Monday, July 23, 2012

My personal experience with hate, sexuality, and the Church.

When I came out in high school, one of my friends told me I was going to hell.  I was pretty lucky that it was just one, really.  I was lucky to be born into a family and a congregation that taught me I was beloved in God's eyes, and that my sexuality had nothing to do with that.

But that family and congregation couldn't shield me from the rest of the church.

Here's an excerpt from my account of my experience in an Assembly of God church in high school, circa 2002:
The preacher says, "But the greatest threat to our teenagers today..."

I hope that he will say depression, or anxiety, or loneliness.  I am fighting all three.  I think everyone is lonely.  Maybe if we admit it, we can defeat it, together in our loneliness.

"The single most sinful threat to their very lives...

is homosexuality."

My throat closes.

I see Bekah's head turn.  She is looking at me.  I cannot move.  I cannot think.  Everything is slowing down and speeding up.  I hear his words but they have become an angry babble, a hellfire spreading through my heart.

He condemns them, and condemns me.

I close my eyes, praying for something, anything to happen.  Please God, please.  But nothing happens.  He continues - his voice louder - his shouts beating down the pulse of my heart.  I am naked before all of them.

Without knowing that I am, I am standing.

He pauses and looks at me, but continues preaching.  I am standing, silent, and then I am turning and walking out.

I have taken off my shoes, as many of us do to start worship; I am barefoot, my sandals left in the sanctuary with my Bible and purse.  I cannot turn back. 

I push open the door to the lobby, and stand in the light there.  Finally the vise around my heart releases, and a flood of tears overcomes me.  My bare feet carry me to the girls' bathroom.

I weep.  Oh God, oh God.  I do not even know what I am crying for; only that I feel so impossibly and irrevocably broken that even God will not hear me.

But someone does; there is someone else in the bathroom now.  I hope that it is Bekah, and it is - she calls my name.

But when I come from the stall, there is someone else with her - one of the youth leaders, J.  J has dark hair and bright blue eyes, and I've never talked to her before; tonight, she is full focused on me.

She begins barraging me.  What is in you that made you abandon worship?  I cannot answer. She assumes, and continues.  What kind of wicked temptation is this?  I cannot answer.

She softens a little.  I was tempted too, you know, when I was your age...

And so begins a story I only half-hear, about temptation and sin and damnation.  Her words pound against me.  I am no longer in myself; I am floating above, trying to escape.  Bekah stands, unsure, seventeen years old, powerless.  J leans closer, nailing the words of condemnation against my skin.  I am trapped.  Everything I have ever learned about God and Jesus and love falls away.
I left that church that night, and never went back.

In 2003, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church met in Minneapolis to vote on, among other things, the election of Gene Robinson as bishop.  He would be the first openly gay and partnered man to serve as bishop of the Episcopal church.  We were already ordaining gay and lesbian people at the time; this was a vote to recognize that the New Hampshire diocese had elected him to be bishop.  The vote passed.  Three to two.  We had been ordaining openly gay and lesbian people since 1993 and still, forty percent of the church was not willing to welcome Robinson as bishop.

I was helping take care of attendees' kids during the Convention.  We had to house it off-site because we didn't want the kids seeing Westboro Baptist Church, with their God Hates Fags signs, standing outside the convention doors.

Robinson wore a bulletproof vest under his alb the day he was installed as bishop, as a result of the death threats he received that week.

I don't know how to explain to you how that feels.  I don't know what words to use to describe the tension between knowing God had called me to serve and knowing that there were people who wanted me dead in the name of God -- people who thought that God had called them to kill gay and lesbian people who tried to serve.

I got lucky, in some ways; I went to Saint Olaf, a Lutheran school with a deep love for service.  I was welcomed on the Student Congregation Council.  I was elected the chaplain for the Saint Olaf Choir my senior year, awarded distinction in the religion department, inducted into the honors society for classical languages (for my classes in ancient Greek).  I met my partner there.  In general, I wasn't "not allowed" to do religious things because of my sexuality.

But I also didn't come out to my roommate for three months because I was sure that she, the daughter of a small-town Lutheran pastor, would reject me.

I walked into my freshmen-year shared bathroom one morning to find a condemnation of gay and lesbian people anonymously posted in a stall, along with Bible verses.

I participated in the ELCA study on sexuality, Journey Together Faithfully, where we read and in-depth discussed those same verses, Leviticus 18:22 and 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Romans 1:18-32, where one possible concluding position was "Blessing same-sex unions would contradict the Bible's judgment against same-sex conduct and undermine the institution of marriage."

I was a Junior Counselor (an RA for freshmen) and my roommate and I discussed for hours how our group of first-year girls would react if, on a group date, I brought my girlfriend.

I took a senior-level seminar on Christianity and sexuality, wherein some of my classmates -- people I'd spent four years studying and spending time with -- told me my relationship wasn't legitimate, either by natural law or in the eyes of God.

I took three years off between college and seminary, ostensibly to save money for grad school, but in truth to see whether the ELCA would decide to formally accept openly partnered gay and lesbian people, or if we would continue to be consigned to a side process of ordination because we were technically violating churchwide policies.

In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to which I belong, voted to allow the ordination of people in publicly accountable lifelong monogamous same-gender relationships.  Note:  allow.  Not call for, not rejoice in, not promote, but allow.  The vote barely passed.  During the vote, a thunderstorm and tornado struck, which John Piper (a local preacher) chose to interpret for the world as God's judgment on us.

That fall, my first day at seminary, one of the first fellow students I met was a young man who proudly declared he was one of the youngest voting members of the ELCA to vote against the ordination of gays.

I am lucky, in some ways.  I have a partner who loves me.  I have a congregation who supports me.  I have friends who are ridiculously persistent in their insistence that I am a blessed and beloved child of God regardless of my gender.  And the ELCA, God willing, will ordain me.

And yet I wake every day to new notices in my email inbox that Sojourners doesn't want to take a stance on whether I am welcome.  I have coffee with an acquaintance only to learn that I'm invited to write an article for the local LGBTQ magazine, to assert that not all church people hate gays.  I walk into a stranger's hospital room to provide spiritual care and have to decide if I will out myself.  I spend hours trying to cultivate a love for Scripture after having been beaten with it for years.

A friend said, when I posted about this on Facebook, wrote, "I think the hardest piece of it to see can also be the most painful. It's not as visible as the in-your-face blatant attacks, but the more disguised, 'I'll love you despite your sin' attitude that is more passive but so hurtful and condescending. I think it is the much more pervasive attitude among Christians, and much more difficult to reconcile."

She's right.

Asking me to describe the hate my Christian "brothers and sisters" direct at me every day is like a bird trying to describe air.  I know it, I live in it, I breathe it -- to what do I compare it?  How do I explain that Chick-Fil-A's "biblical values" as a company, or some pastor in North Carolina wanting to "round up all the gays and lesbians" and lock us in an electrified fence -- these aren't just news articles, silly remnants of a time gone by, a place that doesn't matter.

These are reminders that there are people out there who are dedicated to making sure that I can't marry my wife, that I can't legally share children or healthcare or a pension plan with her -- people who will write angry letters to the seminary or the bishop, people who get shows on Fox News and declare my life an abomination unto the God I strive to serve, because of the very same Bible I am trying so hard to love.

I live everyday still in that tension of knowing God calls me to serve, and some people of God may try to kill me for it.


  1. Thank you for sharing your powerful story - what a brave thing to do. I think you have a lot of wisdom, and (thank goodness for Facebook) I'm glad to be able to read your thoughts on lots of issues, especially this one. Keep writing please! Your take on Christianity is really refreshing to this agnostic. :)

  2. This is one of my favorite posts of yours to date. You totally captured the feeling when you said "asking me to describe the hate my Christian 'brothers and sisters' direct at me every day is like a bird trying to describe air. I know it, I live in it, I breathe it." It's pervasive, but the fact that it's not enough to keep us from love and from the Gospel (or to keep those things from us?) is also powerful. Thanks for sharing this.