Friday, August 10, 2012

all these things and more: how I've come to be a Christian gay rights advocate

A very dear friend once described me in rather accurate terms: "Explosive. Reactionary.  Attractively naive.  Emotional.  Loud in voice and personality.  Trusting.  Focused.  Intelligent.  Non-religious.  Jesus first.  Easily offended.  Traditional values.  Wonderfully awkward.  Cosmically compassionate.  Selfless.  A dreamer."  

His was actually a comparison drawn from the character of April Kepner on Grey's Anatomy, but it has been immensely valuable to me nonetheless.  I took his words to heart, and his outside observations have since helped me to clarify my sense of self and slog through more than a few internal struggles.

I am many things: a daughter, a friend, a singer, an actress, a New Yorker, a liberal conservative or conservative liberal (depending on who you ask), a fighter, a champion of underdogs, and a no-holds-barred supporter of equality.  (My dad once called me a "bleeding-heart liberal."  I think he meant for me to take offense; I couldn't have asked for a higher compliment.)

I am all these things and more. But above all, I am a Christian.  

I hesitate to wave that banner too wildly because by and large, society imagines a "Christian" utterly unlike me.  Blame it on the media, politicians, entertainment--the picture is ugly: hypocritical, self-righteous, conditional, homophobic, greedy, heavy-handed, tight-fisted, stubborn, elitist, judgmental, and (sometimes) just downright unintelligent.  

It is the most alienating, least Christlike image I can imagine.  But it is the dominant portrait of the American Christian, like it or not.  I know countless followers of Christ who are just that: people who seek to live like Jesus and impact our culture in a radical, redemptive, arms-wide-open way.  I hope you see me as the latter because I have a confession: I used to be one of those other Christians.  

Make no mistake, I would've never joined the ranks of the Westboro Baptist Church with its "GOD HATES FAGS" signs (to even attempt to align that group with the larger Church is absolutely absurd).  But I spent many of my younger years operating under the well-intentioned belief that President Bush could do (almost) no wrong, gay marriage was practically an abomination, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were just, and that if I just prayed hard enough, maybe my gay Christian ex-boyfriend would become straight and "come back to Jesus."  I really believed it.

Which brings me to the main point of all this soul-searching: I am a Christian and I support gay rights.   

I am an advocate.  Unequivocally.  Proudly.  Personally.  Because some of my closest friends are gay, and I see their struggle every day.  I see them being treated as second-class citizens in every sphere: social, political, and religious.  But what cuts even deeper is that many Christians are complicit in the injustice, if not directly responsible.  Bearing that in mind, it's safe to say that as a Christian, I tend to overcompensate.  However insignificantly, I do what I can to make amends for the way I once condemned the gay community, even if the Church at large is painfully reluctant to do the same.

My friend who made the April Kepner comparison calls me an "anomaly" in this.  "You're an advo
cate for gay rights," he says, "But you really are a Christian."  As if the two truths cannot, fundamentally, coexist. 

But I think that's where we've got it all wrong.  For me, it simply would not be possible to have Jesus at the center of my life and simultaneously stand by while my friends are being denied basic human rights.  It would be a betrayal of my faith and a slap in the face to Christ and those he loves.

Several days ago, I discovered Emily Timbol's Huffington Post article: "Why I'm a Straight Christian Fighting for Gay Rights."  For the first time, someone had articulated exactly how I feel about being both a gay rights advocate and a Christian.  I promptly posted the article to Facebook and was happy to see that a few friends gave it a thumbs-up.  

The only comment on that post, to date, was from a former classmate and one I found a bit disappointing, though not entirely surprising:  
"You will note, however, that whenever Jesus encountered someone living a sinful lifestyle, He always told them to turn from their sin and follow Him. He never treated anyone with contempt, not even the ones who set Him on the cross, but He also wasn't silent about how He felt about someone's lifestyle. From the Pharisees to the tax collectors to the prostitutes to the common man, He always tried to bring them to himself, and that means a change in lifestyle. I would normally not say anything about something like this, since the gay/lesbian marriage law seems to be an opinion-based issue, but saying that Christ would have stood for the law is something I can't keep silent about. Yes, Christ would've treated them with respect and dignity, as I always do, but I don't think he would've condoned their lifestyle anymore than he condoned the lifestyles of the aforementioned people living in sin. That's not something the Christ of the Bible would've done. That's my two cents. :\"
The explosive, reactionary April Kepner in me wanted to respond immediately, but I knew my retort would amount to nothing more than a flimsy, half-realized statement of a very deeply held, steadily built conviction.  I told April to take a back seat and allowed myself a few days to process.  I've decided to answer the above comment one or two statements at a time.

First of all, everything hinges on whether you believe that a person is born gay or that homosexuality is a choice.  Some of my friends, gay and straight, will say that sexuality is a spectrum and a number of factors play into sexual orientation and self-identification, with biology playing a critical role.  Nevertheless, when all is said and done, there remain two adequately delineated camps: the folks that say you're born gay and the folks that say you choose to be gay.  I, for one, believe a person is born gay.  That alone is a huge discussion in and of itself, better addressed by scientists, psychologists, and psychotherapists.  To that end, I highly recommend The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man's World by Alan Downs, PhD. 

Once you've decided which camp you're in, it's time to struggle with the sin part.  It is important to consider that while you may be a Christian, likely very few of the gay people you meet are.  Some of them grew up in the Church, but to one degree or another, almost all of them have been alienated by Christians, many of them their own parents and childhood friends.  So arguing the point of sin with them, directly, is a waste of time and further reason for them to resent the Church and the shame it has so deeply rooted in their lives.  You are just another "clanging cymbal" (1 Corinthians 13:1) in the greater Christian soundscape.  

Now, some Christians believe that it is not homosexual orientation that is the sin, but the homosexual act that is the sin.  In other words: it's okay if you're born gay, just don't act gay or live a gay "lifestyle" or (God forbid!) enter into a monogamous, committed, lifelong relationship--never mind marriage--with the love of your life.  This position, while more progressive than some, still reeks of the "Love the sinner, hate the sin" jargon, a cheap cop-out that, more than ever, makes me want to rip the plaster off the walls. 

Then there are a few Christians who believe that being born gay is not an accident and being true to your sexuality is not a sin.  I'm one of those Christians.  I believe that my gay friends have just as much right to happy, fulfilled, purposeful lives as I do.  I hope every one of them loves their job.  I hope they each find a lifelong partner and gets married.  I'd even love to see them start families.  But the heartbreaking thing for me is that no matter how much I hope these things for my friends, their basic freedoms hang in the balance.  I have no greater claim to basic human rights as a straight woman.  But somehow, for them, something as simple as being hired at a job--and keeping that job--is up for debate, at least in cities like Jacksonville, Florida.  Which brings me back to that Facebook comment I quoted earlier. 

To be clear, Emily Timbol's article has nothing to do with gay marriage and everything to do with, as she says, "blatant discrimination and legal prejudice."  In fact, the article makes absolutely no direct mention of gay marriage whatsoever.  Given that, I wonder what prompted my classmate to include in his Facebook comment a statement entirely unrelated to Ms. Timbol's article: "the gay/lesbian marriage law seems to be an opinion-based issue, but saying that Christ would have stood for the law is something I can't keep silent about." 

The article is actually about advocating in favor of a Jacksonville, Florida
bill that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.  According to the Florida Times-Union, the bill would "protect people from discrimination in situations involving employment, housing and service at public accommodations, places like restaurants and hotels."  In short, gay people in Jacksonville will be allowed to eat in any restaurant they like, rent whichever hotel room strikes their fancy, and work at any job for which they are qualified without fear of being discriminated against simply because they are gay.  I can say without reservation that as a straight couple, my parents have never been denied access to a hotel, restaurant, or job opportunity simply because they are straight.  Why should it be any different for my gay friends?

A few final thoughts on that Facebook comment.  My classmate said that "Christ would've treated them with respect and dignity, as I always do, but I don't think he would've condoned their lifestyle anymore than he condoned the lifestyles of the aforementioned people living in sin."  Well, we've already seen that the positions on the gay "lifestyle" are varied and complex, among Christians and non-Christians.  Nobody can agree whether or not homosexual orientation and expression is inherently sinful, so I think making claims about Jesus's thoughts on the matter is a pretty risky move.  

And perhaps most importantly, I'd like to inquire about my classmate's claim that he always treats the gay community with "respect and dignity," as Christ would have.  Is there not respect and dignity in granting the gay community their basic human rights, such as are at stake in Jacksonville?  Is there not respect and dignity in, perhaps, affording them the basic privacy to live their lives however they like behind closed doors?  And is there not respect and dignity in maybe, just maybe, allowing our gay friends to share their side of the story?  Because truth be told, I see little respect or dignity in my classmate's words.  If he would like to argue me on that point, I'd invite him to ask his gay friends, if any, exactly what they have to say on the matter.

So there you have it.  The April Kepner in me has kept her cool, for the most part.  I don't expect everyone who reads this to agree with me on every point.  I can only hope that what I have to say will be an impetus for some soul-searching.  

If you are genuine, humble, and earnest in your desire to better understand any of these issues, please listen to your gay friends.  I say
listen to, not talk to, because years of experience have taught me that I have far more to learn from them than they could ever learn from me.

Before: a group of Christians at Chicago Pride
After: this is what I want my life to speak

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