How Does One “Church” While Estranged?

Hey, all! Long time no see. I wrote the post below for the gay Christian blog Between Communities. You can check out the original post here. Thanks for reading!

I like doing things alone. When I have a whole day free, with no obligations planned with any friends, family, or coworkers, I feel giddy. “Maybe I can finally do some laundry,” I think. “Or I could flesh out that play idea I’ve been chewing on,” another neuron fires. And then I squeal out loud: “The new season of Stranger Things just came out!”

So, I waste a good couple of hours making breakfast and watching TV. Then doing laundry. Then twiddling on Instagram for forty minutes. But then, finally—the glorious moment: the door closed (maybe locked if I’m serious-serious), my laptop turned on, my notebook out, and my mind ready to pull out from my brain an incredible play, or blog, or whatever it is that I am wanting to write, and THEN…

Another hour passes and I’m staring at a blank screen.

“I can’t do this,” I lament to myself. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Then I ponder, and the usual conclusion comes: “I guess I’ll just go ahead and grab that David Savran book where he interviews famous playwrights—maybe it’ll inspire me. Maybe they’ll teach me how to write.” Or: “I don’t know enough about what I want this play to be about. I better go ahead and Google everything about the history of fundamentalism in the United States.”

Spoiler alert, I still haven’t written that play.

I’ve approached my faith in this same, isolated way. When I don’t know what I’m doing (which is most of the time), I research. The past year and a half has been a whirlwind of library books, podcasts, Facebook articles, and tweets I’ve digested relating to the intersection of identities that I think is my end goal: being fully LGBTQ and fully Christian.

Some Background

I left my parent’s conservative evangelical church, the church for most of my childhood, shortly after starting high school. I was caught between the beliefs of my parents and my growing attraction to men, which both felt very natural to me. My mind was easily overwhelmed. I couldn’t tell which way was up, but I knew I was unwilling to repress my feelings. So—I threw the baby out with the bathwater and turned my back on church and God altogether. I was angry, and often thought, “Why would God do this to me?”

I labeled myself agnostic for a while and focused on what I could control: studying, memorizing lines, and my relationships with boys. I rolled my eyes when Jesus came up in conversation with my family. The memories of the connective out-of-body moments I experienced of God while on mission trips, camp retreats, and the occasional Sunday morning worship services were blacked out from my mind. I found a haven in theatre and college, where I felt I could be openly honest and happy about who I am. However, it was never fully enough. A fundamental piece of me was missing, and all I could do at the time was write religion off as something that parents teach their kids so they turn into moral, socially-conscious, “good” citizens.

That may have been my teenage, self-assured-self talking. But now I’m not so sure.

Introspection—Good? Or Bad?

Today, I’m out of school, living in New York City with my boyfriend, and clueless about what kind of life I want to live. I know I’m gay (my RuPaul’s Drag Race addiction proves it), I know I’m a writer/artist, and I know I’ve been raised with conservative, middle-class, Christian values. How do I move forward from here?

Is developing my spirituality in isolation by looking “inside myself” the proper way to connect with God?

This is where being an introspective person comes in handy. It’s important to press pause and take stock of your life. I know I’m young, and that my values and opinions will change over time, but I think it’s a good thing to know where you stand at any given point. And if you find that you don’t know what you want or what you believe to be true—that’s okay! That is why I have been and will continue to be a sponge during this time of spiritual transition. Research, research, research!

I’ve discovered role models in Anne Lamott, Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis—all writers and all Christians. I’ve read Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology by Patrick S. Cheng, and countless LGBTQ stories and memoirs about being gay in a Christian context such as Garrard Conley’s Boy Erased: A Memoir. I’ve followed gay Christian organizations on social media, listened to their podcasts, and watched their webinars on sexuality and faith.

I have found footing in my research far and wide, and have begun to slowly build the foundation of my personal theology. It’s a work in progress, but it’s a path forward. And that’s something! But—is it enough?

C.S. Lewis writes in his memoir Surprised by Joy that introspection “is in one respect misleading. In introspection we try to look ‘inside ourselves’ and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it. Unfortunately this does not mean that introspection finds nothing. On the contrary, it finds precisely what is left behind by the suspension of all our normal activities; and what is left behind is mainly mental images and physical sensations. The great error is to mistake this mere sediment or track or by-product for the activities themselves.”

And this gets me thinking—is developing my spirituality in isolation by looking “inside myself” the proper way to connect with God? Or am I missing something about the character of God by doing so? If that’s the case, I fear my introspection finds only “mere sediment or track” of belief, not belief itself—just like the intense analysis of the artistic process inhibits my ability to write. I’ve always been told I think too much.

Matthew 18:20 says “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” What about one?

Questions and More Questions

I haven’t been an active part of a community of believers since I was fifteen, and that was my parent’s church—not my own. I haven’t been baptized, but I have taken communion. I didn’t go through confirmation, but I did accept Jesus Christ as my savior when I was in junior high. Does any of that matter?

How do I jump back into a community that is typically disagreeable, if not hostile, to what I consider an irrefutable part of who I am?

The context of my spiritual journey cannot be separated from my journey coming to terms with my sexuality. Like many churchgoers, I was raised in the Christian church and I understand how it works—the rituals, the culture, and the belief system. However, unlike many churchgoers, I came out as LGBT and fully separated myself from the church for a span of nearly ten years. I like to think that my social awkwardness, shyness, and introverted-whatever-you-want-to-call-it is something that everyone can relate to, but these qualities in my personality are heightened as a consequence of my LGBT-affirming identity. How do I jump back into a community that is typically disagreeable, if not hostile, to what I consider an irrefutable part of who I am?

(Fill in your own answer here—because I don’t have one.)

Galatians 6:2 calls us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Hebrews 10 tells us to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some [that feels like a personal attack], but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

Being in community with God seems intertwined with being in community with His followers. When one person falls short, a community can offer guidance and support. That much is clear to me. But the fact of my isolation remains—how does one overcome that?

Baby Steps

If the last year and a half since I’ve graduated college have taught me anything, it’s that things take time—relationships, careers, and faith, too. It takes months and years for inklings to grow into desires, for ideas to transform into values, and words to transform into action. It’s okay to take it slow if the thought of jumping into something new gives you mental and emotional anxiety. Church is included in this. Don’t rush if you feel like you’re not ready.

Do research, see what churches are in your area. See if there are any videos or audio recordings of sermons, or if the congregation has a social media presence. Being LGBTQ, you will want to know if a church is affirming of your sexuality before you attend. It’s up to you if a non-affirming community is a deal-breaker for you—consider your emotional health above all. That’s not to say that you should be afraid of being uncomfortable or unwilling to be challenged for your beliefs, but when you’re LGBTQ and starting a new faith and church journey, there’s wisdom in prioritizing your ability to feel safe, loved, and respected.

I think an important question to ask yourself as you begin this new step in your spiritual life is this: Why am I doing this?

It may be because you miss the sense of community you felt in church when you were young. It may be because you are struggling in your faith and are seeking role models. Or, it simply may be because you feel lost and you want to find some solid ground.

We have several competing ideologies that alter and shape our world-view, and our society is increasingly pluralistic.

That last reason rings true for me. I have felt lost after leaving my faith practice, especially during the crucial transformative years of high school. If living a fulfilling Christ-seeking life is anything at all like a puzzle, I feel as if my upbringing and junior high years in youth group have left me with several solid pieces of good spiritual practice. But since I stopped attempting to put them together and build off them, I’m left with a floor scattered with 50 or so haphazard pieces, with the other 4,950 hiding in the furniture or potentially eaten by the cat.

Being a Christ-follower in the modern world is difficult to say the least. We have several competing ideologies that alter and shape our world-view, and our society is increasingly pluralistic. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the LGBTQ culture and its relationship to Christian communities. Living fully in both these groups raises some tough questions and serious conflicts. And this is where a community that is centered on Christ and his teachings can be most impactful, one that has an open heart and an open mind.

Without a doubt, the best answer to my previous question “Why am I doing this?” is because God wants us to. He calls us to His way of seeing, and the purpose He intended for us. Perhaps that purpose is fulfilled by living on the margins of social norms, perhaps it is fulfilled by engaging with people who you don’t understand.

Either way—I don’t think we can find out the answer alone.

What accounts for the existence of gay people? (Part Three/FINALE)

What if I told you gay people, impulses, sensibilities, what have you, were not only natural, but necessary to the progression of the human race, and the evolution of the universe?

Hint: That’s what I’m telling you. Or rather, suggesting to you.

In the past two posts, I’ve mostly talked (written?) about some thoughts on gay identity (as opposed to purpose), on what links us together. I brought that up, because I think identity is linked to purpose. When I bring up Nick Benton’s core gay identifying traits “gay sensibility,” an alternate perspective, and a constructive non-conformity, the “purpose” or I guess “benefits” of such traits on a just human society becomes clearer.

I realize I just kind of rattled off the three traits in the first post without really going into them, but essentially what they suggest, (in Benton’s words) is that gay or so-called “homosexual” passion “is directed toward a different [non-heterosexual] kind of procreation, one which advances the pursuit of beauty, justice, knowledge and truth” (127). Notably, the over-sexualized notion of gay culture is absent from this identity.

In my second post, I elaborated on gay identity more in terms of what it is not (or should not be) rather than what it is, because I think that distinction is important. So much of what outsiders perceive of gay identity is its sexual nature. Social conservatives would decry it as sexual “deviancy,” and they’d have numerous examples for that from the sexual liberation in the ’70s, and even in today’s age of Grindr and hook-up culture. Now, I’m not here to shame people for their sex lives, or to suggest that they’re doing something wrong, but overwhelmingly, the focus both inside and outside of the community has, since Stonewall, been focused on the sex aspect of gay lives. It is clear from the very name used to identify us—”homosexuals.” “Sex” is literally in the name. From that perspective, what differentiates us from everybody else is how we act in the bedroom, and that’s it. I disagree.

It is not sex alone that defines us, because in that view, living as a gay person is a new invention. Yes, anal intercourse has been documented since the Greeks, but the sole pursuit of same-sex relationships openly is rather new, and due to this newness (in the sex-focused view) it is easy to write off the gay “lifestyle” as a “fad,” as something that will “pass.” If we look at being gay as solely sexual it becomes easier to see it as a “deviance,” a “sin,” an “aberration.” However, that thinking ignores the many, many queer individuals who have lived and contributed greatly to human society for as long as that society has existed.

If we base our criteria on what constitutes a gay person (throughout history) by today’s open same-sex relationships, we erase a vital part of people’s identity and undermine today’s LGBT community. This is where Benton’s gay identifiers come into play, and how they are useful. While same-sex erotic passion is difficult to document in our forefathers’ time where there may not have been an outlet to act upon their desires (or discuss it explicitly), it is easier and more appropriate to look for notions of gay “sensibility,” which includes heightened empathy for the underdog and the historically disadvantaged (i.e. women, children, and people of different races/cultures). We can also look for evidence of men and women who did not conform to social standards and lifestyles, and those who brought alternative queer perspectives to social discourse as members of our tribe. Benton is quick to point out that these are not solely gay traits, of course, but the gay social position brings out these qualities more often than not (ESPECIALLY when a queer individual’s sexual nature is stifled to such an extreme degree, as has been the case for much of history).

With this more nuanced and socially-important gay identity, one of Benton’s core arguments becomes stronger: that “homosexuality” is not an “aberration or  chance of nature, but that it is built into the very fabric of the unfolding of the universe” (127). He describes our purpose as part of the universe’s “dissymmetry,” whose role “is to shatter an inertia derived of the simple, dominant binary male-female-reproduction-survival nature of things in favor of not merely survival, but the progress and advance of the species.” How transcendent and inspiring is that for the purpose of gay existence!

While it’s kind of a crazy proposition, he looks to the work of renowned atomic physicist Maurice Goldhaber to back up his idea of the universe’s “dissymmetry.” Goldhaber died at the age of 100 back in May 2011, and in Kenneth Chang’s obituary in the Times he describes the scientist’s most famous contribution as the discovery of “the ghostly, perplexing subatomic particles known as neutrinos.”

Neutrinos, produced in the fusion of the Sun, other stars and in the radioactive decay of elements, flood the universe; trillions of them zip through every person every second.

In the late 1950s, physicists discovered that neutrinos, unlike anything else in the universe known until then, appeared to violate mirror symmetry.

That was odd and unexpected, because looking in a mirror does not usually alter the rules of physics. For example, consider an archer shooting an arrow. As the arrow flies through the air, one could imagine the tail feathers rotating clockwise. In the mirror image of the arrow’s motion, the tail feathers would rotate counterclockwise. […]

But the mirror versions of neutrinos were found to behave differently compared with those that exist in the real world… By observing neutrino-producing transmutations between two carefully chosen elements, Dr. Goldhaber and his collaborators showed that neutrinos, unlike arrows, always rotate in one direction (counterclockwise, it turned out) and never the other.

So Benton attributes this mumbo-jumbo to a “fundamental ‘left-handed’ component to the elemental, sub-atomic structure of physical reality” (139). And this “dissymmetry” moves the universe away from “static equilibrium” to “negentropic” development, which manifests itself to us, in human society, through phenomena such as left-handedness, right-brain domination and homosexuality, among other things.

As RuPaul put it, LGBT individuals are “an extension of the power that created the universe.” No more, no less. Healthy, natural differences are “essential core components of the universe, not accidents, random deviations, corruptions or perversions” (Benton 139). They are by-products of the self-development of space and time. This concept of the universe’s unfolding can be applied to any theology, whether one believes in a Creator or not. Would not a Creator see the benefit in difference and variety? Why can’t LGBT people be one of God’s intended, beautiful, perfect Creations? Would He really make a person with a destiny to fail (i.e. their gay nature is a product of sin)?

We are poets, with an affinity towards more global perspectives, with idealizations of beauty and knowledge, and those of us with an erotic passion beyond the norm “are essential to help drive the development of the individual, civilization, and therefore the universe, forward,” in Benton’s words. How wild, preposterous even, are his claims? But somehow, they strike an inherent chord in me. I look around at what LGBT people contribute now and to what they’ve contributed in the past (of which I’ll be learning eternally), and I can see the alternative perspectives we bring to philosophy, current events, politics, art, and science.

What drives LGBT people to the arts, and to liberal ideologies that forward a social vision of equality, peace, and freedom, if not an overarching purpose to defy norms and convention in the pursuit of truth and progress? I know there are a million holes in the argument, and a million ways to write me off as too abstracted and too idealistic, but there’s also a million-and-one reasons that thinking of gay existence in this way can bring positive, inspiring, and effective change. Change that benefits the lives of LGBT youth, adults, and the elderly, as well as every human being on this Earth. Our differences bring us together and are to be celebrated, not denied. We should use our perspectives to add to the conversation, rather than hide. We are here, we are Queer, and we are not going anywhere.

And on that note—thanks, y’all, for dealing with this three-post arc, that I most certainly could extend to four, five, or probably ten parts, but for all of our sake I will keep at three. This is merely an initial exploration of the titular question, and it is a surfaced one at that. I want to continue to nitpick at these ideas and elaborate upon its tributaries in future posts. If you have any opinions or questions, be sure to comment, email me, or message me on social media.

Tata for now!

[Benton, Nicholas F. Extraordinary Hearts: Reclaiming Gay Sensibility’s Central Role in the Progress of Civilization. Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe, 2013. Print.]

What accounts for the existence of gay people? (Part Two)

“I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E.M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskjöld… Did you know that it was an openly gay Englishman who was as responsible as any man for winning the Second World War? His name was Alan Turing and he cracked the German’s Enigma code so the Allies knew in advance what the Nazis were going to do—and when the war was over he committed suicide he was so hounded for being gay… The only way we’ll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual. It’s all there—all through history we’ve been there; but we have to claim it, and identify who was in it, and articulate what’s in our minds and hearts and all our creative contributions to this earth. And until we do that, and until we organize ourselves block by neighborhood by city by state into a united visible community that fights back, we’re doomed. That’s how I want to be defined: as one of the men who fought the war. Being defined by our cocks is literally killing us. Must we all be reduced to becoming our own murderers?”

– Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart

Sometimes I feel like I’m doing things all wrong. I’m 22 and I just moved to New York City; such a “hipster and artsy” move to make, no? I’m young, shouldn’t I make the most of it and “enjoy” it? I suppose this translates to: being generally noncommittal job-wise, trying crazy things, and dating/sleeping around. I mean, I’m down for the first two, but the third? This is where it breaks down, since I’ve been dating the same person for four years and moved in with him upon moving to the city. We have an IKEA bed together. There’s no turning back after that, right?

This anxiety is made worse because the gay community is especially noted for its promiscuity and noncommittal attitudes. I think, generally, we’re in a time where people, both gay and straight, are looking to settle down later in life and the general advice is to “go crazy” in your twenties. But the pressure definitely seems to be a bit harsher in a community that literally made open sexuality a political platform in the ’70s and ’80s.

If you asked a non-LGBT person what they thought were some of the dominant traits of gay people (and gay men, in particular), I’m sure promiscuity/unconventional sexual habits would come into play in the conversation at some point. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that trait, but what else do they mention? Do they mention empathy? Do they mention strength? Do they mention creativity?

By which one of those traits would you rather be defined?

For me, it comes down to focus. What do I want to focus on as my main “thing”? How do I want others to see me, or remember me? The “sex” in sexuality is definitely important (don’t I know it), but should it define us exclusively? Isn’t sexuality more than just “sex”?

That’s a lot of questions, I apologize, but I think they are questions worth raising. They are questions Larry Kramer has raised his whole life, especially in his play The Normal Heart, set amidst the hysteria and confusion of the onset of the AIDS crisis. Sex was the political imperative among the gay movement at the time (and it’s not a far reach for today’s, either), which became an issue for some as the reality of AIDS began to settle in, along with the realization that it was probably being transmitted sexually. The very act the gay movement aligned with its liberation and revolution, became the means by which its members were killed off in droves.

Nicholas Benton has a lot to say on this topic, and this is where he becomes particularly controversial in the dynamics of gay politics. He published one hundred columns under the title “Nick Benton’s Gay Science” as a reference to the 1882 book by Friedrich Nietzsche simply titled “The Gay Science.” Nietzsche’s title refers to the “science” of writing poetry (a common phrase at the time), while Benton’s covers topics of gay identity and history, repudiating the 1960’s “hedonistic” counterculture that influenced the burgeoning gay rights movement. Benton draws a clear line in the sand between his gay science and Nietzsche’s, contending that the philosopher’s anti-socialist, pro-individualist, “will to power” thought and policy first played a role in European fascism, and then gave way to modernism and post-modernism currents, mixing with the works of Ayn Rand, the Structuralists, and others to create anarchism and nihilism, which merged with libertarianism and radical hedonism to bring us the emerging 1960s counter-culture (confused yet?).

I’m not claiming to be a pro on the history of philosophy in the twentieth century; it’s very interesting to me and I want to learn more, but the nugget I wanted to grab from all this was Benton’s belief that these philosophical currents negatively influenced the young gay rights movement in the 1960s, leading to the influence of the Beats and French philosopher Michel Foucault (of whom he is not a fan). He believes these forces “hijacked and almost killed the LGBT movement in the earliest days of the post-Stonewall era… Tirelessly expounding a relentless demand for excess, for pushing beyond the limit against social convention, its proponents drove sex from romance to mechanical excess in the major urban centers, converting a happy, burgeoning LGBT community into a string of financially-lucrative businesses catering to what Foucault… and his kind pushed as the revolutionary nature of unbridled sexual excess” (Benton 44).

Okay WOAH that’s a lot. But, essentially, he sees the “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” movement of the ’60s, along with the politicized sexual excess called for by the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Foucault, as forces that enabled urban centers to become hotbeds for exotic infectious diseases. Anybody who fought against the excess were “angrily decried as reactionary and homophobic by leaders of gay organizations who were often owners or friends of owners of these sex-related businesses” (44). Kramer’s works can attest to this, as well (The Normal Heart and his novel Faggots, too). These queer influencers put sex at the forefront of the movement, and while they certainly cannot be the sole blame of the AIDS epidemic, it’s hard to argue that they did not contribute to an unsafe environment through which such a horrible disease could spread with ease. And kill tens upon thousands of young, beautiful souls.

Which brings me back to Benton’s core gay identifiers, and the underlying belief in the ability and preciousness of gay souls. His three suggested aspects to help define gay identity are by no means an imposition, but rather, an attempt to “raise questions and propose hypotheses out of which a more universal sense of gay identity may emerge, if not immediately, perhaps over decades or longer” (Benton 133). We are unique, but not superior; we are different than straight people in our “non-dominant social-sexual position” that I mentioned in the previous post. Benton asks (as do I), “What is at the core of that? If it can be found, wouldn’t that help to define a positive identity for gay people, generally?”

A positive, purposeful, substantive identity for LGBT people—is it possible, or no? Must it forever be linked to mindless, mechanical sexual excess? Or are Benton’s ideas of gay identity—notions of sensibility, alternative perspective, and constructive non-conformity—a fuller lens through which to view ourselves? Our forefathers are the likes of Tennessee Williams and Aristotle; I wonder what they would think?

[Benton, Nicholas F. Extraordinary Hearts: Reclaiming Gay Sensibility’s Central Role in the Progress of Civilization. Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe, 2013. Print.]