Concluding Thoughts on Masculinity, #ERLC2014, and Living Queerly

Thanks so much for traveling with me this month in this discussion of masculinity and purity culture. It’s been an interesting, fascinating month and I’ve enjoyed doing the research and engaging with all of you. Next Monday, I’m announcing a new project for November that I’m pretty excited about and can’t wait to share (but I will wait, because patience is a goldang virtue).

This week, I’ve been busy with taking every free moment I have to listen to the live stream of the Ethics and Religious Liberty summit in Nashville, and I have a few thoughts to share. First, about representation. The speakers are slightly more diverse than they have been in years past, but many of the women brought in are either not speaking on their own, are speaking only of their own testimonies as “ex-gay” people (more on that in a bit) or are part of panels moderated exclusively by white men. I point this out to say that we need to be careful to take note of how women’s voices are filtered and brought to us.

In that vein, I need to comment a bit on how queer voices are being represented at the conference. There are no self-identified queer speakers at the conference. Trans people are non-existent. All the people with “same-sex attraction” identify as ex-gay. This is very deliberate on the part of the SBC. In “engaging” with the LGBT community, they use representatives who have “moved on,” who have “come away” from that “sin.”

These people are chosen because they fit the specifically pre-determined narrative the conservative church has about queer people –they are “caught up in sin,” they simply need a conversion experience with God and they will be okay. These are the victory stories, no different in their minds than the testimonies of former gang-bangers or drug users who found Jesus.

Needless to say, I’m not interested in a Christ who requires that I deny a part of my identity in order to become a Christian. Compulsory heterosexuality is not the gospel, and no amount of “love” or “grace” can remove that rotten core in the ERLC’s teachings. Even if Russell Moore says reparative therapy is wrong, he still is sitting on stage with multiple people who proclaim, because of their own testimony, that God can change sexual orientation.

Even then, the words those ex-gay speakers choose are very deliberate. Rosaria Butterfield, a woman who used to identify as a lesbian and an academic but is now a heterosexual pastor’s wife, deliberately steered away from discussion of her sexuality. She talked instead about the need for community and how that can change people. Despite that, everyone listening knows that when she talks about how Christ redeems “indwelt sin” or how you can become a new person she is talking about queer people becoming heterosexual. The elephant in the room that the SBC is studiously trying to avoid is the idea that straightness is a required marker of a Christian.

This is something the straight, white church will need to contend with if it hopes to continue to be relevant to an increasingly frustrated gay community. The relationship has gotten better and there’s been a lot of crossover between the two, especially in more liberal churches that don’t demand an orientation change. But if the SBC continues to push this line, they will increasingly find themselves irrelevant in the LGBT conversation as LGBT folks walk out of their churches.

But as their irrelevance to speaking into the lives of queer people grows, there is also a fear that there are queer people in these churches who are unable to leave. The pastor’s son who desperately wants to be like Christ and yet finds himself attracted to men. The aunt who pretends very hard at being a woman when he knows his identity is actually masculine. The sister who is attracted to both men and women and plays at being straight because it’s easier to simply pretend that her same-sex attraction doesn’t exist.

These are the people for whom this theology is soul-crushing. They will pretend, of course, that they have found a gracious love of Christ. And in those moments, perhaps it will feel real. But they will struggle with depression – they will find themselves feeling disconnected and distant. They will delve deeper into their Bibles, searching for this grace and joy and love that their preachers tell them is there. They will pray each night that God will come and remove this sin from them. They will wonder if they are simply not one of God’s chosen and fall to tears in brokenness over their failure to be one of the elect.

And they will eventually leave the church, even as their bodies sit faithfully in the pews on Sunday morning. They will be husks of who God created them to be, unable to reconcile this seemingly intense desire to “sin” with the messages they’ve received on Sunday morning. No matter how much they read their Bible, how much they hope and pray and love God, they will find nothing but discouragement and despair.

I know this story because it is my own story. I searched for years for a way that I could live as a Christian without also embracing my bisexuality. I barely recognized that this was what I was struggling with because I’d become so repressed about sexuality altogether – all my attractions were sin and to be avoided. I kept my Bible by my nightstand so I could wake up and read it in the first fifteen minutes every day. I volunteered at church, wrote papers about theology, studied and studied and looked for a way I could be faithful and myself.

And nothing changed. I didn’t experience the grand conversion experience Rosaria Butterfield speaks about. I didn’t find myself beset with joyfulness at God’s forgiveness. Instead, I found myself trying and trying again and failing to be who I thought God had created me to be.

It was only when I came out to myself, came out to my mother, and came out to all of you that I found freedom. I found a new way of looking at life and God and my place within it as God’s child. I found that my identity flourished, my depression and anxiety lessened, and my life became more stable and more fulfilled. Even through everything I’ve been through in the past year and am still going through, being out is one of those things I no longer have to worry about – my identity there is settled, and it has given me a sense of peace I was never really able to find when I was chasing straightness as part of the gospel.

No amount of radical hospitality, of gracious love, and neighborly friendship can change the basic fact that queer people exist, that they cannot be changed (even if they wanted to be) and that they have a role in the church as they are, not as who they could be if they became celibate or straight. No amount of sugarcoating will change the fact that the ERLC clearly believes that either straightness or celibacy are the options available for queer people to contribute to the life of the church.

And oh how much are they missing out on. My community of queer folk – many of whom are also faithful Christians, knowledgeable in theology, outstanding models of Jesus in the flesh – are wonderful and loving. It was my trans friends who sent me bouquets of flowers when my mother died, my bisexual friends who sent me books about grief with personal messages of how they were lifting me up in prayer. My queer Christian community has shown me more graciousness and love than I ever thought possible.

There is hope for the queer folk in the church. There is a wide neighborly community of people who love each other unconditionally, in the way Christ loved His people, without straightness as a prerequisite. Love exists. Love created you as you are. And love is here for you.

[Photo by Giselle Fernandes, Flickr]