I have a confession to make: Despite all of the ways I speak and write and work for the cause of LGBTQ justice, I recently became a hypocrite to that cause.
The scene for this failure was a visit to my alma mater for graduation weekend. My significant other and I had decided to take one of our first long road trips together so that he could finally experience the beauty of the campus I had been describing to him. I am old enough now that there are not any students on campus who I went to school with, yet I knew that because it was such a small school I was bound to see some people I knew. I did not begin the process of coming out and learning to celebrate my identity as a gay man until after my undergraduate years, so these periodic trips to visit the campus always leave me wondering who already knows and, more importantly, who might have strong opinions about my sexuality.
The trip was going well. We visited all of my favorite places, took silly pictures with all of the outdoor art installations, and ate at the only place worth eating in the small town. My failure came, though, as we were getting ready to leave for the night. Up until that point, I had not actually seen anyone I knew, yet as we were walking out of the auditorium, suddenly there were a number of people trying to talk to me. As the conversations started up, there was a moment when I realized that my boyfriend was standing a few feet away waiting for me to introduce him.
But I didn’t.
I hesitated, and then that hesitation turned into failure as I let him stand there unacknowledged. In my mind I thought these conversations would just be quick pleasantries, yet as my friends and I continued to talk I felt the knot in my heart continuing to grow. I remember there being a moment during this situation where I consciously thought to myself, “It’ll just be easier if I don’t introduce him.” It is this moment that I have not been able to shake from my mind. Removed from the situation, I am nearly certain that none of the people involved would have been anything less than loving, yet I cannot shake the fact that my gut reaction was fear.
Despite all of the ways that I have championed the cause of LGBTQ justice, despite all the times I have worn my “It Gets Better” t-shirt, and despite all of the joy I have experienced since allowing the truth of my sexuality to set me free, in that moment I was afraid. It is hard to tell whether this fear was a result of internalized homophobia or an inability to see this situation as a safe space to be authentically me. Regardless of the root causes, what becomes important to recognize is that we still live in a world that is not completely safe for the LGBTQ community. We have made strides, but there is still much more work to be done.
This reminds me of two recent conversations I have had regarding different church organizations and what it means to be welcoming into the LGBTQ community. In both situations there was a general desire to be open and accepting to those from this community, yet both also expressed a reticence to clearly state and name this desire publicly. What I heard from people in both organizations is the feeling that generalized statements about “welcoming all people” should be enough. According to this mentality, there is no need to specifically name all the different groups constituted under “all people” because this would be redundant and unnecessary.
But LGBTQ people have been fooled by the use of “all people” before. We have been ushered in by churches who welcome all people only to be told that we need to change, that welcome actually means loving the sinners but hating the sin, or that we are welcome as long as we can fit within expected hetero-normative behaviors. In a recent article, Candace Chellew-Hodge reflects on the experience she had of one man leaving the church she pastors because it was, in his words, “too gay.” She reflects, “Sadly, this has been the experience of too many minorities, told that society accepts them, but to stop being so vocal about what makes them different. Don’t flaunt your blackness, your brownness, your femaleness, we’re told. Society wants you to blend in, to conform to its standards and shut up, please, about all that other stuff.”
So what does it mean to be welcoming? What does it mean to create spaces where people do not experience the existential crisis of authenticity? Or, conversely, can a church be “too gay”?
I would love to live in a world where all people feel welcome all the time, but we are not there yet. I’m not sure it is realistic to think we ever will get there because there will probably always be someone who feels left out. I guess what I want to say is that for churches, organizations, and people who truly want to be allies to the LGBTQ community, my wish is that they would not be afraid to openly name their commitment. My hope is that those of us who have the potential to make people uncomfortable would not be left standing off to the side unacknowledged.
Yet my further hope is that we would all come to recognize the ways we all have the capacity to fail one other. After the situation described above, my boyfriend assured me that he understood my struggle and wasn’t hurt when I failed to introduce him. This conversation led to a deeper exploration of the ways we both wrestle with fear and also a renewed commitment to figuring out what it means to be brave in the face of situations that may attempt to force us back into the closet.
Perhaps the only way for the Church to also reach that place of a renewed and public commitment to welcoming all people is to enter into this life-giving process of confessing the ways we all repeatedly fail one another. In the end, my prayer is that we will all learn what it means to be brave.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons