How Can Gay Christians Have Safe Relationships With Non-Affirming Family? | Sojourners

LGBTQ+ Christians Can Build Bridges With Our Non-Affirming Family

Darren Calhoun. Graphic by Candace Sander/Sojourners
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This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

Like many LGBTQ+ Christians, I grew up in a home that was theologically opposed to same-sex marriage and romantic relationships. I still have close relationships with many family members who remain theologically opposed.

I’ve noticed that a lot of the resources that exist for facilitating relationships across disagreement are geared toward the non-affirming: “How should Christian parents respond if one of their children comes out as gay?” “Can Christian parents point their gay children to Jesus?” “Responding to a ‘Gay Christian’ in the Family.”

And while many LGBTQ+ people don’t want close relationships with non-affirming family, those of us who do want those relationships don’t want to sacrifice our safety.

Darren Calhoun has spent two decades working to build bridges that protect the dignity and safety of all parties, including LGBTQ+ people and their non-affirming community. Currently, he works with Christians for Social ActionQ Christian Fellowship, and serves as a pastor at Urban Village Church while singing in the band The Many. (Editor’s note: Mick Atencio, the author’s spouse, works at Q Christian Fellowship where Calhoun serves on the board of directors.)

I asked Calhoun if we could have a conversation geared toward LGBTQ+ people, particularly those working to maintain relationships with non-affirming parents and other elder family members or friends. We discussed the need for patience, self-love, supportive community, and how to know whether we or our dialogue partners are ready for such relationships.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

For LGBTQ+ people who want to engage in relationship and dialogue with non-affirming family or friends, what is important for us to do on our side to ensure we’re in the right place to attempt that?

Any time I’m leading worship or facilitating a space, I like to remind people that their first responsibility is to take care of themselves. That means knowing what activates you and knowing what kind of support you need. If you’re not in a space where you feel like you have the kind of support you need, if you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, or if things go bad, then survival is your first priority.

You have to be able to survive. If your parents can kick you out and you don’t have any place to go, now may not be the time to make this kind of challenge. But if you have the support and safety that you need — relational connections, job security, and housing security — then from there I think it’s a matter of figuring out your intention. What is your goal?

It’s easy for us to say, “Oh, they just need to change their mind.” Changing people is not something that tends to be effective. What we can do is understand people more. Understanding helps us get to a place where we can figure out the spectrum of beliefs, ideas, actions that can happen. If this person is on the opposite end from me, what’s the way to get them to take one step closer to me?

Justin Lee was the person who first gave me this framework of, rather than trying to get everybody from A to Z, [we try to move them] one rung on the ladder, one step up the staircase. What’s the one thing they might do that is helpful to you?

For me, that means sitting with the person and hearing what their concerns are. Again, that self-care has to happen, because if you’re going to be empathetic to them, you have to be able to hold space, not only for your emotions, but for theirs. Fear and anger drive a lot of people’s decisions. So it’s important to listen — not for what they say exactly, but for what’s behind what they say. What’s driving it? What are they afraid of [or] angry about?

Some people are angry about the world changing so fast, so they react to people talking about pronouns … It’s not about the pronouns; it’s about them feeling like the world’s changing around them and they don’t want to be embarrassed, left out, or left behind. Or it makes them feel ignorant when they don’t know how to properly address someone. Those are all fears that have nothing to do with what the Bible says about gender.

That kind of thing, where you spend a bit of time listening for what’s really at issue, is an important first step.

There is always the potential, though, that we assume we know the underlying reason or issue. What are examples of questions people can ask to get deeper understanding?

Asking what brings people to the conversation is useful. Asking people what they understand about a particular topic. Sometimes they’ll say, “I grew up with XYZ!” And that might be an entry point to say, “Yeah, and here’s some other things that you grew up with and that you have changed.” This is the condensed version, but helping people sit with the idea that things change, and change isn’t always scary.

[I also ask], what’s at stake for you? That’s not the way I would literally say it, but asking, “What will happen if what you’re upset about continues?” That can help get into their perspective and see where they’re coming from, to see if there’s a fear, misunderstanding, or a sensational soundbite you might be able to address.

I’ve found it helpful to take values that my parents taught me, that I still agree with, and explain how I’m applying that value to this situation. I grew up in the churches of Christ with a big emphasis on “what the Bible actually says.” When I told my parents I was affirming, I tried to emphasize that it was based out of my conviction that the Bible was not condemning same-sex sexual relationships as a rule. I wanted to emphasize that I still took the Bible seriously, because I did.

I love that you gave the context of this still being something that is important to you, to be able to enter into that same shared space. [One time,] a person who I was leading worship alongside — in their own transparent moment — said, “So, how do you LGBTQ+ folks just throw away the Bible?” After the initial shock and bodily reaction, [I explained], “When I look at the Bible, I see values around caring for the marginalized. … I feel like there’s an opportunity to show love to a group that [categorically] has not been shown love — regardless of our thoughts about same-sex sexual activity.”

That’s another thing — recontextualizing. How do we make sure that we’re not just talking about same-sex sexual activity? A lot of people wouldn’t talk about their heterosexual marriages as “heterosexual sexual activity.” They talk about their companionship, they talk about life commitments, they talk about the shared community. [It can help] to get out of the hyper-sexualized version of, “When I think of you, I’m only thinking of this particular thing.” And to help them imagine this bigger picture. And — if it’s something that works for you — to help them to see that in the Bible.

We get the argument: “Marriage has always been one man and one woman.” What about our other friends in the Bible? Like David, Abraham, and Jacob. Which isn’t an argument, it’s to say that … God’s been able to work in things that you don’t agree with, and maybe I don’t agree with. But God’s working and I’m wondering, how can we be curious about this rather than argumentative? How can we explore this? How can we sit with this in a way that invites us both to grow deeper or examine scripture more together?

A lot of lives can be made better if you understand that somebody’s objection is to same-sex sexual relationships and you can get them to become fierce defenders of identifying as gay, rather than having to stay in the closet or go through conversion therapy. Maybe they’re not going to step with you into affirming theology, but they can come to recognize the ways — outside of sexual ethics and theology — they’ve been mistreating LGBTQ+ people.

An example that that I often cite is the Trevor Project’s research about LGBTQ+ youth homelessness. In some cities, LGBTQ+ youth are 40 percent of the homeless population [while only] around 10 percent of the general population, which means we’re overrepresented. And we’re talking about youth; we’re talking about people who are not 18 being abandoned on the street by their parents, sometimes because they have religious beliefs. Is this what we think God wants? Even if we don’t agree with same-sex sexual activity? And to ask: What can we do about this thing that we both feel is wrong? How do we make that better? That’s a tangible entry point.

I have this long, two-decade history of bridge-building, sitting in the gap, being in spaces where my beliefs may not be at the forefront — which means I either haven’t shared them or I’m not 100 percent confident. I’ve seen how people bring their own beliefs, throw them on me, and then argue about them. But I’ve also seen a very interesting thing that some people will not be able to hear things from me.

As somebody who’s been doing this in the public square for a long time, I thought if I was just gentle enough, kind enough, patient enough, well-spoken and articulate enough, if I had all the right talking points, eventually I could be heard. I learned that, for people who — to put it quite frankly — don’t look like me, who aren’t the same race, aren’t the same background, etc., especially people who are white, there’s an instant barrier. The words coming out of my mouth will not hit the logical part of their brain.

So, sometimes it’s about me empowering others who have a better, closer relationship to that person. Through many tears and frustration, I realized that there are some relationships and some folks who I can love and care about all day long, but until they hear it from somebody who they consider “like them” — an authority figure like them, or somebody who quite literally looks like them — they won’t hear it.

Sometimes my strategy of survival is [to ask], who are my allies? Who are the ones who can echo back what I’m saying?

What are things you look for to know that you have a willing and engaged dialogue partner?

I’ve often found that people who are most ready to have conversations come with the question. They come with genuine questions, not just “Why are gay people refusing to listen to the Bible?” Something much deeper, and it often connects back to something personal. My kid came out, now what? My spouse is trans, now what? Somebody at church passed away by suicide, now what? It has to hit them first, typically, for them to be ready to have a deeper conversation. When people can attach this conversation to someone who’s important in their lives, I find that’s when they’re ready.

While it’s important that we show care, concern, and love for all of God’s children, we have to protect ourselves, keep some distance, and know this person just may not be ready yet. I’m going to stay far enough away that I can still love them.

What I am finding challenging lately is when it feels like there’s a gap that must be bridged to build closer relationships, but we need closer relationships to bridge the gap. I don’t want to spend Christmas arguing, but I don’t want to be at Christmas with people who I don’t feel respect me. The tension between strengthening the relationship outside of the point of tension, while needing to resolve that tension to strengthen the relationship.

I think that’s super common. The challenge for many of us is that we grow up with our family already being in a one-up power dynamic where aunts, uncles, parents, etc., are somebody who has some kind of authority. They get to set where we gather, how, for how long, what’s appropriate, and what’s inappropriate. They have that power, and we just have to show up and take it or we don’t show up at all.

One of the strategies I think about is [finding] places or opportunities where you can level the playing field. Maybe instead of going to that person’s home, you invite people to a restaurant or something that has a specific start time and limited window. If things become tense, there’s a little more social pressure for it not to boil over into a shouting match.

As people who experience some form of marginalization, we are experts in accommodating, thinking about, and caring for the opinions and wishes of the larger or [more] powerful group. But we have our own power too. We just have to realize we don’t have to show up to every argument we’re invited to. Which goes back to: Are we building support networks and families of choice? When the holidays come up and you want to be with that family member who is a bit challenging, can you do that for a moment of time and then go be with your family of choice, the people that can build you up and love you and welcome you and fully accept you?

Again, there’s so many forms of privilege in being able to make and navigate those choices, so I don’t want to downplay that at all, but I think it starts with taking back a certain level of autonomy to figure out how much time to give to this.

If you are anxious and you’re having panic attacks and having to up your medications just to go spend two hours with the family, can you afford to do that? Maybe they’ll have to appreciate your absence to get to a place where they can say, “How can we see you? We miss you; we’d like to see you.”

Every family is different. Every dynamic is different. If we prioritize taking care of ourselves, it opens up windows of opportunity for us to say, “Here’s a space where you can come in.” Maybe you can only do a Zoom call and that can only be 30 minutes. And you’re going to make those invitations. You’re going to keep that door open because you do want a relationship with them.

How can we gracefully communicate our boundaries or non-negotiables for relationship?

It’s difficult to say if there’s any one specific thing but I do think [the]rubric [for communicating boundaries should be]: “How can I continue to love you? How far away do I have to be to keep the door open without me getting wounded and injured and emergency calling my therapist?”

And from that, I would say love will lead us. Love will lead us to the ways that we can show up and love others as we love ourselves. None of it’s quick or easy. And I’m speaking about things that have developed over 5-10 years [in my own relationships].

Obviously, persuasion can’t be the first goal of any relationship, and I agree that trying to change minds doesn’t work. But there are relationships where people who disagree want to talk about that disagreement and want to sharpen each other, understand the other’s position, or even be open to change. What’s a good orientation to bring into a conversation where persuasion is something each party is open to?

I learned in my art classes back in college that instead of critiquing or asking the person, “Why did you do this? Why did you make this choice?” Instead, we would look at the art and ask the art: “I wonder why you’re this way, or I wonder what this part means.” And I think that’s a useful way of approaching this.

For me, that often looks like a YouTube video or a short reading that we can look at and critique together. Knowing what works for that particular person, what languages they understand — like is this written from an evangelical perspective or mainline? Is this high liturgy or high [biblicism]?

Finding what works and then critiquing that thing together, so that it’s not about you, that’s one of the main ways that I talked about topics without making it about myself and about defending. It may be an issue that is dead center, in the middle of my chest, related to me. But when we make it about this other objective thing, they’re able to talk about the thing rather than trying to get me to agree or disagree. We find ways for us to sit next to each other and do something together, rather than across from each other, so it’s not us-versus-them.

I [try to] listen and attempt to describe back. “Is this what I’m hearing you say correctly? Is this what you feel about that?” Again, helping folks to feel understood and heard can go a long way.

The ability to say, “I disagree with how the author writes it in this book.” That’s so much easier than saying “You get this wrong.” It takes some of the sting out of it. How do we know when to take a step back? Especially in ourselves, how do we know when we’re not ready?

Talking about how things go before and after with a friend can be a really important way to help monitor yourself.

I got diagnosed with ADHD two or so years ago. One of the things that I knew about myself was that on days where I had more downtime, I found myself deep in these back-and-forth, endless Facebook comment sections. Sometimes with complete strangers. I was willing to have some of these conversations because my dopamine was low. I just needed stimulus. [It’s] knowing what our patterns are, right? Spending time reflecting back on how some things have gone.

I didn’t notice that Mondays —my rest days — tended to be extra stressful until I was talking with a trusted, pastoral friend who could reflect back to me what the pattern was. Eventually I connected the dots and realized, “Oh, I tend to get into these conversations on a day where I’m very tired, my self-awareness is a bit low, and my self-care is a bit low.”

The somatic nervous system — those responses where our jaw is clenched, our shoulders tighten up, our thighs are ready to run — these are all signs that we’re in fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. (Fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses are associated with the sympathetic nervous system.) Even though I am going to speak as calmly and as consistently as I’m speaking now, my whole body will be in a tense reaction. I had to learn I’m not a yeller, but if my muscles aren’t relaxed and my body isn’t in a calm state, that’s my cue that I’m going to need to take care of me. Thank God for having good therapists and a trauma-informed therapist.

Many of us have been socialized that when we’re in an anxious state or when people are angry around us, we go into this caretaker mode where we need to take care of the other person to feel okay. [That’s the “fawn” response.] That’s another sign to us. It’s if this person’s angry, can I let them be angry and not take it as something that I have to fix? If this person is upset about a thing, can I trust that God and the people who are around them can take care of them and I don’t have to run to the rescue?

And if that’s not the case, there’s some resources that can help us build that up. But we have to figure out, have I eaten today? Have I had water? Have I taken a shower? Maybe I can pick this up after I do those three things. It sounds so basic, and it sounds so silly sometimes, but the ways we don’t take care of ourselves spill out into our friends and families in really messy ways.

I can’t preach that gospel enough — love yourself as you try to love others.

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