[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.