As a kid, I’d sometimes sit with my aunt in the back pews of our 200-year-old United Methodist church outside of Elizabeth City and play with her gold bracelets while the pastor droned on. When I got a bit older, I sat between my grandparents on another pew because I knew a day would come when they wouldn’t be there anymore, despite how permanent their presence was.
Women in white hair and flashy jewelry would always hug me after the service; men would shake my hand. Mom would tell me how we were kin, but I was never good at keeping a family tree in my head. And it didn’t matter because even though the services may have been boring, in that place I knew I was loved.
I knew I belonged.
I’m sure some folks knew I was gay before I did. I knew I was “different” in middle school, and finally had a name for it in high school. A name I said out loud one day in my truck, as I drove to campus in 11th grade. I knew it was dangerous to admit it to myself, and deadly to admit it to others. I knew what I could lose, who I could lose, so I turned inward. The last two years of high school, I wasn’t present with my friends or my family; it was better to be distant than banished or beaten.
It’s been 20 years since I went to college and left that church. In that time, I joined the United Methodist campus ministry at ECU. I came out to friends and family, and to the church. For years, I’ve felt called to fight for full inclusion in the UMC for queer people, and I worked until I was overcome with emotional exhaustion from people with the nicest smiles and the sharpest bites. From people who loved me, and “hated my sin.”
Recently, the UMC’s global church met for a special session three years in the making to discuss a way forward regarding our differences over “human sexuality.” (That’s coded language for queer people.)
We’ve inched our way to this tipping point ever since the debate over “the issue of homosexuality” was brought to the church’s legislative floor in the 1960s. Church leadership comforts itself by calling this an “issue” instead of stating that this is directly about queer people. Three years ago, the legislative debate had gotten so out of hand that the Council of Bishops stopped the legislative body’s work and referred it to a committee on “human sexuality.”
Here we are three years later. I found myself alone at my desk for three days live-streaming this legislative session, in which delegates essentially met to decide on the value of queer people.
Queer-friendly delegates were messaging hundreds of us in a WhatsApp group, live-texting every moment, translating the “Robert’s Rules of Order” jargon into meaningful context. By the last day, I had a second monitor live-streaming feeds and Facebook posts from friends in the progressive moment, friends who were there to protest as the final votes came in.
Delegates voted to hear three plans, not one was queer-affirming. The most moderate would allow churches the freedom to welcome or dismiss queer folks, and the most restrictive would weed out lesbian and gay clergy and remove any pastors that performed same-sex weddings. The same rhetoric was used by the conservatives that have always been used, the same feigned smiles, the same proclamations of Biblical authority, the same misunderstanding of human sexuality and gender identity.
In our Wesleyan heritage – a key reason why I’ve chosen to stay in this church – we believe that God and the meaning of the Divine are informed through a “quadrilateral,” where scripture and tradition sit beside experience and reason. We are asked to look up from our Bibles and into the eyes of people around us, who look and speak and dress differently from us. God is there, John Wesley tells us. We are asked to consider reason and science as we read scripture. God is there too.
I honestly believe conservatives in the church are thoughtful and intelligent people, and subscribe to a set of beliefs out of their own convictions. But when discussing queer people, sexual orientation and gender identity, I believe they are misinformed. And their convictions are harmful, especially when they are given voice on a stage as loud as a legislative session.
Human sexuality is more complicated than “one man, one woman.” Our sexual orientations and gender identities are essential components of our being, of how we connect intimately with another person, and how we fall in love and create families.
It’s in the fabric of how we are made, and to repress or change our sexual orientation or gender identity is to tear at that fabric. No one has the authority to vote on or legislate the rights of another person based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Or race, or gender. We’ve tried that before. It didn’t go well.
Nevertheless, our delegates voted to adopt the most restrictive plan. I watched the numbers appear on the screen in that stupid Calibri font that said the majority voted on my worth as a person and found me “less than.” Queer people, simply by existing, are abominations.
After several years of absence, this past Sunday I decided I should return to church and be visible as a queer person.
I found my rainbow stole waiting for me in a box in the garage, the one given to me in 2005 when I joined the “reconciling” movement – an essential effort to bridge United Methodist congregations with people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
I put it on, and drove myself to Duke Memorial UMC. The church already had rainbow banners waving outside their doors. I knew it was going to be a safe space, but I couldn’t stop shaking. Surrounded by people in the pews with rainbow pins and scarves, and I couldn’t stop shaking. Wounds of the closet run deep, so why am I here?
Because in every church, there are little boys cuddling up to their aunts and playing with their bracelets, and they should only hear words of love and affirmation. Too many are hurt, homeless, beaten or dead. Maybe I can be a part of this growing movement in the United Methodist Church to change that.
Caleb Parker is a researcher in international public health and lives in Durham with his partner.