GLBT Christian Ministry: The Next GenerationA keynote address by Justin Lee
Transcribed by Vombatus
This is a transcript of a keynote address given by GCN Executive Director Justin Lee at the annual ConnECtion conference of Evangelicals Concerned. Visit ecinc.org and ecwr.org for more information on Evangelicals Concerned.
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HENRY: [introducing Justin to the crowd] Justin Lee, who you just met a minute ago, is much like many of the people sitting here in this room; like you, like myself, like those sitting around you. He grew up in a Christian home. His coming out process in his teens and his twenties was not the easiest, but he stuck to his faith. A few years ago, God honored that faith and led Justin to start and to grow what is arguably the premier GLBT website on the Internet today. Not just in the U.S., but we have members all over the world. It's a network called Gay Christian Network, and us GCNers call it GCN and I'm sure you'll learn to call it GCN as well. Justin and I had a conversation yesterday about things taken off the Internet, using his quotes, things he's posted—well, I'm doing a little bit of that, so...I apologize!—but here's a quote from Justin and it's regarding when people ask him this particular question and it's his response: How could you stay a Christian when you were so hurt by your fellow Christians? And Justin's response was: "How could I not? How could I abandon the One who gave me life, saved me from my own sin, and brought me through the most painful moments of my life?" Folks, that is the heart of one who profoundly loves God. That's the heart of one who profoundly loves the community of believers.
I see it—not everyday, I'm not on GCN everyday, but I'm on a lot—and initially I went just to check them out a little bit and then I kept going back and I kept going back. I discovered they have a wonderful creativity site where I can post my poetry, so that was sort of the hook that brought me there. And there's not a lot of places you can do that, except Candice's whosoever.org, and Candice has been kind enough to put my poetry there as well, but there's not a lot of places that you can do that, so that brought me in. But what kept me there was not that. It was the stories I see in peoples' lives every day; lives that are changing and changing and changing for the better. I could tell you stories about me and the progress I've had since I've been going there. I've been part of EC for maybe 20 years. I moved away, didn't have any seed groups, so GCN has helped fill in that void. But this isn't about me, and it's not just about Justin, it's about the lives of people, and I'm going to represent that to you here in just a minute. If this statement applies to you, I want you to stand.
How many of you came to Connection this year or prior years for the first time because of your interaction on GCN? Would you stand? Folks, look around. Okay, stay standing.
How many of you might've already been part of EC or you might be hear because other people brought you or something, but you're a member of GCN? Okay, there's more. Okay, apart from that...
How many—and I might be sort of manipulating this question, because when we posted about Justin on the ECWR website, we put a link to GCN, so some of you may have gone just for that reason—but how many of you, apart from this have gone there to visit? You may not be a member but have visited once, twice, or very frequently? Would you stand up? Okay, folks, that's the impact that one person has had on the EC community.
Folks, I give you... Justin Lee.
JUSTIN: I have no idea how I'm supposed to live up to this! [laughter] Okay, I don't know how good I am with microphones, so if I get too close or too far away, just let me know. Whew. You see, I wasn't nervous just a minute ago but now I am. [laughter]
I'd like to start with a prayer... if to settle my nerves for no other reason! [laughter]
Lord God, thank You so much, thank You so much for bring us all here, thank You for bringing me here, and thank You for each and every person who's here and for all that You're doing in all of our lives, and all of our hearts. I just ask that this morning You would open our ears to hear whatever it is that You have to say to us. I ask that You would open my mouth, give me the words to say whatever it is that You would have me to say this morning. And I ask that You would open the eyes of all of our hearts, as we sang yesterday, to see whatever truth it is that You have for us, for today and for the rest of our lives. I ask these things in Jesus' name, Amen.
So, I have to start off by saying something. Henry was just talking about quotes taken off of the Internet, and I was telling him that yesterday I, for the first time, saw my bio, my little keynoter bio on this page here. And I started reading it, and apparently it is sort of a combination of something very, very complimentary and nice that someone wrote about me—I don't know who wrote it, but it was very, very nice—combined with a quote from me, off of the website, in first person. And so it's all pushed together and so it sort of looks like I both have a huge ego and speak of myself in the third person! [laughter] So, I do not normally go around saying, "Justin is extremely bright, and when I started GCN..." [laughter] I just wanted to clear that up right off the bat.
I just want to also start off by saying that it's so wonderful that... I just want to say "Thanks," basically, to all the folks that made it possible to be here. To Ralph and all the work he's done with EC. I've been doing GCN for, like, four years, and he's been doing EC for decades, and I know that others of you... [laughter] The world was very different when some of you, those of you who have been here for a long time, the world was very different when you started doing this. And it's partly because of the work that Ralph and some of the others here have done that folks like me can come along and do what we're doing, right now. So I just want to say thanks and if we could show some appreciation for everyone involved in making this possible. [applause] So thank you to all of you.
You can imagine, I've been a fan of EC for quite a while, actually. EC, both the east coast group and ECWR. I've read stuff on the Internet, I've read things that Ralph has written, I'm a big fan of a lot of his stuff, so you can imagine that when he told me that he was inviting me to come and give a keynote address to all these people, to have a chance to stand, not literally, but sort of figuratively, where so many great men and women of God have stood, and to say whatever God put on my heart to all of you, the first thought that crossed my mind was... "What in the world am I going to wear?" [laughter]
Because with this many gay men, there is a lot of pressure! [laughter]
And I never did resolve that dilemma. I finally just picked something because I thought anything would be less distracting than nothing. [laughter]
But see, I have no fashion sense, I really don't. But this is okay, because I think it's my calling... God has set me apart to help counteract the stereotypes of gay men. I say to the world, "No! No matter what you may have seen in the movies or on television, not all gay men are cool." [laughter] This is... I'm doing my part.
Because it's true! There's a lot of pressure, I think, on our community from movies and television and these images of what we're supposed to be. If you're a lesbian, for instance, you have to be sexy. If you're a bisexual, you have to be sexy and dangerous. [laughter] If you're trans, you have to be intimately connected with violent crime in some way. [laughter] Either you're a victim of it, or you are a psychopathic mass murderer. And if you're a gay man, you have to be trendy. You have to have your finger on the pulse of American culture.
Like Queer Eye. Have you seen Queer Eye? You've seen the show? Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. They bring in these five guys who are just all really trendy and they come in and they fix this straight guy's life and make him acceptable to women, somehow. [laughter]
We used to be destroying the American family, now people can't even get together without us. [laughter and applause]
Thank God any of our parents managed to get together, I don't know how any of it happened! Before the gay movement, the human race was in dire.... [laughter]
But it's a lot of pressure, it really is. There's a lot of pressure on us, I think, to fit these stereotypes. I was watching Queer Eye and I was thinking, you know, they've got the fashion guy, they've got the culture guy, and the food guy, and he's not like, you know, "I eat." He knows all about wines and how to cook and everything. And I'm thinking, I can do none of these things. I can't decorate, I have no fashion sense, I can't cook; what kind of Queer Eye guy could I be? So I thought about it and the best I could think of was that I could be the TV guy, I could tell you what was on, or something. [laughter] Remote in one hand, TV Guide in the other. But then I thought I couldn't even do that, because if Queer Eye really had a TV guy he would watch highbrow British documentaries on PBS or something, and I would be watching Family Guy or some trashy reality TV show. No, I'm kidding actually, I hate reality TV... but I watch it. [laughter]
No, I'm kidding, I like to talk about pop culture, I love pop culture, and it's partly because I'm compensating, because when Ralph speaks—I've heard Ralph lecture several times—and when Ralph lectures he always has this clever little word-play in his lectures, as those of you who've heard him before know. And if you're not paying attention, you'll miss it because he doesn't "Oh, that was the joke", he just keeps right on going. But if you catch it, he's always saying these things like, [in deeper voice] "In the ex-gay community there's a lot of short-changing going on, but not a lot of real changing going on." You know. [laughter] And I'm not good at that! Y'all know it's true.
But I'm not so good at that so I compensate with pop culture, which brings me to the title of the presentation. See, we're making good time! We're at the title already. [laughter] You've got all day, right? I thought we'd just go right through lunch. [From audience: "Amen!"] Yeah.
So, yeah, the title of my keynote is GLBT Christian Ministry: The Next Generation... some of you may pick up the pop culture reference there. I'm not a Trekkie.
So I want to explain quickly what I mean by that. First off, when I say—hopefully GLBT and Christian are self-explanatory—when I say "ministry," I'm not talking about just formal organizations. I'm not talking about just EC or GCN or the MCC or More Light Presbyterians or any of the other GLBT Christian ministries that are out there. That is part of it, but I'm also talking about the ministry that is our lives. As individual believers, each and every one of us is living a ministry, and it's the way that you talk about yourself, the way that you present yourself, the way that you live your life as a believer. So this is intended to apply to everybody. Now, "the next generation," when I say that, first off I thought it sounded better than GLBT Christian Ministry: Deep Space Nine, which... [laughter]
But I'm not just talking about younger people. Someone I was talking to this morning said something about "Oh, you're going to be talking about young people." No, I'm not just talking about that, the next generation, literally, of people, I'm talking generations in the same way you might talk about generations in technology, the next evolution of the technology. We talk about "these are third generation cell phones" and whatnot; it's because every generation of the technology improves and we get better.
So I'm talking about the next evolution of what we're doing. Now, I want to say right off the bat that this isn't all going to be clear cut. I'm going to talk a little bit about some things that are new, that we need to do, maybe things that we need to change in the way that we live these ministries and I know some of the things we're already doing, and some of these things some of us are doing and others are not doing. I'm going to talk in generalizations, so take that for what it is. Every ministry is different, but this is sort of a big picture look.
But I think that many GLBT Chrsitian ministries that I have encountered are, in one way or another, still operating as if we were living in the 1970s. Think about what was going on in the 1970s. We were just coming off the Stonewall riots in '69. Police... at this time of course, people were often arrested in gay bars, many of them operated without liquor licenses and the police would do raids on these bars and come in and drag people off to jail for things like wearing clothing of the opposite sex, or holding hands with a member of the same sex, or kissing. I mean, these things were considered public indecency. And the drag queens rioting at Stonewall at this time were fighting for their right to exist, for the right to simply have a place that they could be, that they could call their own. There was no meeting like this where everyone just came and you could do it without worrying about it. That happened later. And so they were fighting for their right to exist. Until the mid-70s, homosexuality was still classified as a mental disorder by the APA. We had very little visibility; what visibility we had as a community was negative. There was no Ellen, there was no Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. We were fighting to have our places, to exist, and we did it by amassing power. This is the same kind of mentality that fifteen years ago, twenty years after Stonewall, formed Queer Nation and motivated their slogan: "We're here, we're queer, get used to it."
But things have changed a bit since then. Since Stonewall, our community, the GLBT community, has been through an epidemic that's still holding on to this day. The APA no longer classifies homosexuality as a mental disorder. Laws have changed; not only do we not have to worry about being arrested for holding hands or wearing the wrong kind of clothing, but the Supreme Court ruled that we can't be arrested for having sex in the privacy of our own homes. Marriage, gay marriage, is actually an option in many places, including some within the United States. Not most of the United States, but things are changing; it's not something that would've even been conceived of by those who were rioting back at Stonewall. We have visibility, we have Will & Grace, we have Ellen, we have Queer Eye and Queer as Folk and The L Word and all of these gay characters in movies and on television. There are GLBT clubs in high schools all across the country, and advertisers are actively seeking our dollars. The idols of the gay community, the gay male community at least, used to be Barbara Streisand, Liza Minelli, Judy Garland... now in many parts it's Margaret Cho, Ellen, Cher... okay, not everything's changed. [laughter]
I was watching The Simpsons the other day and there's an episode of The Simpsons where there's a Pride march. Have you seen this episode? There's a Pride march coming through Springfield and they're watching and the marchers are chanting, "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!" and Lisa, who's always the rational one, looks at them and says, "We are used to it, you do this every year!" [laughter]
We need to look at what it is maybe that we need to change about our methods and our mentality, not because what we've been doing hasn't been effective, but because in some ways we've be so effective that the culture has changed. Things have shifted, and we need to look at what does this mean for us, what is the next generation of what we should be doing at this point?
I just want to quickly highlight three big issues that we're going to face going forward.
One of them is the division of the society that we're in right now. At one time, society in America was pretty much universally opposed to homosexuality in any form. There was really no question, I mean, everyone agreed, for the most part, except for "the gays." Today's society is really divided. Our society is incredibly divided and our church is really divided, very polarized on this issue. And it's just becoming more and more and more of an issue that's splitting the church.
Bruce Bawer in his book Stealing Jesus, eight years ago, recognized this and wrote about it as the division between the "Church of Law" and the "Church of Love" (this was how he characterized it). Of course, the Church of Law, in Bawer's estimation, are the bad guys. And the Church of Love are the good guys. The problem is, Bawer defines the Church of Law to include beliefs such as the belief that heaven is a real place, the belief in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and the belief in the need to evangelize, among others. Which are huge, bedrock foundation elements of what it is to be an evangelical. And here we are: a group of evangelical Christians who are GLBT and GBLT-affirming. And Bawer says that the problem of the polarity in the church is that there's the Church of Law and the Church of Love, the Church of Law includes a lot of beliefs that we as a group stand for, and Bawer's solution is we should simply eschew the Church of Law in favor of the Church of Love. You know, love wins and everybody's happy... good guys, bad guys, you know. And it's nice to be able to draw these lines that are clear and say "here are the good guys" and "here are the bad guys," but the problem is that the ways that the lines are being drawn, often, in our culture, leave us, if not right in the middle, often wearing the black hats. We're the bad guys in a lot of ways. If Bawer's definition of law and love and how this is playing out in the church is really accurate, what happens to EC?
So, we have a division that we have to deal with.
Second, we have a problem of youth—not that youth are a problem, but there are some problems relating to the fact that youth are coming out younger and younger and younger than ever before. Kids are coming out when they're twelve and thirteen now. And they're still living at home, many of them in homes with fundamentalist Christian parents and they have a problem.
Exodus is actively recruiting the youth for its programs. If you did not know, Exodus has a youth website, Exodus Youth. There are programs like one that someone was telling me about recently called Refuge, which is one of these live-in programs and such that focus exclusively on youth, ex-gay programs for youth. Despite what's often publicized by these ministries, kids are being put in these communities against their will, many times. And yet, there are dangers for us in trying to build youth ministries and actively seek out the youth the way that groups like Exodus are doing. There are problems that we have to face when older gay men are mentoring younger, gay, underage boys. Simply because, if nothing else, all kinds of accusations can be brought against us, of which "recruiting" is one of the least of our worries.
So we have to figure out how we can reach some of these youth, and as if that wasn't difficult enough, combine that with the polarization in society, we have to deal with two different kinds of youth. There are those that are out and proud and who are the thirteen year olds starting a GLBT club in their middle school; maybe one of the biggest issues that they face is parents who don't quite get it. And there are other kids who are themselves very fundamentalist, very conservative who are coming out to themselves, seeing gay people all around them on television and in the movies and in the culture and who understand, "yes, this is who I am, I am gay" at an age that their parents generation wouldn't even have made that connection. They're making that connection very young, and yet they are not in a place, because of their religious beliefs, they're not in a place to say, "this is a good thing." And so they are actively seeking groups like Exodus, or in many cases are just simply filled with self-hate. And they're going to have years and years before they will be out of their parents' homes, before they will be able to get the maturity to really deal with some of these issues the way that we, many of us, were able to deal with them when we came out.
And the third—and there are more, but just to give you three—the third issue that's facing us right now is the question of place. We're living in an information age now. Information just everywhere. I keep talking about television and movies and that's because that's how a lot of us get our information, but there's the Internet, there's radio, all kinds of things. And right now many of our communities, many of our ministries are built around place. The GLBT community got its start in places. Usually these places were places like Stonewall, gay bars. You knew you could go to this place and you could get fellowship with other people or sex or whatever it was you were looking for. The trouble is, there are a lot of places in this country, still, where there aren't communities for people to get plugged into. And even if there are GLBT communities, there may not be any evangelical Christian GLBT communities. Not everyone can afford to come out to San Francisco for a conference. We need to figure out how we're going to reach folks in rural areas, in other countries, and so on.
Now, no one stands up to give a speech about an issue unless they're passionate about it. So let me tell you a little bit about what lit a fire under me with regards to all of this stuff, a little of my story.
I did grow up Southern Baptist in Raleigh, North Carolina. I've lived a few places, but I've lived most of my life in North Carolina. Yes, I do say "y'all." [laughter]
I went through a struggle but I really didn't identify myself as gay until I was eighteen. I came out to my parents when I was eighteen, one week before leaving for college because I wasn't sure what their reaction would be and I really didn't want to stick around! [laughter] I was scared to death.
I went off to college and at this point I was nineteen and I was conservative Christian, with a Southern Baptist background. I wasn't sure about this whole gay thing; I knew I was gay, but I didn't know what to do about it. I tried to get involved in a local "ex-gay" ministry, because I thought that was what God wanted. Clearly that's what God wanted. I had been dating a girl in high school, and when I left for college we sort of stopped seeing each other, but I told her what I was going through, and she actually gave me a book that was a pro-gay book. I said, "No! That's sinful and I can't see you anymore." [laughter] But I really believed with all of my heart that God was going to make me straight. I just didn't know why He was taking so long, but I was sure that that was going to happen. The ex-gay ministry I tried to get involved with, though, didn't want me... in fact I tried several and they didn't want me! [laughter] Because they didn't have a place for me.
This one particular ministry, everyone in this ministry, they were all men, they were all married, and they were all middle-aged. And they all had been through a lot of what they would refer to as "the gay lifestyle" sort of experiences. Coming out, having lots of anonymous sex, one night stands and so on, and then saying "this life is not fulfilling to me and I want to be true to my wife," and all this sort of thing. I was a nineteen year old virgin; I'd never even held a boy's hand. They had no idea what to say to me. They had no place for me, so they sent me some materials and said, "We're sorry, we just don't have any way to respond to you at this time."
I went to national ex-gay conferences. Exodus, PFOX... some of you may not have heard of PFOX. They took the idea of PFLAG, Parents Family & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and they formed Parents and Friends of EX-Gays, PFOX. Which by the way was not really parents and friends of ex-gays, it was really parents who wanted their out gay kids to be ex-gays, that's really what it was. [laughter] This is true.
I talked to leaders of ex-gay ministries; leaders within Exodus, national leaders. Some of them I talked to on the Internet, some of them I talked to in person. Sat down and had some really interesting conversations with these people.
In the end, there were two big things that kept me from getting involved in the ex-gay ministry.
Number one: because I was so young and had never been sexually active, many of them had nothing to say of relevance to me. I would keep saying "Yes, but... yes, but," and they would keep saying "You know, with God's help you can come out of this lifestyle." And I would say, "What lifestyle? I'm not in a lifestyle!" [laughter] And I would listen to them tell me, "Oh, God healed me and now I haven't had sex with a man in two years!" and I said, "I've never had sex with a man! What's different, are you still attracted to men?" "Well, uh... there are temptations, but God is going to continue healing us, it's a process." I said, "Is there anyone here who's actually gotten there? Anybody?" And the few people who told me that they had, I really didn't believe them when I talked to them. [laughter] Because the way they talked about things was just really strange. I remember one guy told me that he felt that God had healed him and that his temptations were much less than when he was younger (he's, like, forty-five) and I said, "Well, a lot of people's sex drive goes down as they get older." [laughter and boos] No one here! No one here! But some people do. Ah, I've just lost them. [laughter] But I said, "What do you mean you have 'mild' temptations?" and he said, "Well, I can't read GQ magazine" or something. I'm like, "GQ Magazine?! I can look at a GQ magazine!" I mean, most of the guys in GQ Magazine are professional men in business suits, I mean, if he had said the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, or something, I might have understood, but... It just didn't really convince me.
So one thing that kept me out was being so young and not having been sexually active, and that there was not going to be anything in it for me as a result of that. But the second thing that kept me out was my family dynamic, because I came from a two parent, conservative Christian home, where my dad used to play basketball with me at our hoop in our backyard and my parents would come and read Bible stories with me every night before bed, and my mom wasn't overbearing or overprotective. My parents had been married for ten years before I was born. I was their first-born, I was their miracle baby because they had been told that they would never have kids. So by the time I was born, my parents had had time to really get their act together; their marriage was solid, they were mature enough to really be able to handle kids, my mom quit her job as a vice-principal to be a stay-at-home mom, and we were living like the Donna Reed Show or... [laughter] That's cool. When I talk to college groups, nobody knows what I'm talking about with the Donna Reed Show. [laughter] I used to watch Donna Reed on Nick at Nite! [groans] I'm only twenty-seven. Or for those of you who aren't familiar with Donna Reed, Leave it to Beaver, although I don't really like Leave it to Beaver. I always say, my family made Leave it to Beaver look dysfunctional, so... [laughter]
But we had just the... This was our family, you could have followed us around with a camcorder and done an article about us in James Dobson's magazine. Right on the cover would be a picture of my family with "This is the way to raise a Christian family." I've never seen a family that did it by the book any better. And yet, they kept telling me in these ex-gay ministries, "Well, you're distant from your father and your mother's overbearing..." and I said, "No!"
And the kicker for me was this one guy at one of the national conferences that said this to me and I said, "I'm not. I'm close to my dad and I'm close to my mom, but not too close to my mom!" [laughter] We're right there, everything is exactly right... I don't want to say my family is perfect, no family is perfect, but I mean, we were as close as I've ever seen. I mean, I was very happy as a kid, and I said this. I said, "Really, I don't have a distant relationship with my father." And he looked at me, he leaned forward and looked into my eyes, and he said, "I used to think that, too." Can you say "brainwash"? I thought, how sad that he thought he had a good relationship with his dad and then he came to a group and they taught him that he didn't have a good relationship with his dad!
With all the kids that I knew growing up who all ended up straight who had abusive fathers or no father at all... And these things exist in the gay community just as they do in the straight community. But the fact is that I never saw any evidence that it was more common. I think it's common everywhere. I think everyone has problems in their families. Because my family—I was so blessed to be in such a wonderful environment growing up, it didn't fit, none of the stuff they told me fit.
Really, these were the only two things that kept me out of ex-gay ministries because I wanted so badly to get involved and to become straight. And it shocked me, looking back, to realize that had I not come from the family that I did or had I had sexual experiences before going to the ex-gay ministries that could very well be where I'd be today.
So I understand what drives people to those ministries. But while I couldn't become involved in ex-gay ministries, I didn't feel in any way connected to the GLBT community. I mean, I was still this good little Southern Baptist boy. I didn't feel comfortable going to a gay bar. I knew I was gay, but I didn't... you know? And in college I had gay friends and they'd go clubbing and I wouldn't go with them, and because I didn't go with them to the gay clubs, they really kind of distanced themselves from me because that was really their social outlet was to go dancing at the clubs. And I'd never danced before anywhere and certainly not at a gay club, and then I went one time because some of my friends finally dragged me and I said, okay, I should experience it one time, and it terrified me! Because, it was just a completely different experience for this sheltered little Southern Baptist boy.
So I felt really completely completely totally alone. I went into major depression. I really got to the point of being almost suicidal. I got to the point that I was thinking every day about different ways to kill myself. I never got to the point of making an attempt, but I just felt like at any moment I could snap. I had been a straight A student, got into college, into a very nice private university on a very nice full scholarship—highly sought after. I lost it. I became the first person in the history of this scholarship to lose it because my grades suffered so much. I stopped going to class, I used to sit in the corner of my room and just cry and ask God, "Why me?" There is a song—I used to listen to a lot of Christian music—and there's a song by a Christian band (that later made it big on radio but at this time no one had heard of them except for the Christian community) called Sixpence None the Richer. And they had a song on their current album at the time which is called "This Beautiful Mess" and the song had in a line in it that said, to God, "And by the way, when I kneel to pray, it never seems you're there. And I'll admit that I do not try when it's easier to sit down and cry. I'm so full of doubt, want to let it out all over you." And that was how I felt. I found myself for the first time in my life really thinking, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Where are you? What's going on? Why am I alone?" I saw no purpose in what I was going through at all. None.
Finally, I decided I need to tell this story, people need to know. Because I didn't know if I was the only person in the world going through it, but I thought, I can't be, there's got to be somebody else. So I put my story out on the web, and you know, had a little website—because I was a computer geek, I've always been a computer geek—so I put my little website up and I had a, "this is my story, this is what I've been through." And I got an e-mail from somebody, and it said something along the lines of "I read your story and it brought tears to my eyes, because I never knew that there was anybody else who had been through this. I've never told anyone what I'm going through, but when I read your story I know I'm not alone and you'll never have any idea how much this means to me."
And I read that just over and over, and I thought, "Wow, that's so amazing. That God's taking this awful thing that I'm going through that I still don't have all the answers to and has blessed somebody else with it." And then I got another e-mail. And then I got another one. And then they started coming in from all of the world, I just kept getting these e-mails. And I hadn't done anything at all except put my story out there and say, this is what I've been through.
People started e-mailing me asking for advice. People much older than me, who'd been in the church much longer, and had been out much longer, asking me questions. Asking me questions like "How do I tell my parents that I'm gay?", "How do I tell my wife that I'm gay?", "How do I tell my kids that I'm gay?" I got e-mails that said things like, "I was going to commit suicide tonight." That was a real e-mail that somebody sent me that said, "I was going to commit suicide tonight, and I got on the Internet as a last-ditch effort to see if there was anyone out there who had managed to put this gay and Christian thing together and I found your page."
The e-mails got to be a lot more than I could answer, and so I tried desperately to respond to all of them and I managed to—a lot of people I'd answer them and I'd never hear back from them again. And some people I did, I kept in touch with. I finally said, you know, maybe we should have like a little community, a place on the web where we could go and talk back and forth, because otherwise it was just me talking to everybody and I though maybe we could all talk to each other.
And I had registered a domain name, gaychristian.net. Originally I had registered it thinking maybe I'd use it to point to my story and other articles I'd written since then on my personal homepage. But I changed my mind and decided I'd put up sort of an informational page. So then I thought, maybe we should add a community to this, so I paid for message board software and put it up and put a little notice that said we could start a chat every week. "If you want, send me an instant message and then I'll invite you to a chat room and we can chat." And at first there were about a dozen of us, and this was in August of 2001. The first big discussion we ever had on the message board was about the attacks on September 11th, which shocked us all. I used to log on and see had anyone posted anything today—those of you who are GCN members know why that's a little bit funny; now we can't keep up with it. So, August 2001 we had about a dozen members or so.
Our growth skyrocketed exponentially. We now have over 2500 members around the world and it just keeps going up. We tripled in size last year. We became a non-profit organization, and we are 501(c)(3) now, and we're starting to look at what can we do? We've got all these people and what can we do, as volunteers? And so that's kind of what brought me here because I'm running this organization. We have an Internet radio show, online articles, columns, message board, prayer team, Bible study materials... I love what Roberta Crider said about stories. I think stories are the most important thing, both because of my experience and because I've seen the impact stories have on people. And so we're actually now working on a DVD of youths' stories of coming to terms with themselves as gay and Christian that we're going to make available, once we're done with it, to youth groups and churches and stuff like that. So we're really excited about a lot of the things that we're doing.
But I think what we're doing over at GCN is just the tip of the iceberg of what we, all of us, as GLBT Christians and those who support GLBT Christians can be doing. So let me tell you about what I think the next generation holds for us. What it looks like.
There are four big things.
First, I think that the next generation of GLBT Christian ministry must be decidedly Christian. We have to take a stand. We have to talk about what is truth. We have to be able to say, "Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life." ["Amen!"] I know a lot of you may say, "Well, we do that!" I can tell you, because I've interacted with a lot of different GLBT Christian organizations around the country, not all of them do that. A lot of them don't.
Unfortunately, a lot of us are so scared still, because back in the early days the idea that you could be gay and even really religious at all, that you could even care about spiritual things was such a shock. It was like all of us GLBT people have to work together towards a common goal. But we also have to remember that our ministries must be first and foremost Christian ministries. It's no good to be a GLBT Christian group that, oh yeah, we happen to be Christian. Christ has to come first in what we do. We can't be offering just a smorgasbord of all spiritual options, or there's really no point to what we're doing. [applause]
It reminds me of a scene from Fiddler on the Roof. Have you seen Fiddler on the Roof? There's a scene where some of the Jews are arguing about a particular point and a young guy and an older guy are arguing back and forth about this point and the young guy says one thing and the older says another thing. And Tevye, our main character, is just going back and forth listening to them and one of them makes one point and he says, "Oh, he's right!" and the other one makes the opposite point and says, no I disagree, and he says, "Oh, he's right!" This onlooker says, "He's right and he's right? They can't both be right!" And Tevye looks at him and says, "You're also right!" [laughter]
And it's good to keep your mind open enough to listen to what other people have to say. I definitely think that other faiths, other spiritualities, other ways of looking at things have value for us in that there are things that we can learn from other people. It's not that we only learn from Chrsitians, that's not true, we can learn from other faiths. But, at the end of the day, what matters is our allegiance to Christ and that is it. ["Amen!"] We can't just always be "He's right, he's right, he's right," at some point someone's going to be wrong because we don't all agree on everything.
So, we have to be decidedly Christian.
Secondly, we must be transforming ministries. The ministries of our lives and ministries of our organizations must transform us. Like that song we were singing about the Refiner's fire. God wants to refine us, God wants to change us. God doesn't just leave us the way that we are.
I went to Subway—and I have to show you this—I went to Subway the other day and this is my credit card receipt from Subway, and I was looking at it as I was eating my sandwich and I saw something I didn't expect to see. I'll read it to you. At the bottom of my receipt, it says the following, I'm not kidding. "No returns, credit, or exchanges after 30 days." [laughter]
Now, I thought about going back to them and asking why? Do sandwiches go out of style? I think I should be able to return my sandwich after a month or two. They could sell it for a reduced price. "Slightly used." It only has one bite of out it. No, obviously what happened is that they have a credit card system that is just a generic credit card system. They simply put Subway up at the top and everything else is the same. They haven't changed any of it, it just says Subway and it's this generic credit card receipt. And it's ridiculous, it makes no sense. There's no reason for a Subway receipt to say, "no credits or refunds after 30 days"; that's silly!
But you know, we do the same thing. We sometimes take these things, these mentalities, these ways of living, these ways of looking at the world that were developed by a secular GLBT community, and because we're GLBT and they're GLBT, we take it and we slap a Christian label on it, use a little Christianese, say "Praise Jesus!" and that's it. That's as much as we change. But we're called to be not of the world. ["Amen!"] "Do not be conformed, but be transformed."
We all need to examine our lives, and this isn't something—there's nobody in this room, myself included, who can say "Yep, I already do that one, I've already got it. I'm already completely transformed, God's done with me and there's nothing I need to work on." Maybe Ralph, but... [laughter] He reminded me that no one ever gets invited back to keynote again, so I have to get all my jabs in now! [laughter]
Romans 6 says, verses 1 through 2, Paul says, "What shall we say then? Should we go on sinning so that grace may increase?" A lot of GLBT Christian groups, we love to talk about grace, we love it because it's something that we didn't hear growing up as GLBT people in the church, we didn't hear any grace, so we love to talk about grace. And that's wonderful. But Paul then says, "Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin, how can we live in it any longer?"
The church has taken a legalistic approach to GLBT issues in the past, there's no question, and many sects of the church still do. We've been so beaten down that right off the bat when we kind of reconcile everything the first phase that many of us, I think, go through is "Wow, you can be gay and Christian! Wow, that's amazing! You can be trans and Christian, you can be bi and Christian. I had no idea. That's fantastic! Great!" And we're eager to escape the abuse. You hear that in a lot of the language of GLBT Christian writings, "escaping the abuse." Rembert Truluck has his book about "Bible abuse," Mel White talks about "spiritual violence." We have a sort of a Pet Shop Boys attitude. Remember that song by the Pet Shop Boys? "It's a Sin"? "Everything I ever do, everything I've ever done, every place I've ever been, it's a sin." Right? We have this attitude, that's what's been told to us, so we have to escape that and we have to talk about grace.
So we got that memo. And the Bible says, "Everything is permissible"? We got that memo, we got the "everything is permissible" memo as a community. Awesome. But the next line says, "but not everything is beneficial." ["That's right"]
So we must be holding one another accountable. And that's another thing, that our ministries are often afraid to hold one another accountable. We're scared of being perceived as too fundamentalist, I think. We're so afraid of lapsing back into that fundamentalist legalism that we worked so hard to escape that sometimes we fail to say, "Brothers and Sisters, we need to hold each another accountable to being the men and women that we're called to be in Christ. Which is different than who we were before." Tony Campolo talks about Baptist revivals where, as he says, "we sing a thousand verses of 'Just As I Am' and people come down just as they are, and then they leave, just as they were." [laughter]
God calls us to come to him just as we are, no question. But he doesn't leave us just as we were.
So, our ministries do need to be transforming, and I don't mean from gay to straight, as some parts of the church would have us believe, but rather just being the men and women God created us to be.
Thirdly, diverse. A lot of people don't expect me to say, "Oh, I think we need to work on diversity." It's like if we as GLBT folks have done anything right, we've got the diversity part. But, you know, often I find GLBT groups, secular as well as Christian, often fail to really have real diversity. We have diversity, but sometimes the GLBT community's approach to diversity is to add a letter onto our acronym. Have you noticed this? That's all that happens! Have you seen these communities, they were GLB groups, and then they said, "Oh, we need to get more diverse", so they add the T on the end. But if a trans person actually walked through the doors they'd have no idea what to do with them. They have nothing, it's just lip service. Oh, we're not Gay and Lesbian, we're GLB, no, we're not GLB anymore, we're GLBT. And we just keep adding letters, and the best I've seen, some of them get long. The best I've seen recently—I'm not making this up—is LGBTQTTIS... wait, I have to read it... LGBTQTTSIQQA. Anybody get that one? Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, two spirit, intersex, queer, questioning, and allies. [laughter] I think some of them just enjoy it! This is what we refer to as "toxic levels of alphabet soup."
When we talk as Christians about God accepting us just as we are, that means we really needs to accept people just as they are, that means everybody. It means including the trans community. It means racial diversity. It means age diversity. It means body type diversity. It means that—because I hate to say it—but even in GLBT Christian groups, sometimes the pretty people get all the attention. Which I hate to say, but some of you know that it is true. And it also means—and this may sound odd, but don't stone me for this one—I think we need to be careful to also reach out to those who aren't yet at the point of accepting some of the things we've already accepted about God's acceptance of us as GLBT persons. About God's acceptance of us in relationships. [applause]
And let me explain what I mean by this. Because I think some of us, we were once at a place, as I was, where we thought God could not possibly ordain our relationships. So then we come to terms with it, we say, "Oh, God can ordain our relationships" and then we come into groups like this one and then we all affirm one another and we say it's wonderful. God affirms us, God affirms our relationships, God has no problems with them and that's wonderful. But then we're so excited about that that sometimes we forget that there are other people who are now where we once were and they're not comfortable with it yet. And I've talked to a number of people that I've met through the Internet that I've said, "Oh there are these great groups for GLBT Christians out there." Groups like EC, and groups like the one I run at GCN, and the response of some of them is "You know, I'm not sure that I can accept that God blesses same-sex relationships." These people are gay, they've acknowledged that they are gay, but they're not in that place yet. And maybe God will bring them to that place and maybe God will never bring them to that place, but I would hope that either way that we would have a place for them and bring them in and say, "You know what, if you're not at this point ready, if you don't feel like you're ready to say "God could bless me in a relationship," then you just need to be single and you just need to be celibate because that's what you believe God's calling you to be, we're going to still welcome you anyway. We're not going to try and shove it down your throat. God will change your heart, in God's time." [applause]
So we need to be diverse.
But fourthly, we need to be reconciling. We need to reach out to those who've spit in our face in the past. ["Amen, Amen!"]
I was telling one group that I spoke to recently, a GLBT college group, I think that sometimes GLBT folks have tended to respond in recent years to conservatives by being Eric Cartman from South Park. [laughter] Here's what I mean by that: Eric Cartman is a character in the animated show South Park and when he gets irritated at the other boys, when they say things he doesn't like, he gets offended. He turns around and says, "Screw you guys, I'm going home" [laughter] And he leaves. And that is the total— no actual response to what they said, just "Screw you guys, I'm going home." And he does. If you can picture in your head—I decided not to bring my computer and do slides for this one—but I actually have a picture I made of Eric Cartman wearing a little Pride badge, so if you can picture that.
Sometimes, we do this. Sometimes, they say "Well, the Bible says this, and the Bible says that, and we're going to beat you down with the Bible. Bible Bible Bible!" and we get so sick of hearing it, so sick of hearing the same things every time someone finds out you're gay. It's a co-worker, it's somebody you don't know very well, and this person as soon as they find out you're gay, they come in the next day and they say, "You know, I just wanted to share this passage with you? First Corinthians 6:9 says..." And as they're reading the passage you're mouthing along... And we just get so sick of explaining ourselves and having to apologize for being who we are, all of the time, so finally we just say, "Screw you guys, I'm going home", and we do. [laughter]
But you know what? And it's hard hard hard work, it's not easy, and we may not all be in the place where we're able to do it right now, but I think we as a community need to work on how can we reach these people, how can we interact with them, talk to them, listen to them, understand them, and help them to understand us. Even if it means that we have to sit down and explain the same things over and over and over, and we do, we really do.
Now there is a time and place to kick the dust off your feet. Jesus told his disciples when you go into a town and you're not welcomed, shake the dust off as you leave. There is a time when people are just absolutely not willing to listen, it's not that they're trying to do something great for the Lord; it's just that they are so set, you know, that they have to be right. There's just so much pride there getting in the way of what you have to say that you just have to shake the dust off your feet and say, "Okay, I'm not going to talk to you about this anymore." But I think that sometimes we give up too soon.
If no other reason, we need to reach the conservative community because some of the people who are your coworkers or your friends or your family members who are very anti-gay could themselves end up having gay kids, or in some other fashion being forced to interact with gay people, and wouldn't it be wonder if we were able to reach them with our stories and help change their hearts before they get into that situation, so maybe, even if we don't completely change their minds, they're a little more
open when that happens, when their son or daughter says, "Mom, Dad... I'm gay."
So... that's about it. That's about what I've got for you. [laughter]
But I am happy to answer a few questions, if we have some questions, and then we can wrap up.
QUESTION: Did you ever think, Justin, when you started, because there are many people in this room... the comment you made that living a life as you is a ministry. And so, for me, that means you're a minister. There are many people in this room who aren't necessary pastors of churches or lead Bible studies or groups or anything like that, but are ministers. Did you ever think, when you started writing that story that you would be the minister that you are today, and how has that changed your life?
JUSTIN: Did I ever think that I'd be a minister... Well, no, I mean, I never set out to be leading a ministry at all. I had no clue, God just dropped it in my lap. I've had a few people who are here from GCN say things to me, "It's so wonderful that you created this ministry." I didn't do anything! I put a message board on a web page, and it could just as easily still be a message board on a web page today with two people looking at it once every three weeks if God hadn't done something. God built a ministry, I was just in that particular place and there's so many people who've been a part of that. I don't think any of us who've been involved with GCN set out saying this is what we're going to do, this is how we're going to help, and this is what's going to happen, it just... things have happened to us. But, yeah, it's completely changed my life. I work for GCN now, and it's... I could make more money doing other things, like work at McDonalds, but... [laughter] But it's... was the mic on for that? But I'm in a position now where I'm able to talk to so many people that are hurting and it blesses my life absolutely everyday, you have no idea. It's amazing.
QUESTION: When was that point when you began to accept that...[unintelligible]
JUSTIN: Oh yeah, I didn't talk about that. The turning point for me when I started to accept being gay... For me—it's kind of a long story, but the short version is—I was going through a difficult time in college and I had a friend that I was talking to over the Internet who was gay and Christian and seemed totally okay with everything. And I just didn't get it. And I actually tried to get involved in several other groups, pro-gay Christian groups that I found on the Internet and asked difficult questions and said, "What about this difficult passage? Can you really give me a good answer about this passage?" And the answers I got were often just really, really, you know, not that great. I hate to say this, but some of the books that have been written are really not that great. I'm sure, you know, some of them, you read and they say, "Oh, this passage really means this." And you go, "It does? Oooo-kay, maybe..." I just didn't really buy a lot of the stuff that was being told to me and it was really frustrating. I was talking to this one guy and I said, "I just don't understand how you came to terms with everything, how you came to accept everything." And he said, "You know, it took a lot of prayer and spending time with God and really reading the Bible." So I said okay, so I took some time and I started everyday... I was in college so I had the library right there, just right across from my dorm. So everyday I started going to the library and spending an hour or more just in a silent room with my Bible and a notebook and a pen, and just reading. And I stopped reading the clobber passages and started reading the whole rest of it. And I soon discovered that you can't just read straight through the Bible because there's this big speed bump in Leviticus. [laughter] Where they say the same thing TEN THOUSAND TIMES. So, I skipped a couple parts and came back to them. But I did, I just read and God just really spoke to my heart. And I learned all these things about the Scripture that I had never learned before. That wouldn't at first seem to be related, but just the more that I read, the more I understood how all the Scripture fit together, the more I understood the concepts of grace and law and how they fit together, not just in one issue but with regard to everything. I just started seeing this pattern, and then afterwards I started reading other books and hearing other speakers and they were saying the same thing that God had already showed me. I thought, "Now I get it." You know, there's sort of this confirmation. But I don't think it could have ever happened by someone just saying, "This is it." God really just had to do it for me. But for a long time, I was in the place of—at GCN we have terms we call Side A and Side B, and it's basically whether or not people believe that same-sex relationships are okay. And Side A is what pretty much I imagine everyone in this room is, which is "Yes, they are okay." And Side B are those people who say, "No, I don't think that they are." For a long time I was a Side B gay Christian. I knew I was gay, but I thought I was going to have to be celibate for the rest of my life. And it really wasn't until I said, "You know what, maybe that's what God calls me to. I don't like it, but maybe that's it," before God finally started changing my heart and I said, "Now I get it." And, you know, made the switch. But that's one reason that I have such a heart for those people who are still there is because I was there for two years of my life and I know how alone I felt. And I found that being accepted by other gay Christians was what brought me around. And them saying, "Hey, look to the Scriptures" and I did.
QUESTION: What is the most difficult thing, after coming to accept yourself, as you try to continue working out your [unintelligible]?
JUSTIN: Most difficult thing, after coming to accept myself? For me, it was... I really think the most difficult thing for me was losing the admiration and respect and pats on the back that I'd always had from my family, my church family. Growing up Southern Baptist, being the kid—I mean, I was an obnoxiously good kid, you know? You know that kid, that you wanted to punch him in the face? That was me! [laughter] But I was, I didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't curse. I mean, Southern Baptists, anybody here raised Southern Baptist? Oh yeah, okay, good! Y'all who were raised Southern Baptist or in similar traditions know that the big sins—Catholics have seven deadly sins—for Southern Baptists, it's like smokin' and drinkin' and cursin' and sex! ["and dancin'!"] And dancin'. My church allowed dancing, but, you know... ["Ooooooh!"] Yeah. [laughter] They didn't actually encourage it, it just was never talked about. But it's like, "Oh, he's a sinner, he smokes and drinks and... Pride? Gluttony? I dunno." So I was a youth leader in my church, I was on the drama team. Shouldn't have been a big surprise to everyone. [laughter] But it was, when I came out I lost that. Parents who had always, always wanted their kids to hang out with me because I was the good influence didn't want their kids anywhere near me. And I just came out to a couple of people. And it just rumor-milled through the church. I left the church because I'd always done youth ministry, and there was no way I could do youth ministry. People were already starting to talk. "Why is he hanging out with those kids?" Because I talked about the funny stereotypes about gay people earlier, but there are still the nasty ones... So that was really the hardest thing was coming to grips with that and I finally had to stop and say, "Okay, Jesus meant it." Because Jesus said, "They will revile you, as they did me." And I never really had that before. Growing up Southern Baptist, we always thought "oh yes, the world hates us as it does Jesus. It hates us so-o-o much that we have to vote against them in the next election." [laughter] Because you know, if you're Southern Baptist, you know which is the party of the sinners and which is the party of the Christians. [laughter] And I really had a very different vision of what it meant to be hated by the world before I found out that the world included many of the people in my church that I grew up with.
Well, I think my time is up, so I will bid you adieu. Thank you very much! [applause]