We Can Help Each Other Heal from the Struggle for LGBT Inclusion in the Church

“Hurt people hurt people” — but LGBT people can recover from church-induced PTSD.

It’s been over a decade since I found a home in the Episcopal Church and — almost immediately thereafter — got involved in ministry with LGBT people. In that time, as society’s attitudes about sexuality have evolved and congregations have become more willing to acknowledge the diversity in their midst, we have shifted from providing “safe spaces” off to the side for our folks to pray and socialize as their authentic selves, to actually getting whole faith communities to weave universal welcome into their mission and identity.

We’ve gained a lot of ground. Even so, the wounds of the past are still with us — and too often they are causing us too much harm in the present. It’s time to acknowledge this past pain and grasp its effect on us and our treatment of others.

I understand these wounds — I have them, too. At the tender age of 18, I was a member of the Antioch young adult group at a Roman Catholic parish. Caught up in the emotion of a retreat, I shared with a trusted friend, and a priest, the secret that I was experiencing same-gender attraction. Despite being assured that this would be kept confidential, I got a phone call (from a nun, no less!) several weeks later saying it would be “better for the others” if I wasn’t around. “Some of the parents have concerns,” she explained, without elaborating.

I did not actively attend church again for over ten years. I was in church, because I worked as a paid musician here and there, but it felt like a job and I was an outsider there to perform a service, not a member of the community.

We’ve gained a lot of ground. Even so, the wounds of the past are still with us — and too often they are causing us too much harm in the present.

At some point, I went to hear my friend Jennifer sing at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Maplewood, New Jersey. The denomination meant nothing to me at the time. We were both raised in the days of the Baltimore Catechism, and my CCD classes left me with the kind of “us-and-them” mentality that meant there were only two kinds of churches you needed to worry about: the Roman Catholic Church and Everybody Else. But that visit — where the Right Rev. John Shelby Spong preached about the nuances of sin in a way I had never heard — set me on a new course.

When 9/11 devastated our area, I found myself delivering donations to another Episcopal parish, one that was led by a partnered gay priest. Okay, I get it, I said grudgingly. I went back a few times, ended up on a committee or two, and was “received” (a service for converts, very similar to confirmation) a few years later.

The one thing LGBT people almost universally have in common is that we have all been — at one time or another — treated badly.

My area of ministry quickly ended up being to other LGBT people. I have now worked in diocesan ministry for nigh unto ten years, and on the national level for about four. The most profound thing I have learned is that as traumatic as my own experience was, it was peanuts compared to what some of my brothers and sisters have experienced at the hands of the church. And, in the ecclesiastical equivalent of PTSD, the collateral damage of all those individual little wars reveals itself on a regular basis, even (aye, maybe especially) among leaders of the movement.

The one thing LGBT people almost universally have in common is that we have all been — at one time or another — treated badly. As children, we got mocked for being different or strange, for not liking dolls when we should, or walking funny. Later, we may have been rejected by family members, passed over for jobs, kicked out of churches, or accused of being immoral and a danger to children simply because the gender that turns our head, or that we claim as our own, is not what others expected it be. I have yet to meet the person who avoided it totally, although it is getting better, thanks be to God!

I have witnessed spectacular displays of distrust and hostility (some of it richly deserved) leveled at institutional religion, and sometimes laser-aimed at the unfortunate soul who naively identified as a believer. We shoot accusations like arrows from the safety of our Facebook chairs, far enough away to avoid getting splattered with the mess. Too often, people all theoretically working for the same cause fall into predictable opposing teams — Mess with one of us, you’ve messed with all of us, or something like that. Simply disagreeing with a person’s ideas or interpretation of an event is immediately labeled as bullying, slander or worse, and decades of toxic history are dragged out yet again like some kind of dystopian yearbook to prove . . . what, exactly?

Maybe we sacrifice “moving on” in order to build the church and the world where others may someday do so undamaged.

It is contagious, this; I have been guilty of it myself, which I deeply regret. I can get caught up in the need to avenge wrongs that had nothing to do with me. I have walked away from conversations and shut myself off from further contact with people who seem to be repeated triggers. And I have, truth be told, contemplated frequently whether the rate of progress, which feels downright glacial at times, is worth the emotional toll. Maybe I should just fold my tent quietly, dust myself off, and walk away. What’s another ten years in the desert?

In trying to atone for and heal from my own contribution to this malaise, I keep coming back to a conversation I had with a friend about her troubled son, whose treatment of her ricochets between intense devotion and blinding rage. The words that entered my head, which I wrote on a napkin while she was describing one such encounter, were:



Now, if you are not “hearing” that in your head, maybe you recall seventh-grade English and how much fun it was to diagram sentences:


Or, to put it another way: “Hurt (adj.) people hurt (verb) people.”

Those of us who are doing inclusion work are — by definition — revisiting old personal hurts, over and over again, either by talking other people through them or trying to explain to potential allies how it feels to be a person like us. We don’t have the luxury of shutting those bad memories in a box and celebrating the happy, well-adjusted person we became. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, it is our scars that will make us “real” to those wounded hearts whose trust we must carefully earn.

Perhaps this is the gift that we carry to the altar. Maybe we sacrifice “moving on” in order to build the church and the world where others may someday do so undamaged. If that is so, then we must acknowledge what that costs, and the attendant dangers.

We have fought hard to achieve wider acceptance, but with equal rights comes equal responsibility.

This means we can, if we’re not careful, see our present circumstances only through the scratched lenses and battered, taped, frames of the past. We are liable to interpret the words and actions of others as if we were back in that awful place we fought so hard to overcome, particularly when we find ourselves under stress. In that dark world, allies can easily be mistaken for tormentors, and that puts us at a higher risk of inflicting further wounds on them, if we can’t see their vulnerable spots past the scales on our own eyes. Trust me, I know there are some people who just manage to push your buttons, but in the heat of the moment it is easy to confuse the person and the issue; what is really their damage and what is just our own stuff, coming back to haunt us.

It also means we can become so used to victimhood that it has become too comfortable, or too scary to give up. We have fought hard to achieve wider acceptance, but with equal rights comes equal responsibility. It is good that we are different, and it is important and wonderful that we are survivors, but it doesn’t make us “special” in the sense that we should continually expect to get a pass for bad behavior because of it. We find it exhausting when others do it; we should learn to recognize it in ourselves.

One way forward is to commit together to this prayer:

With the bread we need for today, feed us.

In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

In times of temptation and testing, strengthen us.

From trials too great to endure, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever. Amen.

(From The Lord’s Prayer in A New Zealand Prayer Book)

As a souvenir of that fateful weekend retreat when I was 18, I have — shoved into the top of a closet — a grocery bag full of palancas, letters of affirmation from other Antioch members, parishioners and others that I received on the retreat. The word palanca is Spanish for “lever,” and the purpose is to give someone a spiritual “boost” through prayer or encouragement.

So this is my palanca for you, twenty-first-century style:

If any of this struck a chord with you, I invite you to play the video below, eyes closed if you want, and think about your own experience while you listen. Hold up the hurts you’ve endured, and the hurts you’ve caused, and allow yourself to feel forgiveness, given and received. Think about what you might say or do differently next time. What if you shared one of these vulnerabilities with the person who causes you the most angst, and asked them to share one of theirs with you? What would your relationship be like after that?

That song was composed by Gregory Norbet, a former member of the Benedictine monastery at Weston, Vermont. It is a working farm in a rustically beautiful setting, particularly in autumn, and has been a “go-to” place of refuge for my entire life.


The pond at Weston Priory.
The pond at Weston Priory.

We can…you and I can… build a place of sanctuary for each other. We can learn to help each other heal from what has happened to us, and be the lever that helps them accomplish what they otherwise could not. We can have the grace to ask for forgiveness when we screw up (and we will screw up… I know I will) and know that it is offered with sincerity. We can know that it is okay not to always be perfect, and not always be right, and not always have the last word.

We can do this, aye, we have to do this. We are called to be a force of good in the world, are we not? How can we take that on with so much distrust and resentment underfoot? We need each other on this road, flaws and all, and we can get there much quicker if we learn how to bring out the best in one another, instead of the worst.

Image via Thomas Leuthard.

Christian Paolino
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