I had a friend in high school who was– among other things–overly friendly with all the girls and an endless tease. He was funny, exuberant and had a large, fabulous personality. My boyfriend, now husband, was often irritated by his presence only because boundaries were foreign to this guy. But I loved him.
For example, he had driven me up to Summer Christian Youth camp one year where we were both on staff. On the first night while we were hanging out by the rock where everyone was going for a midnight swim he grabbed my hand and placed it on his genitals. He laughed and thought my irritated reaction and immediate retraction of my hand from said genitals was hilarious. I think I punched his shoulder and called him a jerk, but I laughed too. It was the 90’s, and discussions of body autonomy and consent were foreign. And besides, he was harmless (at least in my opinion). I chalked it up to teenaged antics. I was proud to be his friend.
A year later he stopped me in the hallway at school and said he had something to tell me. We sat down in the cafeteria and he confessed to me he was gay. No pretense. No build up. Just like that he came out to me. It didn’t make sense to me because when I saw him, I saw my friend the flirt and the one who loved all the girls.
My first response was to say “No you’re not!” I then belittled and mocked what was to become the most defining characteristic of his life in a way that was ignorant and cruel. I’m sure he was hoping for a more measured and understanding response. My Christian teaching had told me that being gay was wrong–a sin. He was a Christian, I was a Christian…surely he was joking. He wasn’t joking.
I can’t go back in time and do-over my response. I can’t go back in time and tell him that I am happy for him, proud of him, or even supportive in the face of what I can only imagine was certain rejection and shunning of peers and church leaders–including me.
It has taken me almost 20 years to work out my belief systems where same-sex relationships and identity are concerned. I had nearly 25 years of indoctrination to wade through, and that was no small thing. But questioning the foundations of belief regarding things such a same-sex attraction and same-sex relationships was necessary to suss out the contrary characteristics that attracted me to Christianity to begin with.
The mantra of “Hate the sin, love the sinner” rang hollow the first time I can recall questioning the legitimacy of the doctrine that told me homosexuality or gender identity was a sin. I looked back on all of the people I knew growing up who today were out and living happy and productive lives as their authentic selves with their same-sex partners. The conclusion that seemed obvious, though perhaps not at the time, was they were always gay. They were born that way. So then how could I say I loved someone when I was rejecting or judging a fundamental part of who they were? And then I watched news reports on the ongoing court battle regarding a gay couple who couldn’t get a wedding cake because the bakers had a “moral opposition” to participating in their marriage celebrations based on religious grounds. It felt eerily familiar to signs in windows that would proclaim “whites only” or “no coloreds allowed” from the days of the Southern US. And it certainly didn’t have the ring of Christian love that the mantra espoused. But Christians I knew and respected gleefully celebrated the business owners’ who discriminated on the basis of a religious precept. It felt mean-spirited and contrary to the Jesus I had often read about in the scriptures.
And then I thought about my children. Not only did they have friends who already knew their sexual orientation in elementary school, but what if one day one of my sons came to me and told me they were anything but heterosexual? What would my response be? Would I try to tell them their feelings and their identity was anything but normal and natural, or would I try to convince them they were somehow “less than” or sinful. Would I try to convert them to a way of living and loving that fit an ideology rather than love them unconditionally? Loving them unconditionally means letting them know they are loved for exactly who they are. It means accepting their partners, whoever they bring home, as one of the family. It means supporting them and providing guidance and compassion the same way I would if my children were strictly heterosexual. Anything less would feel hollow and insincere. And that was the point. The mantra that tells someone who isn’t heterosexual they are sinners, tells them they are hated for something they cannot control and is something that impacts nearly every facet of their existence. That mantra tells anyone on the LGBTQ spectrum that their personhood is wrong. Doesn’t feel very loving.
But yet today there are still countless people who are shunned by their parents, their families and their religious communities because they came out as LGBTQ. They face endless shame and discrimination. They are loved and accepted so long as they live the philosophy that homosexuality and all its constructs are forbidden. But once they come out the silence can be deafening, or the attempted conversion is damaging. Suicide rates are high still among these demographics solely due to a lack of ample support during a very confusing and difficult transition. A society that for generations has lauded heterosexual unions as the only “normal” way has institutionalized an ideology that has excluded an entire sub-group of people who have never and will never fit into that category. And though there have been remarkable strides to erase such prejudice, we still have so far to go as a society.
I am proof positive that hearts and minds and ideologies can be changed. I was once a staunch opposer to anything LGBTQ and I once parroted the same philosophies that are so damaging and hateful. I recall the boy who was best friends with one of my high school boyfriends. He had always been “stereotypical” of what one would assume a gay man to be. And my friend group in high school would openly mock him for it. I openly mocked him for it. It was the 90’s and we were insensitive Christian kids, what did we know? But after knowing him for years, when he did finally come out to my then-boyfriend, my reaction was again less than supportive. He knew it. I reacted like it was somehow contagious. This friend was in love with my boyfriend. They had several sleepovers during the course of their friendship. They shared a bed. He viewed me as competition. I started panicking like this was somehow an affliction for ME. My reaction was selfish and wrong. From that moment on, his then girlfriend (Who he had because he was taught he needed to have and was “normal” in an effort to fit in) and my boyfriend were the only ones he would speak to. He didn’t want me knowing anything. In hindsight, I completely understand his reaction. I wish I could go back and change my reaction. I wish I had taken the time to understand and show compassion, rather than judging and condemning.
So many examples have given me hope that the hearts and minds are changing. Pastors who are affirming of LGBTQ people in all areas, even though this still has a long way to go. Entire denominations that are not only willing but endorsing same-sex marriage. Pastors who openly and publicly embrace, support and affirm their LGBTQ children. Christian writers, teachers and worship leaders who are leading the way in understanding and compassion for LGBTQ rights. (RIP Rachel Head Evans) Christian churches who show up at Pride parades to offer “Free Mom and Dad Hugs” to people who have been rejected by their parents. (Looking at you Jen Hatmaker) But where there are glimmers of hope there are far too many accounts of rejection and shunning. Parents who reject their children if their partners are with them, citing they have to maintain a standard of righteousness and can’t stand for sinfulness in their homes. Entire congregations who don’t acknowledge or show signs of support when a long time congregant not only announces his same-sex relationship or his engagement. Couples who are asked in church not to show affection for one another in church because “children are watching”. Church leadership who post public messages that speak to their prejudice against people of LGBTQ and engage in heated public debate denying the legitimacy of LGBTQ struggles and persecution. Business owners who refuse to serve patrons based on sexual orientation because it offends their religious beliefs.
And even I have received the silent treatment because I have been outspoken about my conclusions. It’s hurt, but I’m sure it can’t compare to the pain and rejection others have felt as a result of my own hateful stance over the years or the complete and utter rejection LGBTQ kids have faced from family and friends.
I refuse to participate in a culture of belief that would erase and delegitimize an entire group of people simply based on who they love or have sex with. (And it should be noted that LGBTQ definitions are far more wide-ranging than that simple generalization, but for the sake of this blog post I am over-simplifying.) And I refuse to participate in denying them the same rights and privileges I have as a heterosexual woman. And I will welcome my sons’ friends and partners into my home with love and acceptance regardless of gender or sexual orientation. To do anything but is unloving and is antithesis to everything I know about Jesus.
And to anyone in my life who I have judged in the past, I humbly offer my sincerest apology. I wish I could go back in time and show greater love and support for my friends. I wish I could erase my own prejudice and ignorance.
So on this first day of Pride Month, I offer this as my first step to restitution. Apology. Affirmation. Acceptance. Equality. Love. Support.