Mom called my twin sister and me together for a serious talk before heading to a gathering at Grandad and Gram’s house. She needed to explain something about one of the other guests so that we wouldn’t say anything embarrassing in front of everybody.
Sister and I were always pretty well-behaved, but at four or five years old, you never knew what might come out of our mouths, so Mom wanted to prepare us in advance because Aunt Jo was coming and was bringing her friend, Sig.
We already knew Aunt Jo. She wasn’t really an aunt, we just called her that. Aunt Jo was Gram’s friend who worked at the big department store with the revolving door and the escalator in downtown Waterloo. Aunt Jo was happy and funny and she coughed and laughed rough and scratchy and I had noticed that when she was around, there was almost always a box of those fancy chocolate candies … the ones you didn’t know what was inside until you bit into them. You always hoped for peanut butter or fudge or mint in the center, but sometimes you got a sickening cherry with sugary goop around it. Either way, the chocolate part was good.
Sister and I had never met Sig, and Mom told us that Sig was a woman who looked like a man. “Sig is very nice. She just feels more comfortable in men’s clothes”, Mom said. She told us to not make a big deal about it. “Don’t talk about it while we’re there. It’s not polite.”
A woman more comfortable in men’s clothes . . . it made me think about the clothes I wore and the clothes my twin sister wore. My typical ensemble was cheap cowboy boots that cut bloody scratches into my shins when I walked, and Sears Toughskins jeans that were made of the heaviest denim imaginable so that about all you could do in them was stand up straight. Wearing Toughskins was like wearing pants made of plywood. It hadn’t dawned on me that my boy clothes might be more comfortable than my sister’s girl clothes. I was thankful to be a boy and I felt sorry for her.
Sister and I hadn’t encountered a woman who felt more comfortable in men’s clothes before, and we were curious. We whispered about it in the back seat of the car, speculating on what Sig might be wearing: a hardhat, a uniform like the mailman, or cowboy boots like mine. Maybe she’d be wearing coveralls like the ones Bob Riker wore when he ran the press at Dad’s print shop. We hoped her’s would be cleaner than his.
When we arrived at Gram’s we went in through the back door. Aunt Jo was there in the kitchen, and without being too obvious about it, I looked around for the chocolate box, because, you know, first things first.
But then we were called to meet Sig who was sitting on the couch in the living room and seemed to be having a good time with everyone. Sure enough, she had short, dark hair and thick, square eyeglasses like a man’s and she wore a regular-looking white shirt like a man would wear to the office and regular black pants instead of a skirt, and kind of chunky-looking black shoes. Sig’s voice was scratchy like Jo’s and she may have smoked a pipe, but she only held my attention for about thirty seconds because there were chocolates somewhere in the house and as interesting as it was to see a woman who felt more comfortable in men’s clothes, it was even more interesting to go down the basement with Sister and make a bunch of noise with Gram’s old player piano. As an object of curiosity, the woman more comfortable in men’s clothes turned out to be an anti-climax.
Times were different back then. Sexual identification wasn’t something that we talked openly about - at least not four-year-olds. While I understood that boys and girls were different, I doubt that I knew the word “gender”.
As a four-year-old kid, it was simply enough for me to think that Sig was a woman who was more comfortable in men’s clothes. For a few years after meeting her, I had no further questions on the subject. It didn’t bother me in the least and it made no difference to how we got along. I would have to be older and wiser before I learned that I should be uptight about such things. In another ten years, I would learn words like “lesbian” and “gay” and “homosexual”. From other kids at school, I’d learn the less polite words that we’d call each other when we were joking around. And later still, I’d become aware of the other nuanced differences of sex and gender and orientation and identity.
While I didn’t realize it at the time, that gathering at Gram’s house with Jo and Sig was the first time I remember meeting someone with an alternative sexuality. I’m thinking about it now because it’s an issue in the mainline denomination of the church that I attend and work for. At the moment, it doesn’t seem to be a hot topic in my local congregation, but then we haven’t been challenged to take a side yet. That specific challenge is yet to come, but come it may.
Our denomination has been talking about these issues at our quadrennial General Conferences since at least the 1970s. As is the case with these things, it is passionate people from both sides who drive the debate, and both claim a scriptural and theological basis. Our denomination’s practical issues are: should we allow LGBTQ persons to be ordained as clergy, should we allow our clergy to perform same-sex marriages, and what should be our church’s official position on LGBTQ identities and orientations? Underneath it all is the theological and doctrinal question: is it a sin to be gay?
Our collection of holy writings, the Bible, gives each side of these debates enough ammunition to fight, but gives neither side the big bomb they need to win the war. The war metaphor is apt, because those with the strongest feelings on both sides of the issue seem willing to destroy the entire organization just to make their point.
From the liberal side, it is an issue of persecution and exclusion and judgementalism, and that goes against our denomination’s emphasis on social justice.
From the conservative, traditional side, it is an issue of respecting God’s sovereignty and His Words as we have them in the Bible … those passages that speak of homosexuality’s sinful nature.
The two perspectives are completely different, so you see the difficulty of reaching an amicable understanding. And those of us in the middle are left trying to figure out who’s scripture trumps who’s and if, like me, you love that the United Methodist Church is a big tent that allows the coexistence of lots of different perspectives, it is a lose-lose proposition to choose one or the other.
I’ve seen real ugliness from both sides. I’ve heard people who claim to be more tolerant, more enlightened, and who consider themselves to be “varsity thinkers” (their term, not mine), make direct, public statements that are as mean-spirited and destructive as the hate which they claim to deplore. In those statements, they expose an intellectual bigotry that is as unfair as any racial or sexual one.
But, I tend to be even more critical of those on the conservative, traditional side of the debate, because usually, those are my people, but in this case, I think they are off-base and they’re embarrassing me.
I say I lean toward the conservative side because I believe that the God of the Universe has some standards and preferences for us, his creations. I lean toward the conservative side because on the liberal side there’s an “I’m OK, You’re OK” attitude that I don’t buy into. I know that I’m not OK and I don’t think you are either, and I think that’s why we need the church … to draw us back into relationship with other believers and other seekers for the purpose of exploring our personal holiness and our relationship with God. (Which, by the way, was the whole point of Methodism at its roots).
But, in the conservative argument, there’s a call for me to be more judgemental than I already am, and I’m very suspicious of those kinds of initiatives. Some pretty ugly political movements have started that way.
Yes, I acknowledge that there are statements against homosexuality in the Bible. But there aren’t very many of them. Yep, it’s there in Leviticus in those long chapters of law that cover everything from one’s business dealings to one’s personal hygiene, but homosexuality is conspicuously absent in the top ten list that God gave to Moses up on that mountain - it wasn’t as important as, say, honoring one’s father and mother, or not coveting thy neighbor’s house, wife, bassboat, etc.
Homosexuality - or prohibition of the same - is also not among Jesus’s teachings or commandments. Jesus didn’t say, “A new command I give you, love one another, but don’t be gay about it.” He didn’t say that. And when the risen Christ gives the version of the Great Commission that’s recorded in the book of Acts, he didn’t say, “You will be my witnesses, except you gay people. You gays don’t get to be my witnesses.” Jesus didn’t say that, either.
In sixty-six books containing one thousand, one hundred, eighty-nine chapters comprised of thirty-one thousand, one hundred two verses, homosexuality is only directly mentioned about six times. So it seems to me that the traditionalists who are willing to split the denomination over sex or gender issues have lost their sense of reasonable perspective or proportion. Self-righteousness has overtaken them and The Cause has grown larger than the original issue.
I’m sure at this point that the traditionalists would steer me back toward the Bible and say, “we’re just defending the words that are there in black and white.” But I’m wondering why they have chosen those few particular words to build their movement around, rather than some of the other Biblical prohibitions and rules that we routinely ignore as a matter of culture or convenience. To focus on these few verses as an issue big enough to destroy a denomination feels too much like the same kind of legalistic arrogance that Jesus despised in the Pharisees of his day.
And finally, there’s the issue of the nature of sin. My understanding of sin is that it isn’t our sexuality which defines us as sinners … it’s our humanity. We all have within us self-centered ambitions which draw us away from perfectly pious lives. So, for one group of sinners to hold up another group as objects to abhor is, at the very least, massively hypocritical.
One thing I love about being a United Methodist is that we aren’t asked to check our brains at the door. We’re encouraged to look first to scripture for guidance for our lives, but also to observe and think and learn from our experiences.
And so I’m looking beyond the Bible and am thinking about my own experiences with LGBTQ people. When applying classifications to people and passing judgment on them as a group, it is helpful to humanize them a bit - to put names on the faces and remember that they are real people - not an abstract sociological concept. So that’s why I’m remembering Jo and Sig and others from my past. And it’s why I’m thinking about specific LGBTQ people who I meet with in my church every single week.
I have been having . . . I like to say it this way because it makes some people nervous . . . I have been having social intercourse with a gay man inside the walls of my United Methodist church every week for about twenty-five years. And here’s the thing: at no time has my own sexuality been threatened. At no time has my faith been threatened. I am truly thankful for his dedication to our group and his role in the ministry of our church. And, I’m thankful for the experience of learning to see the reflection of Christ in someone who isn’t exactly like me.
So, what’s the resolution of this? The issue will come to a head at a special, single-purpose General Conference in 2019. I’m sure that whatever happens, we will lose some people. I desperately do not want the denomination to split and leave me having to choose to join the Gay Church or the Not Gay Church, because one I don’t fit into, and the other places limits on who I can work in ministry with.
A question I think we have to ask and answer is just what, exactly, is the role of the church? Is it the role of the church to be collectors of people for the Kingdom of God, or to be filters? Are we the host, or the bouncer?
To me, with Jesus as the model, the answer is obvious. He’s the one who called all sorts of regular people into ministry, and promised that they would become “fishers of men”. His model is one of invitation, not exclusion, so it seems that our job, humans’ job, the church’s job is evangelism, spreading peace and hope. Reconciliation. Caring for each other. Healing. Feeding. Teaching. Those tasks are simply not compatible with shutting people out.
Things were a lot easier when I was four years old. I didn’t have heavy issues threatening to destroy the organization that I work for, and all I had to know about Sig was that she was more comfortable in men’s clothing and that she and Jo were friends. And, Mom’s instruction to not make a big deal about it and be polite has turned out to be pretty good advice for most of my forty-seven years since then.
This is the second time I have written on this issue. The first was in 2016. You can see what I had to say back then right here: there's a battle coming