This post is a story. In a way, it is my story. And in a way, it is bigger than my story.
I was raised in the suburbs and went to public schools. I spent summers at the beach. I watched romantic comedies with my friends at sleepovers. I went on dates with boys. And like many other childhoods, mine included going to church. During my adolescent years, that meant that I came to understand homosexuality as a sin. That was the teaching of my faith tradition. But that is just the beginning of the story. This, like many other stories of life, is a journey.
Growing up, I never thought a whole lot about my feelings about homosexuality, or any sexualities for that matter. I identified as a Christian. I identified as a heterosexual. At my high school, I had friends who identified all over the LGBTQ spectrum, and that was fine; I had a lot of friends who differed from me in many ways. But when I went to youth rallies, I understood that homosexuality was considered a sin. The worlds of my LGBTQ friends and my faith community were pretty separate in my mind and in my experience.
But then I went to college, a Christian college at that, and everything got a whole lot more complicated. For the first time, I met people who identified as LGBTQ Christians, and I no longer knew if I could call homosexuality a sin if my fellow Christian brother or sister saw their sexuality as a core part of their identity.
For a while, this was a personal, internal debate. But one distinct moment during my junior year changed that. We were reading Adrienne Rich’s seminal essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in my Critical Theory class. As a pretty vocal feminist, I spent a good portion of the class excitedly sharing my views on feminism and equality. So, during this particular discussion, a classmate asked me directly, “Jen, I ask you this because you have been pretty open all class: How do you reconcile this essay and its views with your faith?”
My mind went blank. I hadn’t reconciled them; they were two separate worlds. But starting at that moment, they began to collide. And the collision left me confused and uncertain. So I did what I always do when I am uncertain: I talked to people I respected. I did research. I read the theological debates happening around biblical texts perceived to be dealing with homosexuality. I explored queer theology. I looked for answers, specifically the answer to one question: is it okay to be both LGBTQ and a Christian? Because even though I was outside of the spectrum, the answer mattered to me. I desperately wanted to be an ally, but didn’t know if doing so would mean betraying the faith that was so integral to who I was.
Research is important and scholarship is important, and I often enjoy reading the scholarly conversation as it pertains to LGBTQ sexualities and the Christian community. But for me, everything changed one night when I went to a panel hosted by the GSA and our school’s gender equality advocacy group, where LGBTQ alums of my college came back to speak about their experiences on a Christian campus. And then it clicked for me: stories. More importantly, other people’s stories.
The reconciliation of my childhood faith tradition’s views of homosexuality and my own desire to value and affirm people’s identities, and become an ally to the LGBTQ community, came down to what happened when I heard people’s stories. What I heard in each of these stories differed of course, but the resounding message was this: LGBTQ Christians exist. LGBTQ Christians value their faith and belief in God the same way I do. LGBTQ Christians want to feel loved and accepted.
Most importantly, I came to realize that the stories I heard became weaved with my own. LGBTQ stopped being a group of letters, an umbrella term. It started to become people, with real and beautiful and compelling stories, and my call was to listen to them. To allow for my views of often deemed “controversial” or “hot-button” issue to change. To realize that for me, the issue was not solved by research or proof texts or theology. To realize that no one text, book, or answer would solve everything, that this was indeed a journey. And that journey changed when everything became human. In my faith tradition, it is the human part that is emphasized most of all. In conjunction with loving God, loving others as you love yourself is the primary message.
As a part of a graduate class, I decided to use my journey as a research opportunity. I sat down and talked with people who self-identify as LGBTQ and Christian. I interviewed people of various faith backgrounds, educational backgrounds, and ages. This is what I learned from these conversations.
Weaving Instead of Opposition
So many of the participants spoke of how they had to make some kind of shift from seeing their faith and sexuality as oppositional to instead seeing them as interwoven, or at the very least realize that they are both a part of their identity and experience. Faith and sexuality in fact co-exist in their notions of self. Thus, as feminist and queer studies move forward, and as a culture we consider the ramifications of the same-sex marriage legislation, it is vital that we do not instigate an oppositional rhetoric in our language that places LGBTQ rights or queer theory against Christianity, because while Christianity can be connected to institutions of power, Christianity can also be conceived as an identity marker for LGBTQ individuals.
We also must remember not to embrace a rhetoric of opposition that makes LGBTQ Christians feel as though they are a disqualified identity (a term coined by queer theorist Heather Love) in that their identities cannot possibility co-exist, or that is it is a contradiction to be Christian and LGBTQ, or that one identify must be chosen over the other.
For others, the notion of weaving is found in the positive feelings that are experienced when one’s faith and one’s gender or sexual identity can co-exist in the same space, and for many people that experience happens in the church setting. Therefore, the Church in regards to the collective body must realize that non-normative sexualities are not the enemy of faith. Whether the community chooses to be opening and affirming or not, we must remember that some of the members of our Christian community are also a part of the LGBTQ community.
Reconciliation Instead of Rejection
I am drawn to the word “reconciling” because reconciliation has a history within many sectors of the Christian tradition as a sacrament or value. I like the word “reconciling” because it encourages a continual process and conversation. For many LGBTQ Christians and communities, the intersection of LGBTQ identity and their Christian identity or their affiliation with the Christian community is a continual reconciling act. For others, it is a moment of reconciliation; they come to embrace both identities rather holistically. But reconciling can still continue to happen for them in their Church communities, their families, and the wider society.
I asked my interview participants what they thought of the word “reconciliation.” Some felt the word worked well. Others had more negative conceptualizations of it. Some felt it was a good starting point, but there is more that is needed. The lack of consensus here, while it may seem potentially problematic, is actually a gift, because it helps us recognize that our language may always fall short of the complexities of this intersectionality between LGBTQ sexualities and Christianity (both as an individual faith practice and a wider faith community).
Despite this complexity, I still feel reconciliation can be a word that can help us move forward in our conceptualizations of the relationship between LGBTQ sexualities and the Christian communities, because it is a word that reminds us that we as a Church have a past we need to contend with (thinking especially of the pain and hurt caused by the Christian community J. Jack Halberstam speaks to in Gaga Feminism) and that this intersection is something that is not going away, particularly for LGBTQ Christians.Reconciliation as a concept and course of action then can serve as a bridge between where we have come from and where we might go in the future.
Loving People as the Radical Call
Something many of my participants spoke about was love. Some spoke about how love from their families, friends, or churches helped them immensely in reconciling their faith and their sexuality. Churches often use the word “love” in the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin.” One of my participants spoke to this so well:
You see a lot of ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’, and you roll your eyes at it. But the reason you roll your eyes at it is because there isn’t any love. At least nobody can see it. Ultimately, I don’t care what your theology about sexuality is. If people think heterosexuality is the way things were designed, that doesn’t bother me; people believe that. But that theology gets in the way of the Church being the Church. It gets in the way of the Church being family and being inclusive. That theology gets in the way of the Church opening its doors and being family to the marginalized and oppressed and breaking the bonds of oppression. When your theology gets in the way of that, you need to reevaluate it.”
This participant also spoke about the need for listening, that people in power need to listen to marginalized voices. Scholars of queer studies and Christians alike need to continue to create spaces for listening to LGBTQ Christian voices and concerns.
And love. Love should be the thesis. For Christians, love is the overall argument; it is the central part of the narrative, embodied in the actions and words of Jesus. Therefore, Christians in particular need to remember that LGBTQ Christians the whole LGBTQ community are our neighbors and that it is time to start weaving a narrative of reconciling that continues to strive to figure out how Christ’s call to love can be our central call to action.