By Jera Brown 1-24-2017

“A bunch of moms are wearing buttons saying ‘Free Mom Hugs,’” I texted, to my own mother. I was messaging her from the annual Gay Christian Network Conference, which took place early January in Pittsburgh. Later, I told her about the conference attendees I met who had been kicked out of their homes as kids when they came out (or were outed) as gay or transgender. They’d ended up homeless or were sent to conversion camps.

There in the welcoming environment of the conference, moms offering hugs was a step toward healing some deep wounds.

Just thirty-four percent of white evangelical protestants believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society, making the work of the Gay Christian Network both urgent and well-positioned. In addition to its annual conference, the Gay Christian Network has produced a documentary, a musical, and other projects toward its mission of “transforming attitudes toward LGBTQ people across denominations and cultures.”

Being surrounded by LGBTQ Christians and allies felt a little like coming home. My queer communities don’t always understand my faith, and my Christian communities don’t always understand my queerness. At GCNC, as the conference is called, both parts of me felt known.

But others felt important things were missing.

For Alicia Crosby, co-founder of the Center for Inclusivity, it was a session on bisexual, pansexual, and queer individuals — something GCNC offered in 2016, her first trip to the conference. This year, there wasn’t a similar session.

“Many come to venues like GCNC because they long for community where they can be fully known and understood by people who share their experiences,” she said.

“I missed the presentations that acknowledged and celebrated the diversity of experiences the conference attendees held.”

With such a diverse group, this is a tall order. Rev. Dr. Paula Williams, who serves on GCN’s Board of Directors, explains how the Gay Christian Network is taking strides to be more invested in the needs of their transgender constituents.

“GCN acknowledged a few years ago what has been true in much of the LGB community, that they didn’t know much about transgender issues,” Williams explains. “They have worked steadily to change that. The focus is still primarily on the binary, but they want to be sensitive to non-binary people as well.”

In 2016, that included having transgender Baptist pastor Allyson Robinson keynote last year, and bringing Williams herself onto the board. This year in Pittsburgh, the conference had prominent gender-inclusive bathrooms, hosted a transgender luncheon, and, per Williams, the conference committee is considering a transgender pre-retreat next year.

But diversity that Crosby and others refer to is not only about gender and sexuality. While the conference covered a wide range of issues specific to LGBTQ Christians — such as how to come out to your parents or your kids, or how to fight HIV-positive stigma in the church — there were no sessions that focused on physical disabilities, mental illness, aging, or race.

Rev. Kevin Wright, Minister of Education at Riverside Church in New York City, believes fighting for LGBTQ acceptance in isolation is not enough.

“You can’t get people to accept queer people if you’re not going to get people to also love black and Latino people. Because if that’s the case, you’re going to leave a whole lot of people from the queer community out,” Wright said.

At the conference, Wright spoke on intersectionality and why it matters. One of his handouts explained intersectionality as “the belief that oppressions are interlinked and cannot be solved alone.”

Deborah Jian Lee, author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians Are Reclaiming Evangelicalism, offers an example of how activist efforts are weakened when they do not consider these identity intersections. When writing her book, Lee interviewed social justice activist Darren Calhoun (who also acted as Worship Leader for the conference). He “explained how the predominantly white and male-led gay rights movement focused on marriage equality often to the exclusion of priorities that were particularly urgent to LGBTQ people of color who faced high risks of racial profiling, youth homelessness, mass incarceration and police brutality,” she wrote to me in an email.

“Without the leadership of people of color, the movement missed many opportunities to advocate on critical issues for a big portion of their own community.”

At GCNC in 2016, Rev. Broderick Greer spoke to this problem in his keynote address, “Theology as Survival.” In it, he said, “I survived — and am surviving — the strain of being subject to white heterosexist patriarchal theology.”

After the death of Michael Brown, Greer became active on Twitter using the #blacklivesmatter hashtag, and found “stories of black and brown people oppressed, silenced, and erased by white church leaders, pastors, and theologians — or theobrogians, as some of them are affectionately called. And the stories were like mine: incomplete, sore, familiar, frustrated,” he said.

At a conference centered around queer inclusion in the church, Greer pointed out that even if he is accepted as a gay man, he would still be oppressed as a black man.

This year's keynote speaker Bishop Gene Robinson asked, "Why did eighty percent of white evangelicals vote … for a man who brags about sexually harassing and assaulting women, who wants to tear Hispanic families apart, who shows no sign of understanding why black lives matter, who attacks another religion and promises to ban its adherents from a country that is founded on the freedom of religion, and who is vulgar in almost every way? 

"What do we mean when we say religious liberty or religious freedom? Because I’m telling you, our movement will be most affected in the next couple of years by court cases that will have to do with where does my religious liberty end and your rights begin."

But are two questions posed at the end of one keynote and one panel discussion on intersectionality enough in light of rising discrimination and bigotry of all kinds in the country?

Rev. Wright called the lack of intersectional attentiveness in spaces like GCNC “unfortunate.”

“In light of the election we just had, there are people who wear many of these identities who are fearful for their lives. I think that GCN has a moral responsibility to be an active conversation partner in unpacking the various levels of oppression that exist within the queer community and fighting against that oppression,” he said.

Jera Brown is an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. 

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