Where Logic Meets Love

Synchroblog for Sanity: Why I Am a Christian Ally

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

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Today I'm participating in the Synchroblog for Sanity hosted on Justin Lee's blog. Justin's book Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate comes out today (see my review here).

The point of this synchroblog (which, in case you're not familiar, is a day where a bunch of bloggers all share posts on the same topic) is to bring the conversation on Christianity and homosexuality away from the polarizing rhetoric in which it's usually discussed and instead have some discussions about it that are, like, sane.

If you've been around for any length of time you know this is an important issue for me. I have a whole resource guide on Christianity and homosexuality devoted to relevant articles, videos, books, films, and more. I've posted tips for Christians wanting to talk about LGBTQ people without sounding like an idiot. I've written about how Christians wanting to condemn same-sex couples first having to define "sex," which is not as easy as it sounds.

But one thing I've never really discussed is Why.

Why do I, a straight cisgender woman, care so much about the LGBTQ community? And why do I care so much about changing other Christians' minds about them?

Pretty much everything can be traced back to the end of my sophomore year of high school, when I came across the blog of a 13-year-old boy who had just admitted to himself that he was bisexual. (Which, much like Justin Lee, was a stepping stone to admitting he was gay.)

This was really before "blog" was even a word; when I told friends that I liked reading about other people's lives online, they thought I was a weirdo. But for me, I knew that I could understand the world and other people better by hearing firsthand accounts of what it was like to be someone very different from me.

So this guy, who in the span of a couple years would become my best friend (and senior prom date!), was writing not only about coming to terms with his sexuality but about how this necessitated breaking away from the Christianity in which he'd grown up. It's the logic I've seen applied far too many times: God hates gay people, so accepting myself as gay means I must reject God.

For whatever reason, because of where I was in my faith at that point, I felt the need to argue with him and bring him back to Jesus. I'm not really sure that I had given much thought to gay people before, but I was certain of one thing, and that was that God loved everyone. So I left him comments on his posts, and we discussed things. This necessitated me doing a lot of research and finding out why, exactly, some Christians thought being gay was a sin, and how other Christians countered those arguments.

During the next year, I discovered that not only did he live somewhat near me, but he was on his high school's speech team, which meant that we'd be able to meet in person during the Regionals tournament -- about the safest option for meeting a random guy you met on the Internet, right? Anyway, the details of our awkward first meeting and how we became best friends over the next year or so are mostly irrelevant to the rest of the story, but this whole experience planted the seed for me to care about gay rights.

After that, I thought many times about joining my high school's gay-straight alliance, but I just couldn't get up the courage to do it. I knew that I cared a great deal about my friend, but I wasn't ready to be "out and proud" as an ally yet. I did participate in the Day of Silence my junior and senior year and didn't face any flak for it -- I didn't go to the most accepting high school, but it certainly wasn't a super-conservative, homophobic school either.

Also, at this point in time and in the location where I lived, "gay issues" were not really a topic of conversation at my Catholic church. I didn't face true Christian "love the sinner, hate the sin" rhetoric until one day at the Bible study I attended with some friends at a nearby non-denomnational Protestant-ish church. I have no idea how the topic came up, but I got in a big argument with the Bible study leader about gay people. Keep in mind that I knew exactly ONE gay person at this point in my life, but even then I knew that the things she was saying were false. Like she'd heard some speaker say that 90+% of gay people are gay because they were abused, and the rest just chose to "try that lifestyle." I knew only that nothing she was saying applied to my BFF, and so without any statistics to back me up, I simply continued to tell her she was wrong. And it hurt me that someone would say such terrible things about a person I cared about and think they were being a good Christian.

Shortly after I started college, one of my good friends from high school came out of the closet. So that brought the grand total of gay people I knew up to two. I still wasn't an out-and-proud advocate, but I now had two people I cared about to protect from lies and hatred.

I was now on a Catholic campus, albeit a fairly liberal one; about the only time I heard a mention of homosexuality was a passing mention when someone was listing off examples of sexual sins. However, the summer after my freshman year I went to work for Group Workcamps, a Christian organization, and the college students who made up summer staff were divided up into teams of four. (I found out later through talking with other teams that they'd grouped people by denomination -- except the Catholics, who were each put with three Protestants. I was with the Lutherans.)

One day I was in the supply truck with one of my teammates when the topic of homosexuality came up. I remember that she believed the typical lies about gay people -- that being gay was a choice, or was caused by abuse or bad parenting -- but that she was willing to listen as I told her about the gay people I knew and how they didn't fit the stereotypes. She ended up drawing a parallel to alcoholism because her father was an alcoholic, and while it wasn't the greatest analogy, it helped her understand how something that other people thought was a choice could actually not be a choice at all.

So that's basically how I started on the path to becoming a vocal ally: Some other Christians tried to tell me some lies about people I cared about, and I went all Mama Bear on them and told them they were wrong.

My junior year I joined the gay-straight alliance at my college, which you can read more about here. Through this group I met a lot more gay guys, some lesbians, a handful of bisexual people, and the first transgender person I ever met. Through seeing the struggles this trans guy went through trying to transition while at school, I became more passionate about trans rights. I got TransGeneration on DVD and watched the 20/20 episode on trans children. For one of my journalism classes I wrote an article on the lack of resources for transgender individuals in our city, which was almost run by the local paper until it turned out they were already planning to run a story that was like, "Hey, transgender people exist!" and apparently that was the same thing. (/sarcasm)

It saddened me a great deal that many of my friends in the alliance had left Christianity behind when they came out. Not all of them, of course -- given that we were at a Catholic university, there were still way more Catholics in the group than you'd likely find at an average gay rights group meeting. But I found myself speaking up again and again on behalf of straight Catholics. I corrected misperceptions: No, the Catholic church's position isn't perfect, but they do say being gay isn't a choice. And most of all, I tried to be a face of straight, Christian support: I love Jesus, and I love you, and to me these are not at odds with each other.

Second semester of junior year, Mike and I took a class about LGBTQ issues, and I joined a committee of students from the class to plan the second year of a pro-gay T-shirt campaign on campus. As the only person in both the class and the gay-straight alliance, I served as a liaison between the two groups and eventually helped transition the management of the annual campaign over to the alliance once the professors decided the class couldn't do it anymore. By the time I was helping run the campaign for the third year, I didn't even try to correct the person from the school paper who clearly assumed I was a lesbian. It didn't matter what people thought about me -- it mattered only that our LGBTQ community on this Catholic campus, especially the new first-year students, saw that there were people willing to voice their unequivocal support.

That's the story of how I became an ally, but it's not the whole answer to those questions I asked at the beginning.

My friends in the LGBTQ community are not the only ones who face discrimination because of something inherent in themselves. But they are the ones most likely to face blatant, unapologetic discrimination. They are the ones who still lack many basic legal protections in most parts of the United States. It's not to say that racism and sexism and ableism and the like don't still exist, because they most certainly do, but discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is where I personally see the biggest gaping hole in our society's claim to treat all people equally. Except perhaps for our society's poor treatment of people with mental illness, it's the discrimination that I see most consistently leading to people becoming homeless, or drug-addicted, or suicidal.

And similarly, these issues are where I see the biggest problems in Christianity in America. It is Christian's treatment of and rhetoric about LGBTQ people that most makes me feel distant from my Christian brothers and sisters, that most makes me ashamed for the hurtful things said and done in the name of Jesus. It is within Christian churches that I see flat-out lies and misinformation most often spread about sexual orientation and gender identity. And because of this, I see people -- both gay and straight, cis and trans -- continuing to turn away from Christianity. Because of something that isn't even remotely central to the Bible, and completely unmentioned by Jesus!

I've tied myself to this cause because it affects people I care about, because it's an area where equality lags far behind, and because I can't stand to see Christianity tied to lies and judgment.

I want to see more patience, more compassion, and more understanding in the conversation around Christianity and homosexuality because I don't want any more people to feel they have to choose between lying about themselves, hating themselves, or turning away from God.

If you care about this issue, or just want to know more about it, I can't recommend highly enough the book that came out today, Torn by Justin Lee. I don't get any benefits from saying that except for the knowledge that this book has the power to change minds and bring sanity back into this conversation.

I also invite you to check out the other contributions to today's Synchroblog for Sanity. It's time to bring some peace and sanity back to discussing the issues that are tearing so many people's lives apart.

12 comments:

  1. "After that, I thought many times about joining my high school's gay-straight alliance, but I just couldn't get up the courage to do it." I know how this feels. Eventually, this semester, I did join the LGBT group at my university. Turned out it wasn't scary at all.

    "By the time I was helping run the campaign for the third year, I didn't even try to correct the person from the school paper who clearly assumed I was a lesbian." Haha, yeah. If I'm going to be misunderstood, I'd rather have people think I'm a lesbian than to think I don't care about gay people and gay rights.

    Thanks for posting this story! ^_^

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    1. If I'm going to be misunderstood, I'd rather have people think I'm a lesbian than to think I don't care about gay people and gay rights.
      This point is what I loved most about your post for the synchroblog. So what if someone makes assumptions about my sexual orientation? Happens to gay people all the time -- assumed straight until proven otherwise. Much worse for someone to think I'm closed-minded or that I'm going to tell them they're going to hell. I don't want to be seen that way!

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  2. Great story! You make some really good points.

    Like she'd heard some speaker say that 90+% of gay people are gay because they were abused...

    Have you ever known somebody you think probably IS gay because they were abused? I would not put the figure at any double digit %, but of the hundred or so gay, lesbian, and trans people I've known, there are 3 who seem strongly motivated by either outright abuse or very bad experiences with the other gender (a reason to be gay/lesbian) or their own cisgender (a reason to change gender). I sometimes see this in reading about the lives of people I don't know, too. When I have mentioned this to some GLBT-supportive people, though, they get really really upset--as if suggesting that ANYbody's orientation might be formed by trauma is the same thing as saying GLBT is a mental illness. To me, it's like saying that some people dislike dogs because they've been attacked by dogs--it doesn't mean there aren't also people who have an inborn physical allergy to dogs and many other people who just happen not to like dogs.

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    1. This is not a very straightforward issue, and it requires some definitions and clarity of language even to share my thoughts on this. So: Do I believe that people have a biological inclination to be sexually attracted primarily to males, primarily to females, or to people regardless of their gender, or to no one? Yes. Do I think that life experiences can change that fundamental orientation? No. But that doesn't tell the whole story. It's possible for life experiences to create a psychological association between two things and potentially a psychosomatic aversion or attraction to something as a result. I think there's a difference between "being abused made me gay" and "being abused created a psychological aversion for me to having sex [at all / with a particular gender]." Even if you know someone was abused and identifies as gay, I don't think you can know with certainty that they don't have a fundamentally gay or bisexual identification. If a boy was abused by a man and now clearly has an aversion to male-male sex and is with a female partner, would we say that the abuse made him straight? Wouldn't we just assume he was always straight?

      And it's also possible for people to make choices. If people can choose to marry a member of the opposite gender despite only being attracted to the same gender due to societal/religious pressures, it's reasonable to think there might be reasons (including bad past experiences) someone would choose to be with a same-gender partner despite being primarily oriented toward the opposite gender. One book I read a few years ago on biological differences by sex and sexual orientation said this is more common among women but almost never seen among men; I don't know if there has been updated research since then. But I understand why something like this is downplayed in the LGBTQ community. People who have a problem with homosexuality will seize onto even the smallest shred of evidence that it could be changed. So this is why you get people going to (or being sent to) ex-gay ministries even if they believe there's a less than 1% chance that their orientation will be changed. This is something Justin Lee addresses very well in Torn, explaining that that tiny "glimmer of hope" is not worth the pain, trauma, self-hatred, etc. that the majority of people come out of those programs with.

      I don't think the analogy to dog attacks is strong enough to explain why people might be upset by the suggestion that abuse could change or create someone's orientation. It's more like going to a group of people who were born left-handed and who were beaten as children for writing with their left hands because people believed that being left-handed was a sign of having an evil spirit, and saying to them, "Well, but it's possible an evil spirit could cause someone to be left handed, isn't it?" If you've had to fight your whole life to make people understand that a part of you is innate and unchangeable, then it's only natural to be upset when someone suggests that those other people, who were denying you your very identity, could be right in a handful of cases.

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    2. Also, to answer your initial question, I don't know anyone personally who is gay or trans and was abused, but I remember reading a biography of Harvey Milk that said he would go to a theater when he was a child and men would have sex with him in the back of the theater. At first I thought this was saying that this experienced had "turned him gay," but from the story of the rest of his life and everything else I've read about him, it's pretty clear he was completely attracted to men romantically and sexually. He is a major figure in the gay rights movement and I've never heard anyone suggest that he was anything other than fundamentally homosexual. I can see how someone could read his story and think that his early experiences made him gay, but I think it's far more likely that he was born gay and just had sexual experiences much earlier than most people.

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  3. I just now remembered that I had posted this comment and came back to see your response!

    What I think is most likely in cases where bad experiences with one gender turn a person toward exclusively same-sex attraction, is that without the experience the person would have been somewhere along the bisexual continuum (like most people) and, influenced by the usual social forces (heterosexual pairings are normative; the number of potential partners is larger if you're seeking an other-sex partner), would most likely have an orientation somewhere along that continuum. I don't think that is BETTER than having a same-sex orientation; the tragedy is not in that outcome but in the bad experience itself and in other likely effects on the person's life, such as feeling unable to trust a male doctor just because he is a male.

    To clarify, I'm not talking about sexual abuse necessarily. I know someone whose father beat and humiliated his wife and daughters, leading this daughter first to marry an abusive man at a young age to escape her father's home, then to conclude that she could never be safe in a relationship with a man. She divorced, cut ties with her family, and has been a lesbian since. Was she always attracted to women? Probably. Was she always attracted ONLY to women? I doubt it. In fact, she's said that attraction to her husband's appearance blinded her to his personality.

    If a boy was abused by a man and now clearly has an aversion to male-male sex and is with a female partner, would we say that the abuse made him straight? Wouldn't we just assume he was always straight?

    I think "we" as a society tend to assume that and to believe that the abuse merely strengthened his aversion to male-male sex. But as I see it, what the abuse did was to close doors on some possibilities in his nature. He might have felt some attraction to men if that hadn't happened.

    I understand why something like this is downplayed in the LGBTQ community. People who have a problem with homosexuality will seize onto even the smallest shred of evidence that it could be changed.

    Yes, I think that's exactly the reason, and it makes sense. It's unfortunate though for people whose experiences have twisted them into an orientation that is too narrow for them but feels like the only box in which they can be safe--it could be hard for them to find effective therapy or friends who let them express any other-sex attraction. I understand that these problems often are experienced by bisexuals who've always identified as bi, so they must be repressive forces too on people identified as gay/lesbian whose innate orientation is more bisexual.

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  4. I feel that your handedness analogy is off, but I also feel unqualified to explore it because I am ambidextrous, and although my kindergarten teacher insisted that I choose one hand to write with (arguing that it would be easier to teach just one hand to write than to teach both, which is logical although I'm not sure how true it is) and I then did not attempt to write with the other hand for 10 years, I was allowed to choose for myself which hand it would be (although the convenience of right-handedness was obvious even in kindergarten) and was never beaten, only gently reminded to use my right hand; and when I later experimented and rediscovered my innate handedness, nobody gave me any trouble about it. Thus, it has never seemed to me like handedness is a big deal or a part of anybody's very identity.

    I agree with your conclusion about Harvey Milk. It seems most likely that he went to that theater because he felt sexually attracted to men and aware that it was a place where that interest was explored. (I don't know anything more about it than what you said, but that can't have been an ordinary theater showing children's movies, right?) However, I think it is possible that his sexual orientation wasn't fully formed yet, and if he had instead had the opportunity to have sex with a bunch of women, he might have enjoyed that and latched onto women as his source of sexual pleasure and assumed that men would not be satisfactory.

    I mean, when I was a girl, I was intensely curious about the bodies and sexual feelings of other girls, as well as boys. If I had had an early experience with a girl that was very pleasurable, that might have "set" my understanding of what sex is all about and what I want from it in a more girl-oriented direction. As it was, I didn't have any sexual experience until I was 16 and my desires were turning more toward guys, and by the time I was in college where it was "cool" to be bi and I was sometimes propositioned by women, it just seemed implausible no matter how hard I tried to be open-minded about it. But I feel I was more malleable when I was younger, such that it would have been possible for a good or bad experience to shape my orientation.

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    1. We agree on some things here (from what I can tell), such as that it's unfortunate when a person who is bi/pansexual feels the need to limit themselves to only same-sex or only opposite-sex partners for some reason, whether that be societal pressure, past negative experiences, etc. On the other hand, the person you know whose past abuse has led her to be with only female partners -- you say she "has been a lesbian since." This would suggest that at one time she had the capacity to be attracted to both men and women, but now not only has chosen to be only with female partners but is unable to be sexually or romantically attracted to men. That's where we seem to disagree -- I think someone attracted to men could make a choice to be with only female partners, or could have a psychological aversion to being with a man, but based on everything I've ever known I find it hard to believe that a person's orientation could change from fundamentally bisexual to fundamentally gay.

      If sexual orientation were as changeable or fluid as you seem to be suggesting, then I'd expect at least some of the people who devote years of their life to trying to change their orientation to have success, and I'd expect to see more evidence (especially given that there are so many people looking for it!) that there is some connection between childhood experiences and sexual orientation. But so far those changes haven't happened and that evidence hasn't turned up, and the search for them have damaged many people's lives.

      So I stand by my response to your original question: I think it's possible for someone to choose to limit their partners to one gender despite being attracted to both/all genders, and it's possible for abuse to cause an aversion to partners of a certain gender, but I think fundamental sexual orientation is fixed at birth and not influenced by abuse or early sexual experimentation, and that to suggest otherwise is massively simplistic at best and harmful at worst.

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  5. It was a blessing to meet a fellow ally. Thank you for being true to your heart, honest with your voice, and open-minded with your soul.

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    1. It was so great to meet you, too! Thanks for your kind words. I hope to see you at next year's conference!

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  6. Thank you so much for writing this. I am also a Christian ally and currently work at an LGBTQ counseling agency in San Francisco, constantly trying to understand why my Christian circles and I cannot agree about equal rights for LGBTQ individuals. I would love to hear more! I stumbled on your blog just googling "Christian ally" and am thankful to have found it.

    My biggest struggle is when my Christian friends judge me for being an ally, assuming my spirituality is out of whack because I have chosen to stand with my LGBTQ brothers and sisters....still trying to figure that one out...

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    1. Thanks so much for writing! I think you would find the many resources in my "Resource Guide to Christianity and Homosexuality" to be helpful for finding other Christian allies as well as Christian LGBTQ folks and for having an abundance of Christian perspectives on this issue to share with others. And please stick around! I'd love to hear more of your perspective.

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