My Spiritual Journey with Queerness and Home Church Drama

[Image description: Photo is of a set of New Interpreter’s Bible volumes.]

This is a speech I gave this evening at a local PFLAG meeting that overlaps a bit with my “Diversity is Chosen” Pride Sunday epistle. PFLAG is a support, education, and advocacy organization for LGBTQ people and our allies.

Most of the time, I count myself pretty lucky in the faith department. I grew up in a nurturing Christian community. It’s basically “the little brown church in the vale.” As a preacher’s kid (my mom is the pastor), I was fully integrated into the church family from infancy. For example, I was a baby shepherd in the Christmas pageant. When I was coming along, there was only one other child close to my age, and we both participated in Sunday School and worship. We sometimes took up the offering, lit the Advent candles, and sang songs. We both joined the choir in middle school, and guess what! We’re both still in the choir. 

I was fortunate. Unlike many of my LGBT peers in Divinity School, I didn’t feel like I had to ‘reconcile’ my faith with my queerness. I’ve never worried that I was going to hell because of my sexual orientation or gender identity. I thought for a while that I was going to hell for other reasons–I had a sort of crisis at age seven where I worried about not believing enough–after that, it was relatively smooth sailing. Nobody in the church ever told me that I couldn’t lead, nobody criticized me for not being feminine. 

The people in my church crossed the social and political spectrum. I watched women and men lead and nurture. When I started wearing suits and ties to church instead of dresses, nobody said anything negative. But growing up in that church, especially here in the rural South, was still complicated. We couldn’t talk about LGBTQ issues in the church for years. Everyone knew that some of the church folks had grown gay children, but nobody said much about it.

The church had a vocal fundamentalist faction that was kept in check by my mom’s declaration that they would not say anything hurtful to those parents. That declaration had a mixed impact. Conversation about the issue was almost nonexistent in her presence, so I didn’t hear much from the church about homosexuality either way. The only time I remember anyone saying something anti-gay was when she was away, when one member of that faction would substitute preach. 

And I loved those people too, and they loved me. One of them helped me to tie my paisley necktie the first time I wore a suit to Sunday school. But when the Presbyterian General Assembly decided to allow gay marriage in the church, they decided to leave. That tore our church apart. It was like losing aunts and uncles. At the time, I wasn’t ‘out’ to many people in the church. Only my parents, theatre colleagues, and college friends knew that I was bisexual. I had come to that understanding of myself around my junior year of high school. I wasn’t one of those people that ‘always knew’; I didn’t have a very strong sense of my sexuality in general until high school, when I started watching a whole bunch of movies in the “Gay and Lesbian” section of Netflix

I didn’t start dating until age twenty, but my first partner happened to be a woman. I really wanted to bring her to church, to meet my family, but I knew that wouldn’t be safe and would create a difficult situation for my parents. The church got a lot safer for me when people left. I waited for the dust to settle, and then I came out to my Sunday school class before the service one day. It was awkward, though the reaction was neutral-to-positive. I said “I have an announcement to make, which is that I am bisexual, and if you don’t like it, it’s okay, I love you anyway.” I rushed through an explanation, assuring them “It doesn’t mean I’m promiscuous” even though inwardly I thought “Promiscuity isn’t a bad thing either.”

I wanted them to understand fully who I was. I didn’t want to be judged but made room for them to disagree without withdrawing my love from them. 

I’m not sure whether that was ‘grace’ on my part or an offer of compromise driven by a desire for the community not to split further. Either way, I got confirmed in the church. After college, when I did my interfaith service year, which happened to coincide with Trump’s election, I encountered non-affirming people who were unwilling to revisit their understanding of biblical scriptures. One of my own housemates confessed that she didn’t want to advocate for me as a queer person. She wanted to live and let live.

And you know what? My service year taught me that that’s not enough. If you, as a Christian, claim to love me but aren’t willing to reflect on your beliefs enough to hear me, I have to keep my distance from you. 

People love to uphold diversity and tolerance as these magical concepts that cure all ills, but my time in the church and in interfaith settings showed me that diversity is chosen. When most of the fundamentalists left my church, it lost diversity, and it lost the gifts that those people had given, especially in terms of music. And yet, it’s nice, as a queer person, not to be considered expendable. I’m not pleading with my family to care about my basic rights, and I’m not hiding my sexuality to seem more palatable to people who don’t care to learn. That’s another thing I’ve learned over the past few years–it’s okay to make things awkward. 

Of course, I still have to compromise and choose my battles as I move through the world; I have to talk about the Clobber Passages and dialogue with non-affirming Christians. That’s part of survival. But in my ministry and in my personal life, I really want to move beyond the basic premise that “It’s okay to be gay.” I don’t want the conversation to be “It’s okay to be gay if you get married and have a white picket fence because of this specific passage in Genesis about how man shouldn’t be alone.” 

I want Christian love and respect for the queer people who don’t want or can’t access the white picket fence, and that includes nonmonogamous queer people, and queer people of color, and queer people who have casual sex, and trans people who don’t “pass,” and queer people who are struggling to survive because they can’t or won’t hide. 

I want straight cisgender Christians to see us as people they can learn from, not just the ‘diversity’ on the margins of the church, but people whose wisdom is worth protecting. I want church families to see divinity in the “chosen families” created by queer people, many of whom don’t go to church or even believe in God. 

Queer people don’t have to look or act a certain way to be worth our time and investment. And I feel like I’m able to say that because I’m cisgender, white, and middle-class. I’m not risking being thrown out of my communities if I demand that people listen. I’m not worried that if I lose my faith community, I won’t have a safety net.

So I want to conclude this talk with gratitude to PFLAG for the warmth of this community, what a haven it is for me even when church is a mixed experience. I admire the work that the PFLAG allies especially have done to move through discomfort about homosexuality so that they could step up to welcome queer people into our community. And I also want to invite us all to keep growing, listening, and learning, so that we can serve, protect, and love each other even more. Amen.

Diversity is Chosen – Pride Sunday Thoughts

[Image description: Cover illustration from picture book A Church for All, showing a dark-skinned pastor blessing a congregation of people of all races and genders. Rainbow banners and welcome signs are displayed on the walls.]

CW: Minor mention of church bigotry

I woke too early this morning. Dragged myself to Sunday School with wet hair. Struggled to warm up my voice while we sang the first hymn. I love my home church. It is pretty much “the little brown church in the vale.” I hop right back into the choir when I visit (of course, the fact that my mom is the pastor has something to do with that).

The members of that church are my family, and I wouldn’t trade them. When I’m sleepy, church can feel like a chore, but seeing queer friends visit (and noting today that almost half the adults sitting in the congregation have grown LGBTQ children whom they affirm) reminded me of why my church community is so valuable, how it’s so freely yet painstakingly built. 

In my conservative Southern hometown, my little church is becoming a place of haven for LGBTQ people and our families. A couple of years ago, I felt safe enough to come out as bisexual to my Sunday school class (mostly middle-aged adults) because I just wanted them to know who I was. More on that story later. It wasn’t always this welcoming a place. 

When I was a child, nobody talked about queerness in my church community. The only occasion when I remember anything being said about homosexuality was one Sunday when an older male church member, substitute preaching while my mom was away, listed homosexuality as a sin during the regular Prayer of Confession. In a sense, my mom limited the conversation around queerness, not because she disapproved but because a fundamentalist segment of the congregation always overwhelmed the discussion with bigoted views. Saying “We’re not going to talk about it” was the lesser evil. 

What eventually broke the silence was a 2014 PC(USA) General Assembly ruling that allowed same-gender couples to marry in the churches. You see, in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), big changes are made by a national governing body and ratified by Presbyteries. As we say in the Presbyterian Church, “We do it decently and in order.” 

This constitutional change tore my home church apart. More accurately, most of the fundamentalist faction broke off and joined other churches. They perceived a church that was more welcoming to me as less welcoming to them. For a church our size (fewer than fifty members), it was a significant loss. We were sad to lose them–it was like losing aunts and uncles–but their absence made room for needed change in the community. It also allowed me to be open about who I was without feeling like I would be causing trouble for my parents. We lost a bit of our theological diversity to evangelicalism but created space for people like me to participate more fully (after coming out, I felt confident enough to get confirmed). 

Today, I was reminded once again that ‘diversity’ is chosen. It usually doesn’t just happen; the kind of diversity that appears in a church community depends on the values and consistent work of the people involved. What a refreshing feeling it is not to be made expendable in the name of theological diversity, not to have to shrink for the comfort of people who think I’m hell-bound. Can someone who isn’t ‘affirming’ be part of this community? Sure. But I’m not expected to hide who I am to make them comfortable. 

With its steady welcome, my church community is becoming more sexuality and gender-diverse, and its children are being raised to understand that they are loved and have something of value to share regardless of how ‘normal’ or ‘different’ they are. When one of my grandfriends makes a Pride month announcement, when my mom gives thanks for LGBTQ people in the Thanksgiving Prayer, even when a little boy in the congregation gets to be an angel in the Christmas pageant (yes, that is actually an issue for some people), I can tell that my little church is doing the work.

We’re all still learning, but we’re working together to build a community that welcomes everyone who wants to participate. If that offends our fundamentalist siblings enough that they leave, then it’s a loss for everyone, but it won’t stop us–and it won’t stop me–from building and celebrating our community. 

That’s what gets me out of bed early in the morning (to drag myself to Sunday school with wet hair). I have the opportunity to be a full member of a church that works to reflect the love of God more fully each day, and I won’t squander it. 

Be of good courage,

Fox (she/her/hers)

PS–For Christians (especially faith leaders) looking for ways to help folks to see the beauty of a church with people of all ages, races, genders, abilities, etc., I recommend the award-winning picture book A Church for All by Gayle E. Pitman and Laurie Fournier.