On Aug. 23, 2008, Australian diver Matthew Mitcham executed the highest-scoring dive ever made in Olympic history. The dive was a complicated maneuver called a back 2½ somersault with 2½ twists. Matthew nailed it with perfection.

I was one of the hundreds of millions who saw the dive on television. Matthew was the only real challenger to Chinese domination of the diving championships.

With the dive, Mitcham denied the Chinese their goal of a complete sweep of the diving championships. Matthew won the Olympic gold medal for diving at Beijing.

Matthew’s story is one of legend. He knew he wasn’t like the other kids with whom he grew up. He was small, sort of scrawny. He wasn’t any good at soccer, cricket or football. He never received a blue ribbon for anything athletic. He was the teammate that no one wanted.

Now at 20, Matthew Mitcham has the chiseled body of a Greek God. His training regimen cannot even be imagined by ordinary people. He wants to prove in London in 2012 that his gold medal was no fluke.

His story, his athletic history, and his success as a diver should be subjects of mass media interest. There is one problem. Matthew is openly gay. He has been out of his closet since his early teen years.  

One round of Mitcham’s dives was not even broadcast. His partner, Lachlan Fletcher, was always at poolside at the Olympics. Fletcher was never filmed, interviewed, or acknowledged by NBC broadcasters.  

NBC later issued an apology for their “unintended” omissions. Obviously, NBC understood what they had done to the young Australian diver.

Matthew Mitcham is clean-living, handsome and hardworking. He has an Olympic Gold Medal around his neck. Six months after his huge achievement at the Olympic games, Matthew does not have a single brand or company endorsement.

A young man who should be a poster star was relegated to anonymity.  

I read Matthew’s story in The Advocate, the leading slick magazine of the gay world.
  
The experience of Matthew Mitcham is only one example of what is being done to millions of gay people every day in our schools, in the American military, in government, in our businesses, in the health care system, and in our churches.

The role that is being played by religious people and institutions is especially tragic. Christian churches lead the parade of homophobic bigotry. 

I write as an insider. I have lived my entire life as a follower of Jesus from Nazareth. I have always been a church member. My honest identification in life is simple and straightforward. I am a born again Evangelical Christian in the tradition of Baptists.

The Jesus that I know, and whom I call Lord, was first and always a man of love. The second attribute that I see in him is moral outrage, especially with religious people who turned their backs on the most vulnerable people of his time.

Most Christian bodies today have turned justice on its head and have become attackers of a vulnerable minority.

I first became involved in advocacy for full acceptance of gay people in our churches over 35 years ago. Gay people were already in my congregation, but they felt that they needed to stay in their closets.

Some cautiously came out. Others identified themselves to me only after many years. I believed at first that reliable information would make the difference and lead to gay acceptance. It did not prove to be the case.

In the late 1990s, a flood of books were written by Bible scholars and theologians. Most concluded that the Bible says nothing about homosexuality as sexual orientation. They argued forcefully for inclusion of gay people in our churches.

There were a few books that were written to make the case for exclusion. I have a lengthy bookshelf full of these volumes, pro and con. Those who argued for inclusion overwhelmed those who argued for exclusion. There are now some excellent “how I changed my mind” books being written.

Good information and good scholarship have made little difference. I was wrong about what would be needed to bring full acceptance in our churches.   

Story telling has been more effective. This is the reason I decided to share the story of Matthew Mitcham. Some people respond to stories of painful injustices.

I suspect that gay people and their parents telling their stories is the single greatest influence in gaining a new level of gay acceptance in our society. But story telling has not moved church leaders to bold action.

Movement toward acceptance and justice in our churches has proceeded at the pace of a glacier. 

I am hoping that President Obama will do away with “don’t ask, don’t tell.” That policy was not helpful to anyone. I hope that more states will give legal recognition to long-term gay relationships, whether marriage language is used or not.

I hope that all schools will ban discrimination of every kind against gay persons. I look forward to the day when a gay man or a lesbian can successfully run for President of the United States.

Gay people should have every benefit of rights, privilege and protection under the law.

I pray more of our church leaders will find their voices of protest and moral outrage. Our injustices against our gay friends have gone on long enough.         

The Rev. Howard Bess is pastor emeritus of Church of the Covenant, an American Baptist church in Palmer, Alaska.  His e-mail address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.      

           

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