You don't have to be intentional to cause damage. That's something I've learned in the past few years as I have journeyed in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and witnessed so many attempts by pastors and theologians to explain and defend the church's current position on homosexuality.
Just sitting in the pews as an LGBT person can be one of the most uncomfortable situations of our lives, as we're spoken about in a theoretical and theological fashion, but seldom are we actually asked or allowed to share our perspective. You see, we are people of faith too, but the church has a de facto "don't ask, don't tell" approach (at best), even in most of its educational institutions, so we often linger in the shadows, in silence, hearing the most outrageous assumptions said about us by learned and well-meaning people who want to "minister" to us.
This past weekend was one of the worst examples of this "talk about" instead of "talk with" spaces, and it happened in Portland, Ore., at a "Gays in the Family" conference sponsored by the North Pacific Union Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The "Gays in the Family" conference headlined pastors, a therapist and five ex-gay* and/or now-celibate (all older) presenters handpicked by the North Pacific Union College to represent the official stance of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. As in most denominations, Seventh-day Adventists are beginning to realize that we have LGBT** people in our homes, in our churches, in our schools. Our administration is beginning to realize that we can no longer talk about homosexuality in a theoretical fashion; we need to humanize the subject in order to connect with the community. The realization is there, which I appreciate, but the execution is failing.
To open the weekend, Cheri Corder, the director of family ministries for the Oregon Conference, said, "Not every voice will be heard this weekend." In other words, only handpicked voices that present and justify the Adventist status quo are being promoted.
She was absolutely right. The weekend wasn't a dialogue; it was a presentation. All five of the ex-gay/now-celibate speakers had traumatic childhood experiences to which they attribute the cause of their "same-sex attractions," most of them having been sexually abused or even raped. One speaker stated that he had had up to three partners a day for over 20 years. Lives of drug use, prostitution and promiscuity were presented as the norm for LGBT people.
There was little diversity: All were in their 50s or 60s, all had had incredibly sad and traumatic childhoods, almost all had lived very broken and destructive lives when they were accepting their gay identities, and all now live the "ideal lifestyle" as a "person redeemed from the homosexual lifestyle."
But none of these labels fits my life or the lives of the hundreds of LGBT people I've met. It's like having a conference on women's ordination (another current hot topic in our church) and having only Caucasian men as speakers, or only selecting (the few) women who agree with not ordaining women. Why weren't there voices of same-sex, healthy, monogamous Christian individuals like those portrayed in Seventh-Gay Adventists: A Film About Faith on the Margins? How are we supposed to have a dialogue when only a select few are chosen to promote a very biased presentation?
But one of the most disturbing parts of the whole weekend was the presentation by the licensed therapist, Dr. Lucille Ball (and no, she doesn't joke about her name). Her talk was one I was looking forward to, because it was titled, "The Myths About homosexuality." Sadly, it just perpetuated the worst myths out there, and from a "scientific" perspective, which made it all the more damaging. The premise of her presentation was that homosexuality comes after a traumatic experience in childhood, most likely sexual abuse. Dr. Ball said, "We are not born gay," alleging that there is a "negative environmental factor which leads the person to think, 'I am gay.'" She added:
The bad news about that is that when we have that attitude that "I am born this way, and there is nothing I can do about it," it become so fatalistic: "I might as well give in to it. I might as well live the gay lifestyle, because there is nothing I can do about it." And you know what's something I discovered? It's that gay activists actually use that to get money from people, to fight for the gay agenda.
Dr. Ball continued her hour-long presentation with a string of statements that are shocking to anyone who has read any real research on homosexuality. She insisted that "67 percent of gay men were sexually abused," and that once gay people are able to cope with whatever traumatic experience they encountered in childhood, they would be "healed" of their homosexuality. I couldn't believe my ears. It was as if I had stepped back to the 1950s, when such propaganda was used to institutionalize LGBT people.
During the Q-and-A portion of the event, my question was selected and directed to Dr. Ball. I had asked, "What do you say to the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the rest of the legitimate scientific community, which believes that same-sex relationships can be healthy, and that attempting to change someone's sexual orientation is in fact damaging?"
She responded, "[The professional organizations] receive much pressure to conform to the gay rights activists. I'd tell them that I take the Bible above any man-made organization."
Setting aside the outrageous conspiracy theory of the "gay agenda," I was speechless that a licensed physician was outwardly stating that she had picked which facts from the scientific community to agree with based on her own personal religious views. How are you ministering to LGBT people when you're calling them sick and using misleading "science" to back it up?
I have seen how damaging that narrative has been in my life, my family members' lives and the lives of other LGBT people. Just this past year I've had friends attempt suicide, kicked out of their homes, disfellowshipped from their churches and been made second-class citizens at our schools and churches, all due to the overwhelming narrative that we have received from our churches. But none of these friends I'm referring to were abused. None have been living as sex addicts or doing drugs. None come from traumatic childhoods. Some of them even come from highly supportive homes. This narrative of "we need to heal the homosexuals" is toxic, has been proven to be damaging and does not contain an ounce of love. It's spiritual and psychological malpractice.
This spiritual and psychological malpractice does real damage. I recently read a moving letter from an older brother to his younger gay brother, who attempted suicide just this last fall, overwhelmed by what the church said about him. In the letter the older brother pleads, "Please do not ever give up on your Jesus. You may have brothers who turn against you, friends who cause you to bleed tears, and churches that can't legally bar their doors but yet still bar their hearts against you. Please do not let these people dictate the character of your Jesus."
My generation is not tolerating this idea that LGBT people are sick, broken and second-class citizens. The image of the "gay lifestyle" that is preached at our schools and from our pulpits doesn't bear any resemblance to the real lives of LGBT people. What this does is create negative stereotypes that force our young people to be damaged, not from their sexuality but from the responses received from their Christian brothers and sisters.
When the Christian community approaches the LGBT community with an "accepting yet redeeming" model (what a pastor advocated at the conference) instead of an "accepting and affirming" model, we render the Holy Spirit useless. We actually don't have to have theological unity about whether or not committed same-sex relationships are biblical in order to lean into unconditional love. But we have to begin listening to all the voices that need to be heard instead of hand-selecting a few that fit neatly into our current worldview. We have to see each other as equals at the foot of the cross.
There is no need for "Change ministries". God says that with even the smallest faith, we can say to a mountain to move.... and it will move if it is inside God's will. If God really wanted gay people to change, a prayer made in faith.... should be all that it takes. I have found that my crying and praying in earnest for God to change my daughter led me to realize that it was ME that God wanted to change. I am the one who needed to learn to love more. I was the one who needed to change. I also think I have an obligation to NOT attempt to change LGBTQ people but to love them and let them know that God loves them and wants them for his own.
We need to change our approach. If this is what is going to be offered as a "conversation," then it's no wonder that LGBT youth that come from rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than those who come from accepting homes. A church like the Seventh-day Adventist Church is very much a home. It's a very close-knit community, and it is incredibly damaging to kids to grow up thinking that they are entirely unwanted unless they twist themselves into some sort of heterosexual lifestyle or can imagine, at 17 or 18, living alone for their entire lives.
Isn't that what we're promoting? "We love and accept you as long as we visibly see you trying to change." This isn't the love I read about in the Bible. This love comes with all types of conditions, requirements and deadlines. We are loving LGBT people straight to hell. There are thousands of LGBT Adventists who live Christ-centered, healthy, monogamous lives. We're here, and we sit right next to you in the pews. And we'd love to tell you our story. If you'd only open your eyes and listen to our stories, you would see the damage you are causing to people like me, however unintentionally.
*In Torn: Rescuing the Gospel From the Gay vs. Christian Debate, author Justin Lee makes an interesting discovery on ex-gay ministries: "In ex-gay circles, I learned, the word 'gay' didn't mean 'attracted to the same sex'. At ex-gay conferences, I often ran into ex-gay leaders who publicly testified that they were 'no longer gay' even while privately confessing that they still had same-sex attractions." I believe this change of definition shows the focus of conservative Christian communities. It has nothing to do with the sexuality and everything to do with "gay sex."
** I'm using "LGBT," but this conference hardly ever used that language. They didn't even acknowledge bisexual or transgender individuals at all. The only actually gay and lesbian people allowed to speak were described as "people redeemed from the homosexual lifestyle."