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Can You Be Gay and Orthodox, ‘Sinner’?

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Following the recent Supreme Court decision to strike down DOMA, Greek Reporter interviewed a prominent voice for human rights and marriage equality - trial and appellate attorney Chrysovalantis P. Kefalas – about being gay and Orthodox. We should also throw in that he’s a Republican as well. 

Several Greek-Americans have had high-profile roles in America’s marriage debate, including Ted Boutros and Theane Evangelis Kapur, attorneys for the plaintiffs in the Proposition 8 case. Another, Chrysovalantis P. Kefalas, a trial and appellate attorney who practices exclusively in federal court, was a counsel to former Republican Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. of Maryland; he is a leading conservative proponent of the freedom to marry, helping Maryland become one of the first states to enact marriage freedom by popular vote. 

Please explain what the United States Supreme Court decided in the recently issued marriage cases, Perry v. Hollingsworth and Windsor v. United States?

First, by way of background, Windsor involved a challenge to The Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.  That law mandated that no matter what any States said about marriage, the federal government would not recognize same-gender marriages. Perry involved a challenge by two couples to California’s Proposition 8, a voter ballot initiative that amended the state’s constitution to prohibit same-gender marriage.

In Windsor, Justice Kennedy, a Republican-appointed justice by the way, writing for the Supreme Court,  said that there was no good reason to treat same-gender couples differently for the purposes of federal law. As a result, the federal government will now have to treat same-gender couples the same way it treats lawful marriages of different-gender couples for all federal statutes and programs. The Court said DOMA improperly and unconstitutionally placed same-gender couples in “an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage”; demeaned the couples; “humiliate[ed] tens of thousands of children” being raised by same-gender couples; and denigrated the integrity and closeness of these families. 

In Perry, because ProtectMarriage, a private group that pushed for Proposition 8 and tried to defend the law, had no right to do so, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal and, by doing that, upheld the trial court’s decision to return the freedom to marry to California, a decision that said that marriage is a fundamental right for everyone, including same-gender couples. 

What is your take on the impact of the United States Supreme Court’s decisions?

The decisions drive the momentum of equal rights, for everyone, forward in a major way. They represent a watershed moment in America’s long journey – and struggle – to make the promises of the Declaration of Independence – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – real for everyone. The rationale for the DOMA case likely paves the way, provides the roadmap for marriage freedom for all couples, for full equality and respect for all citizens in the United States.

Beyond the legal consequences, the decisions say to so many people they should trust that they are — and can be — loved because of (not in spite of) who they are.

Chrysovalantis Kefalas

Chrysovalantis P. Kefalas

The Greek Orthodox Church has taken the position against civil marriage for same-gender couples, arguing that procreative, emotional, psychological benefits in which families derive from marriage, combined with religious teachings on traditional marriage, justify the status quo. Do you think there’s any merit to the Church’s position?

First, I am not a priest or a theologian; I am a lawyer. Legally, I do not think the Church’s position has merit; there’s no good reason to deny same-gender couples the freedom to marry. Moreover, there is a separation in the United States between Church and State and there is freedom of religion. Today, there are Christian denominations that sanctify same-gender marriages. Obviously, there are Christian denominations and other religions that do not. Permitting same-gender couples to marry under the civil law will not force any religion to sanctify a same-gender marriage. As important in the context of public policy, civil marriage freedom removes government from the religious discussion, treating all couples equally under the law and permitting faiths to define the relationships they wish to sanctify, which is as it should be. 

With respect to the merits of the Church’s position, I disagree with the rationale against civil marriage freedom. Scientific studies support the position that orientation is not a matter of choice. Scientific studies support the position that children raised by same-gender couples do just as good – or in some cases better – than children raised in opposite gender households. The Church makes much of the importance of marriage, the well-being of children in stable households and establishing of support obligations. But none of that is different for committed same-gender couples who do marry. The same bonds that exist between opposite gender couples that strengthen families, provide better homes for raising children, and positively impact communities exist between same-gender couples. To know people who are attracted to the same-gender, to be a member of the community, is to know that the love that leads to their marriages is no different, no less worthy or legitimate.

I also find it troubling that many of the arguments against inter-racial marriage are many of the same grounds upon which the Church rests its opposition to civil marriage freedom. That should give all opponents of civil marriage freedom pause, if not inspire a change of heart.

What impact do you think the Supreme Court decisions should have on the Church’s position? 

I will not argue biblical interpretation with the Church, and I do not seek today a change in Church doctrine. And I will not suggest that legal decisions should affect Church doctrine. If I can be permitted a brief moment to step away from the civil law, however, I will say this: I agree with the Church about the importance of divine truths, but sometimes in human history those truths may have always been there but we haven’t always readily seen them. I trust in the Church, I trust that God’s divine plan will reveal itself.

What I hope the decisions will do now is have the Church move from opposition to civil marriage freedom, agreeing to disagree, and change its message, which has a significant effect in making families and people feel inferior, causing immense torment, pain and suffering. Although I reject any attempt to blame the Church for doing this purposefully, the Church’s strong statements against civil marriage freedom have no doubt contributed to youth questioning whether to live or die, to save their families from the pain and suffering of living with a gay or lesbian child. That should be untenable. So long as a child can still be raised in a home, in a community that doesn’t recognize her worth, her normalcy, and her value, the Church should join with civil rights advocates to overcome the fear and ignorance that hurts and takes away so many lives.  

While the Church will disagree with civil marriage freedom and question same-gender relationships, its message needs to be that we are all in this life together, all God’s children, with equal worth and value.  The Church can – and should be – at the forefront in dealing with the marginalized and promote a culture of understanding, respect, and love. I hope these decisions will inspire the Church to work with same-gender couples who do marry under the civil law to remain a part of the faith, contribute to the Church community, amplify God’s love with strong families and service, and raise their children in the Church.  Inclusion and love should be the direct result of the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions. 

You personally have been a particularly vocal proponent of equal rights. Do you feel you are ‘sinner,’ as the Church suggests, because you are gay?

I am sinner because I am human. There are a lot of sins and, personally, I do not think that God creates people with a sin beyond the original one.  I leave it to the Church to define sins though – I have a hard enough time deciphering the civil law or, for that matter, whether I’m committing a sin by not fasting each Wednesday and Friday. 

The bottom line, I tried to change my orientation, spending hours upon hours in so-called reparative therapy and even exposing myself to shock therapy to try to break me of my natural feelings. It did not work. Recently, the Evangelical organization Exodus International, which ran reparative therapy programs, admitted what I knew, that what they did was wrong and harmful. Reputable medical organizations have consistently said that conversion or reparative therapy does not work and instead exposes a significant risk of harm to the individual. For the overwhelming majority of people who identify as gay or lesbian, there is no choice; there was no choice for me. It would take me hours to take you through over thirty years of struggle and among the worst moments anyone could envision having in combating something so hard and so strongly and to fail because there was nothing that could be done. I do not believe God makes mistakes. And it’s interesting that Jesus himself said nothing about same-gender relationships. 

Do you believe you can be gay and Greek Orthodox? 

Simply, yes. My own experience confirms that. During my struggle over my orientation, I turned to my faith a lot. I kept returning to a belief that is the core of our Greek Orthodox tradition, that the heart of Jesus Christ cries out for love and truth. Surely I thought He doesn’t want me hating myself. I kept going back to something St. Paul wrote, that “[f]or everything created by God is good…” And I kept reading this passage, given to me as I prepared for the Bar exam by someone I admire and respect: “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will… gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.’” Jeremiah 29: 10-14. 

Being gay is an important part of who I am, but it does not define me; how I live my life does define me and that is what is important when it comes to being Greek Orthodox. As I told the Pappaspost.com recently, despite what some may perceive in our Church as a physical disability, God made me this way for a reason, and I can try to reflect His image by doing good works, by making a difference in the lives of others, by caring for my neighbor, and by treating all people with respect and love.  Being gay does not prevent me from amplifying God’s love. So, in my view, my life does not conflict with the teachings of Jesus and Orthodoxy.  I believe I can be – and have been – fully immersed in the life of Church. 

Can you touch on what the response to your “coming out,” and/or public advocacy in support of civil marriage freedom, has been in your own Greek community?

As I also told Pappaspost.com, I came out very late in life. So based on really a quarter-century of life experience in my church – volunteering in the festivals and helping the church in other ways, I had earned the community’s respect and continue to maintain it. My church and broader Greek community by and large continues to see me for who I am based on the content of my character and not by some arbitrary characteristic I cannot control or change.

Where do you think gay people stand in the Church, and how do you think parishioners and the Church treat the community?

In many places, and I know this is not the case in every place, I have found that Church leaders and priests do their best to show unconditional love, to embrace everyone, including gay and lesbian parishioners. I think it’s generally the case, whether at Church or not, that people act with compassion for those they know. I think often times we get into trouble when we act on assumptions about those we don’t, based on stereotypes and fears of the unknown. And the Supreme Court decisions, by continuing to allow people to come out of the shadows, will improve the way people are treated and accepted.  Knowing people changes people. It will change communities of all types for the better.

Is it difficult to be Greek Orthodox when the Church suggests there’s something wrong with you?

After shock therapy, reparative therapy, counseling (religious and otherwise), and just so many difficult moments in getting to this place in my life, I am now unapologetic about who I am. I think the Church has this issue wrong. I don’t dwell on it. I agree to disagree with the Church on one issue, a Church that nonetheless provides immense value and hope to my life. I am a proud member of the Greek Orthodox Church, striving every day to be worthy of His love, example and teachings.

Is a “Big Fat Greek Wedding” possible for you, given the Church’s stance?

I think I need to find someone willing to marry me first before I can talk about what a “Big Fat Greek Wedding” will look like regardless of the Church’s position. My faith will always be an important part, an essential part of my life, and incorporated in everything I do. I’m confident I’ll have that wedding. 

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  • Ioannis

    As a lawyer, you certainly understand the concept of “abuse of power”. One definition of sin is “abuse of freedom” by making choices that distance us from God. We misuse what God has given us every day, to varying degrees…some of us take more than we need, effectively “stealing” from others, some of us allow our ego to take over so that we hurt other people in verbal or physical ways. Others choose to misuse the gift of procreation in various degrees of distortion, including pre-marital / extra-marital consensual, non-consensual, and abnormal (not the original intent of the organs involved) acts…We know humans are capable of taking these unnatural uses to extremes that are unimaginable at times. All of these are carnal sins of varying degrees, and they all result in a distancing from God, no matter how we try to justify them.

    The modern argument that someone can’t “help it”, or there is “scientific evidence” is preposterous, because that implies that in the future there can be “scientific evidence” that someone “can’t help” stealing, raping, killing, etc, as well…not being able to “help” oneself only applies to someone with no cognitive abilities (logic), and you know that very well from the legal world. Anyone that knows the difference between right and wrong will be held accountable in a human court of justice, even if that person argues before the judge “I did nothing wrong”…it will be the same concept on Judgment day, and unfortunately in the last 50 years, humans are increasingly deceiving themselves into an ephemeral fake reality of justifying and “legalizing” the spiritually illegal, etc. Now people are pushing for “scientific” evidence to justify sin (yet the media don’t point out that these controversial “studies” are rejected by the majority of biological scientists)…We all know the phrase “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”…God understands this, but when we go off trying to change this phrase to “The spirit is helpless because this is genetic, but the flesh is always weak, so it’s ok”, that is a violation of the Spiritual Constitution. Anyone who believes this latter statement to be true cannot claim to be Orthodox, but anyone who accepts the real former biblical quote has the opportunity to struggle within the Orthodox faith and try to battle the thoughts and urges that lead to sinful acts. A true soldier of Christ does not abandon the fight.

    Without food & water, the body dies….without intercourse, the body does not die, therefore it is not a basic necessity, but rather an act that is necessary only for procreation, and at the same time it becomes a central building block of keeping a married couple united. This completes God’s wisdom of the mystery of Marriage. Marriage only makes sense in the concept of what God intended it to be. There is no other definition, despite what legalists are trying to twist and turn on paper and on television. Of course, if misused in any way, intercourse can lead people to a slippery slope similar to that of drug addiction, and we have to be careful of falling into the trap of saying “I can’t help it”, or else God help us…..

    • Chrysovalantis Kefalas

      Ioannis, thank you for your comments, although clearly I disagree. In many respects, your comments are a sleight of hand, to obfuscate the issue, demonstrating an obsessive focus on intercourse rather than what this issue is really about, namely equal rights and love. You can judge me, but my behavior, life, and decisions have brought me closer to God, not a part from Him.

      You mentioned the judgment. I once had a great discussion with a wise man in our Church, who made the point that many people get too focused on things that Jesus did not concern himself with or emphasize. He recalled Matthew 25:31-46 and what the judgment day lesson “really” tell us: “‘For I was hungry and you have me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” This theological scholar continued, “If we do these, the most important, things we are called to do, the best way we know how and can, I believe [ ], that the King will say ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.’” This is a lesson that carries me and inspires my life. You’re entitled to your views, but I will forever agree to disagree and I have no concerns about what awaits me.

      To those readers who read your comments and wonder whether they will ever be accepted, I’ll end for them with what I read from a biblical scholar: “love is what God is, love is why Jesus came. And love is why he continues to come, year after year to person after person. May you experience this vast expansive, infinite, indestructible love that has been yours all along. May you discover that this love is as wide as the sky and as small as the cracks in your heart no one knows about. And may you know, deep in your bones that love wins.”

      • Ioannis

        As a lawyer, you definitely try to throw up a smoke screen, avoiding
        the real issue, and hoping you get a favorable jury…unfortunately,
        this training has pulled you into a trap of focusing on biblical phrases
        that appear on the surface to make your world a happy place, while
        ignoring other phrases that make the reality you have chosen for
        yourself a very uncomfortable existence…feel free to look up the
        meaning of the word
        ἀρσενοκοίτης

        which has been purposely mistranslated several times over in English
        biblical versions because of its controversial and literal accuracy.
        Then feel free to look up the original Greek Biblical passages that use
        this term. One such passage is:

        1 Corinthians 6:9
        Or do you not know that theunrighteous will not inherit the kingdomof God? Do not be deceived; neitherfornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers,nor effeminate, nor homosexuals,

        If
        we are reading the same Bible, how is it that you dismissed this phrase
        as non-essential to the argument at hand? Believe me, Mr. Kefalas,
        I’m not posting in order to change your
        opinion, but rather because the title of this article warrants the
        publication of arguments
        on both sides of the fence, the readers in this public forum deserve
        the necessary information
        to make their own choice on the question…It is not appropriate for
        your own distortions of reality to be portrayed as the truth in a public
        forum without a response.

        At least I am sure we can agree on
        one thing though…At the end of the day, even you certainly accept that
        your physical existence is the product of a man and a woman. At least
        the majority of people on this planet still agree that this is testimony
        alone of what God’s Truth really is.

        Ioannis

        • Chrysovalantis Kefalas

          Distortions of reality? To the contrary, my arguments on based on reality, including the science you ignore. On the other hand, you pick and choose biblical verses as much as you accuse me of doing, as many opponents of equal rights have done over history, to advance your position, but ignore the primary message of Christ. You can’t refute the lesson of Matthew 25:31-46, as much as you try. As for the majority of people on the planet; the world is changing as more people understand, or begin to understand, the reality that you choose to ignore and dismiss with your anonymity. All the best.

        • Nautus

          It is amusing that you use a book that wasn’t put together until 300 years after Christ as a tennis match throwing verses back and forth. No where and I mean no where do you use the logic and philosophy of those whom you call your ancient ancestors. A perfect example of how Judaism has hijacked Hellenism. By the way, your word ἀρσενοκοίτης was made up by a JEW, it didn’t even exist in the Greek language for thousands of years before but by all means, replace all the accomplishments of Hellenism with Judaism, it suits you fine.

  • Nautus

    I admire that you decided to stop trying to change yourself for a community and to accept yourself for who you are. I also admire that you have managed to reconcile your beliefs with who you are as well which is no easy feat in Orthodox Christianity. However, I would suggest, if you haven’t already, to also find strength in the philosophy and teachings of the ancient Greeks (eg Epicurus, Diogenes, Plato etc) as they offer a rich and rewarding way of mentality and reasoning. Ancient Greek philosophy is the founder of cognitive behavioural therapy employed today and is very useful to overcome the various situations we encounter in our lives.

    ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΕΑΥΤΟΝ

  • Pwlambson

    An eloquent, rational, insightful and intelligent argument–well done, Mr. Kefalas! You speak for many of us–and there are many. As a proud Greek Orthodox Christian who has also come to a deeper understanding and acceptance of my own orientation, I’d also like to add that my mom and dad would be proud to have you as their son-in-law…hint-hint ;-) Pretty sure my yiayias would have given the “thumbs-up, too!