Flying Under Our Gaydar

In my city and perhaps most others, there are many churches that have no official policy of being welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people. The general assumption, in the GLBT community, is that if we’re not issued an “official” welcome, that means that we’re not welcome. But is this true?

How, indeed, does a congregation become welcoming to GLBT believers and seekers? Does a church attended solely by straight people suddenly call a meeting one day and vote to include us? (As a result, maybe, of an inspiring dream featuring doves and rays of light?) Or must a critical mass of GLBT attendance and participation be reached within the congregation before such issues are dealt with?

Some of us seem to be waiting for an engraved invitation, while others won’t leave until the congregation threatens to stone us. One way or the other, we don’t seem to have a very good sense of where we belong and where we don’t – or, to put it a better way, which churches deserve us and which don’t.

Where is our time well-spent, and where is it wasted?

For those who have been severely battered, the best choice – if available – would likely be a “gay” church, like the local MCC. It may also be the case that the only welcoming congregation within a reasonable distance whose theology you can accept is the “gay” version of those that are not welcoming. If you tend toward a conservative interpretation of Scripture, you may feel such a choice is necessary to your spiritual integrity. But I believe that those of us who can serve as GLBT-positive salt and light in a more “mainstream” congregation ought to do so. In some areas of the country, indeed, no other alternative may yet exist.

Polls consistently show that to know us is to love us. Those who most hate and fear gays think they don’t know any. We can’t change hearts and minds from afar. My concern, in this essay, is those “borderline” congregations, in which we very likely would be welcome – if we made the effort to be.

According to the pastor of a United Methodist congregation near my house, their policy is to be welcoming to everybody, without distinctions. I often wonder if GLBT Christians realize how welcome we’d be at many of the churches that do NOT send out engraved invitations. I wonder if they realize why, for some churches, rolling out a rainbow carpet might not be wise – not because they don’t want us, but simply because they don’t want the trouble they’re afraid we will bring with us.

There are a whole lot of nuts out there. Is it worth getting picketed, vandalized, targeted in the wingnut media and possibly even disciplined by the denomination for the sake of issuing a call that might be heeded by no more than a handful of people? That’s a question I must admit, if I were a pastor, I’d find hard to answer.

When we criticize churches for not being “openly welcoming,” perhaps we need to keep that in mind. A pastor must balance a mind-boggling set of different and often-competing concerns in determining what matters and what does not. As a member of my own church council, I know that we, too, often agonize about how this might “look” or how that might be “taken.”

Some of the “borderline” church people to whom I spoke genuinely could not understand why I insisted that to GLBT folks, no church is truly welcoming unless it comes right out – loud and proud – and says so. I had to explain that although certainly almost every church claims to welcome everybody, when we show up many show us back to the door with a curt “except for you.” The people I spoke to were all heterosexual, and deal with a totally different reality.

I was a valued parishioner when I was in the closet. I taught adult catechism, was head usher at the ten o’clock Sunday mass, served in their ministry to the homeless and held several other responsible positions as well. The day I came out as a lesbian, I became “intrinsically disordered,” and the deepest love I was capable of sharing with another human being became a mortal sin. Yet straight Catholics, and Christians of every stripe, still maintain – with a straight face – that their Church “welcomes everybody.”

One of the loneliest aspects of being openly gay is that – even though you have taken the risk of being honest about who you are – so few people understand you. You think they ought to know that if they don’t fly rainbow flags in front of their church, you won’t realize that you’re welcome. At this attitude, they scratch their heads in puzzlement. They genuinely don’t get it.

Sometimes talking to even the kindest, smartest and best-intentioned heterosexual is like talking to an alien from Mars. The difference, of course, is that we understand what they are saying. We have to, in order to survive. They simply don’t understand us. They don’t have to, and many are very little inclined to learn.

We can’t change that overnight. If you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender and you want to go to church, the simple fact is that there are many more to choose from than you might think. Most won’t hang out a rainbow flag, or take out advertisements. We have to learn to detect them. They fly under our gaydar.

We had this conversation in church council. A few members thought it ridiculous for us to amend our mission statement in the bulletin – yet again – to make it even more inclusive than it already was. To them, it sounded like politically-correct, feel-good, Sesame Street sing-along crapola. We lesbians on the council had to explain to everyone else that GLBT’s experience too much rejection to trust a welcome includes us unless it specifically addresses us. We said that we have learned the hard way that the “everybody” in all these churches’ “we welcome everybody” statements all too often doesn’t include us.

“You’re not ‘everybody,'” many still tell us. “You’re nobody. It doesn’t say anywhere that we welcome nobody, does it?”

So the language barrier remains. Straights talk “apples,” and gays think “oranges.” You say “tomato” and I say “tomahto.” In a great many churches we think don’t want us, we would be welcome, indeed.

The neighboring pastor mentioned Asbury United Methodist, a church in her denomination that does explicitly welcome GLBT folks. That congregation sits smack-dab in the middle of the gayest section of our city, Phoenix, and it actually sought out gay folks instead of sitting there waiting for us to show up. We are, you see, a part of their “demographic.” Why, then, no official rainbow flag welcome from this pastor’s church? Again, it’s all about “demographics,” don’t you know.

It’s easy to get cynical about this. But unlike Asbury United Methodist, most GLBT-welcoming churches become loud-and-proud about their welcome only after a sufficient number from our community have joined their congregation. That’s simply how it works. Few people are willing to stick their necks out for people they don’t know. The closer they are to us, the more likely they are to be strongly committed to our struggle for equality.

Most Christians are nice, decent, quiet and polite people. They want to be comfortable, to stay safe, and not to rock the boat. It is, truth be, told, the same reason so many in our community join “gay” churches. We don’t like conflict any better than straight people do. So we can hardly criticize them for merely wanting the same things we do.

The problem is that throughout the church, at the present time, it is bullies and thugs who practically run the show. They growl, they threaten, and the nice, polite people give in to them – just so the boat won’t be rocked. It isn’t only sexual minorities who notice this, and who are alienated by it. Unchurched Americans of every sexual orientation consistently cite the fact that ugly, spiteful, thuggish people seem to speak for everybody in the church as the reason they themselves do not show up on Sunday mornings. There may only be a few bad apples, but they are fouling up the whole barrel.

It is, once again, gut-check time in the church. We need freedom riders; we need people (and yes, this must include a great many straight people) willing to boycott the buses and sit-in at the lunch counters and brave the dogs and the fire hoses and the broken heads. It’s come time for that again, and churches that quietly, politely welcome us and expect us to just figure that out somehow aren’t gonna be much help. Bigots take all silence – even polite silence – for assent. If you’re not against them, they take for granted that you’re with them.

Jesus stood up to bullies and thugs. He wasn’t afraid to rock the boat. In the face of injustice, He was never content merely to “make nice” and stay comfortable. We can’t afford to let every straight Christian in the world rest in perfect comfort and ease. But it’s unrealistic for us to expect them to care as much about our rights as we do.

For some GLBT Christians, it is a matter of personal spiritual survival to stay in the safe zone of a “gay” church. But most of us can ill afford to stay segregated along these neat-and-easy lines. There are bullies to be faced down and crucial allies to be won. None of this can be done at a distance.

Certainly, some “straight” churches will be better bets than others. Those like the one near my house – what I call a “borderline” congregation – will welcome us warmly if we make the effort to be welcomed. Congregations plugged into the hivemind of the Religious Right, however, will not prove worth our while. People in that sort of church are, by and large, about as independent-minded as Medieval peasants. They need a whole new Reformation to shake them out of their stupor.

At least the quiet, polite church folks aren’t out there breaking our heads. It may not be much, but thus far it’s all we’ve got. We have to help them to see they must do more – that God put them here and now for a reason. In every age, uniquely applicable to the moment at hand, we who follow Christ are called to be His eyes, hands, feet and heart in this world. Not all see the connection between that call and our cause – and they may not recognize it unless we help them.

We can’t help them if we stay as far away from them as possible because we received no engraved invitation to their church. We can’t be content to fly by our gaydar alone. The time has come for us to lift the rainbow flag up high, and carry it to places it’s never been before. Of course in some places we will not be welcome. But we may be surprised that, in many others, they will ask, “What took you so long?”

True, we may not feel as comfortable in churches that do not explicitly welcome us in. But we can’t ask them to venture outside of their comfort-zone unless we’re willing to come along with them.