Much of what I write on this blog describes how I’d like to see our culture change to be more hospitable for sexual minorities. Lest I paint too dire a picture of our current situation, though, I want to give a few examples from my life of how I’ve seen people navigate this intersection of faith and sexuality well. The truth is that I’m surrounded by wonderful, compassionate, creative people, and it’s humbling for me to see how their ability to love well is slowly bringing about a new reality in which being gay doesn’t have to be a source of suffering or isolation. The examples I’m giving are small and specific, and they illustrate how important details can be in forming a culture of grace and hospitality. Here are real examples from my life of people who are, in my opinion, getting it right:
1. SLEEPING ARRANGEMENTS
WHAT HAPPENED: Some friends and I recently traveled together. When we were arranging our plans before the trip, a friend who was finding us places to sleep tacked this question onto the end of a text message: “Is you and [straight male friend] sharing an air mattress feasible? If not, that’s totally understandable and either you or [he] will stay with one of our friends.”
HOW HE GOT IT RIGHT: The text demonstrated a measure of sensitivity that’s often lacking in communities who don’t know how to support sexual minorities; he showed empathy by anticipating and acknowledging the potential awkwardness of my sharing a bed with another guy. On the other hand, the inquiry was entirely free from assumptions; rather than telling me he made the decision to put me elsewhere to save me from what might be a tricky situation, he asked what I needed and accepted the answer I gave. (Speaking of details, his use of the word “feasible” was a thoughtful little stroke of genius.) This is a friend with whom I’ve been honest and from whom I expect accountability and edification, so it was natural in the context of our relationship for him to ask me something like that. He cares about me enough to recognize situations that might be problematic for me, and he trusts me enough to respect my judgment in those situations.
As I’ve said before, one of the reasons it’s so important for me to feel safe being honest with my faith community is that I want them to check in on me. I trust these people, just like they trust me, and we’re committed to providing each other with encouragement and, when necessary, exhortation. I want them to confront me when I’m being stupid or selfish with my money, and I want them to confront me when I’m being stupid or selfish with my sexuality. This is only possible in an environment that welcomes transparency. When that environment exists, questions like the one my friend asked are welcome and lead to deeper friendship and mutual trust.
WHAT HAPPENED: A friend and I were talking as we shared in some menial labor. As our conversation continued, he started to complain about something (I don’t remember what it was exactly): “The new policy they put in place at work is just so gay because—” After a brief pause, he continued: “Um, I mean, it’s just so stupid because…”
HOW HE GOT IT RIGHT: This was someone who had already directly apologized to me (when I came out to him, actually) for the way his frequent use of phrases like “so gay” may have made my life as a closeted gay person more confusing and frightening. Regardless of the sincerity of his apology and repentance, though, the truth is that it’s really tough to break old habits, and that means even the most penitent person may occasionally find themselves using words they have decided not to use. In the moment, this friend demonstrated compassion through the simple act of editing his speech and moving forward without drawing attention to the faux pas. I knew he was actively trying to avoid that kind of language, and he knew I knew he was actively trying to avoid that language, so there was no need for a tearful confrontation between us. He had already demonstrated an awareness of his mistake and an honest effort to change his habits.
I remember the first time I, as an openly gay individual, heard one of my friends accidentally use “gay” as a slur. We were driving in the car, and as soon as the word left his mouth, I snapped: “What did you say?” My friend was immediately apologetic and remorseful, which led to an unintentionally hilarious exchange in which we simultaneously fired out apologies at one another: him, for using the word, and me, for overreacting so quickly. The reality is that we’re living in a culture that’s presently trying to outgrow its homophobia. This means we need to be prepared to confront harmful language when we hear it, but it also means we need to be prepared to show grace and mercy when people accidentally slip up. This includes showing grace and mercy to ourselves, not dwelling on our mistakes.
3. COMING OUT ADVICE
WHAT HAPPENED: A friend who has decided to seek ordination was preparing to open up about her desired vocation to her parents, who participate in a faith tradition that does not affirm women in ministry. Feeling anxious about the conversation and how her parents would react to her, she approached me with a question: “I know it’s not the same as coming out as a sexual minority, but do you have any advice for me about tough conversations from your own experiences coming out to people?”
HOW SHE GOT IT RIGHT: This friend started by acknowledging the differences between our situations to show that she understood her experiences and my experiences were not the same. From there, though, she immediately moved to seeking areas of connection between us and identifying common emotions and struggles. Whenever you’re close to someone who’s a minority of any kind, there’s a fine line to walk as you relate to that person: On one extreme is over-identifying, where you ignore the differences between you and overlook what makes that person’s experience unique; on the other extreme is over-differentiating, where you isolate the person by drawing too sharp a contrast between you. This friend (not just in this conversation, but generally) made me feel at home while maintaining consciousness of those ways in which my experience is atypical. She respected my otherness without making me feel like an “other.”
Furthermore, she put me in the position of an expert, seeking me as someone with wisdom to share that was essentially unrelated to my orientation. I don’t mind at all answering questions about what it’s like to be gay; but this friend affirmed our resemblance by soliciting my advice for a situation that didn’t depend on my nontraditional sexuality. It’s probably true that most out gay people have a good deal of experience with difficult conversations, and my friend’s willingness to see that reality as an asset to her circumstances helped me to see how the knowledge I’ve gathered as a gay person might be helpful to people regardless of their orientation.
I would love to hear more stories from you about small, simple ways you’ve seen people get it right. What examples come to mind for you?
UPDATE: After posting this, I issued a tweet inviting other bloggers to share their own stories of how they’ve seen people get it right. They were happy to oblige, leading to a number of wonderful stories, which I’ve listed below. Make sure to let me know if you write your own:
gaysubtlety, “Nailed It”
queerconfessions, “That’s a Bingo”
David McFarlane, “Tonal Shift: Getting It Right”
The Registered Runaway, “Because Brent Said So”