Our Gay Christian Neighbors

By Joel P. Engardiowriter, documentary filmmaker Near San Francisco’s gay center, past the hill where Castro becomes Divisadero Street, a … Continued

By Joel P. Engardio
writer, documentary filmmaker

Near San Francisco’s gay center, past the hill where Castro becomes Divisadero Street, a portable sidewalk sign points to City Church. That’s where evangelical Christians gather every Sunday for worship in a converted theater. They are true believers: Jesus saves, Satan is real, sex is for the married and marriage is for the straight.

I didn’t think a market for such beliefs existed in San Francisco, but hundreds of people and a full balcony proved me wrong. There were back-to-back services the day I attended. The congregants looked no different than the employees I saw on a visit to Google’s Bay Area campus. These evangelicals wore Skechers, watched hulu, twittered and composted. They were high-tech professionals in their 20s and 30s who were mostly pro-life and partook of the body of Christ each Sunday. Many even voted Democrat because, abortion aside, it was the party they said that focused most on what mattered to Jesus – the poor, sick and environment. Same-sex marriage wasn’t a factor because Barack Obama was against it.

I visited City Church because I wanted to see who in San Francisco might have voted for Proposition 8, which banned gay and lesbian couples from marrying in California. Nearly a quarter of San Francisco voters favored the ban, and that surprised me. Sure, the Bay Area overwhelmingly supported gays marrying, but in Silicon Valley – home to Google, YouTube, iPhone and a number of churches like City Church – 44 percent of voters didn’t.

Alabama has the highest percentage of evangelicals, but by sheer size California has the greatest number: Two million, according to the Christian research firm Barna Group. The votes over marriage in California last year totaled 13 million and gays lost by 52 to 48 percent. That means any fraction of evangelicals changing their mind in the next, close election could make a difference.

I wondered if anyone had ever talked to evangelical voters about what it’s like to be gay and why having the legal protections of marriage is important for all families. Engaging people who take the Bible very seriously might sound futile but I learned members of GCN — the Gay Christian Network – are already helping evangelicals think twice about what Jesus would do when it comes to the freedom to marry. Anyone who cares about winning marriage equality needs to support what GCN is trying to do, even if your approach is solely from a secular civil rights point of view.

As a gay man, I’m downright heathenish next to the GCN member I’m friends with. I have wondered why he is so devoted to a belief system that I think oppresses gays. But I also realize it’s important to acknowledge that fervent believers in Christ exist in the gay community. There’s no reason to be uncomfortable with that fact. Gay evangelicals are in a position to affect social change in a way gay rights lawyers and activists can’t. I know angry gays who left their parents’ religion in disgust and want nothing to do with God. I know joyfully spiritual gays who join theology-lite churches made just for them. I know secular gays whose religion is body image and product consumption. But who has the credibility and access to talk to America’s 20 million evangelicals about what it’s like to be gay?

The gay Christians of GCN are uniquely qualified because they are otherwise religious traditionalists. They rarely attend the liberal and gay-positive places of worship like Unitarian Universalism or the Metropolitan Community Churches that gay rights groups typically align with. Those denominations are too dogma-free for the GCN crowd, which enjoys the teachings of conventional doctrine. So they often stay with the church they grew up in or join younger, hipper versions like City Church that hew closely to the Bible. There are more than 12,000 GCN members — mostly in their teens, 20s and 30s – with an active online community. They celebrate the evangelical creed and leave the admonitions against gay sex in Leviticus, Romans and Corinthians as something to wrestle with.

A handful of states allow gays to marry but 30 have constitutional bans. This tough reality underscores the need to have conversations to change minds. Those bans won’t go away until the public repeals them. When people know and understand someone who is gay they are less likely to discriminate. The GCN-produced video “Through My Eyes” takes this concept deep into evangelical territory. Billed as a video made by Christians for Christians, it features the stories of gay youth who don’t reject everything their parents and pastor stand for. They come out and affirm their faith. The video won’t change church doctrine or any inconvenient Bible passages, but it will create small, sympathetic pockets of congregants who will see these gay youth as real people and otherwise good Christians. Young GCN members are using the video to come out to their evangelical parents and some of those parents are quietly giving copies of the video to their church friends. The seeds of change.

Indeed, an evangelical pastor in San Jose preached the following: Jesus deemed homosexuality wrong, but consider your own sins first – encouraging people to ban gay marriage is not how Jesus would love gay people. Imagine if California’s two million evangelicals heard this message the next time the right to marry is put to a vote. The call to be more Christ-like in addressing poverty, health care and the environment inspired City Church members to vote Democrat, after all. I acknowledge that evangelicals have a First Amendment right to believe being gay is sinful. But I wonder if Jesus’ command to love thy neighbor might keep them from hurting gay people at the ballot box. The way I see it, gay and lesbian families face real harm when they are denied the legal protections of marriage and Jesus never hurt anyone.

Churches will always have the right to believe as they see fit, but someday a church that doesn’t accept gays will have a hard time recruiting members — just as once-popular groups of decades past lost market share because of intolerant beliefs. They were never outlawed, they just became irrelevant. That kind of social change is slow. In the meantime, gay Christians on the inside are having the necessary conversations in places like City Church.

“There is a lot of confusion in the gay world about what it means to be Christian and there is a lot of confusion in the Church about what it means to be gay,” one young man says in the GCN video. “There is so much confusion that no one has stopped and said, ‘Why don’t we ask them?’”

Joel Engardio is a writer, documentary filmmaker and civil liberties advocate. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today and on NPR and PBS. Engardio directed the award-winning PBS film KNOCKING about Jehovah’s Witnesses. He currently helps the American Civil Liberties Union communicate its message and issues through online video.

  • CCNL

    For a better description, the author should have said “The mutual masturbating Christians of GCN”. Or “the outercoursing” Christians of GCN”.See http://www.answers.com for added definitions.

  • Alene

    Joel, I appreciate your well reasoned,and thoughtful article. I have very dear friends & a couple of relatives who are lesbians & gays and I deeply care about their personal issues and difficulties. As much as I love them, however, I cannot support legalizing gay marriage. As a Bible-believing Christian I cannot ignore the Scriptures in Leviticus, Romans, & Corinthians. I believe that either the whole Word is true or none of it is. We are on opposite sides of a very hot political issue and we both have people we love that are embroiled in this. I pray for those on both sides of the issue.

  • jehovahinfo

    Jehovah’s Witnesses PBS Knocking Promotion by a former gay JW.Watchtower has NO tolerance for gays, how dare they promote themselves with such hypocrisy.They are using a former member who *turned* homosexual to endorse their family breakup shunning religion,when the facts are the Watchtower disfellowships (kicks out) thousands of gays and lesbians.—

  • kphil1

    “But who has the credibility and access to talk to America’s 20 million evangelicals about what it’s like to be gay?”Mr. Perez Hilton.

  • migrjo

    “Jesus deemed homosexuality wrong”This is factually…and biblically…incorrect.

  • Alex511

    I think all who oppose Marriage Equality should be urged to watch the excellent video “For the Bible Tells me So”. Watch how that wild and wacky “dr” dobson treated a family with a gay son who just wanted to give him a simple letter. Watch how “dr” didn’t even have the Christian courtesy to set his toe out of his castle

  • walter-in-fallschurch

    Alene, you said,do you believe matt 4:8 where it says,”the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor”?you realize there were other “kingdoms of the world” besides those around jerusalem – some were in china, egypt and even on the other side of the world! for this to be true, no matter how high the mountain is, the world would have to be FLAT (as matthew, mark, luke and john no doubt thought it was).i think you “pick and choose” from the bible more than you think you do.

  • Brenda_Lee

    Joel, you wrote: “I have wondered why he is so devoted to a belief system that I think oppresses gays.”I am curious why you were so devoted to the Watchtower/Jehovah’s Witnesses who oppress gays. Several years ago you created a pro-Jehovah Witness piece called “Knocking.” It is a proven fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses not only abhor homosexuality but actually excommunicate and forever shun anyone who is openly gay.In all due respect, your actions confound me and create a cognitive dissonance in my mind. I guess it’s easy for you to throw out your values and speak from both sides of your mouth when money is involved. And what better market could you have found than 7 million Jehovah’s Witnesses who will run right out and buy your DVD, eager to hear any positive comments from the media about their abusive and dysfunctional organization. The real truth about the Watchtower organization needs to be told, and I hope someday I will meet a talk show host with a lot of clout who has the balls to help me, and millions of others who have been shunned by family, tell it.Brenda Lee, author of “Out of the Cocoon: A Young Woman’s Courageous Flight from the Grip of a Religious Cult” http://www.outofthecocoon.net

  • Brenda_Lee

    Joel, you wrote: “I have wondered why he is so devoted to a belief system that I think oppresses gays.”I am curious why you were so devoted to the Watchtower/Jehovah’s Witnesses who oppress gays. Several years ago you created a pro-Jehovah Witness piece called “Knocking.” It is a proven fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses not only abhor homosexuality but actually excommunicate and forever shun anyone who is openly gay.In all due respect, your actions confound me and create a cognitive dissonance in my mind. I guess it’s easy for you to throw out your values and speak from both sides of your mouth when money is involved. And what better market could you have found than 7 million Jehovah’s Witnesses who will run right out and buy your DVD, eager to hear any positive comments from the media about their abusive and dysfunctional organization. The real truth about the Watchtower organization needs to be told, and I hope someday I will meet a talk show host with a lot of clout who has the balls to help me, and millions of others who have been shunned by family, tell it.Brenda Lee, author of “Out of the Cocoon: A Young Woman’s Courageous Flight from the Grip of a Religious Cult” http://www.outofthecocoon.net

  • CCNL

    For a better description, the author should have said “The mutual masturbating Christians of MMCN”. Or “the outercoursing” Christians of OCN”.See http://www.answers.com for added definitions and explanations.

  • lepidopteryx

    Alene: I have very dear friends & a couple of relatives who are lesbians & gays and I deeply care about their personal issues and difficulties. As much as I love them, however, I cannot support legalizing gay marriage.

  • drdanfee

    Typically, this thread goes off key the moment we start arguing about whose doctrines or religion should be the basis for deciding about hot button stuff like gay marriage or gay parenting. Those two aspects of gay family life are strongly connected for queer folks, just as they are for straight folks; but the overlap is not simple, nor simply A=B. The key issue is not really what your particular faith group preaches about gays, negative or positive; though of course believers will understand what their faith claims to reveal to them about queer folks. The key issue is, what about all the couples parenting who do not and will not in the foreseeable future meet your particular religion tests? What particular religion test gets to keep gay couples with kids from having equal legal status/consideration? And if that specific religion basis is so right, so totally right, as a basis for law or public policy, why shouldn’t that religion be used as the basis for law and public policy for all things gay, and even all citizenship?These rhetorical questions help us see that, this religion argument against gays is a special argument. The same frames would hardly every apply to any other target group, not even those agnostics or atheists believed so damnable in so many faith groups.The other catch with using a special antigay religion argument to inform law or public policy (besides its skewed frames, and unfair outcomes if applied across the board in civic life?) – whew that is a lot already, no? That other catch is: Religion views are changing, slowly. The empirical data and civic experiences we now have – all about the many different goods in the daily lives of so many gay folks (mainly in western democracies which have dropped the self-serving criminal penalties?) – is simply exposing flat earth beliefs about queer folks for what they are, strong beliefs that cannot stand empirical hypothesis testing and neighborly associations in civic community.Nor do the special antigay religion arguments take any account of the civic rights of (not just the gays, but) the family members, friends, coworkers, and neighbors of gays who do not condemn them.While we are at it, might as well ask: What sort of skewed ethical reasoning is this that can use a doctrinal religion view to call an ethically committed couple with kids, nothing but, Immoral? Capital I, Immoral? When doctrines make us call the common sense ethical, immoral, we might be getting a clue that some fishy presuppositions or definitions may really be at work.I am really tired of all this antigay stuff from people who do not relate daily to the many goods in the life, love, or work of their own gay family members, friends, coworkers, or even neighbors across town. That seems the real point in these religions: Keeping real gay folks at arm’s length, so that we do not have to face up to our flat earth beliefs about them.

  • walter-in-fallschurch

    drdanfee,imagine all the shame, self-loathing and families torn apart by christians who happened to be born gay trying to hide their sexuality or “cure” themselves or their children of being gay. i mean why would god make someone gay, then hate him for it?

  • CarolAnne1

    I’d like to know how Christians interpret the passionate relationship between David and Jonathan in the Old Testament (1 Samuel). “The soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” If that isn’t gay love I don’t know what is.

  • CCNL

    With respect to the David/Jonathan gay/mutual masturbating/”outcoursing” bonds as noted in the OT (1 Samuel):Abraham is the reported founder of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Based on all we know now, Abraham was at best a combination of three separate individuals with most of the 1.5 million Conservative Jews and their rabbis to include Rabbi Wolpe, an On Faith panelist, no longer believing Abraham existed at all. (ditto for all the characters in the OT).references: National Georgraphic review on Abraham and

  • CalSailor

    CCNLWhat does your quote have to do about the previous poster’s question about Jonathan and David? “Abraham” whether you consider him a specific person or a conflation of three (or more) people, dates from some 800 years before David/Jonatha, etc. What’s your point?The problem for Christians in the present time is to find a hermeneutic that “works” for the entire Bible:a very literalist view of the bible leads to a simplistic counting of verses…but then you have to figure out what to do with other verses…like the rest of the “holiness code” of Leviticus…you know, the one that tells you to kill your kid, essentially, if he talks back to you in anger.The other extreme is to take such a “free” rendering of the text that nothing more is left (see T. Jefferson, for example).I would suggest that for Christians the key to scripture is the one that Luther recognized more than 500 years ago, building on the history of the Church: The scipture is a “cradle” for the Word (who is Christ). Thus, every reading of scripture has more or less value in so far as it reveals the Christ, and must be interpreted in the light of Christ and his person and message. Therefore, texts that are clearly in line with the heart of the Gospel, which, I would argue is closely summed up in three texts: Luke 4:14-21, esp vv 18-21 [where Jesus announces his ministry in the light of Isaiah]; Luke 10: 25-28 [where the lawyer asks what must he do and the answer is love God and your neighbor]; and John 3:16. (also the Matt parallels to the Lucan texts) Wherever we find biblical texts that hew to what is contained in these texts, we are at the heart of the gospel and the purpose and example of Christ. Wherever we do not discern Christ, the text is of little value. Since the “Fundamentals of the Christian Faith” published in about 1905, biblical interpretation, I would argue, on too many fronts has become a sort of “bibliolatry” where the text has become more important than the witness to Christ. This central understanding of the bible tells us that Jesus’ answer to the gay community is the same as to every other community: They are brothers and sisters who are created in God’s image and whom Jesus loved and to give his life for. They are sinful, just like you or me. To try and figure out just “how sinfule” relative to any other person is a fruitless quest. The important thing is that they are part of “the whole world” which God loved enough to send his son to die for. I think that sets everything else in perspective.Pr Chris

  • bripat22

    GCN is made up of people from every religious tradition within Christianity (From Orthodox , to UCC, to Catholic) not just Evangelicism. It looks much like World Christianity which goes beyond just an American-focused Evangelical context.

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