Category Archives: Research

Guilty By Association: Why Christians Stay in the Gay Closet?

According to the Bible, “they” will know we are Christians by our love.

According to research conducted by The Barna Group, however, most “outsiders” under 30 know we are Christians not by our love, but by our politics, judgmental language, and anti-homosexuality.

*sigh*

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help LGBT folks understand that their sexuality doesn’t separate them from God.  I get frustrated when I hear stories about Christians who somehow think that using hateful, judgmental, hell-centered language effectively communicates the grace of God.

Unfortunately, too many trusted pastors, authors, speakers, and politicians preach that in order to be for Christ you must be against [fill in the blank].  You obviously know that this blank is often filled not only with issues (abortion, homosexuality, etc.), but also with the people these issues represent… homosexuals, pro-choicers, democrats, liberals, etc.  I think it’s safe to say that many of the folks reading this blog have experienced the hurt that comes from being shoved into the “against” column.

I could rant endlessly about how un-Biblical it is to imply that Christianity requires its followers to be against people.  The New Testament paints Jesus as decidedly PRO-people.  The only groups he ever came close to being against were judgmental religious insiders.  Regardless…

What if there’s another side to this story? 

I’m currently reading “unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity… And Why It Matters.”  In it, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons explain what they learned from interviews with 867 people about their perceptions of Christianity. In the chapter dealing with non-Christian folks’ perception that Christianity is anti-homosexual, they say:

… a young Christian friend we interviewed said she has to be discreet about her attempts to minister to some gay people she has met at work.  ‘If my church friends hear me talk sympathetically about gays, they get bent out of shape about it…’

I’ve been chewing on this idea for several weeks.  I hadn’t really considered the frustration, confusion, and grief of conservative Christians who are led to believe that in order to fully love Jesus, they must disapprove of their gay friends, coworkers, children, uncles, and sisters.  I know how hard it is for a Christian homosexual to come out as gay… but in my self-pity/absorption, I hadn’t really considered how difficult it must be for a conservative “straight” Christian to “come out” as one of our allies.  By showing their loyalty, understanding, and support for a gay friend/family member, many straight Christians apparently have their faith questioned… just as we do when we “come out.”

I’m surprised that I’m surprised. When my friend (and former pastor) Joe contributed this blog entry a few weeks ago, he emailed me to say:

So I posted this link on my facebook page. I’m guessing that more than 90% of my fb friends are conservative and will really react to this. Most don’t know that I stand where I stand, so it should be interesting. It’s time I say what I believe and stand by it…

His Facebook post said, “many of you will un-friend me. many of you will chastise me. many of you will mock me. however, it’s time i come out of the closet.”

I don’t know whether Joe lost friends because of the blog post… but his awareness of the potential fallout speaks volumes.  I guess “coming out” has consequences for everyone.

What do you think?  Does a fear of becoming “guilty by association” discourage our Christian parents, friends, and fellow believers from doing the homework necessary to understand how God and gay can fit together?

PS.  If you’d like to read reflections by a few of our straight allies about why they support our community, check out The Allies Project – a new initiative that tells the stories of the straight folks who have made our journey a little easier!

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Filed under Bible, Church, Conversation, Encouragement, Ministers, Partners, Research, Stories, Supporters & Allies

Church Bullies?

A few days ago, a friend of mine on Facebook posted the following update:

“Today, I’ll try not to track down a bully, take a 2 by 4, sharpen it, & pound it up his rear with a croquet hammer. For I’m a man of peace. I will, however, rattle a few cages of some elected representatives who create anti bullying websites with NO ADEQUATE LAWS to back it up.”

My friend obviously isn’t Gandhi… but can you blame him?  Wouldn’t you also be tempted to find a few creative uses for a croquet hammer if a kid at school was making your kid feel like his life wasn’t worth living?

It’s been almost a year since the suicide of Tyler Clementi – a Rutgers student who jumped off of the George Washington Bridge after his roommate posted a live internet video of him having a sexual encounter with another man – brought increased national attention the “problem” of bullying among LGBT youth.

Those of us who work with (or are) LGBT youth didn’t need the death of Tyler Clementi – or any of the dozens of other youth who commit suicide due to bullying every year – to remind us that words can be even more dangerous than sticks and stones.  Dozens of studies – including this report from the Journal of Youth and Adolescence – report the effect of discrimination and harassment on LGBT youth:

40% of youth who reported a minority sexual orientation indicated feeling sad or hopeless in the past 2 weeks, compared to 26% of heterosexual youth… [the data] also showed that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were more than twice as likely as heterosexual youth to have considered attempting suicide in the past year (31% vs. 14%).

Adolescence should be a time of hopefullness, not hopelessness.  The church – one of the primary vehicles God has given us to communicate His hope to the hopeless – should stand as a sanctuary of peace and safety for LGBT youth.

Does yours?

Our friends at Lutherans Concerned/North America have developed a super anti-bullying curriculum that’s designed for churches who want to make both their congregations and communities safe(r) places for LGBT folks.  According to the promo literature, Where All Can Safely Live “was developed with the help of the staff at the Pacific Violence Prevention Institute, from the pioneering research on bullying by Dan Olweus, and materials created by the United States government.”

Interested?  Download a free copy of the anti-bullying curriculum (“Where All Can Safely Live”) here.

Reference:

Almeida, J., Johnson, R., Corliss, H., Molnar, B., & Azrael, D. (2009). Emotional distress among LGBT youth: The influence of perceived discrimination based on sexual orientation. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38, 1001 – 1014.

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Filed under Church, Ministers, Research, Resources

Zoo Cow: a big, gay parable.

I wrote the following story several years ago, when I was still deciding if “coming out” would completely ruin my life.  At the time, I was a professional minister.  Several times every week I stood on a stage in front of hundreds of people and told my stories… and talked about Jesus… and tried to help people understand that they are accepted by God.

But while I was sure that God accepted me just as I was (even though I was gay), I wasn’t sure the congregations I served would follow His lead if I told them my full story… especially the parts about me liking boys.

That’s why I wrote the following story.  “Zoo Cow” was an outlet… a thinly veiled metaphor. It’s about a cow that lives in a zoo.  Although the Cow feels terribly ordinary, he also knows he’s completely different from everyone else. He’s misplaced in a world that doesn’t understand him, hoping someone will see him – and love him – for what he is.

Subtle, right?

As a former youth minister, I’m increasingly concerned about gay teenagers in the church who currently feel as I once felt.  We read bunches about loud and proud gay kids taking their boyfriends to prom, fighting for gay rights, and starring on GLEE.  But what about the thousands of LGBT kids who aren’t loud… who aren’t proud… who spend every Sunday morning hiding quietly in the pew next to you?

You know they’re sitting next to you, right?

In a study of 5,819 religious teenagers from 635 churches, a team of researchers found that 7% of religious youth claimed to be homosexual, 5% claimed to be bisexual, and 2% weren’t sure or their sexual orientation (Clapp, Helbert & Zizak, 2003).

That means that, contrary to what some church folks seem to think, gay kids aren’t just out there.  They’re in here, too.  Apparently, 14% of youth in our churches aren’t as “straight” as some people may think they are.

They’re hiding from us – afraid of what will happen when they’re “found out.”  They’re also hiding from each other – camouflaging themselves so well that they don’t see the people just like them who are hiding right next to them.

They know.  It’s hard to be a cow in the zoo…

Zoo Cow.

Once there was a Cow who lived in a zoo. He lived next door to the Panda and across the path from a Zebra, but they didn’t talk much. The Zebra was always busy and the Panda never had much to say.

Plus, they were fancy and the Cow was plain.

The Panda was wonderfully white with black spots and the Zebra was beautifully black with white stripes. But the Cow wasn’t extraordinary at all. He was just regular white except for a big black patch on his back.

Black and white.

White and black.

All three of them looked like I Love Lucy reruns standing in a field.

The children loved to watch the Panda and wished they could pet the Zebra. But when they stopped in front of the Cow’s fence, it was usually just because they needed to tie their shoes or because they found a stray nickel. Most children had seen a cow before.

One child had seen a cow on a milk carton.

Another had seen one holding a sign in a fast-food chicken restaurant.

The little boy with a balloon had even been brave and touched one once when he drove from the city and visited his Grandfather’s farm.

The Zebra loved it when the children took pictures of his beautiful stripes and watched him run across his field. Their shouts and flashes made him feel special. He sometimes wondered, however, what would happen when the children realized that he was really just a horse with stripes who was afraid of lions. They would probably think he was ordinary and boring and never come back to visit.

The Panda adored the bronze plaque that told everyone she was born in a far away place called China. It reminded her that she was rare and wonderful. She spent all day pointing at it so the people would notice, but she was secretly afraid that the children would love the monkeys better than her because they whooped and hooted and threw their poop at grown-ups.

The Cow stood in his field wishing the sticky faced children would think he was something other than ordinary. He often heard their parents call him “Grade A” and “Prime,” but somehow their comments never sounded complimentary.

One day a group of children came to the zoo in a big yellow bus. They stopped to look at the Cow, but only because their teacher told them to.

“The Cow looks lonely.”

“The Cow smells funny.”

“Why does the Cow have flies on its butt?”

“Are cows stupid?”

The children were loud and asked lots of questions.

One little girl said, “Mrs. Jenkins, is that the kind of cow that makes milk like I put on my cereal?”

“No,” Mrs. Jenkins said. “That’s the kind of cow that makes hamburgers like we’re eating for lunch.”

The little girl rolled her eyes. She was a vegetarian. Her mommy said that hamburgers would give her cholesterol. The little girl didn’t know what “cholesterol” meant, but since she already had cooties, she wanted to be extra careful.

The Cow felt trapped in the zoo. Lonely. Of course, most animals feel trapped in a zoo. That’s why it’s called a zoo and not a forest or a farm.

The Cow, however, didn’t feel trapped because of the gate. He wasn’t lonely because he didn’t get to visit faraway farms and factories like the country cows did.

The Cow felt trapped because the children and their questions reminded him that he would always be a cow – different from the other animals around him.  No matter how hard he tried, he would never be as cool as the Panda or as interesting as the Zebra. He would never climb a tree or race like the wind. He didn’t like bamboo, and whenever he wore stripes, they only accentuated his already round belly. The most the Cow could hope for in life was a fresh bail of hay, a vague fantasy about a stampede, and a bell around his neck ringing to remind everyone that he was a big fat cow.

And so the Cow spent every day eating his grass – ignored and out of place – feeling like a cow in the zoo.

**

One day a Chinese woman came to the zoo and stopped to look in the Panda’s cage. She yawned when all the Panda did was pose and point and eat bamboo. The Chinese woman wondered if the zookeeper might have any ideas for keeping Pandas out of her backyard. It made her angry every time she saw one of the black-and-white beasts snacking on her serenity garden.

An African man seemed mildly impressed with the Zebra, but in a hungry way that made the Zebra nervous.

Later that day a little boy came to the zoo wearing blue jeans held up by a belt with an impressive silver buckle. The boy walked past the Panda and didn’t care much for the Zebra. But at the Cow’s pasture he stopped and watched for the longest time.

He stood next to the Chinese woman as she tried to offer the Cow a piece of her hot-dog. She seemed disappointed when he refused.

An African man behind the boy whistled so the Cow would run and play, but the Cow didn’t want to run and play. Especially not when someone whistled at him.

But when the boy saw the Cow he didn’t take pictures or point. He didn’t poke his hand through the fence or make loud noises. Instead, he watched. He watched until long after the Chinese woman and the African man left.

The boy wasn’t afraid of the cow, but he wasn’t impressed by it, either.   He knew that cows are nothing to be scared of.  He also knew that it’s better to understand something than to be impressed by it. And he already understood the Cow. Little boys wearing belts with big silver buckles usually do.

The Cow ate his grass and watched the little boy watching him.  It was good to feel ordinary and unimpressive.  After a long while he finally realized what the Panda and Zebra never would.

When someone really understands you, your cage doesn’t seem so small.

References:

Clapp, S., Helbert, K., & Zizak, A. (2003). Faith matters: teenagers, religion, and sexuality. Fort Wayne, IN: LifeQuest.

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Filed under Devotions, Encouragement, Parables, Research, Role Models, Stories

A Gay Vacation from Religion

Last week my brain was sent spinning with some research that suggests 51% of gay men walk away from Christianity when they come out of the closet.  Into the internet I flung the question “why do we change our minds?

Some interesting ideas have been presented in the comments, including the insight from “Sister Lacey UnderWhere” (whose name makes me giggle every time I think about it) that “44% of ALL males change their religious affiliations by the time they turn 24.”  I’m not sure of this stat’s original source, but I think most of us who grew up in the church would affirm that we watched many (44%?) of our fellow youth groupers walk away from church during early adulthood.  Other research suggests, however, that many of these young men and women who give up on God during college may return later in life.

Does the same hold true for LGBT men and women?  Do you think it’s common for LGBT folks who become disillusioned with God and/or the church during their coming out period to reconcile their sexuality with former spiritual beliefs later in life?

Obviously, the answers to these questions are as numerous and unique as the gay men and women to whom they apply.  Every LGBT man and woman has a unique story.  Each has their own reason for walking away from their faith.  But just as snowflakes are all different yet made of the same stuff, is there a theme each of these stories might share in common?

I’ve recently begun reading an insightful book by John McNeill, a very wise psychotherapist, priest, and gay man.  In “Taking a Chance on God: Liberating Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and Their Lovers, Families, and Friends,” McNeill says:

“For most of my clients the idea of God became so indentified with homophobic self-hatred that the only way they could deal with God was to take a vacation from religion while they dealt with the processes of coming out and accepting themselves.  Only after they had a secure, positive self-image were they able to make a critical return to the question of religious belief”  (McNeill, 1996, p.14).

According to McNeill, the common theme in these stories is that people believe both God and the church are homophobic.   It’s only after we step away and take a “vacation from religion” that we gain a bit of perspective and realize that God isn’t against us, and neither are all churches.

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Can Gay People Have God?

I just read some numbers that really bothered me. They might even keep me up tonight, wondering.

In a study of more than 500 gay men, a group of researchers in California found that 76% of they guys they interviewed claimed they grew up in Christian families, studying the Christian faith… as Christians.  Now adults, only 49% of these men say they stayed with it.  In other words, 142 guys decided they didn’t want to be Christians anymore.

Why did 51% of them change their minds?

Did they give up because every 30 seconds the average teenage boy thinks about sex… and every time the average closeted gay Christian teenage boy gets a closeted gay erection he wonders if God is going to send him to hell? That’s a lot to worry about every 30 seconds.

Did 51% of them turn away because they were tired of worrying?

Did they give up because every time they went to church – or every time their mother talked about religious things at the dinner table – a small voice inside their head neurotically whispered “I’m gay, I’m gay, I’m gay, I’m gay…. oh $hi+ what if I’m gay?!”  Even when the sermon or the conversation had nothing to do with homosexuality, did it make them whisper silent promises and beg to be forgiven for feelings they couldn’t control?

Did 51% of them get tired of the voices and give up?

  • Did they give up because they wanted to, or because they felt they had to?
  • Did the church hurt them so badly that they saw no option but to walk away?
  • Did they feel forced to choose between who they are and what they believe?
  • Was it easier for them to convince themselves that they didn’t love God than it was for them to convince themselves that they didn’t love other men?

These are hard questions with huge consequences.  Apparently, these men felt forced to choose to choose between two fundamental parts of who they are – their sexuality and their spirituality.  Of course, walking away from Christianity isn’t necessarily the same thing as walking away from God.  Deciding to abandon an organized religion isn’t the same thing as deciding to no longer live life as a spiritual person.

Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist (1875 – 1961), observed that gay men seem to be uniquely spiritual — a quality I see daily, even in men and women who don’t label themselves as Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, etc.   Although many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people choose to nourish their spirits outside of organized religion, it still makes me sad that so many of us feel the need to walk away from our churches, mosques, and synagogues.

It makes me sad because I’m relatively certain God asks us to choose between sin and holiness, but I don’t think he asks us to choose between sex and spirit.  And I definitely don’t think he wants us to run away from home.

Reference

Kubicek, K., McDavitt, B., Carpineto, J., Weiss, G., Iverson, E. & Kipke, M. (2009). “God made me gay for a reason” Young men who have sex with men’s resilience in resolving internalized homophobia from religious sources. Journal of Adolescent Research, 24(5), 601-633.

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Filed under Opinions, Questions, Research

Open Story for Gay Youth

I wrote the following (true) story several years ago, when I was still deciding if “coming out” would completely ruin my life.  At the time, I was a professional minister.  Several times every week I stood on a stage in front of hundreds of people and told my stories… and talked about Jesus… and tried to help people understand that they are accepted by God.

But while I was sure that God accepted me just as I was, I wasn’t sure the congregations I served would follow His lead if I told them my full story… especially the parts about me liking boys.

It was, obviously, a stressful time.

When I re-read this story a few days ago, I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of gay teenagers who spend every Sunday morning hiding quietly in churches across America.

You know they’re sitting in a pew right next to you, right?

In a study of 5,819 religious teenagers from 635 churches, a team of researchers found that 7% of religious youth claimed to be homosexual, 5% claimed to be bisexual, and 2% weren’t sure or their sexual orientation (Clapp, Helbert & Zizak, “Faith Matters: Teenagers, Religion, and Sexuality,” 2003).

That means that, contrary to what some church folks seem to think, gay kids aren’t just out there.  They’re in here, too.  Apparently, roughly 14% of youth in our churches aren’t as “straight” as we may think they are.

These kids are camouflaging themselves so well that they can’t see the people just like them who are hiding right next to them.  They’re hiding, afraid of what will happen when they’re “found out.”

Obviously, it’s a stressful time.

As somebody on the other side of the “coming out” divide, I offer this as my open letter/story to gay youth.   If you’re a religious (or formerly religious) gay youth (or former youth), I hope you know there are lots of us out there who will happily buy your stick (and I promise that will sound a lot less perverted after you read the story…).  

Stick for Sale

Today my nephew tried to sell a stick at a yard sale. While I was busy getting rid of coffee mugs, Christmas ornaments, and old shoes, Braden was selling a stick.

Yard sales are essentially eBay in the wild… with card tables. Without computer screens and user names for shoppers to hide behind, yard sales let you watch as people search for treasure in your trash. Standing among tables piled high with unappreciated Christmas presents and neglected what-nots, yard sales give suburban scavengers the freedom to scrutinize rejected possessions and haggle over worthless junk.

Maybe that’s why only the brave among us host these front-yard thrift parties. It takes a certain amount of courage to clean out your closets and decide that you’re willing to build a public display from everything you’ve found in the dark corners of your house. It’s hard to assign value to your own junk.

It’s also hard to watch your neighbors judge the things that once lived proudly in your home.  When your across-the-street neighbor sees your VHS collection of Little House on the Prairie, he might quietly judge both your sanity and your taste.  Or, if you’re lucky, you might catch him covertly digging through the box while he thinks nobody’s watching, trying to find the episode where Nelly Oleson makes Laura (aka “Half Pint”) eat glue.

That’s the risk of displaying your life’s leftovers and intimate secrets for strangers, family, and friends. Sometimes you feel judged as people casually pick through your collected life. But sometimes, when a curious shopper stops to admire a trinket or appreciate what others have ignored, you find comfort in the knowledge that we’ve all collected the same trash.

Of course, most of our yard sale fears are unfounded. Yard-sale scavengers might sometimes be discriminating and judgmental, but they will also buy almost anything for the right price. Before my nephew came to visit, I sold a sack of Christmas ornaments and a pair of swim goggles to a bearded man wearing a hat. Apparently, his family is planning to celebrate the holidays by bobbing for Christmas. Around 9:00 I sold a short woman four Tupperware tops without their bottoms. It felt a little indecent. Several people asked if I had any electronics for sale. I said no. I don’t trust people who sell electronics at yard sales.

I even sold a wet suit to a woman who wanted to know if it would keep her dry.

I think God understands when you laugh at yard sale people.

With all this perfectly wonderful junk on display, my nephew tried to help by selling a stick. He found the small branch under a tree where he was busy trying to keep the grass off his shoes. Braden is five years old and doesn’t like to be messy. Freshly cut grass in the morning is messy. It makes your shoes look like nature has thrown confetti all over them and leaves your socks wondering why the rest of you weren’t invited to the party.

While Braden wiped the confetti off his size three sneakers, he found the stick. And decided to help.

Braden has always been a good helper. He loves to help you eat the icing off your cake. He likes to help you get wet while he’s taking a bath. He’s also good at helping you play in the backyard. Some children help their parents and teachers only because they’re told to or because they want to be rewarded for their efforts with candy and praise. My nephew, however, is an exception to the candy reward rule. Braden likes to help simply because he wants to be near you while you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing.

On the morning of my yard sale, Braden wanted to help sell all of the things I was either tired of using or shouldn’t have bought in the first place. And a stick.

When he picked up the stick and started to play with it, I couldn’t understand why Braden had chosen to entertain himself with a broken tree branch instead of playing with the wonderful junk I was trying to sell. There were four chipped baseball bats and a pile of stuffed animals well within reach. And what kid wouldn’t be happy playing in a box of old socks?

“Boys will be boys,” I thought as I left Braden to enjoy his stick.

Braden, however, didn’t want to simply play with the stick. He wanted to sell it. Just as I was about to remind the boy that his mother would probably be unhappy if he managed to poke out his eye with a stick, Braden’s attention turned to a Hispanic woman digging through a pile of slightly used shoes. He held the stick out to her as if this particular stick was the most wonderful thing in the world. How have you lived this long without it? It’s just what you need! “Excuse me,” he said in his most polite voice. “Do you want to buy this stick?”

The pause that followed was filled with innocent and awkward. Braden stood in the grass with his tiny hand extended, smiling the precious smile of a child who still believes please is a magic word. While he shuffled his feet in a nervous dance of hope and terror, Braden’s eyes filled with a fear that he will only fully understand the first time he asks for a date or uses the words “I love you.”

“Do you want to buy this stick?”

To a five-year-old, a stick is still a treasure, worth a few shiny quarters. It is a magic wand and a baseball bat, a sword and a shovel. It can attack a tree and poke things you’re afraid to touch, including (but not limited to) sleeping dogs, wasp nests, and girls. A good stick is at least as valuable as a tennis racket and more useful than an old waffle iron. It was therefore reasonable for Braden to assume that the old woman might actually want to buy a slightly used stick. She could use it to beat her husband or maybe stir some soup.

Unfortunately, the woman hadn’t used her imagination in a while. It had gotten rusty. She had no desire to attack a tree or poke a sleeping dog. She didn’t want the stick.

Braden clearly couldn’t understand the woman’s apathy. Why hadn’t she immediately accepted his offer and produced a handful of cash from her purse? Braden assumed that buried beneath the gum and tissues, mints, makeup and other womanly gadgets, the woman must have had at least two spare quarters that wanted to be spent on a stick…  but she wasn’t interested. The woman looked down at Braden like he was offering her a cup of lava or a few dozen mosquito eggs and walked back to her station wagon empty handed, oblivious that she had just rejected a five-year-old child who had only just begun to explore the wonders of a free-market economy.

The woman drove away without realizing that when Braden offered her the stick, he wasn’t really trying to make a sale. He was trying to make a friend. When Braden spoke to the woman, he was essentially asking a question he will continue to ask for the rest of his life.

Is what’s important to me important to you, too?

Is what’s valuable to me valuable to you, too?

Do we both think the same things are beautiful?

Do we both think the same things are funny or clever?

Do the things that break my heart break yours also?

Will you please decide that what I have to offer is valuable and worth your attention?

Would you like to buy this stick?

Whenever we try to find what we have in common with another person, we always risk finding instead what will keep us separate. But if we never risk rejection, we also never risk acceptance.

Fortunately, Braden’s innocence still protects him from the fear and insecurity future years will bring. When the ungrateful woman walked away, Braden didn’t cry or pout or even attack her with his tree sword. Instead, he dropped the branch and took up the new task of cleaning an old file cabinet with a barbecue brush.

Braden doesn’t like for things to be messy.

Later in the day, after Braden went home and the buzzards carried away everything of real value, a few yard sale snobs slowed their cars just long enough to glance at my picked-over tables. When they realized I had nothing they wanted, they sped away, avoiding eye-contact, anxious to find a coffee table the next block over or a few rare records across town. I tried not to let these suburban drive-bys hurt my feelings, but they did. I guess I’m not as secure with myself as Braden is, skipping through the yard with his clean shoes and four-foot bravery.

That’s why, when I walk out of my house every day, I leave everything valuable locked inside, hidden behind closed curtains and doors. If people had full access to my history, I’m afraid they might find all the memories that have filled my past, the stories that have built my present, and casually disregard them as unimportant or uninteresting.

Would you like to buy this stick?

If people were free to wander through my closets, I am scared they might poke thorough the boxes and uncover all the secrets I’ve wrapped so carefully and packed away in safe places on high shelves. I am afraid they will decide that I just have too much junk. The work isn’t worth it. And I can’t risk that. My confidence, like the economy and my property value, is simply too fragile.

I know it’s not particularly flashy or brilliant. It’s terribly ordinary. But it’s the best stick I have.

Sometimes I wonder if people understand that every conversation, every joke, every story, and every smile is essentially one person offering himself to another person, posing the same basic question. Every awkward silence, every nervous laugh, every spoken or written word is really me asking in my most polite voice,

Do you want what I have to offer?

Will you see that I am valuable?

Would you like to buy this stick?

I ask these questions hoping you will see that I am not just dead wood, broken and useless. If you look close enough you will find that I am also a sword, a shovel, and a magic wand. I am a child. A lover. A sometimes failure. I am even reasonably useful if you use your imagination. I can dig a hole or stir some soup. Or be your friend.

Would you like to buy this stick?

Before you answer, I need for you to close your eyes and use your imagination. I need for you to be willing to look into my deep darkness, and sadness, and fear, and hurt, and hope and not cringe or laugh at what you find there. I need for you to realize that every house has a closet full of unappreciated treasures and misunderstood trinkets. And trash. I need for you to understand that sharing these things with the world is scary.

Very scary.

And so, if one day I gain the courage of a five year old and really offer myself to you, please don’t walk away. I might not handle the rejection as well as Braden did.

Would you like to buy a stick?

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My Name Is Not Faggot

A few days ago I did one of my favorite (and also least favorite) things to do.  I finished a great book.  Halfway through the novel, I read three paragraphs that were so fantastic I was forced to underline them… even though the book belonged to the NYC Public Library.

We, the Drowned” is a sailor story filled with cannibals, naval battles, shipwrecks, storms, murder, and shrunken heads.  Even though the novel is in no way gay and takes place between 1850 and 1945, these three paragraphs describe perfectly why I think most modern gay people break into a nervous sweat whenever they’re forced to remember Jr. High…

No one in our town has such a thing as privacy.  There’s always an eye watching, an ear cocked.  Each and every one of us generates a whole archive of talk.  Your slightest offhand remark takes on the weight of a lengthy newspaper commentary.  A furtive glance is instantly returned and pinned on its owner.  We’re always coming up with new names for one another.  A nickname’s a way of stating that no one belongs to himself.  You’re ours now, it says.  We’ve rechristened you.  We know more about you than you know about yourself.  We’ve looked at you and seen more of you than you’ll catch in the mirror.

Rasmus Asswhipper, Cat tormentor, Violin Butcher, Count of the Dunghill, Klaus Bedchamber, Pissy Hans, Kamma Booze, how can any of you imagine we don’t know your secrets?  Hey, Question Mark: we call you that because you’re a hunchback!  And Masthead: well, what better name for someone with a tiny head, a long body, and no shoulders?

Everyone in our town has a story – but it’s not the one he tells himself.  Its author has a thousand eyes, a thousand ears, and five hundred pens that never stop scribbling.  (p. 205)

When I read that passage a few weeks ago, my heart raced.  I felt my 13-year-old self sneak awkwardly to the surface.  For a boy just realizing he liked boys, Jr. High was so stressful…

There’s always an eye watching, an ear cocked.  Each and every one of us generates a whole archive of talk.

… going to school, pretending to be something.  Going to church, pretending not to be something.  Hoping nobody would notice the things I noticed…

Your slightest offhand remark takes on the weight of a lengthy newspaper commentary.  A furtive glance is instantly returned and pinned on its owner.

…trying to stay low profile to avoid attention one day, becoming the class clown to deflect attention the next.  Hearing the things they whispered and wondering if my secret was out.  Wondering how they could know something about me that I wasn’t even sure of, something I thought might just be a phase, something I was praying God would change…

We know more about you than you know about yourself. We’ve looked at you and seen more of you than you’ll catch in the mirror.

… knowing I wasn’t like everyone else, but not exactly sure why.

Research shows that most gay kids’ first memories of sexual discovery aren’t of feeling aroused by people of the same sex, but of feeling “different.”  Before we know we’re gay, most of us simply know we’re different.  For many LGBT kids, this difference isn’t a feeling of uniqueness.  It’s not the cool individuality that made the popular kids popular.   Instead, our “difference” was a feeling of being “wrong” or fundamentally unlike the other kids at school or church.  Even before we understood who we were attracted to and why, we had an innate sense that something about us just didn’t fit (Flowers & Buston, 2001).

A researcher named Anderson (1998) found that the average gay youth first recalls feeling different at the age of seven, five years before most boys are even able to label their attractions as homosexual.

I think that’s partly why Jr. High is/was so hard for so many of us.  It’s an in between time. We suspect and we fear, but we don’t know.  And before we can label our own difference – or maybe while we’re labeling it – somebody else labels it for us.

Gay.  Queer.  Faggot.  Dike.  Homo.

A nickname’s a way of stating that no one belongs to himself.  You’re ours now, it says.  We’ve rechristened you.  We know more about you than you know about yourself. We’ve looked at you and seen more of you than you’ll catch in the mirror.

These labels are terrifying and humiliating not just because the words are ugly, but also because we can’t figure out how everyone knows they apply to us.

And so, after Jr. High is finished and we finally accept that we’re gay – in our teens, or 20’s, or 30’s, or after – we want to be free of the whispers and the secrecy and the shame. We want to invent and discover a new self.  We want to replace the old nicknames with new ones.  We want to claim our identity as our own.  “From now on,” we say, “no one else will decide who I am.  I belong to myself.”

For those of us who grew up in the church, this is an especially difficult process.  Building a new self often means leaving the old one behind. Many of us feel that taking control of our life requires us to reclaim the control we once gave to God.  If the church makes us feel like we did during Jr. High – unaccepted, afraid, and forced to hide – many of us choose to walk away.  After all, judgmental whispers and sideways glances are what we’re trying to get away from.

The challenge is for us is to stop listening to our 8th grade tormentors, and quiet the memories of our misinformed preachers, and listen instead to the voice of God…

“But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you.
O Israel, the one who formed you says,
‘Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
I have called you by name; you are mine.'”  (Isaiah 43:1)

References

Anderson, A. (1998). Strengths of gay male youth: An untold story. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 15(1), 55-71.

Flowers, P., & Buston, K. (2001). “I was terrified of being different”: Exploring gay men’s accounts of growing-up in a heterosexist society. Journal of Adolescence, 24, 51-65.

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Filed under Encouragement, Research, Stories

How Many Of Us Are There?

Earlier this week, I stumbled across a pretty intriguing conversation thread on a social networking site for gay folks.  A guy asked “why are so many people surprised by Christian gays? Just ‘cause we are gay, does that mean we can’t share the same beliefs in God as others?

One of the more insightful responses came from a student who said:

In my opinion, Christianity and being gay aren’t exactly the most compatible, one is always compromised and the two together cause internal conflict.  Unless you make up your own rules or belief system (such as claiming that god loves you even though you’re gay while the rest of the community says otherwise); in which case, you’re not really following the religion’s precepts and you’re not being fully Christian, you’re being something else… but I just think it’s funny to hear people still calling themselves by the name of a denomination that hates them.

Does identifying as both gay and Christian cause “internal conflict”?  Certainly.  Is it difficult to fully invest in our faith when many churches can’t find a way to “tolerate” this fundamental part of who we are?  Definitely.  Are gay and Christian compatible?

I would answer yes.

If there is a conflict, it’s between us and the church… not us and God.  God, after all, is still for us.  Despite what his followers might sometimes say, he never stopped.

George Barna, an evangelical Christian pollster, recently interviewed almost 300 LGBT men and women (selected at random) about their religious beliefs.  According to the results of Barna’s survey, lots of “us” still believe gay and God can go together.  According to George Barna’s “Spiritual Profile of Homosexual Adults:”

  • 70% of LGBT people self-identify as Christian
  • 60% of LGBT people describe their faith as “very important” in their life
  • 4 out of 10 LGBT people say that they are “absolutely committed to the Christian faith”
  • 58% of LGBT people say that they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in [their] life today”
  • 50% of LGBT people say that “the most important thing in life is to love God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul”
  • 1/3 of LGBT people contend that their life has been greatly transformed by their faith

(When you read the report, you’ll notice that Barna’s findings highlight some significant differences between the spiritual devotion, practice, and beliefs of gay and straight people.  Read the report.  You’ll see what I mean.  I’d love to hear your thoughts about why this might be.  Post your thoughts in the comments or send an email to stillforus@hotmail.com.  We’ll deal with this dilemma in a different post)

Although I don’t know Barna’s personal thoughts about homosexuality, his interpretation of this data is pretty insightful.  He says:

People who portray gay adults as godless, hedonistic, Christian bashers are not working with the facts. A substantial majority of gays cite their faith as a central facet of their life, consider themselves to be Christian, and claim to have some type of meaningful personal commitment to Jesus Christ active in their life today.

The data indicate that millions of gay people are interested in faith but not in the local church and do not appear to be focused on the traditional tools and traditions that represent the comfort zone of most churched Christians. Gay adults clearly have a different way of interpreting the Bible on a number of central theological matters, such as perspectives about God. Homosexuals appreciate their faith but they do not prioritize it, and they tend to consider faith to be individual and private rather than communal.

It is interesting to see that most homosexuals, who have some history within the Christian Church, have rejected orthodox biblical teachings and principles – but, in many cases, to nearly the same degree that the heterosexual Christian population has rejected those same teachings and principles. Although there are clearly some substantial differences in the religious beliefs and practices of the straight and gay populations, there may be less of a spiritual gap between straights and gays than many Americans would assume.

If these numbers are correct, Barna seems to be answering my new friend’s question by saying being gay and Christian may be difficult, but it’s certainly possible. 

After all, lots of us are doing it.

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