Longing for Equity

I have been reflecting on a number of happenings and stories that have intersected my path of late. Each is unique – yet they intersect around this question of identity and acceptance. “Who am I?” “Will I be accepted?” (Or, “Who are my friends and will they be accepted?”) Fundamentally, all point to the question of equity. A young woman came up to me after a speaking engagement. She asked if she could give me a hug – and proceeded to give me a huge embrace. She had lots of gay friends she said – friends she loved and cared for. Over the last year or so, her relationship with God had become dry and brittle – in large part because of her anger, frustration, and confusion around the dissonance she felt between her love for her gay friends and what the church, bible and perhaps even God seemed to be saying about her friends. As she wiped tears away, she said that for the first time in a long time she began to hear God’s voice again. She felt like some water had been poured on the desert of her soul. At the same talk another woman came up to hug and talk (it seemed to be a pattern that night). She said she was a new Christian and had searched a long time for a church because she wanted to know how the church related to gay people. She wasn’t gay – but again had lots of friends who were – and her concern was to worship in a place they would be welcome. She was so glad for the upfront manner in which the conversation had been engaged that night, for the room for questions and different perspectives and the focus on love and relationship. One of the stories I’ve been thinking a lot about is a very old one – from the 1700’s. And it has haunted me ever since encountering it. “Dr. Johannes Capitein was sold into slavery at the age of eight at the Dutch controlled slave castle El Mina in present day Ghana. He was taken by a trader to Holland as an “adopted son”. He attended Leyden University as a theology student and wrote a celebrated and best selling thesis in 1742 entitled, De servitude, liberati christianae non contraria, or how “slavery is niet strydig tegen de cristelyke vrijheid” (How slavery is not in conflict with Christian liberty). Notwithstanding that historic achievement of becoming perhaps the first “Black minister” in Holland, and perhaps the first African to write a dissertation in Europe, he returned shortly afterward to El Mina to serve as “a Black minister” and tragically died at the young age of 30, an outcast of both Ghanaian and Dutch society.” I know that race and sexual identity are distinct subjects – and my intention is not to equate them. An old post of Anita’s over at Sister-Friends Together speaks well to this question, “Gay is NOT the New Black” At the same time, I think there are profound lessons to learn about the impact and effect of systemic perpetuation of the lie that some people are less than – whether that be due to a person’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other reason. What struck me about the story of Johannes is the glaring picture it paints of an individual who internalizes inequity so deeply that they embody it in a manner that oppresses their brothers and sisters. I see a similar reality in some parts of the ex-gay community with predictable negative results. I also see tension at the edges of the ex-gay community where individuals who are honest and authentic about the persistence of their same-sex attractions name the counter-intuitive and emotionally contortionist nature of opposing initiatives that would bring greater liberty to glbt people. We saw this highlighted in the recent exposure of a pastor who attended the Catholic support group Courage to deal with his own experience of same-gender attraction – who was also a publicly known, outspoken opponent on civil liberty matters for gay people. In the blog aftermath, there were very different responses to this case. Some people felt confidentiality has been compromised (an undercover reporter had participated in the Courage group) and the outing was inappropriate despite the man’s anti-gay positions. Others felt the position of authority and influence as a pastor justified the outing. Some seemed to have greater empathy for the experience of internalized homophobia than others. It appears that on one hand, there is still great discomfort in the ex-gay world with identifying as gay. (I must add here that it seems to me that this is, at least in part, a result of granting way too much power to straight Christians who heap the construct with more assumptions than my country neighbours have donkeys in their fields.) On the other hand, for at least some within the ex-gay movement there is a growing desire (and awareness of the need) for more upfront, nuanced and honest assessment about the reality of ongoing experience of same-sex attractions. Personally, I just wish those in the ex-gay community who do experience same-sex attraction would take ownership of the term gay in a way that most gay people I know do – and that is, that it simply means, “I’m attracted to people of my own gender.” I know that as a mainly straight married gal, it doesn’t really matter what I hope or wish for. I’m not the one who has to navigate friends and family around me who want to make all kinds of assumptions about what being gay means. At the same time, I wince when I realize how much power my same-gender attracted friends give away to people who often base their assumptions on not much more than uninformed ignorance. I guess the idealist in me just longs for the day when people can be open and honest about their sense of sexual identity without any fear of judgment or rejection – though the realist in me knows that in some contexts we are very, very far away from such freedom. A friend has been connecting with me to talk a bit about the process of coming out in her faith community. She’s in a relatively mature season of life (ie. no longer a spring chicken). There are pro’s and con’s to coming out …. But at this point, the pro’s seem to be winning and she is considering what steps to take to come out to a community that, while diverse, leans on the traditional/uncomfortable point on the spectrum when it comes to homosexuality. Coming out is going to be liberating …. And painful. Another friend emailed me to keep me updated on where she is landing. For her, not identifying as gay seems to be most consistent with where her head, heart, and values are. She is concerned to honour and not overwhelm her family. Also being in a more mature season of life, she has navigated life functionally like a heterosexual for years and to now identify with the gay community (in her mind) seems both foreign and uncomfortable. She is honest and open about her attractions with herself and trusted others. I respect her thoughtfulness in engaging and thinking through her journey – and want to respond with unconditional acceptance as she chooses the place that is most life-giving for her at this time. As a friend in these situations, I want to listen well, encourage, explore, and affirm each unique individual in owning what is authentic and life-giving for them at this point in their journey. Where there is fear, I hope to be a support as they face it, process it and give it the boot. Where there might be lingering shame, I hope to help name it, confront it, and eradicate it. I know this notion of equity can be a contentious question in the Christian community, but for me it isn’t a question at all. If Christ has come to break dividing walls, to embody reconciliation, to remove barriers, to tear the curtain in the temple …. Then this false notion of needing to renounce, get rid of, suppress, do away with one’s experience of same-sex attraction is tragic in the manner akin to Johannes writing a dissertation supporting the slavery of his own African brothers and sisters. Whether one chooses to identify as gay or not, whether one pursues the potential of a healthy mixed-orientation marriage or not, whether one commits to celibacy or seeks to explore the possibility of a relationship, the individual who experiences same-sex attraction is no different than the person who experiences opposite-sex attraction and has to navigate choices around how they will experience and integrate their faith and their sexuality in both singleness and in relationships. Conversations around moral or appropriate behaviours may have some connection but is a different matter – and one that ought not to be collapsed into the question of equity. The questions around equity are about people. And every time we perpetuate the idea that a person has to get rid of their same-sex attraction as an expression of their sanctification, we perpetuate the systemic inequity that has haunted and exhausted and engendered fear for generations. For those of us who are straight, we perhaps don’t really think about how much of a lens our sexuality is for how we view and experience our world. It seems so intrinsic to us. But it is there, not static or rigid, but none-the-less informing, influencing and impacting the way we relate, engage, think, and see. To say that this, in and of itself, is something that we should try to get rid of, change, or ignore would be like amputating a fundamental part of oneself. Yet, many in the Christian community ask exactly that of those with same-sex attraction. Caveat: I know that language around ‘brokenness’ can be a powder keg – but there are certain contexts in which it is language that is commonly used and understood ….. so please hear me out for a moment …… I was preaching in a Pentecostal church. I had been speaking about how coming to Jesus doesn’t take away every challenge and struggle we face, and I asked the congregation, “How many of you experienced brokenness before you came to Jesus?” Everyone pretty much raised their hands. “And how many of you were 100% free of that brokenness the moment you came to Jesus?” No one put up their hand. Later in the message when I was talking about the ground being level at the foot of the cross, I asked, “How many of us experience brokenness in our sexuality?” I was the only one who put up my hand. Telling isn’t it? That same group, generally speaking, would probably consider a gay person to experience sexual brokenness in their understanding. But basically none of them thought they were sexually broken – even though they were able to acknowledge more general brokenness. Now granted, the lack of raised hands may have been embarrassment and not just a disconnection to their own reality, but none-the-less, in that particular Pentecostal context it revealed the systemic inequity that the church is part of perpetuating. So I named it – this systemic inequity. I asked them, “How many of you have to think about whether it will be safe or not to grab the hand of your significant other in a public place?” “How many of you know what it is like to be vigilant every day to ensure that you let no clues slip out about your sense of identity? Do you have any idea how exhausting that is?” “How many of you have feared family rejection, church expulsion, physical violence because of a part of yourself that you didn’t choose?” “How many of you have faced discrimination in seeking employment, a place to live, or access to insurance benefits on the basis of who you love?” A mom came up to me after the service. Her son is gay. There was a new and deeper recognition in her eyes and quivering voice as she told me about how her son, prior to his coming out, had been recognized as having the gift of discernment and really hearing from God. She told me that he and his partner hadn’t been to church in years – that they just didn’t feel comfortable ….. She wondered how things might have been different. She was tentatively reaching for the more spacious place I’d described. She left saying that God was really working on her heart and that she had some confessing and apologizing to do. Speaking of apology, I was talking with a friend about the post I’d written about the Marin Foundation’s apology campaign at the Chicago Pride parade. I told her about my surprise at the seemingly positive response from so many gay people given that my sense was that an apology on a sign at a public event can be perceived as cheap given the depth of pain and alienation that has been experienced. (Note: Read my last post. It’s not that I think it was a bad idea or that I judge the motivations behind it …. Just that I think that kind of public apology really needs to be surrounded by long-term demonstrable acts of repentance – which I know Andrew Marin is trying to live out.) My friend shared my surprise and then made a comment something like this, “I think we’re too quick to accept the scraps.” It stuck with me. I want to be an advocate for my gay friends. Not because they need me. Not because I can help to bring equity by doing so. I want to be an advocate because I think it is the heart of Jesus – the very same heart of inclusion and invitation and equity that I desperately need. And if any of my brothers or sisters somehow intrinsically feel only worth being grateful for ‘scraps’ then we are all impoverished. Only when we live out Paul’s triumphant exclamation of equity in Christ can we find true shalom: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Certainly, there are those who would argue, “but same-sex desires are disordered”. Without getting into an argument about that specifically (which inevitably becomes a win-lose scenario), I would simply acknowledge that there is dis-order in so much of our human experience. Yet all of the order and dis-order come together to form and shape the identity and experience of an individual – and that individual is known and loved by God. There are no second class citizens in God’s economy. God has no step-children – he has only children. And when this is contradicted, deep pain and alienation can occur. The feeling of invalidation, of feeling second class, of encountering the wrong side of favoritism is a human experience that when shared can engender a deeper capacity for compassion, identification and desire to advocate for others. I’m not gay but I am a step-child. I have one older sister with whom I share the same birth parents. Our mother passed away when I was just a toddler and my father remarried when I was 3. My dad and new mom went on to have four children together. My youngest sibling and only brother got married last week. As is tradition in our family, my mother wrote a retrospective poem about her child’s life. In it she spoke of her four children. Now if you did the math in the previous sentences, you’ll see that there are 6 siblings in my family. Earlier that day I encountered a conversation my father was having with some of the bride’s family. I didn’t hear the whole conversation and I’m not sure of the context, but I overheard my father say, “Marcia is the oldest.” Marcia is my younger sister. A moment later he turned to see me standing there and then introduced me by saying, “This is our other daughter Wendy.” I have had to struggle at times to not allow such basic experiences of inequity write the dissertation of my life. Getting lost in self-pity would be easy. Being overwhelmed by hurt inviting immobilization would be easy. (Note: I would be the first to say that so many others experience invalidation perpetrated toward them more deeply and profoundly than I have.) But at the end of the day, I have to determine within myself to not settle for the ‘scraps’. To remember, “You, oh Lord, are a shield about me, you’re my glory and the lifter of my head.” (Ps. 3:3) And to remember that until all of my brothers and sisters in the human family have the same chance to own those words for themselves – that God is their shield, their glory and the lifter of their heads – we fail to fully realize God’s good intentions for his redeemed creation.