By: Mel White | The News & Advance
Published: April 15, 2012 Updated: April 15, 2012 – 6:00 AM
On Palm Sunday, April 1, Gary Nixon and I celebrated 30 years together. Ten of those years have been spent in beautiful Lynchburg. In recent months, however, we’ve made the painful decision to sell our home and return to California.
On the surface, we are leaving Lynchburg to spend our final years close to our children and grandchildren, but just below the surface is our growing fear that gays and lesbians are no longer welcome in Virginia. It seems that even after his death, Jerry Falwell Sr.’s antigay rhetoric is winning the day.
We first visited Lynchburg in 1999 when 200 of our Soulforce friends and supporters spent an amazing weekend with 200 of Jerry’s staff and student leaders. Gay Christians came to Lynchburg from across the nation hoping to help him understand that “… the research is clear. Homosexuality is neither mental illness nor moral depravity. It is simply the way a minority of our population expresses human love and sexuality, (American Psychological Association).” That weekend, covered by 183 media crews, made headlines across the nation.
In spite of our visit, Jerry continued his unwarranted and untrue attacks against lesbian and gay Americans. So we moved to Hill City in 2001 and rented a four-room house directly across the street from the church on Thomas Road. We hoped that by our daily witness, he and his congregation would see that gay people do not have, as he claimed, “a godless, humanistic scheme for our nation — a plan which will destroy America’s traditional moral values”; and that we are not planning “the complete elimination of God and Christianity from American society.”
When The News & Advance announced our permanent move to Lynchburg, we thought our new neighbors might not be happy to see an “out” gay couple move into their neighborhood. Quite to the contrary, when protesters did gather on our sidewalk, several of our neighbors ignored the “God Hates Fags” signs, walked through the noisy, nasty crowd and welcomed us with buckets of fried chicken, deep dish apple pie and sweet tea. From that moment we have loved this town and its welcoming and affirming people.
I first met Jerry Falwell in 1986 when he hired me to ghostwrite his autobiography, “Strength for the Journey.” I liked him immediately. I even found myself defending him when he was attacked unfairly. On the night that Jerry died, Anderson Cooper and Larry King both asked me to appear on their programs to respond to the atheist intellectual, Christopher Hitchens, who described Jerry as “an ugly charlatan,” “a little toad,” “a giggling and sniggering huckster” and “an evil old man.”
That night I found myself on network television defending the man who called me a “pervert who abandoned his wife and children to join this deviant lifestyle.” In fact, my family and I have maintained a loving, committed relationship that was demonstrated clearly when my son, Mike, and I appeared on two seasons of CBS’ “The Amazing Race.”
Jerry never told the truth about me, but the night he died I had the opportunity to tell the truth about Jerry. He would be missed. He had been a good pastor to his congregation at Thomas Road and a good chancellor to his students at Liberty University. But I also expressed my grief that Jerry had died before he apologized to my sisters and brothers for his antigay rhetoric just as he had apologized for his racist rhetoric in the 1950s and ’60s.
During our first five years in Lynchburg I thought we were making a slight difference, that thousands of other gay and lesbian individuals and couples who lived in loving, committed relationships were changing Virginia’s political landscape.
I felt certain that organizations like Equality Virginia and Open and Affirming Churches like First Christian in Lynchburg were helping their fellow Virginians understand that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Virginians live healthy, happy and holy lives just like heterosexual Virginians.
Then on Nov. 7, 2006, 57 percent of Virginia’s voters ratified an amendment to the state Constitution that wasn’t content to limit marriage to one man and one woman. The amendment, sponsored by Del. Bob Marshall and Sen. Steve Newman, went on to prohibit the creation or legal recognition of any relationships of unmarried individuals “that even approximates the design, qualities, significance or effect of marriage.” Of all the states with constitutional amendments prohibiting marriage equality, Virginia became the most strident and mean-spirited.
More recently, the state Senate passed legislation allowing private adoption agencies to deny gay and lesbian couples the right to adopt (when 80,000 American children go un-adopted every year). And just weeks ago, both houses of the General Assembly approved “conscience clause” bills that would allow state-funded child placement agencies to discriminate against lesbian and gay couples who are willing and able to provide foster care as well.
The General Assembly may be the oldest legislative body in the Western Hemisphere, but in recent years it has certainly not been the wisest. Members of the Senate and the House of Delegates are still making laws based on the antigay rhetoric of Jerry Falwell. And like Jerry, our 23rd District senator, Steve Newman, and his colleagues refuse to consider the facts.
Census data shows that there are at least 270,000 American children being raised by same-sex couples: “Numerous studies over the last three decades consistently demonstrate that children raised by gay or lesbian parents exhibit the same level of emotional, cognitive, social, and sexual functioning as children raised by heterosexual parents, The American Psychiatric Association.”
When the Assembly makes laws that deny lesbian and gay Virginians the right to adopt or provide foster care they are denying hundreds, perhaps thousands of Virginia’s children, the right to home and family.
During our 10 years in Virginia, we’ve watched this great state turn against its gay and lesbian residents. Not only are we denied the rights and protections of marriage, our relationships are no longer safe here even when “protected” by wills or powers of attorney.
And when the General Assembly denies lesbians and gays the right to adopt or provide foster care, they are implying that we aren’t capable of being loving and trustworthy parents and even worse that we are a threat to children.
With a great deal of sadness and a real sense of failure, Gary and I are leaving this beautiful city and the wonderful new friends we’ve made here. We thought that in 10 years our witness would have helped in some small way to change Virginia for the better. In fact, it’s gotten worse. And though we are genuinely sad about leaving Lynchburg, it’s much easier to move knowing that members of the Assembly, the governor and a majority of the voters of Virginia have spoken. Gays and lesbians are not welcome here. What a loss that will be in professional, personal and financial resources for the people of Virginia.
I’m thankful that there are thousands of Virginians (native and transplants) who know that God created gay people and loves them exactly as they were created. One day, through their witness, truth will prevail. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
We are driving down Rivermont Avenue one last time, but the city is ablaze with the brilliant blossoms of red buds, dogwoods and cherry trees and even as we drive away from Lynchburg we are remembering that with the spring hope is always born again.