In Defense Of Labels
BY Matthew B. Turner
As far as coming out goes, I was sort of a late bloomer. Growing up in Kentucky, I’d heard passing references to same-gender love but I couldn’t identify with the folks being portrayed. I had a very utilitarian view of love and marriage–I wanted a family, and to have a family, I needed to marry a woman. I lived under this delusion until Fred Phelps came to town. Actually, Phelps never showed up in Berea, but he said that he would in order to protest Berea College’s extension of same-gender benefits to the partners of college employees. A student planning committee was immediately formed to plan a counter-protest and the lot fell on me, as a leader in the largest Christian group on campus, to represent “Christian” interests on the committee.
Our planning meetings were fiery to say the very least, and they usually followed the same pattern. The leader of the LGBTQ group would argue that as Phelps was coming to campus to protest gay rights, that our counter-protest should be centered around the promotion of gay rights. The leader of the international student group would then argue that what Phelps was coming to protest was diversity, and that our campus’ diversity should be highlighted in our counter-protest. On and on we would go around the table with each group arguing their particular angle, and every time it would come to me, I would politely inform everyone that what Phelps was actually doing was distorting Christianity, and that any counter-event should emphasize the true version of the Gospel, my version of the Gospel.
Our planning committee managed, quite incredibly, to integrate the interests of all the parties involved, and we presented our plan to the larger college community in a community forum. Each member of the planning committee recited what their particular group would be adding to the counter-protest, and then we opened up the floor for comments and questions. A young man stood up from the second row, eyes red, nose dripping, tears streaming down his face, and with voice cracking said, “You all have it wrong! Fred Phelps is coming to protest the love I have for my boyfriend,” pointing to another guy seated beside him, “and to tell us that we’re going to hell!” The young man collapsed back into his couch, and something collapsed inside of me as well. My own years of straight cultural programming started to unravel, and I came out to a close friend shortly thereafter.
My Christian friends were anything but excited by my epiphany. I was asked to step down from leadership in that Christian group, and many “friends” stopped talking to me. But one group that did welcome me was the LGBTQ group, though I was in the minority as a gay Christian, and a gay Christian who continued to show up at church whether they wanted me there or not. My LGBTQ peers told me about pastors attempting to cast homosexual demons out of them, or religious parents who’d thrown them out of their homes. After hearing their stories, I didn’t find surprising their shock that I chose to continue with the church, but I did find surprising their interest in my struggle with my faith and the ways my theology was developing after my gay epiphany.
I now feel worlds away from my tiny college in Kentucky as I now live and worship in Boston, MA. My partner and I can walk hand-in-hand down the street and could even marry if we some day decide to, and churches in the city seem to be in the minority if they’re not accepting of LGBTQ persons. I’ve recently found myself part of an emergent community that practices radical welcome, and where I come to the table beside other queers, young professionals, homeless persons, staunch evangelicals, and those who’ve spent little time in church. Inside those walls and inside the emergent church generally, identity labels like gay, straight, Christian or not aren’t as meaningful, they aren’t as divisive, and I believe this is a glimpse of what it will be like once the Kingdom of God is fully realized. But the Kingdom of God isn’t fully realized in that community or the world outside of it, and in that same world the queer woman I pray beside could very well be attacked for kissing her girlfriend in public, and because of this reality identity labels not only denote difference but also serve as calls for social justice. Owning our queerness within our worshipping communities is a reminder to our sisters and brothers that much work has yet to be done to create a world where we can live and love freely. Though any identity label should be looked at with skepticism, they are useful insofar as they represent social realities that demand justice.
In a similar way, owning our “Christianness” within the queer community witnesses to the fact that those within Christianity who despise queer relationships, who keep queers from marrying, and who would deny queers from full participation in the people of God do not have the monopoly on the Christian faith. While honoring and identifying with the pain suffered by queers at the hands of the church, Queer Christians are uniquely situated to provide alternate pathways toward how to be Christian, as well as alternate pathways toward healing.
Matthew is a 20-something Southerner-in-Exile living, working, and worshipping in Boston, MA. He completed a Masters of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School in 2008 where he studied practical theology, queer and feminist theory/ology, and pastoral care. He is currently in the process of discerning what to do with said degree, and welcomes your ideas. You can find more of his theological musings at http://eyesnotlifted.blogspot.com/ and read updates of a more mundane variety at http://twitter.com/mattypopolsku