Rough Ride to LGBTQ Pride

Christianity and Me

LGBTQ Anglicans and Allies at Toronto Pride 2014

I often tell people my relationship with Christianity is complicated. My relationship with religion is complicated. As a gay man, I instinctively recoil from organized faith. Christian symbols even frighten me if I see them without warning. Crosses and fish can send shivers up and down my spine.

Irrational? Of course. Emotional? Obviously. I don’t stop with emotion, though. As an LGBTQ activist, I rationally oppose most US Christian stances and policies regarding issues close to my heart.

I’m not on board with Christian bashing, though. Nor do I agree with many of my friends and colleagues that the world would have to be better off without Christianity.

Let me explain —

It all started when I was too young to understand. The tender thrill of early sexuality bloomed sweet and innocent as it must for most. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t have words for it. I only knew that something inside me melted when my friend looked at me, when he touched me, when he laughed. Even at the age of 11 when I realized I wanted — bizarrely — to kiss him and hold him close, I was more puzzled than anything.

He felt good to me. Sweet and natural and wholesome.

I didn’t connect those feelings with homosexuality. Not at first. To me, homosexual, faggot, queer — or whatever — were just insults. Terrible things you could call somebody. I didn’t know what they meant, other than evil and dirty.

Then one day, lightning struck.

My church, where my father was the youth pastor, began a highly publicized anti-gay campaign. I can’t remember why. Or even what the church was fighting against in particular. 1970s culture wars.

Service after service, Sunday school class after Sunday school class featured sermons and lessons that blasted homosexual sin. It all built up gradually — the realization did.

It slammed into me in an instant as I was sitting in a pew listening. The evil sinners the senior pastor was talking about were people like me, people who felt the things I felt. People who melted with love the way I melted.

I was a homosexual. I had to be! The sweet, tender feelings for my friend were lies. They were sins.

I bolted up out of the pew, shoved my way past my astonished family, rushed to the restroom, and vomited, just making it into the stall in time.

That’s how I felt when I first realized I was gay.

By the time I was 16, I realized I was an atheist.

I didn’t believe in any gods, let alone the Christian one. I didn’t decide to become an atheist. I simply lacked belief. I couldn’t do it anymore, even though an important part of me wanted to.

No, I wasn’t reacting consciously to the homophobia of the faith tradition I was raised in. My lack of belief was much more complicated than that. It had more to do with my inability to buy into the literalist tradition that was the only kind of faith I knew about. I actually tried hard to hold onto it.

I had to reject faith because I knew empirically that Young Earth Creationists, Noah’s Flood, and similar concepts were false. I didn’t yet know about all the serious people of faith who rejected those plainly wrong ideas.

I lost the habits of faith very quickly after that. Then I came out as gay.

I joined Act Up. I marched with Queer Nation —

Act Up ‘zap’, December 11, 1989

We battled the Catholic Church as one of our most powerful, determined enemies. They fought us tooth and nail in New York, vilifying and condemning us for working to save lives with safer sex education.

My internal positions hardened.

I wanted nothing to do with a religion that condemned me and worked relentlessly to stop HIV research funding and safer sex education.

Cardinal O’Conner, the archbishop of New York, showed me what Christianity was, and that picture was uglier than I had ever imagined as a terrified 11-year-old boy.

That should have been the end of the story. I would probably be content even today to join most of my friends vilifying religion entirely. But one day, something changed. I met a Christian couple. Something happened I would never have imagined possible.

Let me tell you a story —

I’m sitting in the Montreal office of an Anglican vicar I’ve just gotten to know. I did a consulting job for him. For his church. I put in a lot of hours, worked hard, and he’s pleased with the results.

Organ at St. Albans Anglican Church

“Jim,” he says to me over the clink of ice as he hands me a frosty gin and tonic. “I noticed you enjoying the organist practicing. You like Bach?”

“Like?” I cough. He’s punched the gin levels up much higher than I expected. “I adore Bach. I have a friend who loves Baroque keyboard. I used to sit and listen to him play Bach for hours.”

“We’re having a festival this Sunday,” he tells me around a healthy swig of his own drink.

“Why don’t you come? There’s a guest choir in from Nova Scotia. Very accomplished. Come to morning services, even. We’d love to have you.”

My heart leaps a little, then reality strikes it down. “No, I’m sorry. I’d love to, but it wouldn’t work out.”

He looks at me oddly. “Work out? I mean, I know you aren’t religious. We don’t proselytize, you know. I just want you to enjoy the music. I know you’d love it.”

“It’s not that. I have a partner. A… life partner. I’m sorry. He’s … I don’t think we’d be welcome, is all. I don’t want to offend anyone.”

“Don’t be silly, man! Bring him along!”

So, I did.

That began a long friendship. The vicar, his wife and I became very close friends. We spoke at length about Christianity and LGBTQ issues.

His views were crystal clear. My partner and I were not sinning when we had sex. Neither our being gay nor our having sex within a committed common-law marriage constituted for him or for his congregation any sort of moral dilemma.

He and they accepted us as fully equal without reservation or apology. Later, they accepted our foster son into their home and congregation, again without reservation or judgement.

That was the first time in my life that I had encountered a Christian congregation that did not brand me a sinner because of my sexual orientation.

The experience disoriented and confused me.

The friendship warmed and delighted me.

My relationship with Christianity is still complicated. I still battle the demons of my childhood. The spectres of those who died of AIDS while the Catholic Church fought to stop us from saving lives still haunt me.

Sometimes, inside myself, trauma shouts louder than reason and I lose my way. But then I remember my friends in Montreal, and I ground myself.

I don’t think my relationship with Christianity will ever be better than complicated. But thanks to one affirming vicar, his warm and loving wife, and their welcoming congregation, I can at least admit to complication.

I can be open to friendship and dialogue with affirming Christian clergy members like Ken Wilson, Emily Swan, and John A. Giurin. I can dream of a day when religion is just another respectable option in life for my friends and the people they love.