So, You Want to Come Out: The Most Important Step You’re Going to Take

Contrary to what it sounds like, coming out is not a one-time event. No one wakes up, realizes they’ve been living in a closet that is far too dark, lonely, and small, and then just pops open the door and sashays out, once and for all.

Oh, that it were as simple as setting up your phone camera on a shelf for your video of the moment you tell your mother that you’ve always known you were a lesbian.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good coming-out video as much as the next person. I’ve cried through dozens of them through the years. And my hunch is that the reasons we make these videos are similar to the reasons we watch them. For folks who have lived much of our lives in closets constructed of fear and shame, there is hope in seeing the faces of people with the courage and vulnerability to declare that they are human beings worthy of love and acceptance.

The closet constructed by persistent heteronormativity and homophobia in society works to erase LGBTIQ faces from history, family, schools, workplaces, leadership, faith communities, and public life. Coming out disrupts these norms, making our faces visible. And the courage to be seen, by ourselves and those around us, is fundamentally about reclaiming our right to have faces.


If you’ve ever found yourself wondering about the non-conforming gender performance, hairstyle, body language, makeup, or clothing of someone who identifies in some way as LGBTIQ, you should know this: It’s not about you!

As people, our bodies and lives do not exist to make other people comfortable. The closet metaphor works for me, because closets are places where people keep sweaters–objects that can be wrapped around one’s own body to insulate from what feels uncomfortable in the world. But LGBTIQ folks are not sweaters.

So, coming out is, at it’s core, a way of claiming proof of our existence in the world.

This is why we march in parades, phone-bank for civil rights, volunteer for HIV-AIDS relief organizations, fight racism, misogyny and other kinds of oppression, dress in drag, perform burlesque, make youtube videos, lead in religious communities, join GSAs, and build robust and welcoming families of choice. We live full, complex lives that celebrate our gender and sexual orientation as a wonderful part of who we are, and namely, we get to be seen for who we are in community.


The most important step in this coming out process is always the same. I know that’s a big claim, but hear me out.

It’s the same step that you will have to take to come out to yourself, to your friends and family, at your workplace, on the bus, at school, in your church, mosque, temple, or synagogue. In fact, you’ll have to take this step inside of yourself every single step along your journey of coming out of the closet and living courageously in the world.

The most important step is having the courage to believe that you deserve to be seen and loved.

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If you’ve lived in the closet this long, you know something about fear and the courage it takes to survive. You’re already a hero in my book, for finding the resources within yourself to seek some measure of safety in order to make it in a world that says you do not exist.

Coming out is difficult, and you should do it in your own time, when you are ready for it. But know this: you are worthy of being seen and loved and you already have the immense courage it takes to take this step, and the one after that, and the one after that.


Right now, you may not feel like you have that courage. And that’s okay. I know that you exist in the world. I am proud of you for even thinking about this step of coming out.

Sometimes, when we’ve lived our lives behind the door that society holds shut to conceal our existence, we begin to believe the lie that we don’t deserve to live and be seen–to be loved for who we are. And it’s nearly impossible to start loving ourselves in this situation.

To get there, I want you to stand in front of a mirror and look at your face. Say, “You are beautiful. You are loved. I love you. You are welcome in this world.” I know, it’s going to seem hokey the first 300 times that you do this, but you need to hear this–from yourself.

But really, we don’t start loving ourselves out of nowhere. We are social creatures and our personhood is developed in relationship. This is why, to keep growing, you’re going to need to come out at some point. If there’s one person that you are out to who is supportive, talk to them. Let that relationship remind you that you have a face; that you are worthy of love and respect as a person in this world.

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And if you don’t have anyone that you are out to, know this: I love you. You are beautiful. And you are welcome in this world. I will hold onto those words for you until you are able to look at yourself and say them with confidence and sincerity. If you’re in (or near) Seattle, get in touch–we’ll get coffee. If you’re farther away, same thing (we’ll just need to Skype).

Just know that you are not alone. You are no one’s sweater. You exist; you have a face; you are loved and deserve to be loved for who you are.

Happy Coming-Out Day. Today, and every day that you decide you are worth living for.

You are worth living for.

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QCT 19: Be Careful Little Gay What You Say

This is the 19th post in my series “Queering the Christian Table.” You can start reading from the beginning by clicking here.

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I am careful with my words.

It’s an irony to me that my post that has received the most attention on this site is the one that received the least editing.

When I sat down to write the post entitled “Why my humanity isn’t beholden to SCOTUS,” I didn’t spend 4-6 hours writing it, like I have most of the other posts in this series. Ultimately, my anxiety around last year’s supreme court cases was so high, that I realized, if I was to get any sleep the night before the big announcements, I had to put some thoughts down on the page.

So, I did something that I do not regularly practice—I clicked publish on a piece that I hadn’t carefully scrutinized to make sure it said exactly what I meant to say. Without thinking through the counter-arguments or attempting to understand the intricacies of my potential audience, I participated in that rare, human act of saying a bit of what I was both feeling and thinking in the moment.

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Okay. So, what’s the big deal? I wrote a post without a lot of editing and people responded favorably. Maybe I got lucky. Maybe years of writing, revising, editing, copy-editing, and learning grammar paid off with a relatively decent bit of writing on a hot topic.

Swell. Now get back to editing, kiddo—those posts don’t write themselves, you know!

But wait a second.

Wait one, hot minute.

Wait seven months and let this REALLY sink in.

It may be that there is something more to this story than meets the eye.

Why am I so, damned, careful with words?

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Growing up gay, as the son of Pentecostal Christian ministers in the deep south, I learned early on that not just words, but looks, mannerisms, timing, and presentation all matter. What I communicated through my speech and through my body could keep me in favor or could (at best) mean a fall from grace or (at worst) leave me at risk of expulsion, physical harm, being sent off to a program to “fix” me, or worse.

I learned to be a professional reader of those around me in my religious and cultural communities. I understood what was necessary for my survival and I carefully navigated the space between what I perceived as their expectations and the reality of my desires in a dangerous social climate.

I vividly recall being called to the front of the church to be prayed for, people placing their hands on my body and head and praying loudly. I remember prayers for God’s presence to be in my life. I also remember prayers “casting out demons” and prayers for God to rid me of sin. I remember being asked, again and again, if there was anything in particular that I wanted to be prayed for in my life.

I developed a code of sorts—the safe words—the kinds of things respectable and holy people ask for: “more of God,” “to be closer to Jesus,” and “to deal with unforgiveness.”

That last one, in particular, was my golden ticket—technically, I was repenting of a sin, but it was the kind of sin that proved just how humble and good I really was.

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In reality, all of these phrases were code for: “God take away my sexual desire for guys and please don’t let anyone find out about it.”

In a tradition know for it’s “words of knowledge” when some older church member or traveling evangelist would interrupt a church service to proclaim (usually while using a microphone) that God was telling them about someone’s sin (and that someone needed to come forward and repent), I lived in terror of being found out.

It turns out that either God was not speaking to those people, or God did not care to call me out for being gay, because it never happened.

However, the possibility of such a public exposure became a seed of shame that would grow across the hillsides of my soul like the invasive thickets of kudzu that sprawl across the clear-cut hillsides lining southern highways.

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And so, I grew careful. I came to present myself as what I thought the people around me wanted and needed me to be. And, through the pervasive singularity of one privileged reading of the Bible, who I thought God wanted me to be.

Even writing this series, I wrestle this gorilla of shame that plays its narrative out in my head. Can I say the words that bring me life? Can I simply express how it is that I wrestle with my faith? Is it okay to not seem reasonable, approachable, friendly, and safe for people to ask their questions (even the ones that are painfully offensive or judgemental)?

I worry about these things. I am careful. I measure out my words.

As a blogger, I shred perfectly reasonable paragraphs into readable snippets. I over-explain vocabulary. I modify, modify, modify—to make sure that I am leaving space for dialogue, and multiple perspectives, and generous interpretations. I try to stay open to dialogue and conversation. I’m willing to publish any comment that doesn’t come across as overtly belligerent.

This is not all good or bad.

I am realizing that many of these skills developed as I used my natural gifts and personality to forge a way to survive a childhood where I did not feel safe to be me in my own home, churches, faith, and society. And while I don’t need these skills for the same level of survival, they still serve me well as I navigate a church and culture that does not always feel safe.

Sometimes it is wise to be careful.

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So, I’ve grown careful with words—taking care to not offend what I perceive as the limits of acceptability from those around me—from institutions and churches; from family and friends. But in so doing, I have allowed bits of myself—my voice, my particularity, my story—to be stuffed aside; I have swallowed so many words—so many of MY words—often out of hope that by making other Christians comfortable, I would remain safe, and they would stay in the conversation longer, instead of either walking away or asserting their privilege and kicking me out the door.

But that is no gospel. At best it is collusion. It is sabotaging my vulnerability.

There is something valuable in vulnerability—in speaking my own words as they give expression to the strength of my feelings—that is so desperately needed in this conversation about sexuality and the church.

It’s the particularity of my life—the reality of my faith and my sexual orientation and the ways in which I experience the presence of God leading me in the way of Jesus—that, I believe, needs to be told.

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And I think that vulnerability is some of what came into play with the post about the SCOTUS cases that was responsible for leading a large wave of you to first read this blog.

I desire to be human-sized. I want to be able to be seen and loved for who I am, not for my ability to live up to real or perceived expectations about how well I stack up to someone else’s interpretation of the Bible, cultural gender norms, or personal hang-ups.

But in order to contradict the shame that drives this tendency to be over-careful, I must risk.

I must risk that, yes, there are still many in the church, society, and my family, that do not want to hear what I have to say; that do not want to believe that my experience of God’s grace in my life is real; that do not want to face what is would look like for them to accept such radical goodness for themselves.

And, to be sure, there is also the real risk of danger.

There are places in my own city, state, and country where it would be unwise and unsafe for me to speak openly and honestly about being gay and what I believe about God and the Bible. There are countries in the world—places like Russia, where the world is tuning in to see the winter Olympics—where simply speaking openly about being gay can lead to imprisonment, suffering violence, and death. As driving-while-brown in most of the U.S.A. means higher risk of being stopped by police, using a public restroom-while-transgender still runs the risk of extreme violence and murder in the “Land of the Free.”

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As a white, cis-gender, gay man, I face very low risk of these dangers living in a city like Seattle. But I do run the risk of losing the privilege of my ability to speak to power in Christian institutions and the church.

And here, I cringe. It has come to this.

The carefulness, that as a child allowed me to survive real danger, now only keeps me isolated by helping me maintain privileges doled out by a system that I don’t want to support.

I am making a choice.

I am not walking away from the church.

But I am not going to diminish the story of the gospel that is playing out in my life by only using words that make privileged, religious folks feel comfortable. That’s simply not the purpose of my life.

I am not trying to burn any bridges. It’s just that what I see Jesus doing in the various gospels looks like love and truth telling. And as a human who is practicing how to follow Jesus’ way of loving God and neighbor, the best thing that I know how to do is to say what it is that I have seen and heard.

In the gospels Jesus is constantly tripping up those who maintain privilege through tight control of following restrictive interpretation of scriptures. Jesus seems to have a thing for abandoning loyalty to power through privilege by loving those who aren’t able to achieve privilege—women, the poor, the disabled, foreigners, those considered sexually immoral.

And incidentally, it’s those folks that Jesus often points to as the people who teach us what it means to love. Through his actions, Jesus seems to identify right worship of God with love, by spending time with people who were not allowed into the central temple courts to worship. In doing this, he stands in alignment with the Old Testament prophets who essentially declare that God doesn’t give a shit about maintaining religious standards of holiness if you are treating the poor and resident aliens like shit.

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When it comes to talking about the place of LGBTIQ people in Christian institutions and the church, I have perceived (and explicitly received) the message to “slow down” and allow a careful conversation to unfold. I’ve heard that the church needs more time to discern what to say about all this–as if we had no kerygmatic model to follow in applying the ethics of Jesus to contemporary situations. But the truth is that I and all the other people who make up the church (LGBTIQ and otherwise) are alive right now, in this span of time, and we are responsible for how we bear witness to the gospel right now (communion of saints not withstanding).

If the gospel has any merit whatsoever, then–as, basically, the entire history of the global church proves–no matter how badly the church royally screws things up, God is still capable of continuing to be present in the world.

And thank God for that.

So, no, I don’t think passing protections for LGBTIQ people who are objects of violence at higher rates, or allowing same-sex marriages, or ordaining LGBTIQ ministers is going to be the downfall of society or even the church. In fact, I think that those things would contribute to the unity of the church (a pretty important theme in the Bible, at least for Jesus and Paul), provide protection for a group of people who experience violence (important to the OT prophets), and bear witness to the rest of the world that–hey!–God really does love everybody.

And guess what? Even if we completely mess this one up, we’ll have found a way of destroying the church by loving people instead of by slaughtering them by the millions or destroying entire cultures, or enslaving people, or justifying our destruction of the earth–You know, when it comes to ways of destroying the church, I think we’d be raising the bar quite a bit.

And yeah, even if we’re wrong, I think God can help our great-grandkids sort it out.

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It turns out that I have one life that has been given to me. So, I am not going to buy the false promise of some semblance of privilege in the church by playing the game of keeping people comfortable. As a man with a lot of privilege, by opting out of this trap, I allow myself space to engage where my actual privileges are oppressing others in ways distinctly different but not disconnected from my own experience of oppression.

I am going to continue to do my best to enjoy the life I have been given and to glorify God with my life by following the way of Jesus and learning to grow in love and bear wit(h)ness to the truth of God’s goodness playing out in the world.

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Will I continue to edit my posts? Yes. I am still a writer. But I get to choose how to use my skill to shape words to tell my own human story, rather than the one I have been led to believe will get me a piece of the false-acceptance pie.

My goal is to allow my carefulness to be full of care for myself and for you my readers, by singing the one song I was born to sing.

That song is bold. It’s also a bit snarky.

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This doesn’t mean that I don’t want a conversation.

I want a conversation that is real–where you get to be real and where I get to be real; where we all get to be respectful and extend the lavish hospitality of the God we claim to follow.

This is the kind of conversation that is gritty and tough, not with laying down the law, but with laying down our arms and being vulnerable with each other. It’s the kind of space where we can be honest about the harm that has been done in the name of God and we can be curious about what we all have to learn about loving in a way that might, in some slight way, reflect the life and teachings of Jesus.

It means facing the eviscerating goodness of what God’s acceptance for us might look like if God is good enough to accept those that we deem in the wrong.

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It seems to me that when it comes to extending love and full communion, Jesus was lavish, rather than careful. Thus, why I’ve invoked the song the title of this post alludes to. It’s a little ditty-of-terror taught to Christian children that goes like this:

“Be careful little mouth what you say, be careful little mouth what you say, for the Father up above is looking down with love, so be careful little mouth what you say.”

It goes on like that, switching out “mouth what you say” for “ears what you hear,” “eyes what you see,” and “hands what you do.”

Now, not even addressing the horrible conflation of personal action and being acted upon in the shaming of small children, this tune gets at the core of the problem plaguing this conversation.

We have a hard time understanding a God who loves us, has boundaries, and doesn’t need to shame us for being the very things that God ostensibly created: human beings–wildly different, flawed, perfectly precious, human creatures. Quite frankly, a God who burns people in hell for believing that God is more loving than God actually is, is no God worth giving a shit about.

Such a system actually worships hell, because it sets up hell as more powerful than God’s capacity to love and forgive whatever might need to be forgiven.

It seems to me that the conversation needs to turn from whether or not it’s okay for LGBTIQ people to be at the table, to how can we stop beating each other up and love each other and love the rest of the world in the way that Jesus taught.

That the Christian church in USAmerica and in many places in the world is a less safe place for any group of people than the general society, is a testament that the church is already off its rails. Instead of panicking about how to grow the church or protect the church, I hope that we can learn to love in a way worthy of even being called a church that belongs to Jesus.

Such a church sounds pretty reckless; far from careful; yet far less of a danger to itself and others. It’s a church that identifies with Jesus–a church that stops chasing privilege by doing religion “right.”

That’s the kind of church I want to be a part of.

Queering the Christian Table Part 16: National Coming Out Day and John 11

This post is part of the series Queering the Christian Table. To begin reading at the beginning of this series, click here.

My Coming Out Story

There’s a genre of writing, videos, and songs dedicated to telling peoples’ experiences of coming out of the closet. Some emphasize the long process of coming to love and accept oneself and begin to be honest with the world on the outside about who you are on the inside. Some of these stories focus more narrowly on a particular happy, funny, tragic, or terrifying moment when we first told someone that we were [Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual, Gay, Queer, etc.].

Some people, myself included, have several of both kinds of stories. There are even a few folks who don’t have a distinct coming out story because they were able to grow up in homes where they were loved and accepted for who they were in a very open way—I’ve even heard stories from people who’s coming out was their own realization about themselves and that when they told friends and family, the response they got was something like, “yeah, we’ve always known that. Didn’t you?”

I have stories of coming out to myself, my former spouse, my classmates, my sister, my friends, my teachers, my parents, my boss, my coworkers, my church, my landlord, my students, my HR director, people on the bus, my trainer at the gym—GOOD LORD, I hope it’s clear: coming out is a reality that we deal with every day.

Whether or not people make assumptions about my sexual orientation from how I present myself, talk, dress, behave, who I am with, or how long they have known me, I can never just assume that people know that I am gay. And the reality is that LGBTQ people, to varying degrees, are always in a process of coming out of the closet.

The slant of the floor in the room we call society is angled in a way to slide us back behind that door.

Coming out to my parents was the hardest time for me–that is, after coming out to myself. The acute anxiety, the stress, and the tears surrounding my coming out to my parents is bundled up tightly into a weekend in July when I was 27. The process of receiving messages of shame from society, the church, and my family began at birth and, like the process of coming out, never stops. In November, I will have been coming out of the closet for 29 years.

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When I was an adolescent, I was a part of a church program where we did quiz-bowl-style tournaments on the Bible. Oh yeah.

In order to do well with this, I would sit on the floor of my closet, with an extension cord powering a desk lamp, and I would memorize chapters at a time of the new testament. In this same closet, I furiously scribbled depressing poems that I hid underneath the carpet and padding that I had pulled up from beneath the baseboards. I hid my writing as deep in the closet as I could. This was after my mother had found a hidden file on the computer where I’d written a poem that caused her to ask me if I had ever thought about suicide.

There, on the floor of the closet, with the door shut, I would sometimes turn off the lamp and just listen to the sounds of the house all around me; listen to the dull sound of my breathing and heartbeat. I couldn’t imagine ever being okay. I cried as I begged Jesus to forgive me for being attracted to other guys. I would sit for hours at a time in that dark space beneath the hangers filled with church clothes.

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I wish that I could say that while I was sitting in that tiny room behind the louvered doors, I memorized John 11 and began to hear the voice of God calling me to come out. But the story is never that simple.

It’s only years later that I have learned that Jesus was also weeping with me on the other side of that closed door.

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A lot of folks have used the reference to Jesus healing people with leprosy as a way to talk about how “we’re all broken” and the church can love gay people while condemning them to hell because Jesus loved sinners and lepers. Hmm. I could talk about what’s problematic here for about six ways till Tuesday.

Suffice it to say, there’s the problem of equating people with a medical condition, and then, equating sexual orientation (something everyone has, by the way) with something to be cured.

But somehow, even though death is kinda seen theologically as more closely tied to sin—as the enemy of God, defeated through the resurrection life of Jesus, we’re somehow more accepting of death. For this reason, I want to turn to the story of Lazarus as a way for us to talk about how Jesus loves LGBTQ people.

Because death, unlike disease (and even taxes, thank you very much, tax-evading CEOs), happens to everyone, it’s less likely to be wielded by the church as weapon of heteronormativity. And yet, the Christian narrative is that death’s annihilation of life is no match for God—God will not stand to let death cut off relationship between God and humanity in the person of Jesus. Holy Saturday is a reality that holds open a space of death, grief, and sorrow, and God’s Spirit hovers and honors that place of abandonment, witnessing the vacuum, even as God strains toward resurrection.

I do not know why, in John 11, Jesus lets his friend Lazarus die. The people ask him this very question.

I do not know why God allows churches and families and cultures to oppress people who experience their sexual orientation in different ways than the majority.

I do know that Jesus weeps outside of the graves of those he loves and Jesus weeps for those held within dark closets where they are told that there is no space for them to be authentically alive in the world.

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In John 11, Jesus is confronted and asked why he let Lazarus die. Jesus is moved to tears and demands that the tomb be opened. Jesus calls his friend by name, saying, “Lazarus, come out!” When Lazarus comes out, alive, it disrupts the order of things and the religious leaders want to see Jesus killed in order to preserve religious and political norms of power and stability.

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For those in the church who view homosexuality as a sin, there is a burden of proof laid against them—if God takes care of sin in Jesus, then why is it that we do not see people able to change their sexual orientation, no matter how ardently they pray and follow Jesus? Could the church treat homosexuality (indeed any sexual orientation) less like a disease (sin) and more like death (a given reality of being human, and a natural part of life that is being mediated by God)?

If so, let’s wonder together about the story of Lazarus and how Jesus works with death to bring about more life. Sin and death are God’s enemies when they each cut off relationship with God and others. When they function this way, they are enemies of loving God and neighbor. And yet, death is also a natural order of the cycle of life in the world.

Certainly sexuality can be twisted is selfish hateful ways (see: rape, incest, sexual addictions, pedophilia, sex trafficking) and certainly sexuality can be a place of intense pleasure, connection, love, and relationship. In the story of Jesus, when death encounters Jesus, it is catalyzed into resurrected life—into restoration of relationship. Jesus lets death happen (to those he loves and to himself) because it is natural, but he doesn’t allow death to cut off relationship, instead he enters the space of grief and, through it, gives life.

When churches, families, and culture keep people in the closet through shame and fear, it is an oppressive act of twisting a person’s sexual orientation against them and colluding with death against another human being–it’s twisting a natural part of life and using it to cut off authentic relationship. Jesus bears wit(h)ness to this death by weeping, demanding that the closet be opened, and calling each of us by name, saying, “Come out!”

For LGBTIQ folks to better love God and neighbor, we need to be able to live honestly in relationship with God and neighbor.

For heterosexuals in churches, families, institutions, and society to better love God and neighbor, they need to acknowledge the resurrection of Jesus at work to bring LGBTIQ people more fully alive. They need to learn to celebrate this life rather than oppressing people back into the closet.

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Of course, in John 11, the religious folks wanted to kill Jesus for messing up the norms of death. They didn’t have the imagination to believe that if Jesus could bring Lazarus back to life he might be able to bring them back to life as well.

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On this National Coming Out Day, I want to say to those still in the closet:

I don’t know why society, the church, or your family wants you in the closet, and I know that it feels like death, but I stand in the confidence of divine love, on the other side of that door, and I cry with you. And when you are ready, I will say your name and echo Jesus’ words, “Come out!”

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Know that you are dearly loved for who you are, that your sexuality and your sexual orientation are natural, and the only thing bad is that there are people who will work to use them against you. And while it is painful and hard to live with that reality, there is a deeper reality of you being able to be authentic and fully alive in the world. And that authenticity and life is worth so much more than the cost of every single time will you come out to someone.

Much love, and we are waiting here for you on the other side of that door,

Daniel

Queering the Christian Table Part 15: Gay Dating and Embodied Christianity

To start reading at the beginning of this series, click here

This post was originally written as a submission for the Geez Magazine competition 30 More Sermons you’d Never Hear in Church. Watch the Geez website for these to get published later this year. I actually ended up missing the submission deadline, so I’m sharing it here. I’m deeply grateful to my two sermon writing buddies for their encouragement and feedback.

A year ago, I am on my first date (ever, with a man) since my divorce (after a 4 ½ year marriage to a woman). We’re having dinner, which leads to a walk—to his apartment—where we sit on the porch and talk, and then we get up to go inside. As I walk through the door, he pulls my body towards him for a kiss and I—putting my hand on his chest and stopping him, inches from my face—say, “I don’t think so.”

The next five minutes are a really awkward blur, in which I ask him for a glass of water, to give him something to do while he’s bumbling around the room awkwardly picking up paper plates and talking about what a mess his roommates have made of the apartment, and then I excuse myself to go catch a bus.

Yup.

On the way home I feel my stomach churn. Tears come to my eyes and I wonder what just happened.

How had we had such different experiences of the evening? Was I sending the wrong signals? Did I do something wrong to make him feel like that’s where we were going, that he could just take control of my body like that? And why is there so much adrenaline rushing through my body right now?

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Rewind sixteen years.

It is the first time I am ever going to preach and it is for a competition. I remember feeling nauseated and trembling in the bathroom of a hotel—my father’s voice telling me, “You’re going to do this!”

It wasn’t his voice inside my head.

He was actually standing there, saying these words to his eleven-year-old son. I remember choking out sobs, wiping my face of tears, and pushing my feelings so far down into my body that I was able to walk out onto a stage, with a Bible in my hand, numb to my fear (of rejection), which is to say, numb to my desire (for acceptance).

Because this is what it meant for a young man to follow Jesus.

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Weeks after that date, I am on a third date with another man and I am nearly moved to tears. My therapist has recently asked me what I am learning from dating and I realize that in this moment, with this other man, I feel comfortable and happy in my body.

I feel safe, and myself, and whole in a way that is strange and unfamiliar. I see in stark relief, that what I was feeling on that first date out of the closet was un-safe.

My body knows what I am ready for; what feels safe and good and what doesn’t. I hadn’t realized it until too late that first evening, because I’ve spent the better part of sixteen years suppressing every last physical response my body has had when I am around men that I find attractive.

I have swallowed down joy and delight, chased with shame. I have held hymnals in front of my crotch. I have avoided church-picnic football games because I couldn’t trust my eyes not to linger, too noticeably long, on backsides and biceps and sweat-soaked shirts being pulled over heads.

Because this is what it meant for a young man to follow Jesus.

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On facebook, the automatically generated sidebar adds are populated topically from friends, wall postings, and search engine queries. In my sidebar, the most frequent combination of ads is for seminary programs and tight-fitting mens underwear. What can I say?

I follow Jesus and I have a body.

And the more that I date, and listen to my body, and feel–my trembling, my tears, my grief, my anger, my comfort, my pleasure—I begin to slowly comprehend that the incarnation, the bodily resurrection, and abundance of life are not some far off promises for heterosexuals and queer folks who can magically master Gnostic asceticism.

Through my own journey I am actually feeling my own body being called back to life—and I don’t imagine I’m the only one in need of such a resurrection.

For me, beginning to date other men has been a spiritual practice of repenting—turning away from self-harm, isolation, shame, and numbing, in order to turn towards authenticity, vulnerability, compassion, and learning to be alive in my own body. As I receive the welcome my body offers, I believe in the bodily resurrection and I am able to make room for that trembling, eleven-year-old, preacher-boy to feel what he feels, and to believe that that is all he has to do; and that’s the good news to which he gets to bear witness.

Queering the Christian Table Part 8: Repentance Comes in Fits and Starts–On the Closing of Exodus International

To start reading at the beginning of the series, click here.

The internets are abuzz.Some are bemoaning and some rejoicing the announcement of the close of Exodus International.

Some ex-ex-gays (people who tried the conversion tactics of Exodus and other groups but found they didn’t work) are celebrating. Others remain skeptical. Some conservative Christians are aghast that the organization would close its doors, while others are celebrating because they believe Exodus had already gone too far by renouncing claims that sexual orientation can be changed through some combination of counseling and prayer.

Am I grateful Exodus closed? Certainly. Am I skeptical of the extent of their apology and their immediate relaunch under a new ministry? Abso-fuckin-loutely. Do I think this is a shaky-yet-bold step in a long journey? Without a doubt.

———–

I grew up hearing the half-whispered stories of a music minister who left his wife to live with another man. I saw the face of John Paulk on pamphlets proclaiming that “Love Won Out.” I listened to Dr. Dobson invite parents to send kids out of the room during episodes of Focus on the Family that discussed homosexuality. My parents warned me about the men who lived in the pink house at the end of the cul-de-sac. And my father–the youth minister–flipped his wrist and lisped when he spoke disdainfully about “fairies.”

I know a thing or two about how homophobia can come to live inside of you. I’m not talking about the subtle heteronormativity that presents the world to you as if straight and cis-gendered were the only options available. No, I’m talking about the direct messaging that there is something inherently wrong (evil, sinful, sick, underdeveloped, impaired) with who you are at the core of your sexuality and personhood. I’m talking about the fear of violence, abandonment, and hell if you are ever found out.

These messages are deeply harmful. And the environments that generate these messages are toxic to the hearts and minds of queer people. So yeah, I’m grateful that Exodus is closing down. And yeah, I’m skeptical too.

Every day, I wrestle with the messages I grew up with–every day.

I’m grateful for this step forward for Alan Chambers and each person at Exodus, but I don’t for a minute think that this is over for any of them. I know better. If I think Alan isn’t going far enough in his apology; if I expect that he’ll continue to inflict harm in his new endeavor, it’s because I have great compassion for him. I can only imagine the messages that have poisoned his own soul through the years and the added guilt and shame associated with how he has used those messages against himself, his loved ones, and countless others around the world.

———–

In 2003, when I was 18 years old, I became a Resident Assistant of a freshman men’s dorm at the Christian college that I attended–I was in way over my head. Over half my 30 residents were older than me and almost all of them were reveling in their new-found college freedom.

I was a terrified, closeted, college sophomore who had grown up home-schooled and all these rowdy, wild, often-mostly-naked young men were more than I could handle. My two greatest fears were that they would burn down the dorm (I once had to stomp out a fire they started on the kitchen floor) and that they would find out that I was gay.

One of their favorite sports was to take balls from the pool table and bowl them toward my door at around 2 am. It didn’t matter if I took the balls in at midnight, they’d scavenge some from another floor. On one such occasion, after lying in bed, crying for ten minutes, hoping that they would get bored and stop, I was forced to go out into the hall when they began relentlessly pounding on my door.

Furious, I leapt out of bed, wiped my face and threw open the door to confront them, only to be met by my most antagonistic resident, buck naked, doing a handstand in my doorway. If you’re picturing me redfaced, in a rage, almost walking smack into face-level, flopping genitals while 10 young men howl with laughter, then you’ve got the right image.

Immediately, I slammed the door and trembled in the darkness of my dorm room. In a panic, I stormed out of my room about a minute later to confront the resident (now half-clothed), and in my own anger and confusion I did one of the things that I most regret in life.  I threatened the young man, saying that if he ever did anything like that again, I’d tell his uncle (one of the college administrators) that he was gay.

What made me say such a thing? Why was this notion wielded like a weapon? Why against this young man?

Like I said, I was terrified. This young man had often teased me, asking if I was gay and why I didn’t like girls. His action that night was designed as a joke that was targeted at what he sensed as my deep insecurity about my sexuality that I tried so desperately to hide (at a school where people were routinely kicked out for being gay).

So I did the unthinkable. I drew the most painful sword in my arsenal and I used it against another person in hopes that I could move myself out of harm’s way. This is the way that oppression works: it gets inside its victims and poisons them until they reinforce the cycle of oppression. It’s rare that those who benefit most from oppression have to do any heavy lifting–instead, they simply dangle token rewards of partial acceptance in front of those who are willing to take up the mantle of oppression in hopes of escaping some of the crushing weight of this system.

———–

I tell this story in order to say, I have compassion for Alan Chambers. I know a taste of the guilt. More, I know the desperation that can make you hate yourself enough to harm others by passing on the poison you’ve ingested. And I know it’s a slow climb out of this place. He (alongside other leaders of the ex-gay movement) is a man whose own sexuality has been used against him and whose ability to live an apparently straight life has been rewarded by half-acceptance from the faith community that he loves. That is a horrifying pedestal to climb down from and I don’t begrudge him (or the others in that position) serious missteps along the way.

———–

In 2006, a group of young people traveled the country in a bus tour of Christian colleges on the first Soul Force Equality Ride (documented in the film Equality U). By that time, I was the chairperson of the Student Leadership Council at my school (our school’s closest thing to a student body president). When we heard that a busload of gay activists were on their way to our campus, I remember being given a copy of Stanley Grenz’s book Welcoming but not Affirming, as well as a number of brochures from Exodus International. By the day that they rolled onto campus, fear was palpable in the air.

I remember working at the desk in our Student Union building that day and someone turning in a student’s lost phone. As was standard procedure, I looked through the phone list on the phone and called the number listed under “Mom and Dad.” Typically, such calls were met with grateful responses from parents willing to help track down the owner of the phone. Not this day. The exasperated father grilled me about who I was, why I had his child’s phone, and “isn’t there a group of gays on campus today?” Shaken, I tried to explain to the man that I was a student worker and that his child’s phone had been found, and all I wanted was for him to call his child’s dorm phone. I hung up from that conversation overwhelmed with the extent to which fear and hate could mess with someone’s mind.

The next morning, I heard the news that the Equality Riders’ bus had been vandalized during the night as they stayed at a local hotel. The pink, spray-painted words proclaimed, “fags mobile.” I recall standing in our student leadership office and something inside me clicking into place–it was the result of several years of theological study that had led me to believe that, just maybe, God wasn’t planning to send people to hell just for being gay.

Mustering the tiniest bit of courage, I talked to a few other student leaders, and then, I went outside (the group wasn’t allowed into our campus buildings) and walked up to Jake Reitan and several of the other leaders of the Equality Ride. In what had to be a hurried stammer, I nervously apologized for what had happened, told them that the students did not support the vandalism, and I asked if we could help them remove the graffiti from their bus.

I was terrified. It was a baby step. A group of us went and cleaned the bus alongside the riders. We prayed together. I left.

It would be a few years later, after marrying a woman, that I’d finally be able to say that not only did I not believe God was sending people to hell for being gay, but that I no longer believed I was going to hell for being gay. It would be longer still before my wife and I decided to divorce so that we could both honor and enjoy the lives we have been given. I am still working on dealing with the layers of homophobic messages that live deep within me. It’s a part of my spiritual journey to confront both the oppression I experience every day and the old messages that have accumulated within my thinking. It is a long, slow process of settling down into grace.

———–

Again, I am grateful for this announcement from Alan and Exodus. It is a step in what I believe is a journey. I pray that they may experience grace along each step of the way and, like all of us, learn and grow in compassion and kindness as we stop harming others through dealing with the harm that has worked its way inside of each of us.

I feel quite certain that the group of folks who have made up Exodus International will continue to harm others. This is the result of their being human. The reality is that many of these people identify themselves as “ex-gay” or “struggling with same-sex attraction” and while they do not own a social identity of being gay, they have lived experiences of sexual attraction that our society and their churches have heavily stigmatized and oppressed.

I have no doubt that, as a result of this oppression, these people, just like people who identify as LGBTIQ, have internalized oppression that is deeply rooted within them.

I know what that feels like. For this reason, I have much compassion. Repentance comes in fits and starts. Sometimes we’re able to apologize to others for the harm we’ve done to them before we can articulate the nature of that harm–largely because it is a painful process of grief and healing to face the reality that the harm that has been done to them has also been done to us and that, at times, by believing the hate we’ve been handed, we’ve colluded with our own oppression. 

————

At least four of us who cleaned the bus that day have since been able to come out. A number of us have theological degrees and work to open up spaces in the church and educational systems for Queer Christians. This hasn’t happened overnight. But it gives me reason to believe that what has happened with Exodus is a step in the right direction.

For now, I will hold hope for Alan Chambers and all involved with Exodus, that the internalized homophobic oppression that has harmed so many will continue to be eradicated from their hearts and that they will grow in their capacity to accept the overwhelming goodness and truth that they are deeply loved and celebrated by God.

Read part 9 here.

Queering The Christian Table Part 7: Vulnerability and the Good News of Gay Desire

To start reading from the beginning of the series, click here.

I am convinced that the Christian life is about formation–formation that is never meant to end.

It is a continual unfolding and expansion of our capacity and embodiment of love for God and Neighbor. It’s just this simple/complex: giving and receiving love.

Some might describe this as worship, the “chief end of man [sic!],” or our human telos. I call it the point of our human journey–not a point to be reached, but a point on the horizon that keeps moving out ahead of us even as we grow and expand ever towards it. It is why we remember our baptism, our initiation into the life of Jesus. It is why we celebrate a meal of grace together, to re-member the love we have received and the love we give.

And in the center of all this unfolding and becoming more loving, we have desire. Desire for connection, for belonging, for recognition, for meaning, for attachment, for pleasure. For now, I’ll describe desire as the longing that grows out of our deep needs and drives us past their fulfillment and into the realm of joy. I’m sure this is incomplete, but it’s what I am intuiting right now. It’s beyond hunger or want–it is rooted in our deeply human createdness (or givenness) for com-munion, com-panionship, com-passion–it’s the movement toward being with rather than being alone.

————

Desire has the tendency to be treated with disdain (as in certain types of asceticism) or deification (as in certain types of hedonism). I think of it more as a technology–a technique which can be used for leading us to flourish or to self-destruct. Thus, the importance of shaping desire in order to use its power for increasing life rather than diminishing it.

Sexual desire in particular is very powerful. It is rooted in our need for human connection and intimacy. Physiologically, it is connected with survival of our species and yet, it is so much more than that. Sexual desire can function to lead us into vulnerable intimacy that leads to fuller expressions of love and compassion in the world. Sexual desire, when misshapen, can also lead to objectification of self and others, to relational manipulation, to social oppression, and to patterns of addiction and abuse.

Sexual desire is deeply connected to both pleasure and attachment.

———–

So, how does the framework of Christian formation help us think about shaping sexual desire?

———–

Christian formation suggests the discipleship of desire–that is to say, for those who follow the way of Jesus, we are invited into ways of life that employ our desires to increase our love for both God and neighbor. The measure, then, of whether or not a desire is leading us toward flourishing (holiness) or diminishment (sin), is whether we are becoming more or less loving of God and our neighbors.

Or, as Jesus tells it, “you will know them by their fruit” and “they will know that you are my disciples because you love one another.”

———–

So lets talk about how sexual desire functions.

Sexuality is peculiar. It’s particular. What turns a person on–the particular path of firing neurons that signal pleasure is as unique as each individual’s physiology. This is true.

And.

Sexuality is socialized. Our minds and bodies are impressionable and cultural norms as well as particular social interactions throughout our lives shape us.

And.

There’s probably not a theological need to sort those two dimensions out.

I know, that’s a big claim, but let me make my point. If the measure of Christian discipleship is loving God and neighbor, and a particular sexual expression, whether individually peculiar or culturally pervasive, can be weighed for its ability to lead toward or away from love of God and Neighbor, then, it seems like that’s the place where we should be putting our energy.

The question of nature or nurture about any dimension of sexual desire becomes quite irrelevant in the face of the question: How do I steward my desire to increase my love of God and neighbor?

Within the heart of orthodox Christian theology is the doctrine of the Trinity–the notion that God exists, internal to Godself, in community and also, that God creates the world for community with God.

Indeed, the kind of community that God seeks with the world is such that God is constantly becoming vulnerable to humans through relationship and commitment in order to bring them near to God (See the biblical origin story of Noah and the flood, where afterwards, God’s covenant with the people is to place a weapon, God’s own bow, in the sky, pointed back at God, making God vulnerable to consequence should he ever do such violence to humanity [I know there’s lots to take issue with there, but it’s the theological claim of the story that I want to hold on to], also see the incarnation of Jesus, God becoming an infant human being in order to live among humanity for the sake of restoring community with us).

These are stories about God’s moving towards us for community by becoming vulnerable. And that’s really what love is about, coming close enough to someone else to embrace them; to lower our guard and let them within touching distance of our bodies and our hearts. I argue that sexual desire is about shaping our need for community into the action of love, with our bodies and our emotions, to draw us into vulnerable space where we truly see and are seen by another.

———–

Commitment to a partner offers a level of security that can serve to increase our vulnerability. This is part of why marriage is so hard–the increase in vulnerability does not guarantee connection and feelings of love–what it does guarantee is a deeper experience of the longing and underlying need for those things. Where love is present, desire is both met and increased, so that when we are vulnerable and loved, we are both satisfied and made more hungry. Thus the point–or telos–of desire, keeps moving out ahead of us, forcing us to make the choice of becoming more vulnerable in community or more isolated in our attempt to hold on to something more comfortable.

By mutually honing desire in a relationship with a partner, both people increase their capacity for vulnerability, developing compassion, empathy, and finding some sense of home while also feeding desire which drives them to search for more (and in the Christian framework, that more is the trinitarian God, reaching out to us in mutual vulnerability).

———–

Theologian Eugene F. Rogers Jr. speaks of God’s desire for otherness in community. He suggests that it is this otherness that draws our vulnerability and relationship and is at the center of committed sexual relationships. For heterosexual persons, this vulnerability to another is drawn out through their sexual desire for those of other gender and physical sex chariteristics than their own. Thus, their desire leads heterosexual people into heterosexual relationships and the vulnerability that leads them into loving relationships that shape them for greater love of God and neighbor.

According to Rogers (You can read his whole argument here), The point of sexual partnership is to expose our vulnerability in order to draw us out of ourselves and into relationship where the harm of sin may be exposed and worked on. He works with the classic definition of sin as isolation and separation from God and others and thus sees committed sexual relationships as a ground for sanctification (restoring relationship with God and others) to occur.

Rogers then asks how such vulnerability can occur in the lives of people who sexually and emotionally desire people of the same gender:

“For gay and lesbian people, the right sort of otherness is unlikely to be represented by someone of the opposite sex, because only someone of the apposite, not opposite, sex will get deep enough into the relationship to expose one’s vulnerabilities and inspire the trust that healing requires. The crucial question is, What sort of created diversity will lead one to holiness?” (From this article; same as link above)

Essentially, what Rogers is getting at is this: the movement of vulnerability that draws a person into a relationship in which holiness (and I’ll define that as love of God and neighbor) is increased, is born out of the shape of their own desires. Given that such a relationship requires consent and con-sensuality, there are obviously certain relationships that do not fit the bill–the red-herring examples of bestiality and pedophilia and perhaps the less obvious, relationships where the desire (or orientation) of the partners do not match.

———–

Now here, I speak candidly about my own experience. I am not dispensing advice or judgement on anyone who may find themselves in any similar situation.

I was married for 4.5 years to a woman. The details of how and why belong to both of us, and I’m more than willing to speak of my own experience in a face-to-face conversation. My former spouse would have her own story to tell.

What is clear to me is that the relationship taught us both a great deal about ourselves, each other, community, home, vulnerability, and desire. What is also clear to me is that we came to a point where we recognized that because our sexual desires lacked a necessary element of mutual reciprocity, we were unable to call each other into the kind of deep vulnerability that would allow us to continue to move into greater wholeness.

There was too great a gap between desire and fulfillment and we found the honest and loving thing to do was to let each other go, in order to give us both the chance to find someone with whom our desires could be met with enough mutuality to not only open us to vulnerability, but to also lead us into fulfillment that could increase vulnerability throughout our lives.

In a paragraph, that looks somewhat tidy. Over the course of several years it has felt like death, hell, and resurrection–often with all three simultaneously braided into one strand, pulling me forward into acceptance and celebration of the life that I have been given as a gay man.

While our marriage was enough to awaken my desire and draw me into enough vulnerability to heal and accept grace to the point that I could love myself and accept my being gay, it was not the relationship that could feed that awakened desire. This was perhaps the most painful realization of my life–until I realized that there was a mirror truth; not only was I not being fully called out by my partner, but I was unable to fully call her out in her own desires.

Looking back, I see many reasons why I got married. In addition to loving my spouse, I had been told by my culture and my faith that the one way to express my sexuality was in heterosexual partnership.

What had been rightly identified as the need for another in committed relationship, had been narrowly defined in terms of the normative experience of the majority. For people with heterosexual desires who find themselves in a relationship, heterosexual partnership is exactly the kind of relationship in which vulnerability, and thus holiness, can be fostered.

But I am a cis-gendered male, attracted to bodies of the XY persuasion. And a relationship that could not fully honor this important aspect of my humanity was unable to offer the kind of vulnerability that I and my partner each needed and deserved.

It doesn’t really matter why I find myself drawn out in relationship with other men, I simply do. And so the question I face is how to follow that desire in a way that leads me to greater vulnerability and increased love for God and neighbor.

Should it be any surprise that that would look like a committed partnership with someone who can reflect desire back to me with mutuality so that we are both called into vulnerability and wholeness? If my gay desire, when formed in this kind of relationship can lead me to love God and neighbor more fully, isn’t that good news (gospel)?

———–

I believe it would be absurd to suggest a gay relationship is a path to holiness for a straight person. I also believe that it is just as absurd to suggest that a straight relationship is a path to holiness for a gay person. Vulnerability with a partner requires some measure of unquenched desire intermingled with fulfillment of that desire. This is what keeps drawing us deeper into relationship–with a partner, with God, and with others in community. I will be so bold as to claim that Christian communities that push heterosexual relationships on homosexual people are guilty of perpetuating harmful cultural pressures and, more, are hindering the work of God in these people’s lives. It’s as harmful as pressuring straight people to be in gay relationships.

For those who would suggest monasticism as the only option for Christian homosexuals, I would refer you to the Apostle Paul’s advice on monasticism to everyone in the Christian community: He’d rather everybody be monastic, but he doesn’t want anybody to be overcome by their desire, so he recommends for those who want an intimate partner, a commitment of partnership designed to shape that desire towards wholeness and service of God and neighbor (1 Corinthians 7).

Again, what we begin to realize is that the measure of holiness of a relationship has little-to-nothing to do with which appendages are going into what orifices–instead, it’s about how the heart of the person is being led out through desire into greater openness to relationship with another person. This is why it’s about sexual desire as well as attachment–why this still applies to relationships where one or both partners cannot be sexually active due to any number of factors.

———–

And thus, my gay desire is deeply good news.

Because the messages of society and my faith were shaped in a way that reinforced the norms of the majority, I believed, while growing up, that my inability to connect with a woman in the way I was “supposed to” was a deep flaw in my humanity. I remember being a teenager and looking at gay pornography and thinking about the Bible verse that says “no temptation has seized you, except what is common to man [sic].” And I remember thinking, I’m not sure that this is all that common. In fact, I’m pretty sure my guy friends aren’t getting turned on by Ryan Gosling or Josh Harnett [don’t judge my taste, I was in high school].

When I finally began to appreciate that my desires are simply my own, I began to realize that, I too contain the capacity for deep vulnerability and connection–it’s simply directed toward men rather than women. I also began to realize that my desires weren’t the work of evil. If anything, the work of evil was the way that my church, my family, and my society had tried to convince me I was incapable of real love and connection, and to shame me away from the kind of relationship that could lead me into such goodness and the kind of flourishing that would awaken my soul and expand my capacity for God and neighbor.

That my desire has been so resilient, despite a culture and church and internalized oppression that were laid against it, is evidence of God’s deep goodness in calling us into community through desire–and specifically through our sexual desire for mutual love with someone with whom we can spend our lives pleasurably calling each other into vulnerability and wholeness.

Note to readers: Thanks for your patience between posts. I’ve needed to step back from blogging in the last week or two in order to ground myself in the midst of some difficult situations. Ultimately, I think this makes for more thoughtful writing when I do post. I’m grateful to see so many people reading the posts and I’m grateful for the emails and messages. My hope is for this series to help open space for conversations and I’m grateful for any level of engagement you’re able to offer along the way.

Read part 8 here.

Theory: Turning the Closet Door into a Table; Safety and Discomfort for All

I was recently asked what it is like to be heard.

What is it like to be heard?

As an INFJ (Myers-Briggs type), gay man who grew up in the conservative Christian Deep South, I know a thing or two about positioning.

Without thought, I intuitively read people well, with a sort of gut-level spidey sense. I can feel if it’s safe to speak. Social lying to make other people more comfortable around me was a key survival strategy to get through my childhood without being packed off to some kind of gay-to-straight conversion camp. It has served me well; It has been debilitating.

I find myself [I realize I’ve taken to using this phrase a lot] wondering how to use that built-in gauge nowadays. So frequently I’ve carved out some modicum of safety for myself by ensuring that others feel some level of comfort in my presence. Perhaps this technique is a vestigial organ of survival common to many Queer folks–for some ensuring the ability to pass, for others disarming hostility by becoming an object of absurdity; of humor, likability, or fetish.

But what would it look like if I opened myself up to my own desire to be seen and heard as a human being–not to be fully accepted or loved by all, but a visible and vocal person in community?

This sounds like a beautiful promise of life. It is also costly.

It’s not only uncomfortable when other people are uncomfortable with me. There are times when it is unsafe. Lynchings are in living memory in this country. Try walking through an airport in a hijab or driving while brown in Arizona. It’s estimated that 1 transgendered person is killed each month as the result of violence motivated on the basis of their gender identity. These are realities. When I was 13, Matthew Shephard was beaten and left tied to a fence to die.

This is living memory. It lives in me.

It is also true that the stress of being a social minority within a dominant culture has a cumulative toll on the human body. My cortisol levels, my blood pressure, my heartrate fluctuate throughout the day in response to stimuli of homophobic aggression that I have no control over.

Within the last week:

  • I boarded a bus and while walking toward the back, which was crowded with men, I heard the word “faggot” spoken louder than the rest of conversation. Stopping, I turned and found a seat near the front where I sat, trembling and taking deep breaths, reminding myself that I am safe.
  • Sitting at my desk in a cubicle I overheard the employee in the next cube talking to a caller on the phone about my workplace’s “stance on homosexuality.” After about 30 seconds, my lungs began to burn and I had to remind myself to breathe–I’d been holding my breath unsure of what would be said, wishing for what was articulated to actually feel true.
  • I logged onto facebook and saw references to national and local stories about discrimination and violence against Queer people in which Christians were condemning homosexuality (as if sexuality were a component that could be sliced away from a person and discarded). I chose not to read farther, but I was already feeling tears of anger and sadness begin to well.

These are the most readily recalled moments of this week in which I had no choice of being ambushed by these micro-aggressions which had immediate and cumulative impact on my body. There were quite a number of more blatant conversations and encounters in which I exercised varying strategies for maintaining composure, regulating my body’s anxiety, and generally remaining silent in order to maintain some level of stability within myself.

In these larger moments, there was also a dance between maintaining my safety and maintaining the comfort of those around me. I will not deny that it is not only about my safety. There were moments where I could have spoken more directly, creating discomfort for others and myself, without sacrificing my safety. But having been put in the position of having to hide in order to survive throughout my life, it is often nearly impossible to suss out when the cost I pay to speak is about my losing comfort or losing safety. In a society in which it is not always safe for me to speak, I’ve come to recognize that being open about my experience and perspective as a gay man, especially in Christian settings, involves a lot of risk and exposure.

And my body doesn’t make a fine distinction between discomfort and feeling unsafe when I’m taking that kind of risk. I hold my breath the same way while waiting to hear what a Christian is going to say about my sexual orientation as I do when I’m waiting to see if the young men at the bus stop yelling “fucking fag” are going to start throwing fists as well as words.

It is my guess that, in a different way, conservative Christians are probably just as inept at distinguishing between when they are feeling uncomfortable vs. unsafe in conversations around homosexuality. Their bodies, in connection with their own stories, are probably sending them the biochemical signals of fear as well. However, I’m willing to wager that I have a different, more acute reaction, based on what I face in society every day. Nonetheless, we are more alike than we are unalike.

As I consider how communities approach dialogue around difference, particularly communities that profess some place within the kin-dom of God, I believe that there must be commitments made that contradict the patterns of oppression at work within the world. I am talking about confession; repentance; the verbal commitment to align with God in setting a different kind of table “in the presence of our enemies.”

I believe that there must be a recognition of the reality of unsafety perpetuated unequally against particular groups of people by our society. To stand against oppression is not an endorsement of any position other than the position of not perpetuating systems that inflict real physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual harm. What is needed is a communal confession of words and actions that move closer to ensuring safety for those most likely to have a lived experience of the link between discomfort and lack of safety on the basis of social categories of their difference. I don’t imagine safety can be granted or guaranteed, but this does not excuse responsible communities from moving toward such a thing (it’s called eschatology).

The words that keep coming to me are “safety and discomfort for all.” Others might describe this as authentic community or intimacy and individuation. It is one thing to say that there is space and to say you value the difference that others bring to you. It is something else entirely to put in place healthy boundaries within the community to ensure that those with privilege at the table do not retain the social power to silence different voices when they get tired or too uncomfortable with listening. Real valuation demands payment of a real cost.

Truly, I exist whether or not space is granted to me. I find myself present at the Christian table, largely by paying a high cost to be here. I am asking that I be joined in paying some of that cost by those who don’t have to pay it to sit at this table. I don’t want to be here because you happen to like me as a person, despite my being gay. In that scenario my place at the table is provided by the whim of your good graces. What if I show up to the table in drag, with a transgender friend and a Muslim brother in tow? Will I still have a seat here?

I am willing to pay the cost of entering the discomfort of speaking. I am willing to pay the cost of discomfort while listening to you express your belief in something very different about my sexual orientation. Will you pay the cost of discomfort to speak and listen to me? Will you go further to pay the cost of creating boundaries to establish movement toward safety so that I am not left paying the cost around the question of my safety entirely on my own?

I find myself [again, those words] located within a local parish and denomination that affirms and welcomes my full participation in the church as a gay man. This is a tremendous blessing and sanctuary within our world. I hope such a seed of goodness will grow like yeast tucked inside the dough of Christianity around the world, leading us more fully into participating in God’s dance with the world–God’s uncomfortable, glorious, dance in which eschatological safety looks like wholeness, and coming alive into the full humanity God delights in.