Journey Story

How Queer Evangelicals Brought This Skeptical Journalist Back To Christianity

by Deborah Jian Lee

It happened at the end of recess, after the bell had rung and all the other junior-high kids had gone inside.

After beating him in a schoolyard basketball game of “H.O.R.S.E.,” my beefy, mop-topped classmate, whom I’ll call Neil, hurled basketballs at my chest while his friend held my arms back so that I couldn’t protect my body. “Chink!” Neil yelled angrily.

I writhed and screamed until he knocked the wind out of me and I could no longer breath. Then I felt my body thrown to the blacktop and heard the sound of feet running away. In that moment, the self-hatred for my Chinese identity felt like it might overtake me.

Then something remarkable happened. I started attending youth group at a local Chinese immigrant church.

Though I grew up nonreligious, I quickly found a place of belonging among peers who, like me, constantly shifted between their Chinese homes and white suburban schools.

Their praise songs became my praise songs, their prayers inspired my own.

I studied the Bible and fell in love with Jesus, moved by how he subverted the status quo by lifting the lowly to high places, by healing the broken and by calling his people to serve the least of these.

As I read Jesus’ words, I felt faith spring up within me, its waters a healing salve.

Before long, I was a Christian, getting baptized on the church stage, leading Bible studies and, in college, becoming a leader of my large Christian fellowship.

When I think back to that time in life, I am amazed by how my relationship to church so quickly came undone and how a world that had welcomed me as a beloved could treat me like an outsider once I began vocally supporting the LGBTQ community.

Mine is a story that is told in statistics and studies: I stopped going to church in part because I couldn’t square my faith with the anti-queer teachings I encountered at every turn.

The church of my youth told me that I was unconditionally loved and radically included. But in adulthood, as I hopped from church to church year after year, I learned that gender and sexual minorities did not belong.

This was true for the dozens of churches I passed through, no matter the denomination or style.

I couldn’t, in good conscience, stay where my friends weren’t welcome. So I left.

I returned to the evangelical world as a journalist when I began to notice a shift among young evangelicals. Many had lost interest in the culture wars and were increasingly LGBTQ friendly.

If the 1990s represented an era when vilifying the queer community galvanized evangelicals, these past several years stand for a period when that very tactic has divided the church and alienated a generation.

Out of this new era, three distinct responses are emerging: one, a growing pro-LGBTQ faction, two, conservatives fighting the culture change and three, those caught in the middle parsing through mixed feelings, according to Jeremy Thomas, an Idaho State sociology professor who has studied the evolution of evangelical beliefs about homosexuality since the 1960s.

I wanted to address all three groups, and I figured the best way to do that was to chronicle the stories of the faithful LGBTQ Christians in my book .

For the growing pro-LGBTQ faction, I wanted to offer up stories of hope that would inspire.

For the other two groups, I wanted to introduce them to committed Christians who happened to be queer, to unpack the impact of anti-queer theology on their lives and to let their faith and generous spirit be a witness to us all.

This book held many lessons for myself as well. When I began reporting on queer evangelicals, I was struggling with my own Christianity.

I cherished my faith, but felt spiritually homeless. I couldn’t shake the comments my close Christian friends had made to me when I came out as an ally. Many offered to pray for me through my “confusion” about God’s design for sexuality.

And one friend asked what I suspected many were wondering: Do you even qualify as a Christian anymore? I began to wonder if I needed that label; it’s something I slipped on and off over the years. With time, my faith became a wandering, vagrant thing, which brought on feelings of liberation and loss.

Then I met queer evangelicals who spoke the language of my faith and reminded me of all the reasons I became a Christian in the first place.

One night in May 2013, I sat in a cramped room with more than a dozen LGBTQ students who attended Biola University, an evangelical college that prohibits “homosexual behavior.” These students, who at the time called themselves the Biola Queer Underground (BQU), had been meeting secretly for over a year to support one another.

When the group first launched, members trickled in slowly, each sharing stories of their isolation and shame. Most had at least contemplated suicide. One had even tried to end their life by drinking a bottle of bleach.

On this May night, most of the members had been meeting for more than a year. Over that span of time they had found healing together. I sat with them in a narrow room, the dozen or so of them in a circle, looking in each other’s eyes hopefully.

One by one, they shared about journeys from suicidal thoughts and depression to resilience and joy.

Couples who had found each other through the group held hands. Those who cried got bear hugs. Those who shared victory stories were met with shouts of praise.

And when they closed the meeting, the last of the year, this cobbled-together group of multi-ethnic, LGBTQ and ally Christians joined hands and prayed through grateful, abundant tears.

In that moment, I saw an image of my younger self, first battered and breathless on the asphalt of my junior high basketball court, then scooped up by Christians who offered the promise of healing and belonging.

That was the gospel that brought me to the faith, and that was the gospel the BQU had shown me that night.

Those queer and ally evangelical college kids embodied the very teachings of Jesus that compelled me to call myself a Christian back in my youth. Their witness would play a part in my own eventual decision to reclaim the Christian label as my own.

How did they accomplish what the churches of my adult years failed to do?

By subverting the status quo, lifting the lowly to high places, healing the broken and serving the least of these. In other words: by living out the gospel.