I remember when I thought that change was possible. I was fourteen and I discovered that my attraction to humans also extended to men. High school introduced me to the locker room and the glory of the bare torso; I would look down or look away, press my nose into a book while I changed clothing. I thought that heterosexuality could be routine and practiced and that if you just kept your head down and stayed focused you could be the person you wanted to be, the one your parents wanted to be and the one you were told to be. I read a lot of books those days.
I stopped watching Will and Grace and gave up the little indulgences that let me be who I was in secret, tucked my Tom Cruise VHS tapes away under my mattress. I would stay home sick and watch The Firm in my bedroom because I saw something in him, a shared pain of enclosure. I was hiding at church and in school, where I insisted that marriage was between a man and a woman. In the library one day, a friend asked me why I felt that way, squinting up from her glasses. Her boyfriend was bisexual. I didn’t know what to say. I’d never thought about the answer for myself. I told her that’s what I was raised to believe.
Being a Christian in my small Baptist parish was about staying on message and expressing yourself and your opinion, but within the parameters of God’s plan for you. As I explored the Bible looking for answers and a place for myself in the scripture, I saw everywhere a testament to God’s love and Jesus’ divine grace. When I did my research, Jesus wasn’t the man I expected, a judgmental creature who stood over humanity like a nun with a ruler, the dictatorial faith leaders of my grandparents’ upbringing. I found a radical who believed that love conquered all. I believed that if I met him today, Jesus would sit at my table. We’d have a lot to talk about.
But when I came out, that wasn’t the case. After years of struggling, I called my pastor to tell him the news and that I needed to be my full, authentic self. If I were going to worship, I needed to do so as a whole person, standing before God in honesty. He scheduled a meeting with me to talk in person and pulled me into his office. Like the Robert Frost poem, my pastor told me that I was standing at the beginning of two paths. There was the one I had chosen or the path of righteousness; it was never too late to turn back. He sent me home with literature and the same copy of the New Testament I had been reading, the one that so convinced me of Jesus’ embrace. As I walked home from church, I wondered, “Why isn’t love enough?”
I remember the last thing he told me. If I couldn’t find the answers I needed in those books, there were places that could help. They would fix me. I asked him what about me needed to be fixed. He sighed and didn’t say anything, a resigned look on his face that I recognized. It was the same expression I had that day in the library.
Earlier this year I found a kindred spirit in Brad Allen, who I interviewed for WBEZ in Chicago about his experiences being a gay Christian. Growing up, Allen lived in a restrictive religious cult, where you couldn’t wear shorts, short-sleeves, wedding rings or any forms of jewelry. Brad told me that when he left the cult as an adult, it took him years to be able to put on short sleeves “without that twinge of being a sin.”
When I was young, I remember going to Kingdom Hall with my aunt, where they insisted that saying the pledge of allegiance was a sin. During homeroom, I sat down while my classmates stood at attention. After my brothers died due to complications of illness, my aunt told my mother they would go to hell — because they hadn’t been baptized. Throwing holy water on her kids was the least of my mothers’ concerns.
The limits of possibility are many in the world I grew up in.
What made Brad Allen’s story stand out to me is that he may have left the cult, but he never gave up the Holy Ghost. Allen joined Exodus International out of a belief that if Jesus’ love would provide an answer. Brad identifies as gay but only recently started dating men after leaving the program, which acted as a halfway house for those struggling at the intersections of sexuality and religion. Although it claimed to convert people to heterosexiality, Allen quickly realized that wouldn’t be possible. “Their motto is ‘Change Is Possible,’ but it’s a bait and switch,” Allen stated. “When you get inside the gates, they don’t claim to really change people.” It wasn’t about change. It was about hiding.
Allen figured that if he were gay, he might as well be “the best gay Christian he could be.” When he “came out” to his friends on Facebook as an openly gay Christian, some championed him for living honestly and openly. Others from his old life chided him for “consummating his homosexual desires.” One friend wrote to him, “While I’m proud of you for ‘confessing your sins one to another,’ I also need to call you out…I hope you recognize your sin and remove yourself from that.”
What was amazing about Brad wasn’t just his coming out but his continual engagement with the other side. Instead of dismissing his critics or calling them out for being bigots, Allen dialogued with them, trying to foster understanding and help breed a culture of empathy. His goal wasn’t to change minds but to open them to see other perspectives different from theirs. It’s not something we’re always trained to do, and as a Christian, I was never taught to think about the Bible. I was supposed to memorize it, like I was studying for a test.
Allen told me that no one came over to his side, “But in personal emails, they were extremely encouraged to see the tenor of the conversation unfold.” As a self-described “bar pastor,” Allen has informally ministered to gay Christians who need comfort and support — just by offering his guidance in a public place. Allen said, “This is a group of people who genuinely need to know the unconditional love of God. I felt like the next manifestation of my calling began to form when I visited gay bars….If I can be in a place to love like Christ did, I can be a pastor without ever using religious words.”
However, bar patrons weren’t the only ones who needed to hear Brad Allen’s words and live by his example of engagement. Shortly after we spoke, Mr. Allen received word he would be sitting down with Lisa Ling to discuss the struggles of gay Christians. In particular, the piece focused on the experiences of ex-gays and ex-ex-gays like Brad, who had been through the Exodus process and instead of having their souls saved found their spirits broken and destroyed. These “survivors” of reparative therapy detail the doubt and shame that came from Exodus treatment.
Sean reports that Exodus staff insisted he’d “been molested as a child.” When he affirmed that wasn’t the case, they shot him down. “Yes, you have been molested,” they said. “You’re just repressing it.” Sean brought it up to the leader of the group, who only wanted to know how often he masturbated and what he thought about. Instead of listening or offering counsel, the leader reaffirmed others’ assertions. He said, “God will never set you free until you can finally admit you’ve been molested.”
The discussion’s facilitator puts it best: “All the problems of the world could be solved if we stopped talking about each other and started talking to each other.”
In response to Brad Allen’s story and those of other survivors, Exodus president Alan Manning Chambers had a simple message: “I am sorry.” Chambers wrote an open letter to the LGBT community expressing condolences to those “who have suffered so much pain” at Exodus’ hand.
“I am sorry I didn’t stand up to people publicly ‘on my side’ who called you names,” Chambers said. “I am sorry I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine. More than anything, I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection. I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives.”
While delivering this message during the Lisa Ling special, Chambers planned to read the letter during the yearly Exodus Freedom Conference this Wednesday, where numbers have been declining in recent years. Chambers stated he agrees that a new generation of Christians need a new message and announced that Exodus would be closing down for good — reemerging as an organization set to give resources on gender and sexuality for Christians struggling with those issues and promote the kinds of dialogues Brad Allen is fond of.
Although Chambers stated that he personally still believes that homosexuality is a sin, he’s letting his politics take a step back from his organization, a move that Exodus as a whole has been working on for some time. Allen said that when he was an Exodus employee, the organization was explicitly political in its activism, which is one of the major roadblocks to being a resource for gay Christians. “I saw a bunch of Christians who would pray and then go into the most partisan, American-centric, Republican-centric nonsense,” Allen said. “This is not what Christianity is about. The fact that they are calling it Christianity is taking God’s name in vain.”
Chambers’ own activist shift is a huge step in the right direction for the movement, although many are already calling him a “heretic” for taking a more moderate approach to religion. However, Allen said that “in [Chamber’s] heart, he knows this is right.” Allen told the L.A. Times, “I am incredibly proud of him for doing this — and he’s taking flak from all sides.”
Like others, I’m skeptical of Chambers’ and the movement’s ability to embrace gay Christians as part of the flock or whether change is as possible as we all hope.
However, after the baby steps we’ve seen from the Mormon church, this week was a huge milestone and a beacon of hope for those of us who were told there wasn’t a place for us at the table. Folks like Brad Allen, who use visibility as a call to action, will be crucial in continuing to further this dialogue — to bring queers and Christians in mutual recognition that we aren’t so different after all.
One day, I hope that love will finally be enough.