When my dad came out in 2004, I had already come to the conclusion that there was nothing spiritually or morally wrong about being gay. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out just how I managed to come to that conclusion, because I wasn’t in an environment where that perspective was encouraged at all. I was at a fairly conservative Christian university in rural Indiana. I had grown up in a church that followed the teachings of Focus on the Family, and I had been extremely involved in a youth group that taught the evangelical status quo about sex and sexual orientation: anything outside of marital sexual contact between a man and a woman was a sin, but the most damaging no-marital sex was that between two men or two women.
My mom (who would eventually become a gay rights activist in her own right) was extremely concerned about my interest as a freshman in college in the music of gay musicians like Rufus Wainwright and movies like Hedwig & The Angry Inch.
In a required freshman course at my college called Foundations of Christian Thought, we were supposed to be introduced to a variety of worldviews (secular humanism, nihilism, etc.) in order to be able to figure out how we felt Christianity compared. It was actually a valuable class, but I still remember sitting in a lecture hall with my peers, taking notes on how straight sex is the only natural kind of sex because of reasons A, B, and C. There was something about how humans are the only animals that have sex face-to-face, and so if you have sex in a non-face-to-face way, your sexual behavior is more like an animal than a human. Or something? I threw away my notes years ago and wish I hadn’t.
When I was a senior, in 2005, a student publication about AIDS was distributed on the tables in the dining commons, where the majority of students ate all of their meals. A student who had attended a conference on AIDS reported that many many gay men would prefer to get AIDS and die young than “become old and unattractive.”
I knew plenty of people who “struggled with same sex attraction,” but none who were out.
Yeah, when I look back at the environment I was in, it is surprising that these conditions could foster in me the conclusion that no sexual orientation is a sin. So, what happened? There are a few factors.
1) Exposure to art and literature. I can’t over-emphasize the important role that art, movies, literature, and music played in my transition on gay rights. Back when I was involved with Teen Mania Ministries, an extremely conservative youth missions organization, we were warned to avoid secular music and movies because they could have a terrible effect on us. It could make us more worldly and lead us away from the teachings of the church. Well, I guess they were right. The more time I spent with the art and literature of gay artists and writers, the more inclined I became to see LGBT people as something other than what my religious communities had painted them as when I was growing up. I wrote about this in some detail in my post about Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, but a few other important artists at this time were: Rufus Wainwright, John Cameron Mitchell, Oscar Wilde, and Tennessee Williams. I wish there were more women on that list, but at the time, I wasn’t exposed to many lesbian artists aside from Winterson. But you know what else I wasn’t exposed to? Real, live gay people. Okay, well I know now that I was surrounded by gay people, but I didn’t know it at the time because pretty much all the LGBT people I knew at that time were closeted. Aside from my mom’s friend and her partner, and some rumors about people from high school, I didn’t know anyone who was out. These artists were my first exposure to LGBT individuals, and that exposure was important.
2) Exposure to teachings about the Bible that allowed for diversity in scriptural interpretation. Before I started reading about interpretations of the Bible’s “clobber verses” that appear to denounce the homosexual orientation, there was some groundwork that was placed. I may have been rooted in several conservative Christian communities, but attending a Christian university forced me to become more liberal in my interpretation of scripture. I had a similar experience to that of Professor Greg Carey, who wrote an article about liberal Bible scholars last year, arguing that the best way to create liberal Bible scholars is to simply have them spend a lot of time with the Bible. A foundational moment was when our campus pastor made a point that he frequently repeated. I’ll paraphrase, but it was something like this: “Never be afraid that there is some monster hiding under a rock that is going to come out and devour God if you accidentally discover it. And if you do discover a creature like that, and it devours God, then bow down and worship that creature.” It was a powerful concept that reinforced the common refrain, “All truth is God’s truth.” I still hold to that. As a still-professing Christian (despite my distance from a lot of the doctrine I was raised with), I don’t believe that truth exists outside of God’s system for our universe, which means that if I find something that tests as true in every way I know how to test it, then I’m going to trust that it aligns with God’s system. All of these teachings, which I was internalizing at my Christian university, prepared me to be able to throw out things I had always been taught about sexual orientation.
3) My inherent desire to believe people. I choose to trust people when they tell me their stories. Although I wouldn’t realize how many LGBT people I knew until after I decided it wasn’t a sin, I did start trusting people on this issue at a certain point before that. A big part of this is connected to what I was experiencing with art and literature, but I also began to read online the stories of LGBT people who were saying one thing with resounding certainty: I didn’t choose this, this is part of who I am, and I am the same as you. I just couldn’t reconcile the things that I was hearing said about gay people with what I was hearing from gay people. Even now, when I hear anti-LGBT pundits or activists giving interviews or statements, I just want to put my hands on their shoulders, look them in the eyes, and ask, “Why don’t you just believe people when they tell you what it is like to be gay?”
These three things were far more important in my development on this issue than the technical scriptural arguments in support of gay rights, or logical arguments for the social benefits of gay marriage. Clever internet videos didn’t reveal the absurdity of anti-gay marriage arguments, and I never heard a sermon that changed my mind on this. Rather, it was the culmination of life experiences, exposure to good art, and respect for people’s stories that taught me that I was wrong and led to my change of heart on this issue.
This post was originally published on my blog, Liz Boltz Ranfeld, where I write about living and parenting as a liberal feminist Christian.