I was born without a family.
Shortly after I came into this world—sometime in early June 1971—the person who gave me life gave me away. Though I don’t remember it, I started out all alone, on the stoop of an adoption agency in upstate New York. Fortunately, there was a young couple, both public school teachers, who had been waiting some time to be blessed with a child. They were humble folks with big hearts whose deep faith sustained them during difficult times. And there were difficult times.
Whenever I was sick as a child, my mom would stay up late with me, rock me back and forth, and call me her “little miracle.” It’s because of this—the great blessing that brought us together—that I have never been able to give up on God.
Since then, my life has been a series of blessings. I grew up in a home that most children can only dream of—an only child and grandchild showered with more love and support than any person reasonably deserves. I’ve been surrounded by good friends and sustained by good health. Despite their modest means, my parents were determined to give me the very best education in the world, and now I have the great opportunity and responsibility of passing that on to others. By every measure, I am among the luckiest of men, rich in all the appropriate ways.
But I haven’t always appreciated this. Despite these great blessings, there has always been something about me—something essential, unshakable—that caused me great shame. I am a homosexual. Not merely “different,” but dirty, diseased, despised.
I spent much of my life, far too many years, trying to hide this “curse.” Having been raised in the Catholic Church—despite the unconditional love of my parents—I thought of myself in precisely these terms. Like Adam and Eve, Ham, and the Israelites, I embodied “sin,” my sexuality a potent symbol of God’s disapproval. Until pretty recently, I hated myself because I thought God hated me.
The greatest tragedy of our human existence is the fact that we are so quick to see human difference as a perversion of nature rather than as a rainbow sign of God’s creativity. As Christians, we are especially guilty in this regard. It was Gandhi, the Hindu peacemaker, who put it best when he said: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” And so it is that the worst angels of our nature—slavery and poverty, greed and corruption, war and genocide, racism, sexism, and homophobia—are routinely cloaked in the language of Scripture. This, I’ve come to understand, is the real perversion.
For much of my adult life, I have studied, taught, and written about those whom my dear friend and colleague John Stauffer calls “passionate outsiders”—those despised misfits on the margins of society who happen to look or love or act differently than those at the centers of power and privilege. Perhaps I’ve been drawn to these people because I am one of them. Indeed, we share a sacred bond, one born of exclusion and yet nurtured by the desire not just to be included but to be respected equally and loved fully as human beings.
Too often, however, those of us who live on the margins act as though we deserve our fate. If prejudice is the greatest source of human tragedy, self-loathing is its most powerful enabler. Our inability to accept ourselves fully as human beings—to become comfortable in our own skin—has sometimes led to very bad behavior. We internalize the fear and loathing directed at us and we re-direct it at ourselves, and each other. In doing so, we lose faith in the very thing that should save and sustain us: our common humanity. History is full of such casualties.
My hero James Baldwin once wrote: “It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant—birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not think so—and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths—change in the sense of renewal.”
To Jimmy’s wise reflection, I would add this: Change becomes possible only when we find faith in something larger than ourselves. We’ve seen it in the Exodus of Jews from Egypt, in the flight of slaves from bondage, in the protests of workers and women, in Freedom Rides and peace marches. We felt it in the rebellious spirit of our founding mothers and fathers outside the Stonewall Inn in June 1969, and in the heroic resilience of Stonewall’s children in the face of AIDS and Reagan and “family values.” Too many of us have gone, but many more of us remain. As we gather to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus this weekend, may we still feel this spirit as we affirm the value of our LGBT family.
My prayer this morning is simple: that we use this historic occasion not only to celebrate how much has changed for us, but to renew ourselves as a people—to find faith in family so that change will continue to be possible for every last one of God’s children, even and especially those who are all alone in this world.
Timothy Patrick McCarthy ’93 is Lecturer on History and Literature and on Public Policy, and Senior Resident Tutor of Quincy House. He is also a Director of the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus (HGLC), which celebrates its 25th Anniversary this weekend. These remarks were delivered today during Morning Prayers at The Memorial Church.