed a finely tuned bullshit meter. In fact, it is far more accurate than my gaydar, which simply assumes most people are some shade of rainbow these days.
Maybe that is why I feel so empathic towards Mother Earth, and more specifically climate change. I see Climate Change as a major, much maligned, feared, and misunderstood character in the world today. I feel a queer kinship to climate change. The extreme effort certain people in power go towards stirring up doubt, distrust, and denial, seems terribly familiar. The methods and the goals are nearly identical to what church leaders attempted to do with anyone who was not heterosexual and gender normative. They covered up the evidence, created a false liberal conspiracy, and denied reality, all so they could resist change and keep society on the business as usual route.
Since 2014 I have been attempting conversations with people about climate change. I bump up against all kinds of denial. Of course there is the orchestrated denial machine funded by rich industrialists and the fossil fuel folks. For the past 10 years they have pumped out a steady stream of skepticism, first over the reality of climate change and then over its cause. They took a lot of people with them on that ride. Fortunately the effect is wearing off.. According to the 2009 landmark research by Yale Climate Communications, Americans can be placed into one of six categories:
The Alarmed (18%) are fully convinced of the reality and seriousness of climate change and are already taking individual, consumer, and political action to address it. The Concerned (33%) – the largest of the six Americas – are also convinced that global warming is happening and a serious problem, but have not yet engaged the issue personally. Three other Americas – the Cautious (19%), the Disengaged (12%) and the Doubtful (11%) – represent different stages of understanding and acceptance of the problem, and none are actively involved. The final America – the Dismissive (7%)– are very sure it is not happening and are actively involved as opponents of a national effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
As of December 2018 those numbers have shifted. Doubtful has dropped to 9% while Dismissive have gone from 7% to 9%. Disengaged are now only 5%. The biggest shift though has been with the Alarmed, which is now up to 29% while 30% of Americans are Concerned. That means 59% of Americans are Concerned or Alarmed while only 18% are Doubtful or Dismissive.
Denial can take many forms though. While some people may not deny the reality of climate change, they may be in denial about how serious the crisis is and what it means for us. They assume we can all just lower our carbon footprints, recycle, and buy the right eco-products, and we will eventually tackle climate change. Though well-meaning, these actions do not recognize the severity of the problem. As my husband, Glen, likes to say, “It’s like giving an aspirin to a cancer patient.” Large problems require large solutions.
Many religious leaders are in denial about the responsibility they have in pursuing solutions. They may pop up a solar panel on the church roof and get rid of styrofoam cups for coffee time, yet they renege on their call to provide pastoral care for their congregations and community. People are frightened, angry, overwhelmed, and hopeless. Ministers have tools and training to meet these needs.
Often religious leaders do not take the time to discern what role they can play during a time of climate change and how they can shepherd their congregation to discover their place in this rapidly changing world. Many religious leaders do not dig deep into their traditions to adapt liturgy and spiritual practices so that these are relevant and revelatory for believers in a time of climate change.
Another group of people feel it is hopeless to act, so they deny the possibility of any success. They understandably feel overwhelmed by the increased number and severity of extreme weather events. They are dispirited by political leaders who have turned dysfunction governance into an extreme sport. “Hope Deniers” may not be aware of the many people coming up with extraordinary responses to the growing crisis. They do not read about the many successes, innovations, and climate action figures who are gaining ground. “Hope Deniers” often get stuck looking at the effects of climate change and fail to see the many happy outcomes that will result when we pursue solutions. These include cleaner air in cities, which will radically decrease asthma in youth along with many other health benefits. I look forward to cities bursting with green spaces and filled with healthier people, clear skies, and less noise.
Denial though does not last forever. Eventually we face the truth, usually hopefully before it is too late. For nearly 20 years I believed being gay was both hideous and terrifying. I embraced all sorts of wacky theories about why I was gay and submitted to ridiculous and dangerous treatment plans. My ministers convinced me a vast left-wing conspiracy was hellbent on undermining my faith in Jesus as it shoved a secularist, humanistic pro-LGBTQ message down my throat.
One day though, I came to my senses. I was thirty-two years old lying in bed, just waking up, when suddenly my brain cleared. Denial could not outpace reality. As I wrote in my essay, Rotten Fruit, “For years I believed I pursued God and nurtured the fruit of the Spirit. But this was a different harvest, one of death. This was not the working of a holy God. It resembled more an ecological disaster of my soul.” I woke from a biblically induced coma.
After I emerged from the thick fog of fear and denial, I felt I had no choice but to speak my truth, expose the lies, and allow rainbow queerness to well up and ooze out of every pore in my body. While it might not seem terribly logical to some people, I have used comedy to bear witness to the tragedy of conversion therapy. In my one-person play, Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House, I exposed the silly yet powerful lies that held me hostage. As I consider the fear that gripped me and the falsehoods I told myself that kept in denial about my sexuality, I see parallels to the collective fear many of us feel about climate change and the actions needed to address it.
On March 4, 1933 in the midst of a dire economic disaster that kept millions of Americans out of work, hungry, hopeless, and terrified, Franklin D Roosevelt in his First Inaugural Address said the famous words, “There is nothing to fear by fear itself.” I only ever knew that one line, but recently I read the whole speech. Roosevelt’s exhortation to speak truth and to embrace determination is what I needed to hear and accept years ago; these words speak to me today as we face the biggest global challenge yet.
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.”
In that spirit of frankness I urge you to face your fears and open up your heart and mind to climate change. I am looking for 15 people to join me in making climate commitments. I ask you to do something meaningful. This is not the usual request to lower your personal carbon footprint. I want us to try something that may well have a larger, lasting impact.
Pray or meditate every day for a month about what your role is on this rapidly changing planet.
Educate yourself about how climate change specially affects something, someone, or somewhere you love. (example: pets, your favorite place, an elderly relative, running, coffee, etc.)
Commit to read two or three articles about climate change each week for the next three months.
The New York Times, Grist, and Extinction Rebellion produce informative and motivating newsletters. Artists and Climate Change features creative work by skilled artists who care about responding to climate change.
You can also listen to informative climate podcasts like No Place Like Home, America Adapts, or my own monthly show, Citizens Climate Radio. Yale Climate Connections offers 90 second shows that feature people engaged in effective solutions that touch on health, justice, resiliency, and faith.
As you learn, commit to share what you learn with friends, on social media, in your work, school, and place of worship.
If you already do most of the above, consider the next step in your climate action. Join a group and attend their meetings. Engage in volunteer lobbying to promote climate legislation. Organize a fund raiser for emergency shelters for people or pets.
We counter fear and denial by taking meaningful action.
Consider what you can and will do. For example, For the next three months, every week I will read one climate article and listen to one climate podcast. I will then share what I learn on Facebook. That is an achievable, measurable goal.
Take the next meaningful step. Please share your climate commitment in the comment section below.
(Thanks to Elizabeth Kamphausen and Shirley McMillan for their helpful feedback with this article.)