“You are so gay you make God want to puke. We know that you walk to work. We know the direction you walk. One day, you’re not coming back.”
That is the death threat that awaited the Rev. Dr. Stephen Sprinkle when he arrived home one night in 2000 after speaking at a Fort Worth City Council meeting earlier that evening.
“That really got my attention,” Sprinkle, a professor at Brite Divinity School, said.
In 2000, the city of Fort Worth debated if it should extend housing, employment and public accommodation protection to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) community.
“It was not the first time the city council had dealt with that kind of thing, but I went down to City Hall, registered and spoke,” Sprinkle said.
In order to speak at that meeting, the city council required Sprinkle to state his name and address to prove he was a Fort Worth resident, which was enough information for someone to find his phone number. At that time, he said, he was living right by Amon G. Carter Stadium.
In five days, the female detective assigned to the case located the person who sent him the death threat. It was a TCU student.
Take a short drive up Cedar Springs Road, away from downtown Dallas, and you just might stumble upon one of the world’s largest gay churches. The Cathedral of Hope, as it has been known since 1990, serves as a spiritual safe haven for one of modern society’s most ostracized groups.
But take a quick look around at the 8-foot fences and parking lots equipped with video surveillance and it’s obvious why such a shelter is needed. The front door won’t open without the man at the front desk pressing a button, and much of the church is off limits to anyone without an appointment and a pastor.
Spending time on the grounds, one becomes progressively aware of the church’s tacit catechism: gay people are welcome here, even if they aren’t welcome anywhere else.
Oftetimes, they aren’t welcome.
These men and women [and transgender men and women] can easily—and legally—find themselves without a home, without a job and even without family because of their sexual orientation.
But mainstream conservative churches are perhaps where members of the LGBTQ community are the least welcome.
For many members of the Cathedral of Hope, the security provided by video surveillance is secondary to the spiritual security that such a community can provide them.
Though the Rev. Fred Phelps and his picketers from Westboro Baptist Church most publicly and viciously express it, anti-gay theological statements such as “God Hates Fags,” is by no means unique to Topeka, Kan., where the church is located. Nor are their sentiments a meaningless political statement to someone who identifies as both LGBTQ and Christian. For many, the two identities are never reconciled.
The fear of hatred from their family, friends, total strangers and even God often leads gay people to suicide.
A 2006 survey of high school students found that more than 52 percent of lesbian and bisexual females attempted suicide, compared to about 25 percent among straight females. The same survey found that 29 percent of gay and bisexual males attempted suicide, compared to about 13 percent straight males. Other times, fears are realized when LGBTQ people become victims of hate crimes.
But Sprinkle and other said that even those who survive the hatred and fear often find that their faith does not.
The Cathedral of Hope, a member of the United Churches of Christ, wants to change that.
According to its mission statement, the church strives “to reclaim Christianity as a faith of extravagant grace, radical inclusion and relentless compassion.”
Four times a week, the Rev. Dr. Jo Hudson and her staff of five full-time pastors broadcast worship services online and around the world, and the message is clear in every service: God loves gay people, too.
Perhaps no one spreads that message louder than Sprinkle, who holds the title of theologian in residence at the Cathedral of Hope.
I met Sprinkle for an interview at Buli, a coffee shop in the heart of Dallas’ Oak Lawn neighborhood, also known as Dallas’ “gayborhood.”
Buli is no ordinary coffee shop—no skinny lattes or green mermaids here. Against one wall is a single, long, padded bench ordained with small pillows of all shapes and sizes. Tables stretch the distance of the bench and many of the seats are occupied throughout the day.
Opposite the bench, tables and chairs sits a large counter below the menu of drinks and sandwiches, which are served in tin lunch boxes.
On the back wall between the bench and the counter, there is a Buli logo constructed with stained glass. More notable is a statue of the Virgin Mary high on a shelf above it.
After a few minutes of sipping cappuccino and listening to surrounding conversations about children, boyfriends and “coming out,” Sprinkle walked in the front door. With 60 years behind him, much of his hair is gone. As soon as he offered a greeting, however, his notable features were his warm handshake and his comforting smile.
Sprinkle began his theological work at 15, when he gave his first sermon while attending Salem Fork Christian Church in North Carolina at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After a circuit as a self-described “kid preacher” phenomenon, he responded to the call of ministry.
“I thought either I could be a minister, or I could be authentic and true to myself,” he said. “I chose to be a minister and chose to stuff all the rest of that underneath. It was a bad decision.”
Though he said he felt like he did good work while leading five Christian congregations, Sprinkle said he felt “hollow inside and broken.”
“Gradually, over time, I, like so many LGBTQ people, came out to people I could trust, but it’s another thing entirely to come out fully,” he said. “When you do, people make assumptions about you.”
Coming out was the most liberating experience of his life, Sprinkle said.
“Being true to ourselves, being authentically who we are, frees us up to love and act in authenticity, which we ought to be able to do,” he said.
Coming out is the first step for many gay people to not only become authentically who they are, but to also become proud of who they are, Sprinkle said.
The gay pride movement in Dallas started in Oak Lawn in 1980, at the Crossroads Market on the corner of Throckmorton and Cedar Springs. There have been more LGBTQ hate murders in the five square blocks surrounding the gayborhood than anywhere else in Texas, Sprinkle said.
Reflecting on the death threat he received and the hate crimes that so often affect his community, Sprinkle said he felt there was a story to be told.
“I didn’t lose any skin in the game, but I began raising the question with myself if there were other people who didn’t make it out alive,” Sprinkle said.
After some digging, Sprinkle found out that many hate crimes against members of the LGBTQ community had been buried and never made it into the press.
So, he set out to tell the stories of the 13,000 LGBTQ people in the United States alone who have been murdered since 1980.
The “Unfinished Lives Project,” which started in 2008, and the book Unfinished Lives: Reviving the Memories of LGBTQ Hate Crimes Victims are Sprinkle’s attempt to “change the conversation about anti-gay hate crimes in this country…to [provide] a human face so that they’re not just statistics,” he said.
Sprinkle—an ordained clergyman, a seminary professor and a Christian—said he is telling the world to “stop the killing. Stop the violence.”
Sprinkle is now the director of supervised ministry for Brite Divinity School and one of America’s prominent experts on queer theology—the exploration of man’s relationship with God through the LGBTQ experience.
Queer theology, Sprinkle said, really began in 1969, when James Cone published Black Theology & Black Power.
“That book began…to suggest that not only could theology be done from a particular ethnic and racial position, but that it was necessary for it to be done. Women followed on that path very closely,” Sprinkle said, and feminist theology then arose with the publication of Texts of Terror in 1984, which put women’s experience front-and-center theologically.
Sprinkle also mentioned Suzanne Pharr’s 1988 book Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism.
In that book, Sprinkle said that Pharr shows that if sexism is ever to be conquered, then homophobia will have to be conquered. too in that sexism and homophobia work together to demean women.
Sprinkle is continuing the work of so many before him. He said he believes God’s creation shows that God creates with amazing variety and diversity while blessing it all.
“I’m just as baptized as anyone else,” he said.
Sprinkle has also been an adamant force working for inclusion in religious institutions.
“If who we are is a part of God’s creation, then the divine decision [to include us] has already been made,” he said. “LGBTQ people really question whether straight people have the authority to include us.”
Sprinkle was the first “open and out” gay person to teach at Brite Divinity School, one of the nation’s most inclusive theological seminaries.
The school’s policy states that Brite will not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, among other classes, and while the school is affiliated with the Southwest Disciples of Christ, Brite boasts an “ecumenical spirit,” that is welcoming of all denominations and religious traditions, including people with no religious convictions whatsoever.
In October 2011, the school inaugurated the Carpenter Initiative in Gender, Sexuality and Justice, which is dedicated to promoting critical engagement with issues of gender and sexual justice.
Joretta Marshall, an openly gay professor of pastoral theology and pastoral care and counseling, was named director of the Carpenter Initiative.
Brite has been very supportive of her life and work, she said.
“The work to get the Carpenter Grant demonstrates [Brite’s] commitment to continue to work for change in all kinds of ways,” Marshall wrote in an email.
The Rev. Mike House, a student of Sprinkle and Marshall at Brite Divinity School, is proud to be part of that commitment to work for change.
When House was seven years old, his parents divorced due to his father’s alcoholism. Within a year of the divorce, his father was dead, and Mike’s mother raised him by herself with the help of her three brothers. House’s mother died six years ago, he said. He never told her that he’s gay.
At the age of 58, he is retiring as pastor of the United Methodist Church in Quinlan, Texas, and hopes to advocate for LGBTQ rights at the Methodist General Conference in April.
He served the Methodist Church for most of his adult life, going through several closeted relationships, but he always kept his personal life separate from his theological career. He said he lived a “double life.”
“No one should have to be in a relationship where they can’t say ‘this is the person I love,’” House said. “That’s not good for either party.”
House said he saw the Methodist church getting more restrictive, so he began to come out to his friends and family.
The Methodist church added restrictive language to its book of law in 1972 that said, “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” In 1984, it added, “no self-avowed, practicing homosexual can be ordained or appointed.”
By that time, House had already graduated from seminary and was serving the church, but it is specifically that language, which he compares to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, that he hopes to change.
Terrence McNally’s play “Corpus Christi” has been an inspiration for House and served as the introduction for one of his Christology papers at Brite. The play, which depicts Jesus’ death on a cross, portrays Jesus as a young gay boy and his disciples as his gay friends living in Corpus Christi, Texas. In an act of almost divine coincidence, the play premiered the same week of the murder of Matthew Shepard.
Shepard was a gay student at the University of Wyoming. Shortly after midnight on Oct. 6, 1998, he met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who offered to give him a ride home. They drove the car to a rural area, tied Shepard to a fence, tortured him and left him to die. He was discovered alive 18 hours after the attack, but died on the morning of Oct. 12.
“Corpus Christi” premiered on Oct. 13, and Terrence McNally opened the play with a discussion of the events, saying, “When Matthew Shepard died, Jesus Christ was crucified again.”
The Westboro Baptist Church picketed Shepard’s funeral.
“If I’m really going to try to make a difference and speak up for gay rights, I can’t do it from a place of safety,” House said. “You can’t give ‘em hope if you’re not saying ‘I’m one of you and it’s OK’.”
Mike House and Stephen Sprinkle aren’t the LGBTQ activists that one might see in the media. They don’t argue the Supreme Court for equal rights, they don’t push papers in Washington D.C. and they don’t speak to the entire nation.
Men like House and Sprinkle have circles of influence limited mostly to the religious institutions in which they have built their careers, but the impact of their influence is anything but limited.
For some in the LGBTQ community, the fight for equality is a struggle for the realization of the American ideal of freedom, despite the oppression that surrounds them, and opportunity, despite pervasive discrimination.