This year, as children are playfully dressing up as ghosts and goblins for All Hallows Eve and Catholic churches prepare for All Saints Day, I am haunted by the memory of Zack Harrington.
Zack is the young man who committed suicide a few weeks ago after experiencing the extreme hostility toward homosexuals that was demonstrated by some citizens of Norman, Okla., when the city council approved a proclamation to recognize GLBT History Month. Much of the hostility expressed at that city council meeting arose from fear that the council’s action would encourage the public schools to teach children to be tolerant of homosexuals.
More than schools are needed to teach tolerance. Our churches must also make a concerted effort to teach people to be civil and tolerant toward those with whom they disagree. That this is something long overdue is something else that haunts me. Zack’s tragic death reminds me of the untimely death of another young man years ago.
Years ago, when I was a sophomore in high school, five of my buddies and I would pile into one car to go to football games. On one occasion we made an extra stop and picked up another boy; let’s call him, Jack. Jack was a quiet guy and a loner. I had classes with Jack but had never ever spoken with him.
When we added Jack to the car, we had four in the back, seating was cramped and I was sitting next to Jack. Halfway to the stadium, Jack asked a strange question. He asked, “What do you guys think of guys who like guys?” Someone asked him what he meant. He said, “You know, guys who are attracted to guys.”
The thought that guys could be attracted to guys was completely foreign to my mind. I said, “Keep them away from me!” Everyone else agreed and we all made a joke out of it. I may have been the only one to notice that Jack just turned his head and looked out the window.
Hours later we were all back in the car and heading home from the game. Our team had beaten one of our arch rivals. Everyone was in a celebratory mood. Everyone but Jack. Jack just stared out the window. Halfway home, he said, “I think I’m going to kill myself.” Someone in the front seat said, “Sure, Jack, we’ll throw a party when you’re done.” And all of us started making jokes again. The thought that he could be serious never entered our minds.
Within a week, Jack committed suicide.
At the time, I felt guilty for not taking Jack seriously when he talked about killing himself, but I still could not understand why anyone would want to kill themselves. The thought that a guy could actually be attracted to another guy was so incongruous to my way of thinking that it was still beyond my comprehension.
It took more than 10 years for it to dawn upon me that Jack’s question might have been an indication that he was a homosexual.
I often wonder whether the response of my friends and I would have been any different if we had received some education about homosexuality. At that time, the issue was not a topic of discussion at my home or church or school. Frankly, when I look back at the Bible-toting, legalistic, inerrantist, fundamental Baptist boy that I was at that time, I’m not very optimistic about my own reaction. But the reaction of one or more of my friends might have been different.
Bruce Prescott is executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, president of the Norman, Okla., chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and host of “Religious Talk” on KREF radio. He blogs at Mainstream Baptist.
Bruce Prescott, now retired, served as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists from 1998-2014.