In the fall of 2006, a colleague and I sat at a backyard picnic table supervising freshman Homecoming float building. In the course of our meandering conversation, she vaguely alluded to relationship problems. She was clearly being evasive. I don’t remember if I probed or if things just got awkward, but eventually our exchange went like this:
“I’m gay, and I have a partner.”
“I didn’t know if I should tell you. I know you go to a Presbyterian church, and I’ve been reading in the newspaper…”
“Oh. Right. I’m sorry. It’s fine.”
She was right. At the time, the Presbyterian Church, USA was embroiled in a very public internal clash over the question of whether “practicing homosexuals” could be ordained in the church. This was by no means a new issue. I first remember it arising in the mid-80s, and it wasn’t new then; I had only just begun to pay attention. The issue bubbled up every few years, as progressives periodically challenged the denomination’s official position, but so far, a “hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner” ideology had prevailed.
I had written my first-ever college research paper on the question in 1990 and, oddly given my whole-hearted buy-in to conservative theology, took the position that yes, the church should allow it. It was the right academic answer based on the research I had done. The evidence supported this position. But it bothered me. It was one of many times in my high school and college years that I felt torn between the doctrines I had been taught as a lifelong conservative Christian and the ideas that compelled me in school. I turned in the paper with a hint of queasiness, feeling that I’d compromised my faith ideals for a grade. That those faith ideals might have been flawed was not an option I was willing to entertain. I couldn’t.
By 2006, I had settled uneasily into the decision to believe despite doubt, to take the Bible (or the interpretation I’d been told was the correct one) as the infallible Word of God, and to accept the positions that made me uncomfortable because that’s what it meant to be a true Christian. I viewed this as humble, not arrogant. Who was I to pick and choose? God’s Word was God’s Word. I might not like it, but God called me to obedience. I could be a friend to my colleague and still oppose her lifestyle. So I did. And so I was the worst kind of friend. I stood alongside her and stuck tissue paper in chicken wire but looked at her disapprovingly. I let her stay in my spare bedroom when she separated from her partner but worried about what people would think. Once we were no longer co-advisors, we quickly drifted apart.
A short time later, our church worked through a difficult separation from the denomination and moved to a new, more conservative one. As a new, incoming elder, I had been asked to affirm three tenets: that the Bible is the infallible Word of God (check), that Jesus is God’s only son, sent to die and rise again for our salvation (or some version of that; again, check), and that marriage is between one man and one woman (WHAT??). I was told in response to my query about why the last statement should make the Top Three that they wanted leaders during this time united on the issue. I accepted, with reservations. I convinced myself that I agreed with the premise, if not that the ordination of gay pastors warranted separation. In fact, there were larger issues at play. The ordination of gay pastors was enough for many, but the conflict was multilayered. Still, those reading about us in the paper didn’t see the complex theological debate. They saw Christians willing to fight other Christians in court over the right to exclude people from full participation in the life of the church. I asked a fellow elder one day, “Do you think it’s okay that I support the decision but not the reason?” He didn’t answer. And of course it was not. But I did it anyway. I cast my vote, first as elder, and then as a congregant.
The church’s role in state-level legal battles exacerbated the tension I felt. When Proposition 8, eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry, came before California voters in 2008, I voted no, primarily because I could not justify denying a legal right on a religious basis. The “marriage-is-sacred” argument did not sway me. Christians did not oppose the legal rights of atheists and Muslims to marry. Proposition 8 felt discriminatory. I knew that I had broken with most of my fellow conservative Christians with my vote. I also felt far more comfortable with it than I did with the vote to leave the denomination. In this vote, I felt I was standing up for people rather than doctrine.
Six years later, I moved from my conservative community to a progressive one in order to attend a far more progressive university. Before I left, I had “Psalm 71:5” tattooed on my wrist: “For you have been my hope, sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth.” Politically, I had long since moved left of center. 20 years working in public education will often have that effect. But from a faith perspective, the move scared me. I knew my beliefs would likely be challenged, and I desperately wanted to stand firmly in my Christian faith.
At the very first department event I attended, my advisor casually pointed out a colleague’s partner and told me her name. I nodded and then glanced sideways at him, waiting for…something. He moved on. There was no awkward pause, no qualifier, no raised eyebrow. It had not even occurred to him that I would flinch. He had told me his colleague was gay as easily as he would have pointed out that the sun was shining. And I wanted to be like that. I never wanted to flinch again.
Over the course of the year, as I entered into this new community, I continued to marvel at who these people were and how they lived their lives. They accepted each other’s varying family configurations, partnerships, and other personal choices. They attended diligently to the language they used, striving for inclusivity. They celebrated each other’s new relationships and engagements, no matter what gender or orientation the partner was. These were not morally bankrupt people who appeared in need of the Truth that I held. These were deeply compassionate people. They shed tears over police shootings and immigration raids. They had come to graduate school because they had recognized the ways in which the education system ignores, fails, even actively hurts some kids, and they wanted to change it. They had devoted their careers to pursuing justice. They came from a range of religious backgrounds. Some had grown up in Christian churches and since left, some had no religious background, some were Muslim or Jewish, some had connected with other spiritual traditions. But to a person, they showed love, they spoke and acted with integrity, they welcomed the stranger, they fought for the oppressed, they cared for the poor. That some of them were gay or bi or gender-nonconforming had no bearing whatsoever on how they lived their lives. It made no sense to me qualify their morality. These were not good, kind people EXCEPT…These were just good, kind people. They treated their partners with the same love and respect and took their relationships as seriously as any Christian married couple I had known. For me to take issue with their “lifestyles” made no logical or moral sense. They may not have identified as followers of Christ, but their lifestyles reflected the values I had long associated with Christ.
When I began attending progressive churches and engaging with the online progressive Christian community, I experienced these same convictions. Same-sex couples, trans men and women, and gender-nonconforming people honored God in their worship and in their church leadership and service as faithfully as straight married couples. They identified as Christian for the same reason I did: they were compelled by the story and the example of Jesus, and they strove to follow that example alongside and in accord with the rest of us -as part of the body of Christ. And it struck me that the only thing in their way of being powerful Christian witnesses and leaders was a church that shut them out.
And as I saw what the church could look like and the richness of Christian community that grew out of inclusion of LGBT+ people, I began to reflect more honestly on the role I had played in exclusion. In the name of faithfulness to God’s Word, I had turned people away -in off-handed comments about “Christian values,” through my votes on denomination policy, and simply by being part of a church whose conflicts over this issue regularly appeared in the news and failing to dig deeper and examine our stance. Now that I read the work of LGBT+ Christians and attend an affirming church, I see with new eyes how much we have lost over many generations by silencing these voices.
The conservative church’s approach has not made anyone less gay, less bi, less trans; it has made them less Christian. Countless LGBT+ people have walked away from church, and often, as a result, from God, as their church communities have condemned them. Gay Christians have limited options. They can pretend not to be gay and enter into a heterosexual marriage, which may be perfectly loving but will never be sexually fulfilling for either partner (and given all the “God-created-sex-and-he-wants-you-to-enjoy-it” youth group talks I sat through, it seems that component should not be ignored). They can remain single and celibate, sacrificing the opportunity for partnership that Christians believe God so highly values. They can seek a church that will accept them, which can be a painful, lonely, and frustrating process. Or they can walk away. None of these options allow people to live out their full identity in Christ the way straight Christians can. And to impose this forced choice on people because the interpretation of Bible we’ve chosen to accept deems their relationship sinful is to ignore a number of other Biblical commands, some of which Jesus himself identifies as more important than the others.
I regret that it took me 45 years to understand what has always been obvious to progressive Christians and to LGBT+ Christians themselves. As Jared Byas pointed out in a recent episode of “The Bible for Normal People,” in conservative Christianity, we are “conditioned not to trust ourselves.” On some level, I have known since I wrote that freshman-level research paper that the conservative church was wrong on this issue. But over and over, despite the conflict I felt, I squelched my own intuition, and that was dangerous and unwise and ultimately hurtful. God creates us to know right from wrong. I should have heeded my own internal discomfort.
I regret the part I have played in perpetuating the harm that conservative Christians have done to LGBT+ people. I will never again attend a church that isn’t openly and fully affirming of LGBT+ people. I will do all I can to amplify the voices and teachings and scholarship of LGBT+ Christians. And I will not sit passively by anymore. It is important, and it is urgent.