Montani Semper Liberi
Guest commentary in Morgantown's The Dominion Post - July 3, 1993
Mountaineers always are free. Our beloved state motto often inspired me while growing up in Morgantown. It heartened me through four exacting years of undergraduate study at the United States Air Force Academy – an appointment I owe gratefully to Senator Robert Byrd. After graduation, the motto firmly reminded me of my roots while serving an exciting and onerous thirteen years as an Air Force officer and fighter pilot.
Now, I frequently long for the beautiful, rolling mountains of West Virginia and the peaceful quiet of home. I must give them up, however, to help wage a fight for fundamental freedoms in Washington, D.C. – the right to be yourself and to be able to talk about it without fear of discrimination, violence or even death. In this case, these fundamental freedoms are being denied to lesbians, gay men and bisexuals – as a group – regardless of individual conduct and performance in the U.S. military.
West Virginia, born of the Civil War, instilled in me a loathing for unequal treatment of humanity based upon race. My mother faced gender-based inequities while raising my brother and me after the untimely death of our father. The Air Force Academy exposed me to a multitude of religions and values, and imparted to me the worth of diversity and religious freedom. Inevitably, one becomes more tolerant when united in purpose with students of all creeds, races, religions and ethnic backgrounds, representing every state and territory of our nation (and some foreign countries).
Recently, I’ve been at the nation’s capital talking with senators, representatives and their staffs about lifting the ban against lesbians, gay men and bisexuals serving openly in the military. Their concerns reflect correspondence and phone calls from constituents – and range from AIDS to unit cohesion, from endorsing a "homosexual lifestyle" to recruiting, retention and resource problems. However, West Virginia legislators convey that their constituents’ chief concern is morality.
The moral aspects of homosexuality are difficult indeed. People who do not know any open homosexuals tend to cite Biblical passages to justify their prejudice, just as the Bible has been used in the past to support racial segregation and traditional roles for women. Yet, those who know someone who is gay tend to be very supportive, reading religious texts to be inclusive and affirming of gay people.
Citing the Bible as authoritative about civil rights issues is a fallacy. The Rev. Victor Paul Furnish, an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church and Distinguished Professor of the New Testament at Southern Methodist University, relates that it is "anachronistic and misleading" when one finds the term "homosexual[s]" anywhere in a Bible translation because the word and concept was not coined until "the 1860’s, in German, in order to describe the theory, just beginning to take shape, that from birth some people are affectionally predisposed toward persons of their own sex."
This does not mean that homosexuality did not exist in Biblical times. It has existed throughout recorded history and probably before. But knowledge about homosexuality, until recently, was extremely narrow – especially given recent studies supporting biological causes.
Not even a part of the moral laws listed in the Leviticus Holiness Code, same-sex relationships raise less concern in the Bible’s "moral agenda," continues Rev. Furnish, than "deceitfulness; transgressing the rights of others or indifference to their needs [emphasis added]; greed; sloth; self-interest; injustice in the marketplace; oppression of the weak; exploitation of the poor and needy; proud religious posturing; self-righteousness; and, yes, ‘heterosexual’ lust."
What the Bible does teach us is to love and respect one another without judgement unconditionally. The Bible teaches that bigotry, hatred and intolerance have no place in our lives. Why are the prejudices of others so strong – stronger even than racial prejudices of the late 40’s – that we cannot overcome our differences? Coretta Scott King, in remarks urging President Clinton to fulfill his commitment to lift the military ban, recently said, "Like Martin [Luther King, Jr.], I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others." Why can’t we acknowledge ourselves as individuals and reserve judgment for some higher authority? Isn’t that the major tenet of Christianity – as taught by Christ himself. It is time we move beyond divisiveness and come together as a community of acceptance.
Even if one adheres to a strict religious view of homosexuality, then at least embrace the conservative principle upon which our great country was built – religious tolerance. The Jeffersonian concept of separation of church and state says that our governments – local, state and federal – shall not endorse any religion’s views in making policy. Yet legislators ban gays and lesbians from openly serving their country. Homosexuality is the fund-raising theme and call-to-action for religious fundamentalists in the 1990’s, much as abortion was in the 1980’s.
Our basic freedom to live our lives regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, without fear and with equal access to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, seems unquestionable to me.
Montani semper liberi. Enlightening as a state motto, not bad for the nation either.
Dennis Maust is a 1975 graduate of Morgantown High School and a 1979 graduate from the United States Air Force Academy. He served over thirteen years in the United States Air Force where he logged more than 2,500 hours as a fighter pilot and instructor pilot. He is currently a Major in the Air Force Reserves.