Among the protesters at Saturday's Pride Charlotte festival, evangelical Christian Michael L. Brown stood out like a drag queen at a Baptist picnic.
It wasn't that he yelled anti-gay admonitions or attempted to proselytize folks on the street, it was that he didn't -- not that it mattered much to gay-affirming clergy.
Brown, director of the Concord-based Coalition of Conscience, had alerted Pride Charlotte that he planned to appear at noon at the festival's Booth of Truth, a kiosk where attendees would talk religion without hearing that homosexuality would doom them to hell. Brown wanted to invite the clergymen and women to a discussion Sept. 20 on a topic as incendiary to some as it is tiresome to others: Can one be both gay and Christian?
Anyone who remembers recent Pride festivals and Human Rights Council galas already knows Brown's likely answer: No.
Brown, with other conservative Christians, complained when the city allowed Pride organizers to stage the festival in Marshall Park. And when the Human Rights Campaign had its annual dinner in Charlotte in February, Brown countered with a weeklong lecture series at the Booth Playhouse at the N.C. Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.
Nevertheless, Brown said a dialogue -- which he's taken pains to not call a debate -- could be eye-opening. "I think it's a real healthy way to have a good, solid intellectual exchange without acrimony, without hate speech [and] just say, what are the issues?" said Brown.
But religious leaders staffing the booth, including the Rev. Marege Blakeney of Unity Fellowship Church, weren't biting. Worried he might instigate debate on a day when Pride organizers hoped to minimize discord, they weren't looking forward to seeing Brown. When Brown invited Blakeney she remained a bit suspicious:
Blakeney: "Is this based on understanding, and not trying to convert anybody?"
Brown: "I would think we would both want people to see our viewpoint."
Blakeney: "I'm just saying ... it's not my place to convert anybody."
Brown: "My goal is to present what I believe is the truth."
Blakeney: "Do you believe in converting people?"
Brown: "Yeah, I'm a Jew who believes in Jesus."
Will such a debate -- er, dialogue -- change anyone's mind about Christianity, much less who they are? "You never really know," said Brown, without a hint of animus. "Generally speaking, the hardcore people on both sides, they're not going to change. However, you can always learn from each other. One of my key points is I've got to have empathy for the other person's point of view. Before I can address it, I've got to have empathy for it. So part of me would love to champion the cause of the gay and lesbian community as underdogs that have been misunderstood, except for certain reasons -- moral, scriptural and family -- I can't do that but my heart is very much joined with people that are outcasts and misunderstood."
Brown, a theologian and president of the Fellowship for International Revival and Evangelism School of Ministry in Harrisburg, said he believes gays and lesbians can switch orientations. "I know people personally that were in gay and lesbian lifestyles for 10 years or more and, according to everything they tell me, are adjusted heterosexuals. Some say it was a journey of six, seven, eight years that was very difficult. Anybody who says it's easy -- God can do anything, but barring some type of divine intervention, it's definitely a challenging thing."
He has written that the Human Rights Coalition, the gay advocacy group, "wants to impose its agenda on others, including ... even how we interpret the Bible." The Coalition of Conscience's Web site indicates he has a forthcoming book titled, A Queer Thing Happened to America: How a Stealth Agenda is Changing Our Nation.
In a statement announcing the discussion at FIRE Church, Brown said he was prompted to call for this public dialogue after reading an article in Q-Notes that mentioned the Booth of Truth would offer "truthful, gay affirming information about spirituality" at the festival. "If my viewpoint is wrong, that means I've been guilty of making God into a bigoted homophobe," he said in the statement. "If their viewpoint is wrong, that means they're sanctioning sin."
Speaking with Creative Loafing Saturday, he pointed out his approach differed from the such protesters carrying signs reading "God Abhors You," "There is no such thing as a saved sodomite," and "I'm not condemning you, you're condemned already."
"Does the protesting help reach the people? No, it turns them away," he said. "A certain militant tone and stride can give the wrong feel to what Jesus is about. I have no question that, according to Jesus, homosexual practice is wrong. [And] I have no question that Jesus laid down his life to save those people."
With the growth in entertainment and attendance, the number of protesters had increased. Operation Save America, also of Concord, was there with signs emblazoned with this message: "Abortion is murder. Homosexuality is a sin. Islam is a lie." (Odd, perhaps, considering a gay and lesbian gathering wouldn't seem to be group exactly exhibiting high demand for abortion services. And while Muslims certainly may have been in attendance, there certainly wasn't a noticeable Muslim Pride contingent.) The Sons of Thundr, a street-preachin' ministry from Primrose, Ga., an unincorporated burg about 50 miles south of Atlanta, paced Cedar Street between Trade and West Fifth streets.
"These folks act like when we come out here, we've got a bunch of beds lined up," said Raine Cole one of the festival's organizers. "It's the same nonsense year after year."
Brown said he understood such protesters' motivations. "I know some of the people who do it are loving individuals that really feel strongly to take a public stand against an agenda to legitimize homosexuality," said Brown.
The clerics staffing the festival's Booth of Truth on Saturday weren't embracing Brown's invite. Some, such as the Rev. Cliff Matthews, expressed unequivocal disinterest, while others were skeptical their beliefs would be valued. "I would love to debate," said Shaki Subramanian, a Hindu cleric. "But that requires an open mind."