Coming out as a gay Christian can be harder than coming out as gay at all. That might seem strange, as the message at the heart of the gospel is to “love your neighbour, as yourself”.
Jesus did not add an addendum to this; he did not put “apart from gay people” in brackets. Yet in my experience that’s exactly what some churches have done when it comes to sexuality. The very places where everyone should feel loved and welcomed, LGBT people are so often rejected.
Such rejection can cause shame, inner turmoil, self-loathing and provoke a special kind of pain, these kinds of feelings are sadly a common experience for those struggling to reconcile their faith and sexuality. These certainly do not create conditions where it’s easy to feel love for yourself, and it can cause people to struggle with the whole message of the gospel.
I know this first-hand.
“The very places where everyone should feel loved and welcomed, LGBT people are so often rejected”
My story begins in the late 1990s. Growing up, my immediate family were not religious and so it was never really something I spent time thinking about.
From around ten years old, however, I began to realise that I appreciated and was inspired by women, and never men. These feelings intensified as I grew up and I realised that I was attracted to women. In secondary school I also knew instinctively that it was something that I needed to keep hidden, i was not like all my other friends, I was different and my self-esteem plummeted because of it.
There were so few visible LGBT role models in the mid-Nineties, it was hard to know that this was an okay thing to be – this was my first lesson in why visible role models are so important. I desperately wanted to be ‘normal’, to be like everyone else. That feeling only intensified as I grew up. All my friends began to find boyfriends and I felt really lonely, from the inside out.
When I was 17, I joined an evangelical church. I had never experienced anything like it. People jumping about and raising their voices in celebration of God. Every member of the church looked so content and happy, and I felt hope that I may be able to bury these feelings of self-loathing and be like every other member of the congregation.
However, the longer that I attended the church, the more ashamed I felt that God had not taken this away from me. I knew I had this attraction that, according to the teachings of that church, was deemed a sin, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not ‘pray the gay away’.
I felt split in two. I could either be gay or a Christian, but not both. I felt like an outsider in my own life now the two biggest parts of my core identity were on opposite sides of the train tracks. They seemed never destined to come together.
Church became harder and harder. I kept going but focussed on the other aspect of myself which I had not yet explored. I had never had a girlfriend, I never dared and by chance I met a family friend who I began to socialise with. she introduced me to another group of women, some of whom were gay. I was starstruck! I became close with one of the women and we started a relationship. I finally had hope I would be happy.
It made me feel worse. Now I started to feel shame from all angles. I couldn’t tell her about the church because I felt so weak for going somewhere I knew would reject me if they knew the truth.
It was then – the experience of having and loving a girlfriend – that I realised I could not be anything other than gay. And so I began to wonder for the first time that maybe if God had not taken it away, perhaps it didn’t need to be taken away at all, I dared to think that maybe I was the person who God has created me to be.
“I told the pastor that I was gay. He said he would pray for this sin to be taken away from me, before telling me to leave the church”
I tested it and I told the pastor that I was gay. He said he would pray for this sin to be taken away from me, before telling me to leave the church. He even questioned my intention of working with the young people in the church.
I left feeling ashamed, rejected. I wished I had kept it a secret. Now I felt the actual rejection rather than fostering a slight hope that it might not happen.
I tried to forget about God and the church, and settle for being ‘just’ gay for a while. Yet my fears of rejection dominated my relationship. I was insecure. I was lost.
We split up.
To try and find some sort of anchor I used to go and sit in on Catholic services, even though I knew they were not accepting of LGBT people and I struggled to understand how they could have been anti-birth control in the era when AIDS was so deadly at the time. What it did give me though, was the chance to be anonymous. To go in and pray and leave and not be asked who I was; by then I knew I couldn’t lie about my sexuality if someone asked.
Over five years after I had stepped inside my first church, I had still not married these two important facets of my self.
I still felt ashamed and a deep-rooted wrongness. I had none of the confidence that comes from living as who you truly are. That felt like a far off and impossible dream because the two most intrinsic parts of my being could not coexist together in harmony. The impact of feeling like I needed to hide either or part of me and not live authentically is something that still affects me today.
“I reached breaking point when someone told me God did love me after all – just not my sin”
I reached breaking point when someone told me God did love me after all – just not my sin. To my mind, that made me the ‘sin’. Sexuality is part of who you are, so the ‘sin’ was me. It wasn’t an external decision I could make about myself and nor was this something I could change. At that point in my life, I would have. I tried to be heterosexual – anything to escape the inner turmoil that now I realise is so common in LGBT Christians.
Broken, I prayed to God to lift this burden from me. I felt so strongly that God had heard me and I knew then there was no way I could change either of these vital parts of me. And I knew in my soul that God was not asking me to either.
I did not feel able to join another church for over a decade, when I finally felt able I decided to anonymously just visit churches to see if I was able to feel comfortable. Eventually I went to the local LGBT congregation in Manchester.. I immediately knew I was home. Speaking with other members, I heard so many similar stories of reconciling faith and sexuality. I finally and for the first time felt fully and completely comfortable being both gay and a christian in that setting.
I would like to say that this is where my journey ends and has been all plain sailing from then onwards.
It has not.
In the church I began to take an active role in worship there, I found to my great surprise that I enjoyed it and it felt right. I decided to go to college and began a theological degree. I wanted to understand the Bible more, and if my experiences at the hands of others were justified by it. They weren’t. I was determined that I did not want to be a church minister. Two years into it though and God had different ideas for me. God was prodding me into ministry, something I was not prepared for but it also felt very right. Three years later and I am in my final year of training to become a minister.
During my final two years of training I have been placed with three wonderful churches, but I knew from the beginning that I needed to be honest and upfront about my sexuality. In the social media age, it would not have taken long for people to work it out and for people to think that I was not being honest with them – or for my sexuality to be something talked about over coffee.
And so I stood up and bared my soul and told each of them. Each of them have been amazing, but still it should not have been something I felt I needed to do – even if the issue of sexuality and being a Christian is something that some people genuinely find hard to be comfortable with.
As I progress into being placed as a minister, any potential church will be asked if they are willing to have an LGBT minister, which is frustrating because it puts my sexuality ahead of my humanity. That being said, times are changing and I know that any ministry I undertake will have inclusion at its heart, because there are no exceptions to love. Love is something that with the right conditions can expand into places it was not before. That is where I see God.
Despite my initial determination to not become a minister – I am ready to reflect back to everyone the love that God shows to me, the journey of full inclusion is not yet over – but love is love, and love always wins the day.
Lee Battle is a training minister with the United Reformed Church
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