I have never been beaten up for being gay. I have never lost a job. I have never lost contact with my family.
I stand in awe and obligation at the thousands who have suffered these tremendous losses. I am grateful for the sacrifices made by so many that allow me to live in a time and space where I can stand in a Baptist pulpit, surrounded by people I love and respect, and share a portion of my story.
From the time of my birth, church has been an important place for me. The story is told of me as a baby, working my way through the Fellowship Hall reaching from one person to the next, allowing my church family to bask in my cuteness. As an elementary student, the activities and lessons learned through my church’s Children’s Ministries were integral to my physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual growth. G.A. camp each summer taught me about the needs of the larger world and about the power of women working together toward common goals. As a teenager, my Baptist family was “on loan” to a Methodist church and I developed an appreciation for other traditions. In college, after several disheartening failed attempts (it was South Carolina, after all!), I found a place that welcomed and encouraged both men and women to be the Baptist leaders they had the potential to be.
And, then…I came out. First to myself, then to my family.
This was not welcome news.
When I was a teenager and the rumors swirled that one of the P.E. teachers might have been seen holding hands with another woman, I remember feeling sad because she seemed really likable.
I didn’t know what gay was, except that it was weird, and wrong, and not something you wanted to be associated with. For women, lesbianism was a consolation prize for those who couldn’t land a man and not something one aspired to be.
Although church had been a place of warmth and “home” to me, I did not feel that church was the place to turn as I began to face this part of myself. I knew who I was, and I got the message that the church was not ready for me. And, equally disappointing, the church was not ready for the families of people who did not fit the expected heterosexual mold.
At this time, in the mid-1990s, churches were communal places where people gathered, greeted each other, and then sat alone in emotional confessional booths, too scared to reach out for the support they needed as they struggled with sons dying from AIDS, daughters living with “roommates,” and their own feelings of “where did I go wrong”?
During this time, a resource that became as important to me as the Bible was the annual “Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA.” You could look up each state, then each major city in the state that had anything gay related to it. The categories were things like “Bookstores,” “Nightclubs,” “Lodging,” and “Restaurants.” To be listed in the book, a business could be gay-owned or just gay-friendly. We planned many out of town trips around the places referenced in this book since we wanted to go “where the gays were.”
I am grateful for this resource as I was exposed to many things that I would not have otherwise experienced. But, alas, for me, visiting bars and bookstores, and chance meetings with other gay people in other towns, was not enough. It was no longer enough to be a participant on the sideline. I wanted to be in relationship with people who knew, loved, and accepted me as I am.
I knew of Oakhurst before I moved to Atlanta through a college friend who was ordained here. But nothing could have prepared me for the feeling of walking into a Baptist congregation and seeing fabulous gay men comfortably sitting with older straight women, of seeing female couples, NOT observing the typical six inch minimum “roommate space” between them, of seeing old and young, white and black, gay and straight and everything in between, of seeing differently abled and differently dressed, all worshipping together. It was all I could do not to cover my mouth in shock!
Did everyone else see what I could see? Do they know what it means when same-sex people wear matching rings? Is this OK, here not only in the light of day, but in the glow of stained glass windows?
I see that same look in the eyes of those who attend Pride events, especially those who have trekked to our LGBTQ “mecca” from small towns all around the country. I am so grateful for Oakhurst’s long-term presence at the Pride parade. The stories I hear from our folks who participate in the parade is how touched they feel when strangers in the crowd, with tears in their eyes, say “Thank you,” just for being who you are and accepting me for who I am.
I cannot adequately express how liberating it is to be who I am in this community. I don’t have to spend my emotional energy using non-specific pronouns, or covering the ring on the finger of my left hand, or doing verbal gymnastics in my head with how to word my conversations. When people ask, “How are things going?” I don’t have to relegate my answers only to the “safe space” of my job and work. And I don’t have to observe the “6 inch roommate rule” when sitting with my wife in the pew.
I see the role of the church family as not just about accepting the LGBTQ person for who they are, but about accepting each of us as we are and where we are. I have been so blessed to know people at Oakhurst who have been there for me in ways my own family could not be, either due to physical or emotional distance.
You have no idea what that means to me, and what it means to them. I cannot express enough gratitude for the people who have pioneered the way for families of gay and lesbian people. People who have confronted their own fears of “where did I go wrong” to end up on the other side of “where did I go right, to raise a child with the courage to be who he or she was created to be, and how can I help others see the gifts in their own experiences?”
The gift of being gay has taught me that God will provide the people that both I and my family need. They are everywhere--in bookstores, in bars, in parades, and maybe, if we have the courage to look, even in the confessional booth right next door.
Go now, proud of who you are and whose you are. May God grant us all the courage to see ourselves and others.
Where we are,
As we are, and
As we can be. Amen.