By Charles Layton
On Saturday, the ice broke.
After years of distrust and outright hostility, leaders of the Camp Meeting Association and Ocean Grove’s gay rights community found a way to come together. Or so they seem to hope and believe.
The CMA’s president, Dr. Dale Whilden, and eight CMA trustees showed up for lunch at the home of Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster, co-chairs of Ocean Grove United. Other OGU board members were there. So was Stephen Goldstein, who heads the state’s leading gay advocacy group, Garden State Equality. So was Randy Bishop, Neptune Township’s gay mayor, who lives in the Grove, and Congressman Frank Pallone. And so were five gay and lesbian high school students from North Jersey, along with a parent of one of the students and the sister of another young man who is gay.
The first thing these people did was share a cold buffet lunch. Then they crowded together in the living room/dining room area for conversation.
“We made certain the Camp Meeting trustees and the kids all sat near each other,” Bernstein said. “Each and every one of these teens spoke about their own experiences of being bullied because they are gay.”
Whilden said afterward that he and the other CMA officials “were impressed with these kids. They had insight and courage and just a perspective I’m not sure we all grasped as well before the meeting as we did after the meeting. These are brave kids. They’ve been through a lot.”
Members of the CMA and Ocean Grove’s large gay and lesbian population have had an antagonistic relationship since 2007, when the CMA refused to allow Bernstein and Paster to use the boardwalk pavilion for a civil union ceremony. They and other gay residents fought back, forming Ocean Grove United as a civil rights organization. Blue and yellow equality flags appeared on porches all over town.
A law suit over the pavilion issue made national news. It was resolved just this past January when a judge ruled that the CMA had violated New Jersey’s anti-discrimination laws.
By that time, tempers had moderated somewhat on both sides, but then came Kirk Cameron, a visiting minister who provoked the gay community all over again by making insulting remarks about gays on national television.
On Friday, when Cameron made his appearance in the Great Auditorium, Bernstein and Paster led a silent demonstration outside.
But at the same time, they extended a hand to the leaders of the CMA, in the form of the luncheon invitation, which those leaders accepted.
The gay teenagers took center stage during the living room discussion, describing how it feels to be persecuted by one’s peers and attempting to explain that when religious leaders make harsh public remarks against gays they feed such persecution.
Bernstein said a straight girl at the meeting, whose brother is gay, “explained how Kirk Cameron’s words really affected them, how hurtful they were, and how those are the same kinds of words they’ve been hearing since middle school, from kids who were bullying them.”
“They drew the connection,” Paster said, “that such words from people like Kirk Cameron – public figures – make it easier for other people to use similar words. It has a ripple effect.” Cameron had said on CNN that homosexuals were destructive of the foundations of civilization.
Paster and Bernstein said these teenagers’ testimony seemed to make a genuine impression on the trustees. “One trustee who had a career in education commented that he had seen the same thing in the school system,” Paster said. “He validated exactly what the students had said. He had seen it first-hand.”
Whilden not only agreed that the trustees had been impressed, he predicted that a new day might be at hand in Ocean Grove. “It seems to me we’ve gone to another level of friendliness and neighborliness,” he said. “We’re not going to agree on everything. But we can work together, we have a lot of things in common, and we all love Ocean Grove.”
After about 2 ½ hours the meeting broke up without any specific plans for followup. However, both sides agreed that the dialogue would continue.
One concrete suggestion, made by one of the teens, Corey Bernstein (no relation to Harriet), was that the gay organizations and the Camp Meeting might work together on some sort of anti-bullying event in Ocean Grove.
New Jersey’s new anti-bullying law designates the first week in October as a “week of respect,” during which schools are asked to teach the consequences of intimidation and harassment. That week might be a good time for some kind of Ocean Grove event, Corey Bernstein suggested.
Whilden later told me that such an October event could be a practical problem, because the CMA’s program committee meets in the middle of that month to decide on events. “So I’m not sure that we could put something together this year … but I hope that’s not going to be discouraging to the kids.”
Change may take time, Whilden said, but he thinks there is a new “level of community awareness.”
“We don’t expect people to change their views,” Harriet Bernstein said. “They’re going to follow what they believe. What we’re asking them to do is be more sensitive to the diverse population that lives in Ocean Grove. And that I think they can do.”