Recently, I met up with a follower of Jesus who has undergone medical transition from one gender to another. We talked about a range of issues facing transgender people in the church and reflected on the reality that, while Lesbian, Gay and Bi-Sexual (LGB) people are gradually finding acceptance and even affirmation in an increasing number of evangelical Christian environments, people who are Transgender, Inter-sex and other sexual and gender identities (TI*) are still facing apathy or abhorrence in the church. As we talked, I recalled that, on the previous day, I had suffered a sermon that was a somewhat clumsy attempt to expound Micah 6:8 that took me far away from the challenge of Jesus in Matthew 23:23, “But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.”
A connection began to form between what my friend and I were talking about and what the prophet was saying.
When I look at my own journey in regard to how I view LGBTI* people and activity, I have to admit that I started from a station of apathy in my mid teens. I was vaguely aware that there were people who were not heterosexual but I really didn’t care about them and gave no thought to what their issues might be – especially in the church because, as far as I was aware, there were no LGBTI* people in the churches in which I was involved.
In my late teens, my apathy was destroyed when I was confronted at university with homosexuality through the Queer Club which was very active on campus and quite publicly demonstrative in their expressions of affection to each other in an attempt to shock those looking on out of our narrow, heteronormative bias. My knee jerk reaction was one of abhorrence when I became aware of what sexual activity between two men entailed. This was further heightened in a rather comic incident in our church youth group when a somewhat naïve youth group leader decided to show the classic film, “Deliverance”, to our group without checking the contents. The youth leader’s frantic and futile attempts to block out the homosexual rape scenes only served to entrench my abhorrence of homosexual orientation and expression.
This abhorrence was rudely challenged in my early twenties at about 5am on a gloriously fine summer morning at a church youth camp for which I was the director. A young person came to wake me up to tell me that Justin, a 15 year old boy in our youth group, was about 10 metres up a high voltage power pylon on the camp property and threatening to jump. I stumbled out of my stupor and my bed and hastily made my way to the base of the pylon to find Justin perched precariously on the edge of one of the bars crying and yelling, “Nobody understands what it’s like to be queer in church. I’ll never be normal. No-one loves me. I’m better off dead.” Faced with this tragic situation, all my abhorrence faded immediately and I found myself gently talking to Justin and encouraging him to come down because, even if no-one else accepted him, I would and I would listen to him and do what I could to help.
Thus began my move into a station of acceptance. This was encouraged further when, a few years later, when I was a high school teacher helping in the school Christian club, two mid-teenage guys who were openly gay and in a relationship tried to join the club. The treatment they received at the hands of other Christian students and teachers, while not aggressive, was somewhat less than accepting which only motivated me more to let them know that they could talk to me any time about their relationship and faith.
After a few more years, I ended up working occasionally as a television production manager which put me in the company of a few unashamedly LGBTI* people, some of whom were in relationships with each other. As I got to know these wonderful people, I began to see the possibility that I could affirm their committed, monogamous relationships that seemed to me to have all the same relational, emotional, mental and even spiritual elements of the more credible heterosexual marriages I knew. While getting closer to my media friends, my journey to the station of affirmation was confused as I grappled with research on the aetiology, biblical theology and practices of non-heterosexuality.
The final step to my destination of affirmation came relatively recently through a close friend who had come out to me many years previously after he had read a research article I had written in a magazine about the Christian response to homosexuality. After going through reparative therapy and following a heterosexual lifestyle for many years (with some anguish and self-doubt), he came to see me only a few years ago to let me know that he was in a relationship with a male partner. Knowing my friend to be a dedicated follower of Jesus and one of the most caring and supportive male friends I have, I found it hard not to affirm his sexuality and relationship.
About the same time, in 2010, a visit to Sydney to attend an event called “A Different Conversation” hosted by a Christian community in a suburb with a high LGBTI* population, exposed me to the stories of non-heterosexual people who had suffered at the hands of the church. I was confronted with the prophetic challenge of the bible to activism by showing mercy and bringing justice to those who are excluded, exploited, oppressed, denied, discriminated against and marginalised. At the end of the event, we were invited to join a group called “100 Revs” (although, sadly, it proved impossible to get more than about 30 pastors who were brave enough to participate – many expressed their agreement with the initiative but few were willing to stand up and be counted). I marched with this group in the Sydney Mardi Gras holding banners expressing our apologies on behalf of the church for the way we have abused and demeaned LGBTI* people both within and outside of our congregations. This drew me into the station of activism as a way of showing mercy to those who had suffered at the hands of my fellow Christians over the centuries.
As a result of these experiences and through my continued involvement with LGBTI* people in a number of contexts, the last few years have seen me willingly pulling into the station of advocacy on behalf of LGBTI* people in the church and community. Some would accuse me of going against a biblical condemnation of non-heterosexuality. However, whatever we believe about the rightness or wrongness of non-heterosexual orientation and expression, we are at least compelled by the repeated words of the prophets and Jesus to speak out for those who are excluded, victimised, deprived, demeaned, and condemned. And, having walked alongside a considerable number of LGBTI* people over the past 30 years, I have seen them suffer all of these injustices at the hands of the church and society and I can no longer sit by and not try to follow Jesus who called us to faithfully bring justice and mercy by showing grace and love.
As I thought through my journey from apathy to advocacy and reflected on the words of the prophet Micah and Jesus, I saw a connection. My apathy and abhorrence was rooted in sin – the sin of not following Jesus to where he was – reaching out to those on the edges of the church and society. But, once the words of Jesus enlightened my experience, grace prompted my acceptance and love motivated my affirmation. But grace and love without restorative action are empty and the call to love mercy prompted me into activism and the appeal to do justice now compels me to advocacy.
I have been encouraged in recent months and weeks by the growing number of church leaders around the world who have begun the journey from apathy and abhorrence. Who would have thought even a year ago that we would hear people such as Rick Warren or Pope Francis expressing acceptance of LGBTI* people?
Oh that we who claim to follow Jesus would take the ‘A’ train and, at least, leave the stations of apathy and abhorrence as we daily show grace and love by doing justice and showing mercy in our efforts to walk humbly with God in society.