Recently, Amber Hikes, director of Philadelphia's Office of LGBT Affairs, approved a motion adding two more stripes, black and brown, to the current 6-tone rainbow flag, as a part of the city's More Color More Pride initiative, an initiative that "strives to create an even more inclusive community", while also seeking to "celebrate the stories of those who have been typically left out of the LGBTQ experience, including people of color and people of the transgender/gender nonconforming experience".
In my closest relationships, tension is a constant. I value friendships with people whose backgrounds, ideologies, and beliefs are not exactly like mine. I hold dear conversations with friends who are willing to challenge me, willing to play the devil's advocate. In friendships with people who tend to be more amicable and less challenging, I feel numb, almost stagnant. It's when there is a tension, a tug-of-war you might say, that I feel most alive, most human.
When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved — Mark 13:11-13
I'm not lucky. I'm loved, and as such, I'm called to love in ways that make me uncomfortable, ways that might make some people think twice about, ways that would make me seem strange to passers-by. Besides, life's a craps table, and sometimes, when you win, all you wanna to is spread the wealth and share the love, even if the wealth is something other than money, and the love only lasts for a few moments.
Still, I was angry. I was envious. In that lobby, I leaned into my friend for an embrace, but this was different for me. While he wrapped his arms around me, for the first time ever I think, I could not return the gesture. Instead, my arms were straight at my side, fists clenched, body shaking. I was holding back the fury building within me, scared that if I let the door open even remotely, there would be no stopping me. In a similar Steel Magnolias fashion, he offered to let me hit him, to unleash my pain outwardly on him, and while I appreciated the gesture, I wouldn't do it. When you grow up in a family where physical abuse is commonplace like I did, you take no pleasure in releasing it upon anyone else, especially anyone for whom you care deeply.
Back in May, I was appalled to read that a Baptist Pastor in North Carolina, Charles L. Worley, had proclaimed his desire, from the pulpit on a Sunday morning, to "Build a great, big, large fence -- 150 or 100 mile long -- put all the lesbians in there... do the same thing for the queers and the homosexuals and have that fence electrified so they can't get out...and you know what, in a few years, they'll die out...do you know why? They can't reproduce!"
Shortly thereafter, another Kansas pastor, Curtis Knapp, stated the following about LGBT persons: "They should be put to death -- that's what happened in Israel," Knapp proclaims. "That's why homosexuality wouldn't have grown in Israel." To make sure that the members of his congregation didn't go on a queer killing spree, he clarified, "Oh, so you're saying we should go out and start killing them? No, I'm saying the government should. They won't, but they should."
Most recently, Jonathan Phelps, son of Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, "said he 'absolutely' supported the death penalty for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, though he stopped short of elaborating when it came to how he thought the U.S. government should enforce such punishments."
As a partnered gay seminarian pursuing a vocation in ministry, I honestly don't know how to accurately and appropriately respond to these men's sentiments. I'm aware of my emotions: anger, frustration, sadness, heartbreak, confusion, rage, betrayal, and many more. Yet when it comes to the fact that individuals who profess to be followers of Christ have been so quick to ignore, or worse reject the humanity of a particular population of people, I'm dumbfounded. These are people with whom I'm supposed to have something major in common: our love for Jesus and our call to offer that love to all people.
Proclaiming that a person deserves to die because of their sexual orientation is abhorrent. In fact, dare I say, it's heretical. Mind you, this is not a post about the morality or ethicality of the death penalty or capitol punishment. This is about the implications of negating a person's humanity because of who they are and/or who they love.
These men, and probably many more, have indicated their belief that homosexuality should be punishable at a civil/policital/social level. They've proclaimed that the government should view homosexual practice or not adhering to the gender binary should be criminal and worthy of ending one's life, worthy of trial and litigation, worthy of no longer existing. For a person who evinces and love and reverence for Scripture to behave in this fashion is reprehensible and sickening.
As a follower of Christ, I feel passionate about manifesting God's love for the world in the world. The words of these men do the exact opposite. They do not encourage involvement in a faith community. They do not edify one's relationship with the Divine. They kill, slowly but surely. They tell queer people, "You are worthless. You are disgusting. You have no value. You make me sick. You are dangerous and perverted. Your love isn't real, but is a cheap imitation. Your families are a substitute for what they should be if you hadn't chosen to live in sin and reject what's normal or natural." And we wonder why so many queer individuals over the years have either ended their lives or rejected God, having been taught that God does not love them, and in fact, God despites, detests, and loathes their very existence.
I wrestled with my own sexuality for a long time, believing thoughts just like this. I struggled with chronic depression, isolation, and rejection. Slowly, I started hearing from others that in fact, God did love me, and that my sexuality is part of who I am as a man made in the image of the Creator. Who I love is not an abomination. Most importantly, I deserved to live, and to have a life that was surrounded by loving people who made me better than I was on my own. It saddens me that anyone who's read the Gospels and examined the life and message of Christ would ever come to the same conclusions as these men. Thankfully, their message is a dying one—one that is fading slowly but surely out of existence. There will not be any rainbow death camps, electric fences, or trials for same-gender-loving people or people whose gender is not black and white.
Instead, there will be life. There will be love. There will be joy. There will be hope. There will be change.
It's been awhile since I've written about sex. Today, well, it's on my mind, mostly because of a session with Blake (my therapist) this morning. To be honest, it had been awhile since Blake and I talked about the subject either. Between tackling my physical health and my discernment and emotions around leaving the UMC, our sessions went by rather quickly. Today, however, we made it back to the subject.
A week ago Monday, I went in for a follow-up doctor's visit. I'd been to see my new primary care physician for the first time only three weeks prior. Part of taking care of myself, I realized, was seeing the doctor on a more regular basis for a reason other than being sick. My blood work had come back (except for my cholesterol—apparently there's a possibility of mixing up blood work when you see the same doctor as your husband... oh well). Everything came back normal except for one thing: my testosterone levels.
Ask anyone who knows me, and they'll tell you that I'm either middle-of-the-road or more effeminate when it comes to my mannerisms. I've never been "butch," except for that one week during the holidays when I would go home to Kentucky and put on my "straight face" there for a while. But I digress... my doctor decided to put me on TRP (testosterone replacement therapy). It's a clear gel (kind of like hand sanitizer) that I put on my shoulders, neck, and chest every morning. For some people (based on the reading I've done), it takes awhile for the effects to kick in. It would seem that I am not part of that group. I felt effects within the first few days: increased energy, improved mood, and heightened libido.
There are two things in my life that I often struggle with: sex and anger. That's one of the other effects of being on "T"... heightened aggression. To be blunt, I don't feel like myself. Instead I feel like that 10 to 14 year-old boy when puberty finally hits and, all of a sudden, he's faced with emotions and "feelings" he's never really faced before. But I've lived through that once before, and like may people, I don't really want to again, especially when it brings to the surface two things with which I've wrestled.
I know what you're thinking: you're married, so either you're celibate or you've gotten past the "sex stuff" enough to be intimate with your partner. And most days, I have. I've grown a lot when it comes to understanding what is and is not a healthy sex life or healthy, ethical sexual practices. If you want to know more about that, feel free to ask. It's a conversation better served one-on-one than in a post written to the entire wired world.
For the record, when it comes to sex, you will rarely hear me use the word "moral/morality." I'm more concerned with ethics, with how we treat one another in such an intimate setting. I do my best not to make faith-based judgments on what is or is not "right" or "godly." Instead, I try to focus on what's healthy, well thought-out, and beneficial for all those involved. The long and short of it for me is this: if sex (whatever one might define that as) takes place in the context of mutuality and respect for the personhood and humanity of the other person(s) involved, then I think that's a healthy sexual ethic from which to begin. Beyond that, I think anyone who is going to be sexually active must learn for him or herself what works and what is healthy at a holistic level (mind, body, and soul).
In my own life, sex has often been used more often to become detached or disconnected than to become intimate or transformed. It's been a way to both face and escape the shame that has come from being a gay man who does not feel called to nor has the strength to be celibate. I have always felt at my best in a relationship, even if said relationship was not the healthiest. But since being with my partner, Frankie, I've been able to experience sex—physical intimacy—in a different, healthier way. I've been able to connect rather than detach. I've been able to face my fear and shame instead of running from it. Now that my hormone levels are stabilizing and I'm back in the "prime of life" as I've heard from so many others, I'm learning how to not turn to sexuality or sexual intimacy as a coping mechanism or a distraction, but instead to use it to show affection and learn something new about myself in every instance. Rather than wrestling with my fear, shame, guilt, internalized homophobia, or anything else that might keep me from being a self-loving whole person, I choose to embrace myself as a full person, hormones and all.
Little did I know that a private message I received from a fellow member of the Gay Christian Network nearly four years ago would drastically change the entire course of my life.
I'd been a part of the online community for a short while, and at the time, was not involved in any sort of faith community. My previous home church, a Baptist church in west-central Indiana had asked me to step down from all ministry activities and suggested I stop attending services because of my identity as a gay man. These events led to a spiritual drought and a six-year hiatus from any church.
In winter of 2008, I received the aforementioned private message from a GCN member who lived in one of Chicago's many suburbs and whose son lived in the city. He'd read many of my posts, and felt led to tell me of a church community on the edge of the Lincoln Park and Lakeview neighborhoods, Holy Covenant United Methodist Church. It would take a few more months before I could muster up the courage to take his advice and attend a worship service at Holy Covenant, but finally, two weeks before Easter of 2009, I woke up and made the trek down to the red-bricked, mural-emblazened building that would become my home, my refuge, my safe haven away from a world that told me it didn't want me, not as I was at least.
From there, the rest seems like history. Immediately, I was made to feel welcomed, loved, and valued. The people of Holy Covenant made it a priority to get to know me and to be a part of the healing work God was doing in my life and on my severely broken heart. I experienced my first ever Maundy Thursday service, which coincidentally was the first time I'd been offered communion since leaving my former denomination. I was welcomed to the table as a broken but whole person, never asked to leave a part of myself at the door. Even to this day, I cannot put into words how significant this was for me.
That summer, I marched in Chicago's Pride Parade for the first time with my new community. Along the route, I had a conversation with a few other church members. The question was asked whether or not I'd ever considered going to seminary and pursuing a vocation in ministry. I had, in fact, but had been led to believe that my sexual orientation made me unfit for answering that call. These new friends told me otherwise. They affirmed that my orientation was part of who God made me to be. I'd never really heard any of this before. And so I visited the seminary suggested to me (Garrett-Evangelical in Evanston, Illinois) and applied for admission soon thereafter. While my acceptance letter came quickly, I postponed going for another year for the sake of discernment. More changes were to come.
I met my now-husband and life partner, Frankie, who was also welcomed into the Holy Covenant community, regardless of his difference of faith beliefs as a practicing neo-pagan. Holy Covenant loved me, and I loved him, and so they grew to love him as well. I was given various opportunities to serve, including serving communion, reading scripture, singing, praying during worship, leading a small group, serving on a committee, and so much more. As time progressed, all of the brokenness I'd experienced as man coping with depression and the effects of being raised in a physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive household started to mend, albeit slowly. I was learning to love myself through the love with which I was being covered by this amazing family of faith. I decided to pursue ordination within the denomination in which I'd found a new home.
Herein lies the struggle. Although churches like Holy Covenant exist where all people are welcomed regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, the United Methodist Church's written polity refers to the practice of homosexuality as "incompatible with Christian teaching" and therefore individuals such as myself are believed to be unfit for ordained ministry. It didn't make sense. I'd known gay clergy, gay partnered clergy, in our denomination. What did it all mean? As I began seminary and developed relationships with people serving elsewhere in the district and conference, I learned the answer to my questions, and they were disheartening.
In order for me to be ordained in the UMC, I would quintessentially have to go into a professional, vocational closet. In meetings and on paper, I would be "single," making no reference to my sexual identity or my relationship status. I would have to leave a part of me outside of the ordination process. I'd known others going through the same thing who seemed to be okay with it all, who seemed sane and mentally/emotionally healthy, and so I pressed forward. I continued in my seminary education, served another church in the city for my second-year internship, and proceeded to have my local church declare me as a candidate for ordination.
The time came for me to meet with my district committee on ordained ministry for their approval and certification of my candidacy process. I met with mentors and fellow clergy for advice on how to best express myself on paper and in speech. I found myself using the term "significant other" for Frankie instead of "husband" or "partner." It hurt, deeply. In the meeting itself, I shared my excitement for getting to work with The Marin Foundation this year—a non-profit whose mission is to bridge the relational gap between the evangelical church and the LGBT community. I spoke of my passion for full inclusion of all people. I have no doubt that anyone in the room had any misgivings over my sexual orientation or relationship status. I was partnered, and it was easy to tell that my partner was not of the opposite sex.
And so we sat there with this invisible rainbow elephant in the room. One committee member asked me why I'd felt it important to mention my relationship in my paperwork, especially using such red-flag language as "significant other." He continued, "You're not going to have a problem here. We simply want to make you conscious of what is and is not going to make it possible and easy for you to make it through the whole ordination process. There are people at the board level who will rip you apart if there's even a hint of you being, well, you know." Another person asked why I, with my passion for inclusion and with my knowledge and awareness of the state of our denomination not being inclusive, would stay here. Why not go elsewhere? By the time they were ready to deliberate and vote on my certification, I was nearly in tears and ready to leave the room as quickly as I possibly could.
The committee certified me, and I felt no joy. It had been made clear what I would have to do and how I would have to portray myself in order to receive clerical credentials in the UMC. While it was never articulated so directly, the message was clear: You cannot be ordained here as a whole person. You have to split yourself. We don't want all of you. Only part of you is truly worthy of this calling. You have to hide. You have to lie. You have to be someone other than you.
In the weeks since, I've prayed and fought and yelled and screamed and cried and talked and sat in silence. I've wrestled with what to do. Slowly, the recognition of what was being asked of me came, and I could not foresee myself complying. My family at Holy Covenant taught me how to be a whole person and gave me the strength to start loving myself, truly for the first time. It would be a grievous sin for me to undo all their hard work, and all of my own. My identity and relationship are something God loves and finds joy in and takes pleasure in. I am God's beloved in the entirety of who I am, and God has not asked or called me to change. I am worthy because my Creator has called me worthy, and to lie or be inauthentic would be to make unclean what God has called clean, to make bad what God has called good. I cannot do that... I will not.
Two weeks ago, I submitted my letter stepping out of the ordination process for the United Methodist Church. I've met with a pastor of a United Church of Christ / Disciples of Christ congregation who is supportive of my decision and willing to help me get involved with his congregation and begin the ordination process in his denomination. This morning, I stood before some of the people I love most in my life and told them I was leaving. Even now, the pain feels unbearable. I've felt like I was giving up, but I realized that to stay and to hide would be to do just that. In leaving and pursuing my call to ordained ministry in a setting where I can be a whole person, I'm honoring the work that my friends and family at Holy Covenant have put into getting me to this point. With my partner, friends, and church family gathered around me this morning, their hands laid on me and on each other, I felt surrounded by and covered with more love than I feel I could ever deserve or be given. I listened and cried as friends came up, sharing my pain and expressing their pride in my strength, courage, and apparent bravery. I spent time holding one of the young boys I've grown to love, and got the chance to hug another. I know I'm always welcome there, and I leave knowing just how much I've loved, supported, and valued.
Change will come. There will be a day when all God's children are welcome at the table, both receiving God's blessing and presiding over God's gifts of meal and water, regardless of who they love. I desperately long for that day, and I pray for the strength to be a part of the work God's Spirit is doing to get us there. I know much of that strength will come from my Holy Covenant family.
I will come back... someday soon. We will still have conversations, exchange emails, share meals and drinks, offer each other love, prayer, support, and encouragement. I cannot tell you how much you've changed me, how much your love has given me new life and restored my joy. Thank you for taking me in, helping me answer my call, affirming and celebrating my relationship, sitting with me in times of grief, depression, sorrow and joy. I love you all so much. Know that as you've given me a piece of yourselves, I have left a part of myself with each and every one of you. Though we may feel divided, we are one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.
It was the summer after my freshman year of college. I had gone back home to stay with my parents and work a job that kept me on the road and took me around the Midwest. During the first week of a three-week break that summer, my home church of 7 years was having Vacation Bible School, probably one of the highlights of my summers. In the semester before returning home, I had started blogging, most often about my struggles with my sexuality, with being gay and how to make it work in the context of my faith. I had been brutally honest, holding nothing back. On the Monday night of VBS, I came into church and immediately made myself available to help out in whatever fashion I was needed, whether it be games, food, teaching, or just running errands. I had no idea that what was about to happen would change the course of my faith life drastically.
About 45 minutes into the night, the youth director at the time, one I hadn’t known too well, asked me into his office. He proceeded to tell me that while they appreciated my willingness to help, my presence was not exactly beneficial. He expressed that in my “current state”, I put the church at risk of allegations and accusations. In doing what I thought was right, in being open and honest and authentic in my struggles, I had been made into an outcast. Since I did not have a car, he then proceeded to take me home.
We pulled into the driveway where my mom was tinkering with our riding mower. My youth pastor made some small talk, and then went on his way. Mom knew something was up, but I wasn’t quite ready to tell her. So I offered to take care of the lawn with the push mower. She followed me out back, where she finally dragged out of me what had just happened. She was livid, and went into the house to call my grandma, while I mowed the yard, tears flowing freely, stinging my eyes.
After I finished, Mom offered to take me out for ice cream, just as a treat, but probably more as a distraction. On our way home, I asked mom to stop at the church. I needed to talk this out, to make sense of everything. For the next hour and a half, two hours, eternity, I sat in a room with my mom, youth pastor, chair of the deacons, his wife, and another of my mom’s female friends, a prominent leader in the church. The group went on to berate me for putting my mom in this position, for hurting her, setting her apart, forcing her into isolation. I had been too honest, too authentic. My faith was weak, and it made me less of a Christian, less of a person. The only resolution that was reached that night was that while I was struggling, I was not to take part in any ministry roles. I was unworthy to represent Jesus to anyone. I left church that night, not to return into a body of believers for nearly 6 years.
Although my parents continue to struggle and do not yet accept my partner, I now have a church family who accepts me fully for whom I am, and for whom I love – a church that has affirmed my call into ministry and who embraces my desire for authenticity. This is hope. And I hope that someday my mother will have a church that fully supports her entire family. This is my hope, and I am thankful to know there are churches that are welcoming to my partner, my parents, and myself. My call is to make sure that all others on this path are granted this hope as well.