Holy Ashtray, Batman! That preacher has a dirty mouth!

Starbucks spices its lattés with “semen from sodomites.”

Jesus would “stone homos.”

Those are messages that have appeared on the giant billboard at ATLAH World Missionary Church in Harlem, courtesy of the Reverend James Manning. And sentiments like his may be what the parents of many LGBTQ kids secretly believe. Why else would they evict their own tweens and teens from the safety of their homes, forcing them to fend for themselves at an age when they are supremely vulnerable to rape, beatings, and ending up dead by suicide, murder, or overdose?

Let’s talk about homophobes. Sigmund Freud was a big one. Yes, he thought that it’s perfectly normal in the “latent” stage of sexual development to have some homosexual desires and experiences. But in grown men he thought of homosexuality as a selfish waste of good sperm. And he considered lesbianism a downright gateway to mental illness.

But as wrong as he may have been about homosexuality, the man actually got quite a few things right. He is the one, for example, who was so thrilled by Charles Darwin’s work that he thought:

“Hey! If physically we’re evolved from primates, maybe our emotional lives have something to do with theirs.”

Well, he didn’t say it in precisely those words. But he did encourage people to loosen their starched collars and whalebone corsets long enough to stop blaming themselves for impulses that weren’t entirely “civilized” and to wonder instead about the primal urges rattling about inside their heads and hearts.

There’s a lot to like about a man like that. And so it’s not surprising that, despite having been roundly shoved off his pedestal, Freud continues to be considered “mainstream.” Which may be why many of us who hate homophobic hate sometimes idly speculate about the hidden fears and wishes that may inspire parents to reject their LGBTQ kids.

I, for one, also wonder about religious leaders who flame out on the idea of non-normative sexuality. I’m thinking in particular about the Reverend James Manning of the ATLAH World Missionary Church. Concerned, I suppose, about the possibility of spermatozoa in his expensive coffee drinks, he is the one who posted the latté message on the church’s billboard. “All churches and members that support homos cursed thou be with cancer HIV syphilis stroke madness itch” was another one of his poorly punctuated messages.

“Itch?” I wondered when I saw it. “Itch?” I asked myself for the rest of the day.

Like I said, Sigmund Freud was one of history’s big homophobes, and he was particularly repulsed by the idea of lesbianism. He thought it was caused by faulty fathering. All of which was unfortunate for him and his favorite daughter, Anna, a lesbian.

Anna kept her own sexual preferences under cover for the 82 years of her life. Still, she enjoyed a happy monogamy for 54 years with her “best friend,” Dorothy Burlingham, heir to the Tiffany fortune. Not too long ago, Anna’s grandson revealed in an interview published in the Buenos Aires Times that she and Dorothy (the grandson’s biological grandmother) were spouses in every sense of the word.

It must have been tough for Anna to grow up in a household where the dominant parent had declared lesbianism a gateway to mental illness that was both caused by and curable by people like him. Breaking his own rule (roughly, “Never psychoanalyze a family member”) he analyzed Anna for what seem to have been about 1,000 clinical hours. Sigmund Freud believed that psychoanalysis is always a bit of an erotic power play. Given that, it’s horrific to imagine the sheer number of boundaries crossed in his attempt to cure the “problem” that he thought he’d caused.

But at least Freud did not tell his daughter that she was sinful and unlovable. At least he didn’t call down plagues on her and endanger her life by throwing her out on the streets. This is what tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of parents do today.

In New York City there is an extraordinary organization called the Ali Forney Center. It is named after an especially ebullient, gender-non-conforming teenager who, in 1997, was homeless and turning tricks to stay alive. He was murdered that year in Times Square. That sort of thing happens to unprotected kids, but Ali was so well-loved by area social workers that his death became the straw that broke the camel’s back. It took another five years for the social workers to get organized and funded, but today the center founded to honor Ali’s memory provides emergency housing and a wealth of medical, psychological, educational, and social supports to thousands of homeless LGBTQ teenagers every year. It is a remarkable place where the staff members really and truly care, and where unloved teenagers can be “parented” by the sort of people they might one day want to emulate.

The Ali Forney Center’s drop-in site in Harlem is mere blocks from the hate-spewing ATLAH World Missionary Church. I have to imagine that the staff and clients at AFC consider the ATLAH billboard offensive enough to give an aspirin a headache. (I’m stealing from Dan Rather here. If you ever run low on metaphors, Google “Ratherisms.”)

But there is a God, or at least there’s a majestic disseminator of occasional poetic justice. It seems that the Reverend Manning didn’t pay about $1 million of his bills. Earlier this year, a judge ordered Manning’s church into public auction. That order is now being appealed. But it could be that someday soon the hate speech billboard will stop spewing venom.

Even better, someone suggested that — well, wouldn’t it be glorious if the Ali Forney Center could buy the church building and use the extra space to house and serve even more children?

A major fundraising drive has been launched. Anyone wanting to donate can click over to the fund-raising page.

Follow me on Twitter @rebeccacoffey


Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist, humorist, and novelist. Her recent novel is the fact-based Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story, which Oprah recommended in her O! magazine and the American Library Association named a 2015 Over the Rainbow book.

“Journalist Coffey … presents an avidly researched, shrewd, and unnerving first novel that purports to be the lost autobiography of Anna Freud. . . Coffey offers some truly shocking disclosures about the Freud family in this complexly entertaining, sexually dramatic, acidly funny novel of genius and absurdity, insight and delusion, independence and loyalty. Illustrated with archival photographs and backed by a substantial bibliography, this is an electrifying, imaginative portrait of an overlooked historical figure of great significance: fascinating, courageous, and steadfast Anna Freud.” — Booklist