#GCNConf and the Power of Being Seen

[My book, Damaged Goods, releases in less than a month! See what everyone's buzzing about and pre-order it here!]

[CN: brief mention of rape and pedophilia, rape culture]

I was honestly ambivalent about attending the annual Gay Christian Network conference in Portland, OR, this past weekend. I’d read about their Side A/Side B philosophy, and I was unsure how I would feel as a super leftist progressive in a space where “celibacy is a good Biblical choice for gay people!” is considered a valid stance. I also don’t identify as evangelical anymore, so I worried that the whole “let’s worship together!” enthusiasm would reflect the same shallow intimacy I experienced at evangelical conferences in my younger years.

But then I walked into the conference, listened to the first keynote address from gay Christian journalist Jeff Chu, and I knew I was home.

It’s somewhat useless to retell stories from a conference to an audience who wasn’t there. Even with the best storytellers, there’s no good way to capture the feeling of seeing husbands walk together, hand-in-hand, unafraid and unashamed. I can’t find the words to express how good it feels to make a joke about my bisexuality and be greeted with laughter instead of awkward stares. There’s nothing I can do that can impart the feeling of home-ness, of belonging that you feel when you’re standing in a room full to the brim with queer people who are also people of faith.

But what we can talk about is the necessary power that these moments have. One of the elements I try to stress over and over in my theology and my praxis is the importance of individuals existing in community. We need to both be able to have those spaces to be recognized as fully ourselves and to someone else say, “me too.”

I was at GCN in part to present a workshop on bisexuality and binaries and faith with my friend Eliel Cruz. After a whirlwind introduction and discussion of what bisexuality is/does/means, we had an extended Q&A session. One woman stood up and told her story about her struggles with whether or not to come out and how to find to bi community. As she teared up and said that she felt alone and that she struggled with finding community, a lady sitting in front of her raised her arms and said, “we’re here.”

And that’s what the GCN conference is really all about. That’s what queer, church, feminist community is really all about – that moment when one person says to another, “We’re here. Come be with us.” And it’s a presence rooted in true intimacy, in the knowledge of recognizing the people standing before us as people, of coming alongside them to lift that burden of shame and pain and weariness so unique to existence as a queer individual of faith. We all have stories and we all crave to be recognized, to be known. GCN taught me that one of the most outstanding acts of love an individual can perform is just to listen, to say, “I see you. You are not alone.”

But.

How do we live this out? How can we begin to create safe spaces for people where they can come, and live, and be, all without feeling threatened or unsafe?

For that, I do have to tell one story, so bear with me. Throughout the conference, they have workshops on many different topics, ranging from discussing issues particular to trans individuals in the church to discussing the Biblical basis for same sex relationships. For the most part, the sessions I attended were inspiring and good and challenging (I particularly loved the session on language and naming from John Backman and Marg Herder).

But one workshop on sexual purity and waiting until marriage - which I went to as a scholar on purity culture - went from telling stories into offensive territory. Some may argue that I was primed to find something offensive, based on my work as an expert on purity culture. That is, of course, the defensive position to take. But while I went into the workshop with trepidation, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the honesty and the good, open hearts these presenters seemed to have.

Until they got to the "objective analysis of the Biblical morality of sex" portion. And asked us why rape and pedophilia are bad. Their conclusion seemed to be because sex is something so intimate and so important that rape and pedophilia don't respect that bond and that original meaning for sex. There was no mention of consent and no mention of bodily autonomy.

I was furious. And somewhat triggered, as a survivor of sexual assault. So I tweeted about it. I explained that, while I was loving the conference, this particular session made me feel unsafe and alone and disrespected.

And then an amazing thing happened. As my tweets got retweeted around and as my followers grumbled, people from the Gay Christian Network and from the conference reached out to me. Jeff Chu let me know that what happened was bad. Matthew Vines found me in the hotel bar that night and we talked about it. And Justin Lee, founder of GCN and de facto head of the conference, made time to meet with me to discuss what happened. And to apologize.

I'm used to working with institutions that offer little, false, "I'm sorry you feel that way" kind of apologies. I'm used to being brushed off, to being gaslighted and told that I must have heard or interpreted something wrong. I'm used to being told I was just looking for a way to be offended - a variation on the "you were asking for it" meme.

I found none of that in reaction to my anger. My feelings and my reaction to that workshop were believed. I was listened to. I was encouraged. And I was loved.

This is why, even as GCN reaches across bridges to work with Focus on the Family to stem the tide of LGBT youth homelessness, even as critics lash out and condemn Side B people as evil incarnate (they're not, really!), even as atheists tell me I can't possibly be queer and Christian, I feel safe. I feel at peace. I feel like my story matters, like all our stories matter, and that we, as queer people of faith, with all of our individual and varied stories of pain, heartbreak, joy and relief, are loved.

And that, right there, is church. That listening voice, that embrace of the other, even across borders, across disagreement, is home.