Identity & Authenticity

The conversations after the GCN panel continue and as some of the talking past one another continues, I wanted to try to identify some of the reasons that I think this is happening.

One of the stumbling blocks seems to be an emphasis on the power of identity and identification on one hand and a focus on authenticity and honesty on the other. It seems that some voices in this conversation have very strong ideas about the manner a follower of Christ should identify themselves. The priority here is to identify first and foremost as a Christian and other identifiers fade away. It almost seems that to describe other identifiers, particularly ones that these individuals would see as problematic, is akin to a level of idolatry. Given this connection, it is understandable that they would have such strong feelings about the power of identity. On the other hand, there are individuals who focus on the importance of being honest about the reality that a person experiences. This commitment to authenticity is often connected to experiencing a sense of harm from a season of trying to eradicate the reality they were experiencing. For such individuals, the feeling of self-deception and suppression did not lead to freedom or healing but rather to a numb and diminished sense of self. This diminished sense of self wasn’t a healthy “denying oneself, taking up one’s cross and following Jesus” but rather was a repudiation of the personhood that God had given that individual as a gift. I am not talking here specifically or solely of the experience of a same-sex orientation but simply of the unique, complex combination of factors that makes up who any one of us is. My pastor on Sunday morning told of an old pastor telling Brennan Manning, “Be who you is, because if you ain’t who you is, you is who you ain’t.” The fundamental reality of this is that we are God’s children, adopted by him, beloved ones, seen and fully known by Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is indeed the common ground between those who emphasize identity and those who emphasize authenticity.

I can personally attest to having been a part of a system where the emphasis was on stripping yourself of any identity other than that of seeking to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. I nearly lost any sense of who I was. Not only was this spiritually and emotionally incredibly unhealthy for me, it also rendered me essentially useless in serving anyone else. When you disconnect from who you are, you lose the ability to truly and deeply love, you cannot move into the humility of self-forgetfulness – because you have no sense of self to forget. In fact, I would suggest that this place is actually the epitome of inverted pride. And I rejoice that God rescued me from such a false sense of what following him as a radical disciple means. Embracing the unique realities, the good, the bad and the ugly, of who Wendy Gritter is has allowed me to have a real and authentic relationship with God, myself and others. It has freed me to actually receive and accept at the deepest place that I am a Beloved one.

The truth is the vast majority of gay Christians I meet absolutely affirm that the primary core of their identity is that they are followers of Jesus and that the source of their life is found in him.

So I’m afraid that sometimes people are talking past one another. And there are some predictable results. I’ve heard from a few different places that what happened on the panel wasn’t bridge-building but it was coercive and dogmatic demanding of theological shifts. I’ve also heard people reiterate that they cannot and will not accept gay ideology.

Since it has been suggested that I was one of the most assertive on some points on the panel, it is important to me to address these matters. While overall, I hope the panel was a step in opening up dialogue that will hopefully have some elements of bridge-building, my participation on Friday evening was as a former ex-gay leader. As the evening unfolded, it became clear to me that my focus needed to be on clearly addressing the central issue that I believe is the root of much of the harm that people have experienced through an ex-gay paradigm. If indeed very few individuals experience a radical reorientation in the direction of their sexual attractions, then I am convinced that it is critical that there be a climate in which individuals can be at the very least honest with themselves about the reality of their same-sex attraction. Such self-acceptance in no way suggests that this individual must identify as gay or must consider embracing a theological shift in regard to same-sex relationships. If people do not want to describe themselves as gay that is entirely their choice and one that I will respect. Certainly this is understandable particularly for those in mixed orientation marriages who want to be sensitive to their spouse. What I do know, however, is that many even in mixed orientation marriages come to a place where they need some safe places and safe people with whom they can be completely honest and authentic about the reality of their ongoing experience with some degree of same-sex attraction. Where there is no place for such honesty, I see people much more vulnerable to stress, temptation, and feeling overwhelmed or trapped. Because of this, I will adamantly encourage and advocate for systemic change that will allow people permission (it is rather sad that they need permission – but welcome to systematized religion) to be honest and authentic about their reality of same-sex attraction. I held this conviction even as an Exodus leader.

At the same time, I absolutely see and acknowledge the need for support and encouragement for those who hold to the belief that sexual intimacy is reserved for the marriage covenant between one man and one woman.

So if advocating for intentional room and encouragement of honesty and authenticity is coercive or demanding of theological shift or ideological shift, then I’m guilty. But if this is common ground consistent with the good news of the gospel (as I believe it is) then perhaps the defensive accusations of dogmatism, of being unloving, of being coercive, of not extending generous spaciousness, of promoting dangerous ideology is unhelpful.

I know that many wish Exodus would disappear. They are cynical about the potential of such an established system really embracing a more honest and authentic ethos. I understand this. Because I am a follower of Jesus, I persistently believe in a God who is about the work of renewing and transforming all things – including systems, I hope for new life. I hope that the Exodus system will be able to honestly look at the harmful experiences of ex-gay survivors and recognize that a climate that essentially discourages self-acceptance of reality as it is will continue to harm individuals’ sense of connection to God, self and their faith.

As I said on the panel, I do empathize with the complex pressures that Alan is under as leader of Exodus. On the panel I did my best to balance care for him as a human being and the accountability that I believe Exodus needs. My sense is that Alan is in a lot of internal tension. I hope that he is really wrestling with these complex realities and the ways that our language usage makes things even more complicated. I pray for him to have wisdom and courage in his challenging role.

I also know that when I was in that difficult place of needing to critique aspects of the system that undergirded the work of New Direction, I needed people to be honest, forthright and upfront with me. I didn’t need anyone to sugar coat what we were doing and enable me to shrink back and simply continue to do business as usual. Real lives are impacted by these ministries. Real people who are deeply and dearly loved of God as they are – regardless of the direction of their sexual attractions. I have seen too many people become transformed by simply realizing that they could just accept themselves as they are and trust God to continue to lead, mold and refine them. I’ve seen people go from being fearful, inward focused, exhausted and depressed to being vibrant servants offering themselves to others in loving friendship and service. While I accept that there will be those who disagree with me, I cannot in good conscience accept a system that doesn’t encourage and support honesty and authenticity.

Matthew 5: 5 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.”

Matthew 6:6 “Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.” -WG