In the fall of 2011 I had just managed to work my way back into teaching and was, at the same time, beginning to really question my theology around sexuality (for reasons that I will get into some other time, I was already fully affirming of transgender identities). The coincidence of these two developments in my life came together in the form of two brilliant students. One a young lady who was, at the time, dating another young woman at the school, and the other a brilliant young trans man, James, who was at that time still identifying as a lesbian. These two were both the sort of students that you just like having in class and getting to know. Both are brilliant, engaging, and friendly—the one hardworking, passionate; an inspired poet with an ever-present gleam of laughter in her eye; the other energetic, mischievous, and compassionate with a sense of justice which drives him to speak out at all the right times. Without knowing a thing about it it the time, these two students made it impossible for me to think of "questions around the theology of LGBTQ+ identies" in the abstract. I had to deal with the question in the concrete: were the the things my conservative Christian upbringing told me to believe about these two young people true or were they not? As anyone who has followed this blog at all surely knows by now, I came to the conclusion that God fully celebrates the identities, relationships, and marriages of LGBTQ+ folks.
Any analysis of one's own deliberation and discernment processes are prone to error, but so far as I can tell my theological shift began with accepting the plausibility, even the compelling logic, of LGB affirming interpretations of certain key passages from the Bible (I have written about those arguments in this series) but in the early fall of 2011 I was still afraid to accept those conclusions. I was still fighting against the weight of a homophobic Christian culture, of a church and a peer group which I knew held contrary beliefs, and of the fear of being wrong. It was those two students who gave me the perspective and--frankly--the courage to break through those barriers in my own soul. By November I had begun to publicly (I think online and certainly to my friends and family) acknowledge that my "views had changed".
But this is supposed to be a story about a miracle so I need to jump forward a bit. Several months later (late winter or early spring) found me having a conversation with James. He was telling me about instances of bullying that he and his friends endured at our high school. I didn't know much at the time but I knew enough to ask him whether the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at the
It didn't take long for our weekly club meetings to become a highlight of my week. If you haven't ever had the chance to create and hang out in a safe space for marginalized and bullied high school students then you haven't fully lived. LGBTQ+ and ally high school students are some of the most resilient, quirky, fun teenagers in the world. I really have had the time of my life being their faculty adviser.
And that is how I find myself sitting in my car in the parking lot of a local grocery store praying that I wasn't sending kids to hell. This might not make a lot of sense to anyone who wasn't raised in the toxic soup of white American Evangelicalism. By the fall of 2012 I barely believed in an eternal hell anyway and I definitely didn't believe that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender would send you there. But fear is only rarely about what we give our conscious mental assent to. Very few of the children who are afraid of monsters in the dark still actually believe on a conscious rational level that those monsters exist. You really don't have to believe in something to be afraid of it. So despite my own convinced beliefs, I was afraid that by organizing a safe and supportive space for LGBTQ+ teens I was facilitating their damnation to a fate I didn't believe in.***
Beyond the lingering fears rooted in my white American evangelical upbringing, I was struggling with something else in the fall of 2012: homophobia. Miriam Webster defines homophobia as "irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals***". The term overlaps with, but is distinct from, heterosexism, "discrimination or prejudice by heterosexuals against homosexuals***" Given those definitions, over the course of 2011 I had moved away from conscious and intentional heterosexism but was still very much struggling with unconscious and visceral homophobia. The way I would have probably put it at the time is that I was find when interacting with LGBTQ+ folks in general and I supported their social and legal liberation but when I thought about what "being gay" entailed, it skeeved me out and I would experience what psychologists and sociologists refer to as a disgust reaction.
Let me take a moment here to emphasize something: if this disgust reaction is something you experience as well please know that this is something which was done to you by an overtly heterosexist and homophobic society, and that, if you were raised in white American evangelicalism**** then this malformation of your emotional self was perpetrated against you by evil, sinful forces which have long operated within the church and are only slowly being exorcised.
|Some beliefs can sicken the soul|
So there I am, sitting in my car, suddenly flooded by irrational fears and doubts and struggling to overcome an ingrained reaction which I hated an which was getting in the way of relating to and helping the very students I most wanted to help. I started praying.
This wasn't the first time I had prayed about this topic or asked God for some sort of guidance. As I said, I had been working through bible study and theology on the topic for more than a year at that point and that process had involved a whole lot of prayer. To put it in distinctly white American evangelical language, my exegetical and discernment process had been bathed in prayer from the start.
|Not much of a stretch|
A year or so later and I am sitting in a car, pleading with God for direction, trying to figure out whether all of these negative feelings were damage I needed to heal from and overcome, or that last warnings of the Holy Spirit to a confused soul about to cause horrible damage to the spirits of teenagers by encouraging them in identities and behaviors which God objected to. "Jesus," I prayed, "am I doing the right thing?"
I talk to God a lot and God does talk back sometimes, but it is pretty rare for me for God's response to shake my soul. Usually, the stuff I hear from God I perceive as gentle encouragement, suggestion, or reminder: a stray thought or spontaneous emotion which has the smell of the Divine about it, the sort of whisper that doesn't seem to have come from my own thoughts, but hey, maybe they did. Very occasionally though, God speaks in a way that causes the bones of my soul to vibrate, communicating directly to me so clearly and overwhelmingly that I can't account for it as anything but connection with One who is greater, fuller, deeper, and higher than I am or could ever imagine. God's response this time was like that.
Those of you who have experienced the sort of thing I am describing will know that putting the response into words always diminishes it; the best I can get at is a "mostly this but that isn't quite right and it was also so much more" like if you were trying to describe sailing on the ocean and could only come up with "It's like stepping in a puddle but floating instead of touching the bottom". So God didn't respond to my prayer by saying "This is exactly what I have for you. That is what I was talking about when I told the preacher that you were being called to work with the marginalized and outcast in your community" but that is the closest I can come to describing what God actually did communicate to me.
The miracle accompanied the response and was in addition to it. As soon as the prayer had ended I was enormously comforted. I felt like I had my answer and I felt something more. My disgust reaction had vanished entirely. I haven't felt it since. A process of pyschological healing from sinful malformation at the hands of a broken and homophobic heterosexist church and homophobic heterosexist society which ought to have required months if not years, happened in a moment. From that day until now the disgust reaction has been entirely absent from my mental landscape regarding LGBTQ+ people. God gave me both the confidence and the capacity to lean joyfully into holy work: advocacy for LGBTQ+ people and particularly teenagers.
That isn't to say that I am all the way where I need to be. I doubt that any of us are, and I know that I still have thought patterns and reactions (but not disgust reactions) which were formed by heterosexism, patriarchy, cissexism, homophobia, and transphobia (to name just a few) I have much to learn and many LGBTQ+ people and allies to learn it from. My claim is only that this one barrier, a socially formed disgust reaction rooted in homophobia was overcome for me by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is what I now understand when I hear people talking about being liberated from sin and death. This is what I now understand when I read about Christ overcoming the body of sin. It was for freedom that Christ set us free. Freedom to free others from the clutches of sin: homophobia, transphobia, heterosexim, cissexim, racism, patriarchy, greed, consumerism, nationalism... the list goes on and the journey is long. But it is joy and it is freedom.
James 1:2-4 NIV
Please support the work of GLSEN and of the Trevor Project, two remarkable organizations working to support and protect LGBTQ+ teenagers and high school students.
Footnotes:* When I say "miracle" I am speaking of a supernatural event which is outside of ordinary experience and which seems to subvert the usual course of material causation. That is I mean by "miracle" exactly what folks generally take it to mean and not some sort of liberal theology appropriation of the term to describe the mere good and or psychologically profound.
**If you are interested in my views on hell, I found David Bentley Hart's recent That All Shall Be Saved rather convincing.
***I 100% recommend against calling anyone "a homosexual" outside of an academic or specialist context.
**** I am very much aware of the fact that this spiritual dynamic is at play in other Christian and religious traditions; white Evangelical Christianity merely happens to be the tradition with which I have personal experience.
***** I you are looking for spiritual (Christian) analyses of Disgust Reactions I would recommend Unclean by Richard Beck