Justin Lee’s nickname in high school was “God boy.” In those days he was a Southern Baptist with strong anti-gay convictions and a tendency to preach at his friends.
Lee is still outspoken about his faith, but a lot has changed since high school. At 18-years old, Lee said he admitted to himself he was gay. He spent his college years investigating the intersection of faith and sexuality, and in 2001 started the Gay Christian Network as an online “safe space” for LGBT Christians.
The network grew into a nonprofit and will host its 11th national conference Jan. 8 to Jan. 11th at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. About 1,300 people are expected to attend—nearly twice the number that went to last year’s conference in Chicago.
We talked to Lee about the goal of the conference and the challenges facing LGBT Christians today. Lee’s responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
What is the goal of the Gay Christian Network Conference?
Our theme this year is “Together at the Table.” In the midst of this ongoing disagreement in the Christian community about same-sex marriage and LGBT issues there is room for us to sit at the table together and have dialogue, worship together, love one another and talk about what it means for us to live out God’s love for others.
Justin LeeGay Christian Network
Not only do we do this to have a conversation, but also to have relationships. This isn’t just about sitting down and talking about things in some formal setting, but saying, “Hey, this is my mom or my dad or my best friend or my pastor or my sibling.” We need to find a way to maintain a relationship with one another, even though we may not agree on everything. That’s a big part of it as well.
Is the conference only for people who identify as LGBT?
Certainly not. In fact, we have many, many folks who are coming to the conference who are not LGBT. That includes not only a large group of parents and pastors, but also friends and other Christians who care about LGBT people and care about how the church treats LGBT people.
Even within the LGBT community, there are different theological perspectives on whether or not God approves of same-sex relationships. Within GCN, you call those who believe God supports those marriages “Side A Christians,” and those who believe those relationships are sinful “Side B Christians.” How does the organization address this divide?
When GCN first got started, there were some of us who had come to the conclusion that God would bless us in same-sex marriages and relationships. There were others who had come to the conclusion that God was calling us to lifelong celibacy. There were yet others of us who were still trying to figure it out. So, we made a decision from the beginning that this space would welcome people regardless of what conclusion they had come to on that.
Attendees can also register at the door Jan. 8, and the cost is the same.
That’s still true today. Our goal is not to change each other’s mind, but to treat one another with Christian love. We will have workshops and resources at the conference from a variety of perspectives with the goal of allowing people to make up their own minds and know that they’re not going to be kicked out of the group for coming to the wrong conclusion. That’s been really important because many of us have experienced being pushed out of groups for coming to a conclusion that was different from the group’s conclusion.
Our members on both sides of this all think that these are really important questions to get right, but we also think it’s important to have a safe space to work through these questions without being afraid of being kicked out.
I can see people in the Side A camp—those who believe God supports same-sex marriages—feeling like gay or lesbian people on Side B have sold out or are somehow hurting the LGBT cause. Do you hear that from people?
“Our goal is not to change each other’s mind, but to treat one another with Christian love.”
Absolutely. On both sides there is real and significant frustration with the other side. The Side A folks often feel that Side B LGBT Christians not only have sold out, as you said, but are teaching things that are harmful to people. The side B Christian believes that Side A Christians are teaching and practicing something sinful and contrary to God’s will.
For neither side is it an acceptable solution to just say, “Oh well, whatever you want to believe, it doesn’t really matter.” Both sides believe that it matters tremendously. Both sides believe that the other side is doing real harm, which is why it is important for us to have a space to say, “Let’s put this debate aside for a moment and get to know one another and figure out what we have in common and if there are ways we can support one another as human beings, even though we have this massive, massive disagreement.”
I think what we do is very different from just saying everyone’s opinion is equally valid, which is what people on both sides are afraid we’re saying. That’s not how we approach this. Nobody really thinks that the people on the other side are just as right as they are, but we still have to live with them.
You wrote an essay supporting Side A, arguing that God does support same-sex marriage. What has it been like for you personally to maintain relationships with friends, colleagues or family members who disagree?
It has not always been easy. My parents and I spent many years arguing about a lot of these things, and yet needing to figure out how to be loving family members at the same time. Sometimes that meant having to take time to not talk about this for a while and just spend time together and remember why we love each other so much. Over the years my opinions on some things changed. Their opinions on some things changed. But through it all we maintained an incredibly strong relationship. My dad will be coming to this conference for the first time ever this year. That’s exciting to me, because even though my dad and I haven’t always agreed, he has supported me as a person and as his son.
That’s the kind of relationship I’ve tried to maintain with my friends and family members, anyone I interact with. I think a big key to that is trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, to understand what the world looks like from their perspective, and ask yourself: “If I believed what this person believes, how would I feel? What would I do?” That has helped me to navigate a lot of really frustrating conflicts with people.
What do you think is the most interesting or challenging conversation happening within the gay Christian community right now?
As the church is shifting from a Side B position to a Side A position–statistics show this is what’s been happening in the U.S.–there is a big question for the Side A LGBT Christians: If we felt mistreated and misunderstood when we were in the minority, how then do we treat other people as we become more and more the majority? There’s a lot of debate happening around that.
Another big issue right now is how we treat transgender folks. There are a lot of gay and bisexual Christians who understand sexual orientation, but don’t really understand gender identity. I think it is critical that we not forget that just because gay couples can marry, that does not mean everything is hunky-dory. There are a lot of hurting people who need us to watch out for them and care for them. It’s easy to forget that.
How are the challenges facing the trans community different than those facing the gay community?
I think one of the big issues is that when there’s prejudice against gay folks, it largely has to do with what people imagine is happening in their bedrooms. When prejudice occurs against trans folks, it often is aimed against their very personhood.
As a gay man, I’m unlikely to have people say negative things to me in a church if I go and I sit quietly by myself. But someone who is transgender, or otherwise seems visibly gender nonconforming, may very well be treated poorly just sitting by themselves in a church.
We’re going to have to wrestle with educating our congregations about how to respond to people who seem different. Talking about transgender folks raises a lot of questions for those churches that hold to specific gender roles in the church. When someone’s existence challenges your understanding of what it means to be male or female, that calls a lot of doctrines into question.