The church that I attend when I’m back in Birmingham has a part of the service called “Grace Along the Journey.” It’s basically just a fancy, less-revivalistic way of saying “testimony,” and the stories I hear and the people I meet remind me why I continue to see the church as a safe place for humbled souls working together to make faith meaningful—even in the face of the doubt and fear promoted by others in the name of faith. When I began the process of coming out to friends a couple of years ago, I secretly confessed that my ideal of local progress would be seeing someone like me, a gay believer, get the opportunity to share their faith journey and have it be received as just another testimony. That time, fast approaching as it might be, has yet to arrive, but amidst the occasionally hateful shouting of some of our state’s “leadership,” I can be silent no more.
In a time when cultural warriors claiming to be Christ-followers are setting the public perception of the faith, aided no doubt by those who would just as soon see Christianity fade into irrelevance, gay Christians of all stripes have a responsibility to speak out and tell our stories. Like any group of people, we are diverse in our opinions, in our backgrounds, and in our experiences. As more of us speak out, a greater picture of the gay community will emerge. What I can present is just a glimpse into one life, marked by very particular circumstances, but I hope the story of this gay along the journey will help people understand some of what it means to be a gay Christian in the South.
Growing up as the son of a Baptist minister, I learned three things that have really helped me through life: 1) The Church is made up of (usually) well-intentioned, yet wholly imperfect people. 2) Family is the truest microcosm of the church: unconditional, boundless love from people who also have an innate ability to find and push every one of your buttons. 3) Moving opens you up to so many new people and experiences, and only after you’ve left a place do you really discover where home is (at around the fourth or fifth move, that last lesson finally sunk in).
Aside from being a minister’s kid, one other important caveat informs my personal journey: I do not carry many outward “signs” from the lazy stereotypes about gay guys (which seems increasingly to be the case these days). Thus, my childhood days were free from the hellish taunts and bullying that so many of my braver brethren faced. I was able to grow up in a “tacit closet.” People didn’t ask, so I wasn’t going to tell. There was no need to fake a relationship to prove my straightness; instead, I leaned fully into my acerbic, misanthropic side and eschewed the whole dating scene altogether.
This was my mindset when I returned to Birmingham from Virginia in 2006 to enroll at Samford University. Samford, for those who might not know, is Alabama’s largest Christian university. For this minister’s kid who planned on becoming a professor, Samford was the best of both worlds, and, honestly, I have never regretted attending there. Still, the culture around the school was conservative, very traditional. Aside from pockets of toleration, it was clear this was not the place “to let my freak flag fly.”
If the “tacit closet” shielded me from the schoolyard bullying, nothing could protect me from hearing the ignorant and bigoted attitudes that infused much of the evangelical culture I grew up in. While I was fortunate enough to attend churches on the moderate Baptist side, sparing me the brunt of fundamentalist theology, the culture warriors remained a pesky occupying force. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family was a popular reservoir of sex-education literature, promoting strict gender norms and promulgating the erroneous idea that homosexuality came from a distant father and overbearing mother—a myth so undercut by my family life that I was easily able to discern that Dobson was not to be trusted.
Since most evangelicals don’t realize that they know gay people, much less are probably related to one, their views of “the gays” depends on these pseudo-scientific explanations, combined with (largely inaccurate) portrayals of a hedonistic gay culture on the coasts. They’ve developed a shorthand of addressing “sinful sodomites” that combines gay-panic/no-homo jokes with consistent denigration of the “tolerance movement.” For a long time, it has seemed clear that gays are not welcome in church, much less heaven. The so-called mainstream Christians might have publically distanced themselves from the rhetoric of Westboro Baptist, but the underlying assumption that “God Hates Fags” has gone unexamined. That someone could be gay and Christian was certainly out of the question.
In an effort to win the public relations war, many evangelicals have seized on a nicer brand of bigotry—the “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra—but condemnation remains the norm. So, I reasoned, I would just keep people at arm’s length—allowing them just enough to think I was a friend, but never allowing anyone close enough to get to know the real me. That way, I could make it through Samford unscathed; whatever acquaintances I had would simply fall to the wayside when I came out from the safety of another city.
Unfortunately for my plans, many of the relationships that I formed at Samford, especially at the church that I attended, proved far too strong for me to make an easy, open break. When I returned to Birmingham last year and started helping out with my old church’s youth group, I kept the closet door shut, even if it was as transparent as a screen door. I knew enough about the hateful suspicions about gay men and kids—Birmingham is home to the Boy Scouts, after all—to know that those parents who thanked me for helping out wouldn’t feel quite the same if I was helping while “out.”
I cared far too much for those kids, many of whom were right around my younger brother’s age and allowed me a chance to be a brother-by-proxy, to trade some abstract openness for the Wednesday nights, Sunday mornings, and beach retreats. The church is understandably proud of the type of young adults that the church produces, and, although they didn’t realize it, the group’s very inclusive and loving spirit prodded me along my path to true self-acceptance.
Of course, evangelical churches in the South are not exactly the best place for openness for a guy like me. So, I left; not because I was pushed out, but because I was scared of having people whom I loved as family no longer feel the same. Fear of rejection and isolation is a constant for gay Christians—which is why Birmingham is incredibly fortunate to have a number of amazing “affirming” churches (a fact that I am even more appreciative of now that I live more than an hour away from the closest gay-friendly church).
When I left, though, I found myself realizing yet again that final lesson from my childhood: you only realize where your home is once you’ve left it. I felt at home at that church; the ability to get together once a week with fellow believers is a powerful experience, and to do so with a group of people you know are ardently committed to living God’s word and loving others is especially moving. Rejection—even the possibility of it—hurts, but abandoning family doesn’t feel that great either.
Sure, like brothers and sisters, other Christians can make it hard to be in their family.
The only times I have ever truly questioned why I want to call myself a Christian came because of ignorant or hateful things fellow believers have done or said. My first real crisis of faith came from seeing fundamentalists demean the faith and ministry of good people like my father who wouldn’t let political and cultural battles overrun their faith—and seeing those whom I thought knew better cowardly raise their pitchforks and join in the witch hunts. Similarly, seeing so many gifted female friends kept from ministry opportunities because of a tortured intertwining of literalism and sexism has made me supremely aware of the ways in which the church is complicit in the continued marginalization of women’s voices—particularly damning since they constitute a supermajority of active church members.
Over the last few years, the vehemence with which many Christians wage combat against some mythical, all-powerful “gay agenda” has made it harder to see Jesus in friends, family, and the larger body of believers. They have aligned Christianity with the powerful and the oppressive in their fight against anti-discrimination and anti-bullying legislation—as if the “least of these” are somehow not the ones on the receiving end of the abuse.
If God picked these people to be his “hands and feet” in the world, it appears he forgot about giving them his heart. After all, wasn’t the world supposed to know us by our love? To far too many in the LGBT community, that supposed “Love” sure seems undistinguishable from hate, oppression, and marginalization.
Yet, as much as the close-mindedness of other believers makes me question whether I really wanted to be yoked to them, I simply cannot justify conceding the faith to these modern-day Pharisees—well-respected, politically-connected pillars of the religious community who are more concerned about parsing the letter of the law than embodying the spirit of God’s love.
To yield to the religious conservatives and fundamentalists would be to lose the faith of William Wilberforce, Walter Rauschenbusch, Martin Luther King Jr., and Gene Robinson. These Christians fought against the regressive stream of Christian complacency and pushed against slavery, inequality, segregation, and homophobia. Their lives are the model of a lived-out faith that truly acts justly, loves mercy, and walks humbly with God.
The question that I continue to struggle with is how to balance compassion for a wholly-imperfect, culturally-constrained church with the righteous indignation that fuels us to push the church toward a new age. To love fellow believers does not mean consenting to their ignorance and hate. Instead, I try to follow the lead set by gay Christians such as Justin Lee and Matthew Vines, and by allies such as Rachel Held Evans. These amazing believers speak out strongly for their beliefs, often to their own detriment, yet they maintain a spirit of reconciliation that speaks out of love, not anger.
I have seen others ostracized and hurt for their courage to speak God’s truth. It is difficult to forgive, and it’s even harder to forget. I struggle daily with how to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” for I know that even Uncle Phil, Dan Cathy, and Roy Moore are my brothers in Christ. Their defenders might know exactly what to post on Facebook to make my blood boil and heart break, but we are family all the same.
To anyone who has been harmed—emotionally, physically, or spiritually—by the actions of an aggressive cultural Christianity, I can only apologize and assure you that, while they might have been gathered in his name, Jesus wasn’t present there. The biblical Jesus never dehumanized people, and he admonished the religiously pious for turning people into “issues.” It is the responsibility of gay Christians and allies to police the actions of our fellow believers—and, until the battle is won, we share the pain they have caused you.
To my fellow Christians, no matter where you fall theologically or politically, I offer these final thoughts: you might not realize it, but we worship among you. We pray with you when your family suffers; we rejoice when a new baby is dedicated; we mumble with you through the first verse of that new worship song; we laugh with you when the pastor makes a joke, and groan with you when it misses the mark; we take communion with you in recognition of the great things He hath done; and we hope, as you do, that the people we sit in pews with on Sunday really do want us there, do care about us, do think we belong.
We’re gay. We pray. Get used to it.