by Robin Reed
Sunday night, after a long day of travel from Oklahoma City to Abilene in a stuffy bus with no Freon (thus no air conditioning), we arrived at Abilene Christian University in time for a nice dinner sponsored by the university. This is the first school to offer us an official welcome and provide us with forums and the space to give presentations and attend classes and have structured dialogues with students, faculty, and staff. It struck me when we first arrived in the room to eat dinner that the smallest of courtesies — providing us with name tags — indicated that they cared about who we were and wanted to get to know us as individuals. We had some good discussions the first night with graduate students in the theology program, then a number of us went to an a capella praise service.
The following morning, we met students and staff members for breakfast at 7:30. They served us an amazing Texas breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits and gravy, and fruit. No one left that room hungry. We had hosts escort us to a marriage and family therapy class that had invited several of us to discuss LGBT relationships, while other riders went to a forum and gave a presentation on physical, emotional, and spiritual violence perpetuated against LGBT individuals (and others throughout history, including people of color, women, and people of other faiths). Both were well attended and students seemed interested in interacting with us in a constructive and respectful manner.
At lunch, a couple of riders (Jessie and Rebecca) told their stories of coming out, discussing the process of reconciling their sexuality with their spirituality. They were followed by a woman who discussed her struggle with her sexuality and childhood trauma and how she felt that her attraction to women was the result of an unhealthy relationship with her father. After resolving these issues through therapy and prayer, she is no longer a lesbian. The tension in the room was palpable as she concluded her story. We had discussion questions for table conversation afterward, but no one at our table felt that the tension could (or should) be ignored, so we set aside the questions and honestly met one another at the table of humanity for an important but extremely difficult dialogue. We told of some of our own struggles with attempting to change our sexual orientation and of the spiritual disconnection we felt until we realized that God loved us exactly as we were, without reservation, and that our sexual orientation was a gift from God to be lived with integrity, not a sin to be forgiven or a sickness to be healed.
I personally feel that everyone has the right to their own story and that it is not constructive to argue with someone’s experience. That said, I know that, according to a coalition of mental health associations representing nearly 500,000 mental health professionals, reparative therapy (which attempts to change an individual’s sexual orientation from gay to straight) is ineffective at changing one’s orientation and has a great potential for causing harm. So while I respect this woman’s experience, I do not believe that it can or should be the norm for all LGBT individuals. The very assumption underlying attempts to make gay people straight is that being attracted to individuals of the same sex is not a valid orientation, that there is something wrong with being gay. This is the misinformation that leads well-intentioned but misguided people to treat LGBT people in a way that makes them feel less than human. When this misinformation is backed up by religion-based discrimination, the implication becomes that God cannot and will not love people unless they are straight. This declares open season on LGBT people; violence in its many forms (physical, emotional, and spiritual) becomes tacitly accepted or at least not condemned. This oppressive environment also leads far too many LGBT people to believe that they are unloved and unlovable, which can lead to feelings of despair and attempts (sometimes successful) at suicide.
This is why we are here: To bring this issue out into the open. We want to have these conversations so people can hear that LGBT people are also made in the image of God, that God loves everyone equally, that there is nothing wrong with being gay, and that there is nothing Christian about discriminating against LGBT people. Abilene Christian welcomed us with open arms and permitted us to have these discussions with students. We sat together at the table of brother- and sisterhood, acknowledging both our disagreements and our shared humanity. No other school has given us such a welcome, and for this we applaud the administration of ACU. We were told by individuals within the administration that conversations had taken place that day that could not have happened in the classroom. Students were given the safe space necessary to ask the hard questions and, in some cases, sit with a lack of answers. We stand in the tension and wait, believing that the willingness to approach tough issues and deal with ambiguity will lead us to a place of reconciliation in the end.
I, for one, am tired but grateful.