Heard, Understood, and Loved: My Weekend With Gay Christians

(Spectrumbot) #1

In a society where LGBT individuals are ignored, victimized, and criticized by both secular and Christian communities, LGBT Christians face just as much or even more disapproval. Wait. Gay AND Christian? Many respond, “That’s a myth,” or, “That’s ethically AND morally AND biblically impossible!” But they’re not unicorns; gay Christians exist; I attended a conference full of them.

With almost 1,500 attendees who traveled from all over North America and from as far away as Australia, the Gay Christian Network (GCN) Conference is the largest gathering of LGBT Christians in the world. Meeting in Portland, Oregon this year, the conference’s controversial nature even attracted protestors from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.

Founded by Justin Lee, an activist for LGBT Christians, GCN is a nonprofit organization that offers resources to the LGBT community and allies on topics regarding their spiritual walk and sexual or gender identity. The conference brings together hundreds of Christians for fellowship, worship, and support who all share a common thread: attendees are Christian, LGBT, allies, and/or seeking resources and answers.

Since it began in 2005, the number of conference attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors has grown. This year, conference-goers were informed that nearly 75% were first-timers, which I think is absolutely amazing! I will admit, I had no idea what to expect from the conference when I registered, but I was confident that I would benefit in some way, and I would just have to wait and see what was in store. Now that it has ended, I have nothing but positive things to say about my experience.

The minute I arrived in Portland, which was surprisingly sunny through most of the conference, I met a friendly conference-goer. It turned out we were both lost and had matching I thought I knew where to go but I am lost looks on our faces. In the spirit of the conference, we joined forces and helped each other find our way. I found the first afternoon quiet, as it was mostly first-timers and we were all getting comfortable with our surroundings, but as more people began to arrive, the atmosphere came alive with excitement and camaraderie!

Because I was staying with a friend who lived outside of Portland, I was not able to attend all the main morning or evening sessions. However, I made sure to attend the workshops! Sadly, I could not clone myself in time, so my person was only able to attend one workshop per workshop block:

  • “LGBT Conversations In Your Church or Organization” with James Farlow
  • “Q&A with Vicky Beeching”
  • “The Bible and Same-Sex Relationships” with Matthew Vines
  • And a panel discussion with students from Wheaton College and Biola University regarding gay-straight alliances on Christian campuses

Each one of these workshops was incredible. If asked to pick a favorite, I would answer, “all of them.” Each topic was interesting and powerful in its own way and the presenters shared a wealth of insightful information. While Farlow shared three important elements to initiating conversation in Christian churches and organizations, Beeching answered light-hearted and in-depth questions; Vines discussed the six major Bible verses used against same-sex relations, and students shared their personal experiences in working with LGBT students on conservative Christian campuses.

One of the things I did learn at the conference that was helpful and that really stuck with me was the definitions to the positions Christians take regarding same-sex relations. I had never before clearly understood the difference between Side A (abstinence until marriage) and Side B (a life of celibacy), so I was glad to have this clarified and expounded upon in the workshops.

As president of the Intercollegiate Adventist Gay Straight Alliance Coalition (IAGC), a student-led nonprofit organization that works on the campuses of Seventh-day Adventist colleges and universities, attending the GCN Conference has been invaluable. IAGC’s role is to start the conversation on gender identities and sexual orientations in relation to faith and spirituality and to create safe spaces for LGBT students and allies. As this subject is too often ignored or misrepresented in society, the IAGC plays an important role in actually starting this conversation and was founded to help make the voices of these marginalized individuals heard - a work that is controversial but crucial.

I joined the IAGC to spread awareness of and find support for LGBT students in religiously conservative communities in hopes that one day these communities will become welcoming and safe environments for all. As the recently elected president, my objective is to create mutual understanding and respect on both sides, in a loving and professional manner. From the workshops I attended at GCN and the information I learned, to the resources I picked up from booths in the exhibition hall and the individuals I met, I am confident the work the IAGC does will continue to move forward.

I believe the GCN Conference plays a crucial role in starting the conversation in Christian denominations, especially among more conservative Christians. It was beautiful to witness how individuals with different denominational backgrounds and the full spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations came together, creating a loving and safe environment where all were respected AND heard.

I think the Seventh-day Adventist Church can learn from the GCN Conference – how to bring people together from all walks of life, to listen and to learn, to understand and to respect, and to love and to support each other, as they walk this complicated journey of determining how faith and sexuality coincide. I have hopes that one day the Seventh-day Adventist Church will open the floor for discussion regarding LGBT youth in the Church, because they exist and the only place they will be going is out the Church door if they do not receive the love and support needed.

Although I arrived after the fact, I was told about how Portland residents demonstrated love and support as the Westboro Baptist Church protestors stood at the tram stop to meet conference-goers with messages of disapproval on Sunday morning. Local church members, families, friends, and allies created a wall of signs to counteract the hateful ones, showing their encouragement to conference-goers, making it difficult for protestors to be seen, and singing songs of praise to make it difficult to hear the hurtful words being shouted. And all the while, a rainbow was seen hanging over the convention center.

Attending the GCN Conference has given me hope that one day more Christians will unite and stand as one in love and support for the marginalized and oppressed, for those who are searching for answers, and to welcome them into their church as family. With the work I do, the hardest thing to see is an LGBT youth searching for answers but with nowhere to go because church and society choose to stay silent or misinformed on the topic.

On Sunday morning, before the final keynote presentation, the conference choir performed on a stage lit up in the colors of the pride flag, followed by a mix of denominations holding communion together each in their unique way, and I saw this year’s conference theme truly reflect “Together at the Table.”

Photo Credit: Vicky Beeching. A rainbow hangs over the GCN convention center as protestors and supporters converge outside.

Jefferson Clark keeps himself busy as a full-time student at Southern Adventist University, where he will complete a double major in public relations and international studies in May. His interests include traveling, photography, and cheese. Working with student groups is also a passion - Jefferson is currently president of the Intercollegiate Adventist GSA Coalition (IAGC), a student-led nonprofit organization that works to start conversations on Seventh-day Adventist colleges and universities in North America concerning the collide of faith and sexual and gender identity, and to create student groups on these campuses where LGBT students and allies can come together and educate, learn, and support each other in loving and safe environments. To find out more about IAGC, please visit www.IAGCAdventist.com or www.Facebook.com/IAGCAdventist.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6566

(Eliel Cruz) #2

I’m so glad you got to experience that space! I too had the pleasure of attending this year and it’s truly a one of a kind experience where Christians of all backgrounds come together and worship despite our differences. There are workshops on celibacy and workshops on how to sustain your same-sex marriage. What a great model for the Church. There were also dozens of SDA folk which was incredibly encouraging!

One of the things that really stood out to me was when Westboro decided to protest the event and local clergy and church members came and created a “wall of love” to block the hate speech.

I reported on the event here. And I wrote a reflection piece for my column at Religion News Service.

Can’t wait for next year’s conference!

(Interested Friend) #3

There is really no such thing as same sex marriage. That’s a delusion as marriage can exist only between a man and woman. Remember it was Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.

The SDA church can never ever recognize same sex intimacy. The Bible is clear on the subject although some will attempt to muddy the waters.
In The Grip of Truth

(Eliel Cruz) #4

Adam and Even not Adam and Steve? I’ve literally never heard that before. Groundbreaking.

(Martin Rohan) #5

I hope for the day when we can discuss events like this and say that there was a weekend. People talked about sustaining their marriages. Connections were made. Humanity was uplifted. People thanked God. Oh, and by the way, not that it matters, but there were some people there who may, or may not, have been of different sexual persuasions, or gender identifications.

(Carolyn Parsons) #6

Sadly, this forum is not a place we can have those kinds of conversations in an atmosphere of respect that uplifts all of humanity.

(Patti Cottrell Grant) #7

IF, I am smiling to imagine that there may be as many people in Heaven who are as surprised to see you there as you are to see them. Oh Happy Day!

(Phillip Brantley) #8

Eliel, I enjoy reading your informative writings and comments. In my quick perusal of the GCN material, I was surprised by how much thought and reflection was given to celibacy and the Side B Christian viewpoint. I think most of us, uninformed as we are, have unfairly dismissed Christian LGBT gatherings either as hook-up retreats or forums for agitation against the traditional biblical interpretation. I wonder what your assessment is of the Side B exponents in the Christian LBGT community. Are they highly represented in numbers, influential, scholarly in their theology, respected by others, strident, etc.? Do they command greater or lesser respect than the usual trio of Seventh-day Adventist speakers we often see speaking about these issues?

(Carrol Grady`) #9

Jefferson, I so enjoyed your report on this meeting. I believe the Holy Spirit was present there (perhaps in the form of a rainbow!), just as I have felt Its presence at Kinship Kampmeetings many times. As a sort of pioneer in our church in drawing attention to this need, but one who is no longer able to do as much, I feel that the education of our church is in good hands! Keep up the good work!

(Kim Green) #10


Really??..it is in many states and recognized by the Federal government. I wouldn’t call that a delusion!

Whether or not the SDA church ever recognizes it or not…it doesn’t change the fact that there are many legally married same sex couples.

So…in the end, your objections are based on “the bible” which of course not all subscribe to your interpretation of.

But then again…I am wasting my words.

(Tom Loop) #11

My wife and I were at the conference too. We went to some workshops together and also alone so we could
s hare what we had each learned. There were just too many of them going at the same time. She was far more receptive than i had thought she would be. .I went to a workshop on mixed orientation marriage. The success rate is not so hot as I found out, I did find a fellow who, like me, has had to work through many issues in his marriage and he is going to stay with his wife.

All in all it was a spendid conference with three times as many attendees as the one my daughter and I went to in Orlando in 2012. When I attended my first one in Denver in 2011 I was very skeptical of GCN at the time. I had had no contact with anyone in the gay community since I left the bar and club scene in 1980 when i came back to the church.

One of the problems I see is that that is the reference point too many people in the church use when they think of "gay."
For years that was the most visable and noisy voices that a lot of people saw, and of course it is repulsive to any committed christian, myself included. I would suspect that there are some folks who will respond negatively here, having not been there at the conference. This was no provocative pride parade, but a group of committed christians who were there to experience God in more committed ways.

Justin Lee who started GCN, takes great pains to include a broad spectrum, and he particularly chooses more conservative speakers than I had expected when i attended my first conference in 2011.

Say, I took a picture of that rainbow too. It sort of gave me some kind of confirmation that God was shinning down on this conference. I did something that a year ago I wouldn’t have dreamed I would ever do. i joined that circle of love that surrounded the protesters from the Westbro Baptist church. We sang Amazing Grace with our backs to them facing out away from them. There i was about 20 feet from Fred Phelps wife, the wicked witch of the Midwest, who desgrated a flag by wearing it as a skirt and dragging it in the wet street. She held 4 hate filled signs. I turned long enough to snap a picture from my phone. I noticed a boy about 10 or 11 standing there with her holding a couple signs. He had a look on his face that clearly showd he was not at all happy to be there.

It was probably the biggest non event protest I have ever witnessed. Folks from GCN refused to respond in kind. They gave up and left after less than their alotted time they were allowd to protest. Only goes to show you the best way to put out a fire is to choke off the air keeping it going.

(jeremy) #12

i completely agree, interested…unfortunately, real dialogue between those who are seeking to make a plain reading of the bible their rule of life and those who, on the subject of homosexuality, are not interested in that plain reading, will probably not be materializing any time soon…while i believe the majority in our church will eventually coalesce around selective implementation of women’s ordination, i think an official acceptance of homosexuality will split the church along very large fracture lines…because the maintenance of our world finances is a priority, i don’t see our church leaders walking that path…

as for gcn, i see it as a major pity that it doesn’t seem to see a need to discuss heterosexual marriage for gays…i was invited to talk to theology students at burman university earlier today, and part of what i discussed was heterosexual marriage as a legitimate option for gays - to a room full of very interested listeners…the concept that gays cannot have straight sex, given the reality that so many straights are having gay sex now, is probably a bit dated…i also think that casting celibacy as a gay issue - as a side in the gay sexuality conversation - is unfortunate…paul, who was not counseling open gays, clearly prefers celibacy for “all men”, 1 corinthians 7:7, which in this context means all people…this is essentially the message of our prophet:

“In this age of the world, as the scenes of earth’s history are soon to close and we are about to enter upon the time of trouble such as never was, the fewer the marriages contracted, the better for all, both men and women”, testimonies 5:366…

it’s a tad ironic that while the person all christians claim to adore was celibate, so many view celibacy as a special circumstance rather than a general choice…

(jeremy) #13

this is good to hear about tom…i didn’t see that mixed orientation marriages were discussed at this conference from this article…

(Tom Loop) #14


Don’t expect folks to be satisfied, going through life alone, just because you manage quite well. You are to be commended for the life you have chosen, but for me i can’t imagine having to live my entire life without my wife.
she is over 5 years younger than me and in better health, so most likely she will outlive me, which suits me just fine.

As for EGW counsel on not marrying I thi nk tyou better stop and think about that. If SDA’s had heeded her counsel back then the church would have died out a long time ago. Some of her advice just doesn’t cut it.

Again Jeremy, celibacy is a special circumstance and not the general norm. If it was, why did God say that man should not be alone?? As for mixed orientation marriages, that too is a special cicumstance, fraught with the potential for all kinds of issues if one comes in to it with unrealistic expectations. It will never change a homosexual person into a heterosexual. I can attest to that as far as sexual orientation. There needs to be a bold line drawn in the sand, that behavior modification is the best to expect.

(jeremy) #15

tom, there are MANY singles in our church who, although perhaps not wanting to be single, are single…if they are true to their faith, this means they’re celibate…why not trust that god will provide a suitable spouse, if that is his will, and that he won’t, if it isn’t…why not be open to the idea of celibacy as a first choice…i think it’s great that gcn is at least addressing the issue of celibacy…i’m just saying i don’t think it’s really a specifically gay issue…

i agree that mixed orientation marriage is a special circumstance…i think if it can be discussed more, and if more study can be done on the specific opportunities as well as challenges in these marriages, perhaps we can see a higher success rate, which would be wonderful…

(Pagophilus) #16

How long can we talk without a resolution? Faith and sexuality coincide in heterosexual marriage (preferably between individuals of the same faith and even the same side of that faith). How can 2 walk together unless they agree?


Some things will never be resolved this side of heaven. It is up to us to humbly accept the limitations of our knowledge and trust God!

(Thomas J Zwemer) #18

I fully support an institution, such as a denomination, setting its own rules regarding membership. however, That does not mean that Christian goodwill and fellowship cannot occur between disparate lifestyles. I am part of a generation, soon to pass off the scene, that grew up believing that celibacy was the proper choice. however, I strongly believe that in same sex unions that property rights should be protected. I believe that is the under pinning of most state law recognizing same sex marriages. Unfortunately for me, in my generation, my fellowship was mistaken for kindred spirit, and attempts at recruitment occurred.

as senior Affirmative Action Officer of a major University, it was my responsibility to protect the employment rights of all employees regardless of sexual orientation. I had no difficulty in seeing employment justice occurred. Far too often what we don’t understand, we fear. I offer not solution to this Gordian Knot except compassion and Christian goodwill outside of denominational affliction. the key is that Christ stands at an open door. who are we to slam it shut? Judgment is not in our hands. Tom Z

(Elmer Cupino) #19

At times, resolution comes as a result of a meaningful relationship. That’s how we work in mental health. We don’t set limitations before entering into treatment, knowing those limitations will restrict treatment options. The same principle should apply to polarized religious denominations. This is where The GC has failed our church and until our leadership (TW and staff) understands this fundamental principle, our church will have no choice but to sway sideways, with no direction in sight.

That’s why we need new leaders. Not that TW is not qualified, but because his management repertoire is so limited and shallow. We need people with vision and courage who are consensus builders as leaders. Not prophets. Are you listening @GeorgeTichy ?

(Elaine Nelson) #20

One of the most commendable attitudes coming from this meeting should be continued in many mutually Christian problems affecting all denominations. What if the SdA organization invited or attended other conferences where collegiality could be demonstrated with problems all Christian churches face? The isolation of such conferences as TOSC and other similar ones could benefit all, not simply Adventists.

I’m now reading an intriguing book “The Bible Now” on issues facing all Jewish and Christian churches on homosexuality, abortion, women, the death penalty and the earth. The author is renowned Richard Elliott Friedman, professor of Jewish Civilization Emeritus at U.C. San Diego, also author of “Who Wrote the Bible” and many similar books. He discusses how the Bible has often been misinterpreted and he explains the terms and usage as they were at the time they were written, giving moderns much to think about.

All religions change over the years and these latest moves have been “rapid ones” and the church is slow in addressing them with Christian knowledge and love. We can do better and must, or our young people will leave when they discover how slow their church has been in changing positions based on misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the Bible texts.