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Gay rights activist heads to Rome

The St. Petersburg man, part of an ecumenical gay rights organization, hopes to meet with the pope.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- Alocal man is among dozens of Americans who plan to take their fight for gay and lesbian rights directly to the pope, or barring that, to a high-ranking representative in the Vatican.

Bill Carpenter flies to Rome today, in the company of Mel White, a former associate of evangelist Jerry Falwell and founder of the ecumenical gay rights organization known as Soulforce.

The two are on a reconnaissance mission to set the stage for what they hope will be a January meeting with Pope John Paul II or Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's doctrinal office.

Is theirs a quixotic expedition?

"It sounds like it to me, to be quite honest," Carpenter, 48, said this week.

"And yet, far be it for me to limit the possibilities. Ghandi said, "Show up and let your adversary do the rest.' And so that's very much the strategy of Soulforce. This is a long-term struggle to bring truth to all the churches about their policies toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. On one hand, yeah, the idea of having an audience with the pope seems like a long shot. On the other hand, who knows?" said Carpenter, who is not Roman Catholic.

Bill Urbanski, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, does not rule out a Vatican meeting for the January delegation that will include representatives from Dignity/USA, the nation's oldest organization of homosexual Catholics.

"It would probably be difficult to meet with the pope or Cardinal Ratzinger," Urbanski said. "However, someone within the hierarchy of the Vatican would probably be open to meeting with them."

White, who in 1999 managed to arrange a conciliatory meeting between gays and conservative Christians from Jerry Falwell's church and university, is optimistic about the activists' chances.

"Wishful thinking is what we do best," he said.

"We believe that the climate within the Roman Catholic church is ready for change. This pope is about to be replaced. There's more and more writing about the number of gay priests and bishops in the world. . . . They are running out of leadership. The Catholic Church cannot survive without (its) gay priests. They are among the church's best and brightest."

The Vatican trip, which is being promoted as a nonviolent campaign "against centuries of spiritual violence and anti-gay teachings," will begin the second phase in Soulforce's fight for gay rights within the religious community. The organization, which patterns its efforts on those of Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., this year demonstrated at United Methodist, Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal, Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic gatherings.

On each occasion, dozens of activists were arrested. Carpenter, a member of First Unity Church in St. Petersburg, was arrested every time. In May he was jailed on charges of disorderly conduct for demonstrating outside the United Methodist General Conference in Cleveland. He was arrested twice in June, first at the Southern Baptists' annual convention in Orlando and then the Presbyterian Church's General Assembly in Long Beach, Calif. In July he was arrested at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Denver. Last month, he was among about 100 people arrested during the National Council of Catholic Bishops' fall conference in Washington, D.C.

"The first for me was the hardest and the scariest, because I had never been arrested in my life and I had no idea what to expect," Carpenter said recently. "And it's still challenging."

In some way, protesters know what to expect. Soulforce notifies law enforcement authorities of its plans and prepares supporters for the possibility of arrest, jail and fines.

"We don't want to show up unannounced," Carpenter explained. "We've taken some shots from people that say, "Oh, it's all just arranged and street theater and so on.' To some extent, that's true, but it's okay."

While they are in Rome next week, Carpenter and White will plan their strategy for the Vatican, where members of Soulforce and Dignity/USA hope to demonstrate on Jan. 5 and 6.

Why go all that way to make their point?

"Rome is the Vatican. It is the primary source of misinformation about sexual minorities in the world today," said White, speaking by telephone from California.

"The teachings are tragically out of touch with current scientific and psychological research. . . . The teachings say that gay people are intrinsically evil and objectively disordered. That we shouldn't parent or adopt, or coach or teach or serve in the military. That kind of teaching divides families and wastes lives and leads literally to suffering and death. . . . They must be confronted. You only lose if you don't try. The silence has gone on too long," he added.

"In general," said Marianne Duddy, executive director for Dignity/USA, "the official church teachings are totally misguided about who gay and lesbian people are. They are rooted in old myths, the sense of homosexuality being a sin or sickness, and they are perpetuating the myths of gay people being dangerous around children, of being child molesters. They are refusing to honor decades of evidence that gay people are good, upstanding people that live in long-standing relationships."

The church's catechism states, "Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.' They are contrary to the natural law. . . . Under no circumstances can they be approved."

The catechism also says that homosexuals "do not choose their homosexual condition." For most people, "it is a trial," it adds.

The document also instructs that homosexuals "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."

In the diocese of St. Petersburg, said Urbanski, a program called Courage provides support for homosexual Catholics who choose to live chaste lives in accordance with the church's teachings. The support group relies on a 12-step program, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous.

Dignity and its supporters disagree with this approach.

"Courage is based on the model of homosexuality as a sickness that must be cured or managed," Duddy said.

"It equates homosexuality with alcoholism or drug abuse, and it's a totally inappropriate model. It denies that openly gay people can live whole and healthy lives."

These are the issues that representatives from Dignity and Soulforce want to discuss with church leaders, Duddy said.

Making a pilgrimage to Rome appears to be the best way to do so, she added.

For Dignity's Soulforce partners, the Rome trip will kick off a phase of "non-cooperation with our oppressors," Carpenter said.

"Soulforce is pointing out that the oppressed can no longer support the oppressors with our tithes, offerings, gifts, time and talent," he said.

This week, as Carpenter prepared to leave for Rome, he reiterated his commitment to fight for the rights of gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities.

"I do it to save the lives of young people," he said. "I have a sense that the rest of my life is about this work."

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