6 Assumptions Smashed by the GCN Conference
Friday, January 18, 2013Tweet
A week ago, I was at the Gay Christian Network annual conference, held this year in Phoenix. (Next year it'll be in Chicago, so start planning!) I went with very few expectations in mind; I just knew that my heart has drawn itself into the intersection between faith and the LGBTQ community, and this seemed like a place I should be.
Someone asked me the first night what I hoped to get out of the conference, and I said something about learning to be a better ally. I think I expected that that would come wrapped up in a breakout session with a 10-point bullet list. Instead what happened was that this community absorbed my heart, told me their stories, and smashed a bunch of assumptions I didn't even realize I was holding.
Here are six beliefs I had going in, and why I discovered I was wrong.
Assumption 1: Everyone Regrets Ex-Gay Therapy
It's hardly disputable that ex-gay therapy has been incredibly traumatic for large numbers of people. And I met way more people than I expected who had gone through some form of ex-gay therapy. If you want a thorough critique of the ex-gay movement, you can find one in Torn (don't forget you still have time to enter to win a copy!).
But what surprised me was the number of people who talked about ex-gay therapy as a positive, if not ideal, experience. Some ex-gay programs, I guess, hardly mention sexual orientation at all, instead operating under the idea that same-sex attraction is caused by bad past relationships with parents, romantic partners, etc., and if those issues are worked through than the person will magically become straight. One guy I talked to said that the program taught him to see all the problems with his previous romantic relationships, so now he's in a healthy 3-year relationship -- with a guy.
Now, in all these cases I think these people would have been served equally well, if not better, by a regular therapist (a good one, who was accepting of their sexual orientation) rather than an ex-gay therapist, so I'm not arguing for the continuation of ex-gay ministries. But Jennifer Knapp, who performed the second night of the conference, talked about the problem of letting other people rewrite our stories for us, and I don't want to try to rewrite the stories of those who have gone through ex-gay therapy by saying, "No, you must have had a horrible experience! You must have had terrible guilt!" That's just as bad as the ex-gay folks who say, "There must be something traumatic that turned you gay, and we're not going to stop until we find it!"
Assumption 2: Everyone Appreciates Accepting Parents
I attended one session by a mother and son telling the story of his coming out. It was the complete reversal of many of the coming out stories I heard during the conference (LGBTQ person struggles to reconcile faith and sexual orientation or gender identity, finally accepts self and comes out to parents, parents reject them). This guy had decided he needed to tell his parents about his same-sex attraction before leaving home, but he put it off until the very last minute. Why? He knew his mom, a psychologist, would be completely accepting, whereas he felt that his attractions were wrong and he wanted to fight to change himself. And that's exactly what happened -- he came out, she told him it was perfectly normal, and he got angry that she wasn't on the same page as him about it.
This story caused me to rethink what would play out if one of my future children came out to me. I think I always assumed that because I was accepting, my child wouldn't have any qualms about coming out and it would be happily ever after. But I had to stop and think -- if my child wanted to try ex-gay therapy, would I try to stop them, or would I have to accept that they're ultimately in charge of their own life? That's a tough question for me.
Assumption 3: LGBTQ People Always Leave Church Voluntarily
In my writings about reconciling Christianity and the LGBTQ community, I tend to assume that LGBTQ people leave church because the church is so hostile to them that they either find a more accepting one or give up on Christianity altogether. I knew that there were people who were kicked out of their homes when they came out (though I hadn't known anyone personally, so it didn't seem real to me), but I was horrified by the number of people I met who had been told explicitly that they were no longer welcome in their faith community anymore -- period. Many more were told they had to give up positions of leadership or anything that made them visible; they were allowed to stay in behind-the-scenes ministries like washing dishes and running sound. I guess I had too much faith in the Christian community in general to think that they were actually, literally prohibiting people from being in their congregation because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It's... horrific.
And now some smashed assumptions that were more personal:
Assumption 4: I'd Be a Better Ally if I Weren't Catholic
I've explained on here many times my reasons for remaining Catholic despite having issues with a handful of tenets of Catholic teaching. But I always have in the back of my head that LGBTQ folks are looking at me going, "How can you call yourself an ally and stay in the Catholic church?" Even knowing LGBTQ Catholics, particularly at the gay-straight alliance at my Catholic university, I still had this nagging feeling that I wasn't really doing all I could until I had left my church for a more affirming one. But how could I do that when I find God in the Mass?
At the GCN conference, I found people who got it. There were not only a surprising number of Catholics there (surprising because of my previous experience that non-denominational = 99% Protestant), but there were also people from a vast range of denominations, including those far more conservative and anti-gay than Catholicism. There were people still in the closet at their churches so that they wouldn't be kicked out (see above), because they wanted to stay despite whatever anti-gay rhetoric was thrown around. Never once did I feel judged for being Catholic, which is a feat even in an average group of mostly Protestants, but which really amazed me from a group of mostly LGBTQ Protestants. Instead, there was a feeling of being in a completely judgment-free zone, with the understanding that "we're all doing the best we can for where we are in our life right now."
There was even a Mass offered on Saturday night during the breakout sessions, although it was an Old Catholic (also called Independent Catholic) Mass, not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church but using the same liturgy as before the newest Roman Missal. I was amazed and grateful that that was offered.
Assumption 5: I'm Invading a Safe Space
The only reason I went to the GCN conference in the first place was because Justin Lee asked on his blog for more straight Christians to attend the conference. It would not have occurred to me that I could go if he hadn't said that; I figured, you know, this is a place where LGBTQ Christians can go and spend time together without having to deal with us straight Christians. But I had an absolutely mind-blowing number of people come up to me throughout the conference, after finding out I was straight, to thank me for coming and tell me how much it meant to them that I had made the effort to come. Far from making people uncomfortable or invaded, my presence there seemed to make people feel like they were less alone in working to make the world, and particularly the Christian world, a safer place for LGBTQ people.
Assumption 6: LGBTQ People Don't Want to Hear My Straight Person Thoughts
When I write on here about the LGBTQ community and Christianity, I address my remarks primarily to straight Christians, figuring that my role in all this is to educate other straight Christians to break down misconceptions and stereotypes. However, I also write about faith and gay rights for my local LGBTQ community center, and I've obscured my own sexual orientation in those writings with the idea that people would consider my thoughts invalid if they knew I was straight. Much of this notion came from seeing what happened to Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, who got skewered for being a white woman trying to tell black women's stories. I figured that I'd get "booed off the stage," so to speak, if people knew I was a straight person writing about reconciling faith and sexual orientation.
This changed for me when I attended a session run by the women behind Love Boldly. The founder, and main session presenter, was Heidi Weaver, a straight woman. The session was a modification of a workshop they normally do for straight Christian audiences, this time talking to a largely LGBTQ audience about how they can have better, more loving conversations with those who have hurt them, and how to talk about their faith and sexuality in a way that respects the other person's dignity and point of view. I honestly expected the reaction to be something like, "How can you say I need to respect and love this person who has said these evil things to me? What would you even know about that?" Instead, lots of hands went up during the Q&A and people asked Heidi's advice on their different situations.
I think it helped that Heidi admitted upfront that her privilege as a straight person prevents her from being fully able to empathize with her LGBTQ Christian brothers and sisters and that she is always open to feedback and criticism. She didn't pretend to know everything, but she didn't hide what she did know, and that was the revelation for me. I've actually done more research into aspects of LGBTQ issues than some LGBTQ people (see my review of God Believes in Love and some of the problematic language Rev. Gene Robinson uses), and I have a God-given gift in the areas of writing and research, so I've realized that my sexual orientation doesn't completely invalidate my ability to write to an LGBTQ audience, as long as I stay open and humble about what I don't, and can't, know and understand.
You can expect more thoughts on the conference as I organize and process them. It was a fantastic experience, and I'm so glad I went!
What is an assumption about the LGBTQ community you held that has been smashed by your experiences?