*I delivered this keynote address at the LGBTQ Religious Experience Summit at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas on March 21, 2015.
May this be a wild experience for us all…perhaps even a queer experience if we are lucky. Let’s begin by talking about theology. What is theology? Most people think that theology is primarily about doctrines and dogmas. Folks, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Theology is an exploration and adventure in being. Learning to be. Theology is about how you experience the divine within the self. Theology is rooted in story. We forget that we all have stories. We forget that we all have powerful stories. We forget that our stories have the potential to change the world. Good theologians are always storytellers.
Let me begin with a story. I grew up at a large Southern Baptist church. We were conservatives amongst conservatives. By the time I was in middle school, everyone in our youth group was talking about the possibility of getting left behind in the rapture. During this time, I remember seeing piles of laundry in our house and thinking that I had been left behind. I would flip out and get saved. This happened over and over. I just took church so seriously. I believed every word of it. One of our youth teachers told us one time that our penises would fall off if we masturbated. Thankfully, one of my buddies was able to lean over and assure me that that wasn’t the case. To make a long story short, I constantly felt a tension in my childhood between the doctrines and dogmas that I learned at church and the pull of love that pushed me to treat people better than such beliefs would allow.
In high school, I remember thinking that a guy was attractive and believing that the simple attraction to a guy was enough for me to end my life over. This was the first time in my life that I had to struggle with what it would look like to have an alternative sexuality. I tried to forget about all of it. By the time I arrived at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, I was a fervent evangelical and determined to stay that way. Though most people don’t believe me now, I was a frat guy back then. Our fraternity was made up of elite guys from elite families. For me, the thought of being wealthy and successful like everyone else was simply too great of a temptation. In that context, I definitely wasn’t telling anyone that I had ever experienced any attraction to men. Our fraternity was probably one of the worst places on earth that you could have let that be known.
In the midst of it all, somehow God still found me. I felt called to the ministry and decided to go to seminary. As a good Southern Baptist, I decided to go to the apex of theological education in Southern Baptist life…The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. The president of the institution is Dr. Albert Mohler. If you google Dr. Mohler, you would find hundreds of articles criticizing everything we are gathered here to do today. When I got there, some of these attractions to men came back. I flipped out again. I worried and worried and worried. I just knew that I was destined for hell. Thankfully, God found me once more and I got saved.
Late one evening, I received a phone call from my Southern Baptist mentor. With sharpness in his voice, he told me that he was dying. I traveled through the night to get to him. Driving through town after town, I thought about my faith and how I couldn’t reconcile it with all the evil coming from my denomination. When I arrived at his home, I went into his room and walked up beside his hospital bed. With death lingering, I was very uncomfortable. In probably one of the most profound moments of my life, my Southern Baptist mentor told me that he had lived his life as a closeted gay man and challenged me to be a voice for the voiceless. While it was a tremendous moment of calling, I had never had anyone share such things with me. For so long, my mentor had been a representation of Jesus for me and now I had to deal with the fact that Jesus was now gay.
Upon returning to Southern Seminary, I started asking questions. Isn’t it funny how questions often lead to revelations? I bet I know more closeted Southern Baptist pastors than I do straight Southern Baptist pastors. Regardless, I graduated rather quickly from Southern Seminary and moved on to Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. I thought all the liberal Christians would embrace me with open arms. I was wrong. Truth be known, I traded one fundamentalism for another…that really wasn’t all that progressive. Having just arrived from the land of Southern Baptists, I didn’t have many friends and people were consistently skeptical of me. I feel like God has always brought people around me when I need them the most. In that context, queer persons of color befriended me and the relationships that followed proved transformative. Though I had started to shift, I wasn’t fully celebrating of all people and these friends sat with me until I was. Though it was my mentor’s revelation that saved me, I can say without hesitation that queer persons of color have taught me how to be queer.
I never wanted to move to Texas. We moved here for my wife Emily to teach and do her PhD at the University of North Texas. I was depressed for a little while. I couldn’t find my place. Things started to change when I began studying with a gentleman named Steve Sprinkle, who is the Professor of Practical Theology at Brite Divinity School. Though my thinking had been increasingly headed in a queer direction, I learned to really systematize and structure it with Steve. So you can blame him for what comes next…
I firmly believe that our constructed identities are problematic and divisive. I intellectually operate out of a place of queer theory and queer theology. There are a few events that have firmed up my beliefs in recent years and help illustrate where I am coming from. A few years ago, I had a young man come to me and tell me that he didn’t think that he was gay enough. Unable to ascertain what he meant, I asked, “What do you mean?” He replied by explaining that he didn’t feel like he was culturally gay enough. I realized that culture was the problem and not this young man. There was another situation in which a lesbian lost her partner of decades and started dating a man many months later. Instead of being happy for her, the community attacked the lesbian as a fraud and truly shunned her. Within my own life, I have been attracted to men and married a woman. Our identities leave people thinking that they must fit within construct created by others instead of allowing them the freedom to define their own person. I believe that sexuality and gender a fluid constructs and we would do well to let people be without limited definitions and identities. God did not create us to be so limited and simple. God created us to be queer because God is queer.
The God who is queer exists outside of all of our categories and binaries. When we try to define God…we fail. The reason is that God is too immense and unique. Who can describe a love beyond love? Who can describe a hope beyond hope? Who can describe grace beyond grace? Who can describe justice beyond justice? There in the beginning we were created to be in God’s image. As God cultivated humanity in the Garden of Eden, God creates humanity to be queer in God’s image. I believe that every human to ever exist is a queer construction of a loving God.
Now, you know that things got sideways in the Garden and humanity got pushed out of this right relationship with God. There was a moment of temptation. The serpent slithers up and tells the human that if they eat of the tree then they will be made like God. The human ate and the rest is history. Ultimately, I believe the first sin is always the act of believing that God can be found somewhere other than within. Theology is about being. Queerness is about being. Queerness is about the courage to be who God has created you to be. We are taken out of right relationship with love and each other when we fail to be queer. Failing to be queer is failing to be.
Jesus is a construct that comes to show us how to be. How to be what? How to be queer. Jesus is not easily defined. In the life of Jesus, we are shown what it looks like to live in a place of fluidity and movement beyond identity. With the knowledge that safe spaces are never free spaces, Jesus lived dangerously in a society of normativity and paid the price. Until queerness wins, there will always be those who persecute the queer. If you are not being persecuted, then you have to wonder if you are really queer. Jesus shows us that queerness is a way of being beyond identity.
I believe that the Spirit of God works to take us deeper into the spectrum and make life more mysterious by the day. The message of God as revealed in Jesus is an invitation to embrace the mystery of queerness and become immortal in your very being. The Spirit of God is drawing us to each other in the unity of difference. The world will be made right when people learn to live queerly.
Claiming an identity doesn’t make you queer. Living into the core of your being is what makes you queer. Let me set forward the example of the Cathedral of Hope United Church of Christ. Most people think that our congregation must be the queerest spot around. This is not even close to the truth. In fact, if you took out the sexual orientation and gender identities of our folks…you would not be able to tell the difference between First Baptist Dallas and Cathedral of Hope. We have developed a normativity that would rival any congregation. In many ways, we have lost our first love.
Queerness is about claiming something beautiful and unique in who God has created you to be. We fail when we create communities and identities that push everyone to be the same. Why do people get so pissed off about queerness? There are identity patrols out there who think it is their job to make everyone fit within the lines. I think it is because queerness is not easily contained or controlled.
You can change the world if you will just be honest. Our identities create dishonesty. The constructs of our identities cannot contain all of who we are and we are forced to lie. Tell the truth! Stop trying to fit and learn to be! It takes courage to be honest. It takes courage to be queer.
My prayer is that the courage to be queer will transcend sexuality and gender. I am ready for these issues to be over with. I am ready to be at a spot where people can be who they are. We’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do. Texas is executing more people than most nations on earth. People are dying trying to get across our borders for a decent job. We are manufacturing weaponry and bombs with the capabilities of destroying our world millions of times over. We can’t solve or even speak to these issues until we are ready to be authentic and honest with each other…until we are ready to be queer.
Queer people save the world because queer people are the world…if we are honest with our self.