In more than a decade of writing this column, I don’t believe I’ve ever marked the year’s end by declaring a top story or a top 10 list of stories, events, newsmakers, or any of the usual foolishness that plumps out the pages of the press at this season. But this week a major international news event recalls a story, which appeared in the Yukon News a couple of months ago, and it leads me for the first time to declare my candidate for hero of the year.
First, the big story: this week US President Barrack Obama signed an order to end the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, which forbade gays and lesbians from serving openly. News coverage of the event made it sound as though, by the stroke of that pen, gay American soldiers, sailors, and airfolk could suddenly come surging out of the closet, but sad to say, it ain’t so.
On Monday, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters, “I don’t think anybody has any idea how long this will take.” First, Department of Defence staff will comb through a mountain of regulations to see how they affect, or are affected by, the ruling. After months of this, the president, the secretary of defence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will (or will not) agree that the repeal will have no negative effect on the functioning of the military. After all this there will be a 60-day waiting period for the bill to take effect.
Despite the delays, the signing of the bill is a great moment in history, and a step toward curing the US of a powerful hangover resulting from a centuries-long binge of religious conservatism. Like any other hangover, this one leaves the country’s bloodstream still polluted by the drug, so much so that a hate cult describing itself as a “church” still gets away with demonstrating at the funerals of gays with signs that read, “God Hates Fags.”
Although Canada’s military does not officially discriminate against homosexuals, we suffer from our own version of the same hangover. To be openly gay in Canada is still an act of courage. Despite laws to the contrary, it can still cost you your job, your safety, or even your life.
Which brings me to the local hero. This October the Yukon News ran a story about Jerome Stueart, a Whitehorse writer and teacher who came out as gay to his fellow congregants at the Riverdale Baptist Church. He began to do so in 2009, not with any fanfare, not in a confrontational way, but by quietly speaking to other church members, and letting them know that he was no longer prepared to cover up his sexual orientation.
Stueart suffered some fairly predictable consequences for this act. Called before the elders board, he was required to take a vow of chastity, even to promise not to date, if he wanted to remain a deacon of the church. He was refused permission to explain himself in the parish newsletter or to speak in church about his decision to come out. Sometime later he was dumped from the church choir.
In a follow-up letter to the editor, Stueart explained his reasons for approaching the Yukon News with his story. Though church leaders discriminated against him and did their best to silence him, he remained in the church “for the hope of discussion and out of love.”
After months of silence, he finally got his discussion, in spades. One Sunday this October, he sat through what he describes as a “toxic anti-gay sermon.”
“I needed to do something,” he said in his letter. “Lives are at stake.” So Stueart came out again, this time to the readership of the Yukon News. Again he demonstrated his courage, even telling the reporter that he had come within a hair’s breadth of taking his own life last year. Throughout the story, he has been magnanimous, even loving, in his attitude toward his fellow parishioners.
Taken by itself, Jerome Stueart’s action changes nothing. The Baptist Church will continue to discriminate against homosexuals; coming out in public as he has done will continue to be a risky business, and institutions such as the US military will keep dragging their feet as they are forced to join the 21st century. But it is by the accumulation of small actions that big change is affected. It may take a million such acts of courage to conquer homophobia, but each one makes the next a tiny bit easier.
So here’s to you, Jerome. You were brave and forthright without being harsh and hurtful; you suffered quietly through months of harm before you were pushed to go public, and even then you spoke with moderation and love. I hope you are able to celebrate the birth of your religion in the spirit of comfort and joy that it purports to deliver. In short, I wish you a Merry Christmas. You deserve it.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.