"I didn't even know this was a thing that I could do--gay and Christian. From my own mother, I was told to hide it... Yesterday, one of the moms come up to me in the hallway saying, 'You look lost, can I help you?' and embraced me as I fell apart."
"My biggest fear in coming out was not that God wouldn't love me, but that I might have been alone."
"I affirmed my gender and transitioned my faith."
These are the snippets of stories heard at the 2016 Gay Christian Network Conference on a chilly, January weekend in Houston, Texas. The first time I heard similar ones was in Portland, OR last year. While I came out a few years previously, I still sat feebly overwhelmed by both liberation and grief as I recalled the many years I condemned the notion--gay and Christian. How dare anyone justify such contradiction? Like so many other devout, I considered my exasperation justified, even as I battled with my solemn secret. Today, I have the privilege of advocating for those suppressed by fear of condemnation, ostracization, and the unknown.
"My mother told me she'd rather have cancer than for me to be gay."
"We're so used to being isolated, we get use to thinking we can do it on our own."
"Nobody's afraid to touch me like I thought they would be."
The boldly out at GCN pave the way to support their LGBTQ brothers and sisters whose families, or even co-workers, don't know where they were this weekend. The red and blue lanyards speak to how many still find it unsafe to be seen and for all of us to mind their difficulty when taking pictures to post on social media.
"I've found a community that accepts me more than I accept myself."
"I came in here with my own internalized homophobia."
The straight, gay, transgendered and questioning are among the array of young and old, black, white, Russian, Australian, Croatian, Singaporean, German, Brits, Kiwi, Canadian and Coptic, to name a few. From teens to grandparents, gay parents and parents of gays, many emerge to foster understanding of the complexities of sexual identity as well as learn how to better support them.
"I just think it's amazing that my parent's are here with me... While I'm the G in the LGBT, it's just as important that they're here too."
"My Dad's sitting right there in the front row... and I'm proud of him for jumping off the cliff with me arm in arm, and I know he's proud of me too."
"For so much of my life I've felt so alone and disposable. Yesterday, somebodies mom just reached over and hugged me..."
As well, Side A and Side B, physicians, teachers and lay people come to re-examine their position in light of their theology and what they see. Here, the mystified are acknowledging the burden of LGBTQ from conservative backgrounds and becoming more cognizant of their distress. Indeed, the testimony of tears speaks to the souls engrossed in hearing God's unwavering love in hopes of disarming shame and self-hatred.
"This time last year I was standing in my closet with a noose around my neck wondering what it would be like to just end it all. I didn't really have any hope... but coming and meeting people at GCN has changed my life."
"My number one question I've asked everyone in one way or another was if I was good enough. I asked God if I was straight, could I be good enough?"
For many, this is the only place they have to connect authentically in their individuality or as marginalized subsets, such as the asexuals or bisexuals in mixed oriented marriages. If nothing else, for a brief moment, a few days, we can embrace our full identity and worship freely without the internal or external restraints as a supposed walking dichotomy.
"I was overwhelmed by such grace that I was able to come out and show grace to myself."
The Gay Christian Network is built on stories and conversations, both alike and unique, revealing different aspects of similar journeys. Side A, Side B, or the churches of Third Way-ers run the gamut among the liturgical and the evangelical, yet, grace and tolerance surround the various views. Even in disagreement, dialogue is respectful. Such sides, while faithfully held, are offered with a grander appeal in mind--a safe space for everyone who might otherwise be invisible.
"This is my seventh GCN conference. I came out seven years ago.... the spectrum is even greater than the last time I've come."
"I don't have to be in a box to fit in here."
"I don't have to feel like a freak."
As Justin Lee, the executive director and founder of GCN, says, this "radical inclusion" is a unique quality, to be different and still come together harmoniously (unlike the protestors brandishing their signs outside). Rather than shame and disdain, experiencing acceptance amidst differences bids reconciliation, restoration and healing.
"Our church started the excommunication process because my son has come out transgendered. So, I have left that church. I joined the local PFLAG community, but they don't affirm my faith. When I come to GCN, I don't have to have my feet in two different worlds. This is my church family."
Of course, there is much fear about what is happening, what's being taught, embraced or advocated within these three days. But perhaps the fretful might breathe a little easier if they could witness those shattered on their knees in prayer or raising their hands in praise, as it may be the first time some of us have participated in corporate worship in years, or at least since the last GCN conference.
"I was a worship leader... It's been so long, I want to sing my heart out with the others but I'm choking back tears a couple verses in."
Could the skeptic perceive how freedom is offered as well as the autonomy to choose different ways to live based on one's personal conviction? Could the cynic feel the yearning for reinstating relationships? Might they see the longing for impartiality as Christ taught, or witness these people's cry for God in the pain while wondering how to hold onto their faith in spite of it?
"I've come up here to say 'I'm sorry', because as a pastor, I have not supported the way I should have."
"The only person I told was my husband... The hardest thing that I learned here was that I was part of the oppression... and I'm so sorry."
As it is, those unconvinced might discover Jesus in praxis at GCN rather than in heady debates over Scripture, not to say hermeneutics is irrelevant. But perhaps they may plainly see the evidence of Christ's message embodied in saving others through the simplicity of unconditional love.
"It reminds me of why we love the Church the way we do."
"God asked me, 'Are you done being angry at the ones who've hurt you, because I love them too.'"
Hear more stories at the GCN website. Better yet, share yours with us next year at GCN2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.