Where Logic Meets Love

6 Assumptions Smashed by the GCN Conference

Friday, January 18, 2013

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6 Assumptions Smashed by the GCN Conference | Faith Permeating Life

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?


  1. This is beautiful. I am a homosexual and married to my partner of 8 years. Well, legally, it's been three. I have been reading your posts regularly now and truly appreciate your spiritual insight. I am a life coach, I know how hard it is to give opinion without offense to either party. And you do it so effortlessly. I would love to exchange links with you and possibly write an article on your website, if you wouldn't mind.

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I'm glad to know such a difficult thing comes off as effortless :) I am sure there are still plenty of people I unintentionally offend, but I certainly try not to. I don't usually have guest writers, but I would be interested in having additional contributions to the What Marriage Means to Me series, if you're interested in writing for that. I'd love to get your perspective.

  2. "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?'"

    I've always have the opposite in the back of my head: "How can I call myself a Catholic and be an ally?"

    1. I hope our recent conversation about what it means to be an ally has answered that question somewhat for you.

    2. Yes, it was very helpful.

      I've written more about questioning and being Catholic on my blog.


      Interestingly, Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna is taking a more pastoral approach toward those in not-Church-approved relationships, including gay couples and divorced/remarried couples. His position seems to be that marriage (one man, one woman) is God's plan, but for some people, committed same-sex partnership may be the best they can do. He wrote the new Youth Catechism, so he's a pretty important figure.

      The Catholic Church does have some very real concerns about religious freedom (more in other countries than the USA), same-sex adoption, and society viewing homosexual partnerships as equal to marriage. Unfortunately, all this gets caught in narrative of the "Gays vs. Christians" debate.

  3. I think you do a good job with this subject, Jessica. Being a Catholic, I believe there is a reason the Church stands where they do on marriage, but I am no longer opposed to recognizing the marriages of same-sex persons legally. There are no easy answers to these issues. It's very hard to remain loyal to the Church and believe that it's okay to be married to someone of the same gender. A lot of times I just have to give it to God and say, please do something with this God, because I don't know what to do or think or say about this. I think that I would probably put it on par with a straight couple being divorced in the Church as far as the issues I have philosophically.

    One area that I have become very interested in is the stories of transgender persons. I have a client that is MTF transgender, and she has actually given me a lot of resources so that I can effectively help her, versus someone who is not transgender. The one thing that I find amazing is that transgender folks are still not really recognized as a group within LGBTQ. Someone who is gay actually told her that they thought being trans was a choice. You would think out of all people they wouldn't say that. Sigh. Even the Church doesn't think it's a choice (mostly).

    1. There is definitely still division and misunderstanding within the LGBTQ community, in particular the invisibility of bisexual individuals and the misconceptions about transgender individuals. Having read so extensively on this myself, I have to remember that a person's recognition of themselves as gay, bi, or trans doesn't suddenly make them an expert on all things LGBTQ, and in particular those who have grown up in the church or other environment surrounded by negative and false messages are still going to retain a lot of those ideas, at least initially.

      I'm glad that you have gotten resources to learn more about transgender individuals and that you're interested in learning more. There is still much I have to learn myself, but as I've learned a lot over the past 5 years, if you ever want to send me any questions you have that you'd feel uncomfortable asking a transgender person directly, please feel free and I'll do my best to answer and/or point you toward more resources.

    2. The Catholic Church does NOT teach that having Gender Identity Disorder is in any way a sin.

      However, my understanding (and I could be wrong about this) is that the Catholic Church teaches that gender is a physical reality, not a social construct. Therefore, treating GID through sex reassignment surgery is mutilation, and therefore, medically unethical.

      The Catholic Church teaches that gender does not change after surgery: A man with a surgically constructed artificial vagina is not a woman and a woman with a surgically constructed artificial penis is not a man. Our bodies are a part of who we are, and wanting to radically surgically alter a healthy body in this way is a sign that something is wrong. Gender reassignment surgery doesn't solve the underlying problem of why this person cannot accept their gender and the body that they were given. The Church teaches that people with GID, and the professionals who help them, should work to treat it as a psychological problem to get the person to accept their body.

      In other words, the Catholic position on transgender persons is more one of the medical ethics of various forms of treatment than one of individual morality.

  4. Hi Jessica -
    I tried to post this comment earlier, but for some reason it didn't stick. If it's user error (quite possible), then sorry for the repeat comment.

    I just wanted to let you know I think this is awesome and to thank you for writing it.

    I got a huge chuckle out of the story about the "overly-understanding" mom. It illustrates your point perfectly: common experiences are by no means universal ones.

    Also, I'm sorry to say that being thrown out of churches is not, by far, the worst of the church-based abuses of LGBT people. Hang around with our community long enough and you will hear some horrific stories. It's no wonder why there is such animosity toward the church from so many people who are gay. I give the folks who lived through these experiences a lot of credit. To be mistreated horribly by those who claim to represent Christ, and yet to continue to seek out and form faith communities - that is a true and beautiful expression of faithfulness.

    My sincere thanks for being an ally. The church is better because you're in it.

    Best -


    1. Thanks for your comment. I was absolutely blown away by many of the stories I heard -- both in the horrible treatment by people who identify as Christian, and in the grace-filled way that so many LGBTQ folks have moved past their experiences to continue to cling to their faith. It brought me face-to-face with how much there is yet to be done, and challenged me to do more.

  5. Wow, good points- this challenges some assumptions I have too. Particularly #5- my last semester of college, I went to meetings of my school's LGBT club, and I really liked it, meeting people and stuff, but I didn't really tell them I was straight because I didn't know if they'd be okay with that... (I guess some of them knew I have a boyfriend, so there's that...)

    But now I wonder, maybe it would be even more meaningful to them to know I was straight- that I wasn't attending meetings because I was gay and I obviously belonged there, but because I really was interested in meeting LGBT people and getting to know them, even though that stuff didn't affect me personally. Hmm.

    1. Yeah, it was an important lesson for me. I'm sure there are some groups out there that genuinely don't want straight people there for one reason or another, but as long as you're welcome I do think many people appreciate your being there.

      Being in a situation where I had to come out over and over again was a fantastic experience for me because it was a rare chance to be (in a small way) in the shoes of an LGBTQ person. Am I being deceptive if I don't tell them upfront that I'm straight? Is it even relevant to the conversation? Can I even have a conversation without eventually bringing up my husband? (Answer: No.) And this is even knowing that there would be no negative consequences for "coming out" -- I can't even imagine how difficult it is to try to determine all of the above plus gauge what the reaction would be if you did come out.

    2. Oh man, definitely. And there have been times I write something on facebook about supporting LGBT rights or something, and I'm kind of afraid that people are going to get all mad at me for it- but that's nothing compared to what actual gay people face- people rejecting them for who they are.

    3. Sometimes I get SO frustrated with the misconceptions and even blind hatred that still exists (while looking for other posts on the GCN conference I found some really vile stuff about the impossibility of being both gay and Christian) and it makes it seem like it's not worth fighting anymore, but then I remember that my LGBTQ friends don't get to "take a break." I have the privilege of being able to completely extricate myself from the conversation if I want to -- and I don't want to do that.


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