One at a Time

Over the decade I’’ve been out as a lesbian, I have learned a great deal about evangelical Christians. Most of what I’ve learned that’s proven to be worthwhile, that’s proven to be trustworthy, I’ve learned from my own, personal experience. Stereotypes and groupthink have proven no good to me at all.

I was told, time and again, that I could trust nobody on “the Religious Right.” They “all” hated us, I was warned, and therefore I had to be wary of them all. When it came time to begin coming out to the friends I’d made over the years, most of whom were religious conservatives, I was afraid. Surely to a one, they would dump me.

Finally I came out to one of my best friends, Shawnee, a lifelong Southern Baptist. I hemmed and hawed while telling her, ‘til she became quite frightened herself. When I finally got the words out, I got a huge surprise. She was actually relieved!

“Is that all?” she asked me. “The way you built up to it, I expected you to tell me you were dying of cancer or something.”

I should have taken a lesson from that, but I didn’t. Big media – including the big GLBT media – kept right on telling me that “those people” were all alike. Much the same way the big hetero media keeps telling straights that “all” GLBT folks are alike. I knew very well that the latter was wrong, but for some reason, it was oh-so-easy to go on believing the former. Most of my friends in the community – even those who were Christian – accepted it as gospel, so why should I have been any different?

Because I believed the stereotype, over the years I grew steadily angrier. I felt myself slipping into something very close to despair. For if I could not trust in my fellow Christians, how could I trust in the God Who has entrusted “His” followers in this world to be the earthly bearers of “His” will?

Many times I came out to my old friends – most of whom were conservative Christians – and without exception they accepted me as I am. Still, I kept hearing that “those people” couldn’t be trusted. So every time I came out to another friend, it was like passing a gallstone the size of a boulder. Each time I thought that surely the odds were about to catch up with me. Even as I beat beats those odds again and again.

Are there, indeed, people to watch out for on the Christian Right? Of course there are. I’m well aware that the reason I was not left for road-kill by my circle of friends has more to do with having chosen my friends well than with having chosen friends who were conservative Christians. Nonetheless, my experience has also shown me how very wrong the stereotypes can be. Because I valued my old friends and hated to lose them, I chose to gamble that they were decent enough to accept me as who I really am – and at least for me, that gamble turned out to be a winning one.

For the first several years of my journey “out,” nonetheless, I could bring myself to reveal the real me to my traditionalist friends only gradually. The things I kept hearing about conservative Christians made me angry – so full of outrage, not so much at how I myself was treated, but at the shoddy treatment of so many other GLBT folks — that I remained reluctant to trust those who belonged to the Hetero Christian Establishment. I felt sure that this Establishment had to be a black hole, swallowing up all those who were a part of it. That black hole surely loomed out there, pulsing ominously, ready to suck me in, chew me up and spit me right back out.

It’s weird, but the first few times someone I fully expected to condemn me did not do so, I almost felt a sense of disappointment. How could I feel superior to someone who reached out to me in love and acceptance? It was then that it began to dawn on me how spiritually sick I was becoming. My soul was in tremendous need of restoration.

Then recently, I had a “blast from the past.” Becky was a friend from my earliest childhood, our parents having been friends since long before we were born. After high school, she married and moved away, so we lost touch with each other. While I was adjusting to life as an “out” lesbian, she and her husband were raising their kids in another part of the state. Only after her divorce did Becky return to Phoenix and look me up again.

I had long since given Becky up as a total loss to me. Raised in a conservative religious home, she would surely – I thought – want nothing to do with me when she found out that I’m a lesbian. But by the time she Googled me last summer, looked up all the information she could find about me online and called me on the phone, she had already read all my articles for Whosoever. Duh – I’d been wrong again!

At long last, I have begun to connect the dots. I must judge straight religious conservatives not as members of a group, but as individual human beings. I must take them one at a time. When they’re willing – as so many have been – to see me as an individual, then I must return the favor.

Evangelical Christianity is beginning – just beginning – to adapt to newly-understood realities. This doesn’t mean that the hardened bigots are changing their hearts or minds. But it does mean that decent people – genuine Christians, whose hearts are right with God – are starting to feel their hearts soften toward us. Over the past ten years, I have noticed this happening more and more.

No, they’re not all jerks and creeps. A good many GLBT folks are already figuring that out. But many more are still stuck in a place so far removed that they can’t be touched. Being touched, however, doesn’t merely mean not being hurt. It also, unfortunately, means not being healed.

Must we still be careful? Of course. There are still plenty of bad apples in the barrel. And I realize that I live in a fairly progressive urban area, where even most conservatives can’t avoid coming into contact with real examples of the people their “leaders” tell them to demonize. If they are at all of good will, they will likely see us in the light of truth.

I know things may be very different in other parts of the country, and especially in rural areas and small towns. But I have come to be more optimistic about human nature – or at least Christian nature. My own experiences have convinced me that the Holy Spirit is at work in the hearts and minds of God’s people. I’ve also come to learn that the evangelical rank-and-file, far from blindly following their money-hungry and power-mad self-appointed “leaders,” actually view these big shots with a great deal of disdain. The media keep telling us that James Dobson, Pat Robertson and their ilk “lead” these folks, though it’s just possible that Big Media knows no more about what makes most of them tick than they do about anything else.

There are churches, like Jay Bakker’s three-city Revolution Church, and religious leaders like Jim Wallis of Sojourners ministries, that are bringing evangelical Christianity into the Twenty-first Century. There are many others that are not quite there yet, but that are, at least, unwilling to bash us. There are leaders who are largely silent on GLBT issues – not because they hate us, but because they cannot hate us, but aren’t quite sure yet what to do about us. At the very least, they don’t want to hurt us any more, and so – for better or for worse, at the moment they are doing nothing at all.

One of the most important fruits of a restored soul is patience. We live in a fast-food society, promising instant gratification. But not everybody’s on the same page as we are. Because we tend to expect them to be, we may be missing the fact that they’re turning those pages very rapidly. If we’re willing to wait awhile, many of them will catch up with us yet.

Someday, I truly believe, most churches and denominations will fully accept us. There will, of course, still be those that don’t, but they’ll be as rare and small and starved as those that now preach the inferiority of the non-white races, or who attempt to propagate other forms of hate no longer acceptable in mainstream Christianity. The homophobes will surely go the way of the white supremacists, the “Christian” Nazis, and the other ratty little, disreputable groups that hang onto the outer fringes.

As I’ve allowed my faith in my fellow Christians to be restored, my soul has been restored as well. Those pages are starting to turn, now, faster and faster. I now know that the things I hope for will someday come to pass.

We can only be where God has placed us. We are here and now for a reason. Ours is not to wonder why, and we do see “through a glass, darkly.” We may not live to see all the wondrous things God is bringing into being. But a mere generation ago, the progress we have already seen would have been absolutely unimaginable. If you are tempted to despair, trust in God. And remember how far we’ve already come.

Gradually, I have come to realize I’ve been hitting from the same pipe as those with whom I’ve been so angry. I’ve begun to see just how easy it is to feel smug, self-satisfied and superior. This has rendered considerably less enjoyable the high I’ve gotten from that self-righteous outrage. I’ve had to face the fact that I’ve really been no better than the fundamentalist Christians whose condemnation had so badly hurt me. The condemnation that, for so long, I expected – and stubbornly went on expecting, even though it so seldom ever came.

Of course we are often grievously sinned against by homophobic Christians. The restoration of our souls certainly does not mean we should become docile little doormats, willfully blind to the injustices being inflicted on us. We dare not blind ourselves to the existence of the oppression against us. But it does as little good to exaggerate it as it does to minimize it.

We must convince those who blindly condemn us of the terrible sin they are committing. Indeed, their behavior is causing great scandal to many. It will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest tragedies in Christian history. But we cannot effectively witness to our foes if we attempt to do so out of anger and fear. We must do it out of love, strength and courage – and for this, our souls must be restored.

Crucial to dealing with these people is seeing them as individuals, instead of merely members of a group. Far too often, we brand them “all” as one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all “members of the Religious Right.” This allows those who so wish to hide in the Hive, never being challenged to step forward – individually, into the light – and take responsibility for their attitudes or their behavior. We must, on the contrary, refuse to allow them to hide in the relative anonymity (and irresponsibility) of the Hivemind, forcing them to come out of their own closet – the closet of groupthink – and into the spotlight of individual accountability.

This means, of course, that we have to be willing to recognize them as individuals. This is only possible when we approach them with the sort of right heart, and sense of fairness – the willingness to see them as individual people – that comes forth from a right heart. This “right heart,” as Scripture calls it, means the goodwill toward others that is necessary for peace. When our souls are restored to harmony with God, by necessity they must also be restored to harmony with others. We cannot love God – Whom we cannot see – if we don’t love our sisters and brothers, whom we can.

We can’t make everyone else love us – but we must be willing to see the best in them, at the very least, when it is really there. I, for one, haven’t always been good about doing that. But as I have come, more and more, to move in that direction, I have begun to know a greater peace, as well as a sense of hope.

Throughout our faith history, God has worked primarily not through burning bushes or parting seas but through the actions and examples of ordinary people. To a large degree, having faith in God means having faith in God’s people. We cannot believe God will work in us unless we can believe God works, as well, in others. I have seen this work time and time again, especially over the past ten years of my life. It has strengthened my faith – and, indeed, it has restored my soul.

We can, and must, move forward out of anger, resentment and unforgiveness. We must have hope and faith, not only in God, but also in those God works through. And this can happen only if we take the process of liberation one page – and one person – at a time.