Punching Anti-Gay Hate Right in the Nose
Can a venom-spewing church become a safe space for queer and questioning kids?
Posted February 1, 2016
Does Starbucks really spice its lattés with "semen from sodomites?" Would Jesus "stone homos?" I'm thinking no on both counts. But those are messages that have appeared on the giant billboard at ATLAH World Missionary Church in Harlem. And sentiments like those may be what the parents of many LGBTQ kids secretly believe. Why else would they evict their own children from the safety of their homes, forcing them to fend for themselves at an age when they are supremely vulnerable to rape, beatings, and ending up dead by suicide, murder, or overdose?
Let’s talk about parental homophobia. One of Sigmund Freud's truisms was that behind every fear is a repressed wish. Many liberal arts sorts who grew up in the 60s, 70s, or 80s (I’m one) did so on a diet of Freudian insights. And so it's not surprising that many of us sometimes idly speculate about homophobia and the hidden fears and wishes it may reflect in parents who reject their LGBTQ kids.
And in pastors who flame out on the idea of non-normative sexuality. I’m thinking about the Reverend James Manning of the ATLAH World Missionary Church. Concerned, I suppose, about the possibility of spermatozoa in his expensive coffee drinks, he is the one who posted the latté message on the church’s billboard. "All churches and members that support homos cursed thou be with cancer HIV syphilis stroke madness itch" was another one of his poorly punctuated messages.
"Itch?" I wondered when I saw it. "Itch?" I asked myself for the rest of the day.
Sigmund Freud was one of history’s big homophobes. It’s true that he didn’t think homosexuality in men was anything to write home about. But he considered lesbianism a gateway to mental illness. Unfortunately for him, his favorite daughter, Anna, was a lesbian. This was no doubt a very big deal for the Freud family, and not only because it suggested that Anna was a walking time bomb emotionally. Freud taught his disciples that lesbianism is always the fault of a girl’s father. I imagine that Freud felt both terrified and guilty when, at around age 23, Anna had yet to show an interest in men but instead attached romantically to her “best friend.”
Huge phalanxes of Freud family defenders kept a cap on Anna’s secret from 1918 until the late 1990s, when a few rumors started to show up. And, to be completely honest, Anna never referred to herself as gay. Though she enjoyed 54 years of happy monogamy with Dorothy Burlingham, heir to the Tiffany fortune, she kept their entire relationship firmly in the closet.
But who in her position would have revealed what was really going on? Her dearly beloved father’s reputation as both a theorist and a pater familias would have been shattered. And that’s to say nothing of his reputation as a psychoanalyst, for in an attempt to cure Anna he analyzed her sexual fantasies for what, by my count, was at least 1,000 clinical hours.
When I first caught wind of rumors about Anna’s sexual preference, Google was but a babe. Googling “Anna Freud lesbian” produced only a few positive, and possibly wing-nut, results. But 22 years later (this morning, February 1, 2016) Google responded to “Anna Freud lesbian” in .34 seconds with 253,000 results. This may be because, recently, someone in the know outed both Anna and Dorothy. In an interview with Freudian analyst Isaac Tylim, Robert Burlingham, Jr. said that his father, Robert Burlingham, Sr. (Dorothy’s eldest child) left one or more deathbed notes revealing a closely-guarded family secret. The two mothers who raised him were loving spouses in every sense of the word.
It must have been tough for Anna to grow up in a household where the dominant parent had declared lesbianism a gateway to mental illness, and one that was both caused by and curable by people like her dad. It's horrific to imagine the sheer number of boundaries crossed in a thousand hours of psychoanalysis. But at least Freud did not tell his daughter that she was sinful and unlovable. At least he didn’t call down plagues on her and endanger her life by throwing her out on the streets. This is what tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of parents do today.
In New York City there is an extraordinary organization called the Ali Forney Center. It is named after an especially ebullient, gender-non-conforming teenager who, in 1997, was homeless and turning tricks to stay alive. He was murdered that year in Times Square. That sort of thing happens to unprotected kids, but Ali was so well-loved by area social workers that his death became the straw that broke the camel’s back. It took another five years for the social workers to get organized and funded, but today the Center founded to honor Ali’s memory provides emergency housing and a wealth of medical, psychological, educational, and social supports to thousands of homeless LGBTQ teenagers every year. It is a remarkable place where the staff members really and truly care, and where unloved teenagers can be “parented” by the sort of people they might one day want to emulate.
AFC’s drop-in center in Harlem is mere blocks from the hate-spewing ATLAH World Missionary Church. I have to imagine that the staff and clients at AFC consider the ATLAH billboard offensive enough to give an aspirin a headache. (I'm stealing from Dan Rather here. If you ever run low on metaphors, Google "ratherisms.")
But there is a God, or at least there’s a majestic disseminator of occasional poetic justice. It seems that the Reverend Manning didn't pay about $1 million of his bills. Just days ago a court ordered his church into public auction. This means that the hate speech billboard will stop spewing venom. But, even better, someone suggested that—well, wouldn't it be glorious if the Ali Forney Center could buy the church building and use the extra space to expand its services?
A major fundraising drive has been launched, with a goal of $200,000. Last time I checked (12:34 pm today) $101,146 had been raised. Anyone wanting to donate can click over to the fund-raising page.
Freud's idea that lesbianism is a gateway to mental illness was debunked long ago, as was his idea that homosexuality needs to be — or can be — cured.
Meanwhile, no one has ever resolved whether Freud was right about a fear being a repressed wish.
But I love the idea. I have so much fun sometimes paraphrasing “behind every fear is a repressed wish” by singing, à la Cinderella, “A fear is a wish your heart makes.” It’s true what you may have heard about my singing. I sound like Joe Cocker with a cold. But, Jeez. I do like what Disney wanted us to think about dreams and wishes. The staff members at the Ali Forney Center have a dream of creating a way that any homeless LGBTQ kid in New York City can find safety, support, and hope. Those social workers, psychologists, educators, and fundraisers have huge hearts—walloping, immeasurable ones. Which is why I wish them the best. It’s also why I’m donating today.
Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist, humorist, and novelist. Her recent novel is the fact-based Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story, which the American Library Association named a 2015 Over the Rainbow book.