From the moment I began to acknowledge my connection to women, many of my Christian friends began to immediately critique my spiritual standing. The conclusions always jumped to my lack of self-control, some failure of mine to “respond to the Holy Spirit” or that I was willfully sinful, headstrong and purposed to throw out my concern for pleasing God. The thought of my spiritual mentors and evangelical friends always ended with the conclusion that something was horribly wrong with me.
I wish that I could say that I was surprised by these reactions, but I was not. On more than one occasion I was “admonished” privately for the mere appearance of being gay (I don’t really like to wear high heels!) Despite years of celibacy and years of ignoring any sense of my own sexual identity, I was still being cautioned. The message to me was very clear: being gay was not an option for a “true” Christian.
It took many years of fearing to ask the difficult questions, but eventually I discovered that my sexual orientation was not the sole determining factor in my journey of faith. I began to investigate how other people of faith approached the issue. I discovered that there were actually well respected theologians, supporting denominations, and members of clergy that had been facing up to this reality for decades. What was even more amazing to me was that there were actually gay Christians out there…REALLY!
In 2010, I publicly disclosed that I was in a same-sex relationship. Under heavy scrutiny, I maintained that I still considered myself a person of faith. I received terrible emails and letters. I was deleted from thousands of iPods and dropped from Christian retailers and radio stations. Although a painful experience, I was aware that this scenario was on the horizon. But what I didn’t expect was how my inbox began to fill up with stories from other people just like me. I was not alone. I was not the only person in the world that was being silenced by their very own faith community.
For a while, I could not be convinced that I had anything to offer this conversation. I considered it a stalemate at best. Frankly, I was more than ready to wash my hands of the whole “church thing”. But then I started to notice something incredibly powerful; simply by being honest about my sexual orientation, a door had opened that encouraged others to speak of their personal stories. Over the last couple of years I have met thousands of LGBT people who have less than pleasant narratives of their religious experiences. I have met many who have not yet known the joy of affirmation and support of a caring faith community. They continue to sacrifice their own spirit in response to the shame they have been convinced they must endure.
Much to my surprise, however, I have also witnessed many people who have found healing and hope. They share their deeply moving journeys of spiritual odyssey, limitless love and abiding faith. I have seen that sexual orientation and gender identity is not the lens through which faith can be fully qualified. I have not learned this alone, but by the journeys, experiences and courage of others who dared share their stories with me.
Last year, after many requests, I began to directly engage the faith community by telling my story. Today, I speak candidly of my experience as a gay person of faith through an event I call Inside Out Faith. After experiencing rejection and criticism, I have had to overcome my own prejudices toward the church. I share how I reclaimed my faith experience, owned my sexual orientation and how these two qualities in me co-exist. But I recognize that my story is just the starting point for a much more complicated tale. For many churches that I go to, it will be the first time they have said, as a faith community, that they will openly stand in support of LGBT people. Some of the pastors I meet are serving as openly supportive of their gay congregants for the first time without threat of losing their position. For the first time in decades, many LGBT people of faith are walking back into the sanctuaries with hope rather than fear. I, for one, am happy and grateful to be one of them.
Image courtesy of Jesse Yardley