South Florida Sun-Sentinel profiles a gay saint

In the mid-1990s, I had a chance to speak to some editors gathered in a Bible Belt city -- let's leave it at that -- about how to improve religion coverage at their newspapers. The morning of my talk, the local daily carried a long feature about a lesbian couple that was experiencing tension with neighbors in their middle-class community. It had a large, lovely photo of them in their perfect living room. The story was totally positive, with the exception of a very stereotypical quotation or two from predictably blunt fundamentalists (in the accurate sense of that word).

I used this as a case study in my presentation. I told the editors that I predicted the newspaper switchboard was getting lots of angry calls from readers accusing the editors of liberal bias. Bingo, said one editor, with a "What can you do?" shrug. I said that I thought the story was perfectly valid, while I might have had some questions about the witless, straw-men quality of the traditionalists who were quoted.

Now, what would happen if you ran this story on one day and then, on the next, did a matching story on a conservative who had left her lesbian past behind and was now married, with kids, and working in ministry with people in the area who were struggling with issues of sexual identity?

Well sure, one editor said, that would be great if such a person existed. Expecting this reply, I offered a name and number. It took a few minutes that morning for me to find such a woman in the area. If they ran this second story, I predicted that they would get more angry calls -- from a totally different part of the community. This would be a good thing, I said.

I bring this up because of a story in my local newspaper this morning entitled (here is the whole headline), "The gospel of Brian McNaught: The South Florida resident who has been called the 'godfather of gay diversity' has a humble quest: a world of mutual respect." McNaught is a former Catholic altar boy and progressive Catholic journalist who has evolved into a Buddhist gay activist and business consultant.

The story is, in every sense of the word, hagiography. It is amazing that, while McNaught is immersed up to his eyebrows in some of our culture's hottest controversies, he has no enemies. It is clear that he is brilliant and has lived a strategic, productive life. But there is no one who can be interviewed who is critical of his ongoing work with American Catholic colleges, major corporations, etc.?

One of the few times a conservative point of view is mentioned, reporter Margo Harakas does something that, when I was in journalism school, was a mortal sin. She prints the views of this famous, but strangely anonymous, conservative leader second hand -- trusting McNaught's own account of the story. Here is that part of the story, with only one tiny edit:

In his presentations, McNaught says, "The most powerful thing I do is tell my story." ... He likes to tell of the man who sat next to him on a plane, a high-profile, born-again Christian businessman and recipient of a presidential Thousand Points of Light award. He was from Cobb County, Ga., which McNaught knew had an ordinance declaring homosexuality incompatible with community values. The man and his wife helped finance the opposition to civil rights for homosexuals.

"So, tell me about you," the man said. "Are you married? What do you do for work?"

McNaught responded politely and calmly. He and his partner had been together more than 20 years, he noted. And his work was helping corporations address homophobia in the workplace.

Digesting that information, the man slowly began to probe more. McNaught shared the feelings of fear and isolation that gays and lesbians grow up with. He told of his life, of his devout upbringing, how he was a model child who yearned to be a saint. He explained that while he dated girls throughout his school years, he knew he was different. "The horror of growing up gay," he explained, "is having a secret you don't understand and are afraid to share with family and friends for fear of losing their love and respect."

All that he was advocating, he said, was for a world that was mutually respectful.

As the plane readied for landing, the man declared, "Brian, as sure as I'm sitting here, I believe that God had you sit next to me." He admitted he had never met a homosexual before. "You put a face on this issue and I won't ever forget that."

OK, I want to know. Who was this person? How would he describe his side of this encounter?

And what about the views of traditional Roman Catholics believers on the American Catholic campuses on which McNaught speaks as an authority on issues of sexual morality and health? It would probably be easy to locate a few and reach them by telephone.

Now, South Florida is South Florida and I know that. Let me stress that this was a valid news story, while I believe it could have used some sane, clearly attributed material from this man's critics. Perhaps the Sun-Sentinel also needs to consider finding a second story. You know, perhaps there is another valid news story that would tweak minds and tempers on the other side of this cultural divide. Maybe?

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