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Posts from the ‘sexuality’ Category

to the boy on the couch

Last year, my friend Zach invited me to do something really scary.  He asked if I would share some of my story as part of the Rainbow Letters, a project he created with his friend Julia to help the children of LGBTQ parents tell their stories through the art of letter writing.  Through our words and examples – letters of any kind written to anyone or anything in the world – the pair is hoping to create a collection of collaborative, community-generated prose that will help capture the often untold experiences of the children of LGBTQ parents, especially at this critical point in the movement’s history.  From their website:

Growing up as the children of LGBTQ parent(s), we often felt alone, isolated, and incapable of talking about our families.  As adults, we now know that we were not alone.  Our mission is to build a community of people who can draw strength, encouragement, and inspiration from each other by writing, reading, and sharing letters.

rainbow letters

I haven’t talked a lot about this part of my life, but it’s something I’m becoming more comfortable discussing with family, friends, and even strangers.  This was one of the more difficult, vulnerable things I’ve ever written.  I’m posting it below in case anyone would like to give it a read.  Please also make sure to spread the word about the Rainbow Letters project, and consider writing a letter or two if you are the child of an LGBTQ parent.

Here’s my first letter, to the boy on the couch:

You will always remember the day your mom sat you and your sisters down on the living room couch for a talk.  Looking back, you can replay the entire scene from an outsider’s perspective, like watching a movie director parsing out a careful script.  Here is how it all plays out: your dad steps into the foyer near the front door, tall and strong in his pressed slacks and khaki vest.  He shrugs his State Trooper hat low down his forehead.  Next: he pauses.  “I love you,” he says.  “See you later.”  He walks out the door.  Exit stage right.

Your mom is fighting back tears and she begins to tell the children sitting on the family couch, slowly, that mommy and daddy are getting a divorce.  The two girls, then eight and six, immediately start bawling, gushing hot tears that they don’t fully understand.  The little boy on the couch just sits there for a moment, and then he realizes that somehow, beyond hope, this all must be some kind of cruel joke.  He starts laughing uncontrollably, harder and harder.  His mother and siblings look on in shock.  He can’t stop screaming his laughter for the longest time afterwards.

After this, the memories flash by in a mélange of uncomfortable blurs.  There are more serious talks and fleshy couches – stiff-backed graying sofas in child counselors’ and seasoned therapists’ offices, itchy coral-blue surplus ones in school social worker waiting rooms.  Quickly arrive the vicious and expensive court proceedings, embattled custody agreements, well-meaning books and pamphlets on how to handle divorce.

There is lots of crying, and the scared boy flying from couch to couch knows in his heart that what is happening to him is uniquely unfair.  For all the people he talks to, no one understands.  The splashing vitriol and court-mediated divorce process tears his soft heart to shreds.  The boy runs away a couple of times, but always ends up in school the next day, pretending to be okay.  Everybody’s fingerprints are all over his profile and case files, and strangers are poking at the most vulnerable parts of his life.  He just wants to be forgotten.

Once, the kid is sent to visit a high-ranking judge or lawyer of some kind.  She hands him a pen and tells him to imagine it is a magic wand, to pretend that he can grant any three wishes he wants.  The boy sits there nervous and fidgety on a patchwork of unfamiliar fibers and plays along only because he had to.  He wishes for a million dollars, world peace, and for his parents to get back together.  End scene.

I know it is painful for you to recall these memories.  They are easier to abstract away, to bury them deep in your unconscious, and to think them nothing more than bad dreams.

You cry for hours the night before your first day of middle school.  You beg to be homeschooled, so you won’t have to be thrown into a new place with new people.  Your mother stills your sobs and firms your resolve: “people are like chess pieces, Ryan – conquer a new one every day and soon you will have plenty of friends, the whole board.”

The next day, you dress up nicely to make a good impression on your new friends.  You wake up early, shower, and pull on a button down shirt.  You quickly gel and comb your hair sideways, staring in the mirror and feeling like an adult.  Your dad tells you he loves you and plants a kiss on your shining forehead as you get out of the car and head down the hallway to find your locker.  Before anything else happens, a student two lockers away from you sizes you up and sneers: “you look like a faggot.”

A few months pass before your world collapses again: your mom sits you down on a sympathetic, light green couch in her new apartment and comes out to you.  She tells you, slowly, that she would be with women instead of men now, and that her partner would be a big part of your life now too.  You are wide-eyed, surprised and confused.

You are only eleven.  You don’t know what the acronym “LGBT” stands for, but you know that “lesbian” is what your friend called Jessica when she sat on another girl’s lap on the playground, and everybody laughed at her for days afterwards.

You begin to notice every time your classmates scowl and call your gym teacher a “dyke,” when they play “smear the queer” during recess, or wink and gossip about “not wanting to share a room with Michael” on the class trip to Washington D.C.  You begin to feel cold and squirmy inside when kids call things “gay,” like how it feels to pick up a wriggling insect.  A pit the size of an orange opens in your stomach every time the subject of homosexuality is broached.  You wonder how your friends would feel if they knew about your family.

One night, while walking down a winter road at a church retreat, a pimply cabinmate sidles up to you and begins fantasizing about lesbians making out in the snow.  His salacious tone confuses you.  Lesbians aren’t sexy, you think, they are my mom and her old friends.  You shrug off a chill.  He must have never met a real lesbian before.

In school and church services alike you hear a consistent message: gays and lesbians are not okay.  We are not like them and we do not like them.  You are hounded even in play, in your Boy Scout troop, where your mom serves as a respected and popular adult leader.  You know that banal snares and trivial arguments with other leaders in the troop always hold a potentially darker edge – if anyone reports your mom for being gay, pursuant to official Scouting policy, she would be removed from her position.  You double down and resolve to keep your secret all the more.

* * *

Little Ryan, if, beyond imagination, I somehow had you sitting on a couch right in front of me, plucking at stray cushion threads and looking up at me expectantly, I wouldn’t say anything.  Not at first.  I think I’d pick you up and just wrap you in a big hug.  I wouldn’t speak until both of our bodies started to rack with sobs.

I would tell you, slowly, through tears of my own, that your mommy loves you.  That your daddy loves you, and that I love you too.  That even though your parents don’t love each other anymore, they both love you and they will always do their best to honor and care for you and your sisters.  Your family, though culled and legally cauterized and publicly picked apart, is still a family.  I would smile and tell you that you are not alone, that as the child of a gay parent, you have nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of.  There are actually millions of kids like you.  (You might not believe me at first.)

If I could manage it, here is what else I would say: you will face more pain, especially from religious friends.  They will heap shame and heavy burdens upon you like salt on a wound.  But for every community characterized by disdain and derision, there is one of acceptance and inclusion.  You will find these.  You couldn’t even dream about it then, but now more and more religious voices are speaking out from the pulpits and the pews, affirming and celebrating parents like yours.  The world as a whole is moving in a direction that will honor people like your mom and respect your family’s splintered, broken wholeness.

Yes, there will be more bullies, more heartbreak, and more rejection.

But in the end, you will not topple.  Rebirth is on the horizon.  Pawns will become kings.  You will breathe in peace.  Your torn heart will heal.

After telling you all of this, I would have to take a breath.  Then I would lift you high to sit on my shoulders, like how my dad used to carry me, and ask what you wanted to do next.  Maybe we would hold hands as we talked some more and got mint chocolate chip ice cream.  Mom’s favorite.


from the inside out

This January, my significant other and I boarded a plane and headed to Portland for the Gay Christian Network (GCN) conference.  Attending this event has become what I hope will remain an annual tradition for us; catching up with old friends and making new ones in this unexpected and indescribably holy space is something I wouldn’t trade for the world.

While there, I co-facilitated an Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) lunch and breakout session with my friend Kris*, a gay college student and Bible study leader with a large parachurch ministry whose official stance on same sex relationships is strictly nonaffirming.  Before we ate, Kris and I asked everyone in attendance to introduce themselves and briefly outline their church and work affiliations.  My stomach twisted into thick knots as one of the men in our group shared that he was a decades-old staffer with an organization that I have experienced significant hardships with.  The last time I felt my insides curdle in this way was at another LGBT Christian conference this fall, where I met Brent*, an openly gay man and longtime staff member for the same ministry.  Both of these men, I was surprised to learn, are seeking to create positive change for the LGBT people in their midst, trying to reform Cru from the inside out.  While I would literally rather eat a live beetle than ever return to an event affiliated with their employer, I couldn’t help but appreciate their example and marvel at their staying.

catching up with old friends at GCN

catching up with old friends at GCN

There is something innately subversive and special about discreetly inhabiting a religious space from which you are unjustly excluded.  My friend Morgan, a Methodist minister, has written about the inexplicable glee and bliss he receives from attending Catholic mass, dwelling on the sufferings of Christ on certain holy days, taking outlaw communion when he is feeling bold.  I too know the pleasures of worshipping in the pews of churches where no one knows me. The anonymity can be liberating.  Dipping my fingers in holy water that isn’t mine, praying with people who don’t know what a screwup I can be, this is profound.  Yet I’ve also kneeled in my local church, surrounded by warm faces, and thought to myself “if these people really knew how I felt, they would not accept me.”  That’s probably the loneliest I’ve felt, in the house of God or just about anywhere else.

For those of us who have been deeply wounded by religion, the prospect of re-entering these spaces strikes us with debilitating anxiety.  In the two years since I was hurt, I’ve never rejoined a college ministry, never reinvested in meaningful relationships with a church community.  This is why I can’t help but gape at – and struggle to trust, at times – the examples of friends and colleagues who are capable of doing the kind of advocacy work I want to do, from within nonaffirming environments.

I’m talking about people like the woman who wrote this article.  People like my friend Stan*, the gay lawyer-in-training at Harvard, and my friend Manuel*, the young transgender humanitarian and nonprofit leader, both of whom advocate for the full inclusion of gender and sexual minorities from the pews of their beloved Catholic church.  I’m talking about people like my friend Allen*, the gay triathlete and community leader at Tim Keller’s church in New York City who runs a support and visibility group for LGBT worshippers at Redeemer, or Amy*, who is queer and starting a safe network to help connect LGBT and LGBT-affirming InterVarsity students who are seeking to change the organization as a whole.

These people prove that one can do the hard work of changing minds and hearts from within constructs that are not entirely welcoming.  And yet, for me, and perhaps others who have been lacerated by cutting conversations and in-pulpit condemnations, these spaces feel too dangerous. We have been bled out by too many tight smiles, barbed emails, impassioned shouts, whispered indictments, sharp glances.  We cannot picture going back.

a photo of the wonderful AAPI lunch we shared at GCN

a photo of the wonderful AAPI lunch we shared at GCN

When I finally changed my mind on same sex relationships, it my worldview lurched ninety degrees counter-clockwise.  My core theology, my campus ministry, my churches, all my favorite authors, and many of my closest friends, I realized in a series of mental nuclear strikes, were all completely wrong.  I quickly began to see all their teaching as questionable, their every statement morally bankrupt.  My personal litmus test on which trust depended became: what does this person think of LGBT people?  A wavering or cruel answer in this arena was often enough to write the person off as unsafe, thoroughly untouchable.

I’m not one of those people who spends eternities mourning my past.  This was a developmental stage I had to move through.  Yet I lost a lot of relationships.  I had to leave my church.  Worse happened.  And then I heard Julie’s* story, how she is serving as the worship leader for a large nonaffirming evangelical church, where she openly advocates for LGBT people with the full weight of her position.  Baffled, I wondered – what did I do wrong?  Why was I so brash, so impatient?  Still, I ask, could I have done things different, better, and have remained connected and respected on the inside of my church and ministry while I subtly tried to further our cause?

When I am feeling cynical or hurt, I tell myself that the Julies*, who work from the inside, must not be doing all they can, or else they would have been pushed out as I was.  On my more responsible days, I own part of what happened to me, and my Catholic roots harken me back to Vatican II, where the church first encouraged its faithful to “recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found” in other faith traditions.

In other words, I don’t have the fullness of truth in my corner and real good is being done outside of my post-evangelical camp.  There are plenty of folks faithfully grinding away with access far beyond my own, carefully advancing human dignity and the kingdom in the closed settings in which they labor.  These people remain an important part of organizations my finger has left the pulse of, serving as conscientious objectors against broad currents that refuse to affirm the dignity of LGBT persons.

Others of us, of course, cautiously inhabit the outer fringes of these circles, where we continue to stand as interested observers and passionate advocates for those who, like us, have been expelled from religious communities and been scarred deeply by these experiences.

We are owed an apology by somebody.  Probably, by a whole group of somebodies.  We are due reparations we may never receive, so instead, many of us innovate, fight for the survival of our faith.  We shore up our own resources, building tangled coalitions of perpetual outsiders: Gay Christian Networks, Despised Ones, AnaBlacktivists, Killjoy Prophet Collectives.  We lay claim to a number of improvised saints.  Rachel Held Evans sings our stories with unique talent; Merton captures our doubts, Baldwin and Hedges our pent-up rage, Lewis our curiosity.  Hozier is our prophet.

Really, I shouldn’t speak for each of us, so I’ll only speak for me: I would do well to learn from the example of those who are inhabiting the spaces I am too terrified to let myself get close to right now.  Change is possible on this and a number of issues, and each of us has an important role to play; we need folks in the trenches and nurses and doctors outside of the fray, applying salves and patching wounds.  My hope is that I am able to heal, slowly and surely, and one day get to the point where I can have these conversations in person rather than spilling my insides out online.  Until then, I’ll be here on the outside, cheering on my friends who are doing the work from within, and ministering to my fellow wanderers.

the peculiar gnosticism of Andy Crouch

Last year, Andy Crouch (executive editor of Christianity Today) published an article called Sex Without Bodies (non-paywall), where he publicly mused on the “LGBTQIA coalition” and the “challenges [it presents] for the church.”  In his post, after clearly rhetorically demarcating “the church” as an entity entirely separate from its “LGBTQIA neighbors,” Crouch pointedly levels the charge of gnosticism against queer people and those of us who believe that same sex relationships can be blessed by God.  According to Crouch, members of this camp are not faithfully attempting to revisit scripture in light of new anthropological evidence, but instead simply embracing a very old heresy – ideological detachment from the physical world.

Before I address how valid his particular charge is, it’s worth noting that Crouch’s argument here isn’t at all surprising; by his own admission, LGBTQ individuals are gaining societal ground, an influence which certainly extends to the church.  The unspoken aim of his article, then, seems to be to galvanize his fellow nonaffirming Christians, urging them to resist and continue to stand strong against ever rethinking their theology and sexual ethics.  Crouch’s clarion call comes across loud and clear to conservative readers: even when the ground beneath their strongest biblical arguments falls away, “the church” must still disapprove of homosexuality because unlike those people, we believe that bodies matter.

What this rhetorical shift here should signify is a trend that has long been operating in many evangelical circles – as careful biblical scholarship continues to erode at the traditional ways in which nuanced scriptural passages have been unilaterally weaponized against an entire class of people, nonaffirming Christians are forced to increasingly rely on extra-biblical arguments.  Okay, they concede, the Sodom and Gomorrah story isn’t actually about gay people.  And maybe the Levitical purity codes don’t apply to Christians in the slightest.  And sure, it’s also increasingly questionable how relevant Pauline New Testament condemnations of licentious, selfish same-sex behavior are to a conversation about consensual, committed, Christ-centered unions.

But, injects Crouch, even if we can no longer responsibly make the case that the Bible unambiguously denies queer sexual and gender identity (not to mention intersex people, who do not fit into neat male and female categories) the Man/Woman bond is obviously established in our bodies and is therefore universally demanded by God.

This move away from the Bible is disheartening, but not entirely surprising considering Crouch’s entire argument consists of vaguely appealing to hazy, inexact notions of “male–female complementarity” to cement his unique commitment to excluding LGBTQ bodies from the body of Christ.

Christianity Today

If asked what specific aspect it is about Christ-centered same sex relationships that violates any established biblical precept or command, Crouch’s answer would probably include the hallowed words “gender roles.”  And yet as Bible scholar James Brownson has pointed out, nonaffirming Christians often mean very different things when they roughly gesture at the Bible and slap the “gender roles” sticker on the queer Christians in their midst.  Rather than ending all dissent, this move often signals the beginning of a very confusing conversation.  (Update: I just discovered that Professor Brownson has actually written a post where he addresses Crouch in part here – and does so far more elegantly than I could ever hope to.)

For example, when Crouch affirms “embodied sexual differentiation” – invoking a form of the old Adam-and-Eve-not-Adam-and-Steve argument to condemn LGBT relationships and identity – is his reasoning truly physical anatomical complementarity?  Is homosexuality a sin because of what scholar Robert Gagnon callsthe glovelike physical fit of the penis and vagina“?

Or when he singularly promotes “normative sexuality” and calls an entire swath of the church disordered, is Andy Crouch talking about procreative potential?  That is, is he affirming the Catholic church’s commitment to “Natural Law” and subsequently labeling all non-procreative couples as “distorted“?  And when Crouch refuses to define imprecise phrases like “the significance of male-and-female creation,” is he writing off gay couples because of their inability to sexually reproduce(?), or because the union of their bodies somehow violates the hierarchical Husband/Wife corollary extrapolated from St. Paul’s Christ/Church metaphor in Ephesians 5?

I think you understand my point.  Simply, the position that Mr. Crouch is doubling down to defend is not nearly as united as he would presume.  The fact is, Christians have opposed same-sex (as well as non-procreative heterosexual) acts for many disparate reasons throughout the centuries – because of claims that same-sex acts are the result of not orientation but sexual excess, worries about the future reproductive success of the species, myths regarding sterility, concerns that any man could be “turned gay;” because of an aversion to violating culturally-established gender norms, a fear of disrupting “honorable” patriarchal commitments; because of supposed demonic possession, or beliefs LGBTQ people are purposefully choosing their attractions and to embrace a harmful “lifestyle.”

Crouch’s proof-texted thesis that the Church must Continue to Defend God’s Unchanging Truth™ on human sexuality – supposedly calcified throughout thousands of years of static ecclesiastical history – is really much less coherent than one might expect.

same love

my friends Phil and David stand together in prayer at a recent Gay Christian Network conference

Finally, Crouch’s invocation of the heresy of gnosticism is an interesting one given the author’s own stance on this particular issue.  Gnosticism, as we know, is the ancient philosophical school that proved itself heretical by rejecting the good gifts of our created, physical world in favor of embracing an ethereal, spiritual, ascetic, and supposedly more enlightened existence.  The gnostics were the ones telling the early Christians that sex and sexuality, marriage and the sacramentality of bodies, was unimportant and should be struggled against and transcended.  In short, they rejected life, beauty, joy, flesh, incarnation, and the sacred Christian teaching that “matter matters.”

Halfway through an article full of uncharitable mischaracterizations of LGBTQ relationships and individuals, Crouch levels against LGBTQ people and their allies our apparent commitment to “the irrelevance of bodies.”  He blatantly asserts that our camp callously dismisses incarnated realities in favor of embracing nonphysical ideals, remarking that we have a “gnostic distaste for embodiment in general.”

But to suggest that LGBTQ people (including queer Christians and queer theologians!) do not care about the importance of corporeality is perhaps the most ignorant accusation one could ever make of the LGBT community.  The hypocrisy of Crouch’s own position is striking.

Really, let’s think about this: one side in this debate is affirming the good spiritual fruits found in the embodied, other-centered romantic relationships that numerous believers are seeking to sanctify under God.  The other side is openly denying the validity of real human experiences, ignoring or dismissing as unimportant or illusory an entire group of peoples’ deep spiritual longings to sacramentalize their carnality and bodily desires through flesh-and-blood covenantal bonds.

One side says bodies and loving incarnated relationships are essentially good.  The other says they are inherently shameful if abstract conditions of undefined epistemological “complementarity” are not met.

Tell me, which of these sounds more like gnosticism to you?

a group of gay Christians in prayer

a group of gay and lesbian Christians and their friends join hands in prayer before a meal.  Bodies, fingernails, friendship, worship, taco shells, bread, and wine…it is all sacred to us “gnostics.”