Gay rights activist Harry Knox recently concluded a 12-hour day of discussions at Elmhurst College for the LGBT Guestship with the observation that plenty of religious leaders claim to love, even as they preach intolerance. “If what they’re doing now is love, then they are loving lesbians and gay people to death,” he said. “And it has to stop.”
Knox, the director of the Religion and Faith Program of the Human Rights Campaign and a former member of President Obama’s Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, visited Elmhurst on October 13 to present the LGBT Guestship Lecture, “A Spirit-Filled Movement for LGBT Equality.” The lecture was the second event in the College’s yearlong series of dialogues on religion, “Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith.”
Knox spent much of his day at Elmhurst listening to students’ stories and talking with young activists about the special challenges and particular joys of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) life. Knox is familiar with both—growing up in rural Georgia, fear compelled him to stay in the closet. “Being out would have been suicide,” he said.
He was drawn to religious life, he said, but his church rejected him because he was gay. He eventually was ordained as a minister, but chose to spend many years outside the church, working as an advocate for LGBT communities.
As executive director of the Atlanta-based LGBT rights group Georgia Equality, Knox did the seemingly impossible: He jump-started a lasting, meaningful conversation about gay life in a notoriously conservative Southern state. Jeff Graham, Georgia Equality’s current executive director, said Knox’s impact is still felt nine years after Knox left the organization. “I still hear from business leaders, even now, who are making decisions to include domestic partnership benefits, all because of conversations they had with Harry.”
Knox refers to his current post at the Human Rights Campaign as “the best gig of my life,” though he plans to leave the job later this year to become senior pastor of Resurrection Metropolitan Church in Houston. “I have missed it [ministry] every day,” he said. “Every single day.”
A rash of LGBT youth suicides
The audience for Knox’s 4:00 p.m. lecture filled Illinois Hall—and then some. Chairs were brought in from the hallway to accommodate the crowd. As he spoke, Knox stressed the importance of involving religious communities in the struggle to achieve lasting change for LGBT citizens.
Religion, Knox said, is too often represented in public discourse by right-wing zealots, whom Knox called “hate in love’s clothing.” In reality, he continued, there is an essential role for faith and academic communities in the quest for LGBT equality.
“We have to talk about the spiritual and political movements for LGBT equality,” he said in an interview before the speech. “I believe both are important. And the political agenda for the LGBT community has been set, and is clear: We need to tackle issues of employment law, family law and immigration law—and we need to achieve the freedom to marry.
“The spiritual part is equally important,” Knox added, especially in light of the recent rash of LGBT youth suicides. “Ending [the hatred that has sparked these deaths] will require a change that cannot be legislated—it requires a change of heart on the part of the American people.”
An evening discussion at the Frick Center opened with a performance by members of the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus. Knox offered advice on how to talk to religious leaders about LGBT issues. He also cautioned against gender stereotypes, and against permitting the recent spate of LGBT suicides to snowball into an avalanche of negativity, allowing the deaths to “feed into each other.”’
Knox exhorted everyone to spend more time advocating love—announcing it, professing it and showing it—preferably loudly and with no apologies.
Finally, he echoed a thought from his earlier lecture, speaking with characteristic fervor: “Sex is a gift from God.”