Gay Religion, Eds. Scott Thumma and Edward R. Gray
“A Religion of One’s Own: Gender and LGBT Religiosities” (Melissa M. Wilcox)
“Shades of Grey or Back to Nature? The Enduring Qualities of Ex-Gay Ministries” (Christy M. Ponticelli)
“Negotiating a Religious Identity: The Case of the Gay Evangelical” (Scott Thumma)
A few weeks ago, I purchased Gay Religion and promised to write more about the text as I read through it. I’ve now read three of the articles, skimmed through the titles and opening paragraphs of the others, and would recommend this as a classroom textbook. Unless you’re very interested in statistically based sociological analysis of the LGBT culture, I would suggest that you forgo this book and pick up something more accessible and readable. However, this would make an excellent beginning reader in a sociology or religious studies classroom, as well as a thorough resource for gay and lesbian writers, gay-friendly parishes/congregations, and non-profit organizations working in these overlapping areas.
I chose the three essays above because they most closely tracked with my own personal experience, giving me a better yardstick for evaluation then the essays on gay male culture. Ponticelli’s article on ex-gay ministries arises from her experience “undercover” at the 1992 Exodus conference and subsequent months in a Northern California ex-gay ministry. She claims that her purpose is not to evaluate whether these ministries are appropriate or successful, but to understand their appeal. This is a laudable intention, to hear before critiquing, and to give the benefit of doubt to those one might consider “enemies” of LGBT persons. Unfortunately, I wonder, as she seems to in her conclusion, whether this is even possible.
A theme within this essay, as well as within the essays about religious identity, is crafting one’s own story or personal language. This should be a motif familiar to anyone who is struggling to accept yearnings and emotional twinges which are given names by society and its various sub-cultures. From “sick” and “perverted” or “sinful” and “broken”, most LGBT persons come to name their desires “healthy” and “natural” or “God-given” and “whole.” This requires not only atomistic re-labeling of the errant hormonal surge or emotional attachment, but a re-telling of your story within family, society, and God’s creation. When this story—which you’ve crafted through self-reflection, study, and the blood, sweat and tears of coming out—collides with an alternate telling, such as the one your family holds on to, there is no objective means of deciding whose is right. Each story heals wounds in the opposing parties (feeling different for one, fear of the different for the other), answers questions which are framed in unique ways (“God, why did you make me like this?” and “God, how could these things exist in the world?”), and cannot simply be stepped into without dramatic re-orientation of assumptions.
So, if I enter an Exodus International meeting, I may hear words such as those Ponticelli cites:
healing sin freedom God’s path wholeness temptation lifestyle sexual disjuncture struggle
Each of these words is the result of an entire narrative journey to its present use. The words carry different connotations to ex-gays and to ex-ex-gays. Successful change and whole spirituality, likewise, are understood differently, and as Ponticelli concludes, to gauge success/failure is impossible since “Exodus and groups like it present the struggles as one of internal emotions, feelings, desires, and thoughts, involving a long process over time. This effort is highly personal and ultimately unknowable by others” (160). Here again is symmetry: journeys for the ex-gay and the ex-ex-gay are paths marked out by similar though re-framed language, to a destination which only the sojourner can know has been reached. Reading Ponticelli’s discussion of ex-gay ministries made me even more sure of my decision to walk away from them, but for another, her piece may convince them to continue the “struggle.”
The other two essays, focusing on religious identity (one in evangelical Christians, the other in lesbian women), prompted reflection on my own journey. Thumma’s essay discusses a now-defunct group for gay evangelical Christians. I wondered, as I read it, if it would have provided the answers I craved as a high school and college student. Ultimately, I decided that while it may have given me another perspective on how Christianity responds to sexual diversity, the problems I had with the religion of my youth did not stem entirely from my sexual orientation. Like many of the women surveyed in Wilcox’s essay on religious identity, my coming-out coincided with the rejection of my earlier religious stance. Two of the twenty-nine women surveyed left forms of orthodox Christianity (Presbyterianism and Catholicism) for Unitarian Universalism, like me. Unfortunately, the study sample presented in this essay is useful only as a repository of vignettes, not as a data set from which to generalize trends. Still, thirteen of these women characterize themselves as some kind of “seeking” or “searching”, not including the UU’s, which, in my experience, often fall into that category as well.
These studies brought up more questions than they answered, demonstrating the sociological need for more data and investigation. Are the shifts in religiosity part of an overall cultural trend in America to diversify religion for individual needs? How do the trends in denominational growth and splitting match up with scientific advances in studying human sexuality? How prevalent are the ex-gay ministries in conservative denominations—how many members of these churches attend such ministries, for how long, and with what sort of success? What will shape the future of religion as it touches upon LGBT persons? Ecclesiastical consensus and movements? Population shifts from one denomination to another?
For more resources on the question of (ex)ex-gay ministries and gay evangelicals, see Wayne Besen’s Anything but Straight. This Sunday’s NPR Program, “Speaking of Faith” featured Richard Mouw and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, two evangelicals on opposing sides of the “gay question”, whose frameworks are both guided by the biblical narrative, yet with important divergence. If more of the dialogue on these issues were led by church leaders of their caliber, I would hold out more hope for religious America.