My friend Phil arrived early Saturday morning to the expo center, site of the 2014 Eastern PA annual conference meeting.  As he walked toward the entrance, he heard an unfamiliar voice shouting from across the parking lot. “Here comes another f­­ag!” Phil could not see clearly the man who uttered the epithet, but it was obvious that it was levied at him.  Ironically, Phil is not gay, but he was wearing a rainbow stole – a symbol of LGBTQ solidarity well-known among Eastern PA conference members. Phil, a lay member of Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, thought it his duty to inform presiding Bishop Peggy Johnson of the incident. At the opening of the morning session, Bishop Johnson spoke of a “name-calling” incident outside the gathering, which she said was “inappropriate” and had no place among Christian people. She admonished the conference members to be respectful of one another even if they disagree.

Bishop Johnson was clearly troubled by the incident and was no doubt sincere in her aim to create a place that was safe for all God’s children. However, I had the gnawing feeling that the bishop’s words seemed an inadequate response to what had happened. I raced to the nearest microphone and held up my red card to get the bishop’s attention. My head swirled with thoughts as I struggled come up with the right words. As I recall, I awkwardly blurted out something to the effect of, “Bishop, with all due respect, I don’t think that it is enough to say that name-calling is inappropriate. My friend was called an anti-gay slur starting with the letter ‘F.’ This is hate speech and it needs to be named as such.” The bishop thanked me for speaking up and said that she agreed that it was indeed hate speech.

What makes the difference between name-calling and hate speech? Hate speech is defined as a verbal attack against a person or group on the basis of race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. Hate speech is used to intimidate and purposefully create a climate of fear. Social media responses to the morning’s events and other informal chatter indicate that conference attendees overwhelmingly condemned the words of the anonymous man in the parking lot. However, it must be noted that people typically restrict their use of hate speech to environments in which they think they can get away with it. This man did not seem to be concerned that another United Methodist clergy or lay member could hear him. Why not? It speaks to the overall atmosphere in some United Methodist circles, in which it seems riskier for a gay person to publicly announce his or her sexual orientation than for a bigot to use hate speech in a loud and purposefully-public fashion. What can faithful United Methodists do in order to tip the balance in the opposite direction? This year’s EPA conference gathering can be characterized by a spirit of avoidance. The body voted to defer most of the resolutions dealing with homosexuality, even the one calling clergy who performed the Arch Street same-gender wedding last fall to voluntarily surrender their ordination credentials. In such an environment, it is critical to be attentive and obedient to the Spirit of God, and be ready stand up and speak on behalf of our LGBT siblings when the right moment arrives.

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