40 Years in the Closet  

40 Years in the Closet
After 40 years as Pastor, husband and Bible researcher, Professor Tom Hanks (USA/Brazil), and 40 years in the closet, decided to Come out. Colin de la Motte-Sherman spoke to him about his life before and after this important event.

C.M-S: Can you also introduce please yourself?
Tom H.: My name is Tom Hanks - like the well-known movie star. As I usually say - he is probably the better actor, but I was at it longer, forty years "in the closet" - and that was long enough.

C.M-S: The Information papers you gave me name you as General Director of "Other Sheep" ... What is that?
Tom H.: Our original name is Multicultural Ministries for Sexual Minorities, It's a rather new organisation, about three years old. I think we are one of the moist recent organisations - one of the few that we now work on all six continents. We concentrate on Latin America.
Our Latin America co-ordinator John Donor, and his partner Pepe from Mexico, visited every country in Latin America by bus last year. They went on a six-month trip and for about ten thousands dollars - living ass cheaply as possible. The result is we now have about 25 documentation centres - at least one in every country - except the three Guyanas, where it wasn't accessible by bus. We have seven in Brazil. These are in universities or seminaries that needed to have their HOLDINGS on sexual minorities up-dated. Others are like an isolated individual ....very cautious as an individual getting literature around. Most recently we are concentrating on these documentation centres because we think that in Latin America especially, when there is good up-to-date information and literature about sexual minorities, the local leadership surfaces. We are everywhere - in universities and business and so forth, but many of them have not had any literature. This way up-dates them. They may be in a country where the psychologists are still telling them they are sick and the cure is psychoanalysis, or the Pentecostal Churches which are telling them that they are sinful, that they can be exorcised, and have the demons driven out. In these situations where we get the literature to the documentation centres and it gets known we see leadership surfacing ... and that's been our basic effort for the last three years.
Before that I worked for three years with the Metropolitan Church, although I am still a Presbyterian clergyman - and before that I was in the closet for forty years.

C.M-S.: More concretely, what are you trying to do with these documentation centres? Can you give us an example?
Tom H.: Well since I am a theologian I concentrate especially on the religious problem. At the ILGA conference this year I was a co-ordinator for a day-long pre-conference on religion. ideology, and homophobia. Then we had a plenary meeting all afternoon, and we had more attendance at that than some of the ILGA plenary sessions. So I am concentrating, with my theological expertise, - I have been life-long a bible professor, trying to help gay and lesbian groups and those that are sympathetic, to counter-act the vicious campaign that is coming from more traditional churches, both protestant and catholic - and thus to open up that area. But we are also a member of the ILGA, and work in the human rights area. I've been an educator all my life, a professor in a seminary, writer and theologian, I am promoting gay and lesbian studies whenever, and however possible. For instance at the University of Buenos Aires we now have the first project for homosexual studies in the history of the University. That has come about largely through a library and a university scientist who is working with me in Buenos Aires.
We also help in pastoral way, - especially clergy who are coming out of the closet, and who find they are going to be fired and lose their work. We try to help them get located where the can have a time to find themselves and
We are not doing as much on AIDS as some organisations, but we try to make sure that the most recent literature on safer-sex is available in each of our documentation centres. So that people can be put in contact with agencies that specialise in AIDS. We work in that area, but more as a network, spreading safer-sex information.

C.M-S: The role has been a very dubious one over the last two thousand years ... in connection with homosexuality and minorities in general. How would you argue that it is now the time for a change?
Tom H.: I think if we look at the church - like any institution today, if you look at a lot of secular institutions, like the Communist Party, until recent years, - you have elements that are very supportive of sexual minorities, and other elements that are very opposed. Although it is true in the countries where the church was dominant there has been a lot of homophobia, persecution, and promotion of violence, - here in Germany, the safe space for sexual minorities in East Germany, were the churches, in the years of the cold war. That's because the churches were not the dominant force. Where human beings are in a position to dominate others they tend to become oppressive. So the church has played a better role where it has not been in a powerful position. When it has felt itself as a minority group and persecuted, then it has tended to link up much more effectively with minority groups.
In Latin America, we have now seen this revolution in the last thirty years - of the liberation theology - since 1968 especially. That's transforming churches in many areas. Usually the church leaders - a the top - are the last to go along with that - the Pope may be the last convert to liberation theology (laughs).
But at the grass roots level we find that a number of our most effective leaders are catholic and protestant lay people who do not go along with their leaders. I am a Presbyterian clergyman, and we have what are called more "light" Presbyterian churches, In the United States out of ten thousands Presbyterian Churches only 50 have taken a definite pro-gay stand, so that it a very small proportion. But they have a lot of influence on other churches that become sympathetic without really making a big controversy about it. In my time with the ILGA in Rio I uncovered the first Presbyterian "more light" church in Latin America. There is a church in Rio that for some ten years has been a "more light" church. Very pro-gay, the Pastor has written books in this area. So as in most ideological and political questions you have to find your political allies, and network with them. I think for those that are not in the churches or religious groups, it is a big mistake to overlook the allied that are there. In the USA where there has been some very bitter political campaigns in recent years. :::: Redwing of Oregon, who was one of the leaders helping the struggle for gay rights there, she said - she was not a Christian - she said her most effective ally - were the sympathetic members in the Christian church, and if that hadn't got those people networked in and speaking out, it would have been very easy to lose a very close vote.
I think it is politically a great error when gay groups come across as anti-religious, I am against the homophobia, but also recognise for a lot of people this is their family. Institutional ?? are in many cases are going to be helped most effectively by showing that you can be religious - Jewish, Christian or other religions, - and not be homophobic.

C.M-S: Your group does a lot with sexual minorities in general. Do these s m really have so much in common with each other ?
Tom H.: Well it is true, that part of this may be a sort of political move. In the countries I know best, there tends to be an idolatry of the nuclear family. Now it is one thing to be supportive of the family, like you can be supportive of, and love your nation, but nationalism can become idolatrous, and love of family can become idolatrous, when you become so "pro" one form of the family, that you want to persecute and discriminate against other people. I find in churches almost everyone who is not part of the typical nuclear family, - a married couple with some children, in their middle ages, - tends to feel a bit of discrimination. I spoke in one Presbyterian church in my home town of St. Louis, about a year ago, and I happened to mention in my sermon "widows" as a sexual minority, I mentioned that in passing, along with about 20 other kinds of sexual minorities. Afterwards I found that there was a great flurry of interest and concern - almost the whole congregation were widows.
Legally they could be ordained - they could be pastors of churches in my denomination, but in effect they feel very marginalised. They feel if you are not of an age to be married and have children, you tend to be put "at the back of the bus".1 For gays and lesbians and bisexuals, transsexuals, transvestites, it is important to network and realise we have a lot of potential allies in others who are not as viciously discriminated against as gays and lesbians but who do feel discrimination - and not just in the church, but other social organisations also.

C.M-S.: How would you use the Bible, against someone who is homophobic?
Tom H.: Well we have two folders, if anyone wants to get the details the can ask for them. First it is important to recognise that most of the problems in both Judaism and Christianity, come not from the Bible, but from the religious tradition starting with Plato and neo-Platonism and as soon as the Judaeo-Christian moved out of Palestine, and into the larger Greco-Roman world, the predominant ideas were basically platonic and neo-platonic - this was the idea of the soul being imprisoned in an evil body. That is not the biblical picture at all, where God creates the body and the body is good. Also the flaming example of this is that we have only one book in the bible, that its theme is sexual love - and that is the Song of Songs or of Solomon. In this century (20th) it is almost universally recognised, that this is a very sex-positive book. In the last century scholars discovered love poems and erotic literature in Arabic and they realised this is like the Song of Solomon - it is erotic poetry. Many ???;that they poems could all be same-sex poems. The idea that it is a heterosexual book even, only comes through the Hebrew --- pointing. So here we have the only book in the bible that has as its theme sexual love, and it is sex-positive, Not only marriage positive, because marriages is only mentioned once in one of the poems and may even be a kind pf threat to the couple that are saying these poems, But what has happened - even before the Christian period - this book has been allegorised. It was allegorised as Gods love for Israel, and Christ's love for the Church. Its whole message was eliminated by the hermeneutic of allegorisation.

In this century it has become recognised that this book is one of erotic poetry. If the only book in the Bible which has as its theme sexual love is basically positive about sexual love and not just about marriage that is where we should start in building a religious tradition free to use our Christian .... as bible-based and not distorted by ... by the time we get to Saint Augustine you have you have this boom in the church of promoting celibacy. The idea was that the body was evil and if your were going to be a really consistently pure Christian you had to avoid sex completely. In that context Augustine carved out this little that said that sex is OK if it is within marriage and for the purposes of pro-creation. In that context that was a kind of holding action that has a certain legitimacy as a political strategy but it became the ideology of the church. So the church moved away from a basically sex positive position in the Song of Solomon to .... and even that was a second best. The best was always celibacy.

Part of the Renaissance is going back to the sources, and in the Reformation Luther tried to take us back to the Bible. When we go back to the Bible we find a few verses that may be problematic, but you are dealing basically with something that is very closeted about sexual love, and then add on concerns about justice and freedom from the oppressed tradition and Jesus came to liberate the oppressed, concerns for wisdom - safe-sex comes in here. You try to act wisely, not to harm your neighbour. You have to be wise - today that means not loading up your neighbour with a lot of cholesterol if you know his cholesterol level is high. You can't find that in the Bible, but you can find it in a concern for wisdom, and avoiding sin against your neighbour.

These are the concerns of the Bible and the texts that are used against homosexuals are just a few scattered verses which have been terribly misinterpreted ---.

C-M-S.: ... About you personally. You have a very interesting career. Can you tell us something about yourself up to the point where you said I can't go on living like this ..?
Tom H.: I knew from early adolescence that I was homosexual. I didn't have the word for it but discovered in one of the dictionaries, but knew that I was sexually attracted to persons of my own sex, and that I was not attracted at all to women. I finally found there was a word for it. The Kinsey Report came out in 1948, and that was when I still had four years of High School left - and I discovered that I was not the only one in the world - that 37% had had some kind of homosexual experience. Living in a traditional protestant conservative tradition, I soon hooked into the idea that this was something wrong with me that I could cure, by religious .... or eventually by psychoanalysis. After finishing university and seminary studies, and during psychoanalyst told a woman that I was interested in - that I was homosexual, but that now this could be cured by psychoanalysis, and the right woman, - and with that understanding we got married. After about a year the psychoanalyst said well with my insights I should keep working on it - but that I was on my own. We probably shouldn't talk about it Any more because it was proving difficult to handle and so for twenty-five years we didn't talk about it.

I guess it took me about that long to solve my problems with the Bible. I was an expert in the Bible and a full time Bible Professor - and especially Latin American liberation theology helped me - to grapple with the way the Bible was being used against homosexuals. It was actually visiting a book store in Paris a certain boredom waiting for my wife to find the book on French literature which was her field - I saw a book by a French Canadian author from Quebec, that dealt with the liberation theology for gays and lesbians.

I was so upset when I saw it that I literally felt sick. Of course it was areal discovery, but I realised that I built my whole life on false pre-suppositions - and a possibly painful future was awaiting me. When I went to Buenos Aires in 1986, I had solved my problems with the Bible. I was now a liberation theologian, and I published a book Oppression by Biblical Theology. So I had the theological framework but I hadn't had a coming out experience of ... the gay community. I was in Germany for about three months and I spoke to a German psychologist - through a bookstore contact. He told me that we are not worried about what causes homosexuality anymore - just accept yourself and get on with it, and he pointed out the way to the gay bar. So I had a little bit of contact for a few weeks here in Germany, but it wasn't till I got to Argentina that I started having a lot of contact with gay and lesbian groups.

I contacted a religious group there - it was a kind of closeted religious group - you had to have an interview to get in - but there for the first time I was in a Christian group who were studying the Bible and praying together. All of us were gay men. And I was accepted. That was an incredibly moving and emotionally revolutionary experience. To be in that kind of situation. I lot of my neurosis cleared up within a few weeks. I had had problems of insomnia, and great depressions. But just being in that group for a few weeks - my neurosis started disappearing. .... I was invited into reading and retreats, I realised I was going to have to break what the psychologist had told me and open up the subject again with my wife.

,,,, and we had our .... facing up to the truth situation. For a year or so she gave herself to working with me, and the gay and lesbian ministry in Argentina, but she had not been able to get work in Buenos Aires - she .... in literature. She had been a professor in Costa Rica, but couldn't get work -so she decided to go back to the United States and get work there - which she did. Then she re-married in the States.
As soon as she left me I had to resign from the Mission Board - which didn't even accept separation, much less divorce, - and I decided since I was going to lose my job and my health insurance any way I might as well enjoy it and come out as a gay. In my resignation letter to my Mission Board I indicated my sexual orientation - and that I thought God was calling me to work for sexual minorities, especially in Latin America. That letter went out in several hundred copies to four continents, - and created an enormous upset for almost everybody I had known, all my life. That was quite a thing.

C.M-S.: And can you say that you are much happier now ?
Tom H.: I wouldn't trade the seven years I have been out for all the rest of my life. Economically it is very difficult because I have been seven years without a salary and health insurance ... but we get in pieced together and we get a few offers from Churches to travel, and it is much better

C.M-S.: I was in a similar situation in that I was married for twelve years ...
Tom H.: Well, when I came out to my son, I found out that he also was gay ! That was quite a discovery ! He said he wished he had known when he was 13 that his father was gay, - so I answered if I had known the right thing to do he wouldn't even exist ! I wouldn't advise anyone to follow my steps, but if I had my own life to re-do, I wouldn't want to unmake my children. - or even the years with my wife.

C.M-S.: I did an interview with a Mrs Pierce Buxton who wrote about the partner of the person who comes out.
Tom H.: - Yes I know the book. - In most of those cases the person married and kept it a secret about themselves. or were people who didn't recognise it about themselves. In my case I knew what my desires, my sexual orientation was, - and I had had enough psychology in seminary and so on - that I told my wife that I was homosexual, but that it was something we could cure.
In Buenos Aires there are still psychiatrists who will tell a gay that they can cure him. I know gays who have been 15 years with a psychoanalyst in Buenos Aires, - spend all of their savings, and are made worse instead of better. That's one reason that we are eager to get our documentation centres into university libraries - so that the psychologists who are still trying to make a fast buck, out of gays who think they can be cured, but will find out that's not the way to go.

C.M-S.: This business, not just of psychotherapy, but of religious groups, who promise a cure, seems to be on the increase or is that a wrong conclusion ?
Tom H.: Certainly in Latin America it is on the increase because, there 80 per cent of the protestants are Pentecostal. And that concept has gotten into the Pentecostal Churches now. In Argentina now during my absence, there is going to be a big conference of so-called ex-gays. I think that has basically been refuted for many years. Ralph Blair, a Psychoanalyst in New York years ago has shown that (1) these groups are usually run by people who are not scientifically trained, so they make no distinction between homosexual and bi-sexual. If someone has had homosexual activity they assume the person is homosexual. So they get them to relate to a person of the other sex, have a sexual experience, and then they say they are cured. But the fact they are functioning sexually with the other sex doesn't mean their orientation is changed.

And the second thing (2) is they don't keep record to see where is this person five to ten years later. When my coming out letter went out, it was received by a pastor in San Salvador. His best friend was homosexual and he told his friend to get psychological help, Pentecostal prayer and healing, to marry and he would be able to cure himself. So the friend did everything he was told, got married, then after a while it ended in divorce and his friend committed suicide.

He ended up at my doorstep to ask if there wasn't a better way to give pastoral counselling to people who come and say they are homosexual. That kind of tragic experience is repeated so much because these ex-gay groups don't see what happens five or ten years down the line. They get them launched into marriage, and probably they lose track of them after a while --- and of course they have been racked with scandals so often - that the people who pretend to cure are actually seducing the people - they are pretending to cure.

C.M-S.: Have you got anything you would like to add, anything I haven't asked you ?
Tom H.: I just hope that we can encourage more networking internationally. There is this concept of thinking internationally and acting locally. I think that is increasingly important for gays and lesbians all over the world. - That we draw on the resources of the church, of the liberation theology. - In every country there are wonderful new discoveries, and insights into gay and lesbian life, that should be shared in solidarity including the exchange of literature .

Colin de la Motte-Sherman

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