It was those cute little genderbread men.
I was attending a trans awareness event put on by PFLAG of Lafayette, CO (PFLAG is a large national organization of parents, families, and allies of LGBTQ+ people). The event was held at a church on a frigid, blizzarding night. It was late in the fall semester; my best friend and I were running out of time to complete our 30-hour “immersion project” in a minority culture for our Social & Cultural Foundations of Counseling class. We couldn’t afford to miss out on these hours, so we packed blankets and flashlights in the trunk of my friend’s little Toyota Corolla in case we got stranded on the hour-long drive home.
I can’t quite remember how we both ended up choosing the LGBTQ+ community as the minority culture for our project. I know at least part of my motivation was that, if we chose the same culture, my friend (the more organized of the two of us) would do most of the planning and scheduling for me. But I had also had a secret fascination with the queer community since I discovered, in college, that queer people really existed—and as a graduate student at a conservative Evangelical seminary, this was my one sanctioned opportunity to explore.
So, my friend drove us up from Littleton to Lafayette as the sun went down and the clouds thickened above us. When we entered the church, the parents hosting the event greeted us warmly. I quickly realized that they assumed we were a couple. It was not an unreasonable assumption; I was leaning on my friend’s arm because I was still unsteady on my feet after a recent concussion.
Glued together like that, feeling a little nervous and out-of-place, we found a seat at a round table. The event included a documentary, a panel of trans people to engage in a Q&A with the audience, and an interactive component. When it was time for the interactive component, a trans high school student whose name tag read “Sara” gave us three little cutout paper figures shaped like gingerbread men; they were green, red, and yellow.
“These are genderbread men!” Sara explained. “There are three spectrums on the wall over there,” she pointed, “one for sexual orientation, one for gender identity, and one for gender expression. You can go tape your genderbread men up on the wall wherever feels right for you. Everyone is somewhere on all three of those spectrums.”
I looked over and saw the spectrums, lengths of butcher paper spread on the wall with a horizontal line down each middle. Something whirred and clicked in my head. And suddenly, I knew. It came at me with such speed, force, and clarity that it startled me, left me tingling all over: Oh God. That’s what it is. I’m not straight.
I froze. I stayed rooted in my seat, staring at my genderbread men, too terrified to approach the three spectrums on the wall. Based on my upbringing and education, any placement on those spectrums besides the extreme ends of completely “straight,” “cis,” and “feminine” was unacceptable. But in that moment, I knew without question that I couldn’t place all my genderbread men where I was supposed to. Not even close.
I couldn’t bear to lie—it would have been intolerable—but neither could I expose myself. So, I just stayed at the table, my head swirling. My friend remained sitting beside me, but I couldn’t meet her eye.
On the car-ride home, I stuck one foot out of the closet and carefully admitted my not-so-straight attractions to my friend. She was kind, affirming, and gentle. But I soon retreated from the clarity that had burst to life inside me with those little genderbread men. It took many more years for me to feel safe enough within myself to come all the way out, first to myself and then to others.
It might not have taken so long to come home to myself had I not been so deeply entrenched in Evangelicalism.
At the time, I was completely dependent on an Evangelical support system, both personally and professionally. I still felt I had no choice but to believe that gay relationships and non-cisgender identities were disordered and sinful, despite the dissonance this caused inside me. I wasn’t ready to jeopardize my acceptance with my family, my friends, my church community, or the professors whose letters of recommendation I would need to launch my career. It was too big of a risk. So, in the secret moments when I dared to contemplate just how not-straight I was, I always quickly backed away. After all, some part of me was probably just straight enough to quietly carry on, right?
I was scared to look at myself too closely.
So I just…didn’t. For a long, long time.
As a therapist, I frequently work with young adults. These clients in their 20s are navigating huge shifts in their education, career, identity, values, and relationships. It’s a thrilling and terrifying decade. In this work, though, I have found myself sitting across from many young adults who grew up in conservative Evangelical Christian culture, and are no longer so sure they fit there.
The two protests against Evangelicalism I hear the most often are a.) the church’s rejection of queer people, and b.) the church’s relentless belief in Hell (more on that some other day). These two things make Christianity unbearable for so many young people who deeply value their faith and spirituality and want to love Jesus. When they are told that it’s an all-or-nothing deal—either you get salvation along with religious fundamentalism or you get nothing—these young adults are thrust into an impossible dilemma: they must keep their faith by denying what they know in their bones is true and loving, or they must give up their beloved faith to stay true to their core values. One way or another, they have to live out of alignment with themselves.
And when you throw in the threat of eternal damnation if you make the wrong choice, it becomes a pretty painful place to get stuck.
Most of these young adults seem to have no idea that there is a third way—a Jesus-centered theology of liberation, inclusiveness, and restorative justice that is rich, beautiful, and profoundly satisfying to the mind, the heart, and the body.
I am queer, and I am Christian; both are inextricable parts of me, woven into my identity on a level that feels cellular, existing simultaneously and without tension. And from this identity as both queer and Christian, I have this to say: We—the whole “we” that I belong to, that is, the queer community and the Christian community—we all need inclusive theology for two crucial reasons. We need inclusive theology because the church is sick and dying due to the high cost of exclusion and homophobia. And we need inclusive theology because the church is committing spiritual abuse against queer people.
Coming out in religious circles often leads to attachment trauma.
As an attachment-based therapist, the bulk of my clinical work focuses on healing the wounds left by unsafe, ill-attuned relationships with caregivers and communities that were meant to nurture and protect, to support and stabilize. These are the two encircling arms of attachment—Safe Haven (the need for comfort and soothing) and Secure Base (the need for exploration and autonomy). When woven together, Safe Haven and Secure Base contribute to lifelong stress resilience, optimal neurological development, and an ability to cultivate fulfilling relationships characterized by openness, safety, and interdependence. In the absence of Safe Haven, Secure Base, or both, children grow up warped and afraid—afraid of abandonment, of vulnerability, of their own and others’ emotions, needs, and longings. Insecure attachment styles are patterns of behavior meant to manage our fear and keep ourselves as safe as possible, but they straitjacket our relationships and leave us either full of pain or lost in shutdown.
A queer kid raised in a religious family or culture grows up learning that their access to Safe Haven and Secure Base is conditional; you only belong with God or God’s people if you are straight and cis, and any other identity or experience of self puts you outside the community and outside the love of God. Some circles make allowances if you commit to a lifetime of celibacy or never pursuing gender affirmation (for most, an agonizing war against their own souls and bodies that has devastating psychological and physical consequences), but even then, you only half-belong; your citizenship can be revoked at any moment.
When a child does not belong unconditionally, when they cannot trust that their attachment needs will always be met, they can never let their guard down. They will never feel truly safe. Instead of growing up with security, they grow up with fear and all its many survival tactics. This disrupts the developmental process at a foundational level, leaving scars on a young person’s psychological and somatic self.
When a queer person comes out in a religious family or culture, their experience often shifts from implicit judgment to explicit rejection. Attachment insecurity explodes into attachment trauma. To have your community tell you that God hates your gay, trans, or queer identity is an attachment wound. To believe that God could accept your soul but only if you reject your body (as if they can be separated) is an attachment wound. To be told that your longings are so disordered that you have no choice but a lifetime of loneliness, skin hunger, and sorrow if you want to please God is an attachment wound. To no longer feel welcome in the religious community in which you were raised and nurtured is an attachment wound. To have your gifts, contributions, and skills rejected by your community solely on the basis of your sexual orientation or gender identity is an attachment wound. To have your family or religious community engage in this discrimination and describe it as “loving and grace-filled” is an attachment wound. To have family members who won’t allow you and your partner to share a bedroom under their roof, or who refuse to attend your wedding, or who ignore your pronouns is an attachment wound.
And all of those wounds, they add up to trauma—an unbearable loss of safety, belonging, and connection that becomes a deep and endless ache.
How the followers of Jesus—the rule-breaker, the liberator, the one who bent Scripture to his own purposes, the one who was hardest on the religious fundamentalists of his day, the one who welcomed everyone—can choose to inflict so much pain just to hang onto their theology, and then find a way to call it love, is beyond my ability to comprehend. How the people who are called to be the most affirming, the most committed to justice and welcome, the most driven by radical love are instead often the most prejudiced, fearful, and devoted to exclusion—it breaks my heart. There are more beautiful ways to practice faith, and today, they are easier than ever to find. Brilliant writers and thinkers have done the brave work of theological integration and reconstruction, and have made it available to anyone who is looking for it.
While this blog post is not the place to outline the details of affirming and inclusive theology, I’ve included resources below. But I want you to know that this matters. This is an essential issue. Because of cruel or ignorant theology, people are missing out on years of integration and healthy development; children are growing up internalizing shame and self-hatred; young adults are losing families and church communities, and feeling they have lost God, too; kids are living on the streets because it feels safer than home or because the doors of their homes have been closed against them; people are literally dying. This theology is harming people. This theology is not Christ-like.
For me, coming out was a process of coming in.
I came into myself; I came fully into my body in a way I had never experienced before, and came into my own life story in a way that finally made sense. I came into a faith community that embraced me without hesitation. I came into a new richness of God’s love, into a new awareness of the Spirit’s gentle prodding and faithful protection over me, into a new knowledge of the radical message of Jesus for the world. I came into deeper security in my relationship with myself. I came into alignment. It was a holy journey.
The best way I have found to describe what coming out felt like is this: Imagine for a moment that you have never seen yourself in a mirror. Imagine that all your life, you have believed you are horribly ugly—defective and deformed. Imagine that you have always felt deep shame about your appearance, your body, who you are in the world—and as a result, you have spent your entire life hiding, to keep anyone from seeing your hideous face. And then imagine that one day, you work up the courage to look in a mirror for the first time. You see yourself. And you see that you have been breathtakingly beautiful all along.
That is the feeling I want for all queer people—the incredible, joyous relief of realizing that you are and have always been beautiful. I look forward to the day when coming out will mean coming in for everyone—coming into a place of warm welcome, unconditional acceptance, radical love, and the sacred identity of being beloved; coming into communities of tangible justice and unrestrained mercy, where the hungry are satisfied, the grieving rejoice, and the poor inherit the kingdom; coming into belonging; coming into the arms of God.
If you are interested in exploring queer-affirming theology or progressive Christianity, you can start with these resources:
Books by straight men from Evangelical backgrounds, proposing biblical defenses of queer identities:
UnClobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality
by Colby Martin
Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships
by James V. Brownson
Changing Our Mind: The Definitive 3rd Edition of the Landmark Call for the Inclusion of LGBTQ+ Christians
by David P. Gushee
Books by LGBTQ+ people, writing about queer theology and queer Christian experience:
Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate
by Justin Lee
Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story
by Julie Rodgers
Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America
by Jeff Chu
Facing the Music: My Story
by Jennifer Knapp
Affirming: A Memoir of Faith, Sexuality, & Staying in the Church
by Sally Gary
Scripture, Ethics, & the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships
by Karen R. Keen
Our Witness: The Unheard Stories of LGBT+ Christians
by Brandan J. Robertson
The Gospel of Inclusion: A Christian Case for LGBT+ Inclusion in the Church
by Brandan J. Robertson
Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology
by Patrick S. Cheng
Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics
by Linn Marie Tonstad
Books that discuss Christocentric progressive theology and alternatives to Evangelicalism:
The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, & Believe
by Richard Rohr
A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith
by Brian McLaren
Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working & What to Do About It
by Brian McLaren
The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It
by Peter Enns
The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs
by Peter Enns
The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing & Why
by Phyllis Tickle
Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, & Presence
by Diana Butler Bass
Christianity After Religion: The End of Church & the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening
by Diana Butler Bass
Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, & the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
by Rob Bell
Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught About God’s Wrath & Judgment
by Sharon L. Baker
The Shift: Surviving & Thriving After Moving from Conservative to Progressive Christianity
by Colby Martin
After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity
by David P. Gushee
Related Topic: Books exploring sexuality, the body, and the impact of Purity Culture
Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women & How I Broke Free
by Linda Kay Klein
Shameless: A Case for Not Feeling Bad About Feeling Good (About Sex)
by Nadia Bolz-Weber
The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, & Connection Through Embodied Living
by Hilary McBride
Embracing the Body: Finding God in Our Flesh & Bone
by Tara Owens
NOTE: These are just the books that I have read personally and can recommend based on firsthand knowledge. I am still reading and learning; a year from now, I know I will have more titles to add. There are many, many more books and articles on queer theology written by fantastic queer theologians, and a large and growing body of literature on progressive Christian faith and theology. A list of related podcasts, websites, and other resources is outside the scope of this blog post—but they are out there!