odd man out.

I resist stereotypes about gay people and try to avoid ascribing certain inclinations or aversions to my sexual orientation. With that being said, I recognize there are certain ways my sexual orientation has directly influenced my relationship with God and my relationships with other Christians. This post is a sketchbook for me to reflect on the desolations I attribute to being gay, the ways it’s harmed my faith. These aren’t the ways it’s made faith more challenging, since those struggles tend to be positively formative and produce maturity. These are the ways it’s impaired my faith. I imagine some gay people will resonate with certain pieces here, but I imagine others have experienced their sexuality differently, and they might even label a consolation for themselves what I’ve identified as a desolation. I’ll cover my consolations in my next post. This is intentionally less polished than what I normally try to write here, and I’m not trying to make any grand point; consider these snapshots of my life. (To those who saw my post about the difference between being transparent and being vulnerable: This is one of the rare times I’m being vulnerable, so please be gentle.)

1. It gave me doubts about God’s love: I needn’t say much here because I described this at length in a recent post, but without a doubt, this was the most severe damage my orientation perpetrated against my faith. During the time when I believed God was fundamentally against me, it was hard (impossible?) to develop a relationship with God characterized by trust and gratitude.

2. It sowed the seeds of skepticism toward Christians: I’m the kind of Christian who thinks participation in a thick faith community is essential to Christian life—maybe even that it’s sort of the point of Christian life—so it’s a huge problem for me when I begin to suspect other Christians don’t have my best interests at heart or don’t really care about me or understand me. In some cases, those suspicions are accurate. There are undoubtedly Christians who don’t love gay people, and they foster environments in which it’s dangerous for gay people to engage. Skepticism becomes an invaluable defense in those cases. Other gay people have fared much worse than me, and it’s a tragedy when someone seeking Christ legitimately can’t find a community in which it’s safe for them to do that. But the majority of Christians I happen to know do love gay people, even if some of them presently lack the apparatus to love them in the most beneficial ways. In those cases, skepticism can become an unnecessary obstacle to developing trust, and trust is necessary (as in any relationship) for intimacy. I try to give the benefit of the doubt to others, like to other Christians, when I have the slightest inkling they deserve it, but the prevalence of bona fide homophobia within many Christian circles makes that tough.

3. It made transparency with my faith community harder: I mean transparency about the nitty-gritty parts of my life and faith, because I’ve struggled to overcome the lie (at least on a subconscious level) that it’s inappropriate for me to talk candidly about the realities of my life as a gay person—the challenges, the joys, the heartaches—when I sense it might make straight people in the room uncomfortable, because it often does. I’m describing here what people call “internalized homophobia” rather than external homophobia, because the reality is that, at least in my present church setting, the people around me have always welcomed and honored anything and everything I’ve told them. They’re not afraid of the reality of my sexuality. (Even if they were afraid, though, that would be an area of growth for them and not a reason for me to censor myself. I get it.) I’m not interested in whether it’s my fault or the fault of others that I’ve gradually internalized homophobia, but it persists and poses a threat of preventing intimacy between my church and me, which in turn poses a threat for my own formation as a person of God.

4. It drew my attention to what made me different: When you start coming out in a conservative Christian environment, compassionate people often want to hear your story and learn from you, especially if they’re unfamiliar with sexual minorities. That’s admirable, and I feel genuinely honored whenever people listen to me, regardless of whether it’s for my benefit or theirs. But I’ve noticed that my willingness to speak about the realities of the ways my experience is unusual—because it is—have sometimes caused me to give too much attention to the things that make me different from straight people rather than locating threads of shared experience and universal humanity between us. Some of the most formative conversations for me have been the times when straight people pointed out the ways they resonated with things I expressed, and even when I tried to defend myself as some exotic outsider, I had to concede the ways we were alike. And once I got over myself and acknowledged our similarities, it was always so healing for me, but I still find myself tempted to distance myself by focusing on how I’m not normal.

5. It multiplied my self-righteousness: Oh gosh, here’s a biggie. When I was still in the closet and thought my being gay prevented God from loving me, it increased my self-righteousness because it made me try to earn God’s love. I measured my value by how effectively I could do the laudable things and abstain from the wicked things, and that made it easy for me to measure the value of others by the same standard (or actually a stricter standard). (This was especially pernicious in the youth group, since I wasn’t lusting over the girls like all my peers were, and sex was, like, the primary currency of righteousness for church teens.) When I started coming out, the self-righteousness swelled. Acknowledging my orientation led to a season when I realized being a Christian might get much harder for me, depending on what God called me to do, and I allowed that reality to cultivate an ugly arrogance in me, especially since I was in a setting (a private Christian university) full of people for whom the Christian machine seemed to continue working as well as it had once worked for me. I might as well have prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—heterosexuals—or even like this tax collector.” 

As I said above, this post comes from a vulnerable place, so let’s limit the comments to reciprocated vulnerability: If you’re an LGBT Christian, what have been the desolations of your orientation or gender identity for your faith?

Something that became much clearer to me this summer was the difference between transparency and vulnerability. I’ve probably used the terms as synonyms on this blog, but I’ve learned they’re distinct postures and necessitate different responses.

In my new post for The Marin Foundation, I explore the difference between the two and explain how to react appropriately to each. Click over to that blog to read it.

Today marks two years for Odd Man Out. At the risk of overstatement, it’s almost hard for me to identify with the person who sat upstairs in the campus library two years ago to launch this project: He was afraid of how people would react when they found out he was gay, he was still effectively maintaining distinct selves in different settings, and he was fumbling his words trying to explain just who he was and what he thought. (Okay, actually, I can identify with that last part.)

I’m more thankful than ever for this platform, if for no other reason than it’s connected me to some incredible people who are thinking about similar things. Though I’m rarely able to give them as much attention as I’d prefer, I treasure email exchanges and coffee talks with people from all walks of life. I’m also thrilled to see how much the “gay Christian blogosphere” has flourished even since I started writing. (If you’re searching for more content in the vein of my writing, I can assure you the Internet is not lacking for it, and that’s a good thing.) This past year included many highlights for me connected to this blog, like returning to The Marin Foundation for a second summer internship, helping to lead a few LGBT-related conversation events at my school, and even sitting down to talk with the two writers whose blogs prompted me to create my own online space.

This year also taught me lessons about maintaining a blog for the long haul, which, as I’ve learned the hard way, requires serious spiritual discipline and self-awareness. I’ve decided the Internet is just a bizarre, wonderful, dangerous medium for sensitive discussions. It often brings out the best in us and fosters relationships and empathy that wouldn’t happen otherwise (See above), but it also often brings out our worst qualities, too, and attempting to engage such a contentious issue here and elsewhere online has repeatedly shown me I don’t like the person I am when I lack close relationship with God. For those who do take the time to wrestle with what I write, even when you sharply disagree, I’m honored by your attention and care.

I’ll repeat what I said at the one-year anniversary: My desire is that those who read would think more deeply about faith and sexuality, demonstrate more empathy and goodwill towards people who perceive the world differently from how they perceive it, and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God loves us and that God’s will is good, pleasing, and perfect.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Let’s talk more about living Christianly in the midst of culture war. I think each of us possesses some fuzzy concept of the ideal world in which we’d like to live based on our values and beliefs. For most conservative Christians, one particular piece of their ideal world is marriage as an institution that involves only one woman and one man. That piece naturally clashes with the ideal world of those who would like to see marriage as an institution that includes same-sex couples. What makes this a “culture war” is the presence of certain movements from each camp actively struggling to bring about their ideal realities. So, for example, the website for media watchdog GLAAD explicitly uses the language of culture transformation: “Leading the conversation. Shaping the media narrative. Changing the culture. That’s GLAAD.” Similarly, the website for Focus on the Family identifies as one of its core beliefs that “Christians have a responsibility to promote truth and social policy that improves the strength and health of the family, as God designed.” It would be inaccurate to suggest every individual in any given social movement is actively seeking to impose their ideal world onto others, but it would also be inaccurate to deny there are factions on every side of the culture war that are intentionally and overtly working to shape culture in a particular direction. They’re doing so based on the conviction that their ideal is actually what’s best for everyone else, that the world they envision is best for human flourishing regardless of the contrasting desires people may express. Focus on the Family thinks people flourish best in a society with Christian values, and GLAAD thinks people flourish best in a society where they can express their sexual orientations and gender identities freely, and each probably believes the other is misguided in its attempts.

Culture war is inevitable when competing ideals exist within the same context. The problem I want to address is what happens when we allow that culture war to shape our ideals and to determine for us what we support and what we oppose. In a post I wrote in June, I described how conservative Christians have often been guilty of allowing the political climate of our country to dictate the sort of marriage ideal toward which they strive (i.e., since gay marriage is the hot topic of the day, much of conservative Christian rhetoric on marriage has focused exclusively on the genders of the people involved, as if that’s all God is concerned about). Now, I want to look at the opposite problem: Conservative Christians have often been guilty of allowing the political climate of our country to dictate the things they oppose, and that’s caused them to spend energy and resources opposing things they actually have good reason to support.

As I said above, the ideal world for most conservative Christians has traditionally been a society in which, among many other things, marriage is reserved exclusively for male-female pairings.* That’s the world in which they would like to live and that they believe is ultimately best for everyone. For most of this nation’s history, that piece of their ideal has existed in reality, with women marrying men and men marrying women and laws enforcing that paradigm. Today, because there is a movement with significant momentum in our culture imagining a new ideal that affirms and celebrates same-sex relationships, the conservative Christian ideal is in peril, and conservative Christians have begun defending against any effort or voice that directly or indirectly moves our culture closer to that other world. That reason that defensive posture is toxic is that our culture’s progress in acknowledging and understanding sexual minorities has directly benefitted even conservative Christians who are gay and lesbian (i.e., same-sex attracted and committed to traditional sexual ethics) as well as the church communities that walk with them. Certainly the cultural momentum away from a traditional Christian attitude toward same-sex relationships feels problematic for conservative Christians, but that progress has borne undeniable fruit for people across the spectrum of beliefs on homosexuality. When conservative Christians reject all progress because they oppose the direction to which that progress seems to lead, they become something much worse than irrelevant.

Allow me to utilize a case study that is, I hope, recent enough to be instructive but too distant to divert the conversation. A few months ago, the Boy Scouts of America prepared a vote to decide whether openly gay boys and men could participate as Scouts and leaders, and many conservative Christian organizations and individuals vocally opposed the change in policy. I learned there’s a national organization called the Members of Churches of Christ for Scouting that evidently represents my home denomination, the Churches of Christ, within the Scouting world, and the chairman of that organization published a letter urging BSA not to pass the measure, as did many others. His explanation of his opposition to the policy change included a statement that seemed to summarize the concern I heard from many conservative Christians: “Our deep belief in the Bible as God’s word is a central, defining tenant of our faith. The Bible tells us that homosexuality is a sin. We love all people, but we hate sin, and integrating those with a sinful lifestyle would be an ethical and moral compromise against our faith.” After BSA voted to allow openly gay youth to participate, MCCS published another letter expressing how the decision left them “deeply saddened” and how they felt “[BSA’s] decision in its membership policies is difficult to understand from a biblical viewpoint,” and though MCCS decided to continue in partnership with BSA, many Christian groups started talks about whether they would withdraw support from the organization in response to the policy change.**

MCCS’s opposition to BSA’s decision to allow openly gay youth to be Scouts illustrates the problem I introduced above: I believe MCCS allowed the political climate of our country to dictate their opposition to the decision instead of examining whether it was actually problematic or unbiblical. To their credit, I believe the members of MCCS opposed the measure out of genuine concern for the well being of the Scouts. As above, I think people tend to believe their ideal world is actually what’s best for all people. Nevertheless, opposition to this measure involved shallow thinking about homosexuality. Because the policy change came across as some sort of victory for the other side (the side whose ideal world ultimately involves same-sex relationships), it felt like a defeat for the conservative Christians involved in MCCS and their ideal world, and it prevented those Christians from exploring the potential benefits of the new policy. In short: Because the outcome of the vote looked like a good thing for GLAAD and its goals, I think MCCS largely assumed it was necessarily bad for them and their goals.

But was the policy change a victory for GLAAD? It was, according to them, and they attribute the change, in part, to a media campaign they started. I would even go so far as to say GLAAD recognizes how the broader cultural significance of the vote extends far beyond Scouting bylaws. Because GLAAD claimed ownership of the policy change, it gave them some power to interpret the responses of others to that change: If conservative Christians resisted the change, they were impeding inevitable progress; if they supported the change, they were admitting defeat.

Regardless of either side’s interpretation of what happened, though, I believe a more critical examination of the situation—one that seeks to avoid the competitive zero-sum mentality of groups like GLAAD and MCCS—reveals the BSA vote was a positive decision for everyone, even for conservative Christians. Many have pointed out BSA’s policy on sexual activity hasn’t changed, and the organization still prohibits behavior conservative Christians would consider sinful for gay and straight Scouts alike. What has changed is that Scouts may openly acknowledge their sexual orientation, and I am convinced this is a positive change even for those who want to promote a traditional Christian sexual ethic. Even though the conservative Christian ideal world is a place where marriage consists of a woman and man, it’s also a place where people can be fully honest and transparent with one another, and it’s a place where people are free from the destructive influence of self-loathing because they don’t doubt God’s love for them, and it’s a place where people receive necessary support and encouragement to practice the sexual ethics to which God calls them. Now that the BSA policy has changed, Scouts can feel safe to open up about their sexual orientation rather than hiding it in the sort of secrecy, shame, and isolation that engenders cycles of vice and self-destruction. Now that the policy has changed, young men who are gay can still benefit from positive relationships with male peers and the edifying influence of mentors in the context of BSA’s educational environment rather than finding themselves excluded from those friendships and opportunities. From the conservative Christian point of view, now that the policy has changed, young men who are gay and feel entirely out of place in a conservative church at least have some access to spiritual formation through participation in BSA.

Nevertheless, even if MCCS came to agree it was a good idea to let openly gay youth participate, I can understand why the vote felt like a blow and a loss. Acknowledging what my opponent and I have in common in terms of mutual goals feels like ceding ground, especially when my opponent interprets it as me ceding ground. Nevertheless, so long as I resist progress toward my ideal because it feels and looks and sounds like progress toward theirs, I’m undermining my own efforts and preventing my ideal from becoming reality. Had conservative Christians effectively prevented BSA from changing its policy, it likely would have felt like a victory for them, but it also would have resulted in Scouts hiding their sexual orientations, being excluded from positive influences, and facing one more obstacle to spiritual formation. In other words, that short-term victory would be a massive long-term failure.

What I would have liked to see more during the BSA controversy, and what I would like to see more moving forward into future controversies, is greater thoughtfulness from conservative Christians who realize their prohibition against same-sex relationships is only the beginning of the conversation about how to demonstrate the love of Christ to gay and lesbian people and how to foster their spiritual development. Believing same-sex relationships are sinful does not necessarily mean one must oppose all measures that benefit gay and lesbian individuals, and in many cases, supporting measures that benefit gay and lesbian individuals is a way to make that non-affirming position more sustainable for the individuals whose lives it affects. Conservative Christians encounter many opportunities today in which their beliefs about the morality of same-sex relationships are completely irrelevant and ought not to determine their decision.

Make no mistake: Taking this nuanced approach has big implications. It could mean, for example, conservative Christians finding themselves wholeheartedly supporting certain projects GLAAD sponsors while wholeheartedly rejecting other efforts from the very same organization.  It could mean acknowledging the shades of difference between certain ethical dilemmas they might have previously handled with uniform responses (e.g., Should Christians support same-sex marriage? Should Christians officiate and/or attend gay weddings? Should Christians participate in a Scouting organization that allows openly gay members? Should Christians support efforts that specifically aim to prevent anti-LGBT bullying?). And it would almost definitely mean taking the risk of being misinterpreted, an opportunity their opponents would not hesitate to avail themselves of. That’s a posture of surrender that might not end well, especially in a culture that speaks the language of competition and prefers simple polarizations. (Notice above how GLAAD was quick to claim victory in the BSA dispute.)

If it sounds like I’m advocating laxity on or suspicion toward Christian sexual ethics, I can assure you I’m not; I’m advocating a razor-sharp specificity to the application of those sexual ethics rather than uncritical and unhelpful knee-jerk reactions that paint with too broad a brush. This may also sound like I’m trying to work up an approach to how Christians go about (or abstain from) shaping culture, but it’s not that either, as that’s a much huger conversation than the homosexuality debate. I don’t think Christians can engage culture effectively if they don’t have a clear perception of what their ideal world is, and I think they’ll be even less effective if they define their ideal merely as a contrast to their opponents’ ideal. Surely Christians have more imagination than that.

If nothing else, this culture war provides each side with an opportunity to examine what the other side may have to offer to clarify and refine their perception of what is ideal. I have a hunch the ideal worlds we’re striving towards have much more in common than they do in conflict, and even those pieces of our ideals that may be diametrically opposed provide us with questions and criticisms that ensure our ideal worlds honor the wondrous humanity of every person. The example of Jesus shows us that’s an essential place to start.

*On another note, something I’m coming to realize is that many—not allconservative Christians seem unable to identify where people who are predominantly same-sex attracted fit into their ideal world, and I think that’s why we’ve seen so much emphasis on the language of choice and of sexual orientation change efforts: Those are both ways of gently and well-intentionedly removing same-sex attracted people from that ideal world they seem to interrupt. I’d suggest one major reason why conservative Christians seem to be losing the culture war is that it’s becoming impossible to deny sexual orientation is innate and mostly unchanging, and at least the other side consistently has a place for people who are gay or lesbian. If gay and lesbian people are going to find any sense of belonging in the Christian world, Christians have to have a place for them, and that starts with acknowledging their existence.

**Before the vote, much of the conservative Christian opposition came from concern about the possibility of openly gay adults serving in leadership positions among Boy Scouts. Nevertheless, after BSA merely decided it would allow openly gay youth to participate while still prohibiting openly gay adult leaders, conservative Christians still seemed to lament that change. Nevertheless, it’s worth pointing out that in this particular case study (i.e., the two letters from MCCS), there are no references to concerns about gay adults serving with male youth.

I’d really love some help exploring how best to create the kind of world in which I want to live. The world in which I want to live is one where Christians don’t have a reputation for saying harmful and insensitive things about gay people.

We live in a time when Christians often do say harmful and insensitive things about gay people, though, and those statements have a tendency to garner attention online. There was a time when a pastor’s words to their church would have made it no farther than the walls of the church building, but all it takes is a sermon recording uploaded online to make whatever message the pastor proclaimed available to all. Similarly, there was a time when columns and newsletter articles would have made it no farther than the people who participated in or subscribed to the organization publishing them, but the era of blogs and websites means anyone has access to the opinions any given organization expresses.

To be a Christian in the year 2013 means that, in the eyes of non-Christians, I’m often associated with a huge and imprecise menagerie of people ranging from Mark Driscoll to Anne Lamott to Desmond Tutu to John Piper to Pope Francis to Rob Bell. These people say things about gay people, and regardless of what my faith has in common with their faiths, their statements become part of this nebulous cultural apparition that is The Christian Attitude Toward Gay People. Obviously, even non-Christians can recognize the differences between someone like Driscoll and someone like Lamott, but I’ve grown weary of non-Christians assuming things about my attitude because my identifying as “Christian” brings to mind certain names for them.

When a prominent Christian says something particularly harmful or insensitive about gay people, I watch the inevitable resulting uproar with emotions ranging from sadness to anger to fear. On the one hand, I understand why Christians want to speak up in a strong, clear, contrasting voice: “This person does not speak for all of us. In fact, we may believe this person does not speak for Jesus at all.” I feel that impulse, too, and I shudder to think what message it would send if a Christian were to publish something dangerous and receive no visible criticism from other Christians. On the other hand, though, practically speaking, the fact remains that every person who responds to a harmful or insensitive statement gives more airtime to that statement, making it more prominent in the public consciousness. I can think of a number of examples over the past few years when the only reason I encountered a particularly noisome tweet or toxic blog post was because another Christian pointed at it and said, “I don’t agree with this.” My Twitter feed yesterday was full of Christians responding to two different prominent stories in which Christians treated gay people badly. On an intensely personal level, as much as I valued their expressions of criticism toward those Christians, it was tiring to receive constant reminders of the original problematic stories that inspired the controversy.

I’ve written before about my experiences visiting a protest put on by that well-known group who identifies themselves as a “Baptist Church” and spends their time protesting funerals and other major events. What was shocking to me that day was how small and unintimidating the group looked, especially in light of the incredible amount of noise they’ve made through the years. My friend and I observed two of their protests, and in each case, the group who came to counter-protest was much, much larger than the “Baptist Church” itself. Like above: On the one hand, I felt relieved people were proclaiming a different message so that the hateful messages didn’t persist unchallenged. On the other hand, I found myself wondering if anyone would have noticed the original group at all, small as they were, if it weren’t for the large crowds who had gathered to out-yell them.

So, I’ll return to my original question, which I’m asking from a place of sincerity after a day like yesterday. I want to live in a world in which Christians don’t have a reputation for saying harmful and insensitive things about gay people. How do we bring about that world? One idea comes to mind: What if, rather than pointing directly to the problematic statement/post/tweet/protest (which only draws more attention to it), we simply make a point to re-assert our own particular values in a direct, compassionate way? What if we make space for a few people to voice their criticisms and then agree, collectively, not to draw any more attention to the original words? It’s one approach, but I’d love to hear other approaches. How do we bring about that world?

[UPDATE: I’ve wrestled with similar questions before, over on the Voiceless blog.]

If you’ve read much of my writing, you know how much time I spend revisiting the theme of the value of authenticity and honesty. (See, for example, this, this, or this.)

In my latest post on The Marin Foundation’s blog, I’m exploring authenticity once again to examine how it might be a force for the kind of social change that could help placate the “Us vs. Them” culture war mentality as well as to examine what keeps us from the authentic life. Read it here.

This post is the potentially irritating kind that identifies a problem without offering a solution. It’s more diagnosis than prescription—in fact, after offering a prescription for the first half of the post, I spend the second half diagnosing why that prescription may not work—and I’m writing it both so that gay Christians might benefit from the solace of shared experience and so that non-gay people might better imagine how to support gay Christians.

It’s a bizarre time to be a gay Christian if you’re connected at all to conservative circles. Only recently has a gay-affirming sexual ethic gathered momentum on a broad level, and gay Christians who once received a conclusive answer from other Christians about homosexuality now encounter ambivalence when they seek to determine God’s will for their lives. That ambivalence can be soothing when it provides much-needed space to ask questions and give words to emotions that have long felt unutterable, but that ambivalence can become maddening when it sends gay people on a seemingly endless journey to determine what they believe and whether they’re prepared to handle the consequences of those convictions. (The Marin Foundation’s other summer intern actually just wrote about her own journey with questions here.)

When gay people do verge on a conclusion, others often expect them to hold their belief loosely or remain perpetually uncertain. For example, it’s not uncommon for a gay person abstaining from same-sex relationships to face questions that call their beliefs into doubt: “So, have you changed your mind yet? Do you really think you can live your entire life as a celibate / in a mixed-orientation marriage?” Gay people who believe same-sex relationships are not sinful face similar questions: “Do you ever fear you’re wrong and actually disobeying God? How do you think you and your partner would handle it if you came to believe your relationship was sinful?” These questions often come from a place of good intentions, and doubt and uncertainty play an essential role in the life of every believer who transitions from accepting the beliefs they’ve inherited to owning and practicing their own beliefs. I’ve even asked similar questions on this blog before, and I think Christians must remain open to the possibility that God’s Spirit could change the direction of someone’s life in a big way.

Nevertheless, what a gay person believes about same-sex relationships has significant implications for their life, and I’ve witnessed how dwelling too long in uncertainty can cripple the spiritual lives of gay people, especially as they begin owning and practicing their beliefs. The stakes, of course, are high, and prominent voices affirming same-sex relationships have altered the conversation for gay people from, “Do I abstain from same-sex relationships, or do I risk being wrong by seeking a same-sex partner?” to, “Do I risk being wrong by seeking a same-sex partner, or do I risk being wrong by placing unnecessary restrictions on others and depriving myself of how God might form me through the practice of same-sex marriage?” The sense is that there’s no longer a risk-free option to which uncertain gay people can default.

[Side note: A friend and I recently noticed how gay people involved in more established, historical traditions that emphasize submission to church authority, like Catholics, rarely seem to face this same uncertainty about what they ought to believe—not because they’re unthinking or uncritical, but because they’re confident in church teachings and trust the church will support them in their obedience. Those Christian circles with more diversity of belief seem more apt to engender the anxiety I’m describing.]

Furthermore, countless influences complicate the decisions of gay people trying to discern which voices matter the most: what Christians have historically believed, how conservative scholars interpret scripture, how progressive scholars interpret scripture, what someone’s particular church or family teaches, what popular culture values, what messages we receive from our culture’s most cherished stories (like films and novels), what psychological research suggests, what someone senses God communicating to them personally, what someone feels in their heart and—let’s be honest—pants, etc., etc., etc. Gay people often end up reaching a point of obsession with the big question, with the result that their relationship with God pivots on anticipating an answer. When they do settle on an answer, it may be more like ducking into an escape pod to manage anxiety—”I just can’t take this uncertainty any longer”—than it is like accepting an invitation into deeper, more mature relationship with God. 

My prescription: I think the remedy to the neurosis of being a gay Christian in the tumultuous storm of our particular historical moment is immersing oneself into relationship with God, because sexual ethics (regardless of whether they seem, at face value, more or less permissive) ultimately ought to be a means of drawing us into closer relationship with God and conforming ourselves to God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will. Separated from relationship with God, sexual ethics on either side of the fence have the potential to become idols, with those abstaining from same-sex relationships doing so from a place of smug self-righteousness, or those pursuing them doing so from a place of selfish carelessness.

But this produces a major crisis, and this is where I start the second diagnosis. Two thousand years of Christian history have taught us developing a relationship with God requires two basic components that seem to be non-negotiable. The first is spending time with God through spiritual disciplines like solitude, silence, and scripture. The second is interacting with a consistent group of other Christians through participation in a local church, an intentional faith community, a religious order, or some other body of faith. Neither of these works without the other, but in my experience, both of these can be problematic for gay people.

First, many gay people struggle to maintain any sort of steady rhythm of spiritual disciplines as a means of pursuing a personal relationship with God, and I suspect it’s because many gay people struggle to believe God loves them and genuinely desires relationship with them. This has certainly been the case for me. I’ve believed as long as I can remember that God loves every person, and I’ve never lacked confidence in saying, “Yes, God loves you. God loves everyone.” For a long season of my life, though, I didn’t know how to answer the question, “But Brent, does God love you?” I’d pause, I’d waver, and I’d attempt to hide behind my blanket statement: “God loves everyone.” You know as well as I do that affirming, “God loves everyone” is entirely different from affirming, “God loves me,” and the reason I equivocated was that my intellectual assent to the reality of God’s unconditional love did not translate into any sort of emotional, gut-level confidence that God loved me. You’ll notice I’m not saying anything about approval or sanction of certain behaviors. Before I even had the chance to get to those questions, I struggled mightily to believe God loved me: that God was for me rather than against me, that God was interested in me and actually cared about me, and that God desired a relationship with me as an individual. My perception was that my experience of being attracted to other men was a permanent obstacle that precluded me from God’s love. If God did love me, it was because God had to, and God did so begrudgingly.

In my case, getting toward a place where I believed and felt God’s love for me involved a few processes. I had to learn that God was fundamentally gracious, that any relationship I might develop with God originated with God and not with my ability to think or feel a certain way. I also had to receive unconditional love from other humans, as this writer recently described. So long as I was closeted, I could believe my coming out would prevent others from loving me, and the reality of what actually happened when I came out dispelled that myth and suggested maybe God actually could love me, too. If you’re in a place where you don’t feel in your gut that God loves you right now, it’s extraordinarily difficult to convince yourself to spend any time on relationship-builders like solitary prayer or dwelling in the Bible. I don’t mean to say spiritual disciplines should only happen when you feel particularly loved, because I think the practice of disciplines is a primary means by which God communicates that love to us and forms us in steady, long-term, foundational ways. In my case, though, I floundered in my attempts to maintain regular times of pursing God, and I suspect it’s because I imagined myself a suitor writing unrequited love letters to an uninterested recipient.

Second, gay people often struggle to find communities of faith in which they feel they belong. In some cases, it’s because they’re nursing severe wounds from Christians who have acted thoughtlessly or maliciously, and the very thought of spending time with a group of Christians comes across as unsafe. In other cases, it’s because being gay puts you in a minority—a minority that feels especially small in the church—as far as your experiences are concerned, and existing as a minority in the context of a majority group can be frustrating or tiring, even when that group is genuinely compassionate. I’ve said before there are many more similarities between straight Christians and me than there are differences, and I never want to over-emphasize the ways we’re dissimilar. Unfortunately, those pesky differences often rear their heads in ugly ways, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to lean into relationships with people who don’t seem to understand or empathize with vital parts of your experience.

Sometimes, though, gay people do find communities of faith in which they feel a strong sense of belonging. I say this with confidence because I’m fortunate to be part of such a community. Although my being gay puts me in the vast minority in my church, I feel heard and understood because people have intentionally listened to me. There are two kinds of conversations I have with other people about my sexuality, and both of them have a place. The first is conversations about sexuality—these are conversations in which the other person wants to learn about my perspective as a gay person, wants to expand their understanding of homosexuality and sexual minorities, wants to grow in their ability to show compassion to other gay people in their lives, maybe wants to do work on theology and scripture related to sex and marriage. The second is conversations about my sexuality—these are entirely different and feel much more pastoral. These are the talks where I have the opportunity to express what’s on my mind: my fear, my delight, my doubt, my faith. As I said, both conversations have their place, but I think the reason I feel so at home with my church is that we spend more time in the second kind of conversation. I don’t feel like the token gay person, and I have space to express my intensely personal reality with people who are also being vulnerable and expressing their own intensely personal realities. This, in turn, makes me feel safer expressing myself to God, and it allows me to hear God’s words through the voices of my fellow Christians. Nevertheless, this isn’t the case for sexual minorities in many churches: they do feel like the token gay person, or they find that every attempt to express themselves leads to an unhelpful discussion about theology of sex, or they pick up on undercurrents of the kind of “Please don’t talk about that part of you” homophobia that assures them they’re not welcome.

In summary: I think a personal spiritual life and participation in a faith community are both essential for relationship with God, and I think relationship with God is necessary for gay Christians trying to navigate a culture (even a Christian subculture) filled with a wide spectrum of attitudes about same-sex relationships. The problem is that gay Christians often struggle to maintain a personal spiritual life or participate in a faith community, and I think the harm that absence does to someone’s relationship with God presents itself in anxiety related to the question of whether same-sex relationships are sinful. So, I’d like to open the floor for comments related to a few specific questions: If you’re a gay Christian, how have you successfully or unsuccessfully maintained a relationship with God, and how has that affected your beliefs about same-sex relationships? If you’re not a gay Christian, did you identify with any of the crises I described, and what insight would you offer? Finally, how can non-gay people better support gay Christians?

One of the side effects of alternating between living in Abilene and Chicago is seeing how dramatically different the cultures are. In many cases, those differences actually bring out the strong similarities between people on different sides of the culture war. One of the similarities I’ve recognized is how difficult it is for people to take the emotions of their opponents seriously.

My new post up at The Marin Foundation blog addresses that problem and suggests our dialogues might go better if we realize emotions are part of the game. Check it out here.

[This post is part of a series reflecting on my summer internship with The Marin Foundation.]

The Marin Foundation recently hosted a performance of Peterson Toscano’s Transfigurations: Transgressing Gender in the BibleToscano has an incredible and painful story: As an evangelical Christian, Tuscano went to greater lengths than most in his attempts to change his orientation from homo- to heterosexual, spending almost twenty years and $30,000 in ex-gay programs across the globe before coming out as gay in 1999. Now married, he uses performance and teaching to speak out against efforts to change sexual orientation or suppress gender variance. As Toscano described in a Q&A after his performance, his realization that his orientation wasn’t going to change nearly demolished his faith, but his relationship with God survived that paradigm shift, eventually leading him to become part of the Religious Society of Friends.

I’ll admit I approached Toscano’s one-person play with a measure of skepticism. I’ve probably said before that I have a complicated relationship with queer readings of Scripture; at their best, they can productively and provocatively subvert patriarchal and heteronormative assumptions about the Bible, but at their very worst, they have the potential to devolve into speculative gossip that imposes modern perceptions of gender and sexuality onto a text written in a world that didn’t know words like “lesbian” or “genderqueer.”

Much to my delight, Transfigurations accomplished the former with essentially none of the latter. Structured around narration from a mostly-anonymous disciple of Jesus and commentary from an archetypal scholar (complete with spectacles and a donnish accent), the play presents a series of vignettes about various Bible characters to whom the Bible attributes non-gender-stereotyped behaviors. Toscano breathes heart and surprising nuance into his portrayal of such complex characters as the warrior-poet Deborah (who speaks in a broad stance with a deep voice) and Esau (who describes, with sneering machismo, his disdain for his “sissy” nephew Joseph), and along the way, he exercises the imaginations of the audience members in his explorations of major and minor characters alike. The scholar character allows Toscano to showcase some of the research that led to his producing the play, including explanations of ambiguous Hebrew terms and variations between biblical accounts; and in his Q&A, Toscano demonstrates refreshing humility, acknowledging which parts of his interpretation are more speculative than others.

I think there’s a temptation for those who have grown accustomed to traditional interpretations of Scripture to read the Bible as presenting a fairly monolithic understanding of gender distinctions: There are men in the Bible with hairy chests who wield swords and shed nary a tear, and there are women in the Bible with thin necks who dance about gracefully and nurse children. Our impressions of gender in the Bible often reflect little more than our own cultural gender distinctions, such that we might imagine Martha baking a casserole in Pyrex or Moses tromping his way up Mt. Sinai in Chacos. Such limited perceptions of gender often minimize or discredit the experiences of modern-day churchgoers who demonstrate qualities or gifts that breach stereotypically feminine and masculine roles. At the very least, those perceptions disregard the complexity of the Bible’s diverse cast of characters, which features stars like the smooth-skinned chef Jacob or the hammer-wielding assassin Jael and doesn’t pause to criticize their nonconformity. (There is, of course, a danger in the other direction, namely, to criticize gender distinctions so far that we minimize or discredit the experiences of modern-day churchgoers who fit comfortably and authentically into stereotypical masculine and feminine roles, like those who identify with Esau the hunter or Martha the homemaker. This approach can equally disregard the complexity of the Bible’s cast.) Transfigurations collects those personalities whose gender expression was at least atypical and emphasizes the pivotal roles they play in the biblical epic.

I’ve probably said too much, though, and I’m loath to spoil the play’s humor and pathos, much of which comes from Toscano’s portrayal of the androgynous, enigmatic eunuchs. Suffice it to say I’m not exaggerating when I report the audience, which was remarkably diverse itself, literally laughed and cried. My own strong emotional reaction to the performance owes a great deal to Toscano’s talents as a performer, to be sure, but I’m also aware the play and subsequent  discussions nudged at some of my own wounds surrounding gender roles and standards. It was wholly therapeutic to revisit the truth that my own gender-nonconforming qualities don’t disqualify me from God’s work or inhibit my functioning in the community of God, that our written account of the work of God throughout history includes men who yell and men who sing, men who fight and men who dance. Transfigurations allows audiences who may have previously found difficulty identifying with Bible personalities—or fitting in with church groups—to explore the heterogeneity of God’s faithful people.

Today, I’m thankful for reminders of the diversity of God’s creation and of the complexity of the biblical narrative.

I believe Exodus announcing its decision to shut down was an absolutely pivotal day in the history of American Christianity.

Because of how quickly our culture’s understanding and perceptions of sexuality have changed in the last forty years or so, much of what we’ve seen at a societal scale has been a series of grand, unplanned experiments. It’s all relatively new to us as a society, so we’re essentially figuring it out as we go. The first out generation is reaching their golden years, so we’re exploring for the first time in our history what it means to support elderly gay and lesbian individuals who have been out for the majority of their lives. There’s a whole generation of people who grew up surrounded by prominent gay and lesbian individuals in the media and in the neighborhood, so we’re exploring for the first time how to respond to someone who says they’re gay at the age of 12, or 10, or 8 or to someone who says their gender doesn’t match their body at age 4. And our churches include people who are voicing personal experiences of same-sex attraction as something unchosen and unexpected, so churches are exploring for the first time what their experiences mean theologically and pastorally.

I’ll try to make a very long story into a short story. Since the ’70s, when the Stonewall riots effectively brought homosexuality out of the nation’s closet, gay and lesbian individuals have occupied a place in society that’s increasingly off the margins, and this has presented a problem for conservative churches. On the one hand, their beliefs about sexuality have been clear, however unclearly they may have presented them: God designed sex as a major part of our existence, and sex is a good thing, and sexual intimacy isn’t good when it doesn’t involve a man and a woman who are married. On the other hand, it’s been impossible for them to deny the existence of individuals whose experience is different from the experiences of the majority, and I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say people generally haven’t tried to deny their existence. It was simply a new revelation that required a new response from the church, both theologically and pastorally: What does the experience of people who are homosexually oriented tell us about God and humanity, and how should the church respond to people who are not heterosexual?

Enter Exodus, an organization that somehow generated and/or came to represent the church’s solution to the crisis of the existence of gay people: They didn’t have to be gay. What developed over the next forty years in the Christian world after Stonewall was a hodgepodge of ministries and testimonies and books and sermons related to homosexuality that were genuinely well-intentioned, from what I can tell, but increasingly convoluted and inconsistent. This is where the story gets intensely controversial in terms of who’s to blame, how sorry they should feel, what was communicated, etc., but much of the Christian world received a message from this subculture of ministries that sounded optimistic and groundbreaking: People who are homosexual can, by specific means, become heterosexual. Lay Christians often saw no reason to think much about homosexuality, and the limited availability of information about gay and lesbian people meant many Christians didn’t educate themselves, probably because doing so felt like acquiescing to the conclusions of a secular society whose values felt increasingly distant from Christian values. Instead, they depended on the conclusions of those conservative Christians who seemed to be spending lots of time thinking about homosexuality, and the message they received was that a person who followed the proper procedure (what we usually call “reparative therapy”) could change their orientation from homo- to hetero-. Exodus became an umbrella for these myriad ministries and became the emblem for the concept of orientation change as their infamous slogan, “Change is possible,” took hold of the public consciousness. It’s difficult to measure how effectively the promise of orientation change saturated Christian thinking, but suffice it to say that, even today, it’s not uncommon for those who come out to conservative Christians to hear a standard response: “Oh, I think there’s a group out there that can make you straight.”

(Again, it’s unclear where the blame belongs in all of this, in terms of who promised what and when. When shades of subtlety, especially related to the differences between sexual orientation and sexual activity, did exist, they often didn’t translate; either because laypeople weren’t listening closely or because leaders in the so-called “ex-gay” world spoke with vagueness or outright dishonesty. Even the slogan “Change is possible,” which Exodus dropped a long time ago, was dreadfully ambiguous.)

The idea that complete orientation change was a reasonable expectation for people who pursued it led to other significant conclusions in the life of the church: like, for example, that someone who didn’t experience complete orientation change lacked faith or needed to keep seeking change until it happened; or that the experience of same-sex attraction in itself (regardless of one’s sexual behavior) was sinful, since it was something one had the option to change if they chose to do so; or even that gay and lesbian individuals were somehow pathological, which directly contradicted the APA’s outlook. Unfortunately, all these conclusions were built on a false premise because, to put it simply, most people didn’t experience a complete orientation change. Alan Chambers, the current head of Exodus, made that unmistakably clear when he famously acknowledged in 2012, “The majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them have not experienced a change in their orientation or have gotten to a place where they could say that they could never be tempted or are not tempted in some way or experience some level of same-sex attraction.” That admission was the loudest, clearest confirmation of a reality that had slowly been announcing itself over the last few decades through whispered rumors, consistent criticisms from secular psychology, and personal testimonies from prominent former leaders of ex-gay ministries: The vast majority of people did not experience complete orientation change regardless of the means they pursued to attain it. To be sure, many reported and still report major shifts in sexual behavior, and many reported and still report some changes in their attractions toward men and women; but the experience of complete change is exceedingly uncommon to the point that it should be considered an isolated exception to a thoroughly consistent rule.

So, why did I say Exodus shutting down was a historic day for American Christianity? I think it symbolizes the end of the era in which the default Christian response to the existence of gay and lesbian individuals has been orientation change. Exodus (and, of course, countless others) had already ceased to support the practice of reparative therapy, and other smaller ministries will probably long continue to endorse the practice of reparative therapy, so the change certainly didn’t happen overnight. Nevertheless, when the nation’s premier organization that had become associated with the promise of complete orientation change closed its doors, I think it was a catalyst to conclusively eliminate that option as Christians’ default response to gay and lesbian individuals, and I think the doors clanged loudly enough to get people’s attention.

Unfortunately, the story of Exodus hasn’t only taught us not to promise complete orientation change; the unavoidable, painful reality of the last forty years is that the promise of complete orientation change and the conclusions that promise produced (see above) have done incredible, irreversible harm to people, and that’s why so many so-called “ex-gay survivors” hold justifiably strong emotions about Exodus and its affiliated ministries. We can’t ignore their pain or the severity of what has occurred; immense healing needs to occur and will likely take a long time. I don’t know how people will think or talk about sexuality in the distant future, but I think people will look back on these last forty years as a well-intentioned but misguided failure, an first-run catastrophe from which we repented and learned and progressed. By no means am I saying it was worth the damage in order for Christians to learn something about sexuality; what I am saying is that the damage occurred, and Christians had better learn from it. I imagine people will look back on this era of Christian history with the same emotions they feel about other regrettable eras of Christian history.

Where does this leave the conservative church? The crisis that presented itself to the church after Stonewall hasn’t changed: Gay and lesbian people exist, and the kind of relationships they find themselves desiring conflicts with traditional Christian teachings about marriage and sex. What must necessarily change is the church’s response moving into the future: Christians must eradicate from their vocabulary of complete orientation change. It may still take years for that reality to trickle down into the popular Christian consciousness, but the danger and harm of promising complete orientation change is now clear to us. It’s time for Christians to re-examine their theological and pastoral response to gay and lesbian people, always keeping in mind the harm gay and lesbian individuals suffered as a result of trying to change their orientations. I predict this change will lead the church in two primary directions, each of which requires massive transformation. Either one may eventually crowd out the other, and they’re not mutually exclusive. Both have their roots in movements that started long before orientation change proved itself to be an ineffective response:

First, some Christians are affirming and blessing monogamous same-sex relationships. (This is fairly straightforward and doesn’t require much explanation.) Although they admit this breaks from the church’s historical traditions, they see that break as a positive change the Spirit of God has engendered. Orientation change efforts are seen as both useless and harmful, since they attempt to change something about someone that neither can nor needs to change. Needless to say, this will require a major transition in the way many Christians think and behave related to sexual minorities.

Second, some Christians are rediscovering and re-imagining ways in which gay and lesbian individuals can pursue intimacy and sexual expression within the context of traditional Christian sexual ethics. This involves a range of outcomes: mixed-orientation marriage, spiritual friendship, celibacy, and others. These approaches are gaining momentum in various circles, but many churches (especially those in newer denominations that don’t have strong roots outside the context of American Christianity and thus lack certain institutional structures) are unprepared to foster intimacy in any relationship outside of the context of a relationship between two heterosexuals. That’s a large-scale epidemic producing major intimacy and stability problems for everyone, including married heterosexuals, but it’s most obviously and immediately a crisis for those people who aren’t heterosexual. Churches that practice traditional sexual ethics will need to develop an environment of support for gay and lesbian individuals for whom a monogamous same-sex relationship will not be an option. I think a growing percentage of people in our culture (Christian and non-Christian alike) will perceive any theology that doesn’t affirm same-sex relationships as harmful, regardless of what happens with the movement toward legalizing same-sex marriage, and Christians must allow those criticisms to refine their response to gay and lesbian individuals. Gay and lesbian people could serve an important prophetic role against the church’s idolatry of nuclear families.

This entire conversation ultimately centers on a fact and an urgent, unavoidable question. Here’s the fact: There are gay and lesbian people in the world whose orientations are exceedingly unlikely to change. Here’s the urgent, unavoidable question: Do they have a legitimate place in your church? If someone who is gay or lesbian desires a relationship with Jesus in the context of your church and its sexual ethics, it’s dishonest and dangerous to respond, “Oh, I think there’s a group out there that can make you straight.” The old adage rings true here: If the gospel isn’t good news for everyone, then it isn’t good news for anyone. That “everyone” includes sexual minorities, of course, and whether there’s good news for them in your church determines whether there’s good news for anyone in your church. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say the days in which we’re living are pivotal in the story of American Christianity. The last forty years involved a certain response from many Christians to homosexuality that went badly, sometimes horrendously so, and Christians must not overlook the injury they have perpetrated. The next forty years could but won’t inevitably go better, and better begins when more Christians shift their posture to one of honesty and empathy with the gay and lesbian individuals whose lives intersect with theirs. Do gay and lesbian people have a legitimate place in your church?

(Since I really do believe the end of Exodus is a historic event, I recommend taking time to read what others are saying about it. Here’s a list of some of the most compelling pieces I’ve found: Alan Chambers apologizes for the harm Exodus has done and announces Exodus is shutting down. John Shore offers a sarcastic, scathing criticism of Chambers’ apology. Ex-Gay Watch suggests Exodus leaders need to wait, learn, and grow before launching their new ministry related to homosexuality. Andrew Marin argues apologies are meaningless without action. Jimmy Cornfoot urges church leaders to respond publicly to the news surrounding Exodus for the sake of the LGBT community.)