I regularly find myself in conversation with people who feel deeply conflicted about how to love and respond to LGBT people: conservative minsters whose hearts have softened towards LGBT people, but whose theology has not; college chaplains who are suddenly finding themselves flummoxed by trans, queer, and gay students sitting in their office, struggling with faith and sexuality; parents, friends, siblings of gay people who see the damage done by the church and don’t know how to stop perpetuating that damage.Continue reading “The 4 Steps of Standing in Solidarity with LGBT People”
I hear it all the time: this protective need for some of my fellow Christians to “speak the truth in love” to their gay friends and family. In other words, while they say that they should “love and accept” those who are gay, they still feel a need to state that they think homosexuality is inherently sinful, and that gay people must commit themselves to chastity, denying homosexual sin.
I want to caution all Christians from doing this, because it has the potential to break vulnerable LGBT people. That might sound dramatic, overly policing, and hand-wringingly protective. After all, as one prominent religious pedant likes to say, “facts don’t care about your feelings.” If you believe that homosexuality is a sin, isn’t it your duty to let the world know? Regardless of how this “fact” makes others feel?
If you value the conversation and friendship of LGBT people you love; if you desire their best and want to see them flourish, unsolicited “speaking the truth in love” is dangerous.
I speak from my experience. When I was in college, the Truth in Love from my fellow Christians did indeed break me. To understand this, you must understand everything going on beneath the surface – everything weighing down on an LGBT person coming to terms with their lived experience. Here’s everything that was burdening me when I was in a small Christian college, and it certainly isn’t an exhaustive list:
- Almost every song, movie, and cultural reference deals with heterosexual experience in some way: sex, romance, marriage, hooking up, dating, etc. From my earlier memories I could never relate to any of the romantic narratives in our culture, good or bad, positive or negative. This enforced a deep, subtle current of feeling completely alien in this world. It reinforced the deep intuition that I was some kind of freak.
- More than that, my religion spoke in exclusively heterosexual terms. Adam and Eve, the image of man and woman as the union between Christ and the church. Straight people might be able to relate to all that, but I couldn’t. I therefore felt like an outsider to my beloved religion.
- The pressure to not have sex is already crushing for young people in the church. For gay people, it is doubly so. The hormonal rage to hookup and experiment made me feel like I was caught between two crushing walls – one being my sex drive, the other being the possibility that if I do have sex, I will be committing a grave, abominable sin that reflects the deep brokenness of our world.
- And if you retort that, “we are all equally broken, gay or straight,” it’s likely that they gay person in your life won’t buy it. I didn’t. In practice, gay people are more broken, more outside, more excluded, because the theology makes it so. When the Bible and Christian traditions speaks to your orientation only in terms of sin and disorder (unlike heterosexuality) the claim that “all are equally sinful” becomes a sort of gaslighting. Straight people have an out, gay people do not.
- When you are a young twenty-something, the prospect that you have three choices in life, each one depressing or damning, becomes a constant source of anxiety. 1. You can live a celibate life, which, when you are twenty, can be a terrifying thing to commit yourself to. This has less to do with sex, and more to do with the world of partnered intimacy sex is attached to. Looking into a life without partnered intimacy can be absolutely debilitating. 2. You can get married to someone of the opposite sex, which can frankly feel unfair to your partner, impossible, or miserable. Or, 3. You can be sexually active, in which case you must live with the cognitive dissonance that you are not living the way God desires you to live. That is incredibly debilitating for a young mind.
- When struggling with with one’s sexual or gender identity, your loving community and family can suddenly feel deeply unsafe. If you come to the “wrong” conclusion, does that mean they will reject you? If you have a sexual encounter and they find out will they berate you, sermonize you, tell you how sinful you are, or disapprove? And maybe you aren’t sure you have the emotional resources to be able to handle that rejection when it comes. This can also create a crippling anxiety for LGBT people.
- The destruction all the above anxieties have on other areas of life can create a downward spiral of more despair and anxiety. When I was in college I failed six classes and it took me 8 years to finally graduate. I just didn’t have the bandwidth to succeed, to get a job, to be productive and healthy. Every moment of the day was spent trying to resolve my sexual orientation. This left me feeling helpless, afraid for my future, and like a total fuckup.
Add on top of this a friend saying that, while they love you, they still think you are sinning and need to repent. For me, it was just too much to carry.
And yes, I did want to kill myself. I went to sleep every night fantasizing about shooting myself in the college chapel. When friends would try to lovingly tell me that they think homosexuality is sinful, I would cut myself horribly. My arms are still a latticework of scars. This wasn’t because I was unreasonably fragile, but because I was carrying so many invisible things already, and my friends, pastors, and mentors not giving me the margin to question and journey simply broke me.
The friends who saved my life were the ones who gave me space: who withheld their own opinions, except when asked, and chose to walk with me through the dark places. They told me again and again that God has the grace and space for me to question and work this all out for as long as I need to. They told me that no matter what conclusion I come to I am still loved by them and by God, that they respect the journey I’m on, and that they still see me as part of the Kingdom of God. These friends were the ones who sustained me, and might be the reason I’m still alive.
Please, withhold your truth. Give space to those who are struggling, and understand that Job’s friends were helpful only when they said nothing. We need spacious love, not claustrophobic condemnation.
I’m writing this the day before Thanksgiving. I’m weighed down with exhaustion – I manage a grocery store, and the holidays always hit us like a tidal wave. But I’m also weighed down with sorrow, with grief. As the holidays approach, I’ve felt an inexplicable dread come over me, and a deep grief. The sort of grief that exists deeper than conscious thought, and lives in the body itself.
At the moment when I was the most certain of my traditional beliefs on sexuality I fell, quite by accident, very deeply in love with another man, whom I will call Andrew.
As I’ve told my story of failure and wounding within a commitment to lifelong celibacy – and how I have eventually walked away from it – the most common response from conservative Christians has been withering. The vast majority of them who have responded on social media and the blogosphere have been singing variations of, “so what you are saying is that you cannot live without sex.” When they hear me say that Side B (the traditional view of gay marriage) crushed me, they assume that’s because I can only conceive of intimacy as a sexual act, that I have an idolatrous view of romance, and that I see sex and romance as the most fulfilling experience on earth. They also assume that I have a misplaced understanding of community and friendship.
It’s been a long, painful and perilous journey from a life of suffocating fear and self-loathing toward a life of fearlessness and love. I spent most of my teenage and adult years trapped in the impenetrable coffin of my self-loathing, absolutely convinced that I was unlovable to God. As a young boy growing up in the evangelical world, I somehow absorbed the message that being gay makes a person loathsome and subhuman. When I started to discover that I was gay myself, I became the victim of my own undying disgust and hatred. Like a supernova, my being collapsed upon itself, the object of its own unquenchable disgust.
Once upon a time, there was a fast talking, chain-smoking bisexual Texan pastor named Robert who sat me down and gave me a stern talking to.
“Listen Stephen,” he said. “The world is full of assholes. And if you lose your sanity over them – if you lose your happiness because some asshole out there thinks you shouldn’t get married, or thinks of you as less than human, what then? Have you changed their minds? No. You’ve just lost your own life to them. You’ve let them win. They’re still assholes, and you’ve sacrificed your happiness to them. Why should you give a fuck what they say, man? Live your life.”
I was traumatized by my time in church. The years of sitting in pews, Bible studies, and coffee shops with Christian leaders, listening to variation upon variation of how wrong homosexuality is, slowly eroded me. Words might not seem that powerful, but if they are a steady trickle, coursing over your young mind which is porous as fresh soil, they carve out whole canyons of self loathing.
Last year, I wrote an article called Talking About LGBT People: A Tutorial. The basic gist of the article was that, when it comes to straight, conservative Christians trying to understand gay people, listening is better than talking. This thesis is obviously a good one: we should all listen more intently, and be less willing to offer hair-trigger responses to difficult situations. I stand by that central thesis.
But, for the past year, this article has been a grain of sand in my conscience, irritating and troubling me. I’ve meditated a great deal on my words in this post, and I now believe that an amendment is in order.
Wendy VanderWal-Gritter – a Christian thinker, ministry leader, and straight ally – has long struggled with the dynamic tensions of being a person of faith who also embraces the gay community.