Gary David Comstock is Protestant chaplain and visiting assistant professor of sociology at Wesleyan University. The author cites his “lover/partner Ted” in the acknowledgments, and thus manifestly belongs to the group he describes in uniformly favorable terms. The book is interesting, and in many respects challenging to the traditionally minded reader. A jacket blurb by Professor Wade Clark Roof of the University of California at Santa Barbara calls it a “useful and timely piece of research.” Despite its impressive scholarly apparatus, however, Unrepentant exhibits several methodological and philosophical defects. First, we note that Comstock draws his data from unrepresentative sources: most of his tables compare the United Church of Christ (UCC)—an almost entirely liberal denomination and one of two which have recognized homosexuality as morally legitimate—and the United Methodist Church (UMC), a much larger denomination with strongly liberal tendencies, especially among the denominational leadership, but in which conservative and evangelical elements exercise considerable influence. He assumes the accuracy of the gravely flawed Kinsey studies on human sexuality and their conclusion that ten percent of the males in American society are more or less exclusively homosexual. He refers to “Good News,” a parachurch organization in Atlanta, but makes no reference to the Good News Fellowship, an important evangelical witness in the United Methodist Church that naturally takes a dim view of homosexual conduct, despite his extensive use of UMC material. Second, he relies extensively on first person accounts of homosexuals (and bisexuals) in various churches and other religious groups, but gives no testimony from former or recovering homosexuals in any of the many recovery groups, such as Exodus, Harvest, and the like. Perhaps this is not a methodological fault, as Comstock is concerned with how homosexuals respond to religion. Nevertheless, at least some of them do so by repentance and change: a fact that is surely worth noting.

Philosophically, he seems to presuppose what he is trying to prove. He begins with the presupposition that homosexuality is constitutional or genetic, an assumption that is frequently made but so far cannot be proven. Despite the fact that all traditional religions have serious strictures against homosexual conduct—which he notes—Comstock simply assumes that the morality and acceptability of homosexual conduct and relationships can be taken for granted, and that the efforts of traditionalist Christians and others to help homosexuals to change are dismissable as prejudicial and “homophobic.” When homosexuals encounter criticism and opposition within traditional Christian or Jewish circles and migrate to Asian religions. New Age cults, or even Wiccan goddess worship, he regards this as a perfectly understandable response to the lack of understanding and love of the traditionalists. The fact that it can also be interpreted as apostasy into unbelief or even idolatry, motivated by an unwillingness to come to terms with the moral code of a traditional religion, is simply ignored. “I want to live in a way the church forbids: shame on the church!”

In addition to dismissing without examination the commandments of traditional religion, Comstock bases much of his presentation on an unexpressed presupposition: namely, that homosexuals generally form committed, faithful, loving relationships. Nevertheless, he does include bisexuals in his subject group, although the emergence of so-called bisexuals as a distinct and privileged group on the level of male homosexuals and lesbians certainly raises the question of whether we are not dealing simply with sexual profligacy rather than with any constitutional or genetic orientation, since the phenomenon of bisexuality, by definition, excludes the idea of committed, faithful, “monogamous” relationships, which forms a presupposition for much of his argument.

The assumption that the basic pattern of sexual relations is committed monogamy has considerably less basis with regard to homosexuals than to heterosexuals, while even the latter’s commitment to faithful monogamy is far from total. Nevertheless, among heterosexuals the concept of marital fidelity is credible enough for churches to present celibacy before marriage and fidelity in marriage as attainable ideals. Among homosexuals, and particularly gay men, the ideal of a committed, loving relationship with one person is seldom achieved over a long period. Not only “bisexuals” but gay men often seem to have more than one “partner”—indeed, they often pursue a very large number of them. This is one of the main reasons for the rapid spread of AIDS through the male homosexual population. If organized religions—and not merely the trendier groups such as the Unitarian Universalists. United Church of Christ, and Reconstructionist Judaism—are persuaded to accept the legitimacy of homosexuality (and, even more, of bisexuality), they will be forced to abandon all standards of sexual conduct for their clergy, not to mention for their general membership. And given the tendency of other churches, including the Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant denominations, to “go with the flow,” however sluggishly, such an attitude on the part of the liberals will have an impact on the general culture and ultimately on the more conservative groups—unless they steel themselves to fight it.

Much of this book consists of sympathetic reports of homosexuals’ experiences with organized religion. Some have welcoming and affirming contacts; others find rejection, condemnation, and even verbal and physical abuse. What Comstock does not consider is the homosexual who encounters loving acceptance of his person but not his practice, and who is thereby led to repentance and sometimes to transformation. He gives no attention to the homosexuals and lesbians—they are numerous—who, having been challenged by the received moral standards of the church, repent and change their conduct as well as, in some cases, their sexual orientation.

The thought that homosexuals can be transformed is anathema to the gay and lesbian movement. Even though with God nothing is impossible, activists regard homosexuality as so fundamental a part of one’s identity that the possibility of change seems to threaten the homosexual with annihilation. I low numerous are repentant, changed, or recovering homosexuals by comparison with those who do not change? We really don’t know. It is a dogma of the homosexual movement that true homosexuals cannot change; but there is much anecdotal evidence to the contrary, none of it less worthy of attention than the anecdotes that fill much of Comstock’s text.

This book ends with a poem in memory of Phyllis, a lesbian who wanted to become a UMC clergy woman but who was rejected and consequently shot herself. The implication is clearly that she killed herself because of the unloving rejection by the UMC. However, one might plausibly ask whether Phyllis really had the right to demand a teaching-ministering status in a denomination that considers her way of life—whether chosen or constitutional—unbiblical and sinful. Surely being a Methodist and desiring to be a Methodist minister is not so “constitutional” a state that Phyllis was faced with an irreconcilable dilemma.

What is evidently at stake is the fact that many if not all homosexuals, unlike winebibbers, consider their predilection (i.e., their homosexuality) to be their identity, which they cannot in any sense suppress or deny. Inasmuch as there are many fellowships—not so many nominally Christian ones, but at least a few, as well as some Jewish groups and numerous nontraditional religions—that accept homosexuality, why are individuals such as Phyllis insistent on being ordained in a church that does not accept it? Is it not possible that the despair that led Phyllis to her sad act was motivated by the fear that perhaps the UMC was right, and that she and her way of life were wrong? Comstock’s book is a protracted plea for all religions to accept homosexuality as an alternate expression of love, but to do so is not an option for those who continue to uphold the authority of the Bible, or even of Christian tradition.


[Unrepentant, Self-Affirming, Practicing: Lesbian/Bisexual/Gay People Within Organized Religion, by Gary David Comstock (New York: Continuum) 348 pp.,$29.95]