My friend in Christ, Louis Jordan, asked if I’d speak today on this topic: What is it like to be a gay man in The United Methodist Church? Wow. We’ve been talking about our denomination’s policy regarding homosexuality since 1972. That’s 44 years. What can I say in eight minutes that might make a difference to anyone here? But, the Holy Spirit has done far more miraculous things, so let us acknowledge the presence of the Spirit with us now, in Jesus name. Amen.
What is it like to be a gay man in The United Methodist Church? There’s too much of my story to share, so let me offer this: at the end of the meeting I’ll come back up here. If you want to talk more, come by and I’ll give you my contact information.
What is it like to be a gay man in The United Methodist Church? I have to make a distinction here between the local church level and the denominational level. On the local level it’s pretty much been fabulous. But at a denominational level (which is the level we should talk about today since y’all are going off to Portland for General Conference)…At the denominational level, it’s been humiliating, painful, and scary.
I was an elder here in the Tennessee Conference for ten years. There came a time when I finally accepted my sexuality. I met with my district superintendent, Juanita Wright Bass, and my bishop, Kenneth Carter. I had three small children. I had to provide for them. I didn’t know what would happen. Bishop Carter led me through a series of questions. I left that meeting having surrendered my credentials in good standing.
What is it like to be a gay man in The United Methodist Church? For me and for my family—son Sam, son Ben, daughter Ruth—it’s been humiliating, painful, and scary.
For years, I was bitter. But over time, my family and I healed, thanks in large part to the love given to us by our Belmont church family. They didn’t know my story, or not many did. They just loved because that’s what church folk do. At some point I realized that I am still in ministry, living out my calling at The Upper Room where I’ve been for over ten years.
Then, a little over a year ago, my partner (Blech. “Partner.” I’ve always hated referring to Frank as my partner. It sounds like something from a cowboy western. Thank God I don’t have to call him that anymore.) Anyway, Frank needed health insurance. Hey! I can do that for him. Strangely enough, the General Agencies, of which The Upper Room is a part, offer benefits to same-sex married couples. Just months before marriage equality became the law of the land, Frank and I made plans to travel to North Carolina where marriage was legal. I focused only on getting Frank health insurance, but Pam Hawkins knew Frank, knew our children, knew me, and she knew we needed more out of a wedding than a legal contract. Pam went with us, with Belmont’s blessing. She officiated at our wedding. It was holy.
We came back home and my sister, Henrietta, threw Frank and me a reception. I was not prepared for the outpouring of love I felt that day. LGBT friends, church friends, family, all gathered at OutCentral on Church Street in Nashville. These were people from groups I had tried to keep apart for years. They were there to support Frank and me and to say, “We love you and we no longer want to be kept apart!”
Meanwhile, Pam was charged for having officiated at our wedding. She entered into just resolution. I eventually went with her as her advocate. It was the first time I’d set foot in the Bishop’s office since I’d been there 16 years before to surrender my credentials. Pam was suspended for 90 days. Some thought she got off easy. I thought it was one of the saddest things that has ever happened in my life. At one of the happiest times in my life, my denomination’s role was to punish the person who made it possible.
What is it like to be a gay man in The United Methodist Church? It’s humiliating, painful, and scary. Now, not just for me, and for my family, but also for my friend, for my pastor.
But in the immortal words of Gloria Gaynor, “I will survive!” Truly, at 51, I’m at peace, personally. What bothers me, what hurts me, is thinking about that 12-year-old boy who’s going to Sunday school at his rural United Methodist Church. Week after week, he hears his Sunday school teacher tell him “God loves you. We love you.” As he gets older, he realizes there’s something different about him. He realizes he’s gay. He doesn’t know how he knows, but he knows this isn’t something he should talk about, not to his parents, not to his Sunday school teacher. He’s left to figure it out on his own. The years pass. Eventually, he comes across these words, the official policy of the church he loves: “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Upon reading that, he repents of his sin, is no longer gay, and lives his life as a straight man.
Actually I have never, ever, heard of that happening. I’m afraid that, as a gay man in The United Methodist Church, either he leaves the church, or he enters a time of humiliation, pain, and fear. Is he a person of sacred worth? Or is he incompatible with Christian teaching?
May the Holy Spirit be with you as you travel to Portland for General Conference.
*Spoken to the Tennessee Annual Conference delegates to General Conference on May 1, 2016, at a “Listening Session.”