The Gay Christian Network Conference Just Met in Houston. Here's Why That's Significant.

By Betsy Shirley 1-11-2016
Gay Christian Network founder Justin Lee
Gay Christian Network founder Justin Lee.

Less than 10 weeks after Houston voters — many persuaded by local Christian pastors — repealed a city ordinance that would have protected Houstonians from discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity (as well as race, religion, and other traits), 1,450 people gathered in the city for the Gay Christian Network conference, the world’s largest annual event for LGBT Christians and their allies.

For the LGBT community in Houston, a diverse Texas city, the Nov. 3 repeal of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) was an unexpected setback. And for Houstonians eager to restore the city’s reputation, including former Houston mayor Annise D. Parker — the first mayor of a major U.S. city to openly be in a same-sex relationship — the arrival of the large group of LGBT Christians was a timely opportunity.

“I want you to know that the recent headlines about Houston are not an accurate reflection of this great city and its residents,” said Parker in a video message welcoming the Gay Christian Network.

But hosting the Gay Christian Network conference in Houston was also seen as an opportunity to change the reputation of Christians. “It’s very important that it happens here in Houston, because 90 percent of the opposition to HERO was Christian,” said Jeffry Faircloth, co-president of PFLAG Houston. “If it wasn’t for conservative churches that believe being a member of the LGBT community was a sin, we wouldn’t have had a repeal of HERO.”

Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network, agreed. “Houston’s LGBT community was dealt a painful blow, largely by Christians, and so I think it’s important for other Christians to say ‘we stand with you,’” said Lee.

***

Founded in 2001 as an online forum, the Gay Christian Network hosted its first annual conference in Dallas in 2005; 40 people attended. Many of the first participants in the conference and online forum were a lot like Lee: young, white, gay, cisgender men from theologically conservative traditions.

This past weekend’s Houston conference was more than 35 times the size of the first, with racially diverse, variously aged attendees from 48 states, 17 countries, and just about every denomination from Mennonite to Seventh-day Adventist (with a particularly strong representation from conservative evangelical and nondenominational churches). Attendees included Christians who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual, and queer, as well as straight allies, parents of LGBT people, and those still exploring their own identities.

The lineup of the 2016 gathering was equally as diverse: keynote sessions by transgender Baptist pastor Allyson Robinson, Christian blogger and LGBT ally Misty Irons, and Broderick Greer, an Episcopal priest who spoke on the intersections between queer and black theologies of liberation; workshops with titles like “Coming Out to Conservative Parents,” “The Bible, Eunuchs, and Being Different,” and “Waiting Until Marriage? You’re Not Alone”; as well as performances by singer/songwriter Ashley Phillips and by Mary Lambert, the artist featured on the hit single “Same Love,” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

But ask attendees what they like best about the conference and you’re likely to hear the same answer: community — the opportunity to be around other LGBT Christians, talk about the struggles they’ve faced in their own churches, and ask questions in a supportive environment. Following a well-loved conference tradition, on the final night of the 2016 conference, attendees were invited to share brief reflections about what God had done in their lives through the conference that weekend. Over and over, the attendees said things like: “I’ve never felt so loved,” “You are my family,” and “I feel like I’ve found my people.”

It’s all the more remarkable given that, when it comes to sensitive issues for LGBT Christians — Does God call LGBT Christians to life-long celibacy? Is male-gendered language for God patriarchal? Should Christians in heterosexual marriages stay married if one partner comes out as gay or lesbian? — the attendees are hardly in agreement with each other.

Some disagreements, such as whether God blesses marriage for same-sex couples or calls LGBT Christians to celibacy, are so prominent that conference attendees have adopted shorthand to identify their position. Attendees identify themselves as “Side A” if they affirm same-sex marriage and relationships; “Side B” attendees, by contrast, believe that God calls people with same-sex attractions to a life of celibacy. Workshops affirming both positions were offered—and were well-attended.

Justin Lee, himself a “Side A” Christian, recognizes the significance of these different viewpoints but maintains that in a polarized world (and church) welcoming this kind of diversity to the GCN conference is a mark of success. “These differences matter and yet we believe it’s important to reach across the divide and show love and mercy to people we disagree with,” Lee told the conference before the first night’s keynote.

Conference volunteer Andrew Roblyer advised first-time attendees to speak up when they found themselves in uncomfortable conversations, but also to “default to grace.” “Regardless of your theological tradition, grace is a pretty big part of who Jesus was,” said Roblyer.

***

Throughout Houston’s ugly, 17-month legal battle against HERO, opponents of the ordinance, including Christian pastors, claimed it would “normalize gender confusion,” and in the words of former SBC president Ed Young, “carry our city further and further and further down the road of being totally, in my opinion, secular and godless.” Opponents also claimed that the ordinance’s provision to protect transgender people from discrimination would allow sexual predators to enter women’s bathrooms .

Given this attempt to make transgender people look like threatening predators — an argument that was widely discredited as a scare tactic — Lee told Sojourners that it was no accident that this year’s conference was particularly attentive to transgender issues. In addition to the keynote by transgender pastor Allyson Robinson, the 2016 conference included a workshop by male-to-female megachurch pastor Paula Williams, as well as workshops titled “Reading the Bible with Transgender Youth” and “Gender Variance in Myth and Scripture.” For the first time, the conference also offered gender-neutral bathrooms, something Lee said they had “planned to do anyway” but “took on special significance” after HERO was repealed.

And in a year that featured sustained attention to police brutality and white supremacy, neither was it accidental that the 2016 Gay Christian Network Conference emphasized issues of intersectionality, or how race, class, orientation, and gender often intersect to create injustice … or privilege.

Robyn Ford, a Gay Christian Network board member and longtime conference attendee was glad to see the Christian LGBT community become aware of other forms of marginalization, including race.

“I’m pretty sure they didn’t come to the Gay Christian Network expecting to hear about Black Lives Matter,” said Ford. Marginalized groups, including LGBT Christians, can’t afford to remain ignorant of other forms of oppression, Ford explained. “We have to recognize that there are other minorities and we need to speak up for each other.”

In her keynote address, Allyson Robinson pointed out that as the church becomes increasingly supportive of full LGBT inclusion, one of the most marginalized groups will be conservative Christians who adhere to traditional views about gender and sexuality — including the handful of protesters who stood outside the hotel throughout the conference holding signs that proclaimed “Homo Sex is Sin.”

In what Robinson admitted would surely be an unpopular and uncomfortable opinion, she called on the LGBT Christians to practice radical love toward those with whom they disagree.

“God is for your worst enemy as surely as God is for your dearest ally,” said Robinson.

Betsy Shirley (@betsyshirley) is associate editor at Sojourners.

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