I was twelve years old when Ellen came out to Oprah. As a homeschooler in the Bible Belt before social media was invented, I studied her pictures in magazines when my parents weren’t watching. Her sense of humor didn’t resonate with me and I wasn’t necessarily attracted to her, yet there I was celebrity stalking her back when we had to work for it.
Watching Ellen with teenage wonder, my conversation with myself went something like this: She made it. She’s an actual lesbian who made it to adulthood and she’s, like, NORMAL. She’s relatively well-adjusted and some people kind of like her. I wonder if some people would still like me, too, if they knew?
Every young person scans their network to identify role models they can look to when they try to imagine future stories for their lives. Whether it’s a father, a coach, a youth pastor, or an art teacher, kids observe those they identify with so they can sketch a rough outline of what life might look like down the road. An aspiring black Christian musician will probably be drawn to an older black Christian musician when he imagines a future career. A young female soccer star might look to a soccer player at the local university for inspiration. An amateur chess champion—you get the point.
When I scanned my network, though, I only saw straight people. I’m sure there were closeted queers, but there was not one single openly gay Christian that I could look to for even a vague idea of a possible narrative for my life. It was great to watch youth pastors and camp counselors to get an idea of what it might look like to serve in ministry, but it broke down because every single one was straight.
As I bounced between camp counselors (for the Christian part) and Ellen (for the lesbian part), I knew the answer to the question of whether or not I could be an open, honest, relatively well-adjusted, relatively well-liked lesbian in the church: No. The lack of people to look to was a strong indicator that it simply was not possible to tell the truth and stay in the church.
This resulted in hyper-self-consciousness in Christian circles because I was so attentive to curbing my gayness. “Am I sitting gay right now?” I often thought to myself. “Oh GOD, I’m sitting gay right now,” as I shifted into what I gathered was a less lesbian way of sitting in a chair. I bought into the lies we tell about both gay people and women, believing that if I could somehow carry myself in a more stereotypically feminine way, then I would be more acceptable. And if I could be skinnier, and prettier, and act like I didn’t work for it or care about it, then my likability factor would rise even more.
What Ellen showed me was that it was okay to exist as an openly gay person in society. What we need now are leaders in Christian communities who, by their existence, communicate that it’s okay to exist as an openly gay person in the church. Ideally, LGBT people would be in leadership so that kids grow up downloading a message that straight Christians believe they have something to learn from gay people. Some churches seek to “reach out” or “minister to” gay people and it’s often in the spirit of compassion, but even that attempt to love still maintains a power dynamic that implies sexual minorities are a particularly needy or broken brunch. Having a bisexual elder, on the other hand, tells the young bisexual boy that it’s not only possible to exist as a bisexual adult in the church, but that bisexual people are wise and they have gifts to offer the community. It’s a positive message to a young person who doesn’t hear many positive messages from the church.
We’ve come a long way. Young people can now celebrity stalk with peace of mind and LGBT teens can locate other gay Christians via google. As wonderful as it is for them to work through questions about theology, or dating, or everyday existence by interacting with others online, very few of them have people in their actual circles that model a way forward for them. My sense is that this is because: 1.) Many older sexual minorities stay in the closet because they still don’t feel safe enough to share, and 2.) Christian organizations that might actually want a gay person in leadership feel like it would be a liability (they might lose donors, or get phone calls from parents, or have to wrestle with questions that make them uncomfortable). It is simply easier not to take that step. It comes at a cost, though, and it comes at the expense of the most vulnerable.
I’m encouraged that many Christians see the need for LGBT leaders to be intimately involved in the community, but it’ll take more courage on the part of straight Christian leaders for this to become the norm. In the mean time, I hope more sexual minorities will come out as both gay and Christian, leading lives of vitality and integrity. Even if there isn’t enough momentum for us to be truly supported in leadership roles within various institutions, we can convey to young women that find us in roundabout ways that it’s possible to exist as a lesbian who loves Jesus—that it’s a good thing to exist as a lesbian who loves Jesus.