Life with Jesus / Social Justice

On Being LGBT+ Affirming

I was a mere 21 years old when I got married. My uncle officiated our wedding. Before the wedding, my then-fiancee, now-husband,  Alex, and I drove down to Corpus to do some premarital counseling sessions and stay with my aunt and uncle. After one of these sessions, Alex and I got ready to leave and my uncle said, “Alright. Get outta here and go make out.” At first, I was like, “ARE YOU A MIND READER, UNCLE LYNN? CAUSE THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT WE WERE GOING TO DO” and then I was mortified and I basically laughed awkwardly and then ran out of the house. Your uncle correctly guessing that you wanted to suck face with your fiancee is only marginally better than your grandmother offering you a stick of her cinnamon gum and then a condom.

I was shocked and embarrassed that my uncle had dared to name the fact that I was sexually attracted to my soon-to-be husband. How dare he acknowledge that I’m sexually attracted to anyone!

If you knew me growing up, this reaction wouldn’t surprise you. Let’s say I had a reputation in our church’s youth group. Whenever someone would mention sex, I would slap my hands over my ears and run out of the room screaming. Partially, this was for attention (of course- it’s middle school) but partially it was because I didn’t want to talk about sex. I grew up in the purity culture of conservative West Texas culture. I kissed dating goodbye (which, if you aren’t familiar, is the title of a book written by Joshua Harris about courtship instead of dating). I mean…not really. Maybe I should say that I aspired to kiss dating goodbye but, in high school, I had a blue-eyed, kilt-wearing, mullet-headed boyfriend who I just couldn’t resist {making-out with}.

Growing up, the message that I received was that I was not a sexual being (unless I wanted to be sinful) until I got married. After marriage, I was, of course, allowed to have all of the sex I wanted- endless, amazing sex! But before marriage, nope, no ma’am, not an option if you didn’t want to feel God’s wrath or the judgement of His people. (Sidenote: While I’m currently trying to use feminine pronouns for God, say “the judgement of Her people” just doesn’t sit right with me. WONDER WHY?)

This is the message I got from the church. Don’t have sex before marriage and be modest. That’s the only instruction that I got from God’s representatives in my life about this part of myself.

Of course, reality is much different. What really ended up happening is that I tried to repress any conscious idea that sexuality was a part of me, then I’d mug down with my boyfriend and spend a week feeling tremendous guilt and shame about it because I’d given in to my animalistic sexual desires. Even after marriage, I’ve struggled. Strangely, my sexuality didn’t magically go from repressed to uninhibited because I had a party and signed a paper on a sweaty August day in 2007.

Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage has a chapter on how she disentangled herself from the oppressive teachings she received from the church about sexuality when she was growing up. She didn’t write that book for me, a white woman, but I will forever be grateful to her for that particular chapter. It unleashed something in me. It helped me see all of the ways that *I* have also been handed an oppressive understanding of sexuality- one that forced me to deny a very important part of my being.

So, what does this have to do with being LGBT+ affirming?

Truthfully, LGBT+ friends,  I think that I was in such deep denial about my own sexuality that I was unable to deal with yours either.

Maybe that sounds weird. To be clear, it’s not an excuse for the decades I spent believing that any expression of LGBT+ sexuality was a sin. But it is maybe an explanation.

The Church does a piss poor job of educating believers about human sexuality. We don’t understand it and so we repress it. We push it out of the way, deny it, make a way to control it.

So, when LGBT+ people come out of the closet, name their sexuality, are honest about it, most of us in church clam up. I know that coming out can be terribly frightening, and I certainly don’t want to minimize the trepidation of that experience, but their courage to say what they want, be honest about their sexuality, makes the rest of us feel our discomfort with our own sexuality even more. And honestly, we’ve hated them for it.

The first time that I remember really being aware of what courage it takes to be gay (especially in Texas) was our first meeting with our realtor. Now, this woman had essentially saved Alex’s life after he almost had a heatstroke on a bike trail. We basically owed her one. She was also doing us a favor because the houses she normally sold were approximately 1 billion dollars above our piddly little budget, but she took us on anyway. Near the end of our meeting, after talking bedrooms and lot sizes, she said, “I just wanted to let you know up front that I’m gay.” I remember feeling really sad and angry that she felt she needed to tell us that. I wasn’t mad at her. I was mad at the conservative Christian culture (and probably past experiences with “Christians”) that told her she needs to be up front before she invests time and energy in us and we abandon her when we find out that she’s gay.

Growing up, I knew that condemning someone outright for something they couldn’t help (their sexuality) wasn’t something that Jesus would have done. However, I never really bothered to research WHY I was being taught that being in a gay relationship was sinful, aside from some nebulous “The Bible says so” reasoning, and so I settled on what I thought was a very compassionate compromise- celibacy. You could have same-sex attraction, but you couldn’t act on it. Everyone wins, right?

Prior to college, I’d never had friendships with people who were “out” and, truly, it was the willingness of my gay friends to be honest with me that started me rethinking about the church’s views on homosexuality. The fear-mongering that I had heard in Bible Studies and from the pulpit didn’t align with the reality I saw in the lives of my gay friends.  At some point, a flip switched and I went from “homosexuality is wrong” to “I don’t really know what I believe”.

I lived in that shoulder-shrug kind of attitude for years- partially because I was still uncomfortable with any discussion of sexuality, and partially because I knew that it was “risky” for me to take a stand. Risky, how? Someone might unfriend me. Someone might think that I’m not following Jesus “correctly”. Changing my views might even cause (gasp!) conflict! Now that I think about it, what a coward I was for not taking a stand sooner, considering that people’s humanity and dignity were being trashed by a group that supposedly represents Jesus.

I’ve been doing my homework. I read Matthew Vines God and the Gay Christian and I listened to Blue Babies Pink, a story about Brett Trapp’s journey to embracing his sexual orientation.  For a large portion of his early adulthood, Trapp thought that celibacy was his answer. In one episode of Blue Babies Pink, Trapp talks about going to a football game by himself to “practice” being single for the rest of his life.

And as I walked underneath streetlights over Tuscaloosa streets, I replayed that kick again and again.

I replayed that big ‘ol party that went down in section KK. I replayed all the smiles on all those faces. I replayed all the hugs.

And I pictured 30-year-old Brett in that scenario, awkwardly attempting a solo celebration . . .

then 40-year-old Brett . . .

then 50-year-old Brett . . .

then 60-year-old Brett . . .

Then I pictured a balding 60-year-old Brett walking back to his car alone and starting the long drive through the night, down Interstate 20, back to Atlanta. I pictured him stopping in Oxford to get a snack at the Taco Bell that’s right off the exit. I pictured him crossing the Georgia state line and finally pulling into his driveway at 3 a.m. at his little one-bedroom house in the suburbs of Atlanta. Exhausted, he unlocks the front door and sorts through some unopened mail sitting underneath a lamp on a sofa table. A calico cat saunters over and brushes up against his leg. He bends down to pick her up and pulls her in close to his chest.

I had never heard that sad take on celibacy expressed so clearly (ahem, because I hadn’t been listening) and it broke something in me.

I got to hear Nadia Bolz-Weber speak last Tuesday. If you don’t know her, you should look her up. She’s a bad-ass Lutheran clergy person. For me, she is the closest embodiment of the gospel that I’ve seen today. Not because she’s perfect or I agree with everything that she says, but because the Jesus she preaches has a table that is so long and so wide that there’s room for everyone.

Her views, particularly on sexuality, have challenged me, convicted me.  That I can remember, I’ve never been outright bigoted or made explicit statements to gay people about their supposed “sinfulness” but I also have a terrible memory and it’s quite possible that I have said or written something that has wounded my friends. If that’s true, if you carry scars from something that I have said to you or written here, I hope that you’ll send me a message and give me a chance to apologize.

No, the conviction that I feel is mostly centered around my bigoted beliefs and my deafening silence when it came to defending and speaking up for my LGBT+ brothers and sisters.

Most of my life, the gospel that I’ve offered to LGBT+ people has been conditional. “You can have this grace, but you have to fix this first”. The American Church obsesses about speaking the truth in love to gay people, but strangely, we almost never feel compelled to speak the truth in love about consumerism or gossip or divorce or the idol of nationalism. We accuse gay Christians of ignoring parts of the Bible or “reading to support their own views” when we literally do the exact some thing (Matthew Vines looks to the Bible to find support for monogamous, loving relationships; we look to the Bible to find verses to the contrary). We use the Bible like a bludgeon to beat people into submission or beat them out of the church

For a large portion of my life, my faith was centered around who was in and who was out. To be clear, the “who was out” question was born out of concern for those people because I wanted them to be “in”. To be double clear, I thought that I had the authority (and the knowledge) to make those decisions. I did not trust that God was big enough to make those decisions on Her own. What I’m realizing now is that I’m a ding-dong and there’s no way that I am qualified to make that decision.  More importantly, I don’t think that’s the point.

With this faith deconstruction, I’m struggling to find a new ethic to guide behavior. My old ethic was, “Whatever the Bible says, goes. I get to be the boss of everyone because, obviously, I know exactly what we’re supposed to be acting like.”  Now, I’m thinking it looks more like, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself”. That ethic is consistent with what I have discovered about myself as I work with people of color for liberation from white supremacy.

My liberation (from oppressive ideas and systems; from being the oppressor) is inextricably tied to the liberation of others. Learning to listen to others, value their lived experience- even when it directly clashes with mine or makes me deeply uncomfortable- has made me feel more human. I feel more deeply connected to the Earth, to others, to God. It is precisely in loving others- not trying to control their behavior- that has led me to feel like I’m operating within the boundaries of the kingdom of heaven here on Earth.

LGBT+ friends, I repent of my silence when others have dehumanized you in God’s name. I’m so sorry for all of the ways that I could have defended you and didn’t. I’m sorry for putting my comfort above your safety, your spiritual and emotional well-being, your right to be treated with dignity. I’m sorry that my silence and indifference made me unsafe. I pray that you have found people to affirm your goodness, but in case you  haven’t, let me say it here.

The Jesus that I see in the Bible speaks harsh truths to the powerful. For the marginalized, he offers healing, inclusion, priority, a place at his table. I believe that God made you, that She loves you, and that She wants you to flourish. I do not think that making you hate yourself, requiring you to be single, or asking you to be part of a community that denies a core part of your being is part of that flourishing. You are important. You are valuable. Your flourishing is deeply connected to mine.

I’m so sorry that it took me this long to see it and to say it.

Please forgive me.

3 thoughts on “On Being LGBT+ Affirming

  1. Thanks for sharing, Beth. My views of sexuality were similarly shaped and it pretty much wrecked me. I hope to learn and grow from that in what I impart to my kids. I, too, am on a journey with my LGBT+ friends — still very much in process, but searching for theological imagination, for sure…I’m not totally satisfied with the conceptions of sexuality in any corner. The challenge for me is to confront the privilege I have not to make up my mind because I’m not affected by it the way my LGBT+ friends are — it’s time for me to move off center, stop deconstructing, and start reconstructing so I can be helpful to my friends. I, too, am guilty of silence. Regardless, I’m with you — something’s wrong if there’s not room at the table for our LGBT+ neighbors. I’d welcome any links you’ve got or books for Nadia Bolz-Weber on sexuality. Justin Lee’s “Torn” is fantastic and was a game-changer for me. I want to check out Vines as well.

    • Yes, to all of that, Charles. Nadia Bolz-Weber actually has a book coming out in January about sexuality. Most of what I get from her is that it’s not a big deal. Like, she honors people’s sexuality but she doesn’t make it a core part of their being. She’s just so darn non-nonchalant about it and it’s precisely that treatment of people’s sexuality that challenges me.

      Did Julie tell you about “I Feel Pretty”? If not, the premise is that Amy Schumer, who’s not classically hawt, hits her head and then moves through the world like she’s gorgeous. THere’s a scene in the movie where she gets up and participates spontaneously in a bikini contest. She dances and wriggles and bares her not-flat stomach. I actually got teary-eyed during the scene. Not because I think that participating in a bikini contest is the epitome of sexual freedom, but because I so rarely see women (or maybe anyone), in real life or otherwise, who are able to embrace their bodies, their sexuality, with reckless abandon, without question or judgement. It seemed she was fully embracing all parts of her and I saw flourishing there. Like, the freedom I saw in that scene was *good* like God-given good.

      I’m still figuring out what I think that looks like in my life. Thanks for weighing in. I’m going to check out “Torn”. Vines is knee-deep in exegesis of the “clobber passages”. In my current state of affairs, it’s not a book that I would usually have picked up were it not for the subject matter. (My view of scripture is lower than Matthew Vines!)

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