This blog post has been a long time coming.
I’ve thought long and hard before writing it but I’ve felt compelled to write about one of the most defining and divisive issues within Christendom for some time. It isn’t an easy subject and as such, this post is longer than your average blog. I think it needs to be, and I hope you’ll stick with me. I’m telling my story through my interactions with my LGBTQIA+ friends and colleagues over the years.
As you read, I’d love it if you could imagine these dear friends of mine are your friends. I’ve had the privilege to work in areas of intersectionality, where the diverse sections of society interact and engage. I’ve been honoured to meet and engage with people from all walks of life, so perhaps I’ve become friends with more LGBTQ folk than your average Christian. Some Christians don’t know any LGBTQ people or think they don’t, and as such it is easier for their position to become more entrenched because it’s not really something that they’ve had to wrestle with in a personal way.
So, dear Christian friend, if because of your life path you don’t have any LGBTQ friends, I’d like you to meet some of mine. These friends have agreed for me to tell of how my relationship with them has changed my perspective on human sexuality. I’ll also be mentioning others who I met in a professional context, however, their names aren’t used and the details so vague that there is no breach of confidentiality.
I will be discussing, from a Christian perspective why I believe LGBTQ individuals and couples and their children should have a fully affirmed place at the table within the church family (if that’s what they desire) in part 2, but really, first I want you to understand my journey and meet my friends. I hope you’ll graciously join me. If you’re not a Christian, hopefully, you’ll learn something of the grace of God that I experience every day. I’m thankful for the grace extended to me by my Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender friends who have allowed me to share with you here.
I apologise if I get the language wrong at any point, as I’m writing from the perspective of a heterosexual cisgender male. I also apologise if to some, I appear to completely misunderstand the issues from whatever perspective you have, or if my writing comes across as incendiary. This is not my intention. I have tried not to make generalisations about a group of people on an issue which is hugely complex. I also humbly recognise that my perspective is limited and there are a wide variety of views within the Christian LGBTQ+ community. Many of which may not align with my own. However, I won’t apologise for my own understanding or value base, although also acknowledge that my perspective may continue to evolve.
After consultation, I’ve generally chosen to use the shorter acronym of LGBTQ throughout. There’s a link near the end of part one to a glossary website to help with some of the terms I’ve used if needed.
For ease of reading, I’ve split this blog into two posts. Hopefully this is helpful to you.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the process of writing this blog has been reconnecting with people and learning more about their own past and journey. David is one of those guys who just keeps randomly popping up in your life. We worked on a fostering case together and later he contacted me for some advice on applying for jobs akin to my own. I’m not even sure how we became Facebook friends but we somehow share a similar sense of humour and if either of us share something that’s so silly it’s beyond funny to the average person, it’s likely the other will be one of the few people to have liked the post.
Later we ended up working for the same organisation so would bump into each other. I wish we had made time for coffee. David and his husband love their dogs and I feel like I’ve known their dogs vicariously through Facebook! I’ve introduced you to David first because he was the first person I thought to contact when writing this blog. He’s active with unions and has represented organisations at gay pride events. I discovered when we communicated recently that he’d considered becoming a vicar when he was younger and has also spent a lot of time thinking about what the Bible says about LGBTQ issues. The one thing that really struck me was when he said that he and his partner had considered attending slimming world together (got to admit, both of them look in good shape!) but all of their local groups were held in church halls. David’s husband felt too distressed at the thought of going to a non-church event within a church for fear of being discriminated against. They put those plans on the back burner.
How can we possibly be in a position where the church sends out such mixed messages about who is included and who isn’t? Where even entering a church building for nonreligious reasons can make someone feel so uncomfortable? The church is the very body of Christ. Christ is the very epitome of inclusion: “Come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest”. Read the sentence again and place the emphasis on all and on will. There’s no exclusion, no expectation or demand from Jesus, no Ts and Cs.
Luke was the first openly gay guy I knew. We started at uni together in 2004 and I’m embarrassed to say I really don’t have a ‘gaydar’. We’d be having coffee during a gap between lectures and another student would mention his Elijah Wood keyring (it was peak Lord Of The Rings then). Luke enthused his love of Elijah Wood. I thought maybe he was just really into hobbits! He talked passionately about his partner who had moved to Nottingham to be with him. “She must be really committed,” I thought. It was only later someone told me his partner was a bloke. I got to know Luke and his partner Tony quite well. They came over for a meal, my wife and I went to theirs for a party. Tony and I both experienced food poisoning after a pizza h*t buffet one time. I remember my wife and I sitting in our living room and chatting with them about faith and sexuality. I’m pretty sure I said something like “As a Christian, it wouldn’t be right for me to be gay, but because you’re not Christians you’re not expected to meet God’s standards”. It seemed like a sort of get out of jail friendship card at the time… We can still be friends but… Eeak!
It was Luke and Tony’s relationship and commitment to each other, their love and their everyday normality which really got me thinking. I saw that their love for each other mirrored the love that I had for my wife. Luke didn’t choose to be gay and fall in love with Tony any more than I chose to be straight and fall in love with my wife. It certainly wasn’t a ‘lifestyle choice’, a Christian assertion which I still hear banded about. I sadly lost touch with Luke after uni. We were just on the edges of the Facebook birth and explosion then so didn’t quite connect that way. Thankfully I managed to reconnect with him recently through a mutual friend and was thrilled to hear that he and Tony have adopted two little boys. Luke was amazed that our conversations and interactions had such an impact on me all these years later.
It’s through human social interactions and engaging our own critical thinking and analysis that we come to make conclusions about how we see the world and make sense of it. Of course, our environment, upbringing and belief system are also instrumental in how we form our values and a moral framework. What my heart and spirit were telling me about Luke and Tony’s relationship, that it was good, and true and bursting with love, clashed directly with my ingrained beliefs and indoctrination that their partnership was abhorrent to God.
My cognitive dissonance, my rational and embracing mind clashing with my indoctrination meant that it would be many more years before I could fully acknowledge and affirm a gay union as being just a blessed as my own.
Nikki was another student on my uni course. She’s bisexual and was in a relationship with her female partner at the time. Nikki and I clicked and naturally got on really well, however, there was also some underlying tension as she knew I was a Christian and all the baggage that this brought for her, and I knew she was in a relationship which I believed God wouldn’t support. I think we had some fairly civil conversations about sexuality. I saw myself as a pretty nice guy. I hopefully didn’t force my views on others and I felt that it was important to listen to other perspectives. I think though after one interaction our friendship was never quite the same. I had offered to pray for Nikki. I don’t remember what the context was and I don’t think it was directly related to LGBTQ issues but I do remember that Nikki said something along the lines of “please don’t”.
When I contacted Nikki recently about this blog post, she said that she had been very upset and angry after I had offered to pray for her. So much so that she emailed the Dean of the School of Social Sciences and asked how someone like me could be allowed onto a social work course. Thankfully I wasn’t thrown off the course and thankfully we remained friends!
If only we had just focused on enjoying our friendship rather than me feeling the need to solve these deep issues, then maybe we would have discovered that we loved all the same music and shared the same favourite band. If we’d known that at the time, we would have had endless conversations about the meaning of Counting Crows lyrics.
When you think you know the objective truth about the universe, and your belief system asserts the necessity of promoting those beliefs to others then I’ve come to see that it becomes almost impossible to really show and express true empathy for another person. The person is always a soul to be saved. The person is part of the ‘Other’. The ‘Other’ is part of the ‘World’, the ‘World’ is seen as promoting a narrative that is part of Satan’s plan to destroy Godly family values. We see individuals as people to love and pray salvation for but we also see them as part of a homogeneous destructive system in the world that is to be ‘hated’. More cognitive dissonance. As long as we take a dualistic view of the Other, we dehumanise those who don’t quite fit.
There’s a phrase in Christian culture which is a coverall, get out clause for how we manage this cognitive dissonance, “hate the sin, love the sinner”. The problem here is, we’re still hammering the assertion that the individual is a sinner for expressing themselves and forming human relationships which are completely natural to themselves, and that the expression of their love is sinful.
This goes right to the heart of what it is to be Christian because it challenges core beliefs: do we believe that what the Bible says is true? Do we believe that the Bible is without error (inerrant) when it says in the Old Testament that gay people should be stoned or in the New Testament that their relationships are unnatural? How are we to make sense of these things? If we hold onto these narratives then we can’t love our friends, neighbours, and colleagues as equals. They will always fall below the respected heterosexual norm. We can’t demonstrate real love, we can only love through judgment, and that’s not love. However much we try to justify that this isn’t homophobia, I have come to the conclusion that it very much is.
I recently apologised to Nikki for what caused her such distress all those years ago. Thankfully we’re both very different people now, but it’s important to note how much of an impact our words can have when we don’t have an understanding of an individual’s prior relationship with those words.
Tom was my childhood best friend. We lived next door to each other in a solitary ex-mining terrace of about 26 houses on the top of a hill, miles from anywhere. We started school together on our first day and we were all about Thundercats and Superted. Tom was usually Superted and me, Spotty man. Tom was just that bit cooler than me. He had Liono’s sword and I didn’t.
We ended up moving away from each other and went to separate schools but kept in touch, traveling over the bleak Northumbrian National Park moors and staying at each other’s over weekends on a regular basis. When I became chronically ill at age 10 I lost most of my school friends. Living on a farm doesn’t help with social isolation for a child.
Tom and I just kept doing what we always did, hanging out at each other’s at the weekends. Tom posted me comedy newspapers he had edited just for me on his computer. I missed most of 6 years of school but Tom was there throughout. He became my personal IT tutor and opened my world to the internet.
In our teenage years, I was into Christian rock and indie, Tom was into the gritty mainstream indie of Pulp, a northern band who sang about wanting to sleep with common people and getting sorted for drugs. We shared a love of BBC comedy like Alan Partridge and Red Dwarf. When I recovered from ME, Tom taught me skills learned from his Duke of Edinburgh award trips and we set off camping across the lake district together, at sixteen, on our own. What were our parents thinking?! We would lie with our heads out of his tent on the edge of Lake Coniston smoking cigarettes. Because that’s what you do when you’re 16 in the mid-90s.
Tom never expressed an interest in faith and we didn’t really talk about it in detail, but now that I have a non-dual perspective and a more inclusive faith, I look back and see that in a way, he expressed and demonstrated an inclusive and consistent Christ type to me. He saw past my illness and limitations and was faithful to me as a friend.
As we grew up and life moved on, we just kept in touch loosely. I heard that Tom was gay and had a partner. Was I bothered by this information? No. I was just happy that he was happy. I had the privilege of meeting his partner a couple of years ago at a reunion. It was great to see them.
Tom recently told me that he’s never experienced any discrimination for being gay, nor felt any inclination to advocate for gay rights. This is the reality for so many, and how it should be, in the sense that those rights shouldn’t need to be advocated for.
Meanwhile, gay young people across the globe are growing up in Christian families and embodying shame. Shame because they can’t be who they believe God made them to be, shame because they can’t get rid of feelings that they’ve been told are wrong, and shame because they know their families will potentially reject them and grieve because of the perceived risk to their eternal soul if they do live authentically.
In the US particularly, suicide rates are known to be high among gay young people from Christian families, particularly in fundamentalist evangelical communities. Some teenagers are forced into a ‘conversion therapy’ process whereby the aim is to make them straight. Part of this ‘therapy’ is prayer and to ‘pray the gay away’. For me, there is something deeply wrong here. God is portrayed as being against the gay person, and prayer can solve the problem. This often leads to the young person burying their sexuality to evidence their conversion, storing up psychological damage for later life.
Conversion therapy has been made illegal in many countries, including the UK. To learn more about these hugely damaging faith practices, please take time to read Undivided by Vicky Beeching, an excellent memoir of her decision to declare her homosexuality after spending years as a charismatic international worship leader.
I’d been a supervising social worker in fostering for a few years by the time Lola and I crossed paths. Lola joined me in my area working alongside me as we supported and oversaw the work of foster carers. We worked independently so didn’t spend huge amounts of time together, but the job was understandably stressful so team support was important. Lola is a straight down the line, say it how it is sort of person. She knew that I was a Christian and I knew she was a lesbian. Again, so many potential preconceived notions. One rare day we were together in the duty office and there we were with the question I knew was coming at some point…
“Daniel, what do you think of Lllllllllllesbians?” Lola said in her Leeds accent, hanging on the L for effect.
Oh crap, I’ve been thinking of a response to this question for months and still don’t have an answer. Do I say what I think I should say according to the Bible? Do I say what she wants to hear, or do I say the truth? I’ll go for the truth, even though it’s sitting on the fence.
“I don’t know”.
There it was, for the first time. A verbal crack in the wall. I honestly didn’t know.
Lola later said that I surprised her and she was impressed with my response. I think she thought I was going to say she was going to burn in hell or something or use words to wriggle out of having to say she was going to burn in hell.
I knew I couldn’t sit on the fence forever though. Surely, I thought, uncertainty isn’t good for you (I’m now seeing that it can be quite healthy in relation to many other matters of faith). I’d be expected to nail my colours to the mast sooner or later. I was at the point that I so wanted them to be rainbow.
Stuart is a few years older than me. We grew up in similar circles. Our parents were friends and passionately shared the good faith. Stuart’s father faithfully ran a Christian bookstall for years, selling bibles and giving away tracts. He would pray for anyone who needed it on the street and really lived out the faith. The family loved richly and gave away constantly, and you really did wonder how they ever paid the bills.
Stuart also wore his heart on his sleeve and amongst qualifying as a social worker, spent time in the Democratic Republic of Congo supporting his aunt in the running of a rural hospital and latterly helped set up a project in the city caring for street children.
Stuart and his partner have adopted three children. Here is a guy who lives out his calling but has also reconciled his own sexual identity and faith.
Stuart sent me an encouraging message when I became ill after reading my blog. I talked about my wider questions of faith and this wrestling with the Bible and the reality of our lived experience. Stuart prompted me to read a book called The Post Evangelical Christian by Dave Tomlinson. This British book was written in 1999 and was really ahead of its time in considering how many individuals were trying to make sense of their faith in the context of modern science and in the wake of postmodernism. These were Christians who could no longer live with the cognitive dissonance required to accept a literal understanding of many parts of the Bible. Noah’s ark? Jonah and the Whale? Talking Snakes and Asses!? People turning into salt?! Sounds more like fantasy fiction than something that actually happened in our material world. I could no longer see these stories as literal but could derive deep meaning and truth from them. Now perhaps these allegorical ways of Christian thinking are scathingly labeled as progressive and within the progressive Christian community seen through the lens of terms such as deconstruction and reconstruction.
I was starting to understand that there were so many ways of seeing and reading scripture which allowed for inclusivity. This wasn’t about picking and choosing which bits of the Bible I liked and which I didn’t, but reading it through a new lens.
In 2018, after a few months of living again with ME, I quickly knew I had to seek out new support systems for myself. I had amazing support locally from friends, but soon some people’s lives move on and their understanding only reaches so far. That’s just the reality of the situation. I found that Twitter was a wonderful place for connecting with others in the same boat.
Dov is a transgender Jewish novelist from Massachusetts in the US. He has ME like me and is mostly restricted to his home. He read some of my poetry and asked if I’d join a little group of ‘Spoonies’ (people living with Chronic illness) for an online poetry reading cafe. One Spoonie poet was asked to share her poems via a video conferencing app. It was a truly humbling, special and intimate experience. There was a palpable sense of presence as I sat in my car at the top of a hill to get a data signal on my phone.
I’m unable to go to church due to the exhausting effect it has on me, but I’m increasingly finding mystical moments of presence and sacredness outside the standard walls of Christianity.
We hope to do more creative events in the future. Dov and I message or email each other maybe on a weekly basis and I can honestly say he’s one of my closest friends. We share our photography, lives and frustrations with each other, as well as celebrate our little achievements. He’s taught me so much about Trans issues and I’m learning how much use of language can validate or invalidate someone’s lived experience. I’ve never felt the need to ask Dov about his transition. It isn’t relevant to our friendship, and it wouldn’t be appropriate. Generally, we’re far more focused on being a bit daft as well as sharing the mundanity of life together…
…like bad hair days
I’m in no way equipped to talk about transgender issues, but I am aware that my friend Dov has been through a really tough time, while also now being so much more comfortable in his own skin. While the Bible says zilch about this particular issue, it’s really important that as Christians, we at least try to understand the experience and journey of transgender individuals. Learning the language is a great place to start.
I recently read an excellent book, The Descent of Man by British artist and transvestite, Grayson Perry. Perry often dresses in completely bonkers and colourful dresses and makeup in public. His book is really about the need for a changing narrative around masculinity in society in order for men to adapt to a world without heavy industry, traditional war, and polarised gender roles. He talked a little about his need to dress in women’s clothing as a married, cisgender, heterosexual man, but this was not the focus of the book. I recommended it online and someone made a ‘witty’ comment about self-identifying as an inanimate object.
We have to understand and engage with the basic language and massive differences between someone who is transgender and someone who is a transvestite if we’re ever going to show unconditional Christlike love to the people we meet.
Here is a really useful glossary of terms in helping to understand LGBTQIA+ language.
Please continue to part 2, where I’ll unpack some of my own thinking.