Last week, we delved into biblical rationale defending homosexuality and the church. This week, it gets personal.
I never thought homosexuality was a sin, and because I was brought up in a climate that believed that very fervently, I bucked against the idea pretty hard. My theology was lazy. I didn’t do a good job formulating my arguments. Instead, I relied on the old classic, “God is love, God loves everybody. I think God has bigger fish to fry than worrying about who we’re sleeping with,” or some version of that. You can read more about my beliefs and my grown-up reasonings here.
A few weeks ago, the United Methodist Church got together at General Conference to decide whether or not it was going to double down on its stance about gay people and their dealings with the church, which you can read more about here. Ultimately, their decision was that the opinions they’d already held were the right ones. Not everyone felt this way, but enough people did.
Apart from my biblical reasonings, I wanted to talk about this as someone who is both a person of faith who believes in the important of scripture AND a person who is very close friends with a lot of gay people.
And y’all, I honestly don’t know where to start. There’s a lot on my heart. So here are a whole lot of things from all the corners of my brain. Which I guess I can do, since it’s my blog. A warning that you are going to get non-sequitur whiplash!
The first time I ever knowingly met a gay man was when I was 10 or 11 years old. My parents were close to a man and his partner and they invited us for dinner at their house. My younger brother Parker was 7 or 8, and as we sat around the table eating cheeseburgers, he put down his food, looked up, and asked, “So, are you guys related, or what?”
He was trying to make sense out of why two grown men lived together.
The men looked at my parents, at each other, and then one of them answered, “No, but people do say we look alike!”
That satisfied my brother completely and we all went back to eating. It wasn’t awkward at all - we just kept on trucking.
Later that week, on our way home from school (we were without Parker, so I felt comfortable talking more candidly with my mom), I asked, “Are ______ and _______ gay?”
She asked me why I thought that might be true. And I told her it just seemed like that might be the case since they lived together and neither one was married to a woman. So she told me that they were.
I remember that my first reaction was to feel a little shame creep through my chest. It was totally involuntary, and was probably the result of growing up the Deep South where homosexuality was very taboo and certainly not accepted socially or in church. It almost felt like I knew something I shouldn’t know; like I had walked in on someone naked. That shame had nothing to do with the way I was brought up, which was in a house where, even in the South, all people and all lifestyles were treated and discussed equally and fairly. I don’t feel that shame now, but that experience showed me that even if you aren’t aware you’re carrying it, shame is a powerful thing.
Over the next ten years, I would become even more deeply involved in my church, First United Methodist in Decatur, Alabama. I was a regular part of the Council on Youth Ministry and attended Annual Conference as a delegate. I went to Camp Sumatanga every time the doors were open and to this day cite it as a cornerstone of my spiritual and social belief system. I was borderline constantly surrounded by gay men, whether it was younger friends at Camp, older friends in the CoYM, men from church, or kids at school who would eventually come out as gay. Gay men have been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember.
For some of you reading, gay men and women may seem very foreign. What you know of them is what you’ve seen represented in movies and on TV, but you don’t know them personally, and because of that, all you can go by are the stereotypes you’ve been exposed to: gay men are promiscuous, girly, fashion-obsessed, over-the-top scream queens; lesbians are butch-y, masculine, and wear sensible shoes.
But the real men and women who live their lives identifying as LGBTQIA are much more complex than those old tropes. These are individuals, no two stories alike. They’re academics, they’re coaches, politicians, doctors, teachers, librarians, choir directors, realtors, stay-at-home parents. They’re around you every day whether you see them or not. US Weekly could do a segment on them: “Gay people - They’re Just Like Us!” Maybe the key to de-mystifying the topic is to simply get to know the gay men and women in our lives.
There’s always room in our hearts to un-learn the things we thought we knew for certain.
When I worked for Teach For America in Memphis in 2014, our manager led weekly check-ins. There were 7 or 8 of us on our team, with diverse sexual orientations, races, and ages, from all different places in the United States. Our manager asked that for the first 15 minutes of our weekly meetings, we rotate around the group and allow each person to bring in what he called an “artifact,” or something that represented our lives.
On the week I was supposed to share, I remember walking around my room in Memphis for a long time deciding what to choose. I ultimately went with a stole that used to be my dad’s when he was an associate pastor at the church where I grew up.
When I put it on the table that Friday morning, I felt my heart pounding. I said something like this:
“So this is my dad’s stole, with one color on each side for whatever time of year it was per the liturgical calendar. And to tell you the truth, I’m really nervous to share it with you because of all the things that people who aren’t from the South look at Christianity and think. I feel like you may have a negative association with Christianity based on how you’ve seen it represented on TV or what you’ve read. I feel like I need to qualify right away that I am not a bigot, I don’t hate gay people, I don’t....”
...and on and on I went like that, telling them all the things it DIDN’T mean about me.
After I felt I had done a decent job telling them what I wasn’t, I went on to say that the Methodist Church has been hugely influential in who I am. All the things I care most deeply about were formed and reinforced by my involvement at church. But I feared my co-workers didn’t know that part of the story. They only knew the scary Christians who frighten everybody to death.
It was the first time that I had ever acknowledged out loud to them that I was a Christian, and it made me nervous as hell.
We don’t have a particularly good reputation in certain circles.
Here’s the thing about gay people and the church. The line that’s often repeated to them is that the church “hates the sin,” but “loves the sinner.”
So many Christians who I’ve talked to over the years have compared homosexuality to lying, cheating, or lusting - also things that are identified as sinful, and usually things the person doing the comparing has been guilty of at one point or another. “Homosexuality is equal to all those sins,” it is said, “so I don’t have any judgment about it. I’m a sinner, too. God sees all sins as equal.”
The trouble with that rationale, for me, is that it never really seems to be true. No one “identifies” as a liar, or chooses a life partner based on the fact that both people are cheaters. These smaller sins, the benign ones that we can admit we’ve been guilty of, don’t seem to equate to the way a person loves.
I completely understand that using that logic is meant to be generous and open-hearted. It comes from a tender place. The reason this “hate the sin, love the sinner” thing was invented at all was to service a well-intended Christian sentiment, delivered in all sincerity: “I want to be clear that I do not approve. My faith tells me I must communicate my disapproval in order to be true to what I believe, but I will try my hardest to love you fully in spite of the fact that I believe this is wrong.”
But for gay men and women, the idea that their gayness parallels telling a lie or cheating on an exam doesn’t track. To think that homosexuality is a tendency, one that could be a periodic mistake akin to telling a fib from time to time (as in, “Oops, I accidentally thought that man who I’ve chosen to spend my life with is attractive again!”) seems outlandish to the point of silliness.
I’m a white woman, so this is the example I’ll use: it would be as if someone from my church approached me to tell me that while they don’t personally support that I’m white, and they never will, they will accept me anyway. That they hate my whiteness, but they can love me in spite of it.
LGBT men and women don’t see their homosexuality as something that can be corrected. It is intrinsic to the fabric of who they are. To “hate the sin” is to hate the person.
The problem with Christianity is that if we really wanted to follow Jesus - and I mean really, really follow him - it would look so radical that we wouldn’t be able to live our lives “normally.” I am bad at this. I spend lots of time justifying my choices on the ways I’ve chosen not to radically love people on any given day.
There are a few people I know who understand true Christian living, and their lives do not look like my life. They are constantly, constantly, thinking of and serving others. Their free time is spent tutoring or volunteering at low incomes schools. They recycle any and everything in order to be stewards of God’s creation. They take up donations or collect items for people they overheard in someone’s casual conversation who might be in need. They don’t care about what they’re wearing or who liked their Instagram post. Their eyes are the eyes of God and they see everyone the way God sees them: perfect, equal, precious, worthy.
Let’s say you believe homosexuality is a sin. Let’s say that you can’t get on board, no matter how it’s presented, with the case that it’s not sinful. Okay.
Wouldn’t the radically Christian thing to do be to love the gay person in your life exactly as you’d loved them before they told you they were gay? Because, you know, they were gay. There’s always been a rainbow hanging over their head (thank you, Kacey Musgraves).
To radically love them (really opening your arms and heart, not polite or “tolerant” love) wouldn’t be a betrayal of your belief - it would be the embodiment of it.
If a gay man has never looked you up and down and lovingly said, “Sweetie, no,” go back to the starting line and begin again.
There is room for doubt. I think saying, “I don’t know,” is one of the most important things we can do as Christians. No one is supposed to have all the answers. But we are called to be in constant pursuit of those answers, and to follow the Holy Spirit wherever it’s leading. And the Holy Spirit is TRICKY. Constantly up to something. Never still. Leading into places where we don’t want to go. Bending our rules and breaking our hearts. When we said, “Yes,” to Jesus, we might as well have set the roadmap on fire. This life of faith isn’t about having one opinion and one set of reasons for a lifetime, I don’t think - it’s about living into the truth that God shows up where we least expect it. Are we humble enough to say, “I don’t know.”? It’s hard for me.
I was watching an episode of Queer Eye the other day. In it, the guys had a conversation with a young, black, lesbian woman who was finding her footing. They talked about how a person’s “chosen” family can end up being the most meaningful. This young woman’s parents had thrown her out of the house - literally told her never to come back - after she’d been outed as a lesbian by someone else, and the guys were trying to explain that she can build her own family made up of people who love and support her.
While I was watching this episode, my 15-month-old son, Mac, was playing in the floor with his race cars. His tiny hands were turning the cars over and over again, his fat little legs were carrying him from one end of the room to the other chasing after them. His laugh bounced off the walls as our dog tried, unsuccessfully, to escape from the car onslaught. This baby, who I carried in my body, who is beautiful and perfect in all the ways that matter. I imagined this young woman as a baby Mac’s age; the pride and wonder her parents must have felt when they looked at her. And how somewhere along the way, they pledged allegiance to a set of beliefs that had them reject, or at the very least, hold at arm’s length, their own precious baby.
Before long, big, hot tears were welling in my eyes. I imagined Mac coming to me years from now to tell me that he’s gay. I imagined the party I would throw in our tiny conversation; the leaps of joy from the deepest parts of my heart. If we’re destined for that talk, I thought as I watched him, then he’s gay right now. It makes absolutely no difference to me. My job as his mom is to love and support and celebrate. To guide and provide bumpers when I need to. To have him see my eyes light up every time he walks into a room, just like my mother did for me. Just like Maya Angelou said we’re supposed to as parents. He’s the family I was given and will always be the family that I choose.
Between the years of 2004 and 2018, five of my close male friends came out to me.
The first time a friend came out to me in high school, I told him I’d always known. He knew I knew. We hugged and celebrated, and it was a beautiful moment.
The second time a friend came out to me in high school, he sat on the couch in the upstairs of my parents’ house in Decatur. He was shaking with nerves and choked out the words. He told he he’d kissed a guy for the first time that weekend and was so racked with guilt and shame that he immediately threw up. I tried to make him laugh and squeezed him tight.
I wish I could tell you I had perfect responses for these guys. I didn’t. I felt nervous and was trying so very hard to say the right thing, just in case my words were the only affirming ones they heard.
Last year, I got a phone call from a very close friend of mine who I’d always thought might be gay. He confirmed what I’d long suspected. Even though we were states away from each other, I felt like I was hugging him through the phone. I full-throat sobbed with relief at the knowledge that my worst fears for him - that he’d never fully embrace this part of him and live a life that wasn’t authentic - were assuaged. He is now an even more perfect specimen than he was before, which is saying something. These days, when I hold his hand, I am totally electrified by him. It’s like standing near a firework and having a spark land on your skin. That’s how powerful it is to watch someone be who they are.
Multicolored and beautiful.
I hope, whoever and wherever you are, you have the chance to bask in the glow of just such a person.