What “Being White” Taught Me about “Being LGBT”

A reflection by Lindsey

One thing that I love so much about the Gay Christian Network Conference is that I spend a lot of time thinking about landmarks in my spiritual journey. Portland marks my sixth GCN conference in 8 years. I’ve grown and changed a lot in that time.

This year, I find myself thinking about reconciliation. What does it look like when two Christians with completely opposite life experiences sit down together at the table? How can we find common ground amidst profound disagreement, hurt, confusion, and misunderstandings? What happens when the axes of privilege and oppression intersect?

It’s not the first time I’ve considered such questions. When I was in college, I found a sense of spiritual home in a multiethnic chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. I quickly plugged in, figuratively and literally, as a freshman by participating regularly in small group Bible studies and playing the electric bass on the worship team. I looked forward to participating in just about every Intervarsity-sponsored activity that I could fit into my schedule as an engineering student. Overall, our fellowship had a decent population of white students, Asian-American students, and international students. We were mostly content to continue on our course… until one day during Spring semester when a group of African American seniors expressed considerable frustration that our group had incredibly few Black students. I remember being absolutely shocked that my friends would feel so isolated, alone, and unseen in what I perceived to be a vibrant and thriving Christian community. Hadn’t the fellowship made a special and concerted effort to attend the university’s Gospel Choir concert? Didn’t we encourage every student leader to create a small group of his or her choosing? Were not all welcome to give their gifts to our fellowship as they saw fit? What were we not doing that we should be doing? Why was I so taken aback?

As I plunged into the questions, I couldn’t help but see the problem: I was white and I had never thought much about it.

I remain forever grateful for how that fellowship challenged me to grow spiritually over the next three and a half years by encouraging me to think about what my whiteness meant to me. I developed a relationship with my white heritage, learning to appreciate the various contradictions found in my own embodied history. I thought about how, as a direct descendant of those who arrived on the Mayflower, I regularly heard the story of my people in my American history class in an incredibly positive light. I began to see how, at so many junctures, my people came out “on top.” My ancestors were the “good people” who braved the American frontier as simple farmers, settling the wilds of Wisconsin. The good-people-of-the-North conquered the impossibly-oppressive-slave-owners-of-the-South in the Civil War. Industrialization continued to pave the way to the American Dream. I lived in towns with good schools where it was reasonably possible to earn a solidly middle class income by putting in hours at the factory. Most of my friends came from two-parent homes and avoided problems with the law provided that they made good decisions. I didn’t have much experience putting myself in the shoes of others who were different from me. And honestly, I had never considered the cost of my privilege until I was at a great university in Boston because of hard-won solid financial aid package.

I don’t think I would have started to ask questions about my own heritage unless my friends would have had the guts to tell me that I was blind to their experience. All of a sudden, I realized that I was missing out on something big and important about following Christ if I didn’t take time to query what it meant to be a Church of every tribe, tongue, and nation. I started by asking hard questions about what it meant for me to be white. In humanizing my history, I connected more with my own humanness. I saw, and still see, so much to celebrate in my history. There was something profound about coming to see my ancestors as flesh-and-blood people who made a lot of mistakes along the way.

It was also in college when I could no longer avoid the reality that I was definitely somewhere on the LGBT spectrum.

I’ll freely admit that I’m a nerd who grew up relatively sheltered. Ellen and Rosie were the first examples of real-life gay people I had ever encountered. The vast majority of adults in my life questioned why it could possibly be important for gay people to “come out.” Why would anyone make a public declaration of his or her sex life? Who could possibly be bothered by something happening behind closed bedroom doors?

Through a long and arduous process, I realized that I had to start thinking about what it meant for me to be LGBT (even though at that time “gay” was the catch-all category). I remember searching on AOL with different whisperings of “I think I might be gay…” Being a sheltered kid from Minnesota whose idea of a really good time involved going night skiing with my family, I was totally taken aback by discussions focusing on gay bars, gay dating, and gay sex. I searched and searched and searched, growing ever more bewildered because I felt trapped between an overarching sense of “This isn’t me” constantly trading with an overwhelming sense of “Oh God, I know that somehow gay describes something about me.”

The world I grew up in felt absolutely heterosexual. Every adult in my large extended family was married or had been married at one time. Nearly all of my teachers were married, unless they were totally eccentric. Each of my friends had a mom and a dad. The vast majority of my friends’ parents were together, but there was a handful who spent the week with their mom and the weekend with their dad or vice versa. Every bit of dating drama I heard about in high school was between a guy and a girl. The world was straight, and no one was thinking much about it…

Except me. I was thinking about it, and it was tearing me up inside that I couldn’t make heads or tails about why I felt so different.

Eventually, I came to understand that difference in a range of ways. Meeting people in the Gay Christian Network showed me so many different ways of being LGBT. I started sharing my life and asking my questions on GCN in 2007. For the first time, I met people who seemed okay with the idea that being LGBT had to fit into my broader senses of who I am. It was okay that my internal world differed significantly from the world I grew up in. GCN gave me space to ask my own questions and seek God’s illumination. I realized I struggled to make sense of marriage because, truth be told, I wasn’t that interested in getting married. Entering a marriage struck me more about conforming to social expectations than living my life. It took a few years before I was introduced to the concept of celibate vocations. When I finally saw people living out a celibate way of life, I dared to risk hope that I would find space to live out my vocation.

I keep getting to know myself better more and more every day. I’ve thought long and hard about faith, sexuality, gender, and my sense of self. I hope I will always have questions about living my life in Christ to the fullest.

The more questions I ask myself, I wonder to what extent people from every marginalized minority probe deeply into their inner universe to make sense of the world around them. I’m grateful that God has shown me the value of searching for my sense of self in my majority identities as well. Perhaps doing the work of reconciliation means listening to minority voices tell you about things you’ve never thought much about before. Learning to appreciate my whiteness gave me the courage to seek God in an effort to appreciate my sexual orientation, gender identity, and vocation. I’m so grateful to be learning still.

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