gay Christian

Thanks Church–Why I’m a Recovering Evangelical

Three years ago, I wrote a post about facing fear, realizing that at the core of my struggle with faith and sexuality, boys were not the problem: fear was. Around the same time, I finally broke off my involvement in the ex-gay community, and experienced a rush of relief from the shame I carried for being gay in the church.

I use the phrase “recovering evangelical” as Warren Cole Smith uses it in his excellent volume, A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church. I won’t repeat his well-versed and thorough research in its entirety, but suffice it to say there is a deep disease in the evangelical church today, and I was thoroughly infected. Let me also pause to say that, like Smith, I approach my critique of the evangelical church from the position of a lover, not a cynic. I am an insider, a family member, to the evangelical church. Which makes the divorce all the more bitter. Because it comes down to this: the church, the Body of Christ, is designed to be a home for all. People like me, who grew up in this home, never wanted to leave. But lgbt people are kicked out of homes all the time; it’s not our wayward feet that leads us astray, it’s active rejection from those whom we used to call family.

As a young gay teen, I was instilled with a deep fear, not that I was hell-bound, but that I was doomed to isolation in this life, among the humans I loved. I wasn’t afraid of hell; I was afraid of myself. I’m not sure which is worse. Both can lead to suicide, and too often that’s exactly what young lgbt people resort to. If your future is monstrous, there’s nothing to live for, and if you’re the monster, you shouldn’t endanger people by continuing to live.

I realized I was gay when I hit puberty, around 12 years old. I was suicidal by 14. By the grace of God, I gathered the courage to come out to my parents instead of taking my own life, and since then fear has never been tight enough to stop my breathing.

But as I began to find personal freedom from the fear of myself and my sexuality, I wondered where that fear came from in the first place, and how wide and deep it really is.

As it turns out, fear is a primary motivator behind much of today’s evangelical theology, culture, and community. This is a hard pill to swallow, but it needs to be said. And if our first reaction is to balk and withdraw from this diagnosis, maybe it would help to consider the incredible courage it takes lgbt people to come out, part of which involves admitting the powerful role fear plays in our lives.

Modern evangelical eschatology is apocalyptic: the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. Since the Fall, humankind has continued to decline, and in our contemporary society we can see increased levels of decadence and depravity. The violence rocking the globe is an inevitable (and therefore to some extent excusable) result of the creation’s “groaning” in wait for Jesus’ return, at which point all things will be made right again, but only after this world has been devoured by fire.

As Smith would remind us, Jesus did not see things this way: his life and ministry were categorized not by fear of the future, but by urgent hope for a redeemed one. Our fear stems largely from events that caused national anxiety, such as the Cold War, Vietnam, and Watergate. Many also considered the creation of the state of Israel the last fulfillment of prophecy, an event that heralded the end times. At this point, we should be able to see that these fears are unfounded.

Nevertheless, they leak into our politics. Gay and bi people threaten the stability of the family; trans people threaten the safety of women and children; nonbinary people are sadly confused snowflakes. In that context, to turn around and suggest that lgbt people, with our lives and identities, have something valuable to offer the church, and aren’t just the uncomfortable leftovers that we have to let in on Sunday? Preposterous.

But we do have something to offer. Namely, the journey towards overcoming fear and shame.

As a recent high school grad, I struggled to stay consistent in the online ex-gay bible studies I was involved in. I had already been suspended from the course a couple times because I hadn’t reached the level of “faithfulness” or “success” that was expected at a certain level. For context, I was trying to “find freedom from homosexuality,” in language that boldly promised an end to “same-sex attraction,” and a realizing of the fulness of our God-given potential (which meant being straight).

At this point, around 19 years old, I had some issues with the program. I had heard the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” repeated ad nauseam, and I still thought it was a useful distinction: whatever was sinful about being gay, the feelings themselves, the fact that I was attracted to other males, couldn’t be sin. At no point had I ever chosen these feelings, and I was literally in the process of choosing against them. How could I be held responsible for something I had no control over? But the rhetoric of the ex-gay community continued to insist on gayness itself as the disease that needed healing, and I internalized this message in a deep and foundational way.

The thing about shame is that it runs deeper than guilt: you can feel guilty over actions, but shame is about identity. And the whole point of confession and sanctification is that sin is an issue of guilt, not shame. Yes, the doctrine of original sin teaches that sin is part of our very nature. But as people indwelled with the Holy Spirit, we are made new, in our entirety.

And honestly, this part of evangelical doctrine (especially total depravity) that postures the “unsaved” and “nonbelievers” as a different category of human, intrinsically less holy, and less capable of virtuous motives than Christians, is frankly gross. It’s exactly the kind of rhetoric that encourages violence against lgbt people: if we are by nature sinful and depraved, by virtue of our sexually gendered selves, then we can never fully enter the communion of saints like straight and cisgender people can.

Unsurprisingly, this was the message I heard from the ex-gay community. You were only acceptable if you were fighting tooth and nail to not be who you were; refusing to identify as lgbt, repenting of any and all sexuality, whether bodily activity or mental fantasies (yep, masturbation and imagination both called for repentance), and praying and hoping for the day when God would unlock your latent attraction to the opposite gender. This was bulwarked by “testimonies” of “successful” ex-gay participants, who often wrote only a few months after taking the course, and admitted to continuing same-gender attraction. Several of them boasted of marriages to opposite-gender partners, which then imploded years later. The overwhelming majority of ex-gay participants, research shows, do not experience orientation change, and many cannot maintain the superficial “lifestyle” changes they tout as victories instead.

Thankfully, my story did not end up as one of those statistics. I ended my involvement in ex-gay communities during college, and have never looked back. Almost immediately, I felt more at home in my own body, more at home with God, and more at home among others.

This is, of course, a deeply personal reason for describing my current state as one of “recovery.” I also think it is important to retain the word “evangelical” in that recovery, because it is the context in which ex-gay communities continue to thrive.

Once again, however, I found that shame runs deeper and wider in modern evangelicalism, and affects other bodies besides lgbt youth. Later, I hope to address the rise of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority, the establishment of the single-issue voter, especially in regards to reproductive rights, and the extent to which evangelical politics have become inbred with Western imperialism.

Now, I want to reiterate that I still believe salvation lies in the miraculous power of faith.

Jay Emerson Johnson, in his fantastic book Peculiar Faith, outlines a way forward for Christian witness, using insights from the lives of lgbt people to discern the future of our transformative faith. Commenting on the Book of Acts, Johnson says in asking Jesus whether he would restore the kingdom of Israel, the disciples were missing the point. Whatever the resurrection of Jesus means, it does not entail restoring an orderly past. Instead, it institutes a dynamic and open future.

81% of evangelicals (who voted) voted for Trump. Trump ran on a platform of nostalgia: the slogan “Make American Great Again” is catered to a population who pines for the good old days, which are inevitably a romanticized view of a past that never existed. This false promise blatantly ignores the lives of people of color, women, and lgbt people, none of whom have any “glory days” to look back on (not in this nation, at least).

Christ calls us to more. Taking seriously Christ’s call to ministry among the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed, ends in nothing less than a movement that “overturns economic systems that keep the poor in poverty (Acts 4:34-35); resists institutional authorities jealous of their own power (5:17-26); violates social and class boundaries (8:25-40); and rejects cultural and religious standards of propriety (10:9-30).”

That is a faith I can get behind. These are theologies that give life, rather than take it.

What am I recovering from? Fear and shame. What am I holding on to? Faith, hope, and love. Once the evangelical church can more fully leave behind the former and cling to the latter, I’ll be ready with open arms to receive her again.

Until then, I’m keeping my distance.

Embodied & Erotic–My Problem with Christian Music

During my second week as a barista-in-training, I had a customer exclaim, “You guys are playing nonChristian music? Who’s in charge of this?”

I deflected the question, saying I wasn’t in charge of music, and I hadn’t even noticed. It’s true; until she pointed it out, I hadn’t paid attention to the music we were playing in the background. Then I listened, and was happy to hear the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, an indie-rock band whose music I thoroughly enjoy.

I wish I could say I had no idea why the woman had an issue with secular music. Unfortunately, I can: I grew up in the same evangelical environment that called any form of nonChristian media dangerous at best, and completely sinful at worst (which was often). It was a great irony, because my parents and I loved to make fun of the endlessly repetitive and unoriginal covers on Christian radio stations, while at home appreciating the excellent quality and variety of Putumayo’s world music collections. Nevertheless, at church, in youth groups, and at bible studies, I was taught that secular music was dangerous, especially for its erotic qualities. Careful, our elders said, if you listen to secular music, you might just want to have sex.

As a young gay teen, this message caused deeper problems than even those with a puritanical streak anticipated. I was wary of music with any hint of sexuality (which was most music), because for me, sexuality itself was sinful and dangerous. The distinction between love and lust did not exist when it came to how music affected me: because I was to repress any and all gay feelings, I was also to avoid any and all sexually suggestive music that would affect me in any way. Not because they could lead my burgeoning self astray; my sexually gendered body was already damaged goods, and only needed the slightest push to fall into irredeemable sin.

Back in 2014, Jon Foreman from Switchfoot explained why he does not use a Christian label for his music:

“What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset? There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds… An obligation to say this or do that does not sound like the glorious freedom that Christ died to afford me.”

In an article responding to Switchfoot’s comments on what counts as “Christian” music, Kristie Eshelman maintains that “it is so important for us to have a kingdom-oriented mindset in everything we do. It’s not necessarily about slapping a Christian label on everything we touch; it’s about our faithfulness and obedience in our vocations and in the workplace.”

This should be intuitive to dedicated Christians who care about God’s kingdom on Earth; certainly for Christians who care so much about proper piety that they refuse to listen to anything but Christian music. However, the label itself can keep us from faithfulness and obedience in our vocations.

Warren Cole Smith, author of “A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church,” argues that commercializing the term “Christian” has caused great amounts of harm to our witness and our communities. He uses the term “Christian industrial complex” to describe this problem: a “pathological relationship [that] has emerged between the Christian retail industry and the Christian church.”

Rather than regurgitate his careful research and wide-ranging analysis of Christian culture, I want to assume that my audience shares at least an unease about the state of the church today, and that this unease can be loosely attributed to a feeling that we’ve capitulated to the culture we’re supposed to be “set apart” from. So many Christians, of all age groups and backgrounds, feel a disconnect between what the church is and what it should be. Whether that encompasses young people leaving the church in droves, the rise of the megachurch and subsequent floundering of smaller, local congregations, or disillusionment with modern ways of doing church, we feel that something has been lost, or not quite attained.

For me as a young closeted teen, having no words or context to understand where these feelings of angst and dissatisfaction came from, avoiding sexuality in music proved an impossible and endlessly frustrating task, and only served to exacerbate the desperation of my repressed sexuality. As I discovered the world of dance, I slowly gave up any pretense of disliking “secular” erotic music from a moralizing perspective. I still wrote poems about the power of sexually charged music, and always ended them with how I would remain steadfastly immune to it. But in time, that too proved to be not only impossible but disingenuous.

Because to my great surprise, as I matured, I began to notice the erotic in sacred, “Christian” music as much as it was in “secular” music. Countless worship songs posture the singer and the sung-to in an all-but-explicit erotic relationship. And these contemporary examples of eroticized spirituality are just the latest iteration of a long tradition of Christian mysticism: everything from the Song of Songs to the desert mothers and fathers’ insistence on using the language of the erotic speaks to the long-standing embodied nature of our worship.

But in our theologies, at least as they’re dumbed down into language kids can understand, we uphold the artificial dichotomy between the body and the spirit; between the sacred and secular; between the sexual and the spiritual.

It’s time to bridge the gap and heal the rift, if we are to encourage young folks, especially lgbt people, to worship the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

We do a disservice to our Creator when we posture “Christian” music as pure, sexless, and holy, against “secular” music as dirty, lustful, and sinful. This distinction does not keep our children from secular music, it keeps them from their bodies.

I’ve always had a sacred connection to sexual music. I could never fully separate the two: in the most hallowed of worship songs, I found the erotic. In the basest of love-sick ballads or club hits, I found pangs of the divine.

It seems Rob Bell was right: this is really about that. The sexual and the spiritual are intimately intertwined, especially in the realm of music. This connection should be embraced and explored, not avoided. For young lgbt people, it could mean the difference between holistic healing, and perpetuating our fractured selves.

Why I Feel Homeless in the Church

Nearly 40% of this nation’s homeless youth are lgbt.  That is no accident.  Family rejection is the leading cause, which means that when young lgbt people come out to their families, they are far too frequently kicked out of their homes, and left to fend for themselves in the streets.

I have never been without shelter myself, but I submit that the homelessness that besets the lgbt community, especially those of us raised in the church, runs far deeper than we are comfortable to admit, and that the staggering number of our homeless youth is one symptom among many.

In my sophomore year of college, I participated in the Emmaus Scholars program, a residential year-long exploration of the intersection of faith and justice. It was also an experiment in Christian living, where we aimed to recreate the beloved community enjoyed by the early disciples.

One of the most valuable lessons I gleaned from that year is that poverty takes many forms. It is from a mask of privilege that we think and speak about poverty as only referring to material or monetary lack. Far more affecting, perhaps, is the devastation materially disadvantaged people experience in their psyche. When I learned this, I suddenly saw two things: I was reminded of my own privilege as a middle-class college-educated white American, and I was struck with how exactly this insight gave language to the internal anguish I experienced as a gay man in the evangelical church. More on that specific intersection later.

As I learned to take better notice and care of physically homeless people, I began to see all the ways in which so many of us are victims of “homeless hearts,” as Jay Emerson Johnson says in Peculiar Faith. Specifically, I realized the depth to which I personally felt unmoored, without a home, especially as I fought my way out of the closet.

It’s difficult to express, but absolutely essential to communicate, this hard truth: exactly as much as I have had the courage to come out, so I have felt alienated and distanced from the evangelical church.

I say difficult to express, not only because it is painful and I avoid confrontation like the plague, but also because it’s difficult for me to point to specific moments when I was actively rejected by the Body of Christ. My family never kicked me out; I enjoy intimate and honest relationships with both my parents. My home church never kicked me out; Mosaic LA is a vibrant and diverse community of artists and visionaries, who embraced me when I came out to certain people in the congregation. Nevertheless, the distance is real. And it was certainly not because I walked away.

I say essential to communicate, because the church needs to understand its position in regards to lgbt people. As Christians, we know what is at stake: the flourishing of humankind, the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, the salvation of souls. But I posit that we’ve had the picture upside-down this whole time: lgbt people are not in danger of eternal damnation just because we live sexually gendered lives that are different than most people. Christians, however, should consider their eternal fate when perpetuating theologies of exclusion, lest we become those who cry “Lord Lord,” and hear in return “I never knew you.” It was the Pharisees, the religious right, whom Jesus called white sepulchers, a brood of vipers, those who heap on burdens, and misuse the law.

To my great sadness, whenever I reenter evangelical spaces, I immediately strike against walls. Previously, these were the closet walls, and I had erected them myself, and they were small enough to fit inside me, so that I could fit inside Christian spaces without damage. But now that I have dismantled the closet, at least enough for me to climb out and breathe clean air again, I have come up against more formidable walls.

I have to sit through bible studies where we breeze through Romans 1, as if it doesn’t carry centuries of violent weight, where I look around and no one seems to notice that I’m sweating, my heart rate is up, and I’m just waiting for someone to say “and that’s why homosexuality…”

I have to struggle through times of worship, where we listen to the same songs that have molded me since childhood, and while I no longer substitute “gay” for words like “broken” and “sin” and “healing,” I still feel a sinking in my gut that says something’s wrong with me, and if that boy on the guitar stopped singing and looked over, he would see right through to my gay self, and be filled with disgust.

I have to watch other people touched by the Spirit; speaking in tongues, or moving trance-like, or praying with great passion, what I used to call “fire,” and remember how easy it used to be, to slip into those moments, recreate those feelings, feel the euphoria. Now my mind goes on checklist mode, I go over all the times I’ve still successfully communed with God on my own, thinking “yes, I’ve still got it,” I can still pray, I can still worship, I still have my Christian card, I still belong.

The fact that those questions and fears run through my head and cause me anxiety during times of worship and study is absolutely unacceptable.

I keep coming back, however. I keep returning to the altar, taking communion with the Anglicans next door, visiting friends’ churches, watching podcasts from my home church. It’s still home for me, even though I feel homeless at home.

So my goal is to formulate a theology of home-making, where the insights and lived experiences of lgbt people take center-stage after being pushed to the margins for so long. We cannot simply be let in through the backdoor; we cannot whitewash the damage done, or downplay abuses of power. If lgbt people are going to be fully grafted onto the Body of Christ (as we already are), the rest of the church needs to repent.

And if we can successfully navigate this grafting, this transformation in the body, then I believe whole new vistas will unfold, not only for lgbt people of faith, but all of us, in all our sexual and gendered experiences, of all walks of life.

 

The Dancing Boy

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One day, as I was preparing for dance class, getting dressed, I looked down at my thighs. For the first time in many years, I liked what I saw.

The fear of coming out had me saturated in self-hatred to such a degree that it seeped into how I viewed my body. As middle school advanced, I quickly developed insecurity about my looks. Coming into the dance world rather late, in 9th grade, did not help the situation: I looked around at all the beautiful, flexible girls in my dance classes, and the hip hop boys with style, smooth moves, and solid abs, and I deflated a little.

Because of my amazing professors, I have been able to blossom as a dancer, and gradually begin to overcome my huge frustration with my body. Dance as an art form does something unique: more than any other method of communication, creative or otherwise, dance allows a person to project something outward while at the same time discovering it within themselves.

And when a person wakes up to their body as an instrument of beauty and creation, they develop a sense of dignity and worth.  As my Modern teacher says, “You take up valuable space and breathe valuable air, so don’t apologize for it.”

Dance is now the tool God is using in my life to help overcome self-hatred, and almost against my will (it’s definitely a surprise) I’m beginning to love myself as I am, and simultaneously fight for greater fitness.

Sidenote: Crossfit is a wonderful exercise philosophy and technique that everyone should dabble in!

2012-04-01 Urban Photo Collective Visit Stichting Aight

Both dance and martial arts (Shotokan Karate) have taught me how to present myself confidently regardless of what’s going on behind the scenes in my life. This is a good thing, an important skill. Another grace in my life is that while I was a young dancer, no one teased me for it, and if people thought I was gay for being a male dancer, they never told me.

But sometimes I wonder.

Has performance practice taught me how to face my fears?  Or hide from them behind my confident face?

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