In early January I attended the Gay Christian Network (GCN) Conference in Houston, TX. It was an incredible experience. I chose to attend the conference after several discussions on the LQBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) Commiunity and realizing just how much I don’t know about the community. I knew that this was a group of people often rejected and persecuted, but I didn’t know any LGBTQ people personally. The Gay Christian Network Conference was suggested by a friend and it seemed like the perfect place to begin my quest to delve deeper into the lives of the LGBTQ community from a faith perspective.
There were many poignant stories shared, but the one that stuck out the most to me was from Mary Lambert, the special musical guest. She explained that she had come out as a lesbian while in her teens, and was raised in an evangelical church. Every Sunday she cried during worship because she was told that God didn’t love gay people. I heard this same theme over and over again from the participants at the conference. As soon as they understood their own identities as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or gender queer, they had to make a painful choice between authenticity or faith. Many chose to hide their LGBTQ identities and live with the pain in order to be part of their faith communities. One girl shared through her tears that, upon coming out, her mother said “Don’t tell anyone.” Some chose to embrace their identities and leave the church, turning instead to a community who would accept and embrace them despite their orientations and gender identities, or even because of it. A workshop I attended was hosted by a transgender woman explaining how she had lost every single Christian friend upon transitioning, while the response from her non-Christian friends was “Well this will be weird, but we’ll get used to it.” All around me I sensed the deep wounds from the church, specifically the evangelical church. My heart was breaking for these beloved children of God who had been rejected by the people of God.
You can’t be gay and Christian. That was the message pounded into them, day after day. The church, the community of faith, is the place where you are supposed to feel the unconditional love and acceptance of God reflected in his followers.
Mary Lambert’s words brought back my own wounds from the church. Well, from a few members of the church. About a year ago I was publicly berated for my stance on LGBTQ inclusion in the church, among other things this person simply didn’t like about me. After that incident for about 3 months I remember crying every Sunday. I would get up in front of the church and preach, then go home and cry. Sometimes it started in the car on the way home. Then I would binge watch Netflix until I was numb to my own pain. Sometimes it was more than Sundays. I worked at the church and had to walk into that building, past the woman who so spitefully shamed me, 6 or 7 days a week.
I hesitate to compare my story with the LGBTQ community who have suffered far worse and have been rejected so much more simply for being who they are. I was hurt by the church, but I can’t deny how easy it would be for me to simply stay quiet and keep the peace. But those who identify as LGBTQ do not have that option.
But Mary Lambert’s story was not over. She finds acceptance and love now. She talked fondly of her girlfriend. She was open about her own struggles with body image, bipolar disorder, and being gay. Her openness has brought healing, and has been an inspiration for so many people touched by her music and poetry. She can say “I’m not crying on Sundays,” the poignant final line in her song, She Keeps Me Warm.
(You can also check out Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ Same Love, where Mary sings the same chorus and ends with the same lines.)
I also found this theme at the GCN Conference: acceptance and inclusion in the faith community. Some participants were pastors and ministry leaders, working toward inclusion in their churches. Some were, like me, straight allies, trying to understand more and speak up on behalf of the often condemned or misunderstood LGBTQ community. Some were students advocating for acceptance in their schools. Some had found the love of their lives and were able to rejoice in that union, regardless of the gender of their partners. Some still suffered rejection from their churches. One participant confessed that attending the Gay Christian Network Conference, once a year, was his only time in church. Across the spectrum: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gender queer, straight, evangelical, liturgical, non-religious spiritual, from whatever faith community, from their conservative families or liberal families, whether rejected or accepted at home, every participant found a place of acceptance at the GCN Conference. We all stood shoulder to shoulder and echoed the all-inclusive, unconditional love of God for one another.
As I stood in that beautiful community of faith, that group of misfits, broken people, struggling individuals from all backgrounds and walks of life, I, too, could say “I’m not crying on Sundays.”
Some of my new LGBTQ friends were heading back to communities and churches where they would be accepted and loved. Some of them were heading back to a place they didn’t even feel safe being open about their orientation or gender identity. I have spent a lot of time contemplating my time in Houston with the Gay Christian Network. What would I bring home with me? How would this change my understanding and my interaction with the LGBTQ community?
One final and prevalent theme that I found at the conference was reconciliation. The main session speakers reiterated the need for love and acceptance for all: gay, transgender, bisexual, women, gender queer, gender fluid, people of color, people of disabilities, and yes, even the conservatives that have traditionally condemned gay and lesbian people. This call to love our enemies was hard to hear. For people who have spent most of their lives being condemned, rejected, kicked out of homes, shunned, and accused of having an “agenda,” the call to respond to this hate was with love. Allyson Robinson told us on Friday morning “There is only one fight for justice.” We are all, as part of the body of Christ, called to build bridges, edify believers, and fight for justice for ALL. Just as I have come to understand the LGBTQ community as a group of individuals, people with stories, not a faceless group clamoring for rights; I have to begin seeing their opponents as people, individuals with their own stories.Reconciliation will come with unconditional love, not with winning arguments or finding enough Scripture to back my stance. Many years ago I made a commitment to love the unlovable, and befriend those who have no friends. Sometimes the unlovable are the people in my own faith community.
I know there is a long way to go. I know that this message will not be immediately accepted. I know that I will still be speaking against ignorance and bigotry. But it is a battle worth fighting. It is something I am not only called to do, I am privileged to do. So I will keep speaking up for the marginalized and ostracized. I will continue to use my privilege to elevate the voices of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ. I will keep shouting about the LGBTQ homeless youth crisis. I will continue to fight until one day everyone in our faith communities, gay or straight, cisgender or transgender, liberal or conservative, can say “I’m not crying on Sundays.”