Love Is An Action: Chicago Pride

Fun Fact and Disclaimer:
The first draft of this post was written on an Amtrak train from Chicago to Grand Rapids. In some ways, the following post is a continuation of two posts that I wrote five years ago, which were also drafted on an Amtrak train departing out of Chicago. Read Part One and Part Two here.

I recognize that there are some things I wrote within those two posts that I would probably say differently if I were writing them today, but that’s because I, like I imagine most of you, have had several experiences since then which have challenged and informed my thinking.

This past weekend, I attended Chicago’s Pride Parade with my partner, Joe. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands gathered in Boystown, Chicago to celebrate. The atmosphere was full of excitement given the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that made marriage equality the law of the land in all 50 states.

I have thought about and come this close to attending Chicago’s Pride Parade for each of the last 5 years. In 2010, The Marin Foundation launched their “I’m Sorry Campaign,” apologizing to the LGBT community for the ways Christians have dehumanized, disrespected, and hurt sexual and gender minorities.

My journey to reconcile what it means to follow Jesus as a man with a  gay sexual orientation has taken years of conversations, prayer, and study. The work of The Marin Foundation and the book Love Is an Orientation, by Andrew Marin, made a large impact on me. No other book besides Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill has made a greater impact in how I am able to process what it means for me to identify as a gay Christian within a traditional Christian context.

Just weeks after I finished reading Andrew Marin’s book, this blog post went viral and the “I’m Sorry Campaign” was born.

Over the years, I have had off-and-on contact with The Marin Foundation and even road-tripped to Chicago once to attend one of their “Living In The Tension” gatherings. I greatly appreciate the ways that they try to bridge the gap between conservative churches and the LGBT community so that relationships can be formed and healthy dialogue can occur. Christians and LGBT folks frequently speak past one another, making sweeping generalizations about each other which sends dialogue down the drain. The Marin Foundation has made it their mission to “elevate the conversation” so that these two groups of people can move from talking past one another to talking with one another.

The “I’m Sorry Campaign” is a way that The Marin Foundation has sought to publicly elevate the conversation by doing something that is sorely needed, apologizing to the LGBT community on behalf of the church.

As someone who personally sits at the intersection of the LGBT and conservative Christian communities, I have felt for a long time that I can help build bridges between the two. So this year, I finally made plans and followed through with participating in the “I’m Sorry Campaign” at Chicago’s Pride Parade.

In stark contrast to the electric mood at Pride, there was a very different atmosphere I started to sense from my celibate gay Christian friends: a sense of exhaustion.

Many of them shared with me how this past weekend was a muddled mess of emotions. They recognize that marriage equality is a significant step towards securing civil rights for a minority group with whom they identify, and they see their gay friends celebrating. But they also see their conservative Christian friends, family members, and clergy lamenting the state of our nation; saying particularly hurtful things about “the gays” in their false assumptions, ignorance, and fear of persecution. As a result, they are caught in a state of emotional whiplash, not sure who could truly understand what they are feeling. This culture war exhaustion comes along every couple of months, when the conversation about how the church engages with LGBT folks bubbles over and takes over social media. I simply have to say the words, “World Vision” or “Chick-Fil-A,” and I can watch how my friends cringe while they have flashbacks to past battles of the culture war. My friends still have scars from where they took shots from both sides.

When I saw news of the SCOTUS ruling on Facebook Friday morning, I knew that we were entering another solid week of social media being an emotional and exhausting place to be due to the reactions we would have to read from our Christian friends.

Plenty of virtual ink has already been spilled in talking about how Christians who hold a traditional sexual ethic should respond to the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling. I’m not interested in “adding to the noise,” other than to say please read this post. Grant is a new friend of mine who captures the spirit of what I would say to conservative Christians.

So, what was it like to participate in the “I’m Sorry Campaign” along the parade route?

I did the following:

  • Shouted “I love you!” quite a lot to passersby who read our sign as they marched/danced/drove past us.
  • Gave out an infinite number of high-fives to people with looks of pure joy on their faces.
  • Offered hugs to anyone who wanted one.
  • Received hugs from people wanting to thank us for what we were doing.
  • Smiled, clapped, and cheered with my brothers and sisters who were celebrating marriage equality and the freedom they felt by being able to take off their masks and be themselves.

I'm Sorry Campaign 2015

How did it feel to attend Pride and participate in this unique way?

Emotionally, being at Pride was a joyous experience. Celebration and hugs and happiness are contagious, so it was definitely a boost just being down there. Physically, it was a long day of standing in one place, so I needed a nap afterwards. As an introvert, it took a lot of energy to cheer, hug, clap, and interact with people I did not know. I prefer having deep and meaningful interactions with those with whom I have already established relationships. Almost every interaction during the parade was the exact opposite of that, so for more than 24 hours after the parade finished, I needed quality time with people who mean a lot to me in order to replenish my relational energy.

Taking all of these things together, I can attest to having had a beautiful experience demonstrating love towards those attending Pride. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

It meant a lot to me to share this experience with Joe. We’ve been building our committed partnership with one another for almost a year now. It’s been quite a journey of learning to accept ourselves rather than live in constant shame because of our orientation. The two of us are both living openly and honestly within our faith communities and have experienced  how freeing it is to not have to live a double life or try to live up to the expectations placed on us by others. From this place of self-acceptance, I felt free to stand in the space between the two worlds of my Christian faith and my sexual orientation, professing God’s love for everyone who passed by and sharing more hugs than I could ever have imagined.

“It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.” – Billy Graham

A Place at the Table

For gay Christians, there are a lot of forces that can keep us from feeling that we have a rightful place at the table of the Lord.  While I have always felt allowed to partake of the life of the community, there were times when I was certain it was only if I kept wearing my mask. My straight mask. The one that hid my story. And now that it’s been a few months since I’ve shared my story broadly, I wanted to reflect on what it is like to be in this position. To be a gay Christian who is choosing to live a celibate vocation.

It sometimes feels, in this conversation about what it means to be both gay and Christian, the space for stories like mine is being squeezed out from both sides.

And speaking of “sides” it may be helpful to define some terms as they are commonly used in this conversation. These terms have been around for quite a while, and have been brought into more widespread use through the Gay Christian Network and many bloggers and authors. If you’re already familiar, you can skip this aside. (rimshot!)

Side A
In this whole conversation typically people who hold a belief that says that God affirms committed gay sexual relationships are referred to as “Side A.” Side A is becoming much more apparent in American and European churches. Many more people will become familiar with this perspective from the book written by Matthew Vines, “God and the Gay Christian.” Side A Christians have been more commonly associated with mainline Protestantism or a more liberal view of Scripture. The trends lately are that more and more Evangelicals are re-examining their theology and becoming more affirming of gay marriage for Christians.

Side B
Those who believe gay Christians can reconcile their faith and sexuality through adhering to the more traditional sexual ethic are referred to as “Side B”. Side B gay Christians have typically accepted that their orientation is not likely to change, yet believe that sexual intimacy with someone of the same gender is outside of God’s will. Thus, they choose celibacy or maybe an opposite-sex marriage. For Side B gay Christians, openness and honesty are highly valued. Relational needs are to be met through healthy relationships and positive expressions of same-sex love. Community is another shared value among this group.

Side X
A view that LGB Christians should totally denounce their orientation and pray for/pursue a heterosexual marriage no matter what. Many in the conservative Christian world are familiar with the legacy of Exodus International and reparative therapy that spawned the phenomenon of “ex-gays”. That’s where the term “Side X” comes from. The danger in Side X comes when stories of “change” are held up by certain Christians as some sort of mold that we must follow in order to be “in line” with Jesus. They would question our walk if we happened to still identify with the adjective “gay” to describe our experience and orientation. Side X tends to commonly say that orientation is changeable and that we should not acknowledge our attractions or find any positive attributes from them.

In this conversation, Side B is positioned in a sort of middle ground or “no-mans-land” between the two polar opposites.  We’re not afraid to be honest about our orientation, and what it means for our lives. But we’re also holding to the historical and traditional teachings of the Church for the last 2000 years.

When the “Culture War” heats up because some guy in camouflage with a sweet beard made some ignorant statements in a rocknroll magazine… or a global relief organization lost childhood sponsorships because they were (briefly) willing to hire married gay people, that’s when we most acutely feel what it’s like to be squeezed from both sides.

These “battles” in the Culture War get a lot of press. A lot of blogs written about them. A lot of Tweets. A lot of impassioned Facebook posts.

But in everyday life as a celibate LGBT Christian, it feels like the fighting never really stops. It feels like we’re being squeezed out from all sides, even weeks after the dust has settled from the last kerfuffle.

Whenever a gay-affirming Christian pities the plight of the celibate, we are pushed from one side.

Pity takes several forms. Regularly, I’ve been told these things, and have watched my friends get told the same:

“By choosing celibacy, you’ve been brainwashed.”

“Stop repressing your sexuality.”

“You’re hurting the LGBT cause by telling your story.”

“Stop lying. You’re not happy. There’s no way you’re content in your choice.”

“You need to repent of your conservative beliefs. They’re harmful to you and others.”

And from the other side, I hear the following:

“Naming your orientation means you’ve internalized it.”

“You wouldn’t identify as a thieving Christian or an alcoholic Christian, so you really shouldn’t call yourself a gay Christian.”

“Once I let go, and surrendered it all to Jesus, the same-sex attractions really started to diminish.”

“You probably shouldn’t talk about this.”

“Stop being so negative all the time. We’re supposed to have joy in Jesus.”

“You are never going to be happy if you don’t get married.”

When these things are said, we are pushed from the other side. Our already tiny space is shrunk down even smaller. How are we to have a place at the table and fit into the church when even other gay Christians can say things like that?

And how does this impact the broader culture of the Church?

For straight bystanders and onlookers, it is not always easy to take a nuanced view of the whole conversation. Unless a straight Christian has direct experience with a close friend or family member who is gay, or they happen to have read many stories of gay Christians, it is not very likely that they understand the differences present here. For the average Christian, they see this is a two-sided conversation.

The pro-gay, affirming camp, and the ex-gay, pro-Jesus camp.

For most conservative Christians, they would love to buy into the Side X script that says gay folks turn “normal” when you just add Jesus. “Pray the gay away” is a widespread concept, and it is the simplest one for straight Christians to grasp onto when they have had limited real world experience with an LGBT person.

The flip side of this is that all of the gay folks that aren’t “ex-gay” can then be seen as the enemy. It’s “the gays” who are dismissing Scripture or destroying family values. When viewing the world through this lens, it becomes easy to view all gay people as “militantly pro-gay” or “gay rights advocates”.

It becomes clear then, how, all of a sudden, there is no room in their script for a Side B gay Christian. We have to fit the mold of either Side A or Side X. From straight Christians we can hear things like:

“Why would you identify as gay? Aren’t gay people the ones that are splitting ABC or XYZ denomination?”

“Every gay Christian I have read about is twisting Scripture to line up with their own desires.”

“If you’re not actively living the lifestyle, I don’t get why you would even call yourself gay.”

“You’re not gay gay.”

“My friend’s cousin used to be gay. There’s hope for you, too!”

“Hey, my natural orientation is to have sex with every beautiful women I see. We all have to deny ourselves. But I still don’t call myself a ‘lustful Christian.'”

“Homosexuality is a sin. It’s pretty cut and dry in the Bible.”

“You can’t be both a Christian and gay.”

“Sure, it’s not a sin to be tempted, but it seems like you’re proud of your temptations.”

“Are you still talking about this gay thing?”

As I’ve said earlier, it is difficult for us celibate gay Christians to thrive without healthy connections to the church community.

So, how do we create space for this middle ground to be widened and explored? How do we ever find the space to stop pushing back on the two sides that are squeezing us out? How could we ever possibly be able to take a rest and sit down when it feels like standing still is the same as losing ground?

We tell our stories.

We educate our friends. Our families. Our pastors. Our priests.

Not everyone is called to stand up on a stage and tell a few hundred people all at once, but I am a firm believer that our strongest tool is our stories. If our stories aren’t being told by us, then someone else is telling our stories for us.

Tell a friend. Lovingly correct the bad assumptions you hear people making. Define your terms for others. Don’t let them define them for you.  Seek community. Be vulnerable. Let the joys and sorrows of your life both be seen. This plight of ours is not a death sentence for intimacy.

So, tell your story. To someone. And then maybe someone else.

And all of a sudden, the Church will be better equipped to see the space for us where we fit into this diverse Body of Christ.

And the healthy church will protect this diversity. Maybe they’ll even scoot over to make us a little more space at the Lord’s table.

To give us some breathing room.

Isn’t that what we all want, anyways? A chance to breathe in the midst of the culture war?

Kinship

kin·ship

noun \ˈkin-ˌship\

: the state of being related to the people in your family

: a feeling of being close or connected to other people

I have become drawn to this word since hearing Wesley Hill use it last month at Calvin College.

He was talking about the concept of “Spiritual Friendship” and the relationships that folks committed to celibacy can be pursuing.

These family-type bonds are built out of friendships to become something deeper, something that involves more of a commitment than we typically bring to the table in our relationships.

For me as a single gay Christian, I find these kinship relationships to be ideal to enter into the messy, beautiful, intimate, supportive parts of each other’s lives. I have experienced these sorts of relationships over the last few years. They take work to maintain, but they are so worth it. The beauty of these friendships is when I move from guest to family, from friend to brother, from “mister” to “uncle”.  It is in these transitions that the friendship becomes not about what fun we can have together, but how we can serve one another.

Here is an important distinction. I don’t crave these kinship relationships just because I may feel lonely from time to time. This is not just about getting MY needs met. In these family-style relationships with a strong commitment to one another, I can serve, too. I have more time, energy, and love to pour into these relationships. Wesley Hill frames his conversation about celibacy as a “positive call to love” rather than just a call away from sexual intimacy. In not having a spouse, I am freed up to dive in to committed friendships, be they with other single folks or with married people and their kids.

These friendships have given me space spaces to process what it has meant to wrestle with faith, doubt, and sexuality. They have also given me practice to love others better, to encourage, to listen, to serve. When done right, I feel my own relational longings met while also knowing I am giving back.

I hope that through this blog, and so many others that I have taken inspiration from, the Church as a whole can begin to see new and creative ways to care for one another. To form friendships far more committed than the kind we find on Facebook. To stick with one another through anything and everything. To support their mothers, fathers, children, divorced, unmarried, widowed, and celibate folks alike.

What would it take to encourage these deeper sorts of friendships? Do they require living in community? Should we do more to honor or recognize these relationships as part of our Church culture?

For more on these conversations, visit www.spiritualfriendship.org