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.