Sunday, July 3, 2011

Pieces of Me

During the summer, LGBT people celebrate the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots with Gay Pride parades and festivals all across America. In the state of New York, what is arguably the most legendary Pride celebration in Manhattan was boosted by the June 24 passing of a bill legalizing gay marriage in that state. New York now tops the list states as the largest to pass such legislation. The celebration of this milestone will reverberate across the nation this weekend, and rightly so.

Gay pride has always been a somewhat elusive sentiment for me. The prevailing emotion connected to my sexuality has always been one of shame rather than pride. Early on I attributed this primarily to my experience growing up in the evangelical church, where the last thing I was made to feel about my burgeoning sexual orientation was pride. One would think that as I came to terms with my sexuality, the shame would have subsided and in its place emerged a true sense of the pride that so may celebrate each year. But it’s been over a decade since I “came out” as gay, and I still struggle to let go of shame and embrace my gay pride.

While the shame I felt as a young man can be attributed to my religious upbringing, the shame I’ve felt in more recent years has come not from external voices. Rather, it is the appropriate reaction to decisions and behaviors that I am simply not proud of. And herein lies the rub of the gay pride dilemma for me. While my LGBT brothers and sisters celebrate with parades and parties, costumes and music, I’m not sure we’re celebrating the same things.

As I took my first steps out into the gay community in my early twenties, I learned very quickly that my newfound sexuality was a highly valued commodity.  Casual sex could be traded for a sense of belonging, feelings of attractiveness, and endless opportunities to satisfy the powerful cravings of a male sexual appetite that had been suppressed and starved for my entire life. Having distanced myself from the anchors of my faith community (essentially tossing the baby Jesus out with the bathwater in my newfound independence), I believed the hype and dove head first into this new culture where gratification was the prevailing core value.

A decade later, it is painful for me to reflect on the many pieces of me I gave away during those coming out years. Pieces of my innocence. Pieces of my soul. Treasured pieces of me that were haphazardly discarded in an effort to fit my perceived mold of an “out and proud” gay man. These were pieces of me I will never get back.

Needless to say, you won’t find me prancing down the street in a speedo celebrating the aspects of gay culture that have caused a great deal of pain in my life. And because of this, I’ll be perceived by some of my LGBT brothers and sisters as a self-loathing party pooper. But that’s not to say that I won’t be celebrating gay pride this year, because I most certainly will…

In fact, this year I will be celebrating gay pride more than I ever have in the past, but from a new place of self-acceptance and healing. This year I’ll be celebrating the fact that, across the United States, we are slowly but surely winning the battle for equal rights to marry or enter into civil unions. I believe that legally recognizing and validating the commitment of two gay people to live in a committed relationship with each other is the single most important step to changing the unhealthiest aspects of gay culture. There will be less reason for sneaking around in the shadows where healthy sexuality is corrupted by a shame-based grasping for false intimacy. And there will be couples walking around openly in our society as role models of a healthy expression of the deep love embodied in so many same-sex relationships.

And this year I will be celebrating the fact that, through the love of God, close friends and my partner, I am walking again in a restored sense of wholeness as a gay man and a follower of Jesus.

It was last year at a gay pride celebration that I met the man who I believe will be my partner for life. Yes, it was at a gay pride celebration, and the irony of those circumstances is not lost on me. Only a gracious God would meet me at the very point of my internal battle of shame over my sexuality and use a gay pride celebration to begin the next step in my journey toward restoring wholeness in my heart and soul. There is no coincidence in that for me. And each day I am learning first-hand how a powerful love (bestowed by God and reflected through people) can root out shame, and in its place leave a restored sense of one’s true value and worth.

So please allow me to wish you a Happy Gay Pride, my friends. Let’s celebrate the beginning of a new gay identity embodied by selfless and shameless loving relationships that can finally be lived outside of the shadows for all to see.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Yes, this is what it's like

Even though I write a blog about the experiences of being gay and Christian from the perspective of someone who is just that, a gay Christian, most of the followers of this blog actually lean toward the conservative, evangelical side of the religio-political spectrum. I didn’t expect this to be the case when I first began writing almost a year ago, but it has been one of the best parts of the experience for me as a fledgling blogger. Blogging is much more interesting when you have a readership with opinions that differ from your own.

The other amazing thing about this experience has been the opportunity to connect with numerous young, LBGT people at different stages on the same journey toward integrated lives and identities.

One such opportunity came a few weeks ago as I visited my family in the Midwest.  As plans for my visit came together, a good friend and former teacher asked me if I’d be interested in speaking to a group of LGBT students and their straight allies at a high school in my hometown. Since I grew up in this very school district, I already knew these kids were not on gay-friendly turf. And I was right. In response to some anti-gay threats and bullying incidents that had taken place at the school, a group of LGBT and straight-but-concerned students had formed a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) as a way for students to find support and a safe place to belong. I accepted the invitation without hesitation.

During the hour-long circle dialogue that took place after school one day, I told my story, listened to the stories of these courageous young people, and then answered a myriad of questions about my life as a gay adult who had grown up on the same side of the tracks as the students sitting around me in that classroom. Without going into too much detail, it was both a humbling and inspiring experience for me. I am constantly amazed at the courage and strength of character that develops in young LGBT people who, like me, are forced to find a way to survive adolescence in environments that can quickly become hostile if anyone were to find out the truth, buried under carefully constructed fa├žades.

A few days later, my teacher friend sent me a panicked e-mail. Even though the school administration had officially sanctioned the Gay-Straight Alliance at the high school, they had come under fire from an angry parent of one of the students who attended the GSA meeting. One of the students had left the meeting and come out to their parents, igniting a firestorm of backlash from an angry parent who accused the school of bringing a “gay activist” to the school to “teach their child how to be gay.” In the e-mail, my teacher friend stated, “This is just so awful. It is a first taste of your world for me.”

Fast forward just a few weeks to a conversation I had with a friend of mine who recently left a position with an evangelical, Christian organization because of the negative pressure he was receiving since coming out as gay. Without delving into the anguish this person has suffered as a result of coming out as a gay Christian within a culture that believes those two things cannot be true at the same time, I’ll tell you that this is someone who has become one of those everyday heroes to me. During our phone conversation this friend recounted to me the experience of accepting a speaking engagement at a very large, public university in the Midwest.

The event was a “bridge-building” event sponsored by both an LGBT campus group and a well-known evangelical campus ministry. The whole point was to, without delving into theological debate and blame casting, address the topic of how Jesus would respond to homosexual people in today’s cultural context. My friend told his story (one very similar to my own), including the very difficult process of reconciling his faith and sexuality with integrity. During the meeting, someone stood up in the audience, disregarding the established rules for submitting written questions, and called my friend a false prophet, a liar and then shouted, “What’s it like to be living in sin?” And this happened on the campus of one of the largest public universities in the United States!

It didn’t stop there, as this person proceeded to post one of the most theologically misinformed, vitriolic blogs I’ve ever read on the topic on a website hosted by his church and backed by a handful of extreme-right “evangelical” pastors. In addition to the accusations leveled during the event, he called my friend “wicked” and accused him of placing “stumbling blocks before the weak.”

As I mentioned earlier, the majority of readers of my blog are evangelical Christians. Since I have grown up in that world, and am Christian myself, I am familiar with the scriptures that talk about persecution of Christians in the end times. Many within the circles of my upbringing spend time thinking and talking about what it will be like in those days when we are “persecuted” for our faith. In fact, it led to a whole series of highly successful novels highlighting the trials and suffering that those who remain true to the faith might go through.

Well, folks, those are mere musings at this point. In the United States in 2011, you’d have to possess a very creative imagination to envision what it’s like to actually be treated hatefully because of your unwavering commitment to your Christian faith.

In stark contrast, right now, today, smack dab in the middle of the public institutions of our society (not to mention the private spaces of churches across America) to simply speak out loud as an unapologetic gay person, even a gay Christian person, often incites the worst kind of hate-mongering and threatening language one can imagine. For those of us who still take our faith very seriously, the religious language (“wicked,” “false teacher,” “gay activist”) has more power than one might imagine, because these are the same names and terms hurled from the pulpit during our formative years in the church. What is more frightening for us is that these hateful words are often accompanied by a very real threat of harm to our physical safety, career or reputation.

My teacher friend admitted experiencing just a glimpse of what I must deal with on a regular basis. If you’re reading this, maybe you’re surprised, too. Or maybe you’re thinking, “Is this really what it’s like?”

Yes, unfortunately, this is what it’s like for far too many of us who choose to remain a part of the communities of belonging we ourselves helped build and sustain for our entire lives. It’s not pretty, and it won’t change unless our straight allies begin to challenge the voices of hatred within their own midst.

Until then, you’ll find me and others like me continuing to raise our voices with the hope that things will be different for those who come behind us, daring to live their lives out in the open with integrity, courage and faith.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Uninvited Guest

Have you ever had one of those dinner guests who you invited only because you have a lot of mutual friends? Have you ever gotten to the end of the evening to find that the only guest left drinking your wine and sitting in your favorite chair is the one person you were ambivalent, at best, about inviting? Yeah, you know exactly whom I’m talking about. Well, allow me introduce myself. I am that guy. I’ve been taking up a precious spot at an exclusive dinner party for well over a decade now, and I haven’t had any real plans of putting down my glass and pushing back from the table anytime soon. But lately I’m starting to get the distinct impression that the party is over, at least for me.

It all began recently when I had the overwhelming privilege of spending the day amongst a group of heroes. Not the kind of heroes our society lauds (although any one of these individuals could easily change the world, and likely will). And not the typical, seasoned leader that has normally held “hero” status in my life.

On the contrary, I spent the day sitting in a circle with a dozen mostly twenty-somethings, who have defied the odds on a journey of faith, integrity and true grit to stand as young, gay Christians caught between two worlds that have told them they should not, or cannot exist. As a thirty-something who has only recently found the voice to articulate my own journey, I was leveled by the power of a small group of young people whose stories both broke my heart and shattered my notions of what it could be like to be a gay Christian in 2011.

How was it that in a room where I had at least a decade on the young adults sitting around me, I was the one learning a lesson about conviction and commitment? I was challenged by the commitment to faith even at high personal cost evident from each and every person’s story.  I was inspired by a shared commitment to live an integrated life in spite of the voices (internal and external) that have told many of us that we cannot be both gay and followers of Jesus. And most importantly, I was laid bare by their steely commitment to justice, a cause to which I have dedicated my life and career in the pursuit of for other vulnerable people, but not on behalf of myself and people on a similar journey. While I resonated with the first two commitments, it was this commitment to justice for which I found myself without a leg to stand on.

Walking (or should I say hobbling?) away from this experience, I felt at the same time uplifted and, quite frankly, floored by the courage of conviction in the room and the tough questions posed to me by these young believers. Questions I thought I had answers to, but after hearing myself give those answers out loud, have realized don’t satisfy even me, and certainly not the people who were asking them.

The questions boiled down to this one defining issue: Why do I continue to hold my place at a table where many of the people who set the table don’t want me to dine? 

I used to answer quite confidently that the reason I held my place was because I believed God was calling me to change my corner of the evangelical church by pushing myself closer to the table and holding on tight. But over the course of the past few months, I’ve begun to wonder if that answer has really just been an excuse for participating in my own oppression and the mistreatment that comes from being treated as the uninvited guest.  Or even worse, has it been the excuse I’ve used to let the people who set the table and made the guest list off of the hook for trying to exclude me in the first place?

I’ve always opted to give people the benefit of the doubt on these issues, but as I come more fully to love myself as the person God made me and as I experience more fully the unconditional love of God and a handful of good people, I’m finding I’ve run out of excuses for those who’ve tried to keep me from experiencing that love from the beginning.

The answer isn't a simple one. From what I can tell, there are less and less of us gay Christians who are willing to sit silently at a table where we are not welcome.  In fact, many of the people I've been talking with lately are ready to overturn the damn thing and go to a dinner party where we are not only invited, but treated as the guests of honor. And as I've already shared in this post, it's a question I've been wrestling with myself.

The thing is, this particular blog is about finding hope. Even though hope may be difficult to find when we read the news and hear the painful stories of people like us, I do believe there are some bright spots on the horizon, and they are the silent majority of Christians that exist in many evangelical churches who want to fully embrace their LGBT brothers and sisters and believe that we should be invited to the table. We have allies, and many of them are the people we've been seated next to in the pew and hugged and prayed and cried with more times than we could possibly remember. And all along, they knew much more than we though they did about who we were, and grew to love us for that and not in spite of it.

So rather than sit in silence as an unwelcome guest, or rather than get up, overturn the table and storm out of the room, I believe that we gay Christians may need to do something that feels a bit uncomfortable for those of us who have a new-found confidence in who we are. That difficult step is to entrust the role of "re-setting the table" to our brothers and sisters (straight or otherwise), who are willing to use their positions of influence and integrity to validate our presence at this dinner party we call "church." It will require that we swallow a bit of our recently discovered pride, and it will involve taking a risk. But ultimately, I believe this is the only way we can experience true reconciliation, along with the elusive experience of welcome that each of us (most certiainly me), yearn for.

Here's hoping I will see each of you the next time we gather for that special, weekly dinner party more commonly known as the communion of the saints.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Devouring Our Young

Unless you live “off the grid,” it’s been impossible to miss the news coverage that has placed the gay community in the center of a media firestorm this past month. It began with the stories of five young people, all in their teens, who committed suicide as a result of bullying or harassment connected to their real or perceived sexual orientation. During the months of September and October we have heard one heartbreaking story after another of lives cut short due to the cruelty of others.

If you live in the Atlanta area or are connected to a church community, another story that has undoubtedly caught your attention involved accusations of sexual coercion made by four young men against Bishop Eddie Long, the pastor of a prominent mega-church of over 20,000 members in the Atlanta suburbs. In this case, four young men who were part of Bishop Long’s ministry through either his church or boys’ academy have detailed the use of expensive gifts, overseas trips and even cash to manipulate them into sexual relationships and then to keep quiet. All the while, Bishop Long has used his church pulpit as a bully pulpit to spew messages condemning gay people while passing the offering plate to collect millions of dollars from his followers.

And just in case you missed both of these stories, earlier this month a federal judge ruled to overturn the controversial “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” legislation that has been in effect for over 15 years as the military’s policy on gay people serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. That decision, while in effect for only one day, was stayed by swift action from the Obama administration and the Attorney General’s office. Apparently allowing gay people to be open about their sexual orientation would send the military into such turmoil that our national security would be at risk. Really, America? Are people (mostly teenagers and young adults) who have the courage and character to put their lives on the line to defend our country really a threat to national security?

For a blog that is primarily focused on issues facing young gay people, my silence in the face of these recent news stories has probably been rather conspicuous. There are a number of reasons why I’ve waited until now to write. The first is that I haven’t felt I had anything new to add to the conversation. The second is that this blog is typically a forum for me to share my life experiences rather than make political statements. But the third and most significant reason hit me like a Mack truck the other night. I was with some close friends and someone brought up the topic of the teen suicides and the “It Gets Better” project kicked off by the heartfelt actions of Ellen DeGeneres and columnist Dan Savage. We were discussing the videos each of us had seen on YouTube when I, quite suddenly, burst into tears.

I realized last week that the reason I’ve not written about this or even discussed it much is because, emotionally, I just haven’t been able to handle it. These stories have hit me so close to home that I didn’t even realize the subconscious efforts I was making to protect myself from the whole topic. Suddenly I can’t avoid it anymore. This is real, and it could have been me.

As with most teenagers, the high school years were a mixed bag for me. The pressures of overachievement and meeting an unattainable standard of perfection in the eyes of God and the church were looming, yet in the midst of those pressures I was afforded opportunities that many young people never have. I excelled academically and socially at my private, Christian high school and even befriended many of my teachers as well as fellow students. I was elected homecoming king my senior year and involved in extracurricular activities from yearbook to high school musicals (insert snarky comment here…). 

Unfortunately, it is often the more damaging and negative experiences in life that shape who we become in the most obvious ways. For me, the shadow side of my high school experience came from my involvement in two traveling youth choirs affiliated with my church. During my sophomore year of high school I joined and quickly took my place in the inner circle of an emotionally charged, spiritually manipulative, shame-based youth ministry that eventually became the focal point of my social, emotional and spiritual life as a teenager. This group was led by a very charismatic leader and a small group of adults, all of whom I became very close to. What should have been a positive developmental experience instead created more confusion in my heart and mind about who I was, who God was and what it meant to be a Christian than any other experience I’ve had in my life. 
Each weekend these youth groups would get together in what I can only describe as a sexually-charged environment, where the ongoing joke was to make fun of “homosexuals” and where the boys in the group were encouraged by the leaders to mimic gay people by sexually groping each other, speaking with an over-pronounced lisp, making sexual innuendos and referring to each other as “homos” and “fags.” This was, of course, all done under the banner of fun and happened under the supervision and with the participation of many of the adult leaders. What happened backstage was a nightmare for some of us, but when the lights came on and the music began playing, all the people in the pews saw was a group of teenagers singing their hearts out to God.

As a gay, Christian teenager who was deep in the closet, the culture of this group terrified me to the core, yet I participated in the joking and abusive behavior just to stay in the inner circle. As I had in so many other areas of my life, I tried to make everyone believe I was perfect, and to pull off that charade in this group meant I had to be a card-carrying homophobe for Jesus. 

The flip side of the sexually inappropriate culture of the group was the way the leaders would then turn around and use the concepts of shame, sin and redemption to whip the group into a frenzy of confession, tears and emotional/spiritual hysteria before each concert. I can remember, on numerous occasions, standing in a circle with other kids holding hands and weeping over the shame I felt, begging for forgiveness from God while terrified at what I knew I was; I was the very subject of the abusive, mocking culture that defined the social structure of this group. And when the weekends were over and I returned home to face the normal pressures of school and family life as a teenager, my mom would sometimes find me in my room at night, with the door closed, shaking with anxiety and fear over what would happen if God didn’t answer my desperate prayers to take these feelings of same sex attraction away. Or, even worse, what would happen if people found out what my tearful prayers were actually about.

Were it not for other protective factors and healthy adult relationships I had during my high school years, my story could have had the same tragic ending as 19-year-old Tyler Clemente, or 13-year-olds Asher Brown and Seth Walsh… Need I go on?

I began this post by mentioning three news stories that have become the focal point of a heated debate in America. Talking heads on both sides of the “gay” issue have debated each other, cast blame on the alleged perpetrators of abuse, and even in some cases accused the gay community of using the deaths of these young people as propaganda for advancing a “gay agenda.” So my question to the American public, the American media and the American church is this: When will we stop devouring our young?

Let’s begin by shifting the conversation to the kids out there at this moment that could become the next teen suicide victims, and then move heaven and earth to preserve their lives! Let’s forget about egomaniacal, fat cat preachers who bilk the poor by spreading messages of bigotry and hate and instead rally around these four brave young men in Atlanta who risked ostracism by their families and communities to take a stand against spiritual abuse. And let’s challenge the policy makers in this nation who would sooner send a teenager (of which I see hundreds every week coming to and from the Atlanta airport) to the front lines of a war than afford them the dignity of being true to who they are.

I want to be able to tell young, gay Christians that it will get better. It did get better for me. But it only gets better when we adults make it better in our churches, our schools, our government institutions and our culture at large. So I ask again, when will we stop devouring our young?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dear God, Please Save Me from Myself

If you watch much television or go to many movies you are undoubtedly familiar with the stereotype of a gay man in America. It’s the guy with the quick wit and caustic tongue; the guy who has few outside obligations on his time or affections and is quick to flee the scene or devour the wounded at the first sign of weakness. It’s the guy who likes things in a state of apparent perfection, whether it’s his clothes, his fabulous living space or his gorgeous friends (because, of course, gay men don’t actually have unattractive friends. Duh.). This image of the quintessential gay character adds a dash of comedic spice to any romantic comedy and almost every network sitcom shown in America. And the formula works because, just as with any stereotype, this one is also based in reality (or a snapshot of reality, anyway).

I get why people think this is funny. After all, at the base of our humanity all of us secretly wish we could sometimes just live for ourselves, break free of the people and things that need us, and freely spend all of our resources (whether they be time, ambition or money) crafting a “perfect” world with ourselves at the center. This is one of the basic features of human nature that we all share. Thank God there are other forces at work to counter these desires, or the world would be a place where committed relationships didn’t exist, children ran around parentless, the elderly were left to die alone and the sick suffered in obscurity. Wait, I’m talking about an alternate future, right?

I have a theory about this narrative of narcissism that has formed the basis of the gay stereotype in America. At least from the perspective of a gay Christian, it begins with the messages that gay people receive growing up. I’m specifically referring to the messages that tell young gay people what they cannot and should not ever have or experience in their lives. The list is long and includes the following:

  • You cannot have a partner of the same sex.
  • You cannot have children.
  • You cannot be a part of this family.
  • You cannot be a part of this church.
  • You cannot serve openly in the military.
  • You cannot have job security in the professional world.
  • You cannot get into heaven.

Growing up with those messages ingrained in one’s psyche takes a toll. It strips away a great deal of hope for one’s future and one’s quality of life. Just look at some of the statistics on LGBT youth who are the targets of these messages (for more, check out The Trevor Project’s website)…

  • Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers (Massachusetts 2007 Youth Risk Survey).
  • Questioning youth who are less certain of their sexual orientation report even higher levels of substance abuse and depressed thoughts than their heterosexual or openly LGBT-identified peers (Poteat VP, Aragon SR, et al – Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 2009)
  • LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are more than 8 times as likely to have attempted suicide than LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection (Ryan C, Huebner D, et al - Peds 2009;123(1):346-352)
  • It is estimated that between 20 and 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender (2006 National Gay & Lesbian Task Force: An Epidemic of Homelessness). 
  • 62% of homeless LGB youth will attempt suicide at least once—more than two times as many as their heterosexual peers (Van Leeuwen JMm et al – Child Welfare 2005).

For a gay teen inside or outside of the church, just making it through adolescence alive requires the development of formidable survival skills. If you’re rejected by your family and have to make it on your own (which often happens with LBGT youth from conservative evangelical homes), you learn how to protect your emotions from the pain of that rejection, fend for yourself and then work your tail off for the things you need such as money, shelter and safety.

Is it any wonder, then, that when these young survivors reach their thirties they have effectively learned how to cut a person off at the knees using only their quick thinking and caustic words? Is it any surprise that when they finally accumulate nice things they want to enjoy those things for themselves? Don’t the simple principles of Social Darwinism explain why these individuals would want to avoid needy people who may want to take something from them, whether emotionally or physically? Our media has manipulated this tragedy into comedy, but I see (and have experienced) the betrayal that lies at the core of the stereotypical narcissism within the gay community. I see it imbedded within parts of my own heart and daily pray and fight for it to be rooted out.

For me, it comes out in a variety of ways. I’ll be invited to a friend’s brand new condo for dinner but rather than appreciate the invitation and celebrate my friend’s success, this sniveling voice inside me roars “I must have this condo. I MUST live here!” That’s become such a common phenomenon that my friends can now see the look on my face and speak the words even before I can. Oh, and it makes me an unpopular guest at housewarming parties…

Less comical is how this is played out in relationships. I’ve said goodbye to a potential life partner because I couldn’t fathom giving up my own space and merging possessions. I’ve more often been on the receiving end of this sickness as I’ve said goodbye to people (both friends and lovers) who, when the rubber met the road, willfully chose to take advantage of me or cast me aside when my own best interest required them to make a sacrifice. Like the sacrifice of a three-year partner choosing not to sleep with a stranger while they were on vacation with friends. Or the sacrifice of a close friend choosing not to become involved with someone I was seriously dating at the time. Or the sacrifice of a partner choosing to be there for me on a rough night when I was struggling with depression and they had a party to go to. These may seem like small sacrifices for grown adults to make in the best interest of a significant relationship, but in each case they were deal-breakers. For many gay people who have been told “no” their whole lives, the mere threat of being asked to give up the right to say “yes,” even to pass up a momentary thrill, is something they simply are not willing to do.

I realize that many gay people who read this blog may interpret these as the words of a self-loathing individual. While I can’t guarantee there’s not a little of that floating around inside me, I can honestly say that I write these words as a call to something higher rather than a condemnation of where people are on their journeys. On the same token, I'm not making excuses for self-centered behavior. I'm simply connecting the dots as I've seen them in my own life and relationships, and in the lives of people who are close to me. And there are plenty of dots to connect...

As gay people, as humans, and especially as Christians, if we sign up to be more like Jesus or even just for a deeper experience of intimacy in our relationships, then fighting this wave of narcissism that plagues our culture and community must become priority number one. I can tell you what that’s meant for my life, but it will look different for every person. What I know for sure is that it means letting people in, and letting them in far and deep enough to inconvenience you, to take from you when you're not in the mood to give. And it means that through those very same relationships we learn to trust people to not only take from us but also to give back those things that we have learned only to receive from our own efforts and accomplishments.

The times I’ve experienced the deepest levels of safety and security in my adult life as a gay Christian have been the moments when I've let people in, given myself up, and then watched with fear and trembling as God used those very same people to save me from myself.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Open Letter to a Concerned Evangelical

The recent Prop 8 decision has the interwebs buzzing once again with opinions both supporting and decrying gay marriage. It’s always fascinating for me to see the wide array of people that feel they are qualified to speak or write on the topic. But then again, it is the Internet and it’s an open forum! In most cases it makes for some thought-provoking, or at times just entertaining reading. What probably troubles me the most, however, is when the conversation shifts from a debate about gay marriage to a debate about gay people. Debating about a legal or religious institution is one thing, but behind this issue are very real people who often become the targets of some not-so-kind assumptions and arguments rather than the backdrop for a policy discussion. This is when it gets personal.
Since my blog is about the experiences of a gay Christian in America, it has drawn the attention of a few people within my extended social circle who have opinions -- both about Prop 8 and about gay people. For the most part, the comments and discussions have come from a genuine place and have been interesting to read and follow, yet there have been some personal e-mails I’ve received recently that have led me to, once again, marvel at the way many within the evangelical church communicate with people who do not share their interpretation of scripture or life experiences.

Among the e-mails I received recently was one from a person I knew through my church back in high school. He read one of the blogs I shared on Facebook, and also some of my own. Although starting out with the reassurance that he was not speaking from a place of “hate” or “bigotry,” he proceeded to accuse me in no uncertain terms of interpreting scripture through the lens of my own sin, with a bias toward homosexuality. Furthermore, he likened my journey toward acceptance of my sexual orientation to that of a friend of his who left his wife because he fell in love with another woman and then justified it by saying that God wouldn’t have wanted him to stay in an unhappy marriage. After explaining that my situation (having same sex attraction) was no different than his temptations to lust (also a sin), he strongly suggested that if I were to just “step away” from my struggle I would be able to see things more clearly.

Now I’ve had all of these accusations leveled at me more than once over the years, but what made this e-mail more interesting was that I had not had any communication with this person in over 15 years. Not a word. This is the struggle I have with many evangelical Christians. There seems to be a mandate within evangelical culture to confront people and wield the bible as a weapon in the process, and whatever you say is fair game as long as you tell your intended target that you’re saying it out of love.

I’m a firm believer in the principle that “Truth without love kills, and love without truth lies.” This is something I live my life by. But if you haven’t communicated with someone in 15 years, you have no platform of love from which to speak the truth. And in situations like this, it almost always feels like a sting of death rather than words of life.

So, as a favor to the evangelical church of which I am still a contentious part, I offer here my open response to the e-mail I received. I offer this openly with the hopes that other well-intentioned Christians will read this and rethink their approach to reconnecting with an LGBT person within the current, politically and emotionally charged context that exists around these sensitive issues.

"Thanks for your e-mail. I've intentionally waited a little while to respond in order to allow myself time to process what you are saying, and to respond rather than react to some of your comments. First of all, I do not assume that you are speaking from a place of hate. Although it's been over 15 years since we've had any substantive interaction, the person I remember you to be was not a person of hatred. So let's just take that off of the table. Secondly, you are right in acknowledging that we do not know one another anymore. So, in the case of your e-mail to me, you are not writing to me as a concerned "friend." Friends earn the right and the credibility to say certain things to other close friends that strangers or acquaintances do not have the right to say. Many of the things you have said in this e-mail you have absolutely no right saying to me, since we are at this point in time, acquaintances. However, regardless of the fact that I feel you've crossed a few lines here, I have taken your words to heart and I'd like to thoughtfully respond, because I believe your intentions were good...

Regarding the biblical debate, this is not a battle I will ever win with you, nor is it an argument that I want to have. The Bible is not clear about homosexuality as it is on other topics such as serving the poor, loving your neighbor as yourself, etc. Any honest theologian or Biblical scholar would likely be willing to admit that. So I'm not going to argue with you about scripture. I've found only one of the passages (Romans) to be specifically addressing same-sex relationships outside of temple prostitution or the prohibitions found in the holiness code of the Old Testament. Many Biblical scholars agree, but I'm sure you would discredit those scholars so I think it's best to leave that alone. I do, however, take issue with the comment you made about my interpretation of scripture being very biased over the years. This is simply not true. I struggled through these scriptures for decades, and the very reason it has been such a struggle for me is because I did NOT take a biased approach to scripture. I mean, after all, I was a Free Methodist pastor with a degree in religion focusing in Wesleyan theology. If anything, my bias for most of my life has been against homosexuality, not in favor of it. So I have to disagree with you on that point.

Also, regarding your assertion that I interpret the Bible in light of my own situation rather than interpreting my situation through the light of the Bible, I'm sure that, at times, I am guilty of that. I think most of us are when it comes to certain topics. But I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that this is not what I endeavor to do. I will say, however, that I choose to interpret the entirety of scripture through the words of Jesus, rather than interpreting the words of Jesus through the words of Paul or any other Biblical author. So, when I look at the Romans passage, I also take into consideration the many other writings from this same author that were contextual to the time. For instance, Paul writes in one of his letters that it would be better for a man not to marry. But you are married, and no one has a problem with that (including me). You are honoring God to the best of your ability within a marriage, even though you could possibly dedicate more of your time, attention and energy to serving God if you were single. And Paul also limits the role of women in the church. Well, you and I come from a denomination that ordains women equally with men, so we've obviously taken liberties with that one as well. In my opinion, what we’ve done with other issues raised by Paul and other biblical writers is to interpret their words through the lens of Jesus' words and ministry. And through that process we are able to more clearly identify what are the "priority" issues of God, namely loving God and our neighbor as ourselves. Marriage, women in ministry and same-sex relationships don't seem to make the top of Jesus’ list of barriers to serving God.

Your story about your friend who left his wife for another woman is a sad one. That must have been a very difficult experience for you. As devastating as this is, your friend’s story has nothing to do with mine. Your friend broke his vows, hurting many people in the process, and then distanced himself from you after you confronted him. I intentionally did not get married, and even left the pastorate so that I would not break my vows to either a spouse or my denomination. Since then, I have painstakingly walked side-by-side with other followers of Jesus during the last 10 years since coming out. Even the people who have confronted me and hurt me within the church I have remained close to. I have not left my Christian community, although that would have been much easier. I keep people very close to me who ask me the tough questions, who keep me accountable, yet who also see my heart and know my honest pursuit of a life that honors God. This seems much different to me than what happened with your friend.

The last thing you said, and perhaps the thing that stung the most, was that I should just "step back away" from my struggles. This underscores for me the depth to which your misunderstanding of sexual orientation goes. This is not something I can "step away from." Although my sexuality is not the only defining aspect of my identity, it is an integral part of who I am. I did not choose it. Nor was I abused and then ended up gay. This was part of me from the beginning. Like you, I too can choose not to give into lust, and I fight that battle just like any man. You are a married man, and are able to leave your computer after reading this and enjoy your wife and family, so you really have no idea what it means to be a gay person who has been told that this is not an option for them. The type of same sex relationship I am looking for will be just that, companionship and intimacy within the context of commitment. It is not about lust anymore than your relationship with your wife is about lust. Asking me to "step away" from my sexual orientation for a moment is an insensitive thing to say. I have tried that. I've been through entire programs to help me step away. I do not believe that process holds God's best for me, and I did not come to the conclusion easily.

I guess what I'd like from you is the same thing I'd like from many of my evangelical brothers and sisters. That is for you to sit down, be quiet, and listen. Gay Christians like myself who have grown up in the church have spent a lifetime listening to the opinions and arguments against homosexuality. We know the arguments well. We also are painstakingly aware of your commitment to a literal view of scripture. And we know from personal experience that many evangelicals have very few appropriate boundaries when it comes to forcing a specific understanding of scripture on people who may interpret it differently. So all I'm asking (and I think you are doing this, in part, by reading my blog) is for you to let go, for a while, of your need to get your point across. Try to listen with your heart. Try to listen with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But try not to be planning your next argument or attack while you do so.

I started my blog to share my story, and it is the story of tens of thousands of gay Christians much like me who fill or have filled the pews of churches across this country and the world. You can argue scripture with me all day, and I won't be able to win. But you also won't win any of us over that way. You will only win the right to be heard if you spend time listening, even when it makes you uncomfortable. You cannot argue with my story. It is just that, MY story. It is the truth of my experience, and woven throughout that story is an even more powerful story of the grace of God meeting me at times and in ways that have saved me to the core.

I recommend that you pick up Andrew Marin's book "Love is an Orientation." I think you would appreciate and benefit from it. Andrew is an evangelical Christian who would agree with you on the scriptural interpretation, but he has some valuable things to say about where to begin the conversation with gay people. I appreciate your heart, but must tell you that you have begun the conversation in the wrong place. If you begin the conversation this way with other gay people, they will not hear you.

Thanks for engaging in this dialogue with me. Some of the things you wrote did sting a bit, but I'm still willing to be part of the conversation. And part of the reason is that I am open to the possibility that I've gotten this wrong. There, I said it! I realize and accept that I could be wrong. But it is with that admission and in the spirit of that possibility that I rest in the grace of the God who created me. God knows my heart and my life-long struggle to seek God in the midst of this journey. And I'm willing to rest in the knowledge that, at the end of the day, that's all any of us really will get by on anyway."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Take Me 'Out' to the Ballgame

This weekend my dad and I went to a baseball game together. That may not seem like a big deal to most people, and in most cases it probably isn’t. I can vividly remember going to Detroit Tigers baseball games numerous times with my dad as a kid and loving every minute of it. What made this a bigger deal than your average outing to the ballpark was that this time my dad and I were part of a mostly gay entourage celebrating the birthday of one of my friends. My dad knew this ahead of time and was still enthusiastic about going and had a great time getting to know some of the people that are important in my life here in Atlanta. For me, this was more than just a baseball game with my dad and a handful of friends; it was the most significant milestone I’ve passed in a decade-long journey toward acceptance within my family. And it was definitely a home run.

Coming out to my parents ten years ago was one of the most difficult things I’ve been through in my life. I was one of those kids who had a very close relationship with both of my parents, even through the challenging transitions from childhood to adolescence, then from teenager to young adult. We could always talk about nearly everything and they allowed me to spread my wings and make my way in the world. Many of my friends envied the closeness I had with my parents, that is until the day I sat them down to explain to them that I was gay, and had been dealing with that reality secretly since adolescence.

My mom’s reaction, although unexpected, is one I can now laugh about. As they were seated together on the living room sofa after I delivered the unsettling news, my mom looked at me and simply said, “No, you’re not. I know that you’re not. It’s not possible.” I was prepared for tears, rejection, anger or disgust, but I most certainly was not prepared for that. After spending quite some time trying to explain to her that I was, indeed, sure that I was gay (an exercise in futility), I left the house without much reaction from my father.

Nearly a month later, my car broke down just down the street from my parents’ house. My dad came to help me, and it was the first time I had seen him since that fateful conversation. Even though this was the same man who had taken me to New Kids on the Block, Debbie Gibson and Janet Jackson concerts as a teen, the news of my sexual orientation had completely blindsided him (go figure?). What began as an awkward silence sitting in his car at the repair shop was broken by words that pierced me so deeply I will never forget them. Without looking at me, my dad said, “It’s like you died. The son we knew is dead, and now we have to start all over again getting to know this new person who has replaced him.”

Even now, ten years later, I can’t type those words without them taking me straight back to that moment in the car and feeling like someone has knocked the wind right out of me. Those words cut me so deeply to the core that the tears come quickly even though I’ve replayed them thousands of times since that day.

Through a long journey filled with dramatic ups and downs, fits and starts, and even more than one “coming out” conversation (apparently they forgot I was really gay about five years after I told them), my parents and I have arrived at a much better place together.  Getting to this place only came about because we made a mutual commitment to each other. We committed, even amidst the heartbreak of that initial coming out moment, to try to understand each other and most importantly to love each other no matter what.

This has been no easy task, and the struggle can be attributed in great part to the way many within the evangelical church in America have used the issue of “homosexuality” to divide families. Through a series of lies about the nature of human sexuality and the roles of mothers and fathers, organizations like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council have pitted parents against children, wives against husbands and congregations against their own. When families have a gay son, their pastors and the authors of countless child-rearing books tell them that the fault lies with the father; that he hasn’t been involved, hasn’t been a strong disciplinarian, or hasn’t modeled true masculinity to his son. My father deserved none of these accusations and was, in fact, a stellar example of calm, consistent strength and integrity. But he was blamed nonetheless. And to his credit, he never countered those attacks with equally false blame against my mother for being overbearing or overindulgent and thereby creating a gay son (another popular lie promulgated by self-named "experts" on the subject). Why the evangelical church has intentionally caused families to turn on each other during these already painful moments I will never understand, but this happens over and over to fathers who might otherwise embrace their children regardless of sexual orientation.

Just a few months ago I was home for a vacation to the Midwest to celebrate my niece’s one-year birthday. I was having such a great time with my family that I extended my trip a few days just to have some down time with my parents. One night, the whole family was gathered at a bakery waiting to gather the leftovers for distribution at our church and we got to talking about food allergies and pregnancy (as my sister is pregnant with her second child). I have a life-and-death allergy to peanuts, and my mom casually commented that she used to crave peanut butter by the jar when she was pregnant for me. My dad pointed over toward me and said, “Yeah, and look, this one came out GAY!” The entire family burst into laughter. I was stunned, but this time in a good way. Had we really made it from tragedy to comedy in a mere TEN YEARS? This had to be a good sign…

I’ve known my whole life that my dad loves me.  He often tells me how proud of me he is, and that means a lot. But this past weekend I flew him down to Atlanta for the weekend as a belated birthday and Father’s Day gift. He was so happy. We talked about my career, things going on in our family, and his worries about the wellbeing of everyone he has taken care of in his life. The most somber topic we discussed were his instructions to me in caring for my mother and the family when he is no longer here. We shared a steak at one of the best steakhouses in America, ate ice cream and took my puppy to the dog park.

And to kick it all off, we went to a baseball game with a bunch of gay guys.  It may not seem like a big deal to most, but I’ll never forget that night for the rest of my life.